Monday, March 26, 2012

Jonathan Linman's Annunciation/Lent 5 sermon at Epiphany

Dear friends in Christ: if I did my math right, there are only 275 shopping days left until Christmas…. You’d better get on it, if you want the good deals… The Christmas shopping seasons seem to begin earlier and earlier. But before Easter? That’s ridiculous. 

Let’s do the math another way: Christmas is nine months away. Now maybe you have a sense of what I am up to here. Today, March 25, is the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord, the day when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
So, no, I am not a retailer’s marketing front man. Rather, I simply remind you that today is the traditional date marking the beginning of Mary’s pregnancy. And nine months from today will be Christmas, the human birth of the one whom we call God and Lord.

But it’s also the fifth Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. Then we have Holy Week and finally Easter. Annunciation falling on a Sunday in Lent so close to the Christian high holy days, is a great confluence, a great coming together, not unlike the Age of Aquarius (now that dates me), when the planets line up to usher in a new age. 

Today’s coinciding or lining up of liturgical days helps us to see the big picture and makes the point that you cannot really understand the meanings of Christmas without Holy Week. Nor can you understand Holy Week without Christmas. 

In order to assist us in seeing the connections between the events associated with Jesus’ birth and those associated with his death, let’s take a little art historical journey. A picture is worth a thousand words.

You have in your worship folders a depiction of one panel of the famous Annunciation Triptych that appears at the Cloisters Museum here in Manhattan. How many have been to the Cloisters to see this?

This is from the Merode altarpiece from 15th Century Netherlands and the workshop of Robert Campin. It’s a spectacular piece of art located in a room at the Cloisters that is furnished like the painting.

At any rate the detail really helps to elucidate the link between Christmas themes and Holy Week themes:

 · What is depicted here is the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce the news of her miraculous and divinely-sourced pregnancy. So you have Mary and the Angel in a very ordinary, domestic setting

· But notice the flowers on the table in the center of the painting; they’re lilies, suggestive of Mary’s virginal purity, but also having associations with Easter

· Notice also in the upper left hand corner area the little figure with the cross flying down into the room, carried on rays of light: some suggest that this is the Christ child already carrying his cross

· Then look at the candle on the table and see that the candle’s flame has just gone out, indicated by the wisps of smoke rising from the wick -- some say that this may be suggestive of the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing out the candle, but also that the divine life was extinguished at the time of Jesus’ death on the cross

All of this is to say that the ultimate purpose of Jesus being born to Mary, the aim of the Incarnation, of God becoming human, is so that the very Son of God could finally go to the cross to be offered there for our sake and then be raised again.

In other words, Christmas (the pregnancy, the birth) makes Holy Week and Easter possible. We cannot have one without the other. And if it weren’t for the death and resurrection, we wouldn’t have any reason to remember Jesus and thus to celebrate Christmas. It’s all linked together. All the planets of the liturgical high holy days line up.

As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel reading: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’”
This hour, meaning his death, was his reason for life in the first place.

Or to put it in the words of a stanza of the beloved Christmas carol, “What Child is This?”: 

“Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!”
The details in the print of the painting you have before you convey this visually: again, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

All right. That’s all very interesting and if not interesting, then pedantic and academic (I cannot help myself since I still do some teaching as a professor in seminary). But so what? What does all this mean for us in our day? What does the Annunciation have to do with our own journey of faith?

One of the meanings of the Annunciation and of Mary’s role and of the Incarnation in the first place is that we, too, are called upon to embody God’s Word and to give birth to it in our daily lives. 

But how does this happen? Or to echo Mary’s own words at the Annunciation: “How can this be?” Let’s go back to the Annunciation painting to get our clues:

· Again, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary in a very ordinary, domestic setting, suggesting God’s entry into our ordinary lives. If it could happen to Mary, it could happen to us, right in our own homes and daily routines.

