Swept away into life

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Day 7: Saturday in the First Week of Lent

John 3:6-7

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’

Poor Nicodemus. He is bound to the ordinary. He knows the text. He knows the temple. He knows the rules. He knows the structures of society, the reality of Rome, the office of the High Priest, the presence of Roman soldiers in the fortress built into the corner of the temple square. There are prayers to say and times to say them. There are sacrifices to be offered and rituals to be observed. He knows all this. He is a good man, trying to live honorably. But here, before him, is something he can’t quite grasp. Something compelling. He has no pigeonhole in which to categorize this man, a teacher from the sticks who yet seems profoundly true. So here he is, in the shadows of the night, hoping to understand.

And Jesus gives him this strange, nonsensical answer about being born again. You can’t get back into the womb. Everyone knows you can’t do this. But still Nicodemus tries to puzzle it out. We will meet Nicodemus again in John’s Gospel coming to Jesus’ defense (he will be met with scorn). And we will find Nicodemus at the end, laden with precious oils, joining Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus an honorable burial. Nicodemus knows there is something deeply important about this Jesus.

Is Jesus playing with Nicodemus? Is he using on purpose this ambiguous word that means ‘again’ but also ‘from above’? Is it a test of this leader of Israel? Or is it from confusion that the possibility of true insight emerges? An ‘Aha!’ moment? God doesn’t fit in our boxes. The work of God is not part of the ordinary. Is it there, where we can’t make things fit any longer, that we are led into a new world, a new vision, a new perception of the truth of life? Is it there, in surrender to the wonder, that we are born of the Spirit?

Is it there where we are immersed in the swirling waters that we are raised up into new life? Is it there, beyond the ordinary, in the extraordinary world of grace immeasurable, of love without limits, that we are swept away into the life that cannot perish?

“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’

Gracious God,
in the waters of baptism
you grant us new birth as your sons and daughters.
Keep us this day in your steadfast love
that we may walk the path of love and mercy
that is our true and eternal life.

– A prayer for the first week of Lent

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(For a reflection on this week’s theme: “Baptism & the journey of the human spirit”)
(For the sermon on this week’s theme:
A great and terrifying promise
(For the counting of the days of Lent see the page:
Counting to Forty)

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A crack in the world

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Day 6: Friday in the First Week of Lent

2 Corinthians 5:17

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

New wine. New wineskins. The folly of a new patch on an old garment. New teaching (when Jesus teaches in Capernaum and exorcises a demon). And Jesus saying about the wine at the last supper: “I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

A new covenant.   A new commandment. A new tomb where no one had been laid (a new tomb rendered obsolete). A new Spirit blowing over the disciples. A new birth. A new creation. A creation made new. A world reborn. Lives reborn. A new age dawning. A world pregnant with life. The contractions have begun. The sick are healed, the lame made whole. Eyes that cannot see now see. Tax collectors are gathered. Sinners are welcomed. The feast of the new creation dawns on a hillside from five loaves and two fish. The world of temples and kings gives way to a good shepherd. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Eunuchs are welcomed into the water. Nothing stands in the way of their baptism. Gentiles, too. The Spirit cannot be contained. It pushes to embrace the whole creation.

The world is not the same. We are not the same. There is a crack in the world. What was is at its end. What will be is dawning.

And this is where we stand. This is where baptism has brought us. Through the waters out from bondage into freedom, from death into life.

To be in Christ is to live not just in this age but the age to come when tears are wiped away and the lion and the lamb play with our children as they walk to school. AR-15’s are beaten into plowshares and Humvees turned into tractors.

To be in Christ is live no longer in the world of shame but the world of grace. To live no longer in the world of revenge but forgiveness. To live no longer in the world of fear but the world of joy. The new creation is at hand. Feel the warm sand in your toes and smile.

Gracious God,
in the waters of baptism
you grant us new birth as your sons and daughters.
Keep us this day in your steadfast love
that we may walk the path of love and mercy
that is our true and eternal life.

– A prayer for the first week of Lent

(For a reflection on this week’s theme: “Baptism & the journey of the human spirit)
(For the sermon on this week’s theme:
A great and terrifying promise
(For the counting of the days of Lent see the page:
Counting to Forty)

Imperishable

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Day 5: Thursday in the First Week of Lent

1 Peter 1:23

You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

There is a section in the refrigerator for “perishables”. Every so often I have to look in there and do something with the forgotten oranges that have molded, the carrots that have sprouted and the never used cucumber that seems to have melted into slime. There are things that perish. Not just the fading flowers brought home from the store. Not just the aging pets that must ultimately be freed from their misery. Not just the orchards that become suburbs or the mountains that become sediment at the bottom of the sea. Even the stars burn out and perish.

