Saltiness

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 9, 2014.

images When I first learned to cook, I was scrupulous about following recipes.  If a cookbook told me to heat something over medium-high heat, I would carefully turn the knob on the stove so that the arrow rested on the precise midpoint between “medium” and “high.”  When a bread recipe instructed me to knead dough for ten minutes, I would set a timer and press that dough against the counter until the precise moment the bell rang.  Most importantly, when a dish called for a teaspoon of salt, I would pour salt into a measuring spoon, careful not to add even a few extra grains to the dish.  After all, I didn’t want the food I prepared to be too salty.  For the most part, this scrupulosity seemed to pay off.  The results of my first attempts at cooking were mostly edible, and some were even moderately successful.

But when I watched more experienced people cook, I noticed that they tended to be less wedded to the recipe.  When my father heated something on the stove, he would turn the knob without carefully examining the place it landed.  When my mother kneaded bread dough, she wouldn’t set a timer to tell her when to stop; she would know how the dough was supposed to feel after it had been kneaded.  Perhaps the most shocking revelation was that when my parents cooked, they didn’t carefully measure out the salt they added to dishes.  In fact, they grabbed what appeared to be huge handfuls of salt and used those to season whatever they were preparing.  The first time I saw this, I shouted, “What are you doing?  It’s going to be too salty!”  Giving me a knowing smile, they said, “Just wait and see.”  Of course, those well-seasoned dishes were not salty at all; in fact, they were far more flavorful and complex than those dishes that I had assembled so scrupulously.  It gradually dawned on me that the primary purpose of salt in cooking is not to make food salty; it is to make food taste the way it is supposed to taste.  The purpose of salt is to make a dish what it is supposed to be.

Today, we hear one of the more interesting passages from the Sermon on the Mount.  Part of the reason I think this passage is interesting is that it seems so disjointed.  Just after Jesus preaches the beatitudes to the crowds, he jumps into these two metaphors, telling those listening to him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  This is the kind of teaching we expect from Jesus; he’s making us feel good about our Christian vocation to go make the world a better place.  It’s no accident that upbeat songs like “This little light of mine” draw on the images that Jesus uses in this passage.  But just after Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he brings down the hammer: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”  In other words, it seems that Jesus is saying, “If you thought that being my follower was going to be easy and free of rules and regulations, you’ve got another thing coming.”  In fact, he concludes the passage we read today by saying, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Yikes.  Just so we’re clear, the scribes and the Pharisees were known for their righteousness under the law, known for their ability to keep all of the rules and regulations prescribed under the Law of Moses.  Jesus is setting an extremely high bar here: “unless you are more righteous than the most righteous people around, you are not fit for the kingdom that God is bringing into being.”

Why is Jesus setting this impossibly high standard?  Doesn’t this insistence on the Law seem inconsistent with what we know about Jesus?  To answer these questions, it might be helpful for us to think about the purpose of the Law.  For the Jewish people, the Law was the lens through which they understood their relationship with God.  During the Babylonian captivity, Israel was unable to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and so the Law became what defined them.  It was a way of continuing to be God’s people even though they had been driven from the land God had given to them.  The Law retained a central role even as the Jewish people returned from captivity and dwelled in the land promised to them by God.  There were, however, some who regarded the Law not as a way to be in relationship with God, but as an end in itself.  There were some who were scrupulous about keeping the law so that they would be blameless, so that they would be perfect, so that they could look in the mirror and say, “Boy, I sure am righteous.”  In other words, there were some who regarded the law as a recipe for righteousness, who said “as long as I set the burner at precisely the right temperature, as long as knead the dough for just the right amount of time, as long as I add just the right amount of salt, I will be righteous under the law.”  Jesus, however, comes along and tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law, to remind us of its primary purpose, to return our focus from following the recipe to being in relationship with God.

