Third Time is a Charm…Right? (Lenten Lectio Reflection: Genesis 17:1-16)

Abraham, pater multarem gentium by Salvador Dali, 1967.

When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants.” Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you. I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession. And I will be their God.”

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants in every generation. This is my covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Circumcise every male. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a symbol of the covenant between us. On the eighth day after birth, every male in every generation must be circumcised, including those who are not your own children: those born in your household and those purchased with silver from foreigners. Be sure you circumcise those born in your household and those purchased with your silver. Your flesh will embody my covenant as an enduring covenant. Any uncircumcised male whose flesh of his foreskin remains uncircumcised will be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.”

God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”
Genesis 17:1-6 (CEB)

This is the third time God appeared to Abraham to tell him about the wonderful and amazing things God was going to bless Abraham with. Most notably, God was promising that Abraham would be the father of many nations, more numerous than the stars in the sky and the sand on the beach. By all accounts, Abraham was a pretty wealthy guy, but the one thing he was lacking was an heir. In the ancient world, wealth was great but not having a family or an heir to pass your livelihood and name on to was of the utmost importance.

If you did not have an heir, your name and memory would pass away with you and you would be forgotten.

Three times now, God has shown up to Abraham to tell him that his life will not be forgotten. He will have heirs and his name will be great. Three times God has spoken to Abraham and confirmed his promise of descendants. Three times God has reminded Abraham that God has not forgotten the covenant made.

Three times.

The first time God spoke to Abraham he was 75 (Genesis 12). In today’s verse Abraham is 99. 24 years (give or take) according to ancient time keeping practices has passed between when Abraham first heard from God and now.

Three times over 24 years. That’s once every eight years or so.

I can imagine that Abraham is starting to get a little impatient and/or jaded. I bet there were moments when Abraham wondered if God had forgotten the promise. Did Abraham wonder if God had forgotten him? Was God just like all the other ancient gods? Would God lie, cheat and deceive to get his way or to use humans as his play thing? In the moments when God was silent, was Abraham tempted to walk away from it all? We are told that Abraham and Sarah tried to work it out on their own (the whole Hagar and Ishmael story) so we know they were getting tired of waiting for God to work as was promised. As Stephen King apparently said, “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.” I am beginning to understand more and more why Abraham and Sarah laugh the next time God shows up, reconfirming the reaffirmation of the restatement of God’s initial promise.

Really God? Not this again. We’ve heard this all before.

The 40 days of Lent, (in preparation/expectation for the celebration of Easter) can have this impatient/jaded feeling as well. Sometimes we wish, because we have the luxury of knowing how the story ends, to try and rush to the celebration of Easter. We want to avoid the pain of the wilderness, we want to side-step the seeming silence of unfulfilled promises and we wish we could skip the hard part. I am sure the ancient Israelites were tired of…

…oppression in Egypt…

…wandering…

…a divided and broken kingdom…

…being in exile…

…some broken walls and a meager rebuilt temple…

…being ruled by a revolving door of foreign, disinterested and oppressive powers…

…waiting for the fulfillment of another promise from God…

…waiting for a Messiah.

I have realized that I am no better than Abraham and the ancient Israelites. I get tired of waiting. I gave up eating meat for Lent to try and understand what most of the rest of the world eats like and treat eating meat as a special opportunity. Sometimes it feels useless and unnecessary. I’m barely a week in and eating vegetarian foods can be uncomfortable, bland and annoying. I’m also waiting for some kind of normalcy and emotional stability to settle on our house and family after the miscarriage of our daughter in December. On top of that, I’m still waiting for a feeling of resolution on my plans of professional ministry after graduating from seminary two years ago. Actually, it’ll be three years in June. I am watching a lot of change happen around me and opportunities I’d love to have pass by.

Waiting is hard.

Life is full of waiting and seeming unfulfilled promises and expectations. Yet, we wait because we believe God is good and that the promises will be fulfilled as they were in the past.

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Lent

God’s Promises to Abram by James Tissot, 1902.

God of the covenant, in the glory of the cross your Son embraced the power of death and broke its hold over your people. In this time of repentance, draw all people to yourself, that we who confess Jesus as Lord may put aside the deeds of death and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Lenten Lectio: Reflection on Psalm 22:23-31

Brass figures from the Bible by Hans Teppich, n.d.

