“Flesh” Ash Wednesday 2017

Our Lenten theme for this year is a little different.   Normally the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 6, and the instruction that is given on fasting and praying as we prepare for the discipline of Lent.

This year, we’re going with a theme of Bodily Worship of the Triune God.   The theme comes from Psalm 103 which reads, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.”   Implied in that psalm is the understanding that when we come to worship, we are to engage all of ourselves, our body and soul, into the art and act of worship.

That may seem like a no-brainer, but I assure you, it is harder than it seems.

Who hasn’t come to worship and found themselves miles away in their thoughts?  The hands are folded, the knees are bowed, but the mind is racing elsewhere.

“Did I turn off the oven?”

“What should I do about this or that?”

As the Word is preached the Pastor mentions something that suddenly takes the mind to a completely different place, and while the face looks attentive, and thoughts are miles away.

It’s hard to remain in the worship moment with the whole of one’s self.

Rolf Jacobson, Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary points out that in our usual translation of Psalm 103, we miss two very important nuances.

The first has to do with the translation of the word “bless”, which in this psalm is better translated “bend the knee.”   “Kneel before the Lord, O my Soul.”   That part of the translation has us engaging bodily, dropping in reverence or submission.

But now that brings us to the second translation error, which has to do with the word for “soul” in Hebrew, which is not what we think it is.

This “soul” spoken of here is not some disembodied spirit that somehow resides in the husk of a body waiting to be set free — as the Greeks may have imagined.

No, in Hebrew the word is “Nephish” – literally the throat, esophagus, windpipe into which God “breathed” to cause life.   It is more of a metaphor for “the core of one’s being.”  It is “all of me,” it is everything that makes us what we are.

Therefore a better translation of this psalm, (if less poetic sounding) Professor Jacobson says would be “Let all of me kneel before God’s Holy Name.”    So, throughout the season of Lent we’re going to be taking a look at this matter of what it is to have all that we are kneel before God in worship, and we’re going to be doing that by focusing on the parts of the body that make us up.

The scripture readings tonight call on us to focus on the matter of flesh, it’s frailty, it’s resilience and how much God must love us to want to enter into it on our behalf.

We’re “fleshy” beings, you are I.  We are tied to this creation in fearful and wonderful ways.

The Creation Story from Genesis reminds us of how much we are tied to the things of this world.

It is out of dust of creation, the stuff of stars that we are made, as God’s hands take those elements to form and shape us.

It is God’s own breath that fills our lungs, expands the “core of our being” and gives life.

“Fleshiness” is our great gift.

It is also our great weakness.

“Fleshiness” sets us up to listen to voices other than the voice of God.   Because we are fleshy, we seek connection to other fleshy beings.  Relationship with the flesh sometimes comes into conflict with the relationship prescribed by God.

“Fleshiness sets us up to follow our appetites and desires, to partake of the tree that we know we are commanded not to eat from, but which our fleshiness longs for, just a taste, just a sample, what could it hurt?

“Fleshiness” sets the limits and boundaries of life.   It marks the difficulties we have to endure to earn a living, as “by the sweat of our face we eat our bread.”

“Fleshiness” reminds us of our mortality, how the things of this world return to the dust from whence it was formed.

Paul reminds us that whatever extraordinary powers we may think we possess and claim as our own are really things that belong to the God who breathed life into the core of us.  Like clay jars that hold the precious gift of life, we are prone to brokenness, we are finite in lifespan, and our usefulness is tied directly to our fragile and incomplete carrying of the precious gift at our core.

This is what God comes to inhabit, we are told by John.   God became “flesh” and lived among us, full of grace and truth, as a sign and symbol of how the fleshy can take on the imperishable.

But there is something else at work in this “Word becoming flesh thing.”

In becoming “Fleshy” like us, God now also has access to our “fleshy” parts.

God can come now to the ears, that we may hear the voice of Jesus.

God can come now to the mouth and open the lips, speaking in and through us as God comes out of the “core of our being” to others.

God can come now with hands to touch, to heal, to flip over tables when necessary and to lift up the fallen.

