Sunday, September 11, 2011

Response to 9/11

13th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19) – Year A
Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

Genesis 50.15-21; Psalm 103.(1-7), 8-13; Romans 14.1-12;
Matthew 18.21-35

Sunday, September 11, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

It was a pleasant summer morning as I walked into St. George’s parish in Riverside, for our regular Tuesday morning Eucharist. When I walked in, I could immediately tell something was wrong. Everyone looked in shock. That’s when I learned that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, and that another plane had just crashed into the Pentagon. We sat huddled around a radio in the rector’s office, listening for something that would help us make sense out of what was happening. The 7:00 a.m. Eucharist service, our usual breakfast afterwards, and the rest of the day, seemed surreal. Everything seemed so still and quiet. Things seemed to move in slow motion. Everyone you saw had the same look of shock. Everyone kept asking “why?”

By the end of the day, we knew that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Another had crashed into the Pentagon. And yet another, intended for an unknown target in Washington, D.C., crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. All four planes had been hijacked by members of a previously little-known Islamist militant group called al Qaeda. In time we would come to find out that 2,977 people lost their lives in those events, including 411 emergency services personnel who died while conducting search and rescue operations at Ground Zero. Over 6,000 other people were injured.

On that day, America was forever changed. This was only the second time in our history that we had been attacked by a foreign entity, and the first time the continental United States had been so attacked. With that attack, we lost our innocence, having to face a reality citizens of many other nations live with day in and day out – the vulnerability to and possibility of terrorist attacks. We lost our sense of security that we are the safest and most well-protected country in the world. We had a new emotion to deal with – fear, and the accompanying paranoia about who might try to hurt us next. This event caused us to reassess who we are – that we are no longer the impervious, invincible superpower we imagined ourselves to be and the world thought us to be.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, America proved itself to be noble and good, exhibiting what we think of as the best virtues of a professed Christian nation. There was a sense of unity rarely seen in our often polarized society. There was a coming together to help our neighbors in New York. Emergency response personnel from all over the country rushed to Ground Zero to help out. Individuals and groups collected money to help with rescue efforts and to assist the families of those lost in the attacks. Churches and individuals fervently prayed for those affected by the events of that day. We all somehow became a little more compassionate and patient, more kind and caring. In the wake of tragedy, much good happened, as we stepped outside of ourselves and focused on those truly in need. In those days, we were able to truly exhibit the best that humanity has to offer – and for us people of faith, what it means to live the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule.

But sadly, there was also the ugly side of the response to 9/11. Out of a sense of fear, many became paranoid of any who might be different from themselves. People of Arab descent and followers of Islam were assumed to be sympathetic to, if not just like, those who perpetrated the attacks. Such people and many others who happened to look a little different or have different beliefs were unjustly targeted as being a potential threat. Despite calls from Presidents Bush and Obama to distinguish terrorism from Islam, many have engaged in aggressive expressions of Christian nationalism, holding up their constitutional right to practice their Christian faith, while condemning and seeking to deny Muslim Americans the right to practice their faith.

As we consider 9/11, we cannot just stop with the events of that one day and the immediate aftermath. The response to 9/11 did not just last for a few days or a few weeks or even a few months. The response to 9/11 continues to this day, having occupied much of our political, economic, and social energy for the last ten years. For the aftermath of 9/11 and our chosen response has shaped our existence as a nation for the past decade and continues to do so.

Less than a month after 9/11, we went to war in Afghanistan – a direct response to 9/11, with the goal of eliminating al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters. Ten years later, we continue to fight in Afghanistan, making it the longest war in American history. Eighteen months after we invaded Afghanistan, we began a second war in Iraq, believing Saddam Hussein to similarly be a terrorist threat. Eight and a half years later, we continue to fight in Iraq, making it the second longest war in American history. During that time, 2.3 million American soldiers have served, with hundreds of thousands having served multiple tours of duty. Nearly 7,500 coalition troops have been killed, 6,200 of these, Americans. About 40,000 American soldiers have been wounded, some quite seriously. And lest we forgot, the death toll on the other side is estimated to be approximately 200,000 Afghanis, Iraqis, and Pakistanis. To date, these two wars have cost us $1.25 trillion, with estimates that the total direct and indirect costs could eventually top $4 trillion. And while we ultimately got Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are we or the world any safer, any less vulnerable to terrorism. The sad fact is the answer is “probably not.” If anything, the world is probably a more dangerous place, with groups like al Qaeda even more determined to harm America, which they feel has replaced the Devil as the enemy of Islam. Witness the truck bomb attack last night at an American base in Afghanistan, killing two Afghanis and injuring 77 American soldiers.

All of this in direct response to 9/11 – the inspiring response in the immediate days following 9/11 vastly overshadowed by the events of the succeeding ten years. As people of faith, we have to ask ourselves, was this response worth it? We have to ask, is this the response our God would have us give?

As we remember the events of 9/11 and the response of the last decade, our lectionary readings deal with issues of forgiveness and judgment. Coincidence? I don’t think so. It’s amazing how the lectionary readings for a particular day happen to be just the right readings for that occasion. Today the lectionary calendar and history’s calendar are in perfect synch, giving us words that we need to hear, as hard is it may be to hear them. And even harder though it may be to live them.

In today’s Gospel, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” While Peter’s question specifically asks about forgiveness relative to members of the church, we are forced to recognize that as people of faith, as those who follow the Christ who came for the benefit of all humanity, that our calling to forgive, our obligation to forgive, does not stop at these walls. Today’s passage opens the opportunity to explore the meaning of forgiveness at a number of levels: in relationship with ourselves, with those we love (family and friends), with those we don’t know but encounter in our day-to-day lives, with God, with those of other faiths, with our enemies. The nature of this particular day pushes us to consider what may be the most difficult forgiveness of all – forgiveness of our enemies.

Today’s Gospel lesson implies that forgiveness is more radical than we can imagine. Peter is willing to not forgive just once, not twice, but all the way up to seven times. As hard as it is for most of us to forgive someone who has wronged us, to forgive seven times would be considered quite gracious. But that is not enough, according to Jesus. We need to forgive far more than that. In Jewish numerology, seven is the number of completeness. So in saying that we must forgive 77 times, Jesus is really saying we must absolutely, positively, completely, 100 percent, no two ways about it, always and forever, forgive. Jesus is also recognizing that forgiveness is hard. Really hard. It is something that we really have to work on. We have to commit to it. We need to keep doing it again and again until it sticks. That’s why seven times is not enough. That’s why Jesus commands, not suggests, but commands, that we forgive and that we do it over and over again.

Jesus then goes on to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant. In this parable, the first servant owes 10,000 talents, or approximately $2.5 billion at today’s minimum wage. The king has mercy on the servant and forgives this massive debt. The servant then runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii, or about $6,400 in today’s terms, but does not seem to remember the mercy shown him by the king and demands immediate payment in full. The first servant then has the second thrown in jail when he cannot pay up. Upon hearing of this, the king has the first servant thrown in jail until he can pay off his debt.

Obviously the amounts being dealt with are ridiculously high for servants, but the point is that the king, who represents God, has forgiven the gigantic debt of the first servant, who represents us. Just as God has freely forgiven our sinfulness, so too are we to forgive the sin others do to us. This parable exemplifies the vast greatness by which forgiveness is to be exercised, and further, connects our human forgiveness with divine forgiveness. Our forgiveness is to mirror God’s forgiveness and mercy made real through Jesus Christ.

We are reminded of the need to forgive every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. There’s that line, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” which means we are asking that God’s forgiveness of our sins be like our forgiveness of those who sin against us. What this means is that if we freely forgive others, we are asking God to freely forgive us. But if we do not forgive others, what we are really asking for is that God not forgive us. Is that what we really want?

Admittedly, for many of us, forgiveness is a difficult thing under the best of circumstances. Limit situations like 9/11 push our imagination when it comes to forgiveness. If we have a hard time forgiving someone we know for some minor offense, how much harder is it for us to forgive an enemy that kills thousands of people? In such situations, we often prefer revenge to forgiveness. We take the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and turn it around to “Do unto others as they have done unto you – only harder.” At times like this, forgiveness does not even seem to be an option. It’s as if we feel that forgiveness would be a sign of weakness. That if we forgive, we have to pretend it never happened. Or that if we forgive, we give up any right or hope for justice. Not so. Nonetheless, in many ways, forgiveness is harder than retaliation or retribution.

What we need to remember is that forgiveness is not about denying what happened, about denying the hurt. Rather, to forgive we need to acknowledge what has happened, to acknowledge the pain, to acknowledge that another has done this to us. But it also necessitates letting go of the other, refusing to allow them and what they did to have power over our lives, to dictate who we are, to control how we live and how we view the world around us. Forgiveness is refusing to be held captive by the actions of another, no matter how painful or damaging. Forgiveness is leaving the past behind and moving forward into the future that God is calling us to. But even so, it does not mean we have to forget. And in some cases, we should never forget.