All of you who revere the Lord—praise him!
All of you who are Jacob’s descendants—honor him!
All of you who are all Israel’s offspring—stand in awe of him!
Because he didn’t despise or detest
the suffering of the one who suffered—
he didn’t hide his face from me.
No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.
I offer praise in the great congregation
because of you;
I will fulfill my promises
in the presence of those who honor God.
Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
Let all who seek the Lord praise him!
I pray your hearts live forever!
Every part of the earth
will remember and come back to the Lord;
every family among all the nations will worship you.
Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord,
he rules all nations.
Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
will worship him;
all who are descending to the dust
will kneel before him;
my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
to those not yet born,
telling them what God has done.
Psalm 22:23-31 (CEB)

One of the greatest things about the Bible is that, at its core, it’s all about the little people. Now, I don’t necessarily mean our friends who find themselves in a lower height percentile. I’m talking about people who find themselves outside the circles of power in culture and society. People we might consider minorities, outcasts, exiles and the ostracized

If you need further proof, just head towards the front of your Bible. Once there you’ll realize that the foundational story is about a group of slaves. These are people pushed to the outskirts of society, people despised and detested, people who suffer under the heavy foot of oppression and who have no voice.

And yet…God hears their cry. God acknowledges their voice. God calls them “my people.”

It’s not so much the great and powerful God concerns himself with. Sure, there are great kings in the pages of Scripture. But, often their stories are cautionary tales of the allure of power. They all, in some form or another, turned their backs on God for their own purposes.

And, in doing so, turned their backs on the marginalized.

God warns the Israelites in Exodus 22:21-23, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” It’s comforting to know that God hears your cry when you are the oppressed and mistreated. However, it’s just as easy to overlook the oppressed and mistreated when you feel safe, secure and strong. This will become the greatest rebuke God levels against the kingdoms of Israel and Judah through the prophets.

No wonder they are rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek!
To be sure, their evil deeds exceed all limits, and yet they prosper.
They are indifferent to the plight of the orphan, reluctant to defend the rights of the poor.
Shouldn’t I punish such acts? Declares the Lord.
Shouldn’t I repay that nation for its deeds?
Jeremiah 5:27-29 (CEB)

Lent is a time when we have the opportunity to identify with and listen closely for the cry of the oppressed. We are called to enter the wilderness, to fast, to feel the pain of hunger and of want. Honestly, most of us in Western society (especially those of us who are white and male like myself) are RARELY if ever marginalized and oppressed. We are blessed beyond our comprehension and rarely feel the sting of injustice. Maybe Lent is a time for us to try to tune our ears to hear the cries of the oppressed. Rather than walling ourselves off from, ignoring, or instructing those who find themselves at the bottom of society we should take the time to hear their stories.

One time St. Francis of Assisi was in Rome for a pilgrimage, he noticed all the poor begging outside the gates of St. Peter’s. He did not just walk by, he did not just drop a few coins, he did not call the authorities to clear them out and he did not hand them information on how to find meaningful work.

He immediately sold everything he had and sat down to beg with them outside the great basilica. St. Francis heard their cries, he heard their stories and they became his people.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

God hears the cries of the oppressed, will you?

Spirit Lead Me Where? (Lenten Lectio Reflection on Mark 1:9-15)

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…” Lyric from the song Oceans

I only briefly mentioned the 21 Christians who ISIS executed last week in my Psalm reflection last Friday. Today I would like to look at their story in light of this verse from Sunday and a current, very popular, worship song. For those who are unaware, some of our Coptic brothers were recently executed in Libya just because they were Christians. Here is some information about who they were. On Sunday, my pastor talked about how we in America live in the “winners circle” of sorts and are often unaware (by ignorance or by choice) of the issues our fellow Christians face elsewhere in the world. We spent some time praying for the families of those killed and fellow Christians who face this kind of persecution and fear regularly.

We then sang some worship songs and went home. As I drove home, with my daughter dozing in her car seat in the back, this lyric from the song Oceans by Hillsong United flashed through my head (apologies to my wife who currently loves this song).

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…”

I couldn’t get the image of those ominous, black clad, ISIS soldiers leading their orange clothed captives down the beach out of my head. Who knows what our captive brothers were thinking or praying at the time. But I felt an extreme disconnect between my experience of singing those song lyrics and the images of the soon to be executed Christians being led down the beach.

Is that what it looks like to be led by the Spirit?

Do I honestly want my trust to be “without borders” like that?

Something tells me that singing that song should be a bit more challenging and unsettling than I originally thought.

Then, I read the Gospel section for Sunday and I was not comforted one bit.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

The verse gives us two very different movements of the Spirit along with two very different outcomes for the main characters. First of all, John baptizes Jesus and the spirit of God comes down in the form of a dove proclaiming blessing on Jesus. This is a movement of the Spirit I feel like we are familiar with and would welcome all day, every day. This is the jumping around, hands in the air, worship service type movement we put up on screens and videos. This is how we often show how “alive” and “vibrant” our churches are. We also might call churches that look like that “successful” or “growing”.

We think those churches are doing it right. They probably sing cool and moving songs like Oceans every Sunday.

