Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ashes for Un-masking

A homily for Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 103, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

Yesterday we put on masks.  Today, we take them off.

Yesterday we mixed the Anglican tradition of Shrove Tuesday with the French Catholic tradition of Mardi gras.  We had our fill of pancakes and king cakes and we put on masks last night.  

We put on masks to play, to be silly, and to temporarily disguise ourselves.  Often, I find that there’s a comfort in putting on a mask.  No one can see my face.  No one can see the real me.  A mask can make honest what is already the case internally—that I sometimes wear a fa├žade between the real me and you.  Much of the time, we wear masks. 

I wear a mask when I smile but don’t feel like smiling.  I wear one when I appear strong but am actually terrified.  I wear a mask when I pretend to care, but underneath, I’m really consumed with self-interest. 

Wearing a mask can be a matter of dishonesty, but not always.  Sometimes we wear masks because it’s all we’ve been taught or conditioned to do.  Sometimes we wear them for protection.  At times, a mask may save a life. 

But the mask can become too comfortable.  A few years ago when Tammy Faye Bakker was being styled for something, a makeup artist asked her to take off her false eyelashes.  She wouldn’t do it.  “Without my eyelashes,” she said, “I wouldn’t be Tammy Faye.”  It seemed that she had grown into her mask. 

Yesterday we put on masks, but today we take them off.  Or we begin to take them off.  Or at least we are invited to think about taking them off. 

The liturgy and prayers of Ash Wednesday are filled with contradictions:  We observe silence by using words. We kneel for prayer, yet God would have us jump for joy at the forgiveness he has already shown.  We talk about removing our mask and “coming clean” by putting ashes on our forehead.  But rather than the ashes becoming as new kind of mask, the kind of false piety mentioned in today’s Gospel, the ashes in the sign of the cross are meant to remind us that we are putting on Christ.  We put on Christ to allow our true self to be clearly seen, to be magnified, and to shine.

The scriptures today are filled with sounds and images meant to startle, to wake up, and to act like a splash of cold water to wash our faces clean. Through prayer and penitence, silence and service, may we begin to take off our masks, until that day when we see God face to face.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Transfigured for Faithfulness

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2012.  The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, and Mark 9:2-9 .

I guess there are some people who are fine with arriving at a movie theater just in time for the movie, but I like to get there early.  I like it because I want to see the trailers, the previews of other movies coming out soon.  I like to see what stories are going to be told, how they might make me think or respond, or even how one of the upcoming movies might change me.    

This Sunday, this day in which we hear of the Transfiguration of Jesus, is a kind of preview.  The scriptures and prayers provide a kind of trailer for the full feature that will be the Season of Lent and Holy Week.  Today is a preview of coming attractions. 

The preview begins with our Old Testament reading, as Elijah passes off the role of chief prophet to Elisha.  Elisha, the sort of prophet-in-training, seems to suspect something is about to happen, and so he’s hesitant to let the older prophet out of his sight.  The older one, Elijah, tries to move on ahead, but Elisha refuses to leave him.  Finally, Elijah makes it clear that it’s time for him to REALLY move ahead, to die to this world and to join God.  Elisha doesn’t like this—he’s not only going to lose his teacher and friend, but this also means that the full weight of the prophetic ministry is going to fall on Elisha.  But he keeps quiet and watches. 

After asking Elijah for courage and strength and whatever else Elijah can impart to him (characterized as “a double share of your spirit”), Elijah suggests that if Elisha is able to watch all that is about to happen, if he’s able to take it all in, if he’s about to stand firm, and absorb God’s majesty in front of him, then that double spirit of Elijah will be his.  And that’s just what happens. 

This movement of Elijah away from Elisha, the inclusion of the spirit that remains, and all of this within the work of God--- this is a preview of just what is going to happen between Jesus and his disciples.  Through the days ahead, we’ll see how Jesus keeps moving in front of his disciples, almost as though he’s trying to get away from them.  But what’s really happening is that Jesus is following the call of God, and sometimes he’s just ahead of his friends.  They have to keep catching up, until the time that Jesus has to go part of the way alone.

If this really were a movie preview in a theater, as we approach the Gospel, the music would grow more suspenseful and probably use all of the latest technology to rumble and thunder to great effect.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain.  There on the mountain, light settles on Jesus in such a way that he seems to be especially illumined.  The light is not so much from above, or behind, or from below, but just everywhere.  He’s brighter from within somehow.  And then, along with him appear Elijah and Moses. 

