Sunday, March 22, 2009

God's Intervention

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 22, 2009

Year B: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
(Ephesians 2:1-10)
John 3:14-21

God’s Intervention

A number of years ago a friend of ours who is an alcoholic went through what’s known as an intervention. We didn’t know him back then, but we’ve heard his story many times. His drinking had gotten out of control. His addiction was destroying his life and the lives of those around him. Finally one day, his friends and family gathered and had an intervention. They told him this was the chance for his life to be saved. This was his chance to choose light over shadow, life over death. He went into rehab and began his life of sobriety that has continued through all the ups and downs of life to this very day.

Our friend has often said to Sue and me that he was a very different person when he was drinking and that we wouldn’t have liked him very much back in those days. I’ve never been part of an intervention, but one of the TV shows I occasionally watch is a reality show on A&E called Intervention. Has anyone ever seen it? It’s fascinating and disturbing television.

Each episode follows pretty much the same format. We are introduced to the addict. Their addictions range from alcohol to drugs to food to gambling – you name it. The addicts have agreed to participate in the filming because they think they are in a documentary about addiction. Supposedly they don’t know that as part of the documentary they will face an intervention.

So the cameras – and we viewers - follow these poor souls through their nightmarish lives of addiction.

Each episode follows a predictable formula. Next the producers switch gears. Next we see photos and sometimes video of the person before addiction overwhelmed their lives. Almost always a parent or a sibling will say something like, “he was such a wonderful child, so outgoing, so much fun, so beautiful…”

And then, almost always, we find out that something terrible went wrong in their lives. Maybe it was the death of a parent. Or maybe it was some kind of child abuse. Or maybe they just fell in with the “wrong crowd” and the downward spiral began.

Next we see the interventionist meeting with the family and friends of the addict. The interventionist emphasizes that they must be firm with him or her. They are going to be offered the gift of treatment. Since the addict is free to refuse this gift, they have to know that if they refuse treatment there will be real consequences – no more money, no more free room and board, no more contact.

Obviously the point is not be cruel, but to convince the person to seek treatment – to accept the gift.

Anyway, the show reaches its dramatic high point when the addict arrives for what he or she thinks is the final interview for the show and is surprised to discover a room full of family and friends.

Each person takes their turn talking about how this addiction has negatively affected their lives. Then they always say, please accept this gift. But, if you don’t accept this gift, these will be the consequences…

Please accept this gift…

And then it’s up to the addicted person. Accept the gift or not? In the language of Jesus in today’s gospel lesson – choose light or darkness? Choose life or choose death?

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent – sometimes called Laetare Sunday. It’s one of the two Sundays when we wear the rose vestments, symbolizing a little break from - a little lightening of - the penance of Lent. It’s a day when we are to remind ourselves of the joyfulness of being a Christian.

So imagine my surprise when looked ahead to today’s lessons and saw the reading from Numbers. On Laetare Sunday – when Lauren and I are wearing our rose vestments, not to mention it’s Pajama Sunday! – we are given this somewhat bizarre story of God getting fed up by the complaints of the people and sending poisonous snakes to bite and kill them. Um, OK. And then, the story continues, God tells Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and use it in a way that sounds suspiciously like… idolatry. Hmmm…

Now, obviously we are given this lesson because in the gospel Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The story about the snakes is in the Book of Numbers. And it comes at the end of the first section of that book that retells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. You know the story. This so-called “wilderness generation” has repeatedly complained about leaving Egypt and the leadership of Moses. They are caught up in a seemingly unbreakable, seemingly hopeless pattern of complaint, ingratitude and selfishness.

And so, through Moses, God once again offers the Israelites an intervention. While in the Bible snakes are usually negative symbols, in this story the bronze snake idol becomes a symbol of God’s healing power.

In this story Moses puts the bronze snake on a pole and if a person bitten by the snake chose to look at it, they would live.

If a person bitten by a snake chose to accept the gift they were given, they would live.

