Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tuesday in Lent 5

John 9:18-41
v. 39 Jesus said, I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.

The Greek word usually translated "judgment" is the word from which we get the English "crisis." I find that helpful in understanding what Jesus means by the judgment which he brings (particularly in John's Gospel). Jesus creates a crisis situation.

Jesus has just healed a blind man, given him sight. The story is an "enacted parable." The story is about much more than the literal story. What it is really about is the line quoted above. Jesus creates a crisis in which those who do not see are allowed to see and those who think they already see are shown to be blind.

This is bad news for folk (who are sometimes us) who think they see things very clearly. We need to be extremely careful when we feel this way, because there probably is some way in which we are being blind. We cannot see the big picture, perhaps, because of our over-attention on a detail. Or, conversely, we think we know so much what the big picture is that we miss the crucial details.

Perhaps a good related metaphor is to assume that we always need glasses. None of us has perfect eyesight. It's very important that we get the right lens so that we can see clearly. For we Christians, Jesus is that lens. He provides us with the sight. Sometimes what he causes us to see puts us into a crisis--we have to think differently because we have seen differently.

Lord Jesus, give us your sight so that we may see the world as you see it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Monday in Lent 5

John 9:1-17
v. 3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed through him."

For these last two weeks before Easter I'm switching to the Gospel reading for the day. We'll be reading through John chapters 9-12.

Today's reading is the first haf of the familiar story of Jesus' healing of the blind man on the sabbath. The story begins with a question from the disciples, who have noticed the man. "Who sinned," they asked, "this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" They were repeating a popular conception of the nature of illness, in particular what we would call "disability." It was a punishment for sin.

That conception is still around. It is sometimes still our first impulse when something goes wrong. "What did I do?" As a priest, I have been asked that question scores of times. I have asked it myself.

Jesus dismisses that way of thinking, however. Disability is not the result of sin. But then he seems to say that it is given by God so that the works of God may be revealed. But he doesn't actually say "given by God." And I choose to read the statement in a more general than specific way. I choose to take the statement to say that, whatever our circumstances, we are all born to reveal the works of God.

I have my own experience of illness and it is an occasionally difficult burden to bear. I don't believe that it was given to me by God. But I do believe that God's works can be revealed through it, which is to say that God's continuing presence with me, giving me the grace, strength and courage to persevere can be seen by others, and this is to God's glory.

How does your life reveal the works of God? How is God calling you to reveal his presence with you?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday in Lent 4

Romans 9:1-18
v. 16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.

There is always a danger in Lent. The disciplines we take on--giving something up or taking something on--can fool us into thinking that our works can bring us closer to God. At best we are enabling ourselves to see more clearly the closeness that is already there. We can't make God change his mind about us. All we can do is open our eyes to "see thee more clearly."

Two weeks from tomorrow will be Easter and we will celebrate the resurrection. What can I do between now and then to open my eyes wider to the love of God for me and for the whole creation? Tomorrow we will hear Jesus say that if he is lifted up he will draw all to himself. I am being drawn into the arms of Christ. What can I do to "get with the flow?"

I would suggest to you that the best thing I can do is not some great spiritual work. It is something far simpler than that--relax, be quiet, open my heart to receive the gift that is already mine.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday in Lent 4

Romans 8:28-39
vv. 38-39 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Well there you have it. The news doesn't get any better than this.

One of the synonyms we use for salvation is "atonement," which literally means what it says "at-one-ment," the state of being "at one." The separation between God and humanity is over in Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus lived totally at one with God. He was betrayed, victimized and died, experiencing separation, so much so that he cries from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But ultmately his "at-one-ment" could not be broken, and so he rose from the dead. The separation of death could not hold him.

The good news is this story is not just about one man, Jesus. Paul says it is about us, that in Christ's life, death and resurrection the separation between God and humanity has been broken and we are eternally one. Even death, which remains a real part of life, cannot separate us from God. In fact, quite the opposite. It is the breakthrough to the full experience of "at-one-ment," the unmediated experience of God's love.