· Art historians suggest that this painting depicts the moments before the angel’s announcement to Mary -- hence she doesn’t seem to notice

· But I like to think of it another way: notice that Mary is engrossed in reading, and there’s another book on the table next to her, suggesting two volumes of sacred scripture, Old Testament and New Testament

· I like to think that her studied reading is prayerful devotion (many other depictions of the Annunciation show Mary at prayer)

· This suggests that the angelic visitation really centers on the act of devotional reading

 · That is to say: Mary’s becoming pregnant with the Word made flesh happens through her own engagement with the scriptural word in the power of the Holy Spirit. As if to say, in this version, the Holy Spirit is using the scripture to make the announcement and to commence the pregnancy.

· This is in keeping with themes of today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.”

· This inner illumination, of the Word written on the heart, is suggested by the star-shaped light or radiance emanating from the region of Mary’s womb

· Notice the trajectory: there’s a line from the baby Jesus carrying cross with God’s rays of light through the angel Gabriel, through the lilies and candle, through Mary’s face focused on the book, going down then from the book into her inner being, where her womb region is illuminated

This is what can happen to us when we so engage God’s Word that we take it into ourselves and in a sense become that Word and convey that Word, maybe even birth that Word in our own speech and deeds.

And, of course, one of the great arenas for our dwelling with God’s Word is worship, what we’re doing right now. 

Art historians suggest that this painting also conveys liturgical sensibilities:

· The angel Gabriel is dressed as a Deacon, in a flowing robe suggestive of an alb and wearing a Deacon’s stole across the shoulder

· Like Deacons who read the Gospel on Sunday mornings, the angel is proclaiming the Gospel to Mary

· Mary takes all of this in, a Word made flesh, carrying sacramental overtones.

· Eucharistic themes are reinforced in the right panel of the triptych which is not depicted here, but it shows Joseph in his carpenter’s shop making a wine press, suggestive of the wine used at the Eucharist.

All of this is to say that worship, what we do on Sundays, makes us pregnant with God Word. If today is the day when Mary got pregnant with God’s Word, it’s our day, too, when we also receive an angelic visitation in Word and in Sacrament carried on the power of the Holy Spirit. 

So here’s my prayer for you: that God’s Word would so enter you in worship that you become pregnant with good news, that nine months from now (or sooner -- our gestation period need not be a full nine months) you would birth that Word in your very lives in your speech and in your deeds. 

Think of it: if we Christians here and throughout the world could consistently carry in our very bodies the good news of the saving death and resurrection of Christ, walking the walk and not just talking the talk, living the good news not only with our lips but with our lives, what a great Christmas gift that would be to our troubled world. And not just on Christmas Day but every day.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"By grace my sight grows stronger"

This is my sermon for Lent 4 A, March 18, 2012

To quote Indiana Jones: “Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?”

Moses in the Old Testament; Jesus in the Gospel. I hate snakes with that visceral, irrational hatred that some people feel about bug or spiders or, well, clergy…. So having Jesus compared to a snake not a helpful metaphor for me. But there they are. And now we’ve acknowledged them and can move on. Enough with the snakes. 

This passage is the middle of Jesus’ explanation to Nicodemus, who has come to him under cover of night to ask questions. Nicodemus does this because he is a temple leader and doesn’t want to be seen talking with Jesus; but as Bishop Michael Curry declaimed in a brilliant sermon I heard last week in North Carolina, in the Gospel of John, when it is night, it does not mean that it is dark outside, it means that it is dark inside. It has nothing to do with the position of the sun, it’s the state of your soul. It’s about the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not. So when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, it isn’t just about not being seen; it’s about his soul still being in darkness, still not comprehending the light that is right in front of him. And then when Nicodemus reappears in chapter 19 of John’s gospel, bringing myrrh and aloes with which to anoint Jesus’ body on the afternoon of Good Friday, it’s not about how it takes place during the hours of daylight; it’s about his soul having seen the light, and finally grasping the very truth that Jesus is proclaiming today.  

Paul testifies to that truth today in his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” This is the light: by grace you have been saved through faith. As the wife of a Lutheran, I could not ignore this verse—the center of Martin Luther’s understanding of theology and the role of grace and faith in our lives as opposed to works. And grace and darkness are linked, because it is grace that sends the light in when we have lost the ability to believe that there could be light. Luther knew that—he knew what darkness of the soul was. 

