Monday, February 22, 2010

A Lenten Invitation

Some weeks ago from this pulpit we heard the story of Jesus and his mother at the festive wedding reception at Cana. Rich gave what I thought was an uplifting and fun sermon about Jesus and the party-goers. As this story unfolded, we as community, were ultimately invited to explore and share our gifts. We were missioned by our pastor to go forth to surprise the world with random acts of kindness. I loved that morning in the pews, as I always do here with all of you. But that Sunday was particularly engaging for me as I listened to a delightful, humorous, and joy-filled message.

But in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus is far from a wedding hall, far from family and friends. He is at the end of a long, self-imposed exile prompted by the Spirit, a Spirit that has completely filled him, so much so that, at his baptism, according to Luke, the skies opened and “a voice from heaven was heard to say: ‘You are my beloved Son. On you my favor rests.’” Almost immediately after this even, Luke then tells us that he beloved is called away to be with his God and only his God – in the dry, rocky desert of solitude – Alone with the Big Alone, as we see at the beginning of today’s reading.

As I stumbled around in my own desert of anxiety, trying to prepare this reflection, I went on a whim to the Bible glossary and looked up the word, desert. To my surprise, this is what I found: Desert: -- “this word hold a major place in biblical thought: It is the desert that the people have experienced divine intimacy. The desert symbolizes the desolate sojourn of the times of trial. Jesus withdraws to the desert before beginning his ministry.”

This Spirit who loves Jesus so much, who loves us so much, draws us to that intimate time and space to adore us but also to work us over, so to speak. It is like God is saying: “You are so beautiful I can hardly stand it and I want you to go out into the world and love but Hold on Pard’, not so fast…there’s this shadow side I need you to look at and embrace before you head-on.”

In today’s Gospel the biggest part of the story focuses on the devil coming to Jesus after hi forty days with three over-the-top temptations for a very hungry fellow. This is high drama but for some reason I didn’t feel called to reflect on the temptations themselves. Temptation is a part of life. It is part of being human. It never ends. It is in the mysterious mix of out very existence, always on the sidelines ready and waiting for a spin on the dance floor, especially so when we are tangoing with our best selves, with open hearts. As my old mentor up on the reservation, Sister Ann, used to say in simple terminology: “Whenever things are going well and you are, with pure intention, striving to love and to do good, the ‘old boy’ likes to get in there and stir things up.” Annie’s more plain-spoken wisdom parallels a beautifully-written interpretation by Fred Caddock which connects to Luke’s desert scene. Although Jesus has come to adulthood and has been majestically anointed at his baptism, Caddock says: “The Spirit is leading Jesus but not jet to Galilee; the devil will not let him move that easily into the service of God. It probably was no surprise to Jesus, nor should it be to us: good news always has its enemies. Love generously and hatred will pull on boots and helmet; speak truthfully and falsehood begins to charm its auditors; live simply and extravagance sets up a carnival across the street; serve faithfully and self-interest renews its seduction of human pride.”

Our shadow is always with us and always will be. It is woven into our DNA. Big temptations, little temptations are part of our fabric and will play themselves out in our psyches in a myriad of story lines. Luke is really on to this because in his desert scene Jesus’ battle with the old boy ends with: “When the devil ha finished all the tempting he left him, to await another opportunity.” The beat goes on.

So that is why instead I want to zero in on those very first two, literally and figuratively, dry sentences from today’s scripyture: “Jeuss, full of the Holy Spirit then returned from the Jordan and was conducted by the Spirit into the deser for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. During the time he ate nothing, and at the end of it he was hungry.” I want to explore a little more the reality of the forty days in the desert. What is this desert experience all about? God knows we have a need for it and God wants us there for important reasons. In wisdom and divine selfishness our God leads us to solitude in grand stretches and in smaller ways. – For God knows our human poverty and God loves us and wants intimacy with us. In the seemingly empty spaces, God will mold and shape, and at the same time reverence us right where we are at.

