We took fellowship outside to burn last year’s palms and prepare ourselves for Lent. Take a look:
Tagged with Lent
When is extravagance a way of love? A sermon on John 12:1-8.
Lent usually begins with the story of Jesus in the wilderness. This year, we remember a different 40 day trial, and all that came after.
During this holy week, Jesus directly challenges the powers that be. He challenges the colonial government, riding into the holy city of Jerusalem as if he were the star of a Roman military procession. Jesus challenges merchants and commerce, driving moneychangers out of the temple. Jesus challenges religious authorities, calling them hypocrites, and predicting the destruction of the temple.
But that’s not all. Jesus goes on to challenge his own followers. He defies their expectations of social and political change, telling them that he will soon be crucified. He defies their values around money, accepting an extravagant gift of ointment. He defies their self-image, predicting that they will betray him.
Jesus challenges everyone. And most folks don’t react well. Some are angry. Some are troubled. Some lose their enthusiasm for Jesus’ movement, and drift away. A few are so upset by Jesus’ actions that they begin to plan for his destruction.
Reading the story again this year, I was struck by how much determination it must have taken for Jesus to do what he does. Everyone – literally everyone except for God – wishes he was acting differently. But Jesus still choses, again and again, to speak and act in a way that is true to who he is, and how he is called. He points out the dangers and limitations of all the structures around him. He even questions the expectations and character of those who follow him. Jesus offers his community his truth: a strange gift that is difficult to accept.
In this time, we are also dealing with some hard truths. A global pandemic has arrived, and it has challenged everything. It has brought into stark relief the weaknesses and failures of our governments, our economic systems, our religious authorities; our societies. It also brings out many revealing reactions in individuals: in you, in me, in all those around us.
Like the disciples in Jesus’ time, we cannot control how this all ends. We can’t control how the structures around us respond, how the people around us react. We can’t control those things; we can’t even predict them. The only thing we can decide is the same decision that faced the disciples: What will I do? Who will I be?
A few among us may be called to truly heroic acts in this time. Bless you. For most of us, the faithful living of these days will mean something else. Each day, we will need to discern: how we can be true to ourselves, true to our callings? How might we practice patience, kindness, generosity, and honesty, to impact the good of the whole?
Don’t forget that in this difficult work we have the comforts that Jesus left us. He does not only offer challenge to the world during this week. He also gives us a meal in which to remember and experience him. He gives us a new commandment, to love one another. He gives us his presence beside us in prayer.
Please pray with me: Jesus, challenger and comforter: may your story, and the crucible of these days, inspire us to find within ourselves a deeper truth, a greater strength, a more bountiful sense of grace to accept and share. Amen.
We are living in a strange time. And it would be easy to assume that no scripture passage could meet us here, in this bizarre and challenging modern time. Well, here is one piece of good news: there are a lot of strange stories in our scriptures, truly bizarre stories; and many of them come from very challenging times in the lives of our ancestors in faith. So it is with our reading today.
Things are bad for the people Israel. The great King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia and his armies have deposed Israel’s king and laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelites have been cast out of their land. Others are still living in Israel under foreign rule. There is no sign that things will ever get better.
Then God takes the Prophet Ezekiel out into a valley full of bones. If this doesn’t sound creepy enough to you already, the scripture assures us that there are very many bones in that valley, and they are very dry. And then God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “O Lord God, you know.”
God proceeds to instruct
Ezekiel about how to prophecy to the bones: how to speak so that the bones come
together, bone to its bone, with sinew and flesh and skin. And then the breath
of God comes into these reformed bodies. They live, and stand on their feet, a
vast multitude. Finally God tells Ezekiel that these bones are the whole house
of Israel. Israel says, ‘Our bones are
dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But Ezekiel’s job is to let them know that
God is going to bring them up out of the grave, and fill them with spirit, with
We are perhaps still at the beginning of the trial that this pandemic we are living through may become. But there are already stories of great devastation. And it has already impacted all of us: our social connections, our childcare, our work habits, our income, our mourning rituals. We may also find ourselves battling with inner devastation: a dryness, a hopelessness, a sense of being cut off from that which keeps us strong. We may find ourselves saying with the people Israel, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” How might this story of God meet us in those times of desolation?
One striking thing about this story is that God does not restore this valley of dry bones alone. Instead, God offers restoration in partnership with a prophet. God’s imagination and guidance, leads to Ezekiel’s proclamation, which in turn leads to physical changes. It may be that we have a role to play, that the human community has a role to play, in helping to communicate and enact what God knows can take place amidst the challenges of this time. Keep watch, pay attention to where this may be happening around you.
