Worship notes for Lent Two - 250th anniversary...


More and more in my life – personally, professionally and prayerfully – I seem
to be moving towards something I think of as a “spirituality of discernment.”  As I said when we began the season of Epiphany, discernment is a contemplative practice that involves “taking a long, loving look at the world” as it is – not as I would want it – and then quietly looking and listening for signs and symbols of God’s already loving presence within and among us.

Discernment is different from suspicion which begins with mistrust and is most often self-centered rather than God-centered. And it has nothing to do with finding fault or judgment because true discernment is an act of trust.  Specifically a trust that God loves the world as today’s gospel asserts. Perhaps no one described a spirituality of discernment better than our old friend, Reinhold Niebuhr, who put it like this one summer in the Berkshires before an afternoon Bible study:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

For me, a spirituality of discernment is a playful, tender and humble commitment to embracing God’s gifts of awe, grace and joy as they already exist in our lives. We cannot create them – we cannot negate them – our task is to embrace them as eagerly as a child so that from the inside out the image of God that was placed inside us before the beginning of time is strengthened.  St. Paul wrote:

The fulfillment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and his way, and then simply embracing him and what he does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift. That’s the only way everyone can be sure to get in on it, those who keep the religious traditions and those who have never heard of them.

Did you hear that – and grasp it? Our calling – and the fulfillment of God’s love in our hearts – depends entirely on trust.  Not doctrine, not striving, not status or history or intellect, but trust – and trust is what faith is all about. The New Testament book of Hebrews puts it clearly:  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.  Peterson’s words in The Message are clarifying: The fundamental fact of existence is that trust in God, faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.

And then we get the words that are crucial for us on this day marking the 250th anniversary of First Church: By faith the men and women of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear. 

By faith – by trusting – by taking a long, loving look at what is real and then living in ways that turn dreams into deeds. Our ancestors in the Scriptures did this – not perfectly – but to the best of the ability, and so too our ancestors in this very Sanctuary:  they lived and acted by faith.  So let me think out loud with you for a moment about two of our ancient ancestors – Father Abraham and Nicodemus the Pharisee – for they both still have something to say to us – and especially so as we contemplate this anniversary.

Father Abraham – the patriarch from which our Judeo-Christian tradition originates – was a man of faith. He wasn’t perfect – sometimes he wasn’t noble and often he was a confused coward – but he was a man of faith.  That is, he attempted to live by trusting the Lord.

God called him to leave his home in what is now modern Iraq – and he obeyed.  God promised that he would become the father of a great nation even though he was chronologically beyond the realm of fertility – as was his beloved wife Sarah – and in time this came to pass. There were a host of humiliating failures along the way as well as a few bold acts of courage. Time and again, Abraham would blow it and have to confess his failures and sin to the Lord of hosts. And over and over the Bible tells us a story of God’s forgiveness and renewal so that Abraham (and Sarah) might move forward by faith.

St. Paul reminds us that the fundamental reason we look to Father Abraham as one of our role models has to do with his trust.  It isn’t his character that we seek to emulate or his intellect. More often than not when it came to moral clarity or wisdom and common sense, Abraham was a failure. Here’s why St. Paul says we still look to Abraham:

We call Abraham “father” not because he got God’s attention by living like a saint, but because God made something out of Abraham when he was a nobody. Isn’t that what we’ve always read in Scripture, God saying to Abraham, “I set you up as father of many peoples”? Abraham was first named “father” and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do: raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing. When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do but on what God said he would do.

Abraham is one of the ancestors who informs our anniversary celebration:  he shows us what it means to live by faith and act by trust.  His story also reminds us that when we tell our own story, we don’t have to be afraid of the ugly, broken or unredeemed aspects.  We all have them – shadow sides and histories we would rather keep buried and out of the light – but that isn’t what happens in the Bible. At least not with Abraham – all the dirty linen is put out there for the whole world to see – and not because it is salacious or scandalous or exhibitionistic.  No, that would be self-centered and a spirituality of discernment is God-centered.

+  No all the muck and failure of Abraham’s life by faith is put out there so that we know that God’s love is greater than our sin.  That God’s grace is more potent than the totality of our failures.

+  So let’s be honest:  as a faith community, in addition to some wonderful high points, we’ve also known what it has meant to fail and live down in the gutter of sin.  We’ve made noble commitments and ugly mistakes. We’ve labored and prayed as women and men of integrity, and at the same time, we’ve known what it means to be caught up in the social evil of greed or racism.

And here’s why I believe it is so important to say this out loud:  even at our worst God never quit loving us.  Like Father Abraham, we faced our failures and sin and found forgiveness and love over and over again in our 250 years.  You see, the story of Abraham is so powerful NOT because he got it right so often, but that he kept returning to God’s grace.  He kept trusting that God was God and that God so loved the world that grace was sent into the very structure of reality to give us a fresh start.