A great example of this is the change in our relationship with Japan following World War II. At least at some formal level, we each acknowledged what we had done to the other. We forgave each other. And we made the conscious choice to reestablish relationship. As a result of reconciliation, Japan, formerly our most bitter and deadly of enemies, has become one of our strongest political allies, one of our largest economic trading partners, one of our closest friends. Does that mean that we have forgotten Pearl Harbor? No. Does that mean Japan has forgotten Hiroshima or Nagasaki? No. But we were both able to put that behind us and move forward in friendship.

Now, when it comes to al Qaeda, I seriously doubt reconciliation is a possibility. They have such anger and hatred toward the United States, and we suffered such pain at their hands, that we will likely never be friends. But that does not mean that forgiveness cannot occur. I know for many, that’s asking the impossible. But at the very least, maybe it means not buying into the cycle of hatred the events of 9/11 precipitated. Maybe it means truly trying to live the Gospel mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves, to live the injunction in our Baptismal Covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” That begins in small ways, with each of us doing our part.

To this end, Scott Bader-Saye, professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest writes, “The church’s capacity to respond to an event like 9/11 is formed long before the event in all the small ways we learn to practice patience, love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. It is these practices that we needed on 9/11 to give light in the dusty darkness, and it is these practices that we need ten years later to empower our witness for peace and reconciliation” (Bader-Saye, 10).

There are no easy answers. But we do know that change can happen and is happening. Christians and Muslims in this city, in this country and around the world are choosing not to engage in the hostilities their governments are engaged in. They are choosing to work together, to learn about and from each other, to become friends. In their actions, they are choosing to affirm across religious lines the loving and reconciling God worshiped by all the Abrahamic faiths – Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

One commentator sums it up quite eloquently when he writes, “This anniversary is not a time to focus on aggression or victory by way of violence or war. Violence only begets violence. While there is and needs to be an accountability, accountability does not heal, retribution does not heal, violence does not heal. Forgiveness heals for it is in forgiveness that we meet the other, sister or brother, as one for whom Christ died” (Giere, 158).

In this, Peter’s question in today’s Gospel speaks volumes, particularly as we face difficult acts of forgiveness. His inquiry of Jesus, “how often should I forgive” was intended to determine when we can stop forgiving. The meaning of forgiving seventy-seven times is crystal clear: we never stop forgiving. Ours is a God who forgives completely, and we as the body of Christ are commanded to do likewise. But the real question is not when we can stop forgiving, but rather, when do we start?

Bader-Saye, Scott. “9/11: Ten Years Later.” Christian Century, August 23, 2011, 10-12.

Giere, S. D., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2011, Easter through Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Read more!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Preaching Styles

Back in May, David (my rector) and I were driving to San Pedro for the annual spring clergy conference for the Diocese of Los Angeles. We started talking about preaching style. As long as I have been preaching (with a couple of exceptions), I have prepared a manuscript. Then earlier this year I went through a spell of taking the manuscript and converting it into an outline and then preaching from the outline. In more recent months, I had gotten away from that approach, as it actually takes more time to prepare and I had been too busy to devote the time needed. As a result, I had slipped back into relying solely on the manuscript while preaching. In addition, I tend to get too tied to the words that I write in the manuscript process.

David commented that my delivery was better when I was going from the outline. He suggested that maybe what I need to do is not prepare a manuscript at all, but to only prepare notes or an outline. I decided to take him up on his challenge – on Trinity Sunday (June 19). I figured that would be a good test run, since I would only have to preach once (being our patronal festival, we had a combined service that day). Of course, some may question the sanity of preaching on something like the doctrine of the Trinity without a manuscript, but I did it. And I also decided that if I wasn’t going to use a manuscript, I would not really need the pulpit. So I preached from the top of the sanctuary steps.

I was, understandably, a little nervous. But amazingly, I don’t think I even looked at my notes. And I got such positive comments from parishioners. They felt I had more energy and was more engaged in preaching without the manuscript. And they really liked the feeling of me being closer and more accessible by preaching from the steps instead of from behind the pulpit. And I really liked the ability to more readily make changes on the fly, allowing for a more dynamic preaching process.

So, after a good test run, I decided that this is the way I need to preach all the time. The only problem is that I now no longer have a record of my actual sermons – nothing to be able to post on my blog. And that has primarily been the purpose of my blog. And ironically, in the last two months of preaching this way (six sermons) several times people have asked me for copies of my sermons, and I have had to tell them there is no copy.

I have been struggling with this dilemma, with that engineer in me that wants a complete record. So I have decided to check into dictation software. If I can dictate the sermon either immediately before delivering it or afterwards (probably afterwards since I will have in mind any of the more recent changes), then I could post the transcript on the blog. Of course, after I preach the sermon, I could sit down and type out the gist of it from memory, but that would take more energy and time than I usually have or am willing to expend on a Sunday afternoon. So, we will see how the transcription process works. I know the technology is not perfect and editing will still be needed. But minor edits will be far easier than typing the whole thing (and risking getting bogged down with how I should have said something as opposed to how it was really said).

We shall see. The software should arrive in the next week or so.


Read more!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Quantum Shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year A
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.1925; John 10.1-10
Sunday, May 15, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

The shepherd was a well-known image for first century Jews and Christians. Not only were shepherds part of the everyday landscape of their agrarian society, the image of a good shepherd would have had significant political and religious meaning for these people. King David, the best known and most loved of Israel’s monarchs was the Shepherd King – an ordinary shepherd boy who God anointed to be king, who would go on to become the greatest of kings, the standard by which all future kings would be measured. In fact, the long-awaited Messiah was anticipated to be a king of the line of David, with all the positive attributes of David and more. The Psalmist, who may have been David himself, writes of God as protector and provider using the imagery of shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me like down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” (Ps 23.1-2). And in later times, the vision of the Messiah would even incorporate the image of shepherd, as portrayed by the prophet Isaiah: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Is 40.11). So it is significant for the original hearers of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel that he fulfills Israel’s hope for a good shepherd, and more importantly, a messiah in the form of the good shepherd. The simple imagery carried a loaded message about who Jesus was.

Even in our non-agrarian culture, we still find the imagery of sheep and of the good shepherd comforting. But most of us today have no experience with sheep other than at a petting zoo. So how does this imagery speak to us in our present day, in a context completely opposite of the original? Well, the meaning behind the imagery is no less true today than it was two thousand years ago.

Jesus uses imagery of himself as both the shepherd and the gate into the sheepfold. While a little confusing, being both shepherd and gate, these images help us to understand something of what it means to be his followers.

As shepherd, Jesus specifically addresses three characteristics about our relationship with him: the shepherd leading, the sheep following, and the shepherd being known by the sheep. First, Jesus tells us that the shepherd leads the sheep out of the sheepfold and goes before them, leading the way, and second, the sheep follow the shepherd. What this clearly means is that Jesus leads and we follow. Not that we lead and expect Jesus to follow. We may not always know where the path will take us, but we have to have faith that Jesus knows the way, pioneering the trail for us. We often get bogged down in the minutia, only seeing what is immediately in front of us, immediately around us. But Jesus has the big picture, seeing longer range than we are able to see, or longer range that we are sometimes willing to see. So a big part of this is trusting that Jesus is leading is on the right path, which really is a path only he can fully know. And the other part is being willing to give up our own needs or desires for control, letting Jesus lead the way, trusting that Jesus knows better than we do.

The ability to do this is all tied in with the shepherd being known by the sheep. Jesus says the shepherd calls his own by name and that “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Very important piece. Jesus himself even comments on it, talking about knowing the voice of the shepherd and not knowing the voice of strangers, of those whom he refers to as thieves and bandits. We are willing to follow because we know the sound of his voice – we know the sound of his message and are able and willing to do the critical work of comparing what we hear at any given time with what we know to be the truth. Is the voice we are hearing, the message being proclaimed, consistent with the truth as proclaimed in Scripture, the law and the prophets, as well as the words and actions of Jesus himself; as proclaimed in our historical understanding of the experienced tradition as passed down through the last two millennia; and as revealed in the reasoning necessary to apply the shepherd’s teachings to the present circumstances? Only when filtered through our understanding of scripture, tradition, and reason, can we discern if what we are hearing from the Church, from our leaders, clergy and lay, is the path Jesus is leading us along, or some other path.

As gate, Jesus specifically addresses three characteristics about what his followers can expect: that entering through the gate provides safety, allows us to find pasture, and provides us with place and identity. First, Jesus tells us that “whoever enters by me will be saved.” By entering into a life in Christ, we are assured of shelter from the world. This is not to say that what happens in the world will not impact us. It most assuredly will. What saved means is that if we place our trust in Christ, with making following him our first priority, we will always have the love and protection of God to fall back-on when times do get tough. We will have the resources of God’s family backing us up, our church family to care for us in our times of need. We will have the strength of our faith and the assurance of God’s love to stand upon and to guide us through whatever we may confront in life.

