the unplugged way of the cross...
WORSHIP NOTES FOR TODAY: Sunday, June 5, 2016 - Unplugged part two...
There is so much that I want to share with you today – and so precious little time – so let me try to state clearly at the outset what is at the heart of my concern this morning as we listen, wrestle with and seek guidance from the Lord through the Scriptures: Most of us, myself included, and maybe I should say ALL of us; go through ups and downs, right? We all experience times when we feel in-tune with creation and all is right with the world; and, we clearly know times when the polar opposite feels true, too: times when we feel out-of-balance and out-of-sorts with God, ourselves and the world.
Such is the human experience: we ALL know ups and downs. The ancient Psalmist wasn’t kidding when she sang: You, O God, have drawn me up from the pit of death and despair – you brought me up when I was down low – and turned my weeping and mourning in the night into a glad morning song of joy in the day – you have turned my dirge into a dance and undone my sackcloth for robes of joy. Eugene Peterson’s reworking of this text is even more ecstatic: You did it, Lord: you changed wild lament into whirling dance; you ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I’m about to burst with song and can’t keep quiet about you. Because, God, my God, I can’t thank you enough.
Now, these are stunning songs of reversal, powerful poems of uplift and renewal, which speak to us of the universal tension we all experience as human beings: some days we’re up, some days we’re down, sometimes we feel connected to God’s grace and in balance and sometimes we feel as if we’ve fallen into a pit of darkness and can’t get out. All of us know THIS reality… what many of us are not so good with, however, is knowing how to journey with God when life feels out of sync – when we are uncertain about what next steps to take in life that would be faithful – or even just what to do when we feel disconnected from God’s guidance. Do you know what I’m talking about? You can call it discernment – holy patience – the via negativa or anything else that works for you: what I’m trying to say is that most people in our generation have lost touch with the time-tested spiritual tools that can help us learn to walk in the darkness and trust that God is there even beyond our feelings.
I wrestle with this nearly half my waking days – especially right now when we as a faith community are trying to discern the faithful next steps to take in our journey of renewal – I want my dirge of darkness to become a wild dance of clarity and light. I want some of the closing of Psalm 30 without having to go through the lament, the crying out or the uncertainty. To put it another way, I want the healing from the Elijah story or the blessing that Jesus brings in today’s gospel, but not the emptiness, the fear or the ambiguity. I want a fairy tale not real life – magical thinking instead of faithful waiting – I want the miracles of the Lord but not his Cross.
But it is the wisdom of the Cross that we’re being asked to explore in the appointed readings for this season whether I want to engage them or not: from the fidelity of the prophet Elijah to the blessings Jesus we’re being asked to study the wisdom of the Cross. It isn’t a unique spiritual insight to Christianity – although it is central to our practice – but other wisdom traditions speak of the same truth: In the men’s movement it is called the Great Defeat – the admission of powerlessness – while women learn about relinquishing. The Franciscans call it poverty, the Carmelites call it nothingness or the dark night of the soul; the Buddhists speak of emptiness while Judaism calls it the desert or wilderness. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah and the New Testaments calls it the Way of the Cross.
Whatever we call it, it is the way to live close to God when there is no obvious evidence of direction in our world or an absence of happy feelings or tranquility within our souls. And one of the key reasons we gather every week to hear the stories of dead people we do not even know (to paraphrase one of this year’s confirmands) is that in these stories we are reminded of three truths: 1) we all face emptiness; 2) most of the time we try to fill this emptiness with denial and distractions; and 3) until we get sick and tired of being sick and tired we won’t open ourselves to the path of real peace and hope found in the way of the Cross. So here’s the challenge: apparently most us need to relearn this insight over and over again throughout our whole lives. I know that is true for me – and it rings true with the stories from Scripture – so my hunch is that it is true for you, too.
St. Paul in Romans 12 put it like this: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and mature.
