Does God punish – or forgive?

My sermon from this morning, March 24, 2019.  Deep thanks for Pastor David Lose’s column on this text from 2016, which formed much of my thoughts on this.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Dear siblings in Christ, grace to you and peace this day from God our Creator, through Jesus our Redeemer.  Amen.

OK, out of the gate – this is a strange lesson.

It begins with descriptions of two awful events.  And Jesus is anticipating the Jewish understanding that those who suffered had done something to deserve that suffering, and that suffering was actually a punishment from God.

He dispels that understanding immediately.

He then tells a parable that probably drives efficient gardeners crazy: instead of replacing an under-performing plant, the gardener offers to give it another year of his labor, and a little manure, and see what happens.  (Personally, I’ve always been impressed with what can happen to an old rose bush with a little bit of steer manure and careful pruning.)

But I believe that this gospel lesson contains some kernels of understanding when it comes to sin and repentance, and suffering and redemption.

And we also begin to see the cross in plain view, as we journey towards Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week.

There is a hefty dose of truth-telling in this lesson, maybe more than we are comfortable hearing.  But Lent is a time for us to take on some discomfort, as we take a look at our lives and seek the places where we need transformation.

The news relayed to Jesus involves the man whose name will be forever linked with Jesus: Pontius Pilate.  It’s a particularly horrifying episode that sounds not unlike the massacre at the mosques in New Zealand last week.

What I see in Jesus’ reply is a continuation of the paradigm shift that began when he read from the scroll in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry.  When he proclaimed that the scripture of the coming of the anointed one was fulfilled.

In this story today, Jesus shifts the Old Testament image of an angry, vengeful God to God incarnate in Jesus.  Instead of God hurling lightning bolts from the sky, God who has come into the world walks beside us in our troubles.

Jesus is reminding us that suffering is not a form of punishment.  If there is anything we can take from Jesus’ sharp words to his audience, it’s that suffering and calamity are not God’s punishment for sin.  To make his point, Jesus uses his second example of the tower at Siloam.  “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”  He again answers definitively, “No.”

In each situation, Jesus is adamant that God is not a God of vengeance.  God doesn’t visit bad things on people to punish them for something they’ve done.

And of course this is almost incomprehensible for his audience.  It’s not much better for us today.

Our sense of equitable justice says well, if this happened to this person then they must have done something to deserve it.

These are some condemnations that have been promulgated by people who claim to be followers of Jesus:

*Those men died of AIDS because they were sinners, and they were sinners because they were gay.

*Those people in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward died in Hurricane Katrina because that city is filled with sin.

If we were to continue to employ that line of reasoning, then we could say:

*Those people of Nebraska lost everything in the floods, and some even died, because they were worse sinners than others.

*The people of Paradise lost their entire town and many of its residents to that awful fire because they were worse sinners than others.

I’m going to go on the record here and now: If this were true, I wouldn’t be standing here, because I could never bring myself to believe in a God whose method was to wait for people to mess up so he could be mean to them.

That is an abusive model.  Jesus, Emanuel, God-with-us stands over against that model.  Jesus’ summary of the greatest commandment – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself – reminds us that God is love, not hate.

However, just because suffering is not punishment doesn’t mean that it is disconnected entirely from sin.  Pilate’s murderous acts of terror have plenty of modern company.  There are, sadly, many examples in our world of how shoddy workmanship has resulted in harm to people.  Make no mistake – these acts are sinful.  Sin has consequences, and there are all kinds of sin that create much of the misery in the world.  The more we confront that sin, the less suffering there will be.  Jesus’ summary of the greatest commandment also reminds us that loving our neighbor as ourselves means we shouldn’t be doing things that harm others, be they people, creatures, or God’s good creation.

I firmly believe that God neither causes nor delights in suffering and calamity. This is where the parable about the fig tree comes in – but not, perhaps, in the way you might expect.

We tend to read this parable allegorically, assuming that the landowner is God and the gardener Jesus. But nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry, vindictive God that needs to be placated by a friendly Jesus.  Luke’s Gospel overflows with the conviction that “there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”

I wonder if perhaps the landowner is representative of our own sense of how the world should work.  From childhood, we’ve wanted things to be “fair” – and we define “fair” as receiving rewards for doing good and punishment for doing evil. (Of course, for our own mistakes and misdeeds, we want mercy, not punishment!)

