Ah my friends, we arrive at the crux of the matter, why go into the desert anyway? Why go on these wilderness journeys, why not hide our head in the corner and just refuse? It isn’t fun. We talked about how crisis is so often the thing that gets us off the couch and into the wilderness, we talked about losing all that we think we are and need to be, that holy stripping of identity and boundary markers by which we say, ‘I am this.” We talked about getting lost and how scary it can be, and how much we want to be in control, so we resist ‘letting go and letting God,” because that reminds us all too much that we aren’t in control anyway and we really want to be.
So why go? Why face our mortality every year, looking death in the face and saying, yes we know this is coming and we are mortal. Why do it? Why not stay where everything looks grand and beautiful and if it doesn’t we’ll just tuck our heads and our hearts away and refuse to look. What I don’t know, I don’t have to face, so there.
I imagine poor Lazarus and his sisters must have been wondering the same sorts of things as they waited for their friend, the healer to come and heal Lazarus and he just didn’t come. What good did it do for them to believe when he didn’t come? I feel for Mary and Martha in their recriminations when they bluntly say to Jesus, “You could have saved him. You didn’t come. You didn’t show up.” Bam. There it is. So why look death in the face if you can do nothing to prevent it, why embrace hope and salvation if it isn’t coming? Our Lenten practice of facing our own darkness, our own mortality every year must have some benefit right? I mean because we keep doing it. So why?
We finally hit that point in our journey when rock bottom shows up. When we experienced this holy stripping of identity, of boundary markers, that place where we can say, Hi, I’m Cyndi I’m…and all those things we hold precious are listed, I’m Joyce and Gunther’s mom, I’m Betty ‘s daughter, I’m a Christian, I’m here to help, I’m this, I’m that, all of this is just gone. This is a holy striping. It’s what happens to Job. When all he has is just ripped from him and all he has left is “I belong to God.”
One of my favorite confessions begins by identifying our chief comfort, that we belong to God and no one and nothing can take that away. The man who wrote that, Frederick the Electorate, did so as he was being hauled before the courts on a charge of heresy. The outcome of the trial would determine whether he lived, or was burned at the stake, so he needed to be sure. He needed to know that he was staking his life on something solid and sure and the most important thing he could grasp hold of, not unlike Job, is that he belonged to God.
This is what a wilderness journey does, it strips us down until all that is left is our essential truth. Every year we rehearse this, we gather together and remind one another that is part of who we are. Mortal, vulnerable, fragile, and that in our tender mortality who we are matters a very great deal. Yes we are dust, and to dust we shall return, but what we do in the meantime is an act of co-creation. We are not powerless automatons but vibrantly alive and graced by the love of God, God’s very self. That is amazing!
In our day to day acts we miss this. We get busy with our to-do lists and we miss that every act we give our energy to matters. It matters whether we speak ill of one another or good. It matters whether we stand with the outcast or the insider. It matters whether we forgive the errors of those we love, choosing love and connection over our insistence that some things just should never have happened! These things matter intensely. And when we allow our self to feel our mortality, feel the need for a legacy, all of this matters.
When we face our wounds and dare to look into the cracks and crevices of our brokenness, we see where we have gone astray, where we have missed the mark and stop fooling our self that somehow it was justified. That we only said this hurtful thing or did that other thing because so and so did this, and we realize there never was an excuse big enough or important enough to justify our being less than we were created to be. Oh, we might say, that person promised me this, and it’s okay if I hurt them because they failed to produce it…but it was never about them, was it? At our rock bottom, in the act of having all our justifications stripped from us, all that remains is that we hurt someone who may or may not have failed us. Ouch. Just ouch, because that is NOT who we want to be. We wanted to be so much more than that!
So we rehearse it, we stop every year and check ourselves. Who am I really? Am I living up to who I said I’d be? Who God created me to be? How far off the mark am I? One of my favorite authors, Stephen Levine, captured this practice well in his book, A Year to Live. As a hospice worker he had noticed that many of his patients were experiencing these glorious ah-ha moments when they could see clearly how far off the mark they had gone and how little they had to lose by moving back toward that mark. The same theory is captured beautifully in that song by Tim Mcgraw, Live Like You are Dying. The lyrics from that song that really touch my heart are the “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying,” He had nothing left to lose, “I hope you get the chance to live like you are dying, “ he tells his young friend. Well, Stephen Levine decided that darn it, he was going to do just that, and he spent an entire year pretending that he only had a year to live.
