Now: a good time to get started

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

A meditation on the RCL readings for Lent 3C (2019).

Exodus 3:1-15; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Spring has finally arrived. We know what comes next: the tax filing deadline, the Boston Marathon and the wonderful season of homegrown garden vegetables. They are all coming. We know that the time to get ready for them is now.  We need to collect receipts; jog some extra miles; order those tomato seeds, now. Because if we wait until tax day or race day, or the day we want to taste our homegrown tomatoes, it will be too late.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in the gospel of Luke.  He is not talking about avoiding death. None of us gets to avoid that. He IS saying we should not put off making changes that we need to make.

The news this week has shown us, again, that evil and brutality can interrupt our lives at any time, as can negligence, ignorance, hurricanes, cyclones, mudslides and floods. We have been reminded this week that the world can be a very dangerous place. Whether someone suffers violence or an accident or illness or terrible weather has nothing to do with whether or not they are a good person.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians suggests otherwise. Paul says that ancient Israelites died in the wilderness because God was not pleased with them. I do not believe that. We do not know the mind of God any more than we know the look or substance or gender of God. In the book of Exodus, God says, “I am who I am.” That is not a lot for us to go on in terms of knowing what God is.

Still, at the heart of Christian thinking there is the notion that somehow, Jesus reveals something important about God’s self. What Jesus is saying to his friends in this gospel is simple and two-fold and probably already familiar to us.

First, Jesus reminds us that the only moment we can do anything with is the present moment. If we need to make changes in our lives, we should make them now.  If we keep putting it off until tomorrow, the day will come when we will have waited one day too many.

Second, he points out that change doesn’t happen overnight. “Repentance” is not merely a decision to change. It is the process of making the change. It requires that we make a start and then keep trying. New habits are not formed overnight.  Virtues do not appear fully formed in a day. They start as small as glimmers of hope and they grow. With time and care, sun and rain, good soil, good compost and good luck, they take root, mature and bear fruit.  It’s a process. Gardeners know that, and so they get started as soon they can.

We know that spring has arrived and that summer is around the corner. Even so, none of us really knows what tomorrow will bring. What we have for sure is “now:” the gift of today and God’s word that God goes with us. That’s enough to make today a good time to get started.

The master’s tools

A Meditation on RCL Lent 2C
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

 The Archbishop of Canterbury is not losing any sleep after hearing that the U.S. House of Bishops announced that it is “aggrieved and distressed” at his decision to exclude the same-gender spouses of bishops from the 2020 Lambeth Conference.  Expressions of aggrievement and distress are “the master’s tools.” They will never dismantle the Master’s house. They are no threat. They change nothing.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is a threat to two masters’ houses – Herod and “Jerusalem.” Why? He knows how to do more than issue press releases and polite statements of aggrievement and distress.  He healed people who had no claim to privilege: old women, lepers, the paralyzed, the possessed, foreigners.

We should aspire to be such a threat to the master’s house.

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Quotation: Audre Lorde. From Comments at “The Personal and the Political” Panel,  Second Sex Conference, October 29, 1979. http://s18.middlebury.edu/AMST0325A/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf

The photo “Audre Lorde” by K. Kendall is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Perfect Answers

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Lent 1C

I found myself thinking about the TV gameshow “Jeopardy” this week, after hearing that Alex Trebeck has stage IV pancreatic cancer. That is a tough diagnosis to receive. He has a difficult journey ahead of him.

I started watching Jeopardy with my grandmother and when the host of the show was Art Fleming. I had favorite categories, like “Explorers,” because I was in 5th grade and we were reading about the explorers so I knew who they were.  I did ok with the Bible category, but my grandmother usually did better.

Whatever the category, it always felt good to get the right answers.  On Jeopardy, there was only one right answer and they always showed what the right answer was.

The devil in today’s gospel does not say what he thinks of Jesus’ answers.  We always presume that if Jesus said it, it must be the right and most perfect answer. But one can imagine different answers, and in the story there is no ringing bell or flashing light or voice from the heavens saying “yes, that’s right!”  Instead, after each of Jesus’ responses, the devil just moves on to another temptation, until he gives up.

It’s possible that what is important about Jesus’ answers is not that they are “correct” in the Jeopardy sense that they are the “the one and only” correct answers. It’s possible that they are “right” because they were the right answers for him. They were the answers that focused him on what mattered to him, on what he valued, on the things he believed because he knew them to be true from his own experience. They were right for him because they were what he needed to resist his temptations.

Something else might work for us. Maybe something from a Bible category; maybe not.  Whatever our answers are, they need to be about what matters to us, what we value, what we believe because we know it to be true in our own experience.

Creeds are about beliefs in a way. The Nicene Creed is a centuries-old, well-beloved summary of key Christian concepts. But that is not the kind of belief that we need when we are in the wilderness.  Knowing whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son will not work to keep me in touch with my better self when I am hearing my devil and facing my temptations. When that happens, I need, we need the answers that are about what matters to us, what we value and what we believe because we know it to be true in our own experience.

Maybe something from the second reading, something pithier like, “Jesus is Lord.”  Or something from the first reading, a story that talks about where we came from and how we got here and where we think we’re going: “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean…”  Maybe a line from the psalms or a verse from a hymn or something someone we loved or admired always used to say. Whatever it is, what will make it the right answer for us is that it will be about what matters to us, what we value, and what we believe because we have lived the truth of it.

The journey of Lent is just beginning. Along the way there will be wilderness and in that wilderness, there will be temptations which can’t be avoided. They will require a response from us. We need to know what it is we value, what matters to us, what we believe because we know because we have lived it.  If our response comes from that, it will absolutely be the perfect answer.

