Yogi Berra was not just known for his baseball career with the New York Yankees. He was also a master of malapropisms – sayings that make you say “Wait … what???!!” Things like, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” or “You can observe a lot just by watching” or “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But this week’s gospel lesson brought to mind my favorite “Yogi-ism”: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
It’s not your imagination – we heard the first part of this gospel reading back in January on the Baptism of Jesus. We’re getting a few more verses here – the rest of the story if you will – where Jesus emerges from the water and is immediately driven into the wilderness for a 40 day period of testing and this becomes the timeframe we revisit each year in the season of Lent. Lent begins in baptism and ends in resurrection.
As a young child, I was raised Lutheran and to be honest, the only thing which made Lent different from any other time of the year was the purple paraments on the altar and pulpit. We really didn’t mark the time of Lent by doing anything radically different. You see Dr. Luther made sure we confessed we were in bondage to sin and could not free ourselves every single Sunday, so the whole sinful nature of humanity was pretty well covered 52 weeks out of the year. We did have Holy Week services, but liturgically, they pretty well looked like a Sunday service too, albeit with different scripture readings.
My cousins, on the other hand, were Roman Catholic. They did Lent. They had to give something up and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday with all the other Fridays being “meatless.” When I became Episcopalian, I figured that was close to Roman Catholic so I told my mom I was going to give up homework for Lent … you can only imagine how that went over. I had about the same response when I tried to give up chores too.
But I did notice that in the Episcopal Church, Lent felt very different from my Lutheran experience. Not only do we change the colors and strip things down, we drop the “A-word” from our liturgy. We do the Great Litany on the first Sunday in Lent (Lutherans didn’t have that) and the Penitential Order began our other Sunday services. Sometimes our deacon would read the long exhortation and Holy Week had its own special liturgies in the Prayer Book. It had a very different and a very somber feel. As a youth I felt like it was kind of a … 40 day bummer festival with its focus on our sinfulness and hymns sung in a minor key.
And I find this sense of gloom about Lent to be pretty common – not just in Christians. A few years ago, I was watching Jon Stewart talk about his Jewish faith and the practice of atonement during the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He said, “We have 10 days where we focus on our sins and repent of the wrongs we’ve done. 10 days – that’s it. You Christians have Lent … 40 days of Lent. Even in guilt you people pay retail!”
But instead of observing the 40 day bummer festival this year, I want to invite you to look at Lent a bit differently and I especially want you to remember your baptism. We began our Lenten observance last Wednesday when each of us had the sign of the cross made on our foreheads with palm ashes and we heard the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Having the sign of the cross made on your forehead is to remind you of your baptism. In our baptismal rite, the bishop or priest makes the sign of the cross in holy oil on the forehead of the newly baptized and says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Forever means forever. And every time the sign of the cross is made, whether with the oil of the infirmed during holy unction, or after being confirmed, or in a blessing, or with ashes, each of these times you receive the sign of the cross, you are to remember your baptism.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, and I’m paraphrasing him here, essentially said that we are created out of the very heart of God and at our baptism we begin our return back to God’s heart. Our baptism begins our return home. And this is good news. But the road home is not a straight or easy one and it is marked by fallings and failings which emanate from Sin and its power over us. Yet the fallings and failings which appear to take center stage in Lent are a necessary part of learning to live a resurrected life of grace. Only when we are painfully honest with ourselves about our own faults, “our own most grievous faults,” can we come to a position of holy humility. And when we reach that place of humility, we find God already there, ready to pick us up, put the fine robe and ring on our finger, and welcome us home with love and mercy. It is a paradox that the very thing we feel most shame over is the very thing which, when we’re honest about it, brings us into a more deeply trusting relationship with the one who first loved us. And it all begins with our baptism when the road home is opened for us.
The disciplines of these 40 days of Lent – be they almsgiving to our Nickels for Nurses program, or giving up meat on Fridays and donating that money to the poor, joining our Soup Supper and Study, or turning off the TV and instead spending some time with a good spiritually challenging book, or fasting from excessive carbon consumption – all of these practices are meant to make you mindful of your relationship with God, with each other, and with creation. These disciplines are designed to remind you that you are on the way home and to bring you into a posture of gratitude for what God in Christ has done for you. And it all begins with your baptism.
Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
It doesn’t matter whether you are old enough to remember the original Bob Dylan recording of this song, or perhaps the Peter, Paul and Mary cover of it … or if you are young enough to be thinking, “Bob who??”: this folk classic speaks a universal truth … the times are changing. It is often said the only thing constant is change, but we humans love/hate relationship with change. Some changes we welcome and others we do not want and yet cannot control.
Regardless of whether change is bidden or not, wanted or not, all change involves the loss of something and we fear what we might lose. This fear even extends into the Church. Why do you think there are so many denominational “changing a light bulb” jokes? Like “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?” I’ve heard two answers to this. Either, “What do you mean change that light bulb? My great-grandfather donated that light bulb and it will not be changed!” or “Three – one to change the light bulb, one to mix the martinis, and the third to tell us all how much better the old bulb was. As Christians, we follow a savior who came to change a lot of things, but ironically, we have trouble accepting change in the church as much as we do in our lives. So, what happens when the waters around you have grown? Do you swim, or sink like a stone? How do you respond in the face of inevitable change? Today’s readings from 2nd Kings and Mark speak to the human desire of holding on to what we have and the necessity of letting go when change comes to us.
In our first reading, we hear about the final journey of Elijah the Tishbite, prophet of God. Elijah and his protégé Elisha are traveling away from Gilgal and eventually to cross the Jordan. In an effort perhaps to ease the pain of parting, Elijah repeatedly tells Elisha to stay here while he goes on. But Elisha’s repeated response is, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” I experienced many families and friends who by their words and actions essentially said what Elisha said to their own loved ones as death approached. I recall one woman in particular: her name was Joanne. She was a cradle Episcopalian and lived in an assisted living facility in Hagerstown. She died of lung cancer at the age of 58. Joanne’s mother and sister lived out of the area and she didn’t have any close family in Hagerstown – but she built a family from the many friends she made at the assisted living home. Joanne’s greatest fear was that she would die alone. But she didn’t need to fear this – everyone who knew her said they would be there for her up until the end. The woman who ran the beauty shop in the facility assured Joanne that when the day came, she would close the shop and sit with her until the family arrived. “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” When Joanne entered her final hours, she was unconscious and when I arrived I saw five of Joanne’s friends already in her room – just sitting with her so she wouldn’t be alone. When her family arrived we began the litany for the dying as she stopped breathing. I gave Joanne her last Communion and everyone in the room shared the sacrament. Finally, we commended her to God and when we all said the final “Amen,” Joanne’s heart stopped. As long as she lived and as the Lord lived, we would not leave her.
But just like nothing could completely prepare Elisha for his master’s departure and he would tear his clothes in grief, nothing could totally prepare us for losing Joanne either. We all broke down in tears – there is something about the finality of death that hurts. No amount of head knowledge can prepare any of us for the finality of parting. We don’t know just how long Elisha stayed on that side of the Jordan River grieving, but if we read a bit past where our lectionary ends, we hear that he picks up the mantle of Elijah, goes back to the Jordan, strikes the water and calls upon the name of the God of Elijah – and the waters part and he returns to Israel. Elisha returns, but not as the same person. This grief and pain of parting has transformed him and he is now ready to continue the work of the prophet.
Our gospel text is also about change and transformation – both of Jesus and his disciples. Mark begins by telling us it is six days later: later than what? Well, it’s just been six days since Peter has declared Jesus as the Messiah and this declaration is linked to the Transfiguration. So Peter, James and John go up the mountain with Jesus where they see Jesus changed in front of them. His robes become dazzling white – Mark says they were whiter than any bleach could get them (forget new and improved Tide, this is way better than that!). Then Elijah appears with Moses and they are talking with Jesus. This vision confirms for the disciples that Jesus can’t be Elijah and he can’t be Moses – so Peter’s declaration is true!
