Saturday, March 25, 2006


Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 40:1-11; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:26-38

The season of spring officially began just a few days ago, but we in the South are always blessed with early blossoms, whispers of pink and white and purple and green when many places are still deep in winter darkness. In the newly warm sun, those whispers grow into glorious shouts of color. I don’t know about you, but spring takes my breath away, and not just because the air is so full of pollen! Suddenly there is color in places where I forgot it would be: in the corner of a yard, on the side of the road, in the woods beside my neighbor’s house, outside my office window. Breathtaking.

The season of Lent officially began three weeks ago – we are just a little more than halfway through on our journey to the cross. But deep in this Lenten darkness is something quite unexpected, a breathtaking scene of an angel, an invitation, and a young girl who said yes, Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

Yesterday was March 25th, nine months to the day before Christmas. It was the Feast of the Annunciation, the day when heaven and earth mingled in Mary’s yes, when suddenly there was life in a place where no one – least of all Mary – imagined it could be. The life she bore was as new as that spring morning, and yet was the very Creator of every spring that ever was. Literally full of grace, Mary became Theotokos, which is Greek for God-bearer.

How often in her life would Mary’s breath leave her body as she wondered if she had made the right choice? Mary’s yes would have certainly cost her marriage, perhaps even her life, had Joseph not had his own breathtaking encounter with an angel. When they brought their newborn to the temple, Simeon would tell Mary that a sword would one day pierce her heart. They thought they lost Jesus when he was still a boy, and when, breathless with worry, they finally found him, he told them their house was not his home. And how the air itself must have trembled as Mary watched her child one colorless spring morning, watched him bear his cross and die.

Being a God-bearer, it seems, does not make life easy or vanish pain. But Gabriel’s words always echoed in Mary’s pierced and wondering heart – Favored One, he had said, Favored One, God is with you. And so, though it made her tremble, Mary whispered yes again and again.

Deep in the darkness of Gethsemane, Jesus, too, would say (was it because he was the Son of God, or because he was Mary’s son, had heard her say yes, here I am all those years)…deep in the darkness of Gethsemane, Jesus would say to God, Not my will but yours be done. Let it be with me according to your word….Heaven and earth mingled in Jesus’ yes, and in his last breath he gave himself and us to God.

But death would not be the final word. For three days later, God shouted that glorious no!, Love would not be defeated. Love was stronger than fear, life stronger than death, and suddenly the risen Jesus is standing before us with a breathtaking invitation that we become God-bearers. You, favored one. You, full of grace. You, me, all of us, God-bearers.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem comparing Mary to the air we breathe. “Wild air,” he wrote, “World-mothering air…of her flesh he took flesh: He does take…though much mystery how, not flesh but spirit now, and makes, O marvelous! new Nazareths in us, where she shall yet conceive Him, morning, noon, and eve….”

What a lovely annunciation, this time ours, our invitation to allow heaven and earth to mingle in us, to bear Christ in the world in our own unique and marvelous ways. The very air we breathe in this day is pregnant with Mary’s yes, spoken in wonder and courage and faith….

….Spoken also in that knowledge that saying yes to God does not make life easy or vanish pain. Our yes is spoken in a world seems to shout no. In the season of Lent, we are called to come to terms with all the times and ways we have said no to God’s invitation – our mistakes, our sins, our failures and fears and wounds, the ways we have been hurt and the ways we have hurt others. It is difficult to be a God-bearer when we are carrying these and so many other burdens. This is the work of Lent – truth-telling, repentance, forgiveness, healing. Trembling, we take all our no’s to the cross where Jesus, full of grace, replaces them with his perfect, forgiving, transforming Love, his eternal yes. That is the work of Easter.

We are invited to be God-bearers, to see Life in places where we forgot it would be, to show Love where no one – least of all, perhaps, ourselves – imagined it could be, to be the body of Christ in the world. In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body now but ours, no hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses people.”

