What Sustains Our Witness

May 28, 2017 – 7th Sunday in Easter
Acts 1.6-14

Introduction: In the first chapter of Acts, we hear that the risen Jesus appeared many times to the apostles and continued to teach them about the realm of God. He also told them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Read: Acts 1.6-14

Recently a friend was telling me about an illness in her family. She described the intentionality in which her family prayed together, giving thanks at the end of each day for the medical staff who were helping them and the many people who they knew were holding them in prayer.

She told me about a time several years ago when another illness struck her family. At that time, she mostly worried about all the worst possible outcomes. She lost sleep and, reflecting now all these years later, she was conscious of how all the energy of worrying didn’t change the outcome one single bit and only made her miserable.

With the current illness, there is no promise it won’t recur but that has not been what she and her family have focused on each day. In their prayer each evening they are conscious of the gift of each day and the blessing of being together. They give thanks for the miracle of medical advancements and for the love and care from others that is sustaining them.

I was thinking about this conversation with my friend as I read the Acts story this week.

In the Christian year we are at the last Sunday of the season of Easter. Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost. So the story in Acts is at this transition where Jesus is about ready to leave and before he leaves, he promises that the Holy Spirit will come to the apostles and they will receive power from the Spirit. That arrival of the Holy Spirit is what we will celebrate next Sunday.

The first question the apostles ask Jesus when they’re all together in Jerusalem is, says Willie James Jennings, a nationalist question.[1] (You might recall Jennings was the 2015 Grawemeyer Award winner in religion for his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.) The apostles want to know when they will get to rule their land and impose their will on others. They’re still thinking that Jesus the Messiah is going to reassert the political kingdom of Israel and drive out the Romans.

Jesus says they have it all wrong about him. Instead, he says the question to ask is, “What is the work you are to do now and how will you do it?” And the answer to that is the apostles are called to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In other words, they are to tell and demonstrate the good news about Jesus—about his life, and death and resurrection—to the whole world. But they won’t do it on their own. They will have power from the Holy Spirit to do this.

And then Jesus leaves—right up into the sky where he disappears into a cloud. And just like when the women in the gospel of Luke go to look for the body of Jesus at the tomb and are met by two men in dazzling clothes, the apostles now are also met by two men who say, “What are you doing here? Didn’t you hear what Jesus said?” Stop looking up expecting Jesus to return and start looking out into the world and your mission in it.[2]

Hearing that, I would sort of expect the apostles to charge ahead and say, “Okay! What are we going to do? What’s the plan? Who will do what? Who will go where?” and get started on this work Jesus has given them.

Or, I would expect them to freak out. “What? Be witnesses all over the world? How would we ever do that? Won’t we get in trouble in the Roman Empire talking about Jesus all over the place?” There is likely some fear for them because this Greek word “witness” can also mean martyr and I imagine none of the apostles were too keen on that.

But the writer of Acts tells us the apostles neither go full steam ahead nor do they freak out. Instead, they gather together with some of the women disciples and they pray. Not just a quick perfunctory prayer. They constantly devoted themselves to prayer.

This is typical of what happens throughout the book of Acts. The followers of Jesus are devoted to prayer. They aren’t only praying—like a monastic community that is cloistered away committing itself wholly to prayer. For the early followers of Jesus, prayer is an integral part of their action. Again and again, prayer precedes the decisions and directions the disciples take.

What’s so striking to me about this story is this response of prayer. Because the whole book of Acts is uncharted territory. It is the story of the church continuing “the work of Jesus and  [continually] rethinking its own self-understanding as it reinterprets what it means to be disciples of Jesus in new times and places.”[3] The response to this new thing is not worry or anxiety or “we can’t do that!” but a community praying together.

This seems so illustrative for our world right now and the life of the church as so much is changing around us. The first page of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church says, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world…and for its service to God.”[4] Just like those first followers of Jesus, we too are given everything that is necessary for the work we have been given as disciples. Not so much in a fixed box of rations and supplies but through the power of the Holy Spirit and through prayer. Together. With one another. This is what sustains us.