Elijah represents the great tradition of the prophets, and his presence anoints Jesus as his successor.  Moses, who received the Ten Commandments from God and helped the people of Israel understand the commandments as blessings, and write their message on their hearts—Moses represents the Law of God.  With Moses, Jesus inherits the full weight of the Law and the Commandments, but does just what Moses was trying to get the children of Israel to do—to write the law in their hearts, not just to quote the law of God, as our Prayer Book says, to “show forth [God’s] praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives.” 

This Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain will reverberate through the whole season of Lent for us.  The power of prophecy will go with Jesus as he speaks the truth to the Devil in the wilderness, as he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, as he cuts through the duplicity of Judas, his betrayer.  The love and power of the law is embodied by Jesus as he lives out the laws of God, dealing fairly with people, caring for the poor, and sacrificing his own personal needs, wants, and desires for the sake of the others, of the community, of the whole world. 

At the transfiguration, Peter’s response previews a common response of others in the days that lead up to the crucifixion in Jerusalem.  Why rush things?  Why not do some equivalent of building booths, of sitting down and staying a while.  Why not be content with things as they are?  But Jesus will not be held.  

He will not be held by Peter on the mount of Transfiguration.  He’ll not be held by sin in the attempt of the religious leaders to bind him in a mock trial and crucifixion.  Jesus won’t be held by the death of the grave.  Even after the Resurrection, Jesus will not be held down by the needs or expectations of Mary Magdalene, the early believers, or even the church in our day. 

Though many aspects of what we will encounter are already encountered in today’s readings, perhaps the most important has to do with words the disciples hear and we overhear in the Gospel.  It happens when a cloud overshadows them.  A voice comes out of the cloud, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.”

Those words are powerful enough, but I almost imagine God adding to that, “no matter what.”  “This is my son, Jesus.  Listen to him, no matter what.”  Whether the disciples heard God say something like this, or whether they picked it up through faith, it seems like the disciples did hear something in God’s message that brought encouragement and strength.  And we’re invited to do the same.

Listen to Jesus, no matter what.  Listen to him on days like the Transfiguration.  When we’re overwhelmed by the presence of God, or by the presence of something larger than ourselves.  We feel the weight of our ancestors upon us, and the people closest to us don’t understand.  Listen to Jesus.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll journey with Jesus through the desert, through the towns, toward Jerusalem, the cross of Good Friday, and the rising of Easter Sunday.  Through it all, we’re encouraged to listen to Jesus.

When in the wilderness, surrounded by temptation and doubt, listen to Jesus who put the devil in his place and moved on in faithfulness to God.

When we’re feeling weighed down by crosses of our day, listen to him who carried his cross and triumphed over it.

When we’re facing dishonesty and corruption, listen to him who called out the moneychangers and overturned their tables.

When it seems like everything around us is about death and decay, listen to him who was raised from the dead and brings new life to us.

Listen to him.  Pray to him.  Follow him.

Today’s readings and prayers do work a little like a preview to a movie, except for a major difference—this movie is not only about Jesus.  It’s about you and me.  It’s about our life.  In the stories, traditions, and sacraments of this coming season, our lives can take on new meaning and purpose as we hear God say to us:  You are my beloved.  Follow, trust, and believe.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When it's hard to do the simple thing

Naaman washes in the Jordan

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2012.  The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 5:1-14 , 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Psalm 30 and Mark 1:40-45 .

I think I remember the exact moment that Ina Garten became my favorite chef.  For me, she moved from cookbook author and television host to good friend and trusted kitchen companion when she changed my cooking life.  It all had to do with pearl onions and beef stew. 

I had made beef stew before and the recipe I tended to use always included pearl onions.  I would buy a pack of the things and get to work. Peeling, peeling, and peeling.  It would take as long to peel those little onions as it would take to prepare all of the other ingredients.  I would use the best knife I could find.  I asked other people if there were any tricks to peeling these little onions.  I made sure I had plenty of time set aside to work on them.  That is the way I did things until a new book by Ina Garten came out, and there in one of her recipes, along with things I had assembled and things I had pulled out of the cabinet, it said very plainly “one bag of frozen small onions.” 

