Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday of lent ...what does that mean?

Today is the first Sunday of Lent….What does that mean?  What are the traditions?  Where do they come from?  Do they mean anything relevant today and what do they really have to do with the Gospel?  Let us start with the font of all knowledge Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is not the most reliable of sources but, when doing research, it is an easy place to start.
Lent (Latin: Quadragesima - English: Fortieth) is a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar of many Christian denominations that begins on Ash Wednesday and covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Sunday. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. This event, along with its pious customs are observed by Christians in the Anglican, Calvinist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions. Today, some Anabaptist and evangelical churches also observe the Lenten season.
Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the tradition and events of the New Testament beginning on Friday of Sorrows, further climaxing on Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday, which ultimately culminates in the joyful celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence. Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional, to draw themselves near to God. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ's carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are often veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Throughout Christendom, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat, most notably among Roman Catholics.
Lent is traditionally described as lasting for forty days, in commemoration of the forty days which, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent, before beginning his public ministry, fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by the Devil. In most of the West, it begins on Ash Wednesday. Different Christian denominations calculate its length differently.[1]

For us we add the Lenten wreath each week we put out a candle in hopes of eliminating injustices in the world and brining those issues to for front of our prayers and reflections; Poverty, Hunger, Equality and Justice for all people, Peace and the last candle is for the earth itself. Each candle snuffed out is a bit of the spirit of Christ that is snuffed out when we choose to look away, do nothing or claim helplessness. 
We often proclaim the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila here to help us to remember and carry the sacredness of the injustices in this world in ourselves daily.
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which Jesus walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which all are blessed in the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are the body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

To be Christ’s Body in this world could be a challenging, daunting, even an impossible task. But if we read Teresa’s prayer carefully even if we can only look with compassion we are being Christ in this world.  If one can Just move their very soul to see the world as Christ does then, with practice, the rest will come.  We have to grow and evolve into the spiritual beings we are meant to be, and this only comes with practice, intention and ritual.
Today’s reading is full of ritual and intention. Jesus was baptized.  A Ritual that All Christians are familiar with.  Dock Hollingsworth of the McAfee School of theology explains how he finds relevance in this reading as a person who was raised Baptist.

The Greek word is baptizo, which means either to “dip” or “submerge.” There is nothing like hooking your listener early in the introduction to a sermon by saying “the Greek word is . . . ,” but my Baptist heritage has much invested in the translation of this word. Because of my Baptist heritage, (Professor Hollingsworth goes on to explain), every time I have seen someone baptized, they go all the way under the water and come up drenched. Now I know that the way I grew up seeing baptism has surely had more effect on me than the Greek verbs but in either case, when I hear the verse, “And just as he was coming up out of the water . . . ,” my imagination conjures the image of Jesus coming out of the river Jordon soaking wet from head-to-toe.
That image, informed by my tradition and confirmed by the Greek verb, is also a symbol of full commitment. In a story with all of the grandeur of the opening heavens and the descending Spirit, I just can’t imagine Jesus any way but fully drenched. There is something about an image of Jesus with his clothing stuck to his body and his hair matted to his face that says, “I’m all in. This is a wide-open full bore commitment to my purpose in life; this is a head-to-toe, sopping wet, full commitment to the kingdom of heaven and my part in it.”[2]
This is an image of initiation that is literally all in.  Now I know the word initiation may sound strange here but in Mark’s Gospel, that is exactly what this is.  This is Jesus’ first step into his ministry or his initiation of his ministry.  This is the beginning.  A radical Beginning at that.
We here at MCC/United Church of Christ use the word Radical with some sense of comfort but there are some who may find the word disturbing, challenging, or even scary. Some people are “careful, prudent, and orderly. I want to be perceived as having my act together—a person of dignity and moderation—not as some radical.”[3]
Some people think radical people are those fanatics who dress up for sporting events, go out to set Guinness records or they are the people who are driving electric cars and planting draught tolerant gardens with native plants.
Even a Dock Hollingsworth, who is an assistant Dean and Professor of supervised Ministry admits; “While I love to see a good radical every now and then, I have always favored balance, order, partial commitment to several worthy causes that might help the human condition a bit. To my thinking, it is better to not cause a stir, not be too sold out to anything, not to be so fully committed to any cause that I might look foolish. Then I look up and see my Lord at the beginning of his ministry, coming up out of the river Jordan soaking wet—all in.” This “all in” Look and feel takes a dramatic turn as the Holy Spirit Comes into the story.
The story moves quickly from John Proclaiming a Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and announcing “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1; 7-8)
Dr. Cameron Jorgenson who teaches theology and ethics at Campbell University Divinity School tells us that after John Proclaims One greater than I is coming, “Then something unusual happens. The “one who was to come” does come; Jesus goes out to John and requests baptism as well. When Jesus comes up from the water, the heavens are torn open, the voice of God speaks a blessing, and the Spirit descends on him like a dove”[4] This is where we first see the Trinity Creator, who tears open the heavens, Jesus the begotten one and the holy spirit descending in the form of a dove.
This is a very abrupt and intense story everything is happening with an urgency. John Appears in the desert, John Proclaims and Baptizes, Jesus arrives and is baptized.  Interesting there is no dialogue between John and Jesus, just then the heavens are torn apart and the dove arrives.
 Cameron goes on to Observe; “After this stunning self-revelation of God, something equally shocking follows. We are told, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” (1:12-13). This Spirit—the one with whom Jesus would baptize, the one who descended upon him like a dove—is now driving him toward an encounter with Satan in the desert.”[5]  There is that urgency again, he is driven out into the desert…it is not a casual stroll.  Would you like to come to the desert and meet Satan?  There doesn’t seem to be an option it is a primal urge essential to the ministry of Christ.  
Yet something doesn’t feel quite right.  What is this need for speed that Mark seems to want to convey and what has he done to our concept of the spirit of God being this gentle dove? “After all, we know that a dove is a symbol of peace and tranquility. We release them at weddings and the opening ceremonies of the Olympics as an expression of joy and celebration. The dove carries an olive branch, for goodness’ sake! But here this very odd dove leads Jesus into the wilderness for a tête-à-tête with Satan. What kind of dove is this, anyway? Perhaps that is the very question this passage hopes to provoke.”[6]
While Jesus teaches us that God is a loving Parent who is being revealed through Christ; “the Spirit remains a mystery over which even the earliest generations of Christians puzzled. This manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism suggests that the Spirit is like a dove, the same bird that gave hope to Noah as the waters receded by suggesting that new life on earth was beginning to flourish.”[7]
The dove suggests the giver of Life, the sustainer (as it has been referenced here at MCC/United church of Christ many times).  This is the dove that gently guides and comforts us while we are on our path. Yet there is more to the spirit than companion and comforter.
Dr. Cameron goes on to remind us:
 The symbol of the dove contains a grave temptation, however. One might mistake its gentle coo for weakness and imagine that the bird of peace is the kind of bird that can be domesticated. One might even presume to cage it or train it to sing on cue. How mistaken we would be, were we to assume that the dove comes in peace—if by peace we mean that it comes for our comfort.

