Sunday, March 27, 2011


Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17:1-7

Water from the Rock

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

John 4:1-15

Jesus and the Woman of Samaria

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’


How can I not talk about water this morning? We have just endured one of the rainiest late winters and early springs in memory. Over 50 feet of “crystallized water” have fallen in the mountains. Basking in the sunshine up in normally rainy Bellingham, Laura Hindes wrote gleefully on Facebook the other day that she was glad she didn’t live in “rainy California”. The “golden state” may have to rename itself the “moldy state”.

We’re a bit hard to please, if the truth were known. We grumble about droughts and water shortages which are caused by overly abundant sunshine. But when the drought is relieved by an abundance of rain, we grumble about too many rainy days and how depressing the weather is. Jan has a solution for us ... her preference is that it rain at night when we are asleep and when we awake, the skies clear and the sunshine spreads itself warmly over the drying land. There ... now if someone could just work that out ... make it happen. I know I have no control over such things. I can only promise fair weather for the day of your very special outdoor event, at least as long as the weather prognosticators call for zero chance of precipitation.

Water is such an enormous paradox ... too little and we suffer and die. Too much and ... we suffer and die. But just the right amount ... and we flourish and have hope. This is what has made water such a potent symbol in religious writings, including the writings in our Bible. Water is a chaotic flood. Water is a gentle stream. Water is pure. Water is brackish. “Waterless” equals judgment and thirst and dying gardens. “Watered” equals blessing and refreshment and abundant yield.

It was out of the watery chaos that the dry habitable lands of earth emerged in the stories of creation ... and re-emerged after the flood. It was watery chaos through which the children of Israel were led by Moses to liberation and the same watery chaos that submerged and thwarted Pharaoh’s army. Water as freedom and water as judgment. It is that ancient Biblical understanding of water as related to birth and re-birth and to judgment and freedom that is present in the sacred act of Baptism ... Baptism then and Baptism now ... birth, judgment, re-birth and freedom all bound up in the drowning, cleansing and saving waters of Baptism. Anyone care to take a dip? With any luck I’ll pull you back up.

Perhaps that’s a subconscious part of the reason we don’t baptize babies ... it seems to me that you, the potential baptizee, ought to have some part of the decision to enter such symbolically potent and meaning-laden waters. And that’s a little hard to do when you’re still blowing bubbles with your own saliva.

Water plays a central role in our two Biblical narratives today. In the first narrative, it is a shortage of water that has the grumpy children of Israel grousing at Moses and grousing at God. And in the second narrative, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well and offers her living water. Thirst of various kinds dominates these two narratives.

Hunger and thirst are related physical impulses. Too little food as with too little water equals too little cheeriness. My dad and my younger son, Alex, don’t look particularly “related” to the casual observer ... to be sure, most buzz-cut 20 year old grandsons don’t resemble their 82 year old grandfathers. But here’s how I know they’re related: both of them can get quite grumpy when food is withheld too long. Let either stray too far past their stomach’s understanding of mealtime and, let’s just say that these ordinarily sweet-natured souls can get a bit ... testy. It was especially true when Alex was a young lad ... the saying around our house was a well-fed Alex was a happy Alex. It’s truer than ever with my dad ... if you promise him lunch, then it had better be served at lunchtime. A well-fed Jim is a happy Jim. My oh my.

As it is with food with my family—and likely your family, so it was with the children of Israel following poor brow-beaten Moses through wilderness that was nearly devoid of food and water.

It wasn’t so long before that the children of Israel were oppressed and suffering slaves in Egypt. The apparently modern themes of oppression and suffering in Egypt go back a long, long way as we know. The suffering of the children of Israel was so intense that it caught God’s ear ... and God’s heart. Before long, God had raised up a leader to liberate the freedom hungering slaves. The book of Exodus from which this morning’s story comes is aptly named for it is one of the central and defining moments in Israel’s existence ... an exodus or a getting out and leaving behind of that which oppresses and enslaves and dehumanizes.

Now if a visible and tangible leader representing an invisible and intangible—but very powerful God—miraculously led you out of an oppressive and life-threatening experience ... how long would your gratitude last? For how long would this “expedition to freedom” and this “journey to the promised land of milk and honey” be fun? Enjoyable? How long might it take for you to begin to take notice of the rumbling in your belly ... the dust in your mouth ... and the still lingering memories of bad food, but all you could eat of it in Egypt. Bad food, but all you can eat sounds like the $3.99 buffet in Las Vegas. Now there’s a place to get out of if you can.

