Near the Cross

As I mentioned last week, the Heavenly Rest community has spent the season of Lent exploring the Passion of our Lord from a variety of different perspectives.  We studied the Passion narrative from John’s gospel, examined artistic renderings of the events surrounding the Passion, learned about the history of the Passion Chorale, and experienced the Stations of the Cross.  In other words, we engaged with the story of our Lord’s death intellectually, emotionally, and physically.  Tonight, we will gather for a culminating worship service that will bring all of these elements together as we meditate near the cross.

agnus deiMeditating on the Passion has always been an important component of the Church’s observance of Lent.  This is not surprising; the season is intended to prepare us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Passion and Death.  And throughout the history of the Church, Christians have developed a variety of ways to help people walk the way of the cross with Jesus.   Liturgies like the Stations of the Cross give worshipers an opportunity to reflect on how Jesus’ final hours might have felt.  Traditions like reading an account of the Passion in the weeks before Easter allow us to hear the story once again.  Composers have adapted this tradition by setting the Passion to music; some of the greatest works in music history tell the story of Jesus’ road to Calvary (tonight our choir will sing selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion).  And artists have created extraordinary works of art that either depict the events of the Passion or attempt to capture the themes of tragedy, suffering, and triumph implicit in the story.  There are countless ways for Christians to meditate on the death of Jesus.

This evening’s service at Heavenly Rest draws on several of these resources and is designed to allow participants to offer themselves completely to the experience of our Lord’s Passion.  The readings, music, and art were selected to provide worshipers a view into Jesus’ crucifixion and death.  It is important for us to remember, however, that we are not meant to meditate on the Passion just to think about how painful it must have been.  We are not engaging in a perverse kind of voyeurism where we listen and watch as another human being is tortured to death.  Rather, the reason we meditate on the Passion is so that we can consider how the experience might transform us.  We meditate on the Passion so that we can consider how our lives have been changed and can be changed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We meditate on the Passion so that we can be equipped to make this gospel of transformation known to the world.  Above all, we meditate on the Passion in order to remember that God has invited all of us into a new life of abundant love that he makes known to us as we stand near the cross.

Referential

When I drive around Abilene during the day, I like to listen to sports radio.  I find that it is a helpful distraction that allows me to transition smoothly from one pastoral call to another.  And so as I got to know the people of Abilene and the Church of the Heavenly Rest, I also got to know the ESPN Radio personalities.  I came to appreciate their various quirks and began to look forward to hearing their reactions to events in the world of sports.  Back in January, however, the station I listen to switched from ESPN Radio to CBS Sports Radio.  The main issue I’ve had with the change is that the format of the radio shows is totally different.  It seems that instead of talking about sports, most of the hosts on CBS Sports Radio talk about talking about sports.  Not only that, these programs regularly refer to things that have happened on previous shows, leaving unfamiliar listeners completely without context.  One show in particular is so self-referential, so full of jargon and inside jokes that there are times that I have no idea what the host is talking about.  I’m sure this can be satisfying for loyal listeners of his program, but for neophytes like me, all of the inside jokes can make listening to the show a frustrating experience.

Today we commemorate the Feast of Saint Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.  Most of what we know about Joseph comes from the first few chapters of the gospel of Matthew, in which Joseph is depicted as a righteous man who decides to marry his espoused wife in spite of her suspicious pregnancy.  For the most part, then, Joseph is basically known for being a good guy.  But there is much more to Joseph than meets the eye.  Like the shows on CBS Sports Radio, Matthew’s portrayal of Joseph is incredibly self-referential; knowing Joseph and his significance requires the reader to know the story of Israel.

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There’s less singing in Genesis

In the first two chapters of his gospel, Matthew tells us two important things about Joseph: 1) God communicates with him through dreams, and 2) Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape from Herod the King by fleeing to Egypt.  If we are familiar with the story of Israel (as Matthew expects us to be), we would remember that there is another Joseph we meet in Genesis 37 who also interprets dreams and spends time in Egypt.  It is Joseph who ultimately brings Israel down to Egypt, which eventually leads to Moses leading Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus, the defining event in Israel’s history.  By presenting the earthly father of Jesus as a dreamer who brings his family down to Egypt, Matthew indicates to his audience that Jesus is the prophet like Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15, that the story of Jesus is actually the story of a new Exodus.  By presenting Joseph in the way that he does, Matthew makes it clear that while the gospel is the story of God doing something new in the world, it is also continuous with the story of Israel.