This is our Lenten practice. A place where we stop and remember that we are all mortal, and we will all wonder in the desert at some point. We will lose loved ones, we will see opportunities pass us by, we will some day have that final spring, the one where we, hopefully, stop complaining about all the mud and just glory in the daffodils, we will have that final summer and we hope that as those long evenings go by they aren’t filled with regret that we failed to forgive this person and we failed to repair that relationship because we were just too daggon scared. It felt too doggon vulnerable so we froze up and we didn’t do it.
The glory of our Lenten journey into the wilderness to examine and look at all the things within us that block love that shut out the light, that keep our lives small and timid, is that we get to choose differently. We get to really look deeply at how we are, or are not, living into the being God created us to be and imagine a different way of being. I imagine that this is a big part of Lazarus’s story. We really don’t know much about him, other than that he died, like all of us will, and he got a second chance. Just flip those tables Jesus! We get one chance to get things right, to say how much we love those we care about, to give forgiveness, to do and say all the things that God has laid on our hearts…except that Lazarus gets a do-over. Mary and Martha get a do-over, and that changes everything.
Now it’s hard work to go into the tomb if you don’t have to. It’s a challenge to face one’s humanity, one’s limitations, one’s faults and errors if you don’t have to. Even when we’ve been scared to death once or twice, it’s really easy to re-armor our hearts with lots of should’s and shouldn’ts and it ought to be this way or that, and fail to see what is right in front of us. We are so good at protecting ourselves from loss, so good at pretending that we if do all the right things somehow it will pass us by, that we need to stop every year and say, whoa, wait a minute, You are Mortal. You are dust and to dust, you, yes you, will return. Every year we take this journey, we pack our bags and we unpack our baggage and we take this journey. We look carefully at what we take with us and who we are and who we have become.
And then we get to choose again. Then we get to live like we are dying. The gems mined in your darkest moments are what give you a depth, a courage, a wisdom and a richness that can’t be learned elsewhere. And your ability to fly is in direct proportion to your willingness and courage to face your version of rock bottom. If you’ve ever been at the bottom and bounced back to tell the story, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Now I hope that during our Lenten journey you really looked deeply. That you thought about the ways you keep people from loving on you, and the things you tell yourself that keep you from loving others. I hope that you have looked at the ways you have kept your life small and ‘reasonable’ and perhaps you’ve looked at the ways you fight change, fearing loss so much that it’s hard to let anything go. I hope that you have been shook and all that you wish you could let go of has become a little looser. And I hope too that you have been gentle with yourself during this process, because it’s all okay. There is next year…right? It is in our human nature to pretend that we all have another chance coming, that later is okay, the story of Lazarus reminds us that later is sometimes too late, and even God, very God will weep.
So I hope that you have been shaken on this journey. Let your heart and soul be shaken, for in some measure we are all with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, sending out those messages, “Master come quick, the one you love is ill.” I wonder what words of forgiveness and love were shared around that deathbed, words which might not have been shared if they knew that Lazarus was going to get a second chance. I hope that whatever words of love or forgiveness, are spoken, that love isn’t being denied, that we are all clinging tightly to the knowledge that we belong to God, and that we can truly live as if we are dying.
I hope that in this shaking you have been gentle with yourself and gentle with each other, that those things you want to let go of have been shook loose and are ready to drop. I hope you feel ready to love deeper, speak sweeter, and express that audacious, bold love that we are called to. May it be so,
When you are lost, I mean really, truly lost, and you just can’t find your way. It might have been something you did, a mistake you made, words spoken in haste or anger, it might even have been something that was done to you, something that makes people cringe when you talk about it, they just sort of pull away, and you’re lost.
All sense of connection, of community, of belonging just slips away and you. Are. Lost. End of story, cut to credits. Redemption, connection, belonging, all of this and everything else you’ve ever wanted must be meant for other people, not you, and that my friend is as lost as lost gets. Love is only meant for some, Tracy Chapman sang that back in 2000 but the feeling is timeless.
Honestly, I don’t really want to talk about this. I’d rather tell you cute stories about how my son got lost in the woods behind his grandma’s house looking for a treehouse he vaguely remembered his dad building three years earlier. It’s a cute story and he was an adorably cute child. But there’s really nothing cute about being lost, about losing your way, about being totally disconnected from everyone around you and wondering if you will ever find a place of belonging.
