Year C — The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 10, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Joshua 5:9-12
One of the major business developments of the late 20th century was “just in time” delivery of products and goods. Companies such as Walmart, Federal Express, and United Parcel Service (UPS) have built worldwide success on the simple idea of reducing costs (and thereby increasing profits) by making sure people have access to just what they need, just in time — and rarely ever before.

It strikes me that God has long ago perfected the “just in time” delivery of exactly what God’s people need. The ending of the manna supply — which had sustained the people while they were in the wilderness — and the beginning of eating from the “produce of the land” after crossing the Jordan River illustrates this perfectly. 

The difficult thing, from our perspective, about God’s system is the “just in time” part. We like to know in advance just how things are going to turn out. We would prefer to have our blessings early, if you don’t mind, Lord — we don’t really want to be bothered with exercising our faith or extending too much trust. 

Well, part of the Lenten discipline is just that — discipline in learning to trust God’s timing. 

Psalm 32
I never really lived on a farm when I was growing up; I can’t tell stories of going to the field early in the morning and working until late at night. I did get to visit the farm when I was a kid — my families’ roots are agrarian and rural. I did “get” to pick cotton by hand, and work in the peach orchards for 15 cents a bushel — and, from time to time, try to help out with the livestock.

So, even though I’m no expert, I get it when the psalmist says, “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding….” (v.9) I’ve seen those animals pitch a fit and plant their hooves — “stubborn as a mule” is a saying for a reason!

How revealing that this image describes our attitude before the Lord at times. When are those moments that we plant our feet, raise our tempers, and “pout to the Lord” about this detail or that circumstance?

The gentle and patient father in the gospel lesson basically says to his elder son, “Now don’t get all mulish on me, son; wait and see what it is that I’m up to before you judge me.” How like our Heavenly Father, who forgives our sin and surrounds us with steadfast love.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
I don’t think that I will ever get the full import of the statement the Apostle makes in v.21: “For our sake, he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God.”

Now, one might well call that a transactional theology and be repulsed by the idea. And, if we cheapen the grace of God and the work of Christ to a simple “transaction” of saying we’re sorry so God will forgive us and bless us and take us to an eternal home in heaven — well, the charge would be justified.

But, there is something both deeply transactional as well as transformational here — that the work of Christ in reconciling sinners to the Father is something he alone can accomplish is undisputed. We do not and can not save ourselves!

But, we do participate in the ongoing process of “being saved” — of transformation by the Spirit of God. It is an ongoing work, a process; the “old” is continually passing away, and the “new” is continually being expressed in us and through us.

That is how, mysteriously and steadily, we are being made into the righteousness of God. 

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
So much depth, so little time to preach. 

That’s always one of my frustrations when I come to “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” or “The Patient Father” or “The Jealous Brother” or however you choose to title it. Dr. Chilton also addresses the issue of just how familiar this story is to our listeners (see his sermon, below.)

How to hear a “fresh” word from this most familiar of biblical story lines?

Certainly, we do not have to make people understand what it feels like to be separated, lost, lonely, or confused; they live in that world every day. And, we probably don’t have to overextend our efforts in telling them about just how important realizing the error of our ways and coming to a point of repentance really are. They probably already want to do something along those lines — they are in worship, right?

I think the biggest challenge is wrapping our minds around the unfathomable grace and acceptance of the daddy here — in a world where we are constantly told that people should only get “what they deserve” — the younger brother is basically “shoot out of luck.” 

(You know I don’t really mean shoot — but didn’t feel like I could use the actual language here on the family-friendly Lectionary Lab. If you don’t get the allusion, email me and I’ll be more explicit.)

But, he scores with a major welcome back to the family; there is apparently plenty to go around and, somehow, his good fortune does not diminish the prosperity of the older brother — or anyone else for that matter. 

My, oh, my…that could be a dangerous and important message for the church to get ahold of in our world today.

Ya’ think?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

There’s an old joke about a man who robbed a liquor store and was sent to prison. On his first day there he was sitting in the dining hall at lunch and suddenly a man stood up and shouted 37! And everybody laughed. After a while another man stood up and shouted 52! And everybody chuckled and smiled. After a few more minutes somebody else stood and yelled 86! And again, everyone laughed. The new guy leaned over toward the man across from him and said, “What’s going on? Why is everyone laughing at those numbers?

