For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
Happy Valentine’s Day, friends who are celebrating that today.
And a happy Lunar New Year to all you are celebrating that beautiful holiday this weekend as well. We are ushering in the year of the ox, which happens to be my birth year, and we are closing the books on the year of the rat. Rat to ox, I’m hoping that is a good portent for us all.
In my household, apart from some delicious Chinese new year food, the big news this past week was we sent our daughter back to college. I drove to Philadelphia with her and back to send her away again. And what surprised me was that for me at least, dropping my kid off at college for the second time was a dagger to the heart more than the first time was. The first time I had this illusion that she was still my kiddo, still under our care, just on break, I don’t know, going to a really long sleepaway camp or something. But this time, it was clear to me that we’re way past that point. We have an adult child, starting to make her own way in the world, and there is no going back.
It was with this in mind that I was listening to a theology podcast with Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman. Monica Coleman’s work sits at the intersection of feminism, African American studies, mental health, and a kind of theology called process theology, which believes all of life is about change and relationships.
And Monica was talking about the constancy of change, and I’m like… yeah, my babies just keep growing older, and I just keep growing older with them. And she’s talking about how change always involves loss, and I’m like, yeah, I feel like I just lost one of my kids. I feel like I’m losing a piece of myself. There’s a psychologist in our congregation who likes to tell me that adolescence and kids growing up is really about the dissolution of the family unit. You know, a kind of nuclear family break up. You know who you are, and I do not want you reaching out to tell me that today. I know it.
Loss from change, all manner of downsides to the world changing, are central features of our lives.
So I’m tearing up a little as I’m driving along the New Jersey Turnpike.
But then the Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman says this other thing about process thinking, which is that change doesn’t just involve loss and suffering. Change also always opens up new creative possibilities. And from a process theology perspective, God is with all of creation amidst every change, always offering us new creative possibilities. This is who God is, this is what God does.
And I’m thinking, yes, in this sad transition in my life as a parent, there are new creative possibilities. There are new ways to love my children, new ways to invest in their lives and my legacy, new ways to know pride and joy as a father. Even in this year of so many losses, my faith and my experience tell me God is with me for creative possibility here, to find new ways to live a joyful, purposeful, satisfying life as long as I have life to live.
This year for all of us friends has been full of loss. We’ve been living through a kind of master class in just how messed up the world is. Grace and I took a walk yesterday, as we often do, and I look back on what we were talking about. We were talking about a horrible, lurid scandal of a Christian leader whose books we read when we were younger. Turns out the whole time he was preaching about the glories of Christian faith and its virtues, he was sexually assaulting women around the world. And that got us talking about the bad behavior of a number of people in public life. And we were talking about why schools still aren’t open and how badly our country has messed up our whole response to this pandemic, and how angry it makes us that kids and elderly have born the brunt of this in a lot of ways. And talking about elderly people got us talking about the rash of hate crimes recently against elderly Asian Americans in California. All this, in one walk, before coming home to news about the impeachment trial.
I mean again, has not this year been a master class in revealing how miserably screwed up is the world as it is.
But here we are, seven weeks before Easter Sunday, and we are set to begin the Christian season called Lent, our bridge from winter into spring. Lent is our shared season of spiritual formation – of trying to move closer to God. It’s a time when we actively invite God to shape us into more whole people, walking together toward a more loving, just future.
Today we talk about a way we can do Lent this year, how in this messed up, broken year of ours, we can be open to how the Spirit of God is present for new, creative possibilities.
Every year in Lent, we’re guided by some scriptures, and we’ll be in the
prophets this year, in particular what are called the minor prophets, minor not because they’re not important, but because their books are shorter. There are 12 of these minor prophets, and we’ll read parts of many of them.
Today, we’ll read words from a different prophet, the one with the longest book, Isaiah. And we’ll look at God’s interest in people rediscovering what is important, and having the desire, the power, the capacity to walk toward better lives and a better world together.