And this seems true for our own lives as well. As so much changes in our lives—health, relationships, work, family, geography, finances—what can we do? It is natural to worry, to be anxious, and to cry out, “I don’t want it to be this way!” And there is something else we have to sustain us: The power of the Holy Spirit and prayer and being together.

Prayer doesn’t make everything work out the way we want it. But in praying, and in praying together, we are accompanied, we are not alone. Those early disciples didn’t go their own way separate ways to pray. They stuck together and prayed, waiting for the wind of the Spirit to arise, to show them the way to go.

My friend whose family is once again visited with illness doesn’t know what will come next but she and her family have chosen to pray together and to invite others to pray with them. To give thanks for all their blessings, even among this illness they would never choose in a million years, and to open their lives to the healing, sustaining Spirit who arrives in surprising ways.

May we, too, devote our lives to prayer and prayer together that we may find ourselves sustained by the Spirit who promises to accompany us in all the circumstances of our lives.

* * * * *

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 17.

[2] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 367

[3] Ibid., 363.

[4] Book of Order, F-1.0202.


Ash Wednesday – Isaiah 58.1-12

February 10, 2016 – Ash Wednesday

Tonight, after the service, when I go home and see myself in the mirror I will be startled to see a black smear on my forehead. “Oh yeah, it’s Ash Wednesday” I tell myself. That startle happens every year—I don’t expect to see that smudge.

In the Christian Year, we start our journey to Easter at Ash Wednesday. We tell the truth about ourselves and about the human condition. We are mortal. We are finite. We will die. Our bodies will disintegrate. As God made the first human being from the dirt, from the humus of the earth, so will we return to the earth. Not only in being buried in the earth but our bodies will become earth again.

This is a story we mostly do not want to tell nor do we want to hear. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer, in his latest book titled Being Mortal writes eloquently about how so many of us, including our doctors, do not want to talk about the end of our lives, even when we are there at the precipice of our lives.

But to talk about the end of our life—to talk about our death—is also to talk about our life.
After the death of someone she loved, artist Candy Chang created an interactive mural on the side of an abandoned home in New Orleans. The mural invited people to participate by completing the statement: Before I die I want to___________________. [i] You’ve may have seen this same mural on E Market Street. Chang’s mural idea has been replicated all over the country and all over the world.

I heard an interview recently with Chang and she said what surprised her was how her wall didn’t make people think about death as much as it made people think about life. “Thinking about death clarifies your life.”[ii]

And so our journey to Easter and eternal, abundant life, begins in death. And the road from death to life travels through the wilderness of Lent as we ask ourselves about our lives:

What kind of life do we want to live before we die?

Is the life I’m living rooted in my identity as a follower of Christ or is it rooted in something else? If it’s rooted in something else, what do I need to do about that?[iii]

What helps me live my faith—and what gets in the way?[iv]

In Lent, we traditionally focus on three practices: prayer, giving something up, and works of love. These practices, and a season of dedicating ourselves to them, invite us to remember who we are and how we are called to live. We are beloved children of God and we are called to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. We could also say we are beloved children of God and we are called to love God with our heart, soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

So let me talk about those three practices and suggest ways we might engage them as we move from Ash Wednesday through Lent.

Prayer. Prayer is an invitation to return to God with all our heart. It is an invitation to bring our whole selves before God. It is an invitation to be present and attentive to the presence of God.

How might you create space and time for this each day? You can start small. It’s always easier to create a habit with a small step than with a huge step. What if before you get out of bed in the morning you give thanks for the day ahead and invite God to be with you in the day? It might be taking five minutes at lunch time to pause and pray “thank you” and “help me” for whatever is happening in your day. It might be reviewing your day before you go to bed, bringing to God what you are most grateful for and what you are least grateful for.

And what if our Lenten practices were not only focused on what the Spirit is doing in our lives but also open to notice and pray with the suffering of our sisters and brothers? We can pray with the news, not turning away from one more shooting of an unarmed black man or another drowning of a refugee child, but paying attention and asking God to be present for people in places of suffering. We can take ourselves, our very bodies in which the presence of God dwells, to places where there is suffering and pray.

Another Lenten practice is giving something up. What do you need to give up to live the truth that you are a beloved child of God and it’s not anything you do or buy or say or have or put on that gives you value? What gets in the way of following Christ and how might you give it up?

