Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What House are You Building?

Readings for Second Sunday in Lent

Jesus said, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. (Luke 13:33)

The British-American author D. H. Lawrence said, "The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences." New ideas are not a problem. The world "can pigeon-hole any idea," Lawrence said, "but it can't pigeon-hole a real new experience."1 A true inner experience changes us, changes the way we see.

The inner experience I hear God inviting us into this morning is trust.  Trust for me is interchangeable with faith.  In fact – it’s a better word – because faith has the other connotations.   As if faith is about a set of beliefs that are either right or wrong.

Scripture teaches us faith through relationship, though.  The bible isn’t a compendium of intellectual ideas or systematic beliefs.  It’s a collection of stories, songs and letters and poems about relationships.  Relationships with God, with families, with tribes, neighbors and enemies.   And within those relationships trust (or faith) is strained, strengthened, abandoned, betrayed, etc.

This section of Genesis was pretty revelatory back in the day.  It’s the first time Abraham talks with – and kind of argues with – God.  God is asking him to trust – to have faith.  Abraham wants certainties.  God says that God will be the shield and the reward if Abraham trusts him.  Abraham replies – not good enough.  I want to know “what” the shield is – and I want to know “what” exactly the reward will be.

Me too.  My prayers are pretty specific – how about yours?

"When Abram asks “what?” and “how?” he uses specific Hebrew terminology that usually appears in prophetic texts such as Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. In virtually every case where the phrase is uttered on human lips, it is part of a plea directed to God, particularly with reference to something that is hard to believe or accept."2

It’s reasonable for Abraham to ask God these questions.  He doesn’t understand how he can pass on an inheritance if he doesn’t have an heir.  He doesn’t understand – given the present circumstances – how in the world God could fulfill God’s promise.  We can relate to that too, can’t we?  We look at the present circumstances of our world and think – how can God make good on God’s promise?

Lean into trust – lean in.  This will be a recurring pattern in all our lives – on the macro and micro level – cycling through situations where it is hard to see the answer or the solution – so how do we do it?  How do we trust in that which we cannot see?

Let’s turn to Jesus.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem Jesus says – how I long to gather you as a mother gathers her children under her wings.  Jesus has a very unusual response to a very real and scary threat.

Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." Go and tell that fox something for me, he say.  The religious authorities who operate in collusion with the political establishment are scared of Jesus and trying to scare him back.  Herod the Great, as he was known, was a pretty scary guy.  Quick overview of resume highlights –
- Executed one of his 10 wives, two of his sons and numerous detractors
- In the gospels when Herod learned about the birth of a Messiah (rival king) he first tried to kill the magi, then tried to trick the magi into sending Jesus and his family to him, then enacted what we call the slaughter of the innocents – the infanticide in Bethlehem
- And, famously, at the request of his daughter – but really through the manipulations of his wife – he beheaded John the Baptist at a dinner party 3

Herod the terrifying is more like it.  Nothing was built on trust – the rules were intimidation, fear – disagree and you risk your life.  Of course the Pharisees were terrified.  They enjoyed the privileges of the game, so they played it.  They wanted Jesus to play too – or leave.

But Jesus didn’t want to play that game – and he didn’t want to leave.  Because as he said, he had work to do.  His work was bringing people into wholeness – healing people who were sick and thereby restoring outcasts to being back in relationships with their families, their communities.

Jesus put all his trust in the restorative work of God – day by day.  He knows the certain outcome will be rejection and death.  He trusts in living the promise regardless – day by day.

But he shares what he longs for.  Ignoring Herod’s threat – he calls out with a promise – all God longs to do is gather you together like a mother gathers her brood under her wings.   Jesus meets violence with compassion.  And he gives us a choice – we can go running towards that promise – or not.  Our house is left to us, Jesus says.  We get to choose the operating rules of our relationships – our house – macro and micro – is left to us.

(Discussion of the book, The Vanishing Neighbor and the Koran sent to me this week by the Council on American and Islamic Relations)

In hindsight – Abraham got his inheritance – but that wasn’t what was important.  It was his change of heart – opening his heart to trusting in a promise – and letting go of certainty.

In hindsight – Jesus brings us through to resurrection – but something came before.  The cross – the death – the being in a place of forsakenness where there were no certainties or answers.

