Lent 4 A
March 22, 2020
All the Way Through

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of

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Lent 4 A March 22, 2020

Psalm 23 Pastor Susan Henry

John 9:1-41 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from the great Shepherd of the sheep,

our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

All the Way Through

1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.

33He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of

righteousness for his name’s sake.

4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of

death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.  Thy rod and    thy staff, they comfort me.

5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine  enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Are there any words more comforting and more full of trust in God than these?  Are there any words that speak more to our needs and our fears in such a time as this?  Strange as it may seem, the old King James version of the twenty-third psalm, in all its archaic glory, “restoreth” our souls -- and our souls “needeth” restored right now.

Chaos threatens to engulf us as our ordinary lives and everyday routines are disrupted.  We’re not in worship together on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning.  We may be working from home instead of in our offices.  Our children’s schools are closed, their playdates are cancelled, and we’re figuring out how to do school at home.  Conference rooms everywhere are empty as we hold Zoom meetings instead. We could use more than a little comfort, and we really need someone in whom we can put our trust.  We’re keeping one another as safe as possible through careful social distancing, and we’ve suddenly found ourselves living in an unsettling, exhausting world. 

I know that firsthand, and you probably do, too.  Going to the grocery store a couple days ago was a weird experience.  A few people wore masks, and everybody was all business – no chatting, no smiles, physical distance and a certain wariness between us.  Meat, dairy products, paper goods, and frozen foods were in short supply, and it’s strange to see empty shelves.  We’re all used to having lots of choices and casually interacting with one another as we shop.  Right now, though, other people’s anxiety evokes our own.  I’m not immune to that, although common sense usually triumphs over panic. 

Social distancing is a right and necessary practice now for the sake of everyone’s well-being.  But it’s a hard practice because, God knows, we’re made for relationship.  We’re created to be social creatures.  The disruption of many of our social relationships is a loss we’re dealing with right now, a grief we’ve hardly begun to acknowledge.

When Belgian priest, teacher, and author Henri Nouwen wrote about the three movements of the spiritual life, he spoke of a movement “from loneliness to solitude,” from being alone in a way that’s painful to being with ourselves in a way we’re more at ease with.  Such movement goes on over a lifetime, of course.  In the midst of all that is happening to us and around us, many among us are alone more than we might choose to be – or we’re at least feeling more alone than we usually do.  Perhaps the good company of the twenty-third psalm (and of the generations of ordinary people just like us who’ve found comfort in it) will assuage some of our loneliness in this time of distress and disruption.

At the very beginning, the writer of this psalm makes a bold claim: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  Somebody is looking out for me, and I can trust that I’ll have what I really need.  The shepherd will see that the sheep have food and water, that they find rest and renewal, that they can have confidence in the shepherd’s leading.  That all sounds good to me.

The fourth verse of this psalm is an amazing testimony to how scripture is “the living Word,” not just a word for its own time but a word for our time as well.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  The coronavirus has us all walking through some low, lonesome valleys when the Dow plummets or fear about the future makes our hearts sink.  We’re walking through some dark, shadowy places where a fog doesn’t lift or something dreadful might loom ahead or the night seems really long.  But did you notice that death isn’t really what this is all about?  I’m convinced that the most significant word for us in this verse today is “through.”  Through the valley.  Through the dark.  Through it all – but not alone.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” 

I can’t always witness to being fearless on that journey myself, but I do trust the one who goes with me through it.  All the way through it.  From entering into a valley to leaving it behind.  From when the lows are impossibly low to when the road rises.  From when darkness and danger threaten to when the dawn comes.  And the dawn always comes.

Many years ago, during a really horrible time in my life, I would sit in my therapist’s office every week, having held myself together at home for my kids and at school for my students, and I would sob for about forty-seven minutes of the fifty-minute hour.  Eventually, she would say, again, “This is one moment in time.  It’s a hard moment.  It’s a long moment.  But it’s not your whole life.  It’s one moment in time.”  That was enough to get me through another week, through another stretch of what felt like “the valley of the shadow of death.”  And, eventually, the road before me rose, the shadows diminished, the light broke, and I was okay again.

I wasn’t alone on that long walk, and one of the most powerful ways that God was with me was through my therapist’s willingness to accompany me through it all.  People at church, my family, and my close friends walked with me, too.  You might also have gone through personal crises and found God in God’s many disguises there to shepherd you, to accompany you, to walk with you.  And here’s the thing:  once we’ve discovered that God was with us -- no matter what, no matter where, we grow in trust that God will be with us, no matter what, no matter where, no matter the world’s current iteration of the valley of the shadow of death – and that God will bring us through it all.

I’m personally still a work-in-progress on the “I will fear no evil” part of that verse in the psalm, but I’m confident that God is continuing to love me -- and you -- out of fear and into deeper trust.  That’s part of God’s shepherding, too. 

