Tuesday, March 15, 2011

First Sunday in Lent: You think someone else is in here

The March winds blow.  Enough lions, waiting for the lambs.  Sunny and cold. Bandaids, butts and papers.  As usual, Jim and Holly are the first ones here. When the doors are open, a tall sandy haired man walks in. “I’ve never seen these doors open before,” he says. I’m getting really tired of hearing that. “But I saw the doors open and just had to come in.”
Bob and Juan
He’s from the Eastside. Goes to First Baptist at 79th and Broadway. Turns out he’s a sound engineer. Tells me he loves old churches. Asks me about the architecture and I tell him all about Kilborn and Richardsonian Revival and....He mentions the Prairie School. And I say, “But that was Frank Lloyd Wright.” And he says, “No, the one who gave Wright his first job.” And I don’t see the connection, but...
I tell him we’ve been back since December. Worshipping every Sunday. He looks me square in the eye.  “Do you preach the gospel here?” he asks. “That’s what we’re supposed to do,” I say. “Yes, but lots of churches are just social clubs. Places people go on Sundays to feel good about themselves.” No argument there. “I know,” I say, “we may have differences in what we believe, fine points of theology and all, but everyone here is committed to following Jesus. And yes, I preach the Good News, right from  the Bible, every Sunday.”  He looks me in the eye again. “Good,” he says, “that’s good.”
He steps to the center, claps his hands, listens. “Beautiful, just beautiful. Deep and rich.” He tells me the natural acoustics are so fine, there’s little need for amplification. I tell him about our upcoming centennial.  He gives me his card. I give him the brochure. Amy and Juan have arrived. We shake hands and he’s off to the Baptist church. Rachel has arrived and taken her seat. Then Arcadia.
It’s after 11. People slow in arriving. I decide to begin. As usual, lots going on. The tsunami in Japan. The threat of nuclear meltdown. And the number of presbyteries approving full inclusion for lgbtq folk has grown to 67. Only 20 to go. This week we’ll pray for Seattle and West Jersey as they vote. This time, this time, the victory is getting close.
It’s the first Sunday in Lent. I lift up the cup from Wednesday, shift the ashes through my fingers.  Share what I learned about not counting Sundays. Recall my childhood  friends giving something up for Lent. Ask if that meant you were free from that promise on Sundays. My former Catholic friends have different traditions on that one. Recall the Friday night fish fries in the Catholic churches in Pittsburgh. Fish sandwiches instead of hot dogs Fridays at Forbes Field. 
Talk about how its a time for reflection, self-assessment. And how I like to focus on reconciliation. To repair,restore at least one relationship...or at least try...(And who will that be this year? The list is so long...)
This season raises for us the nature of temptation, the nature of sin. And so we begin at the beginning, with Adam, with the fall. The old Puritan children’s rhyme In Adam’s fall we fell all.  And how in the  in the Jewish tradition, it’ s not so much the fall, it’s  more like a coming to consciousness, an awakening, about becoming responsible.
The original sin has nothing to do with sex. In the Genesis story, the sin of Adam is  seeking to have the full mind of be  like God. That’s what is at the center of the current church debate over 10-a, over lgbtq inclusion. Those who are so sure that they have the knowledge of the full mind of God...As opposed to the vision of those who came before us here, who believed in more light, that the holy spirit always brings more light to the scriptures. 
I think of the new Governor of Alabama who says only those who believe in Jesus are his brothers and sisters. I remembered debates over ministerial  candidates in Pittsburgh. Could anyone other than Christians be saved? And a tall steeple friend of mine saying that in the Reformed tradition, if God truly is all powerful, God can do anything  God wants, when God wants for whom God wants. And that God is not limited by our imagination. 

P____ speaks from her seat. That though she prays in the name of Jesus and lives by his power, that as a Caribbean Asian, she was raised Hindu and learned of God’s power and inclusion that way. The sacredness of all life. And that the fast from blood was in recognition of that sacredness. 

