Repent and God will Too – Ash Wednesday 2020

Joel 2:12b-17
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’
Sermon Text
Today we gather as a solemn assembly. We gather to remember the shortness of our live, the sinfulness of our present state, and the long road we have to attain perfection. The gathering of the church on the first day of Lent is an ancient ritual and one that asks something of all of us. The poor and the rich are both brought low in humility, the powerful and the weak made equal, the good and the wicked united with the imposition of a few ashes, a smearing of palm leaves that have been burned and are applied in a symbol of shame and death.

We take on these ashes today to unite us all together as one in our pursuit of God. Lent is a season where we work to remove the blinders we have put on ourselves. No longer do we let ourselves think we are without problems, that we are yet perfect, here we let go of our pretentions and pursue something simple but very difficult to grasp – namely, humility. The next forty days of prayer, of abstention, of fasting and good works, it is all centered on us letting go of all the compound misconceptions we have built up around ourselves.

True humility, as C.S. Lewis once said, is not found, “in thinking less of ourselves, but of ourselves less.” We look at our failings and our successes honestly. When we do Good, we acknowledge the goodness of the thing we have done and grow toward Godliness. When we sin we acknowledge the evil of the thing we have done, and we move away from it and turn around to move back toward God. The Lenten season can become a period of hectic swirling, evaluating and reevaluating the things we do, the things we thoughtlessly consume, the people we have forgotten or cast aside.

Throughout the scripture which we read today we see a word repeated again and again, although in English it is easy to miss. We are told, each of us, from priest to bride and groom even as infants, to return to God who is gracious and merciful. If we rend our hearts, that is truly feel contrite about our wrongdoings in life, and not simply say sorry and not do anything about it. If we return to God, then we might see God turn toward us – see God turn toward us and offer us blessings in the wake of God’s turning.

These words, “return,” “Turn,” as the King James puts it, “Repent,” all come from a single word. שׁוּב This word means to pull a 180. Whatever direction that a person is going in they snap back around and head in the other direction. It is usually given to us, the people of God, in endless calls to return to the life God has prepared for us rather than the cruelty and death we have sought for ourselves and our neighbors. However, it is not exclusively the work of people to turn.

God too turns back to face us. The prophets frequently describe God in locative terms – coming close to us or moving away from us. When discussing repentance specifically the prophetic imagination sees something twofold. We move away from God, chasing after the empty cisterns that rob us of life rather than the living water that we depend upon. God, upset that we cared so little about the relationship turns away from us and begins to walk away. Here is where the prophets differ in their responses. Some leave us hanging in the moment, questioning if God will turn back. Others assume God will not, as the book of Lamentations does. Elsewhere, Jeremiah suggests that we can only turn back to God because God first turned toward us.

It is this final interpretation which we can find a great deal of life in. Oftentimes when we think about our own sinfulness, and we all do, we see ourselves as horribly lost and making our way blindly back to God’s light. We see ourselves scrambling through the dark to find a light that we lost somewhere along the way. The history of God’s people says something else though. Our Christian narrative says something else. We worship a God who is not content to stand far off and removed from us, but who cannot remain angry because they are too deeply in love. The anger of God is temporary, but the love of God is eternal.

Our scripture today speaks of a God, “abounding in steadfast love.” This is a poor translation. The actual Hebrew says something closer to, “Our God loves with many loves,” or alternatively, “God is loyal in many ways.” God is not only extremely loving, but loves us in innumerable ways. It is this love that leads to the image Jesus gives us in Luke of the Prodigal Son and his loving Father. The sort of love that brings Jewish Philosopher of Religion Araham Joshua Heschel, to describe whole of religious revelation is, “to witness how God is turning toward [us.]”

