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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Identity Theft

Lent 1, Yr. A - March 13, 2011

Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2: 15 - 17, 3: 1 – 7

Elizabeth Elin Hooper

Mo. Betsy


Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

and one of my favorites, from the kindergarten students, Mrs. Mother Betsy

Who am I? My titles? My roles and skills? Does it depend who's asking? Or what I feel like in the moment? Or what I'm doing? I know my answer can be very confused sometimes, when expectations and needs collide, or when a role suddenly drops out from under me, or even when I resist a particular label because I don't want it or it doesn't feel right or grab onto another that isn't really truthful. Into the midst of that swirl of questions come this week's readings, suggesting that "Who am I?" might not even be the right question, or at least not the right first question.

There's that almost comical, ever-so-familiar passage from Genesis. We've heard it more times than we can count, the images abound in art, the theme repeats endlessly in literature and media. There's a lot I could say about it—poor Eve gets a bad rap as the one who took us all in the wrong direction, the Apple Marketing Board has to struggle with the misconception that what's identified as a fruit was actually an apple, and Adam has probably gotten off too easily—but those are topics for another day. What I really noticed this time around is what the serpent is trying to do. The serpent wants Eve and Adam to look at themselves as separate from God, in opposition to God in a certain way. "Are you really satisfied being a wimpy patsy who just does whatever God says, rather than using your own intelligence and common sense to gain wisdom equal to God's?," the serpent asks seductively. And, as we all know, they fall for it, and so do we. Who wants to accept the label of pushover or unquestioning follower or even fool? Those are the images the serpent brought to mind. I'd rather be a Wise One, an Adventurer, One Who is Not Afraid and Is.In.Control. So my fingers reach out for that sweet, juicy fruit, always forgetting that it won't come anywhere near satisfying me; I'll only end up all the more aware of my need and vulnerability, ultimately rushing for cover. The serpent wants Adam and Eve to label themselves, to define themselves independently, rather than continuing to understand themselves as existing, wonderfully, in relationship with God.

Fade to Jesus in the desert, that place which is so completely not the Garden. He's fresh from his baptism, from hearing, "This is my son, my beloved," when he heads off to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And once again…well, really, three times again…comes the invitation to define himself independently, apart from God, to find his own answers to "Who am I?" "Turn these stones into bread" = Be a miracle worker. "Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you" = Be a person of extreme faith (except that it's really a false and shallow faith, but the devil doesn't bother pointing that out!). "Worship me and rule over all the kingdoms of the world" = Be a man of power. With each temptation, the devil tries to draw Jesus into claiming a role, an identity for himself, that's separated from being God's beloved son.

Adam and Eve, being only human, succumbed to the serpent's temptation, a first example of the desire that bites us all, whether blatantly or with deceptive subtlety, to stand on our own, to choose for ourselves who we are and who we will be. We actually believe it's possible, and for a while it might be. We're smart or successful or wealthy or wise; we're powerful or pious or hard workers or heavy hitters. And then a crisis comes, an illness or unemployment, an unfair or undeserved setback that's nonetheless very real in its impact, a natural disaster beyond comprehension or economic collapse, or maybe simply a gnawing emptiness…any of those things that suddenly cause us to hold up a mirror, only to see that who we thought we were doesn't have the substance we supposed. I once lost the funding for my job to the need to repave the parking lot. Let me tell you, though I can laugh about it now, at the time I sure felt like the victim of a sort of identity theft, of losing my sense of who I was…to a parking lot!

That's really what the serpent and the devil are trying to do: steal our identity, get us to put our foundational sense of self in something of our own making. Jesus turns the tide when he says, "No. No. No." With each offer, he refuses that answer to the question of who he is and instead claims a relationship. Who he is is determined by whose he is. With every one of his responses, he places himself firmly in his relationship as God's beloved son, One who knows and trusts the Source of all life.

We're invited to do so as well. We're sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever: that's whose we are. The roles we have—as Wise Ones, Adventurers, Fearless and Faithful Disciples, Wounded Healers, Loyal Workers, Constant Encouragers, Loving Friends, Trustworthy Confidants, Esteemed Scholars, Steadfast Relatives, even Confused or Angry Questioners—those roles all emerge from our relationship with God. We're called to let our choices and actions in life be our response to that relationship, not a way of setting ourselves apart from or in place of God.