I mention Peter King, the congressman for Long Island. (And my members with Long Island roots groan.) His grandstanding  investigation of Muslims, this  former vocal  advocate for the Irish Republican Army.
No, it’s not a fall. Just the end of innocence...In our tradition, we all see, hear , speak evil...
Now as to temptation. It is the  Spirit that leads Jesus out into the wilderness, not the devil. The same Spirit that came to him in Baptism. The story raises tough questions about who the devil is, what kind of structure, cosmology we’re dealing with here.  Satan almost seems to be working  with, working for God. Like in Job, where Satan is the Accuser, the prosecuting attorney. .
In his amazing translation and commentary on Job, Stephen Mitchell  has God say to Job, “your problem is you think there’s some one else in here...there’s only me...” So if you want me to explain evil, well, we stare into mystery.
Temptation. Voices. Remember Little Red Riding Hood? How the big, bad wolf is in grandma‘s clothes? The line between temptation and call is so thin, you have to listen closely. What voice is that you hear? You have to  invite them closer to see what they’re made of..but they’re all yours, all from inside yourself. You have to listen closely to discern the one true voice...
Ultimately, this story is about who Jesus is, not who we aren’t...
Now as to Jesus’ temptations. The first is to escape hunger through compromise. You know, the end justifies means. But maybe not. It is Satan’s argument that God won’t provide, so you better take care of yourself. It’s about shortcuts.We face that over and over and over again...Just sign this statement saying something  you don’t believe in, we’ll give you the money you need.... 

But it’s not always easy. I read where non-violent revolutions have a 60% chance of success awhile violent ones drop to 45%. But what if you’re not Egypt? What if you’re Libya and the pharoah just mows you down? What then?
The second is to seek God in the spectacular, not suffering and dying. The truth of Jesus’ path is not in his miracles, but in his going to the cross. It’s also about not putting God to the test .But what do we do when it feels like  God doesn’t come through?  How much dying is enough before resurrection?

The last temptation, they said at my study group, is the temptation to power. But wait a minute, what I’ve learned in organizing is that the problem is not power, but the lack of power. I remember Pablo Richard’s critique of Northamerican Christianity. That we don’t understand power. That we believe that  if we walk away from what we have, things  will get better. They don’t. If we give up our power, the evil person, the evil power, simply picks it up and adds it to theirs.  Our call is to use what we have,organize what we have for the transfer of power to those who are marginalized. 
And its not just empowering. It’s not like others are empty vessels waiting to be poured into. It’s helping to awaken, uncover, draw out the power that is already there. Like your own ministry given to you at Baptism. 
And this, too, is true. The stronger we are, the stronger the temptations will be. The better our intention, the stronger the temptation. The closer to God we are, the greater the power of satan...It’s the voice that says, give up, you can’t do it, you’re too small, too old, too weak, be reasonable, be realistic, you can’t...You hear that, you say, get behind me satan...
It’s interesting that in the argument between Jesus and Satan, all the quotes from both (yes, the devil quotes scripture...quite well, in  fact) are from Moses’ last discourse. In Deuteronomy. His preparing his people for their wilderness experience. And so we prepare for ours. 
It’s spring training.....spiritual spring training. And we will learn what we will practice...
During the offering, P____ passes the plates, brings them forward. Then kneels in front of the Christ  candle, embracing it with her hands in deep prayer. 
It’s time to say farewell to Juan. He’s played guitar for us for fourteen years. Through first Milton and then Regi and Spanish services, the enlace de gracia multicultural services and now our joint services. Seen singers and pianistas and congeros and even an accordion player come and go. To SPSA and back. Failed attempts at tarjetas verdes and wasted dollars on shady abogados.  He’s not been home to Venezuela in 14 years. But now he’s on his way back with a waiting job with el sistema, the program that brings social transformation through music. That produced Dudamel (now of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and the Venezuela Orquesta de los jovenes. 

Jim has gifts for him. A sports bag with the name SANTANA and number 57, for Johann Satana, the Venezuelan ace for the Mets, bad arm and all. And a Mets shirt and hat. (Well, some of us are Yankees fans, but Juan loves los mets.) Juan had wanted  to be baptized here, but I reminded him that we honor one church, one baptism. His catholic infant baptism counts.
We sing Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley. I point out that there’s a difference between by yourself and alone. Yes, we each have a journey we must walk for ourselves, a journey no one else can take for us. Rooted in our own unique calls. But we do not walk alone. Jesus walks with us, always. And more so, we walk with each other. 

 So we make a circle around Juan. Place my hands on his head. Give a prayer of thanks. And blessing for his journey. It’s time to gather food and drink. And go to Hope’s.   To break bread together. To party. Yes, we fast. But not on Sundays. Not today. 

Jim and Juan
Juan and Hope

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