Entering Lent

March 10, 2019 Lent 1

Luke 4:1-13

The first spring following my families move to Richmond brought grandiose plans of a wonderful thriving garden in the backyard of the parsonage. Vern came over and tilled the ground for us and by the time he was completed, we probably had at least 200 square feet of space for a wonderful garden. We marked the garden all out and planted seeds. We put a fence all the way around the garden so that the many rabbits roaming around the yard would stay out. Since it was the first year, it required a lot of tender loving care to weed it and water it. The weeds seemed to like the water much more than the plants did. Then we went on vacation!

We came home to an enclosed jungle! Okay, maybe it was not quite that bad. I still manage to harvest some radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and even a bit of lettuce. The corn did not turn out. Neither did the watermelon or cantaloupe. We would try again the following year and scale it back a little. Last year we decided that it was just too much work! It takes a lot of patience to prepare and cultivate a garden. There are many challenges and temptations that come along the way.

On this first Sunday of Lent, Jesus enters the wilderness. He is tempted and holds fast in his faith. During this season of Lent, you are going to be asked to let go of the things that weigh you down and to cultivate those areas in your life that bring growth.

The temptations that are waved in front of Jesus’ face this week are very powerful. They are temptations that pull people into power that is hard to let go of. What if we could turn a stone into a loaf of bread, or simply anything to feed ourselves? Could this be a blessing to those in countries that have the constant threat of famine. Jesus had been fasting for 40 days! He had to be hungry. I am sure the thought of a loaf of bread would have made his mouth water.

Imagine standing on the highest peak wherever you were and being able to see off in the distance for miles and miles. What if someone promised to you that it could all be yours if you just turned away from God and turned your worship towards evil, idols, or even material possessions? Does not sound too far from the truth for some today, does it? How quick we are to turn away from God for something that is newer, brighter, or shinier.

The third temptation of Jesus is the promise of invincibility. This seems to come to us more often when we are young and stupid! Now, don’t try this at home, but one attempt at this for me was when I thought I could run across the pool cover on my parent’s pool in the middle of winter. I may have been trying to show off for the next-door neighbor, and fortunately, I got all the way to the other side before my foot just barely broke through the ice frozen on top.

It is these temptations that Jesus walks away from after fasting for 40 days. He lets go of them so that he can move forward into the ministry that God is calling him to. A ministry that had been established from the very beginning of time.

Many people have used Lent as a time to fast from something as a discipline. I encourage you this year to let go of something. Not just for Lent, but for good. It could be something that distracts you away from God. A great definition of to let go is to relinquish your grip on something. As we do so it provides us the opportunity to return to God.

While Jesus let go of the temptations after his 40 days in the wilderness, it was also a sign of growth. His time of fasting in the wilderness revealed his great faith in God the Father which prepared him for his ministry ahead. A ministry that would lead to growth in his disciple’s faith as well.

Unlike me trying to cultivate a garden, Jesus was much better in cultivating a faith that laid the foundation for all of us to follow. The term to cultivate usually is used in farming as I am sure many of you know. We can also use it to refer to our lives and today to our faith. To cultivate means to prepare and then foster growth. To cultivate also means to labor, care for, study, refine, or encourage. All of these can relate to our faith and its growth as we draw closer to God this Lenten season. It takes work and we must be intentional.

As you noticed, there is also room for you to write on the doors what you are going to cultivate over these next forty days. After his time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus let go of the temptations and cultivated his faith as he drew closer to God.

How are you going to draw closer to God this season?

Let us pray. Lord, we return to you, asking for forgiveness this season of Lent. In this time of preparation, may we be guided by the Holy Spirit to let go of those things that weigh us down and be drawn to those things that cultivate our commitment to you. Amen.

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Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey Through Lent by Albert Holt: A Review

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What a blessing to be able to have a year long sabbatical in which to travel the world and experience places that you have always wanted to experience. That was the beginning of Albert Holtz’s, O.S.B., journey to the writing of this book. After spending close to three decades in his order he looked forward to taking a sabbatical from teaching and learning from others.

The culmination of his journey is Pilgrim Road. What a pleasure it was for him to invite the reader along the journey with him. I felt as though I was right by his side when he described the various places he had visited and even more so by providing his personal drawings of certain cathedrals and various places. What a gift that he has shared with those that choose to go on a Lenten journey and are inspired to journal their progress. His reflections at the end of each day give ample time for you to contemplate and pray about what the story of the day means to you and reflect upon it.