God can come with feet to journey with us, walking the pathways with which flesh must become acquainted.   Sometimes those are hard pathways of struggle and work.  Sometimes those are all too smooth pathways of temptation, the God who become flesh knows those walkways as well.   The God who has feet becomes acquainted with the way of faith and the stumbles failings along the way.

God can come now with knees, to kneel, and that is perhaps the strangest thought, that God would be kneeling with us.   We are so accustomed to being the one who is lowered, or who “takes a knee” to listen, that at first the thought of a kneeling God seems disorienting.  “What are you doing down here with me?”

But here too is the gift of fleshiness.  Here comes God to model with and for us what it means to become the servant, what the bending of the knee does for us how it opens us to find our place in a world created.

We are fleshy, and God has become fleshy with us, precisely so that nothing will be asked of us that God’ own self in frail flesh has not tried.

You are asked not because of how great, or how strong, or how powerful you are to follow the disciplines of Lent.

You are asked precisely because you are so fleshy, and in this way of all flesh, Jesus is now well acquainted.

You won’t be asked to do more than flesh can take on.

All of you, now; is invited to come to worship.

Come as you are able.

Come, for you are able.

Come, with all that you are, to the core of your being, into the presence of God who knows what it is to be fleshy, frail, and imperfect, and bids you kneel with him.

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“To Save It” John 3:1-17

“I’m leaving you…”   That’s what the “post-it note” on the counter read.   In a panic, the husband stared at it.   His mind raced, his heart clenched in his chest, and his stomach dropped.

Sure, there had been the normal ups and downs of relationship but nothing that would have prepared him for this.

“I’m leaving you…”  The words burned.

He wanted to call.

He wanted to plead, to question, and try to discover what offense he had done that would lead to this.   He reached for the yellow tag of paper lifting from the countertop on its half-adhesive edge as if by touching it he might somehow confirm or deny the words that seemed to leap from its surface.

And plucking the note he then noticed that the writing continued on the back side.  Fearfully flipping it over from the “I’m leaving you” side he went on to read…“half a piece of pie in the fridge from my lunch… enjoy!”

It’s so important to read the whole note before jumping to conclusions!

It’s so important to read all the way through John chapter 3 verse 17 in our Gospel for today, because stopping at John 3:16 is like the husband not turning the note over.

People are really good about quoting and pointing out John 3:16.   It pops up on signs at ball games, and in rallies.   You probably know this verse by heart for its words are burned into the memory.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  

But something strange happens in how that verse gets used and interpreted when we stop reading the bible story there.

I think it happens because we assume that we know what is going on in this story of Nicodemus.

Jesus is arguing with this Pharisee who has come to him by night that he must be “born from above.”

Nicodemus is inquisitive.

He recognizes that Jesus is a teacher, and that he is from God, but he has questions, and in the exchange that follows, Jesus engages in the give and take of what would be recognized at the time this was written as “rabbinical teaching.” It is the technique employed by teacher and student to lead one to a different perspective.

Instead of viewing the Nicodemus story for what it is, which is this dialogue in which Jesus is teaching and Nicodemus is learning, we read it as if it were the fine print on an infomercial.

We read it as “Some conditions may apply…”

We read that God so loves the world but then we assume from the teaching that precedes it that this is about conditions and expectations.

“You must be born from above.”  Jesus says, and we are conditioned by one theological interpretation to read that as a condition, one not yet met by Nicodemus.  The condition that you must be baptized.

“No one can enter into the Kingdom without being born of water and the spirit.”  We read that as a condition, and one that is beyond Nicodemus’ grasp at this point, and so we leave Nicodemus in a kind of limbo, waiting for a later date when maybe he will “get it” and comply.

Maybe someday he too will make his way out to the wilderness to be baptized by John.

Maybe, someday, Nicodemus will do what we think Jesus commands here as a condition of entering the Kingdom, and comply with the ritual.

Instead of viewing this as an exchange of learning that leads Nicodemus to a new understanding, something that he has to let “sink in” for a bit.   We assume that it is Jesus laying out conditions that must be met, and so John 3:16 begins to take on the ring of exclusivity.

