Last week I began a conversation with you about Lent. I told you that if a practice wasn’t bringing you closer to God, then you shouldn’t do it. Partly I said that because we’ve been living in the wilderness of Covid for nearly a year, and partly it’s due to the underlying question that often gets unasked; “What’s the purpose of Lent anyway?” Or, asking it a different way, how are we supposed to engage faithfully with Lent as a season of preparation? Theologian and author Frederick Buechner writes that after his baptism at the Jordan, Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness “asking himself … what it meant to be Jesus.” And then, Buechner says, our time in Lent should allow us to ask the corollary, that during Lent “Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”
Back in the Fall, a friend of mine from seminary posted a picture of the inside of the church he serves. Rob’s the rector at St. John’s Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, and they were recording a service of some sort that week when he took the photo. He pointed out the hymn board up in the balcony; a hymn board as you might expect has the day’s hymn numbers posted, and some, like this one, also announce the liturgical day. What Rob highlighted was that the hymn board still proclaimed that it was the Third Sunday in Lent even though it now was October. The date of the posted Sunday was March 15, presumably the last Sunday they held in-person services at that parish. I commented that perhaps it should have read the 34th Sunday in Lent as it had been that long since the pandemic had closed things down, and it certainly still felt like Lent. And, if we were to stick to my way of counting, then today would be the 52nd Sunday in Lent rather than the 1st. Because this year has felt like that, right? Like we’re in some sort of Narnian existence from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, except instead of it always being winter and never Christmas, for us it’s always Lent and never Easter.
Every year in our house we begin the conversation about what to give up for Lent about two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday. Often we forego some sort of food item—it was pizza one year, chocolate another. Sometimes it’s a desire to eat more like average people in the world, like the year we tried to eat mostly rice and beans (I say “tried” because that was also the Lent that my dad’s health declined, and we discovered it’s hard to eat so specifically when you travel and become a guest in someone else’s home.) We do this, of course, to adhere to the call we all have to fast during these forty days of Lent—an invitation I’ll invoke in the name of the Church in a few minutes. And often, if I’m honest, these sorts of fasts become a test to see if I can push through on my own will power rather than the intended outcome of drawing me closer to God. Of becoming humble and recognizing that all good gifts come from God.
Today mark’s the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is sometimes called “Transfiguration Sunday” because our appointed gospel lesson always retells Jesus’ transfiguration on the high mountain with Peter, James and John. It’s familiar enough to us that I suspect some of you might be able to hit the highlights if you were put on the spot. But this story doesn’t stand in isolation from the rest of Mark’s gospel. In fact he hints at just that when we begin our reading today: “Six days later,” he writes, “Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain.” You have to ask: what happened six days before? To answer that I want to flip back a page to the previous chapter to help lay out what Jesus and the boys were doing before they donned their day packs for that hike.
Jesus has called Andrew, Simon, and Zebedee’s boys from their fishing boats to follow him, and they did. Now on the Sabbath, they’ve all attended the local synagogue for worship and reflection on scripture. It was there during the service that a man taken by an evil spirit came in and Jesus healed him, much to the amazement of the people gathered. Mark writes that immediately his fame began to spread. People started talking, and Jesus went viral, or as viral as you could go back in first century Palestine.
“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols” is quite a way to start a sentence. Of course those words were written at a different time and place, and, it seems, they were in response to a direct question that some of those church goers had back in Corinth. (A reminder that St. Paul had gone around establishing churches, including this one in Corinth.) Some leader there had this issue come up that was causing all sorts of anxiety in their congregation: Was it okay or not okay to eat meat that had been previously offered to idols? Perhaps in a couple thousand years the modern church’s conversations about what sort of music is appropriate for worship will seem just as ridiculous to the people in the future as this one from Corinth seems to us today, but I suspect for them it was no laughing matter. (On music in the church, listen to Senator Raphael Warnock’s response when asked how he, as a pastor, could work toward bipartisanship in Congress: “If you’ve ever had to get the folks who like anthems and [the] folks who like contemporary gospel music to work together, you’re ready for anything.”)
I’ve always been enchanted by the gospel hymn “They cast their nets in Galilee” that we sang this morning. The words are taken from a poem written by William Alexander Percy in 1924. It’s simplistic in a way, conjuring up images of a modest life. These first disciples worked as common folk along the shores of the lake, scratching out a living with their families, heading out onto the waters for the daily catch. It’s not unlike the work of teachers, or bakers, or electricians, or nurses, or any of the rest of us that make our living helping society run. While in our mind “fishing” might be a recreational activity—just like “baking” is to a home baker like me—these folks who did it for a living worked unbelievably hard for hours on end. Those Galilean fishermen had to deal with the vagaries of the weather or the movements of their potential catch. They had to fix the leaks in the boat and constantly mend their torn nets. Their life may have been simple, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
It was my homiletics professor—that is my preaching professor, homiletics simply meaning the art of writing and delivering sermons—who reminded us of 20th century theologian Karl Barth’s advice to preachers: When you preach, keep the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. While many of us no longer have a daily paper delivered to our doorsteps, the sentiment remains. Keep attuned to current events as you prepare and reflect and listen to God’s Spirit for a word from scripture for the people you serve. Do not miss applying the Word of God to the stories of the day, be they local or much further afield, because it will help us make sense of how God interacts with us in the world.
Sometimes I wonder what Jesus was like when he was a kid. What toy did he like to play with? Was he just like any kid when he was three demanding things for himself and getting vocal when Mary and Joseph didn’t oblige? Did Mary hang up his drawings on the fridge? Did he struggle at spelling or math? Did he love being outdoors and playing with his friends? Were there things that Mary made for dinner that he didn’t like to eat?
We get on full display how John’s gospel begins in a much more mystical way than the others. The synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all dive right in to the narrative first. They describe the foundational stories of Jesus and his ministry, and present either birth narratives or Jesus’ baptism in their openings. But John takes us back to words that point to creation. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We learn quickly that Jesus is in fact the Word , and the beginning of his story is so much earlier than when Gabriel broke the news to Mary at the Annunciation that she would bear a son.