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.

url
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.

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.

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.

Refreshment

zywiecMy grandfather was one of those people who poured his whole being into yard work.  When he mowed the lawn, he did so as if he held a grudge against long grass.  When he cut away dead branches, he did it with such gusto that one wondered whether he secretly prayed for his trees to lose their limbs.  And when he raked leaves, he acted as if his life depended on stuffing piles of leaves into a battered steel garbage can.  As you can imagine, this was an exhausting enterprise, especially given the heat and humidity of summertime Connecticut (yes, it does get hot in CT for a few weeks).  Nevertheless, my grandfather refused to take breaks.  He would not pause in his valiant struggle against the yard until he had finished all of the work appointed for the day.  He even refused my grandmother’s offers of iced tea, lemonade, or water; he would forge ahead, sweating to the point of dehydration, until everything was done.  My grandfather did not forgo breaks simply because of his herculean work ethic, but because he wanted the beer he would drink as a reward for his hard work to taste that much better.  He wanted to be so thirsty that the Polish lager he pulled from the fridge as he walked into the house would be one of the best things he ever tasted.  He deprived himself so that when the time came, he could feel even more refreshed than he would otherwise.

UnknownTomorrow is known in some liturgical churches as “Refreshment Sunday.”  Also called “Laetare Sunday” (from the Latin for “let us rejoice”), “Mothering Sunday,” and “Rose Sunday,” the fourth Sunday in Lent is a time when the Church is invited to pause in its Lenten fast, to take a break from the intensity of this penitential season, and refresh itself in preparation for the second half of Lent.  The liturgy bears this out.  While most of the Lenten prayers at the beginning of the Sunday service are about sin and our need for repentance, the prayer for the fourth Sunday in Lent is all about God’s grace and love: “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him.”  In some churches, the clergy wear rose-colored vestments (instead of a more mournful purple) for Laetare Sunday, a visual cue that this day is not quite as intense as the rest of the Sundays in Lent.  Refreshment Sunday is a day that we remind ourselves that Lent is not supposed to be a time that we deprive ourselves just for the sake of being deprived, nor is it meant to be a time that we give something up just so that it will taste that much sweeter when Lent finally ends; Lent is a time that we prepare ourselves to embrace and celebrate the Resurrection life offered to us in Jesus Christ.  So tomorrow, I invite you to take a break from Lent.  Have a cupcake, drink a caffeinated beverage, eat a little barbecue.  After all, Sunday is always a celebration of the Resurrection.  However you observe Laetare Sunday, remember that Lent is a time to grow closer to God and prepare for the Resurrection.

Pursuit

Yesterday, I assisted at the funeral of a young woman who died last weekend.  Though she was only thirty-one, I sensed that she had already experienced more pain and suffering than those who live much longer.  This young woman struggled with mental health issues, addiction, and estrangement from her friends and family.  No matter how much those who loved her tried to reach out to her, no matter how many times they brought her in for treatment, she would push them away, unable to accept the help they offered.  I was profoundly aware that this young woman was running away from something that neither she nor anyone else could understand.

As the congregation mourned, we recited the healing words of the 23rd Psalm.  This extraordinary meditation on the depth of God’s love is comforting in many ways, but I draw the most solace from the fact that most versions of the bible translate a verb in the final verse incorrectly: “Surely, your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).  As it happens, the verb most versions translate as “follow” is closer to “pursue.”  The Psalmist is saying that God’s goodness and mercy, that God’s compassionate love, that God’s identity as our shepherd is something that pursues us through every step of our journey through life.  God’s love pursues us even when we try to push back and run away from it.  The 23rd Psalm assures us that we cannot outrun the love and compassion of God.  The 23rd Psalm promises that even when we refuse God’s love, even when we reject God’s mercy, God will continue to pursue us with a persistent and inescapable love that transcends even death.

