Posts Tagged Lent
Rev. Michael Woods
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2013
4th Sunday in Lent
One of my favorite television shows is a little half hour sit-com called The Middle, which comes on Wednesday nights on ABC. It involves the middle-class family of Frankie and Michael Heck and their three children who live in the state of Indiana (the Mid-West). The middle-child is named Sue; and when the series first began airing a few years ago she was in middle school, although she’s gotten a little bit older now. Sue has a problem gaining recognition for who she is in the show. Her teachers never remember her name, she is snubbed by her fellow students, and one year her picture was left out of the yearbook even though she had her pictured taken three times!
Sue’s life is pretty typical for most middle school girls in that she spends most of her waking moments strategizing different plots and schemes to climb up the middle school social ladder. And nowhere is the social stratification of middle school more evident than in the cafeteria, where all the students congregate into different groups based on their degree of popularity. There are the A-tables, the B-tables, the C-tables, the D-tables and the F-tables. Sue (as you would expect) is right in the middle – she is definitely a C-table person, … but she aspires to be a B-table!
In one episode Sue had won a contest or had gained some sort of notoriety for something she had done, and she hoped that would translate into increased popularity for her so she could finally make her move to one of the B-tables. But, at the very next lunch period, she encountered a problem. As she and her friend got their lunch trays, they quickly began to scan the all the B-tables, all excited about getting to sit with a higher level group of students. But they couldn’t find any place to sit down! All of the chairs at the B-tables were taken! And they dared not go back to the C-table; because if they went back to the C-table, they were going to get stuck there! They would miss the chance to move up a rung. So, she and her friend ended up eating their entire lunch standing up in the middle of the cafeteria!
I’m sure you remember what going to school and trying to fit in with the right group, and all that, was like for you when you went to school. If you’re like me, you’d probably like to forget about it! You were judged by your peers according to who you hung out with … who you sat with in class … and who you ate with. And you probably remember the different social gradations, too. A-tables … B-tables … all the way down to F. And you probably remember where it was you fit in on that ladder.
Here’s a question to think about: If Jesus were to have come to the cafeteria of your school, what table do you think he would sit down to eat at? Would he sit at the table with all the jocks and cheerleaders … next to the president of the Beta Club?
The scriptures actually give us something of an answer to that question. And it’s not just this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke … we see an answer to this question spread throughout all of the Gospels. Jesus seems to have a reputation of associating the kind of people that the “good” people of society want to have nothing to do with. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50), Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee and they are sharing a meal together. We gather that this Pharisee was one of the fine, upstanding citizens of the community. But in the middle of their meal, a woman enters the home – a woman who is described as a notorious sinner – and she stands immediately behind Jesus and begins weeping. And with her tears she begins to wash his feet and dries them with her hair … kissing them and anointing them with oil. And the Pharisee is scandalized! And he tells Jesus, “If you knew who this woman was, you wouldn’t be letting her do this.”
This story is recorded in each of the four Gospels – each with a slightly different version and sometimes with different characters. In John, it’s Mary of Bethany who does the anointing, but here it’s an unnamed woman.
In other parts of the Gospels, Jesus eats at the houses of tax collectors, Matthew and Zaccheus (and tax collectors, as you know were one type of outcasts) … in another episode Jesus is at the house of someone called, Simon the Leper (lepers were all outcasts) … and who can forget the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman considered racially impure by the Jews and who had unorthodox views on the practice of religion, and who had been married five different times and currently living with a man who was not her husband and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.
Jesus likes to disturb artificial social boundaries in all four of the Gospels. I say “artificial,” meaning these are social boundaries created by human beings and not by God … boundaries that divide one group of people from another and set us up in hierarchical relationships to one another, creating artificial categories of one group better than another, one group having more privileges, better opportunities. Human beings have done this throughout our history. We divide people along the lines of race, income, education, language, familial lineage, political affiliation.
We’re really not very different from wolves in that respect. Zoologists tell has that wolves have their own social hierarchy. At the top are the alpha wolves – usually one male and one female, who are the strongest physically and have the strongest personalities, and they enjoy special privileges. They get to eat first ahead of the rest of the pack. They’re the only two in the pack that mate and produce offspring, and all the other wolves have to take care of their pups. After the alpha wolves are the betas and the gammas … all the way down to the very last wolf on the scale – the omega wolf. And the poor omega wolf is lucky to have anything to eat at all after the rest of the pack has finished and had their fill, and it’s always being nipped at and driven off by the other wolves. So, you see, wolves have A-tables, B-tables, … and so on just like we do.