The man said, “It’s like this. There are only a hundred or so jokes in the world, and in here you hear them all. We decided to save time and give them numbers.” Wishing to fit in and win friends, the new convict decided to give it a try. “17!” he yelled out. Nobody laughed, nobody looked at him; finally he sat down, mystified. “What happened?” he asked his new friend. The man shrugged and said, “Oh, some people know how to tell a joke, and some people don’t.”

There are certain stories in the Bible that are like numbered jokes. As a preacher, one feels all one needs do is stand up and say, feelingly, “The Good Samaritan,” or “The Widow’s Mite,” or today’s Gospel lesson “The Prodigal Son,” and then nothing else need be said; the story is so familiar that it is difficult to find anything new or interesting to say.

Or perhaps the problem is that we, as listeners, think we know what it means; so we really quit listening while gospel lesson is being read, the way we quit listening to someone tell a joke when we’ve already heard it. And when we stop listening, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to let the Holy Spirit teach us something new.

It is a familiar story, isn’t it? At one level, it works as heart-warming story of a father’s love. At another level, it is a parable or allegory about God’s love. And at a still different level, it is an accusation against some people then and some people now who are less than loving. And at an even more important level it is a call to us to expand the horizons of our witness to the world about the love of God.

As our story opens Jesus is being watched and his behavior judged. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ ”(vs.1-3)

Instead of arguing with them, or yelling at them, or ignoring them, Jesus did what he usually did; he smiled and told them a story, which is what you should always do when children get mean and spiteful and need a nap. Actually, he told them three stories, of which the Prodigal Son is the third. The other two are the Story of the Lost Sheep and the Story of the Lost Coin. We probably should call this the Story of the Lost Boy. In each of these stories Jesus sets out to show the judgmental people that God is nothing like they have imagined. God is not harsh and distant, a fierce and holy deity for whom justice is more important than mercy.

The God revealed in the three stories in Luke 15 is like a shepherd who wanders around all night to find one lost sheep, or like a woman who sweeps and cleans and searches her house to find a lost coin, or like an old man who sits on the porch, straining his eyes as he stares down the road to the mailbox, hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of a lost boy.

The message is pretty clear – Jesus says God is unwilling to lose anyone. Whereas some would blame the sheep for straying from the fold, Jesus says that God is out and about in the world, searching for us in order to bestow blessings on us; whereas some are willing to leave hidden those who get lost in the shuffle of life; unable to shine forth; Jesus says God is like a woman who searches and searches until she finds that coin, that talent, that hidden shy one, and brings it forth and shows it off.

And while some have no use for human beings who waste their potential, who squander their God-given talents on selfish and narcissistic pleasures, Jesus says God is like a loving parent, who welcomes us home, indeed who yearns and aches for us to come home, and who celebrates wildly when we get there. A common thread running through all these stories is a note of happiness, of joy, of celebration.

The Lost Sheep. Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep! And Jesus comments, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who do not need to repent.”

The Lost Coin. Rejoiced with me! I have found the coin that I lost! And Jesus says, “In the same way there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.”

The Lost Boy. Here we have the most elaborate and festive joy and celebration yet. Robes and rings and shoes and fatted calves and a band and whatever else Abba could think of to celebrate with.

And then there’s the elder brother, a factor we often overlook, and which, I think, is the whole point of the story, indeed of all the stories. The Elder brother looks on and begins to resent the attention given to the younger brother. He is jealous and angry and for good reason; “I’m been good and you never gave me a party. He’s been really, really bad, and you give him a feast. It’s not fair!”

Remember, Jesus told these stories to those who complained about his habit of hanging out with sinners. In telling these stories, Jesus is reminding them that God loves all God’s creatures and God’s greatest joy is when someone wakes up, comes to a moment of self-awareness and begins to get their life and love and spirit in order.

It is interesting to note that in the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, we read about the invitation to party, but we don’t know if the neighbors came. And in the story of the Lost Boy, the party takes place, but we don’t know if the elder brother came. It is left like that for a reason, because these stories are an invitation to us, and the ending depends on us; how will we respond? Will we go to the party?

These stories invite us to be kind and loving and accepting of other people, they are a reminder to be diligent in seeking out those who are far from God, they are a call to never give up on those in need.