Lent is one of the times in the Church year that we slow down intentionally, a time that we pause and make an effort to turn around and embrace the love that God offers.  While we may occasionally be successful, there will invariably be times when we will get caught up in our own self-interest, when we will refuse the grace God offers, when we will push back and run away from God.  Nevertheless, we can be confident that God will continue to pursue us with a compassionate love that we simply cannot outrun.  It is for this reason that we can, like Paul, be confident that neither angels, nor rulers, nor addiction, nor estrangement, nor backsliding, nor  heard-heartedness, nor anything else in all creation, including death itself, can separate any of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Empty Chair

urlIn 1980, a musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables took the world by storm.  Written by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, Les Miz (as it’s known to its myriad devotees) conveys the drama of Hugo’s novel with stirring chorus numbers and emotional ballads.  Though the show occasionally leans toward melodrama (evidenced by the many parodies that have emerged in response to the recent film adaptation), it has some truly powerful moments.  Toward the end of the show, one of the characters sings as he mourns the friends he has lost.  Walking through a deserted inn, Marius looks around and reflects about the empty chairs where his friends once sat: “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken; there’s a pain goes on and on.  Empty chairs at empty tables; now my friends are dead and gone.”  In “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” the audience is reminded that sometimes a person’s absence can say as much as his presence.

urlAs most of you know, the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, officially retired last Thursday.  Traditionally, the death of the Pope marks the beginning of a period known as sede vacante (lit. “empty seat”), a time when the Bishop of Rome’s cathedra (which is just the Greek word for “chair”), the primary symbol of a bishop’s authority, is vacant.  Ostensibly, this period is meant to give people an opportunity to mourn the former pontiff and also to give the cardinals time to meet in conclave and select a new Pope.  Given the unusual circumstances of the current papal transition (there hasn’t been a living “former Pope” for more than six hundred years), one might wonder why the Roman church is still observing this time of sede vacante.  After all, there was no need to make sure there was time to mourn and they’ve already had several weeks to prepare.  Why not pick a Pope while the incumbent was still in office so that he could hand over the reins to his successor immediately?

One of the interesting dynamics that has emerged from the coverage of Benedict’s retirement is the mainstream media’s frequent failure to grasp the nuances of life in the Church.  Most media outlets have expended so much effort hypothesizing about the political motivations behind the Pope’s retirement that they have forgotten that the Church is a different kind of organization than those that they are used to covering.  In a corporation, someone needs to be in charge, someone always has to be be sitting in the chair.  But in the Church, the empty chair says much about the person who is going to fill it and, more importantly, the people he is going to serve.  As Christians, we do not believe that God operates on our timeline.  In fact, we believe that God exists outside of time.  In order to hold eternity in mind, therefore, we wait quietly and intently for the movement of the Holy Spirit through the Christian community as we strive to discern what God calls us to do.  As a result, life in the Church can be frustrating for those who are used to “getting things done.”  Sometimes, we can be so process-oriented that we forget there is a goal in mind.  Nevertheless we are called, especially during Lent, to pause, to take time to listen for God without anticipating a result, and to consider how our spiritual lives can be informed by an empty chair.

Necessary

url“Martha Stewart made your uncle an omelet.”  For years, my grandmother has told this single sentence story every time Martha Stewart was mentioned.  There was never any context; the way my grandmother told the story, it sounded like Ms. Stewart was my uncle’s personal chef.  This past summer, however, I learned that the truth isn’t quite so interesting.  During the time that my aunt was working at the Shakespeare theater in Stratford, Connecticut, she was asked to plan a brunch.  Hearing glowing recommendations about an up-and-coming caterer named Martha Stewart, my aunt decided to try her out.  For her “audition,” Ms. Stewart prepared breakfast for my aunt and her husband.  And so Martha Stewart made my uncle an omelet.  While it’s not the most exciting story in the world, it is one of those fun “I knew a celebrity before she was a celebrity stories,” which are always mildly diverting.

Last night, several Heavenly Rest parishioners, my wife, and I had the pleasure of entertaining the singers of New York Polyphony, a talented ensemble that is performing at 7:30 this evening (March 5) in the nave of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.  Since we and the musicians have traveled in similar circles, my wife and I had a particularly good time finding out which acquaintances we all had in common.  At one point in the evening, we found out that the group’s baritone is a nephew of Martha Stewart.  Being a member of the clergy and having a very limited number of stories to tell, I explained to the group how Martha Stewart had made my uncle an omelet.  I could tell that my wife was rolling her eyes, and I was tempted to abandon the story when I looked at the baritone’s face.  With arched eyebrows, he asked me eagerly, “Did you say Stratford?”  Evidently, his mother (Martha Stewart’s sister) had been working at that event, and it was there that she had met her husband, this singer’s father.  Apparently, the Shakespeare company job has been the stuff of his family’s lore for thirty years.  He and I looked at each other with the same realization: if Martha Stewart hadn’t made my uncle an omelet, this singer might not have existed.

