love made perfect

homily for April 29, 2018

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I once heard a story of old rabbis who were gathered around a table at night studying and arguing over scripture. They met regularly, not in an elaborate room in a synagogue but around a kitchen table, packed in together shoulder to shoulder as they wrestled with the finer points of what God was saying to them through the holy texts. One night in this midst of their session Rabbi Benjamin became overwhelmed by fatigue from the day and began to drift away: his head drooped onto his neighbor’s shoulder, and he began to snore softly.

Suddenly, the attention of the group shifted. Rather than contemplating the mysteries of Torah, they began to debate what to do about Rabbi Benjamin. True to the nature of the gathering, they began to argue the finer points of whether or not to let their friend sleep and catch his rest, or to gently rouse him so that he could rejoin their study.

Then one of the wiser ones among them said simply, Do not wake him. In fact, we should envy him, that he is able to abide in the word of God and in our fellowship, and that he can rest so completely. While the rest of them were struggling to understand the Torah, Rabbi Benjamin was simply abiding in it.

We have our own weekly study of the Gospel here on Thursday mornings, so I want to say to those who gather around that table: don’t get any ideas. We brew the coffee strong, and if you start to nod off, we aren’t about to let you get off that easy. Perhaps, though, Rabbi Benjamin really did have the right idea: when we’re faithful to God’s invitation when we gather to study, to pray, to discern, to plan, to serve, or to worship, we might do well to occasionally forget about our purposes and goals and simply abide with one another.

When Jesus invited his disciples to abide in him he gave them the image of the vine and the branches. I am the vine, he said, and you are the branches. In all that we do and all that we are, Christ’s presence in us gives us life. How easily we forget, in a world that so treasures individualism, that a branch disconnected from the vine will whither and die. How quickly we forget that God created us not just to live but to bear fruit, and that we only do that when our living connection to the vine – to Jesus – can nourish and inspire us.

Christ is in us, and we are in Christ; our brothers and sisters are branches of the same vine, and loving them perfectly – which is what we aspire to do (more about that in a moment) – is how we bear fruit.

To abide is to dwell in the presence of our beloved with attention and affection.  If that seems overly simplistic and quaint, consider that we live in a world that seems to value affection for oneself and one’s own tribe over all others. Consider that today’s marketplace is called an “attention economy” that, ironically, cultivates a profound in-attention. To abide is to live a different life entirely. It is a return to our own holiness; to abide in Jesus is to be fully alive.

When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus as Martha hurried around them she did so with attention and affection. Yet so too does Rabbi Benjamin, even while he’s asleep. To rest in God is an act of faith! To offer gratitude is an act of attention and affection; to play and to laugh may be the very highest form of abiding. That’s the beauty of sabbath, when we put down the intensity of life and simply rest in the presence of God.

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Jesus is describing a community of Christian love, a fellowship not just of friends with mutual affection but of his Body in the world. Following Jesus means staying connected to him, indeed staying as close to the vine as we can. We do that when we break bread in Eucharist, when we’re diligent in prayer, when we serve and study and sing together, and above all when we love one another.

The vine is such a perfect metaphor because it calls to mind rows and rows of disordered, tangled branches that couldn’t possibly be what a holy community looks like, but that seems to be exactly what Jesus is describing. There’s no hierarchy here…no branches that are especially saintly or troublesome, just a bunch of branches that are either connected to Jesus, or are drying up on the ground. A vineyard is a great investment of time and effort, and it takes a whole lot of work to bring fruit out of that tangled web, but through pruning and cultivation, the vine grower (God) is able to bring from it the finest of wines.

This new community is grounded in love, but not quite love in the same sense that we often use the word. You see, we really have an impoverished view of love because we only have one word for it, and for us it can mean anything from strong opinion to romantic affection, from “I love my children,” to “I love this new app I downloaded.” We seem to have domesticated love itself.

God’s wild and generative love can be approached in many ways, but it can’t be fully known and certainly won’t be captured in simple sentiment. The new testament uses not one but many words to describe love: love of fellow disciples (agape), loving all others equally as ourselves (caritas, or charity), self-emptying love (kenosis): the early Christians knew that it took a small lexicon to approach the great mystery of God’s love, and even then they could only know it partially.

