Over the past four or so weeks we have joined as a parish in the Lenten practices of fasting and praying and (soon-to-be-added) almsgiving. These spiritual disciplines have long been recognized as really good tools for connecting us with God — and for revealing just how little we have our spiritual stuff together. We fast, and, um, fail. We pray, and, um, get distracted. We try and try and try and end up finding out that we are seemingly incurable sinners.
People have often remarked that Lent can be a serious downer for precisely that reason. Now more than at any other time in the church year, we are reminded of how imperfect we are, how easily we submit to temptation, and how even the best of us make mistakes. In the words of one of my favorite hymns, we are “Prone to wander, . . . prone to leave the God we love.”
So if that’s the case, where does that leave us?
In our Gospel lesson today, we hear one of the most famous stories in the Bible. There once was a man with two sons. One day, the younger of the brothers came to his father and said, “Give me my inheritance,” which is essentially the same thing as telling your dad you’d rather him be dead than alive. But our protagonist (?) doesn’t care. He gets what he wants, and then he leaves, going as far away as he possibly could go from the man to whom he owed his very existence. And, as we know, once he got to where he was going, the younger son spent all of his money on booze and sex and every pleasure he could get his hands on. But then his money ran out and a famine arrived and no one cared that this once-wealthy man was now relegated to the pig pen.
Sitting in the mud, watching the pigs eat and hating them for it, the younger son wept. He was dirty and ashamed of the dirt and the actions that had brought him there. But what could he do? He had no money, no friends, no back-up plans. All he had was the man he once called father, a man he knew to be just but also gracious. “My father treated his slaves better than this. Perhaps he will have mercy on me, though I am no longer worthy to be called his son.” Picking himself up out of the mud, he began his journey home.
Now we don’t really get a description of what was going on in the Prodigal Son’s mind at this point. Was he repentant? Maybe. Was he just making the best of a bad situation? Perhaps. Jesus doesn’t care about that backstory because the focus of his story, the goal it has all been moving toward is the moment I’m about to describe.
Coming around the bend in the road, while he was still far off, “His father saw [his son] and was filled with compassion.” His father, the one he had abandoned, had wished dead, was suddenly running toward him. And before this wastrel child could get a confession out of his mouth, his father grabbed him up in his arms and called to his servants and said, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
No one, least of all the Prodigal son, expected such an ending from the way our story began. That kind of unquenchable mercy is almost unimaginable. It sounds like a bad idea. We catch ourselves thinking, the father is just setting himself up to be hurt again. Chances are his son will leave again. But none of that matters to the one who had been so terribly wronged in the first place.
All those years, the Father waited and watched. He walked the boundaries of his property. He lingered at the door. More than anything else in the world, he longed to welcome the son who had been lost home. Because nothing was more important than the reconciliation and restoration of his family.
Did you know that that’s how God feels about all of us? Did you know that God wants to gather us up in his arms, safe and secure forever, no matter what we’ve done or who we’ve been? It can be easy for us to miss the extravagance of God’s mercy because we’ve heard so much about it, that it’s just a given, something we don’t really think about as we run from one activity to the next. But the reality that Lent shows us is that we need a savior just as surely as both brothers needed their father.
For try as we might to keep our feet on the path of life, we will all absolutely wander off from time to time. We may not notice it. Or we may try and pretend we’re doing just fine. Whatever the case, getting back on track doesn’t mean we should sit in the mud and stew in our sins. Getting back on track means remembering who God is. It means allowing him to show us mercy. It means focusing and refocusing, turning and returning to the one who has made us new.
As we all have said here before and will all continue to say, God is merciful always. He is faithful in the face of our faithlessness. He would take any chance to bring us home again. And he in fact does. For there is one very important difference between the father in our Gospel lesson today and our Father above. And that is this: God didn’t wait for us to come back. He sent his Son to find us. AMEN.
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
Part of the benefit of the season of Lent is recognizing how much we desire God. The psalmist today says, “My soul thirsts for you”. When we remove some of our distractions it can become very clear to us of how much we need and want God in our lives.
