Friday, February 27, 2015

Jesus as "an equal-opportunity pisser-off-er"

This Sunday's gospel contains the scene of Jesus telling his followers that he is going to suffer, be betrayed by religious leaders, be killed, and then rise again. 

It's not pleasant news for us to hear, and it wasn't pleasant news for Peter to hear.

In fact when Peter - representing not only the other disciples but the Church - hears Jesus talk about suffering and betrayal and death as an integral part of his ministry, he's mad. Peter rebukes -- reprimands, scolds, objects -- Jesus for talking that way.

In response, Jesus rebukes Peter right back! Jesus gives Peter (and by implication, all his disciples and the Church today) the strongest criticism he gives anywhere in the Bible: "Get behind me, Satan! Your mind is set not on divine things, but on human things."

Fr. Gregory Boyle, S.J., in his wonderful and powerful book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, writes

"The strategy and stance of Jesus was consistent in that it was always out of step with the world. Jesus defied all the categories upon which the world insisted: good-evil, success-failure, pure-impure. Surely, he was an equal opportunity "pisser-off-er" in this regard.

"The right wing would stare at Him and question where He chose to stand. They hated that He aligned Himself with the unclean, those outside - those folks you ought neither to touch nor be near. He hobnobbed with the leper, shared table fellowship with the sinner, and rendered Himself ritually impure in the process. They found it offensive that, to boot, Jesus had no regard for their wedge issues, their constitutional amendments or their culture wars.

"The Left was equally annoyed. They wanted to see the ten-point plan, the revolution in high gear, the toppling of sinful social structures. They were impatient with His brand of solidarity. They wanted to see Him taking the right stand on issues, not just standing in the right place.

"But Jesus stood with the outcast. The Left screamed: 'Don't just stand there, do something.' And the Right maintained, 'Don't stand with those folks at all.' Both sides, seeing Jesus [out of step with the world] came to their own reasons for wanting Him dead. Both sides were equally impressed as He unrolled the scroll and spoke of 'good news to the poor' ... 'sight to the blind' ... 'liberty to captives.' Yet only a handful of verses later, they want to throw Jesus over a cliff. ...

"I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidence-based outcomes) - that didn't end in the Cross - but he couldn't find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced."  

As I'll explore further in my sermon at The Falls Church Episcopal this Sunday, what about us? 

Are we going to be like Peter, with our eyes set not on divine things, but human expectations and the trap of Right or Left thinking? 

Or can we set our eyes on Divine things - even when that means there will be times we are out of step with the world...betrayed...suffering...and even experience our own kinds of death-preceding-resurrections?

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Muscle Sinks" -- Why We Should Make Lenten Resolutions that are Impossible to Keep

Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent invite us to self-examination and repentance through the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, self-denial and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Ash Wednesday and Lent invite us – challenge us – to take an good hard look at ourselves, to use the season to examine the lives we are living and make changes.

But one thing that makes Lenten resolutions different from New Year’s resolutions is that during Lent the focus is on God and God’s work in our lives.

In other words, Lent is a reminder that self-improvement is not something we do on our own strength.

What if improvement was God’s initiative?

What if God’s grace was already at work within us and what we needed to do is cooperate?

Years ago there was a movie called “Guardian,” where Kevin Costner plays a Coast Guard rescuer and then instructor at Coast Guard Boot Camp.

One of the recruits is a tall, huge, muscular guy, just incredible strength.

The very first thing the Kevin Costner figure does with the recruits is put them in the deep end of a pool and tell them they have to dogpaddle for one hour. If you fail this test, you go home.  

Well, guess who the very first one to fail and be sent home is? The big muscular guy, the one who looks like he’s going to breeze through boot camp.

As he’s getting out of the pool, the instructor says,

“you’ve just learned your first lesson: MUSCLE SINKS.”

Muscle sinks. Not a bad think to keep in mind during Lent.

Ash Wednesday and Lent can be a reminder that sometimes our muscles -- our efforts to save ourselves, rescue ourselves -- actually end up just tiring us out, working against us.

Other times of the year, we can believe that there’s nothing wrong with us that we can’t muscle our way through.
Other times of the year, we can say humanity is mistaken and just needs better education;
That humanity forgets and just needs better reminders,
That we are lazy and just need better motivation.
But Ash Wednesday and Lent speak another truth, an uncomfortable truth about ourselves:
That there are times when we as human beings lie, cheat, and steal knowing full well we are lying, cheating and stealing and doing it anyway because…well, we’re not just mistaken or forgetful or lazy in need of education reminders or motivation, but we’re sinners in need a savior.

Ash Wednesday and Lent can be a reminder that when it comes to sin – when it comes to our alienation from God and from one another -- we’re in water over our heads. And we can’t muscle our way out of those waters. We must be rescued. 

That’s part of the reason I think it’s a good idea to make some Lenten resolutions that are impossible to keep – at least not possible to keep perfectly.

It’s a good time to step back and ask ourselves what kind of things have a hold on us, what kinds of bad habits have we fallen into, what sin-patterns we need, with God’s help, to face and break.