This is a reality that the Church has struggled with for centuries.  On one hand, Christians make the claim that God has changed the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  On other hand, the Church asserts that the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are consistent with the tradition of the Hebrew Bible.  As Christians, we are called to remember where we have come from while being open to new possibilities.  This is a tough needle to thread, but it is really the only way that we can live faithfully in the world.  If we unflinchingly cling to tradition, our practice will become stale and irrelevant.  If we blindly embrace innovation, however, we run the risk of forgetting the purpose to which we have been called.  During Lent, we are called to return to where we have been through repentance, but we are also called to renew our relationship with God, which may lead us to a different place.

Steps

Note: Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation and my father, preached on yesterday’s lectionary at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan yesterday.  Below is the sermon he offered to that congregation.

urlTwo years ago I had bilateral total knee replacement surgery.  In other words, I had both knees done at once. While it was a pretty rugged surgery and a very challenging recovery and rehab period, I was fully prepared for this ordeal physically, emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually. I planned for this elective surgery well in advance and all my business and personal affairs were in order. I was in good physical shape, spiritually grounded and had done extensive on-line research on all aspects of the procedure. I even arranged for appropriate pastoral care for both me and my family during the various stages of the process.  All I had to do was trust my surgeons, therapists and caregivers and put all my energies into getting, better, stronger, and back to normal. I became the poster child for bilateral knee replacement patients as my recovery was quick, successful and complete. I was fully confident that my knees were fixed for at least a twenty or thirty year period.

Seven weeks ago, I began to have flu-like symptoms, including swelling and discomfort which turned out to be a rare and unanticipated infection in my left replacement knee joint. Consequently, I needed immediate surgical and medical intervention.  While they didn’t have to replace the entire prosthesis, the surgeons did have to open up the knee, clean it out and replace some of the parts. More significantly, they put me on heavy duty, self-administered IV antibiotics via a PIC line inserted in my arm which resulted in very severe and annoying side effects. This type of complication, by the way, only occurs in less than 1% of knee replacement patients two years after the fact.  So much for odds.

Unlike my first knee surgery, this one was not planned. The physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual preparedness of two years ago was utterly and totally absent. I had no time to plan anything and had no control whatsoever. In fact, rather than the experience of a deep spiritual journey and time set aside for reflection and discernment which characterized the last surgery, this  time I very soon felt hopeless, frustrated , angry and, for a while, totally disconnected from God. I even railed against God with a few choice words.  This was truly a wilderness time for me – in a sense, a ready-made Lenten journey that I did not want to take. It was forced upon me totally against my will.

In this morning’s psalm, we proclaim that the Lord has done great things for us and therefore we rejoice. We are also reminded that those who sow in tears and go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy. While the message of the psalm is clearly meant to be comforting, I think it is often unrealistic especially in times of tragedy, illness, loss or total devastation. Do you really think that the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are finding comfort in these words, even three months after the fact? Six weeks ago, my mouth was not filled with laughter nor my tongue with shouts of joy.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians presents an alternative approach and point of view, at least for me. In the passage we read today, Paul begins with identifying those valuable things in his life that give him status among the people of Israel so much so that he has reason to be “confident in the flesh.” After all, at the time he was knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus, Paul had lived a good life and had all the credentials he needed for fame, fortune and influence. He was at the top of his game and recognized that fact even at this point in his ministry.  And yet, Paul goes on to say that whatever inheritance he shared with God’s chosen people, his social, religious and political status, he now comes to regard as loss, not gain, because of Christ. He even refers to all this as rubbish. Paul states that any righteousness that may be associated with him comes not from his status or the law but because of his faith in Christ, in other words, righteousness from God based on faith.

For Paul, nothing is more important to him than sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He even says that he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”  This is incredibly powerful stuff, and in essence, the very core of what it means to be a Christian. But isn’t this easier said than done? How can I, as a Christian, participate in the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ when I even have difficulty feeling some connection to God as I did during my recent illness?

