Mary of Bethany (a Lenten sermon on John 12:1-8)

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s aftershave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of the twelfth chapter of the gospel of John, the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely of what she has and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads, give these two a little time alone.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me. In fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed, but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is:  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort.  Did he just want to savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

We can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And people around Mary might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts. This was a time to pour it all out because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is.  We have a need to give.  It’s a great and true mystery how generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it. Generosity only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  “Prodigal” means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home, loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity, the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly, that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours, it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet, yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.  

Pouring out Love -Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year C

John 12:1-8

Anointing His Feet

12 1-3 Six days before Passover, Jesus entered Bethany where Lazarus, so recently raised from the dead, was living. Lazarus and his sisters invited Jesus to dinner at their home. Martha served. Lazarus was one of those sitting at the table with them. Mary came in with a jar of very expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus’ feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the oils filled the house.

4-6 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, even then getting ready to betray him, said, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor? It would have easily brought three hundred silver pieces.” He said this not because he cared two cents about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of their common funds, but also embezzled them.

7-8 Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.”

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s after shave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of our Gospel – the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments. Also, as a side note of trivia: It is also apparently a very attractive scent to cats.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil, this pure nard, and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely – of what she had and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads – give these two a little time alone – so intimate is this scene.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me – in fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed  – but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is.  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort – just savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

These are things at which we can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And Mary – the people around her might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible -and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts– this was a time to pour it all out – because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is – we have a need to do it.  It’s a great and true mystery – that generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it – it only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  As we recalled a couple times last week, that word “prodigal” actually means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father – who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home – loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity – the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly – that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours – it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet – yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.  

 

As a Hen Gathers Her Chicks – Second Sunday of Lent – Year C

This week I received a unique invitation through facebook.  Some of you don’t use facebook or computers – but those of you who do probably know that facebook is a fun way to share pictures and updates with friends instantly.  Anyway, I received the invitation through my friend, Tami, whose friend Rosey is having her fortieth birthday soon.  She said that as her birthday approached she was going to attempt to do one kind deed for another person every day for the next forty days and she invited all her friends to join her.  She called it 40 days of nice.  What Rosey didn’t expect was that her friends would pass on the idea to their friends and then those friends would pass it on to their friends and now there are over 1000 people in this facebook group who are intentionally every day looking for ways to extend a special kindness to someone else each day.  And oftentimes, members of the group will take a moment to write a post on the page for others to see what they did that day.  From shoveling their neighbors driveways to buying coffee for strangers, from Nebraska to Minnesota to the UK, a tiny groundswell of Nice began.

At first when I received the invitation I didn’t think I’d join.  I don’t know Rosey personally and although it was a fine idea, I figured I had enough going on.  But as I thought about it, the idea captivated me.  I liked the idea of being part of a movement of people not just doing good things when the opportunity happened to come our way, but taking it a step farther and looking for those opportunities.  There’s good energy in it.  And in a world full of brokenhearted people, a little nice, a little good energy goes a very long way.   A kind word, a thoughtful deed can provide shelter in the storm of life for others in ways that are magnified far beyond the action itself.  You know what I mean.  A cup of coffee and an hour of time shared with that friend whose husband just left is more than some caffeine and 60 minutes of the day.  It is a lifeline, a glimpse of hope, a safe place where strength is gathered to go on.  That mother with an infant whose driveway you just shoveled after the big snowfall – for her that probably didn’t just save her a few minutes, it very well could have helped save her mood for the entire day.  No, the more I thought about it, I realized that 40 days of Nice was sounding better and better.

And as I read our Scriptures for this week, it was the words about God being our shelter and comfort that spoke deeply to my heart.  The image from our Gospel of God desiring to gather to gather all God’s children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and the verse from the psalm where the psalmist sings that “even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in.”  In the old testament reading, the Lord appears to Abram in a vision.  Abram, afraid of never having a child, and the Lord lifts Abram’s eyes to the stars and gives him the news that God isn’t done yet.  Do you think there are a lot of stars in the sky?  Well, Abram, that’s how many descendants you will have.  God is not done yet.  What feels like a barren place, Abram, it’s more fruitful than you can even imagine. 

