3-31-14 - God's Timing

This week we undertake a really long reading and a really big mystery – Jesus’ raising of Lazarus after he’s been dead for four days. This story is only told in John’s Gospel, and there it functions as the penultimate Sign of God’s power. This miracle leads many to believe that Jesus is who he says he is. It also seals his fate with the ruling authorities, who after this actively seek his execution. A man like this must be eliminated. A story like this must be suppressed.

Only, as we know, the story rose again, very much alive. We’re still telling it 2000 years later. Which suggests that, when its God’s timing, it’s never too late. This is hard to trust when we’re in the midst of life, though. It’s normal to believe in “too late,” when that’s what we feel we’ve experienced. And when death has come, we are by definition in the “too late” zone, right?

That’s what Jesus’ disciples argue when he takes his sweet time going to Lazarus’ side after receiving a message that he is very ill. Jesus says, “’This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”

Then Jesus then decides to go, saying Lazarus has died (what happened to “does not lead to death?”), though the whole region where Lazarus lives is now dangerous for Jesus. His disciples protest, but Jesus says something cryptic about “12 hours of daylight.” Did they wonder if he’d gone crazy? Thomas just shrugs and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.

Four days too late, and in perilous territory. Why go at all? Jesus says God will be glorified through this in some way, but who could imagine how? Of all the times Jesus asked his followers to hang on and believe, this must have been the most challenging.

What about us? In what circumstances of our lives does it feel like God has intervened too late, or not at all?
It would be a good exercise to think about that, and write down the times you remember.
Can you see any benefits that came from those outcomes? There may not be… and there might.

How do you feel about those situations now? Are you still angry or grieving? Did it impair your trust in God? Can you speak that in prayer today? Certainly, the psalmists and the prophets didn’t hold back their feelings toward God, even when those were dark or troubled… It’s a relationship. It requires communication.

Are there circumstances in your life now where you feel you’re waiting on God? You might ask in prayer whether there is any action you can take or receive. Maybe there is… and maybe not.

We’ll be asking some big questions this week. When do we acknowledge that things we value or love have died (people, pets, relationships, jobs, prosperity, sobriety, health…), and grieve? And when do we allow the Spirit to whisper hope of new life? That takes growing in discernment. This story reminds us that what looks like the end isn’t always… sometimes it’s the beginning of an even stranger trip.

3-28-14 - Vision

Last night I saw a beautiful film called “Visions of Mustang: Bringing Sight to the Forbidden Kingdom,” about a medical mission to bring eye care to the ancient kingdom of Mustang, a very remote, difficult to access part of Nepal. Extreme exposure to sun and wind and altitude means many people develop cataracts, as well as other easily treated eye problems. The team saw 1650 patients, dispensed nearly 800 pairs of glasses and performed surgeries on many people, restoring sight to the blind and giving a first glimpse of clarity to many who never knew that’s what sight was supposed to be. It was hard not to relate it to this passage.

Jesus was on his own kind of mission to restore sight in the forbidden kingdoms of this world, and his description of that mission is puzzling. He says to the man he healed, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains."

Did Jesus really want those who thought they had God all figured out to become blind… or that they recognize their blindness? He is particularly hard on these leaders who are so sure they see correctly. Because they’ve had the advantage of his examples and his words, he says, and have rejected both, they are stuck in sin. These self-righteous ones, who think they are “first,” will be last of all. Yet to more obvious “sinners” who come to Jesus for life, he throws open the gates to the Kingdom – the last shall be first.

What about us? Are we among those who think we’re “first?” What about the “last” who never hear about Jesus’ love, or just do not experience faith? This is a mystery to sit with – and reconcile with the whole of Jesus’ promises of life over death. The life of faith is about learning to see ourselves clearly, knowing our weak spots as well as our strengths; see others clearly and without judgment; and see God clearly.

And once again, Jesus affirms relationship over “religion”: "Jesus heard that they had driven [the man born blind] out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him."

When we meet Jesus, as we’re open to meeting Jesus, we come to see Him clearly too. That’s a prayer we might offer today, “Okay, Jesus let me see you, find out who you are.” We might experience him in prayer, or pick up a New Testament and read a Gospel, check out his "profile," as it were. We can spend time with people who know him, hang around him, build our trust.

Scott Hamilton, who put together the expedition depicted in the film – and numerous others – spoke at the screening I saw. He feels the reason they were successful was due to “monk power” – the 18 monks who accompanied them up to Mustang and went to remote settlements to invite people to the eye clinics. The trust engendered by those relationships made it possible for many to have their sight restored.

Jesus came in human flesh into our forbidden kingdom so that we might trust God to get close to us. As we open to relationship with him and let him come close, close enough to touch our eyes, we will find new sight, clearer than we could ever imagine.

3-27-14 - The Inquisition

A student of power dynamics could have a field day with the Christian gospels – no doubt, many have. In the next part of this week’s story we see how much power the powerless can have, and how much control people with an illusion of power can try to exert over others. The Pharisees depicted here make a Congressional witch hunt look like… well, I was going to say, like a tea party… but, never mind...

Unsure what to make of this alleged miracle of healing, they interrogate the man born blind. When he maintains his story – “this man came along, made a paste with mud, put it on my eyes, sent me to wash it off, and then I could see” – they decide to question the man’s parents. They don’t contradict the story, so they haul the man himself in again.

“So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ (I think we call that leading the witnesss… ) He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’”

Where does this man get the boldness to answer the authorities with such wit and sarcasm? Perhaps knowing that God has healed him so mightily enables him to stand up to these ecclesiastical bullies. He gets a reaction:

“Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’”

Talk about transformation! This man who used to beg every day, the only occupation his disability allowed him, is now revealed as a theologian and a lawyer, turning their logic back on them. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Clearly, his spiritual vision functions as well as his eyesight. This man who recently held the lowest social status, now speaks with authority to the authorities.