The story at the heart of Godly Play is the parable of the Good Shepherd, a story that draws upon the twenty-third psalm, the story in Luke about the lost sheep and the shepherd who searches until it is found, and Jesus’ declaration in John’s gospel, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Since 1974, Jerome Berryman, a Montessori teacher and Episcopal priest, has been telling the story of the Good Shepherd to children not only in churches but in hospitals and schools.  He still tells Godly Play stories to children, and I once heard him say to a roomful of Godly Play teachers, “I’ll tell you a secret.  It’s not just for kids.” 

I’ve taken the story of the Good Shepherd to children in the hospital, told it in Godly Play and at kitchen tables, and shared it with confirmation kids.  I told it to our children here in church on the Sunday after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, because everyone single one of us needed to hear it that day.  It’s a story that brings comfort and elicits trust in the Good Shepherd, the one who “goes ahead of [the sheep] to show them the way,” who leads the sheep to “the good green grass” and “the cool, clear water,” who  shows them “how to go through” the places of danger, and who finds the one who is lost and brings it safely home.

When so much feels uncertain in the world today, it’s good to be certain that we are not alone as we travel through perilous times, good to know that “thou art with me.”  It’s good to trust that any given long, hard moment – even our current long, hard moment -- is not our whole life.  We are shepherded through the low places and accompanied through the valleys, and, by God’s grace, we come through the darkness into the light.  It’s still Lent – but Easter is coming.

Right now, when the air is thick with anxiety about the coronavirus and fear about the future, we hold onto faith not only for our own sake, but for the sake of others who are having a hard time believing that they are not alone or that they can come through what seems like a horrible time.  We are bearers of hope.  The comfort we find and the trust we have in a Good Shepherd who leads the sheep and shows them how to go through the places of danger will foster resilience in us.  It will leave us less prone to fear and panic.  It will help us take the long view, and it will “restoreth our souls.”  And our relationship with others who belong to the Good Shepherd will remind us that we are part of a beloved flock, not lost, lonely, or

abandoned sheep left to fend for ourselves.

We have a Good Shepherd, the good company of our sister and brother sheep, and the goodness and mercy revealed through the words of a familiar psalm.  In this moment in time when we and so many others may be experiencing anxiety and fear, in the twenty-third psalm we find comfort and confidence in the Lord who is our shepherd.  Listen again or pray it with me:

1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of

righteousness for his name’s sake.

4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of

death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.  Thy rod and    thy staff, they comfort me.

5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine  enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Amen      

        

Lent 3 A
March 15, 2020
Social Distancing

On this Sunday, we haven’t gathered together in church as we usually do. Out of love for our neighbors – the ones nearest and dearest to us and those who are six degrees of separation away – our congregation and many others are practicing social distancing.

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Lent 3 A March 15, 2020

Exodus 17:1-7 Pastor Susan Henry

John 4:5-42 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Social Distancing

On this Sunday, we haven’t gathered together in church as we usually do.  Out of love for our neighbors – the ones nearest and dearest to us and those who are six degrees of separation away – our congregation and many others are practicing social distancing.  That’s a term most of us hadn’t even heard of a couple months ago, but we’ve added it to our vocabulary and made big changes to our way of life in order to help avert the spread of the new coronavirus and the illness it causes.  We’re mindful now about keeping a greater distance between us and others when we’re in public places.  In church, we stopped shaking hands and began sharing the peace of God with a nod, an elbow bump, or a two-fingered peace sign.

And this week, we’ve kept a greater social distance between us by not gathering together as we usually do for worship.  It’s the right thing to do, even if it’s a hard thing to do.  In challenging times, people like to come together to hear words of hope or encouragement, to literally lean on each other for support, or to find comfort in the company of others.  In this challenging time, we still seek hope, encouragement, support, comfort, and company – but we may seek and find these things in surprising places, intriguing encounters, and new or deeper connections with the source of our hope and the experience of God’s presence that transcends all social distancing.

Disruptive though it may be for us to keep a greater distance from the people around us, we’re not doing something that’s never been done before.  In Jesus’ time, people who had something contagious announced their presence in order to protect others who could then keep from being exposed to a communicable disease.  The practice served the common good, but it must have been emotionally very hard on those who had to keep themselves apart from ordinary, everyday life in their community.  People today who have been exposed to or tested positive for the coronavirus have been self-quarantining, protecting others for the sake of everybody’s well-being. 

Another kind of social distancing practiced in Jesus’ time (and ours) was what the Samaritan woman at the well did.  Women usually came to draw water from Jacob’s well during the cool of the morning when they could chat together, laugh, and tell stories as they waited their turn to lower the bucket into the well and then fill their water jugs.  But the woman in today’s gospel story comes at noon, in the heat of the day, alone.  Why might that be so? 

Traditional commentaries assumed that she comes alone because she’s led an immoral life and would be subject to the other women’s judgment and disdain.  After all, in her conversation with Jesus, he says that she’s had five husbands and that she’s not married to the man she’s with now.  And she acknowledges that he’s right about that.  Perhaps her way of life has separated her from women who might otherwise welcome her.  Maybe she practices a kind of social distancing to protect herself from their knowing looks or their exclusion of her from their easy banter and companionship.

