Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; and Matthew 7:21-29 (with the telling of the transfiguration gospel, Matthew 17:1-9 as the children’s story).
Mountaintops where ancient prophets and voices appear out of nowhere. Where beloved friends, even religious teachers, our own prophet, the Christ suddenly starts to shine. I mean physically glows.
Mountaintop experiences where in awe, understandably, the only thing that occurs to us is to try and capture it. To hold on to it. Make it last forever. It’s strange stuff.
Just like the customs described in the Hebrew Scripture passage. Our orthodox Jewish neighbors in morning worship still place teffilin, little boxes with portions of sacred Scripture on their foreheads and arms. The hand-tefillin, shel yad, are placed on the upper arm, with the straps fastened around the hands and fingers. The head-tefillin, shel rosh, go on the forehead.
Imagine, that in one’s reaching, touching and offering a hand, one might always remember what God asks of us. That in one’s thinking and one’s looking out at the world and all the people we meet, one might do literally soaking up God’s word. Strange stuff, like us actually putting a mark of ash on our foreheads as a acknowledgment of our mortality and sin. From dust we have come and to dust we will return. Strange stuff.
It’s as if you’d take a permanent marker or got a tattoo, choosing one, most important biblical verse, the one verse that if were before your eyes all the time, if you couldn’t forget it, if it were written on your forearm or palm, it’d might just change your life. Strange stuff.
Like nailing a mezuzah. a little box with the whole Torah on a teeny scroll inside, by your doorways so that every time one comes in our out on can literally reach for and touch… and remember God’s law. Like the reason many church doors are painted red, if we even remember: during the middle ages, like the ancient Israelites painting their doorposts with blood at passover, churches believed it would protect the members of the parish from the plague.
It’s strange stuff to think of ourselves as those kind of Christians that always keep a Bible with them. Who only read read the Bible, instead of fiction. Who talk about their faith or reference God in every sentence. Who commit whole portions to memory and are able to cite chapters and verses.
It’s strange stuff for us, Christians who don’t often expect or experience our faith calling us out, separating us, or even making specific demands on us to consider observing an intentional spiritual season In any real way.
It’s foreign to us, thinking that some period of time, an arbitrary six weeks really, could challenge us and help us to change. That abstaining from something we normally do — giving up a meal a day, or meat, or cigarettes, television or your car — could become a big enough break in your routine to give you a new perspective.
Or, perhaps more positively, that undertaking some additional commitment we don’t normally do — setting aside a time for prayer, or making a specific offering for the hungry, or reaching out to someone you’s disconnected for six weeks — could make a difference in our lives and our world thereafter.
It’s not the thing in itself, not for what we give up or add on, this is no ritual infused with mysterious power that magically changes things. Instead, it’s about how a change in your practice can give you a new and renewing experience of how your life isn’t all that in tune with the Gospel. Lest it become an empty, or worse hypocritical, show, you still need to make the change, which may be hard. But the break in routine and the awareness it can bring might be the hump you need to get over for living better, fully, more abundantly, ironically with less. It’s strange stuff.
Also, these words of Jesus, suggesting something quite different than the universalism most of us hold and prefer. Instead of a faith picture wherein, somehow, by God’s grace, in the end, everyone is welcomed in God’s house; here, Jesus says, not only are there going to be folks who don’t make the cut. He adds more ominously, we’ll be surprised who falls in that camp.
In our faith, so colored by Paul and Luther– that it’s by grace and faith and God’s love alone that we are saved– a passage like this is sort of surprising. Strange stuff. Jesus pointing out, well, there’s some doing involved too. It’s not all in your heart or your head. There’s your hands and your feet, your bodies too. Some decisions to make. Some follow through to accomplish. There’s building a life on what matters, what will last.
There’s that which is good and brings life, alongside all our nonsense, ways we set ourselves up to get washed away. It’s strange stuff our faith presents us with this morning.
Strange stuff religion suggests:
That ancient texts, hard to understand, and oh so humanly produced, still somehow bring sacred insight — a word from God! — into the middle of our oh so secular lives.
That a tidbit of bread and a drop of grape juice that we share together we also sharing with God and in that sharing become a whole meal, all we really need to fill us up and keep us going.
