Overreaching

The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic,
St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy

Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: (9-12) 13 (14-15):
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

And (Alternatively!):  Matthew 4: 1-11:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The Gospel writer known as Mark doesn’t seem to be that worried about Jesus being tempted.  In fact, he’s almost dismissive of it–acknowledging that it happened but not delving into it too much.  And yet, surely temptation is something with which we can all identify and connect.  After all, it happens to the best of us!  The Matthean Gospel, though, seems to be extremely concerned about it, going into great detail.  First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, to guarantee that he had what would sustain him.  It is the temptation to live with a theology of scarcity, filling and filling (and filling!) our lives with stuff and hoarding what we need that we might always be prepared, always be sustained, always have enough.  Next Jesus is tempted by his need to be validated, his need to be liked.  We all have that.  We want people to like us.  We want people to like who we are and what we do.  And, finally, Jesus is tempted with the American Dream–the desire to be in control, to have all the power and glory that we need.  Jesus was tempted with greed, with affirmation and impressiveness, and with power.  And, to be honest, think what Jesus’ ministry in which he was entering would look like if he had these things.  Think of all the good we could do if we had all the resources we need, if people looked upon has the authority, and if we had the power to change the world. (So, at your next Church Council retreat, maybe that’s, after all, not the best question!)

Now, when you read this, do not imagine a little red man with horns running around disturbing Jesus on his wilderness retreat.  The truth is, that wild and fantastical personification of evil is, in the big scheme of things, a pretty modern (and pretty far-fetched) notion.  On some level, it makes it easier, shifting the blame of our human overreachings and our spiritual shortcomings to something other than ourselves.  Rather, Scriptural writers probably envisioned more of a constructive adversary, perhaps a compelling force of some sort (probably something other than a third party entity!) that would empower us to look at ourselves and our own lives, to look at those things that drive us and center us.  It calls us to an honest reflection of who we are and who we are meant to be.

And so Jesus was tempted.  That’s bothersome for us.  After all, he is the one we look to for the model life.  And if Jesus is tempted, what hope do we have for figuring this all out?  Temptation is an interesting thing.  Think of it as a turn, a fork in the road.  Do we choose to follow our wants, our needs, our desires?  Or do we let them go and follow who we really are called to be?  That’s uncomfortable.  And so, it is easier to blame it on that little red man with horns or, to be totally inclusive, the phantom seductress who wiles her prey into what she wants.  Really?  So it has nothing to do with us?  We’re just pawns on a game between good and evil, between the holy and the ways of this world, between God and this imaginary personification of evil.  Really?

Well, that would neatly wrap it up, wouldn’t it?  But I don’t think that’s the way it works.  I think this very human Jesus (thanks be to God!) went out into this wilderness to pray, to search, to discover who God called him to be.  And while he was there, he was tempted to overreach.  Dr. Albert Outler once said something to the effect that sin is not falling short, but overreaching.  It is not being more human (as if being human, being made in the image of God, could be bad!) than we are called to be, but attempting to be more Divine.  Maybe sin and tempation are about our dabbling in God’s business.  It is about letting ourselves be controlled by greed and insecurity, by the need to be affirmed and liked, and by the lust for power.  (So have you listened to the political rhetoric lately?  I rest my case.) But the truth is, sustenance is short-lived, affirmation and being “spectacular” is really hard to maintain (after all, don’t you sometimes just want to wear your warm-ups and no make-up and sit in the back of the sanctuary?), and, as Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts.”  So, on that note, this passage is not an historical narrative about Jesus’ altercation with the devil; rather, it is a lesson of the wilderness:  Instead of yielding to your fears and your desires, follow that which is everlasting sustenance, that which is gracious and unconditional love, and that which is life-giving.

Jesus wasn’t showing us how not to be tempted or even that temptation is evil.  Rather, once again, it’s about perspective.  We are not expected or called to be anything other than human–nothing less and nothing more.  That’s the lesson that this Lenten Wilderness teaches us.  It’s not about us.  It’s about The Way.  So, where do we find ourselves on The Way?

So, continuing with our act of giving up so that we can take on, on this First Sunday of Lent (oh yeah, did you know we don’t count the Sundays?), take a look–where are you tempted by greed, by the need to be affirmed, by the desire to control?  Give them up.  Become human–nothing more, nothing less.  (OK, then, just pick one!)