This is more than giving up chocolate or alcohol. The early Christian mystic John Chrysostom said, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sign continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”[v] Chrysostom is saying the same thing the prophet Isaiah is saying. God is not interested in our actions that are only about ourselves. What God cares about is how we treat others, how we work for justice for all, how we provide for those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

In his Lent message last year, Pope Francis said if we’re going to give up something, let us give up indifference toward others.[vi] Perhaps this Lent we practice relinquishing our privilege of not having to care about the lives of others. Or to give up turning away from what we don’t want to face in order to face it.

And the third traditional practice of Lent is doing works of love; the kind of actions that Chrysostom talks about—that benefit others. It seems to me that working to dismantle the evil of systemic racism is perhaps the most important work of love we can undertake. That, of course, is an enormous undertaking so we must find ways to chip away at it that we can actually do so we don’t grow discouraged and quit all together. One way we can do this is to build relationships with people who have borne (and continue to bear) the weight of the systemic racism.[vii]

Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson in a presentation at Yale told his audience “Rendering injustice visible is the proudest tradition of protest.”[viii] That sounds like the work of love: rendering injustice visible.

I can’t predict what praying, giving something up, and doing works of love will look like for you this Lent and how it might transform your life. I do know it begins with death. On Ash Wednesday. Because it is when we look at death that we gain clarity about our lives.

Even when it feels fearful and uncertain, we can begin with death and journey through the wilderness of Lent to the mystery of Easter trusting, as our confession says, “In life and in death we belong to God…With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[ix]

* * *

[i] http://beforeidie.cc/site/about/, accessed 10 February 2016

[ii] http://www.npr.org/2016/01/29/464424348/what-do-you-want-to-do-before-you-die, accessed 10 February 2016.

[iii] John G. Stevens and Michael Waschevski, Rhythms of Worship – The Planning and Purpose of Liturgy, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 54.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] http://time.com/3714056/pope-francis-lent-2015-fasting/, accessed 10 February 2016

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] William Goettler, “Lent Is Where We Live” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2016, p4.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] A Brief Statement of Faith, PC(USA).

Transfiguration and Then What? – Luke 9.28-43

February 7, 2016 – Transfiguration Sunday

Introduction: Chapter 9 is a turning point in Luke’s story of Jesus. The beginning of the chapter has Jesus giving to his disciples power and authority over all demons and curing diseases and he sends the disciples out to proclaim the realm of God and to heal. The middle of the chapter is the transfiguration story. Then at the end of the chapter, Jesus will leave his ministry in the area of Galilee and be on his way to Jerusalem where he will meet controversy and conflict, where he will suffer and be killed and at the end be raised from the dead.

There are a lot of overlays in this story with other stories we hear in Luke’s gospel as well as the story of Moses in the Hebrew scripture. So as I read the transfiguration story this morning I will add a few comments along the way to help us hear the text in a larger context.

Read Luke 9.28-43.

v. 28: Begins with a reference to Jesus’ sayings. In verses 24-26. Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” “What do you gain if you get all sorts of wealth but lose your true self?” and “The one of whom you are ashamed today may be your judge tomorrow.”[1]

v. 31: “Departure” literally is “exodus”[2] – invoking Moses and the exodus. The Exodus, of course, being the people of God leaving enslavement in Egypt through a wilderness journey eventually coming into freedom in the promised land. For Jesus it will be the journey through suffering and death to resurrection.

v. 34: Terrified: The only other place where this same Greek word shows up is chapter 2 when the birth of Jesus is announced to the shepherds. “Then an angel of the Lord stood before [the shepherds], and the glory of the [Holy God] shone around them, and they were terrified.”

v. 35: “My Chosen”: some ancient manuscripts of Luke 9 say “my Beloved.” You might remember a similar voice in a cloud earlier in the gospel when Jesus is baptized. The voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ baptism and those divine words back in chapter 3 mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Now, again, similar divine words mark the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. And, also like at his baptism, this experience happens while Jesus is at prayer.[3]


Author Lillian Daniel, writing about the Transfiguration said, “When people tell you that Christianity does not relate to their day-to-day lives, this is generally the kind of story they are referring to.”[4] So we have a challenge this morning! Let’s see if we can make some real-life connection with this story.

