Monday, March 30, 2020

The Grieving Conversation

John 11:1-45
Lent 5 / Year A

Today is the fifth and final Sunday in Lent.  Next Sunday begins Holy Week with the Blessing of the Palms and reading of our Lord’s Passion.  And this is our final “Big Conversation.”  Let’s call this one “The Grieving Conversation.”  Of course, it is more than this, but it certainly is this as Jesus speaks with his friends Mary and Martha after the passing of their brother Lazarus.

Many of us have been in the place where Mary and Martha are in this reading.  We know first-hand what it is to lose someone close to you.  And we know what is comforting and helpful and kind and loving at such a time and, sadly, we also know what is not.  I suspect most of us have had a well-meaning friend say or do the wrong thing at the worst possible time.  You know the comments:

·         You need to put this behind you.

·         It was not meant to be (or the alternative… it was meant to be).

·         He brought this on himself.

·         Everything happens for a reason.

·         You must be strong.

·         Why are you still crying?

·         She wouldn’t want you to be so sad.

·         You are still young; you can always remarry.

·         You never really got to know the baby.

·         God wanted him more than you.

·         Heaven needed another angel.

·         God will never give you more than you can handle.

·         I know just how you feel.

And, in spite of what you might think, we clergy can be some of the worst offenders.  A woman named Candace shares her experience:

I was devastated when I lost my husband to brain cancer just 12 weeks after diagnosis.  I was not able to get back to church after his death and I wondered why the pastor didn’t call and then, after 3 months, he did call and wanted to visit.  As soon as he arrived he told me that God had often used him to heal the sick but since he had prayed for my husband and he died, it must mean that God was trying to get my attention.  So I asked him, are you saying it’s my fault that my husband got cancer and died?  And he replied it’s something you should think about.  I know it is difficult knowing what to say after a death but that comment was just plain cruel!

I think I would describe it with words even harsher than “cruel”.

We know why people say these things.  We sense their need to fix everything.  We get why our pain makes them uncomfortable.  We even understand the urge to assign blame in order to make sense of what has happened.  We get it, but this doesn’t make it any easier to tolerate.

Here are a few things you might consider saying when you speak with a friend who is grieving:

·       I am so sorry for your loss.

·       I wish I knew the right words to say, but I don’t.  Just know I care.

·       I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.

·       You and your loved ones are in my thoughts and prayers.

·       My favorite memory of your loved one is…

·       We all need help at times like this.  I am here for you.  What can I do?

·       I am always up early (or late or free during the middle of the day – whatever is true for you).  If you need anything or just want to talk I am only a phone call away!

·       Try giving a hug without saying anything at all.

My father died when I was twenty.  No one in my social group had been through this experience and, as a consequence, no one knew what to say or do.  So my friends went in one of two directions.  There were those who didn’t know what to say and because this made them uncomfortable, they avoided me.  And then there were those who didn’t know what to say and it made them uncomfortable, but decided to stay by my side even though they could not “fix” the situation.  I have never forgotten their courage to demonstrate compassion while being completely vulnerable and helpless.  Sensing they cared about me more than their personal safety and comfort meant the world to me.  It said more than words ever could!

Looking at today’s text, it appears Martha accepts her brother’s death and draws on a deep faith.  She states her belief Jesus could have prevented the death, but even now – after four days – God will do whatever he asks.  Mary, on the other hand, is overcome with grief.  She mourns.  She weeps. Lamenting consolers surround her.  She states only that her brother would not have died if Jesus had been there.  It feels more like a complaint than a statement of faith.  Caught up in the force of Mary’s emotion, Jesus is overcome himself and weeps, even to the point of being “greatly disturbed.”  It is one of the moments when we gain insight into the fullness of his humanity.

Perhaps the story of Jesus raising Lazarus puzzles you.  It does me.  It feels like Jesus “fixes” the situation in a way we would all love to happen when we lose a loved one.  Through a single prayer and a simple command – Lazarus, come out! – he turns mourning into dancing and grief into gladness with the ease with which he converted water into wine.  But raising Lazarus from death is not the same thing as resurrection and this is not his ultimate destiny (or ours).  One day – some day – Lazarus will die again and this time he will rise in glory, as we all will.  Jesus’ act doesn’t “save” his friend from dying.  It merely delays the ultimate gift of new life one day he will receive.