This is where we see that those two metaphors that Jesus uses at the beginning of this passage are far from unrelated to his meditations about the Law.  Jesus tells his hearers that they are the salt of the earth and that they are the light of the world.  Notice what Jesus does not say.  He does not say, “If you follow the Law, you will be the salt of the earth” or “If you abide by these beatitudes, you will be the light of the world.”  Rather, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  Right here.  Right now.  Moreover, Jesus is very specific about who he is talking to.  We don’t get the sense of it in English, but the Greek makes it very clear that Jesus is talking to everyone in front of him: “All y’all are the salt of the earth.  All y’all are the light of the world.  Each and every one of you is called to enlighten this world and help it to be what it is supposed to be.”  This is how our righteousness is meant to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. imgres While they are focused on following the recipe and reaching the goal of making themselves righteous, we are to realize that we are already who God has called us to be.  Our righteousness does not come from our successful completion of the Law’s requirements; our righteousness comes from the God who loves us and desires a relationship with us.  Our righteousness does not come from following the recipe; our righteousness comes from realizing that we are salt, that we are called to season the world and make it what God desires it to be.

It is clear that our identity as the salt of the earth is meant to shape our lives.  But this begs the question: how do we live our lives with the understanding that we are salt?  Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, but immediately adds a caveat: “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  The way that the question is worded indicates that once it has lost its saltiness, salt’s taste cannot be restored, that it is now worthless and needs to be thrown away.  This seems to imply that if we are not careful, we will lose our saltiness and become worthless in the eyes of God.  But here’s the thing: if you ask a scientist, she will tell you that salt cannot lose its saltiness.  Sodium chloride is a remarkably stable compound that will not lose its flavor even after being stored for many years.  So is Jesus saying that unlike real salt, we can lose our saltiness?  That just doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of this passage.  In the very next metaphor, Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill cannot be hidden, implying that any attempts to conceal the light are going fail.  It seems far more likely that Jesus is saying that even if we think we have lost our saltiness, we are still salt.  Even if we feel as though we have abandoned our call to bring God’s savor to the world, we are still who God has called us to be. Even if we think we are worthless in the eyes of God, God still loves us and desires a relationship with us.

Whether you nurture your life of faith on a daily basis or you feel that your faith has been dormant for a long time; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you have been here every Sunday for the past thirty years or this is the first time you have ever been inside a church building; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you embrace the life of this community or you have turned away from it; you are the salt of the earth.  No matter where you have been or what you have done, you are who God has called you to be.  In light of this identity, in light of who God has called you to be: Jesus Christ invites you, Jesus Christ invites all of us to be salt.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by bringing God’s savor to a world that craves compassion and justice.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by seasoning a world that is hungry for hope and beauty. Above all, Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by filling the world with God’s love and helping the world be what it is supposed to be.

Sarcasm

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13 preached to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on September 22, 2013.

One of the realities of our digital age is that nearly every website gives its users the opportunity to comment on the website’s content.  Just about every article on the internet has a section below it where readers can offer their opinions about what they have just read.  This comment section is, in some ways, similar to the editorial page in a newspaper.  There is, however, a significant and important difference.  While the content of the editorial page is scrutinized and selected by an editor, there is no such filter in an internet comment section.  Literally everyone who can type (and quite a few people who can’t) is given the opportunity to make their voices heard over the information superhighway.  As you can imagine, there are some very disturbed, angry, ignorant, and downright crazy people who post in these comment sections.  If one spends any kind of time on the internet, one quickly learns that these comment sections rarely edify and frequently frustrate.  Responding to these comments is not an option, because the torrent of negativity unleashed by every minor disagreement is overwhelming.  It is better simply to ignore the comments.  The arguments are pointless and the unintended consequences can be catastrophic.  Brothers and sisters, I adjure you by God: for the sake of your physical, mental, and spiritual health, do not read internet comments; it’s simply not worth the anguish.

So while I was reading some internet comments the other day, I was reminded about a particularly annoying brand of internet commenter.  This is the person who wanders into a forum and makes a comment that is specifically designed to make people angry.  imgresFor instance, a University of Oklahoma fan may wander into a University of Texas forum and proclaim how terrible the Longhorns are.  Obviously, the person who does this is not even trying to contribute to the conversation; he’s just trying to get people riled up.  In internet parlance, this person is known as a troll, and the activity he engages in is known as trolling.  As frustrating as internet trolls can be, the most insidious thing about them is that they see what they do as a public service.  If you challenge an internet troll to contribute something of substance to the discussion, he will respond that he is: he’s being intentionally provocative, he’s causing us to moderate our position in response to his ludicrous opinion.  The reality, of course, is that this generally isn’t true: the internet troll is usually just being a jerk.  It’s interesting to me, however, that those who troll tend to embrace this narrative in which they are provocateurs, contributors to the internet symposium who force us to do the hard work of self-examination.

