…Create in me a contrite heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit…
The gradual psalm we prayed together moments ago, Psalm 51, is the same psalm we prayed aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy as we began the season of Lent: “Create in me a contrite heart, O God…”[i] The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The energy around the word “contrite” is not a prayer that our heart be broken. It’s already happened. Contrition is a state you realize: “I’m just crushed.” If you’ve ever said that or felt that – “I’m just crushed.” – because of something sad or bad that has happened in your life, you will understand the essence of contrition. It’s just that contrition is feeling crushed from the inside out. You are not just the victim; you are also the culprit. Contrition is the dawning of regret or remorse about something you know to be wrong in your life.
Numbers 21: 4 – 9
Psalm 107: 1 – 3, 17 – 22
Ephesians 2: 1 – 10
John 3: 14 – 21
If it feels as though you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, it’s because you have! No wonder, then, if you are shaking your head, and thinking to yourself, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that way today. I bet a number of people are thinking to themselves, did I miss something?
Our gospel lesson today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in a sense secretly, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation about water, and being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge
I Corinthians 1:18-25
Eighteen months ago, during my sabbatical, I spent a week in southwest France at Lourdes. I’d wanted to go to Lourdes for many years, to see what it is like and to try to understand why so many people have found it a place of healing and hope. I could talk for hours about my experiences there, but there was one thing that moved me more than anything else. It was the sight of hundreds of men and women in wheelchairs, being pushed with such respect, kindness and tenderness by mostly young men and women, some students, from all around the world. What was so clear, and really wonderful, was that here at Lourdes, those who were weak, sick, broken, disabled, were honored and really given pride of place. In most places in our society today, where power and wealth and success are trumpeted, the sick, the broken, the weak, the disabled, are so often marginalized and even hidden away. But not at Lourdes.
It made me think back to my late teens when I was considering Christianity. What most attracted me to the Christian faith was that it could embrace and make sense of suffering, sickness, failure and weakness. Humanism really couldn’t explain it at all – they rather got in the way.
Worshipping with men and women in wheelchairs, laughing and joking with them over a glass of Guiness, listening to their stories of faith and trust, and frankly getting in touch with my own weakness and need for healing was, I think, at the heart of the extraordinarily Suffering sense of holiness I felt there. It was unforgettable.
Wasteful, extravagant, profligate, spendthrift. These are all words that are synonymous with the first definition in the dictionary of the word prodigal. I have to admit that it was only recently that I learned that word’s true meaning. I grew up in the Baptist church and all my life have been steeped in scripture. I have heard this parable from Luke’s gospel thousands of times in my lifetime, but I never knew the true meaning of the word prodigal. I had always assumed it either meant ‘lost,’ as in the parable of the lost son. Or perhaps ‘repentant,’ as in the parable of the repentant son. These certainly could fit. But after finally looking up the word, it all makes sense. Prodigal: spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. So as we read the parable and follow the son’s journey from his restlessness at home to eating pig slop as a result of his reckless and wasteful spending, we see how it is that the young son earns the name: prodigal.
Generous, lavish, liberal, bounteous. These are all words synonymous with the second definition of the word prodigal which reads: having or giving something on a lavish scale. Jesus says when the young son returns, hoping that his father will hire him as a servant, the father does the unthinkable. He orders his slaves to bring out the finest robe for his son and to put sandals on his feet and a ring on his finger. To be given a robe to wear was to be honored and only members of the family wore sandals. Slaves and hired servants were required to be barefoot. And probably the most shocking of the father’s prodigality was the giving of the ring. In that culture if a man gave a ring to another man it was the same as giving him power of attorney; an act so generous it defies common sense even in our day.[i] How many of us would hand over everything we owned to someone who could not exhibit proper stewardship of just a fraction of that. But this is what the father does and orders his slaves to kill the fatted calf and to throw a huge party to celebrate his son’s return.
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 16:19-31
Our first reading today is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Over time, Jeremiah has garnered for himself the nickname, “The Weeping Prophet.” He’s earned it. Called to be a prophet at an early age, he is initially reluctant, but trusts in God, and diligently urges his people toward repentance. They don’t listen, and respond with dismissiveness, hostility, and violence. As such, the disaster Jeremiah has been foretelling comes true; the armies of Babylon come and overthrow the houses of Israel and Judah. Jerusalem is captured, and the Temple is destroyed. Jeremiah is cast into exile in Egypt, where he dies, estranged from his homeland and his people. He can do nothing but lament; he has no other option but to weep in the desert.
When Jeremiah tells us, then, that the one who trusts in God shall be like a tree planted by water, unafraid of the drought, still producing fruit, it is reasonable to ask, “Where is Jeremiah’s river? Where is his fruit?” His life appears to be a drought, from start to finish. Does Jeremiah condemn or contradict himself? Where are the waters to cool his scorched tongue?