This was probably the first passage of Scripture I memorized as an adult because I was taken with the living sacrifice part – as well as the renewal of your mind part – and when I asked my spiritual director at the time, “What does this really mean?” she said: Paul calls us a living sacrifice, I think, because we keep crawling OFF the altar! A dead sacrifice would just lie there, but we tend to keep getting up there only to choose to try and escape over and over again. We’re slow learners and ingenious about running away from the Cross. So, because we keep crawling off the altar we call the Cross, we need reminders and guides and times to practice – REGULAR reminders, guides and times to practice – whether they be 12 Step meetings, small groups of accountability or public worship. Because we can’t – and won’t – learn the way of the Cross all by ourselves and we are incapable of maintaining consistency without practice.
That’s one of the things that worries and troubles me about this moment in time: we are so disconnected and even obsessed with doing our own thing. I was reading earlier this week about the father of Process Theology, John Cobb, who quoted Nietzsche in describing contemporary America. Cobb was writing about what used to be called the “death of God” movement and his observation rings true to me:
Toward the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche realized that something hadchanged in the culture of Western Europe – and he spoke of this change as the death of God – not that a literal deity had died. Rather it was the way most people still talked about God and thought and acted as if nothing had changed, when in fact whatever belief people had in God no longer shaped their basic convictions or the way they understood what was happening. The most perceptive poets and artists and philosophers saw this, and saw that what influence belief still had was fading. Nietzsche understood that this was not a minor matter, that Western civilization was abandoning its foundation and setting itself adrift.
Well, he was right – and what started then has been realized full blown now – our culture and a great deal of our religion operates as functional atheists: we use holy words but don’t trust them, we read from the Scriptures but don’t comprehend them, and we live our lives without a time-tested ethical center besides what we ourselves feel is most satisfying at any given moment in our up and down cycle of life. And what causes me angst and what wakes me up in the middle of the night sometimes is not so much giving up of our old time religion. It needed to go.
No what worries me is the abiding conviction in contemporary culture that we can learn a better way all by ourselves. But that’s what adolescents do – they throw away all the rules and try to reinvent life according to their feelings – and because their hormones are out of control and their brains haven’t fully developed, all they can comprehend are these wild, frenetic and incomplete feelings. We know that given enough space, boundaries, guidance, mistakes and time, our crazy kids usually grow out of adolescence to become adults. They become mature – individuals who are willing to be taught and trained the wisdom hard won by their culture’s elders – if, of course, their elders possess wisdom and aren’t all caught up in their own confusing adolescent urges. That is part of what today’s stories want us to remember: we cannot comprehend the way of grace nor find a way into intimacy with God when we’re in hard times if we only rely upon ourselves or our feelings.
· Elijah was led out of Israel into the Gentile realm of Syro-Phoenicia by the Spirit of the Lord because his own community had become toxic. King Ahab of Israel had married Queen Jezebel of Phoenicia to form a military alliance of power. In the process, Ahab threw out his Jewish religious practices and brought in a spirituality of idol worship. And the more Elijah challenged the powers, the harder his life became so God called him out of the fray to relearn the wisdom of the wilderness and desert – for without it he would not be able to help his people get back on track.
· In the story right before the one read out loud this morning, Elijah is hiding in a crevice in a mountain outside of Jerusalem. And he is starving because he has run out of food. The story tells us that God knows what Elijah needs and provides for him in an unexpected way: the Lord sends night ravens – birds of prey which are considered unclean – and they bring the prophet scraps of food so that he will not starve. This is a fascinating little detail filled with nuance and a great deal could be said, but let me be concise: this story of hiding in the crack of a mountain while being fed on carrion is to remind us graphically that despair and deprivation are not the final truth in God’s love no matter what we see, feel or think.
And this truth is replicated over and over again in the Elijah cycle: God sends the prophet into situations of bewildering sorrow and suffering - in other words, the ups and downs of real life – and when the suffering servants connect in compassion and turn their hearts to God’s love, blessings occurs. First, a little bit of food becomes enough to sustain a widow, her starving son and the prophet; then, the widow’s love empowers the prophet to prayer and another unexpected blessing takes place. The same thing occurs in the gospel story: when the Lord’s heart is broken by compassion for the human community, new blessings come to birth that can lead us through and beyond the suffering.