In this old and strange story God offered a kind of intervention. But it was up to the Israelites to accept this gift or not accept this gift. It was up to them to choose the light or to choose the darkness, to choose life or choose death.

Of course, God’s ultimate intervention is Jesus.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
God’s ultimate gift is coming and living as one of us, facing rejection and death, so that, as Jesus tells Nicodemus the Pharisee, “everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

The Evangelist John is careful to note that Nicodemus has come to see Jesus by night. Nicodemus the Pharisee is not quite ready to accept the gift that is being offered in Jesus. Nicodemus is not quite willing to accept God’s intervention. Nicodemus is not yet willing to come out into the light.

Not surprisingly, in the TV show Intervention the addicts are very often reluctant to accept the gift that is offered to them. Even after hearing the pleading from their family and friends, even after hearing what the consequences will be if they say no to treatment, often they are still reluctant to choose light over darkness.

Obviously much of that resistance comes from the power of physical addiction and the fear of withdrawal.

Yet, very often the same kind of resistance happens in our spiritual life. In this conversation Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus knows enough to say Jesus has come from God. Nicodemus recognizes the gift being offered in Jesus and yet at least for now he is not yet willing to accept God’s intervention.

How about us?

In our hearts we know that we need God’s help. We know that when we do it our way, when we try to go it alone, we end up in a dead end.

And we also know the gift that is being offered to us in Jesus. What prevents us from accepting the gift? Is it fear? Is it fear of what it would mean to really live as a Christian? Is it fear of the hard work of really facing up to our own sinfulness, our own turning away from God?

We have a choice. We can accept the gift we are being given in Jesus – or not.

On the TV show, most of the time the person accepts the intervention. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be problems and challenges ahead. All of us face the ups and downs of life. But very often the producers interview the person weeks or months later – and the physical, emotional and, yes, spiritual transformation is remarkable. They usually look like different people. Looking back, often they can hardly believe they lived such lives of darkness.

We have a choice. We can accept the gift we are being offered – or not.

As for Nicodemus, he appears twice more in John’s gospel. First, he speaks up for Jesus – in broad daylight apparently – to the chief priests and his fellow Pharisees. And finally, he appears one more time anointing Jesus’ crucified body and helping Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus in the tomb.

It seems that Nicodemus was making his way from shadow to light. It seems that he was accepting God’s intervention, accepting the gift given to us in Jesus.

How about us? Will we accept the gift given to us in Jesus?


Sunday, March 01, 2009

God's Covenant with Creation

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Dover NJ
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 1, 2009

Year B: The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-9
(1 Peter 3:18-22)
Mark 1:9-15

God’s Covenant with Creation

Well, we’re already five days into this holy season of Lent. I wonder how’s your Lent going so far? I don’t know what Ash Wednesday was like here at St. John’s but at Grace Church in Madison attendance was up noticeably from Ash Wednesday last year. Could have been because of the good weather, but I think in these difficult and frightening times many of us are turning back to basics. In these difficult and frightening times many of us are turning back to God.

And Lent is a perfect time to turn back to God, isn’t it? During these forty days the church offers us an extraordinary opportunity to allow God back into our lives; during Lent the church offers us an extraordinary opportunity to repent. But, as I preached at Grace on Ash Wednesday, we need to remember there are two parts of repentance.

First, we need to examine our consciences and apologize to God and to one another for things we have done that we shouldn’t have done – and the things that we should have done but didn’t do.

But, that’s just the beginning. Repentance doesn’t stop there. The second part of repentance is to allow God to change our hearts so that we can become the kind of people that God dreams that we can be – the kind of people that God knows we really are.

If you’re sitting there thinking something like “How in the world am I supposed to do that?” or “That sounds like a lot of work, and I don’t really have the time” or “Repentance sounds kind of scary,” well, you’re right.

Repentance – looking into our hearts and confessing our sins to God and one another is not an easy or painless thing to do.

Repentance – allowing God to change our hearts so that we can be the people God intends us to be is not an easy thing to do.

