In Mary Gordon's Reading Jesus, she points out a stunning fact I hadn't noticed before: in Luke's Gospel, Jesus' first adult words are spoken to Satan.
Fresh from his baptism, where he has heard "you are my beloved Son," he is asked by the devil, in essence, to "prove it." Prove you are powerful. Prove you are beloved. Prove you can take on authority and glory. And Jesus words -- the first words he utters as a grownup -- are all essentially "NO."
Our baptismal rite reflects this same emphasis: you have to say "no" before you can say yes. "No" to all that draws you from God, our Lutheran rite says. Spit in the face of the devil, the ancient Orthodox rite does.
I know it's not popular to overemphasize the "giving up" part of Lent these days. But there is a truth in the reality of fasting that we may not get at by simply adding things to our days: there are things that get in the way of following Jesus, and we can't simply make peace with them. We have to confront them head on. Where have I given in? Where have I simply crowded God out because I haven't said no to things which, on their surface, seem pretty good?
“If a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and
some great truth stands before the door of his life, some great opportunity to
stand up for that which is right and that which is just, and he refuses to
stand up because he want to live a little longer and he is afraid his home will
get bombed, or he is afraid that he will lost his job, or he is afraid that he
will get shot, he may go on and live until he’s 80, and the cessation of
breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of
The metaphor of a wilderness journey for Lent has a lot of biblical resonance, of course. From the Israelites' "wilderness school" after slavery in Egypt to Jesus' 40 days before he launches his ministry, the rocky places outside the Holy Land's cities are the thin places where the spiritual realities take concrete form.
But really, almost any wilderness journey will do as a metaphor for why we need Lent. Those of us who take an occasional trip to wild places know that these places can be life-giving, but you wouldn't want to live there. They aren't particularly good places for perfectionists, because no matter how well you pack, once you arrive you nearly always find that you either forgot some essential item -- or that you really should have left a few more things behind. As one friend put it this week, "I like the idea of Lent, it's the execution of it that I struggle with." The inability to "do Lent" well can be an great excuse to not enter into the wilderness at all.
Such journeys aren't particularly good for "purpose-driven" people
either, because an excessive focus on a goal is a sure way to miss one of the real lessons of wilderness: it's not about you. Wild places are there whether you enter them or not, and the weather, the flora and the fauna are going to do just fine without you, thank you very much. If you do go, and pay attention, however, you are opened up to a whole reality you miss the rest of the year.
In order to say, "one does not live by bread alone," we have to know that there IS a reality other than bread, other than the satisfying of our own insatiable hungers for recognition, security, accomplishment, or power. That realm is not about you. But it's very real. Time to enter in and see it.
The lectionary presents some tough choices this week. Either pick one of two overly familiar texts -- John 3:16 or Ephesians -- or preach the strange tale of a snake on a pole in Numbers.
I'm going with the snakes, if for no other reason than they evoke real emotion in people. I sent out a message to the congregation asking if anyone owns a pet snake, and if such a person might be able to bring it on Sunday. Within an hour three people replied voicing complete horror at the idea.
I don't like them either. Make my skin crawl. I think there may be a gene missing in people who aren't creeped out by them.
Snake trivia: what makes snakes different from lizards? There are, in fact, some lizards without legs. The difference is two other things snakes lack: ears and eyelids. They do not hear (just get vibrations from the ground) and cannot blink. Eeeewwww.
And yet, God uses a snake to heal in Numbers, and John uses that pole-with-a-snake as a parallel of Christ lifted up.
The cross is pretty icky too, to put it mildly. How on earth could anything good come of that?
Apparently, God can use just about anything. Even the creepiest thing on earth. Even the most rotten way human beings treat one another. I don't have to like it. But perhaps it means even the most reptilian brained part of me -- my fears, my self-protection, my laziness -- can also be redeemed.
My dear husband and I work in fields that look completely different. I'm a parish pastor. He consults with federal, state and local governments at the intersection of sustainable land use, transportation, and climate change. My job is about as local as it gets. He racks up frequent flier miles. My job is ancient, his didn't exist as a profession fifty years ago. People immediately know what I do when I wear my collar. If you really want to understand his job, you need to watch a PowerPoint presentation.
But the differences end there. We both try to facilitate long-term, sustainable community growth. We both spend lots of time on the phone. And we both encounter some of the same intractable dynamics, known as human nature.
One of our pet peeves is what the recovery community has aptly coined "terminal uniqueness." You see it when someone argues hard that they don't have a problem, even when every external measure says they do.
