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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Called to be Our True Selves

Lent 1B; Mark 1:9-15; St. Paul’s, Smithfield, NC 2/18/2018
Jim Melnyk: “Called to be Our True Selves”

Ever heard the phrase, “You are what you eat?”  There certainly is some truth behind it – and I can often pretty much tell what I’ve been eating lately by how I’m feeling – and sometimes by how I look.  Can you say, “Burgers and fries?”  And don’t we teach that very thing in the Church?  We come to the holy table to receive the body and blood of Christ, believing that we, indeed, that in that act we become the body of Christ ourselves.

But there’s another comparison out there that also has a ring of truth about it – although we often let it get a bit muddied up.  “You are what you do,” or another way of saying it, “Your identity is based on your vocation.”  Isn’t that one of the first questions we ever ask anyone?  What is it you do?  We can see this acted out in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – as long as we don’t depend on Mark’s version.  Mark’s coverage of the experience takes all of two verses:
“And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13).  Mark’s account is so short the framers of the lectionary add the baptism of Jesus and the start of his ministry as bookends to what takes place.  But there’s wisdom to the choice of verses surrounding the temptation account. 

The baptism of Jesus is all about his identity, while his call to ministry is about vocation.  Mark points out that what Jesus does with his life comes out of his identity.  It’s the first time in the gospel we hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  We heard virtually the same message on the mount of Transfiguration last week, didn’t we?  It’s no accident that Jesus is declared to be God’s Son – God’s Beloved – before being driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit of God.  Mark is telling us that it is absolutely necessary for Jesus to be fully aware of his own identity before he is faced with the temptation to abuse his identity – to abuse his authority – to claim his authority as the Son of God without fully understanding the meaning – the purpose – the direction – of his vocation as the Son of God, and what that means for himself and for the world.

Back in January I attended a celebration of the Holy Eucharist with the staff of the Diocese.  We were celebrating the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, with Bishop Sam as our preacher.  Sam told us that one thing tying together the baptism of Jesus with his temptation in the wilderness is the way that the Tempter tries to confuse Jesus – attempts to get Jesus to confuse his identity with his vocation in an unhealthy way.

Jesus’ identity is that of Son of God and God’s Beloved.  That identity is there before he ever begins to carry out his vocation – his ministry.  Of course it’s true that Jesus’ identity and his vocation are connected, but his vocation is informed by his identity and not the other way around.  The temptation is for Jesus to think that his identity is only validated when he does his job, and does it well; and the other gospels tell us of his temptation to prove his identity by his actions – to distrust the efficacy of his identity without solid proof to back it up.  And isn’t proof of identity what everyone in the gospels seem to seek from Jesus?

Applied in our lives, Bishop Sam says that like Jesus, “Our identity as a beloved child of God is connected to our vocation. We sometimes get confused by this connection and turn it around, and believe and act as though our identity as a beloved child of God is dependent on performing our vocation well. That God is pleased with us only when we perform and meet the expectations of our vocation.”

“In fact it is just the reverse,” says the bishop. “We are loved regardless of how we perform, and our vocation is a gift, a sign of God's love for us, not something we have to measure up to in order to earn God's love. Therefore we have to guard the gift of our vocation…from the temptation to make it into an exercise in proving ourselves, or trying to earn God's love.”

This is, in part, what our Ash Wednesday invitation to a Holy Lent is all about.  It’s not about acting holy and therefore somehow manipulating God into being nice to us.  It’s about nurturing our baptismal identities in Christ – it’s about feeding our souls so that we might carry out our calling as servants of the Living God.  Experiencing a Holy Lent is about our realizing that every time we take a breath – perhaps especially when we pause long enough to take a slow, deep breath – we are actually being filled with the creative, life-giving love of God. 

We can imagine each time the Tempter tries to lure Jesus into forsaking his identity as God’s Beloved that Jesus closes his eyes and takes a slow, deep breath.  The same creative, life-giving love of God Jesus has known from the time he first became aware of God – that same love fills his lungs in the middle of the wilderness and gives him the strength and courage he needs to remain faithful to who he is.  Jesus is able to stand his ground, rejecting the temptations to be someone or something else – rejecting the enticement to leave behind the vocation to which God calls him.  Jesus reminds us that how we each live, and move, and have our being in this world is intimately tied to our identity as God’s beloved.

Jesus comes out of his wilderness experience proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15).  The events of this past Ash Wednesday afternoon in Parkland, Florida remind us that as a nation we have much from which to repent. 

Perhaps as God’s beloved our actions will be tied to our identity, and we, as a nation, will rise up and say “Enough” to the almost weekly horror of mass shootings in our schools.  Perhaps we will say “Enough” to the need for, and the horror of, regular active shooter lock-down drills practiced by both high school students and kindergartners alike.  I find myself asking, “When did it become part of my son’s job description – or any teacher’s job description – to stop a bullet for the students in his care?  When did it become normal to worry about our children coming home from school each day?” 

Perhaps as a people whose identity is bound by covenant to the God who creates us, who loves us, and who lives within us, we will listen to the stories of the youth in Parkland who are begging the adults of this nation to bring about a transformation of society that allows our children to feel safe without feeling imprisoned by metal detectors and armed guards.

Perhaps, as a people shaped by the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus, we won’t be swayed by the temptation to believe this is how life has to be – that turning our nation into the OK Corral has become our new normal – that somehow such a reality fits the dream of God for this world.

