Tag Archives: Lent

The Redemptive Wilderness

DesertSermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
Text: Luke 4:1-13.

 

The other day, I went out for a walk, as I often like to do in the winter, on the lake behind my house. It is shallow, and it freezes over quickly, solidly, and smoothly. For someone who cannot swim, this may seem to be an odd thing to enjoy. But for some reason, I find it enjoyable, almost cathartic. As a child, one of my favorite things was when my folks took me to the Holland State Park in the winter, when the shoreline of Lake Michigan was frozen, and I could go exploring on the ice.

And as I walked out there, the snow crunching under my boots, the hairless parts of my face stinging from the sub-zero wind with no houses or trees to break it, I looked around at the frozen landscape with houses a bit in the distance, smoke and steam curling up from their chimneys, I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why do people live here? Not necessarily me, I know why I live here, and I love living in the north. And not necessarily the European immigrants who came here, I know why they did, but before that. Why would people settle in a place that, for nearly half of the year, becomes an icy, harsh, and unforgiving landscape?

In the second year of seminary, as part of our formation, we went on an intercultural immersion trip, to experience and learn about another culture while immersed in it, and I was a part of the group that went to Oman. Oman is a wonderful nation on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to the northwest, the United Arab Emirates to the north, and Yemen to the west. We spent time there with one of the RCA missionaries there. The RCA has had a continual mission presence since the late 1800’s. We were there in winter and it was still in the mid-to-upper 70’s and sunny. There are areas good for cultivating crops, but much of the landscape is a rocky, mountainous desert.

We spent a day and night in the desert, and for how hot it was during the day, it gets quite cold at night. It is a place of extremes. You can easily become dehydrated without even realizing it in a relatively short period of time. And while we were in the desert, we were visited by a group of bedouin who were selling their handmade goods. The bedouin are nomadic herders who live in the desert, and as they were there, I also began to wonder, why would anyone settle here in the first place? Why would they make their homes in this arid, hot, and unforgiving location?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this region of the world is the cradle of the three distinct, yet related, Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it is not just that they are from this place, but this geography is engrained into the spirituality of these faiths as well. When you can have an understanding of the landscape it is a bit easier to enter into the biblical world in your imagination. The geography is harsh, the climate oppressive, and drinkable water relatively scarce.

Throughout the sacred scriptures, the wilderness is a place of trial, a place of temptation, a place of faith-formation. Most of all, it is a place where one learns, through experience, what it means to completely trust in and rely on God.  It is a place where it is obvious that people are not self-sufficient, and where it is clear that they rely upon God for even the most basic needs.

The ancient people had a long lesson where they learned to rely on God for guidance, food and water, and healing when vipers were sent to the camp. After his conversion, Paul spent three years in the desert of Arabia as part of his formation, and here we see that a significant part of Jesus’ formation took place during these forty days in the wilderness — the desert.

***

After Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He was not just picked up and dropped and left to fend for himself like some sort of a reality TV show. No, he was led by the Spirit who remained with him. And it was to this sparse landscape that he was driven, not to a Wisconsin-style wilderness lush with vegetation and flowing water.

We are told that Jesus didn’t eat anything during those days and at the end we are told that he was famished. After all, he was fully divine, but he was also fully human, both at the same time, two natures inseparably united in one existence. And as he was human, he needed to eat, just like you and I.

And it was at this point, he was tired, hungry, his body and spirit was likely at its weakest, and at that point that we are told that the devil shows up. How often do we have an experience like this — that the tempter, the accuser, shows up when we are at our weakest, when we are tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and presents us with a path that is particularly appealing to us in whatever weakened state in which we find ourselves. And so the Tempter comes to Jesus and before him lie two paths. On the one hand is the path that is consistent with his mission, the path that is self-sacrificial, the path that shows power through weakness, the path that is tough but that ultimately leads to restoration and redemption. And there is a second path that the Tempter invites him to. The path of comfort, ease, and power and authority without sacrifice. It is a path that trusts in the illusion of certainty rather than the uncertainty of divine providence.

He was tempted with the ability to make bread from stone, and therefore not having to trust in divine providence. Throwing himself off of a high building to test the Divine, and the promise to give him all of the kingdoms of the world without suffering or sacrifice.

The appeal is to his base impulses. Hunger, safety, power. And in many ways this is not that much different than us. Because it is not just about these three things — it is about something more significant, something much deeper. The temptation is, “Can I depend on God?”

***

These are temptations that we all face as well. Can we depend on God? Can we rely on God? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our lives? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our church? Or in our country, or in our world?

As we have learned from Scripture, the wilderness can be destructive, but it can also be redemptive. The wilderness can consume, but it can also purify. The wilderness can cause us to get lost, but it can also help us to find our direction.