Fortunately, Paul doesn’t stop there. Like me and you, even Paul hasn’t quite figured it out – at least not yet. He acknowledges that he has not already obtained or reached this goal of participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, but presses on to make it his own – forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. For me, these words of Paul are much more realistic than the seemingly comforting words of the psalm. Paul is basically acknowledging that we live in a world where bad things happen and people are oppressed and suffer needlessly, all of which often results in pervasive feelings of alienation, isolation and separation from God. In other words, we live in a world that has not yet been fully transformed by God’s ultimate plan of salvation. But still we are called to press on. We are called to strive toward the heavenly goal of God in Christ Jesus. We are called to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. That’s all that matters. That’s all that really counts. It’s really okay if we have not yet reached this ultimate goal.

The good news for me is that I am recovering from this medical ordeal and have completed the arduous and necessary regimen of antibiotics and other medications. The better news is that my feelings of frustration and abandonment are gone and my Lenten wilderness experience has morphed into something more anticipatory and hopeful. I guess I took Paul’s advice, whether I knew it or not, and forgot what lay behind and attempted to strain forward to what lies ahead.  For deep down inside, I ultimately realized that nothing can ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even infections, rashes, nausea, fever, chills or PIC lines.  I realize and appreciate that despite this setback, I am healthy, I am strong and, with some PT and exercise, I will be able to walk normally again and, hopefully, avoid any further complications in the future. God was indeed with me on this entire journey and will continue to be with me no matter what lies ahead.

urlWhich brings me to today’s Gospel from John. On first blush, this passage can be interpreted as a subtle endorsement of conspicuous consumption and even excess. Here we have Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume that was obviously worth a small fortune. We also have that famous quote from Jesus – “you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me”. Clearly, that is not the point of the story. What is significant in this passage is that the perfume bought by Mary, pure nard, was to be kept for the day of Jesus’ burial, a necessary and important element in ancient Jewish funeral rituals. But Mary was not saving the perfume for Jesus’ burial, which at that point was about a week away. She was using it now. Perhaps, rather than being extravagant, Mary’s simple but poignant act of anointing his feet while he was still alive was a powerful symbol of  her active and ongoing participation in the imminent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After all, why waste expensive burial perfume on someone who is going to rise from the dead? You might as well use it now when everyone can appreciate its value and enjoy the fragrance wafting throughout the house. I think that Mary of Bethany from 2000 years ago is giving those of us gathered here today in Pontiac, Michigan an elsewhere some clues on what it means to be in relationship with the person called Jesus.

How do we as Christians in our own time and place actively, relevantly, practically yet completely participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ultimate goal and challenge posed by Paul in his letter to the Church in Philippi? Maybe the answer is simple – one small step at a time. Let’s go back to my knee replacement rehabilitation metaphor. Physical therapy is a process of small and often simple movements, stretches and exercises that with repetition, discipline and time ultimately result in the ability to walk again. I suggest that Christian discipleship is similar. Through simple acts of prayer, worship, fellowship, stewardship, outreach, empathy, sympathy and love, we, both individually and as a community, ultimately come to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As we approach the end of Lent and begin the powerful drama and pageantry of Holy Week, may we continue our journeys of forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead – again – one step at a time.

Waste

I don't know which department regulates salmon in blog posts.
I don’t know which department regulates salmon in blog posts.

One of the consistent refrains we hear during elections is that our government is too big and inefficient.  Though Democrats and Republicans disagree about the nature of the inefficiency (Republicans talk about paring down the size of government; Democrats tend to talk about making government more nimble), complaints about government waste come from both ends of the political spectrum.  A favorite example of inefficiency and waste has to do with one of our government’s inexplicable redundancies: when salmon are in freshwater, they are regulated by the Department of the Interior; when they are in saltwater, they are regulated by the Commerce Department.  Our President joked in a State of the Union address that “it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”  This concern with waste and inefficiency is emblematic of a broader human impulse: we like to make sure that we don’t waste the resources we have, that we use them effectively and appropriately.

