Monday, February 22, 2010

Lenten Journey

Here we are at the beginning of our Lenten journey, as we travel with Jesus that long and lonely road to Jerusalem. As we make this annual pilgrimage, we are right there with Jesus’ disciples, who have been told by their master that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day of the week be raised” (Lk 9:22).

Like the disciples, many of us focus on, and feel that we must share, our Lord’s pain and suffering, at least symbolically through such things as giving up something of pleasure or taking on extra burdens; through avoiding all forms of temptation and repenting of our numerous sins. It is as if in such actions we are attempting to take on the ponderous, burdensome weight that the human Jesus undoubtedly carries as he travels that road to Jerusalem.

Yes, some of our Gospel readings for the season of Lent do have such themes as temptation (1st Sunday in Lent, Lk 4:1-13) and repentance (3rd Sunday in Lent, Lk 13:1-9). But on alternating Sundays, we also have readings that tell the other side of the Lenten story, that contain imagery of God desiring to gather his children together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (2nd Sunday in Lent, Lk 13:31-35), and of the Prodigal Son (4th Sunday in Lent, Lk 15:1-3,11b-32). These stories convey messages of God’s unconditional love, of His endless compassion and mercy.

When this combination of Gospel lessons are woven together, we see a tapestry emerge that is much greater than the sum of its parts. We have an image of what Lent is really about. We see that we have an obligation to be obedient to God’s law, and for repentance when we fall short. But we also are the recipients of God’s boundless love and grace. And in this tapestry of the Lenten season, we also have an icon of the essence of what it means to be a Christian and to live a life faithful to our callings as disciples of Jesus Christ. For in reality, the Lenten journey is the Christian journey.

As we travel the road to Jerusalem with Jesus, all we can do is walk by his side. While the ponderous and burdensome weight he carries is ours, it is not ours to carry. It is his to carry. And all he asks, during this Lenten journey, as well as throughout our life journey, is that we be faithful companions along the way and share his love and compassion with others. He will take care of the rest. And that will be demonstrated in its fullness as, in about six weeks, we reach Jerusalem, as we helplessly watch the painful events that will happen there, and most certainly as we stand at the mouth of Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, peek inside, and finding it empty, realize that his promise has been fulfilled, that the burden has indeed been lifted, and that we are the recipients of God’s unbounded grace and infinite love.

Blessed travels!

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Sunday, February 21, 2010


First Sunday in Lent – Year C (RCL)
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
Sunday, February 21, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

While on my first pilgrimage to England to study Benedictine Spirituality, one of the places that our group went was Stanbrook Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine convent in Worcestershire. Shortly after our arrival, we met with Dame Joanna, the abbess. As we sat around the cozy parlor, we were like children sitting at the feet of a parent or a teacher. We all listened intently as Dame Joanna told us the history of Stanbrook Abbey. She told us about the nine women who founded their original convent in 1623 in Flanders. After over a century and a half, the nuns were forcibly removed from their home during the French Revolution and imprisoned under very harsh conditions for 18 months. During their imprisonment, four of the sisters died. Upon release of the remaining nuns, despite being penniless, they made their way to England. In 1838, the nuns eventually settled in Stanbrook and began building a new abbey. And on it went, as Dame Joanna continued with the history of the Abbey up to the present.

The story she told was absolutely fascinating – worthy of a made-for-TV miniseries. But what struck me most was not the story itself, but rather the way that she told it. Throughout, from 1623 up to 1994, she told the entire story with great passion, in the first person. WE established our original convent in Flanders in 1623. WE were forcibly removed from our home during the French Revolution. WE were imprisoned for 18 months. WE made our way to England. You get the picture. It was as if Dame Joanna had been there every step of the way, throughout the Abbey’s 371 year history, living it just as her foremothers did. These were not just some historical facts she was conveying. She was not just telling the story of the Abbey. She was telling her story. For in some mystical way, they are one and the same. The two cannot be separated.

While we don’t really have an English term to describe what happened in that parlor, in Dame Joanna’s telling of her story, there is a Greek term for it – anamnesis. Generally translated as “memorial, recalling, or remembrance,” the term is actually untranslatable into English, because it is not so much the mental recollection of a past event, but rather “an objective action in and by which the event is realized as present.” In some mystical way, the remembering of the event makes it present and real in the here and now.