Where do we get the courage to stand against power that abuses authority and misuses logic? We have no shortage of such leaders in our governments and communities. We can encounter such people in our own lives, workplaces, even families. How do we speak truth to them? I think we locate our power the same place the now-seeing man did: knowing we are so beloved of God, God would move heaven and earth to make us whole. It is precisely in our awareness of our need, our weakness before God, that we find the power to stand up for justice and truth.

Today, remind yourself of the different ways God has strengthened and healed you over the years. Recall the ways you used to have trouble functioning, that you’ve overcome. Name your gifts, and the transformations you’ve experienced.

You might also name ways in which you still feel disabled, ill equipped, out of control. Invite the Spirit of God to pour God’s love into those areas in you, and make you whole.

St. Paul reminds us that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness. Anytime we’re unsure of where we stand, we can remember that we stand in the might of the God who made all that is, seen and unseen. And, as we stand in that power and love, we find more and more can be seen.

3-26-14 - In Trouble

It’s kind of amazing that Jesus has been held up as a role model to generations of children, given his penchant for talking back and getting in trouble. He’s the “Dennis the Menace” of world religious figures.

Of course, John tends to emphasize his increasingly tense dealings with the religious authorities. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are based on common story traditions, Jesus’ always seems to be doing a miracle. In the Fourth Gospel, which is more “shaped,” the stories of Jesus’ signs are fewer, but build upon each other, involving greater and greater risk as Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees with evidence of divinity they’d rather not acknowledge.

It doesn’t help that Jesus seems to heal people regardless of the day, even on the Sabbath, leaving himself open to charges of violating the Law by "working.” This miracle with the man born blind really shakes things up: “They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.”

They interrogate the newly sighted man a second time; this time he said, “He is a prophet.” Not liking that answer, they call in the man’s parents to testify that he was indeed blind from birth, and that he now sees. The parents are terrified – they’ll admit he was born, and born blind; they refuse to comment on this new turn of events. “Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

Banishment is an extreme threat – and a measure of how threatened the Jewish leaders were by everything Jesus represented. The evidence of Jesus’ holiness and spiritual power was always before them – but to accept his claims seemed blasphemous, and would mean acknowledging his authority. These were men clinging to limited power under the thumb of the Roman occupation… too much was at risk.

How about us? What order in our lives might be threatened by acknowledging the “God-ness” of Christ? Accepting that his power is real and still at work in the world around us? Are we keeping Jesus at a safe distance, locked up in a pretty building, visiting him for an hour or so once or twice a week?

Or do we invite him into our lives, into our cluttered living rooms, into our frenetic days and never-done to-do lists? Are we willing to let him roam freely through our work and relationships and leisure activities, perusing our bank accounts and spending patterns? What if he suggests some changes to our priorities? What if he asks us to commit some time and resources to other things, other people?

There’s a lot to pray about in these questions – and a lot to offer to God, if you want to open your hands and hear. You can issue the invitation; the Spirit of Christ seems rarely to come where not invited.

And, most of the time, Jesus doesn’t even knock things over that much. He takes his time and lets us come around to his way of seeing before inviting us into new patterns of being.

Sometimes. Other times, he can be a little “Dennis” like… but, you know, like Dennis, kind of lovable.

3-25-14 - The Unbelievable

How would you respond if somebody you knew to be blind could suddenly see, or someone paralyzed came dancing down the street? Well, now we have medical advances… but imagine if you were around when this blind man received sight he’d never had? It caused a stir, to say the least…
"The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “'Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?' Some were saying, 'It is he.' Others were saying, 'No, but it is someone like him.'”

Funny how, when we’re positive something can’t happen, we can convince ourselves we’re not seeing it. Even when the man said, “I’m the guy…” they couldn’t quite buy it.
"He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

Do we need to understand “how” to accept “what?” The man himself seems remarkably untroubled by how this came about – and this is before he gets the third degree from the religious authorities. Maybe it’s because he had no prior visual data to contradict his new reality. He did not have a lifetime of “that’s impossible – if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist” to overcome. He had never seen anything with his eyes. Maybe that’s why children believe so much more easily than adults – less contradictory data.

We can get so locked into our understanding of how the universe works – an understanding that the best scientists always admit is incomplete – that we can’t entertain the possibility that the Creator of the whole thing has “laws” we have not yet discovered. Or have not discovered fully. That’s the “Kingdom of God” Jesus was making known, what I prefer to call the Energy Field, or Life of God.

Have you ever been asked to believe something that you knew to be impossible? Was it really? Or was your vision too limited? Is there something in your life now that you’re being invited to believe? A step of faith you’re being invited to take? A prayer you’re being invited to try on? Can you take a step in that direction in prayer today?

The God we worship as Christ-followers is One who ”calls into being things that were not.” (Romans 4:17). We don’t have to be limited in our prayer by what we’ve already seen. We do have to open ourselves to the possibility that God’s ways are bigger than we can imagine. That’s the beginning of faith vision, seeing what we have not previously been able to see.

Imagine the sensory rush as our Spirit-vision kicks in and we truly begin to see the Energy of God at work around us.

3-24-14 - The Impossible

This week we dive deep into a story about Jesus’ giving sight to a man who was born blind, and the trouble he unleashes. It would be nice to think that such a healing would result only in rejoicing – but overturning the laws of nature and probability unsettles people and societies, especially those with an illusion of being in control.

As the story begins, the man does not ask for sight – who would ask for the impossible? He’s never known what it is to see. Jesus and his disciples pass him and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In Jesus’ day, misfortune, illnesses, even infertility were assumed to be consequences of sin, just as prosperity and health were seen as signs of God’s blessing.