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

 

LENT 1B: Reordering Chaos

Lectionary Passage:  Genesis 9: 8-13 (14-17)
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

OK, so I’ve dusted off my little greenish translucent marble thing and it’s sitting here beside me.  According to what I told the world in yesterday’s blog, this is supposed to remind me how much I’m cherished by God.  So why do I feel like I’m drowning?  Why do I feel mired in chaos?  Why do I sometimes wish, just for a moment, the world would stop?  Enter…the ark.  I wonder how I would fare on an ark.  I used to like sailing–the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, the coolness of Galveston Bay when the sun on my face got to be too much, and the smell of fried shrimp and hushpuppies as we sailed back into Kemah.  But, somehow, I’m thinking it looked different.  Personally, it sounds pretty chaotic to me–howling elephants, uncontrollable zebras (I hear they’re not that well-behaved), and a vast array of odd amphibious creatures that I don’t even know.  Good grief, I can barely handle one 85-lb. black lab that eats Bibles, puts the throw pillows underneath the cushions on the loveseat, and turns down the covers on the bed and burrows underneath them before I can get in.  Chaos seems to abound whether or not you own an ark…

This passage is actually the end of a really long story that most of us know.  You know…Noah gets wind (pun intended!) of one of those severe weather warnings and is told to pack up the ark with all the earth’s animals and then he and this holy menagerie sail around until the rain stops and the water subsides.  And then they begin to load off the ark.  Who knows what they would find?  And, finally, God speaks.  God makes a promise.  This will not happen again.  In fact, the earth will be made anew.  All of creation will be made anew, recreated.  Chaos has not been wiped out.  It has been reordered.  It has been recreated into life.  It’s not a new Creation as in a DIFFERENT one .  God doesn’t erase the chalkboard and begin rewriting history.  Rather, God takes what is there and makes it new, gives it life.

So why does chaos abound?  Why is life still sometimes filled with darkness and despair that almost chokes it away?  Why does my greenish translucent marble thing even get dusty at all?  Maybe it’s because if life were easy, we’d never look at the rainbow.  You see, this story is not about the ark. It’s not about the flood.  I don’t even think it’s about human sinfulness or chaos.  It’s about the promise.  God stretched a bow across the darkness to remind us that it is hope and life, rather than sin and darkness, that are the permanent reality.

In this Lenten season, we will often find ourselves surrounded by darkness.  We may find ourselves mired in despair.  We might somehow turn up on a road that we never intended to travel.  In fact, sometimes we find ourselves in hell.  But these are never the final word.  Even when tales of a place called Golgotha begin to swirl around us, there is always something more.  When we come to the end, God will be there to beckon us into the arms of grace that we might begin again.  God has promised recreation.  But, you see, we have to let go of the chaos.  And maybe THAT’S the point of this Lenten journey.

So, continuing with our act of giving up so that we can take on, on this second day of Lent, let go of chaos.  Spend 15 minutes (just 15 minutes!) and sit down and listen to the sounds of Creation being recreated.

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli
Not only is another world possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. (Arundhati Roy)

Grace and Peace on Your Lenten Journey,

Shelli    

Et Tu, Judas

The Judas Tree

Lectionary Text:  John 13: 21-32
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

Jesus knew who would betray him.  It was his friend, the one that had accompanied him as he traveled around the lake teaching, the one who had met his family, the one who on those long nights after those just-as-long frustrating days had listened to him.  In fact, it would be the one he trusted.  The one who held the purse that bought them small but nourishing meals and paid their way, the one that had figured out how to budget the money so that they could get to Jerusalem.  It was the one that had it together.  It was the last one that he would have thought would do this.  But Jesus knew who would betray him.  It hurt, hurt more deeply than anyone would ever know.  Et Tu, Judas?  Even you, Judas?

“Kiss of Judas”
Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308)

The others will never figure it out.  They are too busy trying to figure out who it is (and trying to make sure that it’s not them!)  Isn’t that what we do?  In an odd sort of way, this Scripture holds some degree of comfort for us.  After all, Judas is bad, SO bad that whatever it is we mess up can’t possibly be as bad.  And so the world blames Judas for all of our wrongs.  Because, if we make Judas look bad, then maybe we won’t look as bad as we know we might be.  Dante would place him in the fourth level of the ninth rung of hell.  Now let me tell you, that is NOT good.  According to Dante’s Inferno, Judas shares this rung with Brutus and Cassius, who played a part in the murder of Julius Caesar.  (Et Tu, Brute?)  We are no better.  As long as there is a Judas, we
                                                                                        are not the worst.

