Going Through

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 | Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 | Romans 10:8b-13 | Luke 4:1-13

There’s an unapologetically somber tone to our Lenten services. Lent, after all, is a season of penitence. You may recall from the Ash Wednesday service that Lent is a season when those who had been excommunicated–denied communion for one reason or another–were invited to pray, fast, repent, and return to commune with brothers and sisters in Christ. The season meant something to them, and I hope with all hope that it means something to us.

Because if we live a self-aware life, even in fleeting moments, we realize where we fall short. If we’re paying attention to our thoughts and intentions, our actions and inactions, we see pretty quickly our imperfections–unless you live into the prayer “God’s will be done” in every moment of every day. Because I don’t, as much as I would love to. My confessions are as earnest as yours. I promise. So we come to this holy season with humble and faithful obedience, aware of our mortality and imperfection. This humility takes us off any high horse we might have been on and brings us to our knees before our Almighty God.

And we might wonder “Why?” Why do I have to or need to feel penitent? Why can’t I just skip church this week or this month and put my time, talent, and treasure into whatever I feel is most important right now in my life, in the life of my family? Now is when we might start to get squirmy. I start to feel guilt coming on, that guilt from all the “shoulds” building up. But hear this: we have the power of choice. We can do what we feel we’ve got to do. Like I tell my kids, you decide what you’re going to do, but know that your decisions have consequences.

Cue our lesson from Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy may be constructed as one book of laws and exhortations from Moses, but scholars tell us that this is a compilation of 150 years’ worth of writing. As such, it’s still considered part of the law of Moses, and I find it fascinating how these teachings find relevance in the lives of the faithful.

The lesson we have today focuses on when the Israelites have settled into the promised land, the land of milk and honey, and are given instruction on harvesting their first fruits. We may jump to the conclusion that they’re taking their gifts to the altar, giving them to God as an offering to God alone, but we’d be mistaken. The instructions are carried out in obedience to God, yes, but the reason for taking the first fruits is to provide for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the Levites who don’t have their own land, who aren’t self-sufficient. Those blessed by God know that the land they’ve settled, that they’ve come to “possess,” is theirs only by God, and if God commands them to provide for others as they have been provided for, so be it. God has proven to be faithful; the gift of land is certain yet conditional. It is theirs if they continue to be faithfully obedient.

In Deuteronomy, there are about 30 instances of the Israelites being instructed to remember and teach their stories, as if it were known that once they were settled, were comfortable, that they would be at risk of forgetting who they were, where they had come from, and who God is. If they forgot their story of once being an immigrant, of having made it through the wilderness, of having been protected and provided for by God, they were at risk of being protective of themselves only, of being competitive, of seeing all resources as theirs alone, of not providing for the other at the margins–the consequence of such behavior being exiled from the promised land.

Remember, I’m talking about ancient Israel, but this is part of our story, too. We bring our offerings to the altar in faithful obedience. We include the marginalized. We remember our deliverance. We celebrate a meal. We do so proclaiming a faithfulness to God through Jesus Christ. For us who confess Christ as Lord, who call upon the name of Jesus Christ, who believe in our hearts in the Resurrection, there is salvation. It’s not a one-time thing, this salvation. It’s an ongoing commitment, the ongoing retelling of our story of deliverance, of redemption, of practicing hospitality, of following the way of Jesus.

According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus is led by Spirit to the wilderness, where he fasts for 40 days, tempted all the while by Satan, the Adversary. Satan tempts Jesus with scripture to provide food, power, and deliverance. Jesus counters back with scripture in ways that truly say, “Not today, Satan.” Jesus knows the Word of God, is the embodiment of the Word. As he is fully human, he is not immune to temptation, nor is he immune to suffering. Jesus’ story in the wilderness is part of our story, too, collectively and individually.

Jesus doesn’t avoid the wilderness, putting it off until later or avoiding it altogether. He goes through it. At no point is God not present–in the person of Jesus and in ways beyond our understanding. As our ancients expressed an understanding that God sees us and hears our cries, like them, we believe that God pays attention, feels compassion, and is active in our lives through love and care, from which we are never separated even in suffering and death. Our understanding of God comes through our experience of Jesus Christ. This wilderness story is one of many that tells us Jesus has been there, too. He always has a way of having gone before us, and it is entirely of our own free will that we follow him.

