Wandering in the Wilderness with Jesus in Lent: Finding a Spiritual Home...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the Fifth Sunday of Lent - April 10, 2011 - and the conclusion of my "Wandering in the Wilderness in Lent" series.  Next week we move into Palm Sunday and the bold and challenging liturgies of Holy Week. If you are around, please join us for worship at 10:30 am on Sunday.  We would be blessed.

The gospel of John begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral: in this we are told something of the importance of being a part of a spiritual community or home. John starts with a feast where the water of ritual purification for foot washing is transformed into a cup of blessing and joy; and ends with a memorial service – after the bitterness of the Cross – that turns sorrow into celebration, death into new life and the broken hearts of individuals into a community of faith carried away by hope and compassion.

• It is a remarkable story filled with memorable souls who are lifted beyond themselves to become authentic servants of God: women and men very much like you and me who have flaws and fears and phobias that never really go away, but who at the same time allow their brokenness to become something greater than just the banal pains and alienation that define our everyday existence.

• Like Lazarus and Mary and Martha in today’s lesson from John, the beautiful losers of the Bible show us over and over again how God can take our wounds and by grace move us closer to the kingdom than we ever imagined possible.

But St. John’s story telling seems to insist that this happens best in community – within the discipline and commitments of a spiritual home – and that’s what I want to consider with you on this last Sunday in Lent before Holy Week: the value and power of finding and remaining within a spiritual home. You see, the quest to be faithful – to live into God’s will – has always involved a tension between selfishness and sharing. In our adult classes this Lent, Old Testament scholar, Walter Breuggemann, has called this the difficulty between looking out for number one and being a good neighbor.

That makes it clear, doesn’t it: the quandary of choosing to live primarily a self-centered existence versus one that enriches the common good? And I think he’s on to something important that is valuable to us both as individuals and a community of faith. Because while it is the conviction of our Christian tradition that we learn and become faithful best in community, our everyday lives teach us the exact opposite.

Let me suggest two examples: one from the headlines of the New York Times and the other from the letters of St. Paul.

• Earlier this week The Times reported that in the current battle over solving the national budget deficit in the United States, the Republicans proposed a plan that would eliminate $5.8 trillion dollars in government spending over the next 10 years and cut the top tax rate for individuals and corporations.

• It is their perspective that by so doing, we will not only bolster the creation of jobs for individuals but make our collective lives more prosperous by reducing the taxes of the most affluent. It is a perspective – articulated by honest and loving people – that celebrates individual initiative in pursuit of the collective good.

As expected, the Democrats have said that such an emphasis merely transfers the pain of our economic problems from the powerful and well-connected to the anonymous and forgotten poor with precious little consideration of the consequences. These, too, are honest and loving public servants who are scrambling for a way to save Medicare and Medicaid but find themselves trapped by a limited moral imagination as well as their own hard-nosed political necessities.

Nowhere in this battle, however, are our leaders talking to us about solving our problems from the perspective of being good neighbors – or strengthening the ties that bind and sharing our resources for the common good – because we have forgotten what it means to grow in community.

Last week the Sojourners Community in Washington, DC along with Bread for the World, Meals on Wheels, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and other inter-faith groups called people of faith in the US to fast and pray for a reordering of our national priorities when it comes to solving the budget deficit. Let’s face it: neither Republicans nor Democrats share God’s priorities in this mess when the best we can come up with is a 9% cut to social services and a 2% increase in military expenditures.

Cut to St. Paul who tries to help us see that if we depend and live just in our flesh – sarx in the Greek does NOT mean our physical bodies but rather the bad habits and commitments of our selfish nature – then we will be destined to a life of dog eat dog – or worse.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Are you with me here? This isn’t an anti-pleasure, hyper-spiritual rant as Paul is so often accused of; this is a call to live into a life in community that is guided by the Holy Spirit. And let me give you a two minute primer about what community life in the spirit means because all too often we just don’t know what the Bible really says, ok?

• In Genesis 1 the Spirit brings order out of chaos as God’s partner in creation: you know, in the beginning and all that follows?In Ezekiel 37 the Holy Spirit brings flesh and blood and life and inspiration to the dry bones of Israel so that new life and hope becomes incarnated in the community.

• In Isaiah 61 the Spirit brings good news to the poor, food to the hungry, comfort to the lonely and the end of pain to the wounded through women and men who have set their minds on the Spirit and let it lead them.

• In Luke 4 Jesus claims this same Spirit of the Lord is now upon him to initiate a community of God on earth – thy will be done, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven – that challenges poverty and fear with sharing and compassion.

• And St. Paul summarizes all of our biblical wisdom about the Holy Spirit by telling us in Galatians 5 that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, compassion, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

To set your minds on the Spirit is to be led away from selfishness into community so that the love of God is made flesh in thought, word and deed. Did you know that? Did you know that the 10 Commandments are a counter-cultural covenant for living into God’s community rather than Pharaoh’s selfishness? After Easter I’m going to do a series leading up to Pentecost and the Jazz Ambassadors trip to Turkey that shows just how the 10 Commandments are about life inspired by the Holy Spirit as an alternative to selfishness. Think about it:

• ONE: 'You shall have no other gods before Me.' Not Pharaoh – not nation not the dollar nor anything else: God first. TWO: 'You shall not make for yourself a carved image - any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.' No idolatries in this community.

• THREE: 'You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.' This has NOTHING to do with swearing and everything to do with the integrity of your word. FOUR: 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.' This is a labor law – maybe the first in history. FIVE: 'Honor your father and your mother.' That is, care for your roots and community and tradition.

