2 Corinthians 5.16-21


The Epistle Lesson for fourth Sunday in Lent, year C, is 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

Summary:

Using the image of God’s new creation, Paul focuses on a central theme in his message: the ministry of reconciling us to God. This reality is something we all share in receiving and join in sharing.

Reflections and Invitations:

The Common English Bible translates verse 16 as “human standards.” I prefer the more common phrase, “human point of view.” Before the infusion of the Spirit of Christ in our lives we see only a part of life. So much truth remains unrecognized.

This reflects the reality that we want to fit what we see into what we already know. It is very hard to open our minds and hearts to truly see things in new and different ways. We want to understand and figure things out. Studies show that when we see something that doesn’t fit our already existing set of ideas (or “standards” according to the CEB) we either ignore them or reinterpret them.

Paul speaks of looking at Jesus from this limited perspective. We hear the words of God and see the signs of God’s presence and we really don’t see or hear them as they are. We see him as another good teacher or maybe a true prophet, but nothing more. Or we see him as almost a holographic projection of the spirit of God but without the struggles and frailties of a human body. We see his words supporting our already existing lifestyle whether it is conservative or liberal, action oriented or contemplative.

The human point of view seeks to compartmentalize and define what we see.

Yet, the words and actions of Jesus defy easy classification.

Paul calls the path out of the blindness the New Creation. The grace and love of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit is always something new. God is always seeking to find ways to reconnect us to one another, to ourselves, to creation, and to God’s own self.

When we get stuck in the process of trying to figure it all out, we draw lines and create separations and divisions.

In a similar fashion, when we define our goodness by also defining other people’s sins we build gaps and chasms in the space between us.

God’s grace fills in all those divisions, giving forgiveness freely, and showing us the way of Godness: the Essence of life present in each moment, in each space, and in every relationship.

Paul invites each one of us to live this freedom from what separates us and the limited view of life so we can enjoy all the wonders of what God gives us through Jesus.

Psalm 32


The Psalter for fourth Sunday in Lent, year C, is Psalm 32.

Summary:

This Psalm speaks to the process of confession and forgiveness.

Reflections and Invitations:

Often when we consider confessing our faults and sins we feel sorrow and get serious. We see acknowledging our wrong doing as a reason for shame and a cause for isolation.

For the Psalmist, confession and forgiveness lightens the heart. When we deny and flee from the reality of our own failings our hearts become heavy with sorrow.

Happy are those who experience the freedom of God’s mercy. This is the freedom that Jesus spoke of when he said that truth sets us free (John 8:32). When we enter without fear into the actual reality of our lives we find there the reality of God’s faithful love.

“Dishonesty of the spirit” is how the Common English Bible translates verse 2. In verse 5, the admission of sin leads directly to guilt being removed. When we seek to delude ourselves into thinking we have nothing to confess, we disconnect our lives from our own reality. We cut ourselves off from the life-giving presence of the God who loves truth. 1 John 1:8-10 affirms the same truth.

When we confess our sin, we are saying to God, “This is who I am: I am not who I want to be, I am not who you want me to be. This is all I have to offer to your love and mercy.”

In response to this, God shelters us, teaches us a new way to live, and brings joy and lightness to our hearts.

This forgiveness is freely given and freely received.

That freedom is the point of Psalm 32:9. Here we are invited to be a people who freely choose to live God’s way. The alternative is to be senseless where we are pushed and prodded this way and that way to keep us from completely self-destructing. We will still fail and we will still go astray, but God gives us the grace to allow us to trust as we choose to find our happiness and satisfaction not in some imitation life, but in the real presence of grace.

Joshua 5.9-12


The Old Testament lesson for the fourth Sunday in Lent, year C, is Joshua 5:9-12.

Summary:

In this passage, the people of Israel finally enter the land they were promised. Joshua leads them across the Jordan River, all the men are circumcised and the people pause and remember the events which brought them their freedom by celebrating the Passover.

Reflections and Invitations:

This is a strange event in a long series of curious circumstances for this people. They escape Egypt. They receive the word of God at Sinai. They wander in the wilderness for a generation. They walk across the flooding Jordan river as if it is dry ground. Then they celebrate a victory before anything has happened.

In verse 9, God calls them to celebrate the day their disgrace was rolled away.