There are so many ways to be lost. Being lost physically, having to wander through the woods or drive down strange streets isn’t nearly as frightening as being lost from your people, your purpose, your connection with all that is holy. This is the kind of lostness this unnamed man in our text experiences. It is to be so lost to all meaning, worth and value that people pass you by and wonder aloud, as if you couldn’t hear them, how stained and sinful your soul must be that God would curse you like this, or maybe it was a curse on your parents and you just the victim of it.
This is lostness. This is to be stained so bitterly that only those who are similarly marked would ever seek out your company. This is to be the dissheveled one standing on the corner with a cardboard sign, the one that people studiously avoid eye contact with and certainly try to stay upwind of, because they’re sure you smell too. How bad do you have to be for God to take your eyes? They wonder. And you know you are lost to hope, lost to relationship, lost to the simplest of joys, of being loved, of being included, of belonging.
Now the disciples, and those who pass by generally, really want to blame this man or his parents for his condition. They want to be able to say if only he, or they, had done this differently, then everything would be all right, but Jesus won’t allow that. Jesus stops this line of reasoning cold. Nope, nope, nope, neither his parents nor he himself sinned. God is not punishing him. And to take a brief detour from our reflection on being lost, let’s take a look at our need to have someone to blame. If they were smart like me…they wouldn’t have been and here we can get a litany of crimes. And we tend to like this reasoning because it means we are in control! We can prevent bad things from happening to us and our loved ones, whether it’s because we know better than to flash cash in a bad part of town, or to be armed and well protected, or to eat all the cleanest healthiest food, somehow we are going to be in control and not allow any bad thing to touch us or our loved ones, and so there! Whew, we’re safe! Yes, we might not be wearing deoderant, because you know cancer, but we are safe! In fact, we love this line of reasoning and the way it puts us in control of things so much that often victims of violent crimes will accept that they must have DONE something to deserve it and if they can just figure out what that something was, they can make sure it will never happen again.
And Jesus stops this line of reasoning cold. No. just no. Neither he, nor his parents sinned. Sorry. You don’t get to feel safe today, bad things do happen to good people. And if you really let yourself feel that, it ought to send a shiver right down your spine.
So yes, this man is lost from all sense of belonging, from being accepted as having worth and value, from being seen as a fully human person, from having a future that is as bright and shiny and full of possibility as any other. He is truly lost.
I imagine his mother might have spoken to her best friend, back in the day, when she was young and bearing children, and she might have said something like this; “He seemed so beautiful and healthy when he was born. My husband went right down to the temple and made an offering in thanksgiving. He was so excited to have a boy, a healthy baby boy, but over the next few days and weeks, we began to notice. He wasn’t quite right. His expression was vacant and lost. He couldn’t see. We just had to try again, that’s all. We weren’t going to give up, no! This boy was such a disappointment, good for nothing, but we could have others! And we did! We had beautiful, healthy children after him, but what to do with him?”
And in that moment even his parents lost sight of him as an incredible, beautiful child of God. The interesting thing about child psychology, is that it insists we can only see ourselves as we are reflected by others. It is when other people say, “I see you, I know you, I love you,” that we can learn to love ourselves.
In other words, if you all see me as great and wonderful, as loving and kind, I can learn to match that so that I won’t have to deal with all the cognitive dissonance that would follow if I wasn’t all that but you still saw me that way. Isn’t that something? We have the ability to see the best in one another and to call it out!
Over and over again Jesus is doing this, “I see you, I know you, I love you.”
Jesus saw him—this is my favorite line in this story. How often do we drive by those strange people standing on the meridian and refuse, absolutely refuse to see them. “Just don’t make eye contact, they’ll come closer if you make eye contact, they’ll want something” so we deliberately, intentionally refuse to see them. We want things to be okay, we’ll drop a few coins, but I don’t want to open my heart to you, to let your pain touch my heart. Jesus saw, looked at, made eye contact with, a blind man.
We find that Jesus continues to come to us. The true miracle of this story to me is that Jesus continues to come to him, to find him, no matter how lost he is. How much he must have wanted to fit in, to be accepted finally. But when he did show up at the temple he wasn’t accepted. When they called his parents, how much he must have wanted to hear them finally be proud of him, but they insist he is an adult and is on his own.
It must have been shattering to discover that even when the physical reasons why you were lost, outside of society and the possibility of a rich, hopeful life, were restored, you were still lost. But not for long. In the midst of this man’s lostness, Jesus comes looking for him. And this is the moment where hope is restored, where life becomes rich and abundant, where one can learn to live this wild, reckless, abundant life, because you finally know who is holding your hand. Who’s got you, firmly and safely, in their grasp. If we knew, really knew, who holds our hand as we walk this path, take this journey, it would give us incredible courage.
