We gather together at this beginning of Lent in order to remember that our days on this earth are not infinite and that what we do with the time we have been given matters deeply to God. Yet there’s also a tendency to think that this day is partly given over to shame and guilt, for us to feel that what we’re doing is not enough, that we are not enough. In a few moments I will stand at the chancel steps and invite you to participate in the observance of a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and through reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And this feels like what I’m asking on behalf of the Church—on behalf of the Maker of the Universe—is for you to do more. To take on more in your religious life in order to pay for past missteps, so that you can earn God’s grace and mercy.
Last week I invited you to read through the entire Sermon on the Mount including the bit that we heard this morning. So perhaps you can imagine my inner dialogue with Jesus this past week: “Really, Jesus. You had to go and say that?!?!?! Couldn’t you have skipped that little bit on anger. I mean, have you seen our political world right now? It’s all anger. And that bit about your eye causing you to stumble, what was that all about? And that stuff on divorce, you didn’t mean that to sound so preachy and condescending, did you?”
Two weeks ago I described a letter sent from 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Mahatma Gandhi that had been discovered recently. Bonhoeffer wanted to come visit Gandhi in order to learn how a community could live out the ideals of Jesus since it had become clear to him that neither Christians in Europe nor North America were doing so. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Western Christianity must be reborn on the Sermon on the Mount.”
Happy Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple! Or perhaps you know it as “Candlemas.” Maybe it’s the more secular incarnation of “Groundhog Day” that you remember best. Whatever you call it, this fact remains: it’s been exactly 40 days since Christmas.
A previously unpublished letter from the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Mahatma Gandhi was unearthed and released this week. Bonhoeffer is a noted 20th century theologian who arose to prominence as a member of the “Confessing Church” in Germany that took a vocal stand against Nazi principles, and the subjugation of the national church and many German Christians by Hitler’s movement. Bonhoeffer’s writings include The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together both centered on how to fully live into Christian community, something he felt the Church was not doing at that time. He believed the Church had not embraced the call of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as exemplified by the way they lived their lives. This newly published letter to Gandhi includes those sentiments.
I love mysteries. There’s a bit of insight into the hearts of conditions of people. There’s usually a neat and tidy beginning and end of the mystery, and there’s the mental challenge to engage in as well in trying to figure out “whodunit.” Mysteries always have witnesses. The ones who saw or heard something, or who were with a suspect prior to the central incident. The sleuth tries to solve the crime based on their reports, she or he tries to use the witnesses’ testimony to gain insight.
Here’s the honest truth: the people who chose the readings for this morning expect you all to be the faithful few who interrupt the euphoria of Christmas morning and presents and all of that to come spend time at church and really celebrate the reason for the season, as the bumper sticker puts it. (Frankly, I’m not sure if those who attach such sentiments to their cars actually make it out for a Christmas morning service themselves, but I digress and would rather try to be charitable since it is in fact Christmas Day.) I mean why else would we hear not only from John’s Prologue instead of the birth narrative from Luke but also the first few verses from the book of Hebrews? From that letter we heard: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” Let’s make no bones about it, we are decidedly theological today because someone figured you all could handle that on a Christmas morn.
In fourth grade, Mrs. Brandell assigned each student in our class a state report. We could choose any state we wanted as long as it wasn’t our home state of Michigan. I chose Alaska. At the time, two of my dad’s sisters and their husbands lived in our 49th State, and I suspected my research could be greatly enhanced by reaching out to them. My Aunt Eileen came through in a big way sending me a large packet in the mail. Mixed in with brochures and maps and details on the North Pole was a photo of the Northern Lights that she or my Uncle Tom had taken. I loved it immediately, the wispy green of the light hovering over some trees, and it’s a lifelong dream of mine to see the aurora borealis in person one day.
During my first years of ministry, I buried a dad of four teenaged sons who had succumbed to cancer. He was a longtime kids’ hockey coach, and a couple dozen boys from his teams showed up to the funeral wearing their jerseys, sitting in the front three pews. I heard eulogies about his love of sports and the way he helped those boys become fine young men. He was what some would call a “man’s man”—I’m not sure if the phrase was used on that day, but it was made clear to me given his popularity and the ease he had with the other men and boys in his life. He had been loved well, and had loved others too. Burying a 40-something who had engaged deeply in life and those around him is never easy.
I love to travel. To explore new places. To imagine sites I’d like to visit and what I’ll do there. Like sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking coffee with Melissa and watching people go by. Or climbing a peak and taking in an amazing view. Or finding my way into a hushed and darkened cathedral with candles flickering as I silently pray and allow the silence to flood over me. I want those moments to be transcendent, to touch my soul and bring me peace. To encounter healing from the much too busy frantic pace of my normal life. Just the anticipation of the experience brings tremendous joy and excitement. And it grows exponentially as we get nearer and nearer to our destination.