Coming from the South, I remember a time when I was young and the schools were divided along racial lines. I was lucky enough to have been born into the group that the State of Alabama decided should be the alpha group and have the better schools, the better education, the better cafeterias and football fields. But all that changed one day in 1970 when the Supreme Court ordered the state to integrate the schools. And the first day of the next school year, I went to a different school … one that previously had only been for African American students. So technically, we were integrated – whites and Blacks went to the same school and shared the same classrooms with one another. But in reality – the boundaries that separated the races were still there – they were just invisible. We sat in class grouped along racial lines … we congregated at recess along racial lines … and at lunch period, we sat at different tables separated by racial barriers. It took years for us to get over the invisible social constraints that were always feeding us the lie the State had been telling us for ages: that it was wrong and sinful for the races to mix. I don’t think the South has entirely gotten over all that.
But Jesus likes to break down these artificial social barriers because he knows they feed us a lie – they feed us the lie that one group of people is better than another and always will be and there’s nothing that can be done to change that. He does this by defying those social constraints and consorting with the “wrong” people that the “good” people want nothing to do with. He eats with tax collectors, lepers, sinners and prostitutes. If Jesus were to come here today, what group of people would he consort with in order to challenge the artificial social barriers we have constructed in our society? Whose table would he eat at?
Let me answer that question in this way: What group of people do you most despise, look down upon, think are not as “good” as you are because they are the worst kind of sinner you can possibly imagine – and that’s probably the first table Jesus would go to. Jesus would walk right past a lot of us – the “good” people of this society – and then be completely unconcerned by how scandalized we are by the grace he has chosen to show and to give.
And when Jesus finally at some point does come by our table to sit with us, I’m sure the first thing he will do is address our concerns about his scandalous grace. And he would probably do so in the same way he does in this morning’s scripture and the way he does in most other instances throughout the Gospels when this topic comes up: he tells us some parables.
Now, the first two parables (The Parable of the Lost Sheep and The Parable of the Lost Coin) are very similar to one another: something is lost … the person who looses it goes to great lengths to try and find it, even defying social conventions to do so … and when it is finally found, there is great rejoicing and celebration by the person and their friends and neighbors. But then Jesus tells a third parable … and this parable starts out exactly like the other two, but then Jesus adds a little twist to the ending: something was lost and then was found, … but not everyone is rejoicing.
Jesus tells us that when the prodigal son was returning, and he was still far off, the father sees him in the distance, and he does something quite uncommon for parents of that time – he runs out to meet his son. He runs out to welcome the son who, earlier in the story, had told him essentially that he wished the father were already dead … that he couldn’t wait for the father to die so he could have his inheritance … he wanted it now. The father runs out to welcome this son who had brought shame and disgrace upon the family, who had dishonored the father violating one of the Ten Commandments, and who according to the Law of Moses the father could demand be taken outside the gates of the city and stoned to death. And he welcomes this son – not as a servant, but as his beloved son who was lost and now is found. This son is given a robe, brand new sandals, … a fatted calf is slain, and the father throws a big barbeque for the whole neighborhood.
So far this sounds just like the other two parables before it. But then Jesus throws in that little unexpected twist at the end of the story, and the father’s scandalous grace doesn’t stop there … it keeps on giving. When he learns his older son is outside, sulking and refusing to take part in the celebration, the father leaves the party (it is a breach of etiquette for a host to abandon his party) and just as he reached out to the prodigal, he reaches out to the older son and reminds him: “You are always with me, and all I have is yours. But let us celebrate, because your brother was lost but now he has been found. Don’t you be lost to me, as well, by refusing to join in this celebration.”
And then Jesus does something he doesn’t often do in his parables – he doesn’t really give us an ending … we never know how the older son responds to the father’s invitation. And I think the reason Jesus does that is because he wants to leave it up to us to fill in the ending. Do we accept his invitation to us to come sit with him at the F-table … to not be afraid to be among the misfits … to not be afraid of what someone else might say about us … maybe to even be misfits ourselves?