I don't feel at one with God every day. Those things that Paul mentions above do get in the way sometimes. But they don't change the fact that I am "marked as Christ's own for ever," as we say in the baptismal rite. Therein lies our comfort, our hope, our very life.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Thursday in Lent 4

Romans 8:12-27
v. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Paul has been talking in this chapter about life in the Spirit. It is a life set on "life and peace" (v.6), in living into our adoption as the daughters and sons of God (vv. 15, 23), and that groans with the whole creation for redemption, freedom (vv. 21-22). And then we have the wonderful verse quoted above.

We often think of prayer as a work we have to do. Most of us think we probably could do it better, perhaps more often or more deeply. But here Paul gives us the simple fundamental of prayer: it is itself a gift.

The Spirit prays in us, deeper than words can go. That means our "job" in prayer is to tap into something which is already going on in us. The Holy Spirit is praying in us, for us, with us. Right now as I write and as you read, the Spirit is praying in us. What an amazing thing!

One of the topics in Confirmation class as I lead it is, "How do you know when the Spirit is around?" One of the answers is whenever I feel the urge to pray, or even long for something without words, that is the Spirit bubbling up within me, breaking through to the surface from a deep well of prayer that continues in me as surely as my breath.

What is the Spirit praying in you today?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Annunciation

Luke 1:26-38
v. 28 And [the angel Gabriel] said to [Mary], "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

Lent takes a break today and Christmas intrudes. It's nine months before Christmas, so it is time for Mary to be pregnant. And as we draw ever closer to Easter, it is time for us to be pregnant too.

Among the titles given to Mary by writers in the early Church, none was more exalted than Theotokos, "the God bearer." It was from her flesh that the enfleshment of God was born. The Incarnation depended upon Mary (with a little help from the Holy Spirit, of course).

By virtue of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ we are each of us made "little Christs," little bearers of God for the world. The work of the Incarnation continues in our own lives. So when I say that as Easter comes it is time for us to be pregnant with God, I mean that it is time anew for us to take our place as God bearers. We are entrusted with the message of the resurrection, shown forth in our lives as much or more than in our words.

All this means is that today I should hear the angel speak to me as well, "Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you." Can you hear that?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tuesday in Lent 4

Romans 7:13-25 (8:1)
v. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
v. 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In this passage Paul's talk about sin and the law turns personal. He relates his own experience of wanting to do the right thing but ending up doing the wrong thing. He goes on to vent his frustration at this, ending with the exclamation, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (v. 24). It is meant to resonate with our own experience.

It reminds me of the first verse of Amazing Grace, the hymn written by the former captain of a slave ship, John Newton, who came to see the evil he had perpetrated:

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

Paul too, knows this amazing grace and proclaims his rescuer in v. 25: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Then he goes on to say the radical words: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." The verse starts chapter 8, but the "therefore" clearly links it to what has gone before.

"No condemnation!" This does not mean that there is neither any sin nor our need for repentance. It does mean that we do not repent out of fear of condemnation. We do it out of desire for relationship. Any condemnation Jesus has taken upon himself "once for all." That is the good news, and it is very good news indeed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Monday in Lent 4

Romans 7:1-12
v. 6 But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

Paul goes on at great length in Romans and in his other letters to proclaim that we no longer are bound by the law. Here he introduces his contrast to life under the law with "the new life of the Spirit." What does this contrast mean in practical terms?

It means (in terms I hope are not over-simplified) that we are no longer bound to a system that creates good people and bad people, that indeed depends on being able to label some people bad for its very existence. Instead we have a system in which the very Spirit of God is given as a gift, with no paritality shown by God. This is why we can, as our baptismal covenant says, "seek and serve Christ in all persons." We do not seek and serve Christ in only those we can discern as good. That distinction makes no difference to us anymore.

The great question remains, if we are no longer bound by the law, is there still such a thing as sin? Paul would say yes, there still is. But it is sin with a different frame of reference. It no longer has a "legal" frame of reference, it has a relational one. Sin is a violation of the relationship with God that is already established (and which cannot be broken), or a violation of relationship within the Body into which I have been permanently grafted (whether one thinks about this as the church or the human family).

This is why the response to sin is not punishment but repentance, the restoration of right relationship. When we sin we do not have to fear the wrath of God, we have to (re)turn to God's love.

