Lent, which began this last Ash Wednesday, is a 40-day period from Ash Wednesday through the Saturday before Easter. Lent excludes Sundays because the focus of every Sunday is the resurrection of Jesus and the hope it brings.
The word Lent comes from a word meaning the lengthening of days. 40 is an important number because of its huge biblical significance. 40 was the number of years the people wandered around the desert after leaving Egypt.
40 days was the length of the rain during the great flood. 40 was the number of days Jonah told the people of Nineveh they had left before God would destroy everything. And of course, 40 is the number of days Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the devil.
The season of Lent offers each of us the opportunity to pay attention to some of the central themes of Lent, which include the following.
Mortality. We are all temporal flesh and blood. Our mortality invites us not only to approach life and others with humility, but with an utter dependence upon God who gave us life to begin with. Such dependence reminds us we are never alone and we are filled with God’s presence regardless of our awareness or strength of our faith.
Justice. Justice is a fundamental biblical theme and the need for justice continues from generation to generation. Our world is broken. Relationships are broken. Suffering abounds and as followers of Jesus we are to seek restoration of what is right and reconciliation wherever we find ourselves.
Repentance. Lent is a season of repentance and repentance simply means to turn around or turn back to putting God at the center of our lives. Repentance is freeing precisely because we can let go of trying to control everything and turn our lives and challenges over to God.
Salvation. Indeed, we each need a Savior, a Savior who will save us from ourselves and our perishable nature. Christ is the doorway to life beyond this one.
Forgiveness. The season of Lent culminates with Jesus dying on the cross. One of the most liberating truths is that through Christ we are forgiven and therefore we can not only release our own guilt, but are free to forgive others and the healing it brings to all.
My prayer for all of us in the weeks ahead is that we will intentionally take time to sit with God and turn all that is within over to God. And my greatest hope is that God’s love will fill each of us so that we will approach each day with hope, joy, service, and the knowledge that indeed, when it is all said and done, all will be well.
Last week I wrote about how the Chapel staff meets weekly to discuss all aspects of worship, and the process that we undertake to create a sacred space for worship each week. Amidst the prayer, thoughtful discussion, and opening ourselves up to the voice of God speaking to us about preaching, music and themes, we get down and dirty with some good old-fashioned biblical exegesis. Which is just a fancy way of saying we try to figure out what the heck is really being communicated.
Remember the old TV show, “Diff’rent Strokes”? Gary Coleman’s adorable character made himself famous by saying, “Whatchou talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” When trying to understand scripture, sometimes it works best if we cock our heads just so, scrunch up our faces, and say in our best Gary Coleman voice, “Whatchou talkin’ ‘bout, Jesus?”
Historical Criticism is one method that informs the way we read the Bible, and it helps us to better understand what was happening given the cultural, political, and societal climate in a particular time and place. (Historians are going to have a heyday looking back at the 21st century, don’t you think?! But I digress….) Literary Criticism is another method. It takes into account the written and oral traditions which show up in unexpected places throughout the Bible. For example, in Matthew 22:41-46 Jesus asked the Pharisees a question about the Messiah (“Who’s son is he?”), and then he quotes from Psalm 110 to basically answer his own question. By quoting the ancient Hebrew Bible, Jesus helps modern day scholars (and Snowmass Chapel staff members!) tease out more meaning by taking us back into the world of the ancient texts to which he refers. That Jesus — he doesn’t miss a beat, does he? He knew the Psalms were an important part of the Jewish faith and he used them to help the Pharisees make sense of the long-awaited Messiah standing before their very eyes!
And here’s where literary criticism gets rather fun. What if we omitted this passage completely from the Gospel of Matthew? Would it make a difference? Of what significance is it? This is a technique that literary scholars employ to get more information. In the case of Matthew 22:41-46 a quick analysis demonstrates that the final verse of the passage (“from that day forward, no one dared to ask him any more questions”) relates us right back to the beginning of Chapter 21 when the Pharisees were scrutinizing Jesus’ authority (Matt. 21:23). They began to question him on many of his teachings, trying to entrap him (22:34). But Jesus was having none of it. This passage IS significant because it’s critical that you and I, some 2000 years later, know this: Jesus SHUT THEM DOWN. In his very Jesus way he simply outsmarted, outshined and outdid the highest, most respected religious leaders of the day. “You think the Messiah is David’s own son? Um. No. Let me just school you on this one, boys.” End of conversation.