Take a deep breath. God, who loves us, is with us. Let us say together, yes. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

2 Lent B

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 16:5-11; Romans 8:31-39; Mark 8:31-38

We have been on our way through the season of Lent for nearly two weeks now. Hopefully the cravings for the things we gave up have lessened somewhat, the caffeine headaches have subsided, and seven o’clock in the morning doesn’t come quite as early as it did. And perhaps, in the spaces left by the things we gave up, or in the intent of the things we have taken on, perhaps we have become more aware of God’s presence on the way with us.

Looking back, Ash Wednesday was for us, as it is each year, a turning point in a very real way. On that day we made a “right beginning of repentance,” kneeling before God and confessing the sins by which we have tried to make our lives our own. Repentance means turning around, literally changing our minds, changing our direction, and setting our self-centered minds and feet and lives on the way of Jesus. It was, Greg told us in his sermon, despite the somberness of the service, actually a happy day. The ashes smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality traced the same lines once drawn there as a reminder of our new life in baptism.

So here we are, on our way through this season of repentance, looking forward now to Easter when we will fill the spaces left by Lent with Resurrection joy. But today…today we are stopped dead in our tracks by Jesus himself, whose words in the gospel are a reminder that the way we are on leads first to a cross.

It is in many ways a turning point in the gospel of Mark. Remember that Mark has no time to tell birth stories or spout theology – he has Jesus baptized by verse eleven, tested in the desert by verse thirteen, and then Jesus is on his way, preaching, calling, exorcising, healing, cleansing, teaching, performing miracles, a whirlwind of work that by chapter three has those in power, those with authority, seeking his life.

The passage we hear today is at the very middle of Mark’s gospel. Up to this point, Jesus has been demonstrating such power and authority to do the work of God that Peter, in the verses just before where we pick up, has declared Jesus must be the Messiah, the One Anointed by God to save God’s people. Peter and the other disciples had given up everything in order to take on following this Jesus, whose way of unswerving justice and fearless faith seemed certain to upset the balance of power and return the kingdom of the world to the people of God.

Then he began to teach them, Mark writes. He would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. We know only Peter’s reaction to Jesus words – what of the others? Did some laugh – ha, that’s a good one Jesus, be killed, rise again. Did some nervously clear their throats, glancing sideways at one another to see if they had heard Jesus right. He’s not serious. Is he serious? He can’t be serious. He’s the Messiah….

Peter, bless him, nearly exploded from the effort of turning Jesus’ words about in his head. He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him – Jesus, no, you’ve got it all wrong. You’re the Messiah. This is not the way to the victory we’ve been working towards. How can you win if you’re dead? Apparently Peter hadn’t heard (and probably wouldn’t have understood anyway) that last part Jesus said about after three days rising again….

Perhaps it was for one heartbeat tempting for Jesus to imagine he could use his power and authority differently, how much easier it would be to take the world by force and not by love. But then Jesus turned and rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

At this turning point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus sets his feet toward Jerusalem, where his cross awaits, and he invites not only Peter and the rest of disciples but all who will listen – including us – to walk that way with him.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Jesus used the image of the cross not because he was going to die on one but because hundreds of people died on them each year. The road to Jerusalem was lined with crosses, so that pilgrims on the way to celebrate the Passover, the reminder of their liberation from oppression in Egypt, would be reminded also that they were subject people again, now under the power and authority of Rome. The Messiah, Peter and the others believed, was supposed to save them from this new oppression, not be martyred by it.

And now the Messiah was urging them to die as well? In the end, of course, many of them would. Take up your cross would be for many followers, then and in every age since, not a metaphor but a reality.

And yet, to hear Jesus’ words simply as that sort of death sentence is, I submit, to set our minds on human things rather than divine. How can you speak of hope if you’re suffering? How can you win if you’re dead? Taking up the cross, before it is a way of suffering and death, is a way of living. It is, in fact, the way of life – not just eternal life, but life here and now, life as God has always desired human life to be, a life devoted to loving, healing, and reconciling.

The way Jesus lived – unswerving justice, fearless faith – set the love of God above all else, above all other power and authority the world could set against it, above even the power of death. The way Jesus lived measured success not by power gained but rather by power shared, indeed, by power poured out for those the world considers powerless. Paul would write that Jesus poured himself out, that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

God does not want or need our blood. But God does want and need us to pour ourselves out for the world, to set the love of God above all else. Taking up our cross is not a call to martyrdom – it is a call to life, to taking up our place in the Body of Christ, praying as Jesus did that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done. It is a call that can stop us dead in our tracks.