And I cannot help but wonder if this is the gift of Lent. It is traditional, during Lent, to give something up. The root of that tradition is to try to, in some way, relate to the sufferings and of Christ, and relate to the denials that Christ went through in the desert when he ate nothing and denied those very real temptations. But I often question the value of giving something up for Lent, because so often it has lost focus.

We give up candy, or chocolate, or ice cream, or television or red meat, or other things in which we feel that we should not indulge. It becomes yet another self-help practice. But this misses the point. Or, we can deny ourselves something to prove to ourselves that we can do it — mind over matter and all that. But this also misses the point. The point of Lenten discipline is to bring us back to a point of focus and dependence on God.

We so often imagine the devil in this story the way that we typically do — bright red skin, black hair (with a widow’s peak), horns, and a forked tongue. The problem with this image is that the devil is clear. It is easy to resist evil when it is clear and in plain sight, and in the way that we expect to see it. However, so often it is not so clear. So often the lies and temptations do not come from our culturally conditioned view of the devil, but rather in faces that look less sinister, in voices that sound less distinctly evil. Often the tempter takes the form of a face that seems more friendly, a voice that seems more genuine. Perhaps the face that we see wears a business suit and makes great promises to us, perhaps the face we see is the one that looks back in the mirror and the voice that we hear is the one that we hear inside of our minds when we are alone.

And it is so often at our weakest moments, moments when we are afraid, tired — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — or otherwise weakened. It is these wilderness experiences in our lives that we, too, face temptations. Unemployment, sickness, fear, struggles with finances, with difficulty seeing the way forward, difficulties hearing God’s voice. It is at these times that the tempter can come with a familiar voice and face and tell us that there is another way, there is a way that is easier, that seems safer, a way that we can have everything now without having to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus the Christ.

***

And now, we have insulated houses with central heating systems that can keep us warm, and we have air conditioning when the heat is dangerously high. We don’t have the same experiences in the same ways as our spiritual forebears. After a while on the lake, I came home stoked the woodstove. But still, we are not exempted from wilderness experiences. We are not exempt from the feeling of being lost in alone in a hostile atmosphere. Sometimes it is less obvious, but just as real. And just like the ancient people of God, and just like Jesus, we are not exempted from the lies and temptations from the Tempter.

And we need preparation to be able to face the tempter with a clear head, and not fall for the lies which sound often sound so appealing. And it is this what Lent offers us. It offers us the opportunity to refocus our lives, to reorient our lives, to place God and God’s desires as the center of our lives, and to grow in our ability to depend on God rather than on mortals or horses or chariots.

And so this year for Lent, don’t worry about giving up something but do something that will bring you closer to the Divine. Maybe it is a book, maybe it is regularly reading scripture, maybe it is a spiritual discipline of study, fasting, prayer, or service. Maybe it is to take a walk amidst the cold and ice and snow to understand that, regardless of our illusions, we are never self-sufficient or self-sustaining, but rely completely on the Divine hand.

So whatever your wilderness — our wilderness — we, too, are presented with a couple of paths. On the one, we can seek escape from it. And on the other we can lean into it, and discover what God may be helping us to learn.

The unfair mercy of God

Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!” I would protest.

I am the oldest of three boys, and as is typical for siblings, and perhaps especially older children, I was hyper-aware to perceived unfairness.  It is almost this primal preservation instinct, that we have to compete in order to gain the things we need to survive. Of course, I was not arguing for something crucial for my survival, it was always something comparably trivial. 

This often happened when the two of us would fight, and we would both be punished. “But I didn’t start it!” I would say. “It takes two to fight,” they would reply. “But it’s not fair!” I would protest. “Life isn’t fair” would come the reply. 

These words would come to me regularly, “Life isn’t fair.”

As a child I never really understood what they were getting at, but as an adult I understand, and I am learning more and more with each passing year. We like to think that the way that we do things is fair. If you do the right things, you will be successful. If you are good at your job you won’t find yourself unemployed. Except this isn’t the way things work. Fantastic workers find themselves unemployed. People with college degrees find themselves in living a homeless shelter. People who live within their means can still find a foreclosure notice come through the mail. But we live in a society that has the illusion of fairness, and we hold up fairness as the peak virtue. But life isn’t fair, as my parents reminded me so often. Life isn’t fair.

And here we have a story which, if we are honest, rubs us the wrong way. It is a story which is unfair, incredibly so.

Jesus begins his parable with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who went out early in the morning to the town square, the marketplace, the place where day laborers gathered to wait for work. 

This story reminds me of John. John was a day laborer. Every day he would get up at four in the morning so that he could catch the bus, if he was able, or walk the few miles to the agency so that he could be there at five to try to find work that day. He would never know if there would be work, some days he would work. Other days he would go home without work. It is a true hand-to-mouth life. In many ways, this is not that much different today as it was then. Day laborers would gather at a central location and hope that someone would come and hire them.