How much hunger and how much thirst does it take to begin to prefer less freedom to a mere promise of freedom? This is a critical question in that wilderness and in any wilderness. Through Moses’ flawed leadership, and through very trying circumstances, God is trying to shape a people ... trying to gain their trust, trying to deepen their faith, trying to shake their complacency, trying to whet their appetite for freedom and steel their resolve against oppression.

I truly would hate to think how most modern Americans would fare in the real wilderness. We who can get down-right cranky if our paper is late or our beer is flat or our favorite TV show is canceled. It’s like George Clooney in “O Brother Where Art Thou” standing in the mercantile shouting at the storekeeper who didn’t stock his favorite hair grease, “I don’t want Fop, dad-gummit, I want Dapper Dan.” If you at all believe how we are depicted in modern media and entertainment, we have become impossibly shallow and whiny and picky and self-possessed. I’ve heard an ad recently on the radio for Kohl’s Department Stores that speaks to its shoppers in tones and terms that make shopping sound like the single most important act of our human existence. Are we shaped by these ads? Or are they simply reflective of who we’ve become? A little of both, very likely, but neither is cause for much rejoicing.

But it goes deeper than that. Not so long ago, we were a society that prided itself in “rolling up its sleeves” and “doing our share” and “getting it done”. Those are slogans from the first half of the 20th century. Concern for the other at least equaled concern for self. I remember Lora Ingalls telling about how poor families during the Depression would come by her family’s farm in Nebraska and how her mother and father would offer them a meal and place to sleep.

But now a growing number, perhaps even a majority of this nation’s citizens and leaders treats the idea of carrying our fair share in the form of the public burden as a crime against American freedom. We severely underfund shared public services and services for the poor, struggling and disadvantaged and yet a shocking number of people attack any attempt to personally or properly fund these things. It has been noted, wisely, that the general health of a society or a nation can be seen in how they treat their weakest members.

And I guess the line of connection that I’d like to draw is the ever-shallowing and the inward turning of the human soul that helps create a “lifeboat mentality” where if only a few can be saved, then it’s going be “me first”. The only problem is that there’s still an extraordinary abundance and a never-ending shopping spree by Americans that is quite at odds with the perception that we are being taxed to within an inch of our lives. And it’s an extraordinary abundance that is quite unevenly spread ... far too much here and far too little there. There seems to be a battle on for the “American soul” and it’s not at all clear who’s going to win, but it does seem clear who’s currently losing: those on the lower side of the economic spectrum.

In the wilderness of Sin—that is the actual name ... in the wilderness of Sin it is a battle for the soul of the wandering Children of Israel. In the wilderness journey between Egypt and the Promised Land, God is seeking to lead and teach and guide the people of Israel into a depth of faith and trust and experience that will serve them well in any future wilderness journeys, any exiles, any times of oppression. And yet the people resisted—as people will, and sometimes outright refused to put their trust in God.

We sometimes struggle or even refuse to put our trust in deeper, more substantial things and then wonder why we feel so frail and so beset when trouble comes our way. And we wonder why the little gods we can buy with our credit cards, when trouble comes, fail to console us. And when we struggle or even refuse to put our trust in deeper, more substantial things, then it should be no surprise to see us grasping more and giving less, more easily fearful of the future, resisting the generous impulse, resisting the needs of our neighbors.

We all of us ... all of us ... need a little more of what Jesus offered to a nameless woman on a hot day in Samaria.

Jesus, the gospel of John tells us, is on a journey through another wilderness of a fashion ... he’s en route from Judea to Galilee, but on the way passes through Samaria ... which would be like a modern Israeli traveling to Jerusalem via the Gaza Strip. It is not a friendly and hospitable place to say the least. It’s midday and Jesus stops by Jacob’s well to rest and attend to his thirst. At the same time a woman arrives at the well to draw her daily water. And we most of us know enough about this story to know that nearly everything is wrong about their encounter ... Jews and Samaritans in contact ... a man and a woman in contact ... a woman who has to draw water when no one else is around because of all the rumors that surround her presumably licentious behavior.

Everything is wrong except that Jesus is not bound or defined by these conventions. Jesus defines his rules of conduct according to a deeper, more honorable code. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And who is your neighbor, someone asks Jesus in Luke’s gospel? Well, according to Jesus’ answer—which also involved a Samaritan, there’s no one you can see or think of who is not your neighbor.