Rev. Michael Woods
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Second Sunday in Lent
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
We have to give the Pharisees their due! A lot of times in the Gospels and the Book of Acts they’re presented as the bad guys – you might as well dress them in black hats and give them a name like “Black Bart” or something like that. If you were to make a movie of the Gospels, a good actor you might want to ask to play the part of a Pharisee, I think, would be Christopher Lee. You probably remember Christopher Lee – he’s a British actor who’s made a very comfortable living playing bad guys in movies. Back in the 60’s and 70’s he gained notoriety by playing the part of Count Dracula in a series of movies about that character. Later he did a number of Westerns where he always played the villain. In a James Bond movie, he was The Man with the Golden Gun. More recently, he’s been in movies like the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, where he plays an evil wizard. So, whenever you watch a movie and you see Christopher Lee in it, you automatically think, “Oh, we’d better watch out for this guy – this has got to be one of the villains!”
But – you know what – in real life, I understand he’s probably one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met … the perfect English gentleman … you probably couldn’t meet anyone nicer and less villainous. You would think it amazing that not only could he ever play a bad guy in a movie, but that he could do it so well!
Likewise, the Gospels occasionally present us with another side – a better side – to the Pharisees – the quintessential bad guys of the New Testament. There’s Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, for instance, who both seem to be followers of Jesus and support him in his ministry. And Jesus seems to have some kind of special connection with the Pharisees. Not all of them agree totally with the message he is teaching – a lot of them want to argue with him about it – but overall, they see Jesus as one of them. He’s doing a lot of the same things they are doing – carrying out his ministry outside the bounds of the Temple – he teaches in the synagogues, as they do, and the people call him rabbi, as the Pharisees are called. And although they may have some differences of opinion with Jesus about particular points of theology, the Pharisees do seem to be very interested in his message and they go out of their way to engage him in conversation and most of them seem to consider what he has to say very seriously.
And we have to give the Pharisees their due, because I believe without them the religion of Judaism would not have survived – it would have perished in the First Century about forty years after the time of Christ when the Roman army lay siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple built by Herod the Great. So, I want to resist painting the Pharisees with too broad a paint brush. They have to tendency to be far more complex than we want to give them credit for sometimes and can surprise us in different ways.
In this morning’s story, they give us one such surprise. Jesus has begun a journey … probably the last of his ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus was going through one town and village after another, teaching the people about the Kingdom of Heaven, as he makes his way toward Jerusalem. Now, Jesus has begun this journey fully aware of what awaits him there: suffering and crucifixion. If you recall, over these last few weeks we’ve talked about the fact that he’s been trying to warn all of his disciples about this very thing!
Now, the Pharisees, who’ve had their differences of opinion with Jesus in the past, put aside those differences and try to warn him to stay away from Jerusalem … his life is in great peril if he were to set foot in there. They are concerned about him. But Jesus essentially tells him that they’re not telling him anything he doesn’t already know.
But it’s one thing to talk about danger and peril in theory, when it’s all so far and distant. You might feel a sense of false bravado, as if you were Superman – there’s nothing for you to be afraid of; you can face anything, even death, in the eye. But when it gets up close, it starts to look a lot more ominous and you can find a lot of reason to be afraid. It’s a lot like this fiscal cliff thing that keeps coming up in the government. When its still a few months off, it doesn’t seem all that bad, but as it gets closer and closer, and the news media starts to describe what programs are going to be cut and who will loose jobs and whose benefits are going to be reduced, you start to feel anxious and you’re filled with this overwhelming sense of dread. At least, I know I am … especially when I think about how all this will affect programs that help the poor and how it will have negative consequences on our economy’s struggling recovery. You hope that somebody finds another way and they find it fast.
I think Abram is at the end of a similar rope in the passage from Genesis. God has made a great promise to him and his wife Sarai. They were promised they would dwell in a new land and that they would be the ancestors of a great nation, and their descendants would be as numerous as the dust that covered the Earth. Well, Abram can see the new land – he’s already living in it. But at this point in the tale, he’s approaching 90 years of age … he and Sarai are yet to see the second part of God’s promise be fulfilled.
And as we read the scripture, it seems like to me that Abram gets a little testy with God. What we read in this passage sounds like a bitter lament: “You have not given us any offspring, so now I have no other choice maybe but to adopt one of the children of my servants and let them inherit the estate you have given me.” Abram has given up and is making other plans. He’s already started work on Plan B.
