Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 | Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Luke 13:31-35
O Lord God, how am I to know?
Does Abram’s prayer sound familiar to you? Do you ever find yourself saying or thinking these words? Do you sometimes feel embarrassed or ashamed even to ask them?
O Lord God, how am I to know?
For myself, I find these words of Abram often rise in me—only to be squelched by a terrible, pious embarrassment: asking God ‘how will I know’ seems rather unfaithful, even presumptuous, doesn’t it?I suspect, however, that this morning’s scene between Abram and God continues, preserved by scriptural tradition, because it cuts against the grain of a worldly approach to the Holy.
There is something of Abram in each of us—the raw pagan, the worldling, the creature drawn always back to its own immediate sense of satisfaction; the human being that both senses and refuses God’s presence and grace simply because they so often defy our assumptions and expectations. It is easy enough for us to forget that Abram was no devout keeper of Torah, nor a formally trained Christian catechumen. Abram and Sarai walk this path for the first time, and we allfollow the grooves left by their feet. Not all trackless wastes are in trackless wilderness.
It is appropriate, then, that we sit here with Abram as we settle into the wilderness journey of Lent. God has called us out, to go into a land we do not know, to seek promises we do not fully comprehend. Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you […]so that you will be ablessing.Just as God called Abram to begin the project of blessing, healing, and reconciliation to God through one humble body, so too this call continues in each of us: go, that I might make you a blessing.
Jesus spoke of people in four categories – they are either family, friends, neighbors, or enemies – and he tells us to love them all, including our enemies. Who is your enemy? This is someone who is out to destroy your life or destroy your vocation or reputation… or (more likely) someone who irritates you, who has a way of ruining your day, who is “not helpful to your program.” An enemy. And Jesus says to love our enemies and to forgive them. It’s a very tall order. Several thoughts come to mind.
Jesus tells us to “love our enemies,” notbecause it makes for more pleasant living, though that may be true. Rather, we love our enemies because our enemies can be our teachers, sometimes our best teachers. Our enemies can get us in touch with “our own stuff,” and like no one else can. Those outbursts or eruptions or emotional reactions that rise up in us. Where do they come from? And why are they sometimes so disproportional to the “offense” we have experienced from this other person? Our enemies expose us. They can be extraordinary agents for our own conversion. I’ll call this the “Velcro principle.” When the hooks of someone else’s “Velcro” sticks to our own “Velcro,” there’s something there in us, to look into, to open up, to offer to God. Our enemies can be our teachers.[i] Don’t hate them, love them, Jesus says.
Ask, and it will be given you.
But… what if it isn’t?
Search, and you will find.
But… what if I don’t find anything?
Knock, and the door will be opened for you.
But… what if the door just stays shut?
These are reasonable responses to this teaching of Jesus. The kind of asking, searching, and knocking Jesus is talking about summon us to a vulnerable stance. While we may recognize that vulnerability is necessary for any form of genuine connection, we will usually choose the least vulnerable way of getting our needs met whenever humanly possible. At its core, vulnerability is the experience of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.[i]What if I ask, and my request is denied – or even worse, met with a deafening silence? What if I search and I come up empty-handed, exhausted and looking like an idiot for investing myself in such a lost cause? What if I knock until my knuckles bleed and the door doesn’t budge? Thenwhere will I be?
These are supremely reasonable responses if we take our vulnerable human experiences of denied requests, fruitless searches, and closed doors and project them onto our life with God – particularly our life of prayer. These “what if” responses might cause us to entirely forsake asking, searching, or knocking for what we need. We might prefer always to pray for the needs of others. We might prefer to rest in a form of pseudo-contemplation that says, “Whatever youwant, God” rather than actively stay put in the excruciatingly particular vulnerability of our needs – until Godgives us the genuine freedom of contemplative detachment.
Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 6:7-15
Our first lesson, from the Letter to the Colossians, is sometimes called “the Creation Hymn,” how things came into being from the very beginning. The Son of God existed prior to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. What we experience in the human form of Jesus – using the language from Colossians – “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The Son of God had already lived forever, eternally, prior to his taking on human life as Jesus.
The best sense the Church has been able to make of this comes from experience. There is One God, the Creator of everything who, while remaining God, takes on human form: God the Son. This is Jesus, who grows, ministers, prays, dies, is resurrected, and returns to the life of God who has no beginning or ending. Jesus departs from earth. He ascends. He leaves us, not abandoned, but leaves us with another manifestation of the One God, whom Jesus calls “the Spirit,” the Spirit, another Person of the One God. It took the Church several centuries to find the language to try to describe the mysterious yet undeniable experience: that there is One God in Three Persons.
God took on human form in Jesus. How did God make this decision? I’m speaking here very anthropomorphically. How did God decide to become human? What was the “cost” to God to become human? The great Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, in his poem, “The Coming,” pictures God’s decision in a primordial conversation between God the Father and God the Son. The picture is of a desolated, hopeless, helpless earth.
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
“Let me go there.” And that was the decision.
God comes to us as a child of Bethlehem. We know him as Jesus, who grows up, like we grow up, and after many, many years, finds his voice and claims his power. He also prays. Jesus prays, enough so to catch people’s attention. This is God the Son in a very human way praying to God the Father. Very mysterious, and yet, clearly, this is what is happening… frequently.
The Gospel lesson appointed for today is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question how to pray. Jesus gives us what we call “the Lord’s Prayer.”[i] What I find most revealing in the Lord’s Prayer is the opening word, the plural pronoun, “our.”[ii]“OurFather.” Consider the context:
- Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and Jesus’ prayer envelopes his disciples as if he and they are all one: the 1stperson, plural possessive pronoun: our. How to pray? Jesus says we begin like this: OurFather…
- Jesus here regards his disciples not as his servants, but as his friends. They are his peers. They share the same prayer. He doesn’t say, “My Father,” or “Your Father.” He says, “Our Father.”
- The name Jesus uses for “Father” shows a very tender, childlike, trusting intimacy. A better, sweeter translation of the Greek word would be “Papa” rather than “Father.” “Our Papa in heaven.”
- Jesus speaks as a human being, as human as you and I are, and as full of as many wonders and needs as the rest of us. His prayer isn’t just “heavenly”; his prayer includes our need for food – for daily bread – and this isn’t metaphorical. This is table bread. This is about sustenance.
- Just prior to this – the preceding verse – Jesus has said, “Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.”[iii]So Jesus is teaching us to pray, but this is notabout the dissemination of information to God. God already knows our needs. God is God. This is about our trusted and tender relationship to God.
- And the rest is history. I mean, our ownhistory.
The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar, probably to most of us, perhaps too familiar to some of us for us to be mindful of its profundity. These are Jesus’ words, words which completely embrace us as if we, with Jesus, all belong to the same Father, the same Papa. You might inspiration for some meaningful meditation for Lent:
- Reflect on God’s “deciding” to become human, and its “cost” to God to be truly human and truly divine.
- Take R. S. Thomas’ haunting last line in his poem, “Let me go there.” Why? Why did God the Son say to the Father, “Let me go there?” Why did Jesus come?
- Why does Jesus pray? Jesus prayed and he presumed we would, also. He says to his disciples, “When you pray…” What does it mean to pray – to quote Jesus – when “your [heavenly] Father already knows what you need before you ask him.” So why is Jesus praying? Why are we praying?
- And lastly, where I began with the Lord’s Prayer, with the plural possessive pronoun, our: “Our Father.” What does that pronoun “our” invite in terms of your relationship to Jesus and the God whom he calls Father. And if you get in touch with some resistance within you – resistance to that kind of intimacy with God – then pray about your resistance.
[i]Matthew 6:9-15. See also Luke 11:2-4.
[ii]The Greek word (ἡμῶν) literally means “of us”: i.e., “Father of us.”
