Sunday, March 17, 2019

Psalm 27

Psalm 27; Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35

About 20 years ago this Lent, I decided it was time to improve my prayer life from largely non-existent to well, something. I’ve never been good at meditation. I didn’t understand the Anglican Rosary. Doing morning and evening prayer from the prayer book seemed too complicated. But maybe…maybe I could just read the psalms for morning and evening prayer.

So I did. Read a psalm or two from the prayer book on my morning commute, and right before bed. And I fell in love.
Every possible emotional and physical and daily experience of life is in the psalms, a lot of it or a little. Joy, betrayal, grief, anger, humor, hope, dullness, doubt, assurance, pride, shame, celebration. It’s all there. All jumbled together in the poetry of our personal and communal relationship with God.

I fell in love particularly with Psalm 27, which we read together a few minutes ago.
It had me from the very first verse:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?

I’ve never led a very dangerous life, but I have spent some quality time with fear. Some of it at 30,000 feet in airplanes, more of it on the ground in fear of failure, disappointment, loss or pain. Maybe you know what that’s like. Maybe you, too, long to be free of that constricting anxiety, to live in the place that this psalm starts: Light and salvation and nothing to fear.

I really want the confidence of protection, the promise of beauty, and of closeness to God that the psalmist sings about in this 27th Psalm. 
Some days, it feels like I’ve got it. All that light, and the life-giving closeness to God, and the spacious joy of nothing to fear.

And other days, well, life is heavy. Lonely. Angry sometimes. Oh so busy, sometimes, as I juggle all my tasks, and the fear of failure and disappointing others, of losing people I love, or not being able to help.
Some days, when I turn on the news, it feels like there are enemies all around. Like death is winning. And “false witnesses, and those who speak malice,” as the psalmist said.

And on many of those days, I feel disconnected from God. Promises of salvation seem flimsy and far off when the plague of terrorism and violence breaks out again and again, when planes fall, when innocent people get sick and hurt and plans go wrong, or when it’s just a long dull slog in the here and now.  It can feel crazy to try to trust the unprovable existence of God. And that feels, well, unfaithful. Like my faith isn’t good enough to call myself a Christian, to be a priest, or even to spend time or energy on.

But the good news repeated over and over and in lots of different ways throughout scripture, from Genesis to Jesus and beyond, is that feeling disconnected from God does not mean being disconnected from God. Doubt and grief and anger and loneliness and fear are NOT unfaithful, but in fact are a fundamental part of our faith.

Abram – so full of faith that he launches himself and his wife into a brand new foreign country on God’s say-so – makes no bones about the fact that he has been waiting far too long for God’s promises of a family and a homeland to be fulfilled. God doesn’t scold or reject Abram for his doubts; God renews God’s promises to Abram with new assurances: with a vision that Abram can count on every night (unless it’s cloudy) and a ritual that binds God more tightly to fulfilling the promise of making Abram a home.

And Jesus, complaining about the tendency of Jerusalem to ignore and kill the messengers of God, doesn’t reject them for their fear and distrust, but renews his desire to gather and protect and nurture all God’s people.

Even in this psalm I love for its expression of confidence and fearlessness, there’s a picture of how it feels to be doubtful, lonely, disconnected, and fearful. And a picture of how it looks to be faithful in the middle of that. Not denying the fear, the aloneness, the doubt, but actually calling God’s attention to them: to our need for assurance, protection, direction, and response.

Right in the middle of my ordination process, when after years of waiting and longing, I was finally meeting with people to evaluate my call to the priesthood, the vivid sense of God’s presence in my life that I had started to count on started to dry up. So did my joy in the psalms and in the rest of scripture and in prayer. I felt alone, a bit abandoned. Tired and cranky and dull. Surely, I thought, this can’t happen to me now. Priests don’t have their faith fail like this. I kept trying to ignore it and press on.

But after a month or two, I finally confessed all that to the committee discerning with me. It was nerve-racking.
It turned out, though, that that confession was one of the things that assured them that God was, in fact, working with me, and that I could be a good priest after all.
And to my surprise, it assured me, too.

I don’t exactly like what I’m about to say, but I often need to hear it:
All that uncomfortable uncertainty, fear, grief, loneliness, impatience, or dissatisfaction I don’t want to feel – that I’d feel holier if I could ignore – may actually be essential in our relationship to God. In fact, when we deny our doubt, we deny the reality of our relationship with God.