But the promise of God does not perish. It does not mold or lose its power to grace the heart. It does not fail to quicken lives, foster compassion, nurture generosity, transform lives. It does not fail to bring comfort in times of sorrow or hope in times of trial. It does not lose its savor like spices kept too long in the kitchen cabinet. The promise of God abides. It guided Abraham more than three thousand years ago. It summoned Moses to lead a people out from bondage. It inspired prophets to bear witness to God’s command to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. It quickened hope for a world without tears. It filled Mary with joy. It sustained Jesus through the darkest hour. It comforts still the worn and weary, the wounded and weeping, the lost and lonely. It inspires still lives of hope and courage. The creative, redeeming word of God is living and enduring, bringing us and all creation to new life.

“You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”

Gracious God,
in the waters of baptism
you grant us new birth as your sons and daughters.
Keep us this day in your steadfast love
that we may walk the path of love and mercy
that is our true and eternal life.

– A prayer for the first week of Lent

(For a reflection on this week’s theme: “Baptism & the journey of the human spirit)
(For the sermon on this week’s theme:
A great and terrifying promise)

Worthy of the Lord

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Day 4: Wednesday in the First Week of Lent

2 Corinthians 5:15

He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

There is a haunting line at the end of the movie, “Saving Private Ryan.” A squad led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is sent to find private James Ryan, the last surviving brother of four, to send him home from the war. At the end of the movie, after a heroic battle and the loss of all but one in the squad, the dying captain says to private Ryan: “James…earn this. Earn it.” In the final scene, the now elderly veteran stands at the grave of Captain Miller and, turning to his wife, asks if he is a good man. He needs to know if he has been worthy of the sacrifice those men made.

At the beginning of the letter to the believers in Colossae the author writes: “we have not ceased praying for you…that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.”

What is the shape of a life worthy of the sacrifice Christ made on the cross? What is the shape of a life worthy of the one who offered himself to endure the whip and thorns and nails? What life is worthy of Christ’s desolation and shame?

It is to live not for ourselves “but for him who died and was raised.” It is to live forgiveness as he forgave. It is to live mercy as he lived mercy. It does not mean a life of austere denial, but of hearts turned outward. It is to live compassion. The good life is not what we get, but what we give. It is not how high we rise, but how we lift up others. It is not the pleasure we find, but the joy we live.

Gracious God,
in the waters of baptism
you grant us new birth as your sons and daughters.
Keep us this day in your steadfast love
that we may walk the path of love and mercy
that is our true and eternal life.

– A prayer for the first week of Lent

(For a reflection on this week’s theme: “Baptism & the journey of the human spirit)
(For the sermon on this week’s theme:
A great and terrifying promise)

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKrzy%C5%BC_w_lesie_-_Grabarka.jpg By Kornelia Głowacka (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/pl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Shucking off our street clothes

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Day 3: Tuesday in the First Week of Lent

Romans 6:3-4

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

One of the richest and most wonderful dimensions of Christian faith is its sense of new beginning. Out of the ashes of our past can come a future. Out of bondage can come freedom. Out of death God can bring life. John heralds the dawning reign of God. Jesus embodies that reign by healing the sick and raising the dead, casting out demons and opening blind eyes. Jesus finds the lame man with no hope of getting to the healing waters and, in that encounter, the man is made whole. Christ shares our death that we may share his life. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Nothing in Christianity is about “pie in the sky”; it is about the possibility of pie now. Sins forgiven now. Relationships healed now. Fears driven back now. Light shining now.   “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

And so we are called to live the newness – not as if it were some great moral burden laid upon us, but as a delivered people embracing and embraced by the Promised Land. We stand already in the courtrooms of heaven. Our feet tread in the holy places. We inhabit the realm of grace. And we live grace. Compassion is not pulled from us by guilt, but born by gratitude. Love is the fruit of joy. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” We “were dead in [our] trespasses” and God made us alive together with [Christ].”

There is work to do to “put to death…whatever… is earthly” (part of our fallen existence) and to clothe [ourselves] with compassion,” but it is the work of shucking off our street clothes to run down to the water. It is a work born of joy, anticipation and confidence in the new creation that awaits.