It is for this reason that we might find today’s gospel reading offensive, as it tells the story of someone who is praised for her wastefulness.  In the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus visits the home of his friend Lazarus just after raising him from the dead.  While he and his disciples are sitting in the house, Lazarus’ sister Mary pours a bottle of expensive burial perfume mixed with nard (a burial spice) on Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair.  Judas, who eventually betrays Jesus (John never tires of telling us this) is indignant and claims that they could have sold the perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.  Jesus responds by telling Judas, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

It’s important for us to notice that this story takes place immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  It is in the story of Lazarus’ resuscitation that Mary’s sister Martha approaches Jesus and says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus’ tells her that Lazarus will rise again, to which Martha says, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day,” as if to imply, “that’s not much comfort now.”  In response, Jesus proclaims, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life.”  Resurrection, in other words, is not the product of a distant future; it is an undeniably present reality.

These words of Jesus are still hanging in the air when he and his disciples gather with the recently resuscitated Lazarus and his siblings.  John makes sure we know that this is the context by reminding us that Lazarus was the one whom Jesus raised from the dead (as if we had forgotten from the previous chapter).  When Mary pours burial perfume over Jesus’ feet, she may well have been thinking of his theophanic proclamation that he is the Resurrection.  Perhaps she realized that the nard she had been keeping for his burial was unnecessary, because the grave would not be able to hold Jesus.  And so she pours out the superfluous perfume, filling the house with a worshipful testament to Jesus’ identity as the Resurrection who destroys the power of death.

I think that it is in this context that we are meant to hear the statement of Jesus that concludes this passage.  It’s easy to read it as narcissistic: “You always the poor with you, but you don’t always have me!”  We might be tempted to imagine that Jesus is saying, “Pay attention to me!  I’m the important one!”  If we read this in the context of Resurrection, however, the statement is far from narcissistic: “You always have the poor with you.”  In other words, you always have to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves; you always need to give to the poor from your abundance because this has implications in the Resurrection.  The things we do in this life matter, the things we transform in this life will be transformed in the Resurrection.  We can’t assume that those who are poor deserve their lot in life, we can’t agree with Hobbes that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” for most people, because we affirm our faith in the Resurrection, our faith in life that continues and brings transformation to the world.  During Lent, we are called to affirm our faith in the Resurrection, to give to the poor, and love with wasteful abandon, just as our God loves us.

Serendipity

Yesterday, I spent my afternoon off watching The Godfather, which is almost universally celebrated as one of the greatest movies of all time.  Widely regarded as Francis Ford Coppola’s most influential work, The Godfather comes from an era when movie directors were accorded a kind of demigod status.  During the 1970s, directors were so intent on articulating their vision for a film that they controlled every aspect of the filmmaking experience, from the color of a costume to the inflection in a line of dialogue.  Coppola was no exception and used his considerable influence very successfully.  One of the most striking elements of The Godfather is that in spite of its length, there are no extraneous scenes; every element of the film appears to have been carefully crafted to be a crucial part of the story the director is trying to tell.

screenlg2Nevertheless, there are a few indispensable moments in The Godfather that are completely serendipitous.  My favorite example comes from the wedding sequence at the beginning of the movie.  As revelers celebrate the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter, the godfather (memorably and ably portrayed by Marlon Brando) is in his office, listening as people request favors.  The parade of supplicants makes it clear to the audience that futures hang in the balance based on the whims of this one powerful man, that one should not trifle with Don Corleone.  As the party continues outside, Don Corleone’s son Michael (Al Pacino) arrives with his girlfriend, who spots a powerfully-built man practicing a speech as he waits outside the Don’s office.  Michael’s girlfriend (Diane Keaton) asks who the “scary guy” is: Michael identifies him as Luca Brasi and tells a harrowing story that makes it very clear that one should not trifle with Luca.  But when Luca finally arrives in Don Corleone’s office, he stumbles nervously over the speech he had been practicing.  The message is clear: even this strong, “scary guy” who is feared by many is terrified of the powerful Don Corleone.

The scene between the godfather and Luca Brasi perfectly encapsulates what Coppola was trying to convey in the opening sequence: Don Corleone has power to make even powerful men fear him.  The best part about this scene, however, is that it was totally accidental.  Evidently, the actor who played Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) was so nervous about doing a scene with Marlon Brando that he stumbled over his line in the first take.  Instead of reshooting, Coppola recognized the brilliance of the mistakenly reworked scene and added shots of Montana practicing Luca’s speech.  By being open to Montana’s serendipitous mistake, Coppola created a scene that articulated his vision and propelled Luca Brasi from “generic goombah” to one of the more memorable small roles in film history.