In the desert our spirit meets God’s spirit in a very human way. Under thehot sun there are good times and hard times with the One who wants us to become who we truly are and so desires to be in relationship with each of us. I keep thinking of the many scenarios that Jesus went through out in the barren land. At first there was probably the usual, “I don’t want to go there” resistance, perhaps an attitude of “What do I need this for? I just want to get on with the work.” Or, being the social guy that he was, maybe Jesus was thinking, “I get a little anxious when things are too quiet around me.” But in trust, I imagine Jesus got past this initial resistance and the growling stomach, and settled into some fabulous and fulfilling days of wandering through the mysterious terrain of discovery, touching into his gifts and laying down by his fire at night, looking up at the starry sky we seldom see in Seattle, awestruck in the emptiness, in the enfolding arms of his loving Creator. Continuing this sojourn there is no doubt that there were some big dust-ups between Jesus and His God out in the sand. Our God is a bit demanding for our own good. When we accept the invitation to solitude in faith and we have the courage to party with our distractions we will be forced to face and embrace our shadows and really look our wounds, our selfishness, our failing, our addictions and separation from others. This can be painful and harsh because of that old ego we all have, where we think we are center of the universe, or on the other end of the spectrum, we think that we are of little worth and beyond hope and change. This necessary holy face-off with our truth, is the on-going tempering God knows we need to respond to life with the fullness of our lives rather than react to live with reflexive selfishness and self-absorption.

I believe Jesus did not succumb to those very seductive temptations because of his relentless choice to listen with his heart to his God, because he had the faith to love and be loved by his God in the desert Unknown, the grand paradox that will nurture and embrace us, challenge us to our very core, and lead us to the Freedom to be uniquely and fully ourselves.

Perhaps on day 39 after resistance and awe and silence and struggle and emptiness and delight, Jesus might have prayed to his God this prayer echoed centuries later by another pilgrim, Thomas Merton:
“O kind and terrible love which You have given me and which could never be in my heart if you did not love me!
You ask of me mothering else than to be content that I am your Child and your Friend, simply to accept your friendship because it is your friendship. This friendship is Spirit.
You have called me to be repeatedly born in the Spirit, repeatedly born in light, in knowledge, Unknowing, in faith, in awareness, in gratitude, in poverty, in presence, and in praise.”

--This is God’s longing for our destiny—to live in the Holy One’s friendship and peace.—The is the path of Jesus, a deliberate walk—disciplined and yielding to the way of Generative Love—honed in the desert of reflection, sacrificial for the sake of life n day forty. In our solitude we find our freedom to submit to the way of Love in our daily relationship and speak the Truth to our collective shadow: The Domination System.

Dear Community, our Lenten journey is our invitation to the desert, our tradition’s call to follow God right to our blind spots, to turn from separation and embrace the Gospels. It is our built-in “time out” from our culture that is anything but reflective; a culture in need of compassionate, fully-alive and wise folk who have the desire and trust to enter into self-examination, contemplation, humility and the lonely spaces where God waits for us and grounds us for the sake of ourselves and for all creation; -Persons who transcend fear because they have responded to God’s invitation to look into the face of their character flaws, their darkest anxieties and elf-centeredness, embracing all that is there and allowing for the mystery of God to bring wholeness, healing and forgiveness; --Fearless companions because they live with certainty into the unconditional friendship of God whose love is bigger than all uncertainty and death.

Dear Community, these are the first of many days because Easter. This is our time to live our tradition with deliberateness and clarity of purpose. Will we really risk solitude this year and allow it a foothold in our daily living? The choice is ours to know that we loved and invited to live Divine Intimacy in wild and rocky grace.

Are you ready to go the way of Jesus? Will you go? I hope I can really do it this year—head off-road and be surprised, cherished a little, and unafraid to look where I dare not look. Indeed, there are brambles of judgment within me to trim, caves of complacency that need light, --and ego, always ego to ten and tame by the night fire.

Beloved, this is our time, it is necessary --- and it is good news.

-A sermon given by Rita P. on the first Sunday of Lent, 2010

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