Jesus rejects that kind of causality, but suggests something that to my ears is equally troubling: 

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Was Jesus was saying this man was singled out for misfortune just so God could swoop in with a razzle-dazzle miracle later in his life? I don’t think so. I think he is saying that all situations of suffering, no matter their source, are opportunities for us to bring the power and love of God to bear to transform them. We might go so far as, “Don’t waste your time wondering what happened in the past – God’s power is about what happens next.”

And Jesus takes the opportunity to reveal the power of God right there. “…he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see."

There are many mysteries in this story, among them this: Why does he go through this strange exercise of making a paste of mud and saliva, when he could just speak healing upon the blind man? Why does he send him to wash in the pool to somehow “release” the healing? Archeologists have discovered ruins suggesting the Pool of Siloam was spring- fed, which would have made it an acceptable place for ritual bathing and purification.

Are there echoes here of Jesus’ words to the woman at the well about living water? Did he have the man wash at the pool so that the sacred places of Israel would be part of the healing? Did he make the mud paste to convey that ordinary things can become sacramental, vehicles of the holy for us?

Jesus heals in different ways in our Gospel accounts – sometimes just with a word, sometimes with matter, sometimes in person, sometimes remotely, sometimes including established rituals. He uses his own saliva also in restoring speech and hearing to a deaf-mute, and in another healing of a blind man. No matter how squeamish we may be about spit, this story does tell us that God is not limited to one method or set of words – and that the healing power of God alive in us is part of the very matter of our minds and bodies. God’s healing is always mediated through a person who prays, whether we pray with words, or with a touch, or through a prayer shawl. The “stuff” of our lives can become holy as we invite God to consecrate it.

Today, let's offer a prayer of thanksgiving for our bodies, starting with our feet and moving upward – for the way your body and senses carry you, enable you to do ministry, to make God’s love and power known to others. And if there is someone you know in need of healing, pray for God’s healing to be released in that person as it was in the blind man.

His story continues, “Then he went and washed and came back able to see.” It was "impossible" then - and "impossible" now. Except, the same God is at work in us. So look out...

3-21-14 - Ripe for Harvest

This week’s story is a lesson in faith-sharing – also known as evangelism. A woman meets Jesus, and quickly discovers that in him is the power of God. When he then tells her that he is, in fact, the Anointed of God, the Messiah long-awaited by Jew and Samaritan alike, she believes him. At least, she is sure enough that she drops her water jar and runs back to tell her neighbors in town about him – and then they come to check him out themselves.

“Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.”

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples come back with lunch – but he doesn’t want any: “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.’”

Is Jesus having a moment of discovery? Has he found, in this alien territory, a mission field he had discounted, assuming he was only to bring his gifts to the Jewish people? Perhaps this encounter with the woman has reminded him of his broader mission.

He and his disciples will soon find out just how ripe these fields are when they spend a few days in that town, after which the townspeople profess their own faith in His messiahship: “And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”

The job of Christ followers is to tell the stories of our encounters with God. We don’t have to persuade anyone to affirm the Nicene Creed, just speak our God-stories. And if our stories are tepid, we may be too locked into thinking our “God-encounters” are things that happen in church. Church stories can be dull to those outside the congregation. But “God stories” are rarely dull – this woman’s story certainly wasn’t. And her excitement and passion helped ignite curiosity and anticipation in her neighbors.

What kind of news do you tend to share with excitement? Great things that have happened? Achievements? Stories of travel? Cultural events? Meals? Your children’s exploits? This weekend, try to notice when your energy rises in conversation – what are you talking about at those points? Can you think of a “holy moment” that you might share with someone? Pray about who needs to hear that story.

If telling people how great our church is was an effective means of spreading the Good News, our churches would be full. They’re not. Yet, the fields are still ripe with people hungry for spiritual connections that are authentic and personal. Let’s do what this woman did, and go tell our neighbors about our encounters with Jesus, with God, with the Holy Spirit.

We just need to introduce people to Jesus; he will do the rest. Then maybe we’ll get to hear those joyful words too – “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe. We have heard for ourselves, and now we know.”

3-20-14 - True Worship

When Jesus names some truth about her life, the woman at the well does not comment. She changes the subject abruptly, bringing up the source of divisions between Jews and Samaritans: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem."

I have always seen this as an evasive move, away from the uncomfortable topic of her personal life. But now I see another motive – perhaps she is actually trying to deepen the conversation, “Okay, Mister, if we’re going to talk truth, let’s talk about why your people and mine don’t get along. Let’s talk about our relationship. Why do you say we all have to worship in Jerusalem?”

Jesus gives her a full and perhaps surprising answer, not condescending: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

This truth Jesus offers should be emblazoned on our church buildings and service bulletins. How and where we worship can both lead us into divine presence, and keep us far away. It is human nature to seek connection with the holy – and when we find it, to attempt to recreate the circumstances we believe led to that moment. Thus we get ritual, and we repeat it and soon deem it sacred, and then all kinds of actions and objects and spaces and even clothing accrue – and before we know it, we can put our focus on all the apparatus and lose sight of the divine connection we were seeking in the first place.

Worship, as Jesus defines it, is not something we do. It is how we open ourselves to encounter with the Living God. It is a spiritual activity, engaging our spirits – and, because our spirits are embodied, also our senses, minds and bodies. And worship is truth-seeking. We don’t need to be in church to worship – church can help sometimes, and get in the way others. What we need is an open heart and humility.

When do you feel yourself most fully alive in worship? Is it during a service? If so, what elements draw you in? Music? Prayer? Proclamation? Teaching? Movement? Sacrament? It’s good to be aware of how you feel most connected to God.

Maybe you feel yourself most worshipful in silence or in solitude or in nature or doing something for someone else – it’s good to know that too, so you can honor that as worship. If you don’t feel you connect to God in worship of any kind, you might ask the Spirit to show you a way for you.

