Sunday, March 08, 2009

2nd Sunday of Lent

Is it ok to say I am “enjoying” this season of Lent? Yes, I know it’s a penitential season. Yes, I know it calls us to reflection and assessment of the state of our souls. Maybe it’s wrong to say I am “enjoying” it. But I am savoring it. I am letting myself flow into it. I need this liturgical season.

It is good for the state of my soul to confront these truths once a year. I give thanks for the liturgical season, which brings me off my high horse from time to time.

Today was a good one for me in my parish. Let me remind you of the collect and the Gospel.

The Collect
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Gospel: Mark 8:31-38
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."
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

I’ve never really understood what Jesus meant when he said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Surely we’re not meant to go through our days with a wooden cross slung across our shoulders. Without a doubt, Jesus was saying something serious and substantive to his disciples – and to us. But what the heck did he mean to those of us listening in the 21st century?

I’ve been in the Episcopal Church since 1997, so I’ve heard this reading at least three times. Today, my friend Marc was the preacher. And he articulated it in a way that finally made sense to me.

What Marc took from today’s text was obedience. Jesus walked all the way to the cross out of total obedience to God. It’s not about the scourging and the blood he shed on the cross. It’s about his complete obedience to God. Here’s how Marc put it in his sermon today:

Jesus began to explain what was expected of them if they, too, were to accept the Divine imperative: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He did not call them to theological reflection. He did not summon them to faith. And, He did not ask for belief in His Messianic kingship. Jesus simply demanded of them what His heavenly Father had demanded of Him: obedience.

Thus, while we share with Christ the burden of the cross, its weight is borne not on the shoulders of faith, humility or even selfless love. Rather, these are the by-products of the principal summons of Jesus to those who would follow Him: to obey without hesitation, to obey unfailingly, simply to obey. As it was for Jesus so, too, is it for us that in this sentinel act of unreserved obedience we are lavished with the unbounded grace of God. And through this grace, we are given access to the very faith, humility and selfless love essential in our response to the crises of our individual lives, our experience as followers of the Christ and our witness to a troubled world.
This is a radical notion for me. I have yearned for faith, humility, and selfless love. What I hear here is that those gifts follow after obedience.

Marc also said:

Clearly, for Jesus, the way of the cross defined His obedience to the Divine imperative. While the suffering He endured was both real and substantial, it was, nevertheless, the manifestation of His unflinching obedience to God, not the essence of His Passion. Likewise, the cross we are commanded “to take up” if we are to follow Jesus is only possible if we empty ourselves at the foot of His cross, abandon the hubris and vainglory of our self-indulgent lives and prostrate ourselves in humble contrition. Void of a life of our own, we are then free to pray with Jesus: not my will, “but Thy will be done.”
That is the posture I have been pursuing – or at least one which I wish to pursue: one in which I have the courage to abandon my hubris, vainglory, and self-indulgence.

I hear those words again. I must empty myself at the foot of the cross. I must abandon my hubris and my vainflory, my self-indulgence. I must offer myself in humble contrition.

And then – maybe then! – I will be able to hear God's voice and know what I am to obey.

Marc continued:
Indeed, the way of the cross, the foundation of our experience of Lent and our life as a community of faith are firmly fixed in obedience to the unambiguous, non-negotiable and preeminent demand of obedience to God.
Those are hard words. And yet I welcome them. Marc’s exegesis made more sense to me than most. I am ready to believe that in “taking up the cross,” Jesus was referring to utter obedience to what God calls each of us to do. For him, it was the literal cross on Calvary. For us, it may be other forms of selfless obedience.

But here’s my problem. How do I know – how do any of us know? – whether it’s the voice of God we’re hearing? or some other voice? How do you discern it’s God’s voice that’s calling you? If you’re being called to sacrifice or self-indulgence, how do you discern which voice is speaking to you?

This is a question with which I have struggled. For decades. I’ll try to tell a couple of my own stories in the next few days. Meanwhile, I want to hear your words.


Blogger --Susan said...