And before the resurrection – there was all the day by day work – of bringing healing into the lives of individuals.

Trust grows not in grand gestures – but in small acts – in ways God gives each of us to share good news. What is the day by day work God is calling you into?  What is the house you are building with your words, your actions?  Where do you need to lean into trusting God’s promise?  Where might you be called to share your voice – your gifts – in building God’s house here and now?

All of us are part of the story – all of us are part of the promise.  We walk by faith and not by sight - in other words, we trust.  And, as Jesus reminds us this morning, blessed are we when we walk in the name of the Lord.

1 From "A New Experience" Meditation by Richard Rohr
2 Thanks to Working Preacher
3 Thanks to Journey with Jesus

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Tool of the Tempter

Readings for Lent 1, Year C

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he waThen the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up,so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4)

Click the image to listen to an audio recording.

Do you know the movie “Tender Mercies“? It’s from the early 80s and stars Robert Duvall as Mac.  Mac is a washed up, alcoholic country singer – who, at the start of the film, wakes up one morning after a night of heavy drinking – realizing he can’t pay for his motel room.  Fortunately for him – the woman who owns the motel – a single mom, Tess, whose husband died in the Vietnam War – mercifully, cuts him a break.  She agrees to let him stay on as the handyman at the hotel in exchange for room and board.

It’s a great movie – a redemption story – of a person who through many tender acts of mercy – some seemingly random – some deliberately shared out of love – turns his life around – finds new life actually – when he thought all was lost.  It’s a story about where and how we find our sense of worth.

Part of Mac’s transformation is shaped through attending church – with Tess and her son.  And one of my favorite scenes is after Mac’s and Tess’s son are baptized.  After the baptism at church the three of them are driving home in their truck – and the boy – about 10 years old – asks Mac – “Do you feel anything yet?” – and Sonny calmly replies – “Not yet.”

That’s a pretty different description from what we hear of Jesus this morning after his baptism.  Jesus – full of the Holy Spirit – follows that same Spirit as it leads him out – alone – into the wilderness.  Full of the Holy Spirit Jesus doesn’t go straight to healing and teaching – or preaching and fixing – instead – that sense of wholeness – moves him to be alone – with God – unsheltered and unafraid – to confront his demons.

In the movie – Sonny has a lot of demons.  But really – his demons – like the Tempter in the gospel – can all be boiled down to one thing – shame.  Sonny is ashamed of who is – ashamed of what he’s done in his past – ashamed of the people he’s hurt – ashamed of the fact that he – “no good” guy that he’s been – is allowed to live – while others – seemingly more innocent – do not.

It’s not the baptism that heals Sonny – the baptism, like ours, is just a mark, a reminder.  The healing comes through wrestling with his shame – and the questions shame bombards all of us with – to varying degrees – at different times in our lives – #1) You’re not good enough.  You’re not smart enough – pretty enough – worthy enough – fill in the blank – you are simply not enough as you are.  And #2) Who do you think you are?

That’s exactly how the Tempter is trying to tempt Jesus.  The temptations – or tests – none of them are really bad in and of themselves – making food where there is none.  Taking command over the kingdom that is already his.  Flying like a superhero.  The temptations wouldn’t hurt anybody.

But the devil is trying to undermine Jesus’ confidence in who he is – and whose he is.  He’s trying to tempt him into believing that being a child of God is not enough.  He’s trying to shame Jesus into abandoning his identity – and move him towards proving himself out of fear.

Over this past year I’ve been training – and just this past week – got my official certification – in what’s called The Daring WayTM.  This is a methodology developed by BrenĂ© Brown who is a researcher, social scientist and best-selling author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong.   She self-identifies as a shame researcher.  This work which is being used with such diverse groups as Costco – to the Navy Seals – is about helping people examine their own stories to see where shame and fear keep us from living courageous and vulnerable lives – personally and professionally.

Shame, while none of us like it or want to admit to it, is something all of us experience – it’s what social workers call a primordial or primal affect.  The only way you can’t feel it  - is if you do not have the capacity to connect emotionally with other people – which is the definition of a sociopath.

