Tagged with Lent

Palm Sunday Reflection

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.

Dry Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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 life.

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?

Reborn

John 3:1-17

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.

Metamorphosis: Lent 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

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.

Having it All

Genesis 37-47

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.

One More Year

Psalm 32, Luke 13:1-9

Jesus is teaching a crowd of thousands. Through speech and story he is tackling tough topics: worry, money, conflict, responsibility. Then someone interrupts Jesus’ sermon to bring the crowd the latest breaking news: the Roman Governor, Pilate, has massacred Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem.

You can imagine how the crowd reacted. All the shock, and the grief. All the many murmured conversations.  All the questions: Why this? Why now? Why them? Why?

Then Jesus breaks in.  You may be wondering why, Jesus says; let me tell you what’s not the reason. Tragedy and accident are not a punishment for individual sin. The people who died are no worse than any of us. In fact, all of us need forgiveness.

Then Jesus tells a parable. Someone plants a fig tree in their vineyard. But the fig tree does not produce figs; and this person is enraged. “See here!” they shout at the gardener. “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

In the face of this tirade, the gardener replies graciously. “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

When terrible things happen, like the massacre of the Galilean pilgrims, it’s natural to ask why. Sometimes there are clear answers. More often, there aren’t.  In the absence of clear answers, and even sometimes in their presence, we often settle on this answer: It must be their own fault. It must be, somehow, the fault of the victims.

How could it be the fault of the victims? What could they have done to deserve their fate? Don’t worry – we’ll find something. Our human minds are endlessly inventive in finding flaws in other people.  We judge one another based on how we look, and how we talk. We judge one another for being too rich, or not rich enough. We judge one another for being too powerful, or not powerful enough to be independent. We judge one another for making different choices, and for simply being different, than we are. Out of fear and insecurity, we judge all the time.

Imagine Jesus standing in front of this crowd of folks who have just heard about a tragedy. Desperate to make sense of things, they try to imagine what grievous sins these other folks might have committed to earn them a death sentence. But Jesus has no interest in helping the crowd along this path of judging others. Instead, he turns their attention to their own behavior.  Think a little less about everyone else’s sins, he says, and a little more about your own.  Remove the log from your own eye, before worrying about the log in anyone else’s. Remember you live in a glass house, before you throw stones.

It’s good advice. We can’t possibly truly know anyone else’s sins. We definitely can’t fix them. It’s more fruitful to examine ourselves, to work on ourselves. Unfortunately, when we turn our attention towards ourselves, we don’t always make much spiritual progress either. We judge ourselves on things that aren’t so important, like how we look, or how much money we have.  We mull over negative messages we received long ago.  We dwell on some deep and surely fatal flaw that we imagine is unique to us and must be hidden from everyone else at all costs. We get stuck reliving the things we’re most ashamed of. When it comes to judging, we’re at least as brutal towards ourselves as we are towards others.

A lot of us don’t really appreciate it when scripture encourages us to repent. We imagine that God, or the church, or the pastor, is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and trying to make us feel bad about it. This feels counterproductive, because most of us are quite skilled at feeling bad about ourselves already. No need to revisit that. No need to amplify it.

But Jesus’ call to repentance is not an exercise in harsh self-criticism, guilt, or shame. It’s  an invitation to be freed. What is making you miserable, Jesus asks? What is separating you from love?  What lies have you learned to believe? What habits are harming you? There’s no need to keep carrying that burden, Jesus says. Consider laying it down on my lap, and allowing our good Gardener to help you find another way.

Vincent Van Gogh, In the Orchard

Imagine, Jesus says, that your soul is a fig tree. It’s in a beautiful vineyard, being looked over by a competent gardener. Still, it has not born fruit on the schedule that you expected. Enraged, you decide to give up the project of cultivating figs, or caring for your spirit, altogether.  “Cut it down!” you demand, rudely. But God, the gardener, resists your tantrum.  Give me more time, God says.  At least one more year. Let me lay down some more nutrients. Let’s see what could happen, with a little more love.