Four days ago we finally began our Lenten pilgrimage after a long Epiphanytide. For a solid eight weeks following the Epiphany we have celebrated all the ways Jesus was made manifest as the messiah to the world and have studied how these stories help us recognize how Jesus is made manifest in our midst today. Wednesday, we received our invitation to a holy Lent, had ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality, and we are now at the first Sunday in Lent.
As you might have gathered from our gospel lesson from Luke this morning, things have gotten really serious, very quickly! No sooner has Jesus come up from the waters of his baptism, he hears an affirmation of his identity from his Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. In a sense, Jesus has an epiphany and is filled with the Holy Spirit, which then leads him into the harsh Judean desert where the gospel writer says that he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Now, think about that for a moment: even though only three of Satan’s challenges are recorded in the lesson, Luke is quite clear that he is tempted for forty days, all the while with no provision of food or sustenance.
I do not know about you, but I am not encouraged by starting out on these forty days of Lent with a story of Jesus being subjected to mental and physical abuse by the devil! This may explain why Lent is not at the top of my list of favorite Liturgical seasons, especially since my track record with temptation is pretty dismal. I know you may find that hard to believe, but I am the guy who gives up craft beer for Lent and by week two I have succumbed to the desert heat and am quenching my thirst with a cold, refreshing IPA straight from the devil’s hand! In my frustration and disappointment with myself, I try to make myself feel better by thinking of something I can give up the next year where I might actually have success, like perhaps, asparagus. Nothing banishes temptation quite like asparagus. Yet to give up something that would not be challenging is to set out on an ‘adventure in missing the point’; the point being that temptation is a part of our everyday experience. Saint Antony, one of the first of the desert monastics was recorded as saying: “This is the great task of man, that he should hold his sin before the face of God, and count upon temptation until his last breath.”[i]
Today is Shrove Tuesday. You probably also know it as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. The fact that these two names can apply to the same day might surprise you. Shrove Tuesday comes from the verb, “to shrive,” that is, to confess. The weeks immediately preceding Lent, known historically as Shrovetide, were a time for the faithful to recollect, to soberly recall their sins, to confess those sins, and to receive absolution, all in preparation for the penitence of Lent. Fat Tuesday, on the other hand, calls to mind rich food and drink; we can think of pancakes or Carnival or a more general disposition toward partying hard. These two ideas seem to go together like water and oil. But to understand why they’re linked, it’s helpful to think back to where we’ve been in this past liturgical season. The day of Epiphany, and the weeks that follow, are full of revelation and celebration. The light of the star over Bethlehem, the Presentation of the infant Jesus to the Temple, Jesus turning water into wine, and just this Sunday, Christ’s Transfiguration. “In your light we see light,” the psalmist writes, and indeed, these weeks of light offer revelation and celebration to the world.
But maybe more evocative of this time between Epiphany and Lent than any other holy day is the Baptism of Christ, by John in the Jordan River. There are several reasons why. Perhaps most clearly, it is Christ’s Baptism that immediately precedes his 40-day fast in the wilderness. But more than that, as Jesus recounts in today’s Gospel lesson, the faithful came to the river and received the baptism of John, that is, a baptism of repentance, and in doing so, came to understand the justice of God, and received it with praise. They entered into repentance and found the joy of the kingdom of Heaven, the joy of Christ. They went in following John, the strenuous fasting prophet, and came out with the understanding that this sober-minded repentance pointed toward Jesus, the one who comes eating and drinking, celebrating with his friends as a bridegroom celebrates with his wedding guests.
2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
One doesn’t hear this often these days, but like some of you, I grew up in the church. Indeed, like a few of you, I grew up as an Anglican. When Sunday rolled around in our household, there was never any question about what we would be doing when we got up, or what clothes we should put on, it was simply part of our routine. The Koester family got up, put on our church clothes, and went to church. As kids, this meant that we weren’t available to play with our friends on Sunday, until after lunch. At times, such a routine was a great imposition on our social life, but we also knew that the only way to get out of church was to be sick, but all that meant is that Mum or Dad stayed behind with you, and everyone else headed out the door. Not even our ploys to break free of the routine were worth trying very often. Even as sick (and especially if it was only one of those mysterious childhood illnesses, which lasted only as long as Church did) we had to stay in bed all day. Even church wasn’t as boring as being forced to stay in bed, when bed was in fact the last place you really wanted to be.