Lent is now more than half over. Is there a right relationship you need to restore? There's still time so that your celebration of Easter is all the sweeter. Easter is, after all, the ultimate restoration of right relationship as the risen Christ seeks not vengeance on his betrayers, but offers them complete forgiveness and entrusts them with his continuing mission.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saturday in Lent 3

Romans 6:1-11
v. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

[My apologies, I did today's reading yesterday, so this is Friay's reading, going backward in the text.]

One of the purposes of Lent is to prepare us to celebate Easter with as much of our whole self as we can muster. One of the things Paul tells us is that our Easter celebration is not only a celebration of the resurrection of Christ, but of ourselves as well. We are united with Christ in both his death and his resurrection.

We claim this at every baptism when we bless the water: We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection.

The Church from the very beginning has declared that we are people of the resurrection. What does this mean?

In Paul's terms, it means that we are no longer slaves to sin. We are free to live a life of wholeness and grace. Do we still sin? Yes. Do we still suffer? Yes. Do we still die? Yes. But people of the resurrection know that sin and suffering and death are not the last words. Resurrection is always the last word. Even when death appears to beat us, we believe there is more. As the Prayer Book says, at death "life is changed, not ended" (382) and "even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia" (499).

Our resurrection is a fact. The question is, how can we live as if it were true? How can we not only hope for resurrection in the future, but live it in the present?

Claiming a bit more of our resurrection is one of Lent's great projects. What bit more is God calling you to claim? What's standing in the way?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday in Lent 3

Romans 6:12-23
v. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When I was in college I was part of an evangelical fellowship for a couple of years called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. This was one of the verses we had to memorize and be ready to use with potential converts.

I suspect its use in that context was meant first of all to frighten people: the wages of sin is death. It was pretty standard thinking in that group that you had to tell people the bad news before you told them the good news. And you had to make the bad news, very, very, bad.

I don't remember much talk about the second half of the verse. It's too bad. It seems to me there could have been a very lively conversation about Paul's use of the term "free gift." I'm not sure what we were prepared to offer people was particularly free. We had a definite formula one had to follow for one to be saved, and then we, the saved, lived in constant anxiety about "backsliding." Looking back, I don't think I felt particularly free in that fellowship, which is probably why I eventually chose, instead, to become an Episcopalian, where the offer of the Sacrament had been made to me the first time I walked in the door with no test of how deserving I was or wasn't.

That the gift of God's love is free seems to me to be the very heart of the good news. The question then becomes how do I live into this freedom. How do I remain a liberated person?

That's a good question for Lent!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

St. Joseph's Day

Matthew 1:18-25
v. 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, he took her as his wife...

A little intrusion into Lent as we remember Joseph, Jesus' earthly father.

The story is that when Mary was found to be pregnant, and Joseph knew the child was not his, he "planned to dismiss her quietly." It was a kind act. He could have made quite a fuss, even had her stoned under the law. But then he has a dream in which an angel appears to him and he learns the child is "Emmanuel, which means, 'God is with us.'" He is instructed to name him Jesus (in Hebrew, Joshua), which means "God saves."

Perhaps when you have a dream like that you truly aren't given any choice, you do as you are commanded, but then, it was only a dream, and Joseph still had a choice to make. He chose the more difficult path, chose what I would call the surprising vocation. He would participate in the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God.

We too are called to participate in the Incarnation. We are called to be part of the ongoing manifestation of God in the flesh. How we are to do that is first and foremost in the stuff of our daily lives, as messy as that might be. But God may indeed have a surprise for us as well, some way to serve that we hadn't considered before and perhaps would resist for all kinds of practical reasons. Unfortunately this will probably not come to us in the clarity of a dream (although I certainly don't want to preclue that possibility--dreams are powerful things). It will more likely be revealed to us in the midst of our life, but by a surprising voice either from within or from without, calling us to risk for the sake of the Gospel, to be a part of the Incarnation.

What surprising part do you have to play?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wednesday in Lent 3

Romans 5:1-11
v. 5 Hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

"Hope" is not a word we normally associate with Lent, but if you think about it, it better be. If Lent is about self-examination, an honest look at our lives that reveals the totality of our humanity, then "hope" had better be our watchword. Otherwise we'll get mired in our sin, our limitations, and our suffering. We'll get stuck there, which is decidedly not the goal of Lent.

Hope, of course, for the Christian, springs from Easter. The resurrection reveals the future God intends for us, a future where, among other things, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (an image from the prophet Isaiah and the Book of Revelation). As Paul will say later in Romans, it is a future that cannot be taken away from us because "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8:39).

Hope, like faith, is a gift. Paul identifies it as a gift of the Holy Spirit, who herself was the gift we received at our Baptism: "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever."

When I'm having a bad day, hope can seem elusive at best, and far away, at worst. It helps me to think of those who pray for me and the hope that I know they have. As is true with faith, hope is something we best have together. When we gather around the Altar together is when hope shines most clearly for us--we get a glimpse of that promised future.

May hope be yours today and always.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tuesday in Lent 3

Romans 4:13-25
vv. 20-21 No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

In all the talk about faith being what saves us rather than works (following the law), we do have to take care not to turn faith into a work itself. That immediately turns into talk of whether we have "enough" of it or not. You know, "If I had enough faith, then..."

Faith itself is a gift of God. Paul is clear about that. God is doing all the work here, we just have to move with it.

Paul says that Abraham did not distrust. That may be seeing the story through rose-colored glasses. The promise was long in coming for Abraham and Sarah and they must have doubted from time to time whether it was really possible. The story itself in Genesis hints at this reality. Paul does too, when he speaks of Abraham "growing" in faith, in confidence.

I know I distrust, and I know you do too. We're human beings. It's in our nature. But faith is in our nature too in that it is a gift from God, and we can grow in it. One of the ways Paul suggests that we can do so is by worship. "He grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God." That brings me back around to something I've said before, that faith is primarily a communal act, as is worship. When my faith wavers I have yours to hold on to. You can do the same with mine when you need a boost. We are to one another part of that gift of God that is faith. Together we can grow in faith as we "give glory to God." Together we always have enough faith.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday in Lent 3

Romans 4:1-12
v. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

It may be put in Paul's somewhat typical convoluted speeh, but this is good news indeed. It's a good verse to memorize for anyone who is sometimes called "ungodly" by others (which in some persons' eyes includes all Episcopalians, right?).

God justifies the ungodly. The only requirement is that we believe that. Now isn't that a kick in the pants?

This is why our pimary act of worship is Eucharist, a word that comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving. We do not worship God in order to please God, to appease God. We worship out of gratitude for what God has done. Ours is not a sacrifice of atonement (which has already been done for us, once and for all), but a "sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving."

So we are called to do everything out of gratitude, including following "the law." Faith is supreme, which means just that, faith is supreme. This is St. Paul's mantra, and great gift to us, the ungodly.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saturday in Lent 2

Romans 3:19-31
vv. 22b-24 For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Jesus saves.

The language of salvation has been so hijacked by fundamentalism that it seems foreign to us. It comes laden with connotations of judgmentalism and exclusiveness. We want nothing to do with it.

Yet here Paul says "there is no distinction" and he means not only in sin, but also in justification. Salvation is a gift, he says, given by God through Jesus. It comes with niether a price tag nor an eligibility statement. The "they" who are justified are the "all" who are sinners. No theological or political litmus test here.

Perhaps you've been asked by someone (or will be), "Are you saved?" The answer is "absolutely." That will sometimes be followed up with a litmus-like question, "Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?" The answer again, is "Yes," which we, who receive him weekly in the Eucharist, can say without hesitation. One last question may follow: "Does your Church believe in the Bible?" Now perhaps we want to be a bit nuanced. "We believe in the God who is revealed in the Bible."

Paul wants us to have confidence in our salvation. Jesus saves. Yes, indeed, and thanks be to God.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday in Lent 2

Romans 2:25--3:18
v. 3:10 As it is written: "There is no one who is righteous, not even one."

I'm going to let Barbara Brown Taylor speak for me today. This is from her book Speaking of Sin (pp. 66-67).

"All sins are attempts to fill voids," wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil. Because we cannot stand the God-shaped hole inside of us, we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but it refuses to be filled. It rejects all substitutes. It insists on remaining bare. It is the holy of holies inside of us, which only God may fill.

When we are ready to honor the bare space instead of trying to stuff it full, then we are ready to consider what kind of new life God may be calling us to. Our answers will be as varied as our sins, but they will involve doing more than saying, more reformation than remorse. Meanwhile, I do not believe that sin is the enemy we often make it out to be, at least not when we recognize it and name it as such. When we see how we have turned away from God, then and only then do we have what we need to begin turning back. Sin is our only hope, the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thursday in Lent 2

Romans 2:12-24
v. 23 You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?