More recent scholarship suggests some other possibilities for why she comes to the well at noon alone.  A woman’s position in her husband’s household wasn’t secure until she had a son.  If she didn’t have a baby boy, her husband could divorce her, and her family may or may not have taken her back into their household.  Another arranged marriage might have provided a second chance to bear a son, but if she didn’t produce an heir, she’d have likely been divorced by that husband as well and been in a still more precarious economic and social position in her culture. 

Another possible explanation for her many marriages may be found in the then-common practice of levirate marriage.  If a woman’s husband died without a male heir, she would be given to his brother as his wife.  He was in fact obligated to take her into his household. And if he died without having a son by her, she would be given to the next brother, and so on.  Surely not a life she would choose for herself. 

In this story, Jesus simply notes her circumstances.  He doesn’t condemn her, ask her to repent, offer forgiveness, or tell her to change her ways.  Maybe what he knows and names about her reveals his compassion or his recognition of how complicated or difficult her life may be.

You might wonder why the women of the village might have excluded her if her status wasn’t tied to her own immoral behavior.  Truth be told, whether she was divorced by a man because she had no child or divorced by him for any other reason or stuck in a levirate marriage or had made some unconventional choice in order to survive, she was a reminder to the other women of the village that such things could happen to them, too.  It would be almost a fear of contagion for them, and they might well have kept their distance from her, leaving her isolated from the company of other women.  She might have chosen to distance herself from them by coming at noon to the well because it was less painful than being with them but not welcomed by them.

Her encounter with Jesus is quite surprising.  In her culture, a woman did not speak in public to a man she wasn’t related to.  But here at Jacob’s well, in the light and the heat of the day, a remarkable conversation takes place between an unnamed Samaritan woman and a Jewish rabbi.  It’s the longest conversation recorded in any of the gospels, and it begins with a request from Jesus.  The disciples have gone off to find some food, and Jesus, tired and thirsty, says to this woman, “Give me a drink.”

Now, not only is he a man and a stranger to her, but he’s a Jew.  There was ancient animosity and ongoing hostility between Jews and Samaritans, though each group traced their faith and their practices back through many generations to their common ancestor Jacob.  “How is that you are asking a drink from me?” she says.  Jesus doesn’t really answer her question.  Instead, he says that if she knew who he was, she’d be asking from a drink from him, and he would give her “living water.”

Surely confused by his response, she says, “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?”  Just as Nicodemus took Jesus literally when he was told that he must be “born anew,” the Samaritan woman takes Jesus literally when he speaks about “living water.”  She thinks of living water as moving water, flowing water, water that bubbles up from below the earth to replenish what’s been drawn from it.  She asks Jesus if he thinks he’s greater than Jacob whose flocks drank water from that same well.  We know that Jesus is indeed greater than Jacob, and she will soon come to that realization, too. 

When Jesus says that the water he gives doesn’t leave a person thirsty the way water from this well does, the woman says, “Sir, give me this water that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”  Save me from that, she says. 

What follows is a long conversation that touches on her life, on how she recognizes him as a prophet, on her theological questions about the right place to worship, and about the Messiah who is to come.  In this gospel, she is the first one to whom Jesus reveals himself as Messiah.  And she gets it, mostly.  Her  spiritual thirst – her deepest thirst -- gets quenched by whatever Jesus’ living water really is, and she leaves her water jug behind to go tell the people of her town to come and see this remarkable rabbi.  “He knows who I am,” she tells them; “He knows everything about me.”

Really, what he knew was how thirsty she was for what he had to offer – refreshing, renewing, thirst-quenching, saving water that gives life.  Eternal life that begins here and now.  Living water that seeps into the dry cracks of loneliness and brings new life.  A relationship that renders ancient hostility irrelevant to the present moment.

The townspeople came to meet Jesus because she invited them to come and see.  They asked Jesus to stick around for a couple days, and he did.  For that brief moment in time, the social distance between Jews and Samaritans was overcome.  Living water sloshed around freely, overcoming divisions and blurring boundaries.  In living water that did not come from a well, “the gift of God” in Jesus was a life-giving, distance-bridging, saving presence right there in that community.

The gospel story of the Samaritan woman’s surprising encounter with Jesus is a good story for our moment in time, too.  It acknowledges the appropriateness as well as the potential loneliness that may come with social distancing.  It recognizes that even though some people may not need to keep their distance, they may choose to because they see how their circumstances make others anxious about their own situations.  This story is gospel – good news – because Jesus shows up in an unexpected place and, in a surprising encounter with an unlikely woman, offers a marvelous gift that is life-giving for all.  What the Samaritan woman was thirsty for didn’t come from a well.  It still doesn’t.