These stories ask us to look at ourselves, to examine our hearts and see what inner resentments, abandoned hopes, unmet needs, petty jealousies and long-harbored hatreds are keeping us standing outside the tent of joy, preventing us from showing to others the love God has shown to us.

And most of all, these stories remind us to never give up when we feel lost in the universe, for God is always out there looking for us, God has the broom out, sweeping every nook and cranny in search of us, God is ready to run to meet us and welcome us home. 


AMEN AND AMEN.

Year C — The Third Sunday in Lent

Sermon for March 3, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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NOTE: Our regular “Commentary” and “Lectionary Lab Live” features will return next week. 

Seminary professor Haddon Robinson tells the story of a young woman who talked to her pastor about her sin of pride. She says, “Pastor, every Sunday I come to church and look around and think to myself that I am the prettiest girl in the church. I try to stop but I just can’t. Am I horribly sinful?” Pastor looked at her and said, “No dear not sinful; just horribly mistaken.”(1) In today’s Gospel lesson, some folks come to Jesus to talk not about their own sins, but the sins of others. And Jesus tells them that they, like the young woman, are horribly mistaken.

It’s important to remember that Chapter 12 of Luke ends with several judgment stories in which Jesus warns his hearers to watch out for signs of the last days. So it is natural that they should wonder, “Hey Jesus, did you hear about how Pilate marched into the Temple and killed those pilgrims from Galilee because he thought they were rioting? Why did God let that happen? Was it because those people were sinful and were being punished?”

We all understand this question. All pastors have gone to visit the hospital after someone has had a heart attack or a terrible auto accident or a diagnosis of cancer and the question comes, “What did I do to deserve this?” My son told me over dinner one time that God was punishing him for going off his Lenten discipline. He had given up fast food for Lent but had dinner in a Burger King on the way to a ball game and got food poisoning. I really couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not, but I told him his worst sin in this case was blaming God for fast food. It seems that any time there is a natural disaster, some TV preachers decide they have to figure out what sins the people had committed that caused God to punish them.

And to all of this Jesus says, “You are horribly mistaken.” Or as verses 3 and 5 put it, ‘No, I tell you; but . . .” Those “buts” are the most important words in this text. They signal a turn, a turn away from worrying about the sins and fate of others; and a turn to thinking about our sins and our own fate in life. “Unless you repent, you will all also perish!” Jesus turned the crowd away from a discussion of other people’s sins and turned it to a focus on their own need for change and repentance.

The theme of our text and the theme of Lent is “turning to and fro with God; turning from fear – to faith, turning from sin – to grace, turning from the world – to God. And focusing on the sin or saintliness of others distracts us from paying attention to our own journey with God.

In the early twentieth century, The Times of London, a newspaper read all over England, indeed all over the world; invited famous writers to answer the question: “What is wrong with the world?” In response, they got many long essays spelling out both the problems and also, as a bonus, the writer’s assessment as to who was to blame. God, the Devil, the Church, the Communists, the Fascists, White people, Black people, Asians, Hispanics, the Jews, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the Moslems, and the Americans. It was women, men, the “Older Generation” and “These Young People Today.” GK Chesterton, who was a famous writer of the Father Brown mystery stories as well as books and articles on Christianity, wrote: Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely, GK Chesterton(2)

Jesus call to us today is to turn from blaming God, or the world, or others, for what’s wrong with the world. Christ invites us to turn to look at ourselves instead, and then to turn and look to God for help and salvation.

That is really what the word we translate into English as repent means; it means to turn, to turn from one way of thinking to another, to turn from going one direction in life to going in a new and different direction. Luther said that the life of the Christian is a life of daily repentance, a life of constant turning from the world to God and then turning back again from God to go into the world. 

The result of this turning is the fruit we bear, the acts of love and kindness to others that our lives produce. Jesus’ parable of the fig tree reminds us that a life of turning to God and then back into the world will produce fruitful lives of generosity and love. The reprieve given to the unfruitful tree reminds us that God is a God of grace and forbearance and steadfast love, a God of the second chance.

And we all sometimes need this reminder, because all of us are sometimes “horribly mistaken” about the sins of others and the sins of ourselves. We have an unfortunate tendency to believe our sins are easily forgiven, but those of others, well, “…not so much.”

