Perfect Answers

006-yo-jesus-tempted

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.

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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.

Unless you are preaching don’t read this book for Lent

crossJust around the corner from Ash Wednesday, two suggestions for reading… a blog post and a book you should NOT read for Lent, unless you are preaching.

The blog post is written by The Rev. Michael Sniffen: “Ashes to Go or not… that seems to be the question” and can be found here —–> https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/article/ashes-go-or-not-go-seems-be-question%E2%80%A6. He votes against “Ashes to Go” and I agree with him.

He is not against “taking the church to the streets.” On the contrary, he writes:

Let’s do it! Our common life as Episcopalians is grounded in the Eucharist and rooted in resurrection. Why don’t we begin by offering the body and blood of Christ outside the sanctuary? How about washing and massaging the feet of weary commuters waiting for the bus? Let’s offer anointing with holy oil for healing on the sidewalks. Why don’t we venerate the feet of the homeless and outcast on Good Friday at a local shelter? How many baptisms have we conducted in a public park lately? Why don’t we set up hours to hear confessions in local bars and offer God’s forgiveness?

There are so MANY ways we might “take the church to the streets.” Starting with ashes is (a) an odd place to start, and (b) probably meets more of the church’s and maybe the clergy’s needs than it does the world’s.

Spong_book
The book is Bp Jack Spong’s  The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.  If you are preaching this Lent, GET IT AND READ IT!  If you are not preaching this Lent – if you plan to be listening to someone else preach – don’t torment yourself by reading this now. Save it as an Easter treat.  If you read it now and you have to listen to someone else preaching the traditional understanding of John’s Gospel, it will make you nuts.

I loved this book. Spong says it was the fruit of three years of intensive study, and when I finished reading the book all I could think was “thank you for those three years of study!” The book will change the way you think about John’s gospel for ever, in a good way.

Two suggestions…

First, ignore the subtitle (“Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”) It is misleading.  The Fourth Gospel is not about ancient Jewish Mysticism. It is about how we as Christians should/can understand the Gospel of John today.  Second, feel free to skip the Preface. If you read the Preface and feel a little put off by the tone, remember, I warned you. The book is SO MUCH BETTER than the Preface.