It is a rhetorical question on two fronts. Yes, when we break the law we dishonor God. But also, we break the law.

Paul learned from his own experience that following the law to its letter is impossible. He tried. He failed. From this experience comes his two great insights.

First of all, there is either keeping the law or not keeping the law. There is no half-way, sort of or mostly. The law demands perfection.

Second of all, since we cannot possibly achieve perfection, something else must save us. That thing is, he came to believe, faith.

Does this mean that the law is good for nothing? No. Elsewhere Paul calls it our "disciplinarian," and we need a disciplinarian. But following it is not what justifies us, makes us worthy, in the eyes of God.

Only faith does that. As we continue to read through Romans we'll have more chance to reflect on this truth. For now, let us thank God for the gift of faith.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wednesday in Lent 2

Romans 1:28--2:11
v. 2:4b Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Episcopalians tend not to be very fond of the word "repentance." It conjures up someone screaming, "Repent!" at us while threatening us with the full force of God's wrath. I've been in those situations before (more times than I care to remember) and it's not only uncomfortable it can be downright frightening.

But here Paul is saying that it is not the threat of God's wrath that should lead to our repentance, but God's kindness.

The Greek word that gets translated "repent" is a marvelous word: metanoia. It means literally to turn around or to change one's mind. It seems only reasonable that we should be more prone to turn toward a God who woos us with kindness rather than threatens us with punishment.

Not that human sin doesn't cause God's wrath. It does, Paul says, but it's equal opportunity wrath--no one escapes it, even those who think they have. As Paul says at the end of today's reading "God shows no partiality."

The good news is that God has given up wrath and replaced it with faith, faith in God's kindness. And if we get caught up in this kindness we will leave our own wrath (our need to judge) behind as well.

To repent is simply to have faith in God's mercy, God's kindness. That we can do it and it is enough for the Holy One is the miracle of the good news.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday in Lent 2

Romans 1:16-25
v. 16-17 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."

These two verses at the beginning of Paul's letter to the Romans are a summary of it, and, indeed, of Paul's way of understanding what God has done in Jesus Christ.

It's all about faith. Any other words we use, like "salvation" and "righteousness" cannot be understood apart from faith. Faith is the power of the gospel.

The nearest synonym to faith is "trust." Trust is something a few of us do easily, but for many of us it is very hard. We have learned to be suspicious over the years, sometimes for very good reasons.

I wonder, though, if faith precludes suspicion, or even doubt. Somehow I think they are a part of it. Faith is not, after all, certainty. If there were some proof of God's existence, for instance, faith would be unnecessary. But the Bible starts with the biggest faith statement there is, "In the beginning God..."

Our suspicions and our doubts are somehow, mysteriously, a part of our faith. Faith is always "in spite of of all evidence to the contrary." If we haven't considered the contrary then we cannot know faith. We cannot make the choice for faith if we do not consider the opposite choice we might make. Then it is a choice of which we need not be ashamed.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Monday in Lent 2

Romans 1:1-15
v. 12 Or rather, so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both your and mine.

For the rest of Lent, I am switching from the Old Testament reading to the Epistle, so we'll be reflecting on Paul's letter to the Romans right through to Holy Week.

Paul writes Romans (unlike the rest of his New Testament letters) to a community he neither founded nor has visited. He hopes to go there, and this letter is a kind of introduction of himself (although it is much more than that as well). Our reading today is his opening remarks, an extended "Dear Romans," in which he extends his greetings, introduces himself, and gives thanks for the Roman community's faith about which he knows and "is procalimed throughout the world." Paul is very good at flattery.

I am struck by the verse that I highlight above, remembering that it is spoken to people he has never met. He assumes that his and their faith wll be "mutually encouraging."

We are more dependent on other people's faith than we are readily aware of or admit. Faith is a fundamentally difficult thing for an individal to have (some of us are given it as a gift but for many it is a struggle). Some (most?) of us simply wouldn't have faith if it were not for mutual encouragement.