I am struck also that this scripture story is not simply a before-and-after story. God does not come and restore political victory to the people. Their exile is not ended at the end of the story. Rather, the reanimating words of hope come in the midst of devastation. The desert of dry bones, and the renewed multitude of living bodies, are existing in the same bleak reality. It’s not the exterior circumstances that change, but the sense of vibrancy, life, hope, in the midst of the circumstance. How might we live like a watered desert, like a re-membered people filled with God’s breath, even in the midst of isolation, in the midst of desolation?
Some questions for reflection:
- When have you felt dried up, without hope, cut off, like the people Israel in this story?
- What are the losses you grieve in this pandemic time, for yourself or for others? I think grief is a real and important thing to acknowledge for all of us, what we are losing, what we have lost.
- How, even in times like this, does God partner with us to open graves, give breath, fill us with Spirit?
Nicodemus knows that someone named Jesus is making waves. How does he know? Maybe he has heard about how Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit swooping down like a dove right above him. Maybe he has heard about how Jesus changed jars of water into a very fine vintage of wine at a wedding. Almost certainly, he has heard about how Jesus spent his first day in the holy city of Jerusalem driving money changers out of the temple. Nicodemus learns that someone named Jesus is making waves, and he wants to learn more. So this esteemed religious leader shows up, at night, at Jesus’ door.
Sometimes folks imagine that Nicodemus is ready to become Jesus’ disciple as he visits this night, if only secretly. I imagine Nicodemus is ready to examine this upstart uneducated Galilean Rabbi. What does this Jesus really believe? What has he been teaching the people? Will this youngster need to be reigned in before he causes trouble with the Romans? But Nicodemus doesn’t get a chance to ask his questions or offer his guidance. Jesus sees this experienced elder, and begins teaching him, instead. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
Now, as it happens, Nicodemus does not live in America in the 1990s. So, he has no idea that the phrase “born again” might have a spiritual meaning. Jesus’ teaching, therefore, seems simply ridiculous. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Nicodemus asks, bemused. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?”
Jesus replies, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus does not know what to do with Jesus’ answer. “How can these things be?” he asks. We might want to ask the same thing. It’s hard to be sure exactly what Jesus is saying, but he seems to be saying that to get close to God, we need to be reborn. Reborn, through water. Reborn, through the Spirit. Reborn, or born again, or depending on how you translate the original, born from above.
But what does it mean to be reborn, born again, or born from above? Isn’t everyone born just once? We only get one shot in life, right? There’s no starting over, physically or otherwise. Our past can’t be changed. We can only go forward.
Plus, even if we could start again – would all of us really want to? Especially folks like Nicodemus, who seems to have it all together? He’s educated, he’s respected. He’s probably financially secure. Nicodemus is even spiritually revered. Why would someone like that risk it all to be reborn? Why would he need to?
Jesus tells us that the way to get close to God is to be reborn. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
With God’s help, we can start over, Jesus tells us. But he’s not talking about starting over to build more successful lives, lives with more money or fame. Instead, this starting over has to do with loosening our attachment to the external parts of our lives, so that we can respond more freely to the wild, unexpected movements of God in our hearts.
This teaching of Jesus makes me think of the spiritual leader Richard Rohr, who’s spent time unpacking psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s ideas about the two halves of life. The first half of life, he claims, is dedicated to building an identity for ourselves through outwardly noticeable achievements. The second half of life begins when these outward achievements are no longer sufficiently meaningful. Instead, we begin seeking spiritual or religious experiences that can fill the outward structure of our identity with a new kind of inward satisfaction. This is the work of finding God deep within.(Read more here or in Rohr’s book Falling Upwards)
Consider the caterpillars we are learning from this season. Starting as a small egg, caterpillars eat and eat and grow and grow – just like in the book, the very hungry caterpillar. In fact, caterpillars are so good at eating and growing that they outgrow their own skins more than once! The goal of all this, we might imagine, is to become the biggest and best caterpillar out there. But just when they’re getting really successful at being caterpillars, caterpillars stop being caterpillars at all. Instead, they hang upside down, create a chrysalis, and give up their caterpillar lives to become something else entirely.
So I wonder: what have you been trying to achieve in your life so far? What have been your goals? Maybe you’ve achieved those goals spectacularly well. Maybe it hasn’t gone exactly the way you hoped or planned. Either way – are these the same goals that you want to claim for the rest of your life? Or is it time to start doing something else altogether – even if it means undoing parts of the life you’ve built, letting go of some privilege or prestige you’ve enjoyed?