We follow him in acts of love that provide for widows, orphans, strangers, and others without means to provide for themselves–through pantries, fostering, programs, assistance, mentoring, and advocacy. We do this because we know that it is not of our own position of privilege and power that we experience abundance: nothing is ours that wasn’t God’s first. Yes, that’s a strong theological claim, and you can disagree with me on it, but you would be hard-pressed to change my mind. I know I’m not the first person on this planet, nor do I believe I will be the last. I’m not powerful enough to lay claim to absolute ownership or possession to anything, despite what my ego might say and how we have to navigate our lives in this world.

And how we navigate our lives in this world reveals a lot about what we believe about who we are and whose we are. Do we live into our stories as a people of faith? Do we know our individual story as a child of God?

I said that I would offer us prompts to help us find words to use to benefit our own understanding so that when we have the opportunity to share our love of God with others, we don’t freeze. This week, the prompt (until I send the new one out on Wednesday) is “trials overcome.” If we really want to know who we are as Christians and who we are as a child of God, we can think about a major trial we’ve  faced in our lives. What did we do? To whom did we turn? Did we make it through on our own? Where was our understanding of God in that picture then or now?

Or think about an everyday aggravation we face. Why does it bother us so much? Why is it there? What is needed to solve it or accept it? Chances are the situation is mostly out of our control, but our response to it and how we handle it speak volumes. Are we called to turn swords into ploughshares and get to work? Are we to turn the other cheek? Do we need to bring offerings to the altar? What witness are we in the situation?

In whatever trial we’re facing—big or small—chances are there’s not one right way to respond except with love of God. Is it loving? Is it life-giving? Is it liberating? Or does our response tempt us with satiating self-sufficiency, power, or dominance? If we truly are a people fed, provided for, and protected by God, our actions will speak to that, our lives will reveal that, though probably not all the time.

That’s why we go through the season of Lent, why we fast and pray—not to be gloomy or downtrodden but because we’re doing the hard work of amending our lives to live more fully in the resurrected life of Christ, the ultimate expression of the love of God. Though we may not understand how, especially when we’re in the middle of those times that try our souls, we have written upon our hearts in faith the words the psalmist shares as if spoken from God, guiding us to make it through whatever challenges we face:

“Because (you are) bound to me in love,

Therefore will I deliver (you);

I will protect (you), because (you know) my Name.

(You) shall call upon me, and I will answer (you);

I am with (you) in trouble;

I will rescue (you) and bring (you) to honor.

With long life will I satisfy (you)

And show (you) my salvation.”

This means everything to me. I hope it means something for you, too.

Continue Reading

Persist

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 | Psalm 26  | Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 | Mark 10:2-16

Knowing Jesus’ perfection, maybe rather than asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” we should ask ourselves “What would Job do?” We wouldn’t have to change the acronym or anything. WWJD still applies. Job, unlike Jesus, doesn’t have divinity in his being; Job is just–like us–fully human. Yet, in times that tried his soul to his very core, Job persisted as one whose actions mirrored his beliefs. Job remained blameless and upright, full of integrity and obedience to God.

If we aren’t careful, we might miss that while we start with the first verse of the Book of Job, we skip right on over to the second chapter. There’s this meeting of the heavenly beings like in the first chapter, and there’s Satan. Let’s check ourselves here, too, before we get carried away in our imaginations. “Satan” is better translated here as the “Adversary” or the “Accuser.” Notes in the Jewish Study Bible say that it’s more like a heavenly prosecutor, like a prosecuting attorney. That makes sense. Because in the Book of Job, one of the basic questions is: Would Job be so faithful even if he weren’t so blessed? Does he fear God, obey God, for nothing or only because he has something to gain? God grants the Adversary permission to try Job . . . but not take his life. All that’s in the first heavenly court meeting or pre-trial chambers.

The rest of Chapter One continues with the Adversary systematically removing Job’s wealth and possessions and even his children. Truly, it’s a horrific account, even with the lone witness coming to tell Job of his loss, the haunting refrain repeated four times: “I alone have escaped to tell you.” In response to these calamities, Job tore his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped. He neither sinned nor charged God with wrongdoing. Job remains blameless and upright, even prostrate before the LORD in the midst of his devastation.

What we have in our lesson today, then, is the second heavenly council. God is pleased to confirm that Job still persists in his integrity, and I prefer the Jewish Study Bible translation that reads like God says the Adversary incited God against Job “to destroy him for no good reason.” We agree, don’t we? Job didn’t–doesn’t–deserve to suffer this way or in ways to come. Like the people of Job’s day, we tend to have a worldview where if you do good, you get rewarded: calamity befalls those who are bad. This worldview fuels the question of theodicy: why do bad things happen to good people? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t see the reason for it–at least, no good reason. As we encounter Job over the next few weeks, we’ll go along with him as he struggles to find order in his world, in the events happening to him, and like me, you may marvel at his ability to remain blameless and upright.