ME TOO! What you said! I wonder probably waaaaaaaay more than I should what the heck I should be doing. What is God calling me to do? Marc's words (and yours) were powerful to me. Thanks for sharing. I was ruminating on this very thing during Advent. I sent many words to my pastor. This exerpt I think speaks to "the call". Whatever that is. This is long. Please feel free to edit or delete.

To my pastor:
I was reading a sermon by PC Enniss, “How God Gets Through”. She used the calls of Samuel and the disciples as her scriptural background.

Samuel was this kid in the temple doing temple chores. Though he was growing up in the temple, he did not know God. It isn’t hard to understand that when God spoke, Samuel didn’t recognize God’s voice. Samuel didn’t know God and besides, God hadn’t spoken in a long time and no one expected God to do so. Even the priest didn’t realize at first that it was God speaking. It wasn’t how God behaved. And to a child??

The disciples lived their lives. Yet they were moved by this teacher Jesus. He called. They responded. There is evidence over the next few years that they didn’t understand what that call meant, what it would mean to them to answer the call and follow Jesus.

The author asks:
How does God get through?
If he speaks, why does he speak to some and not others?
If he speaks to all, why doesn’t he speak more consistently and clearly so to be better understood?
How can we be sure it is God speaking and not our emotions, our psyches, the world?

The author continues that those questions have no easy answers but we can know a few things:
God will not speak to me to the detriment of another.
God summons to wholeness, healing, harmony, reconciliation, salvation.
We have to be careful to evaluate the voice because there are many impersonations.
We cannot predict or program or limit God’s speaking.

Enniss quotes Buechner, saying in part
There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly. … Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness, touch…taste…smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments and life itself is grace. Listen to your life.

I continue to ponder God's call. I just FEEL like I'm missing it, like I'm failing at "listening to my life".

Then I wonder if I don't get caught up by the "doing". I'm not a do-er. I am a be-er. (Notice the hypen.)

Marc's words here I found particularly meaningful:
He did not call them to theological reflection. He did not summon them to faith. And, He did not ask for belief in His Messianic kingship. Jesus simply demanded of them what His heavenly Father had demanded of Him: obedience.

Sometimes I get caught up in the theology, theological reflection. Sometimes my faith, well, sucks. I sometimes have problems with "belief".

"Jesus simply demanded of them." I have to smile at "simply".

I think when I am (I mean no sacrilege here.), just am as I am, I am doing best what God calls me to do. I can witness to my faith. I can be present to others. I can recognize that "all moments are key moments and life itself is grace."

And I still have this nagging "am I DOING what God is calling me to do?" Am I listening? Am I hearing? Do I hear with "itching ears" and therefore am missing my call?

I look forward to reading others' thoughts on taking up the cross and following God's call.

Thanks again Lisa.

3/09/2009 12:01 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Susan, I appreciate your long and thoughtful reflection on the readings and on Marc's sermon.

Like you, I struggle to discern the difference between what God is calling me to be/do, what my ego may be calling me to do/be, and what other voices may be calling me to do/be.

I don't have any wise words, Susan. As I sense you are, I am struggling to understand what it means to hear God's call and be obedient.

Thank you for your raw honesty here.

BTW, I too was bemused by Marc's use of the term "simply" in those two instances. For -- to me -- there's nothing simple about it!
I am grateful that you found this reflection thought-provoking. I am still pondering it myself.

3/09/2009 8:22 PM  
Blogger Lindy said...

I am not sure God is as concerned about our obedience as we are. I think God wants something a little bit different from all of us but that mainly it's about presence and love. I don't try to hard to understand that. Just me. I should probably be more worried about it.

Very thoughtful post, Lisa. Thank you.

3/09/2009 8:37 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I don't think you should be more worried, Lindy.

In fact, I think you've said something very important: Perhaps the obedience to which we are called is (as you said) about presence and love.

My point about obedience isn't about figuring out the secret handshake -- it's figuring out God's will and God's call in my life.

And "presence and love" is a very, very strong baseline from which to begin.

Thank you.

3/09/2009 9:25 PM  

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