That’s what’s happening in one way or another in all of our scripture readings for today. In the passage from Deuteronomy, the Israelites have just completed their 40-year trek through the desert. They are on the edge of Canaan, poised to enter the much awaited Promised Land. Before they enter their new home, Moses is giving them final instructions. In the portion that we heard this morning, Moses is issuing a creedal statement about who these people are, an affirmation of the covenant between them and YHWH. After describing some of the requisite liturgical acts, Moses says “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” In what follows, he is tracing the story of the people back to Jacob and how he and his sons went down into Egypt. He is recalling how the people prospered, but eventually became slaves to the Egyptians. He is recalling God’s deliverance of the people from the hands of the Egyptians, the Exodus, and the 40 years of wandering and testing in the wilderness that they had just come through. He is recalling how God has given them this new land as their home in which they are to be fruitful and become a blessing to the nations. This is not just ancient history. This is their story. This is who they are. This story gives meaning to their very existence. In fact, to this day, the Jewish people continue to recall, to remember the Passover and the subsequent Exodus which defines not only their religion, but who they are as a people and as individuals – an act of anamnesis. In the retelling, they are there. They have experienced it.

Similarly, Paul’s words in the Epistle to the Romans provide what may be one of the earliest creedal statements of the Christian faith. Paul takes us right to the foundation of what it means to be a Christian. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” What more is needed? This simple sentence says it all. Paul does not feel a need to do much elaboration on this statement, yet the recipients of his epistle, the church in Rome, and all followers of Christ in the first century would have, through anamnesis, experienced in these words the entire story of Jesus and his ministry. In them, they would have heard his parables, witnessed his miracles, helplessly watched as he was beaten and crucified, marveled at seeing the empty tomb, and rejoiced at his post-resurrection appearances.

And even the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as presented in Luke entails anamnesis as Jesus does not simply engage in a war of wills and of words with the devil, but rather with each presented temptation, recalls a portion of Israel’s story, his story, and responds with scriptural references directly tied to that story. In the first temptation, Jesus has not eaten in 40 days and is undoubtedly hungry. This 40 days in the desert without food is reminiscent of the 40 years in the desert, where the Israelites had no food. God provided manna for the people to eat, and to serve as a reminder that “one does not live by bread alone.” And it is this response, out of that ancient story that nourished him, with which Jesus replies to the devil. In the second temptation, the devil tries to get Jesus to abandon God and worship him. This is reminiscent of the continual struggle throughout the time in the wilderness and even upon entering the Promised Land in which the Israelites were tempted to worship other gods – either idols of their own making or the gods of the inhabitants of Canaan. As Moses told the people back then, Jesus now responds to the devil, “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And in the third temptation, the devil sets up a challenge to try to get Jesus to test God’s faithfulness. This is an allusion to the desperation of the Israelites, when they were in the wilderness, thirsty for water, and because of their lack of faith, put God to the test at Massah. In so doing, the Israelites question the general trustworthiness of God as the people wander in the wilderness, lost, hungry, and thirsty. Here again, in response to the devil, Jesus quotes Moses’ response to the Israelites, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

In all of these temptations, Jesus is reminded of the story that is not just the story of his ancestors, but which is also his own. Through anamnesis, through remembering the story and making it present in his own life, Jesus was able to find the guidance and the strength needed to resist the devil’s temptations and to provide time-tested and irrefutable responses.

In biblical times, telling of the story of the people, of one’s forefathers and foremothers was an integral part of life. Theirs was an oral culture, relying on remembrance of the stories so that they might be preserved for future generations. That was how the stories of the Old Testament were passed on for generations before they were committed to writing. And in that seemingly simple yet necessary act of telling and retelling the stories, something transformative happened. The story became not only the history of the people, it became the story of the individual. The story became part of who they were, informing how they lived their lives and how they themselves would contribute to the on-going story. This was an act of anamnesis.

This is still the case for some of what we consider “primitive cultures.” Sadly, we in the 21st century western world are losing the art of storytelling. It may not be completely lost, but it is greatly diminished, particularly with each passing generation. There are many reasons for this – our reliance on written documentation to convey history and story; the fact that we no longer live in tribes or extended family groupings, so that our young do not have ready access to the stories, to the wisdom of our elders; just to name a couple. But what is far sadder is the fact that in losing the ability to repeatedly hear the stories, to retell the stories, they do not become a part of who we are. When we hear them, they are nice bits of history, but we are disconnected from them. The stories are not ours. We do not have the ability to make them our own, to make them part of who we are.

One place where that does not have to be the case, where that shouldn’t be the case, is in the Church. Our religion is based on a story that stretches back for millennia, a story that defines who we are. And as a result, ours is a religion based on anamnesis, on the power of the stories to be made present in the here and now so that they become our own stories, shaping and informing who we are. This is particularly evident at this table every time we make Eucharist. In every Eucharistic prayer, we recall the works of salvation history, we recall the events of the Last Supper. And every Eucharistic prayer has a section that is actually called the anamnesis – the words that say “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” The intent is not that the Eucharist is just some bit of ritual. It is making real, in the here and now, in this place, the central story of our faith – Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension – so that in that moment, we are living it as our own story.

