Thursday, February 28, 2013

I Repent

Our texts we will read in worship for this third Sunday in Lent are Philippians 3:17-4:1 and Luke 13:1-9.  However, I would also invite you to read the Old Testament selection for this week, which is Isaiah 55:1-9.  All three of these texts can be found here.

All three of these texts talk about what is a major theme of the season of Lent:  repentance.  You may not immediately notice it in these readings because, other than the Gospel reading, the call to repentance is not super obvious; i.e., the word "repent" is not always used to say what God hopes we will do.  Rather, in the Isaiah reading we are invited to "return"--which makes sense, since the word "repent" means, at its root, "turning."  Paul, meanwhile, in Philippians speaks of being transformed--something he talks about in other places in his letters as well (most notably Romans 12:2, which encourages those on the expedition of faith to "not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your mind")--being changed or, again, "turned around."  Jesus, however, does use the word "repent" explicitly in his charge to the anxious crowds who were questioning him as he moved along the road to Jerusalem.  The time for change has come; and God is giving them extra time to make this change, but still, the need to make it is urgent.  They need to repent; to turn; to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.

What does this look like for us?  This morning as I have been working on the sermon, I have had a song running through my head that I have not listened to in years:  Derek Webb's "I Repent."  I would encourage you to click on the link to the YouTube video below (if you are receiving this by email, you might need to go to the actual blog webpage to click this link) and give the song a listen.  I am particularly captured by the way I feel the song's last verse intersects with this week's readings:

i repent of trading truth for false unity
i repent of confusing peace and idolatry
of caring more of what they think than what i know of what they need
and domesticating You until You look just like me
i am wrong and of these things i repent

How do these lyrics and this idea of repentance intersect this week's readings?  How do they intersect your life?  What sort of repentance--turning--transformation--might God be inviting us to journey towards in this season?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Faith and Disillusionment

Our texts for this second Sunday in our Lenten expedition are Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18a and Luke 13:31-35, which can be read here.

When I wrote my Senior Thesis in college, the following quote preceded the preface--a quote that has greatly shaped how I relate to faith and to the Church over the course of my life:

“How baffling you are, O church, and yet how I love you! 
How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!  
I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal - yet you have made me understand sanctity.
I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.
No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely.
And where should I go?”

-Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes 

I love this quote for so many reasons--perhaps because it embraces the paradox of the journey of faith.  It can be the most beautiful thing imaginable, full of possibility and promise and fulfillment; but it can also crush us, leaving us wondering what it was we were clinging to the in first place.  

I still remember one of the first times I felt  disillusioned with my faith, when the pastor of the church where I grew up left our congregation amidst conflict with another minister and the divided ranks of our church family.  How could these people I loved and respected so much turn one each other?  How could this ever reflect the love of the God they had been preaching to me through the first decade of my life?  I have come to this point again and again in faith, when the things I have been told are true and the way I see faith lived are just not congruent, when belief seems to conflict with reality, and we are left asking, "Was I wrong to believe all this in the first place?"

This is a natural stage of the faith journey, one we unfortunately do not go through just once but over and over again.  We see Abram wrestling with it in today's Old Testament reading, as he is aging and God's big promises to him appear chronically unfulfilled and impossible.  We see Jesus wrestling with it in today's New Testament reading, as he laments over a precious, beloved city that was supposed to be the place God's spirit could fully dwell, but that instead has seen its citizens unable and unwilling to receive God's grace and presence.  As you read these passages, consider how God responds to these cases of the people's disorientation and disillusionment.  What is God's word and direction to us when we feel like we don't know which way is up, like the things we had held onto no longer hold together?  How does God address us and embrace us when our worlds feel shattered and we have lost sight of where to go and what to do?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Embarking on our Lenten Expedition

Our text for this evening's worship, a time of Ash Wednesday reflection, are Psalm 51 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2, which can be read here.  As we turn towards this Sunday, our first Sunday in the season of Lent, our texts are Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, which can be read here.

“Each Sunday of Lent presents us with a special insight into the stages of the expedition that is the spiritual life."  -Joan Chittister

The above quote has been animating my reflection as we have moved towards this new season of Lent, which begins today.  The term "Lent" comes from the old English word "lenten", which has among its meanings "spring." This is a reference not only a reference to the physical season we see blooming around us in the weeks before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime for the soul--a time of new growth, new life, new beginning.

