Monday, March 24, 2014

Immediate Cravings and Eternal Desires

Lent 3, Year A
Exodus: 17:1-7; John 4

The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink."  The Lord said to Moses, "Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink."
Jesus said, "Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

What is the difference between craving and desire?  That is a question I hear bouncing between our excerpts from Exodus and John’s gospel. To my mind, cravings are about feeding an immediate hunger.  Literally – as in wanting a burger from Five Guys when I’m famished – and metaphorically – as in I want what I want – in my life, my job, my relationships, my prayers – when I want it which is pretty much right now.

Desire, on the other hand, is a deeper longing.  We desire meaning – peace –reconciliation.  We desire love.  Desire connects us with things eternal. 

There is water we crave when we’re thirsty.  There is living water to quench our desire for God.

As I’m sure you know, two pretty big events are chronicled in the two chapters previous to what we hear from Exodus this morning.  In chapter 14 – the people are racing for their lives in the desert, with the Pharaoh and his army in hot pursuit.  And the escaped Israelites hurl their fear at Moses - "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?”(Exodus 14:11).  To which Moses replies – do not be afraid.  Stand firm in the Lord. (14:13). 

And you know what happens – the parting of the Red Sea – walls of water on either side – and the Israelites cross on dry ground.  And when the Egyptians continue their pursuit the waves come crashing down and it says the entire army was destroyed.  See Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film, The Ten Commandments, for the classic movie version.

And then, the next big event two chapters and about two weeks later – the freed and wandering people of God are famished and again, they hurl their complaints at Moses - "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."  (Exodus 16:3).  To which the Lord tells Moses – tell the people I have heard their complaining and I will rain down bread from heaven (16:4ff).  Which happens and the people who gather up the manna are filled.

I remind us of this because it is on the heel of these events – instances when immediate needs were literally addressed by God – that we hear this morning, the people yet again hurl fear and complaints at their leader, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 

Did they forget what God had done? (Just like we do?) Why do they continue to accuse Moses – and God – of trying to kill them with suffering when God has consistently responded to their cries?

Because, as I think we all know, desire is forgettable in the face of immediate cravings.  The people had been enslaved and oppressed.  They truly desired freedom and liberation.  But getting there is hard.  That scripture of Paul from Romans reads really well in advance of the journey – we know that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope – and hope does not disappoint (Rom 5:3-5a)  But when we are in the midst of the wilderness of not having answers, or life-threatening circumstance, or identity changing choices – words don’t often satisfy our cravings.  We want fixes and solutions.  We want to just get to the other side of “it” already.

We want a tangible answer in the affirmative to the ultimate question of faith – Is God with us, is God with me, or not?

Unlike the people in Exodus – the woman at the well seems to be having a pretty ordinary day – going about her chores getting some water.  (I always think of this passage when doing chores,  picturing Jesus just sitting there and waiting for me to strike up a conversation!)  It’s a long scripture passage – edited here – so read and reread it.  A lot of inferences and assumption have been made about this woman, who she is and what her problems are.  But it’s a simple story of Jesus meeting someone where they are and tapping right into their desire for God, for a connection to the eternal, for a trust in belief.

Like most of us, the woman wants literal answers to her question.  Jesus directs her attention to something more.  It’s not literal water that Jesus brings, it’s the waters of life.  It’s not about which mountain or city you worship in, it’s about a desire for God in Spirit and truth.  And through taking the time to talk with God the woman’s true desires are met and she goes and shares the good news of that conversation with the people she meets.  She pours out what she has been given to help others who struggle with that question – is God with me or not?

God knows, when we are in the midst of the more challenging circumstances – we are going to call on God just like those Israelites – but it will be about the immediate need.  And our prayers are not always answered immediately. 

God is always with us – but it does not always feel that way.  If at present, you are at a crossroads in your journey – if you are in the midst of challenging circumstances – cry out to God, hurl your fears and prayers at the Almighty.  Our faith is built on people over the ages who did likewise; who were reminded instantly or inevitably that God responds.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness (Ps 103).