One thing that seems significant in this story is that the transfiguration happens in the midst of prayer. Luke says Jesus took Peter and John and James with him, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying the presence of God overshadows them. Jesus came close to God and God came close to him. Luke particularly makes a point that significant events in the life of Jesus happen when he is praying.

Now that word “overshadow” shows up only one other place in Luke’s gospel. It’s back in chapter 1 when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a child who will be the Son of the Most High. When Mary asks how she will be able to give birth to the child she is asked to bear, the angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” It’s the same word for Mary as for Jesus, Peter, James and John: overshadow.

Writer Jan Richardson says, “When God shows up, God often appears in and through people: God goes not for architecture” that is, the dwellings Peter wants to make up there on the mountaintop,
“but for anatomy…God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy”[5] in our bodies.

Mary, Peter, John and James, leave their encounters, their experiences of the Holy, “carrying something they had not previously known.”

In that overshadowing cloud, they hear a voice that says of Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Listen to him; don’t try to control the Holy—making assigned spaces for the Divine.

Peter wanted to memorialize this occasion. Make it something that he and others could come back to. But maybe when God overshadows you, when God dwells in you, there is no going back. Maybe there is only going forward.

Maybe there has been a time in your life where you came close to God and God came close to you. You carry the experience with you. And the Spirit keeps working on you. You don’t always understand it but as you keep living, maybe a little bit of illumination breaks in, bit by bit. You carry it with you, pondering it in your heart, like Mary did after the shepherds came and told her what the angels said about her baby. In the story of the transfiguration, Peter, James and John keep silent about what they have experienced and tell no one. Perhaps they are also pondering. Holding this mysterious experience in their hearts. An experience that will accompany them and lead them in what is to come.

A mysterious experience that begins in prayer.

The transfiguration is a significant turning point in Jesus’ life. If you remember the story of the Exodus—the Hebrew people fleeing Egypt to escape slavery, wandering through the wilderness for 40 years before crossing the Jordan River into the promised land—it was not an easy journey. It was long, it was arduous, it was filled with doubt and frustration and anger. The people turned against their leader Moses. They were so scared they wanted to go back to Egypt—the very place where they had been slaves.

So if you think about how difficult it was for the people of God to leave oppression and move to freedom, Luke is telling us Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem will also be difficult. It will include suffering and grief and anguish before he will be glorified. And in this moment on the mountain, Jesus is reminded who he is and what his life is about. There is no promise of an easy life but there is a confirmation of who God has created him to be—a confirmation for Jesus and for Peter, James and John.

Sometimes we think of “mountaintop experiences” as beautiful sunsets and an escape from the world. That’s not this story. Professor Paul Galbreath says this mountaintop experience was “preparation for and [a] recommitment to the nitty-gritty work of encountering the demonic forces that oppress, subjugate, and hold people captive.”[6]

And the very next day, Jesus and his disciples are met by a crowd of people, including a man whose only child is held captive by an evil spirit. Transfiguration doesn’t take Jesus out of the painful suffering of the world, it puts him right into it. And the disciples too.

We may feel a little funny talking about evil spirits but think about demons we know today: addiction, poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia. These are certainly demons that “oppress, subjugate, and hold people captive”[7]—they hold individuals and whole communities captive.

Earlier in chapter 9, Jesus has given the disciples power and authority over all demons and to cure disease, but for some reason they are unable to cast out this demon and heal the boy. The story doesn’t tell us why. But it does tell us that Jesus can. “Jesus rebukes the evil spirit, and the demon exits the young boy as a sign of the power of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.”[8] The power of God the three disciples encountered on the mountain: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

So in this story we have a mystery encountered in prayer that prepares us to meet the suffering in the world through the power of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. It was true for the disciples then. May it be true for us today.

Lord God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us.[9] Amen.

* * *

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 131.

[2] Ibid., 134.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 152.

[4] Lillian Daniel, “Dazzling and Beloved” in The Lectionary Preaching Planner,” eds. Janna L Childers, Lucy A. Rose, Leonora Tubbs Tisdale and Beverly A. Zink-Sawyer, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996-2004.

