Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Work of Lent: Part 5

One of the regular resources I use in sermon preparation is the Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. Paul Nuechterlein, recently retired ELCA Lutheran pastor manages this site to provide weekly commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for each Sunday's worship.

Directly or indirectly, contributors to the site honor the work of Rene Girard, d. Nov. 4, 2015.  Girard was first an anthropologist then a commentator on ancient literature in the Bible.

His fundamental teaching was that humans learn first and foremost by imitation.  Think "monkey see, monkey do."  What humans in particular desire and therefore choose to imitate and join are more often than not the actions of those in power over them.

Aptly, though with a cynical edge this theory describes the environs of first century Jerusalem and the days leading to the crucifixion.  Jesus is the scapegoat presented and sacrificed by the powers that be, both Roman and Jewish to maintain the status quo.

The ultimate use of power is to preserve power.  So when Judas forces Jesus' hand by his betrayal in the garden he is acting on his mistaken belief that the Messiah will exercise power just like but against Rome.

Instead, Jesus lays down his life and refuses by his silence to be the scapegoat that the powers need him to be.  In his resurrection he redirects the mimetic desire of those expecting a messiah to "win" and then the good news is born in the hearts and minds of his followers.

Several contributors to "Reflections" focus on the role that those under power play to prop up the status quo and imitate power.  When the Pharisees challenge Jesus' dining with "tax collectors and sinners"(Luke 15) or when Judas in Bethany criticizes Mary for wasting pure nard to perfume Jesus's feet in last Sunday's reading (John 12) they are imitating those in power and propping up a Jewish caste system that imitates the Roman one subjecting them.

The Pharisees challenges and Judas' questions are pretenses.  Neither have absolute power but whatever power they can pretend to exercise they will.  We know this in our day and time when we see those who have been bullied become the bully or dads who were spanked spanking or others decrying the ways in which they are deprived of their own pretensions.  Monkey see, monkey do.

This week in Growing a Rule of Life has been a lesson for me that my life in prayer and devotion needn't imitate or attempt a kind of "power over."  My old Lenten practice was to do exactly that.  To take control or attain mastery over some action or behavior. I would start on Ash Wednesday and chip away for 40 days until I was expert in doing or not doing .

As if power over anything was His goal.  As if mastery was what God asks even of me.  As if heaven were more available because we've made fewer mistakes or have become habituated to doing some good thing.

We should all be letting go of our privileges and titles.  We should all be reexamining our presumptions to favored status or to being offended.  Last Sunday, St. Paul counted all his honors as rubbish for becoming like Christ in his death. (Philippians 3)

This Palm Sunday we will instead try to imitate one whom we say triumphs as he entered Jerusalem already in obedience to his own dying.  Some irony here, no? Jesus intentionally offended the powerful by mounting that donkey and drawing a crowd who must have known who they were mocking in their hosannas.

We shouldn't be so quick to impose an understanding informed by a moment yet to be narrated for us.  That he was raised was not known by anyone along that parade route.  God meant something very different for the messiah than "Jewish champion" or "bully to end all bullies."

But right now the lesson is to suffer one last time in a system that uses even us to prop itself up.  "Power over" is being called out and it still will try to have the last say.

Next week we can think about how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus expose the pretense, our pretense.  No more scapegoats to prop up power.  No more caste systems.  No more being offended or avoiding offense.

Until then we should check our own assumptions and name the collusion our mimetic desire finds us practicing.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Work of Lent: Part 4

Over a year ago I wrote a series of these "blurbs" about the intersection between sabbaths and Sundays.

One of the properties of sabbath that is often lost on Sundays -- especially as Christians observe them -- is silence.  Few worship workshops, church growth seminars, church convention vendor booths or diocesan guidelines regard silence as something on which to build or grow.

A quick review of the church supply catalogues and other resources that arrive and beckon incessantly will demonstrate the point just as well.  They offer us the latest in microphones and speakers but NO sound proofing materials.  We are encouraged to upgrade to the newest in multilevel membership tracking software but nothing to promote meditation or mindfulness. We are bedazzled with elegant and ornate vestments, sterling vessels and gilded fixtures with hardly a wooden candle stick or processional cross to consider.  We vote on purpose statements and slogans galore but say nothing about "communicants in good standing" being determined by how well they maintain silence.

I get it that this silence thing is not an easy way to build a church.  You need all those other elements and practices just as much.  Unfortunately other than the mandates on Ash Wednesday just before the imposition of ashes, during the entrance and prayers of Good Friday or when the BCP says "A period of silence is kept" following the breaking of the bread in holy communion most of what we establish is a permissive or suggestive practice of silence.  Indeed, no word accompanies the word "silence" in the BCP more than the word "may."

So how do we build with silence?

One answer is implied at least and mentioned often in the Growing a Rule of Life curriculum.

When we are led to work through the delayed gratification of not yet fashioning a rule of life more than four weeks into our study but instead have shared our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, our relationships with others and our relationship with God we are implying a silence.

It is a way to say to those of us who would prefer a beginner's kit to hit the ground running, that we must first survey as much of the world in which our rule will be practiced and take the time to create a space, one as clear as can be of obstruction and distraction.

The gardening metaphor is ideal for this task.  It recalls our actions on the Tuesday before we begin our Lenten journey.  Then we "shrived" to rid our spiritual pantries of those wasteful and spoiled things we have accreted and stored in darkness.

Shrove Tuesday may be busy but by being a first round of weeding it sets the stage for silence.  Gone in a rush of intentional over-exposure are the fats and sugars, the toys and glitter that would litter or distract us.

I love how we have been led by our Cowley brothers in this study.  As much by what they have not said as what they have said.  As much by what we have not yet done as we have done.  They have given us so much but they have not given it all or promised too much.  We still have more to do, to name, to imagine, to practice.

But under all of this is a silence.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Work of Lent: Part 3

I’ve learned a bunch in the last week about this thing called Lent and especially how what I’ve called work is only part of Growing a Rule of Life.

Our group conversations have deeply considered what we are calling the “physicality of prayer.”  Our bodies are not simply containers for a spirit to abide temporarily but are just as much actors in the drama of spiritual growth.  Our bodies kneel, our bodies breathe, our bodies rest, our bodies move in prayer, in pain, in bliss, in worry, in love.

Now I’m realizing that the way in which we construct our rule must be more than a set of directions.  More than just foot prints on the floor implying a dance to be learned.  St. Paul said, “without love I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.”  Without love my rule sinks into self interest and social climbing.

One of the ways love is expressed is in how we aspire through our lives toward meaning, toward mercy, toward others. 

I’ve been listening to this song and have heard in it a rule of life that is not simply a set of directions but a pronouncement of where I believe love can take me. 

This is not exactly what our Cowley brothers are guiding us to construct but there is plenty in this song for us to include or name in our own ways in our rules. There is whimsy, there is truth, there is aspiration.  There is love.

I want to make it out alive never think about looking back.
I want to drive like hell when I steal the Devil's Cadillac.
I want to take that old El Dorado down a dirt road.
with How I Made It Over playing on the radio. 
I want to be solid as the earth and cool like the night air.
I want to believe even though I know life don't play fair.
I want to wear my heart on my sleeve but be tough when I have to.
I want to dust off the stars and hang them on the wall for you. 
I want to ask all the questions with answers we'll never know.
I want to find my faith in records from long ago.
I want to set fear on fire and give dreaming a fair shot.
and never give up whether anybody cares or not. 
 John Moreland

PS  Thanks Brian Easton