Breath of Hope

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Before we can start today, I must get this out of the way. I cannot read this narrative of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones without reverting to the Sunday School teacher part of my brain. You know where I’m going with this.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Now shake dem skeleton bones!

But the meaning of this passage goes much deeper than a campfire song or a Sunday school level of understanding. Ezekiel has a very important message that is still relevant in the 21st century. But to get to that message we must first look at what this passage is not.  Across the history of Biblical interpretation there have been some misconceptions about this narrative.

First, this is not a literal happening.  Ezekiel is very clear that the dry bones coming back to life are a metaphor for the nation of Israel, who, during his lifetime were in exile. “These bones are the whole house of Israel” Ezekiel said. This is important. It’s important because this text has often been used to “prove” bodily resurrection.  In other words, at the end of time, in the “end of days” as it’s called in the Psalms, all our bodies will pop up from our graves and we will walk the earth again. Today, we might envision zombies if we think about people coming out of their graves, but this was a very real concern for the medieval church and to be honest, for some Christians still today. But, as I said, this isn’t, and never was, intended to be taken as a literal event.

That’s the first misconception and the second is this: that biblical prophecy somehow predicts of our future.  Ezekiel wasn’t a fortuneteller.  Instead, he was addressing his community, he was interpreting what he believed God wanted his people to be and do in their time and context.  We can draw wonderful lessons from Biblical prophecy, but let’s not try is predict the future based on it. That simply doesn’t make any sense.

So, that being said, what do we do with this wonderful narrative? Well, since “it’s obvious to us that Ezekiel’s intent was more metaphorical than physiological,” it becomes apparent that “his vision was about the eventual return his people to Israel.”[i] Remember, his people, the nation of Israel, had been marched off into exile by the Babylonians.  So, this entire prophecy is about restoring hope to refugees now living in a foreign land.  And this is a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the New Testament. Kelton Cobb writes, “At the core of biblical narrative is the story of displacement; of having wandered a long way from home and longing to return. This is the underlying plot of being cast out of Eden, of being foreigners in Egypt, of the journey to the promised land,” and, as we’ve seen here in this text, “the longing of the exiles in Babylon to return to the land of their fathers”[ii] and mothers.

Longing.  That’s a key word here.  A longing of the heart. A longing, however, that seemed hopeless. The dry bones in this narrative represent that sense of hopelessness that the exiles felt as they were longing to find their way home again.  A hopelessness that unfortunately came true for most, if not all of them.  You see, they were in exile for about 70 years and considering the short life expectancy in that day, it’s logical to conclude that, most likely, none of those marched off to exile ever made it back to Israel.  But, their decedents, their children and grandchildren were the ones who eventually came back home. And that was the “hope” Ezekiel was promoting; a hope for the next generation.

And this is where I think Ezekiel can really help us as well. We sometimes experience hopelessness. We too feel dry, parched. We sometimes feel like God has left us in a desert wilderness and forgotten about our needs, our desires, our well-being. We long for a “spiritual resurrection.” But, here’s the good news.  God is still around; still loving, still leading, still calling, Still-Speaking in the world today. There are many other voices crying out in our culture as well.  Some of them are good, some are bad, and some of them are downright evil. The challenge for us is to filter out the harmful voices, the hurtful words, the illogical hatred, the unabated greed, and listen carefully for the voice of God.

God is Still-Speaking in many ways and I’m convinced that God is speaking to the Church, our church and the wider Church, with a voice of change; of transformation, of reformation. God is speaking to us words of renewal, restoration, and hope.  And this is where we intersect with Ezekiel. The key element of his metaphor was that of God “breathing” life back into dry bones, right? And the word “breath” here, as translated from Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, has multiple meanings in English. The word in Hebrew is “ru-ah.” Ru-ah literally means breath, wind, and spirit. When we do biblical translation the tone and mood, and the immediate context of the passage determine which English word we choose, but thing to remember here is that wind, spirit, and breath are all one-in-the-same.

So, when God breathed the breath of life into humanity in the second creation story in Genesis, the author was saying that God breathed the Spirit of God into humanity. Isn’t that a beautiful thought? Think about it. The very breath of God, the very Spirit of the Divine is within us and has been within us and all of creation from the very beginning. And in his description of the spiritual resurrection of the dry bones, Ezekiel reminds us of this. He reminds us that God can and will breath the breath of life into that which is dried up.