[5] http://paintedprayerbook.com/2009/02/15/transfiguration-sunday-show-and-dont-tell/, accessed 6 February 2016.

[6] Paul Galbreath, “Homiletical Perspective – Luke 9.28-43a,” Feasting on the Gospels – Luke Vol. 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 271.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Quoted in Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), p274.


Persevering in Prayer – Ephesians 6.10-20

September 13, 2015 – 16th Sunday after Pentecost

“Finally,” the author of this epistle says as he, and we, come to the end of the letter named as to the Ephesians but was probably not to the church at Ephesus but more likely a circular letter to several congregations. “Finally.”

Finally, be strong but not on your own strength; be strong in the strength of God’s power. It reminds me of Proverbs 3.5-6 that I memorized years ago, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge [God], and [God] will direct your paths.”[1]

We rely and trust on God’s strength because what we’re up against is a spiritual battle; what theologian Walter Wink called the powers and principalities. In his book The Powers that Be, he wrote

“‘Every business corporation, school, denomination, bureaucracy, sports team — indeed, social reality in all its forms — is a combination of both visible and invisible, outer and inner, physical and spiritual.’ These systems, institutions, and structures can do good and evil at the same time…

“One of the challenges for Christian churches in our time is to discern the spirits of institutions and structures. If they are organized around idolatrous values and what Wink calls ‘the Domination System,’ they must be recalled to their divine vocation — the well-being of all individuals.”[2]

Before Walter Wink, William Stringfellow, a lawyer, Christian, and advocate for racial and social justice, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote about the powers and principalities. For Stringfellow, the powers and principalities are “creatures who are fallen, who thrive on chaos, who do not foster life but dehumanize.” In our day, we can think powers and principalities being realities such as “segregation, apartheid…addiction…totalitarian states, a celebrity culture of glamorized Bad Girls and Boys…attempted bribery of legislatures through large campaign contributions, genocide…unbridled nationalism, violence, hunger, racism,”[3] trafficking, advertising that uses women’s bodies to sell products, domestic violence. William Stringfellow lived by the conviction “that being a faithful follower of Jesus means to declare oneself free from all spiritual forces of death and destruction and to submit oneself single-heartedly to the power of life.”[4]

For the struggle against these dehumanizing and death dealing powers, we are given “strange armor”[5]. Likely the author is re-imagining the armor he has seen worn by Roman imperial troops: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace shoes, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit and the Word of God. This is not armor that maims or kills others. It does not condemn or dehumanize. It is not offensive armor—that is, it is not armor for being on the offense. It is meant to strengthen us, to protect us, to help us stand fast against all that would destroy life and denigrate what God intends for good.

Several years ago in a class at Louisville Seminary, I watched a moving documentary called “Weapons of the Spirit.” It tells the true story of a tiny Protestant farming village in the mountains of south-central France. During World War II, when France was occupied by the Nazis, this small village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (le cham bone’ sur lee noan’) provided shelter for 5,000 Jews. Most of the 5,000 villagers were descendants of the Huguenots—those were the first Protestants in Catholic France at the time of the Reformation. The documentary says, “They remembered their own history of persecution, and it mattered to them. They also read the Bible, and tried to heed the admonition to love your neighbor as yourself.” The day after France surrendered to Nazi Germany, their pastor said to them, “The responsibility of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on [your] consciences through the weapons of the Spirit.”[6] It sounds to me like their pastor was reading from the letter to the Ephesians and speaking of the armor of God.

President Obama, speaking in 2009 on Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Rememberance Day, told the story of the villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. He said, “Not a single Jew who came [to the town] was turned away, or turned in [to the Nazis]. But it was not until decades later that the villagers spoke of what they had done—and even then, only reluctantly. ‘How could you call us ‘good’?’ they said. ‘We were doing what had to be done.’”[7] That sounds to me like people who lived in the strength of God’s power.