So perhaps the gardener is God, the one who consistently raises a different voice to suggest that the ultimate answer to sin isn’t punishment – not even in the name of justice – but rather mercy, reconciliation, and new life.  Perhaps you’ve heard the term “the God of second chances.”  That means everyone, not just some.

These are difficult things to hear.  But we should remember that this whole discussion takes place on the road to Jerusalem.  Jesus is making his way to the cross.

We think of the cross as an instrument of punishment – and in the Roman Empire, that’s exactly what it was.  But I believe that the resurrection quite literally changes EVERYTHING, including the cross.

In Jesus, God loves us enough to take on our lot and our lives fully, identifying with us completely. In the cross, then, we see just how far God is willing to go to be with us and for us, even to the point of suffering unjustly and dying the death of a criminal. And in the resurrection, we see that God’s solidarity and love is stronger than anything, even death.

So what can we say in the face of suffering and loss?  I speak now from my own experience: that God is with us.  That God understands what our suffering is like. That God has promised to redeem all things, including even our suffering.  That suffering and injustice do not have the last word in our lives and world.  And that God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits, from our sin that causes harm, to be drawn again into the embrace of a loving God.

After everything is said and done, Jesus died because God chose to be incarnate. He could have died in any number of ways.  The cross was the political and spiritual consequence of the day.  He took on sin not necessarily by paying a debt owed to a vengeful God but by revealing God’s persistent grace even to the point of showing what sin, evil, greed, and power do to humans.  And he revealed what God’s love does to humans through his refusal to wield power but instead forgive.

The cross as symbol of an evil empire is transformed by Jesus’ resurrection into a symbol of hope.  Death itself is defeated.

And the world is turned upside down.


Under the Wings

My sermon from March 17, 2019, with gratitude to colleagues Rob Kemppainen and Katie Hines-Shah whose brilliant insights on this text helped me weave together this message.

Luke 13:31-35

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through Jesus our Savior.  Amen.

I am of a generation that had limited TV options on Saturday mornings.  That was the only day we were allowed to watch any TV, and the cartoons we liked best were Warner Brothers.

Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner were and are some of the great classics of animation.

Unlike our lesson today, the birds tended to win.

Foghorn Leghorn over Barnyard Dawg, Roadrunner over Coyote.

Likewise in today’s Gospel lesson, we have a similar dynamic: a fox and a hen.

Now, in real life we know that in a confrontation between a fox and a hen… you should probably bet on the fox.

Only in cartoons do roadrunners beat coyotes, and hens or roosters beat foxes, because in cartoons, birds are far more wily and foxy than predators.

In real life, however, the only thing that a chicken is smarter than is a turkey.

In the gospel today, it is the hen that is smarter, stronger, and more able.

While the one with all the power – Herod – is called a fox.

Now, this is not a compliment.

In Jesus’ day, the fox was not thought of as sly and cunning, but rather as cowardly and thieving.

Not smart, but sneaky.  Not a hunter, but a thief.  When confronted, it does not fight bravely, but runs or slinks away.

So when Jesus refers to Herod as “that fox” it was not a comment on how cunning he was.

Jesus was saying Herod was a coward and a thief.  One who would hide behind the power of the Roman Empire.

In effect, when Jesus hears that Herod is planning to kill him, he says,

“Tell that cowardly thief that I am going to Jerusalem.  Period, dot, end of sentence.”

Jesus owns who he is and states clearly, for the record, that he is quite aware of the danger awaiting him in Jerusalem and intends to stride right into the middle of it.

Now, as any keeper of chickens knows – a fox is a certain kind of threat to the flock.  The fox doesn’t just kill because he is hungry. A fox kills to wreak havoc, to scatter the flock.  He doesn’t stick around to confront the guardian of the henhouse after the damage is done; he relies on the havoc to provide cover for another attempt.