Remember now, Ezekiel, like most of the prophets, was speaking to the whole nation. The breath of God, the Spirit of the Divine, was not only for the individual, but for the whole community. So, this narrative of God breathing life back into the dry bones can also be a metaphor for the church today.

Far too often I’ve heard and read that the church is “done.” I’ve heard the Church described archaic, irrelevant, and useless in the post-modern world.  And yet, despite this “culture of disbelief,” there are congregations, like ours, that are discovering new vitality. We are discovering that we are a “God -breathed” community of faith. Now, I don’t think we’re any better or worse than the church of the 1950’s, just different.  The Church reflects culture and culture is changing rapidly.  So, the question becomes: how do we keep up? How do we stay relevant? Well, I think any congregation can thrive if they become a place where people can sense God’s renewing Spirit and healing breath at work.  We can continue to be a place where it is evident that God is in the process of making all things new.

That’s all well and good you might say, but “How exactly do we do that?” Good question. And while I don’t have all the answers, I do know that the answer isn’t going come from theories about church growth or by beating ourselves up because there are less people attending on Sunday mornings.  But I do believe that we are vital and relevant when we intentionally cultivate the Divine presence. When we are aware of God’s presence through the spiritual practices that have characterized Christian discipleship throughout the centuries; hospitality and a wide welcome to all, prayer and devotional reading, service and outreach, fellowship and worship.[iii] These are the keys to the now and future church.

Now, this might be uncomfortable for us, because to do the “inner-work” of cultivating the Spirit’s presence in the Church, we must be open to our authentic selves, warts and all![iv] And this is key! It’s key because we must do the “inner-work” before we can fully participate the “outer-work.” The outer-work of seeking justice for the marginalized, healing for those who are struggling, and peace for all.

One final thought today.  Can God breathe life back into lives of those who are lost? Can God breathe life back into our nation? The world? The earth itself? Can God make those dry bones dance again?

In the name of the One who breathed into each of us the very breath of life, Amen.

 

[i] Kelton Cobb. Feasting on the Word; Year A, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds., (Westminster John Knox Press. 2010) pg. 122

 [ii] Ibid 126.

[iii] Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, pg. 7, quotes one pastor as “You preach the gospel, offer hospitality, and pay attention to worship and people’s spiritual lives. Frankly, you take Christianity seriously as a way of life.” Cf. also Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, pg. 35, who says, “Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma.”

[iv] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, pgs. 11, 15, 36, 77-78, 91-94. He says we promote the “truth that sets us free” by cultivating our true selves created in the image of God through practice of “inner work” together in community—and in so doing we contribute toward making the world around us a more hopeful, joyful, and loving place.

 

Restored

John 9:1-41

I remember well my orientation to seminary.  It took place over the course of a weekend and on the second day we were shuttled out to what’s called “a low ropes course” for a team-building exercise.  Of course, we had to do all the usual things. We had to fall backwards trusting that the others would catch us and we had to help one another through an obstacle course.  It was really a great way to get to know each other.  This thing that stands out most in my mind, however, was the lifting exercise.  One person had to lay on their back, close their eyes, while the others lifted them over their heads.  And with that many people, it really was quite easy.  That is, until we came to Don.  He didn’t want to participate.  You see, Don weighed at least 300lb and it was a sensitive issue for him.  But after some reassurance, Don agreed.  And to his amazement, we lifted him quite easily.

Now, fast-forward to our final year in seminary.  Sitting around in the coffee shop one day Don brought up our day on the ropes course and his being lifted.  He said, “you guys didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was lifted up into the air, I felt the weight of my own self-doubt float away.  And in a very real way, it seemed like that doubt was replaced by a sense of belonging. It seems like a strange place to have such an epiphany, but for me, that was maybe the most significant ‘God moment’ I experienced in seminary.”

Don’s story, like the narrative we have before us today, are about restoration.

But to accurately discuss restoration, we must look at what caused the separation in the first place. In Don’s case, it was his own self-doubt keeping him from fully participating in the group activities and in the Gospel the man’s separation from society was caused by his blindness. He was born blind. He had no physical sight.

The ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, however, presents sight in a different sense; a metaphorical sense. Sometimes a person can look, but not see. Here, the blind man received not only the ability to use his eyes but the gift to see on a deeper plain.[i] Spiritual sight.