But we give a nod to real water, the kind that bubbles up in springs and flows through streams and gets poured into baptismal fonts where we are baptized.  It’s water and the Word, water and Jesus who is himself the Word, that is life-giving and life-sustaining for us.  In this strange time when we’re practicing social distancing for the sake of everyone’s health and well-being, we can stay connected to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ through baptism.  A little of the inevitable loneliness that comes from less social connection might be mitigated by remembering our ongoing deep connection as part of God’s family through baptism.  Through living water.  And perhaps even through our constant handwashing.

As you wash your hands and I wash mine and our families and our House of Prayer friends and our neighbors near and far all wash theirs, may the waters of baptism remind us how close we are despite whatever social distance we have to observe right now.  A cross was traced on our foreheads when we were baptized, and if we trace a cross on our hands each time we wash them, we can remember our baptism.  We can give thanks for the new life and the place in God’s family that is ours through baptism.  We can find hope, encouragement, support, and comfort not only in being part of a family of faith, but also in the promises and the presence of Jesus who keeps us company, assuages our loneliness, damps down our anxiety, and assures us that he is with us always.  Always.  No matter what.

Amen                           

Lent 2 A
March 8, 2020
“How Can These Things Be?”

Have you ever wished you could take Jesus aside, off where nobody else was privy to your conversation, and talk with him about some of the things that you just don’t understand about God?

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Lent 2 A March 8, 2020

John 4:1-17 Pastor Susan Henry

House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

“How Can These Things Be?”.

Have you ever wished you could take Jesus aside, off where nobody else was privy to your conversation, and talk with him about some of the things that you just don’t understand about God?  Maybe really big things like, if God is loving and God is powerful, what to make of the suffering that ordinary people in Syria are experiencing as endless war makes refugees of thousands upon thousands of families.  Or maybe you’d like to talk with Jesus about some of the big things -- disappointment, illness, tragedy, or loss -- in your own life or the lives of people you love, and about what God is or isn’t responsible for in all that.  Or maybe there are things in your life that you don’t necessarily want brought into the light for others to see but you need Jesus’ help with.  Perhaps you’d just like to sit with Jesus in the darkness some evening and wonder with him about life and death and love and God. 

Prayer is of course a way we can come to Jesus by night or by day with our questions, our fears, and our struggles.  And entering into the scriptures can bring us into the conversations others have had with Jesus or connect us with the concerns, laments, and strong or tentative faith that others have come before God with for thousands of years.

In prayer and in scripture, when we come with our questions, we’re most often looking for answers.  But that doesn’t seem to be the way the Bible works – or, often, the way prayer works.  We come with our questions, and what we find in response to those questions are promises.  We hear, “I am with you always” and “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” and “I have called you by name; you are mine.”  We hear, “I am the good shepherd” and “I will not leave you orphaned” and “Take and eat.  This is my body, given for you.  For you.”

When our questions and our compassion for those who suffer make us weep and wonder, we find in the death of Jesus a profound witness to a God who entered into human suffering, who understands suffering firsthand.  And we find in the resurrection of Jesus an unmistakable witness to both God’s love and God’s power.  We may wish for more clarity about how divine love and power, the forces of nature, and human freedom play out in the world, and there are things worth saying about that, but, this side of eternity, we have to live with “seeing through a glass darkly.”

We walk by faith and not by sight, which is not a cop-out, but which sometimes makes for a challenging journey through life.  Walking by faith means learning to trust God with all that we don’t know because of what we do know.  Walking by faith means trusting God with all that we don’t know about God, about life, about suffering, about the future because of what we do know, because of God’s way with God’s people in the past, because of Jesus’ living and dying and rising, because of God’s promises, because God gives us God’s Word.

Of course, walking by faith need not keep us from asking, out of curiosity, amazement, confusion, or doubt, “How can these things be?”  There, we’re in the good company of Nicodemus.  He came by night, looking for something from Jesus.  It wouldn’t have looked good for his fellow religious leaders to see him boldly seeking out Jesus, this renegade rabbi who was attracting the attention and allegiance of a lot of very ordinary, uneducated, curious, hurting, hungry people.  So Nicodemus comes to Jesus when he’s not likely to be seen by others.  He comes on a spring night and says, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

If I didn’t already know this story, I’d be waiting for Jesus to affirm Nicodemus’ insight about how God is powerfully present in Jesus’ life and actions, or I’d be eager to hear what Nicodemus is leading up to.  But neither of those things happen.  Instead, seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, born again, born anew.”  Now, maybe Jesus is affirming Nicodemus here if Nicodemus understands Jesus’ “signs” to be expressions of “the kingdom of God” that has come near in Jesus.

But even if Jesus is offering words of encouragement to Nicodemus, what Nicodemus gets caught up in are Jesus’ words about birth.  He takes Jesus literally, and he says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Conversations in the gospel of John are full of this sort of misunderstanding that Jesus then makes use of in order to reveal something more fully and to invite us into a great mystery.  To Nicodemus, Jesus replies, “Coming into the world happens through water for all of us.  Our mothers carry us, their waters break, they go into labor, and we are born.  But coming into the kingdom of God happens through water and Spirit.  It’s a whole different kind of being born.”