Let me read this bit from the 11th chapter of Isaiah.
Isaiah 11:1-9 (CEB)
11 A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout from his roots.
2 The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
4 He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed together,
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea.
This sounds like a good place, doesn’t it? The prophets have these amazing pictures they paint of a peaceful and just world – wolves and lambs sharing naptime on the ground, wine flowing from the hillsides, parents pulling their kids aside for a lesson, saying you know what you’ve got to understand, kid: Life is fair. Always.
When is this? Where is this? Of what future do the prophets speak?
Is this heaven? That’s what a lot of people think, that the prophets see really far into the future. And sometimes, they have a vision of our perfectly wonderful afterlife.
There’s a little problem in this interpretation, though, which is that when Isaiah and the other prophets were written, most Jews didn’t really believe in the afterlife yet. Or they had only the fuzziest picture of what it might be like, and that picture wasn’t so great.
So, it’s kind of ridiculous to think the prophets would be writing about this place they weren’t so sure even existed. Now, that’s what I believed about these passages most of my life too, so I’m ridiculous.
But that’s not what’s going on here. The prophets see really well, they do, but they were always more interested in seeing the present than the future. And when they paint these pictures of a beautifully abundant, peaceful, just world that we all flourish in, they are painting a picture of this world the way it should be.
In our organizing work with Greater Boston Interfaith, we use these two phrases a lot – the world as it is, and the world as it should be.
The prophets see the world as it is. They feel what God feels, and they see what God sees. And the prophets cry out about so much that is wrong in the world as it is – our bankrupt religion, our inequitable economy, the way we say respect your elders and children are the future, but again and again treat them both like trash. The prophets see all the ways we do violence, making safety and security the luxury of the privileged, not the basic condition of life that they should be. The prophets see all this, as this year at least, we increasingly do as well.
But the prophets also point us toward God’s creative possibilities for the world as it should be.
In this passage, there’s a picture of what leaders should be like – humble, cultivating wisdom before God, just, fair, equitable. The leader here is a king in the line of the great king David, son of Jesse. Chrisitans have believed that Jesus embraced the call to be this kind of leader of humanity, to teach us and guide us toward the world as it should be, world where kids can flourish because the threats that are with are dealt with, a world where the presence of justice makes for security and peace, a world where people aren’t harmed or destroyed.
The prophets believe this kind of world isn’t a fantasy. And it’s not just possible in the afterlife, it’s a world that with the help of God and one another, we can see into being.
We’re going to read the prophets this Lent because prophets are people who come so close to God, who feel what God feels and see what God sees, so they know what is important.
I had a taste of praying with the prophets this past week. I was on the phone with one of my best friends, and we were commiserating over the struggles of our children. Their kids have had struggle after struggle with uncaring, unreasonable adults who refuse to put kids first. And my kids, or at least my boys, have spent more than 10% of their life they can remember stuck at home staring at computer screens. All because in this country, we care more about our personal liberties – and our rights to party or gamble or drink maskless than we do about our elders or our kids.
Did I mention I am incensed by this?
And as I prayed with my friend, a line from the prophets came to me, words of the prophet Joel, words we’ll read in the 6th week of Lent, where God, in the context of pouring out God’s Spirit into us, says: I will restore the years the locust has eaten.
I see the year of your loss. I feel the weight of what’s been taken from you. And I want to restore that to you.
And I’m praying into this hope, praying God, restore to our kids what’s been taken from them. Because in the world as it should be, we don’t sacrifice what our kids need to get what we want.
And even though I don’t know how God will answer that prayer in my life, what creative possibilities will open up for my kids or my friends’ kids or for how we raise them as parents, but praying into that centered and grounded me, got me focused again on what’s most important in my life. And that helped me see differently the choices I’m making while I’m raising teenagers, and helped me focus a little more on the choices I want to make too.