"Other people might fall into addiction drinking this much, but I can handle it."
"Other churches might be facing hardship if they continue to age without focusing on growth, but ours won't, because we're so unusual."
"Other communities might be facing long-term environmental issues if they continue to grow this way, but ours won't."
Oddly enough, the pattern continues even when people DO acknowledge that they have a problem. In fact, it's often even worse then.
"Other people might need medication to get out of this hole of depression, but I don't."
"Other families might benefit from therapy, but our problems are so unique we won't find a solution there."
"Other towns might benefit from learning some basic principles for sustainable growth, but our situation is so unique, that won't work here."
Ironically, the insistence on being "special" is often the very thing that spells doom -- because one codependent family is oddly very much like another, and one town that is sprawling with mindless car-dependent growth is going to end up looking like every other town with mindless sprawl. The very things that make individuals, families, and local communities unique are lost when they refuse to learn from the experience of other individuals, families, and communities.
Every year after Ash Wednesday, it takes a while for me to clean out the ashes completely from under my fingernails. I don't know if other ministers have this problem, but like most ministerial burdens, this one is also a blessing.
In a middle-class church like mine, it can seem as if most of us have things together. People don't particularly dress up at our church, but we put on our game faces and generally appear happy when we show up. Sure, there are some public struggles -- deaths, battles with cancer and the occasional divorce, but mostly the wounds are hidden. Only those of us who receive pastoral confidences can look out at a congregation and see a multitude of sins and struggles. Those stories, and the grief and loss they represent, cling to us like this mix of oil and ashes, easy to spread and hard to remove. Once a year we have the grace to say it out loud and make it visible for all to see.
It can be easy to turn Lent into a sort of New Year's Resolution time, and make ourselves as pastors into personal trainers. But I believe we begin the season with these ashes to remind ourselves that our disciplines, no matter how "successful," do not change our essence. We are all made out of the same mortal stuff. Done well, our feeble efforts to pray, fast and serve the poor only remind us again of our weakness. We are dust, but that dust is mixed with the oil of royalty because God has chosen to enter it. Our mortality is formed in the shape of a cross, blessed and broken open for the sake of others.
I will scrub out the ashes from under my nails, but it's good to be reminded of their persistence.
Every year my birthday (2/24) falls somewhere near the beginning of Lent. I call it a good year when it falls before Ash Wednesday, and this year is a particularly good year, since it coincides with Mardi Gras!!
Then again, I'll have only one day to celebrate a journey around the sun before we're called to contemplate mortality, and this year the vulnerability of aging is striking especially hard. . .too many of my peers are dealing with chronic or life-threatening illness.
I love the fact that Ash Wednesday deals in a physical sign of this vulnerability though, because ashes are a prime reason many of us do not contemplate our bodies' temporality much these days. As cremation becomes more and more the standard, our society seems to "slough off" the bodies of our beloved dead all too quickly. We will gather to 'celebrate life,' but not so much to be reminded that those eyes we knew so well are closed forever.
Thomas Lynch has written powerfully on this subject in several places, most recently in an essay in Best American Spiritual Writing 2008. He gives the vivid picture of a woman who comes to pick up her sister's ashes, because no one else will, and as he watches she goes out with the urn to the trunk of her car, thinks better of it, then places it in the back seat, then reconsiders again, and finally places the ashes in the passenger seat, and buckles the seat belt around them.
"Just a shell," people say of the body of the deceased, but our actions sometimes speak otherwise. We know that this dust formed of the ground has not only been breathed into by God, but molded, shaped, and blessed by divine hands. They will return to dust, but in the mean time they are marked with a holy sign of God's ultimate love.
Because I split preaching pretty much evenly with my colleague here at ECLC, I often don't repeat the same texts every three years. But for some reason every time the Lazarus story has come around here, it's been my turn to preach, it seems. And so it is again this year. The sermon I won't be preaching, because I'm getting tired of it: Lazarus dies twice, and so do we. It's one of those sadly ironic pieces in John that no sooner has Lazarus been raised from the dead, people are ready to kill Jesus, and Lazarus again too. Of course, as far as we know Lazarus isn't killed off, but we have to assume that, at some point, he does die again. What would it be like to die twice? We have to hope that Lazarus' first experience with dying and being called again to new life would give him confidence as he faces his second death. He's done it once. He knows that's not the end of the story. He knows that Jesus will call him forth. And so it is for us. We are baptized into Jesus' death. We've already died once in those waters, so we can face our second death with more confidence. Yes, we will die, but we know that is not the end of the story. Christ will call us forth again.