Gracious God,
in the waters of baptism
you grant us new birth as your sons and daughters.
Keep us this day in your steadfast love
that we may walk the path of love and mercy
that is our true and eternal life.

– A prayer for the first week of Lent

(For a reflection on this week’s theme:Baptism & the journey of the human spirit”)
(For the sermon on this week’s theme:
A great and terrifying promise”)
(For the counting of the days of Lent see the page:
Counting to Forty)

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APorto_Covo_July_2011-6.jpg By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

God rages forth

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Day 2: Monday in the First Week of Lent

Isaiah 42:16

I will lead the blind
….by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known
….I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
….the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
….and I will not forsake them.

These words from the prophet come at the end of a passionate cry by God – “The Lord goes forth like a warrior, like a fighter He whips up His rage. He yells, He roars aloud, He charges upon His enemies. ‘I have kept silent far too long…’”(TNK). God will dry up the marshland of the Euphrates and turn “the rough places into level ground” to lead the people back from their exile in Babylon. God can only suffer our sorrows so long. Even sorrows justly received.

Parents frequently have to walk this walk of enduring some suffering or struggle in their children. At some point, even punishment they have assigned grows too painful for the parents to endure. This is not what they want for their children. Mercy triumphs.

Human sorrows are the harvest we have sown. Though the individuals involved are often innocent, we are indeed children of a fallen humanity. No violence is done that does not begin in the twistedness of the human heart. No hatred, no neglect, no greed, no deceit, no rending of the human community is loose in the world that does not begin in the grasping after the apple, the desire to be as gods, the profound self-centeredness of the human creature. Even our giving is tainted by the desire to be seen as generous, our prayers by the desire to be seen as spiritual. Consider Matthew 6.

So we have wars and divisions, abused and abusive men and women, children living in garbage dumps and teenagers with murderous weapons. But ultimately God rages forth to lead his blind and broken children through the wilderness to their true and eternal life. God thrusts his rebel children beneath the waters to raise them up to newness of life.

It is sweet and good to know that God will lead us. But the pathway is costly. To Jesus. To us.

Gracious God,
in the waters of baptism
you grant us new birth as your sons and daughters.
Keep us this day in your steadfast love
that we may walk the path of love and mercy
that is our true and eternal life.

– A prayer for the first week of Lent

(For a reflection on this week’s theme: “Baptism & the journey of the human spirit”)
(For the sermon on this week’s theme:
A great and terrifying promise
(For the counting of the days of Lent see the page:
Counting to Forty)

A great and terrifying promise

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Holy Baptism & The Human Spiritual Journey

These are portions from the message for the First Sunday in Lent, 2018.  For the full message see Week 1 Message.

God speaks a promise in baptism. It is a promise about what God will do. It’s a covenant not a contract. God doesn’t say “I will do this if…”; God says “I will do this.”

And it is a wonderful and terrifying promise. God says “I will bind you to myself” – and this is a great and precious promise – but God is also saying, “I will bind you to Christ Jesus in his death and resurrection. I will put to death all that is false and hurtful in you. And I will raise you up into the image of Christ.
….I will put to death hate and raise up love.
….I will put to death envy and raise up joy.
….I will put to death hardness of heart and raise up compassion.
….I will put to death lust and raise up intimacy.
….I will put to death greed and raise up generosity.
….I will put to death vanity and raise up humility.
….I will put to death revenge and raise up forgiveness.”

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Baptism isn’t something sweet and delicate we do to children. It is a dramatic, wonderful, and terrifying act of bringing a child – or an adult – before God asking God to recreate us, to put us to death and raise us to new life.

In coming for baptism we are asking God to work his work in us to change us from our broken and fallen humanness into our true humanity – into the image of Christ. This is the fundamental human spiritual journey: to be born from above, to become a new creation, to be set free from the reign of sin and death and be governed by God’s Holy and Life-giving Spirit.

In the waters of baptism God promises to complete this task and bring us to our full and complete redemption. It is a great and precious promise. Terrifying and holy. Fearful and comforting. Awesome and awful. But it is the promise God makes. It is the promise we dare to receive.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEglise_Sainte-Blaise_Lacommande_oculus.jpg Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

I have called you by name

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Day 1: Sunday in the First Week of Lent

Isaiah 43:1

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

On “Day 1” see “Counting to Forty”.