A relationship with God would be much more comfortable if we got to arrive at that place of light and salvation and freedom from fear that I love so much at the start of this psalm, and to stay there.
But the psalmist – and Abram, and Jesus – model for us that to be in real, lasting, serious relationship with God – to have God as our light and salvation, our defender from fear – actually requires that we embrace, or at least accept, that we will feel, and sometimes get stuck in, those uncomfortable, dry, or painful places where we are full of doubt or surrounded by enemies – real or metaphorical.

And when we confess our doubts, fears, discomfort or distrust to God, that in itself can draw us closer to God. It does for Jesus, after he arrives in Jerusalem that kills the prophets, when he confesses his doubts and fear and loneliness in the Garden of Gethsemane. If does for Abram, more than once, when his confession of doubt brings him a deeper assurance of God’s love and plans and promises for him.

Confessing my own doubts, my spiritual loneliness, and my feelings of unfaithfulness to my discernment committee did, in fact, draw me closer to God years ago, because it made me confess my need for God’s help. Taking the risk of accepting my discomfort and fear also made me take the risk of trusting God to heal that deep, nagging, pain and free me from that fear.

In confessing my doubts, I finally was also able to hear myself confessing my trust – not that it would work out later, but that God could be with me now, even when I couldn’t feel the connection for myself. That it might be okay, even an act of love, to feel doubt and fear, and to want – to need – God to heal those things I can’t overcome on my own.

I think we need to confess our trust just as much as we need to confess our doubts. To accept – in our hearts, and in public – that we risk depending on God for not just light and salvation, but to hold our doubts and anger, disappointment and grief, our dry and painful loneliness in God’s own powerful trust and love for us.

Because when we confess our trust, like the psalmist, we hear the assurance that we can go into every place of doubt and fear, grief and disconnection, protected from the fear that God will lose us, or that we will lose God, in those dry and lonely places that are part of every human life.

So the psalmist’s final words ring true in us, with gratitude and power:
What if I had not believed
that I should see the goodness of the LORD
    in the land of the living!
O tarry and await the LORD'S pleasure;
be strong, and God shall comfort your heart.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Away From The Noise

Luke 4:1-13

Do you ever want to just get away from the noise?

It’s a very noisy world we live in, and not just because of the decibel level. There’s information noise, with torrents of things you need to know – and things you don’t – flooding through the internet and airwaves. Visual noise, with advertising and flashing lights and words and symbols clamoring for attention everywhere – and all the clutter we’re supposed to be clearing out of our houses.

One of the first things we learned in the RenewalWorks process so far is that busyness is the greatest obstacle to our spiritual growth in this world. Not trauma or crisis or ignorance. Busyness – that sense of how much we have to do, all the expectations we have to meet – is the single greatest obstacle these days to having a relationship with God at all, much less growing stronger and deeper and more joyful.

And I’m pretty sure Jesus understands that.
There might not have been cable news or internet; no flashing lights or heavy equipment noise in first century Israel. But “Messiah” or “Son of God” was a very noisy title or identity at the time of Jesus. A title  extremely cluttered with expectations to meet and things to do and be.

So Jesus goes to the wilderness to get away from the noise. To turn down the volume on all those tasks and expectations – and the everyday physical noise – so that he can hear God’s voice more clearly. So that he can hear God’s idea of his identity more clearly than the voices of those who want the Messiah to play politics, feed the world without our lifting a finger, and prove God’s worth with worldly success.

Jesus doesn’t go to the wilderness in order to pass a spiritual test, or achieve something. He goes to the wilderness to focus on the voice of God.
Just the same way, in Lent, we don’t fast – give things up – to prove we can do it. We give things up to clear away the noise so that we can more clearly hear the voice of God.

And that’s why we tell this particular Jesus story today. Because this Lent – any Lent – we are trying to imitate Jesus in his dedicated focus on the voice and will of God, his deep and all-powerful trust.

Of course, you may not have forty days off work (or parenting, or school, or the daily tasks of life) to go sit alone and listen. Like me, you might be terrible at wilderness camping.
So we need other ways to turn down the noise.
Because that noisy busyness is, in fact, the greatest obstacle to our relationship with God, our ability to hear and know God, to trust in God.