Shame is different than guilt.  Guilt is about behaviors – as in – I feel really guilty that I talked to someone the way I did – or that I acted a certain way in a given situation.  Guilt doesn’t feel great – but when we identify a behavior we don’t like – a behavior that doesn’t align with our values – well behaviors we can change.

But we can’t change who we are – what we think of our self as a person.  And that is why shame is so debilitating and so very different from guilt.  That’s why shame thrives on secrecy, silence and judgment.  It’s that voice in our head that resonates with the tempter this morning – you aren’t good enough – and just who do you think you are.  Trying to get Jesus to give up his humanity and prove his value – or admit he isn’t worthy of calling himself “son” – and he does this when Jesus is alone, in secret – because that’s another characteristic of shame – it desires to intensify feelings of isolation.
But Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, knows he is not alone.  He quotes Deuteronomy – placing himself within the story of God which began before this moment – and of which knows he is apart.  And, he never lets go of his identity in God, he claims it.  Personally, I am sure that identity was strengthened because – full of the Holy Spirit – Jesus spent time in God’s hands.  He gave himself, first, to the work of strengthening that connection – before he got into the work of sharing that connection with all those who needed it.

There’s a pretty simple test to see how each of us rate on a shame-scale.  How much those tempting– you are not enough – and who do you think you are – voices influence us on a daily basis.  The next time you make a mistake – something big – like losing a client, or lying, or forgetting something important – or something small – like misplacing your keys – or showing up late for an appointment – notice your self-talk.  Listen to what you’re saying inside, to yourself.

Is it along the lines of – gosh, I’m an idiot – how could I be so stupid – how could I not know better.  Or, is it – kinder.  More like, huh, well that wasn’t my finest moment – but I’ll learn – we all make mistakes.

In other words – when you fall to temptations or just everyday slip-ups – do you talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone you love?  Do you show yourself compassion – patience – kindness aware that you are – after all – just human?

Where we are on that shame scale, research proves – bears a direct correlation with levels of addiction, depression, violence, aggression, eating disorders – the higher on the scale the more of those demons there are.  Whereas people on the low end of the scale - who live, not shame-free, but aware of the insidious ways shame can try and tempt us away from trusting in our inherent value and worth – aren’t afraid to confront and shed light on the Tempter of shame, which robs it of its power.

Hence, they exude a sense of love and belonging, because they truly believe they are worthy of love and belonging.  Because as Jesus shows us – that deep trust in our inherent value because we too are of God, is just no match for the shame the devil tries to throw in our way.

In another church scene, Sonny sings a hymn “Jesus, Savior, Pilot me”  We long, I think, for the strength and ability to live lives with that sense of always being in God’s hands.  Sometimes we feel it – sometimes not yet.  But this morning Jesus reminds us our identity is of God – we don’t have to prove it – it just is.  For we too in baptism have been marked as Christ’s own forever. And as Paul writes – when we live trusting that word is always very near to us, on our lips and in our hearts – then we have nothing to fear – for no one can put us to shame.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Listening for Transfiguration

Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Luke 9:34-36)

To listen to an audio version click the picture below

Perhaps some of you know the name Ronald Heifitz.  He is the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard and a best-selling author in the leadership field.  He believes leadership is something we are taught and we cultivate.  Sure there is some aspect of our nature that perhaps helps or hinders our ability to be leaders – but primarily it is something we can work on.  It is something we can choose.  It is something we can practice.

Heifitz would famously begin the first class of his first semester students in this way – they would walk into the classroom, find their seats, chatter would die down, people would settle.  At the appointed hour – the door would swing open – Heifitz would walk in – step in front of the podium – and then…….

Do “that” – he would wait – longer than I’m going to don’t worry.  He would allow for that uncomfortable silence.   Long enough so that the curiosity of most gave way to – something else.  Some students would be uncomfortably frustrated – some would be downright annoyed.

His purpose in this technique regarding leadership was this.  Most of our educational system trains us to be passive recipients of the knowledge the teacher shares.   To soak the learnings up – and then recite them back.  And that’s not wrong – it’s necessary.  But as we move into adulthood – and careers – and circumstances where we are called to lead – we won’t be in classrooms.