Herod would like to believe that the elimination of a few troublemakers, like John the Baptist, like Jesus, is for the good of the people.  It will satisfy Herod’s fears and those of the Romans. But Jesus knows better. Jesus knows that what Herod would start will keep on going. That the Romans will not be satisfied with the death of one prophet – or even with the death of those that sent him. These foxes will continue their ambushes on the henhouse, the better to control through fear.  It’s less than four decades later that the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed.

Jesus is no stranger to such wanton violence and hate.  And Jesus rejects it absolutely.

It should be clear to us in the wake of the shootings at the mosques in Christchurch – that God rejects this wanton violence and hate.  These acts of violence are the result of hatred that simmers and then explodes.

Hate does not come out of a vacuum.  Over seventy years ago, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II realized this.  In their Pulitzer Prize-winning musical South Pacific they featured a song called “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”  It was a bitter commentary on the sad truth that hatred is not inherent in the human psyche – it is something that is taught.

We who call ourselves Christians must reject hate-fueled fear just as Jesus did. We must reject hate expressed against our brothers and sisters of the Muslim faith, and the Jewish faith, and indeed ALL faiths, and root it out – even if we find it in our own hearts. Jesus does not give into terrorism – and neither should we.

Actions that promote hate are the acts of foxes.  They are dangerous and deadly and do harm to the innocent.

Herod is called a fox.  But what does Jesus call himself?

A hen. A mother hen.

What a strange contrast.

Today, most people think it is a compliment to be called a fox, and they would think it was an insult to be called a chicken or a hen.

But think about what it means, what it really means to be a mother hen.

Conventional wisdom says that a mother hen is someone who is always worrying, always fussing, always checking on things and trying to get things organized.

“You’re fussing over me like a mother hen.” That’s how the saying goes.

But while the fox perhaps does not deserve the good reputation it is often given, so the hen does not deserve the bad reputation it is often given.

A mother hen watches over the chicks.  She watches the sky for eagles, hawks, owls and other airborne predators.

She watches the ground for dogs, cats, coyotes, wolves and, of course, foxes.

And when she sees one of these critters?

She calls the chicks to herself, and she covers them with her wings.

The hen does not have fangs, or serious talons, or a whole lot of muscle.

About all that the hen can hope for is that the fox or whatever predator it is will be content with a one-chicken dinner, because the only way that she can save her chicks is by sacrificing herself.

Perhaps you see a parallel here.

Jesus had no earthly power, such as Herod has.

Herod has numerous armies on his side. Jesus has 12 disciples who, we will learn later in the passion story, have only two swords amongst all of them.

In a toe to toe battle, Herod has all the advantage.

The only thing that Jesus can do is, like the mother hen, put himself between we his children and the threats we face.  We then escape – but only at the cost of his life.

And so the hen wins.

Herod does not kill Jesus.  Herod cannot kill Jesus.

Jesus can only die the way that he is supposed to die: at Calvary, on the cross, so that we might be freed from our own sin and death by his death and resurrection.

Jesus saves us not only for the sake of being protected from the fox; Jesus calls us not only to follow him but to follow his lead to Jerusalem.

In the news reports I read yesterday about the heartbreaking tragedy in Christchurch, two details stood out to me.

First: when the assailant entered the mosque, he was greeted by a worshipper saying “hello, brother.”  That is the kind of welcome God extends to us – a welcome that is willing to risk everything.

The other detail that caught my eye, and my heart, was that of one of the victims, 71-yr-old Daoud Nabi.  Mr. Nabi was an engineer who had fled Afghanistan in the 80s to escape the Soviet invasion.  He was a grandfather many times over, and a tireless advocate for refugees and immigrants.  He would routinely show up at the airport to greet those newly arrived from war-torn countries like Syria, and would help them make a new life in New Zealand, making sure they were fed and protected.  It was his way of giving back to a country that had given him new life.  Mr. Nabi lost his life when he threw himself between the assailant and another worshipper.

In essence, he spread his wings to protect the other worshipper.

In a real life confrontation between a fox and a hen, who wins?

Though it may seem at first like you should bet on the fox, remember this:

The hen ultimately wins because she saves the chicks by giving herself up for the sake of the chicks.

Jesus is likewise determined.

Herod cannot stop him.  The Sanhedrin cannot stop him.  Rome cannot stop him.