Finally, pray. It’s the last counsel of the author just before signing off with some standard letter ending remarks. How do we live in God’s strength? How do we stand firm in the power of life? We pray. Pray at all time. Pray all the time for one another. The Common English Bible says it this way: “Offers prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers.” (6.18)

And then the author invites the people to whom he writes to pray for him in a specific way—that he would have the words and confidence to say what God needs him to say. “As for me,” he writes, “pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this [mystery] of the gospel known. I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that [God] will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.” (6.19-20)[8]

Pray. Pray at all times. Pray all the time for one another.                            

I wonder who are the people who have prayed for you?

Who are the people who pray for you now?

I’m going to pause for about a minute or so and in that time, Invite God to bring to mind the people who have prayed and are praying for you and in the stillness of your heart give thanks for them. [pause]

I wonder who are the people for whom God calls you to pray? Invite God to bring them to mind and in the stillness of this moment, let your prayer arise for them. [pause]

I wonder what it is that you most need in this moment? What is your prayer? Your heart’s deepest desire? I invite you to bring that before God. [pause]


* * *
[1] I can’t find a translation that has this particular wording.
[2] Quoted in a book review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/view/975/the-powers-that-be, accessed 12 September 2015.
[3] Peter Rhea Jones, “Ephesians 6.10-20 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 377.
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Stringfellow, accessed 12 September 2015.
[5] Aaron L. Uitti, “Ephesians 6.10-20 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 377.
[6] I was reminded of this documentary in Peter Rhea Jones’ article cited above. http://www.chambon.org/weapons_en.htm, accessed 12 September 2015.
[7] www.chambon.org/index.html, accessed 12 September 2015.
[8] Common English Bible

The Gift of Lent – Psalm 25.1-10 & Genesis 9.8-17

February 22, 2015 – First Sunday in Lent

Preaching the first Sunday of Lent is a little bit of a let down. After Mardi Gras Sunday with all its frivolity and lively music, the first Sunday of Lent feels austere by comparison. Which, I guess, is sort of the way it’s supposed to be.

All in all, I do like Lent. I like its spareness. I like its focus on how we find our way back to God when we have wandered away. I am grateful for the invitation in this season to search out what is most true in our lives and to take steps to live more deeply connected to that truth. I even like the call to meet God out in the wilderness (either literally or metaphorically) where the sky is clearer and the clutter lessened. And I’m particularly grateful to be part of a community that is walking this Lenten journey together because it’s a lot easier to go out into the wilderness when you know there are others with you.

We begin this Lent with a story of covenant. God’s covenant with God’s people.

It is five short chapters from the story of creation to chapter 6 of Genesis when God sees that every inclination of the hearts of humanity is toward evil. And God is sorry to have made humankind and God was deeply grieved. (Genesis 6.5-6.)

There’s nothing to indicate that after the flood there has been a change in the nature of humanity. But we do learn that there has been a change in God. God recognizes humanity’s inclination to evil and God chooses to make a covenant with us anyway. A covenant that God will not destroy us or the earth because of our propensity for turning from God’s ways. The covenant is not just with us humans but also with all living creatures—with all animals. God creates a reminder—the rainbow—not for humanity but for God. The rainbow isn’t a reminder to us, it’s a reminder for God. One commentator says this covenant God makes with us and all living creatures is made in the face of (and anticipates) betrayal.[1] The divine heart will be broken again and again (and that’s the story of scripture that takes us all the way to the death of Jesus in our Lenten journey) but still God reaches out in compassion to choose life and goodness for us; choosing to be known by us and not to hide God’s face in anger from us. We will hear God speaking through the voice of the prophet Jeremiah many generations later, “Surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Jeremiah 29.11)

At a fundamental level, this first story of Lent is about repentance. Not our repentance, but God’s repentance. Made in God’s image, we too are invited to repent, to change our hearts and minds as God’s own heart and mind was changed.

And then we hear the voice of the psalmist pleading with God not to remember his sins. (I’m assuming the psalm was written by a man but we don’t know. It could as easily have been written by a woman.) “Be mindful of your mercy and of your steadfast love…Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me!” (25.7) And having just heard, in Genesis 9, of God’s covenant with all human kind and with all living creatures we know that God has promised not to remember our sin or to see us exclusively in terms of our transgressions.

Having encountered the grace of God that does not remember us according to our sins nor give us what we deserve, we respond with gratitude. And in our Lenten journey, we join the psalmist in praying, “Teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth.”