At this point Peter blurts out, “Rabbi, this is great! Let’s build three dwellings – one for each of you!” Peter, in his terror, makes an attempt to hold on to this holy moment by building something. We might chuckle at that, but how often do we desire to seize the moment and stay there? Jesus, in this transfigured vision, is very much changed in the eyes of his disciples – they’ve had a glimpse of his glory, a prefiguring of the resurrection. Holding onto the glory sounds pretty good at this point, but Jesus does not reply to Peter’s offer. Instead, the three disciples hear the voice from the now descended cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In the Greek, this command to listen renders more like, “listen and keep on listening to him.” The voice commands them to listen to Jesus and keep on listening to him because the times are about to be changing. Jesus will be glorified … but that glory will not come by an easy path – it will come through death on a cross.
We are at a spiritual turning point, a time of change, in the church year. The season of Epiphany, with its central theme of “Who is Jesus?” is ending. This Wednesday, we begin the Lenten journey of asking the question, “Who am I in relation to Jesus?” We begin by facing our own mortality with the imposition of ashes on Wednesday. It is a season of self-examination and penitence – a season which challenges us to spiritual change.
Our spiritual growth does not happen when things are going well for us. If we could, we would avoid all suffering and pain in our lives. It is only when change comes, welcome or not, and we face the inevitable losses which accompany change that we are able to deepen our spiritual lives as we adapt to new realities. We may try to fight change. We may try to hold on in desperation to that which we love or think we can’t live without. But like Elisha and Peter, we cannot cling to what is or what was. Instead we are called to step out into an unknown future leaning solely on a radical trust in God.
Elisha knew this. He was compelled to move forward in his ministry without his beloved Elijah. Peter, James and John do not stay on the mountain with Jesus, but go forward with him to Jerusalem. Admittedly, things will not go as they plan there and the stark reality of the cross will make the disciples scatter in fear. But the changes which come in Holy Week and Easter will turn the whole world upside down as Christ’s death destroys the power of Sin and Death once for all.
Jesus did not come to this earth to make some fine-tuning adjustments to our lives. He came that we might be utterly and completely transformed. That’s some change! Our Orthodox sisters and brothers have a saying: “God became human in Jesus so that we might become divine.” Our lives are full of changes and losses which will, eventually, lead us back to the very heart of God. We Christians are a people called to change and transformation as we live a life of radical trust in God.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.
Well, not exactly. Instead of going to VTS, I ended up going to a Lutheran seminary (and I received an excellent education there). And instead of a full-time call to be an assistant rector somewhere, my first call out of seminary was to close a congregation. That sure wasn’t in my plan. It also wasn’t part of the plan to face unemployment before the first anniversary of my ordination. And it wasn’t in the plan that I would end up serving a Methodist church part-time because there are no full-time calls open in the diocese. I wasn't going to be in urban ministry at St. Luke's Franklin Square either. And I wasn't going to go back to my home congregation for nine months. And don't even tell me I'd spend almost two years as a hospice chaplain. No way! That was not going to happen! I had it all planned out, don't you see?
It’s said that we make plans, and God laughs. I guess I've been a major source of comic relief for the Almighty. Things don’t always work out the way we think they will, but that doesn’t mean we don’t think about outcomes or get emotionally invested in how we think things should be.
Naaman had that problem. He was a powerful man, very important general to the King of Aram, but he had leprosy. Now leprosy was a catch all term for a lot of skin diseases and we really don’t know what Naaman had, but leprosy was feared and if you could find a cure, you’d definitely want to get it. Naaman’s wife has a Hebrew servant girl who tells her it’s too bad Naaman isn’t in Israel because there’s a prophet there who would cure him of his leprosy. Eventually, Naaman makes his way to Elisha’s house and gets pretty annoyed when the prophet merely sends word through his messenger to go wash seven times in the Jordan and he’d be clean. Elisha also knows that the healing of leprosy isn’t about him having special powers, but is about the power of God alone to heal. But Naaman doesn’t quite get it, so he blows up. “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” Whoa, wait a minute … hold the phone. His wife’s servant said there is a prophet who could cure him of his leprosy. She didn’t say anything about some elaborate ritual he would do to bring about this cure! But somewhere between hearing about this cure and his arrival at Elisha’s doorstep, Naaman has dreamed up this elaborate liturgy about how Elisha would cure him. He would come out? Stand and call on the name of the Lord his God? Wave his hand over the spot? Wow! That’s a liturgy worthy of an Anglican! Naaman is not only invested in a definite outcome of receiving a cure, but he has also concocted the exact process by which it would happen.
