Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Second Sunday in Lent

My Lenten journey with the people of Christ Church, Rochdale continues on this Second Sunday in Lent

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If Lent is about giving up those things that keep us apart from God, then here is what I am wondering on this Second Sunday of Lent: what old beliefs and religious baggage might we be carrying around that we need to let go of, in order to encounter the living God in new ways?

Our worship began today with the Decalogue. Those first two commandments are really big: no other gods and no graven images. Love only the Lord your God.

Yet we are prone to relate to things that are not god as if they were God. Good things like money, nation, work, our political views, family—even church. None of these things are God, and yet we sometimes forget this and act as if these things can save us. But only God deserves our ultimate allegiance.

The forty-day journey of Lent is about the invitation to return to the true God who has brought us out of bondage and is leading us toward the Promised Land.

One of the idols I invite you to let go of this Lent is what I sometimes call the “Santa Claus God.” This is the god who is making his list and checking it twice and who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so you better be good for goodness sake!  This is the “god” we too often address in prayer with a never-ending wish list of all the things we want god to do for us.

I know I’m mixing up my liturgical seasons, but hear me out! The problem with thinking of God as “Santa Claus” is that Lent becomes a season where we try to be really, really good. And if we aren’t careful we start to believe that somehow if we get it all right, then we’ll earn our reward on Easter morning: Cadbury eggs and chocolate bunnies.

But as I told you last week, quoting the fourth-century preacher, John Chrysostom, everyone is invited to the Easter feast. All means all. And by the way, if some newcomer shows up on Easter morning at the eleventh hour and sits in “your” pew, it’s your job to make them feel welcome and find another seat! Don’t tell them you’ve been in that pew every Sunday of Lent and it’s yours!

God’s love is that deep and that wide, and our Lenten work is to try to become a bit more loving ourselves.

The problem, I think, is that all of us have some old tapes playing in our lives. Maybe one of the gifts of Lent is that we become still enough to listen to those old tapes and then figure out which parts are still valid and what parts we need to let go of. Maybe your old tapes come from the nuns you had in grammar school, or a stern pastor, or a well-intentioned Vacation Bible School teacher, or maybe from a parent or grandparent. And to be fair, let’s remember that we can’t be sure what those nuns or pastors or VBS folks or grandparents really did say or what they meant to say. Memory is a funny thing and we heard many of those messages filtered through our own young ears. Nevertheless we all have these old tapes and some of it leads to healthy adult faith. But other parts may be keeping us from hearing and experiencing the living God in fresh ways.

Are you with me? Lent is about leading us to the heart of God. The true and living God revealed in Jesus Christ, who has called us by name and who calls us beloved. Our work is to let go all that keeps us from that God, because in so doing we discover the meaning of true repentance and amendment of life that lead us once again to the empty tomb.

What would happen to us if we were to give up fear and shame for Lent? Or since it’s probably impossible to give it all up, to at least make a right beginning? We may well hear the reminder that we are dust in new ways. We may well remember that we are human and not divine, and that we don’t have all the time in the world. So the time to live is now. To pay attention to what is, rather than trying to re-do the past, or control the future. We might encounter God anew in this time and place, speaking to us in and through Word and Sacraments and the sacred stories of our own lives.

In today’s first reading, we hear about how the Word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision. That’s code language, so don’t miss it. God doesn’t tap Abraham on the shoulder and have a face-to-face chat. Maybe that’s an old tape we need to let go of. We sometimes think (maybe because of the nuns or the pastor or the VBS teacher or maybe just because that’s what we thought we heard as kids) that the way God calls people is that the skies open up and God speaks in English, as clear as day and says things like: “hello Rich…this is God…go directly to seminary…do not pass go and do not collect $200.”

It doesn’t work that way, though, not in our lives and actually upon closer reading we discover, not in the Bible either. We sometimes read too quickly, eliminating the doubt and the struggle and the uncertainty that Abraham must surely have been feeling as he wondered if in fact Eliazar of Damascus might indeed be his only heir and that he needed to settle for that. The voice of reason must have told him that, since neither he nor Sarah were getting any younger. Yet somehow the Word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision. I think you need to be extra still to hear that voice.

God isn’t encountered directly. It would kill us. Even Moses only gets to see God’s backside. The mystics and prophets and poets have their visions and dreams. The rest of go on “hints and guesses.” We do the best we can to make sense of those.

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. And the message is essentially this:

Do not be afraid
I am your shield
The future is in my hands, not yours. Trust me!

And the text says that Abraham did trust God. The promise is renewed and the covenant is remembered and God reckons Abraham’s trust as righteousness.

I wonder is this pattern is an invitation to all of the children of Abraham—Jew and Christian and Muslim—in every time and place, whether we worship on Friday or Saturday or Sunday morning. If it isn’t a kind of touchstone experience we are invited to return to in Lent—to the core meaning of faith which is not ultimately about our doctrines or our ethics. Both have their place – and what we believe surely ought to influence how we behave. But first and foremost is the fundamental question raised by the Decalogue and by the patriarchs: where is your trust? Do you dare to put your trust in the living God? Or to say it another way, to allow God to be God so that you and I can be more fully human.

Do not be afraid;
God is your shield;
Do not worry about tomorrow.

It’s hard to hear that message—let alone believe it—and then let it sink in and live it. In the midst of all of the clutter of our lives there are countless voices insisting on precisely the opposite: that we should be very afraid: afraid of the terrorists, afraid that the market will crash, afraid of sexual predators, afraid of each other. It is easy to believe that God helps only those who help themselves, that we control our own destinies, that we can measure out our lives in teaspoons and keep ourselves safe.

In our fear and anxiety, we think that if we give up certain things then somehow God may love us more. But that’s not possible! God is already crazy about you, and me. Lent isn’t an opportunity to manipulate God. We give up certain things so we can strip away the excess and then be still in the presence of the living God—so that we can listen better. We go into the wilderness not as punishment, but for quiet.

So I wonder what happens if we allow ourselves to risk hearing the Word of the Lord from the pages of an ancient text and into this time and place, spoken to each of us by name:

Do not be afraid;
God is your shield;
Do not worry about tomorrow.

Lent is a time for discovering  and rediscovering this ancient wisdom, and I pray that these words might sink in deeply here at Christ Church. It is easy in a season of transition to be pulled back to the past. You hear things like “we’ve always done it this way” and “we need to hold fast.” But behold God is doing a new thing here. It will be rooted in the past, but not constrained by it. Do not worry about tomorrow. Be open to God right now, in this in-between time. Listen and pray and trust in the living God who is in our midst. God is your shield. Do not be afraid.

I pray that we might put the “wild” back into this wilderness season in order to seek and question and wonder and risk. I wonder what happens when we take on the practices of Lent that we were invited to on Ash Wednesday: ancient practices that still hold within them the seeds of transformation?

Today we hold up the Decalogue (the heart of which Jesus summarized in just four words: love God, love neighbor.) To meditate on that Teaching, which is sweeter than honey, is to be invited into a process of self-examination and to acknowledge where we have fallen short, and then to seek amendment of life and true repentance. Always with God’s help.

And so we pray, and fast, and meditate on the scriptures. We give alms. We will not get it right all the time. No one ever has. Fortunately, though, God is merciful.children of Abraham, we walk by faith.  Letting go of our fear, we turn our hearts to the true and living God. May God reckon that to us as righteousness, as the journey continues to unfold.

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