Tuesday, March 7, 2017

First Sunday in Lent -Year A - Sunday, March 5, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
The Rev'd Dr. Deborah Meister
First Sunday in Lent - Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Rev'd Dr. Deborah Meister
And the serpent said, “…Ye shall be as gods.” (Gen 3:5)

The summer I was six or seven years old, I fell in love with lanyards. I was at day-camp, and the art counselor pulled out some spools of brightly colored plastic ribbon and showed us how to weave them together. I was entranced. I did not know what a lanyard was, or why you might want one, but I brought that first one home to my mother as if it were gold. And then I kept making them. I made them and made them until you could not open a drawer in our kitchen without stumbling upon a tangle of lime-green or neon-raspberry plastic tucked behind a jumble of other things; — you know, the ones you might actually use. And then I left that camp forgot them completely until thirty years later, when Garrison Keillor came onto the radio reading a poem by Billy Collins, who had made a lanyard for his mother. Collins wrote,

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,

and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift - not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.[1]
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, the season in which Christians everywhere kneel in the dust and make lanyards for God. There is the lanyard of fasting, the lanyard of prayer, the lanyard of serving twice a week in a soup kitchen, so many lanyards that we make and offer to God, holding them up in our hands with barely-concealed glee and asking, “See what I made you, God?Are we even?” We are called to atone, and so we make offerings.  But let’s start with a bit of hard truth: God has drawers-full of those lanyards. He doesn’t need yours.

He also did not need them from Jesus. That’s clear from today’s Gospel, which comes directly after Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens are torn apart and a voice proclaims, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17). And immediately the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert for forty days and forty nights. Matthew says that he went there in order to be tempted by Satan, but while that did happen, I am not certain that was Jesus’ actual purpose. Given the words he had just heard, it would have been natural for Jesus to take some time to think and to pray, to explore what it meant to be the Son of God.

Certainly, that’s the question behind Satan’s temptations. The first two begin with the same phrase, “If you are the Son of God…”, and each of the three offers Jesus the opportunity to buy into a particular understanding of what it is to be divine. They are the temptations of power, provision, and spectacle— self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-promoting. But the Devil is a notoriously unreliable narrator, and we should not take these temptations at face value, even if they are what sometimes tempts us. Taken as a whole, these three miracles would lead Jesus to embody God as the Great Strongman in the Sky: the all-powerful, all-knowing being who can meet every need, guarantee our safety, and order the world with laws to safeguard our purity, protect us from the heathen, reward the righteous, and banish everyone else to pain and to fear. In other words, Satan is tempting Jesus to show us a God who sounds a lot like the God we often believe in.

But the cards were stacked against Satan this time, because that theology had already been exposed as bankrupt. The Hebrews had the record of it, four whole books of Kings and Chronicles, the unsparing account of a time when corrupt kings and their venal cronies had extorted gold from the sweat of the poor and the migrant, while a tamed priesthood proclaimed a tame God who loved them above all other nations, no matter what they did or who they harmed. That had not worked out so well for Israel or for Judah: it had ended with Jerusalem a heap and Samaria a rubble and the bodies of the warriors food for the birds of the air, while the survivors were left to expiate their sins by taking upon themselves the sufferings they had inflicted on others.(Jer 9:11, Micah 1:6, Jer 7:33) Whatever it meant for Christ to be the Son of God, it probably did not mean resurrecting that.

And so Christ rejects this theology, turning from the inhuman kings to their fiercest critics, the prophets who had condemned their sham religion with its endless rites and its pro forma purity, carefully observing what was clean and unclean while the children cried out for bread, and upheld instead the compassion of God poured out unstintingly on those whom the kings had left behind. “Is not this the fast that I choose,” God asks, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  (Isaiah 58:5-7)

But this set of commandments is difficult and disquieting; it propels us into painful situations and takes away our clean, straight lines. My second year in seminary, I spent three Saturdays a month at the food pantry run by the church which I was serving as an intern. The second or third week I was there, a woman came in just before closing. She was beautiful, or had been, before the drugs took hold. That day, she was filthy and there were needle-tracks on her arms and she was wearing the clothes of a prostitute, but still, the bones in her face were a thing of wonder. She was dragging three children with her, two in one hand and the third, an infant, draped over her arm like a sack of potatoes. They were filthy, too, with dirty clothes and snot on their faces and no coats to wear against the cold. The second time she came, I asked the rector at what point we could call Child Protective Services. She explained that we did not do that: if our guests thought they could lose their children, they would not come. The next weekend, the woman did not appear, and I begged the site supervisor to keep the doors open just a little longer, in case she was running late. The supervisor refused, explaining that if we did it for this woman, we’d have to do it for everyone. And so all that year, I found myself waiting by the doors each Saturday as we approached noon, looking down the street, hoping to see the woman, because if she came, she and those children would have food.

That was sixteen years ago, and I do not know what happened to her or to those children. But this I do know. If I, who am a mess, can learn to wait in hope to see a junkie who will not give me her name, then surely our God, who made us, can wait for us with hope, not because we have done something wonderful, not because we have moved mountains or built the perfect society or spent nine hundred hours in prayer, but just because God wants to know we are OK, that we are going to be all right. The serpent always whispers, “You must be like gods,” but it was Christ’s work and ours to figure out what it meant to be a human being.

I do not mean that holiness is nothing, just that it is nothing like what we often envision it to be. It is messy and difficult and reeks with the iron tang of blood. We want it to be something we can tame. It would be so much easier to go on and on, making perfect lanyards of personal piety: pure, useless, and disconnected from any other human being. But we are not called to live perfectly-ordered lives, but rather to honor God and his living presence in the living flesh and blood of those around us; not to become plaster saints, but to get down into the heat and dust, where Christ wrestles to save us from all our sorry false choices, from all the ways we set ourselves apart from one another, calling one another clean and unclean, good and evil, when all God called us was “beloved.” And true holiness — this holiness — is not an offering we make to God, but a gift God gives to us, not because we have earned it, but because we need it to live. We need to manifest God’s love in the lives of those around us, allowing our stony hearts to become bread for the world.

When we are baptized, we promise “to honor the dignity of every human being.” That was how Christ answered Satan’s questions, not with a miracle or with a handful of Scripture verses, but with the rest of his life. We need that witness now, perhaps more than at any point in my lifetime. Bear that witness. But know this: because we are God’s children, the measure of our lives is not what we have achieved, but the direction in which we are moving — toward God, or away. And if the best we can do is to stumble in the door two minutes before midnight with the chains of our compulsions all around us, dragging the people we love and people we have hurt, who are so often the same, then still the name we hear will be our own and the voice we hear will speak in love, because God knows our names. Always has, and always will.

Start there, and all your offerings will be holy, because they will be rooted and grounded in love.


[1] Billy  Collins, “The Lanyard.”

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