Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lent 4B, "Snakes, Sunsets and the City" St John's Wodonga

I have to admit that when I first looked at the lessons for today, I was less than thrilled. They're all pretty packed: the Israelites remembering all charms of  Egypt, and complaining loudly at the beginning of their desert pilgrimage to the promised land; the letter to the Ephesians talking about being lost in the desires  of flesh and senses, requiring a rescue of vast proportions; and Jesus continuing his dialogue with Nicodemus on how we might find refuge and hope in holding tight  to the death and resurrection of the Son of Man; all packed together pretty tight.

But Robert Frost, the  20th-century poet, once said something like "you should take the light things seriously and the serious things lightly." So I want to move into these complex readings with a couple of simple images that might help us, make sense of where we are in this journey with Jesus today

First a story about what happened to me and my family when I was in early adolescence and when It seemed like my world was falling apart: the death of a beloved grandfather, an idolized older brother getting married, starting his own household, my parents having trouble with money and their marriage; and in 1960 my mother and I moving to my uncle's sheep ranch in the Sacramento Valley. So visualize this 14-year-old boy, his back against the wall on the front porch of a  1930s California ranch house in territory that looks a bit like the land you see between Benalla and Shepparton with some hills to the west. This kid  in early adolescence sitting there with T-shirt and shorts on a warm summer evening - maybe late August or September -  watching the sunset over the Coast Range.

Now this kid thought he might have been smart, but vigilant would be a better word. He was trying to make sense of the world around him, had abandoned formal education and was educating himself by watching television, reading popular novels and books on psychology and sociology; figuring that if he looks for all the clues, eventually the puzzle will make sense, and the chaos will turn into some kind of order that he can control, or at least make peace with. He thinks, worries, wonders, about these things a lot. But that particular evening, just for a moment as he watches the sun begin to go down between the two distant mountains, he becomes aware of a subtle change in the air. It may be something you know. This moment when the earth baked by the sun since the morning starts to give up its heat to the cooler evening, with a bit of a fresh breeze; the threshold of  the day ending and the evening beginning, with a a kind of give-and-take, relinquishing and recovery, a rhythm, and a sudden unexpected sense that some sort of silent music might just be under everything.

 As I say he, will keep himself busy with his plans to move to the city, to be a successful person, to know what needs to be done, to be able to answer the questions of what matters and who is in control. But this silent music gives him pause for just a moment.

And that was one moment when I realized for a very short while (over 50 years later I've never forgotten it) that where I was, even though I thought it was in a cultural desert and a land I needed to escape from, might instead be a place for faithful pilgrimage, for a knowledge and a wisdom that was more than information.

Now fast forward some 30 years. A middle-aged mean is walking across a park in the middle of San Francisco. I joke that I spent my 20s making up for my teens and my 30s making up for my 20s, but there's some truth there: I was a bit of a hippie in my 20s, then  a perennial student and graduate student in my 30s, and when I got to my 40s I was doing campus ministry and teaching part-time as an Anglican layperson at the Jesuit University of San Francisco. I was somewhat underemployed and very underpaid but after a number of years wandering around doing a bit of everything I was working at something that seemed to connect, not only with what I needed but with what the world needed as well; an effort that seemed right and true, with some real mercy, making a difference in a very small way.

So I was walking across this open space and up ahead there was a hill of newly replanted grass set apart, circled by strings tied to sticks stuck in the ground and one small sign in front with three words printed in big black letters: "Shortcuts Cause Erosion" and I saw marks of dog paws and peoples shoe heals cutting across the new growing grass and realized I live in a world full of shortcuts. crowded with erosion. And that I was part of that world

Now this could be San Francisco in the 90s, Egypt or Babylon or Jerusalem a few thousand years ago, or Wodonga, Wangaratta, or anywhere else now: a green field of a world scarred by a lot of shortcuts, And I am a part of that world, we all are. It starts in Eden or anywhere,  whenever some snake in the grass tells us to take shortcuts to find a place where we can feel at home, be in control, on top of things at whatever cost. But it doesn't work and those shortcuts never fail to turn around and bite us in the end, painfully, while we're just trying to just holding on to what we thought we wanted, to follow those noisy and conspicuous desires of ego, of flesh and senses, cutting through to the place we thought we wanted to be. Those shortcuts end up killing us, like the letter to the Ephesians says, with our hands full of treasures that aren't worth it and our hearts aching from all the trespasses that took us where we shouldn't go.

Now I'm not bragging about my sins, the fact is they weren't that flashy, anymore then anyone else's, and the fact is too that everyone does the best they can. But I did see, that day at the park, that there were some serious reasons to avoid the shortcuts and get back to Jesus; there always are, and it's often isn't easy.

Because, as Sebastian Moore writes in a book called, "The Crucified Jesus is no Stranger," when we look on Jesus, God's light of love, we can clearly see our own shadow, all those mindless worthless shortcuts, and it burns like a snakebite as well, and there is something is us that wants to push him away, to protect what we thought we wanted to have, to hold on to that old history of who we thought we wanted to be.

That's part of the story of our lives, everybody lives: just jump forward to Holy Week, where todays lessons are taking us. Where are you as that week winds to an end? Are you with the faithful women watching from a ways off, are you with the scared and scattered apostles, running from their own denials, are you with so many in the crowd, feeling the sting of this Jesus, and pushing him away at any cost? Most days, I will confess, I am all over the map.

Here's a quote from, I think, Austin Farrer: "We are invited to exchange our living death for His dying life."  That's the good news from todays Gospel. We are invited to take up the truth that to hold on to your life, no matter what the cost, is a shortcut to nowhere, and to go beyond that. Instead to lay down our history and our burdens and our prizes and to take the chance to open our arms wide like Jesus for a bigger hope and a larger life. For when we listen and learn and look at the Lord, at what he says and how he lives and dies, we can see that sunset in the middle of the City, of every city, and every place; a certain promise, calling us to give up our ego and come to our heart and soul, to give our life away in love, to take the long way home in the surprise and hope of that God-given sunrise.

Here's how John Donne finishes his poem Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward. We can end here too.

O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree...
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face. 


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