For centuries people have practiced three basic activities during Lent; called by many the three pillars of Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving (or what I’m going to call service—that is, giving to others).[2]

Historically, Lent has been about giving something up—to take on some kind of suffering so that we can identify a bit more with the suffering of Christ. These days, in many congregations, the emphasis in Lent isn’t so much around suffering because, honestly, don’t we have enough of that already—if not individually, then certainly collectively in our communities and world? Instead of the emphasis in Lent on suffering, many of us put our Lenten focus on taking an honest look at our lives and doing something that shapes us to become more and more the people God has created us to be. To do something that conforms our hearts and minds, our thoughts and our actions, to be more and more God’s beloved.

Now that’s not a private, individual goal—to see ourselves as God’s beloved but also a communal action—to see one another and all people as God’s beloved.

What we do to let the truth of our belovedness (and one another’s belovedness) sink deeper and deeper into the fiber of our being may be giving something up or it may be taking something on. It may be setting something aside so we have more space for encountering our belovedness or it may be adding something to the rhythm of our day so that we might experience our belovedness and the belovedness of others more and more.

For generations, people have used the three practices of prayer, fasting and service as a means for what we give up or what we take on.

So, first, prayer. That might seem rather obvious. But for many of us—particularly progressive Christians, I think—we’re not exactly sure what we think about prayer so it can be easy to let that be something that other people do.

If we grew up in the church, we typically learned that prayer is talking to God—going through our list of things we, or others, need. And that is part of prayer—bringing our desires and longings before God. But the other side of prayer, which not very many Protestants learn about in church, is listening. Finding tools to quiet the constant chatter in our own hearts and minds so that we might listen for the presence of God. A presence that sometimes shows up in dramatic ways, but perhaps most often, in the still, small voice that the prophet Elijah heard. [3]

Perhaps there is a practice of prayer that you want to give up or take on this Lent. To commit to some discipline of prayer this Lent that will draw you closer to the great love of God for you and for all people. It might be as simple as starting out each day with words of thanksgiving and an intention to be open to God’s presence. It might be using the PC(USA)’s Daily Prayer app or D365 app or using a devotional book. It could be keeping a prayer journal or saying a prayer with your family before a meal or before bed.

Or it could be giving up the words for prayer and instead practicing quieting your heart and mind to listen to God. It doesn’t have to be for a long time. Start with two minutes. Another option could be to give up skepticism about prayer and try praying.

Remember, your prayer doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. If you forget to do whatever it is you committed to for a day or two days or a whole week, just start again. The point is not to do it perfectly. The point is to do something. Something that connects you with God and with how beloved you—and all of us—are to God. Something that helps you open yourself to the truth and let it sink in drop by drop by drop.

And so we pray with the psalmist, “Lead me in your truth and teach me…for you I wait all day long.”

Fasting. The second pillar of Lent is fasting. Fasting is typically focused around food. Giving up meat. Eating fish on Friday. Skipping a meal. And lots of people give us chocolate or dessert or alcohol during Lent. But in this day and age when eating disorders plague girls and women and boys and men, it’s time to stop linking spiritual growth with the restriction of food. We need to reframe fasting with what leads to life, not to death.

Speaking for God, the prophet Isaiah puts fasting in a much larger context than being about food restriction. Isaiah says, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free?” (Isaiah 58.6)

Pope Francis often quotes the early Christian mystic John Chrysostom who said: “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” This year Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others.

In his annual Lenten letter, Francis wrote, “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians.” More than giving up candy or alcohol, Pope Francis urges Christians to fast from indifference to others.      Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of [God’s] love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” He continues, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

When we fast from this indifference, we can began to feast on love. Lent is the perfect time to learn how to love again. Jesus—the great protagonist of this holy season—certainly showed us the way. In him, God descends all the way down to bring everyone up. In his life and his ministry, no one is excluded.[4]

We could also choose to fast from shame and guilt. To fast from defensiveness or blaming. To fast from anxiety and the desire to control circumstances and others. To fast from being strong and needing to have it all together. What takes up room in your life that keeps you from being fully the person God has created you to be? Can you fast from that?