So this landowner needs helpers, so he goes and finds some to work. The day goes on and he sees that he will need more workers and so he goes back, and finds people who had still not been hired, and so he hired them as well. He does this again, and again. He goes back in late in the day, one hour before the work day was done and finds more people there. “Why are you here?” he asks. We cannot see the world “idle” and think lazy.

These people needed work so badly they stayed there in the off-chance that someone would come and hire them. “Why are you here?” he asks them. “Because no one has hired us,” they reply. So he hires them and they come to work in his vineyard.

As is typical, by the time that the day is over, it comes time to get paid. It would have been typical to begin with the people who were there first, and pay them first, as it is only fair. But the landowner does not do this, he starts with those hired last, and he gives them a Denarius, a full day’s wage. I can only imagine how excited the people down the line must have felt. Perhaps they were calculating in their head. Maybe I would get five, six, maybe even ten denarii. 

He moves to those who had been there a few hours, and gives them also a denarius. I can imagine at this point people would begin to wonder exactly what is going on.

By the time that he came to the first to be paid, and he gave them also the day’s wage.

But it’s not fair! they protested. They only worked an hour and we worked all day in the heat and the sun, and you paid them the same as us! The landowner reminds them that he paid them what he promised, and that he chose to pay others the same. After all, they too have families to feed and mortgages to pay. 

You see, from the perspective of those trying desperately to find work but no one hiring them, but for the last hour of the day, this landowner was being merciful. But from the perspective of those who had labored all day, he was being unjust. They had worked longer, they deserved to be paid more. It isn’t fair. And it is true, it isn’t fair.

And I think that this is what bends our noses about this passage. Even though the first ones hired were paid what they were promised, no less, this fundamentally isn’t fair. People should get what they deserve, and what they receive should be in proportion to what they do, right? 

***

 This parable, like so many others, functions as a mirror for us. When we think we are on top we plead for fairness, but when we think that we are an underdog, we plead for mercy. When I’ve put in the long day under the sweltering heat, I want fairness, but when no one wants to hire me, and the weight of providing for my family weighs on my shoulders and I stay out, desperately hoping that someone will hire me, I prefer mercy.

I wonder, where might you see yourself in this parable? Are you one of the first laborers hired who worked long hours under the hot sun. Perhaps you are the one who found themselves fortunate enough to be hired, even as it seemed as though there might not be a place.

Perhaps you compare what is given to you with what is given to the others and find that you are left wanting. Perhaps you are so overwhelmed with gratitude at the mercy of the landowner.

Perhaps you can see yourself in both groups of workers. In fact, this is often the case, that we can find ourselves in not only one character but several, and from those different perspectives we can see things a bit differently, and we can learn more about what it says about who we are and who God is and who we are in relationship to God.

***

The most shocking lesson that we learn from this is that God isn’t fair. We like the idea of a fair God. We like the idea that we can choose what to do, or not to do. We like the idea that God will give us what we deserve, and reward us in proportion. But God is not fair, and this is a good thing. Why is it good? Because if God gave to us what we deserve we would be in trouble, we would never enter the kingdom of heaven, we would be lost. God is not fair, and this is the best news that one can learn. God is not fair, but God is merciful and gracious.

This landowner did not have to pay everyone a full day’s wage, but he chose to. Those who worked the longest were not cheated or shorted, they were given what was due to them. But the wideness of the landowner’s mercy showed when he gave to everyone what they needed.

The kingdom of heaven is like…a vineyard where God calls so many people and provides for their needs. This is a marvelous view of the kingdom of heaven, isn’t it?

But this is not just for that some point in the distant future. Indeed, Jesus preaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we know that the kingdom of heaven began with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and is slowly unfolding, slowly continuing its progress of renewing and redeeming all of creation until the final consummation, when all things will be made right.

So, Jesus is not telling this parable to tell people about heaven, Jesus is telling this parable to help them understand about their lives here and now as well, and what God desires of their lives. And so I wonder as well if there is a third role in which we can find ourselves, that of the landowner.

Jesus was not about saving souls but redeeming lives. Jesus is not interested in getting people into heaven when they die, but about transforming creation to reflect the original created order, and perhaps the land owner is a role for some of us to consider, to not be so concerned about fairness, but about mercy and grace. As a culture we are obsessed with fairness, because this is what we think to be the highest virtue — and we cannot even do this. But for followers of Christ, fairness is not the goal, fairness is the beginning point, fairness is crawling. Mercy and grace — this is what it is to walk. Mercy is fairness-plus-plus.

So, sisters and brothers, let us remember that God is merciful beyond comprehension, thankfully not dealing with us the way that we deserve, but dealing with us out of God’s immense love for us and for creation, giving us far more than we deserve or can earn. And let us remember that we, as the church, are called to be a foretaste for the kingdom of heaven, and that we, too, are called to show forth mercy and grace, and through our actions, others can see God.