The journey does not go in chronological order, but that is ok. Each week has a loose theme with it and the stories that he chooses to share with the reader are quite fitting for the day and the specific task of reflecting during Lent. While this version of the book was published as a Lenten journey, it would be possible to pick it up at any time and start your own 40 day journey of contemplation and prayer. I appreciated the prompts that got me to reflect and encouraged me to journal, which at times is not consistent.

The Unexpected God

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John 12:1-8

Grace and Peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

How many of you like to go shopping?

Of course with having two teenagers in the house I have spent my fair share of time in a mall over the course of the years. If you have been in a mall at any time, I am sure that you are familiar with some of the smells that you encounter. The smells that come wafting out of the food court are enough to tempt you into possibly eating when you aren’t even hungry. Almost every mall has a pretzel place and the smells that come from there can make your taste buds water. The smells coming from the cinnamon rolls will make you gain a couple of pounds instantly!

The smell that truly shocks the senses is when you wander into any of the department stores and get immediately pelted by the smells of the cosmetic and fragrance counters. Sometimes so overwhelming that you have to hold your breath just to get through that area of the store, hoping that you can hold your breath long enough without passing out!

It would be my estimation that if we were to walk in on Jesus having dinner with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in our gospel lesson this morning we would have sensed that we had just encountered the fragrance counter in a department store. An entire pound of perfume Mary had purchased, to anoint Jesus’ feet, and to be used at his burial. There was enough on his feet for her to wipe them with her hair!

What are we to make of this story? The breaking of bread among friends with an anointing that not only points towards Jesus’ death; it also points toward his action of washing the disciples feet during the Passover. Is it the fear of scarcity that takes center stage in this gospel lesson, or is it a story of God’s abundant love poured out for all of creation?

This Lenten season we have walked together as a congregation being reminded weekly of our call to turn back to our baptism on a daily basis. Repenting of those things that we have done wrong and those things that we have failed to do allows us to deepen our relationship with a loving, grace-filled God.

We entered this Lenten season with Jesus. Being tempted in the wilderness. As we have entered our own wilderness this Lent, we are reminded of the many temptations that come in front of us on a daily basis. The temptations to turn away from God and place something else in higher priority. I invited you to welcome in disruptions and listen to where God may be calling you in that time and place. We have thought about what we were going to say “yes” to this Lent, and what we were going to say “no” to. Perhaps you have done well following your Lenten discipline, however, I will have to admit that I have been tempted once or twice and may have possibly slipped a little.

Our journey through the past five weeks have been full of temptations whether we have noticed them or not. We may have succumbed to them and not even realized it. God has continued to work throughout the world in the past five weeks as well! God has shown up in places that may not have been expected and has brought hope and peace to those that are hurting and in need of healing. God does this by being with first responders and caring hands that reach out in love and support. Perhaps maybe God will even show up in the mess of a political system in our country that is currently being dominated by hate and fear.

God has shown the unexpected in our gospel lessons these past weeks also. God has been in the unexpected image of Jesus as mother hen gathering in all of the little children. God has been in the unexpected role of the gardener telling us to “just relax and let me tend to and nurture this thing (whatever it may be) that is so close to you and It will bear fruit as it is fed.” God is unexpectedly seen in the father of the prodigal son that comes home after spending all of his inheritance on wasteful living.

Again we find God in the most unexpected places this morning. For Mary to use such costly perfume to wash Jesus’ feet was unheard of. For her as a woman to be anointing is unheard of. She breaks all barriers when she takes it upon herself to wash and anoint Jesus in the midst of dinner. It was leaders and kings that did the anointing, look at Saul and how he anointed David. God shows up in the most unexpected places, breaking barrier to reveal the unexpected.

The objections raised by Judas even come as unexpected as we know the rest of the story and know what lays beyond Jesus’ death. Luke even inserts his own knowledge of Judas’ greed and sinfulness in this story to set up what is about to happen in the betrayal. Here we even experience the unexpected. A sudden plot twist that we may not have seen coming if we did not know the rest of the story. As we have got to know Jesus, we may not be surprised to find that he defends Mary, but to tell us that we will always have the poor with us, that is possibly unexpected. If we will always have the poor with us, how do we live into that together as a community? Stanley Hauerwas suggests that, “The poor we always have with us in Jesus. It is the poor that all extravagance is to be given.” By doing so we shower Jesus with the love that has been given to us from the beginning of creation and reminded of in the waters of baptism.