May we know we are found, eternally and forever found, in every part of our being, so that we might live this wild and reckless abundant life. So that we might be bold and daring and share that reckless love with all whom we meet. The more that we abide in God, especially when all the world wants to tell us we are lost, the more we know we can never really be lost. We are forever found in God’s loving grace. May it be so.
A few quotes from the sermon:
Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.
A stretch of sky, a garden wall overhung by green branches, a strong horse, a handsome dog, a group of children, a beautiful face — why should we be willing to be robbed of all this? Whoever has acquired the knack can in the space of a block see precious things without losing a minute’s time… All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.
Numbers 20 tells us that we need to be cautious of taking on too much responsibility especially when we are lost in grief, overwhelmed. Then especially we must be on the hunt for those moments of grace which call out to us, which help us find our center and our balance in God’s grace. This is the time when we must practice that essential discipline of seeking out and affirming all that is good, all that is true, all that is graced with beauty and shines with life. When we are in pain, or have shouldered too much responsibility, when the way has grown too long and we can’t see the end, this is the time and the place we must dig in and refuse to live in despair, to live in anger. This is when we must seek with all our hearts the grace and beauty of God. It may be the hardest place to seek it, but here more than ever we must seek and we must affirm that Love wins, Love is the first word, the most enduring and the final word. We do not seek a triumphal faith that promises us no harm will come to us, that all will always be bright and shiny and without flaw. No, we seek a faith that will live in us when all seems lost, when our hearts are broken. We seek a faith that will work in us and change us, that we might live beautiful, faithful, true lives no matter which valley we walk through.
It takes no special talent to look around our world and point out things that are numbing, depressing, or death-dealing. But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good., true, and beautiful demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts, and keep them open.
As we open up, we begin to see beauty everywhere, not only in nature but in human nature. There’s a lot of bad news out there, but there’s a lot of good news as well. Today we celebrate the unique and beautiful call of faith, that of paying attention to all of God’s love and grace, of being mindful and aware of the deep beauty and love in our lives, especially when we wander too long in the desert, when our eyes are downcast, when we lose those we love, when we just really, really want to hit that rock twice. To pause and notice, no matter how painful things are at the moment, how beautiful, how lovely, how enduring and persistent is the love of God.
Mindful” by Mary Oliver
I see or hear
that more or less kills me
that leaves me
like a needle In the haystack
It is what I was born for—
to look, to listen, to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over in joy,
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant—
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
We begin in the middle of the conversation. Paul had visited Corinth, planted a church among this mixed group of gentiles, those who were formerly used to being firmly established in the middle of society and who were now beginning to understand what it means to stand alongside the outsider, and as one might expect problems arose. Scholars suggest that Paul wrote as many as four or five letters to the Corinthians, we have only two. So we join the conversation in the middle, Johnny come lately trying to make sense of what is going on within this conversation, within this community. Some of it makes us raise our eyebrows a little, man have they lost their way! Sexual immorality, eating food sacrificed to idols, power games, name dropping, etc.
They had begun with promise and wound up wandering in the wilderness. How to live this odd, promising, but strange life that held so much promise, but was, well different. It wasn’t how they were raised, it wasn’t how they had played the political games of society, it was, just very different. They were wandering in a wilderness of conflict, abuse, searching for a promise that had seemed so very evident when they first set out, when they left the safety of belonging and middle class life.
Last week we spoke about the trauma, loss and crisis that often precedes someone entering into a wilderness journey, but for some it is a promise, a promise that if you walk this path something really, truly wonderful will happen. It’s that moment, when you are out on a hike and you can see the top of ridge you are climbing and you finally surmount that ridge only to see that the trail curves and moves further uphill. It’s exhausting to realize that more is demanded, that you have not reached the top but only a way station and the pause that is a momentary enjoyment of rising all the way on top is delayed. Not. There. Yet. Uff.
The Corinthians began their journey with hope and dreams of wonderful things and found themselves embroiled in common conflict and disputes. If you spend much time talking to unchurched people at some point you will hear someone say, “Oh those churches, they say they are good, kind, loving Christians, but they are filled with conflict and power games and lot’s of shoulds, “it should be this way,” “you should dress like me” “you should, you should, you should” it’s no different than anything else.” There is a Buddhist saying that, ‘before enlightenment one chops wood and carries water, after enlightenment, one chops wood and carries water.” It reminds us that our daily tasks and the events of our lives do not change much. We still have the same labors, the same weather, the same bills and live with the same people, whether we are Christian or not. We will still wander the badlands of life at some point, times of conflict, loss, trauma, these will come the rain falling on the good and the bad alike.