I’ve certainly had some periods of myself where I found darkness to be suffocating. I know many of you have as well. Death, grief, violence, broken relationships, despair about where the world is going. I find the temptation when I am surrounded in darkness is to close my eyes and try to imagine that it’s not there. We can close our eyes on darkness—I don’t want to see the ugliness, the violence, the illness. I don’t want to have to feel the empathy, the compassion, the despair. St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul,” the crisis of faith that somehow combines psychological depression, physical illness, and divine abandonment. It can be overwhelming, and is impossible to work your way out of—just as impossible as it is to work our way to salvation. Have you ever tried to work at not being depressed? In my experience that’s futile. Depression doesn’t answer to reason or logic. It’s just dark. And trying hard to beat it doesn’t work. When the dark night of the soul finally gives way to dawn is when we open our eyes, acknowledge the darkness, and wait to see the light. If we open our eye, we see the darkness, and it can feel overwhelming. But we can also see the light when it comes. And the light always comes because we are children of light, and not of darkness.

And yet we are having a service here in 10 days called Tenebrae, Latin for “darkness”. And it is a dark service, both literally and figuratively. We begin fully lit, with 14 candles burning, and progressively the church gets darker as the lights are snuffed out as we meditate on psalms and scripture readings until it is completely dark except for the final candle, known as the Christ Candle. Now if the church is about light and not darkness, why do we do this? Well, because at the end of that service, the Christ candle is taken away, and there is total darkness. And then there is a loud noise—meant to represent the rolling away of the stone from the tomb. And then the candle comes back. Light returns. And you’d be surprised how much light a single candle can give when you’ve just been in total darkness. 

We are called as Christians not to be afraid of the dark, and not to avoid going to dark places, as we’ll be doing at Tenebrae. Jesus meets Nicodemus in the dark; Jesus suffers his own dark night of the soul at Gethsemane and again on the cross, crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where there is pain and suffering and depression and no hope is precisely where we need to go as Christians. But we need to remember that we are not children of darkness. We are children of light. And it may just be a single flame that illumines that darkness but if Christ is present wherever we are present—and he is—then there is a light wherever we are. As the Gospel of John says of John the Baptist, he was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. We come to testify to the light as well. If you are in darkness right now, know that there is light. And not at the end of the tunnel but with you, now. In the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate—appropriate this week: 

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

That is the faith of those who are in darkness. That Christ is with us, in us, surrounding us. And that God’s love is bound to us, even in the darkness.

But so how do we see that light of Christ with us? I’ve gone running a lot this week and so I’ve been listening to Pandora radio, which I have set to the “Indigo Girls” radio station because I always used to run to the Indigo Girls when I was in high school. It’s gotten me thinking about their repertoire, which has many wonderful spiritual themes, possibly because Emily Saliers is the daughter of Don Saliers, a Methodist minister and a professor at Emory University. She wrote a song called “Prince of Darkness” that Jeff and I are going to sing the chorus of in a moment. “My place is of the sun, and this place is of the dark” it begins, and finished, “By grace my sight grows stronger and I will not be a pawn for the prince of darkness any longer.” It is grace that improves our vision to see the light that is already there. The light that we find it hard to believe in. The light of Christ.

Listen to the full Indigo Girls song, Prince of Darkness, here.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Put down your shame, and take up your cross

My sermon for Lent 2 A
Last week Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. This week Peter is doing the tempting. Peter is tempting Jesus with avoiding suffering and avoiding death. Peter is offering Jesus something seductive—something that you or I would probably give in to in a heartbeat. And that’s why Jesus calls him Satan in today’s Gospel. Mark is very unclear about how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but he’s quite specific about how Jesus is tempted by Peter: Peter says to Jesus, don’t suffer, don’t be rejected by the authorities, let’s compromise and find some common ground, and most of all, don’t die. Don’t take up your cross, and do all these things that will be shameful. Because Peter—understandably—hears what Jesus says about rising three days after death, and doesn’t have enough faith to believe that could happen and what a glorious victory it will be. You can imagine Peter saying, “Don’t be rejected by everyone, Jesus, and be shamed and killed…” and I wonder if in the back of Peter’s mind he’s thinking, “Because then I might have to do that, too.”