So I would challenge you, yes, to give things up for Lent, but to go beyond the petty vices/potential addictives like sweets and alcohol and consider giving up other deeper habits that force you to take a hard look at yourself.

For me, this year: I’m giving up CHIPS.

That’s an acronym for giving up

Clutter, Hurry, Ingratitude, Procrastination, and Self-centeredness.

Compared to giving those things up, giving up chocolate or alcohol is easy!

Because when I give up clutter, I’m having to face not just physical clutter -- the messy desk or bedroom -- but emotional clutter, electronic clutter, social media clutter, spiritual clutter. And reducing those things gives me focus.

Because when I give up hurry, I’m forced to be present in the moment. I’m not allowing myself to wallow in regrets over yesterday; nor am I allowing myself to escape into what Tomorrow Might Be…and when I fast from regrets or nostalgia over yesterday and from hopes or fears over tomorrow, I am faced with facing responsibility for the one and only day I have any control over, and that’s today, this day, this hour, this moment.

Because when I give up IN-gratitude, I’m forced into its opposite, which is gratitude.  I have to give up whining, moaning, and complaining. I have to notice how much God and others have done for me. I have to stop wanting to win the lottery and realize that as a North American living in 2015, geographically and historically speaking, I already have, and then concentrate on translating my feelings of gratitude into concrete actions of thanks-giving, sharing, service, and looking for symbiotic opportunities to serve.

Because when I give up procrastination, I have to stop talking about writing my book and write my book. And beyond that, I need to stop procrastinating difficult decisions because I don’t want to make major mistakes or rock the boat…knowing that not wanting to make mistakes or rock the boat sometimes has at its root wanting to be liked, and wanting to be liked often has at its root not spending enough time being loved by God. And I need to stop procrastinating joy, thinking that all will be well once X or Y or Z is done…to stop saying “It’ll all be great when this happens, or “I’ll be glad when that happens” – in other words, I need to stop postponing joy.

And at the base of all this, behind all this, I need to give up self-centeredness, being the center of my own attention, my own thoughts. These disciples, like all good Lenten disciplines, are meant to lift my eyes to the Holy and into loving service to others.

I can’t do this on my own: muscle sinks.

I’m a sinner in need of a savior.

But with God’s help, I can, this Lent, focus on God, be present with others, engage in concrete acts of thanksgiving and service. And feast on God’s Amazing Saving Grace. Right now.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Ashes? And Why give things up for Lent?

Perhaps the two most commonly asked questions about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are, "why do we put ashes on our foreheads?" and "Why do we give things up for Lent? 

Let me take a stab at answering those questions today:

We put ashes on our foreheads because ashes have long been a sign of our mortality. "Mortality," means, of course, we are mortal. Human. Not divine or angelic. We are "formed of the earth, and to earth we one day return...ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

Ash Wednesday is a kind of Christian Yom Kippur - and as Rabbi Alexis Roberts says of that day, "Many say we're practicing to be dead: looking over our values, accomplishments, and failures as though it was all over and now we have to make an accounting."

Because most of us live fairly busy lives and don't take much time for deep reflection, Ash Wednesday is a good day to ask questions we don't often pause long enough to ask. Questions like author Steven Covey encourages us to ask:  

"What kind of wife, mother, daughter -- what kind of husband, father, son, would you like to be remembered as?"

"What contributions, what achievements do you want people to remember after you're gone?"

"Think of the people around you -- the people you are closest to, the people with whom you spend the most time -- what difference would you like to have made in their lives?"

Talk about beginning with "the end in mind" -- that's THE end, our end, that ashes can help keep in mind. 

So ashes on Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality, and are therefore a good chance to start, or restart our lives with "the" end in mind.

So, why do we give things up for Lent

Why are we encouraged, during Lent to take on the ancient spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? 

Why the customary emphasis on giving up sweets and/or alcohol and/or tobacco for the forty days (and nights!) of Lent?   

We take those practices on and we give those things up for Lent for the same, very simple reasons:

To find out what has a hold on us. 

To find out what we have become unduly attached to.

 To find out what lesser things, people, and habits we have settled for as substitutes for an adventure with God.

The point of prayer, fasting, and giving away more money is not to make ourselves suffer; the point is to learn something about ourselves. 

The point is to learn what we have become enslaved to; what has been robbing our freedom, or making us less than fully free and joy-filled.  

The intention of discipline like prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, in other words, is meant to help us explore the mystery of our hearts. They are meant to force us to ask questions about ourselves...wrestle with things about ourselves we normally don't. 
And so here's a radical thought (and by "radical" I mean rooted, rooted in the Bible and in Christian history) -

The practices of prayer, fasting, and giving away money, like the practice of worship, are not meant to be ends in themselves. Those practices, like all religious practices, are meant to be means to an end, and the "end" is to kick up questions like the ones above: questions about our end purpose in life, and questions which, if we stick with them long enough, will transform our behavior and our life.

Turns out that ashes and spiritual practices have the same purpose, then: to help us love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

If they aren't doing that, then they aren't serving their purpose. And neither are we.