As a religious leader, I suppose it is a requirement for my faith to be strong, but, in truth, it is highly dependent on yours. Without "mutual encouragement" my faith would whither on the vine. It is my privilege to be in a position to mutually encourage others (it is my "job") but don't for a second think that I do not need yours to encourage mine.

This is, fundamentally, how God works with us, using each other to create a community of faith, a community of mutual interdependence. This is true, as Paul seems to be saying, even when we do not know each other very well, or, truth to tell, at all. Faith breeds faith no matter what its source.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Saturday in Lent 1

Deuteronomy 11:18-28
v. 26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse...

It seems so easy. Blessing if you follow the law, curse if you don't. But it doesn't always seem to work that way. Even the psalmists will complain when they are following the law but not receiving their blessing, or when the unrighteous seem to be blessed rather than cursed.

So if it doesn't always work that way, what's the point? What does the promise of blessing mean? What does the threat of curse mean?

I think they mean mostly the consequences of a way of life, consequences that accumlate over the long run, not always manifesting themselves completely in the short term. To strive to follow the law (however one wants to summarize it) is the way of blessing--blessing not just on the follower, but those around her or him. The blessing is a life lived in shalom, peace. To work against the law is the way of curse, again not only to the individual but also to the community of which the individual is a part. The curse is living a fragmented life. Both of these ways accumlate over time. This means we have to be careful about the short term occurrences of our life. A bad day does not mean we are cursed, for instance.

Blessing is a gift of God, but it is also a consequence of how we use that gift, and, like all gifts, it is quite possible to squander it. We have to be able to do so or we are not free and if we are not free then we are not made in the image of God, and, therefore, something other than human.

The way of blessing or the way of curse comes down to a question of how we use our God-given freedom, what choices we make over the long haul. Blessedly we can always choose again and turn away from the way of curse. That kind of course assessment and correction is what Lent is all about.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday in Lent 1

Deuteronomy 10:12-22
v. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

In our reading today Moses summarizes the law that has been given the people. God identifies himself as

God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing for them food and clothing.

God cares for all the vulnerable in the land and Israel is to do the same. This is of the essence of the Law.

Once in my last parish, Psalm 146 got re-typed for a service leaflet. The 8th verse began this way:

The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the strange...

After a few chuckles, on reflection we thought that was just right. The Lord cares for the strange indeed, and thanks be to God for that.

Who among us has not been a stranger, or strange, even among those we know and love. From Israel's earliest memories God cares for the vulnerable in society and asks the people to do the same.

Perhaps this Lent there is some "strangeness" within you that needs to be loved by God and cared for. Perhaps there is some stranger you need to welcome. Whichever it is (and it may be both), it's Gospel work.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Thursday in Lent 1

Deuteronomy 9:23--10:5
v. 10:2 I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you smashed, and you shall put them in the ark.

After Moses wins over God on behalf of the people, he is able to go up the mountain to be given the 10 Commandments again. This time God seem to feel confidence that they will be accepted because he directs Moses to build an ark for them to rest in. Israel has a second chance.

We worship the God of second chances. That is the simple good news in this story. In the baptismal covenant we are asked, "Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" The question assumes that the return will be accepted, and that indeed is God's promise to us. The return is always accepted. There is always a second chance.

What's more the turning itself need not be on our own strength. The answer to the question of the baptismal covenant (as it is with all the covenant's questions) is, "I will, with God's help." We need and have God's help to make the return itself. And God is there when we do. This is surely what we call grace.

I have had more second chances in my life than I can count. I know I am not alone in this reality. Let us rejoice today in the second chances we have been given by our good God.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Wednesday in Lent 1

Deuteronomy 9:13-21
v. 19b But the LORD listened to me that time also.

In our reading this morning Moses recalls how the first time he came down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments he found the Israelites had not been able to wait on him (he had been there 40 days and 40 nights) and they had begun to worship an idol. He smashed the tablets signifying the breach that had occurred.

Moses was angry. God was angry. What to do? Both Moses and God could have turned away from the faithless people. They were sorely tempted to do so. But Moses prayed and God listened to him and his love saw through his anger.

Our story is that from the beginning we have been in trouble. God is holy and asks the same of us. Lest we not understand what that means, he has give us commandments that get summarized "love God and love your neighbor." When we fall short God is disappointed, even angry. We need someone to pray for us. While Moses was alive leading the Israelites he was that person. The people drove him crazy, but he kept praying for them.