During this Lent, Emmanuel’s focus is on the three pillars of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. For the past two weeks the intergenerational formation team helped us to learn more about fasting, both the why we do it, as well as what distractions may keep us away from God. For these next two weeks the focus is on prayer, inviting God into our lives. Come to their presentation after the service and you will be presented a variety of approaches to prayer. In the week ahead, I encourage you to try at least one of them.
This morning I want to describe a traditional way to pray, called Lectio Divina. Lectio and its offshoots can also be used as a method of Bible study.
There are variations of Lectio. We have used a few of these at Emmanuel in the past. One variation is the basis for the program “Pray as you Go”. By the way, this is still available on the web and can be used by individuals or groups. Just google “Pray as you Go”.
The traditional form of Lectio Divina has four basic steps.
As one begins this type of prayer, it is important to be in a quiet environment without disturbances. And then to sit still for a moment or two to calm your thoughts. As you begin say a short prayer to the Holy Spirit to bring guidance during this time.
The first step is Lectio.
Read the scripture passage you are using aloud. Do this slowly and prayerfully. Don’t just skim the passage and say, “I remember this story”. For this type of prayer, the story is not the point. Instead listen as you slowly read for a word or phrase that God has prepared for you on that day. You may want to read the passage more than once, if at first no phrase or word stands out to you.
The second step is Meditatio.
When a word or phrase strikes you, stop reading and rest with it. Repeat the word to yourself. Ponder it, reflecting on what it means to you. Let it interact with your thoughts, hopes, memories, and desires. Your mind may take you to something in your history; let that memory soak in. Or it might take you to something you hope for the future; stay with that for a moment. Return to the word or phrase and repeat it.
The third step is Oratio.
After you have focused on the word, formulate a prayer from your heart. What do you want to say to the Lord in response to the Word he has given you? Enter into the conversation with God.
The fourth step is Contemplatio.
Rest in God’s presence. Sit still with God. Empty your mind. Remember that contemplation is not your action but rather it is allowing God to act in you. Sit at peace in this time of quiet rest with God.
Then, as you finish say a short prayer of thanks for this time spent with God.
Those steps again are Reading God’s word, Hearing God’s word, Responding to God and Resting with God. Lectio Divina is a quiet and slow process. It will not be rushed. You must give the scripture time to work into you.
I chose to use this method with today’s story of Moses and his call from God. Over a period of a couple of weeks I used the Lectio method with today’s Old Testament passage and each time a different phrase or word stood out. I am going to tell you the phrases as well as some thoughts that came to me in my reflections on them. Remember that these did not all happen at one time. This was a process I did over many days. I will tell you these in the order they appear in the passage, though this is not the order they came to me.
Here are my reflections.
“The bush was blazing and yet it was not consumed”
For those of us who enjoy fire pits or fireplaces with real logs we know how fascinating a controlled fire is. However, fire is dangerous, and it can quickly destroy everything in its path if we are not careful. It is no wonder that when Moses saw this fiery bush that would not burn up, he had to pause and give it his full attention. Moses stopped what he was doing to focus on this bush and when he did, he was rewarded by hearing God call his name. God uses many ways to get our attention. Some are more dramatic than others, but He will get our attention.
Sometimes these attention getters are in a church season, like Lent or the Triduum. These yearly events offer reward if we make use of them. Sometimes God will grab our attention in seeing something in the natural world. If we pause, the beauty of God’s creation is overwhelming. It could be a sunset or the stark nature of trees without their leaves, or a particularly large group of deer in a field, or …Again we see God’s hand and hear his word if we stop and see. Sometimes unfortunately our attention does not turn to God unless it is a time of sorrow, a death or serious illness of ourselves or a loved one.
God will get our attention.
“God called to him.”
What special times these are when God calls using words! We have no control over when, or even if, we might ever hear God’s call in words. It would be nice if we would have this type of clear message. In so many ways Moses was fortunate to have heard God speak to him in such a direct fashion.
In last week’s Old Testament passage Abram received God’s message to him in a vision or dream. And that is also a way for us to hear God’s direction for our lives. Sometimes though, our sense of call is not this straight forward and yet it is no less a call from our Lord. We might experience God’s will for our lives through other people and what they may say to us, or ask of us. At other times we will find a great sense of calm as we are considering the options facing us and we will know in our selves that this is what God would have us choose.