Strange stuff, and that’ s a good sign. Important. Even necessary. When all feels a bit foreign. Even hard to believe. When we made to feel uncertain. Or the world suddenly shifts around us, enough to get our attention. To get us to stop and think. To look again. To try something new. To let go of something we should have gotten rid of a long time ago. To wonder if maybe we’re not as smart as we think. Or ask if we are not as right as we think. Or admit we are not as in control as we think. Or as competent, successful in the world in which we really live, where God is calling us.
Beloved, a cold splash in the face isn’t always bad.
Or a challenge to live our faith and lives out in different ways even if others might notice and recognize our difference.
Or a season that’s set aside to ask us how we need to change.
All these, albeit in different ways, try and push us off balance a bit, knock us out of the comfort zone, where everything seems so clear, obvious, sure. So we can take another look. And see ourselves in a new light, how we really are, rather than how we like to present ourselves or be seen.
Someone said to me recently she thought “religious practice was just about embarrassing us in front of others, to make us humble.” Though that’s a negative spin, maybe how someone painfully self-conscious experiences it, she wasn’t completely wrong.
I prefer to see religion as less concerned with how others see us. That we might be more able to see ourselves. Recognize ourselves deeply, Without our Sunday best clothes, costumes really… or all the masks, disguises really, we carefully engineer to project and use to hide behind. Religion challenges me to see ourselves by imagining how God sees us.
Religion is also about trying and trying, over and over again, practicing until we get it right. It’s said it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. How many communions is that? Or Sunday services? Or seasons of Lent?
It’s 5 years, if you did nothing else, 24/7! But practice makes perfect. Even if it still takes a long, long time.
But when we think of the cumulative effect of living in community, of the lessons we share as this congregation, of standing in a line of tradition, it may not be 5 years anymore. Or 5 years may not seem that long.
Strange stuff. Especially when our faith asks us to go deeper, work harder, be more thorough than we like to. Go where we’re not so sure of ourselves. Where it’s not all worked out. Or where we are comfortable with ourselves. Or together. Or right. Where unavoidably, we’re faced with harder questions. And harder realities about ourselves.
What’s the foundation your life is built on? Seriously, not just what you want others to believe. Instead, what is really your groundrock? Is it solid, through thick and thin, even when hardships come along?
Would it make a difference if you were to plaster some of Christ’s words on your forehead? Not so that others would see them, but so you know that others know who you mean to be.
What if you made something he taught or did your 24/7 motto? The mantra you repeatedly say to yourself.
Or if you walked around for a day with a smudge of ash on your forehead?
Would it help if you thought of every meal as communion?
Or everything you said as a sermon?
Or every day of this whole next 6 weeks as the preparation you need for Easter?
Amidst all life’s competing agendas and mixed messages, amidst all our ambivalence and betwixt and betweenness, alongside all our competence and self-assurance, could you make a commitment to change? Nothing showy. Maybe not even anything anyone else would notice or could see. And not anything that’s going to win you points with your neighbors or cancel out sin with God.
But a commitment change nonetheless… that represents at least a break in your routine, in your business as usual. A decision to try something new. To act differently. Some intentional practice of your faith– traditionally, confession, almsgiving, abstinence. A spiritual discipline that might turn you towards God. Lead you to Christ. Focus your seeing yourself and the world in a clearer light.
Some of us are from Christian traditions where there was no Lent. For others, it was named but not really observed. Others of us ate fish on Fridays and added prayer routines. Or gave up chocolate or ice cream.
Church, if forgoing some luxury or adding on some service could bring you closer to Christ, why not try it? If you pray that it means something to you and to God, well, it probably will. It’s strange stuff. You will NOT get extra credit with God, but discipline can help you focus, redirect your dedication, recalibrate your time. Draw you closer to Christ as he turns toward Jerusalem.
As we get ready for Easter, what could you do?
Old First is offering Lenten Devotions on Wednesdays, where we’ll share a simple meal and offer up what we otherwise would have spent on dinner for those who are hungry.
At those devotions, we will also spend time in prayer, and with scripture, and reflecting on our Christian responsibility in our world.
I’m going to offer a sermon series on prayer, which is after all one of the traditional disciplines of Lent.
But finally, it’s your decision. Your time to waste or spend wisely. Your life. How can you keep Christ before you and a firmer foundation under you as he faces the challenges, suffering, faithfulness and the glory we present him on the way to Jerusalem?
Preached by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.