The Urgency of Lent: Third Sunday of Lent, 2016

I never seem to have enough time. Perhaps you can relate to that. I try to squeeze everything in, but I always wish for just one or two more waking hours in the day.

Wednesday was like that for me. I had a day that started with an obligation in Boston in the morning and ending with two meetings here at night. The thing is, I really wanted to get to the YMCA to work out. But at the only time I could have possibly gone, I had a conference call.

IMG_7962So I came up with a brilliant idea. I’d plug my headphones into my phone, put myself on mute, and listen to the call while I lifted weights. So there I was, trying to listen to the meeting, and balancing heavy weight all at the same time, and I thought to myself…maybe this isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

That’s when I got to thinking about priorities. One of the lessons I try to teach our youth is this: Never give the best of yourself to someone or something that can never love you back.

I’ve been surprised at how much that advice resonates with young adults. Not only does it become the measure by which boyfriends and girlfriends are judged, but it becomes a metric for the larger questions in life too. Questions of meaning take center stage.

Most surprisingly, though, it also generates discussion in their families about the way precious resources, like time and money, are used. I have been amused that it is those discussions, more than any about dating or sex or love, that trouble their parents.

We don’t talk about idolatry much, despite the caution against it throughout Scripture. That is ironic given that idolatry flourishes in our culture. We have not yet started building literal golden calves, but we have all spent plenty of time worshipping at equally dangerous altars. Money, success, popularity, greatness, security…they are powerful gods. And in worshipping these gods we have too often driven ourselves to the point of living overwhelming lives.

In Lent we are called to turn away from what can never love us back, and toward that which can. Counter to the narrative we often write for ourselves, though, we are not called by a patient God who speaks to us casually or without urgency. Instead, we are called by a God with time-sensitive conviction.

In this week’s Scripture Jesus tells a story about a fig tree, a gardener, and a land owner. Year after year the tree fails to bear fruit. Tired of wasting good soil, the land owner tells the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener refuses to give up, and negotiates a one year reprieve for the tree. They pledge to take care of it and shore it up with good soil. If even after all of that it does not bear good fruit, the gardener says, then you can cut it down.

I often want to ask the people I know who feel overwhelmed “Why do you keep living like this? Why do you make the choices that leave you overextended and exhausted? Do you want to live a life utterly devoid of abundant new fruit?”

Or, put another way, “Why do you give the best of yourself to the things that can never love you back?”

I think we all want to believe that we have infinite time to start loving the right things, and bearing good fruit. But despite the urgency that defines the rest of our lives, scheduling everything from the car pool to the 401k contribution, we fail to respond to Christ’s call to transformation with anything other than hesitation. There is always tomorrow, after all.

In Lent, though, Christians are called to live with spiritual urgency. We have to proclaim boldly with our choices that our transformations can no longer wait. We have neglected bearing good fruit for far too long, choosing instead to focus on what will not bring us joy.

The good news is that there is great freedom in no longer having to wait to focus on what matters the most. Now is the time to put the first things first; no excuses.

This urgency does not come from a fear that God will smite us. I do not believe that God wants to destroy us the way the land owner wanted to destroy the dormant fig tree. But I do believe that Christ spoke with urgency because he knew how quickly most of us are destroying ourselves. And I believe God wants before for us than that.

One of the few fairnesses of life is the fact that each of us is given an equal 168 hours per week.
It is those 168 hours that somehow baffle us all though. I know of few people who feel they have enough time to do everything they need to get done, let alone do anything they want to do. It does not matter how many modern conveniences we have, we just will never have enough time.

The unfortunate reality is that because of that, our spiritual life often suffers. Instead of being our basic foundation, spiritual practices somehow become luxuries that we squeeze in only if we have enough time. Church is great, but we have to fix the roof Sunday morning. Prayer would be wonderful, but who has the time to sit around with their eyes closed and talk to God? It would be interesting to read the Bible one day, but these financial reports from work have to be read first.