Worship, above all else, is encounter – a profoundly cross-cultural encounter across boundaries of difference more pronounced even than the ethnic, religious and gender barriers Jesus and the woman were bridging. Worship is an encounter between a mere human, unique and ordinary, and the God who made all things, holy and transcendent. And yet, God invites us to meet, to break bread, even to dance.

The hour is coming – and is now here – when God is in our midst, in spirit and in truth. God has shown up. Will we?

3-19-14 - Talking Past

I encountered a new expression reading the advice column today: “slut shaming,” which I gather is criticizing a woman for sexually provocative dress and behavior (I don’t know whether men can be “slut shamed”... I hope so!) This term made me wonder: Is Jesus “slut-shaming” the Samaritan woman he meets at the well in this week’s gospel story?

Jesus and the woman have been exchanging words; I’m not sure we can call it conversation. They seem to keep talking past each other. He asks her for water; she wonders why he’s willing to ask her. He says if she knew who was asking, she’d be asking him – and that the water he gives never runs out. Then she goes literal – and sarcastic: ‘Okay, so give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

And Jesus changes the subject. Abruptly. “‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” If this is meant to shut her up, it doesn’t work: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” and swiftly changes the subject again.

We aren’t told how she felt when Jesus spoke her past to her. He had no earthly way of knowing this about her past, unless she sported tattoos with different men’s names on them. But she doesn’t deny it – and even more significantly, she doesn’t break off the conversation. She changes the subject, sure, launching into a discussion of proper locations for worship… but she doesn’t leave. There must have been something about the way Jesus spoke and looked at her that invited her to be real, not hidden.

I think that is how the Holy Spirit works in us. In some ways, we are to God as wild animals are to humans – skittish, afraid to get too close. And God comes into our lives, sitting down, starting a conversation, which we might do our best to obscure or keep on a surface level of needs and thank yous, so that we can avoid really be known. Only we find out we are in the presence of the One who already knows us, knows everything thing about us, the good, the bad, the ugly – and isn’t walking away.

Have you had that kind of conversation with God lately? Ever? What would you rather Jesus didn’t know about you? Can you bring it up first? Just lay it out there… see how he reacts, what he says?

Chances are, you will come away feeling more accepted and loved than blamed or shamed. To see how this works on a human level, watch a 12-step meeting in action – people are accepted as they tell the worst about themselves, and loved into sobriety. If this can happen with people, imagine how thoroughly God can love us into wholeness as we make ourselves available.

We learn later that this moment with Jesus had an impact, for the woman runs back to her townspeople – the ones whose judgment she was presumably avoiding – and tells them, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” She has not been shamed. She has been liberated by discovering that the Lord of heaven and earth can know everything about her and still offer love and forgiveness. I hope you have discovered that freedom, more than once. As we receive it, so are we able to give it.

3-18-14 - Never Thirst

Wouldn’t it be nice to find the source of something we deem precious, from which we could always access that? So a tired woman comes out to a well when the sun is highest, repeating a chore that no doubt has shaped her days for some time. It is her job to fetch water for the household. It’s not so bad going, but carrying the heavy jars back to town is a burden she’d gladly give up. Why she comes at noon, she doesn’t tell – does she want to avoid the stares and murmurs of her community?

A man is there, a Jew, a rabbi from the look of him. She doubts she has anything to fear, but wishes he were not there to disturb her solitude. Jews are so condescending to her people, as though they weren’t just another branch on the same tree. She nods at him and sets about lowering her jar. He speaks, “Give me a drink.”

She says, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?"
His answer is puzzling, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

She is in no mood for riddles. Does he not know the holiness of this well, its history? “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

And he is not done being mysterious: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

A spring of water in us, gushing. Here is an image of abundance, of movement, of life. If you’ve ever been mesmerized by the rushing water in a brook or river, or stared at a waterfall or waves crashing, receding, returning, crashing again, you know how powerful a representation this is of not running out. And Jesus locates this gushing spring not outside of us but inside, where we always have access. This spring is God’s life, renewing us.

What do you most wish you’d never run out of? If your answer is something material – food, money – it’s good to name it. If it’s something emotional – love, affirmation, attention – it’s important to be aware of what motivates you. God gives us no guarantees of provision in those areas. But spiritual commodities, like peace, healing, forgiveness, love – those all come with God’s living water in us, and they are always being replenished.

Today in prayer you might image that river of God-life flowing through you, dislodging all the debris of sin and hurt, and bearing it away, renewing and refreshing everything in its path. You might reflect on areas in which you feel empty or dry, and invite the river to flow to those places. If you feel a need of healing, invite the river to flow into that area. If you’re burdened by anxiety about the world or other people, invite the river to flow through those places, a visual prayer.

As we become more practiced at accessing the living water inside us, the spiritual gifts it brings may just make us more content about those material and emotional areas we worry about. After all, this living water is the river of God, which Jesus says is the Holy Spirit. Our mouths may thirst, our stomachs may hunger – yet with this spring in us, our spirits need never go dry.

3-17-14 - A Man, a Woman and a Well

The “Jesus encounter” we have before us this week is a rich story about a meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman on a hot and dusty noontime:

"So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)"

Let’s start with the who/when/wheres: We have Jesus, alone. We have a Samaritan woman, her ethnicity stated to convey her status as a not-quite-Jew. Samaritans were descendants of the original northern kingdom of Israel which, for a time was united with Judea in the south. But when the leaders in Jerusalem decreed that all worship was to take place in the temple there and no longer in the many other sacred sites of Israel, a division began which eventually separated Jews from Samaritans. The familial enmity persisted and deepened into a profound suspicion in which Samaritans were considered second-class citizens among God’s chosen people.