Let’s take just a moment to try to welcome God’s grace and care into our hearts. I invite you, as you are moved, to settle your body into a comfortable position; to close or lower your eyes; to gently rest a hand or two on yourself, on your heart, on your stomach, on your lap. Just breathe.

God, help us not worry too much about other people, whether they’re doing it exactly right, we can leave that up to them.

God, help us not to worry too much about ourselves, whether we’re doing it exactly right. We’ll never do it exactly right, and the things we’re so worried about messing up may not be the most important things anyway.

Help us to breathe in, and breathe out, in this moment, in these bodies, in this life that is a gift from you.

Give us courage to notice, with honesty and kindness, what is harming us most, what is holding us back, what is making it harder to love ourselves and to love other people and to love you.

Help us to let go of any lies we have believed. Help us to let go of any guilt or anger that is weighing us down.

Guide us towards trust in you: Your skill in enriching the soil, Your faithfulness in returning, year after year, to give us another year to flourish, even when we haven’t made much progress.

In good time, may our souls grow, and bloom, and bear good fruit: sweet to the taste. Amen.

Unsatisfied

Desert’s Hand by Mario Irarrazabal

Isaiah 55:1-9

Most of you know I have two small children. As a parent, I have found it’s important to set expectations, create good habits, and make common sense rules. Many of you have parented, or taught, or taken care of small children. Consider what rules you have set for them. Perhaps these include guidelines about sleep, eating, screen time, exercise, time outdoors, kind behavior, or how to save and use money.

We all have ideas about how to create a safe, healthy, and fulfilling life, and we try to cultivate that kind of life for people who are in our care. Unfortunately, I have found that having great parenting ideals is not enough to make everything go smoothly. When I’m actually with my children, somehow instead of focusing on the really important stuff, I find myself spending a lot of time saying things like: “we can’t eat until you put your clothes back on,” or “please just go to your room until you can stop crying.” 

Even more alarming than the contrast between parenting ideals and parenting reality, however, is the contrast between the rules I set for my children and the things I decide to do for myself. After limiting their sugar and their screen time, and sending them to bed at a reasonable time, I find myself up hours later, after consuming significant amounts of cookie dough, binge-watching a TV show, and impulse-buying things I definitely don’t need on the internet.

The prophet Isaiah speaks to this disconnect between what we truly need, and what we often choose instead. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good… listen, so that you may live.”

Isaiah was speaking to a people Israel who were just at the end of their exile in Babylon, or who had just returned from it. These are people both physically and spiritually hungry, and the prophet speaks to both hungers.  Pay attention to your deepest needs, the prophet encourages: seek good physical and spiritual nutrition. Be good stewards of your time, your resources, yourselves.  

What the prophet Isaiah describes sounds a little bit like what we might today call self-care. When we are worn out by work, by life, we are told: take care of yourself; you deserve it! In our culture, self-care often consists of movie marathons, bottomless tubs of ice cream, and baths with an improbable amount of bubbles. Self-care is wine glasses large enough to serve soup in. Self-care is luxury items with which to delight our senses, decorate our persons, and astound our neighbors. 

Self-care, according to today’s wisdom and advertising, is pleasure. Superficial, momentary pleasure. Pleasure isn’t necessarily bad. It can be delightful and harmless, especially in moderation.  But choosing pleasure to excess, or choosing pleasure as our only form of self-care, is like choosing a bag of cheese puffs, or a pouch of sour-patch kids, when our bodies are longing for dark green leafy vegetables.

Last week, a clergy colleague of mine commented on social media that about 30% of her pastoral care consists of one thing: encouraging people to get some sleep. Which is to say, the deepest needs of our bodies and souls aren’t usually terribly complicated. It’s not so much that we don’t know what to do to take care of ourselves. We’re not that complex to care for. Many of us simply need more rest, more movement, more dark green leafy vegetables. And then, to round it out, we need a little safe space in which to feel our feelings, and a little affirmation that we’re loveable and loved.

Our needs aren’t so complicated. But these simple, deep needs: these kale salads for our soul are somehow hard to choose. It’s easier to reach for the cheese puffs, the sour-patch kids, and the soup-bowl size glass of wine. What is the harm?  We’re adults, after all!  No one is the boss of us. No one can scold us and make us go to bed early.