It had never occurred to me that there might even BE frozen onions. Who knew it could be that simple?  With tools, techniques, added know-how—I had complicated my beef stew situation beyond all proportion.  And yet the answer was unexpected and unbelievably simple. 

Though my beef stew and pearl onion example is a silly one, that sort of thing happens all the time in other aspects of my life.  I feel a certain ailment in my body, self-diagnose and convince myself that it’s a particular thing.  With the information overload of the Internet, I can quickly contract the most exotic sickness imaginable.  But then I check with the doctor, or mention my symptoms to someone, and the problem is different from what I suspected, and solved with a simple solution.  How many of the greatest illnesses have found remedies in simple things, combined in just the right way?

The main theme of today’s scripture readings is about people who are healed.  And a part of their healing comes when they are able to do the simplest thing—to let go of their own ideas, their own attempts to fix the problem, and to allow God room to work.  In the first lesson it’s Naaman who is healed.  And in the Gospel it is a leper whose name we don’t know.

In the Second Book of the Kings, word reaches Elisha the prophet about this man who is sick, and Elisha calls for him to come and visit.  Powerful Naaman gets to the opening of Elisha’s cave, Elisha sends a servant out to talk to Naaman.  The servant says, “Elisha says for you to go and wash in the River Jordan seven times.  That should do the trick.  You’ll be fine.” 

Well!  This great military commander Naaman is insulted.  Did he travel all the way to Israel only to be told by a servant go and wash in the river?  Does he not even get to see this supposedly great prophet? 

Naaman gets angry and criticizes Elisha.  He makes fun of Israel and its rivers, and on and on he goes, in an absolute rage.  Had he continued to mouth off, had he continued to try to fit things into his own way of seeing, he would have completely missed the opportunity before him.  He would have missed the presence of God, and the healing of God.  Just before they leave Israel altogether, one of Naaman’s servants pulls him aside and begins to talk a little sense into him. Naaman eventually goes down to the water, he bathes seven times, and he is healed.  Not only is he healed of the leprosy, but it also sounds like he might have been healed from a little of his arrogance and pride.

Our Gospel also tells us about another person who find healing.  This one is a leper.  This man sees Jesus coming, has faith, and begs for his attention.  Jesus responds and heals him, but then asks him to keep quiet about it.  Jesus says, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and make the customary offering.”  Hold your tongue, Jesus says.  Don’t try to explain this.  Don’t try so hard to understand it or control it.  Simply accept it, say your prayers, make an offering, and check in with the Temple priest. 

But the healed man can’t be quiet.  He begins to tell everyone what has happened, and this causes such a ruckus that Jesus is unable to help or heal anyone else in the area.  Jesus moves away and goes out into the country.

Whenever I read this story, I wonder why Jesus tells the man to be quiet.  Traditional reasons are that Jesus didn’t want to raise the attention of the religious leaders or mislead the people into making him their political leader.  I would think Jesus would want the power of God to spread throughout the area.  In our day, I would think Jesus might want the very best press agent, the most interactive web site, the slickest advertising possible.  But instead, Jesus asks for silence.  For quiet.  For reflection. 

But I wonder… It could be that Jesus wants the healed man to reflect on his healing, that while the leprosy may be gone, the healing God gives is really much deeper and much more involved.  I think Jesus wanted the man to be still, to try to absorb this contact with the Divine, to adjust to the life of Christ now alive in him, and to begin to live in a new way.

I think Jesus knew our tendency to label ourselves with one thing or another and to get stuck with that label.  Naaman had a strong sense of himself, and saw himself with a particular disease that (surely) needed a particular kind of cure. 

He KNEW what he needed.  In the New Testament, Jesus understood that for the leper to be healed and get used to his new health, it would take a while.  And in that time, the healed man is being invited to let go of his own self-understanding and to live in the present, to live in the moment. 

The Church often differentiates between healing that involves a cure, and healing that involves wellbeing, shalom, wholeness, acceptance, peace, and serenity.  The kind of healing that brings all those quieter things is the one that Jesus is leading the healed leper to discover. 

Sit with your new-found healing, Jesus seems to say.  Savor it.  It is here now.  It wasn’t yesterday. It might not be tomorrow.  So for now, show yourself to the priest, (do the smart, sensible thing, in that culture), but don’t cling too tightly even to your healing.  Cling to God. 