This next couple of weeks is going to go by at a fast rate as we prepare for Palm/Passion Sunday next weekend as we enter into Holy Week. We will come to the basin to have a feet washed on Maundy Thursday and gather around the table to partake in the Lord’s Supper. Good Friday will provide us with a chance to be with Christ and examine what the crucifixion means to us. The Saturday Easter Vigil will allow us to experience that which was unexpected to the disciples.

God is up to something new! God is showing up in the unexpected! May the fragrance of God’s love wash over us in our preparations for the next two weeks and surprise us with the unexpected.

 

Nurturing Amidst the Suffering

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Luke 13:1-9

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

One hobby that I have attempted for a while now is caring for and growing bonsai, the Japanese art form of creating little trees. My first experience was in college when I received a bonsai beginners kit which allowed you to start your bonsai from the very beginning as a seedling. That first attempt was not very successful. I tried again some years later and managed to overwater another bonsai and thus kill it. While on internship during seminary we had the awesome experience of going to a bonsai show at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens and my interest in bonsai was re-stoked. This time we got a couple of bonsai with the hope of being successful. Our cats did not have the same perception of the trees that we did. They would rather eat them. Thus, my experimentation with bonsai came to an end for a while.

When reading from Luke this morning and the parable of the fig tree I am reminded of my own failures at attempting to nurture and bring something to fruition. In our failures we suffer and most of the time it does not feel good. Honestly, it is awful and we get discouraged to try new things or to even continue in whatever it was that we were attempting in the first place. When we fail it brings upon us a sense of suffering.

If there is one thing within the world that many of us would do away with, suffering would be right at the top of the list. Suffering is uncomfortable. Suffering is painful. Suffering brings up too many questions of why. However, suffering is a part of the human experience that is unavoidable.

Not only do we witness the suffering in Jesus’ parable as the landowner wants to be rid of that which will not bear fruit, we also witness suffering at the beginning of our lesson as Jesus speaks of the evil of Pilate. The reference to the Galileans whose blood was mingled with the sacrifices speaks to an unimaginable suffering and shows the contempt that Pilate had for religions other than that of the Roman Empire. Suffering is also present in the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Often times when things like this happen we want to ask why. Why does God allow this to happen?

First, God does not allow this to happen, nor does God cause the terrible tragedies in the world that some tv evangelists would like you to believe. Second, God is present right by our side and weeping along side us as we wonder and wander amidst the suffering that happens within our lives and communities. It is the sin of the world that welcomes the suffering and misdirects our ways. Sin and suffering do tend to have a connection as we look at the treacherous ways of Pilate as well as those in our own society today that bring about suffering from their violent acts.

Suffering is not a form of punishment as some may like to think. God does not bring suffering into our lives because of something that we failed to do or something that we even did wrong. Suffering is not a form of punishment for our sins. God’s answer to the sin of the world is not punishment.  God brings to the world a loving presence which breaks through all of the suffering when we open our hearts to its warmth and compassion.

If we venture deeper into the parable of the fig tree, we quite often want to assign God as the landowner that oversees all of the property. This is common since we see God as the author of all creation. In this respect, we then want to place Jesus in the garden bargaining with the landowner to please give him just a little more time to see this tree produce the fruit that you are expecting. I must nourish it and give it good fertilizer for that to happen. The suffering here occurs in the form of inaction. What if this is just a misinterpretation of this parable, which is most likely the case. Nowhere else do we see God in Luke as an angry and vindictive landowner that wants to be rid of those that are not bearing fruit and being calmed by Jesus. Luke instead portrays God as love and always waiting to share that love with those that have found their course veering in a different direction.

What if we are the landowners in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree? What if we are the ones that are quick to do away with those things in our lives that are not bearing any fruit? Do we have little patience to wait and see what will happen when the gardener tills and fertilizes the soil? Perhaps we as the landowners promote our own sense of how the world should work; we do not like to wait and we want things just the way that we like them and there just is not any room for something that is going to take a little while to grow.

As the landowner, we are met in the garden by love. The gardener has been there from the very beginning caring for creation and nurturing all things. God is the gardener. God is patient with us in all of our imperfections and all of our sin. God comes to us bearing good soil that is full of nutrients that encourage our growth and foster our relationship in God. In the garden we can learn how to care for those things that test us and that we so quickly want to push out of our way.