What is this disgrace?

One part of the disgrace is the humiliation of being an enslaved people without a place to be: without a home. Their freedom from the disgrace of bing no people took a long time. The first part was fairly quick and dramatic: they did escape Egypt. In that sense they were no longer slaves, however they still were not free. They hadn’t been for 40 years. They were not yet settled. I think the fact that they suspended the ritual mark of circumcision during their wanderings supports the idea that they still didn’t know who they were.

So on this Passover they celebrated freedom from slavery and the fact that God’s promise was still active. They encamped in sight of Jericho, but nothing had happened to secure the land for them yet.

Another part of their disgrace relates to what happened in verse 12 after this Passover celebration: the daily delivery of manna stopped. This was the food of their deliverance, the daily bread from God’s own hand that kept them alive these past 40 years.

The disgrace that was rolled off their shoulders in this event was the humiliation of dependency. While they wandered seeking the land of promise, God fed and cared for them as infants. They could not provide for themselves, so they needed this daily source of nutrition.

When they passed through the waters of the Jordan it was a birth into a new relationship with God. Circumcision was an act usually done with a newborn infant, yet here grown men surrendered to the ritual knife. Now they take responsibility for feeding themselves.

It isn’t mentioned, but I can easily imagine that there were many days to come when they missed the simplicity of gathering the manna. They had become so dependent upon it. Now it was time to grow up.

This doesn’t mean they were no longer invited to trust in the care and presence of the God who loved them. What it means is that this trust no longer carries the shame of being fed like an infant. Now they are invited, as we are, to a grown-up faith: a relationship where trust is chosen freely and greater surrender is now possible.

We now love and serve not because we have to, but because we want to.

Luke 15.1-3,11-32


The Gospel Lesson for fourth Sunday in Lent, year C, is Luke 15:1-3,11b-32.

Summary:

In this passage we hear the familiar story that has been called the prodigal son as well as the waiting father. It is part of Jesus’ response to the good people of his day having a problem with how Jesus spent time with the bad people of his day.

Reflections and Invitations:

If you haven’t done so already, I would highly recommend Henri Nouwen’s book, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” This is a series of reflections on Rembrandt’s painting of the same name where Nouwen explores each of the characters in the painting and how they each represent a part of each of us.

We are going to do a short version of that reflection as we explore the feelings and the motivations that led the characters in the story to act the way they did.

Begin with the youngest son. He is the main protagonist in the story. The big question is why would he leave the way he did? He seemed to have it all. If the father could liquidate half of his holdings and still have enough left over to maintain a prosperous operation he must have had plenty. So why leave?

Instead of answering that question with a sense of condemnation, reflect on what would motivate you to leave something like that behind to pursue something you think will make you happy. What might be offered to you that would lead you leave? Experience? A relationship or set of relationships? The opportunity of a lifetime that only you could understand? Freedom?

So you find a good reason to leave everything and everyone behind. Now consider what would need to happen for you to return? What kind of humiliation would lead you to overcome the shame of realizing how you have hurt those people who you now see as only loving and caring for you? Forgetting for a moment how the father in the story actually responded, what would be the best possible result? What would be the worse case scenario?

Switch to the older son now. Consider a similar question: what leads you to stay? Would you experience the temptation to do the same thing? Would you be jealous? Would you resent the fact that you had to stay behind out of obligation to tradition and the family honor?

It would be easy to stay not because you want to be with your father, but because you feel stuck, without a choice in the matter Then you become resentful of the entire situation and everyone in it.

Then when you hear that the boy has returned all that resentment erupts again to the surface. What emotions would lead you to openly defy your father and dishonor your brother as he did in the story?

What would have to happen for you to let go of that resentment? How hard would that be?

Finally, enter into the character of the father. Explore the feelings of betrayal and sadness that goes with watching the baby of the family wanting to escape your household and your presence. How easy or how difficult would it be to liquidate your property in order to give in to his request?

Then comes the period of separation. Can you imagine how hard that was to have your heart torn apart in that way. Your younger son is gone and you don’t know if and when he will every return. No cell phones, no email, no helicopter parenting in that day.

And if my reflections above are valid, the relationship with the older son isn’t all that great either. Absence and resentment. Imagine how that would wear you down. How long would you wait? When would you stop looking for any hope of change in the situation?