Such a childhood had a great many advantages, but it has meant that, unlike some others of you here, I never made a conscience decision to be an Anglican, much less a Christian: that’s just the way things worked out. At times, I have missed what sounds to have been an important moment in a life as the decision is made as an adult, to become an Anglican or accept the truth of Christianity. At times I have missed that opportunity to make a mature adult decision, because every once in a while I think that my faith hasn’t progressed much past the stage it was in when I sat at those little tables in Sunday school colouring various Bible stories.
Commemoration of John Cassian (360-435)
We remember today a monk named John Cassian, born in the mid-fourth century in what is now Romania. As a young man he was struggling as a follower of Jesus in a time when the church and world seemed to be falling apart. In many ways his world was not unlike our world today, minus the electronic technology. As a young man, John Cassian traveled to Bethlehem and later moved to Egypt to be formed by some of the great desert hermits.
At the heart of the desert spirituality was the conviction that we have been created in the image of God, and nothing will ever change that. “Original sin,” which we read about in the Book of Genesis, or our own subsequent collusion with sin, never coopts our “original blessing.”[i]We are created in the image of God. At our very core, our soul has the capacity and yearning to love God with the same kind of passion with which God loves us. The aim of the desertfathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas, was to rid themselves of the anxieties, and distractions, and self-judgments that called their attention away from knowing and practicing the love of God with their our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
John 15: 1, 6-17
Today is the feast of St. Matthias, chosen to replace Judas among the twelve apostles. Matthias had been with them since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Perhaps he was one of the 70 whom Jesus sent out. Hardly anything is written about him. All we know is Matthias had been with them since Jesus came among them. The apostles selected two candidates. They drew lots thereby choosing Matthias.
The group probably was not seeking a big personality. They already had that in Peter, James, and John. Now they were amid grief as Jesus had ascended back to heaven. I suspect they sought stability. They chose one who had been with them. They trusted Matthias would remain with them. Remaining, staying put through loss and grief, is hard. Our culture increasingly offers and expects mobility frequently adjusting where we live, work, and the kind of work we do.
Someone asked Antony, founder of desert monasticism, “What must one do in order to please God?” Antony said to stay focused on God, live according to Scripture, and “in whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.”[i]Do not easily leave it. Then and now we are prone to leave. There is a hunger for and wisdom in stability: remain, stick it out, and keep finding God here.
Why come to church? In an era of declining membership in mainline churches, in a time when more and more people – not justyoungpeople – are exercising the option not to attend church services, why do we keep coming back? What is it that we realize that we need, and that compels us to return to this place day after day, week after week?
There are many possible answers, and no doubt we would find a wide range of reasons if we polled the congregation today. Most of us would say we come first of all to worship and to give thanks to God. We realize that life is a gift – all of it –and we wantand needto return thanks to the Giver of all that we have received. Many of us would say we come to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be nourished and strengthened by the holy gifts of Bread and Wine for the service we feel called to give in the world. Others of us come for community, to join together with people who have made a commitment to belonging to God and to following Christ. We take seriously the call to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, and we find strength in solidarity with others in this place. But here is another important reason why we come to church: We come because we realize that living as a Christian in the world is counter-cultural, and we need frequently to be remindedof that, instructedin that, and encouragedin that. When we realize that God asks us to live in ways that are often out of step with the culture that surrounds us, that God invites us to embrace and embody a different set of principles and values than the world promotes, namely the values of the kingdom of God, then we understand how much we need the support of others as we make this difficult and sometimes perilous journey upstream.