The time, we are told, is noon. Those with a cultural memory of Westerns, where big gun fights often take  place at high noon, might anticipate a clash when we hear “noon”  – and certainly we will see some verbal gun play in this encounter. But what might “noon” mean for the writer of John’s Gospel? The time when the sun is highest, when the most light possible is in the day? A symbol of completeness, the mid-point of the sun’s journey across the sky? What does “noon” elicit for you?

And our location is a well, in a place steeped in the history of Israel, a place the patriarch Jacob had given to his best-beloved son, Joseph. Jacob, remember, was the grandson of Abraham. God blessed him after a night spent wrestling with an angel. In that struggle, Jacob was given a new name: Israel, which became the name for the nation descended from Jacob twelve sons.

Such a location at a well might ring other echoes for John’s listeners: in the story of the patriarchs of Israel, at least three matches are made at wells:  Abraham’s servant, sent to find a wife for Isaac, meets Rebekah at a well; Jacob meets and falls in love with Rachel at a well; Moses meets his wife at a well.

So, should we expect a love story? Jesus often encounters women in the gospels, sometimes with intimacy – emotional, and even physical in the case of the woman who anoints his feet. This won’t be an encounter of romantic love, but a profound connection will take place.

Today, in your imagination, you might approach that well. Imagine the setting. See Jesus there alone. How might you feel about Jesus being in a place where you expected to be alone?  What needs do you bring to this solitary place? What kind of conversation might you have? Let it unfold, and follow where it goes. Write down any conversation.

Place, time, personae – the setting is ripe for something to happen. Something always happens when we meet Jesus.

3-14-14 - God So Loved

If you ever had to memorize bible verses in Sunday School, chances are you can recite this one, John 3:16, so favored by sports fans and poster-makers: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This verse can leave mixed emotions. It is a marvelous expression of God’s love for the world so extravagant God willingly gave up his only son to save it. And it makes an extravagant promise – eternal life for those who believe in God’s only son. How we respond to this promise has everything to do with how much we feel the world is in need of saving.

For most of the Christian era, it has generally been accepted that people were lost in sin, for which the legitimate penalty was death without chance of parole, and that God had designed a remedy to meet the demands of that penalty in such a way that we could be spared it – by having his own son, the only perfect sacrifice, take on that death sentence for us. Such a reading of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is directly supported by this passage. Jesus says, straight out, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

I cannot debate here the thorny question of whether humankind needed saving – I think we do; others may disagree. What I do want to assert today is that a God who desires not to condemn but to save is a God worthy of our worship and trust. Condemnation lies at the heart of human sinfulness – our tendency to judge and condemn other people and ourselves is one of the most corrosive attributes human beings share. And so one of the most powerful verses in the New Testament for me is Paul’s declaration, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

To be reminded that Jesus himself said God is not interested in condemning anyone is a crucial corrective to centuries of judgmental, condemnatory, narrowly legalistic, rule-based teaching by the church. Condemnation is a reflection of our sinful nature; gracious love is a reflection of God’s nature, and ours as creatures made and redeemed in the image of our extravagant God.

Is there any pattern or behavior in your life for which you continually condemn yourself? Are there other people, specific ones, or types, whom you routinely find yourself condemning? Perhaps today we might bring those people and patterns into the light in prayer, asking God to show us how God’s love might lift from us the burden of condemnation – whether we’re the condemned or the condemner. What strategies might you devise to become more aware of the action of condemnation in your life, and invite the winds of the Holy Spirit to blow you into greater freedom and acceptance, of yourself and others?

God’s love is more powerful than all the damage human beings can wreak on other creatures and on creation. As God so loved the world… might we ask to be so filled with that gracious love that we find ourselves loving the world in God’s name? When all is love, we need not speak of perishing and saving, only of Life everlasting.

3-13-14 - Lifted Up

As he talks with Nicodemus, Jesus stresses the importance of the spiritual. Then, almost as an aside, he says something else puzzling: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus is alluding to a story recorded in Numbers 21:4-9, about a time when God sent a plague of serpents to punish the Israelites for bellyaching on their journey to freedom:

"They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!' Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, 'We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.' So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, 'Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.' So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived."

Putting aside our alarm at the idea of God having a murderous hissy fit in response to incessant whining (I better be careful…), let’s focus on the remedy God proposes: To bring about healing by inviting the afflicted to contemplate a symbol of their disease. From this story we get the universal symbol of medicine, the serpents entwined on a staff. And in it we see a principle often found in medicine – that healing can come from the very source of disease, as with vaccines and homeopathic remedies.

By linking this image to his own impending suffering on the cross, Jesus (or John?) suggests that the remedy for sin can be attained by reflecting upon the very image of sin, a crucified man. As Paul will write, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:21)

A central theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus’ supreme glory was revealed on the Cross – there was the Sign of Signs that God was doing a new thing. The Cross is central to all four Gospels, but only John sees it as a place of glorification. So let’s go with him for today. Our sacred story tells us that Jesus took upon himself the sin of the whole world as he died crucified and forsaken. Can we see in that scene of torture redemption and release for ourselves? Healing from the sin-sickness that can pervade our souls?

Is there an area of sin in your life you would like to see die with Jesus on the cross? (Go ahead – it’s Lent... a little self-examination and repentance will do us good…) As you pray today, can you imagine that aspect of your life, whether an event or a proclivity, actually being eliminated, so you can be free of it? Our promise is that God has already forgiven us – the Cross had a future power as well as a past.

In John 12:32 Jesus is quoted, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” We don’t have to contemplate a bruised and bloodied Jesus in order to be forgiven. We can draw near to throne of grace because of what Jesus took on for us – and because now that cross is empty. We can honor him best by accepting his gift and walking in the forgiveness and wholeness he won for us.