• SIX: 'You shall not murder.' Because only the Lord creates life so only the Lord should take it away. SEVEN: 'You shall not commit adultery.' Because community is built on trust.

• EIGHT: 'You shall not steal.' NINE: 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.' TEN: 'You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.'

We learn to set our mind – and our lives – on the Spirit of the Lord in community: this is where we learn the difference between God’s way and the way of Pharaoh – the way of caring for the neighbor and selfishness – the difference between sharing and just looking out for number one.

So it is small wonder that in today’s story from John this truth is outlined in spades. And let me share with you how I make sense of the deeper meaning of this story in four parts.

First the death of Lazarus: this tells me that pain is part of life and stuff happen. As Sr. Joan Chittister writes: “everything in life, contrary to Madison Avenue’s guarantees, can’t be cured or resolved or eliminated. Some things must simply be endured. Some things must simply be borne. Community and relationships enable us to do that – they are meant to hold us up when we are very, very down.”

• Life in community teaches us that we can get through the pain and suffering, but not by ourselves. It also shows us that we can’t make it go away.

• Modern people HATE this truth – ancient people weren’t too happy about it either – because we like to believe that we can solve all our problems and end all our pain. But we can’t – so more often than not, rather than face this fact in community, people run away.

Back in Cleveland a middle aged man came to my church office one day and wanted to know if he could become a member of our congregation. We were a small, struggling inner-city church so I was very interested. “Are you a member of a church now?” I asked and he told me he was but it wasn’t working out. To this day I don’t know why I asked him to tell me about his spiritual journey but when he did it became clear that in the past five years he had joined and quit 7 different churches. “None of them,” he told me with a straight face “ever really worked out. They all disappointed me… so I want to try yours!”

Thank God I had started hanging out with the AA crowd because they have a bunch of little insights that really help. They call this man’s problem the “geographic solution” that boils down to this: no matter where you go, you always have to take yourself with you. And, as you might expect, he came – and went – because… he brought himself with us, too. The death of Lazarus reminds us that pain happens and we can either learn to deal with it in community or run away from it by ourselves.

Second, God’s timetable is often very different from our own. I find it so fascinating that this story has a section where Mary is complaining and harassing Jesus about not meeting her needs: If you had come when I called you my brother would not have died. This is the cry of a wounded – but profoundly selfish – person. Not bad – but not balanced either – and this has to be emphasized.

• In community Mary and Martha – even Lazarus – are not the center of the universe, right?

• There are others, too so the story tells us Jesus remained where he was for two more days. We don’t know why but are asked to trust that it had to do with God’s bigger picture.

Joan Chittister is helpful again when she notes: “Whenever I begin to think that my community owes me this – or my family doesn’t love me unless they give me that – or my friends have to change their plans to fit mine needs, then I am clearly intent on creating a world unto myself… When her career and his ambitions and their laziness become the pivot around which our relationships begin to operate, this is no longer community – it is the privatization of the Garden of Eden.”

In community we practice waiting and gratitude – honesty and patience – all together. And Jesus tells Mary as much when she yells and complains at him.

Third, in God’s time and God’s community, there is often a blessing – sometimes even a healing – if we have eyes to see and the willingness to obey. After weeping, Jesus asks the community to obey him – go into that cave and bring out Lazarus who is no longer dead he tells them – and what is their first reaction?

• “You’ve got to be nuts!” A man dead four days is going to stink and decompose – we’re not going to obey – you do it.

• But Jesus was insistent: if you want to be a part of community, you will live as I tell you: roll away the stone.

We always think we know better than Jesus – we’re more practical – or more sensitive to the realities of life in our time. But I don’t think that Jesus cares about how smart or practical we think we are; he tells us to roll away the stone and trust the Lord. To be sure, being obedient means being prayerful – in this story Jesus prayed – and there was a blessing for those who had eyes to see. And you will notice that not everyone thought this was a blessing, right? The story ends with the religious leaders choosing to plot Christ’s death.

And fourth, in chapter 12, everyone returns to the home of Lazarus and Mary and Martha before Passover for a time of feasting and rest. This is another picture of learning and maturing in community, too: the rest and renewal and story-telling of a spiritual home because without it we become driven and obsessive and exhausted.

Living and learning about God in community – making a commitment to life in a spiritual home – is how the Bible describes setting your mind on the Spirit.

• It challenges the status quo obsessions of our military-industrial–therapeutic-consumerist culture with the gentle but boldly radical alternative of caring for the neighborhood and sharing bread.

• It sanctifies our lives not with special magic words but by showing us what holiness looks like in our relationships.

And it reminds us that alone we will only be what we are right now, “while in community we have the chance to become everything that God intends.” And that, my friends, is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.


Black Pete said…
Wow--lots there. Reading Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World, and in one section (about spiritual community no less), she speaks of herself as a Martha.

Being an introvert (and a minister: yike!), she shared that she would be much happier being in the kitchen getting the food ready at a gathering (even in her own home) than schmoozing with the guests.

We introverts have to be careful about getting too successful in being away from other people (in not being in community).
RJ said…
Thanks, Peter; Di is waaay introverted - me, too, by nature but I've worked hard to compensate - and she tells me that for her own sense of holy balance she needs to be in community even when it is hard and tiring. Be well, my man.
Black Pete said…
You and I are both pseudo-extroverts, I'd say, James. We've developed a way of being around people that works--until we absolutely need to be alone. I've learned to recognize the signs in my case.
RJ said…
I think you are right Peter. I tend to collapse after a time - or get strung out and really crabby and bitchy - so I, too, am trying to learn the warning signs and back waaaay off for a time.

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