Remember, it’s not the fast itself that is most important. If you’re fixated on the fast, you’ve missed the point—as if it’s something you can accomplish by your self-denial. The point of fasting is to clear some space in your life for God and as Chrysostom says, to benefit others. The point is not the practice itself but what the practice opens up in your life that leads us in God’s truth and enables us to walk in God’s path.

And so we pray with the psalmist, “You lead the humble in what is right, and teach the humble your way.”

Service. The third pillar of Lent is service. Almsgiving is how it’s traditionally said. Alms, of course, being money, food or other donations given to the poor and those in need. Let’s call it service. Giving ourselves, our money, our time, our energy to others who are in need. So perhaps this Lent you will commit to contributing more money to an organization whose mission you care about. Or if you are not currently in the practice of giving money to others, you might commit during the six weeks of Lent, to give $5, $10, $20 a week to make a difference in the lives of others. Maybe you’ll make a contribution to a particular ministry at Central. Or each week when you go grocery shopping, you’ll pay for part of the groceries of the woman who is behind you in the line at Kroger. After the death of a homeless man Thursday night, perhaps you will commit to supporting an organization that serves the homeless. Or whatever is your interest and passion.

The service pillar of Lent includes our money and our time and energy. So perhaps you’ll volunteer during Lent or take on a new responsibility where you already volunteer. Or maybe you’ll reflect on how your volunteer service is not only helping others but also making space for God in your life and for God to be seen through you. Perhaps there’s something you can do in your neighborhood—like shovel the snow from a neighbor’s sidewalk or brush the snow off their car. Or offer to run an errand for someone who doesn’t get out of their house as easily as you do. Maybe during Lent you’ll commit to extending an act of kindness to someone you don’t know each day or each week. Or write a thank you note each week. Or bring personal care items for Central Louisville Community Ministry’s clients or take pet food to an animal shelter. Or a hundred other ways there are to move beyond our own individual lives in order to see and affirm the belovedness in other people.

And so we pray with the psalmist, “All the paths of God are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

So I wonder what you will do this Lent? What will you give up? What will you take on? so that the truth of your belovedness and the belovedness of others can seep down a little more deeply into your heart and mind?

Below is a prayer by Ted Loder, an activist for social justice and a retired pastor. It expresses some of our longing during Lent.

Let Something Essential Happen to Me
by Ted Loder

O God,
let something essential happen to me,
something more than interesting
or entertaining,
or thoughtful.

O God,
let something essential happen to me,
something awesome,
something real.
Speak to my condition, Lord,
and change me somewhere inside where it matters,
a change that will burn and tremble and heal
and explode me into tears
or laughter or love that throbs or screams
or keeps its terrible, cleansing silence
and dares the dangerous deeds.
Let something happen in me which is my real self, God.

O God,
let something essential and passionate happen in me now. Strip me of my illusions of self-sufficiency,
of my proud sophistications,
of my inflated assumptions of knowledge
and leave me shivering as Adam or Eve
before the miracle of the natural–
before the miracle of this earth
that nurtures me as a mother
and delights me as a lover;
the miracle of my body
that breathes and moves,
hungers and digests,
sees and hears,
that works the most amazing messages
of what and when and how,
coded and curled in every cell
and that dares to speak the confronting word.

O God,
let something essential and joyful happen in me now. something like the blooming of hope and faith,
like a grateful heart,
like a surge of awareness,
of how precious each moment is,
that now, not next time,
now is the occasion
to take off my shoes,
to see every bush afire,
to leap and whirl with neighbor,
to gulp the air as sweet wine
until I’ve drunk enough
to dare to speak the tender word:
“Thank you”;
“I love you”;
“You’re beautiful”;
“Let’s live forever beginning now”;
and “I’m a fool for Christ’s sake.”

* * *
1. Terrance Fretheim “Genesis” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 398.
2.  These three “pillars” come from the Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21 reading assigned for Ash Wednesday.
3. 1 Kings 19.12 NRSV translates it “the sound of sheer silence.”
4. The entire story about Pope Francis’ reflections on Lent is from http://time.com/3714056/pope-francis-lent-2015-fasting/, accessed 19 February 2015.