While we know the stories, many of us have forgotten that they are our story. We have forgotten how to make them our own. As such, we need to learn the stories in a different way. As we begin the Lenten season, I can think of no better time to really focus on living into the stories of our faith. For Lent really is about hearing the story and making it our own. In the ancient church, Lent was the time when the catechumens would study and learn, hearing from the elders of the church the stories of our faith. And in the hearing of the stories, the catechumens would be transformed, through the power of anamnesis, so that the story of our forefathers and foremothers became present to them and thereby became their own story.

As we travel through Lent and indeed the entire liturgical year, we hear the stories. We hear our story. In them, WE went down into Egypt. After a time of prosperity, WE became slaves to the Egyptians. And then, through the grace of God, WE were liberated. WE wandered in the wilderness for 40 long years before reaching the Promised Land, OUR new home.

WE were there with the shepherds witnessing the birth of an infant king in a manger in Bethlehem. WE were baptized by John in the River Jordan. WE followed Jesus for three years, listening to his teachings, struggling with his parables, witnessing his miracles of healing. WE were with him at his last meal in the Upper Room. And then WE watched as he was arrested, taken away, subjected to a mock trial, helpless to do anything. WE were there at the foot of the cross with Mary and John, as our Master was crucified. But then, on the third day, WE went to the tomb with Mary and the other women and found it empty. And WE rejoiced at his being raised from the dead and even more so when he appeared to US, to see him, to touch him, to put our hands in his wounds.

This Lenten season, why not try something a little different? Why not try a little anamnesis? Read the stories of our faith. Put yourself in them. Make them present to you in the here and now. See how they are not just some ancient stories, but how they are your story. See how they are a part of you, shaping and informing who you are as a beloved child of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Big Bang Call Narratives

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany – Year C (RCL)
Isaiah 6:1-6; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Sunday, February 7, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

Last week, we had the story of God’s call of Jeremiah. Today, we go back in time about a hundred years and witness God’s call of Isaiah. Isaiah’s call is a very different one than Jeremiah’s. As you will recall, Jeremiah was reluctant to accept. God had to push him a little. Isaiah, on the other hand, seems to want to accept, but sees a bit of a problem. He confesses that he is sinful and not worthy of serving as God’s representative – “I am a man of unclean lips.” God takes care of that little problem. Using a seraph to touch Isaiah’s unclean lips with a burning coal, God forgives Isaiah’s sins and removes all guilt. In his exuberance in the wake of God’s gracious gift, Isaiah jumps in when God seeks a volunteer, even though he does not quite know what God is asking – “Here am I; send me!”

Every time I hear this reading, I can’t help but think, “Are you crazy? You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.” And then I am reminded of a time when I reacted just as Isaiah did, sort of.

In 1994, I went to England for a two-week program on Benedictine Spirituality. While the whole trip was formational in many ways, one of the most significant moments came about a week into the program. We took an overnight trip to Ampleforth Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery north of York. The first evening at Ampleforth, we sang evening prayer with the monks. After evening prayer, I felt moved to just stay in the chapel and pray. The chapel was cold and dimly lit, and as I sat there in the darkness praying, I suddenly experienced a sense of light and warmth, what I perceived to be the overwhelming presence of God surrounding me, holding me, loving me. All I could do was cry. I didn’t want to leave that place. I felt completely at ease, as if I had found home. That night, I did not sleep much. My spirit was restless. My mind was awhirl. The next morning, I took a walk through the foggy Yorkshire countryside with Norvene, one of our program leaders. I told her about my experience the night before and how I felt like I might be called to stay there at Ampleforth. Norvene offered to talk to the Abbot to get his permission for me to stay on for awhile. The idea was very tempting. At first, I was there with Isaiah: “Here am I; send me!” But then I was barraged with all sorts of questions. Was I ready to become Catholic so I could stay here? How will my parents react when I call and tell them I’m not coming home? What about my house and all my belongings back in California? What about my career? After thinking and praying about it, I ultimately declined Norvene’s offer, and decided that I needed to continue on with the study tour. Despite a very close all, I just wasn’t ready to say “Here am I; send me!”

While I did not answer God’s call at that time, it was a pivotal moment in my discernment process – the moment at which I realized in a serious way that God was calling me, and the moment at which I knew I had to really begin the work of discernment. Of course, it took another five years of discernment and some pretty heated arguments with God before I finally accepted the call to Holy Orders.

It’s easy to get swept up when presented with a big, dramatic call scenario. When that happens, we naturally want to join with Isaiah and say, “Here am I; send me!” All of the call stories in today’s scripture lessons are essentially that way – relying on the miraculous, the dramatic, to prompt acceptance of the invitation being issued. In our Gospel lesson from Luke, we hear the call of Peter. After a very unproductive day at fishing, when all Peter wants to do is go home and get some shut-eye, Jesus asks him to go out into the lake and try again. Peter reluctantly complies. Jesus then produces a miracle in which they catch more fish than the nets could hold. Jesus uses a show of abundance to demonstrate to Peter what the Kingdom of God is like, to show him that he is needed to help spread the Gospel message. As a result of this miracle, Peter accepts Jesus’ call, leaves everything, and follows his new master. “Here am I; send me!”