That’s the first ancestor from the texts assigned for this day that we might benefit from knowing more intimately.  The second is Nicodemus the Pharisee. And while he sometimes gets a bum rap for coming to Jesus in the night and acting in a way that seems dense and even stupid, if you follow the trajectory of old Nick’s story you will discover the power and faithfulness of God’s grace in action yet again. So here are three thoughts to consider about Nicodemus within the context of our 250th anniversary:

+  First Nicodemus is a man of power, influence and profound spiritual commitment.  He was a good and faithful member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of the Jewish community in Jerusalem – that served as a court for religious and ethical concerns in his day.  In some ways he was a lot like some of us.  He had financial means and was committed to living in a way that honored the common good.

+  Second, Nicodemus knew his Bible but sometimes was too literal in his interpretation.  That’s the challenge Jesus gives him with the “born again” or “born from above” business.  It is as if Jesus is saying, “You are a smart man, my friend.  And a good man, too.  So if you want to become a truly loving agent of God’s grace in the world, you’re going to have to go deeper than the obvious. You’re going to have leave behind simplistic ways of interpreting everything and start growing up by the Spirit.”

That’s what all spiritually committed people must do in order to take their
religion beyond the in crowd.  Fr. Richard Rohr likes to say that in the first half of our lives we need to learn the rules and work on our outward strengths.  But in the second half of life we need to let go of all of our rigid definitions and go deeper into grace so that mercy and hope are nourished. And to my way of thinking, that is part of what we’re wrestling with as we embrace this anniversary:  how do we continue to ripen in grace and mercy? How do we take our heritage and move into its deeper and more compassionate roots rather than simply look backwards at what once existed but is no longer? In a word, how do we live by faith in the 21st century?

+  This is where the third part of the Nicodemus story becomes really important for us because at first old Nick doesn’t get what Jesus is talking about.  He shakes his head in confusion and returns to the shadows.  He goes back to his old way of operating – which isn’t bad – but incomplete. And that’s something many churches are very good at – going backwards towards what used to be true but is no longer – and they can do that as long as the money holds out.

But that isn’t what Nicodemus does – he doesn’t stagnate in his retrenchment – he practices discernment.  Apparently he spends a number of years trying to figure out what new way God wants him to embrace grace because at the end of Christ’s life, guess what?  Nicodemus returns to the story first to defend Jesus in the Sanhedrin against those who wanted his death.  And then after the Cross, Nicodemus goes to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and anoints Christ’s body with myrrh and aloe. 

Hmmm… something has happened to this man, yes?  His departure from the action at the start of the story doesn’t mean he has remained oblivious to Christ’s invitation.  Rather, it suggests that he took the time he needed to discern where God’s love was calling him – he took a really long and loving look at reality – and then re-entered the story in way that was tender and compassionate and loving.

So much so that Nicodemus is now venerated as a saint within the Eastern and Byzantine Catholic Churches of the world – honored on the third Sunday after Easter as a sacred myrrh-bearer – and celebrated in the Roman Catholic realm too along with St. Joseph of Arimathea on the 31st day of August.

And I have to tell you, beloved, that says something to me about First Church. Like Father Abraham before him, the story of Nicodemus tells me that God’s grace is ALWAYS present in our story:  that even when we appear inactive – or on retreat or uncertain about how to best express God’s love in the world – God is still at work within us and will lead us in the right way at the right time if we simply remain open to that grace.  These sacred ancestors remind us that sometimes the Godly thing to do is hurry up and do nothing – to practice a contemplative way of discernment – so that when the time is right, we’re ready.

+  About five years ago, we made an informed and faithful decision to become and Open and Affirming congregation.  Some said it took us too long to do this – they were impatient and even judgmental – but I suggest to you that it was the right time and in the right way – and grace upon grace has been the result. 

+  Now after we made this commitment, there were those within and beyond that asked:  Well, what are you doing about that NOW?  What ACTION are you going to take to make a difference?  And truth be told, we didn’t know – the path of faith was not yet clear – so we waited and practiced a bit of contemplative discernment so that when the right time came, we could respond with love.  And now we have some built some tender and gentle alliances with those in our community who seek to keep our children safe while respecting the integrity of their sexuality.

+  We’ve done something similar with our environmental allies, too:  we’ve practiced discernment before rushing to judgment or action.  And later today at our anniversary concert we’ll share a new insight with those that are gathered that has taken us decades to discern, but which brings a small measure of healing and hope and grace into our ministry, too.

Like our ancestors Father Abraham or Nicodemus the Pharisee, we don’t always get it right.  That is just a fact of life and a part of our history. But the greater truth is that God’s grace is not inhibitated by our failures or sin. No, God keeps coming to us over and over and over again – and THAT my dear friends is the good news for today.


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