I have friends who give up Facebook for Lent. Or turn off the TV, the internet news feed, or the radio to turn down the noise.
Some find that giving up a food or an indulgence helps to quiet the inner noise.
Others might take on more time with scripture. More time in silence. Even five minutes a day.
What kind of wilderness experience could you have commuting or running errands with silence, or prayer, instead of with a podcast or the radio?
I tried that this week, actually, and it was stunning how much inner quiet I could actually find when I turned off the radio in my car, and tried to turn my ears toward God. Not every time, but amazing some times.

And one of the things that happens when you turn down the noise is that the voice of evil – of everything that draws us away from God – gets quieter, but much clearer, too.
It’s so clear in the wilderness that you and I get to hear it along with Jesus in Luke’s story today.

The “temptations” the devil offers Jesus in this story are a distilled, clearer version of the clamor to fulfill expectations, get lots of stuff done, and be a worldly success that surround Jesus all the time, and make “Messiah” such a noisy word. They are specific versions of the pressure to provide security, accomplishment, power, comfort, and success that surround Jesus in his life – and, in different ways, surround you and me in our lives.

And in that wilderness, every time the devil puts these expectations and noisy needs into clear words and invitations, Jesus quotes scripture. Jesus chooses God’s voice, says YES to God, not “no” to the devil.

One does not live by bread alone, Jesus says. And the devil (who does know scripture), and many of Luke’s audience recognize right away that the rest of that quote would be: but by every word that comes from God. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God. (Deuteronomy 6:13)

Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Over and over, every time he’s invited to make a choice, Jesus leans in to the word of God. He leans in to his focus on God, his obedience to God – which is a trust deep enough not to need to control my own way; trust open and honest enough to let God do the driving, and trust deep enough to know that God will be right there for every step of the journey.

Jesus isn’t just saying “no” to temptation. He’s demonstrating for us – for anyone who will pay attention – that all the other voices offering us power, security, comfort, success, and food really just don’t seem all that attractive when you have all those things already because of your trust in God.

That’s what God wants for us; what Jesus wants for you: For us to trust so deeply in God that we find these “temptations” around us all the time to be less attractive than what we already have with God. For it to be joyful to say yes, instead of hard to say no.

And Jesus is also demonstrating for us that we don’t resist temptation by ourselves.
We can’t.
There are far too many things – overt evil and mundane noisy busyness and cultural indifference and everything in between – trying to get between us and God, to draw our attention and trust away from God, for any of us – even Jesus, in his humanness – to resist temptation by our own strength and will and capability.

We have to depend on God. 
Completely. Profoundly. Persistently.
That’s the only thing that makes it possible to resist temptation.

I’d like to tell you that’s easy, but I can’t.
It is simple. But it’s a huge commitment. And an essential one. Because that complete dependence on God is the one thing that makes it natural to shed all the noise of other expectations, the stickiness of little everyday evils, the seduction or oppressive force of great evil.

We fast in Lent – we take on our own wilderness, whatever it is – to help us do as Jesus does. We don’t fast in Lent to strengthen our willpower muscles. We fast – give things up – to strengthen our profound dependence on God. To commit ourselves to God’s voice which resists all the evil that tries to control us, or tries to insist that we do it all ourselves.

God wants nothing more than to break through all the noise that clamors for our attention, to help us find that stillness and clarity of deep connection to God’s voice, the profound dependence on God that lifts the burden of doing it all off of your back.

God wants that heart-filling, spirit-protecting, joy-full trust for you.
For me. For each of us.
So God invites us to the wilderness.
Don’t you want to say “yes”?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Love Your Enemies

Luke 6:27-38

Imagine for a few minutes that you are in Syracuse, New York, in the fall of 1847. You are one of hundreds of people have travelled long miles to listen to international abolition activist and former American slave Fredrick Douglass.

He has held your attention powerfully, with humor and passion, truth and challenge. You’ve heard him repeatedly expose the sin and evil nature of slavery – both the experience and the institution. He has  shown us the flaws in the Constitution that support the institution of slavery and vividly illustrated how the church has stood hand-in-hand with slaveholders, endorsing the brutality, prejudice, and lack of concern for human suffering embedded in a slave-holding culture.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that slave-holders are his enemies, along with the great mass of Americans indifferent to their dependence on a slave economy, and the defenders of slavery in pulpits and legislatures. They are enemies of all that is right and good, and opponents of Mr. Douglass’ own humanity, freedom, and activism.

And then you hear him say:
“Since the light of God’s truth beamed upon my mind, I have become a friend of that religion which teaches us to pray for our enemies — which, instead of shooting balls into their hearts, loves them. I would not hurt a hair of a slaveholder’s head.”