These times of discerning God’s will may be lengthy or may be short. Prayer, spending time with scripture, discussing the choices with a trusted advisor can be helpful. Sitting quietly with the question and not thinking of the options is also a very special way of prayer. Giving God the time to speak and yourself the place to listen is what most often brings resolution to your questions.
Moses was most fortunate that he heard God speak directly to him, giving him the task that God had chosen for him. For us, most often, discernment is work. Answers unfold over time rather than quickly.
God does call us.
“I will be with you.”
Moses’ reaction was the same as yours or mine would have been, why me God? Why do you choose me; I cannot do this. God reassures with these words, “I will be with you”. In effect, God reminds Moses, and us, that we are not ever doing something we are called to do on our own. This phrase offers comfort and reassurance to God’s people throughout time.
He will be with us.
God’s name is I AM, not I do or I will be or I was, but I AM. God is the one in charge. We as human beings respond to God’s I am. We are not human do-ings but human be-ings. Spending time being with God is as important as what we do. We need this time of being nurtured by God in order to accomplish anything he has called us to do.
Moses is told God’s name for all time is “I am.” He is the one in charge.
“The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” God will get our attention.
“God called to him.” God calls to us.
“I will be with you.” God will be with us.
“I am.” God is all.
Preparing for this sermon, using the Lectio method, was fruitful for me. I encourage you, again, to try a new way to pray in the week ahead. As the psalmist reminds us, we are hungry for God, our soul thirsts for him.
Prayer is one way God will feed us.
We land somewhere near the beginning of the middle of Abraham’s story in our OT lesson today. It’s been a few years since God showed up in Abram’s tent and said, “Pack up your belongings, grab your wife, and leave everything you’ve ever known to go somewhere you know absolutely nothing about.” Which, of course, Abraham does. He and his household strike out into the wilderness, following a God he’s just met — not because Abram felt 100% confident in the divine voice that upended his life and not even because he thought this was a chance to make it big on his own. Abram takes this radical leap of faith because God has promised him the one thing he really wants. A son. A boy to call his own. And so our protagonist leaves his past. He says goodbye to everything that ever gave his life meaning, and steps into the unknown, hoping beyond hope that this God would do what he had promised.
Years go by. Abram becomes wealthy. He ends up a military hero. He is clearly blessed by the LORD; but the promised child has not appeared. And though we’ve heard in our OT lesson today that Abram’s very own son will be the heir of his household, 14 more years pass before that promise is realized.
Which sounds kind of awful. Most of us here know someone who has struggled with infertility or who has had an adoption fall through last-minute. Waiting for the test results or the court date can be excruciating. Now imagine that going on for roughly two decades. To us it almost seems cruel or negligent for an all-powerful God to delay something so precious. But Abram doesn’t take it that way.
Instead, Abram believes that the LORD will do what he says — and more. “Look at the stars. Can you count them? So shall your offspring be.”
The baby boy. The innumerable descendants. The prospect of a land where the Creator God and his people live together. All of it is so far beyond the power of any human being to accomplish or attain that we would totally understand if Abram just gave up. But he doesn’t. Even after years of waiting, Abram sticks with the LORD — because he realizes that his only hope of receiving the promise is waiting on the one who made it.
Which is sort of a basic, churchy truth statement to make. But there’s a reason that statement is important. As we ask God for what we want, for what we need, as we wait on his timing, what are we doing but getting to know him? What was Abram doing over the years of waiting but getting to know this God who appeared out of nowhere to bless him for apparently no reason?
And so it is that even in the midst of his own unfulfilled desires, Abram discovers the bent of God’s heart, the direction his will moves: which is toward goodness and blessing, healing and wholeness. Abram learns that God is so committed to his people that he would willingly walk through the valley of death so that we might be saved.
The LORD said to Abram, “‘Bring me a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And Abram brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. . . . When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day, the LORD made a covenant with Abram.”
Between the bloody halves of these sacred animals, our light and our salvation — God himself — walks. And in so doing, he binds himself to Abram and his family, saying in word and deed that if he goes back on his promise, may such an end as these animals met be done to him. For the sake of a people yet unborn, for no reason other than his own radical grace, God calls down a curse on himself. May I die, God says, if I do not do all in my power to bring humankind back into relationship with me.