Second, those who enter the gate “will come in and go out and find pasture.” We don’t know much about pasture in our contemporary lives, but pasture is a place of comfort, rest, and sustenance. In this case, it is not necessarily physical respite. Rather Jesus is speaking of a spiritual comfort, rest, and sustenance that come from being his followers. By coming into the sheepfold that is the Body of Christ, that is the Church, we are assured of the spiritual comfort and rest from the cares of the world outside these walls, even if only for a brief time. This is a pasture where we can come and be nurtured and cared for, where we can recharge and gain the strength we need to go back out and face the world, to do ministry in the world. And that comes through the sustenance we receive every week in Eucharist – in the hearing of the word proclaimed, and at the altar where we are nourished by the bread and wine, by the body and blood of our Lord.

And third, by entering through the gate that is Jesus, we have a place and an identity that is determined exclusively by relationship with him. We have a place at the table. We have an identity as members of his body, as a part of the family of Christ that is the Church. We are part of a community that is defined by Jesus, the gate through which we enter, but also that is defined by and consists of the flock of which we are a part. For being part of the larger family through Christ, of being Christians, is essential. But so is the flock, the local community of which we are a part, as here at Trinity. For it is in the local community of faith that we discern and live out what it means to enter the gate and to follow the shepherd.

While all of this stuff about the Good Shepherd is meant to be comforting to us and descriptive of what it means to be Christian, there is something missing from the imagery. The Good Shepherd and the gate describe the nature of the Church as a body, of community and its centrality, and of our place and identity within the community. But it does not really say much about what the community does. We need something else to help round out the image, to give the flock some sort of purpose, other than just standing around in a group, grazing in the pasture. We are not quite the same as sheep, are we? As humans we are not content to just be as sheep. We need some purpose for the flock. For that, we can look to something called the Quantum Sheep project, or the “Poetry of Sheep.”

In 2002, Valerie Laws received a grant of 2,000 pounds from an arts council in northern England, to create living poetry using sheep. She spray-painted a single word on the backs of 15 sheep. As the sheep wandered around, the ordering of words took on a new structure every time they stopped moving. The reason Valerie undertook the project was out of an interest in quantum mechanics. She noted that randomness and uncertainty are apparently central to how the universe was formed and operates, and that this is quite difficult for many of us to understand, particularly since we rely on order. The sheep project was an attempt to explore such principles of quantum mechanics as randomness, duality, and the influence of the observer on the observed; to explain how something of meaning might come out of the randomness of the universe. Specifically, the project explored how the random movement of the sheep might occasionally result in somewhat meaningful poetry. Even if not rational, some of the resulting poems certainly had a whimsical, even comedic, quality.

While Valerie Law’s experiment was intended to illustrate something of quantum mechanics and the workings of the universe, particularly in a whimsical manner, it also ties in nicely with the story of the Good Shepherd and what it means to be part of his flock.

First, the Quantum Sheep project demonstrates that you can’t write a poem with only one word. We need most, if not all, of the words painted on the flock to make a meaningful poem. This reinforces the fact that we need each other, living in community, to do the work God has called us to do. One cannot do it by him or herself.

Second, the flock sometimes gets spooked and scatters. Be it by some outside influence or at the hands of an inept or uninterested guide, the flock can easily spook and scatter to seek safety. So too with communities of faith, which must be handled gently and tenderly. For sometimes we too become spooked, with the community scattering, individuals running for cover. But generally this is only temporary, for we come back together because we ultimately know that in community we are safer than by ourselves; that we have the community for support and protection.

Third, the flock sometimes is a jumbled mess, with each of the sheep just sitting there doing nothing. When this happens, the poem makes no sense. It is just words strung together without meaning. Communities of faith can be like that, too. When we are together, we sometimes have a jumbled mess that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But the reality is that even if we look like a jumbled mess, we are still together in community, still taking in sustenance as when a flock grazes, drawing nourishment from each other and from the sacraments. The jumbled mess is an in-between time while we wait for movement and for meaning to occur, for our purpose, our message, to be revealed.

Fourth, sometimes the flock does not have all the words it needs to make a complete or comprehendible poem. Other sheep with other words, which are not like us, may be needed to expand the vocabulary and allow for even richer, more meaningful poetry. As a community, we may not have all the resources needed to carry out some project or ministry. Sometimes we need others to come in and add to our vocabulary, to add their gifts and talents to ours, adding to the richness of what we are capable of.

And finally, and most importantly, the members of the flock occasionally surprise the observers by arranging themselves to form a poem that is both coherent and beautiful. As we stumble about in our lives within the community, we occasionally surprise ourselves and write an absolutely beautiful and poignant poem that shows to God and all the world what we are capable of. And when we do this, the Shepherd delights in what he witnesses.

That’s what the Good Shepherd is all about. By trusting in Jesus and being willing to follow, even when, especially when, it seems as if we don’t know where we are going; following him whose voice and message we know and that we know to be true; by entering into relationship with Jesus Christ, who promises us safety and shelter from the world; who promises a place for comfort, rest, and sustenance; who provides us with our own true identity; we are freed to, open to, called to, be the community of faith God has ordained us to be – one in which we can rise to the occasion and write beautiful poems that are witnessed by our God and by others – poems that bear witness to the love and grace of the Good Shepherd in our lives individually and together as his flock.

Read more!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Doubting Disciples?

Second Sunday of Easter – Year A
Acts 2.141, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
Sunday, May 1, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

The Sunday after Easter is commonly known as “Low Sunday,” due to the fact that attendance is markedly lower than on Easter Sunday, and is typically even lower than regular Sundays. After all the excitement of Easter, particularly as a culmination to all the drama and emotion that comes with traveling through Holy Week, with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then the climax of the Great Vigil of Easter, we might think we deserve a break, a little respite from all this church stuff. But scripture says otherwise. In his Gospel, John barrels on ahead, picking up with the disciples on the evening of Easter, immediately after the scene with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, where the Risen Christ reveals himself to her. There’s still a lot of work to do, and we can’t be wasting any time.

Now what most of us tend to focus on in this particular Gospel reading is the part where Thomas, not present at Jesus’ initial post-resurrection appearance to the disciples, says “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” – leading to the rather unflattering descriptor of “Doubting Thomas.” Now every time I preach on this passage, I am quick to rush to Thomas’ defense. But not today. In fact, many make the other disciples out to be the epitome of faith while denigrating Thomas. But not me. I’m going to drag them all down – every last one of them.

If you really look at the story, Thomas was not the only one of the disciples who doubted. It may not be expressed quite as explicitly, but it’s there in John’s description of events. All of the disciples initially doubted the reality of the Risen Lord. At the end of the Easter Gospel, we are told “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (Jn 20.18a). But here, in today’s reading, which, remember, takes place mere hours after Mary’s announcement, the Risen Christ appears to all the remaining disciples minus Thomas, who is inexplicably absent. They did not rejoice upon seeing him. First he had to talk to them – “Peace be with you.” And when that didn’t elicit a response, Jesus showed them his hands and his side. Only then do the disciples rejoice in the appearance of their resurrected Lord. Despite having been told by Jesus himself that he would die and be resurrected, despite testimony from Mary Magdalene, they would not believe until they had seen the wounds that bore irrefutable proof that this was their Lord, risen.

And then, of course, we know about Thomas. After the Risen Lord had appeared to his ten comrades and they tell him about the experience, he responds with his famous statement of doubt. Before he is going to believe, he demands the same proof that the other disciples had been party to – to see firsthand the wounds resulting from the crucifixion. Jesus appears a week later saying, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Upon seeing the wounds, Thomas believes that his master had been resurrected, responding “My Lord and my God!”

But even before the events of today’s Gospel lesson, we have Mary Magdalene filled with doubt about the fate of Jesus. Upon finding the tomb empty, she goes and tells the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” And later on, she weeps because she does not know what happened to Jesus, maintaining that someone must have taken his body away. This despite Jesus having foretold his death and resurrection. It is only when Jesus appears to her and calls her name that she recognizes him as her Lord, risen as he had promised.

So you see, it was not just Doubting Thomas. It was also Doubting Peter and Doubting John. It was also Doubting Mary and all the other doubting disciples. But what is more striking is the fact that as the story progressed, first with the appearance to Mary Magdalene, and then the disciples, and then Thomas, each party at each succeeding step had more and more information. Each had testimony from previous post-resurrection appearances. Why did Mary doubt when she had Jesus’ word that he would be raised from the dead? Why did the disciples doubt when they had Jesus’ word, plus Mary’s testimony that he had indeed been raised? Why did Thomas doubt when he had Jesus’ word, plus Mary’s testimony, plus the testimony of the other ten disciples?

Overall, it appears that there is a general lack of faith among the disciples. Not so much a lack of faith in what Jesus had told them. After all, no one had ever been resurrected before, at least not under these extreme circumstances. It would therefore be natural for the disciples to question Jesus’ foretelling of death and resurrection. They did not know what that would look like. Rather, the lack of faith that they experienced was in each other and in one another’s witness and testimonies.