Now the leper in Mark’s story has a very different approach. This healing story begins a series of vignettes in Mark portraying Jesus as a crosser of social and legal boundaries. But we must recognize that the leper actually violates the boundary first. In the Levitical codes, a leper was not supposed to engage anyone. They were to walk with their hand over their upper lip and cry out “unclean, unclean” as they came near anyone so that people could avoid them. Instead, this leper approaches Jesus, not with a cry of “unclean, unclean,” but with a cry bidding Jesus to come to him. This leper invites Jesus to come along side him … and Jesus does. He then says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Or, in the AAV (that’s “Anjel’s Authorized Version … not available in stores), “If you desire, you have the power to cleanse me.”
The key to his statement is in the “if.” We only have one word for “if” in English, but the Greeks had two different ones: ei and ean. Ei is the “if of certainty” as in, “If I touch a hot stove, I will burn my hand.” We know the outcome, it’s a no brainer. Ean, on the other hand, is called the “if of uncertainty” as in “If I win the lottery, what would I do with the money?” That’s a very uncertain if! It is this latter type of “if” we find in the leper’s words and it is followed by a form of the verb to choose, wish, will or desire which also suggests an uncertain outcome. What we can make of this is that the leper is not invested in a specific outcome; he isn’t taking this healing for granted as a done deal at all. Unlike Naaman who is highly invested in how it should all turn out and exactly how it will go down, this leper is actually making a faith statement. He says that Jesus has the power to cleanse him regardless of whether Jesus chooses to exercise that power or not. If the AAV ever gets published, I’d probably render it as, “You have the power to make me clean. Regardless of whether you want to or not, you have the power to make me clean.” Jesus responds by being moved with compassion, accepting the boundary crossing first proposed by the leper, and heals him.
In the season of Epiphany, the focus is on the question, “Who is Jesus?” In the case of the leper in Mark, Jesus is the one with the power to cleanse, regardless of whether he desires to exercise his power or not. Unlike Naaman, this leper doesn’t get invested in the outcome or a specific process. This is the tension we live in: how do we have a vision of what or how things should be and yet holding it lightly enough to let God do what needs to be done even if it does not match how we think it should happen.
The Christian life is an adventure and there are no guaranteed outcomes short of the fullness of a resurrected life in God. What that will look like and how it will go down is mystery. Letting go of prescribed outcomes and preconceived ideas of how things should happen is what it means to grow in our faith.
Who is Jesus? He is the one with the power to cleanse, the power to make us whole and who promises and abundant life. Our faith challenge is to trust this power and let go of our assumptions of how it will all work out.
If you had told me back in 2001 when I started my journey towards ordination that I would be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you. You see I had it all planned out! I was going to attend a good Episcopal seminary, probably VTS. After that, I would likely be called to be an assistant at a program sized parish for a few years and later I would seek a call to be the rector of a large pastoral to program sized congregation. Yep, that’s how it would all happen, right?
When our oldest daughter Claire was about three years old, she began to experience night terrors. If you’ve never experienced this as a parent, you are fortunate. Night terrors are beyond the simple “bad dream” or nightmare. When Claire had them, she’d sit bolt upright in bed screaming, her eyes open but in a fixed stare. She didn’t respond to our voices and her crying and screaming were inconsolable. After a while, she would settle down and go back to sleep – and have absolutely no memory of what happened when she woke up the next morning. Stu and I were beside ourselves on what to do.
About this same time Claire began to talk quite a bit about ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs. Claire had a very active imagination and we suspected her night terrors might be related to her talk of ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs. So after a few nights of disrupted sleep, I decided to try something – an exorcism … of sorts! Not the kind you see in the movies, mind you, nor was I going to call in the diocesan exorcist (and yes, every diocese has a designated exorcist for official exorcisms). I didn’t think this was demonic but I did think that Claire somehow felt rather helpless about these ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs she kept talking about. I thought having a ritual for chasing them away before bed might lessen these night terror episodes.