So we meet Paul in what scholars believe is his fourth letter to this conflicted congregation. He speaks to reassure them and to help them stay the course, to keep on track, to remember to make the most important things first and foremost, not letting them drown in the sea of so many small things that tend to fill our lives. In today’s passage Paul points them to the beauty that lives within us, that passes by unseen and unnoticed every single day.
“Remember who you are, he says, remember what great beauty lies within you, for you were made to shine, you were created in the image of the most high God. You are wondrous. Remember who you are.”
He says this even though the conflict is only in an ebb and soon flows again. It’s one of those things you can’t say to someone in the heat of the moment, but something that we need to hear again and again during those quiet times. “Remember who loves you. Remember how wonderful you and those around you are.” He reminds us how important it is to really see one another, to remember why we are engaged in relationship in the first place, that we are all part of the body of Christ. He reminds us how important it is to see beyond what is happening in the moment or outward appearances and look beneath, to look for the image of Christ, the light of God, shining in each person we meet.
There are two stories that came to mind as I studied this scripture, and I’d like to share them. One comes from the book, “The Half Has Never Been Told” and it’s the story of Liza Jane. Liza Jane was a young girl who was sold away from her family, sold down the river, and arrived at the plantation beaten, brutalized, and dissociating. She was almost zombie-like, moving through the day more dead than alive she did the bare minimum to avoid the attention of the overseer. The story that was passed down, that comes to us now, is how the men and women in the field, working alongside Liza Jane would sing to her, ‘Come on home, Liza Jane, come on home” and as the days passed it woke something in her, and she began to sing back to them, “I’m coming home, I’m coming home.” They sang her back to life when she was lost in despair. They refused to give up on her and just kept singing.
The other story is the story of Dr. Ted Stoddard. His fifth grade teacher relates how he came to be in her class. She had noticed him the year before on the playground and he wasn’t the kind of student she looked forward to teaching. He was disheveled and needed a bath, he was quiet and withdrawn and when he did engage in class activities his behavior was odd and put the other students off. He would blurt out inappropriate things and his actions were simply discordant, unsettling. When she sat down to review the students class histories she read his last. She didn’t want to be prejudiced, but he just rubbed her wrong.
As she read his former teacher’s notes she was surprised and shocked. The first grade teacher said he was a delight and charming. The second grade teacher described him as bright and sociable, a quick learner. The third grade teacher said his year had begun well enough, but his mother’s illness was clearly taking a toll on him. His fourth grade teacher said he was withdrawn and tended to isolate, he seemed distracted and had difficulty learning, the teacher speculated that the death of the young boy’s mother was the cause of this change.
She put the papers down and prayed for the young boy, and herself. She told herself she would give him extra attention and a little more care. Still, she felt ashamed of her quick judgment.
When Christmas came and the students brought little gifts this boy brought a half used bottle of perfume, clumsily wrapped, sort of disheveled not unlike the boy. She thanked him and made a big deal of putting some perfume on. When the day ended she wished her students a good Christmas break and said goodbye to them, only to notice this young boy lingering. “You smell like my mom,” he said, and then he left.
She began to see him with new eyes, eyes that looked for the treasure hidden beneath the depths of his grief, his loss, his pain. We are called to the very same mission, to see each other through the eyes of Christ, to look with love and to believe the very best in each other especially when it’s hard.
Paul spoke to a church that was in the middle of it’s own wilderness journey, one that was trying really hard to figure out how to live this new life in Christ and who sometimes just wanted a charismatic leader to tell them what to do. To these people, Paul said, “remember who you are, remember that we have this treasure in clay jars, not in fancy, gilded jars, or shining crystal, but in common clay, chipped and broken, yet within each one is a treasure.” He asked us to look beneath the surface and search out the image of Christ, the light of God, in each person, not to sit in judgment, not even positive judgment, but to put our hope, our trust in the image of God shining from each person.
Things may be hard, they may be difficult, we may wander in the desert, not sure if we are heading in the right direction, or even the same direction, but we remember who we are and whose we are. We have this invitation to pause in our travels and notice the beauty, the grace, the love, the kindness, all around us, and to find, even in, especially in, our most difficult circumstances cause for gratitude.
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
We have this ministry, to see in each other the treasure buried beneath the clay, beneath all that life heaps upon us. To sing each other back to life when we are lost and in pain. To see with the eyes of Christ that we might love like Christ. May it be so.