The reason I bring this up is that in our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus seems to be trolling us a little bit.  This is probably the most bizarre parable in all of the New Testament, because it seems to go against everything that we know about what Jesus did and taught.  This is especially true in the gospel according to Luke, in which Jesus is incredibly concerned with how preoccupied people are with money and influence.  To get a sense of how strange this parable really is, we need to take a look at some of the other moments in Luke’s gospel, many of which we’ve looked at over the past few weeks.  Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the great dinner, in which he warned us not to think to highly of ourselves, not to exploit the influence we believe we have in order to gain advantages over people.  A few weeks before that, we heard the parable of the rich fool, who built huge silos to store all his stuff and ensure his security, only to die that very night.  And next week, we will hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man, in which a man is thrown into Hades because of his obsession with his wealth and possessions.

So when we arrive at the parable in today’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager or the shrewd steward, I think we’re right to feel a little thrown off, perhaps even a little uncomfortable.  The story goes like this: a rich man has a business manager and discovers that the guy is mismanaging his boss’s assets.  Maybe he’s made some bad investments, maybe he’s skimming off the top, maybe he’s just incompetent; whatever the reason, the rich man demands an audit from his steward.  Instead of buckling down, getting the books right, and hoping that his boss will give him another chance or instead of updating his resume and hoping that he can get some honest work, the manager proceeds to go around to his boss’s debtors and reduces what they owe the rich man.  The thing is, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, he doesn’t do this because his boss is unjust; he does this in order to get consideration from the people whose debt he’s forgiving, he does it for purely selfish reasons.  At this point, we can’t wait for the owner’s reaction.  This manager is going to get it!  He’s defrauded his boss; he’s been completely selfish.  There’s no way that he’s going to get away with this.  So imagine our surprise when Jesus tells us that the rich man commended the steward for acting selfishly.  Really?  Did you get that right Jesus?  Not only was the rich man not mad, but he praised this dishonest manager?  As if we weren’t confused enough already, Jesus goes on to instruct us to follow this manager’s example: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

 

What is going on in this baffling parable?  Is Jesus really telling us to emulate this dishonest steward?  Are we really supposed to follow the example of a guy whose life is dictated by his own selfishness?  It’s hard to say.  One disadvantage of the study of Scripture is that we don’t have the tapes.  We don’t know how Jesus sounded when he said the things recorded in the gospels.  The result of this is that many of us tend to have a Scripture reading voice in our head (mine is some combination of James Earl Jones and Billy Graham).  Whatever it sounds like, it’s usually magisterial and full of authority.  But the reality is that Jesus probably had a variety of ways of communicating.  Sure, there were times in his ministry when a Scripture reading voice would have been very appropriate, like in the Sermon on the Plain.  But, what about when Jesus takes up a little child in his arms and says that it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs?  Are we supposed to think that he spoke to these children the same way that he spoke to the crowds?  Probably not.  sarcasm01In the same way, I wonder if we are mishearing this parable of the dishonest manager because we are assuming our James Earl Jones/Billy Graham voice.  What if we’re missing a note of sarcasm in Jesus’ voice: “Go ahead, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, because when it’s gone they’re totally going to welcome you into the eternal homes.  See how that works out for you.”  Now, I may be treading on some perilous ground here, but this interpretation seems more consistent with what we’ve heard before and what we’re going to hear in Luke’s gospel.  In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus makes it very clear that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with wealth because we can’t take it with us, because wealth is not eternal.  In the same way, it stands to reason that if we make friends with our wealth, that thing which isn’t eternal, those friendships won’t last very long.  Regardless of how we hear this parable, I think it’s clear that Jesus is being intentionally provocative, that Jesus is encouraging us to look closely at this dishonest manager and determine what we can learn from him.