What they knew, though, was that this mystical love came to full expression in their love for one another. We read in 1st John, Beloved let us love one another, because love is from God. This community saw themselves as filled with the highest form of love, of agape. This is a love that recognizes in one another something infinitely holy and precious, and that through it they could see and honor the presence of Christ in one another. It was the very love that made them the Body of Christ.

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God’s love is made perfect when we love one another, and perfect love casts out all fear. I can’t help but notice that the word “hate” isn’t in this passage: only fear. Fear competes with love for our attention; when we let fear have its way with us, our affections become distorted, and our attention becomes warped around things that lead us away from God, that lead us to live life as branches unto ourselves. Fear severs our connection to God, and when it does, bearing fruit becomes an utter impossibility.

But love made perfect casts out fear.  Look at our world, look inside ourselves, and we can find great fear. Fear of the other, fear of change, fear of failure…all these are powerful and real but they do not have the final word, for God has given to us the gift of love, and with it the capacity to cast out all fear. The vinegrower is not finished; resurrection means that God even walks through the valley of dry branches and says to us, Mortal, can these twigs live?  Fear turns us into kindling, good only for fuel, but perfect love breathes life back into our cells, and restores us to fruitfulness.

 

Do you remember where in Gospel Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches?  It was the night of the last supper, after the feet had been washed and the meal shared. Like the old rabbis, they too were gathered around a table as the night was growing darker outside the window. Judas had already left, and Jesus knew what was coming. There was plenty of reason to be afraid.

Yet his message was one of life and love. Live in me, stay close to me, and let me live in you. In me you will bear fruit. In me you will cast out all fear. In me you will find life.

 

Homily for April 29, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

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settlers and sheep

homily for April 22, 2018

I’ve made an annual trip to Ohio just about every year of my life, and have usually driven through the mountains of West Virginia to get there.  As I read the 23rd psalm just a week after returning from this annual pilgrimage I realized that those mountain passes (and calling it “a mountain pass” makes it sound far more exotic than Interstate 77) are, minus the highways and the cars, the picture that comes to mind when I think of the valley that God guides us through.

I don’t mean that West Virginia is an especially dangerous or deadly place. Rather, it helps me to see the valley in the psalm not as a place permanence or finality, but as something that we pass through.  And that means that we’re moving: we are a people on the move! Our lives are lived in motion.  The frightening places are there, to be sure, but they are a part of a path rather than a static reality, and that path leads us to our home in God.

The 23rd psalm tells a story of a people in motion. The first people who followed Yahweh would have gotten this, because they were often nomadic. Perhaps, though, this psalm simply honors the deep truth that life really is a journey, and that without a guide we will fatigue, get disoriented, go hungry, or perhaps worst of all, give up on the journey itself and just settle down at the first sign of safety.

The psalm is a poem that speaks of a flock on the move: He leads me beside still waters…he guides me along right pathways…though I walk through the valley, you are with me…surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.  Whether or not we are aware of the presence of the shepherd, we are undeniably moving.

We easily forget, of course, that we’re moving, and that tends to be when we get into trouble. If we have our world arranged perfectly around us, then what need do we have for a shepherd? What need to we have for a guide? But when we remember that we are on this lifelong path – and so often it takes a spell in the valley of shadows to make us realize it – then suddenly we realize that we are deeply in need of God. We fashion ourselves settlers, but we are really sheep, and we need a shepherd to guard and guide us.

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Of course, God is the shepherd, and once we let go of our need to map out and direct the journey itself a different pattern of life emerges. We begin to discern a kind of godly rhythm that’s found in in every stanza: in the green pastures and in the dark valleys and in the lavish meals in the presence of God. We see here a cycle of life, of revival, of risk, and of return.

The path begins as one of revival. We start out on this great adventure and we naturally grow weary, so God leads us to green pastures and still waters. God revives our souls and refreshes our spirits.  We hunger for this; we need it. This is where we are fed, inspired, renewed, filled with a spirit to live boldly and love courageously, and renewed when the heaviness of the world begins to press our feet into the mud.

When we are on this journey with God, we will find springs of living water that give us the strength to begin again. If we pitch tents in familiar places there and then decide to just hunker down, we may be comfortable for a while, but we won’t reach those places of revival. Simply put, the springs are there for us, but they won’t come to us. We’ve got to move on out to get there, and we follow the Good Shepherd to find those springs.

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Revival’s great of course, but no journey is without risk.  When we head out, we have no assurance that the road will be perfectly safe. We have no assurance that we’ll return to the place we leave, or even that that that place will be the same when we come back. We are going to pass through some valleys. They will be dangerous places. We will feel lonely and lost. We might just lose our very lives. The journey of life is filled with risk.

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his followers that he is the good shepherd. His friends would have known well the 23rd psalm, but here Jesus is saying not only that he is a loving guide; he is revealing himself as the Lord of love, the very one who moves with them through the valley, the very one who sets a sumptuous table in the presence of their most lethal enemies. And what’s more: Jesus doesn’t just guide. He lays down his life for the sheep.

Yes, he’s talking about the resurrection. But I see, in the gospel of John, a sense that this laying-down-of-one’s-life is simply a part of living our lives in God, of being on a journey of love and transformation. Transformation sounds great, but it doesn’t happen unless some calcified version of ourselves burns off, unless some part of our life that we think we can’t live without, dies. Yes, it’s painful; death always is.  But death and rebirth are essential for growing closer to God.

This speaks of a continual process of death and rebirth. When we are willing to risk a little bit, to embark on a journey with an uncertain end, yes, we will encounter danger, yes, pieces of us will die off, but with each trial something new is born. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths, our baptism being the most profound of all but one that sets a pattern for our whole lives in God.

Each time we start to lose the perspective of a people on the move, we are wise to remember not only the living waters of baptism, but also baptism’s call to a lifelong journey. When we start to see ourselves as settlers rather than sheep, the spirit tugs at us to keep moving. Each time we get to a new place, a new normal, we start to get comfortable. We want to put down those roots again, like Peter hoping to put up dwelling places on Mount Tabor.  But when we feel our spirits settling, that is often a sign that another stage of death and rebirth is coming.

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Yet the greatest gift of this journey is found in the destination. We are renewed at the living springs, but the path leads beyond them. We go through dark valleys, but the path leads beyond that, too. The path takes us to our home in God.

It is a path of revival, risk and return. Now, I want to caution us against thinking only of a clear, linear path. That we will start out with a draft of cold water, grit out teeth through the dangerous paths and eventually cross the finish line, hopefully in one piece.

Following the good shepherd means something different. It means that this is not a path so much as a rhythm of faithful living that allows us not just to live, but to grow in God. When we are open to the spirit, at any moment we might experience revival.  When we trust God, at any moment we could follow God into places of great risk and transformation. When we abide in God, any moment can be a moment of return. Some moments we might feel lost and feel none of those, but in some moments, we can feel all three together.

Surely your goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  In our day it takes a real leap of the imagination to see ourselves as sheep rather that settlers, but poetry of the 23rd psalm envisions exactly that. We know from it that God is the shepherd of souls, that we are each guided and loved intimately, in times of loneliness and in times of abundance. But we see too that life in God is dynamic, that it’s a great adventure, that it’s a life on the move shaped around a rhythm of revival, risk and return.

The shepherd leads us to living water, and we are refreshed. Following the shepherd means risking our very lives, of dying and rebirth, and perhaps even laying down our lives for others. The Good Shepherd leads us, finally, to return, to return to the embrace of our creator, to a lavish table and a holy rest in the loving heart of God.

 

Homily for April 23, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

1 John 3:16-24, Psalm 23 and John 10: 11-18

 

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Easter 2018: Gateway to the Kingdom of God

Homily for Easter Sunday

 

Like all children, mine go through phases where something so captures their imagination that they want to learn and read everything they can about it. My daughter’s current curiosity is Ancient Egypt, and more specifically, mummies.

We’ve now read together of mummies not just from Egypt but from all over the world, from Europe to South America, and even mummies in the bible…did you realize that both Jacob and Joseph were mummified in Egypt before being carried home?

What fascinates me is how much this burial practice was as much an expression of class as it was of belief. I don’t mean that a golden sarcophagus was a classier way to go, though by most measures that’s surely the case. No, I mean that generally speaking, only royal people got the royal treatment, and that if we’re finding your preserved remains today…while there’s a slim chance it’s because you were lucky enough to fall into a bog…most likely it’s because you were a person of some status. Perhaps you were noble; perhaps you were a patriarch like Jacob and Joseph, or perhaps you were just plain loaded.

As we peer into the empty tomb, let’s remember that that social reality was as true in 1st Century Jerusalem as it was in Ancient Egypt. Rock-Cut tombs were expensive, and mostly just for the upper classes. Tombs like these were signs of great wealth and status; they would have been family assets, as valuable perhaps as an estate would be to us today. A tomb wasn’t just a burial place: it was a family legacy.

What would it mean to part with our legacy for Jesus’ sake? Now, I’m not even to Easter Sunday yet…I’m still thinking a few days before, when a respected member of the council had been so moved by Jesus that he gave up his own legacy to show his love.  This is from the Gospel of Mark: Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Joseph of Arimathea was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. He was willing to follow his heart no matter the consequences. He was willing to part with his status and even his legacy simply to provide Jesus’ body with a resting place.  This was self-giving purely for love’s sake.

Joseph’s love made him bold. That’s a word straight from scripture:  Joseph boldly went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He boldly went to Pilate, knowing what could happen to him, knowing what he was most certainly giving up, all for the sake of one thing: love. To show devotion to Jesus, whom he loved deeply, even in death.

Joseph was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. The curious thing is, when we are capable of that kind of love, capable of that kind of boldness, and drawn to that kind of devotion, in a way the Kingdom of God is already here.

Would he have been so bold if all this was just one big lost cause?  No, for you see even on Good Friday, Jesus had declared victory. Even Jesus’ death was a fulfillment of God’s promise. Even dressing his body for the grave was a sacrament of the coming Kingdom.

In a way, Joseph didn’t have to wait any longer.  When he died on the cross, Jesus cried out It is finished, meaning, “It is completed; it is accomplished, it is fulfilled![i]” And Kallistos Ware tells us that the thing fulfilled is:

The work of suffering love, the victory of love over hatred…At his agony and at his crucifixion the forces of darkness assail him with all their violence, but they cannot turn his compassion into hatred; they cannot prevent his love from continuing to be itself. His love is tested to the furthest point, but it is not overwhelmed.[ii]

So in a way, the tomb was a gateway to the Kingdom of God the minute they laid Jesus body in it. In a way, the stone didn’t matter because the victory had already been won…but the victory of Good Friday was still hidden.

But two days later, the hidden victory was revealed. On Friday, love defeated hatred; on Sunday, love overwhelmed death. In Christ’s resurrection, we see that there is truly nothing that will separate us from God. Not powers or principalities. Not hatred or fear. Not even death itself, for even in Death we find the healing power of God’s love.

The tomb had become a gateway to the Kingdom of God, but this morning the gateway leads out, from the dark night of death into a bright and hopeful morning. The incredible thing of this tomb – this mark of worldly status given up in a gift of love and sacrifice – isn’t just that it has become a gateway to the eternal, it’s that the tomb is a gateway to the kingdom of God no matter which way we enter it.

All of us go down to the grave, yet even there we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. That is entrance to the kingdom of God. We will be resurrected with Jesus, and so we know that death and sin and hatred no longer hold a claim on us. That, too, is the eternal kingdom. And if we can open our heart as Joseph did, if we can see what he saw, even in utter defeat, then we have already begun in this life to pass through the gates and enter the kingdom of holiness and grace.

Without knowing it, Joseph had begun to imagine what might be possible in God’s kingdom. The other person in this story with that kind of vision, of course, is Mary Magdalene.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple see the linens (carefully rolled up, for reasons we’ll never know) and run away joyfully, but Mary looks in and sees something they don’t: she sees two angels sitting on the bench where Jesus’ body had been.

Mary saw something that the others didn’t. Her heart saw something of what Joseph of Arimathea had seen. Mary was gifted with a spiritual vision that the others didn’t have quite yet. She moved among the angels. She stood still in a holy place, and offered the sacrifice of tears. And though the others ran off in a hurry, it was Mary who took the first true steps into the new kingdom of God. For it was Mary who first saw the Lord.

Mary, like Joseph, had been waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. That doesn’t mean they were without grief when Jesus died. Yet in their sadness they were fearless and even hopeful, so they could to see what no one else could: that the gateway had been crossed. That the tomb was a vessel for something new entirely. That Jesus was risen, and the victory was won.

The Lord is risen indeed, and we too have seen him. And rising up from the grave, we too make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

 

Homily for Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

[i] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1979. P. 81

[ii] ibid

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fixed points of holiness

Homily for Mach 18, 2018 – Jeremiah 31: 31-34 & John 12: 20-33

The story of exile in Babylon and the return to Israel years later is one of the most poignant ones in the Old Testament. Few people realize, though, that upon their return to their homeland the people of God were issued a survey that had just a few questions: “Which of these major changes – exile, and then return – was most helpful in your relationship with God?” And, “Which one was most challenging to your faith?”

The years in exile, of course, had been a tragedy on so many levels: they lost their status, security, identity, and the temple itself; so returning home meant the end of a dark time.

But both of these movements – into exile, and then returning home – meant moving from one life, to another one entirely. In Exile they lost everything they valued, they were cast out from their homes and had to live among strangers. The ground underneath their feet had crumbled. But another change was coming.

Into that world of profound loss, Jeremiah spoke a word of hope: though the people had fallen, God’s fidelity to their covenant was still intact. The ground may have fallen out from under them, they may have forgotten the covenant altogether, but God was still God, and in that truth they found comfort and hope that they hadn’t felt in decades.

Just as the prophets in had once foretold a reckoning, Jeremiah said that though the world had changed, God hadn’t, and the days were surely coming when instead of a reckoning, they would experience return.

Nobody wants the reckoning. Most everybody wants the restoration. Is that a fair statement? But I might argue that in a certain way they are remarkably similar. You see, both represent profound change, and change can be holy. Sometimes change is instantaneous; it’s a catastrophe or a miracle. Sometimes change is imperceptible: tectonic in its pace but moving along all the same. But if we take for granted that change will come – sometimes it’s reckoning, and sometimes it’s restoration (and sometimes it’s just life)– it’s worth asking…which of these are better for our faith? Which kind of change brings us closer to a living experience of God? Which of these changes will best help us to heal, to grow, to reach towards union with God?

But let’s get back to the survey: which is better, exile or return? Reckoning or restoration? Decline or growth? If the Israelites were human, and I’m pretty sure they were, they probably answered with 99% certainty that the return was better. But I’m not so sure. I have a feeling that both offered a profound opportunity to grow deeper in their love for God.

You see, I believe that every change we experience – whether painful or hopeful – every one is an opportunity to grow in God. And I don’t think that’s by accident. I think that’s why change is a part of life…each time our world shifts there is a chance to rekindle, each time we find ourselves in a “new normal” we have an invitation to renew and revive the covenant of holiness that defines our lives.

I’m not saying that every change is a winner. Sometimes they’re great, and sometimes they feel like death. In fact, our gospel goes a step further: sometimes change is death. There’s no point in denying it. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. That’s our vocation, as Christians: to follow Jesus to the cross, to let the falsities of our lives die off and be changed by that. Sometimes our vocation is to bear the pain of change that the much of the world can’t handle, because that is what Jesus did. He carried pain in his body, and if we make can audacious claim of being the Body of Christ, then we too must be prepared to carry some pain.

The exile in Babylon was deeply painful, it was a humiliation that lasted for generations, but it was not such a bad thing for their relationship with God. Without the temple, they had to figure out who they were apart from a glorious building. Without a king of their own, they saw clearly the withered fruits of their own exceptionalism. Suddenly brought low, they could see the toll that their greed had taken on their neighbors, and on their own hearts. This was really bad for their ego, but let’s be honest, it was really good for their soul. Their mournful songs by the rivers of Babylon became hymns that would sustain them; the prophets who had warned of their downfall now used the same poetry to remind them that God grieved beside them.

Jeremiah knew that if they returned home, and got to feeling good about themselves, and began to forget once again that God had done this, and not them, then they’d be heading for the same outcome. Restoration would would be very good for their sense of self-worth, but would it be good for their souls?

Remember, though, how we’re thinking about change this morning. Every time something shifts, there’s an opportunity to go deeper. There’s an invitation to go into that file cabinet and take out the covenant that God has made with us, to renew and even revive it as something with a living claim on our life. Every change is a chance to grow in God.