Jesus intuits this woman’s story, her need to draw water away from the gossips who come in the morning. He sees and senses her loneliness and her struggles. And though he is thirsty himself, he offers her a gift of water ... and it is water of a kind that will tend to a thirst deeper than even one’s bodily needs.

Living water from a living God for our living souls. Need any of that? Got water?

Let me say again: we sometimes struggle or even refuse to put our trust in deeper, more substantial things and then wonder why we feel so frail and so beset when trouble comes our way. And when we struggle or even refuse to put our trust in deeper, more substantial things, then it should be no surprise to see us grasping more and giving less, more easily fearful of the future, resisting the generous impulse, resisting the needs of our neighbors.

Water from a rock ... living water from the well of God’s being.

The Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness received water from a rock to slake their physical thirst ... but their story reminds us that it took more than that moment of thirst relieved to relieve their quarreling with God and their fear of the future. The story tells us that their school of hard knocks in the wilderness stretched on for whole ‘nother generation.

The Samarian woman, on the other hand, received outright the gift of living water offered her. And her testimony about Jesus brought that gift to many, many more in her city ... and many more since.

The promise of water from a rock is hard one ... unless you know where to drill and have a good pump on hand. The promise of living water, however, is sure and real. It is the water of generous grace and acceptance, it is the water of abundance for our neighbors and us, it is the water that ends quarrelling and brings our passions to bear on the problems that confront us all.

Living water can be chaotic and wet and messy, to be sure, but perhaps the upside of the chaos is the promise to scour away and even drown the selfishness and greed and tawdriness that can afflict overly self-satisfied people and societies.

Dear friends, as an antidote to the fear that seems to drive so much selfishness, let us again and again drop our buckets into that well that promises never to go dry.


Sunday, March 20, 2011


Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12:1-4a

The Call of Abram

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him;


Lost is a short, terrifying word. Someone sent me a link to aerial photographs showing before and after the tsunami pictures in Japan. As you moved your mouse from right to left, the “before” picture gives way to the “after” picture, almost as if you are causing the watery onslaught that scoured whole communities from the earth. 8000 people from one community alone still “lost”.

Such a small word, such shattering implications.

Some of you may remember an old evangelical bumper sticker and billboard campaign that offered the simple phrase: “I found it!” which implied, I guess, what “lost” persons could find if they looked hard enough for it. Not surprisingly, the “I found it” campaign spawned a counter-campaign that said: “I never lost it.” Within more orthodox understandings of Christianity, the word “lost” is used, rather harshly, to describe the bleak prospects of a person and their soul apart from a “saving knowledge” of Jesus. That grim view of people outside of the faith seems in jarring contrast with the story Jesus told of the shepherd who left behind 99 “found” sheep to go in search of the one “lost” sheep. That story says very powerfully that even when humans have given up, God does not give up.

One morning, a few years ago, I noticed I had a voicemail on my cell phone from our dear friend Elizabeth Murphy. I listened to the message and whereas Elizabeth is usually pretty unflappable and upbeat, there was a scared tremor in her voice. “Greg,” she said, “I’m calling because Michael is lost in the mountains.” At first I wasn’t sure if she was pulling my leg ... it almost sounded like a practical joke. But I listened a couple more times and decided that the fear in her voice was real and no joke. It seems that Michael and a couple of friends had gone on a short backpacking trip in the Trinity Alps. At the end of their trip, Michael started out for the car ahead of the others. But when his friends reached the car, Michael was nowhere to be found. They immediately called Elizabeth who had not heard from Michael ... and Elizabeth, thinking I had a keen sense about these things, called me.

Well, you know how the story comes out because we’re pretty sure the fellow who is still hanging around with Elizabeth is Michael ... but it gave us all a good scare when the word “lost” got attached to someone we cared about.

I have been slowly reading a book that I’m recommending to anyone who might be interested. “An Altar in the World” is the latest writing from well-known author, Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor is an Episcopal priest who has left the pastoral ministry for farming with her husband, Ed, and teaching at a nearby college and seminary. My mentor, David Bartlett, for it’s worth, teaches with Barbara at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. “An Altar in the World” is a book that suggests that we Christians have nearly forgotten how to encounter God beyond the walls of the church or beyond our formal religious practices. Taylor offers twelve “practices” which hold the promise of encountering God “out there” somewhere.