One day each of us will transition from this existence to a reality we can scarcely imagine.  I like how the burial prayer refers to “the grave and gate of death.”  When I think of this gate I picture the gates in St. Paul’s front wall.  Dying is like walking down the street and turning into our church property by passing through the gates.  I see the front doors, which look so inviting as the seasonal flags flutter majestically in a gentle breeze.  To the right is the Columbarium and Cross.  On the left is a stately magnolia tree.  And all around tulips are in bloom.  In an instant life is changed, not ended.  But for those of us still walking down the street (or as the burial office puts it, “who are still in our earthly pilgrimage”), we feel acutely the pain of separation and lose as our earthly connection to one we love and need comes to an end.  It is real and it hurts. 

The wisdom of the ages reminds us the best way to go through this kind of pain is together.  When someone dies, we mourn and grieve together.  The closer we are to the person who dies the deeper it disturbs.  So we hold each other close and help as best we can.  We accept what is and do what we can while being at peace with what we cannot do to provide comfort.  And we put our faith in the one who is the Resurrection and the Life in the hope we will one day be reunited with all those we love but see no longer.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Blaming & Complaining Conversation

John 9:1-41
Lent 4 / Year A

This morning we hear our third big conversation of the Lenten season.  This one involves Jesus, his disciples, a man blind from birth, the man’s parents and neighbors, and local religious authorities.  Unlike the first two conversations and the one we will hear next Sunday, Jesus is a minor actor in this encounter.  The blind man has the leading role with most of his lines coming after he receives the gift of sight. 

The conversation begins with the disciples asking Jesus a question.  On seeing the blind man they wonder, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It is telling the disciples don’t address the man or do anything to help him.  To them, he is little more than an object lesson; the impetus for asking a theological and theoretical question.  For Jesus, the blind man is a human being.  And his blindness is not the result of sin, but like everything broken and bruised in this world it is an opportunity for God’s gracious and merciful healing power to make a person whole.

The disciples do what we do even in our own day.  That is, when something goes wrong we want to know who is at fault; who is to blame.  Blame has been much discussed this week as some people seek to determine who is at fault for the COVID 19 pandemic.  A popular target is “the Chinese” – whatever that means.  Now, finding the source of an outbreak – either initially or locally – is important work because it can help to contain the spread, but finding the source is not the same as assigning blame.

Why do we blame?  When something goes wrong we have a deep need to understand what happened and why it happened.  Rarely is it satisfying or comforting to say, “There is no one to blame because ‘it just happened.’”  If bad things can “just happen”, it follows they can’t be fixed and therefore can occur again… and again… and again.  Simply put, we do not want to live in a world where we have so little control.  When something goes wrong it is much more comforting to find someone – anyone – to blame. 

Every time a company introduces an Edsel or New Coke, the blame game kicks in.  It was marketing’s fault, or R&D, or manufacturing.  Eventually someone will take the blame, heads will roll, jobs will be lost, and everyone left will feel better about themselves.  In business they call this “the blame culture.”  If it is your fault then it isn’t my fault.  You are a bad person and I am a good person. 

Most of us don’t accept blame passively.  We fight by deflecting the blame either back on our accuser or onto a third party.  In fact, the more narcissistic a person is, the less he or she is able to accept a share of responsibility in what has gone wrong.  For such an individual, the emotional pain of being wrong is simply too great to bear.  As a result, a narcissist always has to be right and this means those who disagree with him or her always have to be wrong.  Have you ever known a person with a desperate need to build up him/her self by tearing down others?

For the disciples, getting word from Jesus about who is to blame ultimately is rooted in a desire to believe no matter who is at fault they themselves must be good because they are not afflicted.  But, as I said, for Jesus this is not about finding fault.  It is about respecting humanity.  It is not about who did what wrong.  It is about what can I do or (better put) what can God working in and through me do for a person in need.