In a world of brokenhearted people, the news that God is not nearly done yet, the news that our God is able to comfort you and you and you even and especially when things seem the worst, the news that for the orphan, the widow, the lonely, the lost, the sick, the frustrated, of every age there is a shelter under God’s wings, a home you have right in God’s own heart – well, that is good news.  That is some very good news.

And it is a great comfort.  And a promise.  But I don’t think it stops there – unless this were a funeral sermon – and then it would be fine if we ended with God’s action and God’s blessing and God’s promise and comfort.  But this is no funeral.  No, it’s morning worship on a typical Sunday.  Today is today – or as Frederick Buechner liked to talk about it – today is the only day there is.  Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is but a hope, all we have for sure is today.  When we think about these 24 hours in that light it gives them a hint of urgency – and that’s good – because then perhaps we will take to heart the truth that we get to share, each of us, in imparting God’s shelter, God’s comfort, and God’s good news to one another.  What begins and ends with God, includes us somewhere in the middle.  God has made it so.  God has made us necessary in being shelter, in being comfort, in being hope to one another. Our words about God’s love are important but they begin to sound quite hollow to others and feel even more hollow to us if our hands and feet aren’t out in God’s world living that love.

This place, these pews, this pulpit, that altar rail – all of it is just a starting place, a launching pad sending us into the week ahead.  It’s a place to get our heads on straight, get our vision focused in the right place and then go on out, down the driveway and back into our lives to be God’s people there.  Speaking God’s peace there.  Sharing bits of kindness and moments of grace there.  Bringing things like hope and mercy  and justice along with us into stores and gyms and workplaces and hospitals and nursing homes and the pot o’ gold and school and wherever our paths lead us in the days to come.  We don’t leave this gospel of Jesus Christ here – no we put it in our pockets, place it in our purses, carry it in our hearts out there.  Everywhere.

And of course, it’s more than just being nice – but isn’t kindness a good place to start?  We may not know how to share all that the Gospel of Jesus Christ means to us with friend or stranger – but we remember Jesus did say something about loving each other – so yeah, let’s start there – and then see where it takes us.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with that first step – and so we take it in faith – trusting God guides us the rest of the way.

Sometimes I get so disheartened, brothers and sisters.  Sometimes my heart gets so heavy it feels hard to carry it.  I take note of all the bad things happening in the world, or good people getting sick or suffering.  I start to feel small and so powerless to share a good word in the midst of it.  And about right then the devil starts to whisper in my ear the statistics – the hard and cold numbers to prove his point – the Lutheran church is shrinking, the Christian church has slipped quite far from the center of family and community life it once was. And then if I’m not careful I’ll slip easily into a few too many nights when my brain is too full to sleep, a few too many times I’ll give in to the temptation to wallow in worry.

And I’d be terrified to tell you that sometimes I feel that way except that I think each of you might understand in your own way.  Life can get awfully big, far too unwieldy.

But every time my mind brings me to that place, it is never me that gets me out of it.  Left to my own devices I’d stay stuck in my head, or stuck in my worry.  No, it’s always been a word or action from someone else that jars me loose and sets me on the right track again.    Most of the time they haven’t meant to do it, in fact, most of the time they probably have no idea how their kind word or thoughtful action set me back on my feet, but they did.  God working right through them.  Angels with skin on, each one.

God gives us the power to be that for each other.  The devil uses subtle things to distract us from that power – making us too busy or too distracted or too whatever to really see each other most of the time – but if we pay attention, if we have our eyes open and our listening ears on – there is a world of healing and goodness we can bring.

Catharine Brandt tells a story in a poem she wrote about in the months after her husband died how she experienced profound loneliness.   One particularly difficult morning she called a friend and they talked for quite some time about old times, their children and grandchildren.  She said she began to feel lighter and better as they talked, like she had taken some medicine that was slowly working its way into her system and bringing healing.