When Naaman reached the cave of Elisha and received instructions, he would have done well to be silent, take in the information, and listen for God.  In our Gospel, after the leper is healed, he would have done well to have listened to Christ and remained quiet.  Sometimes, if we don’t hold our tongue, we stand the chance of missing God’s presence. 

Sometimes it is through silence, by not speaking, by not saying everything that’s on our minds, in not over-explaining or over-defending sacred things, there is freedom.  There is freedom to hear God and to know God. 

The real gift of God is the presence of Christ.  He is with us.  He is in us.  And he never leaves us alone.  He meets us in the sacraments.  He meets us in prayer.  He meets us in one another.  He calls us by name.  He shows us the way to God. He leads us through death and into life again. 

With hesitation and awe, but with open hearts, may we be led through all mysteries and questions, into the very heart of God. And may we know the fullness of God’s healing in Christ.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Healing with Prayer, Touch & Love

St. Blase, 13th c. stained glass, Louvre

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-12, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 , and Mark 1:29-39.

On Friday, we added our prayers to the prayers of the ages by commemorating St. Blase, a fourth century bishop and physician in Sebastea, a part of present day Turkey.  As a doctor, Blase was known to have a particular gift of healing when it came to objects stuck in the throat, such as a chicken bone fish bone.  It’s for this reason that on February 3, throats are sometimes blessed (though for me, for some reason I always seem to have a scratchy throat around February 3—maybe St. Blase is urging me to offer the blessing of throats here, on his special day.)  

When we think about healing, we approach complicated territory.  So many things come together when one feels healing—medicine, general condition of the body, the state of the soul, the community, the general condition of one’s surroundings, one’s emotional condition (whether one is worried, or anxious, or free of such burdens).  And then there is God—God stepping into our world in some way, making a miracle, and doing the unexpected, unearned, unmerited, unpredictable thing. 

The Gospel we have just heard comes at a good time, as this is a first Sunday of the month, a day when we offer prayers for healing, with the laying on of hands, and anointing with Holy Oil.  When we offer such prayers for healing-- whether it is a lay minister or someone who is ordained, whether we anoint with oil, or offer the simplest prayers possible-- what are doing is BEING the church at its most basic, most fundamental, and most essential. 

What we do does not replace a medical doctor.  It doesn’t make up for eating a balanced diet, getting some exercise and generally trying to live a good life.  We do not deal in superstition and we don’t offer magic.  What we offer is sacramental—a blessed combination of prayer and touch and love.  This is what the church of Jesus Christ offers when it offers healing:  it offers prayer, touch and love.

In today’s Gospel, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is healed by Jesus.  He takes her by the hand, lifts her up and the fever leaves her.  Later that same day, people bring to Jesus those who are sick and those who have demons. The sick and the possessed were not allowed in the synagogue or the temple.   These were people who had run out of options.  They didn’t have anywhere else to turn, and so they turned to Jesus.  And he healed them.  Jesus then continues to heal throughout Galilee, in the towns and in the synagogues.  Praying, touching and loving.

Jesus healed people from sickness and from demons.  But he also healed them from and with their surroundings.  He healed public reaction to those who were feared because they were sick, feared because they were different, feared because society had labeled them “unclean.”  I wonder if we ever need that kind of healing, when we encounter another who is sick?  How do we respond to the sick?  What do we say to someone who is newly diagnosed?  What do we say when someone’s treatments are not going well?

 What do we say to the friend diagnosed with breast cancer or whose results at a clinic come back positive?  So often, if we’re not careful, unconsciously we can begin to pull back, and to move away ever so slightly.  We might justify our distance by saying that we don’t want to say anything stupid, or we think our friend might just need a little space. 

But the way of healing (for Jesus and for us) is to move forward.  Jesus always moves toward people—into their neighborhoods, into their homes, into their lives with prayer, touch and love.

Prayer is the first part, and it may seem like the easy part, but it’s the foundation, and we’ll lose our nerve to go any further if we are grounded in prayer.  When I pray for someone to get better or to be healed, I try really hard to be honest with God.  I know that part about “praying that God’s will would be done above all,” but I’m honest when I pray for someone and I ask God to make the person better, to take away the sickness, to make the person strong again.  One way I pray for another’s healing is simply to picture the person in the fullness of health—vibrant, happy, at ease.  That image of the person becomes my prayer as I hold that image in my mind for a minute or two and then imagine the person being that healthy and happy person in the presence of God. 