In his series of novels about the small town of Harmony, Indiana, Phillip Gulley’s Quaker pastor often reminds his parishioners that, “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” (3) Though we Lutherans remember Luther’s words about being “saint and sinner at the same time;” we often act as though our saintliness is better than that of others and our sinfulness is not as bad.

We act as though if it were only our sins that mattered, then Jesus would not have had to die on the cross; just a good, stern talking to would have taken care of it. It was the sins of others that caused Christ to die. But we are “horribly mistaken.” Jesus says to us, “No, I tell you” 

Lent is a time to repent of our own sins, not the sins of others. Lent is a time to plow up the ground, prepare the soil, heap fertilizer onto our souls; seek the Lord’s will and way and trust in the Lord’s love and forgiveness, of us and of others.

AMEN and AMEN.

1 – “Let My People Laugh,” p. 68; Christianity Today, 2009

2 – cited in Phillip Yancey’s “Soul Survivor,” p. 58; Zondervan, 2001

3 – “A Change of Heart” p. 129; HarperSanFrancisco, 2005

Year C — The Second Sunday in Lent

Commentary for February 24, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
It’s hard to trust God…harder than it seems like it ought to be.

I mean, after all, this is God we’re talking about, right? The Creator of heaven and earth, the Father of the Lord Jesus, our Savior and our Lord.

We use such lofty language in our worship and prayer; yet, and still…when it gets down to the brass tacks, there may still be that little bit of doubt or discomfort.

Abram is more than a little worried about God’s promise to make him a father of great nations. He’s getting on up there in terms of age and physical “capacity.” So, he calls God to account for God’s promise.

In one of the stranger signs of assurance given in the Bible, Abram receives an indelible remembrance of God’s promise to make good on God’s word. In effect, God says, “May it be to me as it is to these animals if I do not keep my promise to you.” 

Alrighty, then; guess that’ll do!

Psalm 27
What can I say about this awesome Psalm text? I suppose for me, I always hear the classic song setting by British composer Frances Allitsen (a nice job here by Emily Willis at the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia.)

As for the particular theological significance for this second Sunday in Lent, the reverberation of the “wait on the Lord” theme is important. We are anxious, we are seekers, there are “evildoers” encamped all about us.

But, it is God who is our strength, and God who will deliver us. Wait, wait…(I love the doubled emphasis of v.14.)

Philippians 3:17-4:1
Paul offers us a series of “choices” of how to view the world, and God’s activity in it. One may live as an enemy of the cross (with the evocative descriptor, “their god is their belly!”) Or, one may live as a citizen of heaven, living in the expectant hope of salvation from above.

We may be burdened by the body of humiliation, a symbol of our human frailty; or, we may receive the body of glorification that belongs to Jesus.

Again, we are reminded of the power that comes from standing firm — waiting — in the Lord.

Luke 13:31-35
In today’s gospel lesson, it is up to Jesus to illustrate what it means when the water meets the wheel (or the rubber meets the road, or the skubala hits the fan, etc.)

Herod is hot after Jesus’ head; Jesus is being warned by the Pharisees (get the irony?) to get out of town. Flee in fright, or stand and fight? What will Jesus’ choice be?

Neither, of course. 

Jesus will mosey on out of town for a time, until it really is time for him to put the nail in the coffin (or the cross, so to speak) of God’s mission. In the meantime, Jesus will do what he apparently did each and every day — trust God with the details and keep his mind on his Father’s business.

Amazing, isn’t he? Our Savior and our Lord.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My grandmother used to get eggs from a family who lived about a mile further down the dirt road by her house. When I was little, five or six, Grandma and I would often walk there to visit on a cool summer’s evening. 

Eventually we would go out past the hen-house to the spring-house, where they kept the eggs in little wire cages submerged in a concrete tank of water fed by a cold mountain spring. 

We put the eggs in little tin buckets padded with dishcloths and walked home for supper; probably bacon and eggs with biscuits, because Grandma wasn’t particular about exactly when she had breakfast. 

One summer evening, just as we came out of the spring-house, there was an awful fuss in the chicken yard. 

A sudden raising of dust, flurry of feathers and scattering of hens and chickens, much screeching and squawking; and then, just as suddenly, things calmed down and an old gray hen emerged from the bushes with a large black snake in her mouth. 