But, really, do you think God desires our innocence?  If that was the case, we might as well all hang it up right now!  The truth is, none of us is innocent.  Innocence died a really long time ago.  And, interestingly enough, God didn’t have any need to resurrect that.  God does not desire our innocence; God desires us.  God desires repentance, reconciliation, and redemption.  God calls us to turn toward God, be with God, and accept that gift of forgiveness that God offers us.  That’s all it takes.  If God wanted perfect people, I’m thinking God would have made them.  God would have populated the world with a bunch of stepford pod-people and things probably would have gone a lot smoother.  I don’t know…maybe God wanted better dinner conversation.  Maybe God desired a good story.  Or maybe, just maybe, God wanted us to choose God rather than being compelled by something other than ourself.  And so God offers forgiveness for whatever we’ve pulled in the past.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in Speaking of Sin, contends that it is sin that is our only hope.  Because it is when we know that we have failed, when we know that we have moved farther away from God, when we name what it is that stands in our way, that the doors will swing open with a force we never knew and all of a sudden, we find ourselves sitting at the table in a place that we did not think we deserved.  Isn’t God incredible?  So, why do we need to blame Judas?  We are all looking for God.  Sometimes we just make bad choices.  But God always offers us another chance.  Forgiveness is the starting point for change, the beginning of the rest of our eternity.

Madeleine L’Engle tells an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit.  For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light.  After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it.  The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down.  Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down.  It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb again.  After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table.  “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas.  We couldn’t begin till you came.”[i]

Et tu, Judas!  Even you, Judas!  Even you!

The path now seems to fly beneath us
And our doubts get carried away
We begin to question if we are more apt
To follow or betray
We hear the story of Judas’ deed
And quickly jump to blame,
But more than that we have to ask
If we might have done the same.

So, in this holiest of weeks, look first at yourself and find those places that separate you from God, and then look to God.  The table is waiting.  We can’t begin till you come!
Grace and Peace in this holiest of weeks,
Shelli

[i] From “Waiting for Judas”, by Madeleine L’Engle, in Bread and Wine:  Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2003), 312.

   

LENT 1A: Tsinami

LECTIONARY PASSAGE:  Romans 5: 12-19
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

As I watch the news coverage of the tsunami wave rolling across the earth, I am at this moment somewhat painfully aware of how interdependent this whole of Creation is.  The beginnings of an earthquake are probably considered almost nothing, something that on the surface doesn’t even matter at all.  And yet what begins as a shift in the depths of the earth, something that seemingly is nothing more than a veritable sigh, releases a force that shakes the earth at is very core, taking life with it, and then sending its waves far beyond itself, to lands that it barely knows.  By the time it gets to our country’s western coast in a few hours, it will have pulled all of humanity and all of Creation into its deadly force.  And when it is finally snared by a stretch of calm, peaceful flatlands, its wake will contain pieces of lives that will never be the same again.

In our lectionary epistle this week, Paul mentions sin or some form of it (sinner, transgression, disobedience, etc.) sixteen times by my count.  In fact, five of the mentions are in the first sentence!  Do you think he was trying to make a point?  Sin, I’m afraid, is a fact of life.  It is part of all us.  We claim that perhaps our own sins are not that bad.  You’ve heard all the claims and the questions:  So, if I don’t KNOW I’m sinning, is it really sin?  So which sins are the “unforgiveable” ones? I mean, really, it was only a little sin, just a little “white lie”.  Yes, in the big scheme of things, it was probably nothing more than a veritable sigh of a sin.

But in our interconnectedness, sin affects us all.  And even the smallest of sins can release such a force that none of us can control it.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I do not in any way believe that “sin” is something outside of us.  It is not a “force to be reckoned with”, so to speak.  I’m pretty clear that when I sin, it is me.  It is my bad choice.  It is me that has messed up, that has not honored myself or my place in the beauty of this interconnected Creation, rather than it being caused by some sort of little red man with horns or something.  I am the one to be blamed.  I have to own it.  It is mine.  It is mine, that is, until it is done.  And then it spills into Creation and begins cutting a path with a force more powerful than anything I imagined, a veritable “tsinami” of destruction through this interdependent earth.  (And you thought I spelled the title of this blog wrong!)

But as Paul reminds us, we are forgiven.  We are forgiven with a force greater than any of our sin.  Christ came that we would know that.  I don’t really think in terms of Christ forgiving my little white lie.  It’s bigger than that.  “Christ came to take away the sin of the earth.”  Christ came not to take away the sins, ticking them off one by one or keeping track of whether or not I’ve reached my quota.  Christ came to take that tsinami away from us, that collective ball of SIN that ravages the earth and leaves destruction in its path.  God does what we cannot.  And in forgiveness, we finally find peace–not innocence, but real peace.  And then we will pick the pieces of our lives up and continue walking with God.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli