2nd Sun. Lent • Gen 15:1-12,17-18; Phil 3:17-4:1; Lk 13:31-35 • 3/11/19
When Sister Lynne sent out a request for a preaching sub, because she had a conference and wouldn’t have time to prep, the opportunity was as welcome as a life preserver. I needed a reason to put my attention somewhere better than where it was. I’d gotten into a vicious cycle of avoiding uncomfortable feelings by checking news on my smartphone, after which I felt even less able to face the real world. Isn’t there something else I can check, or a game I can play? When I finally put the phone down in a self-disgusted daze, I’d be in worse shape than when I’d picked it up and behind schedule besides. This Lent, my phone stays off till after breakfast.
When I saw the readings, I suspected they were the real reason Lynne wanted a sub. They’re all over the place and not particularly inviting, except maybe for the hen and chicks. But even there, Jesus goes on to say, “you were not willing!”
When do I find myself not willing to be gathered under God’s wings? Maybe when, as Paul puts it, my god is the belly, or comfort. When I first read that image, I didn’t associate it with myself. I envisioned a fat-cat corporate type, like the Monopoly-game figure with top hat and pinstripe suit. But Paul also describes this comfort-seeking state as enmity with the cross of Christ. That is, a state of resisting the surrender that leads to wholeness.
And that is all too apt a description of turning to my smartphone every time I feel inner disquiet—when many people who should know, and my own past experiences, teach that allowing and being with my feelings could lead me back into a juicy, grounded inner peace.
So why DO I run away and hide in that little machine? At least part of it is a lack of faith. Luckily, I have good company here. Even Abraham’s faith had its limits. In today’s reading, he asks how he can know and trust that God will really give him the promised land.
And God gives him evidence in his own language, the language of his time, the language of covenant. At first, I might wish, like Wayne last week, to receive an equally dramatic message myself. But then I could ask myself what an assurance in my own language would look like.
When I ask myself that, I realize God has already given it, hundreds if not thousands of times. Not just to me, but to each of you.
I know that because this community is ecumenical. If we got up early Sunday morning just because we were rule-followers, we’d be back in our separate denominational churches. So something other than traditional authority has drawn each of us here this morning. Each of us has felt something that led us on a path that wound up here.
What was it for you? For me, there was the welcoming openness of this community, and the beauty of its grounds. Before that, the inspiring and supportive example of friends who came here. Before that, the influences of other friends and teachers, and certain experiences while making music. Every one of these guideposts was my personal version of God’s smoking fire pot and flaming torch.
I could write these off as insignificant and insist that nothing short of a flaming torch would convince me. Then I would be like Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning the messengers sent to me. Choices like these have a profound effect on what we can experience in the future. For some experiences come only when we are ready to acknowledge them as valid, to say to them, “Blessed is the one that comes in the name of our God.”
Think of how we develop trust, or friendship, or intuition. Progress is limited until we take a small risk and act as if trust is merited, or friendship is present, or intuition is correct. Some of these risks “fail” and improve our discernment. Others bear fruit and grow. Encouraged by the results, we risk more, lean deeper into the next possibility we sense, until a genuine collaboration is present that could not have developed otherwise.
In the same way, we can make friends with the cross of Christ. We start with a small risk, a small surrender, such as a Lenten commitment. At some point an unexpected grace meets our effort, and the seed begins to grow. I’ve returned to my practice of reading something spiritual over breakfast, instead of reading whatever’s on my phone. It’s been surprisingly challenging, but the other day, as I stayed with the reading, something shifted in me. I felt sadder, but grounded and peaceful. For the first time in months, I was free of anxiety the rest of the day.
This is not about forcing ourselves or doing it alone. I had support; sometimes we need that. Sometimes we also need gestation time before we’re ready to make an observable change. And sometimes we need a good example, someone to imitate, as St. Paul suggested we imitate him. In the words of Irish writer Flann O’Brien, we need someone to exchange molecules with. (I couldn’t let St. Patrick’s Day go by without some gesture of gratitude for the gifts of the Irish.)
In the only novel I know that has footnotes full of make-believe scholarship, O’Brien advances a “theory” of molecule exchange between entities that spend a lot of time together, such as a bicycle policeman and his bike. In time, he says, the policeman can be seen behaving like his bicycle, leaning up against walls by his elbow and such.
We too can benefit from molecule exchange; it’s one of the perks of a community like this one. By hanging around each other, we soak up good examples, and when tough choices come, we have imprints in our brains of what a loving response looks like. Lately I’ve found the courage to visit a frighteningly ailing friend purely through the grace of osmosis, as I absorb and am carried forward by the loving examples of those around me.
In this way, we befriend the cross of Christ and allow ourselves to be converted, step by step, to trust the surrender that leads to wholeness… so that when Easter comes, we are ready to accept the invitation to gather under the wings of the divine hen. May it be so.