Okay, maybe I’ve beat up on the disciples enough. To their defense, this was a very tense time. The general theme of the day was distrust. The local population had a broad distrust of the Roman Empire and its forces that were occupying their homeland. There was distrust of the locals who collaborated with the Roman occupiers. The disciples would have had distrust for the Temple authorities who had conspired to have Jesus arrested, tried, and executed. And now there was distrust of each other. After all, one of their own had betrayed their master for a few pieces of silver. Who’s to say the Romans or the Temple authorities might not come after the disciples next? Who can be trusted in times like these?

In these early days, when so much was still tenuous, so much was still uncertain, the disciples would have been looking for assurance. What the events of Easter Day as portrayed by John tells us is that all the disciples need assurance that this person who appears before them is the one who was crucified, died, and buried. The Risen One must have the wounds in his hands and feet and side – to manifest the triumph of God’s grace and love over death – visible signs of God’s grace and love, visible signs of the ultimate defeat of sin and death. Seeing the wounds would have been assurance that the one before them is indeed the one whom they had been following, and was indeed the one whom they would continue to follow.

So while there may have been some initial distrust, the disciples, through their cautiousness, provided a valuable service. They did the hard work, vetting the Risen Lord on behalf of those who would come after. Because of the due diligence and testimony of Thomas and the other disciples working on our behalf, we are able to have faith and believe. We are blessed because of those like Mary Magdalene and Thomas and the other disciples who have gone before. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus proclaims blessing on all those who have not seen the Risen Lord with their own eyes, who have not had the opportunity to see the wounds, to poke their fingers into his wounds. That would be us.

When I look at the initial post-resurrection appearances, like the one we have in today’s Gospel, like the comparable versions we have in the other three Gospels, where the disciples are doubtful, it always amazes me that our religion, based on the foundation of Christ’s resurrection, even got off the ground. In those early days, no one was willing or able to accept what had happened. How do you expect those who had not been witnesses to any post-resurrection appearances to come to believe? How is it that we, two millennia later, have come to believe and continue to tell the story?

In the days following Christ’s resurrection, each of the disciples had to find their own way to process what they had experienced, to find their own way to make such an unbelievable experience real for them. That is what we are seeing in today’s Gospel reading – the initial attempts at processing. Once the disciples got over their initial shock, distrust, even disbelief, once they had irrefutable proof from their Risen Lord, they were able to embrace the story wholeheartedly. They came to believe and to understand in a way that became a part of their very being, so that when they told the story to others, as in Acts, as in First Peter, you can just tell that it’s true.

Throughout Christian history, those like us, disciples who did not have benefit of first-hand post-resurrection appearances, came to believe because of the telling of the story. You feel the passion, the zeal, with which the story is told and retold, and you get caught up in it, coming to believe it yourself. It is the story of the resurrection, along with that passion and zeal that is passed on from believer to new convert, on through history to our own day, to our own hearing of the story. It is that passion and zeal that have kept our faith, our religion, alive these two thousand years.

It is often said that we are an Easter people. That is true. The story of Easter is our own story – told and experienced with passion, with conviction, passed on from believer to convert from the first Easter day until now. Our job as Easter people is to keep that story alive. Like the first disciples, we have to find our own ways of processing the story, making it real for ourselves, and then sharing it with others in our words and our actions. For if we truly believe the story and live it in our own lives, others will see the passion and sincerity and will be open to making the story their own.

It may sound a little naïve, but it’s true. That’s the concept behind our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. If you’ve ever talked to their teachers, if you’ve ever talked to our little ones or watched them in worship, it becomes obvious that they know the story, and they know the story to be true because of the sincerity with which it has been told to them and the experiences they have of it. And they are willing to share the story with others, with that same passion. Out of the mouths of babes comes the secret to being Easter people and to perpetuating our Easter faith.

It all boils down to the importance of believing the witness to what happened on the first Easter, as shared by those who have gone before, of continuing to focus on the resurrection – Christ’s resurrection and the hope and assurance of our own resurrection, and carrying that joy and passion out into the world.

Read more!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Empty Tomb as a "Thin Place" (or a Gaping Hole)

Easter Day – Year A
Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3.1-4; John 20.1-18
Sunday, April 24, 2011 (8:00 a.m.) –
Trinity, Redlands

In ancient Celtic tradition, there are locations known as “thin places,” where the separation between heaven and earth is tenuous, where the two nearly touch, and may even be somewhat permeable. In these “thin places,” it is said that the veil is drawn back sufficiently that one can experience the other realm, possibly seeing into the other side, maybe even sensing or feeling the presence of the holy. It is sometimes said that in such “thin places,” the ordinary becomes sacred and the sacred becomes ordinary.

The thing about “thin places” is that not everyone experiences them the same way. There is a full spectrum of awareness and experience of “thin places.” Some people are completely unaware of them. Others have some sense of their existence, having a vague feeling that there is something different, maybe even special, about a particular location. And others still have incredibly intense experiences.

I think that the tomb encountered by Mary Magdalene, the empty tomb with its stone rolled aside, was just such a “thin place.” If anything, the tomb and all that it represents is not just a “thin place” where the veil is pulled aside, but is rather a place where the fabric of existence is ripped open, creating a gaping hole between heaven and earth, between the ordinary and the holy.

Nonetheless, or perhaps because of the extraordinary nature of this thin place turned gaping hole, John’s Gospel records varying reactions to what is experienced, spanning the spectrum. On one end you have Simon Peter’s reaction. Upon hearing the news about the empty tomb, he runs to the tomb, goes in, and finds Jesus’ linen wrappings lying in a heap on the floor. The Gospel does not tell us specifically how he reacts or what he thinks. But the way I read it, he surveys the situation, sees a pile of linen, and just sort of gives up. He sees Jesus is gone but doesn’t seem to really comprehend the magnitude of what has happened. Eventually he does come to a greater understanding, but for now, he seems to need time to figure it out. He’s seen enough and so he leaves to go home, presumably to continue cogitating on the matter.

The Beloved Disciple seems a little more thought-filled or even awe-filled than is Simon Peter. When he arrives at the tomb, he sticks his head in to survey the situation, but does not go in. After Simon Peter enters, the Beloved Disciple does likewise. When he sees the full scene from the inside, we are told “he saw and believed.” The implication is that while he may not have completely understood what happened, he did understand the significance of the empty tomb, and that he trusted what Jesus had foretold about his own death and resurrection. With this, he too goes home, presumably to further ponder the situation.

And then there’s Mary Magdalene. She obviously doesn’t quite know what to make of finding the empty tomb. Her initial reaction is that someone has removed Jesus’ body. But even in her distress, she perseveres in trying to figure out what has happened to her Lord. Even after Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple have gone home, she continues to try to make sense out of what has happened. Mary is confused and certainly distraught that Jesus’ body had apparently been taken away. Even though he is dead, if at least she could find his body, it would be something to hold onto, something to help ease the grief of the previous few days, maybe even help make sense out of the situation. Unlike Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple, she is not going home until she gets some answers. So she persists in her search for the truth. And her perseverance pays off. When things look hopeless, she encounters the risen Lord – the first disciple to have such an experience. The elation she must have felt when this seemingly unknown person calls her name and she recognizes that it is Jesus. “Rabbouni!”

Mary’s natural reaction is to reach out and try to embrace her master and her friend. She is undoubtedly dismayed when he stops her, saying, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Why can’t she embrace and hold onto this man whom she has been following for years, whom she loves more than life itself? This is the one thing she cannot comprehend. What she does not yet understand is that in resurrected form, Jesus cannot be physically grasped; just as what has happened to him cannot be fully grasped, fully comprehended by the human mind. In his resurrected form, Jesus is no longer confined to this realm. Jesus cannot be held here in our presence. What is happening is for a greater purpose, as he foretold to the disciples. For Christ’s ascension extends the promise of the resurrection beyond this existence, through the “thin place,” through the gaping hole, into the heavenly realm. The promise of the resurrection is taken to the heavenly realm that transcends our own, to be located in the heart of God. And there, the promise of the resurrection, the new and eternal life that is promised to all humanity through Christ’s death and resurrection, will abide forever. This resurrection is not limited in its duration as was that of Lazarus. No, this resurrection and the ensuing gift of new life for all are for ever and ever.

Each of the disciples, Mary, Simon Peter, and the Beloved Disciple, had their own way of approaching the empty tomb and coming to understand the resurrection. But this was not something that happened in an instant. For with the death and resurrection of their Lord and Master, the disciples were moving from pre-resurrection life in the presence of Jesus the man, to a post-resurrection life in the presence of the Risen Christ. In the days and years that follow, they would struggle to find how to express the experience of Jesus Christ, as living man and as Risen Lord. They would need the rest of Eastertide, with its various post-resurrection encounters, to more fully understand what has happened to Jesus, and what this means for them, his followers.