Satan and all the forces of evil – cannot stop him.

Dear friends, we know the ending of the story.

And yet, we walk this road of Lent every year, to remind ourselves that the story is, in a sense, not ended.

When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he marked a path that each one of us travels.  A path through the joys and sorrows of life, a path that doesn’t take detours around the hard parts.

But that path leads to the place where our sin, where the pain of this life is met by grace on the cross, where we begin to comprehend the reckless love of God.

Jesus goes utterly against the grain by giving himself up for the sake of the world.

He steps between us and the assailant.

And over two thousand years later, we still proclaim:  blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

No Strings Attached

Here is my sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 3-10-2019, for St Andrew Lutheran Church in Whittier, CA.

Luke 4:1-13

4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through Jesus the Christ.  Amen.


It’s a word that is as loaded as any political phrase.  As any op-ed column.  It calls to mind any assortment of things, doesn’t it?

There are so many kinds of temptations.  There are indulgences like chocolate, or sweets, or In-n-Out.  And of course, one person’s temptations are another’s necessities.

Especially In-n-Out.  But I digress.

There are temptations related to the work we do, or the leisure activities we pursue.  Social media has exploited this to an extreme; the words you might use in a Facebook post are triggers for ads that tempt you with goodies you never knew you needed.

Costco is a wonderful place, but I’m convinced they’ve made a science out of temptation as marketing ploy.

That’s one level of temptation, but in our gospel story today we encounter another level altogether.  That’s the level of self-absorbed power.

Power to materially change things to suit one’s wants and desires.

Power to overcome physical injury by virtue of who Jesus is.

And most seductively, the power to rule everything – which comes with a cost.

The way that Jesus handles these temptations dangled in front of Jesus speaks volumes about who he is.  He comes into this story from his baptism, where his identity was clearly stated: this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Both the human and the divine characters of Jesus rise above these temptations to worldly rewards.  Our Ash Wednesday gospel story spoke of folks who make a big deal of showing off their religion in public; Jesus notes they have already received their reward.

Their reward is the attention they receive and the power they then derive from it.  But Jesus chooses a different path, and that choice is put to the test here.

It can be easy to think of this lesson as a story of Jesus’ superhuman efforts that rebuke the devil.  But looking deeper, this gospel is about so much more.  The tests Jesus faces are not about who he is, but how that identity will be lived out in his daily life.

One of the great theological tenets we Lutherans can claim is the distinction between a theology of glory, and a theology of the cross.  In this lesson, Jesus could follow a direction that would embody a theology of glory – a theology that says it’s all about ME and what I do that determines my salvation – and determines how I live in this world.

Jesus could decide to use gifts for himself alone.  He could decide that the outright power grab dangling in front of him sure would cut to the chase.  He could decide that his divinity assures him of an absolute right to whatever divine privilege might be his for the taking.

But he doesn’t.  The Son of the God of the Universe goes a very different way.

Jesus could turn those stones into bread.  He’s pretty hungry after 40 days.  He has the ability.  He could take all he wanted and more.

But he doesn’t.

Jesus could swear allegiance to the devil for the sole purpose of gaining massive power and ultimate authority.  With that kind of power, Jesus could force the issue on the Roman Empire and force the entrance of the kingdom of God.

But he doesn’t.

Jesus could build a false reliance on scripture as some kind of insurance policy against all the pitfalls and perils of this world.  Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t apply to anyone else – as long as Jesus appears to have been saved by the angels in a very public way, the spectacle alone is guaranteed to bring folks to God.  What good is the privilege of being the son of God if you don’t exploit it?

But he doesn’t.

Jesus explicitly turns down the theology of glory for the theology of the cross.  Jesus says no to the bright lights and deceptive ways of fame and fortune when they are obtained by selling one’s soul to the devil, and instead chooses the way of selfless love.

He does this not so that he might simply be remembered as a martyr and nothing more, but rather so that we might love others as he loved us.  So that how he lives his life serves as the ultimate example for all of humanity.

The devil temps Jesus to betray his identity and misuse his power; Jesus stands firm in who he is and refuses to use his power for selfish means.  The peaceable realm of God isn’t brought about by force, but by love.