Today we must affirm a simple truth, provocative as it may seem, that if we repent this season, turning toward God, then we will find that God has already repented before us, turning to face us even before we knew we were able to turn toward God. The Divine assumes that we will choose correctly, God awaits us to come home and live in the fullness of Life, the goodness of Love, and at peace with all around us. God assumes the best in us, can we do the same? Can we take this period of Lent as more than an observance to be checked off our calendars? Embracing it fully, let us return to our God who has already started running to meet us. Let us now prepare our hearts, let our Shuv be a true transformational turning, and let us take hold of the God who has sought us from the beginning of time. – Amen

We are Witnesses – Feast of the Transfiguration – February 23, 2020

2 Peter 1:16-21

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Sermon Text

Repentance is the substance of the season we enter into now. Lent comes upon us and asks us to turn around, to come close to God and to recommit ourselves to God’s ways. Lent asks us to give up our selfishness, all those things we want but do not need. We do not do this so that we can look proud, we do not do this to look solemn or impressive, but to free ourselves to do the good work of Christ. The purpose of our earthly life is, after all, to chase God’s will and to truly embrace it. We are to be doers of God’s word, we are to be proclaimers of it, and we all have a responsibility to be witnesses to the goodness and power of God.

It can mean many things to call someone a witness. A witness in a trial speaks to the accuracy of a given situation – either confirming or dismissing the story of the participants in the trial. It would be hard to imagine a trial that did not call witnesses. The second use of witness is more common in Christian circles – it is to “testify,” about one’s faith. To do this is not simply to speak our doctrine, not simply displays of faith in public, but living a life worthy of our calling. This sort of testimony, called ματυρִַια in Greek, is where we get the word Martyr, those who demonstrated their faith even if, and often when, it included their torture and murder.

The sort of witnessing described in 2 Peter is something else though. The word used in this text-only occurs once in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek Old Testament – in a scenario in Esther with no Hebrew parallel. The word which is used means not to testify, not to stand in court, not even to act out faithfully in our calling to Christ. It describes Peter as an “eyewitness” literally as, “The one who looks upon.” Peter is not described here as something grandiose, he picks a rare and simple word. In choosing what to hang his hat on as an apostle of God he says quite simply, “I am an eyewitness to the Majestic Glory of Jesus.” Nothing more and nothing less.

In Peter’s context, the reason for this distinction is important. While we have no idea the particular problem facing the community addressed in 2 Peter, we know that there is a dispute between true and false teachings. Some people connect this to the work of the Judaizers we read about in Galatians, others to the Gnostic heresies which emerged in early Christianity. Reading through the text we do not have to be so specific, we do not have to cleave to either theory. There is a simplicity to this text which is rare in the New Testament. If we let it, this text gives us one of our simplest understandings of the work of the Church, but only if we do not get lost in its esoterics.

Peter is telling his congregations, in the face of a multitude of Christian witnesses that were swirling around them, how to discern good and bad teachings. The letter goes at length in its later chapters about what kind of things false prophets do and what they bring, but in this chapter, he sets up criteria that we can follow not only in identifying what is good teaching but in making sure that we speak and preach the word of God properly. Put in a few words Peter hangs his own authority on two things: the plain facts of his life and the authority of the Old Testament.

To this first point, Peter looks to the moment that defined his ministry. We, as people who have all the Gospels, Epistles, and traditions of the Church, know most of Peter’s biographical information. His call by the sea of Galilee, his walking on water, his denial, his repentance, his ministry in Rome and eventual crucifixion. Of all these moments, 2 Peter puts forward an often-overlooked moment in Peter’s life as his most formative. The Mountain of Transfiguration.

At the Transfiguration, God was fully revealed in the person of Jesus. Christ appeared fully radiant, was declared beloved once again by God the Father, and spoke to the prophets, Moses and Elijah. Here Peter saw his worlds collide. The teacher he knew and befriended was confirmed as the God who created him. The prophets he studied and whose God he worshipped stood in obvious communion with Christ. The mountain, hereto unknown and nondescript, now transformed for him into a “Holy Mountain.” This moment was what secured the faith of Peter and made it clear to him he was right in following Christ.

Still, his vision was not complete. Like when we stare at a bright light and find ourselves blinded for a moment, Peter was not able to understand fully what all this would mean. He wanted to build Jesus and the prophets a dwelling place, but they already had one above. He wanted to stay on the mountain and dwell in the glory of God like Moses had before him, but he needed to return into the world. He saw Jesus as God, yet when the time came would still deny him to save himself. The burning flame of revelation, pure and undiluted, was something he was not ready to fully take in.