 Now, Jeremiah 5:21 might be a good text to introduce this story: ‘Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear.’ I say this would be a good introduction because the spiritual blindness Jeremiah outlined was still plaguing John’s community and perhaps to some degree, ours as well. You see, the understanding of sin in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, is one of direct causation.  If a person was born blind, it was because of his parents or his grandparents had sinned.  If anything bad happened, it was directly caused by one’s sin.

 Now, you can see why this was problematic. When we try to explain why bad things happen by assigning causation to one’s sin, it turns into a vicious game of blaming the victim. That’s not to say that there aren’t consequences to sin. If I choose to rob the gas station, I will go to jail.  That’s the consequence.  But not every bad thing that happens to us is because we or our parents sinned. Things happen that are beyond our control. So, that theology simply doesn’t hold water.

 And Jesus has my back here.  In our text for today, the question was asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents.” Jesus answered, “Neither, he nor his parents.” And then he gives us a somewhat puzzling alternative.  He says, “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.”

Let’s unpack this. When I first read this I was confused.  It seems like Jesus was saying that this man suffered his whole life just so Jesus could make a point.  But after further consideration, it’s apparent that’s not what’s going on here. Instead, it would be helpful to investigate that background on the difference between disease and illness as understood by John’s community.  Physical symptoms – the disease – were of little concern. The main concern was with the social dislocation – the illness – associated with the physical symptoms.[ii]

We in the post-modern world tend to focus on – and get distracted by – the physical changes – we think that’s the “miracle.” But for Jesus and the Johannine community the real miracle was the change in relationship. In other words, when this man was healed by Jesus the physical gain of sight was second in importance to his restoration to friends and family. And in that restored state, after a long back and forth about what was fake news and what was real, after his parents were called in to testify, and after this man’s eventual expulsion by the Pharisees, we see his faith come to light.

And I think that’s where this text is taking us today. Things in our lives happen, both good and bad, and perhaps these things offer an opportunity for God’s mighty works to be displayed in us as well. Do you see what I’m getting at here? God doesn’t say, “Okay Milam, you sinned so you’re gonna get it now.” Instead, a difficult situation might be viewed as an opportunity to grow in our faith or to make a difference in the life of someone else who may be struggling. That’s the real miracle!  That’s the place where true sight or insight might be gained.  That’s the way healing and restoration come into existence.

 Here’s the goodie.  We can, and are called, to be a part of these miraculous restorations. How? Well, by seeing past our own self-interest; by seeing the face of Christ in the face of the refugee and the immigrant; by demonstrating the love of Christ to the outcast and to the marginalized; or by sharing the compassion of Christ the struggling, the poor. We can truly see, when we come to understand that the Light of the World, the Spirit of the Living God, is within and around and shines forth from all people. Karoline Lewis affirms this when she writes, “The Light of the World is in our midst, and we need not shut our eyes. In fact, the best thing to do is to open our eyes, wide. We will not be blinded by the light. We will be saved.”[iii]

My friends, as you go forth from this service today, let the light of God shine forth from your very being in every situation because you never know whose life those rays might enhance. May it be so. Amen.

[i] Larry Broding The Gift of True Sight. (word-sunday.com 2017)

 [ii] Historical background information drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Bruce Malina, Richard Rohrbaugh, et. al., pgs. 169-178.

[iii] Karoline M. Lewis. Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 2. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) pg. 120.

Resurrection Faith

A devotion for the approaching Easter season.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.                      -John 20:1 NRSV

Resurrection is about hope.  It’s also about life and transformation. As we approach Easter once again this year, I encourage you to take a moment and consider these possibilities and the progression of the seasons that have brought us to this point. Lent challenged us to “turn around” and consider deepening our relationship with God and with others.   Holy week will take us to the foot of the cross; a cross that once represented torture, humiliation, and death.  Through the the resurrection of Christ, however, because he overcame death, that symbol was transformed into something powerful.  What once represented death now signifies life and healing and restoration.  That’s the great beauty of Easter.  The cross tells us that even at our worst, humanity, can be healed; transformed.  The empty tomb tells us that not even death can separate us from the love of God.

Now, there’s a challenge in all this.  From our vantage point, it often seems as if the world is “going to hell in a handbasket” When we see a loved one suffer or a child go hungry or a refugee turned away it gives us pause to wonder, “Where is God in all this?’ But the good news of Easter is that God does not operate within the limits of what we can see!