Remember whose you are, and you're on the road to figuring out who you are. As in everything else, sometimes we do better than other times. We may go for the deception of the fruit and fall flat on our face, or we might feel like we've been pushed off the pinnacle with no one to catch us. But on our best days and on our worst, we are still God's beloved sons and daughters…and the angels will wait upon us with God's healing, renewing love and grace.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

This Is the Day

Preached by Father Pete Berry, Mar 6, 2011- Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9; Psalm 99

My friend Bob Honeychurch preached last Sunday. There were a lot of things I really liked about his sermon. One was his suggestion that instead of giving up things we take up more. If God is truly the author of all and in everything, then to reject God’s creation would be to reject God. It would mark a disastrous descent into dualism. So Bob suggested doing MORE this Lent, not less. For example, if you plan on cutting back on food, don’t. Instead eat at an ethnic restaurant, and reflect how God is operating in that culture – culinary Christianity I would call it. I thought of Bob’s suggestion as we ate Chinese for lunch on Friday and Italian for dinner last night. If you plan to give up chocolates – don’t -- eat even more. I am not a big chocolate eater so that one doesn’t apply to me. But after I heard his remarks I AM now seriously thinking about giving up wine this Lent.

Planning to give up movies – go see a few extra instead. You may just see God in action in some of them, even some which seem most unlikely. There was a neat essay in The Living Church recently, a theological reflection on the Coen brother’s very gritty movie True Grit, in which the author said the following …

But I think that the mention of an interruptive “grace of God” means recognizing the possibility of incongruity – that transcendence can appear in the ordinary, even in the unlikely person of the fat, one-eyed killer of men, Rooster Cogburn, whose arms can be like the “everlasting arms” on a starry night. [In the words of his 14 year old employer, the very strict Presbyterian, Mattie Ross] nothing is free “except for the grace of God.”

For Lent last year we shut off the television one day a week. This year to keep in the spirit of Bob’s Lenten discipline – well we do have digital recorders. But I think we still need to exercise some discretion. I for one am not convinced that torquing up the TIVO can do very much theologically for Winter Wipeout, or Dancing with the Stars.

What really intrigued me about Bob’s sermon though was his use of technology, specifically his Kindle. He preached ABOUT the Kindle FROM his Kindle. That won’t work for me because the Kindle is still a bit beyond my skillset – I still have to rely on Gini’s telling me what keystrokes come next and how to manipulate that silly five-way paddle thingy. But I have gotten pretty good with Google and with internet searches, so here are some of the things I found out in preparing for this sermon through those technologies.

I think we probably all know that unlike Advent and Christmas, Easter and the holidays related to it such as Ash Wednesday and the entire season of Pentecost are moveable feasts. Maybe a few of us also know that the date of Easter is set each year as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal or spring equinox. And fewer still might know that this method of locating Easter dates from the First Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD. The part I had completely forgotten and maybe not even ever specifically known is that this method gives 35 possible dates for Easter. It can occur as early as March 22nd and as late as April 25th. Now we get really esoteric. This year Easter will fall one day short of that latest possible date, and that latest date won’t happen until the year 2038. The earliest possible date for Easter last fell in 1818 and won’t happen again until the year 2285. Not surprisingly when I chatted with Bill at choir rehearsal on Thursday night, he knew all about this. Another gem I found – the wavelength of the rhythm of Easter -- the never-ending repetitive cycle of all the patterns of Easter -- will take exactly 5,700,000 years until it starts over. Somewhere out in cyberspace there is an astronomer with entirely too much time on his or her hands. And finally, statistically April 19th is the most common date accounting for 3.9% of all possible dates compared to the median for all possible dates of 3.3%. So let’s hear it for under-employed mathematicians as well. Astronomers and mathematicians – what about the leaders of the Church – what did they do historically with the movability of Easter?