Lent is a time when Christians act a bit like film directors from the 1970s.  We imagine that we can control every element of our spiritual lives, that by making sure that we accomplish everything on our Lenten checklist we can have an authentic experience of God.  We say to ourselves: “I will fast from chocolate, attend church every Sunday, read a Lenten devotional, and say morning prayer every day, and then I will become closer to God.”  Unfortunately, spirituality does not work that way; it is not prescriptive.  I’m not suggesting that we should not engage in Lenten disciplines or go to church every Sunday; after all, the only reason Coppola was able to take advantage of Montana’s mistake is because he was so devoted to articulating his vision.  Rather, I am suggesting that we should not imagine that we can control our experience of God.  I think this might be part of what Jesus was getting at when he insisted that God is the God of the living and not of the dead.  We cannot presume that our experience of God will be the same every time we engage in some kind of devotional activity.  We serve and worship a dynamic God whom we experience differently depending on where we are in our lives.  It’s Richard Rohr who writes that the greatest obstacle to our next experience of God is our most recent experience of God.  And so we must be open to the unexpected movement of the Holy Spirit.  We must be willing to take advantage of what might seem like a mistake and transform it into a serendipitous opportunity to connect to the living God.

Stations

Over the past several weeks, members of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have been participating in a Lenten program on Wednesday night called “Near the Cross: Exploring the Passion through Many Lenses.”  Every week, we have looked at the death of Jesus from a different perspective, including Scripture, visual art, and music.  Last night, we gathered in the nave of Heavenly Rest and gained a liturgical perspective of the Passion by doing the Stations of the Cross.

the body of jesus is taken down from the crossThe Stations of the Cross is an adaptation of the custom of offering of prayer at a series of places in Jerusalem traditionally associated with our Lord’s passion and death.  In most cases, the congregation processes around the building to designated places in the church, each of which represents a different event from Jesus’ final hours.  There are, for instance, stations that mark the moment when Jesus is condemned by Pilate, the moment the cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene, the moment when Jesus’ dies on the cross, and so on.  Interestingly, there are also stations for events that are not attested to in Scripture: the moment that a woman wipes the face of Jesus, the moment when Jesus falls, and the the moment when Jesus meets his afflicted mother.  While the idea of commemorating events in the life of Jesus that do not occur in Scripture may make some uncomfortable, the Stations of the Cross is not about giving a factual presentation of the Passion, it is about allowing participants to experience how the Passion might have felt.  In this regard, the Scriptural allusions selected for the Stations are not quotations from the gospels, but draw from the entire bible.  The station where the body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother (one of the non-Scriptural stations) is a good example:

All you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.  My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people.  “Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

In this station, the words of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and Naomi’s lament from the book of Ruth are put on the lips of a mother who has lost her baby boy.  Though we cannot know what Jesus’ mother was thinking as he was crucified, the Stations of the Cross invites us to imagine how we might feel if we stood in Mary’s place.

I’ll be honest; I have always found the Stations of the Cross to be challenging.  Not only have I been uncomfortable with commemorating non-Scriptural events, Stations of the Cross also has a tendency to make me physically uncomfortable.  By the end of the devotion, the small of my back begins to ache and I start limping on account of my bum knee.  And in some ways, this is the point of the devotion.  The Stations of the Cross connects us to the death of Jesus in a deeply physical way; it invites us to bring the Passion of our Lord into our bodies.  I don’t mean to suggest that our aches mirror the pain that Jesus suffered; rather, our embodiment of the Passion helps us to understand it on another level.  This is part of the reason that we are invited to fast during Lent.  When we make Lent part of our physical nature, we have the opportunity to connect to God’s love for us in a new and different way.  Rather than attempting to understand it, Lent invites us to feel the grace and love of God.