But Job isn’t perfect. Job isn’t Jesus. Job’s wife isn’t perfect, either.

Job’s wife, who–keep in mind–has also lost her children, is in despair and cannot believe Job’s faithfulness. She taunts him to curse or blaspheme God and die. We sense her desperation and longing to escape misery. Job’s response?

“You speak as any foolish woman would speak.”

That’s a hard line for me to hear this week, when the voices of many women have been minimized, mocked, ignored, or silence . . . as has been common for millenia. And our translation, again per the Jewish Study Bible, is actually more tame than the original Hebrew in just calling the woman “foolish,” losing the sexual promiscuity associated with the Hebrew word. Basically, Job is telling her–his wife–she speaks as any prostitute would speak.

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job goes on to say to his wife.

In all this, we’re told, Job said nothing sinful. Because Job is blameless and upright, embodying the righteous one before God.

I want to give Job credit for staying with his wife and not casting her aside. By Jewish law, Job could divorce his wife for any cause (Deut 24), releasing her. By Jewish law, she could not do the same. Marital relations in antiquity were no less stressful (and probably were more so) than they are today. But in the time of Jesus, as in some places in our world, women by and large were considered property of their fathers or husbands. Women, unquestionably, were inferior to their male counterparts in society.

So when Jesus defends the sanctity of marriage to the Pharisees and then goes on to use the same language for both the husband and wife in his further response to the disciples, he’s just being Jesus, transgressing those social norms, rocking their worldview.

Thanks to Jesus, we recognize that in a healthy marriage, there is strong emphasis on mutuality. A healthy marriage is one of mutual affection, respect, and joy. The marriage is life-giving for each partner and maybe even life-bearing if it works out that way, though that’s not always the case, nor does it have to be. The two are an embodiment of who God created us to be in God’s image, a harmonious union.

And in case we miss what Jesus was doing there regarding elevating the role of the woman, he reaches out to the very least of those in his society, the children. He gathers them in his arms, lays hands upon them, and blesses them, for they have what it takes to receive the blessing, to receive the kingdom of God.

What does a child have?

Until it’s been taught, children have an unobstructed worldview. They exist, and they need. Children are completely dependent upon their care provider(s). Whether that provider does everything perfectly or not, the child is attached to their source of nourishment, of life.

In times of trial, heaven forbid it ever be like Job’s, we are vulnerable–as vulnerable as a child. We might, like Job’s wife, rather die than endure endless suffering. But that we could be like Job, who maybe in his prostration was curled into the fetal position–as we often are in times of distress–returning to a most child-like state, vulnerable and dependent on the mercy and grace of God, yet persisting in our righteousness and obedience.

So when we hear or read a psalm like Psalm 26, which is a prayer for divine justice, we read it not solely with the voice of David or Job in our head. We read it with the voice of the mistreated wife, the mother in despair, the son not living up to society expectations, the child kicked out of their home. We read it with our own voice as we struggle to make sense of our world. Even if we know we’ve sinned and faltered, we’ve returned to God as a faithful child who delights in the glory of God and stands on level ground–blameless and upright. We, too, bless the LORD, persisting in what is good and true.

Continue Reading

Our Minds Are Set

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 | Psalm 22:22-30 |Romans 4:13-25 | Mark 8:31-38

Last week, on the first Sunday in Lent, our gospel lesson from Mark recounted Jesus’s baptism, his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness by Satan, and his call that the time is nigh to repent and believe the good news, beginning his Galilean ministry. Jesus goes on to cleanse and to heal, to call his apostles and to preach to all, sprinkling in a miracle now and then because calming a storm, walking on water, and feeding thousands make quite an impression and aren’t actions of a run-of-the-mill preacher. And then, “quite openly,” “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . ., and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Again, we know the story; he’s offering a foretelling to his followers so they can be prepared. Judging by Peter’s reaction, they need all the preparation they can get. Poor Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rebukes the Son of Man. Imagine that conversation a minute.

Peter: “Jesus, c’mon. You’re doing amazing things. We need you. They need you. Don’t be silly with all this death talk. We know who you are (because Peter’s just called him out as the Messiah, Mk 8:29), but keep your head in the game.”

Jesus hears what Peter is saying. Dramatically, Jesus turns (away from Peter) and looks at his disciples, now doing the rebuking himself, not even looking at Peter.

Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter, who is so eager to follow, so willing to get out of the boat, anxious to mark the revelation of the Divinity, and to name Jesus as the Messiah he is, gets the brunt of Jesus’s admonishing. This is more than a cold shoulder, this is outright denial of what Peter represents in this moment.