Beginning in Brokenness
There’s a lovely quote that’s become quite popular, “We all have baggage, find someone who loves you enough to help you unpack.”
We love to hear stories of people traversing their own desert, their wilderness times. It gives us courage and inspires us to hear how they have overcome, but few of us enter a wilderness or desert experience on our own. It is in our nature to have a certain inertia about us, getting up off the couch, taking that first step, can be the hardest thing to do, and often we don’t do it until something forces our hand, grabs us by the heart strings and says “Come!”
Joseph Campbell, the great student of myth and archetype, reminds us that the hero’s journey always begins with conflict, with tragedy. We do not get to rise up one morning and proudly proclaim, “Look what I have overcome!” without having faced great difficulties. Yet we hesitate because we know that sometimes, especially in our greatest fears, sometimes great difficulties break us, and we fear that brokenness more than anything.
So it often comes as a brutal surprise, these events that send us off into the wilderness. Something happens, a diagnosis, a death, loss of a job or a home, and we find that we suddenly don’t know where we are, sometimes we don’t know who we are. We might stare at our reflection in disbelief, as if someone else was staring back at us. It’s one of the reasons we fight so hard to defend beliefs that we have long held, or sacrificed a great deal for. We don’t want to be wrong. We don’t want to see our frailty, our fallibility. We don’t want to see how easily we hurt one another.
How often do we begin a relationship with promises that we will never hurt one another? Yet we do. We fail to live up to the very best that we can be, that we want to be, and our failure to do this insists on a response from us. We are asked to move into our own wilderness journey and face the shadowy, hidden parts of ourselves and this can be very frightening.
Someone once told me that the mark of a healthy community is that when someone is brave enough to say, “I have all this baggage, these wounds, these regrets and failures that I carry around with me,” the response is, “Me too.” Calvin spoke about this as ‘total depravity’ meaning that nothing, no one, no part of us, escapes being flawed in some way. No one can firmly stand on their feet and say “I don’t need help, I can do it ALL on my own. I don’t need you. I don’t need my community. I don’t need God,” that if we are willing to look deeply at our own flawed nature we all know that we do, in fact need help. We can’t do it all alone and this feels very vulnerable. It’s part of our American culture that we ought to be able to stand on our own feet and do it ourselves! Man up! Cowgirl up!
Our liturgical tradition insists that every year we pause and encounter our mortality, our frailty, our fallibility and acknowledge our deep need for God. As the poet Hafiz said centuries ago,
“Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so tender,
My need of God
Some of you might be wondering when I’m going to get to the scripture, because this is an unusual story. It’s not a part of our lectionary at all. Like most of the dark stories in our past we prefer not to talk about it. Noah lets us down. He was supposed to be a good guy! He was supposed to have insight and courage, steadfastness and to be the one who came riding in, well not on a white horse, but on his great ark, and saved the world as we know it. He was the one who stood up to all the ridicule of his neighbors, who followed God faithfully even when he didn’t fully understand. He was the one who stood on the deck of the ark and wept as the full horror of the flood hit his hometown and devastated it.
I don’t know about you, but I hate it when my heroes fail. I like them bright and shiny and untarnished. I don’t want to know that Lot offered his daughters to a gang who pounded on his door, if they would only stop threatening his guests. I don’t want to think about the fact that Bathsheba really had no choice but to accept the advances of King David. I don’t want to think about the failures of those who shaped and formed our faith. I don’t want to think about the failures of those who shaped and formed my family’s history, or our country’s history, or..well, you get the idea.
But if I am to walk my faith journey with integrity and honor, I must be brave enough to look at the hidden, shameful aspects of our history, of my history. And if I am wise, I’ll do that before some tragedy forces me off the couch and insists I walk the path through the valley.
Lent is that season that invites us to walk this path, to be reflective, to look deeply at who we are, who we want to be, and see how the two diverge. It is grace that our faith takes us through this process every year. Pause, look, reflect, remember you are mortal.
Our character is uniquely known and formed by those choices we make when pain and loss push us into our own desert, our wilderness experiences. When we find ourselves lost and unable to recognize ourselves, can’t find our way, when difficult emotions have narrowed our focus down until we feel lost in them. We don’t talk much about Noah’s trauma or his drunkenness. We don’t talk much about his hung over behavior and his shame filled cursing of his grandson. That isn’t the Noah we are comfortable with. But it shapes him, it tells us who he is, and for all those long years afterwards he lives with the consequences of having discovered within himself, that which he wants to deny, to forget.