Then we have the welcome home.

Two questions: why would the father freely welcome home the one who betrayed him and then plead for the older son to be reconciled to the brother?

Why would God freely welcome us home when we face our shame and come back? Why would God plead with us to be reconciled to our own estranged sisters and brothers in life?

Luke 13.1-9


The Gospel Lesson for the Third Sunday of Lent, year C, is Luke 13:1-9

Summary:

Jesus responds to the important issue about the connection between sin and suffering.

Reflections and Invitations:

When it comes to sin and suffering there is one thing that we like to do: compare.

In this passage Jesus explores with his listeners our tendency to see how much someone suffers as a guide to how sinful they are. We then think that if we are bad, then we will suffer. The worse we are, the more pain we experience. So we don’t want to be as bad as others.

We can call it karma or we can call it justice but it all seesk to connect experience to moral choices.

Jesus explores two events in his day that for many became touchstones for this view: these people suffered greatly because they deserved it.

Jesus simply says “no” to that idea.

He wants to disconnect the affect of suffering from a potential cause of unrighteousness. He says simply that their suffering does not prove that they were more sinful or more guilty of wrongdoing than their neighbors.

Yet, Jesus does keep the issue complicated.

There is more that Jesus wants to do than just simply disconnect the greater sin leads to greater suffering equation. In both verse 3 and 5, Jesus adds the phrase, “but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” What is he trying to say with this repeated phrase?

While he begins by not supporting the idea that great suffering means the presence of great sin, this addition seems to also disconnect the corollary: if you sin less then your life will be more peaceful and pleasant.

We are attracted to this idea. If I’m good (or at least better than others) in this life then I won’t go through hard times, I won’t experience pain and sorrow, and if I’m really good, I might live almost forever.

Doesn’t this idea support much of our moral teaching?

If we are better than others our lives are better than theirs. But if things go wrong with our lives, then we need to find and confess the sin that must be the cause of this suffering.

Jesus denies both ideas. When we suffer it does not prove anything one way or another about the presence of sin in our lives. And when we try to be better than others that does not provide a way to avoid the normal every day travails and events of life.

Jesus affirms that we all have the power of sin present within us and we all need to trust in the healing, forgiving presence of God to transform our hearts. Our relationship with God is not a way to escape life with all its ups and downs; it is the way we live our lives fully in grace.

 

1 Corinthians 10.1-13


The Epistle Lesson for the Third Sunday of Lent, year C, is 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.

Summary:

Using the experience of the people of Israel during the Exodus, Paul calls us to be diligent in following God.

Reflections and Invitations:

It is easy to romanticize the experiences of the people who lived in scripture and during significant times of spiritual history. How wonderful it would have been to hear Jesus speak or to witness one of those great signs and wonders he performed. We yearn to return to days of past revival when the community of God grew tremendously. We think that being there would fill us with new excitement and the inspiration of God’s Spirit.

The examples of Paul in this passage do not support that gilded view of history.

He looks at the people who followed Moses out of Egypt and journeyed to the promised land. They had the same experience of God’s presence and glory. They saw clearly the revelations of God, they witnessed the fire and cloud, the daily gifts of food and the gracious gifts of water when they were thirsty. If anyone should have found it easy to follow the guidance of God, it was them.

These people were part of the stories that we tell generations later, yet they actively resisted the guidance of God. They created idols to substitute for God’s powerful presence. They chose to indulge in immorality and pleasure. When Moses broke the first set of God’s words, it reflected that the people had already disregarded most if not all of them already.

If that wasn’t enough, in the face of God’s providing them their daily bread (and quail), they were ungrateful, grumbling, complaining, and even expressing anger. This was all directed at God and at Moses because of the inconvenience of their freedom.

There are no guarantees when it comes to experiencing the blessings of God and our own level of commitment to follow.

We also need to remember that it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t just like them. Our temptations might be of a different variety and of different degree, but we know the reality of not following God’s way. How many of us complain daily about not having anything to wear when we have dressers and closets full of choices? We think it a great hardship to have to wait in line an extra 5 minutes to buy our cart full of goods and food, forgetting that we have neighbors who are unable to buy the food they need. We might not make idols out of gold that look like cows, but how is that different than our big screen television sets, our portable computers, and our smart phones. We create these things and then we choose to entrust our lives to them.