But what if, when our pleasures don’t truly satisfy us, we just keep masking our deepest hungers with more pleasures, until our bank accounts and our bodies and our spirits are depleted? What if we spend our whole lives going hungry, when a feast is within easy reach?

There’s also another reason to try something different. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “See, I have made you witness to the peoples.”  Whatever we do, other folks will notice: our children, our friends, our loved ones. As God’s people, we have a responsibility to live a full and deep and beautiful life, not only for our own deep satisfaction, but to show others that it can be done: to help other folks choose abundant life

So here is my question. If you really cared about someone – a child, an adult, anyone – if someone was precious to you, what are the suggestions that you would make, to help them live a happy, healthy, fulfilling life? What are the most important rules, habits, expectations, or reminders, would you offer them?

You have some wonderful wisdom, I know, about how to live well: deeply, generously, abundantly. So, please: consider taking your own advice.  Write your suggestions down, post them on your bathroom mirror, keep them somewhere where you’ll see them often. Be your own loving parent, and send yourself to bed early, and well-nourished.

Please pray with me.

God, your thoughts are not our thoughts; your ways are not our ways. Your thoughts and ways are so far above ours. Again and again, we choose what does not satisfy us; what cannot help us live well, love God, or serve our neighbors, but only depletes us, and wastes our time and money. Help us to care for ourselves and what is ours in a better way; as well as we would advise others to do. Draw us towards healthy food for body and spirit, a liberating word for our hearts and our lives, for you are always offering us what is good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Bargaining with God

Genesis 15:1-18

When Abram and Sarai are in their 70s, they get amazing news from God. This aging, childless couple is going to become the source of a great nation, in a land that God will show them. Through them, God will bless all the families of the earth.

Abram and Sarai carry this incredible promise with them as they follow God’s call on a big adventure, travelling from their homeland to Bethel, and from Bethel to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Bethel. They hold onto this promise as they establish a home in Bethel, building their wealth, and waiting. They treasure this promise year after year after year after year, and still: no baby. No nation. No blessings.

Then the word of God comes to Abram in a vision, as we heard in the reading this morning. God says: “Do not be afraid, Abram; I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But by this time, Abram has a question. “God, what will you give me, for I continue childless… You have given me no offspring.”  God reassures Abram that he will have a child, and tells him: “Look towards heaven and count the stars… so shall your descendants be.” Apparently, looking up at all the stars God created is persuasive, for the scriptures tell us that Abram believes God; and that God reckons it to him as righteousness.

As the story continues, God goes on to reassure Abram about the second part of the original promise: the land Abram’s people will live in. God says, “I am the one who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”  But again, Abram has a question. “O God,” Abram asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”  God explains that Abram’s offspring will be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years, but later come to claim the land. Then God establishes a covenant with Abram, that his ancestors will inherit the land.

I wonder how Abram feels, after this second encounter with God, about the bargain he has made. 

Abram does not seem to hesitate at all, if you go back to chapter 12, when God first makes grand promises and asks great things of him.  But by the time God checks back in, in the scriptures today, many years later, things have changed. Abram’s simple trust and absolute faithfulness to God’s call have been strained. It has been so long. So, Abram dares to ask questions. “What will you give me, for I remain childless?”  “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”

God reassures Abram that the promises She gave him are true. And, according to our biblical text, those promises ARE true. And yet, the promises are not true in quite the way that Abram probably assumed. Abram and Sarai will bear a child – but only after years of uncertainty, conflict, and grief. Their descendants will inhabit a great land – but only after hundreds of years of slavery. 

Abram and Sarai receive great promises, they embark on a journey with God. But God’s point of view, God’s sense of time, are so much grander than Abram’s.  Abram has an awful lot of waiting to do, before the promises are fulfilled.

Have you ever felt that something was owed to you? Something promised, and not yet fulfilled? Something delayed, perhaps beyond your lifetime? 

This week the news broke about a college admissions scandal. Extremely wealthy parents have been paying to cheat the system, so that their children might enter elite institutions. Of course, as many folks point out, this is only part of a much larger problem. Wealthy parents have always used money to gain access for their children in schools and beyond.  Most of the ways we do it are even legal: extensive and expensive preparation, massive donations, and personal connections.  What’s more, most of the kids who receive this kind of boost already have other unfair advantages, like white privilege.