We have such a tendency to deny our brokenness to want to be shiny and bright all the time. But we are not created to stay that way. Our lives are full of conflict and change, each change bringing with it the loss of what was. We have this inertia, this struggle to leave what is comfortable and familiar and sometimes we need the comfortable and familiar, we need to wrap ourselves in what we know will feel good and be healed, but we were never meant to stay in those places.
Our failure to look at the brokenness and darkness within us allows it to come into our lives when we are least prepared. We might hear ourselves saying something racist or demeaning to others and be surprised that we said that. We might, in a moment of stress react in ways that bring harm or pain to those we love, snapping or hitting when we really needed to stop and breathe, to stop and know that it is going to be okay, we are safe in God’s hands, we have survived worse, don’t be afraid, it’s going to be okay…but it takes practice to be able to hit that reset button, that pause, in the middle of stressful moments.
I feel for Noah in this text. He has witnessed so much death and loss. All of his friends and neighbors, gone; the market he used to walk through, gone. I find myself wondering what he witnessed when he disembarked from the ark. When I was a child and I heard the story of the flood in Sunday School the pictures that went along with it were always beautiful, full of rainbows and fresh green grass, birds singing, but now, as an adult, I wonder if it wasn’t more like the aftermath of Katrina. Just as I feel so much for Lot’s wife, who heard the destruction of her town behind her as they walked away, who lost her best friends and her aunties and her neighbors, the kids she used to watch for a friend, the gardens she tended, how could she not look back? And be consumed in tears, be swallowed up in mourning and loss? A pillar of salty, crying tears, I’m sure that was an accurate description.
Noah tries to do the right thing when he gets off the ark. He turns his attention to rebuilding to reestablishing what was lost, the gardens, the vineyards. He seeks some sense of normalcy and when it is all done, he has a glass of wine, or a bottle or two. So much pain to numb out and he had tried so hard for so long to be strong, to be in control, to set the good example, and how deep his shame must have been when he is discovered, exposed, frail, small, just a man. In his shame and his anger he curses his son and his grandchild, and I do not want to judge him, but only to note that had he been able to take that second breath, to pause for a moment and remember who he wants to be, he might have done better.
And I want to note too that God continues to bless Canaan and all this descendents. Yes, Noah set brother against brother, but the Canaanites still live, still prosper, still thrive.
Pain that is not transformed, is transmitted, especially during times of stress, pain, and loss. When we find ourselves acting in ways that betray our deepest values, our cherished beliefs, it is then that we are invited to walk a desert path, encounter God in the wilderness and transform our pain, that our lives might be transformed, that we might live healthy, whole, and abundant lives. Welcome then to the wilderness,
may the Spirit of God surprise you today!
Earlier this week I wrote the pastoral letter for the newsletter, I know you haven’t seen it yet, but I wrote it in the midst of that lovely, unseasonably warm weather we were having. It was as if we were being given a glimpse of what’s to come, and sometimes we really need that glimpse, that promise, so we have something to hold onto when things get hard again. We all knew that the unseasonably warm weather wasn’t going to last. I have friends in warmer climes who were posting pictures of cherry trees in bloom, others sharing pictures from beachside vacations, but even if we had this moment of glory, we all knew that we had several more weeks of cold, of mud, of rain, not even the glittering, crystalline images of winter, but the muddy inbetween of not quite spring.
So as I began to struggle with this scripture and how it relates to us, to our time, to current events and how it might be calling us out, or offering reassurance when we most desperately need it, all of this came to mind. The disciples had only recently named Jesus as the messiah, to which he had responded, “you know, that means I’m going to die. Horribly.” Peter immediately said, no! it can’t be! Jesus rebukes him, ‘get behind me Satan.” A little harsh I think, but it did get the point across. Don’t tempt me. If you follow the story you know that Satan has already tempted Jesus with the whole, “be a winner! Make Jerusalem great again!” motif. You can be the next King David! You can have hundreds of wives, dance in the streets, never lose a battle. You can be a winner! Jesus denies him. And when Peter wants to offer the same, ‘but you can’t die, you’re a winner! You’re going to save us all! Restore the kingdom, make everything great again!” narrative, Jesus denies him too.
Poor Peter, it must have been so confusing! Jesus was, by all accounts, really charismatic and powerful, clearly a healer, certainly a leader, wiser than anyone who tries to trip him up, but then he says, “well, you know I’m going to die, like a criminal, totally abject, painful, shameful death.” Of course Peter and the other disciples, let’s not pick on Peter alone, were astonished at this statement. It was unbelievable.