One of the practices is the act of walking on this earth which speaks of becoming more thoroughly grounded in God through the simple act of walking. That chapter and that practice have been enormously helpful to my own thinking about “Journeys of Faith and Feet”. On Ash Wednesday, Chris led us on a “walk of mindfulness” where we were invited to walk very slowly with great awareness of our feet, breath and bodies as we walked, as well as a deep awareness of the ground upon which we walked. Even though most of us prefer to whiz from one place to another in our cars, when we do walk, even that is often done in great haste and with little thought. Pump those arms, get that heart rate going, burn those calories. It is good that we do that kind of walking, but it is also good to sometimes slow down and walk in a far more mindful manner.

Last Sunday and again today we are taking “mindful walks” of a fashion and using the lenses of our cameras through which to better see the world that we so often rush by. A few of us strolled and sauntered around downtown Walnut Creek last Sunday looking for things we might ordinarily miss at a faster pace. People looked at us and our cameras as though we were weirdly dressed tourists from a far off land. But I have found that a camera is like the brakes on your car that forces you to slow down and take notice ... to pause, to focus, the frame and reframe your view. Walking and seeing that way is to experience a familiar place almost as though for the first time. Allowing a toddler to take you by the hand and lead you in a rambling perambulation of any locale can serve the same purpose. You are forced to see the world at their speed and at their level ... which is “up close and personal”.

Another practice Barbara Brown Taylor suggests is “the practice of getting lost”. Perhaps it was a spiritual exercise which Michael was engaged in when he gave Elizabeth such a start. The practice of getting lost is the practice of knowingly entering the wilderness. It is the practice of consciously leaving behind the known and the familiar for paths and experiences that are unfamiliar and unpredictable. There is, apparently, a common belief among women that men do not need to practice what is already thought to be well developed art ... the art of getting lost and the closely related art of refusing to ask directions.

But all joking aside, there is much to be gained in being lost ... much to be gained in the wilderness ... much to be gained in leaving for a time the utterly familiar for the largely unknown. We who are so self-possessed and so self-directed leave almost no opening or opportunity for the gentle, inhabiting breath of the Spirit ... or the Spirit’s leading. I think this is part of the allure of travel to foreign places ... that there is something we might almost describe as “sacred” in walking in a Mayan jungle, or snorkeling over a living reef, or eating rice and curried goat from a palm leaf in India, or watching elderly French men play “boules”. When we return home from adventures to foreign places and the experience of unfamiliar customs, our lives are not quite the same as before the journey began. We are changed.

Was it the prospect of exotic customs in far off lands that compelled Abram and Sarai to leave behind their family and their homeland to follow a God whose name they did not even know? The ancient storyteller in Genesis describes the commencement of this great, great journey in the sparest of terms: Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

I don’t know about you, but I’d be tempted to ask to see a travel itinerary, kind of like the one Darby sends out when she and Dudley head north. But an itinerary doesn’t seem to be a part of the call to journey. There are several vague and absurdly grandiose sounding promises in God’s call to Abram and Sarai to leave it all behind. “So tell me a bit more about this “land that I will show you” ... could you be a bit more specific?” But in this terse description of the journey’s start, we are not left with the sense that a lack of details troubled Abram and Sarai ... God said “go” and Abram and Sarai “went”. There is something about their willingness to know nothing but the backside of the God they followed that is rather extraordinary ... they were willing to consciously become “lost” knowing only that they were following a divine presence they couldn’t quite see or name, a divine presence they had no particularly good reason to trust. It is, I think, the first “leap of faith” recorded in the Bible.

You probably remember the description of “faith” by the author of Hebrews:

faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. ... By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

It is a leap of faith Abram and Sarai take that leads them to follow God into an unknown wilderness and an uncertain future. And here is where we come to that bit of a spiritual cliché that the destination is the journey. Whether it is Abram and Sarai’s wilderness journey, or the 40 year journey by Moses and the children of Israel ... there is a “proximity” to God in real or perceived wildernesses that rarely exists in more settled and predictable times. Routines have a way of stifling our need for an experience of the “divine mystery”, life’s ruts can dull our Spiritual receptors, strict adherence to convention can shrivel our souls. Surprise is the enemy and sameness is salvation.