Faith enables us to move beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a different path, a whole new way of life that sees the possibility of new life in every death, sees the light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair. But it is not an easy path. At the end of the day, it takes something of a leap for all of us to really entrust our lives to the kind of hope that God awakened in the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter morning.

Peace and Blessings,

Pastor Phil

Living Water, Living Faith

John 4:5-41

A father was in church with his five-year-old daughter.  During the service, the minister was performing the baptism of an infant. The little girl was taken by this, observing that he was saying something while pouring water over the infant’s head. With a quizzical look on her face, the little girl turned to her father and asked: “Daddy, why is he brainwashing that baby?”[i] Out of the mouths of babes.

The Sufi mystic Rumi once wrote, “thirst seeks water, but water seeks thirst.”[ii]  That might be a good summary of today’s Gospel reading. Because the narrative we have before us today is a great way to think about baptism.  Not as brainwashing but rather as an invitation; an invitation to quench our thirst.  And that’s what this text is about.  It’s about thirst. It’s about a woman.  A thirsty woman who went to Jacob’s well seeking physical water.  But she went there at midday which indicates that she was an outcast in her own society.  The “in” crowd came to the well in the cool of the morning or at dusk. So, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that while she was seeking a bucket of actual water, her thirst could only have been quenched by something deeper.  “Thirst seeking water.”

Now, this is where Jesus comes on the scene. On first blush, it seems like Jesus is just being Jesus, right? In the narrative, as he often does, Jesus offers this woman a gift. He offers her the gift of ‘Living Water.’ He offers her the gift of restoration and healing. He’s offering her the gift of salvation. And, like I said, we see this all the time in the gospels.  It’s Jesus being Jesus.  But it’s also “water seeking thirst.” It’s Divinity seeking humanity.

But this story would have “raised an eyebrow” for John’s audience.  Actually, they would have been shocked! Jesus defies the custom and protocol of his religion and society by, first, talking to woman and secondly, who was a Samaritan.  Remember, Jesus, as a Jewish male, was not supposed to even talk to a woman who wasn’t his wife, let alone accept water from her. And as a Jew, and especially as a Rabbi, he was not allowed to interact with a Samaritan of either gender.  And this cannot be over emphasized.  These weren’t just a couple of social faux pas on his part, Jesus ’actions were against the law.

So, there had to be a good reason why he would break the law.  And that reason takes us back again, to this idea of “water seeking thirst.”  You see, throughout the gospels Jesus pushes the common interpretation of the law. If a law was unjust, or at least the interpretation of that law, he was there to challenge it. So, the water here, the Living Water, was seeking justice.  In this narrative, we see Jesus challenge the intuitional prejudice that existed in his context against women and those from other religions.  This is important.  It’s important because the Living Water he offers is for us, all of us, all genders, all religions, all races, all nationalities, …all humanity. And specifically, as Christians, we are called to share the Living Water of our baptism by living out our faith to all the ends of the earth. Living our faith by feeding the hungry, by housing the homeless, by visiting the lonely and sick and those in prison.  We live out our faith when we welcome the refugee and the immigrant.  We share the Living Water when we seek to coexist with those of other religions. And we don’t pull these things out of the sky. We live out our faith by doing these things because these examples were given to us by Jesus himself.

My friends, our thirst leads us to seek the Living Water, but remember that the water also seeks us; seeks our thirst. And the result of all this seeking moves us a little closer to God.  And isn’t that finally the goal of our Lenten journey?

I would like to leave you today with something I read this week.  Kathryn Matthews in an essay called Finding Refreshment, writes, “We come before God, who knows our every thought and our every hope, our every gift and our every broken place, every single beautiful thing about us, every wonderful story and even the ones that aren’t so wonderful, we come before God, and God offers us a cool drink of water, and a place to rest.”[iii]

 

May you rest in God and may your deepest thirst be quenched by the Living Water.

 

Amen and Amen.

 

 

[i] http://www.jokebuddha.com/Baptism#ixzz4bb8kGz5Q

[ii] Dr. Mary G. Durkin. The Woman at the Well (agreely.com) 1999

[iii] Kathryn Matthews Finding Refreshment (www.ucc.org/sermonseeds) 2017

Bold Blessings

Psalm 121

What a wonderful and reassuring piece of Scripture we have before us today. It’s one of my favorites.  I often choose to read it at funeral services.  I choose this psalm because, along with the 23rd Psalm, I think it affirms God’s presence even in times of doubt, grief, and fear. “I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?” the psalmist asks.

