Tag Archives: falling

Undefended, powerless, but kept in God’s love

Today’s collect for the Third Sunday in Lent is pretty serious.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It lays out the fear that paralyzes our bodies and neutralizes our souls and in it we pray that we may be not just defended, but kept in God’s love.

We get one thing right in this prayer. We ask for two things that we’re never going to get. And we get from God something “more than we can ask or imagine.”

So, the first thing we get wrong …

 

That we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body

Then the LORD said [to Moses], “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)

Moses’ first efforts, unfortunately, made Pharaoh angry and he punished the Israelites by cutting off their supply of straw but requiring they make the same number of bricks each day. So their work was doubled and their bodies further harmed.

Ultimately, however, the LORD redeemed their bodies from slavery and the whip but immediately subjected their bodies to the harsh conditions of the wilderness.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus 16:2-3)

Reminds me of the “ex-leper” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who complains that Jesus has healed him: “One minute I’m a leper with a trade; the next minute, my livelihood’s gone! Bloody do-gooder!”

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Brian replies.

“That’s just what Jesus said, sir!”

Ex-leper

We’re wrong to believe that we will be defended from bodily harm, just as we’re wrong to think that we’ll be freed from “evil thoughts.”

 

That we may be defended from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul

Jesus is being cross-examined by the Pharisees and lawyers in front of a growing crowd when someone asks him: “Oh yeah, what about those Galileans who were killed in church?”

He retorts, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

The Galileans killed in the Temple by Pilate’s soldiers, their blood mingling with their sacrifices … or how about the eighteen people killed in the Siloam tower collapse?

Jesus asks, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

Or how about the nine people who died during the tornadoes this week?

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about the 41 people injured and 25 people killed by gun violence this week in Iuka MS, Orlando, Kalamazoo, Houston, Hazelwood MO, Daytona Beach, Glendale AZ, Hesston KS, and Belfair WA? (I had to Google to be sure I didn’t miss any.)

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about people on food stamps or unemployment?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

Or how about Bernie supporters? Trump supporters?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

These are perfect examples of what recovery programs call “stinking thinking,” the thought that this time (for me) it’ll be different. This time (for me) the rules don’t apply. This time (for me) the consequences won’t be so severe.

What a crock! And we know it, but we’re afraid to admit it. We’re no better than anyone else, and in our blindness we may in fact be worse.

But we do get one essential thing right in our prayer.

God knows we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves

Moses gets it right.

“Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God …. and Moses asked “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:6, 11)

christ-in-gethsemane-p

Paul continues in the same vein, using the Israelites in the wilderness as an example to the Christians in Corinth:

Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. (1 Cor. 10)

Who are we to say we’re any better than our ancestors in the faith, any less likely to stray into temptation, any less likely to complain, any less likely to put Christ to the test?

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Jesus says.

“These things happened to them to serve as an example,” Paul writes, “and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

 

Almighty God, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls

We are not defended from bodily adversity; we are not defended from “stinking thinking,” and we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Even knowing God’s name doesn’t work like a magic spell or give us special powers.

Richard Rohr suggests that even God’s name, I AM WHO I AM – or YAHWEH – is not a real name at all, but the sound of one’s breathing. (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

No wonder Moses doesn’t seem convinced. Instead of a name to convince the Israelites and Pharaoh, all he gets is the sound of his own breathing.

[IN] YAH

[OUT] WEH

Our chests tighten in fear [IN], and we exhale in relief [OUT].

We suffer and die [IN] just like anyone does, but we are given a name and a promise [OUT] to sustain us.

We struggle against oppression and violence [IN], even as we recognize it in ourselves [OUT].

I think I’m standing [IN], but I’ve got to watch out that I don’t fall [OUT].

We are not magically defended from bodily harm; we are not righteously defended from “stinking thinking,” and if we’re honest we’ll admit we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves – at least not any better than anyone else does.

But “in falling and in rising, we are kept ever precious in one love,” as Julian of Norwich reminds us.

Falling rising Julian

And that’s what we get right in this morning’s Collect. We are kept ever precious in God’s one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our bodies are kept in one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our souls are kept in one love.

We are powerless to save ourselves,
but we ourselves are kept in one love.

+ + + + +

[IN] Keep us, [OUT] Almighty God.

[IN] Keep me, [OUT] O God.

[IN] O God. [OUT]

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From the wound a lovely flower grew

Br. Curtis Almquist SSJE writes this morning in “Brother, Give Us a Word” about Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus.

Healing
Ignatius of Loyola had his life’s quite-vain ambitions completely dashed by a mortal wound. Through that wound he found a kind of healing for his soul: an experience of love, freedom, and clarity to attune his desires to what God desires.

I can’t help hearing echoes of a song by Sting called “The Lazarus Heart”:

He looked beneath his shirt today
There was a wound in his flesh so deep and wide
From the wound a lovely flower grew
From somewhere deep inside

While Sting is also referencing the myth of the Fisher King — the sickness of the land is visible in the king’s body, and his healing saves the land — Br. Curtis points to the cross-shaped life that Ignatius embodied.