Who knows what might come of that.

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An Ash Wednesday meditation

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Mtt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Sometimes we hear someone say, “this won’t hurt,” and we don’t believe it. There is going to be a budget cut, but “it won’t hurt.” Hold this yoga stretch – “it won’t hurt.” Or the doctor says we need an injection, but no worries, “it won’t hurt,” —  and we just can’t believe that so we brace ourselves, hold our breath, look the other way and wait for it to be over.

We may feel that way about Lent. We know what Lent is. There is going to be a lot of talk about sin; our sin. It is going to hurt, so we brace ourselves, hold our breath, look the other way and wait for it to be over.

It’s true that there during Lent there is a lot of talk about sin,  but Lent is mostly about our relationship with God. We do talk about sin. We should. It exists.. There is sin in our world. There is sin in us. Whether in the world or in us, sin can wreak havoc in our relationships with one another. But it does not have the power to injure our relationship with God. God took away its power to do that with forgiveness. A forgiveness given not because we made amends or restitution but simply because God chooses to be in relationship with us always – no matter what.

So we begin Lent today / tonight with readings that are a little bit about sin, but mostly about God’s forgiveness. The Psalmist says

  •  that God puts our sins far away from us,  as far as the east is from the west ;
  •  that the extent of God’s forgiveness is unimaginable, as high as the heavens are above the earth; and
  • that God’s mercy is everlasting.  It was there yesterday, it is here today, it will be there tomorrow.  How long will God’s mercy last?  The psalmist says, “forever.”

That was the message of the prophets. That was the message of the psalms. And it is Paul’s message: that God came to us in Christ so that we could see and hear God’s forgiveness in the flesh.

There is a lot of talk in Lent about sin, but “sin” is not what Lent is about. Lent is about our coming to trust God’s forgiveness, and the difference, the change that it makes possible in our life.

If our faith is that God forgives us because we have made amends, or paid restitution, then our lives will not be much changed. We will avoid God, and maybe one another, until we can figure out how to make things right; how to undo the wrong; how to repay the debt. We could be waiting a long time.

But if we can hear that God forgives not because we are perfect or very clever, but simply because God wants to be in relationship with us, then our lives can begin to change. We start being shaped by grace: forgiven-ness, freedom. We can move, even though a mistake might be made. We can stop hiding, even if we’re not perfectly put together. We can see new possibilities, next steps, and maybe even take them. Who knows what might come of that?

Lent invites us to become a people shaped by grace. We will still talk about sin. We will admit that we see it in our lives and in our world. But we will talk about it because we no longer need to look away from it; we are no longer afraid to see it; we are no longer afraid to contend with it.

Shaped by grace,

We will not need to look away from the cry of the poor. We will be able to turn towards it, and give alms from our own hearts and with our own hands.  Who knows what might come of that.

We will not be immobilized by our fear of not having enough. We will be able to fast and be reminded of who and what truly sustains us.  Who knows what might come of that.

We will not need to look away from God, hiding our doubts, fears, angers…  We will be able to open our hearts to the One from whom no secrets are hid and pray honestly, from the heart.  Who knows what might come of that.

Sometimes we are afraid that Lent is going to hurt because we know it is all going to be about our sins and a debt we could never begin to repay. But in Christ, God calls us to be shaped by the grace of God’s forgiveness – not without sin, (wouldn’t that be nice), but absolutely without the paralyzing fear of sin’s power over us.

For us, ashes are only a little bit about sin and death. At the dawn of creation, it was ashes into which a loving God breathed life. God’s loving Spirit is with us still, and God’s mercy is everlasting.

Who knows what might come of that.

Bearing the silence

At the March for Our Lives, Emma Gonzalez spoke for about two minutes, mostly naming the students and teachers who were shot and killed in her Florida high school on February 14. Then she went silent. Four minutes later she spoke again: “Since the time I came out here it has been six minutes and 20 seconds…” —  the length of time the gunman shot his weapon that day.

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Emma’s silence was unbearable for the crowd. They tried to end it with chants of “never again” or “we’re with you Emma.”  To no avail.

The earliest Easter narrative is about  silence, beginning with the horror of the Good Friday’s violence and continuing to an empty tomb. Like the crowd in Washington, we cannot bear the silence. We try to end it with a fairy tale suitable for the youngest of children complete with flowers, bunnies and colorful eggs. To no avail. The Good Friday violence continues to be suffered by so many around the world.

Like Emma’s silence,  the liturgical silences we begin Palm Sunday and Good Friday enable us to receive and hear the testimony of the victims of violence in its many forms. Their testimony, their cries, are not easy to listen to.  The silence in which they emerge is not easy to bear. But unless we learn to bear those silences, it is unlikely we will find the courage to change anything.

This is not to say that we should not, on an Easter Sunday, be glad, make noise and sing songs. But if we do, let it not be because “the strife is o’er.” Let it be because we are willing to bear the silence and receive its testimonies. Let it be because we know the strife is not over, and because we are resolved to do what it takes to bring the victory of real change.

 

If it walks like a duck…

Trump says he is not a racist. His words and actions tell a different story: the story of a man unashamed of his own racist anger and hatred.

See this: “Donald Trump’s Racism: The Definitive List,” NYT Opinion, 1/18/2018.

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His devotees rarely wear pointy white hoods anymore,

and they are happy to follow him.

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They just don’t believe him when he says he is not a racist or white supremacist.

Neither should we.