On one level, I think we sympathize with the guy.  He’s in a position that too many of us have been in at one point or another; he’s about to lose his job.  And the only way he knows how to take care of himself is by being shrewd but also by being selfish, by looking out for number one, by worrying about himself first and about his impact on other people later.  This manager looked at his situation and was terrified, because all of his possessions, including his job, his friends, and his money are in jeopardy.  As one New Testament interpreter has remarked, possessions are our guard against nonexistence.  This manager was convinced that if he lost his possessions, if he no longer had what he once had, he would cease to exist, that he wouldn’t matter, that his life would be meaningless.  This manager defined himself in terms of what he owned, he defined himself in terms of what he could get out of other people, he defined himself in terms of things that are passing away.  But what Jesus reveals us to us in telling this parable, what Jesus reveals to us in all of the gospel according to Luke, what Jesus reveals to us in his death and resurrection is that we are not defined by what we have.  We are not defined by how much we make, by what circles we travel in, by how nice a car we drive, by who our parents are, by how much education we have, by who we voted for, by what we post on the internet, or by any of the thousands of other ways that our culture defines value.  We are not defined by what we have; we are defined by the fact that we are beloved children of God.  That’s it.  Jesus tells this story not to give an example of how not to behave; Jesus tells this story to remind us that what we have does not define us; Jesus tells this story to reminds us how much God loves us.  Jesus reveals the depth of God’s love for us on the cross.  By destroying the power of death, Jesus affirms the promise that nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ.  When we embrace our identity as beloved children of God, when we lose our preoccupation with what we have, then we will be empowered to share the love that God makes known to us in Jesus Christ, the love that transcends divisions and unites us, the love that reminds us of our eternal home.

Broken

Today is the feast day of Saint Mark the Evangelist.  Though it is frequently put in the same category as Luke and Matthew (the first three gospels are known as the “synoptic gospels” because they can be “seen together”), readers will notice that there is something a little strange and enormously compelling about the gospel according to Mark.  This strangeness is clearly evident in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which is part of the gospel lesson appointed for the day:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  (Mark 1:9-12)

ssc-battesimoMost of us are much more familiar with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ encounter with John, which is characterized by an almost byzantine politesse.  Jesus arrives on the banks of the Jordan, asking to be baptized.  John obsequiously responds, “No no, I couldn’t possibly!  You should be baptizing me!”  Jesus tells John that it must happen this way to fulfill all righteousness, so John relents.  As Jesus comes up out of the water, the clouds part and the skies open in a beatific vision as the Holy Spirit descends and a heavenly voice proclaims to the onlookers, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The account we get in Mark’s gospel, on the other hand, is gritty, impolite, in-your-face, and downright violent.  There is none of the courtly posturing that we get in Matthew; Jesus simply shows up and gets baptized.  As far as we’re aware, there’s not even any communication between John and Jesus.  As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are not opened, but violently torn apart; creation is invaded by the presence of God.  The Holy Spirit descends, not to provide a pretty picture that includes every person of the Trinity, but to drive Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  The most striking and unsettling aspect of this account is its violence.  In Mark’s gospel, God’s presence is made known in an almost destructive way.

Over the past week or so, many of us have been reeling from the devastation wrought by the bombings in Boston, the explosion in West, and the earthquake in China.  It’s been one of those weeks where many of us have wondered what could possibly come next.  And yet, even in the midst of this destruction and devastation, we have seen moments of compassion, heroism, and grace.  We have witnessed strangers comforting each other on the streets, first responders risking their lives to rescue those in danger, and people opening their homes and businesses to those without a place to lay their heads.  It is in images like these that we have borne witness to the presence of God even in the violence of the past week.  It is in images like these that we have had an opportunity to discern the Holy Spirit moving through a broken and desperate world.

broken-bread1As Christians, this should not surprise us.  Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we break the bread that we believe has become the body of Christ.  In those broken fragments of bread, we discern the presence of Holy Spirit, the promise that God loves this world even in its brokenness.  Perhaps this is why the gospel of Mark is so compelling.  Mark does not paint a rosy picture; he does not sugarcoat the world Jesus Christ came to save.  Instead, he points our world with all its brokenness, violence, and degradation, and promises that even this world with all its faults is loved by God.