3-12-14 - OS/Eternity

Let's review. Jesus to Nicodemus: You must be born anew to see the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus to Jesus: How do I do that?
Jesus to Nicodemus: No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born by water and Spirit.
If I were Nicodemus, my next word would be “Huh?” Jesus’ explanation only confuses me more:

“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

“No, I don’t!” would be my response. And then, recently, I got it, or I think I did: 

Jesus is talking about a different operating system, as with computers. We run on OS/Human (“flesh”). God-Life, or Kingdom life, runs on OS/God (“Spirit”). If we want to apprehend God-Life, our hardware needs to run OS/God. Human programs can run on OS/God; God programs don’t run so well on OS/Human. (Think Microsoft and Apple – I’m not sayin’ which is which in this analogy!)

If technology metaphors don’t work for you, this explanation may be worse than Jesus’. I think he is saying that flesh and spirit offer different ways of perceiving reality – “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” We will need to operate our spiritual senses if we want to dwell in God’s light and grow in our knowledge and love of God.

We are hardwired for OS/Human – our natural tendency is to trust only what we can see and touch. We need new programming to run OS/God – and the Good News is that it’s easy to download! Just sign the User Agreement (aka, baptism, or any time we say, “Yes, Lord, I believe…”) and let it run. God’s operating system doesn’t replace ours; we can run both – though that can be quite a drain on our batteries. And it can be hard to transition to OS/God – we know how to do things with our old operating system; living by faith in the spiritual realm comes with a bit of a learning curve. Just think of anytime you’ve adopted new technology or new computer programs, and you’ll get the analogy…

Jesus was able to run human programs through OS/God. As we download his life into ours, we become better able to run the Spirit system. And as we make the transition to using OS/God more and more, we’ll find it gradually becoming our default setting, and we’ll run more and more of our programs on it. And here’s a really nice benefit – OS/God doesn’t deplete us. It ships with a built-in power supply that recharges even as we use it. Nifty, huh?

Now that I’ve run that metaphor into the ground, how do we pray this today? Here's a question to explore: What areas of your life you think about entirely in human terms, and in which ones do the Spirit and faith call the shots? Is there a way to bring a more spiritual perspective to the areas that feel like “just human?” Can we invite the Holy Spirit to rewire us so that we perceive with spirit more and more?

I highly recommend transitioning our programs for perceiving, receiving and giving to OS/God.We become so much more peaceful and effective. And upgrades are free for our lifetime – and beyond!

3-11-14 - Water and Spirit

I’m in a “Words with Friends” duel with my sister, and when I got home from church Sunday, I found it was my turn. And what do you know? The best word I could make happened to be “reborn!”

“Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Maybe Jesus is being frustratingly figurative – and Nicodemus unnecessarily literal in his question about re-entering the womb. It does, though, prompt Jesus to clarify what he means by “born anew,” or “born from above” (the Greek allows either). He is saying that physical birth – our mere humanness – does not equip us to see nor “enter” the kingdom of God. We must be born of water and Spirit.

Water hints at baptism – John’s Gospel was likely the latest written, when baptism as a Christian ritual would already have been well established. His is the only gospel to mention Jesus baptizing anyone. And, of course, water, or fluid, is an integral part of physical birth as well – that’s partly why it is such a potent symbol of new birth for Christians, because every human comes into being in a bath of amniotic fluid. It is life outside the water, post-birth, that is the real shock.

But what does it mean to be born of Spirit? Well, even before Jesus came on the scene, John the Baptist is heard to say, “I baptize you with water; one is coming whose sandals I am unworthy to tie – he will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.” The idea of being “baptized” with the Holy Spirit suggests being bathed, immersed, drenched in the power and presence and peace of the Spirit of God. It implies spiritual purification and transformation so complete, it’s like a new birth. In fact, we claim a new creation does result from that union of Christ’s Spirit with ours in baptism.

Does your head hurt yet? Don’t worry – this conversation gets more confusing. Today let’s try to wrap our minds around the idea being born anew or born from above. One thing that occurs to me is this: no one can get themselves born – being born is something that happens to us. It is someone else’s work. We can’t even really resist the birth process – it happens, ready or not. The only difference with spiritual birth is, we get to say “yes.”

Have you ever had an experience of the Holy Spirit that you could feel? A sense of filling, or being surrounded with love? Sometimes there are manifestations like tingling, or our hands getting hot, or even weeping. Sometimes we feel our spirits want to praise and thank God. If you would like to know that aspect of God, simply ask the Spirit to come. “Come, Holy Spirit, I’m open…“ will do just fine. Or ask someone else to pray for you to be filled with the Spirit. And don’t worry if you do or do not feel anything – sometimes we know the Spirit’s been with us later, by the fruits that result from that encounter.

Our physical birth was one event. Long, short, easy or challenging, it was eventually done and we were born. Our spiritual birth lasts a lifetime. In some ways, what we are doing all our lives in this world is being born anew, being prepared for life in that Life where there is no death, only life and more life.

3-10-14 - These Signs

This Lent, our Sunday passages are from the Gospel of John, richly drawn encounters several people have with Jesus. The passages are lengthy and told elliptically in John’s sometimes tortured style, and can be hard to follow. They’re worth the work; I will do my best to highlight themes in them.

This week’s concerns a meeting between Jesus and an important Jewish leader named Nicodemus:  

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’”

Many assume Nicodemus came by night because he wasn’t ready to be seen publicly talking with this controversial miracle-worker. It’s clear, though, that Jesus’ miracles have gotten his attention: “For no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” That is one reason miracles are referred to as “signs” in John’s Gospel; they are demonstrations of how things work in the Life of God, signs pointing beyond themselves to the power that animates them. Water into wine, sight to the blind – these transformations have a purpose beyond the immediate needs they address.

So does the church, meant to be the Body of Christ made visible in the world. What we are about is more than meeting needs. We are to be making known, showing forth the Life of God that is around us and in us. Our mission is to reveal the spiritual reality of God as we go about God’s mission of restoration and wholeness. So what we do always has a purpose beyond the short-term good.