The journey of Lent, in a lot of ways, mimics the journey we go through in our individual lives. We start off with a lot of promises … a lot of high hopes and dreams! Do you remember what it was like the day you graduated from high school? Or the day you graduated from college? The day you finished your last day of military service? You had the whole world in your hands, didn’t you. There was nothing you couldn’t accomplish, you believed, if you just put your mind to it … no challenge you couldn’t face head on … you had such dreams … such aspirations! Then one day we all woke up and discovered we were a lot older than we used to be. I discovered I didn’t have as much hair as I used to and what I had left was turning gray … so, I could no longer get by on just my good looks. There is so much left undone! So much that we never were able to get around to! We started out thinking we were going to make our mark on the world. We started out hoping (at least, I pray that we all were hoping) we would make this world a better place … that somehow our lives would touch the lives of other people in a positive way … we would leave some sort of legacy for the world. How do you find faith and not loose hope when your plans for the future never worked out?
Even Jesus seems to voice some disappointment things didn’t turn out the way he had hoped they would: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, yet you were not willing.”
You know, Christianity began its own journey over two thousand years ago. The Faith started out with a lot of high hopes and aspirations! But it’s now the 21st Century. We still have war, crime, violence. People are still abused and oppressed. There is still poverty, neglect and illness. And even more shameful is the fact that the Christian church has not only been complacent in that, but has even been the cause of it at times! Jesus preached a gospel of love and forgiveness, and everyone agrees that it’s a wonderful message, but no one seems willing to take it to heart. People seem like they’ve all given up.
I see a trend in movies and art these days. There are a lot of movies and novels coming out with apocalyptic themes … stories about the end of the world. Movies like: The Book of Eli, 2012, Contagion, or The Road. Books like: The Left Behind series. These are a sign, I think, that a lot of people are giving up. They want an asteroid to come – like the one that blew up over Russia last week – or a super flu virus and wipe off everything on the planet so we can start over. They’ve given up on the good news that Jesus preached … they’re starting to make other plans – they’re working on Plan B.
But if there’s a common message in today’s two passages, it’s that God doesn’t give up! God is sticking with Plan A. God hasn’t lost the hopes, dreams, and the aspirations that God began with. God still believes in the cause! God still believes it can work and it’s not too late! That’s good news for the human race, I believe. You know why?
Because Plan A – that’s us, the human race. God hasn’t given up on us! The entire witness of the Holy Bible is that God has not given up, is not giving up, and will not give up on you, me, and everybody else who has ever dared to hope and dream that this world can be a better place. God has faith in us! God’s faith will sustain us even when ours has fled the scene! God’s faith is enough to keep hope alive!
No Shortcuts Through the Desert
Rev. Michael Woods
Sunday, February 17, 2013
First Sunday in Lent
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
Last week saw witness to one of those rare confluence of self-contradictory holidays – the Season of Lent, when most people give up chocolate, began on Wednesday and then was followed immediately on Thursday by (of all things!) Valentine’s Day! If I didn’t love chocolate so much, I would have thought that was funny! And I note that both of these are religious holidays of the Christian calendar – you would think the church would do a little better job of planning these things out ahead of time!
And if that in and of itself wasn’t bad enough, and as those of you who have children or grandchildren in Girl Scouts know, this is the time of year the Scouts begin to deliver the cookie orders they took a few weeks ago!
Lent – it looks like – is off to a very trying start!
Why do we have the tradition of giving up something for Lent? What is Lent supposed to be about anyway? For myself, I think of Lent as a journey.
Throughout the scriptures – in both the Old and the New Testament – we see references made to journeys. In the Book of Genesis, we read of the Great Flood that lasted 40 days and 40 nights, while Noah and his family traveled in the ark. In the rest of the Torah, we read of the story of how the children of Israel wandered through the desert for 40 years. And in the New Testament, we read that our Lord and savior fasted in the wilderness for 40 days.
What would it be like, I wonder, to start out on a journey knowing it will last for forty days – over a month! And knowing that – not only is it going to last 40 days – but every one of those days is going to be a hard day! Another day of nothing to eat but manna … another day of hearing the rain pound relentlessly on the decks … another day of being on a journey that has been going on for so long you’ve started to forget where it was you were going or why you were going there in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’d be tempted to take a short cut.
After all, isn’t that kind of our natural inclination? To take the shortest route that will get us there quicker? Find the quick, easy solution to our problems? And for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. When you travel from home to work, you usually take the shortest or quickest route to get there … you want to get there on time … you don’t want to be late.