Each of us is only born once. Nicodemus is right! We can’t enter a second time into our mother’s wombs. We can’t even undo our mistakes, or erase our scars. But Jesus wants us to know that everyone can still be reborn.
We can be reborn, if we’re broken and troubled and desperate. We can be reborn, even if we seem to have it all together. Humble or proud, rich or poor, successful or struggling, all of us can be renewed. All it takes is acknowledging the emptiness we feel inside the outside shell of our outer lives, and inviting God to fill us.
Simple, but not easy. Letting God fill our lives means moving into mystery, and letting go of everything we thought we knew. It means putting our trust in absolute eternal love, and not much else. This kind of life isn’t something we choose only once. Instead, being reborn is a choice every day: as we slowly deconstruct the self we thought we needed to be, to become the one we are called to be, instead.
Please pray with me. Holy God: You are the womb from which we all come, and through you, we can begin lives that are entirely new: empty of everything except the wind of your Spirit, blowing free. Help us each to claim this bewildering opportunity, this mysterious offer, today and every day, for the sake of our own lives, and for the sake of your world. Amen.
At the beginning of the season of Lent each year, we return to this story about what happens to Jesus after his baptism, when the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness. Who does Jesus meet in the wilderness? (the devil!)
Now our cultures have all kinds of ideas about what the devil might be like, but there isn’t much about the devil in our scriptures. We don’t know if Jesus really saw the devil with his eyes, or if the devil was more like a dream, or what the devil might have looked like, or if the devil could have looked at all like Susan, who read the part of the devil in our scripture lesson. We don’t know if Jesus really heard the devil with his ears, or if the devil was more like a voice inside his head, or what the devil might have sounded like, or if the devil could have sounded anything like Susan.
What we know is that the devil tempts Jesus three times. He asks Jesus to prove himself by turning stones into bread, to fill his own belly; to jump off a high place, to test God; and to worship the devil, to gain power over the whole world. What does Jesus say to these temptations? Does he agree to do them, or not? Jesus says no, and he says no by quoting the Hebrew scriptures. When Jesus has hard choices, he remembers what he knows about God and God’s ways.
I don’t know whether anyone here has ever felt like the devil was whispering in their ear, tempting them to do something. But I do know that we all have to make choices, and that those choices can be hard to make. How can we learn more about God, how can we get closer to God, so that we’ll make better choices?
In this season of Lent, we’re invited to choose a practice that will help strengthen our ability to make good choices. We’re invited to set an intention, to make a change that will help us know God and God’s ways more deeply. Perhaps we could try something that might help us become less anxious, less selfish, less judgmental, less isolated. Perhaps we could try something that might help us become more peaceful, more generous, more gracious, more connected. We’re invited to try something new: just for 40 days. Maybe it’ll become a habit we love and keep doing. Maybe we’ll never do it again. But almost certainly, we will have learned something about ourselves and about God by trying it.
Each of us is invited to choose a practice, to make a change in our individual lives. And all together, as a community, we’re trying a change as well, in our space. Did it feel a little strange coming in today? Was anything surprising? I wonder if you notice anything that is different in our space today. What is different?
- There is purple fabric hanging in the air!
- Our platform and our table are in the middle of the space.
- Face new directions in our seats; see each other more, and the organ and windows more
- We may not always see the face of the person who’s speaking or leading.
There are also a lot of things that are the same. What is the same?
- Walls are the same
- Same Furniture
- Liturgy, the way we worship is more or less the same
- The people!
- God, the reason we gather is the same
This way of setting up echoes the design of the ceiling. It’s an extension of the most ancient pattern of Christian gathering, which was around a table. It may help us feel closer to each other, or even closer to God, as if we’re wrapped around with care. Like anything we try for Lent, this may be something we love — and it may be something that we never do again. Regardless, I hope we learn something from it, about ourselves, and about God.
The imagery that we’re using this year for Lent is from the life cycle of butterflies. Butterflies can inspire us as we consider what it might mean to change. And the most dramatic change in a butterfly’s life happens when it’s inside the safe walls of its chrysalis.
So, this season, I am imagining that God’s forgiveness and grace and love is our chrysalis. God is our safe container, within which we can risk change. We have some chrysalises, made on Ash Wednesday, on our table. The curve of our chairs, the sweep of the fabric above our heads, may also help us think of the wrapping around love of God.