Knowing what we know, this happens — not because God broke his promise but because he kept it, even though it cost him his life.
Such is the love God has for us.
God wants to save us. He wants to bring his wayward sheep home. He wants to lead us, guide us, feed us as we walk through what is all too often a bloody and cruel world. And yet in our rush to meet every need and want that arises in the chaos and confusion of our lives, we’re prone to forgetting that or missing it entirely. We, like Abraham does in the very next chapter, will all too often look for protection and nourishment that fits our schedules and our terms rather than trusting in the one who is our only true refuge.
Still, God remains the same: Faithful in the face of our faithlessness. In the words of our collect today, God’s glory is always to have mercy, to be gracious to all who have gone astray, to bring us again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of his Word, Jesus Christ — who would gather us up, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, even if it means death on a cross.
As one of our great Anglican writers said, the Christian life is a perpetual Lent — which is a lovely and liturgical way of saying that the Christian life is made up of a lot of waiting. We have received the promise of eternal life and perfect happiness in beholding the face of God, but we haven’t gotten there yet. May we all, as we fast, as we pray, as we give, hold tight to what we have attained. And, together with our psalmist say, “O tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the LORD.” AMEN.
We began the journey through Lent together on Wednesday, and today we read, as we always do on First Lent, the story of Jesus going into the wilderness right after his Baptism, to fast and seek God for 40 days. At the culmination of this time, just as you might think he’s be ready to begin his ministry, Jesus is confronted by three plausible temptations, each of which he rejects.
As most of you know by now, Emmanuel is focusing this season on what are often called the Three Pillars of Lent – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The Intergenerational Formation group has designed Sunday activities to engage them across the generations, we have an adult book by Evan Armatas on the same topic to read, and we have a family and kids book to recommend as well. So I hope all of us will find a way to plug into these practices over the next 6 weeks.
In the Gospel we hear every Ash Wednesday, Jesus refers to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as givens for us. He doesn’t say “you should try and pray,” or “fasting now and again is a good idea.” He says “When you pray… When you fast… When you give alms,” this is how you should do it -- with integrity and sincerity. Jesus takes for granted that we will do those three things: Fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
Not just Jesus himself, but Christians throughout the ages have highlighted those three tools as basic building blocks of a spiritual life. That’s because they counteract some of the main temptations each of us faces, the same temptations Jesus faces in today’s Gospel. These two readings together give us, in essence, the dangerous sickness of sin and the healing remedy against sin. So as Emmanuel embarks on this journey, I’d like us to look at each temptation the devil lays before Jesus in today’s Gospel, and how the pillars of Lent he taught about in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel directly address the sickness underlying those temptations.
So the first temptation: The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" The temptation here: satisfy yourself. Your hunger, your wants, your whims: gratifying those, this temptation suggests, is first, morally neutral and second, it’s all up to you. This aspect of how the sickness of sin has infected human nature tells us that we create your own satisfaction, with not just food, but all kinds of little or big comforts or conquests.
Jesus could have turned a stone into bread, or into anything he desired, but his reply shows that he understands that our wants are not reliable pointers to what’s best for us. "It is written, he says, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" What is the practical medicine against the disease that tells us we live by self-gratification? Fasting.
Whether fasting from food, from alcohol, from social media, from Netflix, the Christian tool of leaving a space of hunger inside us helps teach us that our wants are not sovereign, and that in fact we don’t have to have the things the sickness of sin tells us to go on and indulge in. Fasting helps us notice where zoning out in front of a screen or pouring a glass of wine has numbed us to our hunger for God and ultimately to the experience of conscious, full life that God wants for us. So one pillar of Lent: Fasting.
Here’s the second temptation: Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."
If you have ever watched “My Lottery Dream Home” or pored over magazines about luxury cars or high end couture, if you’ve ever imagined a VIP lifestyle where you are waited on hand and foot, if you’ve ever checked and rechecked and rechecked again your Instagram likes, you understand this temptation.
The devil offers Jesus all this – glory, prestige, VIP status, power. But Jesus’ reply shows that he knows that those things are an empty shell compared to the true glory and power of God. Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" And what is the practical medicine against this aspect of how the sickness of sin has infected human nature? Against the disease that tells us having prestige and possessions will give us satisfaction? Almsgiving.