We can learn many things from Jesus and the example he has set for us in his walk. Our faith is nurtured as we allow God to feed and nurture us in the garden instead of trying to make things work the way we want them to.

Does the barren fig tree bear fruit when we let God nurture it? Most definitely! This season of Lent is a time for us to be nurtured and open to a deeper and truer relationship with God as we turn back to our baptism and are reminded of the covenant that was made with us on that day. We are marked with the sign of Christ forever!

I have attempted the art of bonsai again. I currently have two bonsai trees that are a testament to what being patient and learning can result in. This time I learned from those that are experienced bonsai growers. All it takes is just the right amount of love and nurturing to grow a healthy and vibrant bonsai.

You are loved and nurtured by the gardener that calls us all into creation. May you be open to that love and nurturing as we continue into Lent.

Where Is Our Trust?

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Luke 13:31-35

Grace and Peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

As you get older you begin to learn a few things. The wisdom gained through life experiences and knowledge helps you determine the appropriate things to say and do given the situation that you are confronted with. When you are young, you have the impression that you can rule the world and nothing can get in your way. You even say and do the things that are not the smartest. A lot of times this can come in regards to our responses into what other people say and do. Our common thought is that if you are going to say or do something inappropriate to me then I will retaliate in a way that reflects back to you. If someone does something we do not like then we are most certainly going to give it back to them in one form or another.

Believe it or not, I was not always the pastor you see before you! I have done some pretty stupid things in my life and hopefully have learned from them along the way. One such example happened shortly after I received my drivers license. Please do not follow my example. I came up to a 4-way stop in my hometown and believed that I was the first one at the corner as a couple of other cars approached the corner from other directions. After stopping I proceeded to turn left when the truck opposite me decided that he was going to turn right at the same time. I made sure that I did not let him get in front of me, but as I did I honked and waved a friendly little bird in his direction. As I said, it was a stupid mistake! I was only sixteen and thought I knew the rules of the road. Well, needless to say, the driver in the truck (a pretty large man), was not amused and proceeded to park and get out of truck and came up to my car while I was at the stoplight and pounded on my passenger side window. I learned a few different things that day. One was to not anger someone that was much larger than me. The second was to never flip someone off while driving in the car. And the third was that even if you left the house with clean underwear on someone may scare you enough if you provoke them that it will no longer be clean!

When we live in a system where we respond to a negative situation with a negative response then all we are doing is punishing a bad behavior. Herod’s message comes to Jesus in our gospel this morning in threats of death. This is the system that is in place and he is playing by the rules that he is aware. If someone does something that we appreciate and is nice then they are rewarded. However, in Jesus’ case, where someone does something you are not fond of, like being a visible opponent of current culture, then they must suffer some form of punishment. This reward and punishment system is very familiar even today. The problem is when we place our faith in that reward and punishment system, or the law as it is also known.

We can easily misplace our trust in rewards and punishment. Paul labels the law in 2 Corinthians as both a “ministry of condemnation,” and also a “ministry of death.” When we place our trust in rewards and punishments then we exist in fear – the fear of failure, the fear of having done wrong, the fear of being punished. When fear is present, it leaves little room for love. Herod was not seeking Jesus out because he loved him. Herod was seeking Jesus out because he was fearful of him and he wanted to exterminate that fear.It was in the ministry of the law that Herod came to Jesus and condemned him for all he had said and done. A ministry of solely the law, or rewards and punishment brings about death and kills relationships. While death may be a reward for those that have suffered for a long time and punishment for those that have stepped outside of legal boundaries; reward and punishment cannot overcome death!

Jesus comes and walks with us in a counter-cultural way that speaks opposite of the reward and punishment structure. Jesus has come to banish the law from ruling our lives and brings about love. An abundant ever flowing love. In that love is mercy and mercy comes in the third day. Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees is one that is not retaliatory, but one that speaks the truth and places trust in the third day. He will continue to cast out demons and heal both today and tomorrow, and on the third day he finishes his work. It may have been punishment from the Roman authorities that killed Jesus, however, Jesus placed his trust in God. The work of mercy on that third days comes in the form of Jesus’ resurrection so that we too can be raised up from death. If we rely on rewards and punishments then we are dead to love. Jesus conquers all of that!

In the mercy that comes to us from Christ our faith is nurtured and grows beautifully into something much greater. We must turn back to our baptism constantly to be reminded of that love that Jesus shares with us. There is only room for trust in our heart of Jesus and any trust that we place in rewards and punishment is misguided.