In what ways do you make known the spiritual reality of God-Life in your own life and ministry? When have you last experienced that spiritual reality, even in ways that appear miraculous - maybe in timing that seems suspiciously God-driven, or with unexpected answers to prayer, or urges to reach out to another person in a way that bears fruit?

If you have answers to those questions, note them, give thanks, and explore why you may have been open to manifesting or discerning that God-Life. What are the optimal conditions for you?

If you found yourself unable to answer, there in itself is a question to explore – might you be more open to the mysterious, the movement of spirit? Might “religion” be getting in the way of “relationship” with the Holy, the transcendent?

Jesus answers Nicodemus’ opening statement with a comment that puzzles: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Whatever else “born from above” means, at the very least it is being able to discern a reality not immediately apparent to our physical sight. That might be a good prayer for today, “Open our eyes, Lord, to see your hand at work in the world around us.” Tell me what you see.

3-7-14 - Devil May Care

“Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

There’s nothing like getting to the finish line, is there? Whether we’re running a race or finishing chemo or turning in a final paper – to suddenly have the pressure lifted, know we’ve survived, be able to let down our guard, rest, recharge – it’s a wonderful feeling. So Jesus comes to the end of his trial period, knowing he’s prevailed. Matthew says angels came and waited upon him.

The reference to angels reminds us what level of cosmic entity we’re dealing with when we talk about the devil. The New Testament is unequivocal about the existence of the devil, as was the early church, as are our Episcopal baptismal rites. But the Christian tradition never considered the devil is God’s equal – he is among a sub-order of angelic beings. The devil is talked about in the Bible as a fallen angel, who turned against God in pride and rebellion. He is described as a tempter who is always seeking to draw humans away from God, as the Accuser and the Father of Lies.

Early Christian thinkers held that evil is the absence of good – evil is what you get where God is not. And the source of evil, in the Christian worldview, is the devil, or Satan. C.S. Lewis once said, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Martin Luther likewise had a strategy, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” (He also said, “The best thing you can do is rap the Devil on the nose at the very start. Act like that man who, whenever his wife began to nag and snap at him, drew out his flute from under his belt and played merrily until she was exhausted and let him alone.”)

Because our story tells us that Christ has overcome the devil, we don’t have to be afraid. We want to be alert and wary about one who seeks to corrupt and harm us, but not so much that we give him attention we’re better off directing to God. As with a poisonous spider, you want to avoid its bite, but also know how to deal with its venom. And we have been given the antidote – the love and forgiveness of the Father; the comfort and advocacy of the Holy Spirit; the power of Christ in us.

In prayer today, we might simply thank God for providing us protection from this ancient enemy. If you ever feel threatened, you can pray your way through Ephesians 6, putting on the full armor of God. It was always God’s fight, not ours, and Jesus has won it. As Luther also wrote, in the great hymn A Mighty Fortress:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us.
We will not fear for God has willed his his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; One little Word shall fell him.

That Word is Jesus, the name that frightened demons back to hell. It is the only defense we need, whenever we feel ourselves under spiritual attack. The name of Jesus, who lives in us. He's still winning.

3-6-14 - Power

Who has more real power – the emperor or the counselor? The president or the chief of staff? The CEO or the COO? In the third temptation, the devil is willing to put Jesus in charge of all the kingdoms of the world – as long as he acknowledges him as the real power behind the scenes: “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.’”

This always struck me as a really dumb temptation – didn’t the devil know that Jesus had no interest in temporal power? Of course, this Jesus, in whom more divine power resided than the world had ever seen in a human being, was even less interested than most in world domination. He cared more about demonstrating the power to be gained in giving away your prerogatives and your life.

There are at least three ways to wield power – there’s “power over,” when we have dominion over others, and we use it to control them. There’s “power under,” the indirect form of power taken by those who use their sacrifices and victimhood to try to control others. And then there’s the kind of power Jesus wielded, what I would call “power with.” This comes from a true sense of who we are joined with an awareness of the power of God alive in us, so that we can use power in a way that empowers others to do the same.

As we read the Gospels, we see Jesus constantly empowering people who had been robbed of power, whether by the Romans, by the religious authorities, by illness or prejudice or poverty. This was ultimately what made him such a threat to those who thought they had power over him. It’s what made him such a threat to the Evil One – because Jesus is still alive, still in the business of empowering us. And empowered, we can resist evil.

When you look at your life, what kind of power is most often at play in your relationships, in your work, in your health? Are there things and people you’d like to dominate?
Are there things and people whose thumb you feel you are under? Neither is a good position to be in.
Are there ways you employ “power with” in a way that allows you to be true to yourself, true to God, and empowers others to be the same?

This is part of what it means to participate in God’s mission to bring wholeness to the world – when everyone exercises “power with,” the power of Good overwhelms the power of evil. Poor devil really never had a chance.

3-5-14 - Security

On the face of it, this devil’s bargain is for the birds:
“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.’”

Who on earth would toss himself off a high tower and see if God will protect him? Nobody sane...

And yet… don’t we often take lesser risks with big consequences? “Sure, cancer and smoking are highly related, but it won’t get me…” “Sure, the doctor said if I keep on getting fries with everything I’m headed for quadruple bypass, but what I eat today is okay…” Or how about this one: “Sure, the ozone layer’s thinner and I’m supposed to wear sunscreen now, but it’ll be alright this once…”

Feeling safe and protected is important to most of us. Yet the further away dangerous consequences are, the more risks we seem to take. Is this one of the ways we fall prey to the temptations of the Enemy? Maybe… after all, Christians claim that the devil desires to draw us away from the love of God. Often God is the first one we blame when bad things happen, because we forget human complicity, and because often we believe we have an unspoken contract with God guaranteeing our protection. Dig yours out of the file and check it – God never signed it. God promises us presence and power and peace in all circumstances, not protection.