We are tempted just as they are, we can’t avoid it. What we can do is make a different choice. Instead of indulging our wants, we can renew our choice to trust in the faithfulness of God to provide for us what we need. We can be generous and compassionate, looking for neighbors to share God’s presence and blessings with. We can trust in the grace of God that provides for us forgiveness when we do forget and resist, and we can be diligent and intentional to ask, and then trust God to help us remain faithful.

As we do that, we truly participate in God’s great grace.

Psalm 63.1-8


The Psalter for the Third Sunday of Lent, year C, is Psalm 63:1-8.

Summary:

This is a Psalm of yearning. It expresses both our need and our desire to live fully in God’s presence.

Reflections and Invitations:

This Psalm is attributed to a time when David is hiding in the wilderness while trying to avoid his enemies. He is far from his home and all the benefits he would enjoy there.

In the absence of the luxuries of life and even some of the basic necessities, the Psalmist finds that the desire for God is heightened. This highlights the spiritual value of fasting and retreat. When we de-clutter our lives from the activities and objects that leave us feeling secure and safe, we find waiting for us a deeper longing for God.

What familiar parts of your life leave you feeling so comfortable that it is easier to take your relationship with God for granted? What can you do, even for a part of a day to regain a connection with that yearning for God in your life? What can you let go of that dulls or hides your desire for Grace?

The images for yearning are profound: thirsting in a dry land, yearning for refreshment when weary and finding no place to rest. Do you find those images resonating with some part of your life? It might be helpful to listen to that thirsting as an invitation to spend time in prayer, contemplation, and in scripture.

The gift of prayer leads us to open our heart and mind to the reality that God is as close to us as breath. In verse 2, all the Psalmist needs is to behold the place where God is. Receiving a particular blessing is not needed, what leads to this expression of praise is to see that God is present.

This praise is just as profound as the yearning. Look at the words used to describe the praise response: bless the Lord, lift hands in praise, satisfied, a rich dinner, shouts of joy, and thoughts of God that are present in all hours of the day.

This is a far cry from our contemporary experience of spending time in worship for only an hour or two a week. For the Psalmist praise and worship is not something that is only for the mind, but involves the movements of body, the sounds and quiet of song, the emotions of the heart, and even a sharing of a meal (who knew that pot-luck dinners were present even in the Psalms). This worship isn’t limited to a time or space, it is always and everywhere.

When the Psalmist sees God’s presence, what is revealed is the faithful love of God that is better than anything else in life.

This is the invitation to a fully dimensional life of gratitude and trust. As God is faithful in loving us, so we can give to God all of our love and energy.

Isaiah 55.1-9


The Old Testament lesson for the Third Sunday of Lent, year C, is Isaiah 55:1-9

Summary:

In this passage, the prophet invites the people of God to follow God in a renewed relationship.

Reflections and Invitations:

There are some rich themes in this passage connected to our own relationship with God that we can explore as we seek to bring the invitation of God to our community of faith.

In Isaiah 55:1-3, the images of hungering and thirsting bring clarity to what we are searching for in life. We spend so much time, energy, and money on activities and possessions that we think will make our lives more full and more meaningful. Instead of fullness, we find both inner emptiness and outer junkiness.

How many times have we really wanted a new piece of technology that is supposed to make our lives so much easier and more enjoyable? We save for it, we go into debt for it, and we get it. It might bring us some enjoyment for a few hours, days or even weeks, but we eventually realize that it didn’t really fill that hunger inside. Maybe it is a relationship we have been pursuing. Maybe a title or achievement or position. Sadly, those things that we think we need in order to be truly happy only add to our sense of missing out on what is important.

The prophet reminds us that what we really desire–a living relationship with our Creator–cannot be bought at any price, but can and must be simply chosen.

“Listen and come to me; listen and you will live,” are the words of God in this passage.

What do you think you need in order to be happy and complete? Is it an activity? How can you let go of that pursuit of happiness and find rest and divine energy in following God?

As you make the choice to center your desire on God’s presence of grace you will find that all you desire is revealed in that relationship and is given to you freely.

The second part of the passage (Isaiah 55:6-7) shows us the interaction between how we express our desire for God and how God responds to us. This is what following God looks like. Jesus echos this pattern in Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9-10.

Where do we find ourselves seeking God? God will not impose upon us. The invitation is to listen. That means we are given the choice to turn our attention to God. We can choose to be responsive and open to finding life in the Presence.

When do we call on God? As we seek, we call out. We can think of the seeking as getting up out of our seat with the intention of finding God, and calling as opening to receiving what God is offering us in wisdom and in blessings.

Where do we need to return to God? We don’t have to be in the company of “wicked” people in order to actively pursue our own plans and ideas. There is some part of each of us that is always seeking to fulfill our own desires and maintain control. We are crafty enough to package our plans to make them appear like they are for others, when really we have ulterior motives. For example, we might really help people in our community and in our world who need food and shelter, but we often find a way for others to know what we are doing so they will think that we are good and kind people.

We need to let go of our own self-serving activities and truly surrender to what God desires us to do simply out of love and service to God.

This kind of surrender makes perfect sense to the prophet as we are reminded that our plans and perceptions are small and sometimes misguided. God’s plans and directions extend to the edges of the universe and beyond. And since they are founded on the promise of faithfulness evidenced in God’s relationship with David, we can place our trust in how God unfolds our lives before us.

The wonderful thing is that as we let go and turn our attention towards God’s wisdom we will not find judgment and condemnation for the times we have strayed or became lost. Instead we will find a kind, generous, and merciful God waiting to fill us with new life.

Luke 13.31-35


The Gospel Lesson for Luke 13:31-35.

Summary:

Jesus nears the end of his earthly ministry and is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time. He expresses a lament for the people he loves as he becomes aware of what is in store for him.

Reflections and Invitations:

As I reflect on this passage, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Luke 13:34-35a causes me to wonder.

Why does God continue to reach out in the face of continual rejection?

It doesn’t take much of an overview of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament to see the pattern: God sends messengers of life and love to the people of choice, and they get rejected and destroyed. Yet, God continues to send messengers.

After a few times of rejection, I go somewhere else. At least I want to. We experience betrayal and we learn that we don’t like pain, so we grow thick skins and hard hearts. We avoid situations where we are with those who have broken our hearts because we don’t want to relive those experiences.

It is true that some disappointments and smaller betrayals are all part of being sinful, broken people seeking to stumble through our relationships with other sinful, broken people. But what we see here is a pattern that extends beyond the occasional misunderstandings and struggles. Could we see the relationship between God and God’s people as tending toward abuse, with God being the one being abused?

In our own world we see it as a sign of health to remove ourselves from abusive situations. So why does God keep coming back?

What Jesus says here is that he knows going into it what will happen.

I see two possible parts to explain why God keeps coming to us. And we do need to see that we are not immune to pushing God away. We resist the guidance of the Spirit, we continue to want to do things our own way and under the illusion of our own power. So we need to see Christ’s lament being directed at us as well.

The first part is the enormity of God’s love and grace.

As I write this I am almost 55 years old and have experienced the love in different forms: lover, parent, child, grandparent (even great-grandparent), brother, friend, pastor, and more. In each of those roles I have failed and I have learned. I hope that I continue to grow in those relationships, but I know I have so much more to learn about what love means just there.

Yet, in relationship to God’s love? I have experienced only an atom’s worth of love in God’s universe full of grace. My love may want to give up, but God’s love isn’t even scratched by what I know and understand.

So God keeps coming back.

The other part that I don’t think about often enough is that God is never a victim. When we experience betrayal and even to some extent when we are the betrayer, we lose something. Our pain is a sign that the betrayal has lessened us. Which leads to the victimization tragedy.

Yet God can never be less than complete. No matter how we may push against grace, we cannot dent it. No matter how we might rail against the divine plan, we cannot affect it. This is the meaning of the sovereignty of God to me. God is free of our influence and nothing we do changes God. So we see God as protector and rock, images of safety and security.

However, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t respond to us. God might be solid and invulnerable, but through the love and grace of God we find God is gentle and responsive to us.

Is God the victim of our abuse? No.

But when we resist God and turn away the words and messengers of God’s love we stay stuck in our lessened life.