Today’s gospel calls us each to a place of repentance and action, but only after it reminds us that we are each a beloved child of God; and only after it challenges us to claim our beloved-ness as the central characteristic of who we are, and how we are meant to be in this world.  For the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday, Isaiah 58:1-12; St. Paul’s, Smithfield, NC, 2/14/2018
Jim Melnyk: 
“Dealing in Dust”

Years ago, in a Diocese not so far away, I had the privilege of working with a woman who was a wonderful deacon in the Episcopal Church.  Joan was a very special person to me – her ministry brought a healing touch to people whose lives knew great pain from the ravages of horrors such as HIV/AIDS and the isolation experienced by those persons living with the terrible disease.  Joan knew a lot about human frailty and human mortality.  She knew what it meant to take that final journey on this side of eternity with all too many people – people she knew personally – people whom she had come to know and love with great intimacy. 

For all her intimacy with human mortality – and all her time spent with folks moving from this part of eternity to the next – Joan could not impose ashes on a youngster’s brow with the traditional words of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer – the words we will each hear today – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  She just couldn’t do it.  Whenever a toddler or an infant was brought forward Joan would smudge an ashen cross upon their foreheads and proclaim, “Remember that you are stardust – and to stardust you shall return!”  I think that somehow it helped Joan deal with the two-sided message that we are all human beings who often make choices in life that are sinful, and that from our very first breath we, as mortal beings, are in the process of moving toward death – hopefully not just around the corner.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are familiar words to the many of us who have spent any length of time in the Episcopal Church.  They are hauntingly familiar words – words that most likely strike us differently at different points in our lives.  Someone struggling with serious illness may hear them in a way that a healthy person might not. 

Someone who has journeyed long on this side of eternity may hear this refrain with different ears than the parent who brings her newborn forward to receive ashes.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

When we hear those words we should be reminded not just of our brokenness or our own mortality, but we should also be reminded of the common bond of humanity we all share.  The ashes remind us of our common beginning – of our creation – of our oldest stories of faith.  They remind us of a loving God who creates us and breathes into us the very breath of life.  As the poet/preacher James Weldon Johnson wrote, “like a mammy bending over her baby, [this Great God] kneeled down in the dust, toiling over a lump of clay, till he shaped it in  his own image; then into it he blew the breath of life, and [the human one] became a living soul” And as Johnson concludes, “Amen.  Amen” (God's Trombones, Penquin Books, Reissued 1990). 

These ashes tell us that at our deepest level we are one – that we share a common bond of creatureliness, and that we share a common bond of God's love for that which God has, and is, continually creating.  As one person I follow on Twitter put it this morning, “We are all of us made of the same dirt and that makes us family. What happens to our world if we begin to see each other as kin?” (Chad Brinkman, Program Officer at Episcopal Relief and Development)

 As it's been said by many people over the ages – most notably in my mind the mystic Julian of Norwich: before ever God made us, God loved us. 

These ashes are also a reminder of our common home in God.  They are a promise of our eternal life in God.  For as our burial office proclaims with incredible hope and promise, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” (BCP, p. 499).  You see, sometimes even in Lent those words of praise for God cannot be silenced! 

The Late Theologian Karl Rahner put it like this, “When on Ash Wednesday we hear the words, ‘Remember, you are dust,’ we [remember that we have also been] told that we are brothers and sisters of the incarnate Lord. In these words we are told everything that we are: nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; futility that redeems; dust that is God's life forever” (Karl Rahner in The Eternal Year).

The ashes we share are also an invitation remember that we live in a world where hurt and pain, where separation and segregation, where oppression and want are real.  They are a reminder that we cannot learn to forgive until we learn to acknowledge that we, ourselves, need to be forgiven: that as good as we may be – as loving and caring as we may be – as hopeful and full of promise as we may be – we still stand in need, from time-to-time, of forgiveness.  

The ashes we receive today recall for us the words of Second Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bond of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and the break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isa. 58:6-7).  And we only have to read the Gospels to see it’s rather obvious that Jesus sure knew his Scriptures!

With God’s grace we can see Lent not so much as an obligation to focus “more and more attention upon ourselves, upon our foibles, [upon our] faults and [upon our] failures, [or worse yet, on everyone else’s foibles, faults and failures…but rather a time to shift] our attention away from ourselves to God” (Get Over Yourself; God’s Here! by Kate Moorehead, St. Mark’s press, 2009, back jacket). “Then,” the prophet promises, “[our] light shall break forth like the dawn, and [our] healing shall spring up quickly; [our] vindicator shall go before [us], the glory of the Lord shall be [our] rear guard….[we] shall be called [repairers] of the breach” (Isa. 58:8, 12c). 

Repairers of the breach. This is the grace-filled Jewish concept called Tikkun Olam – the healing of creation by the Spirit of God working in and through God’s people – this work of healing – in ourselves and in the world – is what Lent is all about.  How much more powerful could our Lent be if we found ways to reconnect with God and God’s creation in a welcoming, healing, and embracing way rather than beating ourselves up to the point of disheartened surrender?  Maybe Deacon Joan had a point about being made from stardust – the very stuff of creation.

The ashes we will have imposed upon our foreheads this day are an invitation to a Holy Lent – and an invitation to the hope and promise of Easter.  Yes, we pray these ashes will remind us of our own need for repentance and forgiveness, most certainly – for we cannot ignore our ongoing need for repentance. 

We also pray that these ashes will call us to challenge the “complexity of [this world's] corporate sin, [giving us the courage and the will to speak out wherever we see brokenness in this world – wherever we see brokenness and pain in people’s lives]. 

But more than anything, we pray that the] ashes [we receive this night will] invite us [more deeply into one another’s presence as part of the whole human family – mindful of the image of God implicit in every human being.  And we pray that the ashes we receive this night will invite us more fully] into God's presence, into God's love, and into God's gift of new life” (The Rev. John Beddingfield, St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, New York, NY, Angelus On Line Newsletter).  Amen.