Finished

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Good Friday.

imgresOne summer while I was in college, I worked in a group home for kids with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, and other special needs.  Most of the kids were high-functioning teenagers who had a difficult time adapting to mainstream academic and social settings; the group home was a place where they could be themselves.  While the work was enormously rewarding, it was also exhausting.  Not only were we responsible for all of the normal aspects of raising a teenager: cooking their meals, driving them to school, and making sure they did their homework; we also had to deal with some of the challenges unique to these young people: giving them their medications, supervising their hygiene, and dealing with the occasional catastrophic meltdown.  Every day had the potential to be physically and emotionally draining.  I remember that at the end of my first day, after all of the residents had finally gone to sleep, the woman I was working with, a veteran of the organization who was simultaneously maternal and tough as nails, handed me a cup of coffee and said, “Enjoy this.”  “Enjoy what?” I asked.  “The quiet,” she replied.  As I savored the bitter institutional coffee, a wave of relief spread over me as I realized that we were finished for the day.  The meds had been distributed, the residents were asleep, and everyone was safe.  We had done everything we had to do and my coworker invited me to acknowledge that accomplishment.  To this day, the taste of institutional coffee reminds me of that sense of accomplishment, the joy and relief I felt when I realized that for at least the next eight hours, all was right with the world, that for at least one night, the work before me was finished.

The gospel according to John tells us that the final word of Jesus from the cross reflects this sense of accomplishment.  Just before he bows his head and gives up his spirit, Jesus says, “It is finished.”  This actually translates a single word in Greek: “tetelestai,” meaning “it has been accomplished,” “the end has come,” or to put it another way, “my work here is done.”  In John’s gospel, we do not hear the agonized cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that we hear Matthew and Mark, nor do we hear the deeply comforting affirmation of “Into your hands I commend my spirit” that we hear in Luke.  Instead, the final word of Jesus in John’s gospel is ambiguous and a little unsettling.  What exactly has he accomplished?  There is a finality to “tetelestai,” a sense that everything is taken care of, that there is no more to be done, that everything that needs to be finished has been finished.  “Tetelestai” implies that there are no loose ends, that all is right with the world.

And yet, even as Jesus uttered this final word of accomplishment, very little was right with the world.  As Jesus hung upon the cross, struggling under his own weight, chaos swirled around him.  Though those closest to him had promised to stay by his side no matter what happened, his disciples had abandoned, denied, and betrayed him.  Though as the Messiah he represented the hopes and dreams of a subjugated and enslaved people, he had been executed as a rabble rouser by a cruel and powerful dictatorship.  Though he had affirmed that he was the incarnation of the almighty God, he died a criminal’s death, completely impotent and helpless.  As chaos swirled around him, it seems that there could not have been a less appropriate time for Jesus to affirm that everything had been accomplished.  The world was falling apart around him, questions were left unanswered, and his ministry seems to have been in vain.  Describing his work as “finished” seems to be a cruel joke worthy of the soldiers who mocked him.

urlJust before Jesus gives up his spirit, John’s gospel tells us that he addressed his mother and the beloved disciple, who were gathered at the foot of the cross.  As they stood in their grief, gazing at the gasping body of Jesus, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.”  To the disciple whom he loved, he said, “Behold your mother.”  John goes on to tell us that the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home from that day forward.  Though this is a powerful message of love, an example of Jesus taking care of those he is leaving behind, there is more to it than that.  Scholars, for instance, have wondered why Jesus calls his mother “Woman,” which is not something that any of us would have been allowed to call our mothers as we were growing up.  While some have argued that “Woman” was actually a term of respect in first-century Palestine, I’m more inclined to agree with those who suggest that Jesus uses this word to recall the creation of woman.  By calling his mother “Woman,” Jesus is bringing us back to Genesis, back to the Garden of Eden, back to the first days of creation when Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God and men and women were estranged from one another.  This is the reason that so many important events in John’s gospel, including the arrest and burial of Jesus, take place in a garden.  John wants us to remember that first garden, to return to the first moments of creation so that we can understand that God is bringing about a new creation through Jesus Christ.  The words of Jesus to his mother and the beloved disciple are words of love and affection, but they are also words of restoration.  By bringing these two people together, Jesus heals division, restores human relationships, and repairs what was torn asunder by our disobedience to the commandment of God.  By restoring the relationship between his mother and the beloved disciple, Jesus Christ restores all human relationships and inaugurates a new creation, a creation that is no longer subject to disobedience and death, but has been renewed by the self-giving love of God.  This is what Jesus accomplishes on the cross.  Jesus says, “It is finished” because he has completed this work of restoration; he has finished the work of recreating the world in the image of God’s redeeming love.  Even as the chaos swirls around him, there is a glimmer of hope, a whisper of restoration, a quiet promise that God will finish God’s new creation through the Christ who reaches out to us in love from the hard wood of the cross.