That may have come as a surprise to many listeners. Fredrick Douglass makes it clear that he won’t defend the slaveholder from others or enforce slavery for anyone, but he has heard Jesus say to him what we heard Jesus say to us this morning, and to the crowds in the plains of Galilee thousands of years ago:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Listen to that again: 
Love your enemies.
Pray for those who abuse you.
Give whatever anyone demands from you; don’t try to recover what the powerful take away.
Jesus doesn’t ask much, does he?

And these are dangerous words.
These are words that were preached to slaves to keep them in slavery. These words of Jesus have been given as peace-keeping advice to abused women and children over many centuries, sending them back into homes full of danger and despair. Words relied on by the powerful to smother any faith-fueled urge to rebel against oppression.

Those words are dangerous when applied by the powerful to the powerless.

And those words disturb the comfort of an effortless faith for the rest of us, requiring that we look honestly at the hatreds and the hurts of our lives that we’d rather not see, and seeing them, return good for evil.

That’s hard for me. I don’t think of myself as a person who has enemies. I have the privilege of education, skin color, wealth, and network that makes me relatively hard to exploit and abuse, so it’s easy to look at the world and see no enemies. And I don’t like disliking people, even though I sometimes do. Maybe you feel the same.

But there are hatreds in my heart. Hatreds that feed and are fed by political rhetoric, and hatreds that come from my fears of those who have the power to take away freedoms, privileges, and rights – or to destroy the image of myself that assumes I earned those freedoms and privileges all by myself.
Jesus wants me to face those hatreds, and actively love those who could hurt me.

And if that’s hard for me, how much harder must it have been for Fredrick Douglass? For all the other slaves feeling oppression in their bodies; longing and working for freedom? For civil rights activists and ordinary African-Americans being beaten or bombed, spit on or shot?  For students facing tanks, Native Americans facing guns and armies and the seizure of their lands, women and girls trafficked into modern day slavery by “boyfriends”?

Loving your enemies is extraordinarily hard.
Turning the other cheek is dangerously encouraging to the oppressor.
Except when we remember that Jesus is not telling us to force an artificial sweetness or peace into relationships of abuse. Jesus is not telling us to romanticize oppression or whitewash systemic evil with tolerant acceptance. Jesus is not telling us to love our enemies out of our own resources.

Jesus is telling us to love with God’s love, not our own feelings and efforts. 
To love with God’s fierce, uncompromising love that will not let our enemies sustain their sin.

Frederick Douglass doesn’t say so in that speech I quoted, but from other words and actions of his that I have read, I believe he learned to love his enemies too much to allow them to continue to hurt and destroy their sisters and brothers. Loved his slave-holding enemies with God’s love that seeks to save them from the grip of that shameful sin. Prayed to God for his enemies that they would be free from the tyranny they imposed and thought was protecting them.

Love your enemies, Jesus tells us, not as sinners do, but "as children of the most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, as your Father is merciful."
Not because it is nice to be nice.
But because God’s love insists on transforming hatred, evil, and death.
And it is God’s love, flowing through us, not our own feelings and emotions, that Jesus tells us to use to love and bless, give and forgive, and pray for our enemies.

Jesus isn’t telling us to do something he himself hasn’t done.

Over and over in the stories of scripture we hear how God returns good for human evil. Of how God loves us deniers, takers, demanders and sinners who act as enemies of God through accident, indifference, fear or greed or vicious intent – loves you  and me with a fierce, powerful, persistent and uncompromising love. A love that insists on saving us from the grip of shame and sin – not because it hurts God, but because it hurts us. A love that refuses to let us hurt and destroy, or abuse and neglect, the gifts of our brothers and sisters whom God has given us.
We are loved with a love that wants to be shared, to flow through us, to heal us and to use us to heal others.

Love your enemies, Jesus says, not from your own righteousness, or as if love tolerates and ignores hatred and sin. That’s “love” that’s dangerous and deadly.

Instead, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, because that is the natural result of being loved in that very way by God. The natural consequence of entrusting yourself completely to the divine love that sees the denial, indifference, sin and greed and shame you and I and all of us turn toward God and returns generosity, blessing, abundance and forgiveness to transform our hearts and lives. 

That’s the love that resists slavery, refuses oppression, and raises new life from every death and tomb.


Read more speeches and writings of Fredrick Douglass online