This is the first great drama played out in today’s big conversation.  The second has to do with who deserves compassion.  Oh sure, the religious leaders feign offense Jesus heals the man on the Sabbath, making him in their minds a sinner, but their response most certainly is rooted in jealousy and envy.  Like a child who watches a sibling get something he does not – “Hey, no fair!  How come Billy gets extra ice cream and I don’t?” – the religious leaders are upset Jesus does something compassionate for the man while doing nothing for them.  Perhaps even more to the point, Jesus does something compassionate for the man they are not able to do.  Envy and jealousy.

Have you ever noticed how acts of compassion are often met with criticism?  “Why should the church give out bags of food each week?  Those people should go out and get job and work for a living.”  “Why do senior citizens get their own shopping hours and I have to fight it out with everyone else when the shelves are bare?”  “How come those NBA players got tested for the virus while ordinary people are turned away?” 

Compassion criticism rooted in jealousy and envy sees the world only with the eyes of self-interest to the exclusion of all other perspectives.  But those other perspectives add something critical to the picture, like adding color to a black and white photograph.  Did you know many of our Food Pantry clients hold jobs.  I see them working at Food Lion and Hardies, but this work does not provide enough income for them to make it on their own.  A bag with five food items supplements what they are able to do for themselves and is well deserved.  Others are elderly or disabled and not capable of being productive wage earners.  When it comes to special shopping hours, rather than complaining about what others get that you do not, perhaps you might advocate for additional adaptions that might be beneficial, rather than petty.  And when it comes to who gets tested and who does not, isn’t the important question not how scarce resources are meted out, but why such necessary resources are scarce in the first place and what can be done about it. 

So, we add today’s conversation to our first two.  “The Intentional Conversation” and “the Accidental Conversation” have a new companion.  Lets call it “The Blaming and Complaining Conversation.”  Perhaps the single most significant effect it has is to obscure the incredibly wonderful and marvelous thing Jesus does in one person’s life.  This should not surprise us because blaming and complaining have a way of blinding us to the good things God is doing in this world.  And they have a way of blinding us to the miracles God does for us. 

I realize I am not fully aware of the anxiety these days raise for many of you.  My life, which is largely lived alone, has not changed much.  The more I interact with many of you the more I realize I am the exception, not the rule.  Still, during these days of trial and fear, God is doing incredible things.  It is easy to be blind to what these things may be.  I love the tenacity of the man who sees for the first time in his life (and just imagine what an overwhelming sensory experience it must be for him!).  In hurricane of blame and complaining he remains focused on the blessing he experiences: “Here is an astonishing thing… Jesus opened my eyes!”  In the midst of all that is troubling and fearful, may your eyes be open to all the ways God is present and active in your life.  This is not the time to allow blaming and complaining to swallow up all that is good and godly.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Accidental Conversation

John 4:5-42
Lent 3 / Year A

This morning’s Gospel reading chronicles the second of four “big” Scriptural conversations we will be hearing in Lent.  Last week Nicodemus intentionally sought out Jesus with spiritual concerns and questions.  This morning we read the story of a Samaritan woman Jesus encounters at a well outside her village.  Completely accidental, it is the opposite of an intentional meeting.  And, like a lot of unintentional conversations we get drawn into, it takes some wild twists and turns. 

That the woman comes to draw water at noon is telling.  She engages in an activity most do early in the morning while it is still cool.  In addition to a daily chore, it is a social time when those gathered share the latest news and catch up on the latest gossip.  That she elects to avoid a public gathering and opts instead to be at the well when she imagines no one else will be there suggests she is not comfortable, and most likely not welcome, to be in the company of her neighbors.  They know her scandalous life and it is better for her just to avoid interacting with them.  She practices social distancing well before any of us ever heard the term.

The conversation gets off to a rocky start when Jesus asks her to give him a drink of water.  Well, “asks” is a bit misleading.  Given his statement is cast in the imperative, it is more of a demand than a request: “Give me a drink of water!”  When she bristles, wondering why a Hebrew like him would lower himself to speak to a Samaritan, the conversation is off and running.

It touches on such topics as spirituality (“living water”), cultural bigotry, moral failings (“you have had five husbands”), religious differences (where is the correct place to worship?), eschatology (“I know the Messiah is coming”), and theology (“God is spirit”). 

