Thursday, February 27, 2020


Ash Wednesday is about sin and death.
We prefer not to think about such things.
The word for that is denial. 
Ernest Becker’s 1974 book, The Denial of Death,
     won the Pulitzer Prize for showing how
     most of our human nuttiness can be traced
                 to our efforts to pretend we will never die.

We start by denying death, then get in the habit of denying
     all sorts of things.
No long ago, I ran across several people furiously denying
they were racist though no one had hinted 
     that they were.
Back in Georgia we used to say, 
         It’s the hit dog that hollers.

I am not a racist.
I am not an alcoholic.
I am not anti-Muslim. I am not homophobic.
I am not this. I am not that. I am not mortal. 

Some people accuse religion of existing 
      precisely for denial.
They call religion escapist,
a pie in the sky fantasy for hiding our eyes 
from hard truths.

Sometimes they are right.
A lot of our clergy say We are an Easter People
     and so violate the rubrics to add parts 
     of the Easter service all year long.
Many a sermon today will reassure congregations
     that we don’t want you to think 
      about anything unpleasant.
All sorts of cute variations on the imposition ashes 
      will be done to hide the message.
I fully expect some priest somewhere 
         to change the words from 
Remember that you are dust 
     Remember that you may get an occasional virus
     but with Tamiflu and Tylenol you will feel better soon.

Escapist religion is on the rise.
It is more pleasant and more marketable. 
But the most formative theologian in history, St. Augustine, 
defined sin as precisely this kind of escape. 
Sin is disengagement, he said. Sin is denial. 
Sin is hiding our eyes from the truth. Religion can be sin.
In our Old Testament lesson,
Isaiah listed the religious pieties and self- 
mortifications of his day.
They were jumping through the religious hoops
     so they could bypass the hard stuff.
But Isaiah said God was not impressed.
According to Isaiah, God says, 
         On the day of your fasting . .  . 
      you exploit your workers.
     Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife. . . 
     Is this what you call a fast? . . . .
     Is this not the fast I have chosen:
                 to loose the chains of injustice
                 and untie the cords of the yoke,
                 to set the oppressed free. . .  .?

Isaiah wouldn’t stand for a religion 
           that ignored our part in injustice.
He had no use for escapist petty pieties like giving up 
coffee, candy, or Face Book for 40 days.
He thought we had real issues to deal with.

Escapist religion is just smoke and mirrors
     to distract us from the violence and injustice
      of our lives. 
But Isaiah’s God says, Let’s get real.

This is what’s real.
We are awash in unspoken repressed grief
     that life is not living up to our expectations.
In a fragmented, alienating society, we are lonely.
The state orders us, the market manipulates us, 
          and we are angry.
When things seem to be skidding out of control, 
          we are afraid. 
We are not who we want to be, 
         so we are ashamed. 
That adds up to a load of anger, fear, and shame 
     none of which we dare to express.

Episcopal theologian Luke Bretherton says 
        grief and repentance 
are not respectable in our society,
     so we avoid them with a clever two-part strategy
     of denial and projection. 
The denial piece includes escapist religion.
But there’s more. Upbeat psychologies, pop philosophies, 
 chemical mood enhancers, 
and various entertainments
                 all help us escape our situation.

Escapist strategies take us farther and farther away
     from each other and shrivel our capacity
                 to connect with care and appreciation.
Escapism flees from the common life of family, church, 
and civic engagement that require hard things 
like sacrifice and compromise.  

Escapism alone, however, isn’t enough 
        to anesthetize our unhappiness
with the world and with ourselves.
We need part two: projection. 
We blame all that negative feeling on someone else 
and denounce them.
We find scapegoats for all that is wrong with life.

Bretherton calls it the politics of denunciation.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it theological dualism. 
Same thing.
It means finding someone to blame for our grief,
     someone to serve as a screen on which to project
     the parts of ourselves we don’t want to admit.

I am not a racist. I am not Islamophobic. 
I am not angry, and I’ll fight the man who says I am.
I am not violent or lustful. 
I do not have any of the psychological baggage
     that Freud and Gerard say afflicts everyone else.
No not me.
It’s the Syrians, the Salvadorans, the gays, 
     the homophobes, the bigots, or the billionaires.

We are apt to be like the Pharisee in Luke.
     The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed,
     ‘God I thank you that I am not like other people –
     robbers, evildoers, adulterers, 
       or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week (and tithe).
The Pharisee stood /by himself. // 
Escapism and projection.

But the tax collector he was condemning prayed,
     God have mercy on me a sinner.
Jesus said it was the tax collector 
         who went home justified. 
He didn’t escape. He didn’t project.
He owned his grief, his disappointment with himself, 
         and repented. 

So if you want a spiritual discipline for Lent, try this one:
Lower your weapons, by which I mean 
          withdraw your projections.
Psychotherapists tell us that the road 
      to personal wholeness
     begins when we withdraw our projections. 

So, whoever you are demonizing, give it up 
            – at least for 40 days. 
In an election year, maybe you are demonizing  
          a political candidate.
A cool rational disagreement is good sense. 
A vote is our civic duty.
But a passionate personal animosity is probably fueled 
         by projection.
Maybe you are blaming someone in your family 
     or church or neighborhood
     for your anger or unhappiness. 
Lower your weapons and withdraw your projections.

Maybe it’s Syrians you fear may be terrorists 
     or Salvadoran refugees you think are after your job. 
Maybe it’s gay people redefining your marriage 
or homophobes curtailing your freedom. 
Lower your weapons and withdraw your projections.