But here’s the thing: anyone past the age of 6 months knows that you don’t have to choose to go to the wilderness ... the wilderness will often come to you. Perhaps you step out your front door one day, and instead of your front yard and your car parked in the driveway and all of life familiar and comfortable, some horrible event has snatched it all away or made it all seem completely unimportant. A job is lost ... an infidelity is admitted ... a diagnosis is gravely offered ... a wall of water washes ashore ... and suddenly the wilderness has arrived on your doorstep without your having to move an inch. And just as suddenly we realize that we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we could do it all on our own ... that our own spiritual strength that we have largely ignored and neglected to exercise is enough to float our boats on this new inland sea.

When Sandra lost Eldon, she described herself as feeling lost. My friend Polly describes herself as feeling lost without Steve. Watching the sea rush inland sweeping away everything in its path made me feel lost and disoriented ... imagine how it feels to actually live amongst such realities. It almost feels like a sin to speak at this safe distance of such awful realities, as though I have ANY idea at all.

But I have known other losses ... other calamities ... and I can only say that those wilderness journeys, those times and experiences of being lost did not end with simply stating that fact. Because I can join many others in saying that I was not alone in those times and places that felt like no time and no place. A presence that we should feel no need to rush to name or describe also inhabits any wilderness we inhabit. It is enough to say that when your journey veers sharply toward the wilderness, trust that you will not be alone.

And it is enough to say that the simple practice of allowing yourself to “lose your way” from time to time can gradually build the muscles necessary for radical trust, and open spaces for the inbreathing of that presence that will not abandon in the wilderness.

Anything can become a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it that way—once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you really are, who other people are, and how near God can be when you have lost your way.

So ... turn off your GPS ... fold up the map ... put on your walking shoes, or take them off ... and set out for ... well, God only knows.


Sunday, March 13, 2011


First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 3:6-7, 23-24

… when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Then the LORD God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

And so we enter that winding, meandering path known as Lent. Not all of us grew up observing Lent, and so there may be a bit of unfamiliarity to the season. It’s a strange territory we’ve entered ... but I’d suggest that it should be ... for novice and veterans of Lent, alike. Our own inner selves ... our minds and motives ... our wishes and our wills ... are all so labyrinthine, so full of twists and turns and switchbacks and blind corners, that were every season a Lenten season, there would still be more discovery to do, more miles to log and paths to tread.

Lent is, perhaps blessedly, a finite season ... a season with an end ... getting lost in the inner labyrinth will not do ... and besides, the end of Lent, the end of this seasonal journey is this fabulous explosion of life and hope that we call Easter and resurrection. Who among us, if we cherish life at all, would want to miss that? If we stick to our Lenten paths for the season, then our celebration at season’s end can be quite extraordinary, quite life-giving, quite “life-saving”.

Just as any journey worthy of the name begins with a single step, the Lenten journey from a Biblical perspective begins with our beginnings. We begin in Genesis with the ancient tale of creation that speaks of God’s loving work of crafting heavenly bodies and somewhat less than heavenly beings. And, of course, we’ll never want to forget that the storyteller repeatedly reminds us that with every creative step, God pauses to wonder at the goodness of God’s own creating. Not even earthquakes and tsunamis nor humanly created blights like war can change this essential truth that creation is fundamentally good. That’s not all there is to say about creation, but to fail to say at least this much would be to forget that creation and our very lives are inseparably intertwined. To know and say that creation is good is to know and say that our life on this earth—our corporeal, bodily existence is good, as well.

The Lenten journey begins in Eden, this wondrously mythical garden of delights. But before Adam and Eve even have a chance how to learn how to cook a delicious pie from their new pickings, they are thrust from the garden with only their hand-sewn fig-leaf outfits to protect them. Is it any wonder that the very first Lenten reading of the three-cycle of readings is a not-quite-reachable garden that ends up being a fast-track to the wilderness of real life.

The now former residents and caretakers of God’s holy garden are left to wander and wonder ... perhaps we can think of Eve and Adam as the first observers of the season of Lent. One would like to think that after a full day of hunting and gathering that these two primordial parents sat in the light of the night’s fire pondering where they went wrong.

Of course the story is not really about two “original” human beings, per se. It’s a much bigger story than that. The story is about the difficulty of life in general—its toils and troubles ... and the story is about the difficulty of living “up” to the high vision of God’s original creative intents for us.