So Jeremiah prophesied their return, but he had something else to add: God will make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. The new covenant rested on this: I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Even when we forget, we are God’s, and God is with us. Even when we are lost, we are God’s. Even when we are ecstatic with the joys of return, God holds us and loves us and calls us to go deeper.

This was about kindling a new spirit as they physically rebuilt their homes. And unlike the old laws written on stone: God would put this law within the people, and would write it on their hearts.

God wanted the people to make a leap – an upgrade, if you will, from one platform to another. From stone to flesh and blood. They weren’t simply to be parties to a covenant: they were to be the covenant, with the word of the lord imprinted on their hearts and the love of God evident through their very lives.

Stone tablets may have seemed good and sturdy, but stone doesn’t grow and it doesn’t respond well to change. The people had learned in exile that stone can crumble or be struck down or simply wasn’t packable when they had to move, but that hearts bound together by prayer and songs and love were far more durable. Where stone had failed, their hearts would be the new vessels.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground, it will not bear fruit. In this life, the winds will blow. The rains will come. The ground underneath us will collapse from time to time, but God is still God. The temple may fall into the abyss and take with it the stone or the scroll that holds the old law… but the new covenant has already been given. It is here. It is here. The new covenant has been written on our hearts, and we keep it with our lives.

The changes in life may be swift and varied, the waters will rage and foam, so we fix our heart on the presence and grace of God. As our world changes, we hold fast to a promise that does not change: God is with us; God is our refuge and strength, and we are God’s people. We know this because it is written on our very hearts.

Homily for March 18, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 5th Sunday in Lent, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

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the wisdom of the world

homily for February 25, 2018

Peter is wise in the ways of the world, and works well for him, up to a point.  Yet the soundest of worldly wisdom is still rooted in the world, and not in heaven. Peter’s conflict with Jesus is the inevitable flareup that happens when good old common sense comes into full contact with the foolishness of the cross.

Peter’s problem – his spiritual problem– is that for all its soundness, the wisdom of this world anchors us on human things rather than on divine things.  Worldly wisdom helps us to thrive and succeed according to a set of values that we rarely question, and it’s often about gaining status and power and security as we get grow in years. When that security is threatened – as it was with Peter, when Jesus gave him a glimpse of what this is really about – then we often react by clinging even more forcefully to ways that feel safe and familiar, perhaps even time-tested.

Yet when we hang our lives on the ways of this world – grasping for all those things that we tell ourselves make our lives better –in a way we are surrounding ourselves with the very things that hasten our own death.

Kallistos Ware tells us that “death has both a physical and a spiritual aspect, and of the two it is the spiritual that is more terrible.  Physical death is the separation of man’s body from his soul; spiritual death, the separation of man’s soul from God.”[i]  If we quietly believe that the passage of time is about upward mobility rather than seeking God in the humble soil of our hearts, then we are sadly misled. Instead of gaining life we surround ourselves with artifacts of lifelessness, with things that do not give life but in fact steal it from us.

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.

But what, then, is life?  If anything, we gain from this teaching the mystical paradox at the heart of our faith. If we cling to means and security, we lose everything that matters. If we empty ourselves as Jesus did, completely, giving ourselves for others and for God, then we gain our lives. The path to life is not found in security, but in vulnerability. The path to life is not through power, but through suffering. Life is found not in status and wealth and being held in high esteem, but in humility and poverty and sometimes even pain.

The drive to be successful and secure is a powerful temptation that leads us to trust in ourselves rather than in God. And it’s insatiable: we feel a relentless pressure to push against the ceiling of what we already have, to gain even more of those things that might affirm our value…and what’s worse, we rarely question this. That’s what worldly wisdom is all about.

Yet the life of the spirit is found below, moving gracefully beneath us as we toil atop a ladder. Life is not found in grandeur; it is found in simplicity. Life is found in the deep and heartfelt love we have for one another, a love that calls us to sacrifice and give of ourselves so that others can be fulfilled. Life is found in songs of praise and thanksgiving.  Life is found not in the hard-heartedness of power and privilege – quite the opposite, those are the seeds of our own death – but in the loving work of reconciliation and justice.