This passage, then, is sandwiched right here for a reason, and literary criticism shows it is a necessary thing. Jesus has just finished telling everyone that the most important commandment is to love God and love people. In a few verses he is going to give the Pharisees a piece of his mind about hypocrisy and being good role models and how the kingdom of heaven is for EVERYBODY. But first he needs to settle a little matter of his Sonship once and for all. No more questions.
And this, my friends, is how a sermon theme begins to percolate.
I can’t believe I am thisclose to graduating from seminary! I actually had to fill out my official graduation request yesterday so it’s getting real, friends. Three years have flown by; but, honestly, if I could I would keep registering for courses because there is still so much to learn!
One of the things we do as a Chapel staff each week is bible study and planning Sunday worship. It provides lots of opportunities to dive into the Word and wrestle with a phrase or a particular theme, setting, or — this week’s question of the day, for instance — why would Matthew put that paragraph there; it seems out of place? There is such rich and authentic discussion around the table each week, and as you can probably guess, a diversity of voices and perspectives — and I think Jesus would just love it!
This kind of examination of scripture is what theologians call exegesis (or as my husband likes to say: “exe-Jesus”). Exegesis is a fancy word that seminarians like to throw around, but it’s really a foundational practice of trying to understand what someone is communicating. You do exegesis every day! When you read or listen to someone speak you are, whether consciously or not, asking, What is being said? Is the speaker or author preaching, teaching, exhorting, singing, lamenting? What literary form is being used? What is the literal or nonliteral meaning? Who is the intended audience? In other words, what the heck is really going on here?
Biblical exegesis simply looks to interpret our sacred texts through different lenses such as history, form and function, tradition, original sources, textual variants, etc. It allows us to sort of interrogate the text, asking a variety of questions.
I recently studied a particular passage in Matthew (Chapter 22, verses 41-46 if you’re curious!) and used the Historical Critical method to do some exegesis for a paper. By employing the historical critical method we get to see not only the history in the text but the history of the text. For instance, the passage I studied deals in part with the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. Using historical information, we know the Pharisees were religious leaders, zealous in upholding religious laws of the Hebrew Bible and who were, perhaps, threatened by Jesus who claimed a new way of interpreting the law and who had amassed a large following. Historical criticism allows us to peek inside the first century and to understand the political, social, and economic climate of the times.
But it is the history of the text in question that is really bolstered by the historical critical method. Why did Matthew include this very short paragraph in his Gospel? By whom and for whom was it written? What is depicted in the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees that may not be overtly described? Where (and why) is the story situated within history? Again, by examining the lives of first century Christians, both gentiles and Jewish Christians, and by acknowledging the long-standing religious assumptions of the Jews and the Pharisees in particular, we can better understand the historical situation out of which this biblical text arose. This is just one example of the exegetical methods theologians (that includes YOU!) use in interpreting scripture. For more exegetical methods….stay tuned next week. 🙂 I warned you there is a lot to learn!
Exegesis is a good reminder to me to expect the unexpected when reading scripture. It does not so much allow us to master the text as much as it enables us to enter into the text. I may have read a passage a hundred times before, but if I open my Bible with a new set of “lenses” on, I am opening myself up to new insights and perspectives. After all, the scriptures themselves tell us they are God-breathed; the Holy Spirit is constantly moving and shaping and speaking to us through them.
The Super Bowl game this last Sunday was special on a number of different levels. While I am heartbroken that the sport can cause life-diminishing and life-ending brain trauma, I remain a fan for a variety of reasons. The sport teaches people, young and old, about teamwork, overcoming challenges, and the value of grit. Sunday’s game certainly highlighted these values and was entertaining to watch for all of us who have grown up loving the sport.
That said, however, there was a standout moment in the game and it happened during the half time show. The immensely successful Lady Gaga took the stage in a superbly choreographed show. But what struck me was when she sang her song, “Million Reasons.”
While I am not a mind reader, I believe it is not a stretch to say the lyrics get into a variety of issues including heartbreak, being let down, frustration, and having faith that is challenged. Lady Gaga, who grew up in the Catholic Church, inserts the following lyrics into her song.