A straight reading of the text suggests what impresses the woman most is how Jesus is able to tell her everything she has ever done.  This, in fact, is the message she shares with the people of her town.  It makes it seem as if Jesus is a clairvoyant who can gaze into her eyes and divine her secret sins and past failings.  But I wonder.  Surely she is used to people criticizing her lifestyle and choices and Jesus doesn’t have to be a mind reader to figure out why she is getting water alone at this time of day.  In truth, that Jesus “knows” who she is is not really not surprising or impressive. 

I suggest what is different is this: unlike the people of the community who know everything she has done and condemn her for it at every turn, Jesus knows who she is and yet still loves her unconditionally.  It is not how the text says it, but what I think it really means is this: “He told me everything I have ever done and yet he still loves me.”  Knowing her and yet still loving her is what sets Jesus apart from everyone else who knows the woman.  It is so significant, so explosive, so unexpected, that the woman tells everyone she knows about it.  She becomes an evangelist in her community because for the first time she has felt loved; loved as only God can love – deeply, completely, unconditionally.

A few years ago, when one of my lovely nieces was married, she asked her pastor, Duane, perform the service.  On the staff of a large, conservative, mega-church, he did a nice job, but, leery of getting drawn into a argumentative conversation, I wanted to keep my distance.  Later in the evening I was outside and smoking a cigar – trapped.  Duane approached me and asked about the Episcopal Church’s position on same-gender marriage.  Here we go, I thought so I tried to measure my words to defuse the situation.  Then Duane began to tell me about his ministry, which includes reaching out to drug addicts, ex-cons, prostitutes, and just about everyone all of us good Christians identify as sinners.  To my surprise I discovered one of my Christian mentors as a youth is also one of his.  I have since come to learn the Episcopal Church I first joined partners with his ministry aimed at helping those down and out to make a new start.  When I think about Duane, I realize what makes his ministry special is not that he can name sinners and knows who they are.  What makes his ministry effective is he loves them.

Accidental conversations.  Sometimes we get drawn into these against our will, they go south fast, and become a nightmare quickly.  You know the kind.  The person attacks you for your political leanings, for your religious beliefs or affiliation, for being a Hookie or a Woo, or for being a Yankee.  These are the conversations where differences are all that matters and is discussed and certainly love is not present.  And then there are those accidental conversations that are enriching.  You learn things about another you never would have known, see the world from an entirely new perspective, have your own value and worth affirmed, and find you are not alone in this world because you have engaged a kindred soul.

Let me suggest the difference between the two experiences is the presence or the absence of love.  When we seek Christ in all persons we cannot help but to meet them with love and charity – the other person is, after all, bearing our beloved Savior.  When we set out to respect the dignity of every human being we strive to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Our interactions, whether intentional or accidental, are infused with God’s love. 

Let me say in closing, we are now living in an “accidental” time as we find ourselves in a national emergency and worldwide pandemic.  Now, more than ever, our accidental encounters with others need to be directed by Christian charity and good will.  Every person whose path we cross provides us with an opportunity to express God’s boundless love made known to us in Jesus Christ.  Now is a time for us to be evangelists and ambassadors of the one who gives us living water.  May God’s love at work in and through you catch by surprise every person you encounter.  And may you find holy and kindred souls in the accidental encounters of these coming days.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Intentional Conversation

John 3:1-17
Lent 2 / Year A

This year’s Lenten Gospel readings feature some “big” conversations.  We will hear four different encounters from the Gospel of John where Jesus is drawn into a significant exchange.  Next Sunday we will meet the Samaritan woman at the well.  On the 4th Sunday in Lent Jesus will engage a man born blind, who in turn will be confronted by religious authorities after he is given the gift of sight.  On the 5th Sunday Jesus will talk with Mary and Martha at the time of their brother’s death.  Today he meets with Nicodemus.  The circumstances and subjects of each conversation differ greatly and yet each is reveals how and why we might approach the Holy One ourselves.

Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees and secret disciple, seeks out Jesus under the cover of darkness because he believes Jesus is sent from God.  With this, the two enter into a widely cast discussion of a deep and (for Nicodemus at least) somewhat puzzling nature.  What sets this encounter apart from the next three is that Nicodemus deliberately seeks out Jesus because he is looking for answers.  So let’s call this first story “The Intentional Conversation.”

It stands for the many different ways we intentionally pursue the bigger questions of life.  One of these ways you are doing right now – listening to a sermon.  Week in and week out, I hope this activity challenges you to think and opens you to new possibilities.  The women who gather here on Wednesday mornings enter into an intentional conversation intended for mutual growth, support, and understanding.  The same thing happens when the Women’s Study Group gathers on a monthly basis.  Those of us who meet on Sundays at 9:30 to discuss the assigned readings for the day aim to gain a better understanding of their meaning and relevance in our lives.  Every time you open your bible, read a book or article with the goal of growing and maturing, or even watch a TV program or movie exploring life’s biggest questions you engage in an intentional conversation as Nicodemus did.

We human beings are on a constant quest to increase our knowledge base.  We want to know about the universe and the nature of life.  The Hubbell telescope provides us with breathtaking images of the incomprehensible expanse of the heavens.  Even more remarkable, as we come to understand the basic building blocks of all things, we realize the small world of quarks and bosons is even smaller than the universe is vast.  But beyond knowledge, human beings have a profound need to understand why we are here, what our place is in all of this, and what is the purpose to it all.

It is worth noting Nicodemus does not approach Jesus looking to increase his knowledge basis of the bible.  He is not asking about content.  He comes to Jesus intentionally seeking wisdom and understanding.  He wants to know what it all means.  Because this need is not physical, like food, water, and oxygen, it is referred to as a “metaphysical” need, literally a need beyond the physical.  Saul Levine, a retired doctor and professor, holds we have four great metaphysical needs: a sense of being, a sense of belonging, a sense of benevolence, and a sense of meaning.  We need to know who we are, that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, that our life makes a difference, and how all of this fits into a bigger purpose.  These things don’t come to us naturally, like breathing when we are asleep.  They must be sought with intentionality and cherished with passion.

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and neurologist who survived internment in a Nazi death camp, wrote about his experience in a seminal work titled Man’s Search for Meaning.  Common sense might tell you those who survived were physically stronger than those who didn’t, but Frankl learned otherwise.  He writes,

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

The key to survival was not strength but rather retaining a sense of control over your environment.  Frankl notes Freud held the main drive in life is pleasure and Adler held it is power, but from his experience he states the primary motivation in life is to find a sense of meaning.

Frankl believed meaning can be found in three ways:

·    by interacting authentically with your environment, and with others,

·    by contributing to the world through creativity, and self-expression, and

·    by changing your attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance you cannot change.

“Those who have a why to live,” he said, “can bear with almost any how.”

Think about how Jesus’ life mirrors Frankl’s insight.  Did he interact authentically with the world and with those he met?  Yes.  Did he contribute to it by offering his unique gifts and insights?  Yes.  Did he change his attitude when faced with a situation he could not change?  Join us during Holy Week if you don’t know the answer.

You might say, “Well, having a sense of meaning might be helpful if you are in a prison camp or are the Savior of the world, but my life is fairly comfortable so why should I intentionally set out to seek the metaphysical when all I am focused on is my next smart phone upgrade?” 

Frankl’s response to this is something he called “Sunday neurosis.”  It refers to a feeling people have at the end of the workweek when, during a pause from the daily grind, they have time to realize how empty and meaningless their lives actually are.   To fill this void, Frankl says, we will engage in all sorts of excesses and compensations: neurotic anxiety, avoidance, binge eating, drinking, overworking, and overspending.  It may be a soothing balm in the short term, but does not offer the kind of peace found only in a sense of meaning and purpose.  As a result, we experience a gap between what ought to be or hope to be and who we actually are.  Eventually it becomes unbearable.  The resulting depression tells us something is wrong and changes need to be made.

This, I think, is what brings Nicodemus to Jesus and he senses it immediately.  He compares this search to being ‘born from above’, or, as some translations have it, being ‘born again’.  Unlike the altar calls in churches or the pleas to give your life to Jesus while on a youth retreat, Jesus seems to suggest this transformational experience is beyond our control.  It is like the wind, he says.  It blows from here to there and you know not why, only that it is blowing.  You can choose to go with it or hold firm to where you are. 