Change is hard. It’s hard to choose to change, and it’s hard to face changes we don’t have a choice in. But we’re not alone. Not even Jesus was alone. When he begins his public ministry, in each moment of his transition, God is there: in a spirit like a dove, in words of blessing; in the wisdom of the scriptures; in visiting angels. God is there, wrapping around Jesus to give him support as he dares to do something new.
Please pray with me: God, help us to feel your strength surrounding us, holding us, hugging us, grounding us, as the world changes, and as we choose to change, to become closer to you. Amen.
Joseph has it all. He’s part of a big family, with plenty of siblings to play with: eleven brothers and one sometimes ignored sister. Joseph’s family is prosperous, he has plenty to eat, and plenty of everything else he needs. Joseph is also rich in love. He’s precious to his mother, Rachel, and he’s his father Jacob’s favorite child. As a sign of his favor, Jacob gives Joseph a beautiful coat, a special robe.
How do Joseph’s siblings feel, when they notice how Jacob favors him, and when they see his special robe? Has anyone here ever been jealous of your siblings, or your friends? What were you jealous of?
Jacob’s siblings are jealous. They are jealous, because for all they have, they can see that Joseph is getting just a little bit more: a little more love, a little more favor, a little finer clothing. Now you could say that Joseph is innocent in all this. It’s not his fault that he’s been given so much. But eventually, Joseph does do something to make the situation worse.
You see, Joseph has these dreams. Vivid dreams. Dreams of sheaves of grain. Dreams of a sun, and moon, and stars in the sky. And all his dreams mean one thing: that his whole family is bowing down to him. Now, we can’t help what we dream. But we can decide what we’re going to say about it. And Joseph seems to delight in telling his family about his dreams. One day, he tells them, you will be bowing down to me.
No one likes to hear about Joseph’s dreams. Not even Jacob. And Joseph’s brothers are so angry, they decide to throw him into a pit, and then sell him to some travelers who are passing by.
That could have been the end of the story. Joseph could have been divided from his family forever, because of that one mistake he made, boasting about his dreams; because of that one mistake his brothers made, trying to get rid of him. That could have been the end of the story. But God has something else in mind. God has an amazing way of bringing something good out of something bad. God has a special gift for drawing something beautiful out of something painful.
The story doesn’t end there. Many years later, there is a terrible drought, and Joseph’s family does not have enough to eat. So some of Joseph’s brothers travel to a place where they have heard there is still grain. Where do they go? Down to Egypt.
We didn’t hear the whole story this morning. That’s because the story of Joseph is more than ten chapters long – you can read more of it at home. We didn’t hear all the things that happened to Joseph in Egypt before his brothers came to see him. We didn’t hear all the tricks that Joseph plays on his brothers before they find out who he is. Joseph’s still a little angry about that time when they threw him in a pit, and sold him to strangers.
But in the end, Joseph relents. He tells his brothers who he is. He tells them not to worry about the things they did to him before. He gives his family the grain they need. And then, he tells them that the whole family can come and live in Egypt with him. They’ll have plenty to eat, as the drought continues. When the family arrives, Joseph kisses his brothers, and weeps on them, and welcomes them.
Something changes in Joseph during this story. At the beginning, he seems to really treasure his gifts, and how special they make him feel. He looks forward to getting even more, and being more powerful than anyone else in his family. Joseph makes sure that everyone knows just how extraordinary he is. At the end of the story, Joseph sees all that he has, and he decides to share it. He realizes that taking care of the people he loves, and being close to them, is more important than anything else.
Sometimes we have a lot of something, whether it’s love, favor, money, special gadgets, social status, a special striped robe. When we have a lot of something, we have an important choice to make. We can try to make ourselves safe and special, by keeping what we have all to ourselves, and protecting ourselves from other people who might want or need it. Or, we can decide to be close to other people, sharing what we have, seeing what all that bounty can do in community.
Deciding whether to hoard, or whether to share – that’s a choice we have to make it over and over and over again. It can be really hard sometimes, to decide to share. Here’s the good news. No matter who we are, what we own, what we keep, or what we share, we always have a lot of one thing: the love of God. We are all God’s children, and God has so much love, and favor, that she gives all of us more than we could possibly need. Imagine that each person in this room, and everyone we ever meet, is travelling through life with the most fabulous coat imaginable, because we are a beloved child of God.
Being rich in love, opening our hearts to that gift, can make it easier to share everything else. And the love itself begs to be shared: to flow through us, and connect us to one another.