I get that. Pastors are not immune and, despite literally being surrounded by church all day, I sometimes catch myself feeling disconnected from my spiritual life. But I have also noticed how that spiritual disconnection is unsustainable.

So often we look around to find that we are no longer bearing spiritual fruit. It is in those moments that we can become our own gardeners, cultivating the space and the good soil needed to once again grow in abundance.

That will not be easy, though. It is going to take a shifting of priorities, and the deliberate reapportionment of some of our 168 hours. But one lesson that focusing on spiritual growth has consistently taught me is this: no matter what other demands are made of us, we make time for what really matters to us in life.

Billy Graham once said that if you really want to find out what you worship, you should look at your checkbook. I think there’s wisdom in that. But in our over scheduled world, I’d say this instead: if you really want to find out what you worship, look at your calendars and planners. That will tell you the truth.

It the end, I believe that God wants us to have new life, and that this life will only happen when we start telling one another the hard truth: the clock is ticking, the time is now, and life is too short to waste another minute on what can never love us back.

So back to the story I was telling you. The conference call came to an end while I was bench pressing. No one on the other end was so much the wiser. But that’s when I heard someone say on the other end, “Emily…are you still there? Would you close us with prayer?”

And so right there, in the middle of the free weight area of the YMCA, I took the phone off mute and prayed out loud. My guess is a few fellow lifters were looking at me funny. But maybe it was the reminder I needed that sometimes it’s time to slow down, switch gears, and focus on what matters.

That moment illustrated to me in a very real way that God doesn’t always wait for us to be in the ideal place to get our attention. God is calling us now. And sometimes it’s urgent enough that we need to put down our heavy lifting, rethink our priorities, and pick up. Amen?

Go Jump in the River – Sermon for February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14
5:1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.

5:2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.

5:3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

5:4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.

5:5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.

5:6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

5:7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

5:8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

5:9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.

5:10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

5:11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!

5:12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.

5:13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”

5:14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

There’s an old story about prayer and how God answers it. You may have heard it before. A woman was standing on a roof during a flood and praying to God to save her. Not soon after a rowboat came by and told her to climb in. They’d get her to safety. She told them, “No thanks. God will save me.”

A few minutes later a motorboat came along and they begged her to get in the boat. Again she said, “No thanks. God will save me.”

Finally the waters rose higher and a helicopter flew over and dropped down robe and told her, “We’ll pull you up.” Again she told them, “No thanks. God will save me.”

The inevitable happened and when the woman died and came face to face with God she was angry and said to God, “I prayed to you. I put my trust in you, and you didn’t save me.”

And God said, “But I sent you a row boat, a motor boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t answer our prayers. We wonder what the point of faith is if God won’t do what we want God to do when we want God to do it. Maybe sometimes, we even get a little mad about it.

Today’s reading reminds me a bit of that. Naaman is a soldier who is very strong. But he also has leprosy. And he hears about this healer in another land, and his king even sends him along with money and a letter, asking for him to be healed. The healer was Elisha. And when he gets to him, ready to be healed, Elisha doesn’t even come out of the house. Instead he sends a messenger out who tells Naaman to go wash in the river Jordan seven times.

Naaman is furious. He came all that way for healing and he tells his servants, “He could have just waved his hand over me and cured me. If I wanted to jump in a river, I could have done it at home.

But one of his servants says, “You know…he’s not asking you to do something all that hard here. If the cure was difficult, you probably would have done it. But all he is saying is go wash in the river and be healed.”

Something in that rang true for Naaman. And so he goes to the river, and he washes. Once, twice, three times. All the way to seven. And they say when he came out, his skin was as clean and healthy as when he had been a boy.

To me this story isn’t about God healing us from physical sickness. Everyday people do all they are asked to get well again from illness. Neither the illness nor whether or not they are cured is their fault. This story isn’t about that.

And this story isn’t about the river. I don’t know why Elisha sent him down to the river. Or why he had to go in seven times. I’m not sure what’s so special about that, that it worked when nothing else would. But I don’t think the cure is the point of this story. I think what Naaman was willing to do to get it is.