Jesus didn’t say to Peter and Andrew, “Anyone who wants to come, follow me.” Peter, Andrew, James, John – Matthew the tax-collector – they are called by name. God called Abraham by name. He promised a child to Sarah by name. God spoke to Hagar by name when she and Esau were perishing in the wilderness and pointed her to a well of water. God called Jacob by name, changing it to Israel. God called Moses by name at the burning bush. God spoke with Deborah, the prophetess, and to Gideon hiding his harvest in a winepress. God called Samuel by name when he was but a boy. God said to Jeremiah Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

The prophet is speaking to the community. But the truth of his words are personal. We are known. We are named. We are called by name. We are God’s own.

We say that all people are God’s children, but how different it is when we are mindful that God knows their names. We are not lost in a sea of humanity. God’s household may be crawling with children, but we are each known: “I have called you by name, you are mine.”

The call made visible in baptism is universal. The rite is distinctive to the Christian community – and there are unique elements to being baptized into Christ – but the spiritual journey belongs to us all. We are all summoned to grow into our true humanity.

Gracious God,
in the waters of baptism
you grant us new birth as your sons and daughters.
Keep us this day in your steadfast love
that we may walk the path of love and mercy
that is our true and eternal life.

– A prayer for the first week of Lent

Baptism & the journey of the human spirit

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The First week of Lent

File:Wismar Nikolaikirche Fünte.JPGOver the years I have grown to appreciate ever more deeply the rhythm of the church year: The haunting hope of Advent, the wondrous mystery of Christmas, the call to discipleship after Epiphany, the spiritual journey of Lent, the light and life of Easter, and the daily growth after Pentecost rising, at the end of the year, to texts that speak of the final harvest and the horizon of human history where Advent picks us up again. Hope, mystery, proclamation, repentance, joy, peace – judgment, incarnation, discipleship, dying, rising, witness, consummation – the pattern repeats again and again like a winding road ascending a mountain.

Christian faith and life isn’t about a set of ideas that puts you once and for all onto the right team or provides the ticket to the right ultimate destination. It is about the spiritual journey outward from our native narcissism to compassion and service. Christianity that fails to call us to this journey fails us. Any religious tradition that fails to call us to this journey fails us.

For Christians, baptism is the fundamental image of this spiritual journey. It is about dying and rising, the death of our turned-in-upon-ourselves-ness and the birth of a turned-outward-to-others-ness. From attachment to self, to attachment to God and neighbor. From devouring the world to serving the world. An infant puts everything in its mouth, and many adults never stop devouring, clutching, grasping at things and powers and honors and people. And then we run out of time and wonder why we wasted a life that could have been spent caring for others and being cared for. We never found the path to our humanity. We never made the turn from self to others.

Baptism is about that turn. Dying with Christ and rising to walk in newness of life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ (John 3:6-7)

In the waters of Baptism, God promises to bring us to our new creation. And there we begin the journey of surrendering to that work of God in us.

We will hear these texts and others like them again and again as we move through this season. They are filled with promise – but a promise that moves us outward, beyond ourselves, into the fullness of our humanity.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

Gracious God,
in the waters of baptism
you grant us new birth as your sons and daughters.
Keep us this day in your steadfast love
that we may walk the path of love and mercy
that is our true and eternal life.

– A prayer for the first week of Lent

At the farthest limits

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Saturday after Ash Wednesday:

Psalm 139:9-10

If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

The poet marvels at God’s intimate knowledge of us: “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely… it was you who formed my inward parts…. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” And so we come to this confession: “at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.” The heartbeat of the universe knows the rhythm of our own hearts. And however far away from God it might seem that we have traveled, the author of life is yet with us. Each of us.

In a world where gods were thought to be local – gods of specific lands and place – here is the eternal breath of life that encompasses all.   Life had broken and scattered Israel. The Assyrians had crushed and scattered the northern ten tribes. The Babylonians took the leaders of Jerusalem in chains to Babylon and destroyed their city. Others had fled the chaos and horrors of war. But wherever they found themselves, this God of the exodus was with them. Intimately. Profoundly. There to hold them. There to lead them. Even at the farthest limits of the sea.

Hold us fast, O God. Lead us in the way everlasting, the enduring path, the way of your reign of grace and life.

Gracious God,
who in the waters of baptism marked us with the sign of the cross
turn our hearts towards your wondrous love
that we may walk in your peace.

– A prayer for the week of Ash Wednesday