Archive for April, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

April 2, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

It’s hard to put ourselves into the Israelites’ place. Most of us have a few cups of coffee under our belts and perhaps some juice; so it’s a stretch to imagine how it feels to be desperate with thirst — how it feels to slog over sun burned rocks and sand all day, only to find yourself, as twilight falls, at bone-dry Rephidim. And you have long since squeezed the last drop from your water bag.  No wonder the people panicked!  Moses tried to reason with them: “Look, God has never let us down.”  But Moses’s voice could scarcely be heard over the frantic din.  So Moses let God guide him, and God guided him to a large rock.  He struck the rock with his staff, and pure, potable water poured forth in abundance.

I want to return to this story in a moment, because it illustrates a serious problem with Lent.  For many people Lent is like a gift of  seven-league boots, BUT without being told how to use them.  I chose that image — magical boots that let the wearer cover seven leagues in one step — because if life is a journey toward genuine happiness, we want to move ahead, not dawdle.  So how do we use those seven-leagues boots, the season of Lent, effectively?

In Lent we start the service with the Ten Commandments to help us examine our conscience.  Speaking for myself, I generally turn tail and run when I hear, “Examine your conscience.”  Of course, with that attitude it is impossible to acknowledge my sins,  amend my life, and move forward toward genuine happiness.

What makes self-examination so painful?  Isn’t it that it gives us a sense of shame?  Of guilt?  Of failure?  But do we imagine that that is God’s will for us?  Shame, guilt and a sense of failure?  No it is not, and if we think so we have been misinformed.  It’s no wonder we shy away from a careful examination of conscience — from using those seven league boots.

Instead, let’s try not to look at the Ten commandments, as external to us, as measuring sticks, for instance, by which to judge ourselves.  Rather, let’s try to see them as part of ourselves, as divining rods so to speak, pointing to something beautiful and precious within us.  I’m speaking of our basic human needs — which are gifts God implanted in us.  Regardless of who I am, when I lived, or where, or how different my culture is, I have the same basic needs as everyone else.  They are like a subterranean water table, something that all of us human beings have in common, that unites us, one to another.

Seen this way, the Commandments have no part in torturing us with blame and shame and a sense of failure; on the contrary, they exist to renew us, strengthen us and reassure us.  Let me show you how this works, and in the end you’ll see that the Commandments lead just as surely to penitence and repentance, but without guilt and shame.

So, what are my basic needs?  Take the first commandment, about not worshiping other gods or worshiping images of god.  What does this point to?  Truth.  God is truth.  Without truth, what can we trust?  How can we build a life on falsehood?  This is like saying, don’t invest in iron pyrite, fools’ gold, invest only in pure gold.  Truth is one of our basic needs to journey toward genuine happiness.  

What about the commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”?  That points to our need for the holy or the sacred; in other words, for what gives life meaning.  When I go too long just doing the right thing, life becomes so stale I can almost feel desperate.  I need time to renew myself in God’s holy mystery, maybe just to gaze up in awe at the night sky.  If I trample the name of God, or what is holy to me, under the foot of heedless language, one of my basic needs will go unmet.

I won’t go on about all the commandments, but briefly let me suggest this.  The command to honor our parents points to our own need for honor and respect.  You could divine on your own the beautiful, God-given needs the Commandments are meant to protect and promote — the need to matter; the need to nurture or be nurtured; the need for autonomy, for understanding, for safety or security.  The list is long, but not endless; and the list of needs is not the same as the list of our wants.

Now, to return to the business of Lent, when it comes to an examination of conscience, try this four-step process.  It works, not by self-condemnation, but by self-compassion.  First, name what troubles your conscience.  Let’s say I lied.  Second, ask yourself, “What beautiful human need was I trying to meet with that lie?”  It could be one or several — security?  support?  respect?  self-respect?   Third, consider: “Did the lie meet that need?”  The answer usually is no.  But notice!  There is no blame or shame involved.  The need is legitimate, precious, and God-given — a need God wants to be fulfilled; but my strategy for meeting that need did not work.  Sin is another name for a bad strategy.  Fourth, in a spirit of tender compassion for myself, I look for a better strategy.

This is the way I believe God regards us when we sin.  God sees we are doing our best to meet those precious human needs God gave us, but we are terribly confused when it comes to devising strategies that actually fulfill those needs.  Sometimes our strategies are not just ignorant, they are tragic, or even evil.  But however misguided the strategy, the intent is, at bottom, always good.  However misguided the strategy, this is not a cause for shame or guilt.  It is a cause for grief, to be sure, for sin always does harm, and at times great harm, as we all know.

It helps me to remember this truth about sin when someone annoys me or really makes me angry.  We have a neighbor who can turn my blood to steam if I’m not careful.  But if I think to myself, “He is just trying to meet one of his precious basic needs,” then I can not only cool down, but feel genuine compassion.  You’ll find this can help you with your own problem people; but first, you must practice the compassionate examination of conscience on yourself.

The deepest human need is our need to belong.  All of us need to feel we belong, both to God and to the human family.  Jesus’ ministry was all about meeting this need to belong — reaching out to outcasts of every sort.  Think of the woman at the well.  Jesus should never have spoken to her.  First, she was a woman; second she was a Samaritan; third she was an outcast in her own society.  But Jesus had a way of looking at people and listening to them with his whole heart that said, “You totally belong.”  It changed her life.

This is our ministry here at Trinity Church also.  And this parish is well suited to meeting that need to belong.  Your warm hearts know how to welcome the stranger no less than each other.  We all come with that need to belong, some days worse than others.  Like the parched and travel-worn Israelites at Rephidim, people are desperate for the water of belonging; we cannot truly live without it; and Trinity Church is that rock, struck by God’s rod.

I want to close by asking you to take seriously this profoundly important ministry of ours.  Don’t be diffident.  Invite people to visit Trinity Church.  Reach out to them when they come.  I was deeply moved when I first came to Trinity Church and felt how warmly you welcomed and accepted me.  Today more than ever the world is a spiritual desert.  Who out there is not searching desperately for the water of true belonging?  Invite them to come to the rock and drink.