From a powerful fall, a crippling wound that should have ended his military usefulness, Ignatius became something new, a soldier for Christ. His discipline and ferocity were transmuted into rigorous prayer and daring service.

Each of us will find in our own falling, in the “wound in our flesh so deep and wide,” the seed of new life in Christ — if we wish to flower.

Though the sword was his protection
The wound itself would give him power
The power to remake himself
At the time of his darkest hour
She said the wound would give him courage and pain
The kind of pain that you can’t hide
From the wound a lovely flower grew
From somewhere deep inside

Sermon for 2 Lent | Abraham, Peter, and a mustard seed

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31-33)

I don’t know if Paul had this story in mind when he wrote today’s chapter of the letter to the Romans, but his rivalry with Peter might have colored the way he painted the story of Abraham’s faith.

Abraham

Before the portion of Genesis that we read this morning (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16), Abram:

  • had already followed God to the land he showed him, “along with his wife Sarai, his brother’s son Lot, and all their possessions, and all the persons they had acquired”
  • had already gone down to Egypt because of a famine
  • had already separated from Lot so they wouldn’t get in each other’s way, then come back to rescue him
  • had already been blessed by Melchizedek
  • had already made a covenant with God, and “it was reckoned to him as righteousness”
  • and had already had a son, Ishmael, with Sarai’s servant girl Hagar, who went into exile with the boy

Today, God gives Abraham a new name, and God says Sarah will give birth to a son.

Here’s how Abraham responds, at least according to Paul:

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:19-22)

Peter

Now before Jesus started talking about suffering and dying, Simon

  • had already left his nets and followed him
  • had already seen a man with an unclean spirit healed
  • had already seen his mother-in-law healed, for goodness’ sake
  • had already seen a leper healed
  • had already seen a paralyzed man get up and walk
  • had already seen a tax collector leave the money follow Jesus
  • had already been appointed one of the Twelve and given a new name, Peter
  • had already heard Jesus teach in parables, calm a storm, heal a demoniac, raise a girl to life and heal a suffering woman

And Peter had already gone out on a mission with the rest of the apostles and done all of these impossible things himself!

And then …. Jesus fed 5,000 people, walked on water, cured a deaf man, and fed 4,000 more people.

And then Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”

Today, Jesus talks about yet another impossible thing: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter starts to argue with Jesus, saying that’s not how it’s going to be! We’re on a roll here – look at everything we’ve accomplished – and it’s just going to keep getting better from now on!

Jesus is sharp in his rebuke, calling Peter on the carpet in front of everyone. “Get behind me, you adversary, you tempter! (That’s what “Satan” means.) You’re focused on human things, not divine.”

I can just imagine Peter’s face burning red with shame.

In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr writes “Jesus praised faith and trust – even more than love. It takes a foundational trust to fall, or to fail, and not to fall apart.”

How Peter must be humbled by Jesus’ rebuke, though he still has to fall, and fail, a couple more times before he finally falls upward into the identity his name points to: Peter the Rock.

The Mustard Seed

But today I want to turn from rocks, and from the mountain-top where the tempter lives, and focus down on a little mustard seed.

Jesus said, according to Matthew, that “if you have faith the size a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

Both Abraham and Peter had trust.

Both of them had seen God acting and had followed God in trust.

Abraham also had just enough faith to be “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

That little faith, small as a mustard seed, was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”

However, Peter is most like us – that’s probably why he’s first among the Twelve apostles.

Like Peter, we have already seen Jesus and his Spirit acting in our lives:

  • In two powerful Faith Alive weekends that have revitalized the congregation
  • In vibrant healing ministries that we offer each other every week
  • In so many Bible studies, EfM groups, and reading groups every week
  • Through our mission partners and mission prayer links
  • Through our children and young people
  • In our retired clergy, so generous with their wisdom and time
  • In the 85 people who came out on Wednesday night to gather with our bishop for a Lenten study

But like Peter we have a hard time hearing Jesus when the talk turns serious, when he sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.

The transformative dying that Jesus describes, what we now call the Way of the Cross, demands of us not just trust that Jesus is leading us where we need to go, but faith that our falling and failing actually moves us upward toward the share in the kingdom that he promises.

That kingdom, Jesus says, is within us (Luke 17:21).

That kingdom, he says, “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:31-32).

Jesus says elsewhere that unless a grain of wheat is planted and dies, it cannot rise into new growth (John 12:24).

We are so like Peter in our falling and our failing — afraid to let go of our success, afraid to risk even a tiny mustard seed of faith.

Today, may we be like Abraham, fully convinced that God, in Christ, can do what he has promised.

“For those who want to save their life,” Jesus says, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Our little faith is enough. Our little mustard seed of faith, if we are willing to lay it down for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the good news, is enough.

And that little mustard seed of faith will “be reckoned to us as righteousness,” just as Paul said it would be.

He also said, “The promise rests on grace … “

And the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and for ever. Amen.