Believe and you will have eternal life.

Question, like Nicodemus, and you must be left out.

That’s how we often read this, and by extension then we begin to set up our own categories of who is in and who is out.   We qualify and quantify beliefs based upon our own experience, and assume that John 3:16 supports them.

If you believe as I do, well then as John 3:16 says, and you are in.

If you believe differently that I do, well then John 3:16 would seem to indicate that you are out.

Follow Jesus as I understand one is to follow, and you are in with me.

Follow in a way that I don’t understand or agree with, and well…. John 3:16 says….

Exclusivity rears its head if you end with the verse about belief, precisely because “belief” as we use that word tends to be a subjective thing, something open to our own interpretation of what it might be.

But if you push on to John 3:17, the landscape of this bible story changes.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

The removal of the condemnation is like the husband turning over of the note!

Now the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is not about coming to a place of “right belief.”   It is rather about developing a relationship!

This is what Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to do!   He already knows that Jesus is sent by God.  No one can dispute that – given what Jesus does, the signs he performs, —  what Nicodemus can’t quite figure out is how to relate to him!

It is in developing a relationship in which the wind of the spirit can blow where it wills that Nicodemus begins to see.

It is in developing a relationship where questions can be raised, where thoughts can be clarified, and where trust can be established that Nicodemus begins to understand how he, as a teacher of Israel can begin to discern what God is up to now in his midst.

Push on to verse 17, and what is revealed is God’s intention, which is considerably less about what one believes or does, and turns out to be more about what God seems to desire.

No, not just what God “seems” to desire, but that God expressly states, namely, that it is God’s desire to save the world, and that’s why the son has been sent.

Jesus has been sent for this very kind of engagement.

Jesus is sent to open up the dialog where questions can be raised, and where insight can be given, and where through the dialog the Spirit can then begin to move where it will.

This is good news for us, for we could use a lot of “world saving” right now, and preferably some that doesn’t depend so much upon “right belief,” because quite frankly, we don’t know what to believe anymore.

In this world of fake news, the denial of accumulated data and the questioning of factual or scientific evidence, we are uncertain about who or what to believe anymore.

We are at least as disoriented in our daily life now as Nicodemus was when he came to Jesus by night.

So, now is the time to push on to verse 17.

Now is the time to hear, with crystal clarity, that salvation is not dependent upon our belief or unbelief, but rather salvation is something that is put into motion by God’s desire.  It is  God’s activity of sending his Son that brings about salvation, and it is God’s desire that this be directed toward the whole world.

Now is the time to claim that, more than ever, in a world that is fractured, and where trust is hard to come by, that it is God’s intention and desire to save this world.

In a world where political powers and ideologies press us to want to isolate, to separate ourselves, to build walls, to label who is in, and who is out, and who is other to be questioned, distrusted, avoided, rejected and deported – we need to claim and proclaim that what God is up to is opening up dialog and engaging people.

Now is the time to remind the world of verse 17, for Jesus did not come into this world to condemn it, but to save it, and it all begins with establishing relationship, not labeling or dismissing others.

God did not send his Son to hasten the end of world, but rather to unite all things in Christ.

Jesus did not come to speak enigmatically to those who came to him by night in order to confuse them.

No, Jesus came to open up a dialog where even in the midst of deep misunderstanding and questioning the Spirit can blow and new insight can be given.

This is our legacy.

This is the hope to which we are called, and what we are called to proclaim.

John 3:16, yes… absolutely!   God so loved this world that he sent the Son.

But do not end it there!  The Son is sent not to establish right belief, but rather to foster the belief in us all that God does not condemn, but instead desires to save and to begins relationship.

This world.

Those in it.

Those who come by night, and those who follow by day.

All of them, all of it, God desires to save and God does so by establishing a relationship with in which the Word is made flesh and dwells in our midst, and where the Spirit can blow.

It is so important that we read this whole note, this whole story to a world that is always tempted to fall into division.

The world is depending upon it.

God is depending on the dialogue, and upon us to engage it.  Amen.