This story is about our spiritual life, and what we are willing to do to have a great one. Are we willing to do the little things that can make a big difference? Or are we content to just let God come to us. After all, just like Elisha could have waved his hand and cured Naaman’s leprosy, God could certainly make us perfect spiritual beings.

But God doesn’t. God makes us human beings, with free will, and a choice about what sort of spiritual beings we are going to be. Are we going to actively respond to God’s grace? Or are we going to remain passive? Are we going to wonder why God hasn’t done more for us? Are we going to just chug along and hope that it all sort of works out in the end?

If you want to put it in the terms of this story, are we going to go down to the river and jump in seven times? Or are we going to just stand on the shore?

One of my seminary professors wrote once about being in spiritual direction, a process by which one works with a director to try to expand their spiritual life and connection to God. She had been having a hard time, and her spiritual director had told her to read through the Psalms, a few each day. And so she did. And nothing got better. And one day she slammed shut the Bible and got angry and said, “this is pointless. What good does all this do?”

But then something compelled her to go back, and try again. And slowly, bit by bit, she began to feel God’s presence like she never had before. And she felt peace.

A few Psalms a day may seem as inconsequential as jumping in the river seven times. And yet, it worked. And it worked in part because even when it made no sense she was willing to give it a try because she wanted to know God.

I’ve been thinking about the spiritual life a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about it as our church is at this new stage in our life together. I read this week that a recent study of UCC churches. Of the congregations that are considered not vital (which means healthy and hopeful) 46% said they were not willing to try new things to meet new challenges. Of the ones that are vital, only 7% said the same thing.

I think there’s a spiritual lesson for us there. Because congregations are spiritual systems. And we are in a time where what it means to be a church is changing. And there may be times when we are asked to do something unexpected and new. And it may make about as much sense to us as jumping in the river seven times. But we might just do it anyway. I hope we do, because experience shows us good things happen when you’re willing to do the things you truly believe God is calling you to do, no matter how different or unexpected they may seem.

Today at the congregational meeting, I’m going to be talking a little about our new visioning process which will be launching after Easter. This is a process where we will talk about what kind of a church we are. Are we the sort when asked to go jump in a river seven times gets angry and refuses to go? Or are we the sort who says, “Okay God”, and comes out healthier and stronger than ever. I think I know which one we are, and I think you do too. Because you probably wouldn’t be here if you didn’t believe that.

What happens in a few months is just one example of daring to walk the spiritual path that God has set before us. But it happens in a few months. And we have two even better illustrations of what it means to walk the spiritual path here with us today.

This morning we are welcoming several new members into our church. They are going to join us on our path, and walk with us. They’ve decided that this is the place God is calling them to. And they are going to help to shape who we are. If God has brought them here, then they have good news for us to hear, and I pray that we will listen to their voices.

But there’s one voice, that hasn’t even begun to form words yet. That’s because she was born two weeks ago. Kylie Hope is going to be baptized here this morning. Her family is here not just from West Dover, but also from South Africa. They’re here this morning to witness her becoming the newest member of the body of Christ as we baptize her.

Now, Kylie won’t remember this. She will hear about it later, but she won’t remember the water, and the blessings. But we will. Just like we remember every baby we baptize.

And Kylie will know us. She’ll grow up in this town, and she’ll meet us, and she’ll know that this is the place that made baptismal promises along with her family when she was brand new. And as she goes along her spiritual path in life, she will look to as an example.

I hope Kylie grows up to be the sort of person who is willing to go jump in a river for Christ. I hope she will take the small spiritual risks that yield incredible gains. I hope she grows up to be a person of faith, and grace, and goodness.

And I hope we are models for her of what that looks like. I hope she sees  how we live our lives, and how we live. I hope she never looks at us and sees people standing timidly on the shore. I hope she sees us trust Christ enough to go jump in the river knowing we will come out whole, and that will tell her all she needs to know about the life of faith.

May God bless Kylie and her family today. May God bless our new members. And may God bless this whole church with just enough willingness to step into the waters of our baptism again and again, with faith. Amen.