I bow down to pray. I try to make the worse seem better. Lord show me the way…Can’t you give me what I’m needin’, needin’, every heartbreak makes it hard to keep the faith.
These words are those of a person whose faith has been challenged by life, something that happens to each and every one of us. What moved me greatly was to have her sing these lyrics on national television and to observe her willingness to make reference to prayer, faith, and our Lord.
While some may condemn her for her inclusive progressive social values, and a few for her dance moves, my hope and prayer is that she will move people who are otherwise unmoved to begin to think about prayer, faith and God in their own lives.
Jesus was deliberate about the people he chose to serve others and spread his teachings. If you look at their biographies, I believe that each one of them would have been happy to have been on stage with Lady Gaga. Not because they could necessarily dance or sing, but because they understood you have to meet people where they are to reach them. What a great lesson for us all.
I celebrate whenever God shows up in mainstream culture in a non-threatening, inviting way. While a life-long fan of football, I’m a new fan of Lady Gaga and her Gaga expressions of faith. May we all be so bold to lead others to our Lord who loves and forgives us all.
The City by the Bay is a special place and I have left my heart in San Francisco many times. With its distinct neighborhoods, hills, fog, enriching ethnic diversity, food, cable cars, bridges, and much more, the city exudes character and charm.
For a number of years I have enjoyed the Pier 39 area. Yes it is full of tourists and stores that sell things I have no interest in, but it is a blast to spend a few hours among the throngs of people. Since the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, it has also become the place to watch California Sea Lions up close.
For some reason, following the quake, the sea lion population grew tremendously in the Pier 39 location. Now dozens of sea lions flock to floating wood pallets strewn about in an area within the adjacent marina.
It is fascinating to simply sit and watch these creatures and the antics they engage in. From barking sounds to shoving matches, I can watch sea lions for hours. One thing, however, especially intrigues me.
Sea lions seem to like hanging out together on just a few pallets rather than spreading out among the many empty ones that are available. What is interesting is that dominant males spend hours pushing other males off the pallets they happen to be enjoying.
I have to wonder, why on earth don’t the males just spread out and have their own space? Why the fighting and territorial aggression? There is plenty of room and many pallets floating nearby with nothing but a gull or two on top.
Perhaps the sea lions are dealing with the age-old question, “Is there plenty to go around or is there barely enough so I better hold onto what I have and get even more?”
All of this reminds me of the great story in the Book of Exodus, chapter 16. The people are wandering around the desert, totally dependent upon God. God does provide, daily in fact. When the people take just what they need and nothing more, everything is fine. When others, however, try and hoard more than their share, the extras rot and become worm filled.
Although I have no clue why the sea lions behave the way they do, or why some people in the Exodus story had to pick up more than they needed, watching the seals and thinking about the Exodus story causes me to pay attention and ask questions about my own attitude about space and what I am accumulating.
Questions such as, “How much do I really need? Is there room for more than me? Can I take another person into account? How might I see this situation from the other person’s perspective, the one who has no place of his or her own? What might happen if I make room for the other?”
The sea lions, the story in the Book of Exodus, and our journey in faith all compel us, I believe, to explore where we are with possessions, assets, and space when it comes to others. I for one, need to spend some time with Jesus getting a clearer picture of what Jesus would have me do with regard to all of this, especially in a time when “me” is a much louder voice than “we.”
Jesus loved, healed, guided, transformed, forgave, and comforted. People flocked to him and traveled far and wide just to be near him. Broken people were not the same after encountering him.
But we are mistaken if we think that all of what Jesus had to say was easy to hear, reassuring, or validating. Jesus pushed buttons that needed to be pushed and often his most pointed words and difficult teachings were aimed directly at those who were the most religious and, on the surface, faithful.
Without a doubt, Jesus said and meant hard things sometimes. That said, his intent was never to destroy a person, but rather to use every way possible to bring the person back to the love of God, a right understanding of God, and to the right motives for actions.
One of Jesus’ hardest sayings is found in Luke, chapter 14. Here Jesus said to a large crowd, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
On the surface, Jesus’ words seem completely incompatible with what we know of Jesus throughout the Gospels. But if we want to understand what Jesus was getting at, we need to look at the word “hate” in Greek and what it means.
