In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lent 1B

A reflection on the readings for Lent 1B by the Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt Apologies, all for the lateness of this! And everyone has already preached!! Parish life can be distracting, especially at the time of changing seasons, when liturgies and schedules all have to be rearranged, etc etc. This Lent in Year B has some difficult lessons in it appointed for Sundays, with going from the wilderness to “get behind me Satan” to the overturning of the tables of the money changers. I was intrigued, therefore, by a reading of the wilderness in Mark as not such an inhospitable place. It was Sarah Henrich’s commentary on Working Preacher that got me thinking about the wilderness with allusions to the peaceable kingdom. May Lent for all of us be a wilderness of such refreshment, clarity and focus. We’ve read about this wilderness before; in the other gospel accounts, in Matthew and Luke, we get a lot more detail about what Satan thinks will tempt Jesus to leave this mission behind and take up the easy life. We read nothing here about stones becoming bread, nothing about daring God to rescue him if he were to jump from the Temple roof, nothing about how all the powers and principalities of the world would be his to command if only Jesus would worship Satan. In this gospel the temptations are left up to our own imagination. It’s all there together, perhaps for the whole 40 days: the wilderness, the temptations, the wild beasts, the angels. When we read this story, we can write our own temptations into it: what struggles do we have which threaten to take us away from what God wants to do with our lives, which undermine our assurance that we are God’s beloved child? We think of the Spirit in our lives as a good thing. In the old Prayer Book language we would say, “The Lord be with you,” and reply, “And with thy Spirit,” as though that were something comforting. But the Spirit in this Gospel passage is anything but comforting. The Spirit appears first in the violent tearing of the heavens. And then the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness – literally, the word in Greek, is “to throw.” The Spirit, no gentle, soft thing, throws Jesus, pitches him like a fastball into the wilderness, into the arms of Satan, into the company of the wild beasts, into the care of the angels. And here again, the story is so spare, so parsimonious on details, that we can imagine our own life against this scrim of a gospel: with what power is the Spirit working in our lives? Is the affirmation we hear from God, about our beloved identity, accompanied by the soundtrack of our lives being torn apart? In these gospels, there is something about the wilderness experience that prepares Jesus for his mission – to proclaim good news, to bring about healing and wholeness. There is something about being there – with Satan, and wild beasts, and angels – that made him ready to recognize that the time was right. When John was arrested, it seems, the whole operation is set in motion. The kingdom of God is no longer in the distance; it is near, here, present tense, good news, time to believe that things are getting better. What went on in the wilderness that made Jesus ready to face the bad news of John’s arrest with the Good News that God’s reign has begun? Curious, isn’t it, that this Gospel story is paired with the end of the story of the flood – with God’s promise to Noah that the world would never be destroyed, that God would live in harmony with the world he created. Every living creature can live in safety under that covenant – that never again would God’s anger be so great as to destroy it. Such a human longing, this is, this vision of the peaceable kingdom. The prophet Isaiah spoke of it, that God would never let anything be hurt or destroyed on the holy mountain. Utopian dreamers like Edward Hicks would base their fantastical paintings on this promise of a created world in which all live in harmony. Could that peaceable kingdom be what Jesus experienced in the wilderness? A place where the reality of wild beasts and angels and the beloved Son of God living in such harmony drove out the devil himself? What are we doing in our places of wilderness? We can find them as places of trial and difficulty, the dark night of the soul, the battles we must fight to earn our “hero’s badge.” Or we can see the wilderness as a place of preparation, a place apart from the rest of our lives, where we can see God’s purpose clearly, where God’s harmony is revealed, where we live with wild beasts and where angels take care of us -- a place where we can hide out for a while from the Spirit, until that day when something big happens, when the plan is set in motion, and we know, with clarity and strength, just what God would have us do.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mystical Transformation

A reflection on the readings for Last Epiphany, The Feast of the Transfiguration: 2 Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9

A delightful video appeared on the news Saturday morning. The story told of a couple of young men in St. Pete Beach, Florida, who were wakeboarding – water skiing on a single board, without the accompanying ropes, in the wave created by a speed boat – one young man was filming the other as he skied.
Suddenly two dolphins appeared, leaping high out of the water then diving back in. The dolphins raced along in the wave near the man skiing, with a playful intentionality, with no other purpose than to have fun. And then quite easily the dolphins caught up with the speed boat, astonishing everyone who watched.