While our Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthian doesn’t specifically deal with Paul’s conversion and call, he certainly alludes to it. You may remember from Acts how the Risen Lord came to Paul as he was traveling to Damascus, and through much drama, including flashes of light, booming voices, three days of blindness, and recovery of sight, Paul gives up his strict adherence to Judaism and his self-righteous persecution of Christians to join the very group he had been persecuting. Because of this, he goes on to become, despite his claims of being the least of the apostles, the most influential apostle in the spread of Christianity to the Gentiles. “Here am I; send me!”

These are some pretty dramatic stories. But the reality is, most often God calls us not so much with explosive scenes of visions and miraculous signs, but rather in more subtle ways, with gentle nudges and soft whispers. These require more work on our part. These require that we be attentive. These require that we struggle through with trying to figure out what is going on. Is God really calling me, or is it something else –fantasy, delusion, wishful thinking? Wouldn’t it be easier if all calls were big bangs? After all, our universe started with the Big Bang – the moment in which God created all that is. And all of our scripture lessons show us that God is capable of operating in our lives with a big bang – breaking through into our everyday lives in unexpected ways.

Regardless of the form God’s call takes, these three call narratives, when taken together, say a lot about how God operates in our lives, about the way God reveals himself to us when we least expect it.

First off, God does not command. God invites. And if at first we refuse, God tries different ways of getting the message across, so that we might reconsider. God invites and Isaiah does not feel worthy due to perceived sinfulness. But God wipes out that problem and invites again. And Isaiah accepts. Jesus invites Peter, who could have said no and continued his life fishing for fish instead of the harder task of fishing for people. But Jesus, through the imagery of the overabundance of fish, showed Peter what the Kingdom of God could be like, if only he would help. And Peter accepts. The Risen Lord invites Paul, who could have said no and continued on the far easier path of maintaining the status quo instead of working to create something new. But God showed Paul his love and mercy, and how he could be a part of taking that message to the world. And Paul accepts. These were all tough nuts to crack, but God patiently continued to invite. But I can tell you one thing from personal experience. Even though God does not command, but invites, he can be very persistent.

A second and related characteristic is that, while God is all powerful and could do all this Kingdom work by himself, he made us to be co-creators with him in this world. He wants us to have input, to be a part of the process of building his Kingdom. And frankly, when you’re dealing with human beings, there are just some times when a human touch makes more sense. In that, God still needs our help. God needed Isaiah as a mouthpiece to the people of Judah, to be someone who could speak to them on their terms. God needed Peter and Paul to carry the message of Jesus Christ to the entire world following his death and resurrection, to share their personal experiences of the Risen Christ. Such tasks are better carried out, can only be carried out, through human agency.

Third, despite our objections, God finds ways to remove our perceived and sometimes self-imposed impediments. Isaiah felt himself to be a sinner. God removed his sin. Impediment gone. Similarly, Peter felt he was a sinful and lowly fisherman. Reading between the lines, Jesus said “that doesn’t matter. We can use you anyway. What better example of who is welcomed than a sinful and lowly fisherman?” Paul felt he was the least of the apostles, unworthy to follow Christ because of his persecution of the church. Despite his past, God showed him that he was loved, through the care of Ananias. No matter who we are, no matter what we may have done, God loves us unconditionally, and wants us to be a part of his work, to be part of his Kingdom.

And fourth, God calls us wherever we are. The time and place in which we receive God’s call is not limited to holy places like churches and monasteries. They can happen anytime, anywhere. For Isaiah, it was during worship in the Temple. For Peter, it was while he was doing his secular job. And for Paul, it was while he was traveling, between assignments, as it were. God looks at where we are in our lives, and meets us there. God makes ordinary places extraordinary. God makes secular places holy.

All of these come together when God breaks into our lives. And ultimately, it’s not about how miraculous or spectacular God presents himself to us. Even though not all calls are filled with visions, like Isaiah’s call, or miracles of abundance, like Peter’s call, or lights and temporary blindness like Paul’s call, they are all still big bangs – for in that moment when we accept God’s call, something new and beautiful is created – the union of Creator and created working in partnership for a common purpose. And in such moments, God is revealing his infinite love for us, his boundless grace. God is showing us that no matter who we are, no matter what we may think our faults are, we are all of value to God, and he wants to use us, if we just give him a chance. If we just give ourselves a chance and boldly say, “Here am I; send me!”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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