It’s easy to look at this admissions scandal and wonder: what could these parents have been thinking? I can’t imagine bribing my kid into college (maybe I’ll change my mind about that in 10 years or so). But if I’m honest, I’m familiar with the very seductive feeling of wanting my kid to have the best. I want my children to have every good thing. I am thrilled by the quality of daycare and public education available here in Concord, even as my conscience struggles with the imbalance between opportunities here, and elsewhere.  I don’t really know what I’d be capable of, if they had a need I couldn’t meet legally, and ethically.

There are some things we want so much that logic, and even ethics, do not always have the final call in our reasoning. The things we want may be good things, or bad things, or somewhere in between.  They may be things we want for ourselves, or things we want for those we love. Regardless, sometimes our desire is so fierce that we are overcome by a sense of personal entitlement.  It seems like the world owes this thing to us in particular, or even, that God owes it to us. This conviction leads, sometimes, to crime; sometimes, to perfectly legal manipulations of the system; and sometimes simply to a corrosive conviction that we are being cheated out of something we deserve.

Most of us know this experience on some level: unfulfilled desire, ambition, longing. It’s a more complicated question, though, to ask what we really deserve, or what we’ve really been promised, by God or by anyone else. That requires teasing apart layers of harmful privilege and entitlement or personal desire from more admirable longings that are often tied up in the same issues: longings to be loved, to be valued, to be treated with justice, and to protect ourselves and those we care for.

I’m not sure it’s wise to make bargains with God. If I do this, then you’ll do that. If you’ll do that, then I’ll do this. God’s so much bigger than us, so hard for us to understand.  Would we really get what we expected out of the deal? I’m not even sure that God does make bargains; maybe we just sometimes think that we’ve made them with her.

Putting our trust in God, as Abram did, is not so much about striking a bargain. It’s more like participating in a relationship. When we’re in a relationship, we sometimes need to clarify expectations, and renegotiate responsibilities. Sometimes we even get really mad, or need to take a time-out. The important thing is staying in conversation, as long as we can be safe doing so. Most of the adult people of faith I know have had to have some serious talks with God, somewhere along the way.

Abram, who we come to know as Abraham, is a hero in at least four faith traditions. He’s an example of what it means to trust God.  He keeps following God, even though he’s not really sure what God’s promises will mean for him or his descendants. There’s room in his relationship with God for disappointment and pain, wonder and awe, trust and doubt. Abram just stays in the conversation with God, no matter what happens.  He sticks with God, as God sticks with him.  Abram teaches us that faith in God can bless a life, and that God’s blessing can passed along, again and again, generation after generation, even amidst the great injustices and uncertainties of life.

Please pray with me.

Holy God, help me sift through the longings of my heart, the desires of my mind, to better distinguish what yearnings lead me towards you, towards justice, peace, and healing for all of your creation. Where beautiful longings cannot be met, grant me comfort. Where good yearnings must wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, stay with me. Where my desires can prompt actions towards positive change, empower me. Where my desires are instead graspings for power, privilege, security, only for me and mine: teach me to let go, and put my trust in you instead. Amen.

A Community Garden

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13

Gnarled Tree Roots — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Our human bodies, in other words, are earth; as we know also from the second story of Creation, in which God forms us by hand from clay.

We are dust; we are earth; we are clay. Our bodies are like little plots of land, temporarily assigned to us by the organizer of an enormous community garden.

Have you ever spent time in a community garden, one of the ones divided into little individual plots? In warmer weather, I often walk through the one on the side of Cousins’ field, a few blocks away from here. I love seeing how different each section of the garden is. Some folks have elaborate fencing, while others seem unconcerned with protecting their borders. Some folks lay down straw between their plantings, others woodchips. Some use black plastic to keep down the weeds. Some folks fill their whole plot with tomato plants, so that by August there are an unbelievable number of heavy, red tomatoes sagging on the vine; almost too many to pick, even on a few square yards of land. Other folks plant a great variety of things: eggplants and zuchinnis and pumpkins, several kinds of lettuce, a selection of herbs, borders of colorful flowers, and accents of whimsical garden decor. Some plots show the marks of a meticulously ordered mind, and dedicated daily care, while others are beautiful in their wildness.

