Sunday, February 18, 2018

It’s all about the journey (A sermon from Mark 1:9-15)

If I was asked to summarize my understanding of the Christian faith in one or two brief statements I would say this. One, being a Christian is about a journey into the discovery and embodiment of the love of God. All authentic religion is about tapping into the Divine Love and Compassion that is at the heart of everything. But what makes Christianity different than other religious traditions is the second thing I would say, namely: The Christian way into the experience and expression of the love of God is by following Jesus. This is fundamental to the Christian confession Jesus is Lord. Christians mean different things when they say Jesus is Lord (conservatives would not mean exactly the same thing as liberals or progressives like myself). However, the common denominator should be all-out commitment to follow Jesus – to model his life and live out his teachings. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians today, both conservative and liberal, who are not committed to actually doing that.

In the book of Acts, believers are commonly called “disciples” and people “who belong to the way.” In the book of Acts “the way” does not mean the way to heaven, it means the way of life Jesus lived – the values he embodied, the grace and truth he incarnated, the love he expressed. Even in John’s Gospel, which is the most metaphorical and symbolical of the four Gospels, when Jesus is identified as “the way” it’s not about the way to heaven, it’s about the way into a loving relationship with God and others. It is an eternal relationship, but this relationship is about the ever present “now.” Eternity is now.

Being a Christian then, is all about a journey into the experience and expression of the love of God, which we learn how to do by following Jesus.

Today’s Gospel text gives us some key insights into how we do this. In John PhiIip Newell’s book titled, The Rebirthing of God, he shares some great stories. He tells about getting to know a Roman Catholic priest in Portsmouth, England when he was serving the Anglican Diocese there. Father David, the priest, was passionate about peacemaking and the work of justice. For many years he had given himself to the poorest and powerless of Portsmouth. He was a renowned and popular figure throughout the city. In fact, he was so well liked in the community that despite his unorthodox ways the bishop was reluctant to rein him in. Father David was gay and lived openly with his partner who was a Zen Buddhist.

Father David invited Dr. Newell and his wife, Ali to lead a series on spirituality in the church. Father David suggested that he and Ali come one Sunday morning to get to know the community before beginning the series. The Sunday they attended was the World Day of Prayer for Peace. Father David gave a passionate sermon on nonviolence. Then they moved into the celebration of communion.

Although little children had been running around during the sermon, free to come and go from their families, they were now pulled back into the pews by their parents to sit attentively for Communion. Dr. Newell and his wife hadn’t really noticed this soon enough, and their little one, age three, was still clattering along the wooden bench next to them with his hard-heeled shoes on. Suddenly, a woman on the far side of the church shouted out, “Would someone keep that child quiet!” Father David did not realize that the admonition was aimed at the Newell family, but anyway he brought a halt to the liturgy of communion and spoke to the woman who complained, “Claudia, if that is how you feel leave.” Claudia replied, “But Father, I couldn’t hear the words of the liturgy.”

Turning a little red with frustration, Father David said, “We have been building a community here that is inclusive of every person and every age. So Claudia, if that is how you feel, leave.” At this point the congregation was highly attentive. This was real drama in the midst of the formal liturgy, but, Newell says that the congregation didn’t look worried. Maybe this was common.  

Claudia spoke a third time and this time Father David now bright red in the face, slammed his hands down on the altar and headed straight for Claudia. Father David’s Buddhist partner, seeing fire in his eyes, sprang up from his seat to stop Father David from proceeding down the aisle. Dr. Newell discovered later, that Claudia had been, from the very beginning, one of Father David’s staunchest supporters. When Father David reached Claudia, with real puzzlement in his voice he said, “Claudia, what are you saying?”

Claudia left the sanctuary in tears, followed be a few members of the congregation who went out to console her. Then Father David returned to the altar. This is what he said, “I cannot proceed until I ask forgiveness. I do not apologize for defending the place of children, but I do apologize for my violence of heart. I was wrong. I ask God’s forgiveness and I will seek Claudia’s forgiveness.” He then proceeded with the celebration of Communion. And before the end of the liturgy Claudia was back in her seat to receive the bread and wine from the hands of Father David. Apparently, the family fight was over.

After telling the story in his book, this is what Dr. Newell says, “There are angels of light and angels of darkness in us all. One moment we may be preaching nonviolence as the only true energy for real transformation in our world. The next moment we may be consumed by violence of heart.” It’s true isn’t it?

Today’s Gospel text says that just after the Divine Voice affirmed Jesus’ sonship, the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness [the desert], where he spent forty days. The reference to forty days is clearly an allusion to Israel’s forty years spent in the desert on their journey to the land of promise. Mark says he was tempted by Satan, and “he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.” In Newell’s words we all encounter angels of light and angels of darkness within us. In Mark’s version the angels of darkness are “wild beasts” and the angels of light are simply “angels.”

In the story of Cain and Abel, when Cain turns against Abel the storywriter says, “sin is lurking at the door; it’s desire is for you, but you must master it.” Able’s anger and jealousy brings him to the brink of violence, which he succumbs to. It’s depicted as a wild beast waiting at the door, and unless he masters it, it will consume and destroy him.