Perhaps when we hear that word we think of just making a donation to the poor, but it really means giving in general – viewing our resources not as something to hoard and benefit from ourselves, but something to share and give away. Being people who deliberately don’t just keep our power if we have power, or our money if we have money, but give it to others. So another Christian tool, another pillar of Lent: Almsgiving.
And the third temptation: Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Here the devil is actually quoting the Bible to Jesus, just out of context. He hopes to persuade Jesus to employ the power he has as God incarnate in a way that does not reflect God’s mission and love. He is trying to get Jesus to use religion, to use the Bible, to use God, without connecting with God and acting in harmony with God’s will. (Something we Christians would never do, right?) But Jesus’ reply shows that he knows God’s will is paramount. Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Sin tells us that we have no need to humble ourselves before God and hear God's wisdom. We have enough wisdom on our own. We already know what God thinks without checking with him or his Word (and by the way, he agrees with us). So what’s the practical medicine against how the sickness of this kind of sin has infected human nature? Prayer. Whether it’s silent prayer, prayer with Scripture, prayer in your own words, prayer from the Prayer Book, that living connection with God resets our presumption and self-obsession. Prayer starts to heal the sickness that tells us we know better than God does and it puts things in their true proportions. So another Christian tool, another pillar of Lent: Prayer.
On Ash Wednesday Jesus reminded us that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should be regular parts of our life. Today, he battles on our behalf the three temptations that these tools are designed to help us defeat. He prescribes the medicine for these three ways in which the sickness of sin infects human nature.
If you are addicted to satisfying your wants and whims, fast.
If you are addicted to thinking you know better than God, pray.
If you are addicted to status and financial security, give alms.
If you struggle with all three, as nearly everyone does, fast, pray and give alms. That’s what Emmanuel is doing for Lent.
There are only two times in most people’s lives when they solemnly get dirt put on their heads. One is on Ash Wednesday, and the other is at their own funeral. If you have attended an Episcopal graveside service, you know the words: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." And if you have attended an Episcopal Ash Wednesday service, you know the other words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The first time words like these were ever spoken was way back in the story of the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve rebel against God. They eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ensuring that they will, after all, have funerals themselves, even though God had originally wanted them to live forever. In describing the consequences Adam and Eve bring on themselves by declaring independence from him, God says to them, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return."
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a stark reminder of both where we came from and where we’re going. There is not much value in ashes. Basically they’re worthless. In fact, dust and dirt are often less than worthless – they can be a hindrance and a liability. They fall onto the carpet and get rubbed in, they stain your hands and clog your machinery. You can't make dirt pretty by painting it, or improve ashes by spaying perfume on them. All other factors being equal, we are by nature a walking, talking, thinking, acting package of dust and ashes.
And we remember that tonight; we mark ourselves with ashes to remind ourselves. When all is said and done – our self-made righteousness is like rags covering us; our virtue-signaling for others to see leaves us less clean rather than more; our half-hearted kindnesses are a squirt of perfume on things done and left undone that are all too dusty and unappealing. All other factors being equal, we remain a walking, talking, thinking, acting package of dust and ashes.
And yet, the truth is that all other factors are not equal. God has offered us a way out of our plight of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can know – and not just know, verify in our own experience – that God will give anyone who asks a different kind of life than the kind that leads to the dust heap and the ash pit. Our Epistle tonight pleads with us today to enter into that life, or to re-enter if we have let it grow a little stale: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
And all that God requires of us in this is that we accept his mercy, that we remember we are dust, and that -- instead of trying to become better, prettier dust – that we turn to Jesus Christ and put our whole trust in his grace and love. No trust in the ashes. No hope in the dust. All our trust and all our hope in the strong mercy of Christ.
So as this Lent begins, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But don’t stop there. Don’t just repent; repent and believe. Join in our parish deep dive into the three things Jesus taught about in today’s Gospel - fasting, prayer, and almsgiving - to remind yourself that through Jesus, even dust and ashes like us can inherit the Kingdom. Be reconciled to God. Remember and relish what Christ has done for you. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.