Our other lessons, from the Acts of the Apostles, and from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, show this continuing attempt on the part of Jesus’ followers to more fully understand the meaning of post-resurrection life in the presence of the Risen Christ and the implications to those who are and will become his followers. That’s what the entire New Testament is about. That’s what the entire Christian faith is about – making sense of Jesus’ life on earth, of his death and resurrection, and of our part in the continuing story.

We talk about Easter being the culmination of Holy Week, which it certainly is. You cannot have Easter without first having Palm Sunday, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. You cannot have Easter without first having Maundy Thursday, with the institution of the Last Supper, followed by Jesus’ being betrayed and arrested in the Garden. You certainly cannot have Easter without first having Good Friday, with Jesus being tried, convicted, and sentenced to death; without Jesus being crucified on a cross, and then buried in a tomb. So yes, in Christ’s resurrection at Easter, we have the end of a tumultuous journey. But Easter is not the end of the story. It is merely the beginning. That story is being played out through the rest of the New Testament. It is being played out through two thousand years of Christian history. And it is being played out in our own lives, here and now, and will continue to play out for the rest of our lives.

That’s why we’re here today, in our continuing efforts to try to make sense of what happened two thousand years ago at a tomb in the countryside outside Jerusalem. Because just like the disciples, we each have our own unique way that we approach the empty tomb and come to understand the resurrection. We would do well to take our cue from Mary Magdalene – to not give up so easily, but to persevere, to continue searching for the Risen Lord.

Of course, this side of existence, this side of the gaping hole that is the empty tomb, we cannot, nor will we ever fully understand all the whys and wherefores of the resurrection. All we really need to know is that in that empty tomb, in that gaping hole, heaven burst forth into the earthly realm. All we really need to know is that God’s love broke through in a new way, destroying the bonds of sin and death that had a hold on humanity. All we really need to know is that Christ is risen, thereby providing each and every one of us with the gift of new and eternal life in him. Everything else flows from that promise and from that assurance.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Read more!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

“Do You Know What I Have Done To You?”

Maundy Thursday – Year A
Exodus 12.1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Thursday, April 21, 2011 – Trinity, Redlands

“Do you know what I have done to you?” (Jn 13.12)

In John’s telling of the events of Maundy Thursday, what Jesus has done has nothing to do with the Last Supper. While the Synoptic Gospels all tell of Jesus’ final Passover feast with his disciples and document the institution of what will become one of the two major sacraments of the Christian faith – the Eucharist – John says nothing of this event. There is nothing about breaking of bread. There is no command to “take, eat; this is my body” (Mt 26.26). There is nothing about taking the cup and giving thanks. There is nothing said about “drink of it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26.27-27).

Yes, today’s Gospel lesson is set in the context of a meal. In John’s telling, we hear of the events of the day of preparation, the day before the Passover feast is celebrated. But this is just an ordinary meal among friends. For John, it is not the meal that is important. In fact, he never really tells us about it. For John, what is important is the rather unusual event that occurs in the midst of this ordinary meal. Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” (Jn 13.4-5).

This act is significant in a number of ways. In the simple act of washing the disciples’ feet, he is giving them the secret to what it means to be his followers. This act is one of service, of giving of self for the benefit of others. But even more so, is the manner in which the service is carried out. Jesus is the master to these disciples. He is the host of the dinner gathering. But rather than exalt himself, rather than demand that his disciples serve him, Jesus humbles himself, taking on the role of servant. In this, he is modeling the quality of humble service – of putting the needs of others before self – that all who follow this servant king are called to undertake.

Even more than humble service, the act of washing of feet demonstrates some of the qualities that are needed to live the Christian life. These are not adequately conveyed in the Gospel narrative, but are only evident through experiencing the act of foot-washing – not just having your feet washed, but also in the act of washing the feet of another. In this I am reminded of my first experience with foot-washing. I shared this story a couple of years ago, but as I have been reflecting on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, I have gained increased insight though reflecting on my own experience with that sacred act.

My first experience with foot washing was when I was in high school. Our entire youth group went to a camp in the San Bernardino Mountains over Presidents Day weekend. There were hundreds of youth there from all over Southern California. On the first night, as part of the opening worship experience, we were told to sit down in small groups, in circles. The room was dimly lit. There was soft contemplative music playing in the background. Someone brought basins of water and placed them in the center of each circle. We were instructed to pair up, and to wash each other’s feet. There was a great deal of reluctance on the part of most present, myself included. Finally, my foot-washing partner took the initiative. He took my bare feet and gently, tenderly washed them in the basin of warm water. Almost as soon as he started, I began to cry. Having someone wash my feet was such a humbling experience. I felt so vulnerable, having someone care for me in such a way, to completely give up any control over the situation and what was being done to me, to drop my guard enough to allow another to care for me.

And then, when he was done washing my feet, I washed his. I continued to cry, but for a different reason. I was crying because I had to be vulnerable in a different way. Once again, I had to let my guard down, but this time it was to set aside my ego, to allow myself to be open and vulnerable to serving another in an intimate way. This act required that I tear down any barriers I had between me and this other person, to allow myself to enter into an intimate connection with another. Even in the midst of the tears, I felt the joy of being able to care for another. The tears of humility and vulnerability turned to tears of joy. I felt the joy of being able to connect in a very deep way, in a non-verbal way, with another of God’s children, to share a moment of mutual vulnerability, where we were able to connect on a spiritual level, knowing who we are, and more importantly, whose we are.

I think that is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples as he washed their feet – that they need to be able to humble themselves to serve others; that they need to be willing to open themselves to be vulnerable to others, to be vulnerable in the presence of others, particularly those whom they are serving; and that they must allow an intimate connection to develop with those they are ministering to.

We are called to live those same qualities in our life as Christians:

Humility – putting the needs of others before our own, even when – especially when – it may be a little uncomfortable;

Vulnerability – allowing ourselves to be open to the movement of the Spirit and to the ways another human being can touch deep within our being – a place where very few see, let alone are allowed to touch; and

Intimacy – allowing the ability to be close with others, in their vulnerability and in ours; to be with others, sharing their deepest hurts and their deepest hopes.

These are all key hallmarks of what it means to truly be a Christian, to live a Christian life.

The calling to exhibit these qualities is beautifully illustrated by Quaker elders in England, several centuries ago. They used the term “tendered” to describe their experience of coming to the faith. “Tendered” in this context meant having been shown tenderness by another. For them, it was the experience of tenderness, through humility and vulnerability; tenderness leading to a sacred intimacy with another person – an intimacy that conveyed something of Christ’s love, of God’s grace and mercy, that led them to becoming followers of Christ. While the specifics are not documented, I cannot help but think that such experiences as having one’s feet washed might have led to the sense of being “tendered.” I cannot help but think that is what our Lord had in mind as he washed the feet of his disciples – giving an example of what it means to be his followers and how to spread that message to others, not in words, but in tender action and presence.

As we commemorate Maundy Thursday, we of course remember the institution of the Last Supper, as commanded by St. Paul in our lesson from 1 Corinthians. After all, the Eucharist based on this event is central to our weekly worship experience as a community. That’s what it means to live as Christians in community. But the message behind the washing of feet – the call to humble service, to openness to vulnerability, to intimate connections with others, sharing God’s love, grace, and mercy to a broken world; that’s what it means to live as Christians out in the world. That is why Jesus came into this world. That is why Jesus shared this last experience with his disciples. That is why Jesus willingly went to his death on the cross the following day – the ultimate act of humility, vulnerability, and intimacy.

Read more!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Things Will Work Out; They Always Do"

Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – Year A
Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 26.14-27.54
Sunday, April 17, 2011 – Trinity, Redlands

When I was growing up, and even now as an adult, whenever I have found myself in a difficult situation – one where there just seemed no way out, when you feel like there is no hope – my mother would always say to me, “things will work out; they always do.” I never told her, but that always annoyed me. It always struck me as being trite, merely a platitude to try to make me feel better. She was right, things did always work out, but it still annoyed me.

As I got older, I realized that “things will work out; they always do” was so much more than a mere platitude. That one simple and seemingly simplistic phrase was shorthand for a much greater message. In it, Mom was saying that she thought I had the skills and talents to get myself out of, or work through, whatever situation happened to be plaguing me. In it, Mom was saying that she had faith in me and knew that no matter what I might be feeling at the moment, I would be able to work things out. In it, Mom was saying that no matter how dark things might seem, I needed to trust that things would get better, and not let the darkness give way to despair. And most importantly, in it, Mom was saying don’t give up hope.

Truth be told, even though hearing those words sometimes annoyed me, it really was, and still is, comforting to have Mom say them. I have even found that when there are times where I am struggling with some sort of seemingly hopeless problem, and when Mom isn’t around, there’s that little voice in the back of my head that sounds just like Mom, and it says, “things will work out; they always do.” Because I still need to hear those words. And because they are true.