Jesus gives us mercy without any expectations so that we too may give mercy and forgiveness to those that we interact. We are called to live by mercy when we walk with the stranger and the alien. We live by my mercy when we are for our neighbors and sisters and brothers. We live by mercy when we welcome in and feed those that have been shunned away by others. One of our temptations during Lent may be to trust in rewards and punishment. Where does mercy reside in this?

May we take time during this Lenten season to repent of those temptations. May we not hurt people when we are hurt. May we not provoke others when we feel that we have been provoked. May we be cautious in rewarding those that are simply nice to us. May we offer mercy to all that come to us and may we give abundantly of the love that has been given to us.

Turning Back to Our Baptism

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Luke 4:1-13 (1st Sunday of Lent)

Grace and Peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

This morning we find ourselves in the early days of Lent. You may not feel different. You may not sense much of a difference as you look around. Though, as we look towards our paraments you can visibly witness the changes in colors as we mark time with the season.

Lent is a season in the church year in which many people either dread, or a season in which people look forward to on a yearly basis. Lent is a season of preparation as we walk towards Holy Week and the culmination of the three days leading to Easter. We begin on Ash Wednesday as we receive ashes reminding us of our own mortality and that only by the cross of Christ are we given eternal life.

The gospel of Luke brings us the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert which I believe we can all relate to, whether we want to admit it or not. Jesus, being tempted by bread, power, and safety could be those same things that we are tempted by. It could just as easily be translated over to youth, beauty, or wealth as well. As we prepare to walk in these forty days of Lent, Jesus makes his preparations in the desert for forty days, resisting the devil, and preparing for the ministry that lays ahead of him. This desert that Jesus finds himself in this, his training ground; one that continues to prepare him for the cross. Thomas Merton explains Lent in this manner:

“The purpose of Lent is not only (seeking repentance) , to satisfy the divine justice, but above all a preparation to rejoice in His love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of His mercy–a gift which we receive insofar as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.

“Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance to our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. If we were terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await His mercy, or approach Him trustfully in prayer. Our peace and our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace.”

We are fearful of leaving things behind. Those “things” can be relationships, possessions, habits, or even our own personal desires. As we look inward these next several weeks we also may come to realize that we may benefit by fasting from those things. Fasting is not an easy task. It can bring heartache and longing. It can bring a sense of emptiness. However, fasting can also bring us grace and a deeper relationship with God. We must be careful to make sure we are fasting for the right reasons because the worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial. When we fast it disrupts our lives in a way which helps us to see more clearly.

I was really struck by temptation entering my cell for the first time when I went on retreat at The Abby of Gethsemani. No, there was not a plate of cookies or cake awaiting me in my room, though that would have been a temptation within itself. I was struck by the picture icon that hung over my bed. The icon itself, a scene from this very reading in Luke that we hear today. The icon is painted by Brother Lavrans Nielsen, a member of the community at Gethsemani. The devil in all black seems to be tempting Jesus by asking him to turn a stone into a loaf of bread. Jesus’ rebuke is short and simple, “One cannot live on bread alone.”

While my retreat was in January, there was still some time before the start of Lent. This made me think about those temptations that we attempt to resist as we prepare for our own journeys. Often times we are tempted to take a course that turns us away from God and thus distancing ourselves from the love that flows so freely. The reality is that God’s love never fades for us and when we return we are welcomed with arms wide open waiting to embrace us in a love that is overpowering.

While we are tempted to turn away from things that disrupt our lives, I invite you to welcome that disruption in. Welcome in those things that disrupt you from habits that have shaped us in ways that do not direct us toward God. Some of these we may be aware of while others may have just slipped into our daily lives without us truly noticing. Instead of turning from God , I encourage you to turn back.

Turn back to your baptism in which you were marked by the cross of Christ forever. Turn back to the baptismal waters that have washed over you and cleansed you of your sins. Turn back to your baptism where you were welcomed into the family of God with a deep loving embrace.

As we turn back to our baptisms, we must take the time to repent of those things that turn us away from God. We must say “no” to those things that distract and lead us away from experiencing the oneness of God. We must say “yes” to those things that feed us and bring us back to the baptismal waters.

During these forty days you will be tempted. You will be tempted by those things that always tempt you as well as some new things. Remember it is these forty days that we use as preparation. In this preparation we are continually receiving the gift of Grace from a God that walks with us. In these forty days may those things that you say “yes” to become habit and may your relationship with God be strengthened.