Even when we’ve lost so much, even when the world as it is looks bleak, the prophets help us see what is important.
They know which way to go. And they are the ones who show us the way.
This Lent, we’ll walk to the prophets as they show us the way toward what’s most important. As they encourage us to walk toward the world as it should be.
Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jonah, Habakkuk, and friends, they’re all going to suggest different aspects of what’s most important, and they’ll show us the way each a little differently.
But today, as in invitation to this season, we’ll return where we left of with Isaiah, and the leader who shot out of the line of Jesse, who for our purposes I’ll call Jesus.
Isaiah ends this vision, saying: They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. That mountain being the city of Jerusalem, whose light, Isaiah says, will extend to the whole world. And then this:
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as water covers the sea.
This knowledge of God – it’s a result of all things being made whole, for sure. When the world is as it should be, we know the goodness of God. We can see it. We can taste it.
But Isaiah along with all the other prophets tells us that the knowledge of God is the way there as well. Deep knowledge of the true, living, life-giving God is the way.
Because the knowledge of God shows us what righteousness and justice and love and mercy all look like. If we will humbly listen, God shows us the way the world should be. And the knowledge of God shows us we are known, we are seen, we are loved by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-loving God of endless creative possibilities. This God tells us we are enough and we are made whole. And that empowers the desire and capacity to make this world whole.
Religion, Chrisitianity in particular, has a pretty mixed track record of getting people here. We see it vividly these days in our messed our world as it is, shoddy, unloving, unjust, un-lifegiving forms of Christianity upholding, justifying the world as it is, failing to ground us in what’s important, failing to show us the way there.
That’s why we go back to the prophets. They see what God sees and feel what God feels. They tell us the truth about ourselves and about God. They know what’s important. And they show us the way there.
This Lent, friends, I invite you to step back a bit from the world as it is. Interrupt your life in some way. Traditionally, Christians have interrupted their lives in this season through fasting and giving. They stop consuming something, and they get a little more generous.
You may not be up for either of these things. You may be incredibly short on money and have no more to give. This year’s been hard on some of our wallets. Or you may feel this whole year has been one big fast, that you’ve given up so much, you don’t want to give up anything else. If you feel that way, that’s OK. God understands. You can skip this step.
But if you feel that you could use a little interruption from life as it is, to find your way back toward God and toward what’s most important, you could fast from one meal a week, or you could fast from eating one day a week. Or you could fast from netflix, or from some other form of media.
And of course, there are endless ways to be more generous.
If you fast or give this Lent, it’s not to make you a better or more religious person, and it is not to get God’s attention – you have that already. It’s to interrupt the pattern of the way things are and make room for something new.
And the first step of something new in Lent, the first way we walk toward the world as it should be is by adding in to our lives, or adding back a daily practice of study, prayer, and reflection. This is finding our way toward a daily spiritual practice in which we’re “filled with the knowledge of the Lord….” and we walk on the path toward becoming more whole people who can do our part to make the world more whole as well.
Our team has set you up with a really delightful way to do that this Lent. We have a daily guide that begins a week from tomorrow. It’ll be on our website under the sermon and stories tab, there’s a Lent section where we’ll have this year’s guide. And we’ve bound and printed the guide for you as well. If you pick it up this afternoon at our church sanctuary, you’ll also get a bag with the ashes you need for this Wednesday’s Ash Wednesday service and all the other aides to your spiritual practice Ivy showed you earlier.
I’m really proud of and grateful for our team’s work on Lent this year. I think it’s powerful and beautiful and I hope you’ll participate.
These past 11 months have been hard, friends. They’ve been full of losses common to us all, and I see and hear you – many of us have had our own particular losses as well. We’ve seen so much of what’s wrong and awful about the world as it is. Let’s take the weeks ahead of us, and open our hearts and minds and our time and attention to the living and life-giving God, who can teach us what’s important, who can show us the way there, and who can make us whole people who make the world a little more whole too.