Finally Catherine said, “I hope I’m not interrupting your day.  You probably have much to do.”

Her friend said, “You should receive a special blessing today.  Before I started work I asked God to bless my interruptions.”

She writes.  “God did bless me – blessed me with a friend who listened, who didn’t make me feel like an interruption.”

God has done great things for us – and by God’s grace – allows us to do great things for one another.   Be looking for ways to be kind.  Be looking for ways to show kindness to neighbors, to strangers, even to people you don’t like – imagine that!  It’s all a good thing – it’s all a God thing!  If we start today during this season of Lent I can’t help but think that when it comes, on Easter morning, the sun will rise a little brighter  because we will have honored the One who first showed us such great kindness.

Transfiguration

It was thirty years ago or so when I experienced something I could call a transfiguration story. It was thirty years or so ago when I could relate deeply and truly for the first time to what Peter is going through and saying in the gospel for today.  Peter’s experience was on a mountaintop face to face with God and recorded for all time in the Holy Scriptures.  My experience was by the side of a lake, face to face with Bible camp counselors and imprinted only on my heart. But it was no less a time when God became very real to me and I, just like Peter, wanted to stay in that moment and that feeling forever.

I tell this story so often because it is so fundamentally a part of the story of me. I was fourteen years old and at my church, like here, a requirement before confirmation was to attend a week of Bible camp.  I did not want to go, I had no desire to go, and I went kicking and screaming in my own quiet and passive-aggressive way.  I was painfully nervous and shy at that age, I had no idea what to expect.  A week full of strangers? What would be fun about that? A week full of church? What did I need with that?

But out of respect for my pastor and the requirements of my church and the demands of my parents, I went. And it is no exaggeration to say that I saw God that week.  Through the words and actions of counselors who daily took time with us and shared the word of God with us. Through the songs that sang of simple wonder and joy and peace. Through that place and time set apart for growing in spiritual community. Through a sudden and growing sense that God had a purpose for me, for all of us, and the conviction that even in my own middle-school worries and wonderings, God cared about me and always would. That week changed everything for me – I heard the gospel I had heard my whole life in a new way, in a way I could understand and feel to my bones. I could see the glory of God shining through everything.

So, whenever I read the story of the transfiguration and how Peter and James and John are up on the mountain to pray with Jesus and Jesus is transfigured before them and his face is glowing and his clothes are dazzling white such as nothing on earth could bleach them and then Moses and Elijah appear with him and they are talking – Peter says to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three dwelling places: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” My first reaction is to think that Peter wants this moment to last, to stay there forever, and that makes sense to me – because isn’t that human nature to want to stay in those moments that touch us and move us deeply? Whether it is a deeply spiritual time, or the summer you first fell in love, or when your kids are little and so adorable, or when all feels good and well and right with the world.

But, wait a minute, the dwelling places aren’t for Peter and James and John along with Jesus and Moses and Elijah – he proposes to build dwelling places for just Jesus and Moses and Elijah up on the mountain top.  What? He wants to keep them there? While the regular people go back to regular life?  He wants to keep them Set apart?

It seems to me we might understand this as well.  Or do we never reserve parts of our Christian life for only Sunday morning? Do we pray daily or keep it largely at church? Do we read the Bible at home or is it mostly something we do when we read the scripture lessons at church?

I can’t tell you how many times over my years as a pastor that I’ve run into people around town and they’ll say something to the effect of, “Oh, pastor – I didn’t recognize you without your pastor robe on.” I think to myself, do they think I just hang out here in my robe all the time? That I don’t leave and go do other stuff? But I remember I used to think the same thing when I would see my hometown pastor out and about – “Oh look, Pastor Vetter is out of the church! He’s in the bank! He’s walking to the post office! He leaves the church?”  Well, of course he did. But in my mind it made sense that Pastor Vetter went with the church – we all like to compartmentalize things. Chips and Dip go with Superbowl Sunday, roses and candy go with Valentines day, Pastors, prayer, Bibles go with churches.  I think that is why Beer and Hymns gets people’s attention – because it is a pairing of things that we don’t think of together.  It makes some very uneasy – but for others, it just makes it interesting.