I would love to have seen the look on Nicodemus’ face as Jesus told him all this.  Was it consternation, skepticism, amazement, or what?  It is pretty astonishing stuff – this movement of the Spirit, this going where it wills, this hearing but not seeing, this being born from above into a realm where love and power will paradoxically be revealed on a cross.  No wonder Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?”

His question echoes in us, too.  He kind of fades into the background in this story, and, although it’s not clear in translation, Jesus’ words become addressed not to “you, Nicodemus,” in the singular, but to “you listeners and readers of John’s gospel,” in the plural – in other words, addressed to us, too.  Some of Jesus’ words are what we’ve come to call ‘the gospel in a nutshell:’  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

We don’t know what Nicodemus made of Jesus’ words, but his encounter with Jesus was surely significant.  Nicodemus turns up in John’s gospel two more times.  Much later, when the temple police have backed off from arresting Jesus, the religious authorities put increasing pressure on them and suggest they’ve been taken in by Jesus because they don’t know the law like the Pharisees do.  One of the Pharisees asks, “Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?” – obviously assuming that the answer is, “Of course not.”  Nicodemus speaks up, but he offers a pretty timid response, saying merely, “Our law doesn’t judge people without giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  The others are completely dismissive of Nicodemus, and we know what will soon happen to Jesus.

The last time we hear of Nicodemus, he is with Joseph of Arimathea, a man who is described as “a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one for fear of the [religious authorities].”  Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have come to take away the body of Jesus after his death on the cross.  Nicodemus “had first come to Jesus by night.”  Now he comes in the day, bringing “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds” – an extraordinary amount of expensive spices.  The two men prepare the body of Jesus for burial, wrapping it with all those spices in linen cloths and laying it in a new tomb.

I wonder whether Nicodemus came with all those spices out of guilt for not standing up for Jesus despite what it might have cost him among his peers.  Maybe he was a tepid and not-very-brave believer, someone whose investment in his own position and power mattered more to him than following Jesus did.  If so, I can relate to him.  I can be timid about -- or resistant to -- living as a true friend and faithful follower of Jesus, especially when I see that it will cost me something to do that.  I’m not proud of that, but I’ll own it, even as I desire to be more faithful.  Maybe moments like this are part of your journey of faith, too.

But I also wonder whether Nicodemus came with all those spices out of deep love for Jesus, out of a faith that had been nurtured by the Spirit over time, a faith that grew from that seed of a conversation in the dark to a tentative expression from within the shadows to an extravagant act of love and faithfulness in the light of day.  That kind of process is part of my story and my journey, too – a journey that began with my baptism and God’s whisper in my ear that I am a beloved child of God.  It’s part of your story, too.  You were born “of water and Spirit,” washed in the waters of baptism, “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  You received the gift of faith that the Spirit continues to nurture in you.

By night or by day, those of us who desire to be ever-more-faithful friends and followers of Jesus get to come to him full of faithful curiosity, amazement, confusion, and doubt.  One-to-one or all together, we get to ask Jesus our hard questions and receive from him God’s gracious promises.  Water and Spirit, bread and wine, faithful companions, and God’s astonishing promises – these will sustain us on our journeys, even as we ask, “How can these things be?”

Amen        

     

Lent 1 A
March 1, 2020
There in the Wilderness

Every year, on the first Sunday in Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and this year we hear it as the writer of Matthew tells it.

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Lent 1 A       March 1, 2020

Matthew 4:1-11 Pastor Susan Henry

  House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

There in the Wilderness

Every year, on the first Sunday in Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and this year we hear it as the writer of Matthew tells it.  Each year, Lent begins in a desolate place, a dangerous place, a place where people don’t go unless they have to.  And it seems that Jesus had to go there.  In fact, Matthew says that the Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness.

The temptation follows the baptism of Jesus, a story we heard not all that long ago.  As Matthew tells it, just as Jesus came up out of the river Jordan, “the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now that same Spirit has led Jesus away from the water, away from the crowds, away into the wilderness.  And there, for a long time -- for forty days and forty nights -- Jesus has fasted.  Now, if “forty days and forty nights” somehow sounds familiar, that’s just what Matthew intends.  He wants to remind us that Jesus’ story doesn’t come out of nowhere.  It’s deeply connected to the whole story of God’s loving and saving way with God’s people – a story that includes the great flood when rain fell for forty days and forty nights; the same length of time that Moses was on Mount Sinai with God before he came down to the people with the ten commandments; the same number of days that the prophet Elijah traveled to the mountain where God made Godself known, not in earthquake, wind or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence.  It’s not by chance that the church observes Lent as forty days (not counting Sundays, which are always “little Easters”).