 

Hump Day Hymns – Lent edition: The Glory of These Forty Days

Hymnal

The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made, 
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

Alone and fasting, Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came 
The steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lion’s might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The heralds of Messiah’s name.

Then grant that we like him be true,
Consumed in fast and prayer with You;
Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see your face.
-Gregory the Great (540-604), Trans. Maurice F. Bell (1862-1947)

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”

The gritty ash grinds into my forehead as one of the elders dips her thumb into the dish full of ash which is as dark as my sin, and marks a cross into my forehead.

As she marks the cross, she looks me in the eye while reciting those haunting words reminding me of my mortality, of my brokenness, of my sin, of who I am and who God is.

Today, Lent begins. Lent is a season that is filled with prayer, repentance, and change. It is a season when it is common to give something up, or to take something on. We do this in order that we can identify with the sufferings of Christ, and in doing so, we can enter into a deeper and closer relationship with the divine. This causes Lent to, even further, be a somber season filled with suffering, and self-denial. While I appreciate Lent and other melancholy seasons, this hymn invites me — invites us — to nuance the way in which we view and experience Lent.

I have never before heard the forty days of Lent used in the same sentence as “glory” and describing the observation of Lent as a “celebration.”

What I have often forgotten in my own observance of Lent, is that the purpose of this season is to bring us into deeper relationship with the divine, and that God brings joy — a joy which is deeper and richer than simply happiness.

The wonderful thing about this particular hymn, is that it links fasting and praying with joy, glory, and celebration. Suffering is not an end, it is only beneficial insofar as it brings us into a closer relationship with God and helps us to experience the joy and glory of God with fresh eyes of the heart.

***

I have been trying to figure out how I am going to observe Lent this year. I have found that giving up meat, giving up dairy, or something of the like does not bring me to a place where I can experience the joy and glory of God with new eyes and a renewed spirit. As often happens, my life goes on as normal only without meat, without dairy, or whatever the case may be.

Truthfully, I don’t need to give up meat or dairy in order to experience suffering. Suffering is all around me, all around us. My ministry is exceptionally taxing, I continue to struggle with discerning God’s calling on my life. There are shootings all around me on a regular basis, some of which reach closely to members of my congregation. I have had loved ones die, many unexpectedly and early. Daily, I see and interact with people who sleep under bridges and hidden away in parks and who try desperately to live through the frozen night to see another day. Compared to all of this, giving up meat for forty days does not seem to be that much of an experience of suffering.

What I need is not something to make me feel melancholy, I live that way throughout all of the other seasons, what I need is not something to make me experience suffering, that is something which is lived and experienced throughout all of the other seasons. What I need is this:

Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see Your face.

This year, for Lent, I will not be giving anything up. Fasting is good, it is something which, rightly practiced, can refocus our lives and renew our spirits. I will continue in my typical practice of fasting, but I will not fast from anything new. I am going to celebrate Lent by seeking the joys and glory of God even amidst the brokenness and of the world, and allow that experience of glory to purify my heart, my soul, and my life.. After all, this is what Lent is about: turning us back toward God in preparation for the new life of the resurrection.

This year, then, as the grass greens, the bare and dead-looking trees bud new life, and as the flowers send up shoots, may my heart also spring fresh shoots of new life and a new commitment to following the triune God.

“Remember, you are dust…”

I’ve always enjoyed Ash Wednesday services.  I enjoy them not because they make me happy, but because they are powerful.  The reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return is an important reminder.  The feeling of the grit of the ash on my forehead helps me to remember the grit of my sin.  I enjoy Ash Wednesday services because they help me to refocus my life on God, and it helps me to re-center my existance on God, and God’s transforming work.

I have participated in the imposition of the ashes many times before.  Hearing the words “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is always a very sobering experience.  Saying the words wrenches my heart.  But Ash Wednesday this year, the first Ash Wednesday as the pastor of my church, I had an experience that almost moved me to tears: I looked a three year old girl in the eyes and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The fact of the matter is that she is dust, and she will return to dust, just as I am and I will also. For some reason, it is much more powerful when I say it to a child.

I think about how many years they have ahead of them, how many great things they may do.  It is sobering to think about mortality before their life really even began.  I suppose, though, that that is the point of Ash Wednesday. That it is not about us — it is about God.  We can not do anything lasting.  I suppose that is a bit of what Qoheleth was thinking in the composition of Ecclesiastes.  The point is that God does the lasting work, and in understanding our mortality, we allow ourselves to be changed by God.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and Lent is a time of repentence, prayer, transformation, and renewal. In order for this transformation and renewal to happen, we have to recenter ourselves on the order of the universe.  God is God, I am dust — and in response I will open myself to God’s transformational work so that I can face Easter a renewed person.