Let us be open to the blessings of this hope.

Philippians 3.17-4.1


The Epistle Lesson for Second Sunday of Lent is Philippians 3:17-4:1.

Summary:

Paul offers practical encouragement to the community of faith in the face of resistance.

Reflections and Invitations:

Usually when we think of Paul’s writings we get caught up in wrestling with complex systems of thought. His lines of argument are sometimes difficult to follow and to understand. Some of his conclusions still become sources of other strange ideas and ideologies.

What I appreciate most about Paul is that he is a practical theologian. He thinks deeply about God and grace, but wants us ultimately to connect our thoughts about God with our walk with others. This passage begins with the invitation to find and follow models to live out our faith.

When there is a disconnect between heart, mind, and body, even the most eloquent words and lofty ideas become just noise pollution. Integrity is the unification of all the dimensions of our lives. Paul reinforces that idea, first, in the invitation to find people of faith to imitate, and then through his warning to be wary of people whose actions do not reflect their faith.

How should we respond to those who live as “enemies of the cross?”

“Enemy” is a hot emotional word. When we label someone as an enemy we are no longer obligated, so we think, to relate to them as fellow human beings. They are the enemy and receive our hostility because they are hostile to our way of living and thinking. We experience this in our society: label someone a terrorist or an enemy combatant and we then can unleash our righteous anger and judgment upon them. We too often justify many kinds of abuses with the label.

But is that how Paul is viewing the people he writes about in Philippians 3:18?

I don’t think so, and the key is his emotional response: not anger but sorrow. I can even see him exhibiting a certain amount of care for them.

As I reflect on this curiosity, I feel we have mistranslated this passage. Instead of people living as an enemy of the cross, how about seeing him speaking about people who are resisting the power of the cross in their lives. It represents the same kinds of behavior in terms of not following the guidance of grace and pushing against the goodness of living God’s way without denying their basic humanity and that God’s grace is still offered to them.

By seeing Paul’s sorrow and care for those who are resisting God’s place in their lives we become open to see the ways we ourselves actively resist the work of God within us and the ways we might neglect to nurture this presence of grace. When we see that the resisters are just like us, we become diligent in seeking to not become lost in the resistance ourselves.

So what does this resistance look like?

A primary aspect of this resistance is self-absorption. We become focused on primarily serving our own appetites (our god is our stomach) rather than Creator.

Over the years spiritual seekers have identified things like the vices as avenues for serving our own short-term interests. The vices, or passions of our appetites, serve as the traps that turn us away from following the Essence of Life and turns us toward looking only toward our next bite or next swallow. The list I appreciate the most comes from the writings of Don Riso and Russ Hudson: resentment, pride, vanity, envy, avarice, faithlessness, gluttony, lust (excessiveness), and sloth.

With each one of those patterns of behavior we pursue things that only give us pleasure in the moment. This short-term focus is so easy for us to slip into without recognizing just how self-serving it is.

Where do you get caught up in only looking to advance your own interests?

Another way we get lost in our resistance to God’s presence is to focus only on things of earth. When we live only within the limits of our mortality all we have is materialism.

Part of the sadness of Paul is to realize that people who are stuck in this small view of reality are missing out on so much. They may seem to have it all, because they pursue the finer things in life or dive into the most exciting experiences, but for them that is all there is. There is no relevant reality outside of their small realm of experience. So they need to make the most of it.

Paul reminds us that we are citizens of the universe!

We belong to more than just this place and time. We don’t have to grab for the short-term pleasures and possessions that might lead us to do disgraceful things all in the name of experience. Instead we are open to experience the ever-expanding glory of love and joy that Christ’s presence unfolds through us.

It is a great loss when we confine existence to the limits of our mortality. This reduction fuels our resistance to the possibility of God’s abundance. If there is more to living in the presence of God then our serving the self-absorbed passions are revealed as foolishness.

God invites us to live this abundance, because we belong to a universe that transcends time and space yet also inhabits each moment. When we are stuck within the confines of mortality we need to face the truth that we are lost and also hear the truth that the God of love wants to pour upon us glory.

Where do you need to stand firm in the face of your own resistance to this transforming work? What do you need to let go of, confess, and receive forgiveness for in order to experience God’s fully dimensional life?