The truth is the wind of the Spirit blows more often than we realize.  The opportunity for discovery and renewal and growth is ever before us.  We can allow it to carry us off into a life filled with meaning and purpose or we can remain content to live merely on a physical and material level.  If we learn one thing from Nicodemus it is this: the wind of the Spirit may blow as it will, but a life of intentionality is the sail we hoist to harness it.  You may not know when the wind will blow – when insight and revelation will break into your life – but the chances of catching it are much better if you are looking for it… intentionally.  Are you seeking meaning and purpose in your life?  If so, what are you intentionally doing to find it?   If your answer is “not much,” you might want to make some changes in your life.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Baptism & Tedmptation

Lent 1 / Year A
Matthew 4:1-11

Each of the Gospels tells us immediately after Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River he goes out into the wilderness alone to pray and to fast.  And throughout this forty-day period he experiences temptation. 

There is a strong connection between baptism and temptation.  Think about the questions we are asked at baptism:  

· Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

· Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

· Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

Each question is met with the candidate’s response, “I renounce them.”  The word renounce, based on its Latin roots, literally means ‘to report what you are against.  So the Christian life begins with a report of what we are against.  We are against the corrupting influences of Satan, the world, and the self.

We follow up this report with announcements when we say “I do” to each of these three questions: 

· Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept Him as your Savior?

· Do you put your whole trust in His grace and love?

· Do you promise to follow and obey Him as your Lord?

Through these proclamations we tell the world, “This is what I am all about.” 

Finally, we are asked five questions, which begin to give shape to how we will live a Christ-like life:

· Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

· Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

· Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

· Will you seek and serve God in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

· Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

The answer we give to each of these questions is “I will…” and because they are so challenging to live out we add “with God’s help.”

Once you declare publicly what you will do and what you will not do, you invite the prospect of temptation… the powerful urge to do what you say you do not want to do, and the subtle lure not to follow through on what you say you do want to do.

The temptations Jesus faces, like the temptations we experience, reveal the mysterious nature of evil and good.  Very few of us intentionally set out to do evil, and yet at times we are its agents.  Most of us don’t knowingly chart a course to avoid doing good, and yet how often does the moment pass us by? 

There are times when evil disguises itself.  We don’t know quite how we entered into it, but one day we realize just how tightly we are caught in its grips.  Eventually we come to our senses, usually when we are made accountable for our actions, and we wonder how in the world we got in so deep.  Good, too, often disguises itself.  Think about those servants in Jesus’ parable who are praised for giving him food and drink.  When did we do this good thing,” they ask?  The response, “whenever you did it for a person in need,” demonstrates how it is possible to enter into the mystery of good without being fully aware of the good you are doing.

There are times when what is evil is attractive to us.  The very name Lucifer comes from a Latin word meaning light.   Many of the world’s mythologies about the evil one portray this figure as shiny, bright, and appealing.  It is only later, after you take hold of what shines, you see it for the destructive evil it truly is.  Paradoxically, what is good may at first appear as something repulsive.  Do you remember how the priest and the Levite pass by the Good Samaritan because his wounds sicken them?  Think about how Jesus does good by touching a leper whose skin is infected and diseased.  Sometimes what is right and good is anything but shiny.

To be a follower of Christ is make a report of what you are against, to announce what you are for, and to commit yourself to a way of life mirroring his.  In so doing you invite temptation and you encounter the mystery of good and evil.  As with most mysteries, we want to solve the puzzle.  We want to find an intellectual answer to make sense of the mystery. 

Today’s first reading gives narrative form to our search for answers.  Why did God put the tree in the garden?  Why did God forbid the eating of the fruit?  Why was the tempting serpent allowed to exist near the man and the woman?  You could fill this sanctuary with all the books and articles written about these questions.  Each offers insight.  Each suggests answers.  And yet, in spite of all this work, good and evil are still a mystery.

