Worship notes for Lent One: after 250 years things change...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, March 9th 2014: the First Sunday of Lent.  This message is part one of three re: our 250th Anniversary.

To my mind, there is a type of mystical or even cosmic poetry taking place among us at First Church as we simultaneously enter the liturgical season of Lent and prepare to celebrate our 250th anniversary as a congregation. It came to pass, of course, purely by chance on one level – we needed to find a weekend that did not compete with either national and school holidays that was still reasonably close to the date of our founding – and March 16th fit the bill. 

But as it turns out there was a more providential wisdom at work within and among us, luring us to this date so that our celebration might occur smack in the middle of Christianity’s most penitential observances. The 17th century French Roman Catholic priest, Jean Baptiste de la Salle, who gave birth to an educational reform movement for the poor throughout France by first inviting destitute teachers into his home for lunch, put it like this:

'The more you abandon to God the care of all temporal things the more He will take care to provide for all your wants. But if on the contrary you try to supply all your needs, Providence will allow you to continue to do just that, and then it may very well happen that even necessity will be lacking to you. For God will reprove you for your lack of faith in reliance on self.' 

Perhaps you recall that Jesus said much the same thing in Luke 12 when he told his disciples: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. So if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith.

So here we are:  at the start of Lent, kicking our preparations for the 250th anniversary celebration into high gear and opening ourselves to the wisdom of God’s grace in a Scripture that speaks to us about wandering in the wilderness. I love the paradoxical tenderness and irony of this turn of events. Because, you see, it invites us to place our lives and ministry into a continuum of trust that began long before this church was founded and will continue long after we have run the race set before us.

As St. Paul liked to say:  Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses… all of whom have looked to Jesus Christ as the true perfecter of their faith; let us, therefore, lay aside every weight and sins that clings so closely and with perseverance run the race set before us looking always to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12) This morning, with the grace of God, I would like to share with you two broad themes about how we might celebrate our anniversary within the continuum of trust afforded by Lent.  Specifically, let me:

+  First, sketch in broad strokes what I understand to be at stake in today’s gospel reading in which Jesus flees to the desert immediately following his baptism.  There are some deep theological insights that speak to our condition in 21st century Massachusetts as much as they did to 1st century Palestine.

+  And second, how our context for ministry in Pittsfield has changed dramatically in 250 years – and what that might mean for us if we’re listening for God’s still speaking voice amidst the busyness and clutter of our everyday lives.

Is that reasonably clear?  First a review of some Lenten biblical wisdom from St. Matthew; and second a bit of theological reflection on what Lent suggests for our ministry in Pittsfield after 250 years?  Ok, but let’s pause for a moment of prayer:

All Loving God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew opens many Lenten seasons – and there is a reason – it is filled with sacred and counter-cultural truth.  It also evokes for us the symbolism of the wilderness, an image rich with historical implications for both the Hebrew and American people.  So let me remind you of what wandering for 40 days in the wilderness would have meant for those who first heard these words.  Scholars are clear that the 40 days Jesus endured in the desert “echo Israel’s 40 years there.” (Judith Jones, Working Preacher, online commentary)

This desert season, you see, is to be a time of temptation, discernment and confusion on the road to clarity as well as a time of practicing the essentials of a new ministry. Under the leadership of Moses, the children of God received the 10 Commandments and began to practice living in a way that was different from their bondage in Egypt.  They practiced sharing rather than hording. They practiced trusting God rather than obeying Pharaoh.  They spent a few generations learning to live as God’s people rather than broken and wounded slaves without a future.

And Jesus does much the same thing, too:  he practices how his new ministry is going to take shape and form.  Specifically, he practices what it means to be live as one who has been called the Son of God.  And what he does in the desert gives us a clue about what we are to do during Lent because through him, we, too have been called sons and daughters of the Lord.  Remember the words that God spoke through the Holy Spirit at Christ’s baptism?  “Behold, this is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In our baptism – in our commitment to follow Christ as Lord – we too have been given the name beloved.  We too have been renamed children of the Lord – sons and daughters of God – women, men and children who have been joined together in one body known as… the Body of Christ.  So what Jesus does in the desert bears watching, yes?  His practicing – his temptations and his responses – tell us something about what it means to live as God’s beloved children.  And today’s story offers three insights:

·   If you are the Son of God, change these stones into bread:  this is the first test tossed at Jesus by the Devil.  It is meant to confuse him about how to live as an authentic child of God. And it is interesting to note that the Greek word for the devil – diabolos – comes from a juggling prop used to perform tricks in a confusing manner.  Right out of the gate the story tells us that when we practice living as a child of God it is natural to become confused. That is, it is going to take practice and concentration and commitment because that old trickster, the Confuser diabolos, is always waiting for us.

·   And the first trick we need to deal with has to do with satisfying our hungers:  if you are REALLY the Son of God the Trickster says to Jesus you won’t let yourself go hungry.  “If you are royal or divine, then prove it and use your power to satisfy… yourself.”  See where this is going?  To which Jesus says:  NO, being a child of God is NOT about being selfish – or privileged – it is about identifying God’s will with the common good.

Do you recall how Jesus defined and described those who did the will of the Lord in their everyday lives?  It had nothing to do with what we often consider our sacred or religious affectations and everything to do with how we cared for one another:  when did we see thee hungry Lord and feed thee… or naked and clothe thee… or alone and visit thee? 