Sometime after the Council of Nicaea the western church came up with a series of specially named Sundays. It became a time of preparing for Lent. The Church in her good pastoral sense recognized that we need preparatory time to adjust to what can sometimes be the jarring and painful reality of Lent. Lent, with its tension between hopefulness and real somberness, its renewed intensity and concentration on self-denial, its self-sacrificial discipline – one just doesn’t leap into Lent lightly. Hence they established a kind of mini-Lent if you will. The first of these funny sounding Sundays, Septuagesima is the 9th Sunday before Easter. The name comes from the Latin for 70 and stands for the 70 days supposedly remaining until Easter. Then there is Sexigesima based on the Latin for the number 60. And finally there’s my own personal favorite -- Quinquagesima -- which just happens to be today. Its name was taken from the Latin for 50. So these Sundays are like a countdown to Lent based on the date of Easter, a Lectionary Lenten calendar similar to our Advent wreath. In point of fact, of the three tongue-twisting Sundays only today’s actually has the correct number of days remaining until Easter. After Vatican 2, the Roman Catholic Church abandoned this practice and instead now refers to “Ordinary Time” although there is nothing ordinary about the season of Epiphany. Anglicans just refer to the numbered Sundays after Epiphany – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on, with the final one simply called the Last Sunday after Epiphany, no matter where it falls. The Lutherans – I’m not sure what this says about them -- but they keep up the old practice, as does the Eastern Church.

As Pastor Carri said, this year we have had a longer than usual time to reflect on the themes of Epiphany and the meaning of light. We began this journey with the Baptism of Jesus. From the gospel appointed for that day, Matthew 3:13-17

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

This vision seems to be directed towards Jesus alone. Today we come full circle as we hear from Matthew’s account of the Mount of Transfiguration in chapter 17 --

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

In this second passage, the disciples hear the vision as well. One commentary says "It was intended to support their faith, when they would have to witness his crucifixion; and would give them an idea of the glory prepared for them, when changed by his power and made like him." Another has said, “The great object was to reveal to the disciples his Divine glory before they beheld his humiliation upon the cross, in order to sustain their faith in the hour of trial." It’s no accident that Matthew brackets Jesus’s ministry with these two visions, and it is no accident that the makers of the lectionary appointed these lessons to bracket the season of Epiphany. Technically this is a literary device called an inclusio. It was kind of like placing quotation marks around an important passage to say “pay attention this really matters.” This transformational mountaintop event is so important that we will hear about it again on the Feast of the Transfiguration in August. God was present with Jesus at His Baptism and the beginning of his earthly ministry, assuring him, equipping him for the tasks ahead. And today it’s as if God is saying to Jesus – “ya done good so far, kiddo, but there is just one more little thing I want you to do for me. It’s time to head up to Jerusalem.” It is only by this final journey through the cross and beyond that the fullness of his glory first revealed in the transfiguration, will become fully manifest.

What does this all mean for US today? At least three things I think. First, God is there both on the mountaintops and in the valleys of OUR lives. Jesus was transformed and transfigured on Mount Tabor. We too can experience the transforming power of God as we allow the indwelling of God’s Spirit and as we let the light of Christ shine through us. How does one do that? One can’t see reflection in a mirror that is held far off, so if we want to reflect Jesus, we need to get closer to Jesus. The season of Lent offers great ways to do so, and there is a LOT going on at St Mark’s this Lent to aid in this process. I would suggest that Lent is not so much about “giving up” -- even in the way that Bob dealt with it last week – instead Lent should be about “taking up.” It can be a wonderful opportunity to top off our spiritual gas tanks, and be ready to travel the valleys and deserts that inevitably will come. As the knightly guardian of the Grail said in the Indiana Jones movie about the search for it, “Choose wisely.”

Secondly, God indeed is found in the ordinary stuff of daily life, so plan on being surprised. While we are looking forward, God may just tap us on the shoulder from behind. Hope for it. Look for it. Expect it, because it will happen, and when it does, embrace it. It may be gentle like the still small voice that Elijah heard, or it may be a slap upside the head, a la Tony Denozo in TV’s top-rated show, NCIS. Sharpen your spiritual sensitivity and you just might discover God is there in ways you may not have anticipated. In our inner most places, in other people, in our relationships, indeed in all of creation, God is there. We just need to pay attention.

There’s a third thing I think we can draw from today’s reading although it is perhaps less obvious. Jesus orders them to “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” How does this square with call of the psalm to “Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God and worship him upon his holy hill”? On the surface it seems not to. I think perhaps Jesus is saying that there is a proper time and a proper way to tell EVERY one. And just how do we do that? The evangelist John says “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.” As we live in ever increasing relationship with Jesus, his light shines through us. We proclaim the greatness of the Lord in and through our lives lived in Christ. We become a living witness to the love of God that sent light into our darkened world. So today on this Quinquagesima Sunday, TODAY is the proper time, and our worship in the Church as the gathered body of the Risen One IS the proper way. My prayer for you – for all of us – is that this Lent be a very special season in Christ. We’ll see all of you next Sunday, same time and same place, for Quadragesima Sunday.

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