Lenten Stories: Sermon for March 5, 2017

Wednesday night some of us gathered here in the sanctuary for Ash Wednesday worship. I joked then about the overflow crowd. You know, there are three packed services in every church year: Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday.

That’s not true, of course. On Christmas and Easter the church makes some joyous proclamations. Christ is born. Christ is risen. It’s no wonder that the pews are full for each service.

On Ash Wednesday, though, we tell you you’re going to die. So, that’s not really the way to draw in the crowds.

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Lent 2017 Still Speaking Devotional

I get that. And I also get that Lent, the season whose first Sunday we are observing today, is probably the most dreaded part of the church year. Our hymns get a little slower and more introspective. We don’t have flowers in the sanctuary. We put up purple to symbolize repentance from sin. And you can kind of feel the whole church get a little more serious and pensive.

So, if church feels a little different this time of year, a little slower and harder, I get it. It does to me too. And yet, I’ve always believed in the power of Lent to make Easter even more joyous. I’ll tell you why, but first I want to look at the text.

Jesus was led out into the wilderness for forty days to be, as Scripture puts it, “tempted by the devil”. And while he is out there, Jesus faces a lot of temptations. He’s fasting, so he’s really hungry, and the devil says to him “you know, if you just told these stones to become bread, they would.” But Jesus refuses saying “we don’t live by bread alone”.

Then the devil takes Jesus up to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and says, “you know, if you’re really God’s son, you could just jump and he angels would catch you.” But Jesus says, “Don’t put God to the test.”

And finally the devil took Jesus up to a high mountain, one where Jesus could see every kingdom, and he says “all you have to do is worship me, and this could all be yours.”

But Jesus says, “away with you, satan, I will only worship and serve God.” And Scripture tells us that the devil left, and angels came to wait on Jesus.

Jesus was tempted for forty days. And he wasn’t even in the comfort of his home, or his friends. He was along, in the wilderness, wrestling with the powers of death and destruction. And he overcame evil incarnate itself. It’s amazing.

But he was doing all of this not just to prove a point. This wasn’t some kind of spiritual marathon whose medal he would then wear. He was doing this because something even harder was coming. Jesus was doing this because he was preparing to walk down a road that would lead to his betrayal, and crucifixion, and death. Jesus was doing this in order to grow strong enough for what was to come.

It’s no coincidence that our Lent is forty days long too. Because, while we are not preparing for betrayal and death, we are preparing for what comes next. We’re getting ready for Easter. We’re getting ready for that Sunday morning next month when we will come to church and the flowers will overflow the chancel, the choir will sing victorious hymns, and the whole world will feel like it is alive once again.

But, more than that, we are preparing to be the people who will proclaim Easter with our lives. We are getting ready to go out in the world and glorify God by loving the world. We are soon going to be given this joyful work to do, and that’s why right now we have to do the hard work of Lent.

And Lent is hard work. It’s not joyless work, but it is hard. Because Lent is about more than giving up candy, or coffee, or meat, or Facebook, or whatever else. Lent was never just about “giving up” anything. Lent is also not about just praying more, or reading Scripture everyday. Lent was never just about “taking something on” either.

Instead, Lent is about this: growing closer to God. And the way we are often called to do that, is by looking in ourselves, and removing the things that are keeping us separated from God.

Jesus had to wrestle with the devil in the wilderness. I think that in Lent we are called to wrestle with our own demons. We are called into the wildernesses of our lives, maybe even the one within us, to confront the things that tempt us, and that hold us back.

What those things are, what form those demons each of us wrestle with, will be different for us all. Maybe it’s resentment. Maybe addiction. Maybe the judgement of others Maybe self-doubt. Maybe fear. Maybe some combination, some cocktail of pain and regret and alienation from others.

Whatever is in there, whatever we don’t want to face, it’s a good chance that it’s our real Lenten work. And Lent is the perfect time to grow closer to God, and then to get in there and wrestle with our demons, and kick those suckers out.

If we want to get to Easter, if we want to rise up with Christ in the morning, then we have to be willing to face the things that we worry could kill us. We have to be willing to face the wilderness, and rely on God to bring us through. Because we can’t hope to change the world if we cannot face ourselves first.

I was reminded of how important that can be. A friend of mine from college is now a physician working in family medicine. Most years she gives up Facebook for Lent, but this year she decided to do something else. This year she is staying on Facebook in order to write daily posts about her patients, with their permission, and about the choices they are making in their lives in order to live more fully, and serve the world. She is calling them “Lent stories”.

Now, let me say first that while this might sound sort of sweet and sentimental, like a Hallmark card, my friend first practiced medicine as a Navy doctor assigned to care for US Marines in Kuwait during the war on terror. She understands the gritty realities of life. But that’s what makes these so great.