In our gospel story today, Matthew tells us that Jesus has fasted – and that Jesus is famished.  The tempter appears and invites Jesus to take matters into his own hands and end his long fast.  He challenges Jesus:  “Come on.  If you are the Son of God, use your power.  Make bread out of these rocks, and you can fill that empty place inside you.”  Jesus refuses, saying that “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Iit is written . . . .”  Well, where, exactly, is it written?  It’s in a story Jesus knows by heart, a story that goes back to the time when, after wandering in the wilderness for forty years, God’s people are about to enter the promised land.  In that land, Moses says, there will be “wheat and barley, vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.”  To a people who’ve been living hand to mouth, eating nothing but manna they’ve gathered up every morning from the ground, this must sound amazing.  But Moses warns the people not to forget that they have come through these forty years in the wilderness only because God has faithfully provided for them.

“[God] humbled you,” Moses says, “by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna . . . in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  And Moses tells God’s people that when they’re living large in the new land, they’d best not pat themselves on the back and say, “Wow -- look how great we are.” Or, as scripture actually puts it, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’”

More than a thousand years later, out in a different wilderness, Jesus draws upon that story.  He remembers that God is faithful, that God provides, and that what comes from the mouth of God will sustain you.  The tempter says, “Well, this comes from the mouth of God,” and he quotes scripture – Psalm 91, to be precise – as evidence for why Jesus should launch himself from the pinnacle of the temple where the devil has taken him.  “Scripture says that God will send angels to catch you,” the devil tells him; “you won’t get hurt.”  Jesus replies, “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  This comes word for word from another part of the story of how Moses is preparing the people to enter the promised land.  “Trust God; don’t test God,” Moses tells the people.  “Trust God; don’t test God,” Jesus tells the tempter.

The devil does not give up.  He takes Jesus to a high mountain, invites him to look around at all that is before him – and then offers it to Jesus.  “You can rule the world,” the tempter says; “red states, blue states, purple states, those orange and green countries on the far side of the globe.  People will bow down before you and serve you and be totally at your mercy.  It’s in my power to give it to you.  It’s yours for the taking if you just bow down to me, if you just worship me.”  Again, Jesus leans upon scripture – on the same story as before – and says, “It is written that God alone is to be worshipped and served.  God alone.”  Matthew ends the story like this:  “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” 

I used to picture this story as a macho, chest-bumping, testosterone-fueled encounter between the tempter and Jesus, but lately I wonder if it might have been something entirely different.  After forty days and forty nights in the wilderness without food, maybe by the time the devil showed up, Jesus was hanging by a thread.  Maybe, baptism or not, forty days of hunger and cold, of wild animals and inhospitable surroundings had taken their toll on him.

And maybe the thread he was hanging by was what his mother had taught him as a child, what she and Joseph and his teachers and the rabbis had instilled in him.  Mary would have been his first teacher, the first to tell him the stories of God’s way with God’s people, the first to tell him those “forty days and forty nights” stories about Noah and Moses and Elijah.

Maybe Jesus could fend off the devil in part because the stories and teachings that had sustained the people of God for well over a thousand years sustained him in the wilderness.  He knew these stories by heart.  They had become part of him, and he could draw upon them to make meaning in his own life.  In them, Jesus knew the powerful, gracious, merciful God who had come so close to him and to whom he had come so close that ‘loving Father’ and “beloved Son’ were the only words that could rightly describe their relationship.

These stories belong to all of God’s people -- those who experienced the events, those who remembered them and wrote them down, those who told them to their children or studied them with other people of faith or read them alone at the close of day.  These stories belong to us.  And, we have not only the stories Jesus himself knew, but we have four gospels’ worth of stories about Jesus’ life and death and rising, and we have stories about some of the people who followed him.  These are some of “the words that come from the mouth of God.”  Jesus is himself the Word that comes from the mouth of God, the Word that comes to us in stories and in bread, the Word that fills the hungry, empty places in us.

This Lent, we’ll enter into some of the big stories about Jesus:  his temptation in the wilderness, his meeting at night with the pharisee Nicodemus, his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, his healing of a man born blind, and his raising of Lazarus.  I am convinced that there is a word addressed to each of us and to all of us somewhere in these stories.  If it’s not a word for today, it may be a word for tomorrow or for some tomorrow when we find ourselves trying to make some sort of meaning out of the situations or struggles or suffering we’re experiencing.  Now and then, we might feel like we’re hanging by a thread, too.

If and when that happens, not only do we have the stories Jesus himself knew and the stories about Jesus to draw upon, but we have our own baptism to remember and to cling to as the moment in time when God called each of us a beloved son or a beloved daughter and claimed us as God’s own.

Sometimes when someone shares with me what’s going on in their life, I ask if there’s a story or a verse from scripture that somehow seems related to their story.  Maybe it’s “Yeah, I feel like Job right now,” or maybe, “I’m like that sheep that needs found” or “Hey, I was dead and now I’m alive again.”  When we know even some of the stories in scripture, we may find company on our journeys, perspective on our lives, and food for our hungers.  We may find meaning in our struggles, healing for our pain, challenge to our selfishness.  And we may find welcome despite our fear, hope for tomorrow, and love beyond our imagining.  The Bible is a big book that tells a big story.  It’s the best book ever.