Mystery is best approached, not with an eye toward solving it, but rather as something to be engaged and explored.  Lenten disciplines afford us such an opportunity.  Give up something you really love or is an ingrained habit and you will find out just how much your body or your spirit demands it.  Take on something of value, perhaps giving yourself in prayer on a daily basis, and you will discover just how much your mind and schedule resists it.  

God gives strength and grace to those who seek it.  Stay at your disciplines long enough and you will discover how what was shiny no longer attracts you and how what seemed difficult now draws you into it.  And though these endeavors may be trivial, the very exercise trains us for the bigger challenges we face in life.  It strengths our ability to say no to what initially attracts, but eventually destroys.  It develops our capacity to do what is beneficial, but difficult. 

When we report to the world what we are against and announce what we are for, we begin a pilgrimage in life.  It takes us from the moment of baptism and sets us on the path of life God has prepared for us to travel.  We will be tempted to stray from this path and we will be tempted to slow our pace forward to a crawl.  In Lent we remember what we reported and what we announced as we first came to the Christian life and we set ourselves to it anew.  It is not a path we take because it is easy or popular or initially attractive.  We take it because Jesus himself has pioneered the way and promised us it is the way of life and the way to eternal life.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Cleverly Devised Myths

Matthew 17:1-9
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany / Year A

St. Peter writes, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths.”

One evening a couple of months ago I was trolling around Netflix for something to watch and came across a documentary called Helltown, USA.  A brief blurb stated it explores mysterious occurrences in and around Boston Township, Ohio.  Well, immediately I was hooked because Boston is a small, mostly abandoned town in what is now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park just about 10 miles north of where I grew up.  As a teenager I used to ride my bike in this area and ski on the sloops at Boston Mills, but I was never aware of strange events associated with the area.

Well, the documentary is like many in the genre.  It features interviews with experts and people involved in what happened, recreated footage using low-paid actors, and a few images of photographs of actual events.  This one chronicles the mysterious disappearance of two children back during a time when I used to ride my bike in the valley, even showing old video footage of a real Cleveland TV station’s news report.  How did I not know about this at the time?  How did my parents ever let me go into this area alone? 

There was another account of teenagers trespassing in a forbidden area who are attacked and killed by a violent creature, which authorities claim later was a bear.  This happened when I was an adult living in the area.  Again, how did I not know about this? 

Then there were the members are an army surveying team sent to explore the area after local residents are ordered off their property – somewhat irregularly – to make way for the National Park back in the early 70’s.  Several of these men are killed by a group of satanic ritualists.  How in the world did I not know about this?  It happened practically in my own backyard. 

The documentary goes deep into the history of the region and tells the story of Native Americans and their encounter with a mysterious horned man-like creature.  Early settlers in the area encounter this same hostile being and go through all manner of incantations and offerings to placate the savage beast.  Why didn’t they teach us about this in school? 

The documentary goes on to suggest the beast killed the children and the teenagers, the military personnel were slaughtered for a ritualistic offering, and the army built a hidden underground base to capture and study the creature.  The documentary crew uncovers evidence of the facility, determines it housed something, but whatever it was appears to have broken free and escaped, leaving a trail of carnage in its wake.

Well, I sat dumbfounded by all of this so I did what any sane person in the year 2020 would do… I go to the internet and Google Helltown, USA.  Well, the website popping up first develops the stories of the documentary in fantastic ways and I am left to ponder how I could have grown up so uninformed and unaware.  But eventually I click on a link describing Helltown, USA as one of a growing number of programs known as a “mockumentary.”  It is designed to look like a real documentary (especially the conspiracy types), but is so over the top it is actually a satire of all the others… the Bigfoot, UFO/Roswell, Fake Moon Landing, Kennedy assasination theories, etc.  Mockumentary!  My final question of the night was – you can guess it – How could I have been so gullible?  I swallowed the hook, the line, the sinker, the rod, the real, the tackle box, the fishing boat, the trailer, and the truck pulling it.  Geez, am I a dope or what!  I could say the truth was as obvious as the nose on my face, but this morning I don’t want to draw any more attention to my nose than necessary!