In a few moments, we will pray for a world that is in chaos.  We will pray for a world of geopolitical saber rattling, where countries threaten each other with nuclear weapons and refuse to engage in diplomacy.  We will pray for a world of political intractability, where politicians seem unable to communicate or find common ground.  We will pray for a world of suffering and affliction, where people are hungry, homeless, and oppressed through no fault of their own.  We will pray for a world where hundreds of millions of people do not have access to clean water, where tyrants massacre their people, and where children are killed in their classrooms.  In the face of these overwhelming challenges, we might be tempted to throw up our hands in despair, to conclude that there is nothing that we can do to alleviate such suffering.  We might be tempted to pretend that we do not care and turn away from those who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  But if the gospel that is proclaimed from the cross is true, then every act of kindness and generosity is a proclamation of God’s new creation.  Every person we feed, every child we comfort, every donation we make becomes a symbol of God’s great love revealed to us on the cross.  Not only that, every effort we make to reach out and participate in God’s work of restoration is an opportunity for the whole world “to see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.”  Jesus may have finished his work of restoration on the cross, but we are invited to share in that mission.  Even as the chaos swirls around us, we are invited to recognize and affirm that there is always a glimmer of hope, a whisper of restoration, and a quiet promise that God will finish God’s new creation though Jesus Christ working through us as we reach out in love to this world that needs it so desperately.

Growth

577690_10100870531399900_972034920_nI’m feeling a little wistful.  Our kitten, Abby (named for her hometown of Abilene) turns one today.  Before we got Abby, I was not the kind of person who observed cat birthdays; though my wife and I have had a very sweet cat named Winnie for as long as we’ve been married, she was never my cat.  It has always been very clear that Winnie’s primary loyalty was to my wife and that I was just along for the ride.  But when we got a five week old kitten last year, I quickly took on the role of primary caretaker.  I bathed Abby before she learned how to groom herself, I combed the fleas out of her fur, and I applied ointment to her injured eye.  In the process, I became hopelessly enamored with this tiny creature who depended on me entirely.

For those of you who have lived with a kitten, you know that the first several months can be difficult. In their first months, kittens are still learning how to socialize and have energy to burn.  So while Winnie always spent the night nestled between us and didn’t wake up until breakfast, Abby would spend her nights jumping on top of us, pestering her adoptive sister, and making it virtually impossible to sleep.  As we lounged on the couch in the evenings, she would pounce on our heads and feet with her improbably sharp claws.  Most worrisome were the terrifying cat fights between Winnie and Abby, which we were so intense that we sometimes feared the result would be death or dismemberment.  Though there were times that we questioned the wisdom of bringing another cat into the house, we persevered, mostly because I couldn’t help but love the little feline terrorist.

The number of her toys has grown too.
The number of her toys has grown too.

As we observe her first birthday, however, I’m very aware of how much Abby has grown.  I no longer have to bathe her, because she’s been grooming herself for months.  Her eye healed long ago, and she hasn’t had fleas for a long time.  Moreover, life has become much more placid.  Abby sleeps through most of the night, she is more interested in cuddling with us than attacking our feet, and it seems that she and Winnie have reached a state of detente.  The past year has been a time of amazing growth for Abby and for me.  And while I am grateful for everything we experienced during Abby’s kittenhood, I am also profoundly aware that I wouldn’t want to go through it again with her.  On her birthday, I am anxious to see what the next year will bring, but I wouldn’t want her second year to be anything like her first year.

As we approach the end of Lent and prepare for the emotion and drama of Holy Week, it is a good time for us to consider how we’ve grown during this season of penitence and renewal.  Have we discovered new ways of connecting with God?  Have we experienced worship in a new way?  Have we developed new perspectives on the impact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection on our lives?  In other words, have we grown?  It is important for us to do this discernment so that Lent next year will not be the same as it was this year.  Lent is meant to be an opportunity to for us do new things, to gain new perspectives, to grow in our experience of God’s deep love for us.  By discerning how far we’ve come during Lent this year, we can continue the process of renewal and growth, not only during Lent, but every day of our lives.  By engaging in this process of discernment, we can continue to increase our awareness of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

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.

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.