I understand how facile this might sound if we think of people in Syria or South Sudan at the moment, and I don’t wish to under-value the very real desire for life and safety. I share it. I’m just trying to remember there’s a bigger story. When security becomes our objective, we often try to get it for ourselves, turning away from God’s provision. And why not, if God hasn’t promised to protect us!

Well, because there’s a deeper gift in the relationship we gain when we decide we’re going to trust God with all that we cannot control. This temptation is really about trying to control our circumstances. What’s high on that list for you? Can you in prayer today entrust – to the extent you’re able – the people and things you value most to God’s care? Because we can’t keep them safe from everything, and because we trust in God’s love? See how far you can extend your trust today, and then come back another day and see if you can stretch a little further in yielding control.

As we live into the fullness of our identities as beloved of God and chosen in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can move past a focus on security and live from an eternal perspective. From that vantage point, though what happens in this life matters a great deal, and when others are hurt, we hurt, we also see that this life is not the end of all things. Rather, for Christ followers, it is the beginning, the training zone, the love lesson.

That perspective doesn’t change our circumstances; it transforms the way we live them. Not a bad reminder on a day when many of us will hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

3-4-14 - Hunger

Here’s the understatement of the New Testament:
“He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”

After Jesus’ forty days and nights of fasting and praying, and perhaps fending off temptations we don’t know about, the devil brings on the big guns. Logically, he begins with the most obvious area of need – physical hunger: “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.’”

I don’t think Jesus refused because he wasn’t hungry, nor because his power didn’t extend to the physical world – at other times, he easily wields power over molecules, plants and animals. I think he was unwilling to employ the power he possessed on a party trick, or to prove his identity. That power in him – which, by faith, is also in us, when we but trust it – is connected to the will of the Father. Maybe Jesus was unwilling to try to bend the will of God to this end for an audience and a purpose so unworthy of it.

Once again, the temptation begins with an attempt to undermine the target’s sense of self: “If you are the Son of God…” Jesus is too smart to fall for it. We aren’t always so confident. If we remembered who we are, and whose we are as beloved sons and daughters of the Living God, we might not be so prone to taking matters into our own hands or falling into patterns destructive to ourselves and others.

Our appetites are an area in which we are most vulnerable to making choices that are not life-giving. Today let’s take stock of how our perceived need for some things can become distorted and cause us to turn away from the Life of God and toward things we think will fill us. In "some things” I include food, alcohol, sex, work, screen time, relationships, affirmation, importance, power, accomplishment – even exercise can become excessive if our motives are unhealthy.

It’s not the “what,” or even the “how much,” so much as it is “why do I need this,” and “how much of my energy goes to craving this, securing it, consuming it.” And we'll tend to feel somewhat empty as soon as we've finished that cycle if this is an area of distorted need in our lives.

How do we interrupt the cycle when it hits us? We might use Jesus’ words – “One does not live by alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” We might ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with God’s presence so we don’t hunger for things that can’t fill us. We might ask Jesus to sit with us and give us his peace.

We might even dare to sit with our hunger or desire or need and not rush to fill that empty place. Sometimes we need to feel the feelings that come from that emptiness. Certainly our Good News tells us that God shows up in pretty amazing ways in empty spaces.

3-3-14 - Temptation

Every first Sunday in Lent our Gospel reading is the account of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. This year it’s Matthew’s version, which begins simply: “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.”

This story follows right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism, and seems to have been a necessary step as he prepared for his mission to make known to the world the power and love of God, and to reconcile humanity to the God from whom we had become estranged. Was it because he needed to know his adversary? Did he need toughening up? Did the Son of God have to prove his sinlessness?

We’ll get into Jesus’ forays with the tempter as the week progresses. Today, let’s talk about temptation. How does it work, and why are we vulnerable? Our tradition has a “root story” to explain it, the story of First Man and First Woman in the Garden of Eden (the reading printed today). In this ancient mythic story woven to explain the disconnect between creator and creation, we see some classic temptation tricks wielded to great effect:

  1. Divide and conquer. The tempter doesn’t approach both humans – he starts with the woman.
  2. Distort reality. The serpent asks the woman, “Did God say not to eat of any tree?,” when God had said they could eat of every tree, except one.
  3. Undermine your target’s sense of identity. When the serpent contradicts God’s instructions, he causes the woman to question God’s goodness and authority, and her place in that relationship.
  4. Make disobedience appealing – chances are, they wouldn’t have flouted God’s instructions for a wormy, overripe piece of fruit.
  5. Get an accomplice. The woman is quick to invite the man to join her transgression, and he puts up no fight at all. 
This is pretty much how temptation works, whether in our lives, or in advertising. If we want to stay grounded in the goodness and love we are offered as children of God and followers of Christ, we’d do well to get hip to the wiles of the evil one and say, “No thanks,” when temptation comes our way. Of course, that's a little over-simplified, and sometimes the temptation seems to originate in our own hearts and minds. That’s a mystery for another day – and for the rest of our lives. (We will talk about the devil some this week… I know views differ on that subject.)

Today, how about we think through the last time we submitted to temptation, to do or say something that was not in our best interest or harmful to another, whether it was eating more than we needed or passing along a tidbit of gossip, or indulging in some judgment about someone (remember how broadly Jesus defined sin!). Break down the process if you can, and see where you might tighten your defenses. And think of a time when you resisted and stayed true to yourself and your hopes.

The point of this exercise is not to feel bad about ourselves – we are vulnerable because we are alive and have been given the gift of free will, to choose, and choose, and choose again. As we become more aware of how temptation works on us, we are able to develop strategies for resisting it.

The most important strategy of all, I believe, is to remember that we are beloved of God, and that God doesn’t turn away from us no matter how often we stumble. God’s forgiveness and mercy abound. That’s the best defense of all.