This week she told the story of a patient who came in for a routine medical clearance form so that she could study better environmental practices in Sri Lanka. And then there was the story of the man whose liver transplant wasn’t working, but whose first response when told was “okay, let’s get to work. Let’s fix this.”

There was the story of the mother with three sets of twins. (Yes, three.) She was going back to school. And there was the story of Mrs. S., who after years of abuse from her husband, decided that she and her 12 year old daughter would be leaving him this week. She told her doctor, “We are worth more than that. My daughter deserves more than that and I intend to model behavior that she can be proud of.”

These are stories of hope and transformation. They are stories of overcoming the demons of life and finding new life. And they are Lent stories.

Every one of us has a Lenten story waiting to be told. This is the season where we write it. So what is your Lent story? What is the story that you want to be able to tell the world come Easter morning?

Whatever it is, that’s what the work of Lent can be for you this year. Draw close to God, and then dig deep. Walk into the wilderness, and know that God will be with you every step of the way. Amen?

Questioning Advent: Day Eight – Get Ready

saint-john-the-baptist-09We read about John the Baptist every second Sunday of Advent. Here in the middle of the Christmas joy and preparation is this story of this guy who lives down by the river eating locusts and wild honey, and shouting at everyone to repent.

There’s a good reason no one is putting John the Baptist on a Christmas card.

Maybe it’s John’s call to us to “repent” that scares us the most. I hear “repent” and I either think of a religious revival where some preacher is calling everyone sinners, or a dour confessor doling out penance. Neither is particularly joyful anytime of the year, and particularly not at Christmas.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. And that’s especially true if we hear what “repentance” really means. If you go back to the root of the Greek word that’s found in the original text of the New Testament, you find that the word is “metanoia”. Metanoia is roughly translated as “to change your mind”. It’s a call to “think differently”. And, not just a call to change your mind, it’s a call to change your actions as well.

That may sound like an odd Christmas message, but it fits perfectly in Advent. This is the season when we who follow Christ are getting ready for something new. This is the start of something big. And if we are going to get on board, we have to make room for what is coming, and we have to change the things that are keeping us from getting ready.

This repentance isn’t about feeling bad or ashamed or guilty. It’s about being willing to put aside the things that are keeping us from fully participating in what comes next. It’s about believing that our mistakes and our past don’t have to define out future. And it’s about deciding to believe that we can be a part of God’s own work in our world.

And, when you think about it like that, John the Baptist was all proclaiming out chance to share in the joy to come. It may not fit on a Christmas card, but it’s worth remembering just the same in this holy season of getting ready.

Question: How are you repenting this Advent? What changes are you making in order to make room or to get ready?

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the chance to change, and thank you for the people you put in our lives who remind us that change is possible. In this season of Advent, help us to make the changes we can make in order to make room for a love that will change the world. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Day 23

figtreeWhen I was about six, I think I thought God had a big version of my first grade teachers chart. I probably envisioned God making that crucial judgement between the happy face and unhappy face at the end of each day for each of us. And like those rules on the classroom wall, I wanted to do just enough to know I was safe. If I could only have a list of God’s minimum happy face requirements, I’d be all set.

As we grow older, of course, it takes more than a chart to help us make the right choices. There are more variables, more responsibilities, more nuance. What is age appropriate at six, is not so reliable when we are even a few years old. And by the time we get to adulthood, the chart feels like a cute memory of a simpler time. Life in the real world requires more than charts.

Which is why curious that sometimes our spiritual thinking stays on the same level. Most of us appreciate that life is a nuanced thing, with each of us called to a different path in life, and different challenges. And yet sometimes we think tend to judge our choices in life based on a sort of easy criteria. Do I get a happy face? Or a sad face?

If God had a chart, most of us, on most days, would probably see ourselves getting smiley faces. We don’t hurt other people. We don’t steal. We aren’t blatantly unkind. We try to be good. Most days, we rest assured that we are good enough people. That we have done enough to stay in the positive. And by contrast, we probably think we know who gets the sad faces. And we know the minimum we need to do to not end up like them. That gives us conscience. That eases our mind at night when we sleep. We can go to bed saying, “I’m not a bad person.”

And you’re not. But what we sometimes don’t understand is that that old way of looking at things, that childhood worldview where we do just enough good things or too many bad things, doesn’t work after a certain point. Just like our grade school teachers put them away after we grew old enough, old spiritual life demands something more than them as well. At the end of the day, God doesn’t stand in front of a chart with all our names, deciding who gets sad faces. Which is not to say that God just gives us easy grace, and happy faces either.

But it is to say this. At the end of the day, God throws the chart away and calls us to something better. At the end of the day, God calls us to do the same thing Jesus called us to do in Galilee. God calls us to turn away from what distracts us, and repent. But more than that, God calls us to something more.