If, on the other hand, at present in your journey things are going ok, pretty well even, why not strike up more conversations with God in the midst of your ordinary chores?  Perhaps in doing so you will follow in the footsteps of people over the ages who came away from that time with God renewed.  And in turn go and share words of experience, strength, faith and hope – with other children of God longing to connect with things eternal.  And through you the question is answered in the affirmative – yes, God is with me.

We walk by faith – not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).  It is a path, a journey, a climb up the mountain and then back down, of getting from one side of the desert to the next again and again.  There is eternal life to be found in walking that road paying attention to our desires for meaning – for peace – for reconciliation – for love. And just like the people the woman shares her story with, we have to come to know and hear and see it for ourselves.  For out of love God has poured that desire into our hearts.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Imagining Nicodemus"

Lent 2, Year A / John 3:1-17
The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks
Church of the Good Shepherd

Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."  Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" John 3:3-4 

Once there was a boy; he was a first-born doted upon and loved.  His family was very devout, more so than most and he slid effortlessly into the rhythms of such a faithful household.  Prayers, regular worship, singing together - all of it was in the fabric of his life from the moment he was born.

When he was in what we’d call elementary school he began his studies of the Torah.  The children didn’t read scripture of course, but would commit to memory what their teachers read aloud.  This boy had a knack for memorization.  It wasn’t that he had special tricks for doing so it was just that the words resonated with something deep within him and memorizing came easy.  The prose and the poetry struck a chord and poured forth effortlessly as if already written on his heart.

So it was clear to him and everyone else that he was destined for the religious life.  Should he become an Essene – someone who lived the life of a monastic out in the desert adhering to strict laws and purity codes?   No, that did not fit this gregarious child.  Maybe a Sadducee?  No, they were too elitist and kept their distance from the common folk.  But this boy was the common folk, and he loved being with people – he loved praying and singing together.  He loved the festivals and the solemn assemblies.

And inside, although he never shared this with anyone, he loved the feeling that washed over him when said his prayers, completed religious tasks, and recited those scripture stories.  For he did these things out of pure love and desire to bask in the presence of God and feel his loving hand.

So a Pharisee he did become.  Continuing the rich oral tradition of teaching the law of Moses that pointed towards the coming of a Messiah.  His congregation was well-known for their songs, and prayers and right ways of worship.  And as the numbers grew he was sure his approval rating in righteousness did as well.   

Now, don’t get me wrong, this priest was sincere and authentic.  But in adulthood, the simplicity and eagerness with which he engaged his religion changed.  He noticed himself critiquing those around him who made mistakes.  Who stumbled over their words in proclamation or forgot the proper postures for prayer.  His patience grew short and his temper more quickly flared.  It was hard to sit still with one person and simply listen when there was so much busyness to tend to.

Sometimes he sat in worship, his body going through the motions – but his head somewhere else entirely.  Running down the long list of appointments he had to keep.  Worrying about the new congregation down the street – they had just called a much younger rabbi (who was rumored to be a great preacher).  Or rehearsing the chastising awaiting his children who spent far too much time playing and not nearly enough memorizing sacred texts.  Didn’t they understand who their father was?

And inside, although he didn’t share this with anyone, he was finding that the seasonal observances of faith – the specific prayers on the specific days – the solemn assemblies and days of fasting – were all beginning to feel like a matter of course – year in and year out, giving up this and taking on that – what was the point?  The fervor he had as a child was gone.  The practices felt as religiously exciting as other daily duties – like brushing his teeth. 

You see, what had once been a pure desire to simply bask in the holy light and loving hand of God had gotten confused with a faith that was supposed to earn its righteousness, through accomplishments and achievements, far too often based on needless comparisons with those around him.  He had grown blind to the words of blessing that were still written on his heart.  His vision now clouded by the benchmarks of the world.