And life is found, we see, in suffering. Returning to the paradox, Jesus tells us that if we are to seek life, we will find it in the things that the world shuns. We disrupt the pattern of worldly temptations – temptations which often wear the sheep’s clothing of common sense – by denying ourselves, by taking up our cross, and by following Jesus.

Clifton Black reminds us that “in the economy of the gospel, the only way to be made whole is to let go of everything society reckons most valuable. There is no benefit in gaining the entire world…if in doing so one forfeits’ one’s deepest soul. [ii]

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Following Jesus to the cross means knowing the reality of suffering. This is precisely what Peter cannot handle. Peter doesn’t want to suffer. He doesn’t want to give up his life, he wants to save it & even make it something important.

Yet Jesus said to Peter, You don’t understand because you are still anchored in the world. Rooted here, cannot grow and you will not find life. But I want you to gain your life, to set your heart on the eternal, not just for yourself but so that others may become who my Father created them to be.

Peter is so afraid of suffering that he is willing to challenge Jesus on this, and even to resort to violence to prevent it from happening. Later, in the garden of Gethsemane when the guards come for Jesus, what does Peter do? He reaches for the nearest weapon he can find, in this case a sword, and ostensibly to protect his Lord but really to ward off suffering, Peter slices off a guard’s ear.

Do you realize what a tragedy this was? With one reckless act of violence, through his trust in a sidearm over the grace of God, Peter ended the Jesus movement. It was over, right then and there.  With one slice of a blade, everything was lost. In an instant of violence, a movement of love and grace and relationship became an insurgency. This was to be the end of it, and Peter’s trust in worldly things assured that Jesus of Nazareth would fade into history as just another religious dissident.

You see, that is what we do when we place our trust in the ways of this world, because the worldly things we trust become instruments of our own death. Money and security seem like a safety net, yet can very well be our downfall. But instruments of violence will always signal death, no matter how we spin it. We must never place our trust in violence to bring life.

Gun violence is a uniquely American sickness.  It endangers the innocent while it sabotages our ability to talk about what life really means. Dean Andrew McGowan of Berkeley Divinity School (my seminary) said over the weekend that “Gun violence…mocks and competes with the power of God to save and sustain. The forces that cling to (it) imagine violence as protection, and that infinite potential violence would somehow lead to peace, but this can never be true.”[iii]

Those who seek to save their lives, will lose them. Peter used violence to prevent suffering, but tragically ended up assuring that the world would know Jesus as just another instigator with a well-armed guard, if Jesus was remembered at all.

Except. Except. Except Jesus would not allow the work of salvation to be defined by fear or sabotaged by an instrument of death.  Thanks to Peter, the situation became hopeless, but because this was Jesus, it wasn’t hopeless at all. Because what happened? Jesus reached up to the guard, and if you have lost all hope, take heart – Jesus places his hand over the ear of the guard and restores him to wholeness.  Peter’s recklessness was redeemed. Jesus brought the movement back from the edge of collapse and restored the presence of grace.

Those who are willing to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus, will find life. Those who cling and strive and push to save their lives will only surround themselves with death, yet those who give everything will become vessels of salvation. The paradox at the heart of our faith puts us in sharp conflict with the wisdom of the world, yet it connects us to an infinite source of life at the deepest heart of our being.

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I’ll close with a thought from Mother Maria of Paris, an Eastern orthodox saint who died in the French resistance during the second world war. She wrote of what happens to us when we can break from worldly things and instead set our hearts on the eternal. It doesn’t actually take much. She wrote, “I think that anyone who has had this experience of eternity, if only once; one who has understood the way he is going, if only once; who has seen the One who goes before him, if only once – such a person will find it hard to turn aside from this path; to him all comfort will seem ephemeral, all treasure valueless, all companions unnecessary, if amongst them he fails to see the One Companion, carrying his Cross.”[iv]

Put down the things of this world, and you will gain everything. Take up your cross. Follow me, and together we will find life.

Homily for Feb 25, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

[i] Ware, The Orthodox Way,  79

[ii] C. Clifton Black, Working Preacher

[iii] https://twitter.com/Praxeas/status/965228177659396097

[iv] Ware, The Orthodox Way, 85

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