One of my favorite words in the Greek New Testament is dei, a tiny word that means everything from “must” to “behoove” to “it is necessary.”  It is not a mundane word; one wouldn’t use dei to say “I must go to the grocery store to buy bananas.”  Rather, dei always has a much deeper significance.  Last night, for instance, I discovered that for one member of New York Polyphony to exist, it was necessary (dei) for my aunt to hire a particular caterer.  And in Mark 8:31, Jesus tells his disciples that it is necessary (dei) for the Son of Man to suffer, to be rejected, to be killed, and on the third day to rise again.   New Testament writers use dei to indicate that there are no coincidences, that things happen for a reason, that there are certain events in the life of Jesus that simply had to occur.  This can sometimes be a challenging reality.  We don’t like the idea that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer.  We don’t like the idea that it was necessary for Jesus to be rejected.  We don’t like the idea that it was necessary for Jesus to die.  If none of these things had happened, however, Jesus would not have been raised on the third day.  Without the reality of the cross, there would have been no Resurrection.  During Lent, we are called to dwell in those dei moments of Jesus’ life, the moments that may make us uncomfortable, but remind us of what was necessary for our redemption.

Figs

wrapped_fig_treeWhen I was growing up, there was a large Italian community in my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut.  One could easily identify the Italian neighborhoods because many of the houses in these areas had fig trees planted in the front yard.  The first immigrants to the area planted these trees so that they and their families could have a taste of home.  The only problem is that Connecticut does not have a particularly Mediterranean climate.  While the mild temperatures in southern Italy are the ideal growing conditions for figs, the harsh New England winters can kill the temperamental trees.  Not wanting to forgo their taste of home, however, the immigrants would insulate their precious fig trees.  Every year as autumn gave way to winter, one could drive around town and watch as older couples tenderly wrapped their trees with blankets, tarpaulins, and plastic wrap.  For this community, the taste of home was important enough to warrant inconvenience.  For this community, preserving their fig trees was worth an extraordinary amount of effort.

Yesterday, we heard a passage from Luke’s gospel that deals with figs.  In chapter 13, Jesus tells a parable about an unfruitful fig tree.  The owner of the fig tree wants to cut it down, since it doesn’t bear fruit, but the gardener intercedes on its behalf, asking the landowner to wait one more year, to give the gardener some time to give the tree some attention.

figThe fig tree is a common Scriptural image.  In the prophetic tradition, the fig tree is representative of Israel.  Jeremiah, for instance, uses the image of the fig tree to lament the infidelity of Israel to God: “When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree” (Jeremiah 8:13).  This is probably the tradition that the gospel of Mark appropriates when Jesus curses the fig tree on his way into Jerusalem:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus was hungry.  Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.  When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  And his disciples heard it…

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.  Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look!  The fig tree that you cursed has withered”  (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21).

Mark was written at a time when it was clear that the Temple system was not going to exist for much longer.  Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is meant to foretell the destruction of the Temple and the reconstitution of Israel.  Matthew’s gospel adapts this story (21:18-19) so that Jesus can make a similar prediction.

It’s strange, then, that Luke puts Jesus in a position of forbearance.  In Mark and Matthew, the fig tree is not producing fruit, so Jesus curses it.  In Luke, the fig tree is not producing fruit, so Jesus intercedes on its behalf, suggesting that we might give it more attention, that we might fertilize it, that we might wrap it in blankets and tarpaulins.  Only after we have done everything we can possibly do to save the tree and make it fruitful can we cut it down.  In Luke’s gospel, preserving the fig tree is worth an extraordinary amount of effort.  This is an amazing message, particularly because it comes in the context of Jesus teaching about repentance.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is saying that there is always a chance for renewal, that there is always an opportunity for us to bear fruit.

urlUltimately, this is the message of Lent.  As we engage in Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer, we must remember that these are like the fertilizer and the blankets for the fig tree; they are not ends in themselves, they are meant to help us bear fruit for God.  As we focus on our spiritual life and our relationship with God during this season, we may very well discover some things that draw us away from God.  The message that Jesus proclaims in Luke’s gospel is that it is never too late for us to turn away from these things, that it is never too late repent and turn to the Lord, that God will expend an extraordinary amount of effort so that we might be renewed in Jesus Christ.