And what is it that Peter does that is so wrong?

If a beloved friend and teacher says they’re going to suffer, be rejected, die, and somehow rise from the dead, it’s plausible to imagine a healthy dose of denial and skepticism. It’s not what we would want for someone we love and care about, and it’s not exactly something that makes sense. But it’s not Peter’s heart that Jesus focuses on: it’s his where his mind is. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In our own imagining, everything Peter might remind Jesus of is based on Peter’s attachment to Jesus here and now in their ministry. It could be Peter’s personal attachment to Jesus, or it could even be a more selfless thinking of all the good Jesus is doing everywhere he goes. This is a classic example of sticking to a personal agenda and either forgetting/ignoring/not recognizing God’s will or intent. This is us thinking, “We’ve got this.” At least Peter has Jesus with him. He knows who he’s keeping company with, but he’s lost sight of the magnitude of God’s work that will be accomplished not only in Jesus’ ministry but also through his death and resurrection.

This is hard for us to comprehend, and not just hard for us but for the disciples, too.

In Mark’s gospel there are a total of three times that Jesus repeats the same foretelling of his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. In both of the other times, too, the disciples don’t understand, can’t comprehend what Jesus is saying. They are attached to their finite, worldly thinking: they’re debating who’s the greatest or who will sit at Jesus’s right and left hand (James and John have dibs). In both of the other times, there’s still the contrast between the focus on the human and the divine.

In this first foretelling, though, Jesus does a clever thing in turning his back to Peter. Because if you really want someone to pay attention, you pretend not to be talking to them. Jesus chides Peter for being focused on human things, not divine. Jesus knows that the disciples and the crowd don’t really understand, but, again, their hearts are in the right place. They need something to do. He tells them to take up their cross and follow him.

Is he talking about wearing pretty jewelry or carrying the cross around town or in the procession, showing off our cross so everyone can know how pious and devout we are? Of course not. The cross for these early people of the Way was a symbol of humiliation. If you were to die upon a cross, you had not only lost your honor and dignity, but you had dishonored your family and community. No one would willingly take up a cross because it would be shameful. Yet this is exactly what Jesus is telling them to do. Do something unpopular for my sake. Do something that is so far outside our comfort zone that we have to get over ourself, knowing that what we’re doing isn’t for our own sake but for something far greater. And if we’re too ashamed to do it for Jesus’s sake, he’ll also be ashamed of us.

What would that look like today? What would it look like today to do something that shows you are a follower of Christ? What do Christians do that is unpopular or disrupts the norm, crosses invisible barriers? Where/when do we risk not only being uncomfortable but also risk being judged by others, often negatively (not to mention how harshly we judge ourselves).

On Ash Wednesday, I saw that Father Roger and a priest he works with held “Ashes to Go” in their neighborhood in New York. We just had the traditional service here, but Ashes to Go provides an accessible invitation to a holy Lent and a mark of the cross to signify the day and one’s observance. In Hot Springs, my rector heard from a parishioner who had experienced it in Key West and thought we should do it, too. My rector thought it was a great idea and told me to do it. Obedient curate I was, I vested in my cassock, surplice, and stole, put up a sign, and stood beside the street with ashes from the service earlier. Folks drove up and walked up, happy to get their ashes. For others it was indulging in trying something different. For me, I’ve never more imagined that this was what it must be like to be a prostitute. A woman, standing by the street in downtown Hot Springs, offering something to passers-by, hoping they would want what I had to offer. And I wondered, “God, what are you trying to teach me in this?” I reminded myself this was a holy day, that this was holy work. Nearly everyone who drove by looked my way, saw me in my vestments, saw me smile at them. They couldn’t hear my prayer of blessing for them, nor could they hear the struggle within as I stayed out there, publicly displaying my faith, completely outside the safety of the church walls. Maybe that’s something of what Jesus means in taking up a cross: carrying the burden of showing our faith to the world around us, putting the beliefs in our heart into action in our lives for others to see. How else do we expect them to see Jesus?

Any time we reveal what is within, we step into that realm of the vulnerable. I definitely felt vulnerable. I felt like people were judging me, and this sense reminds me how attached I am to the human things, the self-centered, ego-preserving mindset that Jesus rebuked, even when our intentions seem good. Letting go of this, for Jesus’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, is losing our life as we often understand it. It is through this loss of self that we gain eternal life through Christ. By bringing a proclamation of faith in the good news of Jesus Christ into the world–with our crosses seen and unseen–, we mark the space and time with the presence of Christ, bringing more light and love into the world.

Continue Reading