But along with being reassuring, the Psalmist asks one of the great biblical questions …doesn’t he? I think his question is right up there with questions like, “Who is my neighbor?” or “Who do you say that I am?” or “What is truth?” “From where will my help come?”

Now, in its original context, Psalm 121 belongs to a group of psalms that have become known as “songs of ascent.” In other words, this psalm was used as a blessing for those embarking on a journey. Pilgrims, as they made their way to Jerusalem sang, chanted aloud or recited to themselves this psalm. And this was an important part of the journey.  You see, as these pilgrims were making their way to Jerusalem they would have encountered many shrines on many other hills dedicated to many other gods.  So, there had to be a temptation on the part of some, seeing these other expressions of faith, to question their own. There had to be a temptation to wonder, “From where will my help come?”

Eugene Peterson suggests this psalm makes it clear that Israel had two chief sources from where they were tempted to seek help. And it addresses them both, with a ringing affirmation of faith and a call for personal trust and commitment to covenant relationships.[i]

The first temptation was self-reliance. No matter what journey we find ourselves embarking on, whether that journey is physical, emotional, or spiritual, there comes a point when we are tempted to rely on ourselves above all else.  That’s human nature.  Especially when the going gets tough.  It’s then that we use phrases like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “leather up” …right? Or my personal favorite, “rub some dirt on it and get back in there.” Don’t get me wrong, there is some value in summoning one’s own courage or fortitude or even reason to deal with adversity.  But depending on myself to the exclusion of the care and nurture of my community and of God finally isn’t helpful.

The other temptation that Peterson was describing was the temptation to put all our eggs in the leadership basket. We cast our gaze upon Capitol Hill or to Madison and hope our salvation might come from the government.  Probably the one thing we can all agree on when it comes to politics, is that sooner or later politicians will disappoint us. And perhaps that’s because we, as the general public, pin too many of our hopes government.  Leadership has a role in our society and in our lives, but not the only role.

Sadie knew the truth of this. First, you must picture the community of Orange City, Iowa. Picture a lovely community platted out on one square mile. After 130-some years, it now spills over that border, though developers pose no threat to the alternating fields of corn and soybeans that surround the town.

Sadie lived on a high place, a hill just outside of town, on the northwest corner, in what was referred to for years as “the county home.” That was where her parents had deposited her and her sister, both cognitively disabled, in 1955. But from the county home, Sadie could see the other high places.

On the town’s southwest corner stood grain elevators which represented to her the financial base of the community. At the center, the courthouse of Sioux County, Lady Justice standing proudly on top, representing the government.

Sally could see them clearly from the park bench on the lawn.  And she understood that the money generated by the grain elevators provided tax dollars to the government who, in turn, took care of her needs. Sadie was a ward of the state and was thankful for both of those “high places” as she sat on her bench.

But there was another high place in the town, the church steeple. The church was the place where Sadie felt more than just cared for, it’s the one place where she was truly loved and accepted and welcomed.  In her community of faith, this woman of low estate was elevated and treated with dignity. It was from the church that she welcomed a steady trickle of visitors. And at her life’s end, the church was filled with members to mourn her passing and celebrate her life.[ii]

The high places of the elevators and the courthouse were a part of Sadie’s help.  There’s no question about that.  But when we consider the deeper question of the lotus of our help, our help comes from God and God’s love. My friends, God is big enough to trust, and a God personal enough to care. Psalm 121 reflects this kind of love. It says that God will be with us no matter what. And not just caring for our physical needs, but if we open ourselves, open our hearts and minds and spirits, God will be take care of our deepest longings as well.

One final thought this morning. There was a suggestion in Bible Study this week that we re-read this passage substituting the word “love” every time we see the words “the Lord or he” And that makes sense because the first letter of John says the “God is Love” We know and often say that God’s loves us but the Epistle goes further by saying that God is actually love itself. God IS Love. So with that in mind, here’s what Psalm 121 would sound like:

I raise my eyes toward the mountains.     Where will my help come from? My help comes from God who is Love,     the maker of heaven and earth. Love won’t let your foot slip.     Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job. No! Israel’s protector     never sleeps or rests! Love is your protector;     Love is your shade right beside you. The sun won’t strike you during the day;     neither will the moon at night. Love will protect you from all evil;     God will protect your very life. Love will protect you on your journeys—     whether going or coming—     from now until forever from now.