For our minds are of course set on human things. We wrest in this world whatever power and authority we can in order to survive first, and then, to live comfortably….And we are relatively powerful people here, powerful by virtue of our education, our resources, our relationships, our freedom, our belonging to a community. Giving up power in this world, if you’re not trampled by people who want it for themselves, is certain to earn a few laughs – ha, that’s a good one, giving yourself up – or some nervous throat-clearing and sideways glances – surely you’re not serious. Are you serious? How can you win if you’re dead?

John Calvin, who took up his cross during the Reformation, such a turning point in the history of those who follow Jesus, offered the world this rebuke, perhaps more scathing now than it was those hundreds of years ago. He wrote, “We are not our own; therefore, neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. We are not our own; therefore let us not propose it as our end, to seek what may be expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours. On the contrary, we are God’s; therefore let his wisdom and will preside in all our actions. We are God’s; towards him, therefore, as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed.”

Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Taking up our cross means losing the life in which our power and authority comes first. It means taking on God’s kingdom instead of our own. Taking on God’s way instead of the world’s. And God’s way, unlike the world’s, is not, in the end, about suffering and death, or do we also, like Peter, not hear that last part Jesus said about rising again….

Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. Let us set our mind and feet and lives on divine things, turning to the cross and taking it up as a reminder to live as though nothing could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. Amen.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

1 Lent B

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:3-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-13

I had just finished 7th grade when my family went to stay at Kanuga, an Episcopal retreat center near Ashville, NC, for a summer guest period. Our cabin was nestled with others at the foot of a steep hill, along a pathway of pine needles and pebbles and the twisted roots of trees whose green branches twisted overhead. Late every afternoon, about an hour before the dinner bell sounded, it would rain. No, not rain – it would pour. It was a perfect time for sitting out on the screen porch, talking and laughing, shivering just slightly in the damp breeze, counting the long seconds it took for thunder to rumble across the mountaintops.

One afternoon, as it poured, we heard the sound of heavy footsteps crunching through wet pine needles and pebbles and twisted roots. Moments later, a line of young people appeared, trudging along the pathway in front of our cabin, each carrying a large backpack with a sleeping bag tied above or below, each wearing what looked like a clear garbage bag over their heads and packs, with dripping holes for their faces and arms, each singing a song loud enough to rival the pounding of rain on the leaves above.

We watched the strange procession round a corner that continued uphill and out of sight. We figured they must have been from Camp Kanuga, just a mile down the road. And as the sound of their singing faded, I remember very clearly saying to my mom and dad, “They will be wet forever. That will never, ever be me.”

I didn’t think about that day again, until one afternoon, seven years later. It rained – no, it poured, the afternoon I led my first campout as a Camp Kanuga counselor, trudging along the same pathway, catching the eye of a little girl dry on the front porch of her cabin. We were indeed wet forever, or at least all summer.

It didn’t seem at first that I was going to be very good at wilderness living. I had never been on a campout before – the knots and the tarps and the trail-following (straight uphill with your backpack and the backpacks of three wild beasts – I mean, campers – who are crying because there might have been a bee back there) the fire-starting (in the rain) and the stew-cooking…it was all new to me. I was pretty miserable those first few campouts, out there in the wilderness, wet.

I wonder how miserable Noah was, forty days and nights of nothing but wet. We know how miserable the Israelites were, forty years of wandering through the desert wilderness. I wonder if Jesus was ever miserable, even once, forty days in the wilderness, driven by the Spirit, tested by the devil, surrounded by wild beasts, waited on by angels. Mark’s account is so brief he doesn’t even mention that Jesus was fasting. Maybe Jesus couldn’t light a fire in the rain, either. Maybe he didn’t like stew.

Over and over again in our scriptures, the wilderness is a place of testing and temptation, of wild beasts and wrong turns, of too much water or not enough. The wilderness is unfamiliar, unfriendly, and uncomfortable. And forty days or forty years – no matter, forty was simply used to signify a long time, with wilderness stretching as far as the eye could see.

