Scripture - John 20:1-18
John 20:1-18 (The Message)
20 1-2 Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was moved away from the entrance. She ran at once to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, gasping for breath. “They took the Master from the tomb. We don’t know where they’ve put him.”
3-10 Peter and the other disciple left immediately for the tomb. They ran, neck and neck. The other disciple got to the tomb first, outrunning Peter. Stooping to look in, he saw the pieces of linen cloth lying there, but he didn’t go in. Simon Peter arrived after him, entered the tomb, observed the linen cloths lying there, and the kerchief used to cover his head not lying with the linen cloths but separate, neatly folded by itself. Then the other disciple, the one who had gotten there first, went into the tomb, took one look at the evidence, and believed. No one yet knew from the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. The disciples then went back home.
11-13 But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus’ body had been laid. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?”
13-14 “They took my Master,” she said, “and I don’t know where they put him.” After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn’t recognize him.
15 Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?”
She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Sir, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”
16 Jesus said, “Mary.”
Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” meaning “Teacher!”
17 Jesus said, “Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went, telling the news to the disciples: “I saw the Master!” And she told them everything he said to her.
“A New Creation” by Rev. Sarah Are
Of course it happened in a garden--
Dark earth and sunrise,
Fresh air and bird songs,
Trees that had not yet been cut down for crosses,
And flowers that had not yet been pressed for oil.
Of course Mary found Jesus there--
Alive and well among the fig trees and flowers.
For in a garden
There is growth after the harvest,
Beauty after the rain,
And that constant refrain--
“It was good. It was good.
God saw it,
And it was good.”
So of course he’d end up in a garden--
New life invites new life.
He and those budding flowers were one and the same.
However, he also must have known he’d find us in that garden,
For new life fills in the holes of our pain in ways that nothing else can.
It’s holding a baby at a funeral,
Bringing flowers to the hospital,
And searching for the sunrise after the night.
It’s singing lullabies at our nightmares,
Holding hands in the dark,
And writing letters in the face of isolation.
So this Easter season I plan to place my heart under big trees and blue skies,
Because the broken parts of me need a type of garden-like healing.
And like a gardener, I will surround my
Loneliness and heartache,
My suffering and grief,
Until the roots of those flowers are tangled up with the worst parts of me
And I can finally see what God sees;
Until the roots of those flowers are tangled up in me
And I can look at myself and say,
“It is good.”
For I am in need of a garden-like type of new life--
Growth after the harvest,
Beauty after the rain,
And that constant refrain--
“It was good. It was good.”
Thank goodness I found him in a garden.
Friends, it is in the garden that we see resurrection most clearly
We over these past few weeks of Lent have been journeying with the metaphor of Lent as a spiritual garden, where God unearths what lies fallow within us, what needs to be tended, and what needs to die for new life to emerge. We have yearned for God to cultivate faithfulness, boldness, fruitfulness, wholeness, and devotion - while letting go of self-reliance, fear, productivity, scarcity, and shame.
On Easter we proclaim that Christ is risen - that he is alive and at work in the world making all things new - that with this resurrection reality, we, too, are new creations - even when we don’t feel like this is true….even when we don’t act as if this is true. Resurrection comes in the wake of pain, of suffering, of death and grief as we let go of - as we die to - the needs of our ego, the sin that resides within, the broken edges of our soul. It is a gift we receive when we understand ourselves as wholly and truly beloved of God. In resurrection, we stand at the threshold of a new beginning, a transformation of the heart, a life full and abundant and eternal in God’s love.
Resurrection is a gift. Resurrection is a practice. Resurrection is a new creation. Resurrection is all around us, if we ask God to give us the eyes to see it.
We stand at the end of the season of Lent in front of an empty tomb along with Mary, standing in the garden, confronted with the reality that Christ is alive. In some ways, it feels like we stand nearing the end of a Lent that began last year and persisted as we moved through the pandemic with a constant barrage of unknowns and uncertainties, a season of wilderness wanderings from which we will all soon emerge.
We’ve all experienced some form of death this past year - some of us are in mourning for loved ones who have passed, some of us are grieving missed opportunities. Some of us confronted demons or battled addictions or faced the emptiness of loneliness and isolation. Some of us had our mental health tried and tested. Some of us had our livelihoods put at risk. Some of us came face to face with our own personal sin and brokenness as the busyness that so well serves as a distraction was stripped away and we were forced to confront those places in our souls.
Death is hard and death is painful and death is a part of life; yet we serve a God who says that death does not have the final say.
I want us to take out our seed paper or our seeds - and consider for a moment where you have experienced death in your own life this past year - perhaps it was a habit or unhealthy behavior or attitude, perhaps it was letting go of a toxic relationship - and write it down on one side of the cross. Then take a moment to prayerfully consider what resurrection or new life can spring from that place. Write it on the other side of the cross. I’ll put the questions in the chat, and as the music plays, you’re invited to jot those answers down.
Where have you experienced death in your own life this past year?
Where may God work resurrection in your life?
Instructions (wet overnight, tear into pieces, plant at the sanctuary alongside the path - more details to come about that later)
The Bible begins in a garden - and ends in a garden city. Jesus is laid to rest and resurrected in a garden. Our whole being is like a garden, where God sows seeds to bring abundant harvests of peace and love.
May we seek to be witnesses of God’s resurrection life and power - in our lives, in our communities, and in our world - for Christ is alive and goes before us. He lives among us….around us...and within our hearts. Amen.
Scripture - John 12:1-8
John 12:1-8 (The Message)
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.”
I don’t know what it is about babies and toddlers and kids - but they sure do love to stick their feet in other people’s faces.
I experience this a lot with Genevieve where we’re having to lay down some boundaries around this behavior - where I’ll be rocking her to sleep or nursing before bed and all of a sudden she’s pressing her foot right up against my nose and her feet don’t smell like baby feet anymore - they are starting to smell like little kid feet which makes me sad because she’s growing up so fast...and makes me be like, please, kid, get your feet out of my face...but you know that these moments are fast and fleeting and so I secretly kind of think it’s adorable that she finds mischievous delight in thrusting her heels into my eyes or worming her toes into my mouth or me to nibble on.