Lent is a time when we are asked to become more fully aware of how far we fall short of God's dream. This awareness could be frightening if we indeed believe that God is holy and asks us to be so a well. But Jesus, we believe, prays for us "at the right hand of the Father" (as we say in the creeds). And God hears his prayer, always. So, while we need to be aware of our fallenness, we do not need to be afraid. There is a gap between us and God, but Jesus bridges the gap. Christian faith doesn't get more basic than that.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tuesday in Lent 1

Deuteronomy 9:4-12
v. 6 Know, then, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.

The Israelites were chosen but they were stubborn. "Stiff-necked," God calls them in other places.

We have a funny relationship with stubborness. To call someone stubborn is generally not a compliment, and yet we tend to think well of a person who knows their own mind and "sticks to their guns."Alas, we can't have it both ways.

In the discernment process that we use when someone wants to explore a call to ministry, one of the ground rule is this: "Hold your desires and opinions--even your convictions--lightly." The first time I read that, years ago, I remember thinking to myself, "I'm in trouble. I'm a man of many opinions, most of which I hold dear." It took me awhile to learn that I was not being told not to have convictions, but rather to "hold them lightly."

What does that mean? Over time I have experienced it to mean that my mind needs always to be open. I need to be ready to hear the thing I do not want to hear. I need to be capable of changing my mind. I need to be primarily a person of faith, not of convictions.

I still have my convictions, as most of you well know. You hear about them a lot, perhaps too much. I do believe having convictions is all right. Jesus had convictions, of that I am certain. But he also had a fundamentally open stance toward the world, and it is that open stance I need to emulate lest my convictions become stubborness and I develop a stiff neck.

May this Lent cure us of our stiff necks.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Monday in Lent 1

Deuteronomy 8:11-20
v. 11: Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God...

Speaking as a fellow sinner, forgetting God is one of the easiest things to do. I think it may be that the sum of our spiritual life is the constant struggle to recover from amnesia.

I'm pretty good at remembering God in the morning when I say Morning Prayer (have I said Morning Prayer in a state of amnesia? Probably, which means that speaking God's name doesn't mean necessarily remembering him). But then as soon as I "hit the road" with my day I settle into self-dependence and the best I can hope for is that I've brought God along for the ride and occasionally remember that she's in the back seat.

What would it mean to "remember God" all day long? I think it has to do with presence, knowing that I am surrounded by God every moment. I literally exist "in" God. On my better days I get close to this. Too often I forget until it's too late and anxiety or fear has taken over (the usual result of God-amnesia).

Blessedly God never forgets me, never withdraws his presence. I do not have to conjure God like a genie from a lamp. So I can want (and should want) to remember God more, but that doesn't mean God is not active in my life. Thank God!

Perhaps a good prayer today is from St. Patrick (see Hymn 370 in The Hymnal 1982):

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 8:1-10
v. 10 You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.

This is a neat summary of Israel's faith, and, therefore, ours. Use the gifts God has given you and bless God for them. Perhaps the using is itself the blessing.

Two things stand out for me in this little verse. The first is "You shall eat your fill." I think the implication is "and no more." Gorging is not on the biblical agenda. You don't have to watch much advertising on television to figure out that it is on ours (or at least the advertisers want it to be). In the old days this was called "gluttony," one of "the seven deadly sins." Perhaps we are in need of a revival in our understanding of this sin. The future of the planet may depend on it, if nothing else.

Second of all, "You shall...bless the Lord." Blessing is something we are used to thinking about receiving rather than giving. The Bible understands it as a two way street. Blessing is both about gifts received and thanks given. God, in a sense, needs our blessing as much as we need God's.

It occurs to me on a personal level that I am surrounded by so much "too much" that if I think hard about it, it makes me dizzy. In this case, a little dizziness would do me a lot of good. It is a significant spiritual issue for me (and I know that I'm not alone here!) to discern between "enough" and "too much." The future of the planet not only depends on this discernment, the health of my own soul does as well.

This discernment, by the way, is what we mean when we use the word "stewardship." This discernment is stewardship's core issue. Stewardship really is primarily not about fundraising, but about fundamental spirituality.