On this, the Sunday of the Passion, we watch the events of Jesus’ final days unfold, starting off great guns with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” But then things go downhill from there. Within a few days, Jesus turns his attention to celebrating the Passover meal with his dearest friends – knowing this would be the last Passover meal with them, that it would be his last meal period. The meal is not as pleasant as one would hope, for this is where the tatters begin to show, where things start to unravel. Later that evening, while Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas betrays his Master, bringing the Temple authorities to arrest him. Despite protestations of faithfulness, all the disciples desert Jesus in his time of trouble. Shortly thereafter, Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, denies even knowing Jesus.

Jesus is brought to trial before the high priest, on trumped up charges, and found guilty of blasphemy. He is then spat on, struck, and mocked. Not able to exact the punishment they want, the Temple authorities send Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the civil authority. Here he is brought up on what amount to charges of treason against the Roman Empire. Found guilty according to the letter of the law, Pilate is not comfortable with the outcome, so attempts to free Jesus using a local Passover custom. But the crowd will have no part of it. They turn against Jesus, issuing cries of “Let him be crucified!” Pilate has no choice but to condemn Jesus to death, the punishment the Temple authorities were seeking. Before exacting the final punishment, he is flogged and mocked – “Hail King of the Jews.” And finally, he is sent to his death, nailed to a cross. As he hangs dying, he is further mocked by soldiers, passers-by, and fellow prisoners alike, while the soldiers gamble for the few pieces of clothing he had been wearing.

Jesus’ life is spiraling out of control. Yet there are commentators who write about how every step of the way, the Matthian Jesus is in control of the situation, that he knew what he was doing, making it sound like he was calm, cool, and collected under the pressure of his final days and hours. But this denies the very humanity of Jesus. Even thought he knew what had to be done, that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel a sense of darkness, a sense of hopelessness. After all, in the Garden, he prays not once, not twice, but three times, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” And on the cross, as he hung there dying, he cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If that isn’t despair and hopelessness I don’t know what is. In this final week of his life, Jesus knew what it feels like to have life slip away, spiraling out of control, as shouts of “Hosanna” turn to calls of “Let him be crucified!”; as a ticker tape parade ends on death row.

How many of us, when confronted with a difficult situation, have not ourselves prayed “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me?” How many of us in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation, have not cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In our own human experience, we at times travel the path from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. But what this week shows us, what the culmination of this week in the Easter event shows us is that we do not travel this path alone. Our faith is founded on a God who has traveled the same path with us. Our Savior has walked this path before us, suffering and enduring far worse than we ever will. Jesus walked this path before us, suffering and enduring far worse so that we never have to.

Even in the midst of very human feelings of darkness, despair, and hopelessness that the human Jesus would have undoubtedly experienced, the divine Christ would have known the truth. On this side of the resurrection, we who travel this path laid out before us this coming week see and know the truth. Even as we approach the darkness of Maundy Thursday night, stripped bare of the presence of our Lord, we know the truth. Even as we approach Good Friday, kneeling at the foot of the cross on which our Lord and Master was crucified, we know the truth. Things will work out; they always do.

Read more!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Responding to Evil

Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)
1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41
Sunday, April 3, 2011 – Trinity, Redlands

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9.2)

This question by the disciples gets to the heart of what may be one of the thorniest issues in Christianity: theodicy. Theodicy deals with the question of how can an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow evil and suffering in the world? In our attempts to reconcile our image and felt experience of God with the reality of evil and suffering, we struggle with explanations that seek to make sense out of this apparent dichotomy. And while we Christians struggle on one side of the equation, there are those who are not believers who claim that the existence of a loving God and evil are logically incompatible, and conclude that since evil and suffering obviously do exist in our world, God could not possible exist. Sadly, it is the experience of evil and suffering that is probably the main reason many people reject Christianity - a faith that can help them deal with evil and suffering.

When it comes to evil, there is a classification system, of sorts, that helps us in our thinking about the subject, and plays a part in our view toward evil. The two classifications of evil are moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is the result of an event that is caused by the intentional action or inaction of a person or entity. Moral evil has both a perpetrator and victims. Examples of moral evil include murder, violence, adultery, dishonesty, and slavery, to name a few. Why does God allow such moral evil to occur and to persist in the world? While it may not always be a satisfactory answer, we recognize that such moral evil exists because of freewill that has been given to us by God – freewill that is misused for selfish purposes and against other human beings. God has given humanity the gift of freewill and self-determination, and for reasons we cannot completely fathom, God chooses not to interfere. Influence, yes. Interfere, no.

Natural evil, on the other hand, is a bad event that occurs without the intervention of an agent. Natural evil only has victims, and is generally the result of natural processes. Examples of natural evil include disease, birth defects, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and anything that in legal terms would be designated as “an act of God.” Why does God allow such natural evil to occur and to persist in the world? That is a little harder to understand, and for some, a little harder to stomach than the acceptance of moral evil. Natural evil does not involve freewill, so why doesn’t God use a little of that omnipotence and prevent such things as Hurricane Katrina or earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand, and Japan? And while that is one of the mysteries of our God, many people are not content to settle for the unknown, to the appeal to mystery, and struggle to make sense out of natural evil.

Who of us has not occasionally asked “why me” or “why is God doing this to me” when bad things happen to us? Now I speak in the broadest of terms, but what tends to happen when we try to make sense out of natural evil is that we sometimes seek to introduce other variables into the equation. We introduce variables that add a human dimension to the moral neutrality of natural evil –blame or responsibility. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Generally, the only way we can make sense of an all-powerful God allowing evil and suffering in the world is by presuming divine punishment for some wrongdoings or sinful behavior. Even if we cannot see the specific reason, the sinfulness being punished, we are readily able to accept that God must know what he’s doing. To explain the apparent inconsistency between our all-powerful God and the existence of evil and suffering, we provide a connection, justified by finding someone to blame. In so doing, we attempt to turn a natural evil into a moral evil.

Now on a certain level we know that God doesn’t cause bad things to happen – at least I hope we know. But it is certainly rampant in our society. So we need to be able to name it and put it in proper theological perspective.

After all, we see examples of this every time there is a major natural disaster, a sizeable incident of natural evil. Think back to Hurricane Katrina. At the time, many people asked why this happened. Most likely a rhetorical question, but there were those who immediately leaped in and tried to explain the natural evil by turning the incident into one of moral evil. One nationally recognized televangelist said that “Katrina was God's punishment for sinful behavior in New Orleans.” Another prominent Christian figure attempted to link Hurricane Katrina with an act of judgment against legalized abortion. Human sinfulness was brought into the equation as a way of explaining a natural phenomenon, attempting to make natural evil into moral evil, with the incident itself being divine retribution.

And most recently, with the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, many people naturally asked why this happened. And again, there were those who had answers that involved attempts to place blame. On the Monday after the earthquake, the Governor of Tokyo said “The Japanese people must take advantage of this tsunami to wash away their selfish greed. I really do think this is divine punishment.” He did later apologize for the insensitive comment. But a prominent American figure kept the notion alive by maintaining that the earthquake and tsunami were a message from God as a punishment for sinfulness. Here again, mislaid allegations of human sinfulness was brought into the equation in an attempt to make natural evil into moral evil, with the incident itself being divine retribution.

In response to the comment made by the Governor of Tokyo, a Buddhist monk said, “We can’t pinpoint exactly what brought this about. For Buddhists, it almost doesn’t matter what caused this situation; what’s important is the response.” And I would say not just for Buddhists. While alleged Christian figures make ludicrous claims about natural evil actually being incidents of God’s judgment and punishment, the truth of the Gospel on such matters is born out in today’s lesson. “[Jesus’] disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him’” (Jn 9.2-3).

Jesus is very clear. The man was born blind – a natural evil. When the disciples attempted to make it into an issue of moral evil, attempting to determine the cause of the sin that resulted in the man being born blind – which, by the way, was a very common view of that time – Jesus put an end to such a perspective. Sin had nothing to do with it. The man was the victim of disease or some natural defect that resulted in blindness. Now what Jesus does say by way of explanation is that “he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.” In other words, the point is not to find a cause for the natural evil that has occurred, but to view it as an occasion for doing God’s work; in this case, the work of healing. Was the man born blind so that God’s glory could be revealed through his gaining sight? Maybe, maybe not. The important thing is that the natural evil that was his plight was ultimately used to reveal God’s glory. In other words, it doesn’t matter what caused the situation; what’s important is the response.

The imagery of the man’s eyes being opened, of gaining sight, in combination with the imagery Jesus uses of light and darkness, is a clue that this is not just about Jesus showing God’s glory in the immediate event, in the healing of the man born blind. In the story, it is not only the man who gains sight, but also the disciples. And so do we as the audience. As the events unfold, we too gain sigh, or insight, into how to respond to events of evil – certainly natural evil, but moral evil as well. We are called to open our eyes to see as God sees – to look at such events of evil as God would, and to respond accordingly. With opened eyes we see that it’s not about what blame is falsely or ignorantly placed on a situation, but rather how we respond. In a broader sense, the work of God that is done through incidents of evil is the work of mercy and compassion. Just as Jesus had compassion on the man born blind and healed him, we are called to have mercy and compassion on those who suffer as a result of evil. We are called to look with eyes of faith and to see how God’s work might be revealed – what can be done to bring the light of Christ into a dark situation.