The season of Epiphany always ends with a reading of an account of the Transfiguration.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain to pray.  The three disciples fall asleep and when they awake Jesus is standing with Moses (the giver of the Law) and Elijah (the founder of the prophetic tradition).  Jesus himself is radiating the full glory of his divinity.  God’s voice thunders from the heavens: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  It is such a vivid description of a fantastically unimaginable event it almost feels like an alien encounter.  Nice try, but I am not going to fall for this one.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool my twice, shame on me.

What strikes me about today’s readings is what Peter writes in his letter: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths… we have been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”  It seems there are sceptics even back in the day… “You are just making up a good story.”  “You are telling a whooper of a tale.”  “I am not,” Peter responds.  “My friends and I saw it with our own eyes!”

The Transfiguration tells us Jesus is something much more than a good moral teacher.  He is more than a special rabbi or religious figure.  The Transfiguration takes this option off the table.  If true, it demonstrates Jesus is God in human flesh – divinity and humanity united in one person.  This is what the story proclaims, but can we trust it? 

There are three options.  The first is this: Peter and the others are lying about what happens on the mountain.  It is, as critics suggest, merely a cleverly devised myth.  But why would they do this?  Could it be (my favorite conspiracy theory documentary phrase) they want to perpetuate Jesus’ message by making him appear to be more than human?  But, if anything, a lie like this makes the message more difficult to believe.  Even if successful, such lies shifts the focus away from the message to the miraculous, a limelight Jesus seldom seeks during his ministry. 

And think about this, if the Transfiguration is just a hoax, why would those who propose it give their life to it?  Why would the apostles leave their lives, travel far and wide, and endure joyfully all kinds of hardship, struggle, persecution, ridicule, and martyrdom for a lie?  Not one of them ever confesses to anything other than Jesus as the Risen Lord.  Peter, when he is executed, states he is not worthy to die the same way his Lord, so he requests to be crucified upside down.  Does this absolutely disprove the lie possibility?  No, but it makes it highly unlikely.  This explanation raises more questions than it answers.

A second possibility is the disciples are mistaken.  They really do believe they see what they see, only it didn’t really happen.  They were, after all, asleep.  Perhaps in waking up they are confused, foggy-headed, and bleary-eyed.  In the state between sleep and wake, all manner of confusion and dreaming takes place.  Maybe they awake and the sun is rising directly behind Jesus.  It blinds them and from their vantage point he radiates a kind of glory.  But how do three adults get confused in the exact same way?  How do they have the exact same dream?  How do you account for the appearance of Moses and Elijah?  How do you account for the voice of God?  How do all three disciples have the same erroneous experience?  It seems unlikely.

The third option is to accept the eyewitness account given by Peter as being historically accurate.  It really did happen.  It is an option not without its challenges.  Can we really believe people from centuries before can reappear on earth and carry on a conversation with Jesus?  And how do the disciples know it is Moses and Elijah, two people who have been dead and gone for a millennium or more.  There were no pictures of them or paintings.  Perhaps Jesus identifies them to the disciples after the encounter concludes.  Next, you have to wonder if God has a voice that can actually be heard by human ears.  And finally – and most critically – you have to believe God can and did take on human flesh.  This is the faith Peter holds, but it takes faith to hold it.  It is not a provable fact. 

The liturgical season of Epiphany is a time of revealing; revealing to the world Jesus as God’s Son.  It begins with the visit of the magi who are the first gentiles to meet the child Jesus.  It continues with Jesus’ baptism when a heavenly voice identifies him as “the Beloved.”  Some years we read of Jesus’ first miracle – turning water into wine.  Other stories – such as calming the sea – demonstrate Jesus as the Lord of creation.  This year’s readings focused only on his teachings – his moral vision for the Kingdom of God on earth.  And, as I said, we always end the season with the Transfiguration.

It begs you to ask, “Well, what do I think?  Am I convinced Jesus is God in the flesh, or am I not impressed?  Can such a fantastic claim possibly be true, or is it a cleverly devised myth?  Will I follow Jesus on his Lenten journey or will I watch from afar or will I walk away?”  The Transfiguration demands an explanation and a response.  If it is a hoax, then don’t fall for it.  If you deem it to be truth, then you must give your life to it – hook, line, sinker, rod, reel, tackle box, boat, trailer, and truck.