At our next confirmation weekend, I’m going to invite the kids to mess around with some art materials in response to the story of Joseph – a story that takes about thirteen chapters in the book of Genesis to tell.  I’ll tell them a shorter version, needless to say, just as I did a few years ago with another confirmation class.  The story of Joseph is full of the stuff of real life then and now -- sibling rivalry, family dysfunction, dreams, deception, grief, a lousy job, a better one, seduction, lies, jail, wisdom and competence, feast and famine, testing, tears, compassion, reconciliation, joy.  The thread that runs through the story is God’s sustaining, providential presence in Joseph’s life, God’s turning of what others mean for ill into something God uses for good.  When any of our kids are hanging by a thread, I’m glad they’ll have the story of Joseph as a resource to draw upon.

The go-to story for Jesus in the wilderness came out of the deep store of scripture that had shaped his life from his childhood to his baptism and as his ministry began.  The deep store of scripture is ours to draw from as well, and there are go-to stories to sustain us when we find ourselves in a wilderness, in a place we would not choose to go.  In the Word that is the Bible, we encounter Jesus, the Word made flesh who lived among us and is still with us.

When we’re sorely tempted to trust only in ourselves or to test God or to give our allegiance to something other than God, and we don’t want to give in to those temptations, today’s gospel might be the forty-days story that reminds us that in the wilderness Jesus resisted those same kinds of temptations.  Even hanging by a thread, Jesus found what he needed in powerful stories that had made their home deep within him.    

His forty days echoed those of Noah and his family who experienced safe passage through great danger.  Jesus surely recalled that the first of the ten best ways to live is to love God more than anything, and he remembered how Moses prepared God’s people for the end of their own time in the wilderness.  Jesus’ forty days might have called up the memory of God’s quiet presence with Elijah when the prophet was weary and anxious and tempted to despair.  Jesus could draw upon these stories and be sustained in the wilderness when he was hanging by a thread.  May we trust that God will sustain us in our own wildernesses with the stories Jesus knew, with his life and death and rising, with the bread that is his body, and with the promise that we are by baptism God’s beloved daughters and sons now and forever.

Amen

             

1. Matthew 3:16-17

2. Deuteronomy 8:8-9a

3. Deuteronomy 8:3

4. Deuteronomy 8:17

Transfiguration A
February 23, 2020

Transfigured, Transfixed, Transformed

The way the church tells time, we’re at the end of a cycle that includes Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. It’s a cycle suffused with light – the light of God’s promise, of a night sky radiant with the announcement of good news to the shepherds, of the star that led the magi to Jesus, and of images like Jesus’ call for his followers to be the light of the world.

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Transfiguration A February 23, 2020

Exodus 24:12-18 Pastor Susan Henry

2 Peter 1:16-21 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Matthew 17:1-9 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

Transfigured, Transfixed, Transformed

The way the church tells time, we’re at the end of a cycle that includes Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  It’s a cycle suffused with light – the light of God’s promise, of a night sky radiant with the announcement of good news to the shepherds, of the star that led the magi to Jesus, and of images like Jesus’ call for his followers to be the light of the world.  Transfiguration is the very last Sunday of this cycle, and on this day “the glory of the Lord” – the Majestic Glory, the writer of Second Peter says – is revealed to Peter, James, and John on a high mountain with Jesus. 

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, and it will lead us into a darker season, on a path that takes us with Jesus all the way to the cross.  And then, just when it will seem that darkness has spoken the final word, the light of the resurrection will shine in all its great mystery.  But not yet.  For now, perhaps we’ll just take in the Transfiguration story and store up its images of radiance, shining, glory, and light for the days when darkness wields its power and sends a chill across our lives and our world.

Author Leo Lionni tells the story of Frederick, a field mouse who, while all the others are doing practical things to prepare for winter’s cold and darkness, appears to be doing nothing.  While they’re gathering corn and stocking up on wheat and nuts and berries, Frederick’s just sitting on a rock.  He says he’s gathering sun rays and stowing away colors and words.  They’re a little annoyed at him, and I suspect they’re rolling their eyes at that.

But in the stone wall, in the dark and cold of winter, “when they had nibbled up most of the nuts and berries, the straw was gone, and the corn was only a memory, [the others] remembered what Frederick had said about sun rays and colors and words.  ‘What about your supplies, Frederick?’ they asked.”  Then, as Frederick recalls for them the golden rays of the sun, they feel a little warmer.  He calls forth their memories of the colors of summer flowers, and he uses his store of words to create a poem big enough for them to find a home in.

The other mice had done all the practical things, but when what they’d stored away ran low, and darkness and a chill had settled on them, Frederick’s ability to call forth and make real what they themselves had not experienced or could not remember on their own was life-giving for all of them there in the winter darkness of the stone wall.  It’s a bit of a transfiguration story, really.  What Frederick was transfixed by and sustained by and remembered so vividly was recalled at just the right time and proved transformative for all who sat in darkness and knew the chill of cold stone.  He saw a little more than they had seen, and at just the right time, what he shared brought light and warmth and life.