Habemus Papam

urlFor the past two days, the eyes of the world have been watching a smokestack outside of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.  Many observers (including me) anticipated that we would be watching in vain for several days, that there would be significant wrangling as the cardinals struggled to elect a successor to the pope emeritus.  Instead, the conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, an Italian-born bishop from Argentina, on the fifth ballot.  Bergoglio is the first pontiff from South America and the first Jesuit.  Though he is known for his conservative stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage, Cardinal Bergoglio has exhibited an incredible devotion to the poor and downtrodden.  Apart from his public work on behalf of the poor, Bergoglio has also eschewed much of the pomp traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic episcopacy: sources say that he insists on cooking his own meals and resides in a simple cell rather than the sumptuous episcopal apartments in Buenos Aires.  Perhaps his attitude toward the powerless is best embodied in his selection of a papal name: Francis, the first in this history of the papacy.  A friend of mine summarized the new pope’s election well: “He’s a humble bishop who took the name Francis.  This could be interesting.”

Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant born in the twelfth century.  Though he spent the early part of his life reveling and vainly trying to attain military glory, he had an encounter with God that caused him to change the direction of his life.  While he was praying in the country chapel of San Damiano, Francis saw an icon of the crucified Christ say, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”  Though Francis initially took this to mean the building in which he sat, this charge to rebuild the Church eventually blossomed into a movement that transcended Francis and his hometown.  Though he has become known as “the guy who talked to animals,” Francis dedicated his life to living among and caring for the poor, and called the Church to do the same.  His love for animals, some of the most vulnerable creatures in this world, was symbolic of Jesus Christ’s call for us to care for “the least of these.”  A monastic order was eventually founded in his name to give a voice to the downtrodden, represent the needs of the world to the Church, and call the Church’s leadership to renewal.

While we can’t be sure that Francis I chose the friar from Assisi as his namesake, I hope that the new pope intended us to recall Francis’ message of renewal.  This is a challenging time for the Roman Catholic Church, but it is also a challenging time for the entire body of Christ.  We are all faced with questions about the truth and  relevancy of our proclamation of Christ crucified and risen.  We might be tempted to shrink back, to retreat into our church buildings out of a fear of being ostracized.  But I think we must remember that the Church serves an inescapably important purpose in this world.  Like Francis, the Church is called to give a voice to the downtrodden, to lift up those who have been bowed down by unjust and evil powers, and call the world to renewal.  During this season of Lent, I hope all of us can give thanks that the world’s most recognizable Christian leader has reminded Christians of their call to renewal.

Unfinished

Recording technology has changed music in a variety of ways.  One of the most intriguing innovations that has emerged from recorded music is the “fade out.”  We have all heard this technique used: the singer repeats the chorus for the final time and instead of stopping at a clear endpoint, the song gradually fades into silence.  This would not have been possible before the advent of recording technology.  The fade out saves the songwriter the trouble of having to come up with an ending and makes it much easier for songs to be strung together on the radio.  Some of the great popular musicians of the recorded music era have employed this technique; I’m always surprised when I listen to a Beatles album that includes a song with a distinct ending.  By precluding musical conclusions, the fade out permits songs to remain unfinished and theoretically to go on forever.

Every once and a while, however, singers sing live, which forces them to come up with endings to unfinished songs.  This is unfailingly unsettling.  When a singer concludes with an actual cadence a song that normally fades out, it is enormously distracting.  The song isn’t supposed to have an ending; we’re supposed to imagine that it could go on forever.  These songs that fade out are meant to be unfinished, they are not intended to have a hard and fast conclusion.

urlA few years ago, the United Church of Christ launched a marketing campaign called “God is still speaking.”  The idea behind the campaign is that we should be open to the continuing revelation of God; though God disclosed God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ, our understanding what that manifestation truly means continues to develop.  The campaign enjoined Christians not to put a period where God had put a comma.  Though some people have argued that the UCC’s motto is unscriptural, there is actually a warrant for it in the gospel of John.  When Jesus speaks to his disciples before his betrayal, he discusses what the coming of the Holy Spirit will mean for the Christian community:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13).

This is a perplexing passage, especially given the fact that in John’s gospel, Jesus constantly tells his disciples things that they can neither bear nor understand.  Nevertheless, this brief passage seems to indicate that Jesus understood that there is more for us to know as Christians, that we need to be attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit through the Church.  We see an example of this in the Acts of the Apostles, when the Church gathers together to determine whether the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Christian community is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

As a Christian community, we are faced with a variety of controversial questions.  Should gay and lesbian people be fully included in the life of the Church?  Should we make the Holy Eucharist available to those who have not been baptized?  What should the Church’s stance on gun control be? On all of these issues, we cannot allow ourselves to be entrenched in ideological fortresses.  We must be open to conversation and willing to see multiple perspectives.  Above all, we must be attentive to the Holy Spirit and receptive to the God whose work of revelation remains unfinished.