The dove came in the midst of great distress to Noah, who had been tossed by waves and surrounded by destruction for far too long. The dove didn’t come to rescue Noah; it came as a sign of hope. In the same way, the Spirit does not preserve Jesus from discomfort. In fact, the message of the Gospel of Mark is that the Spirit leads Christ into the desert, empowering him for what he would face. The Spirit does not promise us freedom from all affliction, but instead promises comfort and the fruits of the Spirit’s presence—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control—in the midst of great trials. This is the message of Exodus, Psalms, and the Gospels. God doesn’t simply alleviate pain; God joins us in our place of suffering and walks with us, enabling us to make the journey.[8]

This is a wild and reckless spirit that cannot be contained nor controlled.  It will protect us as best it can but more often than not it will lead us into what challenges us, what will force us to grow, what will help us to walk the walk of Christ in this world today.  Bob often refers to the spirit as the mischief maker…the wild grace of God running amok on earth.  Leading us into all sorts of situations and changes we never could have for seen.
“It has been said that Celtic Christianity was fond of another symbol for the Holy Spirit: the wild goose. Perhaps they were onto something. Although the work of the Spirit is oftentimes subtle, softly present like the dove, sometimes the wild goose shows up and demands undivided attention.”[9]  I like that image I grew up with Geese.
Canadian Geese or Canadian Honkers either way they are a creature one must learn to, um , share space with if you will.  Often times the Geese will decide they need to move from one lake or pond to another and they will not hesitate to just walk into the road.  They expect the world to stop for them and we often did…moving slowly….Honking  our car horn as the geese walked slowly sometimes stopping to confront and hiss at a car before getting out of the away.  If they had Goslings then you had to wait for they would not move till all the little ones were where they decided they were going!  Maybe the image of the Goose is a good one of the Holy Spirit in all its unpredictable Grace.

The Celts “rightly recognized that there is nothing placid about the workings of God. When God shows up, water turns to wine, a box lunch feeds a multitude, a dead child is raised to life, a blind man sees, a leper is healed and restored to the community, a shameful past is named and transformed, a persecutor of the church is converted into its greatest missionary, and a baptism reveals the very nature of God.”[10]
So we take this time called Lent to seek out the Holy Spirit, each in our own way.  Take up a daily reading, maybe give up something we love, maybe seek out a new art form that will allow us seek to understand what God is moving us toward.  The spirit of God is always with us but…you have to feed it, nurture it and respond to it.
You see in that prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila the very first gift of Christ is that we are is to look out on the world with compassion. Compassion, accordion to Miriam Webster, is to see one in distress and want to alleviate it.  This is a time to nurture the sacred in order to eradicate the cynical.  To allow our eyes to be open…once we do that the wild spirit will keep us moving onto paths we never saw coming into ministries we never thought we would do and into some of the most unexpected places.

Remember “Within the breast of that meek and holy dove beats the heart of a wild goose, and we ought not be surprised if we hear it honking.”[11]

[1] Wikimedia Foundation Inc, Lent, February 15, 2015, accessed February 16, 2015,
[2] David N. Mosser, The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2012 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), 63.
[3] Ibid., 64.
[4] David N. Mosser, The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2011 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 252.
[5] Ibid., 253.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 253.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 254.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 254.