I thought of that day again when I read today’s Gospel lesson. Herod, the king, the worldly power, a fox in the chicken yard; and the Messiah, the Christ, portrayed as a bold female, risking all to protect her chicks. It’s an interesting play of images.

As our Gospel lesson begins, Jesus is told that he should be afraid, he should watch out, that the evil King Herod is out to get him. 

Jesus appears to be unafraid, either of Herod or of dying. It would be appropriate for Jesus to be afraid, but Jesus shows no fear. Instead he taunts Herod, saying, “Come and get me, or better yet, I’ll come to you, for no true prophet can die outside Jerusalem.”

At the mention of Jerusalem Jesus’ tone changes. He cries over the people, laments their misguided rejection of God’s messengers of truth and love. 

Then comes this startling image: God, Christ, as a mother hen protecting her children from the evil fox in their midst. Jerusalem is Israel and Israel is us, all of us, all of humanity. 

The truth is that God has loved us, all of us, from the very beginning, from the time of creation, from the time of Noah and the flood, from the time of Abram and Sari and the Promise, from the time of Moses and Miriam and the Exodus, from the time of Deborah 
and the other judges of Israel
 and the kings and queens and prophets and psalmists, 
God has loved the world
 and sent us signs and wonders and messages of that love. 

And all too often, we have failed to understand or respond to that love. All too often, we have turned God’s Word of love into a life of hate; all too often, we have turned God’s call to repentance into the pointing fingers and a call to arms.

The sly fox of the world turns us away from that which is good and eternal and pulls us in the direction of those things which satisfy now but do not linger and live with us for an eternity with God.

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the sadness in Jesus’ voice here. If you’ve ever watched someone waste their life away on drugs or booze or bad relationships or chasing after material possessions or honors or notoriety or celebrity, or something. Something undefined but just around the corner that will, they hope, make them whole and complete and healed, but which is never there; then you know the pain Jesus feels. 

For you cannot save them, you cannot make them change, you cannot make anyone give up the things that are ruining them. All you can do is open your arms, you cannot make anyone walk into them.

And, it is the most vulnerable posture in the world, arms spread, chest exposed. Or, to continue Jesus’ Mother Hen imagery, wings spread, breast exposed. It is interesting that this turns out to be the way Jesus died in Jerusalem, wings spread, breast exposed. 

Jesus was able to face down Herod the fox because he had faith in the God of promise, the God who promises and follows through. Jesus had faith in the God who promised Abram and Sarai that they would have a Son and that they would be the parents of a people who filled the earth. 

Jesus was able to go to the cross because he believed the Psalmist when he said, “The LORD is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?” 

In the middle of the night, when the fox is loose in the henhouse of our lives, we grow fearful and often wonder, “Where is God, will God come?” 

Jesus is the promise that “Yes! God will come; indeed God has come in Christ.”  Comes across the chicken yard – clucking and screeching, wings spread, breast exposed; comes to rescue, comes to protect, comes to save. 

Yes, God comes, that is the promise Jesus made and that is the promise Jesus kept upon the cross, where he sheltered us from the devil’s wrath and saved us from ourselves so that we might live forever in God’s love.

Amen and Amen.

Year C — The First Sunday in Lent

Commentary for February 17, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Click HERE to listen to the podcast on Lectionary Lab Live

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Living lives of gratitude is an awfully good way to “resist temptation.”

The Israelites were instructed to remember where they had come from, and the ways that God had delivered and blessed them. Their offerings were a response — not an obligation — to the action of God in saving them from slavery and oppression. 

I’ve always been a little curious about the phrase, “land of milk and honey” to describe the promise of God for the land of promise. Then, I stop and imagine what they had to eat as slaves in Egypt and the contrast becomes clearer. 

Gruel and hard bread = bad; milk and honey = good.

Stop, consider, and be grateful. This has something to do with the heart of worship, I’m thinking.

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
This psalm contains the phrase that the devil quotes to Jesus. Why the devil wanted to get into a scripture battle with the Son of God, I don’t know.

God’s protection is always with us; we are quite often delivered out of trouble (see v.15.)

This is not the same as being delivered before trouble ever hits us or harms us. We still live in a dangerous, hard-scrabble world; Jesus understood that there is tempting God, and then there is trusting God. 

The former is not such a good idea, while the latter allows us to live lives of peaceful confidence that God is with us in the midst of whatever mischief the devil stirs up for us!