The video is pure delight – catching the dolphins in and out of the water – simply playing. Moments like these, when the beauty of nature breaks into the world of human beings, surprising us and delighting us, are mystical moments. Caught by surprise mystical moments burst open our sense of life and give us a new, deeper understanding of what is possible. Mystical moments point us to God, and the reality that there is so much more to this world than we normally see.

Mystical moments of the in-breaking of God are what we hear in our scripture readings this morning. In the reading from 2 Kings we have the story of Elisha and Elijah. These two prophets are well known in Hebrew stories as the prophets who point the way toward the coming of the Messiah. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the presence of Peter, James, and John, like the story of the ascension of Elijah, is meant to break open our understanding of who God is, how God works in the world, and invite us into a deeper relationship with God.

No doubt mystical moments, when we are able to perceive them as such, sustain and deepen our faith. But more often we live in a world of skeptics, or as Mark is fond of saying, a world in which we fail to see God’s presence around us.

The Huffington Post Religion page had an article on Saturday by Diana Butler Bass. Bass was reflecting on her latest book, “Christianity After Religion, The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” Bass writes:

Something startling is happening in American religion…
…In 1999, when survey takers asked Americans "Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious," ….54 percent responded that they were "religious but not spiritual." By 2009, only 9 percent of Americans responded that way. In 10 years, those willing to identify themselves primarily as "religious" plummeted by 45 percentage points.

In the last decade, the word "religion" has become equated with institutional or organized religion. Because of crises such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Roman Catholic abuse scandal, Americans now define "religion" in almost exclusively negative terms.

….There may be hope, however, regarding the future of faith. Despite worry about the word, "religion," Americans are extremely warm toward "spiritual but not religious" (30 percent) and, even more interestingly (and perhaps paradoxically), the term "spiritual and religious" (48 percent). While "religion" means institutional religion, "spirituality" means an experience of faith. Large numbers of Americans are hankering for experiential faith whereby they can connect with God…”

"Americans are searching for churches -- and temples, synagogues, and mosques -- that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world..” (Huff Post Religion, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012: Diana Butler Bass)

I find this excerpt from Bass’ article intriguing because it segues with discussions taking place in various churches on the idea of mission and purpose. What are doing in the world? How are striving to be relevant, to stimulate the senses of those who come seeking a deeper relationship with God? How are opening up the creative imagination within ourselves and others? How are we staying stuck on the mountain? Or, are we finding ways to follow Jesus off the mountain and out into the wild terrain to encounter people yearning for God? How are we seeking to engage the mystery and journey through that mystery, which will surely transform us in the process? How are we walking with others, that as communities of faith, we might be transformed?

Lent, which begins this week, is a season that journeys through mystery and transformation: mystery of what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and the transformation that is the result of God’s in-breaking Spirit.

Lent is distinctive and beckons us to take notice.

I think of Lent as a feminine season - like a woman pregnant - the mystery of life growing inside, transformation taking shape in ways unseen. The unseen transformation eventually ripens and burst forth, new life!

Part of our mission as people of faith is to engage in creative energy. Lent will stimulate our senses in a particular way. Lent invites us to use our imaginations, and to be attentive to the ways God is breaking into our lives. Lent invites us into the mystery of death and life. Into the mystery of examining the ways we are broken and the ways God breaks in and heals us.

For God’s presence is essential to our lives, like breathing – in and out, willingly and unwillingly, consciously and unconsciously, we breathe and go on breathing – and so it is with God – always present whether we know God’s presence of not, filling our lives with God’s sustaining love, whether we know it or not. Inviting us to be playful, like dolphins in the waves, in a faith journey that engages all our senses and imagination. The great season of Lent is upon us. May it be a mystical journey of faith.