The Greek word used in Luke 14 is hate but hate to Greeks meant something vastly different than what it means to us in 2017. Hate in Greek has everything to do with priorities, what comes first, and what is loved more.
Jesus in essence was saying, “Love me more than your father, mother, wife, and children, then you will not only know what it means to follow me, but you will also end up loving people more as a result of doing so.” Or, “Love me the most and you will end up loving those who matter the most to you more.”
This teaching has nothing to do with rejecting anyone. It has everything to do with the path to loving human beings more than we might otherwise. The more we love God, the more we align ourselves with Christ, the more love becomes the essence of who we are, how we act, what we feel, and what we say.
I often use an image of a triangle to illustrate this point. Picture yourself on one on point of the triangle. Picture a close family member on another point. Finally picture God on the third point. As the two people move closer to where God is on the triangle, note the distance between the two people becomes smaller. The more Jesus is our priority and our first love, the more we will love others because by doing so, the more we will learn to love like God.
1977 was an eventful year. Gasoline was 65 cents per gallon. The new Apple computer cost a whopping 600 dollars, a lot of money especially in those days. I graduated from high school in southern California and the Eagles released some of their biggest hits. While there was much happening during this time on the world stage of great significance, something occurred that got many people in the country excited. The first Star Wars movie was released.
To this day I remember standing in a line blocks long at 6925 Hollywood Blvd. waiting to get a ticket for a showing at Graumans Chinese theater, the place in front of which you can see the footprints of John Wayne, Doris Day, and Charlton Heston to name just a few.
The first film was superb and represents a classic battle between good and bad, what is right and evil, light and darkness. With characters like R2-D2, Obi-Wan, and Princess Leia, the story line has captivated millions for decades. Like in the first movie, Darth Vader was a malicious character in the films that followed. In one film, Darth Vader said to Luke Skywalker, “If you only knew the power of the dark side.”
On one level such lines and the character of Darth Vader are entertaining and it should be left at that. On another level, the story like many stories reflect a reality we all live in the midst of, which is the constant conflict between God and evil, good and wrong, light and darkness. I am thinking about this because of what I encountered in a Target store the other day. The store had 4-foot tall, standing and talking Darth Vader characters up and down aisles.
While shopping, every time I passed a motion sensitive Darth Vader character it spoke a line from a Star Wars movie. The line I most often heard was “If you only knew the power of the dark side.” I must have heard the message 15 times throughout the store.
I am all for profit making, capitalism, marketing, etc. as many people are employed through selling movie related items. I do not believe in banning items from stores. There really is nothing too terrible about a 4 foot Darth Vader character. That said, the whole event at Target reminded me that we all, young and old alike, need to be attentive to whose voices we listen to and understand that there is an impact from every voice we hear, even those that are recorded.
Some messages we encounter are far from benign. While having a 4-foot Darth Vader character in the house could be entertaining for some, it also provides for reflection and teaching and praying about the reality of darkness in our world, a darkness that cannot overcome the light of Jesus.
I pray we will all give much more attention and energy to voices of light, voices that reflect the words of Jesus we encounter in the Gospels. And I pray we will do so whether shopping at Target, watching television, or overhearing the words of others we do not know.
The beginning of a New Year means different things to different people. Some seek to establish new resolutions or commitments. Others view the calendar change as a benign transition. Some welcome a new year with relief, others with heartache, and some with joy.
This New Year’s Day I happened to be in the town in which I spent my young years growing up, El Paso, Texas. While disliked by a lot of people because of the dry high desert location, the poverty that is prevalent, or the fact it is a border town in which over 90 percent of the population has a Hispanic name, I love it. It is real, authentic, and there is not a lot of room for pretense. Of course the food, culture and people are wonderful as well. El Paso is also a place in which two vastly different countries are completely interdependent in so many ways and this has been the case since the city was founded long ago.
But I also love El Paso because most of the old neighborhoods are full of so many childhood memories that sustain me and bring me great joy. It was a great place to be a young boy with lots of energy. On my recent trip, I took the opportunity, as I do each time, to reminisce with life-long friends.
Memories are so important. They give us a sense of where we have come from, serve as the basis for life lessons learned, provide for a sense of identity and internal cohesion, and often provide the fodder for getting in touch with life’s blessings. But memory itself can be such a poignant and painful topic especially when memory banks clear out and what a person remembers becomes more like an empty cold storage unit.