One afternoon the rabbi went to visit with a widow.  She had three sons and so was well-provided for.  In fact the weekend past, she had accompanied one son and his family to a wedding.  It had been quite the party she shared with the rabbi (he probably would have disapproved – far too much cavorting).  And the strangest thing had happened.  One of the reasons the party was such fun was that the wine was really flowing – but – the host had underestimated the tolerance of his guests – and they ran out.

At the widow’s table, she said, there was a rabbi.  And when the servants mentioned to him that there was only water left in the jugs – he told them to go back and take a second look.  And apparently, they had been wrong the first time.  For all the jugs were filled with wine – and not just any wine – but the good stuff.  The kind you’re supposed to serve at the beginning before everyone is drunk.  The rabbi at her table didn’t explain anything about it – but the men who were sitting around him wouldn’t stop talking about it and said this was a sign - of glory to come.

Our rabbi told his parishioner that this seemed to him a rather silly story; but, inside, something struck a chord.
And in the coming days the stories of this other rabbi kept popping up. In pastoral visits, when with his colleagues, even his wife mentioned something.   So finally, the rabbi decided he needed to meet this guy for himself.  What could it hurt?

Well, it might hurt he thought, if someone saw the rabbi of the largest congregation meeting with an itinerant teacher with just a few followers.  So, he went out at night, on the sly – hoping the darkness might keep his actions from even God’s eyes.

He met with the teacher and just talked.  And for our rabbi, the conversation was strange.  He tried at first to compliment the teacher, hoping to get his approval, but that didn’t seem to work.  So he asked what he thought was a straightforward question, but failed to get a straightforward – let alone what he thought was the right answer.

Now maybe it was because it was late and he was tired.  Or maybe it was because he was so tired of what his faith had become – our rabbi decided he would be open to the words of this teacher.  The strange phrases and metaphors didn’t make sense but he wasn’t going to dismiss them outright.  

For in between there were words he did understand.  God loves.  God gives.  God saves.  And as he walked home mulling over sacred conversation, repeating those words over and over – God loves.  God gives.  God saves – his sight began to clear.  And forgotten words of belovededness poured into and out of his heart.

From that night on, the rabbi changed his strict observances.  He decided to fast from worrying about the perfection of his practices; and feast on spending more time with his children.  He fasted from words of criticism and critique and feasted on speaking words of gratitude.  He fasted from always comparing himself to others and feasted on thanking God for the gifts he had been given to share. 

The rabbi took a lifelong fast from worrying about what each day would bring and feasted on starting each day anew – wondering how God through him might share holy blessings. 

Indeed, having regained the vision he had as a child our rabbi felt born again.  Once more seeing the world as if it was already God’s kingdom – filled with the divine light and touched and held in the hand of the Almighty.  Amen.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Identity Crisis

The First Sunday of Lent, Year A
Matthew 4:1-11
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez

“After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, God led him to the desert. Jesus was all alone without any food for 40 days. He prayed to God for help, but it was still really hard to be in the wilderness.”[1]

That’s how my favorite children’s Bible begins its version of our reading from Matthew’s Gospel. I love that line: “it was still really hard to be in the wilderness.” That’s this story in a nutshell, isn’t it? And when I think about it from that perspective, it makes sense why we always hear this story on the First Sunday of Lent, when we’re at the beginning of our own forty day journey in the wilderness, at least metaphorically. It’s a reminder that, while things are probably fine right now, and whatever discipline we’ve taken on for Lent seems easy, it’s not going to stay that way. A couple weeks from now, that won’t be the case. I’m going to be looking for excuses to set my discipline aside. I need that reminder that things will get tough.