Jesus doesn’t coerce, or force, or manipulate.  He is simply himself.  He offers compassion, love, and freedom through a cruciform way of living – deeply connected to God (vertical) and committed to serving the neighbor (horizontal).

Have you ever been challenged at the core of who you are?  Have you ever felt like there is something pulling you away from trusting in who you are, from believing in yourself?

I certainly have.  I think there is much in our world that pulls us away from US and toward an identity that is not ours.  We say, “I feel like I’m being pulled in a million different directions!”

Maybe we are.

Theologian Howard Thurman put it this way:

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that someone else pulls.”

The devil does not question who Jesus is, but tries to get Jesus to question who he is — and Jesus does not fall for it. It’s no accident that Jesus’ genealogy is narrated just before this identity test.

But what about us?  Do WE fall for it?  Do we question who we are, wondering if God really meant what God said, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased”?

Our first lesson reminds us that when we forget who and whose we are, when we forget our faith stories, the religious self formed by those stories shrinks – and is replaced by another self, the self produced by competing cultural stories.  The writers of Deuteronomy were keenly aware of this. Over and over again, the book commands the community to remember who and whose it is.

In our Second lesson, Paul says this word is “near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). This means that “the word of faith” must be part of everyday life.  This refers to the phrase in Deuteronomy that follows after the part Jesus quotes, “one does not live by bread alone” …but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

To claim to be a Christian means that a significant part of your identity is that you are a child of God.  Do you believe it?  Does it make a difference for your life?

Or do you allow the strings of others to pull you away from being fully who God made you to be, away from your identity – which is determined not by the intentions of others but by God’s love?

Don’t give in.  Don’t fall for it.  Instead, trust and know that you have already passed the identity test and decide that this Lent your life will be different because of it.

God calls us beloved children, as God called Jesus Beloved.  We need not wonder about that part of who we are.

To be sure, none of this means that life suddenly becomes simple and easy, that there is a hidden cure somewhere in this story of Jesus’ sparring with the devil.

God’s people are not immune to suffering, especially when that suffering comes as a result of folly or sin. A theology of the cross means that God will not ultimately let suffering or even death separate us from his love and care.

A theology of the cross calls us to a life lived not in service to the power structures of this world, but in faithfulness to God and service to the neighbor.

And all those strings that are pulling you in a million directions?

God’s not pulling any of them.

God in Christ changes your heart, so that you move, in response to God’s love.  No strings attached.

That is true freedom.

May you taste that freedom in these 40 days of Lent.  Amen.

Tracing Crosses

This is my sermon from Ash Wednesday worship at St Andrew Lutheran Church.  What a powerful day it was, tracing the cross on folks’ foreheads with ash in the same place it was traced upon them with oil at their baptism.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

6“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Dear friends, grace and peace and the love of God to you this day.  Amen.

Our Lenten journey begins here, in this place where we have shared joys and sorrows, pain and healing.

Our readings tell stories of God yearning for us to return.  Waiting like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, watching from the doorway for his child to return.

And our gospel gives us directions for practicing our piety, which seem oddly in opposition to what we are about to do: be marked with ashes, after which we will venture out into the world.  Perhaps the last paragraph of the gospel today hints at what Jesus means here: to make a show of one’s religion in public is to store up treasures on earth.  Treasures in heaven are a matter of the heart.

Wearing ashes doesn’t reward us for our faith – it reminds us of our failing.  We share communion also on this day to remind ourselves that those failings are gathered up and forgiven by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection.

These ashes remind us, however, that life is finite.  That this existence is frail, and comes to an end.

I don’t know about you, but my recent experience has been more than sufficient to remind me that life is short.  I remember the Ash Wednesdays and Lents of my youth, when “life is short – repent” was hammered into us over and over.  When music tempos were so slow you could fall asleep within the first verse.  When sermons were so depressing you could give up all hope in the first 3 minutes.  (And they would go on for at least another 15!)

I was taught that Lent was a time when we “gave something up” – again, an odd outward expression of piety, but also something that seemed engineered to make us worthy of salvation.  To get us ready for heaven, we needed to work on turning our backs on the joys of this life, so we gave something up for Lent.

And from where I stand now, that doesn’t make much sense.

We don’t earn our salvation, so it’s not actually possible to do things that “make us worthy.”

And I’ve never been able to understand why – if God made this world and called it good – why would we want to turn our backs on it?

If anything, it seemed more to me like Ash Wednesday’s reminder of how short life is, might translate best to the saying “Carpe Diem” – seize the day.

Perhaps it translates to a call to look for the beauty in this world.

Maybe it translates to giving yourself permission to set aside time for prayer or meditation each day, even if your calendar insists there’s no time.

Perhaps it embodies the real meaning of the Greek word metanoia – frequently translated as “repent” but better translated “turn and go another way.”

Ash Wednesday’s reminder of life’s brevity could translate to any number of things.

Folk singer Leonard Cohen wrote a song some years ago called “Anthem.”  In his usual eclectic way, Cohen speaks of standing up in the face of adversity and of resisting the pressure to conform to someone else’s idea of how things should be.

He writes:

Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

This is why the ashes on our foreheads are very deliberately traced in the sign of the cross: to remember our baptism.

Think about it: if the only purpose of the ashes was to remind us that we mess up a lot, and that we have to spend the next six weeks trying to make up for that – then why would we need to make the ashes into a cross?  A good swath across the forehead would be enough.

But we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ashes.  At what other time do we do this?

At our baptism.  With anointing oil.

Do you recall the words we say?

“Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

In the tracing we’ll make today, there is a paradox: we were marked with the cross of Christ forever, and we are marked with the ashes of mortality.

Such a paradox is both acknowledging the reality that life on earth ends – but it also proclaims our belief that life in Christ never ends.

Throughout Lent, we’ll confess that we are indeed a broken people, returning to God in the assurance that we are forgiven.

We’ll confess that, as in everything else, as the song goes – there is a crack in us.

And so perhaps the cross we trace today – reveals that crack.

Reveals the crack of our brokenness, and our pain and hurt.  Our disappointment.  Our vulnerability.

But dear people of God, that’s where the light gets in.

That is where the light of Christ breaks into our places of pain and sorrow, our places of loss and uncertainty and guilt.

That’s where the light gets in, and that’s where resurrection is, and that’s where repentance and return to God is.

Poet Jan Richardson writes:

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

Or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

But for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons.  (c) Jan Richardson.

May your Lenten journey be one that travels in peace towards the Easter dawn.  Amen.

Listen up, y’all

My sermon for Sunday of the Transfiguration, March 3, 2019.

Luke 9:28-36 – The Transfiguration

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said.

34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

We’ve spent eight weeks now, hearing stories about epiphanies – realizations of Jesus in a wide spectrum of places and situations.  We’ve met magi, and fishermen, and have seen Jesus in situations ranging from a manger to a wedding to where we find him today – on a mountain.

And it’s on this mountain that we turn towards the journey of Lent.

Jesus has gradually been revealed over the last eight weeks to be a person of many facets, including preacher, wine supplier, recruiter, and rabble-rouser.

Makes for an interesting resume.

And this gospel story today, this tale of dazzling light and voices from heaven and clouds that obscure one’s sight – this is the last trailer before the feature presentation.

In that trailer, Jesus is revealed – and named – as the Son of God.

But wait, there’s more!  Jesus is suddenly standing next to Moses and Elijah, talking about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as if they were comparing March Madness brackets.

So given that part of the story, I’m not sure if the disciples were sleepy or simply dumbfounded.  Because in their understanding, Moses and Elijah showing up is the rough equivalent of an apocalypse.

And yet there they stand with Jesus, casually discussing Jesus’ next move.

While this might seem like a bit of biblical name-dropping, there’s actually an interesting subtext here – one that helps us understand why this is where we pivot and move towards Lent.

In Judaism, Moses is the figurehead for the law, and Elijah is likewise for the prophets.  There is a point in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus claims that he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  And so as Lutherans, this fulfillment for us means we read all of Scripture through the lens of the risen Christ.

The two of them, Moses and Elijah, remind us of the two men sitting in the tomb of the risen Christ when the women came to the garden on Easter morning.  When Jesus teaches the two men on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, we are told he begins with the law and the prophets.