There are so many examples of how this parish looks at dark situations in our world – incidents of evil – and sees not with the eyes of judgment, but with eyes of faith, sees the suffering of evil’s victims, and seeks to reveal God’s work of mercy and compassion through those situations. We help those with behavioral issues through our support of Sierra Vista Rehabilitation Center in Highland, providing various items needed by the residents. We help low income and homeless families through our support of Family Service Association with the food collected weekly during the offertory. We help those who are homeless and hungry through our support of the Shared Ministries, in which we providing a meal one Saturday a month to the homeless population of Redlands. We help the homeless through the Cold Weather Shelter at Blessing Center, when one night a week our parishioners staff the Shelter. We help those who lack access to adequate health care through our support of the annual medical mission to Nicaragua. We help abused women and children through our support of Option House, by providing them with much needed personal and household items. We help those who are in prison or who have recently been released through our support of Step By Step in its various efforts to minister to parolees and the families of those who are incarcerated. And Trinity has also been great at stepping up to help out with special needs, such as when Episcopal Relief and Development raised money for Haiti and most recently, Japan. We have seen with the eyes of faith – not casting judgment, but seeing as God sees. And in our response, the glory of God is being revealed.

Through the example of your works of mercy and compassion, you have helped open the eyes of our youth. Several months ago our Youth Group, after hearing about the plight of homeless teens here in Redlands, have started a project to help YouthHope, the program that provides assistance to the homeless teens in Redlands. One Sunday a month, our teens come together to prepare a meal that will be served to about 100 homeless teens later in the week, providing one of the few meals these kids have each week. The eyes of our youth were opened to an incident of evil, to a need in our community. They saw with the eyes of faith, the way God sees those homeless teens, and they responded. In their actions, the glory of God is being revealed.

With eyes of faith we see that God works in, around, and through events that are counter to God’s purposes in the world, and that in the process, God’s true purposes are accomplished. God needs us to be his hands and feet in the world to do this. So as we work in, around, and through those events of evil, our eyes are opened, we work to accomplish God’s purposes – namely the showing of the glory of God through our acts of mercy and compassion. We are not judging, only loving; just as our Lord does with us.

Read more!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Living Water

Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42
Sunday, March 27, 2011 – St. Joseph of Arimathea, Yucca Valley

Those of us living in the Southwest, and particularly those of you who live in the middle of the desert, know the importance of water. Water is absolutely necessary for life. Prior to birth we are formed in and surrounded by water, which nourishes, nurtures, and protects us. After we are born, we require water on a regular basis to survive. In fact, depending on specific conditions, a healthy person can survive up to eight weeks without food, while that same person can only survive three to five days without water.

Good old H2O serves a number of useful purposes, including cleaning and providing cooling and comfort. In addition, we know that water has the potential to wield a great deal of power. It can be the source of great energy, such as when used to operate old-fashioned mills or to generate energy via hydroelectric dams. And we see the power of water in nature, such as the way the water of the Colorado River has eroded the Arizona desert over millions of years to create the Grand Canyon.

And sadly, we know of the destructive potential of water, as well. We see it every year as rainstorms flood parts of our country, destroying homes and crops. In our own area, we see flooding and mudslides due to heavy rains, washing out roads and destroying homes and businesses. And of course, who of us have not been moved by the images of the tsunami in northeastern Japan two weeks ago, as walls of water up to 35 feet high swept up to six miles inland, wiping out everything in their path – whole villages and cities, crop fields, killing over 10,000 people and causing $300 billion in damages.

Water is so necessary to our existence, but also can be so dangerous to our fragile lives. It’s a delicate balance that we humans must negotiate. Perhaps that’s why we find stories about water in today’s scripture lessons – in both the Old Testament and the Gospel – stories that examine the importance of water in our lives, not just physically, but also spiritually; stories that look at the power of water from a different perspective.

Today’s readings certainly address the physical need for water. In Exodus, we have the Israelites grumbling about the lack of water and demanding that Moses provide for their thirst. They are concerned for themselves, their children, and their livestock – that if they are not given water soon, they will perish in the wilderness. So Moses goes to God who provides water for his people. And in John, we have Jesus traveling across the desert at mid-day. Tired out, he stops by a well while his disciples continue on in search of food. Thirsty after a long morning’s journey, he asks a local woman for some water. The physical need for water is readily apparent in both readings.

What may be a little less apparent is the spiritual power of the water in these two stories. In fact, in Exodus, the story itself contains no direct indication. But if we look back at the previous actions of the Israelites, we can see it. Here in Chapter 17 the Israelites are demanding water. But this is not the first time they have made such demands of Moses and of God. Two chapters previous, right after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and celebrated their escape from the Egyptians, they immediately began grumbling that they had no water to drink. So at the waters of Marah, Moses threw a piece of wood into the pool of bitter water and it became sweet so that they could drink of it. Then in Chapter 16, the Israelites grumbled about needing food. So God gave them manna from heaven to eat. Here in the space of three chapters, which covers the span of a couple of months, the Israelites have grumbled about lack of water twice and the lack of food once. And every time, God has provided for them.

I think what was really going on was not so much physical thirst or hunger. Yes, that was real, but I think it was only the presenting issue. I think what was really going on was that the Israelites were unsure of God’s devotion to them. Yes, he had liberated them from Egypt, but now he did not appear to be around. They craved not so much water or food, but assurance that God was with them, in their midst, caring for them and protecting them. It’s easy to see that God is with us when we have what we need or want. But in times of scarcity, it is harder to see that God is present. So to ease their uncertainty they insisted on signs, tangible things like food and water, which became symbols of a spiritual need – a symbol of God’s presence, care, and protection of his people. The expression of tangible physical need thereby becomes an expression of spiritual need.

The physical-spiritual connection and the spiritual implications of water in the lesson from John are more apparent. And it becomes somewhat apparent to the Samaritan woman, thanks to the extended interaction she has with Jesus. As the woman is talking about water from Jacob’s well and the physical need for water, Jesus is talking about living water – that which nourishes not one’s physical life, but rather one’s spiritual life. In the course of that engagement, she comes to realize that he is the long-awaited Messiah – the one who does not just provide living water, but is the source of living water.

Now no detailed explanation is given regarding the exact nature of “living water.” The term is only used in this passage in John and one other equally cryptic reference in John chapter 7. The only thing we know, and probably all we really need to know, is what Jesus himself tells us – “The water that I . . . give will become . . . a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” – the new and eternal life that we are promised through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only is this new and eternal life symbolized by water, but the sacramental sign of that promise is water itself – the waters of baptism. The way we receive living water is through baptism.

What I love about this story is the interplay between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, in how they deal with the various aspects of water. It’s not so much what they say, but how they need each other. This demonstrates a central truth about our lives of faith and the interconnection between the physical and the spiritual. There is a certain paradox that the Samaritan woman thinks Jesus needs what only she can provide – water from the well; whereas in reality, she is the one who needs what only he can provide – eternal life. But the truth is that they need each other. In the encounter at the well, Jesus needs the woman to have his human needs met. He has no means of getting water to satisfy his physical thirst, so he needs her and her bucket. And the woman needs Jesus to have her spiritual needs met. There is this marvelous synchronicity between physical and spiritual, that wonderfully illustrates the true nature of our faith – a faith where human and divine are united in Christ, where physical and spiritual are integral parts of who we are as followers of Christ.

We need Jesus to have our spiritual needs met. And Jesus still needs us to have his human needs met. No, this side of the Resurrection, Jesus does not need us to meet such physical needs as satisfying thirst or hunger. But he does need us to provide the human, the physical connection, to the world – connecting what he has to offer spiritually with the physicality of human existence, for which his gift is graciously offered. We talk about us being the Body of Christ, and that is quite literally true. Christ relies on us to do the physical, the human, part of his ministry. In demonstrating this, the Gospel story also shows that Jesus can and does need all of us. Jesus can and does use all of us, no matter who we are.

That’s what he does with the Samaritan woman. From where Jesus was standing, she was the epitome of being an outsider, a nobody. For starters, Jesus was Jewish and she was a Samaritan. The two religious groups disagreed on a number of things and both taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the other. Then add the fact that she was a woman, someone who had no real social standing. And then there was her questionable reputation, having been married five times and now living with a man who was not her husband. In fact, she was probably even ostracized by her own people. Normally women went out to the well in the early morning hours when it was still cool to get the water for the day. They went together for protection, but also as a time for the women to catch up with their friends. The fact that this woman was out mid-day alone indicates she was probably not accepted by the other women in the village. So she was a real nobody. But despite all of that, despite knowing what type of person she was, Jesus did not shun her. He did not turn her away.