In the name of the One who is love.

Amen.

[i] Eugene Peterson. The Message Study Bible. Psalm 121 (NavPress 2010)

[ii] This illustration is based upon the life story of Sally Henningfeld as told by Matthew Floding,

(Faith and Leadership, 2012)

Abundant Grace

First Sunday of Lent                                                                                                                Matthew 4:1-11 – The Temptation of Christ

A vacationing American businessman was standing on -the pier of a quaint coastal fishing village in southern Mexico when a small boat with just one young fisherman pulled into the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish. “How long did it take you to catch them?” the American casually asked. “Oh, a few hours,” the young man replied. “Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” the American businessman then asked. “With this I have more than enough to support my family’s needs.” The businessman then became serious, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”  Responding with a smile, the Mexican fisherman answered, “I sleep late, play with my children, talk with my wife, watch ballgames. Sometimes in the evenings I take a stroll into the village to see my friends, play the guitar, sing a few songs…”

The American businessman impatiently interrupted, “Look, I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you to be more profitable. You can start by fishing several hours longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat. With the additional income that larger boat will bring, you can then buy a second boat, a third one, and so on, until you have an entire fleet of fishing boats.

“But how long will all this take?” After a rapid mental calculation, the businessman pronounced, “Probably about 15-20 years, maybe less if you work really hard.” “And then what?” asked the fisherman. “Well, then you could happily retire with all the money you’ve made. You could move to a quaint coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your grandchildren, talk with your wife, watch ballgames, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could play the guitar and sing with your friends all you want.”1

Be careful what you wish for because it might come true. That’s a good jumping off point for our Scripture lesson about temptation.  The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But there’s a whole lot more here than meets the eye. But first, the literary context.

The temptation narrative we have before us today is yet another example of Matthew’s connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and his gospel account. An essential element for Matthew, who was speaking to a predominantly Jewish/Christian audience, was the connection between the great characters of Jewish history, (Moses, Abraham, and so on…) and Jesus of Nazareth. So, this temptation account that we’re looking at today reflects the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.  And at the heart of both of these narratives rests the same mistaken insinuation that God is not trustworthy.

Consider the text. “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter begins. If you are who you really say you are, then, put your money where your mouth is; turn this stone into bread, put God to the test by jumping off this pinnacle, and claim all that you see as you’re own. Come on, if you’re so high and mighty, prove it! The tempter was setting the trap. A trap that we, frankly, often fall into. But of course, Jesus resists and tells the temper to shove off.

It’s a great story with an even greater message. So, let’s break it down. First, the word “if” is key here.  The word “if” calls into question Jesus’ relationship to God and suggests that he could establish himself on his own terms. But Jesus declines to define himself apart from God. And that, I think, really gets to the heart of the matter. The deeper message here is that we too are often tempted to define ourselves apart from God.

This isn’t a new thing. It’s been addressed across the history of thought. Take Blaise Pascal for example. The seventeenth-century French philosopher who spoke of the human condition as having “a God-shaped hole” inside of us. He didn’t see this as a flaw, however, but rather as how God keeps us tethered to our life-giving relationship with the Divine.2 Likewise, St. Augustine, the fourth-century African bishop, writes in the first lines of his Confessions that God created a restlessness in our hearts that can only be satisfied when we rest in God.3 And the seventeenth-century Welsh poet George Herbert went so far as to describe this same restlessness as the “pulley” by which God draws us back into God’s presence.4

So, across the arc of history humans have attempted to establish themselves apart from God. And we’ve done this most visibly by separating ourselves from the other; whoever the “other” may be. If you don’t believe me look at a globe. We’ve drawn lines all over it to distinguish “us” from “them.”  But, guess what, God didn’t draw those lines on the globe, human beings did.

One of the core values of Christ’s message was that of interconnectedness and he crossed all kinds of borders to demonstrate this. He crossed physical borders between nations. He crossed religious boundries and divisions created by wealth, status, and position.  He even crossed boundries that separated people by the state of their health. He crossed those by healing on the Sabbath and by healing and restoring the “wrong” kind of people.  A big part of the ministry and mission of Jesus was to show us that people are more alike than we are different.  And even though we are diverse in many ways, we’re finally all interconnected.