The fact is, we all go through wilderness periods in our life, and not just in Lent. There are going to be times when our spiritual life feels dry like a desert, when it feels like God doesn’t hear our prayers, and when the Tempter sidles up to us and whispers in our ear, “If…”

Did you notice that? The Tempter speaks to Jesus in conditional statements, and only in conditional statements. A lot can hang on an if. “If you love me…” “If you cared…” “If you were a good son or daughter…” “If you were more like your sister or brother…” “If… if… if…” Ifs hurt. I think that’s why the Tempter is so fond of them. Ifs chip away at our very sense of self, of who we are. And it’s easy to start to let them infect our thoughts, isn’t it? “If I were a loving spouse…” “If I were a good son…” “If I were smarter… prettier… stronger… thinner… taller… better…” “If… if… if…”

I think it can be easy to get caught up in how fantastic this story sounds, and miss the point. It’s easy for me to say, “I haven’t had this sort of mystical experience of temptation, so this can’t possibly to have anything to do with my life.” I think the Devil has a lot to do with that. When we hear that word, it’s hard not to think of some grotesque supernatural figure wielding a pitchfork, like we have in our stained glass window by the Smith Room. We like this idea of the Devil as a personification of evil. That’s easy to deal with; easy to dismiss. But I don’t think that’s what Matthew had in mind. Matthew, before he became one of Jesus’ disciples, had spent his life seeking God according to the promises and commands of the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew Bible doesn’t present the devil as some sort of evil supernatural being. In fact, the Greek words that Matthew picks to describe the devil are actually really impersonal. He’s “the Tempter” or “the Accuser.” And in the Hebrew Bible, the Accuser is just that: an angel whose job was to accuse human beings of wrong doing in the divine court, sort of like a heavenly DA. The Hebrew word for accuser, “Satan,” is a title, not a person.

The devil, the Accuser, in this story isn’t some pitch-fork wielding Prince of Darkness, he's that nagging whisper in the back of Jesus’ mind, the one that tells him that God couldn’t possibly love a human being like him. And while I’ve never had some sort of mystical experience where the Accuser took me up to a very high mountain, I have heard that whisper of doubt. Have you? Have you lain awake at night wondering, how can I possibly be good enough? Have you had someone tell you that you’ll never amount to anything, never make the team, never understand algebra, never get into a good college? That is the whisper of the Accuser, and that is what Jesus heard in the wilderness.

This story isn’t about the devil; it's about Jesus having an identity crisis. Each of these three temptations that Jesus faces directly relates to an expectation that the people of God had about what sort of person God’s messiah would be. Some people thought that the messiah would be a new Moses, providing bread for hungry people, just like Moses asked God for manna in the wilderness. Some people thought that the messiah would appear in the Temple, reforming the sacred worship of the Lord God of Israel, and correcting what they perceived as corrupt practices. Some people thought that the messiah would reestablish the kingdom of Israel, overthrowing the brutal and oppressive Roman Empire, and reestablishing the Kingdom of David. People prayed desperately for these things, none of which was, necessarily, bad. And so, the Accuser slipped up behind Jesus and whispered, “If you are the Son of God… be who the people want you to be.”

That’s the sort of doubt that keeps me up at night. “If God really loves you, then why doesn’t everything work out all right? Maybe God doesn’t really love you. Maybe God wouldn’t love a failure like you. Maybe God couldn’t love a failure like you.” Have you ever been there? Did you catch how our reading began this morning? “After Jesus was baptized…” Immediately after, in fact. After Jesus saw the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove and heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” After all this, Jesus still has doubts. He still has fears. But he doesn’t listen to them. He doesn’t let them rule his life. And he doesn’t let them rule our lives either. Each of us, at our baptism, received the same assurance of God’s love for us. In that moment, God declared each of us God’s beloved child, something that we were before we went into those waters, but now we had that identity confirmed. The answer to those doubts that our Accuser whispers to each of us is Jesus’ answer: “I am God’s beloved child. Away with you!” It’s still very hard, at times, to be in the wilderness,
but, in those moments of crisis, Jesus gives us the grace to claim our identity as God’s beloved child, assuring us, that whatever dark night of the soul we might go through, God will never leave us or forsake us, God will never take back that declaration God made at our baptism: “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” Amen.

[1] Spark Story Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 248.