Romans 10:8b-13
Well, there you go.

I love Romans 10:13 for its simplicity and clarity. (Of course, Paul is quoting the prophet Joel here — but I love both of these guys for sharing it!) What does it take to have God help, save, and defend us?

Call. Yell. Shout out. Pray. Hope. Trust. Believe.

Not too many other strings attached or hoops to jump through, when you get right down to it.

‘Nuff said.

Luke 4:1-13
The old gospel song says, “Tempted and tried, I need a great Savior; one who can help my burdens to bear.” (I Must Tell Jesus, Elisha A. Hoffman)

The story of Jesus in the wilderness teaches us many things, no doubt; but not the least of the lessons to be had here is the fact that Jesus can help us in the inevitable trials and temptations of our lives because he knows exactly how it feels!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Have you ever noticed that when someone behaves in an outrageous or improper or, most often, horribly RUDE manner, the first thing people say is:

“Well, just who do you think you are?”

That is the right question. Who we think we are shapes how we think we are entitled or obliged to behave.And the Bible shows us that Satan knew this.That is why he challenged Jesus on the point of identity in this Gospel lesson. 


The key to understanding the story of the temptations lies in the THREE little words: IF YOU ARE.

In Luke 3: 22 – following Jesus’ baptism, a voice comes from heaven and says, 

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And here just a few days later, the devil says,
If you arethe Son of God.”

Satan presents Jesus with the opportunity to define what it means to be the Son of God; He is given the opportunity to win popularity by turning stones into bread, feeding the masses and feeding his ego at the same time, 

He is given the opportunity to achieve great power by worshipping the devil and turning his back on trusting God to provide. 
He is given the opportunity to achieve great fame by throwing himself off the temple and showing himself to be God’s Chosen One by letting the angels catch him.

These temptations invite Jesus to imitate the Emperors in Rome who secured power by giving the people free food and free entertainment, winning their favor with bread and gladiators.The temptations with which Jesus was faced are the very ones that we, you and I, fall victim to on a regular, I would almost say, a daily basis.


In little subtle ways we seek popularity or power or possessions as a way of hedging our bets against the uncertainty of the world.
 

After all, we live in an age in which disturbed young people walk into schools armed with assault weapons and shoot innocent 6 year olds; where stock markets plunge and housing prices fall, where wars rage and tornados strike and hurricanes threaten to blow us all away.

A little control over our own lives and a bit of money securely invested, what’s wrong with that? 

The problem is: the things the Devil wanted Jesus to do as the Son of God are selfish, and self-serving and ultimately self-glorifying. And Jesus rejected them because being centered on self is inconsistent with being the Christ, the Beloved, the Son of God, the one sent to save others.

It was during the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus struggled with what it meant to be the Son of God. 
When he became clear about that identity, he came out of the wilderness, and began to preach the Kingdom of God and to perform mighty acts of healing and exorcism. In the forty days in the wilderness, Jesus became certain of who he was and came forth ready to behave in accord with his identity.

When Jesus knew who he was, the question of what he was to do was already answered.
 
To be the Christ, the Son of God, laid out for him a path to follow, a way of being in the world that led to certain things to do. Preaching. Healing. Confronting Evil.


Throughout these forty days of Lent we are called to contemplate the life of Jesus, his path of service and obedience to God, his living out his identity as the Son of God. As we do that, we must ask ourselves some identity questions, personally and congregationally. 

Who am I? Who am I, really? And what is God calling me to do?
 
Who are we? Who are we, the church in all its expressions, really? And what is God calling us to do?

I know I am a rostered leader in the ELCA? But what does that mean, now, in 2013, and in the place where I presently serve? What am I to do?

It is an important question, and the answer will shape your life. Likewise, as congregations, as a synod, as a denomination, as a community of faith, we struggle with identity questions. 

Who are we, really?


Are we a gathering of like-minded people, who share a preference for a certain form of theology and worship? If so, then the things we do should be designed to provide for our survival, to take care of ourselves.

Or are we a people whom God has called together to be the Body of Christ, as Luther says in the Small Catechism: Called, gathered, empowered and sent? Called to be Christians, gathered around Word and Sacrament, Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Sent into the world to spread the Love of God. If that is who we are (and I believe it is) then the things we do will be designed to care for the world, for others.