God wants more than the bare minimum. God wants us to strive for more than just a minor mark of approval, or meeting the letter of the law. God wants us to be honest, and God wants to actually have a relationship with us, to know us.

That’s what Lent is about. It’s about turning away from sin, repenting, and deciding to be in relationship with God. It’s not about getting our ticket punched by doing what we have to do. It’s not about following a long list of rules because we have to. It’s not about God as the big grader in the sky who tells us whether we pass or fail. It’s about God who loves us so much, that God doesn’t want us to be separate anymore.

That’s what sin is, after all. It’s our separation from God. We sin not so much when we break one in a long list of rules, but instead we sin when our will begins to differ from God’s, and we wander off on our own paths. In Lent we are called to repentance. And repentance is about turning around, and going back to God’s path and trying not to stray from it again. It’s not something we can do by reciting some words on Sunday and hoping for the best. It’s something we do by deciding our faith will not be peripheral to the rest of our life. Instead, it will be the lens through which we view the rest of our life.

Not About Me: Day One (A Journey Through Lent)

379246_10151246708651787_459997397_nI received ashes about an hour ago. My partner was on her way to Boston to assist in Old South Church’s Ash Wednesday observances, but she ashed me first. Later today she will be joining other clergy and seminarians as she stands in front of the church and offers ashes to the busy pedestrians on Boylston Street. And now I’m sitting here in the office of my small town church in Vermont, ashes on my forehead, waiting to see if any parishioners who can’t make our evening service will drop by for ashes.

Our contexts today are very different, but our hopes are the same. Maybe the people we touch with ash will stop for a minute, reflect on the day, and feel the tug on their hearts from God that comes every Lent, beckoning them back to the divine relationship.

We impose the ashes on one another with the the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And Lent is all about returning. Not just back to dust, but to what makes something extraordinary out of that dust. Lent is all about returning to the creator, and returning towards the way that God’s son showed us. A way of love. A way of reconciliation. A way of hope. A better way.

Today I’m starting my Lenten discipline in the form of a challenge to myself. I’m hoping that in Lent my thoughts and my actions will help return my attention to God, and to God’s people, again and again. I invite you to join me, in whatever way works for you. Even if you have been away from church, or away from faith, for sometime, it’s not too late.

God will always welcome your return. So, why not today?

Why We Repent: Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mark 1:9-15
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

1:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

When I was in about first grade, my teacher made up this chart for my class. It has each of our names along the side, and all the days along the top. And at the end of each day, depending on whether or not we had followed the rules that day, she would give us either a happy face, or a sad face.

I lived for those happy faces. I knew exactly what I had to do, and not do, to get one. And when at the end of each grading period I got to go home with an unblemished row of happy faces, I was in heaven.

When I was six, if you had asked me about sin, I probably would have told you about the happy faces. If you do all the right things, follow all the rules, you get a happy face. If you don’t, it’s a sad face. It was all very cut and dried, and easy to understand.

I was thinking about that as I was thinking about this text, and repentance, and what it means to acknowledge that you’re not living the way you should. Jesus goes to John the Baptist and is baptized. He then goes out into the wilderness for forty days, like our forty days of Lent. And then, after being tested, he comes back and begins his proclamation: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

We don’t talk about repentance much. It’s always in the back of our minds, but we don’t actually say much about what it means. We like to focus on hope, and grace, and faith. We say the prayer of confession every week, but it’s over in a minute, and then we sing the Gloria together and move on.

But then we get to Lent. And we have this more solemn season of the church year, where we start to slow down, and look at who we are, and how we act. And we have days like Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, that remind us that human beings are flawed, and fallible, and sometimes prone to do the wrong things.

Repentance is a hallmark of Lent. But what does it mean? I find it helpful to look at what the two languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, say it means. To repent, in Hebrew, means “to return”. And in Greek, to repent is metanoia, or to change one’s thinking. In other words, change the way you think about things and return to God.

When Jesus is calling us to repent, he’s calling us away from sin. He’s calling us to turn from sin and towards spiritual life. But sin is sometimes hard for us to talk about. We’re not the kind of church that stands on street corners and tells people to repent. We’re not a church of judgement where we tell people what they are doing wrong in their lives. We’re not the kind of place that has tearful confessions at the altar, or solemn ones behind the doors of the confessional. We, like most other mainline Protestant churches, acknowledge that we all sin, but without much fanfare. But in the back of our minds, we wonder. “Am I doing well enough?”

When I was about six, I think I thought God had a big version of my first grade teachers chart. I probably envisioned God making that crucial judgement between the happy face and unhappy face at the end of each day for each of us. And like those rules on the classroom wall, I wanted to do just enough to know I was safe. If I could only have a list of God’s minimum happy face requirements, I’d be all set.