So often, Lent has been construed as a season of darkness, of punishment, of self-flagellation--of listing all the ways we have fallen short and stripping things away for the sake of getting in touch with the suffering of Jesus.  I suppose there is some merit in this; but more than anything, I believe Lent is meant to be a season of growth--of recognizing that God is not finished with us yet.  It is a time to take account of where we have been, yes, but also to lift our eyes to where we are going on this ongoing journey of faith.

So often, I think we have sold the Christian life short:  we have bought into the myth that when we are baptized or confirmed, we can kind of graduate from Christianity like we graduate from school--we have learned all we have needed to learn, embraced God's forgiveness, the end.  I love, however, this reminder that I read from Barbara Brown Taylor this morning:  that "Forgiveness is a starting place, not a stopping place.  It is God’s gift to those who wish to begin again, but where we go with it is up to us."

Where have you been?  Where are you?  And where are you going?  These are the questions I hope you will ask yourself prayerfully as we embark on this Lenten expedition together.  Where are you amidst the "stages of the expedition that is the spiritual life"?  Where are you stagnating?  Where do you feel stuck?  Where do you need hope of things being different?  Where do you need to be transformed?  Where might you be called to let go of one thing and walk in a different direction?  What is the next place God is calling you to go towards, to grow towards?

We will be expanding on these ideas together throughout the Lenten season.  This Sunday, we will be beginning back at, well, the beginning--looking at Jesus' formative days in the wilderness and thinking about our own formation and the things in which we are rooted--the things we have learned to trust. As we begin this day, however--as we are marked with ashes tonight to remind us of both our fragility and our hope of new life not just in the life beyond, but in the life we now live--know I am glad that we are all companions with one another on this journey.  Though each of us walks our own unique path of discipleship, not one of us walks alone.  

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear...

Our texts for this Last Sunday in Epiphany, also called Transfiguration Sunday, are 2 Corinthians 3:12-13, 16-18 and Luke 9:28-43a, which can be read here.

When I picture Jesus' transfiguration (which, mind you, is not something I picture all that often), I picture a scene that is removed, remote, distant, otherworldly.  I picture Jesus, shining like the sun, flanked by Moses and Elijah--also very shiny--while Peter, James, and John rub their eyes repeatedly to try to absorb what their eyes alone are getting to witness:  a glimpse of God's "electric holiness," as one of my seminary professors put it--a sneak peak of radiance that human eyes cannot normally behold.

This, however, is not how the transfiguration was pictured by one of its most famous painters--Italian Renaissance master Raphael.  Look at the image pictured at right.  This oil painting Transfiguration was the last work Raphael did, one he worked on right up to his death.  As such, you would expect it to be very otherworldly; but what strikes me about this image is how much the world impinges upon it.  We have the nice pretty shiny Jesus, and semi-shiny Moses and Elijah, and the three dazed and confused disciples; but what is all this madness happening right below this scene of glory?

There, right in the same frame, is the story that immediately follows the account of the transfiguration and that actually is included in the lectionary reading--Luke 9:37-43a, the healing of a boy with seizures.  Just inches away from this heavenly scene on the canvas are the horrors of earth, a young boy wracked with seizures, the disciples totally helpless to heal him.  Frustration and panic are visible on the agitated faces of the crowd.  But then, among them, two arms stretch towards what is happening on the mountain--towards the one shining in glory there.  In their outstretched arms, this otherworldly experience of Jesus becomes a thing of earth.  His shining in glory is not about him being removed from the world or elevated above it, but sent back down among it to bring glory to God as bodies are healed and lives restored.  As Sharon H. Ringe put it in our Feasting on the Word commentary, "The glory of God's presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated."

Read today's Gospel passage together, both of these stories--what happened up on the mountain, and what was happening not at all far below.  How often we try to separate the "spiritual" from the "worldly," what is "of heaven" from what is "on earth."  But what if these things are called to overlap and intersect more than we imagine?  What if God's holiness isn't just up on a mountain, but walking among us in our places of greatest need?  What if God's glory is a whole lot closer than it may initially appear?