The Smiling Heretic's Blog

Lent 1 :: This is only a test....

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This is a test. This is only a test…

Of course, had this been a real test—or emergency—you would have been told where to tune-in for more information. Or so goes the Public Service Announcement long ago abandoned by most TV stations.

But take life. We are often told that it is a test—that the things which happen to us on a daily basis test what kind of person we are or how well we handle difficult situations or whether or not we can be trusted with even greater responsibilities which, of course, only leads to greater and more difficult tests. Funny thing is they’re right. Life is a test. But not the kind of test we may suppose.

St. Mark tells us that Jesus, immediately after being baptized and pronounced by God’s Voice as “Beloved Son,” was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Though the gospeller does not bother with such details as the kinds of temptations endured by Jesus, we can be sure they were real doozies. Like the kind we face each and every day: How can I be a better parent? Should I buy that great set of golf clubs or put my money away for retirement? I’m out of work, do I pay my bills this week or take my sick child to a doctor? I haven’t studied for the big exam today, but I did find a crib sheet…should I use it? Though quite different one from the other, each of these “tests” ultimately are about trust and faith. And, to put it very bluntly, they are all a matter of either trusting in God or trusting in something—anything—else. And, though trusting in anything else may provide immediate relief or instant gratification, such consequences are fleeting.

Ashes

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"Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen." (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 265)

These are the words of blessing spoken over the ashes which are to be imposed on worshippers during the Ash Wednesday worship which begins the season of Lent.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of smudging ashes on someone’s forehead: making the sign of the cross-a most holy and meaningful symbol-by using something which represents violence, death, and waste. I mean, ashes are what is left over from any great conflagration. Ashes represent loss to me. I think of that home down the street from where I grew up. One Halloween night it was burned to the ground. Almost nothing was recovered; all was turned to charred timber and ashes. I recall the day the woods not far from our home in Arkansas caught fire. A controlled burn gone wrong. Hundreds of acres reduced to nothing. I think of the images I have seen of Mt. St. Helen’s blowing up and the falling ashes which blackened the sun. I remember the horror of the twin towers and those ashes of ruin, violence, and death which covered the streets of Manhattan.

Last Epiphany :: Reality check

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You can hardly blame the man.

All Peter wants is for this moment to last forever, to be “enshrined” as it were, as one of those rare, life-altering events which happen so infrequently, if at all, during one’s sojourn on earth. Coming between two predictions by Jesus of his arrest and passion at the hands of the authorities, the Transfiguration acts as a reminder to the faithful that He is the Beloved Child of a loving God, One to whom we must give full attention.

But this is not a sign-post in history that we can capture and hold onto forever. Like Peter, we simply cannot stay up on the mountain with Jesus, forever basking in the glory of his transcendence. We’ve got to come down the mountain and face the reality of a world which refuses to understand that the Beloved Child must suffer, casting in his lot with the rest of us.

Epiphany 6 :: Scene of faith

An imagined conversation…

Naaman [to Elisha’s messenger]: So. You are telling me that your master, the great prophet of Israel, won’t bother to come out to greet me—The great Naaman who commands a vast army? Doesn’t he know that I could have him flogged? Or worse?

Messenger: Yeah. Whatever. Anyway my master has seen the chariots of God—the real thing, not the movie. He’s raised the dead, made stagnant streams fresh again, fed a multitude, and makes a pretty mean pot of stew. Can you do all those things? And besides, you don’t need him to say some hocus-pocus words over you in order to be cured. Just go the river as he said and wash yourself a few times. Looks like you could use a good bath anyway.

Naaman: Well, I could have done that back home and not come all this way. Do you even know how difficult it is to haul all this treasure across the desert? I expected your lord and master to have me do some great penance, some act of contrition, in order that I may be clean again. After all, I’ve had this disease a long time. I’d think I should have to do some long arduous task pleasing to his God, that I may be made whole.

Epiphany 5 :: It's tough being the Savior!

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It's tough being the Savior of the world.

Jesus is just barely into his first few days of proclamatin' about the Really Good News and already he's cast out various and sundry demons, healed a sick momma [who, after escaping Death's grip, gets up and fixes dinner for her unannounced house guests], and tends to all sorts of ill and possessed and broken folk. Yet still he continues to cast out more demons than you can shake a stick at in his spare time [and gettin' them to hush up about it, too]. My! but the Son of God has had a busy day....

Now about that spare time.

Seems after a full day of healin' and castin' and shushin' and all that kinda stuff, God's Own needs a few moments to himself. A time to recharge his batteries and make contact with the Almighty in prayer. A time away from the demands that you normally would expect people to lay on the Savior of the world. Let's put aside all the things the world expects of him, all the stuff we think we need and that we think only he can provide. Let's just let him be. Leave him alone. He's got so much work left to do for this rag-tag bunch of folk the God he calls Daddy has chosen for redemption. Give the guy just a few minutes before he burns out.

Epiphany 4 :: God's power or human folly?

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“…any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”

Harsh words from the Deuteronomist. Yet much needed words, even if we may not agree with the that-prophet-shall-die bit. God knew that throughout history there would be many who would claim to speak in God’s name—or on behalf of other gods—words that are meant to harm others, words that incite others to fear, hatred, or violence.

How many wars, how many pogroms against “undesirables,” how many acts of ethnic cleansing have been instigated by people claiming to do so on behalf of whatever god they bow down to and worship? As people of the Bible, we ourselves must tackle those passages in scripture which claim God’s role in—indeed, God’s commanding of—the annihilation of whole towns in Canaan. Were such actions God’s will or were they the product of false claims of Divine guidance by the victorious in order to justify mass slaughter? Our understanding and interpretation of the biblical account is crucial here.

Epiphany 3 :: Warning! You will never be the same

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So what would you do if someone came to you and told you to prepare for God's coming by turning from whatever it was you were doing  and instead work to share that message with others? Or what might you say to someone who came to your neighborhood shouting at the top of her lungs that the city needed to repent or God would destroy it? Or how about being told that in order to fully live into the way God was calling you meant you had to renounce your marriage or your business or even society itself?

Sounds crazy, doesn't it? And yet this is precisely what our readings for this Third Sunday after Epiphany are all about. Jonah warns the people of Ninevah [an ancient city opposite the Tigris River from the modern city of Mosul] that God has pronounced judgement on them and, unless they repent, will be utterly destroyed. Saint Paul calls on the people of Corinth to live as if the only thing that matters is their life in Christ, who is soon to come. The present age is passing away and they all need to be prepared for what will happen next.

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