Then we’ll be ready to spend the coming 40 days
     doing some serious soul-searching,
     cultivating a healthy, if not always comfortable, 
We may find stuff in ourselves that isn’t pretty.
But we may also find the capacity to forgive ourselves
     for the shameful sin of being human. 

If we practice the gentle art of forgiving ourselves,
     we will find it a lot easier to forgive someone else.
Eventually we may even forgive life itself 
     for disappointing us,
     and set ourselves free to actually live it.  
Wouldn’t that be a Resurrection! 
Wouldn’t that be an Easter!

Monday, February 24, 2020


Jesus was a mountain man.
He led his disciples up three mountains 
     – the one where he taught them the Beatitudes 
                 and to turn the other cheek 
     – the Mount of the Transfiguration in today’s lesson
--  and finally the Mount of Olives.

We can spend our whole lives climbing mountains 
-       the career mountain, the money mountain,
the mental health mountain, the happy family mountain, 
even the religion mountain.
There are so many mountains,
     each with a prize on top.

Moses was a mountain man. He climbed Mt. Sinai.
It had the law on top.
It had the moral order of creation, the way of life.
Moses climbed the mountain of morality.

Elijah was a mountain man.
He climbed Mount Carmel.
It had mystical experience on top,
     the awesome silence of God,
     the absolute stillness we find in contemplation.
Elijah climbed the mountain of spirituality.

Figuratively speaking, St. Paul was a mountain man.
He climbed both mountains – morality and spirituality.
As a Pharisee he practiced the moral life to perfection.
As a Mer-kobah mystic, he had ecstatic visions of heaven.

But one day on the road to Damascus, Paul,
     like the disciples on the Mount of the Transfiguration,
saw a light shining from Jesus 
     – and that encounter changed his life forever.

20 years later, he remembered all his mountain climbing and said,
     Whatever gains I had, these I count as loss
      because of the surpassing value of knowing 
                 Christ Jesus my Lord.
Paul no longer billed himself as a just man or as a mystic.
He didn’t bill himself at all.
He said, It is not ourselves that we proclaim.
     We proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves 
     as your servants for his sake.
Paul tossed aside every prize he had claimed 
     at the top of every mountain and said,  
                   I’d rather have Jesus.

In our Gospel lesson, the disciples
     had already left most things behind.
They’d given up homes, families, careers.
But they still had their religion.
They had the morality of Moses 
           and the spirituality of Elijah.
So when they saw their rabbi on a mountain top 
     talking with the father of ethical religion
     and the father of Jewish spirituality,
                 it all came together.
So Peter said to Jesus, Let’s build three dwellings here 
     – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
He meant it as a compliment, to put Jesus on a par with those giants.
But Peter had missed the point.
So God showed up as a bright cloud and thundered,
     This is my beloved Son . . . . Listen to him.
And the disciples were afraid.

They were afraid because they had rashly answered 
     life’s ultimate question 
     – the question of what really matters 
     – and they had gotten it wrong. 
They pushed the existential Jeopardy buzzer too soon.
In a multiple choice question,
     with the answers being morality, spirituality, and Jesus;
                 they’d answered all of the above.
But that wasn’t the answer God had in mind.

They hadn’t seen what blind Paul saw so clearly 
     – that the ultimate value of God’s own self
                 was fully present in this human person,
this peasant preacher who would end up a convict,   
this  Jesus.
All of morality and all of spirituality lead 
          to what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 
called the Omega Point, the goal of the cosmos,
and it turns out to be this glory in the dust,
this God in man made manifest.

The notion that the final answer isn’t
     the moral order or a transcendent experience
                 but a person – that’s a lot to swallow.
But it is the key to intimacy with God.

The story of the Transfiguration shows us why.
The disciples thought the terrifying cloud 
          was the Epiphany.
They thought the voice from heaven 
          was the divine revelation.
So they fell on the ground and hid their faces.

But the real epiphany was what happened next.
The real epiphany was when Jesus touched them 
      and said,
     Get up and do not be afraid.
They looked up and saw no one 
except Jesus himself alone
We don’t see God as a thundercloud
     sending us diving to the dirt in terror,
     but as a brother saying, Get up and do not be afraid.
The real epiphany was Jesus.

John Calvin, who was so often wrong, got this right.
He said,
     (A)ll thinking of God, apart from Christ,
                 is a bottomless abyss
                 which utterly swallows up our senses . . . .
     In Christ, God . . . makes himself little,
                 in order to lower himself to our capacity;
                             and Christ alone calms (us)
                 so that (we) . . . dare intimately approach God.

Calvin says Jesus makes it possible for us 
       to be intimate with God.
In Jesus, we can embrace the source, the destiny, 
    and the meaning of all Creation, 
    as we might embrace a friend.
Jesus brings divine love into the flesh of human life.
God can touch us only with a human touch.

A  surgeon, Richard Selzer, tells this story 
           from his medical practice.
He writes:
     I stand by the bed where a young woman lies
      . . . her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish.
     A  . . . facial never has been severed . . . 
     (T)o remove the tumor in her cheek,
     I had to cut the nerve.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “It will because the nerve is cut.”

She nods and is silent,
     but the young man smiles,
                 “I like it,” he says. “It’s kind of cute.
He bends to kiss her crooked mouth,
     and I, so close I can see
     how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers,
     to show her that their kiss still works . . . .
              hold my breath . . . .

Just so, Jesus touched them, saying,
                 ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
                 And when they looked up,
     they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

That’s what we mean by God because that’s who God is.