Peter’s views are right in keeping with the view of shame in scripture: it is something to be avoided at all costs. The Psalms are full of prayers to “Let me not be ashamed” and of hopeful requests of God to bring shame upon the speaker’s enemies. There are two Greek words for shame in the New Testament; one is good shame—more like modesty. The other—the one used today—is bad shame—more like disgrace. The roots of the English word shame come from words meaning to be uncovered or naked. We all know what it is to feel ashamed—and we probably also all, like Peter, prefer to avoid it if at all possible. 

But here it is today in the Gospel, in an encounter with a sort of circular logic: Peter gets publicly shamed and rebuked by Jesus for trying to tell Jesus that Jesus should not suffer and be shamed. And then Jesus continues by promising that those who are ashamed of him—and of his shame—will likewise be subjected to shame not by the world, but by God himself. And this is somehow related to taking up our cross.  

That’s a fairly easy connection to make: the cross was the predominant symbol of shame for early Christians. In the first century Ancient Near Eastern culture, dying on a cross was the most shameful way of dying possible. It was public, it was naked, and it was reserved for only the worst criminals. Some people who wanted to believe in Jesus in the early church couldn’t because they couldn’t get over the shame of following a leader who died in such a shameful way. The cross was, in Paul’s words, a stumbling block to many because of the shame it represented.  

Which is an association of the cross that we may have lost over the last two millennia. If I asked you the first three words you think of when you think of the cross, what are they? Just free associate. For me, when I did this yesterday, it’s cross: death, pain, salvation. It intrigued me that I came up with both the positive and negative aspects of the cross. But I don’t instantly associate the cross with shame for myself.  

And Jesus himself is not ashamed. “He said all this quite openly” in describing the suffering that is ahead of him. Suffering is not shameful for Jesus; the cross is not shameful for Jesus. Peter is imposing his sense of shame on Jesus’ future actions. And in doing so he’s representing other members of the audience for Mark’s gospel. They wrestled with feeling ashamed of a savior who died on a cross; so Mark helps them by putting Peter in their place.

If the cross was the shameful icon and stumbling block for believers in the first century, I wonder what the equivalent is today. What might we be ashamed of when it comes to God and Christianity? What is it in your faith that you feel like you have to justify or make excuses for to outsiders… Other Christians’ behavior? Or parts of scripture? I know I cringe whenever Westboro Baptist Church is in the news; or when certain texts come up in the lectionary. They make me want to say, “You know God, it would have been a lot easier if you had said this differently…” but then, saying “It would be easier if…” makes me sound like Peter. It would be easier if you didn’t have to proclaim a Gospel with a cross; it would be easier if you didn’t have to proclaim a Gospel rooted in a particular time and place with specific social, gender, and ethnic expectations. It would be easier if….
Taking up our cross today might mean letting go of our fear of shame. And the shame we import onto our sin, our frailty and our failings. If Jesus can approach the cross without shame, surely we can approach our sufferings and trials without shame. Because it seems to me that when we fear shame and try to avoid it—like Peter—we tend to bring it upon ourselves. If we are unwilling to be shamed—by risking our reputations for what is right or just or honorable—then we dig ourselves deeper into sin, like Peter does today. A brief illustration:

In the summer of 2001, while I was in seminary, I was asked to be a chaplain at the Diocese of Los Angeles’ summer camp for a week. To make a long story short, I borrowed my rector’s VW van to get down there, and through a series of unfortunate decisions on my part, and the peculiarity of position of reverse in the VW manual transmission, before I even got on the road, I ran the van into his garage door and dented the door. I was mortified and ashamed—because I knew I was going to have to go in to him and confess. He would know what I had done. And it was all because of the sin of pride. Because I didn’t want to tell Dean that I was having trouble getting the van into reverse, I didn’t want to ask for help. I wanted to do it all by myself. So by avoiding my perceived shame of asking for help, I got myself into worse trouble and got to experience real shame in confessing what I’d done. IT’s not about the garage door, it’s about pride.  