If you recall Christ’s answer say it along with me:  whenever we saw one of the least of these my sisters and brothers and cared for them, then you did so unto me.  For Jesus being the Son of God means “accepting his humanity and sharing in it fully;” there is no privilege among the children of God, no artificial hierarchy and no selfishness for those practicing the upside-down values of God’s community, ok? (Jones, Working Preacher)

·   Second the Trickster tries to push Jesus into abusing his identity as the Son of God by taking him to Jerusalem:  you say you trust God so prove by jumping off the highest point of the Temple.  The tricks and challenges don’t quit – Diabolos is incredibly persistent and creative – which is why old Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that the children of darkness often win more than the children of the light: they try harder when we give up! To which Jesus says:  real faith doesn’t question God even in the midst of our doubt.  There will always be darkness and challenge so children of God take a long view and keep their eyes on the prize.

·   So Diabolos tries one more time – and returns at the end of the story when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane – saying:  I have authority of the world, so bow down to me and I will give you power over everything in my kingdom.  Do you see what’s at stake here?  Satan is saying that he has control over the world – not God – he assumes authority over everything that God has created.  To which Jesus replies that the Devil may believe whatever he wants but real children of God live in obedience to a higher calling.  In fact, Jesus makes it clear that whatever has fallen under the corrupt authority of the Trickster will be healed and redeemed and made sacred again by God’s grace.

Three challenges – three practices – living for the common good, trusting God and rejecting sin’s authority in the world – this is what Christ practices in the desert. And this is what Lent asks us to practice, too.  So let me make a leap of faith and jump from the desert of 1st century Palestine to 21st century Pittsfield, specifically to the Sanctuary of First Church of Christ, Congregational where find ourselves on the first Sunday of Lent awaiting our 250th anniversary. 

Let me be explicit: this year’s celebration of our ministry will be different – probably very different – from previous anniversaries because our context has changed so profoundly from our founding days.  On our 125th birthday – as well as our 200th anniversary – the Protestant Church in America was the dominant form of religion. 

Not so in March 2104 – in fact, in New England as well as the Pacific Northwest today, more people self-define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” than any other religious category.  More than Roman Catholic, more than Southern Baptist (the two largest groupings) and certainly more than Congregational or United Church of Christ. As Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall reminds us: our type of doing church and observing faith has been disestablished.  No one looks to us for leadership or moral authority; no one thinks of us as first in any way, shape or form if they even know of us.  And precious few even care what we do here on Sunday mornings or throughout the week. They know our absence would be a physical blight upon Park Square, but not because of our status or authority or even our ministries. 

In a word, because the world has changed, both our ministry and the theology that guides our ministry has had to change.  I think of it like Jesus in the desert, practicing a more humble style of being the Son of God, and my hunch is that this is what God is asking of us, too.  Ministry in 2014 is about solidarity and partner-ship, not power and status. And that’s why I find myself turning again and again to the discoveries of St. Paul and what he describes as a “theology of the Cross.” It is a humble spirituality – a gentle practice of being faithful – one that begs to be embodied in these strange times.  

Douglas John Hall put it like this in describing the challenge of the 21st century for people like you and me:  "The best way of conveying the theological method and spirit (of this age comes through) considering the three Pauline virtues of faith, hope and love... especially how these so-called virtues (work) in light of what they are each negating.  (For) unless the negation of each is understood, the positive statement of each is cheapened and made into a cliche." (Waiting for Gospel, p. 90)  He then goes on to unpack each:

First is faith:  "What does this term negate? The metaphor that crops up time and again in Paul's writing is sight. Faith, which comes by hearing and is precisely a not-seeing... is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  It is the act of trust - glimpsed as through a glass darkly, to be sure - and never fully seen. Faith that is not sight" Hall notes, "is thus a faith warned against presumption."

Second, is hope - "an orientation to the future not the past and a recognition that the present is still lacking its promised fulfillment - and its negation is reality including human despair, fear, doubt, brokenness and sin. "What is hoped for must not be taken for granted, so hope must live with its antithesis of hopelessness and despair... for what we hope for has not fully happened."  Hall again points to St. Paul: "In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen.
But if we hope for what we do not see, then we wait for it with patience."  Hall is clear:  first we practice trusting God, second we practice patience rather than presumption or even arrogance.

And third we live into love - "and love negates many things" - for "love does not insist on its own way."Quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, Hall writes: "'The crux of the Cross is its revelation of the fact that the final power of God over man (sic) is derived from the self-imposed weakness of his love.' This, I think, is of the essence of this theology and it is hard for all to accept who think of deity chiefly in terms of power, omnipotence and almightiness. But if God is love, then the divine power must accommodate itself to divine love and not vice versa. And for the theology of the cross this is basic."  Hall closes with an extended quote from Tillich whom we know to be bright and broken and even cruel - but often wise, too.

The founding father of the Protestant tradition, Martin Luther, once spoke of what God revealed to the world in Jesus as God making himself small for us. One of the theological giants of an age now forgotten, Paul Tillich, went commented on Luther’s insight like this:

In becoming small for us, He left us our freedom and our humanity. He shows us His heart so that our hearts could be won. When we look at the misery of our world, its evil and its sin, especially in these days which seem to mark the end of a world period, we long for divine interference, so that the world and its daemonic rulers might be overcome. We long for a king of peace within history, or for a king of glory above history. We long for a Christ of power. Yet if He were to come and transform us and our world, we should have to pay the one price we could not pay: we would have to lose our freedom, our humanity and our spiritual dignity. Perhaps we would be happier; but we should also be lower beings, our present misery, struggle and despair notwithstanding. We should be more like blessed animals than men (and women) made in the image of God. Those who dream of a better life and try to avoid the Cross as a way, and those who hope for a Christ and attempt to exclude the Crucified, have no knowledge of the mystery of God and humankind (at this moment in history.)

And so we join Jesus in the desert – once again – searching for humility, practicing our hospitality and promising to follow the Lord in hope as those who trust the Lord in all things.


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