There’s something beautiful and vulnerable about our feet - the way they ground us, the way they support us and move us, the way they are connected to the other parts of our bodies. There are over 7,000 nerve endings in each foot. The bones in our feet make up a quarter of the bones in our bodies. If one bone in our foot is out of alignment, our whole body is out of alignment. We receive so much passive information and energy about our environment from going barefoot.
So this passage of scripture that we have here about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet brings us into this shockingly human space -- I mean, feet are a very, very human thing and we don’t really spend a lot of time talking about Jesus’s body parts, and yet there is this tender scene of love and devotion, poured out right at the feet of Jesus.
Artist Lauren Wright Pittman painted this image of the encounter. And she has this to write about it. [Share statement]
This face to face posture...the smell and taste of Christ’s journey...I want to be that close to Jesus.
We’re going to have a bit of discussion around this passage, particularly around what it means to cultivate devotion and letting go of shame.
We’re going to start a bit with the shame idea and move from there - because I think many of us are Good Respectable Christians, right - and this action and its implications are Profoundly Weird and Awkward and aren’t part of what Good Churchgoing Folks Do.
As you think about the story and as you heard the artist’s statement - where is the discomfort in this for you? What would it take to not be bound by that?
What does cultivating this devotion to Jesus look like in your life?
I love the last line of what Lauren Wright Pittman shares: “This is the posture that Jesus calls all of us into; a profoundly uncomfortable, shockingly reverent position; coming face to face, intimately engaging with the residue of Christ’s footsteps to smell and almost taste the journey of Christ.”
May we, too, be so engaged with the world around us, so in tune and aligned with Christ’s heart, that we cannot help but be overflowing with devotion to the one who comes to us again and again, offering mercy and grace. May we not be constrained in our willingness to follow him by how awkward it looks or how strange we are in our unreserved love of Christ. May we see and taste and smell...and touch and hear...Christ drawing us onward on the journey of discipleship, in the witnessing of God’s kingdom, in the wholehearted way that leads toward life...death...and resurrection. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (New Revised Standard Version)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
“Cultivating wholeness...letting go of scarcity.”
We know the story of the first passage of scripture by the title “The Prodigal Son”, and in many ways, that is exactly what the parable is about - a son who demands half of the inheritance, which is more than his fair share. He goes off and squanders it and returns home to his Father’s embrace while his older brother sulks in the background. The story comes after two other parables that Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees in response to their grumbling about the tax collectors and sinners drawing near to listen to him. Those two stories are that of the lost sheep and the lost coin - where the shepherd goes after the one lost sheep in their flock of one hundred and where the woman sweeps her whole house to find one coin that she had lost. In each case, the finders rejoice and throw a celebration with their friends over the restoration of their collections to wholeness.
In this light, taken as a set of parables, our “Prodigal Son” may better be titled “The Lost Son” - though in typical fashion with Jesus’ stories, which son was “lost” to the father may not be the one that is obvious. Much of what I’m sharing can be found in Amy-Jill Levine’s book “Short Stories by Jesus.”
To Jesus’s first century Jewish hearers, when Jesus sets up the scene between these two brothers, they are already predisposed to root for the younger son. Throughout Israel’s history, God always has this preference for the underdog. Clever Jacob gets the blessing instead of his older brother Esau. David, the youngest of the sons of Jesse, gets to be king. Joseph is preferred and elevated ahead of all his older brothers. Identifying with son #2 was what you were supposed to do as a Jewish listener - but when Jesus identifies the self-indulgent, irresponsible behavior of the youngerest...it probably threw his listeners for a loop.
Things go awry for the younger son when a famine comes over the land and he realizes that he’d be better off back on his father’s property - even being treated as a hired hand - than he would be in this foreign land feeding pigs. He rehearses a speech as he’s making his way to his father’s estate - and before he even has a chance to utter a word, his father, moved with compassion, runs to meet him and kisses him. The younger son is welcomed back with the best food and the best clothes and a big party. It seems like a happy ending.
But there’s this other son - that by this point we’ve most likely forgotten about. The father certainly has, because he doesn’t think to invite him to the celebration. The older son is out in the field when he hears the sounds of the party - and coming near the house has to ask a slave what’s been going on. He gets filled in - but this older son has clearly been forgotten by his father...by those at the party...and it’s only when the eldest refuses to go in that the father comes out to talk. The older brother distances himself from his younger brother (he refers to the brother in conversation with his father by saying “your son” instead of “my brother) and tries to remind him of his own faithfulness while highlighting the other brother’s reckless squandering. The father assures his older son that he’s always had his love and affection. Even more, though, the father attempts to restore the relationship between the two brothers by reminding his oldest son of the “resurrection” of his brother. Both brothers are home - wholeness has been restored.
The younger son - he comes back to his father believing that all he would be afforded would be the equivalent of a hired hand...that there wouldn’t be room enough for him, abundance enough for him, to be restored to his former place in the family. There’s a scarcity mentality that makes him think he has to give up his role as his father’s son in order to find a place - whether that decision comes out of remorse or not, we don’t know. But he’s come to the place where he has nothing and he’s worried about scraping enough together just to survive - and instead of finding the barest scraps of sustenance in his father’s house, he finds warm welcome...restoration...wholeness.
The older brother has to let go of scarcity in the sense that he thinks he’ll only get to enjoy the abundance of his father through restrained responsibility. He has operated under the assumption that he doesn’t deserve the joy of feasting with his friends, of enjoying what he has, thinking it belongs only to his father. He’s never asked anything of him, never trusted in the abundance and love his father has for him. When his brother returns, there’s the sense that maybe there’s not room at the table for him, that he’s been overlooked and forgotten, that there simply isn’t enough space for both brothers within his father’s love. What he finds instead with his father is affirmation and enduring love...an invitation to the feast...and a family made whole again.
Even so, the story is left unresolved. We don’t know if the older brother joins the party. We don’t know if the younger brother is truly repentant and understands his reliance upon his family, or even how he feels about this lavish treatment upon coming home. What we do know is that in this story, no one has really expressed regret about hurting one another - and no one has offered forgiveness. Instead, we have a father rejoicing over what was lost being found...a celebration over a restoration to wholeness...and the hope for reconciliation. What also seems to be true as we see the seed of reconciliation planted - both for the prodigal son and for the faithful one - is that they also have to let go of their notions of scarcity in order to discover their place in the family again.
Levine writes, “If we hold in abeyance, at least for the moment, the rush to read repenting and forgiving into the parable, then it does something more profound than repeat well-known messages. It provokes us with simple exhortations. Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection—it is unlikely to happen twice.”
Despite this very practical, on-the-ground advice as we look to embody this parable in our own lives - and look to cultivate wholeness in our relationships, as we look to let go of mindsets that convey scarcity - I mean, have you ever not reached out for help to a friend or family member because you didn’t want to be a burden? There’s a scarcity mindset right there.
So we have this practical advice that Levine offers us, but we play this game with God too. It doesn’t matter which brother we identify with - truthfully, both live inside of us - but God yearns for wholeness - for us, for all of humankind - for all of creation. God comes forward to meet us - grace showering over us before we ever utter a single word. God reminds us of the love and compassion and abundance that are always ours, even when we gripe and complain and point fingers. We are a people who are lost - even when we don’t think we are - and God finds us and welcomes us home.
So let us cultivate wholeness -- remember that in Christ, we are new creations….in Christ, we have been reconciled to God...in Christ….we are made whole….let us let go of scarcity, of feeling like we aren’t enough or aren’t deserving of love and grace - because we are always freely offered life and resurrection from the God who rushes to meet us wherever we are….on the road...in the field...wherever we are on the journey - God finds and embraces us and makes us whole. Amen.
Scripture - Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
Isaiah 55:1-9 (The Message)
1-5 “Hey there! All who are thirsty,
come to the water!
Are you penniless?
Come anyway—buy and eat!
Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.
Buy without money—everything’s free!
Why do you spend your money on junk food,
your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?
Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best,
fill yourself with only the finest.
Pay attention, come close now,
listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.
I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you,
the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.
I set him up as a witness to the nations,
made him a prince and leader of the nations,
And now I’m doing it to you:
You’ll summon nations you’ve never heard of,
and nations who’ve never heard of you
will come running to you
Because of me, your God,
because The Holy of Israel has honored you.”
Seek God while he’s here to be found,
pray to him while he’s close at hand.
Let the wicked abandon their way of life
and the evil their way of thinking.
Let them come back to God, who is merciful,
come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness.
“I don’t think the way you think.
The way you work isn’t the way I work.”
“For as the sky soars high above earth,
so the way I work surpasses the way you work,
and the way I think is beyond the way you think.
Luke 13:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version)
13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Cultivating Fruitfulness....Letting Go of Productivity
[Show film -- text is: Text of video - Art, film, & words by Lisle Gwynn Garrity | A Sanctified Art LLC | sanctifiedart.org:
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a story of a fruitless fig tree once planted with promise, only to grow barren and brittle. The landowner in the parable has returned to its empty branches for three years. With patience worn thin and hope withered, he commands the gardener to cut it down, seeing it as a liability to the soil.
But where the landowner sees waste, the gardener perceives possibility that lies fallow. The gardener has learned from the land that life flows in cycles—budding, flourishing, pruning, death. And so he requests one more year.
Cutting the earth with a shovel, he loosens the clots that have settled like stone so that when water comes, the earth will receive it like a soft kiss. He blankets the roots with manure so that growth can be steadied by hope. And then he lets go.
What happens to the fig tree? Does it live? Does it die? Does it bear any fruit?
We don’t know. And so, if we can’t read the end of this story, then we must write it with our own lives. Because we know what it feels like to be the fig tree, to be deemed worthless, to be weary enough to believe that we don’t deserve to be well. And perhaps we also know what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of the landowner—calculating worth based on what we produce, what we accomplish, what we provide.
Can we cultivate the vision of the Great Gardener, the One who sees you for what you are becoming? The one who tends and prunes, nourishes and lets go?
Perhaps for us, the fruit is not the ending. The fruit is in the waiting, in the dead of winter, in the manure; the nurture, the rest, the darkness. The fruit is in all of it, sowing seeds we can’t yet see.
“WHERE THE FRUIT LIES” by lisle gwynn garrity, inspired by luke 13:6-9, acrylic on canvas | 16x20]
We are so used to evaluating everything - ourselves, other people, opportunities that come our way - as value propositions. It’s embedded in how we think, how we operate. We’re constantly making decisions based on worth - and ascribing worthiness based on production value.
How refreshing it is, then, to hear God say through the prophet Isaiah,
“I don’t think the way you think.
The way you work isn’t the way I work.”
“For as the sky soars high above earth,
so the way I work surpasses the way you work,
and the way I think is beyond the way you think.”
Because God doesn’t look at us and see inputs and outputs. God doesn’t ascribe worth to us based on what we do or don’t do. There’s nothing we can do to change God’s opinion of us. God looks at us and sees hungry, thirsty people in need of a banquet feast of love and mercy and forgiveness - in need of a place of shelter and respite - people who are loved and worthy simply for existing.
This is why I love the shift away from a productivity mindset and towards a fruitfulness one. With productivity, there’s an implication that what you put out is worth more than what you put in - that there’s a constant optimization process where variables are tightly controlled for maximum gain. Efficiency, making the best use of time (and only resting when you are burnt out beyond belief). It’s no wonder that there are mountains of books and products and systems designed for time management...why we have human resource departments. Productivity gets us to a place where we only feel worthy if we’ve done something of value. The fig tree in our parable - produces nothing of value.
Fruitfulness starts in a different place. Fruitfulness comes as a response to God’s initiative and grace in our lives. It’s not something that can be forced or controlled. Fruitfulness arises out of progress along the journey, of becoming more and more aligned with the heart of God. Fruitfulness springs forth from the seasons of waiting and yearning and is something that shows up authentically within us - we cannot create or manufacture fruitfulness. Fruitfulness comes when we embrace that the very ground of our being is our belovedness and turn our hearts over to the One who invites us to the feast without price.
Let go of productivity….cultivate fruitfulness.
May we return yet again to Jesus - the Great Gardener - and trust his work in us as we make our way through the rest of this Lenten season...and open our hearts to the fruitfulness that lies in the resurrection life of Easter. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 13:31-35, Psalm 27
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh--
my adversaries and foes--
they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.
Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
Cultivating Boldness….Letting Go of Fear
I have my fair share of irrational fears. Thunderstorms in the middle of the night. Having a bridge collapse while I’m driving over it...and as a corollary to that, being submerged under water inside a car. When Ben was traveling a lot a few years ago, there’d be that occasional twinge of terror that something catastrophic would happen to his plane. Having blood drawn.
These are all fears where your brain knows that the likelihood of these events happening is miniscule, and yet your heart constricts or your stomach churns anywhere. Or your brain tells you that thousands of people are poked and prodded every day by phlebotomists and you are not physically in any danger whatsoever and your body decides otherwise.
And then there are the fears that reside more deeply within us. I think we’ve all heard the phrase, “Speak Truth to Power!” and for some that’s a rallying cry that gives energy and excitement and purpose. For me - it’s a phrase that terrifies me to the very core of my being. Even more terrifying was the line going around in the wake of George Floyd’s murder about broaching conversations about race and white privilige with friends and family members and that if you weren’t confronting or educating your racist uncle George, you weren’t doing anything meaningful for the cause of equality. For me, fears about conflict and differentiation have a deeper root -- a fear of disconnection...a fear I don’t belong...a fear that I am unworthy.
These are the kinds of fears that strike at the core of who we are, at what we hope or aspire to be, that speak to the struggle of what it means to be human making our way through this world.
The psalmist here speaks of armies, foes assailing flesh, war and trouble - all that causes him to fear and tremble. I think each of us could put in our own litany of fears and anxieties - and we’re going to do just that in a moment. We all live with fears - the question, however, is what exactly we are supposed to do with it.
What the psalmist does with fear is acknowledge it - and seek God. There’s a beautiful moment in verse 4 where instead of running away from the armies, instead of reverting to “fight, flight, or freeze”, instead of badmouthing is enemies and spiraling out of control, there’s a turn toward God. Seeking God’s beauty and presence, looking for God’s provision and protection, staking his life on seeking the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. The psalmist lets fear lead them back to God.
I’ve been listening to a podcast where researcher and author Karla McLaren, who does a lot of emotion work, is being interviewed and if you aren’t familiar with her theories, I suggest you check out her work. Her most recent book is Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius Inside This Vital Emotion and she starts with the idea that there are no positive or negative emotions - that they all function to give us insight and information. They all have a job to do. In her website, fear is “the emotion that tells you when change is occurring, when you need to orient to something in your environment, and when you need to take action to avoid harm or injury.” Anxiety, worry, panic, confusion all fall under this fear category. We feel these things even when we aren’t physically endangered, (thanks evolution) - and yet they do serve to point out things that feel threatening to us. Fear highlights that something is different and that we need to work with what’s going on within us long enough to figure out how we can respond.
So we’re going to do that a bit together - because there’s a lot of change coming - both for our church community as we envision ourselves apart from the United Methodist Church...for ourselves as vaccines come more quickly...and even for all the personal day to day stuff that we carry and the concerns of loved ones.
I’m going to share my screen here - and I’m going to make a list. My first question is -
I’m going to write that down in one column - and let’s try to limit it to one fear per person….and you can unmute yourself and share it or write it down in the chat box.
So the next question is going to take a bit of reflecting. We’ll have a couple minutes to do this, and I’ll put on some music in the background here. The question isn’t how to solve it or change it or “deal with it” - the question is, What’s one way God is inviting you to step into that fear right now?
I think with something like this, when we’re dealing with our fears and our worries and anxieties, one of the most important things that we can do is acknowledge them -- name them -- honor them -- because they tell us something important about what’s going on and how we can care for ourselves in the midst of them. But I also believe it’s important to seek God in the midst of those emotions - and this is where I love our Gospel passage - where Jesus is lamenting over Jerusalem, longing to gather its children together like a mother hen gathering her chicks when there’s trouble and danger around. We imagine and invite Jesus into that space - into our fear - into the worry and concern….and in that sheltered, protected space, we realize that our fears give us the energy...the impetus...to be courageous and bold in our response.
To cultivate boldness, we must be willing to acknowledge and sit with our fear, letting go of its power over us. We invite Jesus to be with us, to help orient us, so that we can respond in love and courage.
My prayer for us as we move into the week ahead is that we take the time to let our fears teach us...and that we seek God’s abiding presence to ground ourselves again and again in our own belovedness...enabling us to live as bold witnesses for love and grace on this island and in the world.
Scripture - Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (The Message)
26 1-5 Once you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance and take it over and settle down, you are to take some of all the firstfruits of what you grow in the land that God, your God, is giving you, put them in a basket and go to the place God, your God, sets apart for you to worship him. At that time, go to the priest who is there and say, “I announce to God, your God, today that I have entered the land that God promised our ancestors that he’d give to us.” The priest will take the basket from you and place it on the Altar of God, your God. And there in the Presence of God, your God, you will recite:
A wandering Aramean was my father,
he went down to Egypt and sojourned there,
he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon
they became a great nation, mighty and many.
The Egyptians abused and battered us,
in a cruel and savage slavery.
We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers:
He listened to our voice, he saw
our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight.
And God took us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great,
with signs and miracle-wonders.
And he brought us to this place,
gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits
of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.
10-11 Then place it in the Presence of God, your God. Bow low in the Presence of God, your God. And rejoice! Celebrate all the good things that God, your God, has given you and your family; you and the Levite and the foreigner who lives with you.
Cultivating Faithfulness….Letting Go of Self-Reliance
It seems a little counterintuitive to share a passage about the end of desert, wilderness wanderings when we’re right at the beginning of the season of Lent - the season so often compared to going out into the wilderness to resist temptation, to stretch and test and try our spiritual muscles, to battle demons - or to sit and learn in those places of discomfort, as Ben preached about last week. Lent so often carries with it this image of depriving ourselves - of stubbornly resisting temptation - and here in Deuteronomy we’re presented with a full table, an abundant harvest, a feast that brings together friend and stranger and sojourner alike.
The Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land. They had been wandering for 40 years, living in tents, and here they find themselves overlooking the Jordan river with everything they had been working for, sacrificed for, wandering for just within reach. They had made it - and their whole world was about to change. They were about to go from being a nomadic people to cultivators of the land, a fundamental shift in how they understood themselves as a people.
Even as they enter this new phase of their history, God does not want them to forget their past. God instructs them to remember their heritage, remember the mighty acts of liberation God performed on their behalf, and to remember that it was God who brought them into this Promised Land. Above all, they are to remember God’s care and provision for them throughout their history even to the present day - and to cultivate faithfulness in response to the new responsibility of living as God’s people in a settled land. They would need reminders of God’s action and deliverance as again and again the Israelites wandered away to be like the surrounding nations, worshipping other gods, exploiting the poor, widow, and orphan - these words of bringing firstfruits would serve as a call to faithful and generous living in response to the God who saved them to a new life.
This also is a passage that reminds the Israelites - and us - that we can’t go on this journey alone - that it is God who moves before us, behind us, among us - God who opens the opportunities for us to enter and experience life. Liberation is not something that happens through our own merit, but by God’s strength. Growth is not something we eke out for ourselves, but comes through God’s grace. Our identity rests first and foremost as beloved children of God - apart from anything we try on our own merits. We rely not on our own strength or savvy or grit to make it through life - but on God’s care and provision for us. God invites us to let go of self-reliance...and cultivate faithfulness instead - a faithfulness that is rooted in our true selves as children of the Creator.
There’s a beautiful quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint. She writes:
“Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school - they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are.”
What if, this Lent, instead of denying ourselves the extra sweets or scaling back the social media - not that those aren’t good things in and of themselves - what if we let go of all the places where we try to define ourselves and go our own way - letting go of the voices that try to tell us who we are, the voices of “I’m not good enough”, “I don’t belong” “I’m not smart enough” “I don’t need help” or “You’re a failure” “You need better things to be worthy” - what if we let go of the notion that we can do life on our own, that we our value is determined by what we produce or by what we own or by the number of people in our social circle - what if we let go of that and invited God to cultivate faithful, generous lives - responding to the God who saves us again and again from our sins, who reminds us again and again that we are beloved, who calls us children?
Faithfulness takes seriously the claim that we belong to God - that is the heart of our response. We remember God’s action in our lives in the past, notice God’s movement in the present, and trust in God’s leadings for the future. Our actions, our decisions, our attitudes flow from this center. Faithfulness isn’t blind trust or performing spiritual acts to make ourselves look good or claiming to be holier than we are. Faithfulness doesn’t mean we aren’t scared or worried or question things. Faithfulness means that we look for God first and align our hearts and our lives around God’s love...God’s purposes...and God’s kingdom made real among us.
We are starting out Lent with this image of bounty - of firstfruits cultivated in a new land and laid as an offering before the one who created us, who came down as one of us in Jesus Christ, and who will never leave us abandoned. Let us think of this season as one of spiritual gardening. “We invite God to unearth in us what lies fallow, what needs to be tended, and what needs to die for new life to emerge.” We let go so that God can cultivate within us.
I want to close with this poem written by Rev. Sarah Are from A Sanctified Art: I want you to imagine God reading this letter to you - it’s entitled “A letter to someone I love.”
Dear loved one--
I hope you let go.
I hope you let go of holding yourself to impossible standards.
Lower the bar. Give yourself grace.
God delights in who you are.
And while you’re at it, I hope you let go of ignoring your beauty.
The mirror is tired of your harsh words, for you are made of star stuff and music.
You are the only you there is, and you. are. simply. stunning.
And I hope you’ll consider letting go of certainty.
For the sun will always rise and set, and you will always be loved.
What more do we really need to know than that?
So let go of your fear.
Let go of perfection.
Let go of busyness as a sign of your self worth,
And the notion that creativity is a luxury.
Be wild and free.
Plant roots like a redwood,
And a spine like a sunflower;
For the days are short, and you are beautiful.
I love nothing more than to see you happy.
So don’t be afraid to let go.
The only thing you cannot lose is God’s evergreen love.
Before we read our scripture passage today, I want you to think about everything that is wrong in your life. That seems a bit counter-intuitive, I know, but trust me on this. We’re going to do a kind of the antithesis of “Counting Your Blessings.” -- sort of like Alexander in the Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day….where basically everything goes wrong for poor Alexander and he wants to move to Australia, and at the end he realizes that people have bad days in Australia too - like, the grass is never any greener elsewhere.
So let’s get the list going -- I’ll start -- it’s really hard to wait my turn with the vaccine (or I haven’t seen my family in over 6 months or haven’t had a proper date with Ben in almost a year or…)
The passage that we’re about to hear today was written for the Israelites living in Babylon near the end of the exile. Just as a brief reminder of your Bible history, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem around 600 BCE and eventually conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, including the Temple. King Nebuchadnezzer deported much of the city’s population to Babylon.
The Jews living in Babylon had lost the Promised Land and had been living for generations in this new place. The Temple - their most sacred symbol of God’s presence among the people - had been destroyed. They were a people without a home, without a sense of identity, longing for and mourning what they had lost and had no idea if they would ever see themselves having a place and a purpose again. (Maybe that puts some of our things in perspective but it also means that those who heard and understood these words knew hardship and struggle).
So they were having a very long Terrible Horrible Very Bad Day.
It’s into that situation that the prophet Isaiah spoke. So keep that in mind - and keep what you’re carrying in mind as well as we hear Isaiah 40:21-31. We’ll hear it read from the Contemporary English Version.
Scripture - Isaiah 40:21-31
Isaiah 40:21-31 (CEV)
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
Isn’t it clear that God
created the world?
God is the one who rules
the whole earth,
and we that live here
are merely insects.
He spread out the heavens
like a curtain or an open tent.
God brings down rulers
and turns them into nothing.
They are like flowers
freshly sprung up
and starting to grow.
But when God blows on them,
and are carried off
like straw in a storm.
The holy God asks,
“Who compares with me?
Is anyone my equal?”
Look at the evening sky!
Who created the stars?
Who gave them each a name?
Who leads them like an army?
The Lord is so powerful
that none of the stars
are ever missing.
You people of Israel, say,
“God pays no attention to us!
He doesn’t care if we
are treated unjustly.”
But how can you say that?
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the eternal God,
Creator of the earth.
He never gets weary or tired;
his wisdom cannot be measured.
The Lord gives strength
to those who are weary.
Even young people get tired,
then stumble and fall.
But those who trust the Lord
will find new strength.
They will be strong like eagles
soaring upward on wings;
they will walk and run
without getting tired.
Part of me thinks I really should have had Ben preach part of this sermon, because one of the things that struck me as I was reading this text was that it’s written to a people at the end of exile who will be getting ready to go back to their homeland and rebuild….and here we are, in the midst of our own restoration project on Firehouse road.
I think most of you know what the inside of that place was like when we bought it over a year ago. I won’t go into full on detail about what it was like wading through the inside of this abandoned property - but let’s say that seeing beyond the piles of filth and neglect took some imagination. When we came to it, it was a sad little house, an overgrown property, an eyesore and a spot of grief for so many who remembered what it was like in happier times in the past.
Bit by bit, we - and I mostly mean Ben - have taken the time to clear it out, tend to the grounds, and have begun constructing a vision for what that place could be again - with fruit trees, children’s laughter, blossoming gardens, and dinner gatherings. Bit by bit - trash bag by trash bag, I can see the project take shape. It’s easy to see the unfolding of this vision as the house tangibly changes as a result of our work and effort.
What happens, though, when that rebuilding isn’t so tangible?
We have here words from the beginning of what is called the “Book of Consolation” in Isaiah - a book that provides encouragement and comfort to a people, preparing them to return to their homeland. Here in this passage, the questions spoken by God aren’t meant to be answered, but to remind the people who really is in charge, and to get them back into a different mindset -- one of hope for a future and a readiness to rebuild.
But I have to wonder how these words landed with those living in exile. Presumably, the older generation may have remembered what life had been like in their homeland, but newer generations did not. The generation that sees the end in this story - a return to Judah - wasn’t present for the beginning. Any memories or stories of Jerusalem were before their time in captivity in Babylon - and that world had been wiped away. What does restoration look like when you know that you can never truly go back to what was? What does hope look like then?
This passage serves to not only encourage them that they will be restored, but tells them that they can also withstand the pains of restoration.
We face in our reality a similar transition. We have certainly carried our own share of troubles in our very own national and global Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. The rollout of the vaccine promises a restoration of “normalcy” that many of us have been craving for almost a year, but supply and distribution continue to be problematic. We’re still reeling from partisan divisions - divisions that may have been exacerbated under the previous administration but that have not gone away. Truth, facts, and reality seem to be up for negotiation from huge segments of our country’s population. We’re still in the midst of the pandemic with its economic challenges and mental health difficulties of loneliness and isolation. The end is in sight for some of these things - but as we move forward, what does hope and restoration really look like as we take stock of all that we have lost? How can we get back to normal when normal is what landed us in this situation in the first place?
Sometimes, where you start is acknowledging the difficulty of your current reality, the challenge that lies ahead, and then stepping into the vision of what you hope will be….and trusting God’s work and movement in the midst of that.
This, I think, is the power in this passage. God reminds the people - and us - that God is involved and present throughout all of history - through the very creation of the cosmos. There is nothing that compares to God’s sovereignty - and God will continue to act in the world to bring healing and wholeness and restoration - not in the sense that things will be back to the way they were, but closer to the way God always intended them to be.
That’s not a project that will just suddenly happen. That world will not suddenly appear - that’s a project that needs hands and feet to enact.
God prepared the Israelites for the rebuilding of their homeland and the hard work ahead - they cannot go back to what was. God prepares us, too, for the work of rebuilding as we recover from the pandemic - and we, too, cannot go back.
I’ve heard so many people talk about what they hope will be different going forward - more priority on spending time with loved ones. Slowing down the frantic pace of life. Shopping more locally and with greater intention. Learning how to do without, or being more creative with the resources they have on hand. Paying more attention to how policies from our government or state affect vulnerable populations among us and our planet. Allowing more time for prayer and gratitude. Spending more time doing the things that honor God and God’s movement in their life.
As we come out of this unsettling, uncertain, and disorienting time - there is a wonderful opportunity to reorient ourselves in ways that give us life, that are aligned with God’s hopes and dreams for us and our world, that enable us to partner with God’s work in our community, giving life and hope to others. We have a chance to widen our spiritual imaginations to live and be in ways that witness to the healing and redemptive work of God in our lives and in the world. That’s something more than what name is on our sign or what denomination we’re a part of -- that’s something about who we are as individuals and as a community seeking after Jesus. It’s that vision that we should be yearning after with our whole being because we serve a God who cares about people over principles, who gives hope and strength to those who live in trust that God is weaving all things for God’s greater purposes for all of creation.
And so as we enter this time of transition - both as we rebuild as a community and as we approach the vote that impacts our relationship with the United Methodist Church - my prayer is that we look to God for faith and trust in the midst of the waiting...that we look to God for hope in the efforts of rebuilding...that we look to God for the vision to live and act as witness to the grace and truth present in Jesus Christ...that we follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in being people of abundant life and hope in service to others.
May God be with us as we move into these days together - may we look only to Jesus to guide our steps - and may the Spirit grant us strength and renewal in the time ahead. Amen.
We’re going to do some Bible study around our text for this morning, and before I read it - I have a question. What does it mean when someone speaks with authority on a topic? What about exercising authority toward others?
The passage that we’re going to read today gets at the heart of Jesus’s authority and how others reacted to his presence - and what that authority means for us as disciples of Jesus.
Scripture - Mark 1:21-28
Mark 1:21-28 (New Revised Standard Version)
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
A bit of background on this text before we move into some discussion- and much credit to the work of Faith Element for the background on this text.
We see Jesus teaching in Capernaum at the synagogue on the sabbath. We don’t know what he’s talking about or anything about the content of his teaching except that the people who were there were astounded. This is another area where the translation from Greek to English misses a lot of the nuance. The word exesplanto - which gets translated as astounded - doesn’t mean they were impressed with what Jesus had to say. It means astounded to the point of being overwhelmed, shocked, or panicked. Probably Jesus’s words were so moving that they struck people at the heart and perhaps made some of them uncomfortable. Jesus was not like any other teacher they had ever heard before.
Now the man with an unclean spirit comes on the scene - and cries out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us?” The spirit recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God and realizes that he could destroy them. And he does - he silences the spirit and banishes it - and the people were amazed - again we lose something in translation - the Greek word means amazed or terrified.
But what’s important here as well is that the people saw this act of healing as a new teaching with authority. Jesus’s teaching made the man whole. According to Nikki Hardiman at Faith Element, “Jesus did not teach like the other teachers. Jesus’s teachings were liberating and they brought wholeness.”
At the end of the passage, we read that Jesus' fame spread - his fame spread because of this new way of teaching with authority - his words and his actions bringing liberation and wholeness to the people. This is the important part of the story - that the authority of Jesus as the Holy One of God is bound up in the very nature of Jesus himself - that Jesus is the new teaching that liberates us and brings us to wholeness.
So let’s talk a little bit more about this passage together.
Do you think that Jesus’ authority came from the manner in which he spoke, or his content… or both?
Why might Jesus’ impressive teaching have triggered the episode with the unclean spirit?
Does our place as followers of Jesus give us the right to speak as people of authority too? Explain. If not, how should we speak?
When we speak and act on Jesus’ behalf today, will others automatically be drawn? What about our words and actions can point others to Jesus? (Work with video, if time or conversation leads in that direction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YztvjePz0uk&feature=youtu.be)
Jesus’ teachings are ones that liberate and bring wholeness. Where does Jesus need to work more fully in your life to lead you closer to wholeness?
I want that last question to lead us into our time of sharing joys and concerns - because those are the places we can be in prayer for each other for. We’re not on this journey alone - being a church means that we trust God to be present among us and that we can share our vulnerabilities with one another because we’re all on the journey together. Jesus continues to heal us through his word and his actions to restore us to greater wholeness and love. We can pray for and with one another in these moments.
Scripture Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20
Jonah 3:1-10 (The Message)
Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”
3 This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.
Nineveh was a big city, very big—it took three days to walk across it.
4 Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”
5 The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.
6-9 When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: “Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!”
10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.
Mark 1:14-20 (New Revised Standard Version)
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
I love the book of Jonah. Many of us are familiar with the story, and if you have 10 minutes, I encourage you to read this book, which is satire. Here’s a quick refresher: Jonah gets a message from God to prophesy against the city of Ninevah - a major city in Assyria that had conquered Israel. Needless to say, the Israelites weren’t huge fans of the Assyrians and Jonah is no exception. He decides to go in the opposite direction, hoping to escape the command of God. He boards a ship only to come face to face with a terrible storm. As the crew are throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load, the sailors discover that the storm is Jonah’s fault. Jonah volunteers to be thrown overboard as well, and consequently a big fish swallows him up. Jonah appears to have a revelation while inside its belly, whereupon God causes the fish to vomit Jonah up onto the shore. This is where our story picks up - and we see Jonah half-heartedly walking across the city for three days, yelling out a one-liner of judgment, with no mention of God or how they can change their ways - and all of a sudden the whole city repents, even the animals are commanded by the king to join in the fasting and to put on sackcloth.
Contrast what Jonah pronounces: “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed” to the one-liners that Jesus delivers in the Gospel text: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
In Jonah’s case, of course, the book is satire; it’s meant to be an exaggeration - a story of a reluctant prophet sent to convey judgment upon Israel’s enemies - and he’s reluctant because he knows how merciful and compassionate God is and he doesn’t want to give the Ninevites a chance to receive the mercy he feels is reserved for his people alone. Of course, a message of pure doom and destruction wouldn’t normally play well in any given situation. It makes me think about people who stand on street corners and preach hellfire and eternal punishment - does anyone really respond to that? I remember one individual in particular, who wore a gigantic billboard with every “turn or burn” stereotype you could think of plastered on it, and he stood outside the TD Garden or Fenway for every single Celtics and Red Sox home game. It made me feel sad that this messaging was not likely to lead anyone into repentance of any kind. I much prefer Jesus’s invitation - a call toward something - belief in a cause, a new purpose, a message of hope and excitement as opposed to one of doom and gloom.
In each situation, those we’d expect would have no business with religious matters go all in for God. The evil outsider Assyrians change their ways, the fishermen drop everything, and perhaps the extremity of their responses (going so far as to make their animals fast or leaving their very livelihoods and families behind) has something to teach us about who God is and what God yearns to be up to in our lives and in our world.
It hinges on this word: repentance.
I think many of us associate the word repentance with feelings of guilt or sorrow that we need to absolve ourselves of or the sins that we commit that we look back at in contrition. We feel bad, we resolve to do better next time. Repentance. We repent to try and escape the feelings of shame, thinking that by saying we’re sorry it absolves us from discomfort and means that all is well again. If we want an extreme picture of repentance - we have our perfect illustration from the people of Ninevah.
The Greek word, however, that gets translated as “repentance” in the New Testament is metanoia. There’s no easy english equivalent. It’s perhaps best translated as “a change of mind” - and not a change of mind like you thought you wanted an egg salad sandwich for lunch and then decided you really wanted tuna. Metanoia refers to a change of mind and heart that denotes a fundamental shift in outlook and attitude - and that prompts a change in behavior. Maybe the metaphor would be more like you wanting an egg salad sandwich for lunch, but then you decided to become a vegan.
Metanoia is a word that is utterly devoid of emotional charge. There’s no connotation anywhere in this word that denotes contrition, regret, or sorrow for actions as a requirement for changing your mind. So to use repentance - which does convey these meanings - as a translation for metanoia misses the fullness of the invitation Jesus is making. It doesn’t mean that remorse and contrition don’t have their place in our discipleship - certainly we have seen the need for personal and communal lament and penitence - but it isn’t precisely what Jesus is asking of us in this verse.
When Jesus preaches “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” Jesus more accurately is inviting people to change their outlook. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near. Change your outlook and believe in the good news.
How would your outlook change if you knew Jesus has come near to you? If you knew the kingdom of God was in your midst?
I don’t know about you, but I think that I would be so captivated and drawn in by the beauty and joy and hope and grace, that that alone would be enough for me to take a breath and say “yes - I need more of that in my life - that’s the outlook I want to have as I understand myself, as I look out on my friends and family, as I look out on my world - maybe not as I look out on my enemies, but I want to get to that place.” I think I wouldn’t be so focused on all the things we’re conditioned to view as important - climbing the ladder of success, acquiring the latest gadget, thinking others are here to serve and satisfy our own needs, worrying about my own small anxieties and insecurities, thinking that salvation can be found in power and empire. Jesus’ good news of God’s kingdom arriving would place all those things in perspective for me.
There’s a beautiful quote from author Madeline L’Engle, who is perhaps best known for her book A Wrinkle in Time. She’s also a faithful Christian, and writes this: “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
I believe that’s the kind of invitation that would lead to a brand new outlook on life. I believe that’s what God wants from us - belief in the good news - a transformed perspective - an awareness that Jesus himself is near to us which leads to a desire to know with our whole being how we are a part of God’s unfolding kingdom.
What I take from both these texts is that God draws near to us - through the message of a reluctant prophet, through the presence of Love Incarnate, through the words of scripture or the pages of creation, through whatever means necessary - God draws near. Sometimes the nearness of God causes us to make amends and change our ways. Sometimes the nearness of God overwhelms us and leads to life-changing decisions. Sometimes the nearness of God is a gentle reminder to reorient our perspective toward hope, love, grace, and truth.
As we make our way toward the season of Lent - how do you see God drawing near to you? What enables you to experience metanoia - that change in outlook - that enables you to believe the good news of life abundant?
May we open our hearts and our lives in new ways to God’s transforming Spirit - in our lives and in the world around us. Amen.
Scripture - Selections from Amos 5
Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
In all the squares there shall be wailing;
and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!”
They shall call the farmers to mourning,
and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing;
in all the vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through the midst of you,
says the Lord.
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
This is a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written in 1963. He wrote this letter in response to a statement named “A Call for Unity” made by eight white clergymen in Alabama - a statement that expressed awareness that social injustices existed, but argued that the battle for justice should be fought through the courts and not taken to the streets.
I want to share a portion of this letter (you can find the whole text online https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html or tune in tomorrow to a reading sponsored by the BTS Center) - because in it, there is a lot that addresses the church - and the white church in particular. I believe his plea for action resonates today as our nation faces a continued struggle with Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and economic justice. This video is from Park Community Church in Chicago, IL.
As you listen and watch, I invite you to find a word or phrase or image that strikes you.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXVdKdgetK4 - Park Community Church, Chicago, IL
What did you find that resonated with you?
I share this in hopes that we might find a renewed commitment in our own lives - and in our life together as a church - to not remain silent on these issues. What we’ve seen over these past weeks - and months - is not a new reality, but one that has been revealed; not a creation of tension, but one that has existed for generations that can not be ignored. We may wonder what our place might be in the struggle for racial justice, as many of us can feel helpless, unsure, timid, or even far removed and wonder what impact any of our actions could have. And yet - hate has its adherents in every corner of our country. Even while we work on our own personal preferences and prejudices, we’ve seen that that is only one piece in a wider system engineered to disenfranchise our Black siblings.
My prayer for us is that we carry these convictions and not just leave them as personal ones - but that we find ways to engage in the struggle, whether that’s jumping in to our book study with Gloria on Sunday afternoons, or by sending a letter to our elected officials about your concerns, or by planting seeds in conversations with friends or family. There’s always a place to start, whether you are new to anti-racism work or are a seasoned advocate.
It’s only together that we can help be a witness to and create together a community where we can be extremists for love in the way of Jesus - Jesus who had this radical, persistent, unwavering message of love of God and others that was so powerful it threatened the very fabric of empire. It is that relentless pursuit of love that will turn the church once again into a thermostat transforming the mores of society - so that we might be reflections of God’s beloved kingdom here in this place and wherever we might find ourselves. In Jesus’ Name, this I pray. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.