“Tempting Times” Matthew 4:1-11

We are most certainly living in “Tempting Times.”    What kind of temptations do you see?  Experience?   We could go on and on here to list even more of the temptations that abound for us.

But I suspect that just listing out temptations is not what you came here for today.

If you wanted to get a list of temptations available to you, you could “google it” and likely things would pop up on your screen that you had no idea even existed until you saw it.

No, if you came here today for any reason it was likely to try to figure out what to do about the temptations that are all too prevalent in your daily life.

As we enter the season of Lent, we turn to the scriptures, and particularly to Jesus’ temptation thinking, or perhaps hoping that we can learn a thing or two from Jesus about how to deal with temptation and to silence the devil.

Well, if that’s what you were hoping for, I will sadly have to disappoint you.

The temptation of Jesus doesn’t really help us if you are looking for tools for dealing with temptation.

Just take a look here at the tools that Jesus employs in dealing with the tempter.

Jesus is hungry, and the temptation is to turn stones into bread.   “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’  This is what Jesus says to deal with the Tempter.

            Which is all very good for Jesus to say… but he’s still hungry.

This first temptation, we know it well once we start to turn it over in our minds.   This is the temptation to take care of our own needs…. First.  The great temptation in turning stones into bread is of thinking only of yourself and of your own needs.

“If you are the Son of God….”   Embedded in Satan’s temptation right away is an appeal to and an assumption of privilege because of who you are.

It’s not that Satan questions that Jesus is the Son of God.

No, rather it is a temptation rooted in what you deserve as a matter of being who you are – namely God’s Son.

You deserve a little special treatment.

You deserve to have your needs met before you worry about anyone else.

“You deserve a break to today”… as McDonald’s will so eloquently put it some 20 centuries later.

We know this temptation well, we live it over and over again, like the grumbling of an empty stomach.

A thousand different challenges present themselves in the society around us, and as opportunities to make a difference with a gift are presented, the rumbling in the gut of our own hunger pushes back against the need of others, and our own assumptions of privilege creep in.

Give money to the government in taxes?  Hey, that is MY money!

Give money to the church?  Hey, I worked hard for that, I’ll give if what they are doing fits my interests, benefits what I think should be done?

Give money to that beggar on the street corner?  How will I know he won’t go buy a bottle?   He may have a nicer house than I have!  Who knows how much he rakes in tax free from that racket…

Oh, we are well acquainted with the first temptation, the “me first” and then I’ll see to others temptation.

Jesus recognizes it, and rejects it by quoting scripture.

But we are not Jesus.   We, more often than not, will succumb to this temptation.  Sometimes we will be pricked by that and find ourselves ashamed of it, recognizing how we have also assumed a measure of privilege mentality, but more often we will simply write this temptation off as the way things are.

“If you don’t look out for yourself, who is going to look out for you?”

So, if you think by becoming more acquainted with the bible will help give you a tool to defeat temptation, think again.   We will more often just look for the right bible verse to quote, that fits our own self-interest, and call that good.

Jesus can quote scripture to push back against temptation, but not so for us.  Why?  Because as it turns out, the devil can quote scripture too.

 “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ “

We recognize this temptation too, but it comes at us in just a little different way.

For Jesus, the temptation was one of personal safety.   “Go ahead, throw yourself down, God won’t let anything bad happen to you.”  — it is again an appeal to privilege, special status.

Which is fine for Jesus, as Son of God.   But what about us?   What can we look to for protection and personal safety?

Ah, here is how the Tempter gets at us, and it is again and appeal to the matter of privilege.

This temptation is the builder of walls and the procurer of missiles.  It is the promise of larger aircraft carriers, and the increase in defense spending even when as a Nation we spend more on defense than the next 7 world leading powers combined.

It is an appeal to the privilege of being “safe” and “untouchable” and not having to worry about what the rest of the world worries about.

The temptation to desire personal safety, and some guarantee of that, is powerful indeed!

Consider what such pursuit of personal safety has done to us.

It has made us take our shoes off and bow down to worship metal detectors since 9/11.

It has driven us to take for granted surveillance in every sector of our lives as just the price that must be paid to be assured that we are “safe.”