What’s easy is to just give up and throw in the towel, right?

I’m not going to ask for a show of hands but I wonder how many of us have managed to stick with our Lenten sacrifice? How many of us have battled temptation and lost?

don’t know what you’ve “given up” or “taken on” for Lent. But, the odds are that we’ve already faltered and given into temptation. Maybe we ate that delicious piece of chocolate that was just sitting there in the kitchen, so chocolaty, so tempting. Or maybe we decided to take something on for Lent – like a few minutes of prayer each day, getting a better night’s sleep, giving a little more to the church or a local charity – and yet we seem just not to have gotten around to it.

There’s another possibility. Maybe we haven’t gotten around to making some kind of sacrifice or taking something on for Lent and now we’re feeling a little guilty and thinking that it’s too late for us.

Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. Maybe it’s so far so good for us – we have strong will power and have managed to stick with our Lenten sacrifices. We’ve actually taken on what we said we would take on. Yet, there is anxiety because we know from previous experience that we may very well falter in a moment of weakness any day now.

Of course, there’s another possibility. Maybe because we’ve failed in previous Lents, this year we haven’t gotten around to making some kind of sacrifice or taking something on for Lent and now we’re feeling a little guilty and thinking that it’s too late for us.

Well, wherever we are in terms of our faith – no matter what kind of Lent we are having – today’s lessons offer us some very good news.

Our Old Testament lesson gives us the finale of the very familiar story of Noah, the flood and the ark. Whenever this story comes up I always think how strange it is that we often think of it as well-suited for children. I guess it must be because of the animals. But when you really reflect on events in this story, on one level it’s terrifying. What could be more frightening than the idea that God gets so fed up with the sinfulness of world and then floods it?

But this story is also terrifying on a more personal level. The story of the flood is terrifying because of its central truth – as most of us have learned the hard way, our misdeeds can bring great destruction to us and to those around us.

But, maybe the flood story becomes less terrifying when we look at it from the perspective of the people who first wrote it down. They knew perfectly well that our misdeeds can bring great destruction, but they didn’t experience God as wrathful and punishing. They didn’t experience God as the kind of God who would mercilessly kill millions of lives.

Instead, the people who wrote down the flood story experienced God as a God of love and mercy. They experienced God as a God of covenant, not just with human beings but with the whole creation – with (in the words of Genesis) “the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal on earth…”

The people who wrote down the story of the flood understood that covenant between God and creation was made on God’s initiative. There was no negotiation. And if you read the text, there wasn’t even anything that we had to do in return to keep to maintain this agreement, to keep this covenant. God gives us this covenant out of pure love for creation.

And the people who first wrote down the story of the flood understood that God keeps promises and the covenant will last forever. As God says in this passage, “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.”

This covenant with Noah and all of creation is very good news for us. No matter what – even when we stumble, when we sin, when do what we shouldn’t do or don’t do what we should do, when we don’t stick with our Lenten sacrifices, when we don’t even bother to make a Lenten sacrifices – no matter what – God still loves what God has made and the covenant between God and creation is still in effect.

Speaking of covenants still in effect, let’s move on to the story of Jesus’ baptism in today’s gospel. Since this is Mark’s version, it is typically straight to the point. Mark begins his gospel, begins his story of Jesus’ life and ministry, right here with the baptism in the River Jordan.

It’s here that Jesus hears the voice of God the Father and realizes who he really is – the beloved of God. The bond between God the Father and the Son is an unbreakable bond.

And the bond that is made between God and us in baptism is also an unbreakable bond. In the words of the prayer book, “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”

And, as if to make that point, right after the baptism Mark gives us the account of Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness.

Since Jesus faced real-life temptations during those forty days – as well as before and after, I’m sure – God knows precisely what it’s like for us to face temptations in our lives – not in an abstract or spiritual way, but as a flesh and blood human being.