Challenge

KN-C23643In September of 1962, John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University in which he announced to the world that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  This was an astonishing assertion for him to make.  John Glenn had only recently orbited the earth in Friendship 7, and that was difficult enough.  A trip to the moon seemed completely beyond the capacity of the young National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Scientists had no idea how to get to the moon, no idea how to land on the moon’s surface, and no idea how the astronauts would return to earth.  Nevertheless, JFK promised that in eight years, an American would walk on the moon.

In the speech in which he makes this promise, the president put the moon landing on the timeline of human endeavor, mentioning the founding of Plymouth colony, George Mallory’s attempt to summit Mount Everest, and Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  None of these events came easily; none of the people involved could be certain that they would be successful.  Why would they risk their lives and their fortunes for something that is not a guaranteed success?  Why should the United States risk its reputation to accomplish a seemingly insurmountable goal?  Kennedy answers that gnawing question like this:

But why, some say, the moon?  Why choose this as our goal?  And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain?  Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?  Why does Rice play Texas?  We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

JFK affirmed that things worth doing are often difficult to do, and that if there is an easy way out, the endeavor might not be worth our time.

Throughout his presidency, Kennedy affirmed that America is meant to do difficult and challenging things.  From his first inaugural address, where he urges the American people to ask what they can do for their country, to his speech at Rice University where he says that we will go to the moon because it is difficult, Kennedy expects much from the people he was elected to serve.  From our contemporary perspective, this is astonishing.  One of the primary ways that companies try to sell us things is by telling us that they will save us time and energy and will make things easy for us.  Every article about exercising, which is hard work by definition, encourages us to try a “quick and easy” workout.  We tend to avoid doing things when they are hard.

We are now in the “dog days” of Lent.  Our Lenten routines are no longer fresh and new, but we have not yet arrived at the emotional intensity of Holy Week.  We may be tempted to take a hiatus from our Lenten disciplines because it would be so much easier to pay less attention to what we eat or how we use our time.  It’s important, however, for us to remember that these Lenten disciplines are not meant to be easy.  This does not mean that they are supposed to be arduous, but they are supposed to challenge us, to help us develop a deeper understanding of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  So keep at it.  Try not to see your Lenten routine as a chore, but rather as a way of opening yourself up to the grace of God.  Remember that we engage in these Lenten disciplines not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Belonging

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.

Donna couldn’t sleep.  Even though she had had an extremely long day at work, even though she had spent the evening driving around town, asking people about her son, even though she had been up late, reassuring her mother over the phone that she was doing everything she could, Donna couldn’t sleep.  Donna couldn’t sleep because it had been three weeks since Sam had left, three weeks since the fight that had brought the police to the door, three weeks since Sam had said those words she didn’t think it was possible for a son to say to his mother, three weeks since she had seen the young man she still thought of as a boy in a Little League uniform.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was searching her recollections, trying to recall something she had done, something she had said to make Sam act the way he had been acting.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was trying not to imagine where Sam was, trying not to imagine what he might be doing.  She sat up, put on her glasses, and watched as the square numbers of her alarm clock changed from 3:59 to 4:00.  As her husband snored quietly next to her, Donna tried to push frightening images from her mind: images of Sam’s bedroom floor covered in vodka bottles, images of Sam’s face contorted in rage as he screamed at her, images of the twisted wreckage of a white pickup truck.  As she watched the clock march forward slowly, Donna tried to push frightening words from her mind, words like “emergency room” and “overdose.”  Just as she was about to remove her glasses and try to sleep for a few hours, the screen on her cell phone began to glow.  Her heart pounding, she reached for the phone and brought it close to her face.  She didn’t recognize the number.  Glancing at the clock, she noticed that it was 4:28 A.M.  People don’t call with good news at 4:28 A.M.  After waiting another moment that felt like an eternity, Donna pressed the button to answer the phone.  Bringing it to her ear, she held her breath and waited.