This temptation for personal safety has made us seek suspicion in every stranger, and has made us voluntarily sign away our privacy.

It has made it impossible to travel without the proper identification papers.

The desire for personal safety sets neighborhood against neighborhood, it produces gated communities and secure buildings and “members only” access.

It proliferates “ADT” signs in front yards instead of front porches upon which to meet one’s neighbor and watch out for one another.

The desire for personal safety sees a potential enemy in everyone who is “different” in any way, and it ironically ends up producing the very paranoia of the outsider that such “safety” is supposed to allay.

Jesus recognized that quotation of scripture by Satan was a perversion of God’s promise. He quoted scripture back to clarify scripture, invoking what we call a “canon within the canon.”  Snippets of scripture that seem to justify your narrow position, are not the final word.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  He says.

Do not take things out of the context of God’s overarching theme in scripture, and don’t try to force God into doing something that is not the intent of the relationship that has been revealed.

Maybe we’ll learn something from that third temptation, a tool to use?

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 

Nope.

This is the one that we are in fact most often tripped up by.  This is the temptation to power, and it is the great seducer of all, for it is always the case that we think power is something that we will be able to handle.

“Well, if someone made me President/leader/supervisor/senator/congressman/

–insert whatever person of authority –, I know I could do better….”

There is always some allure in pinning your hopes on a strong leader who can address the ills of the world, is there not?

We look longingly back to the leaders of old, and proclaim “if only we had a leader like…”

For Israel, it was “if only we had a King like David, a Prophet like Elijah, leader like Moses….”

For us it might be hearkening back to Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman, Reagan.   We idolize the past as the golden age, recognized the times were hard but see those single great leaders as somehow uniquely gifted to see the nation through the difficult time.

Truth be told though, they were all flawed, and they all fell into the abuse of power in one way or another.

We remember the good.  We forget the opposition they faced, or the failings they fell into.

Even and especially Jesus recognizes the danger in this, and so he rejects it out of hand.  “Away with you, Satan.”

It will not by amassing personal power that the world will be saved or the Kingdom of God brought it.

No, if you want to lean about how to deal with temptation, you don’t look at what Jesus does in the wilderness.

You instead look at what he does after this encounter with all of those temptations to care for himself first, to give in to privilege, and become an authoritarian leader.

What Jesus does is gather disciples.

What Jesus does is begin to teach that if you would deal with the temptations of this world, you must focus on your relationships.

Relationship with him.

Relationship with God.

Relationship with one another in community.

Jesus us teaches us that God will deal with temptation by entrusting the dispersal of power.

Twelve will be appointed, all of whom individually will fail utterly and mightily, and each will have their own temptations against which they will have to struggle, but they will preach, proclaim the Kingdom, and found communities.

Oh, the tempter will find, or poke or prod, until he finds the weak spot in every individual, no matter how resolute or strong.

But in that distribution of power and shared responsibility for the Kingdom, there is mutual accountability that the devil can’t subvert.   The ability to trust and lean upon one anothers allows the Kingdom to break in, imperfectly, but little by little.

If Jesus could not handle the prospect of power and rejected it out of hand for something else, why do we keep going back to it?

 “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’   Jesus says.

How do you beat temptation?

You don’t.

That is the take away from the Temptation Story.   You and I, we won’t do that on our own.

We’re not Jesus, after all.

And this temptation thing, this is not a “once and done” kind of event for Jesus or for us.  Notice how often the temptations come back in the story… in the hunger of crowds, in the questions of authority, in the attempts to tie Jesus to political messianic hopes and dreams, a “King like David.”

This is what the temptation story tells us.

This is how life is.  It is a succession of these three things – care for the self, privilege thinking, and the temptation to take control on our own — coming back to us over and over again, and we are not Jesus!  We will not be able to take this tempter on – not on our own!

So instead, Jesus gives us each other.

The tool that Jesus gives to us to deal with temptation is community, which he establishes and keeps, calling it together again and again with the Spirit and the Bread and Wine. .

How do you deal with temptation?

Not on your own.

We do this together, by attending to one another as Jesus has shown us so to do.