If you looked back, you might see as a tiny speck on the horizon the place where you stood when God called you into the wilderness. Noah and the Israelites and Jesus didn’t just stumble off a pathway of pine straw and pebbles – God called them there. Sent them there. In Mark’s gospel, the Spirit drove Jesus there, drove him out into the wilderness.

I wonder if Jesus looked back, back to the moment when he was still dripping with Jordan River water, when God had said, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. It had quite possibly been a moment of revelation, or at least deep affirmation, for Jesus. You are my Son, the Beloved. But then immediately, Mark tells us, immediately the Spirit drove him out…was God’s voice still echoing over the water as the wild beasts closed in and the devil began dreaming up temptations?

We know the longer story so well, the words that Satan whispered those forty days – Jesus, you could break your fast, you could control the world, you could command the cosmos. And we know how Jesus resisted, wrenching his very human eyes and ears and heart away from what tempted him, and repeating over and over that God was all he needed.

The wilderness was a test. The Greek word, in fact, that we heard translated “to tempt” also means “to test,” and there is an important difference between those two meanings. Temptation tries to make us fail in our conviction that God is all we need. But a test tries to find out just how far and against what odds we can keep our conviction that God is all we need.

Mark’s account doesn’t tell us in so many words, as Matthew and Luke do, whether Jesus passed the test. But in the very next verse, nearly as immediately as he was driven into the wilderness, Jesus is striding right back out of it, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.’

In the gospel of Mark, the wilderness only appears to go as far as the eye can see. Forty does not mean forever. It may rain the whole time you’re there, but there is a rainbow at the far end. And though it looks for all the world like God shows Jesus into the wilderness by the front gate, then walks around to the rainbow-lit back gate to wait with the angels for Jesus to make it through, Mark’s spare words suggest that the angels Matthew puts at the back gate were actually present with Jesus throughout his test. God was in the wilderness with him. Indeed, Jesus himself was God in the wilderness with us.

The thing is, I don’t think Jesus so much left the wilderness as he just exchanged one wilderness for another. The cities of Galilee would, in the end, be no safer than the sands of the desert. There were still wild beasts – I mean, religious leaders, skeptics, even, sometimes, friends – on the prowl. Jesus would face temptation again, in the beautiful garden of Gethsemane that was for one anxious night a wilderness. Jesus would pass that test, too, even though it looked to the beasts and to the best like he had failed.

The wilderness tested Jesus, as it had tested the Israelites, as it continues to test us. In the wilderness, we are stripped down to the very essentials. And the essentials are these: God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us. That is enough for us as we go about the work we were called to do back at the front gate, when we were dripping with baptismal waters. God is all that we need. Nothing else. Everything else is a temptation.

It’s a jungle out there, the saying goes. We live all the time in the wilderness, full of temptations and tests, wild beasts and wrong turns, too much water or not enough. Because we fear we won’t survive, we pack on as much gear as we possibly can – not just the backpack, the sleeping bag, the clear garbage bag for when it rains, but the tent, and the grill, and the cooler, and the GPS,….all proof that we can make it just fine on our own.

The season of Lent offers us an opportunity to be stripped down to the essentials. Forty days of wilderness living, not without God but rather in an intentional effort to understand just how near to us God is each and every day. The Israelites discovered that nearness in their wilderness living, convinced as they were that they had been left to die among the wild beasts. They encountered God in wild and strange and unexpected ways – water from a rock, bread from heaven. It took forty years for them to understand that all they needed was God, and suddenly the rainbow-lit back gate opened up into the Promised Land.

We don’t need all that gear. We are more able than we think we are to live out who are called to be. I certainly learned that in the wilderness of the mountains of North Carolina. I may never win on Survivor, but I can light a fire in the rain. I may never win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I can comfort a homesick camper and carry her backpack for her.

So are we more able than we think we are to live out who we are called to be in our baptism. It’s a jungle out there, but God is with us in the wilderness, ready to meet us in wild and strange and unexpected ways as we go. Jesus himself is the food and drink that nourishes us. And the only thing that is forever, as the psalmist says, are God’s compassion and love, which are from everlasting. Amen.