I wonder: what kind of garden are you growing, on your little plot of God’s green earth?

Our scriptures are full of plants, both literal and symbolic. Our first scripture this morning, from Deuteronomy, works on both levels. It speaks of the importance of bringing the first fruits of our harvest to God. God has done so much for us, and for our ancestors, the scripture argues, that it is only right that our very first fruits should be shared with God and with God’s people. “You shall set [your offering] down before God and bow down. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that God has given to you.” (Deut. 26:11)

Our second scripture passage speaks not of abundance, but the lack of it. Out in the bleakness of the wilderness, far from water, and without any food at all, Jesus contends with the devil. What will he do, what will he say, while deprived and depleted in the desert?

The Hebrew scriptures describe how God nourishes us with water, so that our leaves will never wilt (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8).  God sometimes destroys plants in scripture, ripping them out of the ground or even burning their roots.  Other roots, like the root of Jesse, are miraculously preserved.

In the Greek scriptures, Jesus uses parables about seeds to describe how the good news of the gospel grows, or fails to grow, in the soil of our lives.  He curses a fig tree that does not bear fruit (Matthew 21:19). Jesus also says, “I am the true vine.. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” (John 15:1, 5)

The letters of the early Church in our scriptures are surprisingly full of plant imagery as they describe the identity and spiritual health of new Christian communities. We are compared to a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the existing plant of faith (Romans 11). We are instructed that the love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10) and warned of the danger of a root of bitterness in our communities (Hebrews 12:15). We are told that we are being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17). And in the letter to the Colossians, we hear: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

At the very end of our bible, in the Book of Revelation, there is a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2), and just a few verses later, Jesus proclaims: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16

In all this rich plant imagery, it’s hard to pick a favorite text, but I am particularly drawn to a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon that I hadn’t remembered (7:15, 17-22):

May God grant me to speak with judgement,
and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
for God is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise…
For it is God who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,
the powers of spirits* and the thoughts of human beings,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.

O to know the virtues of roots!
Imagine that your body is a small plot of land, a temporary assignment in a community garden as large as the universe. There’s a lot we can’t control about the plot of land we are given. We can’t change the kind of soil we have, the sun exposure, the natural rainfall, which plots border ours. But there’s many variables we do have a choice about: what we plant, and what we pull up. How we employ mulch, and manure, and irrigation.  Whether we undertake staking and pest control.

What kind of garden are you growing, with the plot of land you were given?  Is there anything about your gardening habits that you’d like to change?

As we start this season, I encourage all of you to consider claiming a Lenten practice: something you will intentionally do or not do, this season. It may be that you have too much of something in your garden right now: aphids, or acidity, or technology, or plastic, or self-criticism.  It may be that you have too little of something in your garden right now: nutrients, or water, or movement, or meaningful human connection.

Come see our strips of soil and add your own!

Let’s take a moment now to consider at least one thing that you could do, if only for these forty days of Lent, that would bring greater health to your garden. If you are moved, and if you have not already done so, please write down your commitment (anonymously) on a brown strip of paper, to be dedicated here today, and to encourage and inspire others here.

On Ash Wednesday, those who were here started some new roots, by placing plant cuttings in water, in the jars that are now in our entryway. As the season starts, we’re also enriching our soil, with these pieces of paper, these commitments to ourselves, and our community, and to our world.  Who knows what could grow, if we only grant ourselves what we truly need?

Please pray with me: Holy God, I am a humble little plot in your great creation, dust and dirt, earth and clay, seeded by your Spirit. Please forgive my inexpert gardening, and grant me the grace to keep on trying, while I learn from you about the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots. Build up my soil, and establish my soul until it grows strong, flourishing in all seasons. May I bear abundant fruit, offering my first fruits to you, sharing my bounty with neighbors and strangers, and in good time, returning my plot to your careful stewardship. Amen.