Now, the dominate cultural message we hear today is quite the opposite.  We are fed a constant stream of information touting individualism. I mean consider advertising.  Think about ads you see on TV. Advertisers promise that by owning their product you will receive all the joy we can image. If you buy this kind of car, or use that kind of body wash, you will be beautiful and loved by all.  If you just buy my widget, advertisers suggest, you’ll discover your identity, live in bliss, and have a meaningful life.

On the face of it, this all sounds ludicrous, right? How can using a particular product enhance your sense of self-worth? Yet in a Frontline documentary, that I saw on PBS some time ago, they suggest that we are so starved for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives that we make many of our purchasing decisions based the hope that the story they’re peddling is true. And I want to be clear here, it’s not that the stuff itself is bad, but rather that we expect too much from it. As one guest on the program said, “In the end it’s just a laptop or a pair of running shoes. They may be great, but they’re not actually going to fill those needs.

Which brings us back to the gospel reading. Jesus shows us that the key to resisting temptation is by finding our identity in God.  And that identity is interconnected with all humanity and with all creation. Now. let me be crystal clear, we are not God, but there is a bit of God within us.  “A spark of the Divine,” Whitehead called it, “that exists within all people and in all things.” When God breathed the breath of life into God’s creation, we all became interconnected, intrinsically interwoven into the very fabric of the Divine.

So, whether it be Pascal’s God-shaped-hole, or Augustine’s restlessness, or even Herbert’s pulley, these images serve to illustrate the longing that is within us to be connected to all living things. A longing that goes unfulfilled if we let fear rule the day. Fear is the motivation behind the temptation to disconnect, separate, divide, to draw lines on a map or build walls.  When we let fear overshadow our faith, it causes us to compartmentalize or calorize humanity and nature, and thus God.

But if we take a step back, and view things from this perspective of interconnectedness, then we will come to understand, that we need not turn stone into our personal bread because there’s enough bread in the world to go around.  All we need to do is share it. Do you see what I’m getting at here?

From this perspective, we need not put God to the test because the signs of God’s presence and love are all around us.  We can experience God in nature, in relationships, in prayer, in music and in so many other ways.  Even in our most difficult times, our interconnectedness with the Divine is evident in the caring of others and healing that comes through faith.

And finally, from the perspective of interconnectedness, we need not seek earthly power. The temptation of individualism is to acclimate as much as possible, but earthly wealth isn’t the key to happiness; it doesn’t fill that God-shaped hole.  Realizing that God loves us beyond all measure, however, fills it nicely.

Perhaps the Mexican fisherman was onto something. Perhaps it’s a blessing to sleep late, to play with our grandchildren, to have a deep and meaningful conversation with our spouse or dear friend. Perhaps it’s a blessing to watch a ballgame or read a good book or listen to a beautiful piece of music. Perhaps we overcome temptation when we stroll through the forest on a misty morning or look for the Christ in the face of a stranger.  Perhaps it’s these things, these moments of clarity, these moments of interconnectedness with the ordinary pleasures of life, that constitute the stuff of happiness. Perhaps.

As we continue through this season of Lent, may we all find those points where we interconnect with others, with nature, and with the Divine.

May it be so. Amen.

Resources

1 What Really Matters in Life.  Author unknown. (inspiringcommunity.org) 2017

2 “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in humanity a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God alone.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensee 10.148.

3 “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”    – St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1

4 The Pulley

When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by– “Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can; Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie, Contract into a span.” So strength first made a way, Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure: When almost all was out, God made a stay, Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, Rest in the bottom lay. “For if I should,” said he, “Bestow this jewel also on my creature, He would adore my gifts instead of me, And rest in nature, not the God of nature: So both should losers be. “Yet let him keep the rest, But keep them with repining restlessness; Let him be rich and weary, that at least, If goodness lead him not, yet weariness May toss him to my breast. – George Herbert, 1633

 

From Ashes to Light

Ash Wednesday Service                                                                                                              Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:22-23

Great Ash Wednesday story. A collogue of mine, when she was still early in her ministry and very inexperienced, forgot to get ashes for the Ash Wednesday service that was about 15 minutes from starting. So, in a panic she got some powdered ink out of the copier in the office… You can see where this is headed …can’t ya? Her parishioners carried the “Mark of the Ash” on their foreheads for at least a week. Don’t worry.  I put some of the ash on my hand every year so I can make sure it washes off.  I tried it, we’re Okay tonight.