So Jesus invites them on a hike. Just take a walk with me up this mountain. That should have been a warning sign, I suppose. Mountain tops have a reputation in Hebrew scripture; God seems to hang out there often. Perhaps the disciples should have had some awareness of what was to come, but who really is ready for dead men, missing men, or God to appear? Who is ready to see their beloved friend transform into someone glowing and holy?
Now this is one of those scriptures that people want to see as both metaphorical and historically true. We want to see Moses and Elijah showing up as metaphorical symbols of the law and the prophets brought together in Jesus Christ, as the living, Elijah never did die, he was taken to heaven in a flying chariot, and the dead, Moses died and was buried, brought together in Christ. And we want to believe that Jesus was literally transformed, glowing and bright, before the disciples in actual fact. That he ends this episode by telling them to “tell no one” as he often does, doesn’t make it easier for us to discern how much of what we hear and see in this scripture is actual or metaphorical. It is one of those texts that asks us, do you want the facts, or the truth? And we are reminded that the truth of God with us is larger and more fantastic than any literal story could ever contain. God with us, God of God, Very God, is just too amazing to understand. “No one can look upon God and live” but…here we see God, God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, God in the overshadowing cloud, God in the thundering voice. God is present and we and the disciples, live to tell the tale.
God, however, is always present, is always showing up in small and fleeting ways. We are called not only to see God when God manifests in glory, rippling, radiant robes, and shining face, but in all the small and passing ways. The worshipful song of a bird, lost in the trees overhead, the glistening ice coating the tree limbs stretched high above the plains, the dancing electric lines on the telephone poles, whipping back and forth, up and down, God is all around us and so often we miss it. We miss those subtle appearances but this one time, taking the disciples up the mountain God decides to make a big showing up, a great showing forth. And the disciples are appropriately stunned. They want to set up house and stay there, far away from the maddening crowd, from the sick and the needy, but God takes them back down the hill. God insists there be no setting up of permanent shelters, but sends them back into the fray.
God who loves us more than life itself, who gave up life, liberty all of that, for us, that we might live free, full and abundant lives, tells us we cannot stay on the mountain. Oh, we might need to see the mountain, to see the glory of God made large and manifest, because we are so very slow at seeing it in the light shining from the newborn baby calf’s eye, the glittering ice covering our electric lines, the wind whipping through the plains, the delicate destruction of moss or fungi recycling crude fixtures once again. Because we resist seeing God in the midst of all these natural processes and want to see God only in the glory of the moment, all shining and bright, full of glittering gold and power, but God, very God, comes to us in the fallen, the weak, the vulnerable, in the unfortunate and the untimely and it takes practice to see that. It’s not that we can’t, we can and we do, but it takes practice and faith to stop and see God there. Some part of us longs to see God triumphant, conquering, forcing God’s will, shape and form on the world! Ta-da! But God, very God, as we meet in Jesus, resists this temptation and insists on a more vulnerable, tender, and loving way. God, very God, refuses to force God’s self upon us or upon anyone or anything. And God triumphant, leading a chain of the conquered behind him as any conqueror would have done in ancient Roman times, simply refuses to show up.
God is not interested in conquering anyone or anything. God who might shine like love incarnate, more powerful and tender than we can begin to imagine, refuses to be the conquering hero. This moment, on the mountain, with God’s very glory exposed, is a tender moment, shattered by the crude and misunderstanding statements of one who just doesn’t get it, just like we fail to get it so often.
The glory of God shines all around us, tender and full of the most mighty transcendent power, and all too often we fail to get it, because we are looking for something else, someone else, that mighty conquering hero God who will put to shame all who have ever hurt us, and God sees the offer, and refuses it. God sees our invitation to be the conquering hero, to be the triumphant ruler, and refuses it. Yes, God can shine in glory and power. Yes, God is powerful and omniscient beyond our ability to understand, and no God does not use who and what God is over and against us but always for us and even those who have hurt us, who we see as our enemies.
Over the next few weeks as we make that walk towards Golgotha, Christ reminds us that there is more coming. That no matter how dark the valley we are walking through, there is another side. God shows up in so many ways to remind us that no matter how dark or difficult the times may be, there is a bright future ahead, a time of glory. We have this resurrection faith that insists that not even death will have the final word. God tells us that God is here in all the small things, in all of the small graces, seeping into our lives like sea water into the sand, firming everything up. Our invitation is find all those places where God is seeping into our lives, holding us together with love and kindness. May it be so.