It is further reasonable to ask this about ourselves. When we are in seasons of drought, when we are striving our hardest to live in faithfulness to God rather than to the flesh, it makes sense to say, “I feel like I’m withering; where is my fruit? I feel like I’m in the desert; where is my river? I’m a poor beggar and sore all over; where is the refreshing water to cool my tongue?” Indeed, it can be difficult to offer any prayer at all in this state of mind. When the tongue is dry, when the lips are cracked, it is a great, even painful effort to speak. We may feel we are living in the poverty of Lazarus, and yet receiving the treatment of the rich man, begging for a cool drink. Not only the mouth, but the soul itself may be parched. In the desert of Lent, we are especially prone to this drought. How, then, can we pray?
Here, Jeremiah’s story is instructive. The lament, the weeping, the tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment. These tears are rain to the thirsty land, the wellspring of the river of life in the midst of the desert, the water that soothes the dry mouth and the tormented soul.
“Jesus wept” is the most iconic depiction of the tears of grief leading to life; Christ’s tears both show his human sorrow and foreshadow the abundance of life that will literally burst forth from the earth at the resurrection of Lazarus. Hagar’s tears in the wilderness after she and her son had run out of water are met with God revealing a well. Writing around the year 600, the monastic saint John Climacus wrote in his Ladder of Divine Ascent that, “Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears…If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find. Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears, shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted.” St. Symeon the New Theologian, another monk, writing at the end of the 10th century, argued that holy weeping is a recurring gift of immersion in the waters of baptism, cleansing us and giving us life whenever we are bathed in our tears. Tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment; they are a sign of repentance, a sign of sorrow for the world, a sign of awe, a sign of love. They are the waters within, just waiting to course through the desert when words are too much and not enough.
We are in Lent. It is the season of the drought. We can look around and see plentiful sorrow, and we may be unable to fix it. We may find no words, no actions, are sufficient to dress the wounds of the world. So, take heart; do not shun your tears. Do not be ashamed or afraid or dismissive of weeping, for when the heat of the desert seeps into our bones, tears can be living water.
Lenten Commemoration – George Herbert (1593-1633)
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert. Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry, which was published posthumously. There was a secret to George Herbert’s greatness, but not the obvious.
Isaiah 55: 6 – 11
Psalm 34: 15 – 22
Matthew 6: 7 – 15
Several years ago, Brother Robert and I found ourselves in a small, subterranean chapel on top of the Mount of Olives, within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. The chapel where we were had once been a cave, but over the centuries had been dug out and expanded, and then a newer, larger, modern church had been built over this cave chapel. The floor around the altar was littered with scraps of paper on which people had written their prayers, and then dropped through a grille in the floor of the church above us, down into this smaller cave chapel where Robert and I stood. We were there with Sr Elspeth, an American, who had begun her religious life as a Sister of the Order of Saint Anne here in Arlington, but the deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized that it was to the contemplative life that she was called, and so there she was, a Carmelite sister of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing Brother Robert and me the cave where tradition tells us that Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
Today is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. Fasting and ashes seem opposite of feasting and chocolate. Some celebrated yesterday, love with Mardi Gras.
Recently I visited two of my best friends. The past couple months had been very intense and hard for them. Amid a more chaotic house, we sat sharing stories of disaster and trouble. Each time I visit we go deep quickly being vulnerable about our lives. We bear witness to each other’s wounds and wonders. Our love is palpable. We are humble and truthful in sharing our questions, limits, losses, and desires.
Lent is about love, a clearing season to be deeply honest with God. We kneel to confess first hearing: “Dear friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy.”[i] We acknowledge our mortality, our frailty, failure, and limitation. Love humbly speaks raw, unvarnished truth, and love listens: love with ashes.
1 Kings 12:26-33, 13:33-34; Psalm 106:19-22; Mark 8:1-10
I have never wanted to create a god. I would never think to construct something out of metal or stone or wood, only to begin to worship it upon completion. This is why the stories of the Israelites turning to the worship of golden calves have, for a long time, been confusing to me. It seems to make idolatry into something that’s an obvious, explicit turning away from God, a deliberate decision to say, “No, I choose to worship this unliving thing, made with my own hands, that I know is not God.” This is not any idolatry with which I am familiar.
I have been happy to discover, then, that perhaps this is not what the Israelites were up to. One theory explaining the repeated trope of the golden calf is not that God’s people intended to fashion for themselves new gods. Yahweh and El—both names ascribed to the God of Israel—were often symbolized with bulls. Further, in the Ancient Near East, it was common to depict images of gods enthroned, not by showing them sitting in a stately chair, but instead standing atop an animal associated with the god in question. If one wished to create a new throne for the God of Israel, it would have been natural to fashion a golden calf.1