In this story, Jesus is already re-framing what it means to live as a child of God.  We see in this story echoes of the resurrection.

And because of that, it can be hard for us to identify with the disciples’ emotions here.

Peter, God love him, responds in typical Peter fashion of speaking first and thinking later.  MUCH later.

He says, “hey let’s build some shelters up here, three of ‘em, one for each of you.”  In essence, he’s decided that life on the mountain is infinitely preferable to slogging through life down below, so how about we just stay up here and kick back.

And AS SOON as he says that, a cloud envelops them.  God speaks, telling them who Jesus is and that they should listen to him.  It’s one of several memorable times in scripture when God tells humans to shut up and listen.

In saying that, God is not being controlling but rather incredibly merciful.  God breaks into Peter’s assumptions about what is and instead pushes him to what should be, and what must be.

When the cloud lifts, Jesus is once again alone.  And the disciples are surely wondering “what just happened??”  But they don’t say a word.

And so I wonder:  if the experience of glory leads to – silence – then what ARE we supposed to say about it?

And if our experience of God’s glory leads to silence BUT we quash that silence, because we think we’re supposed to do something – what does that say about whether WE hear God’s command “Listen to him!”?

The reality we live in is that every mountaintop experience like this is invariably paired with a valley experience – that place where we’re met with hard truths.

And I think one of those hard truths is learning to balance the “doing” with the “listening” – because unless we listen, individually and collectively, for God’s voice, then we’re just building huts on mountains, away from folks that need housing.

I’ve just returned from the mountains – the Wasatch mountains of northern Utah, to be exact.  And every time I’m in the mountains, I’m reminded of this scripture and I find myself understanding why Jesus would go to a mountain to pray so frequently.

It is sacred space.

In the mountains, I thought about this lesson, and I wondered: what if when we went to a place in nature, we specifically set time aside for prayer and meditation?  Even every now and then: what might happen?

I also thought about the cloud that covers the disciples.

I’ve been on the mountain when clouds suddenly descended and visibility was reduced to about 5 feet in front of you.  It is a truly terrifying experience.  You realize that relying only upon your sight will not get you safely down the hill – and so you begin to reply on your other senses, like hearing and touch.

The cloud is a part of this story, I think, because Peter and the other disciples weren’t seeing the big picture.  They were dazzled by the spectacle in front of them, instead of seeing it within the broader scope of Jesus as the Son of God.  The cloud was likely the only way God could get their attention.

And I realized that this has been my situation too.

When I am skiing in extremely low visibility, I have to pay attention.  I have to be careful and cautious – much more so than usual.  But if I let myself get frightened, or frustrated – then I’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.  I need to remember what my ski coach has taught me and use it.

And of course, when I’m on the mountain on a beautiful sunny day, I don’t want to leave!  I react like Peter – whatever we need to do to make this last, let’s make it happen.

It’s the days of low visibility, however, that make me a better skier because I can’t rely on my sight.  Instead, I’m skiing by feel.  Feeling for what’s under my skis, feeling for pitch changes I can’t see.

But my experience on the mountain is what I’m doing.  Our gospel story is about what Jesus is doing.

When the disciples hear the voice in the cloud, imploring them – no, commanding them – to listen to Jesus, God’s beloved son – it is a command to stop thinking they and their efforts are the focus.  It is a command to listen to Jesus, to learn about what it will mean to bring about and live in God’s peaceable realm.

Somehow, they hear that message.

To listen to Jesus as God’s Chosen One is to hear the lifelong call to baptismal discipleship as Jesus’ invitation to take up your cross daily and follow him. The topic of that discussion between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah? – is Jesus’ own journey to the cross in Jerusalem. The shadow of the cross looms large as it reflects across the pages of this story, paired with its opposite – the brightness of a resurrection image.

And so this story is the one that each year, ends the breaking-in of epiphany light and begins the listening and prayer of our Lenten journey.

What might you hear this Lent, if you listen?

We begin the journey this week on Ash Wednesday.

But for now – take some time on the mountain.  It’s a good place to pray, and to listen for God.