My mother who is 94, with whom I spent the New Year, lives in El Paso. Physically she is fine, but much of who she was is fading as her memory and ability to recall the who, what, when, where and why of her life vanishes. I know many of us go through this with our parents, but it hurts, is painful, and makes me along with many of you sad. I get it. That said, I have to wonder if diminishing memory is a blessing in some kind of way, especially when living in the ninth decade generally means most if not all friends are gone.
As I was hurting when 2017 began and was thinking about all of life’s memories, my faith interrupted my sadness when these words came to mind. “Remember, God is Immanuel. God is with us. Period.”
While the presence of Jesus does not take away heartache, it certainly frames it in a way that tells me in the end all will be well, to embrace each moment as an extraordinary gift, to cherish true wealth which has everything to do with family and friends, to live with a heart of gratitude knowing our ultimate destination is taken care of, and knowing when it is all said and done, loving God and people is all that matters.
My word for 2017 is Immanuel. And I pray that you too will remember that Jesus is within, all around, and working through all we can remember, and all that has faded away. Immanuel is with us and Immanuel is with those we love who look at us with a blank stare because his or her memory is gone.
On Christmas Eve this year, I suggested that when thinking of the signs of our times, it is easy to come up with a long list of negatives. There are a lot of bad things happening all over our world, really sad, tragic events.
Such things are often the sole focus of what we see, hear, or are exposed to. Although it is essential we don’t put our heads in the sand and instead respond to what is wrong through faith driven action, it is also vital to remember that solely looking at what is amiss leads to an extraordinarily skewed way of looking at things. The good is always happening in the midst of the bad.
What is most important to keep in mind as we roll into the year 2017 is that Jesus is fully present with us, continuing to lead, guide, teach, heal, forgive, challenge, and transform us, just as he did when he walked the desert sands of Israel.
The night before Jesus was crucified, he said something. He said, “I will not abandon you. I will come to you and later I will be in you. You will know that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
Here Jesus says he not only will always be with us, but that he will be in us. And there is a clear sign this is the case.
Here is what we find in scripture. “God is love. All who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. If we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us…As we keep his command to love, we live deeply and surely in him and he lives in us. Love is how we experience his deep and abiding presence.”
In other words, love is the sign that Jesus Christ is alive and well, living in you and in me and in the midst of this messed up world. He continues to do now what he did way back then anytime love shows up.
God is love. Jesus, was God in the flesh. Want to be in touch with God, love. Want to find Jesus, love. Wonder where Jesus is, love. Love is the point. Love is the purpose. Love is the sign. Those places in our lives in which we love by what we do and by how we act, are the very same places we will encounter God.
God, who is love, is our constant companion and final destination.
There are few things in life that I like to indulge in more than a well-deserved nap in the sunshine. Imagine me in a post-Christmas week coma on the couch while my ENTIRE FAMILY was skiing/working out/working. Their absence in the house overlapped for a full 45 minutes today, meaning the house was totally quiet for the first time in two weeks (except for the occasional sound of dynamite blasts on Snowmass Mountain — which are weirdly comforting). I tried valiantly to seize the quiet, and sit down to write this blog for approximately 30 seconds before the couch had its way with me.
How about you, dear friends? What do you do to rejuvenate and refresh your soul? You need to, you know. I often live by the “you can sleep when you die” adage but it never works well for me or my soul. I need the fullness of a busy house brimming with the nearness of voices I love, and I also need the surprise of a peaceful sunny afternoon to be in my own head and heart. Not in equal measure, not tit for tat, but always in perfect balance.
Perhaps this explains my affinity for the Old Testament scripture in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” (Eccl. 1:1, and 12-13)
Finding satisfaction in my toil (and please know that it is my greatest joy to work for this church, so by “toil” I mean showing up and going all out with extraordinary people trying to connect to our awesome God) means finding time to balance it with the company of friends, a good glass of Cabernet, a hike in the woods, first tracks on a perfect powder morning or a noon groom in any kind of weather, and my go-to: a power nap in the sunshine. Naps are my BFF.
My wish for you this Christmas week is that wherever you are, whatever it is you are in the midst of, you find a moment to refresh your soul. It is, indeed, a gift from God.