To Peter, Jesus hanging out forever on a mountain top – shining and talking with Moses and Elijah in their designated dwelling places high and far away – that made sense.  Keep the holy stuff and holy moments together.

But of course, Jesus won’t be compartmentalized. Never for a moment would he stay set apart. He comes down off the mountain and into the messiness of life down below because a shepherd needs to be with his sheep.  Surely life would have been easier for him if he had stayed up on the mountain, but he would only have fulfilled a fraction of his purpose. What good is it to be shiny and glowing on a mountain all the time? Shiny and glowing Jesus high on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to the man who came to Jesus in the village down below needing desperately for him to heal his son. Shiny and glowing Jesus set apart high and far away on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to any who needed to hear his teachings or experience his grace.

While Peter is still talking a light-radiant cloud envelopes them and they became very aware of God’s presence – and a voice emanated around them saying, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

Obviously, if you are going to listen to someone, you need to be around them.  You can’t keep them perched far away on a mountain and be actively listening to him. Peter and the others knew that no matter how extraordinary that moment had been, and no matter what reasoning Peter might have had for wanting to build those dwelling places, the moment drifted away with the cloud and Moses and Elijah as well.  All they were left with was the command from the voice of God’s own self, “Listen.”

It seems to me that word is much at the heart of the church season we will soon be entering.  Lent begins in just a few days when we gather here on Ash Wednesday to hear the Word, to confess our sins, to receive the ashes on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and to share in Holy Communion. On Ash Wednesday and each week during Lent we gather for church on Sunday and also have the opportunity for worship on Wednesdays to set this time apart, to give ourselves space to listen for God’s voice and to reflect on the discipline of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love. These become the specific occasions and opportunities for spiritual renewal during this season of renewal.

Repentance is turning from sin. It is turning 180 degrees away from sin to walk toward God. We participate in repentance when we join together in the confession on Sunday mornings and Lenten services – particularly Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.

Fasting comes to us from Judaism and was recommended by Jesus. It is a practice that is designed to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening one’s attractions to pleasures of the senses. Thus fasting is always coupled with prayer and spiritual preparation.

Fasting does not necessarily mean giving up all food for a day. More frequently it is the giving up or limiting of a particular food or food group (sweets, desserts, chocolate, butter, fat, eggs, etc.) Abstinence from some activity (such as television, internet, movies, entertainment, etc.) on certain days, at certain hours or throughout the season is another way to observe the Lenten fast. This is designed to give more time for prayer and spiritual work.

Prayer is when we are drawn closer to God in contemplation and communication. Prayer is our half of a conversation with God. That means that prayer is not only speaking, but listening as well.

Finally, works of Love – this can be anything we do for someone else – generally someone outside our family.  Examples of works of love are as varied as your imagination: shoveling the sidewalk for someone else, visiting homebound people, bringing a meal for someone who is going through a difficult time, writing a letter of encouragement. When doing your work of love, meditate upon Christ’s words, “As you do it for the least of these, you do it for me.”

After making your choices and beginning your discipline, it is not necessary to share your choices or your acts of love with anyone else. In fact, anonymity is regarded as better (Matt.6:1-7, 16-18).

Don’t be too hard on yourself, too rigorous, or too legalistic. The idea is to have a discipline that moves you spiritually closer to God, not one that focuses you solely on your discipline.

There’s nothing about the discipline of Lent that is a shiny and glowing mountaintop experience of God. The grand alleluias get put away and we tend to the work of Lent for us here in the valley below – practicing at being God’s people. Working at it. Letting the turning of the season and the giving of ourselves over to it transform us. Giving something more each week of our time, and our attention, and our selves.  Trusting that as we journey through this season quietly and listening, and staying awake with Jesus, we might arrive at Easter morning with renewed spirits.

