The Psalmist sums up exactly where we have been, you and I, these past many days. If there’s been any time in our collective lives where it has felt like we are sinking to the depths of the ocean, that the water has washed over us and we are drowning, that time is now. “From the depths I call out to you, O Lord God, please hear my cry.” Please, Lord, do not leave me to fend for myself, I need you. It feels like this is it. That the end is coming upon us, and I don’t know what to do. God, help.
I’m not sure about you, but I really needed to hear the words of the 23rd Psalm this morning. We’ll read it again on Good Shepherd Sunday—the 4th Sunday of Easter, 6 weeks from now—but it’s a balm right now, at a time when the world as we have known it slips away and we don’t know how to respond. I’m grateful for this “psalm of sustenance,” as one commentator put it, in a time when nourishment for our souls seems nearly impossible to find.
There is no denying it, friends: we are in the wilderness.
This past week has been one of uncertainty, anxiety, and trying to prepare for the unexpected. And it’s as if time has screeched to a halt. A friend posted online that she thought it was the change to Daylight Saving Time that would tire her out this week. I replied, “Was that really just last Sunday?”
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.