But then, the Spirit takes a seemingly unpredictable move. Immediately after all the blessing and fanfare, Jesus is driven or pushed (The same Greek word is used when Jesus casts demons out) by the Spirit out into the wilderness.  In the wilderness Jesus fasts and is tempted for forty days. When Jesus emerges from the wilderness, he begins preaching and it seems things are on an upswing. But then John, who just baptized Jesus and witnessed the fanfare of the Spirit, is arrested. Later, in Chapter 6, we find out John is beheaded while imprisoned.

Is the spirit confused? At one moment the spirit gives a blessing, and then in the next it leads Jesus towards temptation and the wilderness. The Spirit, we are told in Luke’s Gospel, fills John and his ministry. Yet John is arrested and is beheaded while working his spirit filled ministry.

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…”

Spirit lead me where? Do I know where that road ends? Do I realize what I’m asking?

In Lent, the road is a bit more clear as we begin walking the path that leads Jesus to the cross. We spend 40 days examining our lives mirroring the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. During this wilderness journey we attempt to strip away the temptations and struggles that may impede our walk. It’s a tough journey. We may take some solace in the fact the Spirit is with us and has brought us out here. Much like the pillars of smoke and fire brought some comfort to the Israelites as they were led through the Exodus journey.

But, the season of Lent ends with the crucifixion.

The same Spirit that blessed Jesus, led him into the wilderness and led him to the cross.

The same Spirit that leads us in full and amazing worship services, may also ask 21 of our brothers to trust God as they face martyrdom on a beach far away from home.

Following the Spirit, standing up for Jesus and the Father are typically not well received by the world.

During this season of Lent, realize what asking “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…” meant for Jesus, John and the 21 Christians martyred last week.

Sometimes we might get blessing.

Most of the time it seems, we might get something completely different.

Prayer for the First Sunday of Lent

Benin Baptism photograph by Ferdinand Reus, 2007.

Benin Baptism photograph by Ferdinand Reus, 2007.

God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Lenten Lectio: Reflection on Psalm 25:1-10

Coventry Cathedral (1956-62) by Basil Spence.

I offer my life to you, Lord.
My God, I trust you.
Please don’t let me be put to shame!
Don’t let my enemies rejoice over me!
For that matter,
don’t let anyone who hopes in you
be put to shame;
instead, let those who are treacherous without excuse be put to shame.
Make your ways known to me, Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth—teach it to me—
because you are the God who saves me.
I put my hope in you all day long.
Lord, remember your compassion and faithful love—
they are forever!
But don’t remember the sins of my youth or my wrongdoing.
Remember me only according to your faithful love
for the sake of your goodness, Lord.
The Lord is good and does the right thing;
he teaches sinners which way they should go.
God guides the weak to justice,
teaching them his way.
All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful
for those who keep his covenant and laws.
Psalms 25:1-10 (CEB)

Here we are again, the season of Lent has kicked off and we begin our (hopefully) introspective and reflective journey towards Holy Week and Easter. Some of you were marked by ash crosses on Wednesday and many of you have decided to fast from something during the 40 days of Lent. Some may not give up anything and there are some who have given up everything. Those who do fast may give up some kind of food, some may fast from a technology, some may fast from being selfish and some may fast from simply saying “Yes” to everything.

We will all be walking very different journeys and very different paths during Lent.

In verse four of this week’s Psalm the psalmist writes, “Make your ways known to me, Lord; teach me your paths.”

Lent is a time for us to look at the path we’ve walked and reevaluate if it’s the path God wants us on. It’s a time to ask potentially hard questions. What has hindered us? Are we on the right path? Do we need to change course? What might be in our lives that is misleading and misdirecting? Where can we open up to bring more light and perspective on our path? Who might we need to invite on our journey or who might we need to part ways with?

Sometimes we give something up. Sometimes we try something new.

What’s important is that we look at our lives.

Not our neighbors.

This section of the Psalm ends with, “All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful for those who keep his covenant and laws.”

Sometimes we are walking closely with someone but most of the time we are all on very different paths. Lent is also the time to acknowledge that my path is not your path. As long as we are both on a journey that honestly desires to find God’s path and direction, then we’re doing this Lent thing right. If we spend most of our time expecting others paths to look like ours or having a laundry list of expectations, then we are doing Lent gravely wrong.

Lent is a 40 day journey through the wilderness towards the cross.

And, as the ancient Israelites learned, there are many ways through the wilderness.

“All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful” for those who earnestly seek God to, “teach me your paths.”

May we seek to walk and learn God’s path for our life and may we honor the journey of our neighbors.

Prayer for Ash Wednesday

“Blessing the Dust” © Jan Richardson

Gracious and merciful God, you see into the secret places of our hearts, where we mourn our sins. As we turn again to your grace, receive our prayers. Look with mercy on our contrite hearts, wash from us the stain of iniquity, and create a new and right spirit in us, that we may declare your praise and offer an acceptable sacrifice in these Lenten days; through Christ Jesus, who bore our sins on the cross. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.