Lenten Discipline

During the church season of Lent, it isn’t uncommon to hear church-y folks talk about a “Lenten discipline”.  Well, at least I know some pastors talk about it and in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the congregation will often pledge to commit to the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and works of love as a sort of spiritual training period.

I love Lent and that during this 40 day period we are to take on special practices to help bring our thoughts back to God more frequently. I’ve preached about this in different ways over the years and it often reflects what I’ve been reading or thinking about. One year I encouraged my folks to add something to their routine instead of fasting – for example, add some devotion time or add more Bible study time to their week. Too many years I have engaged in fasting from different foods but it always seemed to turn into just another diet plan, disguised as being spiritually motivated, but ending  as most regular diets do – feeling mad at myself when I eventually got too hungry to continue. To tell you the truth, for the most part, over my years, I have not done very well at mastering any sort of Lenten discipline except to show up and preach and lead worship an extra time each week at the Wednesday night services – which I guess is something, but it’s also a part of my job, and I’ve always wished for more.

I have grand visions of a day, when my kids are grown, when I’ll take the forty days of Lent to engage in a retreat of pure silence or spend the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning on a long hike on El Camino de Santiago.

For now, however, I’ll stick to small things. I won’t write about what I have chosen to do this year because I just preached about how in Matthew 6, we are told that it is better to be quiet about our giving and our fasting and our works of love. It’s best to keep our Lenten discipline between us and God, let this season quietly and subtly transform us.

Whether or not we participate in a Lenten discipline, God loves us. However, we need reminders sometimes of how much we have and that we can’t be a slave to the many comforts that most of us have. This is the great value in fasting from a particular food or from any enjoyable activity: each time we reach for that sweet or that remote and remind ourselves that isn’t a part of our lives for the next forty days, the spoiled brat inside says, “why not?” Then, each time we get to answer, “because I was made for more than my belly and my own comforts. I was made to be a child of God. Now, what does that mean?”  What a great thing to be thinking about over and over again. Fixing our minds on these kinds of thoughts help us arrive at Easter morning a little more aware of who we have been, who we are, and how we want to be.

If you haven’t yet decided on a Lenten discipline, it isn’t too late. Here are some ideas:

  1. Prayer: set aside some special time each day for prayer. You could send a note each day to a different person and let them know you are praying for them. Don’t forget to pray for your pastor and the Sunday School teachers and church office staff!
  2. Repentence: Each Sunday in the Lutheran church services we say the confession together. Don’t forget to include confession to God in your own personal prayers. Remember that repentance means to turn away from our sins. Spend time contemplating how you can turn away from temptations and pray for God’s strength to live in Christ’s light.
  3. Works of love: Anything we do for others in Christ’s name is a work of love. Is there someone in your community who could use a little extra help? Does someone need a note of encouragement? Could you bring in lunch for the office or buy coffee for the person behind you in line? Committing to doing one work of love each day in Lent could change your life in beautiful ways.
  4. Fasting: fasting is quite simply, to deny ourselves something for a time and then each time we think of that thing, to turn our thoughts to God.  Many people in the Bible, including Jesus, fasted. This self-denial helps us to grow spiritually.  I like how Jen Hatmaker put it, “A fast is not necessarily something we offer God, but it assists us in offering ourselves.”

 

 

Prayer (a mid-week meditation for Lent)

Last Wednesday at my church we began taking a closer look at the spiritual disciplines of Lent. Every year on Ash Wednesday we commit to these disciplines of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love – strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament.  Last week we talked about self-examination and repentance.  This week, we’ll think about prayer.

Oswald Chambers wrote: “We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”

Or how about this quote from Corrie Ten Boom which is along those same lines: “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” 

Prayer is a spiritual discipline we tend to talk about more than others because it is part of our life together as a church.  We pray in worship and before meals. We pray before meetings.  We pray when we visit one another in the hospital and we even have a prayer chain where we can let people know the needs for prayer in our community.