We will be in the midst of situations and we will need to be aware of what is happening - mindful.  Mindful of what our emotional and physical responses are in uncomfortable situations.  Mindful of the same in those around us.  Composed enough to listen.  Because leadership requires the presence of mind to recognize what’s underneath the discomfort – and help move through it.

Exercising leadership, (big or small) Heifitz says, generates resistance -- and pain. People are afraid that they will lose something that's worthwhile. They're afraid that they're going to have to give up something that they're comfortable with” (Pain, loss, giving up, discomfort – I hear some parallels with the story of JC)

This morning in the story we’re at the Transfiguration.  A story so well-known it can be hard to hear something new.  But this year, Year C, we also get this follow-up – back down below - with Jesus yelling at this “faithless and perverse generation” on the heels of his divine moment.  It’s kind of strange don’t you think – that after such a beautiful and radiant mountaintop experience – Jesus, of all people, would be so quickly frustrated and angered by the inability of his disciples to do what’s expected of them.

Well Jesus is God – as the transfiguration reveals.  But Jesus is also Jesus – guy, man, human being.  And I think many of us can relate to the feelings of frustration and disappointment – when we go from our glorious mountaintop moments – back into reality.  And perhaps some of his frustration stems not from the disciples inability to heal the boy – but from something they struggle to do on the mountain and down below.

It’s something all of us – from disciples – to students at Harvard – struggle to do – maybe that’s why the voice of God so clearly commands it.  Listen – we hear this morning.

I read a scholar this week say that one way we can see that Transfiguration story is as a metaphor for worship.  For instance – the event takes place on the eighth day – which very early on in Christian tradition referred to Sunday.  It’s a clue to the first community hearing this text a century or so after the death of Jesus.  And who does Jesus take with him on this excursion?  Not everyone, not the crowds – but those who are drawn to God through Christ (Christians).  What does Jesus want them to do? Pray.

And it is after prayer – in the midst of prayer, maybe – that scripture comes alive.   The teachings represented by Elijah and Moses – are right there.  The gathered community isn’t looking back to what was – they are making what was – real, here and now, to see it’s relevance in their lives.

Hopefully that is what we do in worship – come together – set apart – pray – and situate our story in the saving story of God.

On their mountain – God breaks through.  First in Jesus – glory revealed.  And then in that voice – who you’ll notice – interrupts Peter, who most likely out of fear and discomfort – has him babbling about setting up shop on top of the mountain.

God interrupts the small talk – listen. Pay attention.

If in some way this story shares instruction for us on how to worship – then where in this can we listen?  Let’s be honest – there is not a lot of space in our worship for listening – for God’s voice.  While wonderful and uplifting and transformative (sometimes) in its own right – our worship is primarily directed busyness – talking and responding – singing and announcing.  All in service of worship and praise – but not designed for doing what God – this morning is asking us to do.

Perhaps you've noticed or attended one of the meditative services, 5:30pm Parish Hall – Centering Prayer, Singing Meditation, Yoga Nidri, Sacred Sound Meditation we've been offering (and will continue to offer) in January.  Practices as ancient as what we do here – but with a different intention.  To support and encourage us to listen.  Be still.  Pay attention.  If a faith community doesn’t offer ways in which people can come together to simply listen to God – how can that community listen for how it is meant to be a Body of Christ in the world?

On Ash Wednesday this week – we will hear God again instruct us to do the same – don’t practice your piety before others – go into your room – shut the door – and listen.   To actively listen – to engage deep awareness – is not something we easily do.  It takes practice.

After the glory – Jesus brings those guys right into the hard stuff – right to the pain of a parent – the sickness of a child – the family that’s been cast away because their suffering and struggle is not what anyone around them wants to acknowledge.  And Jesus – looks those disciples to lead – to remedy the situation before them.

We want God to transfigure us – we want God to remedy our difficult situations.  God can as this gospel shows.  But God is asking us to participate.  God is encouraging us to carry the voice of God with us.  God is inviting us to take that time to pay attention – to listen.  Be still and know that I am God – one psalmist writes – which is the practice that gives us the courage – as Paul writes -  by the open statement of the truth [to] commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
As the season of our church has us moving from Epiphanies – and towards the transfiguring opportunity of Lent – may we continue to open ourselves to the voice of God – always speaking in the sheer silence of our hearts.  Amen.

The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks