Archive for the ‘lent’ Category

Visions of Jesus for Our Time (II): Tried and True

February 26, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
25 February 2007
Text: Luke 4:1-13

It has been a great pleasure over the past weeks to rehearse the Verdi Requiem with our choir, in anticipation of today’s presentation of it, with the combined Fairmount, First Baptist and Plymouth church choirs and orchestra under the direction of renowned conductor Robert Page. For an amateur like me, the Requiem is an extremely difficult work, and has demanded careful practice, and lots of it. Rehearsals with Robert Page keep you on full alert as he works with fierce passion to correct flaws, bring out the very best within us, and produce glorious music. It struck me that the season of Lent can function similarly for Christians. These forty days can be a concentrated time of “facing the music”—of learning more about who we are and who God is. We consciously put ourselves under the direction of the divine maestro. We “practice” the tasks to which we are called as Christians: loving, forgiving, serving—not easy things. And we learn how following the master will bring forth the very best within us, to make this world ring with the harmonies of justice, reconciliation, and peace.

The sermon series for Lent invites our consideration of the Maestro. In Visions of Jesus for Our Time, we will think about who is conducting the music of our lives, individually and as a church. What do we mean when we call Jesus “our Lord and Savior”? What is his central message? In what ways does he judge us—and to what effect? How do we distinguish between the Jesus of scripture and the Jesus espoused by those who hijack his message for their own social or political agenda? Each of these questions has been prompted by conversations I’ve had over the past months with members and friends who take faith seriously, yet have questions, particularly about Jesus and his role in that faith.

We begin today in the wilderness of temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, but before his preaching ministry begins, he spends time alone in the desert, praying and fasting. As his sense that the carpenter shop was not his destiny grew, perhaps he wanted discernment on how to proceed. It was the first, but certainly not the last, time that Jesus sought the clarifying quiet of the wilderness—and the devil an opportune time to come knocking. Listen for God’s Word to you in the reading from the gospel of Luke, in the fourth chapter at the first verse. [LUKE 4:1-13]

When was the last time you had an encounter with the Tempter? I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times this past week, and come up with a short, fairly benign list consisting mainly of desserts made of chocolate. Nothing at all approaching the drama of Jesus being confronted by the devil in the wilderness. With Jesus facing down the devil’s offerings of power, fame, and popularity, you get the feeling there’s more at stake than …cheesecake.

For better or worse, the temptations of the greatest consequence you and I face seem not to be presented as clearly as the ones Jesus resisted in our text. Instead, they sneak in, hovering at the edges, moving closer, undetected because of the pace and volume of our lives. Hardly ever except in hindsight can we identify a moment, one particular decision that took us over to the dark side. More often than not, we wake up one morning and wonder how things got like this….when did life get so crazy?….how did this happen? ….who noticed the signs until it all fell apart?

Maybe we don’t experience the clarity of Jesus’ experience because it only presents itself that way to persons who are spiritually attuned, those who are not unfamiliar with the rugged terrain of their own soul and the awareness of God’s presence in it. The Buddhist tradition calls it “living mindfully”—being aware of the rich possibilities in every moment, every step, every intaken breath. We don’t cultivate “wilderness” in contemporary life very much. Deprivation is unknown to us in a super-sized culture which relies instead on cultivating appetite and providing things to fulfill it. When one of you suggested that the period of silence following the prayer of confession be extended, I made a joke—oh, because you have so much to confess?? She responded with a smile but with utter seriousness, no, because I don’t have time even to think of what I need to confess in those few seconds. Christian author Tony Campolo expressed a similar need when he commented, “Instead of praying ‘if I should die before I wake,’ we should pray ‘Lord, wake me up before I die.’”

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where the temptations he faced awakened him to his true destiny. Notice how the temptations were not inherently wrong or evil. It’s good to seek food when hungry. It’s good to have the power to bring about change. It’s good to be protected from threat and danger. But the Tempter doesn’t always use EVIL to thwart God’s intent; often we find ourselves tempted by something GOOD used in the service of evil.

In Nikos Kazantzakis book, The Last Temptation of Christ and Martin Scorsese’s film based on it, Jesus has a vision of what his life could be if he is not crucified. He could live a “normal” life—marry, raise children, and grow old in the comfort of a family. Though obviously a work of fiction, the struggle of Jesus to discover who he was and to choose his true vocation, made it more compelling than the Jesus of our text, calmly countering each challenge with a Bible verse and what appears to be absolute unwavering faith.

Kazantzaki’s imaginative portrayal helped me see that there really is no divide between Jesus’ temptation and ours. Our first, last, and greatest temptation is to be something other than who we are so wonderfully created to be. Beloved children of God, created in God’s own image, called to love and serve. Yet we are always being distracted from that sacred identity and holy purpose. We are always, well, tempted like Jesus, to give up primary allegiance to God. Our need for bread, for power, for protection is secondary to our need for trust in God alone, who provides them all.

In the wilderness, Jesus resisted the temptation to worship another god. In the wilderness, Jesus became aware in new and clearer ways what God was calling him to do and become. Is it surprising then, that Jesus goes out from the wilderness, the Bible tells us, “filled with the power of the Spirit,” focused and passionate?

I can think of no greater need for us right now than to be led into the wilderness of testing. We are good people, but we’re exhausted; our energies have been spent in pursuit of the good life, the best life, but we seem to come up short; we never feel caught up. We can’t seem to make some of the most important things fit into our lives: worship, prayer, play; I read not long ago that many couples are too tired even to make love! We’re overdue, friends, for a spiritual tune-up, or even a complete overhaul.

And Jesus can be our wilderness guide, leading us in so that we may gain clarity and insight; remaining with us through every one of life’s challenges, and giving us courage and stamina to resist the all-to-easy slide into self-absorption and idolatry. But he will only be a compelling guide if we understand that he was like us, he was one of us. Jesus experienced doubt, desire, anger. He was not removed from humanity; he was fully part of it. However, he allowed the divine reality in him to forgive, heal, and redirect the human bent toward self-preoccupation. While exercising human freedom, he disciplined his mind and heart to follow the wisdom of his inner Spirit. He became the way, the truth and the life for others because people found in him the pattern of integration needed for their own wholeness.

In The Last Temptation of Christ Kazantzakis has Jesus wrestling with his identity and mission right up to the moment of his death. Standing down the temptation means staying up on the cross. Choosing to do results in a moment of utter clarity and finally, fulfillment.

A wild, indomitable joy took possession of him.
No, no, he was not a coward, a deserter, a traitor. No, he was still nailed to the cross. He had stood his ground to the very end; he had kept his word. All the other images were illusions sent by the Devil. His disciples were alive and thriving. They had gone over land and sea and were proclaiming the Good News. Everything had turned out as it should, glory be to God! He uttered a triumphant cry: It is accomplished!
And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun.

[Kazantzakis, p. 496]

Friends, the accomplishment of Jesus’ mission is the beginning of ours—yours and mine. Because like Jesus, we will always be tempted, so we do well to stick close to him. As the writer of Hebrews notes with some relief, we don’t have an intercessor who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Let us choose Jesus as the one we will follow and serve. Not because we accept some theological tenet about him, but because in him we have discovered true life and a good way to go.



Visions of Jesus for Our Time (1): The Way of the Spirit

February 26, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
18 February 2007
Text: Luke 9:28-43

Karl Barth ranks among the most prominent 20th century Reformed theologians. His comprehensive, multi-volume systematic theology fills a 5-foot bookshelf. At the end of his life, Barth was interviewed by a reporter who asked him to identify the single most important truth he affirmed after all his research, study and reflection. The wise old man replied,

Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.

When all is said and done, this is the bedrock of Christian faith. Of course affirming that holds consequences for the way we live our lives, the choices we make, and the actions we take. But who is this Jesus, what authority does he have over us, and why do we claim that he constitutes the heart of Christianity?

Here at Fairmount, we appreciate a thinking faith—one that questions, probes, explores, wonders. All of us—from your pastor and leaders to the confirmation class members—have doubts, and struggle with what it means to be Christian and to seek the way of Christ. I’ve had long-standing members, inquirers, and church officers express uncertainty about the single theological affirmation one is asked to make to become a member of a Presbyterian Church: to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.

These questions—and the quest for understanding—have prompted this year’s Lenten sermon series. For the next 7 weeks, we will explore the biblical witness about Jesus—his earthly life and ministry and his death and resurrection—with a view toward glimpsing its meaning for our lives and faith. What kind of person was Jesus? Is he a role model for both men and women? What is the content of his preaching? In what sense does he judge us? What does it mean to call him “God’s Son?” How does Jesus “save” us? How is he alive today—and what does he expect from us? The sermon series is entitled Visions of Jesus for Our Time because we will look through each biblical picture of Jesus as a window on our contemporary context.

Now technically, Lent doesn’t begin until Wednesday, but I wanted to start our exploration today because the gospel reading offers a stunning vision of Jesus as Divine Guide. Here Jesus is the light that literally and figuratively awakens sleepy disciples to new insight and clearer purpose. It doesn’t happen all at once, and you have the feeling they didn’t “get it” immediately. It’s also described in supernatural terms that might make us envy biblical people who seemed to have far more direct engagement with God than we do. But don’t let the details of their heavenly vision override the deeper truth: Jesus invites us all on a spiritual journey to help us see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day. Listen for God’s Word to you in the reading from the gospel according to Luke, in the ninth chapter at the 28th verse (LUKE 9:28-43a)

Maybe it was all those years spent in the Motor City, but I am fascinated by American’s love affair with the automobile. The lure of the open road, the thrill of speed, the freedom of mobility: these are forever linked in my mind to the car (I know, I know, so are carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; that’s a topic for another day!) Say what you want about the power of marketing, but these associations work because at a basic level, life is a highway, a road continually stretching before us, taking us…who knows where. And most of us want to travel that highway as drivers, rather than passengers. We want to have some say in which route to choose and how fast to go.

Though automobile travel is a twentieth-century phenomenon, the idea of life as a journey is ancient. Our own faith tradition very much reflects this theme—the presence and saving activity of a God who leads the people out of slavery, back home from exile, on a preaching and healing mission, all the way to a “dead-end” at the cross; and then, miraculously, mysteriously, the road re-appears, heading out of an empty tomb. The destination? The Kingdom of God…not so much heaven-and-the-afterlife, but a state of being: of personal relationship, communion with God, with others, and with one’s most authentic self….of God’s rule reflected in the wider community, a rule of justice and peace and wholeness. Life is a highway, friends….to our heart’s true home and the welcoming arms of the God to whom we all belong, body and soul, in life and in death.

Fairmount has expressed this image in our mission statement which calls us to seek “the way” of Christ. That suggests a process, a journey, an intentional choice of looking for a sacred path, a road leading to God.

Chartes Labyrinth

One tool to assist us is a labyrinth. The labyrinth is a medieval invention consciously applying the journey motif as a means of spiritual insight and growth. Look at the labyrinth on your bulletin cover and you will see that it is literally a walk along a circuitous path into a central area and then back out along the same path. Note that it is different from a maze, which has dead-ends and puzzling options. A labyrinth is an ingenious pattern offering a single path that leads you in and leads you out. First created on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France in the late 12th century, the labyrinth was a kind of surrogate pilgrimage for those who could not make the long and dangerous trek to the Holy Land. As its use developed, the labyrinth became a metaphor for human life as a journey into the heart of God.

Today, labyrinth walking is a spiritual practice that has been incorporated into a variety of contexts, both sacred and secular. Santa Fe, New Mexico has built a number of labyrinths in its public elementary schools as a way to encourage creativity and as a tool for stress reduction and anger management. A doctor who advocated for installing a labyrinth at the hospital where he is on staff explained how it offered visual evidence to all who entered the hospital that they would do more than just treat the body—they were treating whole persons. Patients walking the labyrinth with their IV poles, family members, caregivers, and hospital staff have found a private space to walk, pray, release anxiety, gain strength. [examples from an article in Horizons magazine, A Closer Walk with God, by Amy Starr Redwine, May/June 2004] Our church will incorporate it into a “Soul Center” ministry in which a wide variety of practices, small group experiences, and Bible study will be offered for spiritual nourishment.

If you’re skeptical, that’s okay! There’s nothing magical about it—a labyrinth is a tool. It almost perfectly mirrors the three movements of our Scripture text: Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to go up into the mountains, the dazzling light of illumination at the summit, and then the descent that will take them back into the real world. One enters the labyrinth as an intentional act of spiritual seeking, a kind of “prayer walk” in which one listens for the voice of God within. It is a highway not driven by machine, but by one’s own soul. Like life, the journey does not follow a straight line. The labyrinth winds around, bringing us close to the center at times, but then suddenly moving us out to the edge. On the one hand, you can relax in the order of the labyrinth pattern. If you persevere, you will arrive at the center of illumination! And yet, there is freedom within the experience to find your particular way to walk it. Both the rational self and the creative, imaginative self are engaged, a gracious reminder that we are created with bodies and minds as well as souls. Spiritual hunger is satisfied as those parts are harmoniously integrated.

Elder Susan Bookshar will tell you about our new labyrinth ministry shortly, and will invite you to try it out today in Andersen Hall. But for the moment, imagine yourself on a labyrinth walk. Consider your life right now and ask yourself what concerns you might bring along. Perhaps you are experiencing a personal transition—the end of something, the beginning of something else, or that blurry, in-between time that is neither here nor there. Maybe you crave healing…for an inner hurt; for guilt or regret; for a situation that seems insoluble. Maybe you long to be reconciled to someone from whom you are estranged. Maybe the life you experience day to day is lived at such breakneck speed and jam-packed with activity, that you would simply like some time to slow down, to be quiet, to see if you can sort out priorities and recall what is truly important to you. Maybe the greatest need you have today is a recovery of hope, of having dreams re-animated and a burnt-out spirit ignited. The journey to God is one toward wholeness. We can, without fear or hesitation, enter the labyrinth just as we are. We can make our way even with heavy baggage, onward to the center….where we discover that God has been seeking us all along, and invites us to let go of the burdens that weigh us down.

Suddenly…like a bolt of lightening. Or gradually….like the dawn of morning, we see light. We “get it.” At the center of the labyrinth we find illumination. Or rather, we receive it as a gift from God. A word, a vision, an insight, the peace that passes our human understanding. This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him! Your life is not hidden from God; your concerns are not brushed aside as if they (and you) didn’t matter. In fact, this God gives power to those whose own has given out, and wings to those who were bogged down. Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The last part of the labyrinth walk takes us from the center of illumination back out. It is so consistently true of Christian faith that it propels the believer back out into the world. As deeply personal as the journey is, it will always, always, connect us –not only to God, but to one another. It’s not simply about having a spiritual experience, but of being nourished for service. Peter tried to preserve the moment; to hold on to it as if it were a thing to be grasped. But Jesus won’t sit still for any of that. He led them—and he leads us– back down the mountain, to encounter a hurting world and touch it with healing.

In a labyrinth walk, it looks at first as if the path out is the same as the path in, only in reverse. But what’s different is…you. The really amazing thing about the God we seek is that the relationship causes us to re-decide about our own future. We get healed, transfigured, changed…and somehow the “same old, same old” takes on a whole new look.

Is the labyrinth one of those spirituality fads that make waves for a while until the next new, new thing comes along? We Presbyterians are not fond of gimmicks and highly suspicious of anything that even whispers “new age.” Certainly there are many, many other ways to seek God’s guidance for the living of our complex days. But, friends, life IS a highway, and if you want to drive it, this is one good way to re-fuel and find refreshment, to take a look at the map, and then move on, back out of this safe space, into a world that needs the light of Christ more than anything else.