But Lent is not a typical kind of journey – it’s not a journey that our bodies take, it’s a journey of the soul. It’s not a journey where the greatest hazards we are going to face will be tired feet or a flat tire or running out of gas, but nevertheless if we are not careful and we do not attend properly to the things we ought to attend to, it’s a journey that can leave us tired, exhausted or stranded in different kinds of ways.
The message that I take from this morning’s scripture readings – both the Old and the New Testament readings, and every other scripture in the Bible that is about a journey or about some kind of transition – is that when it comes to (what I want to call) “soul journeys” there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts will lead you astray … shortcuts promise to get you where you want to go a lot quicker with a lot less fuss, but they always take you in the wrong direction and where you end up is not where you thought you would be.
Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry. Every temptation that he faces during that time is a temptation to take a shortcut. He faces the temptation to use his power to satisfy his own physical hunger … he faces the temptation to accomplish his mission of spreading the kingdom of heaven here on Earth through the grab of political power … and he faces the temptation to attract people to follow him by the use of cheap, easy tricks. Shortcuts – all of them.
Many of us in the church or in our own individual lives face the same temptations that Christ did. We waste what resources and power we have on satisfying our own needs and ignore the needs of others … we advocate legislating our own brand of morality so everybody else has to follow it whether they want to or not because trying to convince them to change their hearts or minds is just too long a process and we don’t want to have to bother with that … or we think that if we could just find some program that would that would make the church more prominent in the community, or if we were just famous enough or rich enough ourselves, people would like us better and be attracted to us more – we value popularity over truth.
But none of these are inherently bad for us or the church. But when you stop and think about it: out of all of the things that Jesus gave up during his soul journey, none of them were inherently bad for him – not bread, not power, not fame and fortune. In reasonable quantities, none of these things can destroy you. In reasonable quantities, some of these things can even be good for you! The temptation Jesus faced – and the temptation we all face in our individual lives and in the life of our church – is to take some kind of shortcut without knowing where it is we’re going to end up … where is all this going to lead? I have a tendency to do that sometimes when I’m driving – I see a street going to off to the side, and I think, “Now, that must be a quicker way!” And then in a couple of blocks, the street dead ends or curls back around in the wrong direction. But if I have a map with me in the car and it’s up to date – and these days you don’t even have to have a paper map … there’s a map on my iPhone – and it can show me where I am on it and where I need to go. I can see where all these side streets end and begin … I can see what street dead ends … which ones curl around … and you know what, with the technology we have today, the application on my phone will even tell me which roads are closed for construction! If you’ve tried to navigate through downtown Columbus with all of the construction on the Interstates, that’s helpful information to have.
Having a map of some sort gives you the big picture. And I think that’s the reason Jesus is able to resist the temptation he faces – he stays focused on the big picture. He doesn’t allow his vision to be clouded or restricted … he can see beyond immediate concerns … he can look beyond the shortsightedness of glamor and power and see something that’s far more beautiful and much more rewarding.
And what he sees, friends, is Easter Sunday … because that’s where Lent leads us … to Easter and to resurrection … to sanctification and renewal. And we can get there, but we don’t want to loose our focus. Because there’s a lot that can distract us along the way. There’s the constant barrage of temptations, to take the easy path. Then there’s the kind of temptation that the children of Israel faced in their journey through the wilderness – and that’s the temptation to just give up the journey altogether, to say to ourselves what’s the point? I can’t do this! And before we can even get to Easter, Holy Week is in store for us … the week that our Lord was betrayed, arrested, denied, tortured, and crucified. And on the night of his arrest, he would pray, “Father, if it be your will, may this cup pass from me without my drinking, yet not my will but yours be done.” But there would be no other way, no shortcut, only the road that leads to Calvary.
But Jesus knows that road doesn’t end at Calvary … he can see further than that. He knows this road that he walks will take him on to Easter Sunday! He knows this road doesn’t end on Good Friday with pain and death by crucifixion – Jesus can see all the way to resurrection!
During Lent, Christ invites us to share this journey with him. We don’t have to walk this road alone, his Holy Spirit is with us and guides us.
As we begin this journey this Lenten season, we pause for a moment at our Lord’s Table. Here we nourish ourselves with bread and the fruit of the vine. Let the body and the blood of our Lord fortify us for the road ahead.