The second defining aspect of Peter’s life was his leaning of the scripture of God. One of the first things that the Church tried to do once it became largely Greek was to remove itself from its Jewish siblings. Judaism was often considered a threat to the authorities of the Roman Empire, but it was incredibly popular among its citizenry. Christians, therefore, found it necessary to distance themselves from Judaism to avoid attracting fair weather converts who might betray them. Alternatively, and just as often, Greek Christians found the Jews to be uncouth, not as civilized as they were. Plain racism was often a part in motivating the anti-Semitism that came to define the Early Church.

However, leaders in the Early Church tried to prevent this. Here Peter is calling upon his congregations to stay beside rather than abandon Judaism’s contributions to the faith. Why is this? Because they were people through whom God spoke. The words of the prophets throughout history were from God, unquestionably and without room for discussion. This does not mean that people would not react differently or interpret them differently, but that in terms of interpreting the source the Hebrew Scripture the plain truth was that it was not born, “of human will, but [of] men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

While these two concepts seem at times remote to us they should not be. No one is alive today who saw the transfiguration, no one is alive who saw Christ in his earthly ministry. Likewise, we seldom have to argue over whether or not we will include the Old Testament in our canon of Scripture, although such things do happen from time to time. No, we cannot put ourselves directly in the place of Peter’s congregation, but we are allowed for a moment to see how we can testify to Christ here and now. We are not eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration, but we are eyewitnesses to Christ all the same.

We have stories in our lives of God acting on our behalf. Moments that do not make sense unless someone guided them to happen. We have transformation in our character, habits and hates that we abandoned because of God. God breaking in, chasing us down, working within our hearts. These moments do not have to be grandiose. Most of them aren’t. We all wish we could have moments like the Transfiguration when God in all of God’s glory stands before us. We all wish we could look Jesus in the eye, ask him questions, yell at him when he doesn’t make sense, eat with him, laugh with him. Despite this wish, God usually works more quietly within our hearts. The subtle push in one direction or another. The voice from nowhere that makes us second guess the word we are about to say or the thing we are about to do.

God is not often appearing in flame on a Holy Mountain. God is appearing in those who teach us to be better. In the person we cannot stand who we have learned to love. In the moments of pain and darkness where the candle of our hope just won’t go out. Peter’s message to us is not that we need to have seen “Majestic Glory,” to speak of our faith. Peter is instead saying that when we speak to others we do not need long elaborate stories to tell, because the only ones that will matter are the real ones that have happened to us. The eyewitness testimony of our day to day is what brings the Kingdom of God into the world.

It was common following Jesus’ ascension for fables to be written that told fantastical stories about Jesus. Jesus as a child repelling dragon, Jesus as a teenager helping his father build houses through miracles, a talking cross coming out and telling the disciples Jesus is now in heaven. These were all circulating at the time this letter is written. To all this Peter makes it clear, stories may help us see truth, but they are only stories. He says, “I come to you not with stories of dragons and talking crosses, but with the plain truth that I saw Jesus do wonders. Not only did I see the wonders of Jesus, but I threw them all out. I abandoned Jesus the first second I got, and you know what, he still took me back. I, Peter, the rock of Christ’s Church, am a screwup, I am a hardheaded idiot, but I am beloved of God and an Apostle of the Church.”

Not one person in this room has a story that is not worth telling. Not one act of God in your life is too small to not bring the full power of the Gospel to light. The irony of the transfiguration is that each and every one of us, through the work of Christ, are now vessels of the Holy Spirit. Within us is God, the full glory of God, the Morning Star which rises in our Hearts. The Spirit within, that Majestic Glory that Peter saw, it will make us shine in our due time. When we speak the truth about what God has done for us, with no exaggeration or downplaying, we speak not of human will, but as people moved to speak by God’s Spirit. So, we must follow the Spirit, we must be transformed, but above all, we must speak the story, our story, that the Spirit has given us. – Amen

God’s Greatest Gift – A Typo Lectionary Reading 02/16/2020

Today’s Gospel reading should have been, Matthew 5:21-37. However, God saw fit to have me write it incorrectly on my calendar and bring a different word from out of the Scripture.