As we grow older, of course, it takes more than a chart to help us make the right choices. There are more variables, more responsibilities, more nuance. What is age appropriate at six, is not so reliable when we are even a few years old. And by the time we get to adulthood, the chart feels like a cute memory of a simpler time. Life in the real world requires more than charts.

Which is why curious that sometimes our spiritual thinking stays on the same level. Most of us appreciate that life is a nuanced thing, with each of us called to a different path in life, and different challenges. And yet sometimes we think tend to judge our choices in life based on a sort of easy criteria. Do I get a happy face? Or a sad face?

If God had a chart, most of us, on most days, would probably see ourselves getting smiley faces. We don’t hurt other people. We don’t steal. We aren’t blatantly unkind. We try to be good. Most days, we rest assured that we are good enough people. That we have done enough to stay in the positive. And by contrast, we probably think we know who gets the sad faces. And we know the minimum we need to do to not end up like them. That gives us conscience. That eases our mind at night when we sleep. We can go to bed saying, “I’m not a bad person.”

And you’re not. But what we sometimes don’t understand is that that old way of looking at things, that childhood worldview where we do just enough good things or too many bad things, doesn’t work after a certain point. Just like our grade school teachers put them away after we grew old enough, old spiritual life demands something more than them as well. At the end of the day, God doesn’t stand in front of a chart with all our names, deciding who gets sad faces. Which is not to say that God just gives us easy grace, and happy faces either.

But it is to say this. At the end of the day, God throws the chart away and calls us to something better. At the end of the day, God calls us to do the same thing Jesus called us to do in Galilee. God calls us to turn away from what distracts us, and repent. But more than that, God calls us to something more.

God wants more than the bare minimum. God wants us to strive for more than just a minor mark of approval, or meeting the letter of the law. God wants us to be honest, and God wants to actually have a relationship with us, to know us.

That’s what Lent is about. It’s about turning away from sin, repenting, and deciding to be in relationship with God. It’s not about getting our ticket punched by doing what we have to do. It’s not about following a long list of rules because we have to. It’s not about God as the big grader in the sky who tells us whether we pass or fail. It’s about God who loves us so much, that God doesn’t want us to be separate anymore.

That’s what sin is, after all. It’s our separation from God. We sin not so much when we break one in a long list of rules, but instead we sin when our will begins to differ from God’s, and we wander off on our own paths. Repentance is about turning around, and going back to God’s path and trying not to stray from it again. It’s not something we can do by reciting some words on Sunday and hoping for the best. It’s something we do by deciding our faith will not be peripheral to the rest of our life. Instead, it will be the lens through which we view the rest of our life.

Now that’s not always easy. Because relationships never are. The first Scripture passage that we read this morning, the one from Genesis about covenant, talks about the same thing. It’s about God wanting us to be in relationship. It’s not about anger or judgement or condemnation, but it’s about honest relationship and covenant. And being in relationship to someone else is always hard, but it can also be rewarding.

You probably know what it’s like to be in a covenant, because you know what it’s like to be in relationship with another, whether friend or partner or family member. You know what it’s like to care enough about someone to know that your choices affect them. To know that the relationship doesn’t work if it stays peripheral. It only works when it stays honest, and centered.

It’s the same way with God. God never chooses to leave us, but we sometimes do the things that make us drift away from God. And at the end of the day, we find ourselves off alone on a path of our own creation, instead of with the God who loves us more than we know.

That’s when we can repent. That’s when we can look at what feels disjointed or disconnected in our lives. That’s when we can say to God, I’m tired of walking alone. I want to come back and walk with you.

And that’s what Lent is about. Forty days of choosing to walk with God, instead of choosing to walk away. It’s forty days of believing that there is a better life, and a greater joy, waiting for us. It’s forty days of being honest with ourselves, and being honest about the fact that our lives would be better if we just let God into every part of them.

God already knows who you are. God knows who you are on your best days and your worst. When you stand on Sunday mornings, and pray the prayer of confession, and then keep silence as you reflect upon your own life, you’re not telling God anything God doesn’t already know. And the good news is this. God still loves you, and God still wants to be in relationship with you.

Lent is about repenting, turning around and coming back to God. And that means Lent is about coming home. Coming home not to the same old house with closed off rooms full of secrets, or doors that hide the truths about ourselves we fear the most. Lent is about coming home to God’s house, where the doors are always open, where we are know at our deepest level, and where we are known, and understood, and loved.

This Lent, will you come home? Will you come back to a home in which you are not judged on charts or with happy or sad faces? Will you come home to a place where all of you is welcome? Will you come home to a relationship with someone who loves you at your worst, yet calls you to be your best? If so, then take the first step out into the wilderness of Lent, and repent. Be honest, and be prepared for what happens next. God will lead you back home, and back into life. Amen.