Another Ash Wednesday story. The first time I lead an Ash Wednesday service I didn’t know you could buy ashes. Who knew? So, I burned up some palm leaves that were dried and left by the former pastor. And all was going well. I put them in a coffee can and out on the back porch of the parsonage, I lit them up. A point of interest here. When you light something like palm leaves out on the back porch of your parsonage, make sure you’re sheltered from the wind. Yep. As soon as the leaves turned to ash they blew away.

I did however salvage just enough ashes to use in the service. Which leads me to another point of interest. Be careful how much oil you add to the ashes. As I applied the ashes to the foreheads of the faithful that evening, a small stream of what can only be described as an “oily sludge” trickled down their noses. Great Ash Wednesday memories.

I shared these humorous stories tonight for a reason. And that reason is that Ash Wednesday, and the whole season of Lent for that matter, don’t have to be a complete downer! It never ceases to amazing me, that for so many people Lent a time of gloom and doom.  Is it just me? Or has Lent become a time to beat yourself up; a time to “give up” something you enjoy, and to take on a whole truckload of shame and guilt.

Traditionally, this is the reason we carry the mark of the ashes on our foreheads. It’s a sign of our mortality. It’s an understanding that we have sinned against God. It’s a sign of our repentance. Over the course of my many years as a pastor, as I smudged ashes on many, many hundreds of heads and hands, I uttered the words, “repent and believe the gospel.” And I still think that’s a part, and important part, of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Lent is finally about turning around.

However, I think the emphasis on shame and guilt has become the dominate theme. It’s been overplayed.  I say that because there’s another aspect; an equally important aspect to Lent. And that aspect is God’s generosity.

How did I come to this conclusion? Well, one of the central features of the entire biblical message is the claim that God is Creator, Redeemer, and Liberator. Right? That’s the job description of the Trinity. But in Lent, traditionally, we have tended to focus only on God as Redeemer. Redeemer in the sense that through repentance, through changing our ways and hopefully our hearts, we are forgiven. Again, here’s nothing wrong with this traditional way of approaching the season of Lent. There’s nothing wrong with a good prayer of confession and then making the changes necessary to put that confession into action.

BUT here’s the thing. God is also the Creator and Liberator of all humanity. Our God is a God who looks on the oppressed with compassion, who frees the captives, lifts the downtrodden, and who loves those whom we might consider, unlovable. In other words, God is about Justice! And God’s Justice finds it’s basis in generosity. Our God is a God who is finally generous beyond all measure. And God’s generosity includes creating this beautiful earth for us to live on. God’s generosity includes being merciful and forgiving when we mess up. God’s generosity includes calling every person and all of nature –   Beloved! Do you see what I’m getting at here? Lent can be about celebrating the wholeness of God rather than just a third of God. Lent is finally about celebrating God’s generosity. And this is key! God’s generosity challenges us to be generous as well.  I think that’s way more important than giving up chocolate or trashy TV.

Which leads us to our Scripture lessons for this evening. What I find striking here is the clear and concrete way in which they define living out a life of justice in terms of practicing generosity!  The prophet Isaiah says that practicing God’s justice looks like this: “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins. If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.”

Isn’t that interesting? If we can find it within ourselves to take a chance and reach out to those in need; if we can find the courage to overcome our fear of the “other;” if we can participate in the Present Reign of God by helping those who, for whatever reason, cannot help themselves. Then, Isaiah says, our “shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.” That’s finally our goal for this season. The goal is to move from fear to faith; to move from compliancy to action; to move from ashes to light.

So, as we continue this journey that we call lent, may the ashes we receive tonight turn into light. And may the smudge remind us not only of our own mortality and our need for repentance, but may it also represent our calling, our challenge to practice God’s generosity in our lives.

My friends, as you come forward for the imposition of ashes this evening, you are encouraged to seek forgiveness for your transgressions. You are invited to consider that all humanity originated from the earth and that someday we will all return to dust from which we came. But as those ashes are applied to your forehead or back of your hand, you will hear the words, “Practice God’s Generosity” A generosity that comes first from God, but is then “live-out” through acts of Kindness & Compassion, Peace & Justice, and through acts of Loving-kindness.  May we, as we progress through this season of Lent, indeed, move from Ashes to Light.

Amen.