Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lent 1C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:9-15; Romans 10:5-13; Luke 4:1-13

The summer after 7th grade, my family went to stay at Kanuga, an Episcopal retreat center near Ashville, NC, for a week. 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 unfurled overhead. Late every afternoon, about an hour before the dinner bell sounded, it would rain. No, not rain – it would pour. My family would sit tucked in on the screened porch, talking and telling stories, shivering 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 twisted roots. Moments later, a line of young people appeared, trudging along the path 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 this strange, this wild and unexpected procession round a corner that continued uphill and out of sight, and we figured that they must have been from Camp Kanuga, just a mile down the road. 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 several years later. It rained – no, it poured, the afternoon I led my first campout as a Camp Kanuga counselor, trudging along the very same path, 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 three of your crying campers’ backpacks because there might have been a bee back there) and 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, led by the Spirit, tempted by the devil, eating nothing at all. 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, the number 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. Neither the Israelites nor Jesus simply stumbled off a pathway of pine straw and pebbles – God called them there. Sent them there. In Luke’s gospel, the Spirit led Jesus there, he was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.

I wonder if Jesus looked back, back to the moment not so long before 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, and certainly deep affirmation, for Jesus. In those waters, God confessed Jesus’ identity, who Jesus was. You are my Son, the Beloved. In the wilderness, the devil would try to dry Jesus out, try to drain him of who he was and fill him instead with the devil told him he could be if he would step off the path just a little…

Just think how much good you could do, Jesus, if you turned these stones to bread. Just think how many would hear you if you had authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Just think how many would notice if you pulled that stunt from the pinnacle from the temple – the whole world would see and know who you are.

That was just the thing, though, wasn’t it. The world wouldn’t have known who Jesus was at all. Instead they would have known a man who, like so many others before and after him, had believed those words whispered his ear. Real temptation beckons us, entices us, to do that about which much good can be said – no self-respecting devil entices us by suggesting we fall into ruin (another preacher suggested, “ruin is in the small print at the bottom of the temptation”).

Wiping out hunger, overturning oppressive governments, letting all the world see the power of God…Luke makes it sound as though Jesus had his answers at the ready, but I wonder if Jesus struggled. He hadn’t yet preached a sermon or called a disciple or healed anyone…it was all new to him. He didn’t exactly have an instruction manual. He knew the Jewish people had high expectations of a messiah, one whose political and religious power would sweep in and restore God’s rule. Stones to bread…He must have struggled. We are only tempted by what is within our power – temptation appeals to our strength, to what we are capable of, not our weakness. Jesus must have struggled mightily. But as the sweat began to drip down his brow, the Spirit stirred in him and he remembered and looked back to that moment dripping in the river and heard again God’s confession, You are my Son, the Beloved.

The words were then very near indeed to Jesus’ lips, as he responded with his own confession. Two of the verses he quotes in this passage are part of the great confession of the Jewish faith, shema yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. And so Jesus faithfully resisted the temptation to be less or other than he was called to be. God was all that Jesus needed. We don’t get to hear in this reading what happens next, which is that filled with the same Holy Spirit, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins his ministry of telling the world that all they need is God, too.

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 and beyond would, in the end, be no safer than the sands of the desert. They were filled, as our communities today are filled, with people who believed cleverly whispered words that power, authority, and wealth made you who you were. That gender, skin color, age, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness were measures of worth. That a little violence and deception and betrayal were justifiable means to an end. In the wildnerness of the world there were wild beasts on the prowl in the form of religious and political leaders, skeptics, and even, sometimes, friends. 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 nailed to a cross it would look for all the world like he had failed.

The wilderness tested the faith of Jesus, as it had tested the Israelites, as it continues to test our faith. 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 back when we came dripping out of the baptismal waters and our identity was confessed: You are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. That, sisters and brothers, is who we are. God is all that we need.

It’s a jungle out there, as 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. Both scripture and experience bear testimony to a power which opposes love, health, peace, and wholeness. Because we fear we won’t survive, we pack on as much gear as we possibly can – not just the backpack, the sleeping bag, and the clear garbage bag for when it rains, but the tent, and the grill, and the cooler, and the air mattress, and the LED headlamps and the titanium stove, and the GPS…after all, haven’t we stepped a little off the path, couldn’t we be getting a little lost…?

In the season of Lent, we have the opportunity to be stripped down to the essentials. We don’t need all that gear. The messiah didn’t turn stones to bread, he wasn’t a magician, or a conquering hero, or a one-man show. You are my Son, the Beloved. God was well-pleased for the messiah to walk the paths around the Jordan River valley, teaching and preaching and healing and laughing and eating and loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength.

We are more able than we think we are to live out who we 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 a Nobel Peace Prize, but I can comfort a homesick camper and carry her backpack for her.

So are we all 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 the Spirit leads us in the wilderness, ready to meet us in wild and strange and unexpected ways as we go, ready to be our strength, ready to help us to remember who we are. Out there in the wilderness, Jesus himself is the food and drink that nourishes us. And while we may not be wet forever out there in the wilderness, the word is always very near us, the confession that we are Christ’s own forever – we carry it here, where once water ran across our brow. That is all we need. Nothing else. Everything else is temptation. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Epiphany 6C

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

One of the happiest, places in the world for me, when I was very little, was my grandparents’ house. And one of the happiest places in that house was my mom’s old room, where some of her stuffed animals still sat in the window seat, and a bulletin board was covered in pictures from high school and summer camp, and the shelves were filled with books – Nancy Drew and Vicky Barr mysteries, stories about dogs, and Peanuts books.

Do you remember those little books, kid-sized, with brightly colored pages on which Snoopy danced and Schroeder played his piano and Lucy gave out advice and Charlie Brown smiled despite it all? The words were kid-sized, too: “Happiness is a warm puppy.” “Security is a thumb and a blanket.” “Happiness is when the bell rings just before you are called on to recite.”