So that night, Claire and I were in her room and after I read her a bedtime story, we had a talk about the ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs. Claire admitted she didn’t like them – they were scary. I told her she had the power to chase them away because Jesus loved her. Her eyes lit up as I told her I’d help her. So, on that cold January night, we went over to the window of her room and I opened it. Claire shouted, “Jesus loves me!! Go away you ghosts! Go away you monsters! Go away you dinosaurs!” and for good measure, she added her fiercest growl, stomped her feet and waved her hands in the air after which I shut the window quickly. “Boy you really scared them off,” I told her before tucking her into bed and kissing her good night. That night, she slept soundly and without incident. Thus began a nightly liturgy that lasted several months – and she never experienced a night terror again. Rituals are important. Rituals matter.
We often lose sight of the importance of rituals in our increasingly scientific and secular culture. R. Alan Culpepper, who wrote the commentary on Luke’s gospel in the New Interpreters Bible, states:
"... The observance of religious requirements and rituals has fallen on hard times. Essential to Judaism is the praise of God in all of life. The Jewish law taught that God was to be honored in one's rising up and lying down, in going out and coming in, in how one dressed and what one ate. . . .
The pressures of secularism and modern life have again reduced the significance of ritual observances in the lives of most Christians. Busy schedules, dual-career marriages, and after-school activities mean that families eat fewer meals together. Prayer before meals and family Bible study are observed in fewer homes today than just a generation ago. For many, religious rituals are reduced to church attendance at Christmas and Easter and to socially required ceremonies at births, weddings, and funerals. The marking of both daily and special events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. In the minds of many it is associated either with superstitions and cultic practices of the past or the peculiar excesses of religious fanatics. The result has been that God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life. Many assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons. Their lives, on the other hand, move in a secular realm devoid of the presence of the holy. Daily experiences are reduced and impoverished. They have no meaning beyond themselves, no opening to transcendence. Little room for mystery remains in the everyday as it becomes increasingly subject to secularism and technology. What have we lost by removing ritual observances from our daily experience?
The challenge to modern Christians, therefore, is to find effective rituals for celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary. We need to learn to greet the morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness of food, family, and friendship at meals; to recognize mystery in beauty; and to mark rites of passage … Rituals are not restrictive; they celebrate the goodness and mystery of life." (p. 74-75)
The Jewish faith in which Jesus was raise by his parents recognized the importance of ritual and seeing the divine in the ordinary everyday stuff of life. It was a way of living in relationship with God which emphasized ritual as a way of behaving your way into belief. Notice the order here: behavior precedes belief. In our Anglican way, we say, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – the way we pray shapes the way we believe. We pray our way into our faith.
I am persuaded that our Christian faith is not about intellectual assents to doctrinal propositions about Christ as much as it is something we do - it is more caught than taught. We catch our faith through being in community, worshiping, praying, hearing the scriptures, receiving the mystical Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and participating in the rituals and sacraments which give shape and meaning to our relationship with God, to our lives, and to our relationships with each other.
Simeon and Anna understood this. Simeon, the devout and righteous Israelite who is holding onto a promise of seeing the Lord’s Messiah before he dies. Time is growing short for him and yet he persists in behaving his way into trusting in this promise. I cannot help but think he may have had his doubts along the way. But nonetheless, Simeon persists in going to the Temple, in observing the rituals and offering his prayers. Anna, the prophet, also persists in prayers, worship and fasting – behaving her way into her belief. Both of these elders continued in the rituals of their faith – and Christ came to them. And he came to them in a most unexpected way – in the form of a baby born to a poor family who walked 60 miles from Nazareth to perform the rituals of the Temple and dedicate their child to God. Rituals matter.
Christ likewise comes to us through the ritual sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, the sacraments of confirmation, marriage, unction, reconciliation and ordination. As you continue to ponder the question of who Jesus is to you and to us, be attentive to these rituals but also pay attention to how Christ comes through less formal rituals: eating a meal together as a family, praying together, a hug of consolation, a kind and healing word spoken in love, or even a banishing of ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs.