We made eye contact with those who walked by, offering a warm smile and friendly greeting. For those who slowed or paused, for even a brief moment, we would offer ashes and a blessing. We interacted with a wide variety of parishioners, neighbors, and spiritually curious folks who recognized something sacred in the ritual.
For many who come to receive ashes, there is a desire to reground themselves. Our day to day lives are already full of stress; and our society pressures us to live life at an increasingly impossible pace. All the while our world can feel like it is falling apart. More climate disasters; more racism; more gun violence; more of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. More illness; more caregiving; more strained relationships; more unhappiness. Is it any wonder we might begin the season of Lent feeling disoriented, disjointed, and drained?
One of the folks who came to receive ashes noted how much he needed this Lent, given all that is going on in our world. It warmed my heart that he could so clearly see the goodness of this season; the way Lent calls us to reconnect with ourselves, God, and one another. Lent is a time to recall God’s dream for this world and recommit to working in concert with God and one another to help bring that dream into fruition.
In the early Church, Lent emerged as a final season of preparation for those about to be baptized. You may remember from our teaching sermon on baptism, that in the early Church, baptism required an extensive, three year period of study and preparation, which would culminate in baptism at the first cockcrow on Easter morning.*
Lent emerged as a communal season, where the entire Christian community walked alongside those preparing to commit their lives to Christ.** It was the Church’s way of telling those about to to be baptized: Walking the Way of Love is not something we do in isolation. It is a communal act, done together in solidarity.
Over time, Lent also began to address our need for penitence. A season where we are invited to face our own brokenness as individuals, as communities, and as a society. In order to stay healthy and grounded in our faith, we need to see where things have gone awry; repent; and turn back towards God’s dream of Love for this world. It is why parts of our liturgy this Lent will call our attention to the corporate brokenness of our world, especially with regard to the climate crisis, gun violence, racial and economic injustice. It is also why so many of us take on Lenten disciplines. We want to reconnect with our why; that ultimate reason we said “yes” to a life of faith in the first place, and continue to say “yes” every time we renew the promises we made in our baptism.
This is hard and important work. Yet engaging in the work is what will bring transformation, joy, and renewed life. Together, with God, we can do the work. We can heal what has been broken. We can rediscover and walk the Way of Love.
In today’s gospel lesson, following Jesus baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness. Having just finished forty days and nights of fasting, he was famished. It was then that the tempter, or ‘devil’, came and spoke to him.
I sometimes get distracted by the word ‘devil’, as my own imagination runs wild. Yet when I sit with the meaning behind the word, I imagine the tempter is really Jesus’ own inner critic. We all have that inner voice that judges ourselves, usually much too harshly. The voice distorts the truth, distracts us from God’s love, and encourages us to put our own self-interest before the greater good. It offers all sorts of quick and easy ways to numb the pain.
Shortcuts to bypass suffering. Though in truth these usually lead us to more pain and suffering, by avoiding the very work we needed to engage with in the first place. That hard work that Lent calls us to journey through.
In the gospel, Jesus faces three temptations, and each time, he leans on the Torah. For the Jewish people, the Torah was the embodiment of God. By responding to each temptation with a quote from the Torah, Jesus is entrusting all of his faith in God.
First, Jesus is tempted to turn stone into bread, to use his own power as God’s Son to alleviate his own suffering. Jesus leans on his faith.
Then, he is tempted by the idea of testing God’s fidelity -- surely God will catch me if I fall, but let’s just test God on this one. Instead, Jesus again leans on his faith. He knows deep down there is no need to test God’s fidelity. God is within him.
As Theophilus of Antioch would later write,
“God has given to the earth the breath that feeds it. God’s breath vibrates in yours, in your voice. It is the breath of God that you breathe.”***
God is always with us.
In the final temptation, Jesus ponders for a moment what it might be like to have all the power and wealth imaginable, if he were to put his own self interest before all else. Again, Jesus leans on his faith, affirming that his only interest is worshiping and serving God.
The story ends with the tempter, those loud internal noises, vanishing, and angels coming to wait on him. Maybe that means Jesus had a delightful meal, and was fed grapes by cherubs. Yet what I imagine this to mean, is Jesus found an inner peace and calm that soothed all the questions, doubts, and insecurities. That feeling of peace that surpasses all understanding. God's very breathe within him. He found this peace by remaining faithful, leaning on God at each and every turn.
This Lent, we join Jesus in the wilderness. There we find more space, less external noise.There is something about the wild - ness of the wilderness that helps break us open to encounter the sacred and mystical; to discover truth; to remember our why. This Lent, we each have an opportunity to reflect on where our self-interest may have distracted us from practicing our faith. To reframe the messages of our inner critic, by asking ourselves, do these messages line up with what we know about God? Do they line up with what we know about God’s abundant and unconditional love for each and every creature?
I intend to embrace the wilderness of this Lent by slowing down. An act of quiet resistance. By taking the time to be with God each day and listen. One of the ways I am paying closer attention is by making three lists each day.
In the first list, I write down five ways that I practiced self care the day before. I do this because it helps quiet the inner critic, and because when I take care of myself, I’m better able to show up for the people in my life. I am better able to strive towards God’s dream for this world.
In the second list, I write down five ways I was mindful in my work and relationships the day before. I do this because life is precious and short, and our relationships matter. And I want to communicate my care and appreciation for those I walk beside.
Finally, in the third list, I write down five things I am grateful for. I do this because we know gratitude is almost magical in its ability to help us reframe our hearts, souls, and minds. Recently, I heard paralympic Blake Leeper describe the importance of his gratitude list, and it convinced me to resume the practice again. He said:
“I do my gratitude list, especially when I’m having my bad days, where I get a no, or something just doesn’t go right, and I feel myself going down that hole of negativity. I get a pen and paper out and I work my gratitude list. I write all the things I’m thankful for. It’s easy to do it when you get that big check, or everything’s going right, or your boss just gave you a promotion, like it’s easy to talk about all the things you’re thankful for. Do it when you’re pissed off. Do it when you're mad. I mean do it when you have tears rolling down your eyes and you’re just full of emotions, and you’re trying to find the strength to keep fighting. Do it then and see how powerful and strong it can truly be.” ****
This Lent, I invite us all to do some reflecting:
* Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion J. Hatchett, pages in order of reference: 253,
** Daily Prayer for All Seasons, pg. 60
*** Theophilus of Antioch, Three Books to Autolychus, I, 7, cited in Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, trans. T.. Berkeley (London: New City Press, 1993), 7.
Laws are routinely misused by those in power to suppress, exclude, and burden. Yet at their core, God’s laws are neither good nor bad. They are a set of guidelines; community norms; policies and procedures; boundaries that exist to help us maintain healthy relationships with God and one another. They are the essential framework guiding every aspect of our common life. Like the rules parents give their children, they are meant to help us thrive.They are meant to guide us towards a life of abundance and joy, while cautioning us against choices that can lead to scarcity and loneliness.
Our first reading is from Sirach, a book within the Apocrypha that is sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus. (1) The author is thought to have run a school for prospective scribes and sages during a season of political turmoil in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ ministry. This book of proverbs was written in a way that made the text easy to memorize. Of the six verses in our reading today, I would draw our attention to the first:
If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice (15:15).
In other words, because God has given us free will, it is our choice to keep the commandments. When we choose to act faithfully, we are declaring our intention to be in relationship with God and community. The author points out this choice leads to life, whereas rejecting God and community will ultimately lead to death. Abundance and joy, or scarcity and loneliness. Our choice.
Our second reading is from the book of Psalms. (2) Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the bible, and it is a work of art. It is an acrostic poem about the law, where each of the 22 stanzas begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet; each stanza has 8 verses that each begin with that same Hebrew letter. Within those 8 verses are 8 synonyms about God’s authoritative teaching. This love letter to the Torah symbolizes the psalmists' love for God, their intention and commitment to seek God’s guidance in every step of their life.
Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in your law, O God!
Happy are they who observe your de-crees *
and seek you with all their hearts! (119:1-2 OSH)
The psalmist cries out to seek God with all their hearts. It’s worth noting that in antiquity the way they used hearts is more in keeping with how we would refer to our minds today. The mind was seen as the seat of one’s will, convictions, and intellect. The psalmist is saying again, it is our choice. Abundance and joy, or scarcity and loneliness.
In the gospel, Jesus invites his listeners to reflect on the meaning of the law. Jesus is in the thick of his Sermon on the Mount, which as Molly mentioned last week, is not actually a single sermon. Rather, Matthew has pulled from a document that contained Jesus’ most important teachings that was circulated amongst early communities of his followers. The portion we hear today is known as the antithesis because it highlights the opposition between the law as it’s been known, and the law as Jesus would have people understand it. Yet this section might be more aptly named, ‘the deeper meaning of the law’. (4)
Jesus is actually pretty stealth in his teaching method. (5) As he tries to help his listeners see the deeper significance behind the law, he begins by addressing the most egregious sin, murder. This would have been a pretty rare offense, and there would have been widespread agreement from his audience that this was a grievous sin. He then shifts his attention to adultery, then divorce, and then vow making. By traveling through his arguments in this way, he has created agreement with his audience on the easiest points, such as murder, before moving to topics with less widespread agreement. From inoffensive to increasingly personal topics.
As Jesus makes his case, he notes the minimal requirement of the law, before introducing an ethic that requires living into the deeper meaning of the law. All of which is necessary to build and maintain healthy relationships with God and community. It is yet another invitation to choose abundance and joy over scarcity and loneliness. Or as we might say, to choose the Way of Love.
Jesus tells us the law goes beyond our actions to our thoughts and intentions. He knows that by helping us reflect on the deeper significance of the law, we can better understand God’s dream for this world. With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at the four instances from today’s passage where Jesus invites us to look at God’s deeper intention behind the law.
First, do not murder. Jesus is telling us that life is sacred, and we need to do more to honor that sacredness than simply not commit murder. Seeing life as sacred also means caring for one another by working towards healing and reconciling relationships. We know it’s one thing to work through a disagreement with a loved one. It’s another thing entirely to work through our anger and hurt when there is estrangement. 27% of Americans are estranged from at least one family member, and 40% of us have experienced estrangement at some point in our lives. (6) Sometimes we could work through our estrangements and choose not to. It may be our stubbornness, a fear of further rejection, or a sense that too much time and trouble has passed to try and seek reconciliation. There are also times when things cannot be worked out. Maybe it’s dangerous, or the other person is missing, unwilling, or dead. Yet in every single case, what is imperative is that God’s dream for us is to work through our anger and pain, embrace our vulnerabilities, forgive and love ourselves and others. It is fundamental to our wellbeing, even if we never sit down with the other person.
Second, do not commit adultery. Jesus challenges us to cut away the distractions that can end up becoming more important to us than the person we have vowed ourselves to in marriage or the family’s we create together. And might I add, if you struggle with lusty thoughts, please don’t physically maim yourself, as I don’t think that was his actual point. I think the real point is we can be unfaithful to our vows in countless ways if we are not intentional. Lust or inappropriate intimacies - whether it be with other persons, images of them online, or fantasies in our head. Yet unfaithfulness goes beyond sex. We can find ourselves being unfaithful when we put love of self, work, stuff, experiences, or any number of things before those we’ve committed ourselves to. Jesus is again heavily concerned with the preservation of relationships within a community, particularly when we have made a vow to commit ourselves to another person.
Third, divorce was off limits except in cases of infidelity. This was one of *THE* controversial issues of Jesus’ day. There was one famous rabbi who felt there were a number of reasons a husband could divorce his wife, including if she burned his supper. While another famous rabbi felt a husband should only divorce his wife in extreme cases, such as infidelity. Jesus made it clear where he stood. And here’s why: God’s dream demands that we care for the wellbeing of the whole community.
In their patriarchal culture, only the husband could generally initiate divorce, and he was the primary provider. In that time and place, to divorce a woman because she burned your supper was a heinous crime against the welfare of that woman and any children within that household. It was an abandonment of all responsibility to care for the well-being of one’s family. It was an act in complete opposition of God’s command to love one’s neighbor.
Lastly, don’t break vows. We are accustomed to paper and digital files documenting every single vow, commitment, or promise we have ever made. Yet in Jesus’ context, all agreements were verbal. If you were not sincere in your vow, you were not trustworthy. Jesus is asking us to be impeccable with our word for the wellbeing of the entire community.
We do not need to take Jesus' instructions literally, we need to let them challenge our intentions, thoughts, and actions so that we are putting the welfare of the wider community first and foremost. In each and every one of these instances, Jesus is asking his listeners to think about the welfare of the whole community. To shift away from thinking about ourselves as individuals.Jesus is liberating us from the allusion that we are an island, only responsible to and for ourselves. Rather we are part of something much bigger, and we each have a role to play in that community.
This week, as we prepare to head out into the world, I would invite us to reflect:
(1) See commentary by Daniel J.Harrington in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, pgs 1457-1459.
(2) See commentary by Richard J. Clifford in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, pg 871.
(3) See Joel LeMon’s commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-psalm-1191-8-10
(4) See Aaron M. Gale’s commentary in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, pgs 20-21.
(5) See Melanie A. Howard’s commentary:
They are strong lessons we have heard this morning, with a common theme calling us to live into the work God gives us.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would definitely qualify to go on his “Greatest Hits” album. The Sermon, an extended set of teaching covering three chapters in the early part of Matthew’s gospel, is the longest passage of Jesus’ direct teaching that we find in the New Testament.
It wasn’t actually a single sermon, according to New Testament scholarship. It’s now believed that during the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, a set of his most important teachings was collected in a single document that circulated among the communities of his followers, and when Matthew came to composing his account of the Good News of Jesus’ life and ministry, he included this great chunk of teaching as one sermon delivered on a mountainside. (Luke has a largely identical sermon delivered by Jesus, but on a plain.)