In part, the story simply offers an explanation for why life can be so incredibly challenging ... so gritty and grueling. In ancient narrative style, it was common to create stories that explained known, observable realities. If a story could be told of earth’s first parents wherein there was a fatal tendency to disobey divine orders and the punishment for disobeying was the difficult lives known by the listener, then the listener could do the genetic math and conclude that the real trouble was in their DNA ... and there’s not much a poor, toiling farmer can do about that.

But the other part of the story is that God’s original purpose for God’s human creation was to serve and preserve the garden ... or, translated, to serve and preserve creation. It was when the first couple decided to live outside of God’s wisdom and purposes that they were no longer deemed worthy of such a high calling and such a high creative intent. But that is a part of our spiritual DNA as well. Not only can life be hard work and painfully gritty and real, but somewhere within these lives that experience all of the “trouble and strife” there still exists the awareness of that inordinately higher calling.

The journey of Lent, that begins with these creatures created from the dust of the earth, is a journey to rediscovering our own highest calling ... for each of us, no matter how that calling gets defined exactly, it still comes back by one means or another to serving and preserving God’s creation ... ALL of God’s creation including the earth and every creature, human and otherwise, that lives upon it.

One of the steps that is intrigue-ingly implied by this story, is the journey to the knowledge that we are “naked”. It is choosing to live outside of God’s wisdom that reveals to Adam and Eve that they are naked. One of the ways I have come to understand Adam and Eve’s “nakedness” is their human awareness that they were fallible, finite and mortal. Within the context of the story, once they are aware they are naked, they can already see beyond the gates of Eden where they will spend the remainder of their lives.

So when did you come to know you were naked? That is, when did you come to know you were fallible, finite and mortal. Most of us cruise through life a good long time before we come to this knowledge ... this awareness. I spoke with Katherine Crow about the death of her daughter, Barbara, who passed away on Friday. This is the second child Katherine has lost in four months. Which side of the gates of Eden do you think Katherine feels she lives on? As we spoke about these losses, Katherine mused out loud about these women who had, not so long ago it seems, been these heedless, devil-may-care kids who lived as though they’d never die ... as though nothing could ever touch them. That’s how I was, certainly, at that age ... I didn’t know my own nakedness ... my own real finiteness.

I can’t help but wonder about the 16 year old boy from Windsor who this week jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. NOW does he know that he is “naked”? Have his eyes been opened? What does it take to open our eyes to this essential truth.

One of the “blessings” of this truth is that we learn to properly cherish life—to cherish our lives and the lives of others. It is to truly learn for the first time that life is sacred—and in no small measure because it is not guaranteed. Life is a gift and knowing ourselves “unwrapped” is to see and appreciate the gift as fully as we are able.

Of the many reasons we go to Mexico for our annual mission, one of the most important is for each participant to be stripped for a time of her or his comforts and to be pressed up against naked human need. There is an enormous sense of vulnerability that can be experienced by those of us who come out of our hyper-clean, hyper-organized middle-class culture. We cross the border as well-dressed, confident, cocky suburbanites with our pockets full of money and our heads full of illusions about the work we are doing, and we find ourselves driving on unpaved streets surrounded by extraordinary need. And there’s no place, really, to hide. And when we get out of our air-conditioned vans and put our feet in the dust that the peeling and stripping begins. And even if we come back home with a fig leaf or two in place, we know that the suburban suit of armor we went down with no longer fits very well.

Sometimes it is a “life-changing” mission journey that can strip you naked ... and sometimes it’s the sheer power of words.

[READING ... Buechner]


One of the great challenges of both life and Lent is to allow our times of nakedness to soften us ... to soften our hearts, our motives, our way of being in the world. The alternative, of course, is to allow ourselves to withdraw and to become hardened until we can no longer be stripped and can no longer feel our own life and needs and pain and no longer feel the life and needs and pain of another. To allow ourselves to live for a time in that undressed, vulnerable state is to offer ourselves a wonderful opportunity to know the sacredness of our lives and every life.

I have spent enough time with enough of you to know that you are no stranger to vulnerability and nakedness and pain. And I trust that in the paths and footsteps and journeys ahead that you will accept your vulnerability as a gift ... and in that gift you will rediscover your own sacredness, and in that gift you will rediscover the sacredness of others and all life, and in that gift you will continue to discover your own truest self and your own highest calling as sons and daughters of God, as the handiwork of God’s own good creation, and as servers and preservers of God’s Shalom.

Shalom to you.