In fact, quite the opposite. She was a newcomer to the faith. Jesus was willing to explain things to her, to help her understand what he was saying. He nurtured her. He never judged her, only loved her. And in the process, he made her an apostle – a missionary sent out to proclaim the truth she had witnessed and experienced in Jesus. She was sent back to her own village by Jesus to testify to who he is – the Messiah. In fact, she may have been the first apostle outside of the Twelve – at least as recorded by John.

Jesus stepped across many lines to talk with her – gender, religious, cultural, moral. He stepped across many lines to make her an apostle and to use her for his own purposes – connecting what he had to offer spiritually with the physicality of human existence – extending that gift of living water, of new life, to outsiders. He steps across those same lines to extend the gift of living water to each of us. And he steps across those same lines to use each of us to meet his human needs in the world around us – to help him provide living water to all who thirst for it.

Read more!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Born Again Episcopalians

Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 12.1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Sunday, March 20, 2011 – Trinity, Redlands

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. (Although, frankly, it’s not that uncommon in the Gospel According to John). Nicodemus comes to Jesus and butters him up by commenting that it is obvious that Jesus comes from God because of the signs he performs. This is the type of thing Jesus doesn’t like to hear. It’s not about the outward signs, but rather about the bigger picture – the kingdom of God. So, Jesus attempts to correct Nicodemus’ position by saying “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn 3.3). Misunderstanding what Jesus is trying to say, Nicodemus starts talking about “being born after having grown old” and questioning how a grown person can be born of his mother’s womb a second time. Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. You say something and the other person seems to completely miss your point and goes off in some other direction. When this happens, my initial reaction, my inside unspoken reaction, is “what are you babbling about?” I don’t know if Jesus had that same reaction, but he really tries to explain things so as to make Nicodemus understand. We don’t know how Nicodemus reacts or if he ever gets what Jesus is saying.

I don’t know who to feel sorry for: Nicodemus for not getting it or Jesus for trying and trying to no avail. Jesus is apparently talking about some spiritual birth or renewal. So why is Nicodemus babbling about the physiological impossibility of a grown person being born again? Is Nicodemus so dense that he can’t see that Jesus might be speaking metaphorically? But in reality, it is sort of understandable why there is this misunderstanding – understandable if you look at the original Greek text. When Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” the Greek word translated as “from above” is anōthen, which actually has two meanings. One meaning is “from above,” as is translated in the NRSV text and as clearly intended by Jesus. And the other is “anew” or “again,” which is obviously the meaning Nicodemus latches onto. So while Jesus meant “born from above,” Nicodemus heard “born again.” Both meanings are technically correct linguistically. But theologically? While Nicodemus and Jesus were pretty far apart in their respective meanings and interpretations of the terminology being used, I think that theologically they were on the same page.

Now as Anglicans, the term “born again” does not generally appear in our descriptions of our spiritual journeys. In fact, many in our tradition, as well as others in our society, have a hard time with the concept, may be leery of what is meant, and have a knee-jerk reaction against the term “born again” and those who talk about the need for such a conversion experience. Now admittedly, there is a segment of evangelical Christianity that firmly believes one must have a “born again” conversion experience in order to be a true believer in and follower of Jesus Christ. While the specifics of such an experience may vary slightly among particular groups, there is, nonetheless, a special emphasis on said experience and its significance. I mean in no way to disparage our brothers and sisters who hold such views. But I think our reaction to such views is more in response to the often overzealousness with which they are expressed; to the fact that a specific and rigidly defined experience is required; and to the sense of being judged and even condemned if we have not had such an experience.

But the reality is that the concept of being “born again” has been a part of Christian history dating back to day one, perhaps in large part due to our friend Nicodemus. Throughout our history, to be “born again” was understood as a spiritual awakening or regeneration through the sacrament of baptism. So, we are all, by virtue of our baptisms, “born again.” In our baptismal liturgy, we even use the language of dying to self and being brought to new life in Jesus Christ; of receiving “the Sacrament of new birth;” that we are “reborn by the Holy Spirit;” that we are “cleansed from sin and born again;” that we are “raised . . . to the new life of grace.” It’s all there, right in our Prayer Book.

Now, of course in today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a radical new birth from above – one that focuses on our spiritual being – not that which is born of flesh but that which is born of spirit. And maybe Nicodemus got a little hung up on the physicality of being “born again” or “born from above.” But I think there may be something to be said for Nicodemus’ somewhat mistaken notion of being “born again” as imagery for what Jesus was really trying to get at. There are some aspects of the imagery of physical birth that could apply to the spiritual rebirth that Jesus talks about and that we ourselves experience.

First, the physical birth that Nicodemus envisions is literally a birth out of water. When a baby is born, it must travel through water, the amniotic fluid, to be born. So too is our being “born again” in the sacramental sense a birth out of water. Through the sacrament of baptism, we enter into the water as a sinful being, whereupon we die to that sinfulness, where we die to self. And then we emerge from the water, “cleansed from sin and born again” through the Holy Spirit.

Second, prior to being born, the fetus lives in the darkness of the womb. At birth, the baby comes forth from the womb into the full light of day. This dichotomy of light and darkness is an important feature in John’s Gospel, where he frequently uses the imagery of darkness to represent the realm of unbelief and the imagery of light to represent the realm of belief. In the course of our spiritual journey toward new life in Christ, we travel from the darkness of unbelief that the secular world tends to promote, from the darkness of our own unbelief in God and Christ, into the full light of faith and belief. We emerge into the light and grace of God as revealed through his son. And perhaps most importantly, we move from proclaiming and practicing our faith in a dark private place to proclaiming and exercising our faith in the full light of day. We move into a place of wanting to share our faith with others and to manifest it through our actions in the world around us.

Third, when a child is born into this world, it is generally given a clean slate upon which to build its life. Of course there are cases of babies born addicted to drugs or inheriting some sort of medical condition that may impede or encumber the individual’s development. But generally we are born into a life open to unlimited possibilities. When we are “born again” in Christ, we too are given a clean slate. As we emerge from the waters of baptism, our sins are washed away and we are given a fresh outlook, as clear and unencumbered as a baby’s life. But unlike physical birth, this new existence we are given in our new life in Christ is not just limited to the remainder of our normal human lifespan. For in our new life in Christ we are promised and given eternal life. While we may not know what that really looks like, just think of the possibilities eternal life has in store for us!

Fourth, those of you have experienced childbirth, and the rest of us who have either been present or seen videos know that giving birth is a pretty messy process. There is the stress, strain, and sweat of labor. There is the water breaking. There is the newborn child emerging in amongst water and blood. There is screaming from the mother and crying from the baby. The process of being “born again” can also be messy. Not always, but it has the potential. There is not the physical messiness of corporeal birth, but more of an emotional and spiritual messiness. As we are born to our new life in Christ, as we enter into a new way of being on our spiritual journeys, there is often the mental and emotional labor involved in shifting from one perspective to another; of moving from unbelief or serious questioning to a position of belief, faith, and trust in God. There is the uncertainty and maybe even discomfort of getting used to this new way of being, of shedding old practices and taking on new ones, maybe even of ridding our life of old friends and making new ones. Screaming and crying can quite often be a part of the process.

And finally, we are not born alone. Someone needs to give birth to us. In the physical birth process, our mother obviously provides us with life, drawn from and issued forth from her own life. And there is usually someone present to midwife the process. So too in the process of being “born again.” We cannot do it alone. We need someone to birth us into our new life. And of course that happens by the grace of God. The new life that we are being born into is a gift from God that flows from and through the Spirit and is made possible only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, Christ defeated the bonds of sin and death and opened the way for the eternal life we are to receive. And as we move into new life, we need the help of our fellow Christians, who midwife us through the process and guide us into the fullness of what it means to be Christian.

The key to the process of being “born again” is given to us by Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3.5). We know that water means baptism, and we’ve already talked about the place of baptism in the process of being “born again.” And in five weeks we will experience it first hand as Emily and Matt go into the waters of baptism and come out “born again” into the Body of Christ. The place of Spirit is a little more mysterious. Jesus uses the imagery of wind to describe Spirit: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3.8). What Jesus is saying is that the Spirit is mysterious and beyond human knowledge, and is certainly beyond human control. The way the Spirit deals with each of us and works within each of us is as unique as we are. All that we can do is to open ourselves to allowing the Spirit to live and move and have its being within us.

It seems to me that Lent is a good time to do this. As I commented in my Ash Wednesday homily, Lent is not about enduring some discipline for six weeks, but is instead about trying on and discovering those disciplines and practices that will support and sustain us over the long haul – that will support and sustain us in our spiritual lives, our relationship with God. Lent is about opening ourselves up to the Spirit, allowing the Spirit to work in the deep recesses of our lives, and seeing what happens. And I can assure you that what will happen is that the Spirit will move you ever closer to the fulfillment of God’s mission through Jesus Christ – that God loves us and all humanity so much that he sent his son so that we might be given eternal life. That’s what it truly means to be “born again.” All we have to do is accept the invitation and to be open to the possibilities of what being “born again” can mean in our own lives.

Read more!