Return-of-the-Prodigal-SonToday we hear an incredible story from Scripture about a parent waiting for his child to come home.  The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most familiar and probably one of the most misunderstood stories from Scripture.  It is a challenging tale of grace, restoration, and an unconditional love that is far more powerful than we can imagine.  The story goes like this.  There is a man who has two sons.  One day, the younger son goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance.  This would have been just as shocking to Jesus’ hearers as it is to us.  This younger son essentially says to his father, “I wish you were dead so that I could have the money that is coming to me.”  Surprisingly, the father grants the request, and the younger son leaves town and spends his money wastefully.  After a severe famine strikes the land, the young man, who is working as a pig farmer, realizes the error of his ways and determines to repent and live as one of his father’s servants.  As he returns home, ready to grovel and beg for his father’s mercy, the father runs to his son and embraces him, proclaiming that his son “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found!”  To welcome the lost son home, the father dresses him in finery and throws a big party.  The older son, however, is miffed at the welcome his brother has received.  He goes up to his father and says, “Dad, I’ve been here, working my butt off for you and you have never thrown me a party!”  I imagine he might also have said, “You didn’t even invite me to this one!”  The father patiently explains how extraordinary this situation is, saying “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

One of the elements in this story that I find very poignant is the moment that the younger son comes to his senses.  He realizes that he has made a huge mistake and after he decides to return home he begins to plan what he will say to his father.  This is something that we all do.  Before we go on a job interview or make a phone call to someone we’ve never met or apologize for missing an appointment, we tend to rehearse what we might say.  I like to imagine the younger son revising and editing his speech as he began his long journey home.  He probably thought very carefully about what he would say and considered how he would say it.  He probably imagined how his father would look: arms folded, stern look on his face as his son kneeled before him.  The younger son probably polished the language and practiced the speech until he entered the city limits, when he finally settled on saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  His father, however, takes him by surprise.  Instead of having to walk all the way to his father’s house to sheepishly knock on the door, the wayward son is spotted by his father, who is waiting on the front porch.  When the father spots his son, he picks up the hem of his robe and sprints out to meet his boy, which is not something that a man of means would be caught doing in the first century.  The father embraces and kisses his son, refusing to let him go even as he tries recite his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”  But the father interrupts and begins organizing a celebration for the son who was once dead but is now alive.

The love and the forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal Son are obvious and palpable.  This story teaches us an important lesson about the expansiveness and transcendence of God’s grace.  There is, however, a subtler message embedded within this extraordinary parable.  Twice the father proclaims that his son was dead and is now alive, once when the son arrives from his journey and once when the father is explaining to his oldest child why he welcomed his wayward son with open arms.  “He was dead and has come back to life.”  While I think Jesus is using symbolic language, I also think it’s important to remember that for all he knew, this father thought his son was dead.  He never imagined that he would see his son again.  We only get the younger son’s perspective when he is away; we don’t know what things were like back home.  But what we do know, what Jesus implies in this parable is that the father waited for his son to return.  We know this because Jesus tells us that the father knew his son had returned while he was still far away.  This means that the father was standing in front of his house, scanning the horizon, hoping against hope that his son would return to him.  This means that the father trusted that he would see his son again even though he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead.  This means that the father knew in his heart of hearts that no matter what happened, his son belonged to God.

In our funeral liturgy, as the body is carried into the church, we hear that wonderful anthem: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  At one point, the anthem quotes Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”  It is in this reality that the father trusts.  He understands that even if he never sees his son again, his son is the Lord’s possession.  Even if the son wastes his life and winds up destitute, he still belongs to the God who created and redeemed him.  This affirms the deep and powerful truth that whether we live or die, we belong to God.  This may seem like a small comfort to the father waiting on the front porch or the mother waiting to hear news in the middle of the night or the parent who has lost a child, but I think that it is crucial.  In our human understanding of the world, we often imagine that there are things we can do that are completely unforgiveable, that we are capable of running so far away from God that God has no claim on us.  But the message of this parable is that even when we have completely turned away from God, even when we have run away from those who love us, we still belong to God.  The season of Lent is meant to be an opportunity for us to trust that we are the Lord’s possession.  Our Lenten disciplines are daily reminders that God is present in our lives and will be with us no matter where we go or how much we refuse God’s abundant love.  During Lent, we are called to remember that even if we push our families away, even if we forget who we are, even if we die, we belong to the Lord who embraces us and refuses to let us go.