Nathan has been sweetly saying to Jonathan and I, “It’s alright to make mistakes, Mommy.” He moved to wearing big boy underwear the two weeks ago, and we ingrained that message to Nathan because we didn’t want him to feel ashamed when he—inevitably—made mistakes. God doesn’t want us to feel shame for our mistakes either. When I think of things that make me feel ashamed, it is my sins, my errors; it’s how I have failed. What if I were able to pick up those faults, those errors, acknowledge them, and then put them in their proper place—put them down and move on without shame. If I hadn’t been ashamed of asking for help with the van incident, I would have gone in to the house, asked for help, and avoided crashing into the door.  

Despite Jesus’ rebuke today, Peter is still so frightened—and maybe ashamed—that he isn’t present when Jesus dies on the cross. But as always with our lives in faith, our failings don’t have the last word. Having seen the risen Christ, Peter finds the strength of faith to redeem himself and find his way to his own cross about 30 years later. Peter took up his cross literally. We walk a different way of the cross. But in the words of the collect for Fridays, which I’m about to read, it is the way of “life and peace”, not a way of shame. So let us set down our shame, and take up our cross. Let us pray. 

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

365 Days of Lent?

An adaptation of my article from The Manifest for March 2012
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s word.” Book of Common Prayer, page 265

What makes a Lent “holy” or otherwise?

Joe Zorawick intrigued me with something he said in his sermon last week: the idea that Lent should be a year-round activity, and not just a 40 day activity. In one sense, I think he’s very right: Lent should not be the time when we do for 40 days what we should really be doing the other 325 days of the year. Bible study, prayer, self-examination and repentance should happen thoughout the year, not just during Lent. And the Easter feast is not about gorging unhealthily on candy or meat or wine—or ceasing prayer and Bible study. The Easter feast is about renewing our joy and celebrating with a foretaste of that feast which is to come: the heavenly banquet. At its best, celebrating is not about slacking off—it’s about embracing joy with heart, mind, and soul.

So it might be good to think about Lent as spring training. Lent is the time when we can work out muscles that have become rusty or slack, and build up our endurance so that we can run the longer race ahead of us. It’s not a New Year’s resolution we only have to keep for 40 days; it’s a starting place to remind us of what our whole lives should be about.

When I was in high school, I once gave up ice cream for Lent because the soccer team went out for ice cream and I had no money with me. I didn’t want to borrow, and so I gave the excuse that I had given up ice cream for Lent. The only good thing about this was that I did feel compelled to maintain that discipline for the rest of the 40 days. But we can be awfully trivial in what we do for Lent, and motivated by things other than devotion to Jesus.

So what are you doing for Lent this year? What exercises are you doing, what spiritual muscles are you stretching? The Prayer Book gives a pretty good overview of the categories to consider--self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s word. If you haven’t come up yet with your “Lenten discipline”it’s not too late. Start with self-examination: where in your life do you need deeper faith, discipline? And then maybe pick one thing, one area to work on this Lent. And to whom are you accountable for keeping to that discipline? It it’s just you and God, you may need a third party to keep you honest--tell someone what you’re doing, and ask them to check in with you in a week or two. I’m happy to serve as a goad for anyone who needs one.

I realize that what would make a Lent holy for me is if it was lasting: if the disciplines I took up during Lent were disciplines I decided to make part of my life for the other 325 days of the year. As an example, every Lent, Jonathan and I commit to saying or singing Compline together before we go to bed. It’s a good discipline, we usually enjoy it, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it all year round. But we get busy, he goes to bed later than I do, and it’s easy to slip into the routine of not praying together. I’m rethinking our Lenten commitment this year; wondering if we might continue it through the Easter season so that we can sing all the “alleluias” with the psalms and canticle. It feels like it will be easier to continue it if there’s something to look forward to--and looking forward to “Alleluia” is pretty compelling at this point! I hope you will all keep me honest--ask Jonathan and I how we’re doing on Compline the next time you see us.
And if we keep doing it, we will keep being able to say together my very favorite prayer from the BCP, which is in the Compline service:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch or weep this night; and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the jouous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.