Sunday, March 12, 2017

Born Again In Baptism

Lent 2A
12 March 2017

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?” A very logical question, Nicodemus. Unfortunately, Nicodemus is thinking a little too logically. Because when Jesus answers back with this gem, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” It’s really no surprise that Nicodemus is a bit confused. What does he mean, born from above? Whatever can Jesus mean?
The phrase, “born from above,” in the NRSV is the same phrase that is translated as “born again” in other translations. “Born again” is definitely a buzz word in modern Christianity. It stands for inclusion into the more fundamental evangelical conservative groups on the Christianity spectrum. Only if you have had an experience of being born again, having a total life reversal because of an encounter with Jesus, can you be born again. When I think of the phrase, born again, I think of televangelists and celebrities who have done bad things and then claim to be born again. I think of people walking the streets with pamphlets asking if I have been saved or born again or if I know if I am going to heaven or hell.
So what does Jesus really mean? Jesus tries to clarify by saying, being born of water and Spirit. Now, that is still not the clearest answer in the world, however it is one step further. We can make a connection with being born of water and Spirit. We are born of water and Spirit in our rite of baptism. Baptism is where we acknowledge and accept the spiritual nature our lives and where we are imbued with the Holy Spirit. We become part of God's family through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism we are reborn with the intention of living a life following Jesus and in relationship with God. In Episcopal parlance, being born again would mean living very seriously out of our baptisms. I like how Jesus says that we must be born of water and Spirit. It is a both/and situation. Being born again requires both the physical aspect of our bodies and the spiritual aspect of the Spirit. We are not just physical or not just spiritual. One of the many heresies that the church tried to shed itself of in the early centuries of Christianity was the gnostic movement, which came out of popular Greek philosophy which viewed the body as evil and corrupt and that the best way of life was to escape the body as much as possible. This is not the case with Jesus, water is a very physical aspect of our lives as human beings on this planet. We need water for survival. I was at the Carnegie Science Museum this past week and one of the things I learned is that I have approximately 13 gallons of water in me, about 60% of me is made up of water! We are both physical and spiritual and we need to be born both physically and spiritually in order to follow Jesus into eternal life.
Living out of our baptisms is what Episcopalians have been trying to do very specifically since the approval of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Baptism makes all people ministers of the church. We all have a mission. In order to take our baptisms seriously, in order to make that mission our own, we have to take the baptismal covenant promises seriously. If you look at the promises of baptism in the BCP (p. 304), you’ll see that we are all called very intentionally in the Baptismal Covenant to do certain activities, to be part of the community, even when we disagree with those in the community. To share in the breaking of bread, to continue in a prayerful relationship with God, to share your story about Jesus with others, to serve others, to love others, and to love yourself! We have been called to renounce the evil ways in our lives. Wait, I know none of you are intentionally maliciously evil to anyone else. However, evil is sneaky. We are all unfortunately complicit in the institutional evils in our country that trap people in poverty and ignorance and hunger. We all have prejudices we cannot see or don't wish to see. We are all tempted in many and various ways to use our abundance selfishly or to put something other than God first in our lives. We all fall into the trap of thinking that we can save ourselves through hard work or smart plans or through some deal. Thankfully, as we are called to repent and renounce all this evil, we have God’s promise of forgiveness. And there is still more. We are called to work for justice and peace and dignity for everyone. Not just those who are like you or us. Not just those who speak the same language or follow the same religion. Not just those who legally live in Franklin in a separate house. We are called to work for justice and peace and dignity for everyone, of every color, nation, gender, ability, background, we are all born of water, made up of water.
Jesus ends the gospel passage from John that we hear today with such good news! God loves us. God sent his Son to save us. God wants us to have eternal life. This is definitely good news. Baptism is part of our way of accepting this good news. There are others. We accept the gift that God has given us. Good works come forth from our acceptance and our willingness and our desire to share. Through this acceptance and belief we come to see the kingdom of God. The author of the gospel of John only refers to the kingdom of God twice in the entire book. Both times are in this passage. The kingdom of God is not something that we are waiting for, Jesus says, it is something to be seen. “Very truly,” Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” How can we see the kingdom of God here on earth? We see it in the sharing of communal life. We see it in those who are working on behalf of others. We see it in the time and effort of those who work the Shepherd's Green Community Food Pantry. We see it in all the great work and mission being done outside our doors.

