Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Lent 1 B – Sunday, February 22, 2015
1 Peter 3:18-22
Since this is the season of confession and repentance, I thought I would lead by example. I have a bad habit that I am hoping to break during Lent this year. I, well, I like to read parish profiles. A parish profile as you may know is in the Episcopal Church the document a parish writes after their priest has moved on; the parish gathers data about the people’s interests and needs and crafts an inviting yet honest definition which may appeal to potential rectors looking for a new ministry. I don’t read them because I’m looking for a job, mind you, but because the parish profile is a unique window into how the writers of the profile, typically members of the congregation, define themselves as Christians in community with others.
1 Peter 3:18-22
|Jesus in the desert|
The words of a profile are a window into the heart of the congregation. Here’s where the bad habit part comes in. In the vast majority of profiles I read the description of what the parish seeks in a priest and where the parish sees itself and its vision sound more like an ad for a corporate executive than a pastor of souls, sadly. Here is exactly what one parish wrote that it wanted in its next rector:
A dynamic preacher who can develop and deliver sermons that illustrate Biblical concepts relevant to today’s challenges. A visionary, collaborative, yet decisive leader who challenges and encourages us to grow spiritually and embrace our core values of Inviting, Growing and Living. A team builder who can set priorities, delegate, and manage staff and lay leaders by inspiring and empowering them to be their best. An energetic advocate for youth and child oriented programs who enjoys interacting with youth and children. A flexible and open-minded individual who appreciates leading an uplifting but reverent style of worship and music. A personable, compassionate, priest who enjoys engaging with our diverse congregation and visitors.
You get the idea. It’s the idealized image of community as the place where talking and doing and all things generally uplifting are ultimate. Now there was a time in my life when I would have written this and thought it good and right – this is the church, this is what it is to be about – communicate, relate, challenge, encourage, inspire, engage. I lived this in youth ministry for 12 years of my life. I don’t mean to be judgmental – much good I know can be done through this kind of vision. And besides, a rector has to be competent in all of these things in order to keep people happy and keep the institution growing and pay the bills.
Isn’t it interesting that the profile I quoted never mentioned God or the reign of God, never mentioned prayer, spiritual practice, self-care, retreat. It never mentioned solitude, character, soul, or heart. The Gospel lesson today seems to question the assumptions many have about the nature of Christian community. It is a totally different kind of formation profile. Jesus’ actions put the emphasis on soul formation working its way out into the world of others rather than merely keeping the institutional externals going as an end in themselves.
For Jesus, the question for community is not "what do you know or do", but "what have you been through individually and together?" And going through means a deep facing of the self in order to allow it to be transformed by God. Jesus will feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome the outcast, and preach to thousands – he is no mountain-top guru in perpetual meditation.
But first, he is with the Father. The first act after baptism is to withdraw and be alone. He is abiding in God’s presence. He is being the Beloved Son. Jesus is modeling that the good news is first and always about receiving the free gift of grace. And so it is with us as God’s beloved children in Christ. We have always been and will always be God’s beloved. That is the essence of our creation. God does not wait for us to be good enough or do enough, God waits for us to stop and receive and act from who we already are, not who we think we can become if we try hard enough. Our love of self and others begins and ends in receiving the name “beloved”.
But receiving the gift of self leads to temptation. If you say “Yes” to God, all hell will break loose. The temptation comes as “I must be in control, I must be sufficient, I must do something, become someone" in order to be accepted and acceptable. What Jesus chooses instead is the path of life which is letting go and trusting the mystery of death and resurrection. Lent invites us into the wilderness of eccentric existence. The wilderness is the place of truth, of choice, of “not my will, but yours”. True abiding in the heart of God in silence and solitude leads into abiding at the margins with the wild beasts and angels - in the questions, in the pain and discomfort of life.
This is the Christian journey – hearing God proclaim our true identity, abiding in God, proclaiming good news to the world. It’s a rhythm that says go into your closet and pray and then come out and disturb. Disturb by acting like God’s beloved. Disturb by resisting the safe and comfortable. Ask yourself and those around you ‘why’? Ask ‘why not?’ What does this mean? How does this reflect the love of Jesus? Agitate for the real. Perhaps we need a new kind of parish profile, a new way of prioritizing what constitutes our list of ultimates. A profile for a wilderness people who are willing to be real – real with our joys and struggles, our pains and sorrows, our questions and insights - for a community that will welcome us if we don’t feel very dynamic and don’t necessarily want to engage everyone all the time. The parish profile of a wilderness people declares that the behind-the-scenes and the intimate are just as important as big, splashy programs - sitting and listening to each other – listening to doubts, struggles, and grief.
Sometimes profound love is in the smallest acts. Sometimes what can help change a person’s life is the vulnerability and honesty to say we don’t have all the answers, that very often being a Christian is hard and confusing and sometimes I choose the easy way. People who have been to the wilderness have a profile that says that it is O.K. to sit in the back row, to be alone when we need to be, to realize that authentic relationship is more about quality than quantity, that having one soul friend who really knows me is better than a hundred acquaintances. Wilderness people know that though we are flawed, though we fall, though we have a long way to go in the journey toward holiness, we are God’s beloved, that God chooses to use our voices and our hands and our feet. When we believe that and live that, then we truly proclaim with Jesus, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”