· So as I sat with these stories – and my fretting over Nietzsche’s prophecy come full blown – I asked myself, “If the way of the Cross is how we get through this mess, what did Jesus do on his way to the Cross? And as I flipped through the pages of Gospel it became clear that even on his way to the Cross he did what he loved most: he served the Lord, he feasted, he prayed, he visited those in need, shared healing and lived his life as if he believed that the Cross wasn’t the end of the story. He lived as if all he needed to do was love the Lord and share that love and God would take care of the rest.
· And that caused me to wonder, “Well what did Jesus say from the Cross?” And, if you know the story, it is clear that he was praying Psalm 22 – why hast thou forsaken me, O Lord – the opening verse of this Psalm. Now, if that’s all we hear it would be easy to conclude that Jesus had given up all hope on the Cross and was uttering an agonizing, lonely lament. And as an adolescent growing up in the church, that’s what I believed, too: Jesus felt abandoned and forsaken by the Lord because he was suffering in agony.
But that isn’t the essence of Psalm 22 – and the older I’ve become and the more I learn about the way of the Cross – the more I am convinced that Jesus was praying this Psalm in all of its complexity. In fact, I sense that Jesus lived this Psalm and prayed it regularly when he went away for quiet prayer. He had obviously memorized it because at its core Psalm 22 says: there are times when I feel like you have abandoned me, O Lord, and yet it was you who took me from the womb, it was you who kept me safe on my mother’s breast… since the time of my birth, O Lord, you have been my God and you have answered me and rescued me and not hidden your face from my need. Even when he didn’t feel God’s presence, Jesus trusted that God would not let him down – would not abandon him – but lead him to something better even beyond the agony of the Cross.
To which I realized, Nietzsche was just describing the obvious – and my fretting and fear is just a reaction to the obvious – but it isn’t faith. It isn’t trust because God isn’t finished with us yet – as a culture or a congregation or an individual. In fact, the good news is if people are throwing away the old time religion, we now have a chance to do it better – with more compassion and less shame – with more community and less rules and by-laws and judgment. You see, if the way of the Cross was true for Jesus – and I trust that it was – then it is true for us, too And the point of these miracle stories about dead people we don’t even know is not to explain them, but to grasp a greater truth: the way of the Cross connects us to God’s wisdom and grace in hard times
Next week I will share with you three key insights that are essential for living into the wisdom and way of the Cross. They emphasize a spirituality that leads to trust and inner peace in a complex time even when life seems upside down or filled with darkness and fear. But that’s for next week.
· Right now I want to give you a prayer to practice that distills the wisdom of Psalm 22 into five words. It is a simple contemplative prayer that can be life-changing BUT… you have to practice it. And it would be best to practice it twice a day… and I’m not even going to suggest how long you practice it – I don’t know the demands and obsessions of your lives – I just know that without practice you cannot become free of the shame, anxiety, and stress of life’s emptiness. So, just practice it as best you can.
· And what I would like you to practice is this – a five word prayer distilled from Psalm 22 – it is the essence of the Cross: let go and let God. Can you say that aloud with me? Let go and let God. So long as we insist that we are in control, we lock out God’s mercy and presence from our lives. Letting go is incredibly liberating.
So here’s what you might do: sit quiet and simply say/think/chant to yourself: Let go and let God. This is a prayer of the heart that declares that you want to rest and be open to the Lord’s loving presence. And every time you find that your mind is wandering, notice what you are thinking and feeling, and then let it go saying again: let go and let God. Every distraction can become a way of opening yourself to God. Every fear or anxiety a way of drawing closer – and that’s all for this week – let go and let God – it is not too hard or complex for anyone and is guaranteed to be a blessing for everyone.