These wild beasts, these negative powers and forces – whether it’s anger, or prejudice, or lust for power and position, or greed, or whatever it is, these anti-human, life-diminishing powers will consume us if we allow them. But we are not alone in the struggle. There are angels along the path to help us.

These angels come in many forms. Angels in the biblical tradition are messengers and servants of God. These angels may come to us in the form of an AA group or some other small group, or a faith community like our ours, or a good friend who is honest enough to tell us the truth even though we may not want to hear the truth, and who loves us enough to stay with us regardless of how we respond. Sometimes an angel may come in the form of a particular spiritual practice like contemplative prayer, or the practice of solitude. And sometimes it can be as specific as a story that moves us, a chapter in a book, a passage of scripture, or a conversation with a friend or loved one, or some particular teaching that we hear, maybe for the first time, even though it’s been taught many times. How often we hear, we don’t really hear?

Now, central and critical to our growth and progress toward knowing, experiencing, and living out God’s love is this: Our readiness to change and our capacity to trust.  Mark’s Gospel calls this “believing” and “repenting.” According to Mark, when Jesus announced the good news of God’s kingdom, he said, “The time has been fulfilled, now is the time to act, the kingdom of God is right here, you can embrace it and live it, you can live out the love and mercy and justice and peace of God, if you will repent and believe, that is, if you will change your mind, turn around, get on the right path, and trust in who you are and trust in God’s grace to enable you to become who you are.”

So many of the wild beasts we encounter along the journey have to do with the ego, the little self, what some writers call, our false self – they call it the false self because it’s not who we are. The ego can take us down two wayward paths. Some of us struggle with an inflated ego. We have a tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we should. Others of us struggle with a deflated ego. We have a tendency to think less of ourselves than we should. The one leads to arrogance and defensiveness; the other leads to a diminished sense of self. Both are life-defeating. Some of us need to realize that as a son or daughter of God we are not all that, we are no better than anyone else, we all belong, we are one family and all of us count, not just some of us. Others of us need to realize that we are all that, we are children of God, we are one with God and everyone else, and we have a special calling and gifts to share with others. That’s part of the paradox of the life of faith. We are not all that and we are all that. We are nothing, and we are everything.

Repenting and trusting are not one-and-done actions. Repenting and trusting are daily necessities as we journey into the wonder and mystery of divine love. This is why, in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus tells the disciples to deny the little self and take up their cross and follow him, Luke adds the word “daily.” Luke wanted it to be clear to his readers that this process of repenting – this denying of the little self, and this dying to the negative forces in our lives – is something that should happen daily. It must occur over and over and over again.

This involves intentionally. This means on a daily basis we have to be deliberate about nurturing a spirit of honesty and humility. This involves staying awake and alert to what is going on in our hearts on a daily basis. We are all going to mess us. We will let down our guards. The fragile ego has devised all sorts of ways to keep us denying and defending our little selves. The ego has many defense mechanisms in place that blind us to the truth about God and ourselves. .  

We are all going to fall and stumble on this journey. Maybe you have heard the phrase, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Parker Palmer says that whoever came up with that phrase must have had a great fantasy life. It’s never just onward and upward. The journey we are on is up and down, this way, that way, and back around. There is no such thing as a human life completely free of all fears, anxieties, insecurities, and doubts. Even Jesus on the cross, according to Mark and Matthew’s version, questioned God’s presence. There is no such thing as a human life free of all negative and life-diminishing forces.

The key for making progress on this journey toward loving God and loving neighbor is being aware enough to make quick course corrections like Father David made in the story I told earlier. Father David gave in to his violence of heart. But he was quick to see his sin. And he was quick to acknowledge it, to confess it, and to turn from it.  

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. As a church, with people of God around the world, we begin the journey that will lead us eventually to Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. Perhaps the place to begin is where Jesus begins in the text today. The Divine Voice announces and declares his sonship; “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I hope you will hear that voce today. I hope you hear it right now. You are a son of God. You are a daughter of God. It’s your birthright. And nothing can alter that realty. As Philip Yancey likes to say there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. And there is nothing you can do to make God love you less. You can trust that. If you will just listen to the Divine Voice that arises out of your true self, you will know it’s true. That’s a good place to begin. And that’s a good place to keep coming back to every day. Unfortunately, western Christianity really messed us when they put the emphasis on our badness (some teachers in the church called it total depravity). The creation stories emphasize our original goodness. Sin comes later. But sin doesn’t eradicate the image of God which is impressed upon our souls. We just have to trust this and live it.  

When we gain the confidence that we are loved, that we are God’s daughters and sons, and nothing is going to change that, we are better prepared to tangle with the wild beasts, and we are more apt to receive grace and help from the angels God sends our way.

So let’s be intentional this first Sunday of Lent. Let’s lay aside the many ways we defend, excuse, deny, ignore, and repress our little self. Let’s be quick to confess our sins and acknowledge our failures. Let’s do all we can to stay on the path that leads us to a greater knowledge and experience of God’s love.

Gracious God, help us to be aware of the wild beasts that are lying in wait at the door of our minds and hearts. Give us the wisdom and the will to seek out and receive the help you send our way. And may we always keep coming back no matter happens in our live to the truth of who we really are – your beloved daughters and sons. Amen.