Of course, unlike Jesus, we all too often give into temptation. We all have room for improvement in that department – and with God’s help we can improve.
But, when we inevitably stumble and fall we know that God’s covenant with us remains as strong as ever. We know that no matter what we do or don’t do, God’s love for us remains as strong as ever.

So, Lent is now well underway. We have been given this great gift from God and the Church to look inside ourselves and to say we’re sorry for the things we shouldn’t have done as well as the things we should have done but didn’t. We have this opportunity to allow God to change our hearts so that we can become the kind of people that God dreams that we can be – the kind of people that God knows we really are.

And when we stumble, when we miss the mark, when we sin, we know that God has made an unbreakable covenant with us. We know that God has made an indissoluble bond with us.

And that is very good news.


Just Neighbors

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 2009

Just Neighbors

Over the past few months many of us have become increasingly aware of the poverty that exists here in our communities. Those of us who receive the daily email updates from Kit Cone about the work of the Recycling Ministry learn about the often desperate straits of our neighbors living in places such as Morristown, Dover, and sometimes even in Madison. It is deeply touching and also very disturbing to read about people who are moved to tears by the gift of a simple kitchen table or a modest supermarket gift card.

Many of us were astonished when we learned that the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown is now regularly hosting over 300 guests a day. That shocking statistic - plus the amazing incentive of a $1000 matching grant from an anonymous foundation - clearly inspired the Grace Church community on “Souper Bowl” Sunday to open up its wallets and checkbooks and donate nearly $3000 to the soup kitchen – money that we know will be put to good use by this remarkable ministry.

Thanks to the leadership and organizational skill of Marge Paul, our February day at the soup kitchen was a great success. Bill Foster led us off with a powerful prayer reminding me of the 17th Century French saint Vincent de Paul who insisted that serving the poor was our highest privilege. Thankfully, more than enough food was donated and Marge actually had to turn away volunteers! As expected, we fed somewhere around 300 hungry and cold guests. Judging by their unfamiliarity with the ways of the soup kitchen, a fair number were first-time guests of the soup kitchen.

As I doled out plate after plate of salad, I noticed that this large room, filled with a couple of hundred people waiting, eating and serving, was remarkably quiet. The atmosphere was markedly solemn. I also could not help but notice that the vast majority of guests were men. There were only a handful of women, including one who brought her baby in a stroller. As I thought about that, I remembered reading how in the Great Depression the poverty of women and children was largely hidden from public view because they would be at home while the men went out each day looking for work or at least to gather some food for the family.

As Christians, we are called to uncover the hidden poverty in our midst. As Christians we have the privilege and the responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves and especially to serve the poor. Grace Church offers many opportunities to live out our baptismal promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. The Food for Friends canister is always standing by to receive your donations. New volunteers are welcome to help at the soup kitchen. Kit could always use help with Recycling Ministry’s work of picking up donations or delivering items to clients. Or, maybe you can think of a new ministry that can help us serve those in need!

This Lent we are introducing a new program to help us better know and serve our neighbors. During an adult seminar in January, some of us were introduced to the Just Neighbors program. Based on the positive feedback we received, we will offer the Just Neighbors program each Wednesday evening in Lent, beginning March 4, from 7:30 pm to 8:30 pm in Grace Hall. Everyone is invited and encouraged to attend some or all of the sessions. Here is a description of the program from the facilitator’s manual:

Just Neighbors is a way to help your congregation follow one of scripture’s most basic teachings: to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is an interactive multimedia curriculum, an engaging and inspiring educational experience. Its purpose is to help your congregation assist and advocate for their neighbors who are living in poverty.

In a complex, mobile, and busy world, we may not know our neighbors very well. We may not know the difficulties that some of them face. We may not know how to help.

Just Neighbors introduces congregations to some of their neighbors who are in need. It offers insight into their daily struggles. It points the way to greater understanding – not only of problems but of solutions. It inspires people of faith to act on what they’ve learned.

This Lent let us thank God for the privilege of serving our neighbors. And let’s get to work!