Being born of water and Spirit is about accepting the invitation into the family and kingdom of God. Once in the family, there are, as every family has, family rules. The rule of God’s family is most simply summarized in one word. It is in fact a four letter word, and it is not the easiest word in the world to do and act on and be and feel… but it is the family rule. God calls us to love. As God loves, we are called to love. With love, we will see the kingdom of God around us. With love, we will be healed and saved. With love, we will understand the greatest mystery in the world. Amen.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Trusting God


Lent 1A
5 March 2017
“Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights tempted, and yet undefiled.” Hymn 150 begins. We have officially started the season of Lent. The gospel passage for today sets us firmly in the season of Lent and it fits the beginning of Lent so very well. We are told that Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. The number forty in the Bible is symbolic of a time of transition, and this story comes as the transition for Jesus between his baptism by John in the river Jordan and the beginning of his ministry throughout the region of Judea. Jesus is led by God into the desert for some transition time to test and strengthen his call to ministry and his identity. This passage calls to mind another transitional testing period in the wilderness – the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. However, we know full well that the Israelites failed the testing they experienced there. They did not trust God and so they had to wait forty years before they could enter the Promised Land. However, we will see that Jesus doesn’t fail his test.
The other important number in this passage is the number three. Three is a magic number!, says School House Rock and so it is in the Bible. Human beings tend to like the number three. In public speaking courses, I was always taught that three is the easiest number to remember and thus, it is best to keep arguments, examples, and lists to the magic number of three. Certainly, three also has a very solid place in Christianity, being Trinitarian as we are.
In the gospel passage today, we see Jesus tempted by Satan three times. The word, “Satan,” literally means "Adversary" and was the ancient term for the prosecuting attorney in a court of law, so naturally, Satan was going to put Jesus through some tough questioning. After Jesus spends forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness, Satan finds him and puts him to the test. He questions him and as much as anyone can pin down the intentions of the devil, it seems that Satan is trying to do three things. Satan was trying to have Jesus doubt himself, his vocation, and God. Satan was trying to hijack Jewish tradition by taking over the special places where we find God at work, the desert, the holy city, and the mountaintop. Satan was trying to tempt Jesus into committing selfishness, distrust, and idolatry.
In order to see these things more clearly, and to see what Matthew is showing us about Jesus’ identity, we are going to dive into each of Satan’s tests.
First, the tempter comes to Jesus, after forty days and forty nights of fasting, when Jesus is especially famished and probably willing to kill for a good full meal, and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Here is where doubt enters the equation. Satan doubts that Jesus is the Son of God and puts the burden of proof on Jesus. While there really isn’t a question here, just a demand, Satan effectively asks Jesus for proof that he is who God said that he was. Jesus doesn’t give in. Satan also chooses a temptation that holds a lot of significance for Jesus. In the coming chapters of Matthew, Jesus does multiply bread so that everyone might be filled in the feeding of the five thousand. Turning stones into bread for himself would be wasteful and selfish, since he would probably be only able to eat one loaf anyway. Turning stones into bread would also bypass the human labor involved, which becomes the work and vocation of humanity in the Genesis story where Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden. So Jesus tells Satan no, he says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus puts his faith in God, who led him out into the wilderness in the first place. God will get him through.
Second, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the pinnacle of the temple of the holy city, to a view point with which to see all of Israel, and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Again, Satan starts with the big IF. If you are the Son of God, which puts the burden of proof on Jesus. Satan also knows very well how to quote scripture. If that is the game, as Jesus had quoted scripture to him, then he could play that game. However, Jesus does not need to gain the holy city for himself. Jesus does not need power over Israel. Jesus is already Emmanuel, the Messiah, the Christ. God with us. Jesus knows that his trust rests in God, so he replies, “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Third, the devil takes Jesus to the mountaintop. We know from our reading of the gospel passage last week of the Transfiguration what it means to go up to the mountain top. There is power and tradition and insight at the top of the mountain. Satan does his best to supplant all of that. The irony is that while Satan offers all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus if he will worship him, all the kingdoms of the world, and much more besides, already belong to Jesus. God has entrusted him with power over all of creation. Jesus knows that Satan wishes him to commit idolatry by worshiping something other than God.
It is interesting to note that the order that the tests appear in Matthew are different than in the gospels of Mark and Luke. Matthew is making a point about the levels of power involved. The devil starts with Jesus himself. Then he moves on to Israel, the chosen people. Lastly, the devil offers Jesus the world. Yet, Jesus does not fall into the trap of feeling the need to justify himself at any power level. Jesus is not insecure. He does not need to prove that he is the Son of God. God has already spoken and Jesus trusts God.
Unlike the Israelites in the desert, who failed to trust God, Jesus puts his faith in God and is faithful. Through the temptations of Jesus we see a man in solidarity with humanity. We see a man who has integrity. We see a man who trusts God. Through Jesus’ example, we know that we can trust God. We are called to serve God, to trust God, not to test God. We are called to stand fast as Jesus did through the trials and tests of this world. At the end of his temptations, Jesus knows more fully his true identity and purpose. He knows more fully that he can trust God. He is given strength for his journey. Because the road to Jerusalem will not be an easy one. May we walk with Jesus this Lenten season, being tested and tempted, but trusting God to the end. Amen.
 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
3/1/17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Paradox always seems to hit in the most sacred of moments. Today, I am experiencing some serious conflict between what we have come here together to do this morning and the gospel passage for today. Ash Wednesday is best known for the imposition of ashes in the sign of the cross on our foreheads, but it is also known as a major fast day for the Church. A day where people give up food, sweets, meats, and all manner of other things in order to focus on God. Yet, in the gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus tells us very specifically not to make it known to everyone that we are fasting… which is slightly incongruous with putting ashes on our heads. Paradoxical? Maybe. Hypocritical? Maybe.

The true question underneath this ironic situation is, “What is appropriate piety to practice?” This passage in Matthew is structured around the three major ways of the Jewish tradition to practice piety, to practice following their beliefs. First, alms giving. Second, prayer. Third, fasting. Jesus is teaching on these three pillars of the Jewish practice in order to teach his followers differently from what the religious leaders of the day are teaching. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus at work combating the ideas of the religious leaders of the day through modeling as an example of what to do instead of what was shown by others. Even in the way that Jesus talks about these three practices you can feel the tension going on. The passage goes back and forth between what hypocrites do and what we should do. The passage goes back and forth between human rewards and divine rewards. The passage goes back and forth between the reality of what happens and the intention of the practice.

This conflict gets even worse when we think about what we are doing today in our service. Putting ashes on our heads during a fast and looking sad during a Eucharistic service. How many times in your life do you think you have ever looked bored while in church? How many times in our lives have we come to church simply because we feel like we have to? We fast when we should be feasting. Our regular Sunday morning service is a celebration of thanksgiving, a time when we are feasting because of the abundance that God has given us, and yet… many times the spirit in the pews is not one of rejoicing. Yet we come to Ash Wednesday and we could almost be said to be showing off.

So what does it mean to be hypocritical? Originally, the word used was the same word used for actors in plays. Today we use the word for those whose words and actions did not lineup, who say one thing, but mean or do another. Hypocrites remind me of the two faced Roman god Janus. Hypocrisy in our spiritual and communal lives means that when we parade around what we are doing, while justifying ourselves with the intention, but simply looking for others to notice us, we are causing our actions and words to not line up. When it comes to true piety, practice of our beliefs, we have to follow through on the intentions of the practices and not just the actions. We do things for their own reward, not because other people will notice that we are doing them.

The ashes that we will wear this day reflect a true intention. They will be blessed, with the intention that they are a symbol for us, and not just to others who see them. However, they are only part of the symbolism that is being made. The season of Lent throughout history was primarily a time to prepare those who were going to baptized. The catechumenates, those preparing for baptism, spent the entire six weeks of Lent preparing, learning, and changing their behaviors, in order to be able to live the new life of a Christian when they were baptized, usually on Easter Sunday. Thus, the counterpart of the symbol of ashes on our foreheads is the seal of oil that is put on our foreheads when we are baptized. We are dust, but we are also beloved children of God. For those of us who have been baptized, that seal is still on our foreheads, and the two, the ashes and oil, mix together. We know the new life in Christ. But we also know the death of life in Christ as well. We are reborn with Christ in his resurrection because we die with Christ in his crucifixion.

Each year, we take the season of Lent to remember and prepare anew for this reality to be made more real in us. Though not many of us are going through this journey for the first time, we still continue with this journey. Like the legendary phoenix, which prepares to die, though we know it will be reborn from the ashes of its death. We prepare ourselves for death, hoping to join in Christ’s resurrection. The ashes on our foreheads show this preparation, this time of growth, this journey that we begin. Not individually, but together, as the body of Christ with all the believers.

How do we prepare? We give, we pray, we fast. Not as the hypocrites, but as people who know and believe in the intention of the practices. As people who have no thoughts as to the rewards. If our ultimate goal is the living out of God’s love for this world, then Jesus sets out a few examples in this passage for us to follow. Be a good steward and don't brag about it, he says. Prayer has one purpose, conversation with God, he teaches. You don’t need to be verbose, you don’t need to always include others, you don’t always have to have your conversation with God out loud. Jesus reminds us, Be sincere. Enjoy your relationship with God.  Remember that what matters is the love of God, the love of neighbor - these are the treasures worth having.

Amen.