Jesus spent forty days in the Wilderness struggling with the question of identity, struggling to discover what it meant to be the Son of God. Throughout the forty days of Lent, we are called to do the same. 

We must ask ourselves,
 
If we are the beloved children of God, what is God calling us to do?

Sisters and brothers, I ask you: just WHO do you think you are?

Amen and amen.

BONUS: A Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras Meditation

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Text: Romans 7: 14-25
Title: Shriven or Fat?

When I was a kid growing up in Mount Airy, NC; I had absolutely no knowledge or experience of the church year. We had a Christmas play on the Sunday night before Christmas and Easter just kind of showed up one Sunday with no preliminaries and had more to do with Sunrise Service at the Moravian Cemetery and the Easter Egg Hunt during Sunday School and my sisters and mother having new dresses than anything else. We were not a liturgical people.

My favorite place to shop when I was a kid was the Robby’s Army/Navy Surplus store on Main Street. Most Fridays I went to town with Mama when she went to “get her hair fixed,” and went to Robby’s to look at manly men stuff and to occasionally buy a knife or a shirt or something.

Across the street from Robby’s was Trinity Episcopal Church; a tiny stone building that seated maybe 50 people and had a Fellowship Hall downstairs. Every year I was fascinated to see the sign go up in their yard advertising “Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner and Ash Wednesday Service” Two different days; one sign.

Nobody I knew could tell me what that was all about; not parents or teachers or even my preacher. The best anyone could do was my Baptist Deacon Grandaddy who said, “I reckon it’s the way them ‘Piskipalians has a revival and a fellowship dinner.” Close enough, I’d say, for an opinion formed out of almost complete ignorance of the subject; a technique I have inherited and exploited with children over the years.

At about the same time, I became acquainted with the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras, mostly through my devout Aunt Ethel; who gave me Evangelical Tracts and Paperback books for Birthday and Christmas presents until she died when I was forty. (She was still hoping I would turn my back on my obvious crypto-Catholicism and accept Jesus.)

It was in a somewhat lurid paperback description of the soul-saving work of the Rev. Bob Harrington, known to his admirers as the “Chaplain of Bourbon Street.” The only religious effect it had on me was making me consider going into the Baptist Ministry just so I could attend New Orleans Baptist Seminary.

It was only in Seminary that I began to connect the dots between Shrove Tuesday and Mardi Gras. Here’s this from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Christianity.


On the eve of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the season of fasting, people first went to confession, to be “shriven,” hence Shrove Tuesday, and then ate pancakes, to use up the ingredients forbidden during Lent. This turned into a longer period of pre-Lent celebration, known as Carnival or Mardi Gras. P. 468


Although I admit to having a little fun with this, I don’t think it far-fetched of me to see the two different ways of observing this day as being more than a cultural difference between the repressed and dour English and Northern Europeans on the one hand and the more “party-hearty” attitude of the French and the other Mediterranean peoples on the other.

We all find it difficult to figure out how seriously to take sin; our own and that of others. We know we’re not as good as we could be; or maybe should be.

But also, most of us are unwilling to admit being as bad as some other people think we are; or conversely, as bad as we think some other people are.

No matter how we have failed our own ethical and moral standards, we are all of us more than willing to look around and say, “Well, Lord, at least I’m not as bad as that person. At least I didn’t do THAT!”

And so, we come up to Lent with two attitudes:

One is represented by being Shriven. We look at Lent as a time to grow spiritually, to pray, and read and draw closer to God. We see this time before Lent as a time of solemn contemplation and sober reflection; well represented by eating damp and tepid pancakes and half-cooked sausage on a paper plate that folds up and spills syrup on the Fellowship Hall table as you sit uncomfortably in your folding chair and sip bad coffee from a Styrofoam Cup.

The other is represented by getting FAT. By the wonderful phrase “Let the good times Roll!”
We have to go through this Lenten time of restriction and restraint, so we’d best get the partying out of our system before it starts.

To tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure which of these represents Saint and which Sinner in Luther’s famous simul justus et peccator; saint and sinner at the same time.

What I am really clear about is that each of us is just that; saint and sinner at the same time,
each of us struggles with it; each of us seeks the good, and all too often fails; fails to see it in others or to achieve it in ourselves.

And the gospel is; God loves us anyway, yes indeed, God loves us anyway;
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins,LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!

Amen and amen.