Granted, it’s a bit of a leap from Frederick to the biblical account of the Transfiguration we find in Matthew’s gospel, but perhaps Jesus’ admonition to Peter, James, and John to not speak about their experience until the time was right connects these stories.  They had walked – or hiked -- with Jesus up a high mountain where I imagine they expected to pray.  Instead, they were stunned by what happened there.  Jesus’ appearance changed before their eyes.  His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  And then, out of nowhere, Moses, the giver of God’s law from Sinai, and Elijah, the prophet taken into heaven in a fiery chariot, appeared with Jesus – and the three of them conversed together. 

It must have been hard for Peter, James, and John to believe their eyes.  I imagine them looking sideways at each other wondering, “Do you see what I see?”  Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here” – and surely it was a gift and a blessing, incomprehensible though it may have been in the moment.  Then Peter offers to build “three dwellings” – one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  Why might he have said that?  Some scholars think it’s just like Peter to speak before he thinks.  I mean, the three of them hardly need a place to stay.  Other scholars wonder if Peter is recalling how, when Moses had led God’s people in the wilderness, they had built temporary shelters to celebrate the Feast of Booths.  Perhaps Peter thinks doing that now would be an act of hospitality.  Whatever the impetus, his proposal gets interrupted by the sudden appearance of a bright cloud from which comes a voice that says, “’This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ This is my shining, dazzling, beloved Child. ‘Listen to him!”

It was from a bright cloud covering Mt. Sinai that a voice had spoken to Moses long ago, and it was a bright cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that had led God’s people through the wilderness.  It was on a mountain that God made God’s presence known and spoke to an exhausted, depressed Elijah.  That’s history that Peter, James, and John no doubt know, although they wouldn’t have to remember it in order to fall on their faces in terror that day.  We recall how, at Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Here on the mountain, that is reaffirmed – and a command comes along with it:  “Listen to him!”

Face down in the dirt and overwhelmed by awe and fear, Peter, James, and John feel Jesus’ touch and hear his words, “Get up” – really, “Be raised” – “and don’t be afraid.”  His touch is compassionate and healing, and they are surely in need of both.  When they look up, the bright cloud, Moses, and Elijah are gone, and Jesus looks like himself again.  On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells them to keep this to themselves for now.  “Store this experience away for now,” he says.  Only after he has been raised from death will it be time to talk about this extraordinary experience.

In Bible study, we wondered what it would have been like for them to keep this from the other disciples.  Maybe they knew that no words could explain what had happened on the mountain.  Maybe they were so awed by it all that they, like Mary, just treasured all this in their hearts.  Maybe they wandered around in a daze for a while, torn between “What the heck just happened?” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

What they experienced was a foretaste of the feast to come, a glimpse of the glory of God shining forth in Jesus, a vision of the wholeness of creation, a tiny gracious peek at what is always there but is mostly obscured by the ordinariness of life.  What Peter, James, and John experienced was not of their own doing.  On their own, they couldn’t have lifted that veil between things as they are and things as they really are.  The Transfiguration came as a gift that transfixed them, a gift they could only stand in awe of, grace that began to transform them into people who listened to Jesus and who went wherever Jesus took them. 

I imagine them holding onto this vision of Jesus shining like the sun and experiencing it yet again in the risen Jesus.  Maybe when they finally told others about this experience on the mountain, their own faces shone a little, revealing the glory of God not just in Jesus’ new life but in the life that was theirs in him and is ours as well – a new life that includes shining faces of our own. 

Trappist monk Thomas Merton had received permission to live as a hermit, apart from other monks and from society in Louisville, Kentucky.  Such a life, it seemed to him, was a life lived closest to God, undistracted by all that is ordinary.  But he recounted a transfixing, transformative experience that I’ll share with you in his words.  He writes, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.  . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.  . . . I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate.  As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are.  And if only everybody could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.  . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person each one is in God’s eyes.  If only they could all see themselves as they are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.  There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.” 

   The Transfiguration took place on a mountain where Jesus’ face shone as Peter, James, and John stood in awe.  Another transfiguration happened at the corner of Fourth and Walnut where every face shone as Merton stood in wonder and joy.  Now and then, may God graciously transfix us with a glimpse of how things really are, so that we might be transformed as the disciples and Merton were.

And if we don’t experience transfiguration first-hand, may God give us the faith to trust the witness of those who stood on that mountain with Jesus, who recognized the risen Jesus when he called their name or broke bread with them, and who saw the glory of God shining forth in every face in Louisville.  It’s the extraordinary made manifest in the ordinary for the sake of revealing what is most true and most real and most trustworthy about the God we know in Jesus Christ. 

And then, transfixed by this gracious revealing and being transformed ourselves, may we, as Edward Hayes puts it, “simply be the mirror in which others can see themselves as God sees them.”  Shining.  Dazzling.  Beloved of God.

Amen 

1. Leo Lionni, “Frederick,” Random House, 1967 2. Thomas Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” quoted by Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, posted October 6, 2017 at cac.org