We offer prayer as a part of healing, but we also offer touch.  The touch part of healing has to do with proximity.  Mindful that we live in a complicated age, I’m not for a moment suggesting that we smother one another in hugs and holds.  Touch can be as exclusive as it can be inclusive.  But there are many, many ways of showing physical presence while allowing for personal space.  Closeness has as much to do with an open posture, with eye contact, with fewer words and with more deeply hearing ears. 

We pray, we touch, and with the two, if we’re about healing, then we offer love.  Love can be accepting and warm and soothing.  And sometimes it just needs to be present in calm, quiet ways.  But sometimes love is louder and tougher and more direct.  Soft love for an addict is called enabling.   Love always, always, always has to do with the truth. 

Especially as it includes truth-telling, healing not only happens with individuals, but it also happens with institutions.  If telling the truth is an important aspect of personal healing, it’s even more important when it comes to corporate healing.  Volkswagen is one example. 

Some years ago, Volkswagen had reached a plateau—financially, but even more perplexing, it was stuck creatively.  Historians and archivists were consulted to look at the company’s history.  It was Hitler’s order in 1933 to build a people’s car, and the bug was to be that car.  In 1991, Volkswagen installed a memorial in one of its factories to the workers who had suffered through the 1940s.  In 1992, the Volkswagen CEO commissioned a book to be written that would try to come to terms with VW’s Nazi past.  Along with other management improvements, VW began to open up to a new spirit.  In some ways the company experienced healing and new life. 

In 2009, Virginia Seminary published a book of essays calledNo Turning Back: the Black Presence at Virginia Theological Seminary which also seeks to tell the truth in love, especially concerning the seminary’s cooperation from slavery and its role in racial segregation.  And healing has begun.

Healing happens in institutions and in families, and this should be no surprise.  Jesus did not only heal individuals.  He also cast out demons from the synagogues and the towns.  Almost every conversation he had with the Pharisees and Sadducees—the religious professionals of his day—he spoke a painful and judging truth to them.  With institutions as well as individuals, we can be a part of God’s healing, by praying, by remaining connected, and by speaking the truth in love. 

But healing almost always leaves us with questions.  A few years ago, there was a wonderful movie called “Leap of Faith” that beautifully presents some of the questions around healing.  It starred Steve Martin as a traveling faith healer named Jonas Nightingale.  Jonas and his crew roll from town to town, almost like a travelling circus.  With cameras that watch the crowed, with recording devices and old tricks, they manufacture and manipulate situations that appear to be acts of spontaneous healing, and then they count the money while it rolls in. 

For the most part, the act gives people a good show.  Jonas and his crew are careful to keep the real sick people at the back of the room, so that only the ones they’ve planted will appear to be healed and things won’t get messy. 

The act goes well enough until the group is traveling between towns and gets stuck in Rustwater, Kansas.  The town is aptly named because it’s undergoing a draught.  Crops are failing. People are on hard times.  And so the people are eager for miracles and attend the revival offered by Jonas.

But then, just as the faith-healer’s assistant is beginning to question her own involvement in the operation, a teenager who was hurt in a car accident and can’t walk without crutches and braces comes forward in the revival and asks to be healed.  Jonas ignores him and ends the show.  But the crowd is chanting, “one more, one more.”  Reluctantly, and fearfully, Jonas goes back out and tries his theatrical best to invoke some kind of power around the teenager named Boyd.  Boyd struggles to make his way toward a crucifix that is hanging, and as the movie music builds and the congregation gasps and Jonas himself isn’t sure what will happen next, Boyd’s one crutch falls away and he’s still standing.  Eventually, the other falls away and he’s able to walk a bit.  Jonas doesn’t know what to do with this.  His character doesn’t immediately believe, but he knows that his own bluff has been called.  Later, as he gets a ride out of town, a thunderstorm hits, with rain falling and blessing and answering the prayers of all the faithful. 

While the story is fictitious and is embellished with all that Hollywood can throw in, it raises some good questions.  How are healing and prayer connected?  Does one’s moral character affect healing in any way?  Does the faith of the individual matter as much as the faith of the community? 

These are questions we live out as we continue to pray, to touch and accept holy touch, to love and to be loved.  Jesus cast out demons and healed people with prayer and touch and love. 

With the help of St. Blase and all the saints, may we be healed through Jesus the Great Physician, and may we offer this healing to the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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