Those books are back in print right now, looking just the same as they did at my grandmother’s house thirty years ago. Happiness is picking up the book at the bookstore and seeing the familiar pictures, re-reading the familiar words. Familiar to me, anyway, until the very last page, which it seems I hadn’t remembered at all. It says: “Happiness is one thing to one person, and another thing to another person.”

I suppose we’re not all warm puppy people. There are as many different means to happiness as there are people who seek it. For me, these days, happiness is a lap full of yarn and a pair of knitting needles. For my husband, happiness is having a guitar and spare time in his hands. For our son, happiness is any quantity of matchbox cars. The means are different, but the happiness – the contentment, satisfaction, security and comfort – is very much the same.

This morning we are re-reading the familiar words of the Beatitudes (from the Latin, beatus; the Greek means both “blessed” and “happy”). The words are so familiar to us that we hardly have to remember them at all. It’s the same familiar picture of the crowds surrounding Jesus, and Jesus sounding for all the world like one of those old Peanuts books…happy are they who...blessed are you when…

In the Hebrew scriptures, beatitudes were a common formula for prescribing moral, faithful behavior. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream, wrote the prophet Jeremiah. In our psalm this morning, Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners. For a people whose lives were rooted in Torah, in the law, the connection between following that law and being blessed, being happy, made sense.

In the world, there are (there have always been) many formulas with many variables for finding what is also called happiness and sometimes even blessedness. In some of those formulas, luck is the only variable that counts. In others it’s hard work. In some it may be fate. And setting such variables as warm puppies, knitting needles, and matchbox cars aside, the constant always in play is our deep and desperate need for security, for our share of comfort in world that never seems to have enough for all. For a people whose lives are caught up in the world, the connection between what we have, who we have, what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve acquired, how far we’ve come and being happy makes sense.

I wonder who Charles Schultz had in mind on that very last page of his sweet little book about happiness. Did he really mean that for some people happiness is a warm puppy and for others it is a fuzzy sweater? As I re-read the now not-so-familiar words, other pages began to stand out. “Happiness is a bread and butter sandwich folded over.” “Security is knowing you are not alone.” “Happiness is owning your own home,” with a drawing of Snoopy hugging his doghouse. One whole book in the series is devoted to the comfort of food, another to the comfort of friends, and still another to the comfort of home.

“Happiness is one thing to one person, and another thing to another person.” When I was little, a bread and butter sandwich folded over was an after school snack. For very many people in the world, a bread and butter sandwich is more than they will eat all week. Happiness would be even the bread by itself. Butter would be a step up, a blessing…

In this season of Epiphany, of revelation, of coming to understand who Jesus is, we have the opportunity to re-read the Beatitudes and find the words of blessing and of woe now not so familiar, not so sweet, not so formulaic. Jesus tenders blessings that have nothing at all to do with luck, or hard work, or even faithfulness but instead have everything to do with who God is. God’s calling of the people of Israel had begun with a blessing, when God said to Abram, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. The oldest existing fragment of parchment containing words from scripture has upon it the blessing God asked Aaron and Moses to speak over the Israelites in the wilderness: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Blessing immediately and unconditionally conveys something of the life-giving, life-transforming power of God upon those who are blessed. Blessing conveys something of who God is, of how God acts, of what matters to God.

Blessed are you who are poor, Jesus said, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, who are hated and excluded and reviled and marginalized. Blessed are you. Happy are you. None of that would ever make it onto Charles Schultz’ list – or anyone else’s list for that matter – of what happiness, contentment, satisfaction, or security is. Happiness is being rich, having full bellies, laughing, being accepted and included and honored….right? Jesus had the world backward, upside-down.

But Jesus wasn’t describing the world with which everyone was familiar. Jesus was describing the world with him in it, divinity mingled with DNA, heaven and earth inseparable. Jesus was describing the world with the kingdom of God in it, of which he had heard his momma Mary sing, He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Happiness, blessedness is one thing to people, and another thing altogether to God.

Blessed are you who are poor, Jesus says, for yours is the kingdom of God, for you matter to God. In the kingdom of God, which is mine to bring, you matter. In the words of these Beatitudes, in these words of blessing, we read what matters to God. Poverty matters to God. Hunger matters. Weeping matters. Those who are hated and excluded and reviled and marginalized matter. In all of our gospel accounts, but especially in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ life and ministry is spent among people who had been told by the world, “Happiness is…not for you.”

And so what are we to do, we who believe that Jesus was indeed God-with-us? Happiness is having something practical to offer on the last page of a sermon: how to be a better disciple, how to start a new ministry, how to live a more faithful life. But we must take care with the Beatitudes, because they are not a to-do list. They are not about how to get into the kingdom – do this, and you will be blessed, do that, and woe is you. They are not a glorification of truly wretched social and economic conditions that continue to diminish those whom God has blessed. They are not, by themselves anyway, a divine formula for altering those conditions, for we who eat buttered bread are a variable in that formula, too – Jesus will in many other teachings ask us to alter some conditions in our lives.

Instead, the Beatitudes simply and powerfully reveal the kingdom of God already present here, now, a kingdom utterly unfamiliar in a world that measures out happiness, that awards blessedness. Indeed, woe are they who continue to measure out happiness, to award blessings and store up security, for they are living in a world that no longer exists – the kingdom of God in which blessedness is for all is now in the world, but they cannot see it.

What are we to do? We are to understand what matters to God. We are to understand what matters to Jesus. We are to understand that, as his disciples, these things must matter to us. Blessed are we and all the whole world when the kingdom in our midst becomes what is most familiar. Amen.