In the sermon, Jesus begins by talking about God’s favor, by reflecting on those who are blessed, or fortunate, in their relationship with God. We heard “the Beatitudes” last Sunday. Today ‘we’ve heard Jesus’ teaching about salt and light, and his commentary on his relationship to the Law of Moses. Next Sunday we’ll listen to the core of Jesus’ ethical teachings in a series of proclamations know as “the Antitheses”.
One of my seminary professors described the Sermon on the Mount as “the constitution for the Kingdom of God”, what we would now call “the Reign of God”:
Jesus had preached that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and now Jesus was teaching his disciples what the Reign of God looks like in practice.
Last Sunday Julie reflected with us on Jesus’ observations about those who are blessed – who are fortunate, who find themselves in relationship with God. The commonality, she observed, is that the blessed, the fortunate, are those who are vulnerable, NOT those recognized as powerful and successful. The blessed are those who know both their own brokenness, she said, and who recognize the world’s brokenness and who hunger for justice.
The way Jesus uses language in this set of teachings is worth paying attention to. As he begins talking about those who are blessed, he speaks of them as “they”. But during his description of those who are blessed, however, it’s almost as if he realizes how important it is for his listeners, the disciples, to recognize that he is talking about them, and his pronoun switches to “you”.
And that’s where we take up the sermon this morning:
YOU ARE the salt of the earth.
YOU ARE the light of the world.
These are rich metaphors, for sure. Both salt and light have value because they transform things. They are positive metaphors.
Salt gives flavor and seasoning. It is used to purify and to preserve. Associated with sanctification in the ancient world, salt was used in sealing covenants and sprinkled on sacrifices. Although most of us consume more of it than we need, our bodies require salt to transmit nerve impulses, and to contract and relax our muscles. Salt affects what it touches.
Light enables sight; it illuminates; it provides it provides freedom for movement. We know, especially in the seasons when the sun’s light is decreased, how much light affects our moods.
Listen closely: in speaking of salt and light, Jesus was affirming his listeners, not prescribing. He didn’t say “you need to be salty” or “God wants you to be light”, but rather, “You ARE salt”; “you ARE light”.
This is the thing - we are called to manifest what we already are. We are not only blessed in the truth of our vulnerability, but the very being that God creates us with is what the world needs. Our words and our actions manifest God. Just as the salt and the light impact what they are applied to, God works through us to make a difference to those we come in contact with.
We are the salt that heals the world, the light that gives hope and courage, because, in our frailty and our brokenness, we know God’s loving presence. We are the city on the hill that makes God’s blessing and God’s love known to others.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? That we know what God calls us to? It is the living into it, the putting it into practice that is terribly hard.
And this is where I think we also need to listen to the prophet Isaiah.
The book we know as “Isaiah” is actually a compilation of several voices speaking from and to the Hebrew people over the course of generations. One part of Isaiah was composed during the Exile in Babylon and reflects hope for deliverance, while another expresses the joy of return to Judah.
Today’s reading, from the section known as Trito-Isaiah, reflects the disillusionment and despair of the post-exilic period, in which Israel had returned to the ancestral lands but was faced with famine, drought, failing crops, and strife in relations with their non-Hebrew neighbors, all struggling to survive under Persian rule.
Isaiah 58 cries out at God’s apparent disinterest in their plight. They seek God and believe they are practicing righteousness, but they don’t receive the response they look for:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
The prophet’s answer, articulated in God’s own voice, reflects the same message we heard last week from the prophet Micah, that God is not interested in acts of religious devotion for their own sake. Isaiah lays out an accusation of hypocrisy: the people fast, but oppress their workers; they humble themselves but quarrel with neighbors.
The righteousness God calls for is care for the real needs of God’s children, and the righteousness of actions that work to bring justice:
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?
The passage then transitions into the assurance of God’s response:
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
It is a very important connection that Isaiah clear: it is our efforts at doing God’s work that call God’s presence forth in the world. Saying the right things, going through the motions, don’t manifest God. Showing up is what God asks of us – showing up in all of our our imperfections is the work we’re called to. Theologian Sallie McFague famously said “If God is absent from this world, it is because we are.” *
Jesus’ message – to hearers in Galilee and to us today – is a word of love, hope, and reassurance, but it is a call to action.
It is about God’s favor, not God’s demands.
It is about God’s inclusion of those who feel excluded.
It is God’s affirmation of who we already are.
It is the invitation to be the salt and the light that the world needs.
The spring of water that never fails.
How will we do it this week?
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