Matthew 25:21-37

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return, I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

Sermon Text

Last week we discussed giving up something meaningful for Lent. Today we will talk about the ultimate good we can do with Lent. The good that, if we let it, will transform us to do good every day. This good, is stewarding our gifts. Gifts are not always things you want or can use. When someone decides to give you a gift, they may not even mean to give you it as such. Sometimes happenstance gives us amazing gifts, sometimes the accidents and mistakes we make in life lead to untold blessings that could only truly come from God. The gifts we receive can take many forms, but too often we cast them in terms of what we value and what can produce value for us.

If someone gives us a piece of furniture we can sit in it. If we receive a picture we can hang it on the wall and enjoy it. If we get a new appliance it ought to make our lives a little easier. All these things are clear instances of us getting something and then making use of it. The form of the thing is irrelevant because at the end of the day it has a function that we can take advantage of, a thing that we can do with it.

When we are given gifts from God, we cannot be so closed off in our definitions. When we see something appear in our life that we are unsure about, or that causes us an enormous amount of stress, we often see it as bad. The emergence of conflict, internal or otherwise, is too often the death knell of our good feelings about a situation and those things attached to it. The sudden assignment from our supervisor that pushes us to work overtime, the unexpected leak in the basement, the family member who said something that we cannot help but be hurt by. These things come and go and oftentimes the lasting effect on our hearts is one of bitterness, of feeling imposed upon, or worst of all getting something other than what we feel entitled to.

There are things in life that are just bad, beyond redemption in terms of the thing itself. The death of a loved one may send them off to Christ’s kingdom, but we would more often than not give anything to have them next to us. The loss of income will almost always push us to an edge of despair that is hard to handle. The sickness of a dear friend. Trauma that rushes from any description. All these things cannot be written off easily as having any value to us.

No, the extremes of life will leave us with more mixed feelings than we handle on our own. It is not in extreme moments that a person defines what sort of person they are though. It is in the thousand little moments that populate our every day. When we get the extra work we did not want, when we are asked to help the person we do not like when we are inconvenienced or hurt or tired or any number of other wretchedly mundane things.

In these moments God gives us a singular gift that is hard to handle. Not the difficulty in itself, but the responsibility we have to see it handled well and with the love of the other party in mind. The opportunity to do good, this is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. We often talk about God blessing us with money or health, friends or family, blessings upon blessings. Can we see a gift in the harder things of life? In the opportunity to serve God in itself, not only in its antecedents and its consequences?

The reality is that we can only reflect on things in life. In the moment we do not know what we are doing more often than not, except that we are trying to do what is best. The consequences are often unknowable, the things that led to that moment and our ability to respond to it only make sense when all is said and done. The call of Jesus not to plan too far ahead and not to get too caught up in our past is lived out anytime we interact with another human being,  but especially in moments where we are called to work and especially in moments where our work does not sound like it will be anything we want it to be. We are to be children of the present moment, in control of this instance of time and responding to it in a Godly way. We are given the great gift of our own responsibilities.

The scripture today tells criteria of the Christian life – that we aspire to good stewardship and that we work to do good on the behalf of those around us. We are to use all that God gives us and in so doing produce abundantly more than we have had. The parable of the talents imagines a master giving his slaves sixteen years worth of wages to invest as a minimum amount, and that the master anticipates them to work with all of it and make back a great deal with it. The servant who buries the money is called lazy, thrown out because he could not even be responsible enough to give his money to someone who was willing to work with it.

The second parable tells us that we are to help those in need. That Christ will make the separation between his siblings and his enemies not based on the holiness of their prayers or the cleanness of their fingernails, but by the mercy, they show to those in need. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, even visiting prisoners, both guilty and innocent, in jail. Those who see in the wretched people of the world, the poor and displaced and ugly and vilified and hated and maligned and no good and difficult and unloved – those people will enter God’s kingdom.

The two parables close out a discourse of Jesus’ in which he describes one last time before his crucifixion what the Kingdom of God is like, and what the Final Judgment will be like. Jesus tells this to his disciples who will soon abandon him to die on the cross. Those who when faced with the most obvious manifestation of Christ in need choose their own safety over his. These people are whom Jesus in this moment entrusts to know what will pass for holy and profane, good and evil, life and death in the world to come.

Jesus does this so that we who read this today can also learn from our running away from Christ. That we who daily fail to respond to those in need, or who use the difficulties of life to cover up our unwillingness to be kind or helpful to others can become willing. That we who love to say how responsible we are with God’s gifts to us, but shirk the ultimate gift of responsibility in favor of the lesser gifts of monetary comfort, of cheap grace, and of shallow Christianity can come to seize God’s promises for us.

The talents that we receive today, the fortunes constantly thrust upon us, are those responsibilities we have to the people around us. The opportunity to submit our lives to Christ and acknowledge that Christ appears to us in the people we meet every day, especially those who are in need. When we respond to the call Christ has to take care of the needs of others, we will live into our stewardship of that great gift, and it will increase in ways we never could understand.

The people in our lives are given to us, friends and enemies, so that we can be Christ to them and they can be Christ to us. Lest we stay to abstract with what that looks like, I have some stories to share that I know about, all true and all vague to avoid incrimination:

The first goes like this:

Once while working at a church we were rushing to meet someone at the hospital. They were stable but hurting, and they were alone at the hospital while their wife worked. So the ministry team went to pay a visit. While we were hurrying into the hospital one of us noticed another couple from the church and they had the good sense to stop and talk to them. Turns out she was going in for cancer tests and he was struggling to get her out of the car. So between those of us there we were able to help her into a wheelchair, park the car for the husband, and pray with them all while still seeing our intended audience. Those two felt strong and loved and that carried them through the next month until she passed, and the next six months until he moved away. That one moment, small as it was, confirmed their church and God loved them.

The second goes like this:

A person who had good reason to oppose the church was talking to some faithful people. They were working on a work schedule and someone offered to take her shifts for her because of her workload and some personal problems going on in her life. She smiled and thanked them but somehow the conversation came to the good the Christian was doing and she said, “You believe in heaven, of course, so you never really do anything selflessly do you?” The Christian took a moment and said, “Well, if God gives me the good work to do, then do I need another reward?” That sort of conversation happened a few times, and they grew to be great friends and love and respect one another even in the midst of differences. God’s love was strong enough to bind them as friends.

Finally, one last story goes like this:

A conversation was held between two people. One was rushing off and realized they could not do both thing A and thing B and they were distraught. Their friend offered to do thing A for them and this busy person said, “No, that’s alright, I can’t make it up to you and it wouldn’t be fair.” The friend responded, “Friends help friends, that’s what they do. I’ve got this.” A year later the person who was helped that day told their friend, “You were the first person to ever put friendship in those terms. I had never heard love described that way before.” One moment, stuck with that person for months and maybe even to this day.

The simple fact about what we do in life is that it has consequences. The simple fact about everything we are given by God is that it is an opportunity to be responsible. The greatest gift of God to us, outside of Godself, if one another. The responsibility we have to each other to be good, to steward one another’s well being, and to above all else love one another as God has loved us. We can give up a lot of things in the name of serving God, we can do a number of things in terms of serving God. However, the thing that bind all our actions is love, and the only expression of it that matters is between us and our neighbor, us and our enemy, us and the least of these. – Amen

A Real Fast – Lectionary 02/09/2020

Isaiah 58:1-9

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you: the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.

Sermon Text

The final verse of our scripture today should be familiar to most of us. Some months ago we discussed the yoke that we people of faith continually put on ourselves. The pointing finger and the speaking of evil. These were ways that we could escape our own culpability. Or, if we were not worried about escaping blame to at least feel better about ourselves at the expense of others. At the time we discussed the greatest obstacle to our repenting as a lack of honesty about where we were in life – opting to blame others rather than look within ourselves.

Today we read the opening injunction of God’s case against God’s people. God was not just concerned with the people placing blame, God was also concerned about their tendency to see themselves as innocent of all guilt. They came before God and said, “Lord, we are so good, we are well behaved and we do all our religious duties, but you still won’t give us the time of day. What’s going on?” Of course, when we frame it this way, we caricaturize the people of God. Generalizations, like finger-pointing, are easy to do after all. When we want to we can talk about the overly religious people we know, those who have the form of righteousness but none of the substance.

Already in describing the principle of these, “fake” religious practitioners some of us will begin conjuring up examples in our head. Maybe that minister we don’t like on the radio. Perhaps the young radical minister who is involved in politics we do not agree with. Public officials and world leaders who we have written off as abusers of the title, “Christian,” without having the clout to justify their use of it. While it is good to be aware of when we are being taken advantage of by people who claim to be part of the church, this is not the primary purpose of such prophetic calls. We must turn the mirror inward before we ever look outward. We must take Isaiah’s words here and apply them to ourselves.

Isaiah gives us an image of the people of God that should remind us of ourselves. They are people who love God and desire to know God’s ways. They pray and they fast and they look to see how God is moving in the world. The literal rendering of the phrase, “Delight to know your ways,” is, “They delight to see how you act.” In other words, the people of God are not just looking for rules about how they should live – they want to know how God lives so that they can model that behavior. Isaiah here does something that we are not often willing to do, he establishes the good intent of the sinful people around him.

We often want things to be cut and dry, black and white, in our discussion of moral behavior. Either a person is completely good and well-intentioned or reprobate and bent on evil. Now, I am not sure about you, but I can count on one hand the number of people I have met who were simply bad for the sake of being bad. I can think of many more people who were misguided and who acted in evil ways to do what they thought was best. Think of all those people throughout history who did what they thought was for, “The greater good,” only for us to look back and be able to see clearly how misplaced their actions really were.

We could draw from extreme examples throughout history that muddy the water rather than clarify anything, and so let us look at a simple story of right intent going very wrong. Thomas Midgley Jr. was an inventor in the early 1900s. Midgley was a chemist who developed revolutionary treatments that allowed for revolutionary industrial developments. The first allowed for gasoline to run in cars without knocking, the second allowed for aerosol cans to be produced en masse.

Midgley set out to revolutionize how we live. His inventions allowed for mass transit and for refrigeration and compression of gases. Unfortunately, the two things he had invented were leaded gasoline and Chlorofluorocarbons. The former invention filled the developed world with lead – causing low-grade lead poisoning in generations of people. The latter invention would lead to the destruction of the Ozone layer over Australia. No single organism, not since the first photosynthetic microbe eons ago, has produced more atmospheric disturbances than Midgley.

Now, no one could look to Midgley and say that he had purposefully done something evil. It would be years before research into these inventions would show their true danger. However, had he known and acted things would be different. Understanding consequence can make a difference in how we treat a person’s actions. Can a person who does not know the damage they do be held accountable? That is a big question, but or Midgley the answer, I think, is no.

Isaiah presents the people of God, and that includes us, as fully aware of what we have done. We are cast as those who have good intent but have neglected to acknowledge the wrong that we know we are doing. Isaiah, voicing God’s frustration, puts it this way. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

In other words, God highlights what the people are doing as fundamentally a show of humility without the substance of humility. The fasts and the prayers are a show because the people have forgotten what makes upright action. It is not in abuse of self or displays of abject humility, but in doing good toward other people. The well-intentioned people of God have forgotten that right intention only ever gets you as far as imagining good for other people and never actually doing it.

As we said earlier, the people of God wanted to see how God acted. The problem is that having found themselves in the safe comfort of their own imaginative intentions, they began to imagine rather than look at what God wants from them. “Clearly God,” said the devout worshipper, “Would want me to show my faith loud and proud. I make sure I fast twice a week. I make sure that I mourn my sins and say my prayers just as I am supposed to. My eyes are wet constantly from my knowledge that I am a sinner and I am not up to snuff, and I am the humblest I ever could be. I am exactly what God wants.”

The ancient worshipper and those of us seated here today are no different. We adore esteeming ourselves as wretched creatures. We embrace our sackcloth and ashes because if we think of ourselves as nothing but worms it means that anyone who thinks better of themselves than that is proud in comparison. If we believe this then our inevitable failings are covered in our own self-awareness. We excuse ourselves of all evil because at least we are not like those people doing those things over there!… and just like that we have a pointing finger. How strange. That no matter how long we sit and talk about our sinfulness, we begin to see that finger forming to free us from any actual responsibility.

The scripture we read today is clear that our good intentions are not enough. It is also clear that we should not discredit them. Each person gathered here today desires God in their heart. If we are honest, a great deal of people out there desire God and want to see God fulfilled in their life. The thing that prevents us from changing, from loving, from working, is the pointing of the finger that happens when we stop at imagining good for other people and not acting upon it.

God tells God’s people, God tells us, that the only fast that truly matters is a change in our hearts that frees other people. God describes our tendency to pray in church and proclaim to the world our love of God and neighbor, all while feeding into systems that hurt both parties. We are a people who salute companies for paying several million dollars in ads for commercials that support our values, instead of using that money to see them lived out. We are a people who will talk for days about how the media and a lack of prayer in school are hurting our children, but when we get the chance to talk to them take that time to insult and degrade them.

We are not well-intentioned people ignorantly causing pain. We are well-intentioned people who, unable to accept that our current ways are wrong, just change the facts to say they are actually doing good. We are not like Thomas Midgley Jr. we are like the people in Judah we read about today. We oppress our siblings on the Sabbath, we support political, legal, and social systems that choke the poor under unyielding yokes, and we do whatever we can to make ourselves feel like the heroes even as the world burns under the heat of our conduct.

As we near Lent, now just seventeen days away, we need to think about what it will mean to us. In this period of prayer, fasting, and repentance are we going to give up something that will show the world how good we are? Give up chocolate of Facebook, or any number of other things that we can proudly tell people we were strong enough to overcome? Or will we engage in a real fast, giving up those comforts we are not always willing to admit we enjoy? Will we give up our hoarded wealth for the cause of the poor, give up our security to let the stranger feel secure, give up our power and privilege to free the oppressed. Will we take off our yoke or not?

Light in the Darkness – Presentation of our Lord 2020

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles  and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Sermon Text

    Light is one of the primary symbols of the Church. It is also one that we have let be stolen away from us. We surround ourselves with light. Florescent bulbs fill our work places, our houses are covered in screens and bulbs, lamps and appliances that all blink or shine out. We are wrapped in photons, we do not know what it is to be lost in the dark. Whenever we are left in the dark, we find ourselves unable to cope. We keep candles and flashlights in emergency drawers to make sure that we never find ourselves without light.

    In making light commonplace we have created two tendencies of our mind. Firstly, we create a place in our life where we cannot function outside of the brightness we surround ourselves with. Even for those of us who like to sit in the dark sometimes, our enjoyment of the dark is usually dependent on our ability to end it at any time. The power we have over the dark removes its sting. Secondly, by surrounding ourselves always with light we have made it so that we cannot understand what light has meant to people historically. When we read metaphors that describe God as a light at our feet, or as the light in the darkness of the world, we have no concept of true darkness.

    The destruction of light symbolically carries beyond our literal usage of light in worship or our homes. In our spiritual lives we have wrapped ourselves us in truism and comforting feelings to the point that when we enter into a place of distress, we have no idea what to do. We have understood our Christianity as a thing that makes life easy, that removes anxiety from our life, that means we will always feel the presence of God beside us. We have lit so many lights around ourselves – lights of comforting words without substance – that when they go out we have no idea how to make our way in the dark. Yet, for many of us, the dark encroaches more often than we would like.

    For the faithful person the light of Christ is not always obvious. For the faithful person the light of Christ may seem far off and impossible to grasp. For the faithful person, assurance is not always just a bible citation away. Our faith is not made up of peaks of celebration, it is not an endless song of praise, it is oftentimes a place of pain and confusion, misunderstandings and questions. Like any relationship, it is defined by the hurt as much as the help we feel in our life. 

    Our scripture today tells us the story of two people who sat in a place of darkness. Each one a person of faith, but at the same time each one acutely aware of their position. One is given a voice, the other is kept silent – two responses we all face in those moments where we wait for Christ to come shine light into our life. Christ appears to both the silent and the loud, to man and woman, and as Simeon reveals, to foreigner and national. 

    Simeon is the first to speak, and the person who receives the most discussion from scholars. We know that his entire life has been waiting for God to end the Roman occupation of his people. He has waited for a Messiah to redeem him and his people. God promised him that redemption was his, and all he had to do was wait. As long as he waited he could depend on the eventuality of the Messiah. And he waited, and he waited, and he waited.

    The Song of Simeon which we receive in verse 29 is Simeon responding to Christ after years without him. Knowing in his heart that God had not forgotten him, feeling the Spirit working in him, but nonetheless unable to see the deliverance of God. Simeon is only seen in scripture shouting his peace, “Lord, now you are releasing your servant in peace!” But the words of that prayer are telling… Now Lord, in this instant, at long last, I can depart in peace. Simeon lived a life full of service to God, of love of God, but only now was able to see God. A light in the darkness, a light of revelation for all nations.

    Anna likewise tells us a silent story of waiting for God. We are told that she was a servant of God, a prophet who inhabited the Holy city. The scripture uses a convoluted formulation to tell us how long she had waited, fully dependent on God. While our translation read today says she was a widow of 37 years, and that she was now 84, a better reading of the text is as follows. “She had been 37 when he was widowed, and for 84 years she lived as a widow.” In other words, Anna was about 105 years old at the time she met Jesus.

    Anna lived for 84 years as a widow. Though we cannot understand this today, widows in the ancient world had nothing to keep them safe. If they had children then they were obligated to care for her, but many widows were also childless. Her position as prophetess suggests she is one such widow. She lived with little to no income, she lived with only the Temple to protect her, she lived with the Spirit of God speaking through her, but only as much providence as could get her to the next day. Never more food than was set before her, never more security than the little bit the courts of the Temple would provide. 

    Anna is given no word of dialogue. She is said to have been worshipping God day and night. She fasted and prayed. Despite her seeming lack of words she had a faith few could match. Though she is silent, she is presented as more openly faithful. While Simeon gives us a prayer to pray, his life was one of weariness – Christ appearing to him was the relief he needed to finally come to rest. While Anna was silent, her life was one of outward focuses worship – Christ appearing was to her the moment she could rejoice most fully, the fulfillment of a life lived loudly.

    The darkness of our life is not created so that we can see the light. The bad in life does not exist so we can acknowledge the good. However, if we are honest we will see the darkness around us. We try hard to live lives removed from pain or doubt or worry, but it is still there. The reality of darkness is not a tool to teach us to love the light better, but when we acknowledge it we will love light nonetheless. Consider how, when we leave the lights of even our rural existence, when we go deep into the mountains and see the stars spread out across the skies. The best I ever heard the night sky described is by Joseph Fink, “We understand the lights… We understand the lights But the sky behind those lights, mostly void, partially stars, that sky reminds us: We don’t understand even more.” That Christ shines into the darkness of our life means that there is one thing we can understand – warmth and love, Eternity and the Present, body and blood. Even as we find ourselves awash in trouble, in a world we cannot understand, we have peace and potentiality.

    Today as we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we come to see Christ. The bread and juice consecrated and broken is for us the presence of God among us. Can we, in our confession and our prayer in this moment, remove the artificial light we have surrounded ourselves with? Can we cast aside fluorescent platitudes and incandescent truism and let ourselves admit that, for some of us, we currently stand in darkness? For some of us the wait has been long, and for some of us we have just now found ourselves in the void. Wherever we are, in dark or in light, let us come close to Christ and look to his light. A light for revelation to all people, and consolation for the beloved of God.