Ask anyone here if they pray and I bet we all would say, “yes, of course.”  But ask a different question and the answers get more complicated.  How about if we ask, “Does prayer work?”

And while my answer would be “yes, prayer works,” it would feel incomplete to stop there because prayer does not “work” as we always or even often might wish it to work.

Prayer is not a magic charm.  We can pray and pray and pray for rain but that doesn’t mean we won’t still go through months of drought.  We can pray and pray and pray for healing to come but that doesn’t mean the healing will come when we want it to, or even on this side of the grave.  We can pray and pray and pray for an answer but sometimes all we feel for seemingly far too long is deafening silence and confusion. 

And when this happens – which it does – this confusing business of prayer can leave even the most faithful to feel disillusioned with the practice and wondering what good it does, wondering if it is really much different than hoping or wishing.  Then frustration can set in and sometimes people begin to pray less and this can really begin to diminish our spirits in serious ways.

Because the thing about prayer is that the more we do it, the more we feel the fullness of its’ benefits.  We need to pray.  This is why scripture advises us to pray without ceasing and to not worry about anything but instead to pray about everything. 

There are many ways that we talk about prayer in the Christian church and it never hurts to remind ourselves that prayer is about more than making requests of God.  In addition to our prayers for things we need and others need, we offer prayers of thanksgiving for all the blessings God has given us; we pray prayers of adoration, proclaiming how wonderful and faithful God has been to us; we pray prayers of confession – admitting our shortcomings to God and repenting of these things.  We can’t forget meditation – just being silent and listening for God – I like to do this when I’m out walking or sitting out on the porch at night. 

And I like how Max Lucado talks about prayer as also being a practice of receiving.  I read an interview with him when his book, “Come Thirsty” came out and he was talking about the imagery of water on the cover of this book that is all about prayer. 

He said he was noticing as his church was growing, people were busy doing a lot of things, but they looked as tired as people who didn’t go to church. They just looked tired; they seemed so busy—they had so many activities, good activities, things they wanted to participate in. But he realized they never talked about the importance of receiving.

He writes, “And the imagery of Jesus is that he can do for the soul what water can do for the body; he can go where it’s cracked and flaky and dusty and he can bring nourishment; he can soften that which is hard. So I got really fascinated by this and began to experiment with it in my own life. I realize, when you drink, you don’t drink one day a week for six days’ worth. You know, you don’t drink 3 or 4 gallons to get you through the whole week, but you take regular sips throughout the day.

And I’ve tried to develop a practice in my own life of receiving God’s moisture and his nourishment, on a regular basis, taking Jesus literally at his word. It phenomenally changed my own life; I found that I wasn’t anxious. I found that it was easier to forgive people, that I didn’t have worries; I slept better. What I was doing was on a regular basis, receiving the basic gifts of God, his forgiveness and his drink and his presence. It really changed my outlook.”

So what Lucado urged his people to do is on a regular basis, three, four times an hour, was to offer a prayer that says, “I receive your Lordship. You’re protecting me. Anything happens, it filters through you first and I receive your love because I can never outlive your love.”

Thinking about the practice of prayer as an intentional, regular, frequent practice of receiving God’s love and replenishment is something I think we all can benefit from and something we desperately need in our busy, stressful lives.  Praying in this mindful, frequent way, can work great things in us just as it did for Lucado – as we train ourselves to fix our eyes on God and not on our worries.

Prayer is a spiritual discipline, but it is also a precious gift.  How blessed we are that each one of us, at any time, can lift up our words and sighs to the God who made us, and God has promised to hear us.  Prayer may not be a magic charm – but I fully believe that is because God loves us too much to always give us exactly what we want in the way we ask for it – because our wisdom is not God’s wisdom, our time is not God’s time.  But in all things God works for the good of those who love him.

May God help us to be diligent in our prayers – to begin our days with them, to fall asleep with them, to raise our children up on them, and always trust that the One who loves us most hears us and will answer. 

In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.