God’s Quid pro Quo: Isaiah 58:1-12

“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Sounds like a political promise to a nation with crumbling infrastructure doesn’t it? Well, it’s really addressed to a nation with a crumbling moral infrastructure, but either scenario is relevant to the U.S. 2500 years after those words were written by the prophet known as Third Isaiah (Chapters 55-66 of the biblical book of Isaiah).

I went there because Isaiah 58:1-12 is one this week’s lectionary texts that many churches use for preaching and themes for worship. I’m not preaching this Sunday, but was wondering what I might say from the pulpit on this week of political history. I did preach the Sunday Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the Sunday after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace in 1974, after the Challenger explosion, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other than proving how old I am, those kinds of moments in time illustrate the opportunities for reflection when we stand at the intersection of human history and biblical.

As I write these words the acquittal of President Trump has not been officially confirmed, but if I were a betting man I’d feel safe wagering that it will come to pass before this Sabbath. So what else does this text from Isaiah have to say to us? Chapter 58 lets us know immediately that this is no warm and fuzzy passage. Verse 1 says, “Shout out, and do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” Isaiah then proceeds to scold his people for false worship and self-righteousness: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” (Vss. 3-4)

Fast forwarding to today Isaiah would say something like this to us: “Claiming to be a ‘Christian Nation’ or putting ‘under God’ in your pledge doesn’t make you my people. If your faith is in huge defense budgets while you provide lousy health care, unequal education and inadequate food for the poor, you are no more than a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. If you deny your sins of racism and betray your constitutional duties to protect your own personal power and influence, your acts of worship and your prayers mean nothing to God. Put your money and your actions where your lofty values of liberty and justice for all should lead you. Your faith without works is as dead as the authors of your Constitution and the martyrs for true faith.”

Yes, I took some prophetic license and mixed in some Corinthians and James there, but they seem to fit Isaiah’s theme as Chapter 58 continues. You may be wondering if you’re still with me how Isaiah gets through these words of judgement to the verse I began with which is verse 12 of chapter 58, “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in”?

Glad you asked. The answer is in the middle verses of this text (vss. 6-11) which are a heavenly quid pro quo:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

(Editorial aside: If you do this, then…)

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

If you’re thinking “that sounds like Jesus,” you’d be right. Jesus modeled his ministry and life on the Hebrew prophets because he knew they spoke the truth about the inseparable intersection between faith and justice. Read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4 where he quotes directly from Isaiah,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That same Holy Spirit anoints us all for days such as these to be “repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.”

GOD’S CHOSEN SERVANT, SERMON ON ISAIAH 42:1-9

Today, the Sunday after Epiphany, is the Sunday in the church year when we celebrate the “Baptism of the Lord.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all report in identical words that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and that when Jesus came up from the water “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

That Scripture tells us who the Messiah is, and the Isaiah Scripture we read today is one of Servant Songs in Isaiah that describe what kind of Messiah this beloved Son of God will be. Listen again to what these words from Isaiah say:

I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;

In case we might miss the point this text tells us three times that “he will bring forth justice.” I’ll come back to that later, but I want us also to notice that this Servant Song not only emphasizes the Messianic purpose of justice; it also makes it very clear how justice will be accomplished, and that is in a peaceful, non-violent manner. God’s servant is gentle – does not shout or lift up her voice; does not quench a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed.

More than ever in the nuclear age we need to remember that the ways of Christ are non-violent and peaceful.

I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said “Another United Methodist for Peace and Justice.” My son asked me about that slogan one day. To him it seemed contradictory to talk about peace and justice together because like many people his concept of justice was one of punishment and retribution, as in giving people their just desserts. But that is not the biblical meaning of “justice.” In biblical terms justice means wholeness, equality and fairness for all, and when we understand it that way we realize that peace and justice are not contradictory terms at all, but in fact unless there is justice for all there can be no true peace.

Here’s a case in point about what an unending cycle of retribution and revenge produces. The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was signed 100 years ago last summer. That treaty, over the strong objections of President Woodrow Wilson, extracted harsh and unjust punishment on Germany, and just twenty years later Hitler used the German resentment of that punitive treaty to plunge the world in WWII.

I remember learning that in a college history class, but what I learned recently is that in those same treaty negotiations France also refused to give Viet Nam its freedom, which led to the communist take over there and eventually to our own involvement in the Viet Nam War. And if that’s not enough, that same treaty also carved up the Middle East into countries doomed to failure because people who hated each other like the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites were forced into impossible situations like the new country of Iraq. I don’t have to tell you how that worked out!

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” doesn’t mean God is vengeful. It means we humans shouldn’t play God and dish out our idea of “justice” because that’s way above our pay grade. Jesus repealed the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” in the Sermon on the Mount because he knew such misguided justice only creates a world of blind, toothless people. We can and must do a better job of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I must confess this has been a hard week for me. In addition to the all the bad news bombarding us from Australia, Puerto Rico and the Middle East I have had to deal with personal grief over the death of a friend who died suddenly last Friday and concern for our 11 year-old great niece who had open heart surgery yesterday. Such times as these make preachers dig deeper to find good news to proclaim, and when that happens there is no better source of comfort and strength than to return to the very basic Truth of the Christian Gospel found in the Sacrament of Baptism.

When my son was 7 or 8 we were attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals in a church that had a baptistery for immersion up in the chancel. As curious children are want to do my son was exploring the sanctuary after the recital, and after his reconnaissance mission he came running back to me excitedly and said, “Dad, they’ve got a Jacuzzi up there!”
How different our versions of baptism are today from Jesus’ immersion in the muddy Jordan. We sprinkle a few drops of water or use a heated pool are. We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism so much that we have forgotten what baptism teaches us about the cost of discipleship.

I can’t remember the source, but I’ll never forget this story about a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” An American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!” That illustrates the total transformation of true baptism. We literally die to our sinful human nature and are resurrected as new beings in Christ. In other words, we are saved from sin and death, but that’s just step one. What we are saved FOR is to be agents of love as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth.

One of the things I like best about being retired is that it’s so much easier to really worship sitting out there. When I’m leading worship I am busy thinking about what comes next in the service, is my microphone turned off during the hymns so I don’t frighten anyone with my lousy singing; did someone remember to put water in the font, are my sermon pages in the right order?

I experienced real worship one Sunday recently during a service of baptism. The familiar liturgy that I’ve led many times was used, but I heard it like I suddenly had ears to hear. It was the part of the Baptismal Covenant that asks the parents or sponsors of a child or an adult being baptized, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Let me repeat that. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

So much power is packed into that short sentence! My first thought about it went to the phrase “resist evil, injustice and oppression.” There is so much evil, injustice and oppression filling my news feed that I want to just say “stop the world I want to get off!” Cancer and dementia and addiction attacking good, innocent people. Refugee families being ripped apart; political contributors being rewarded with government offices they are not qualified to fill, and protections for God’s creation being discarded for greedy short-sighted goals. I look at my young grandchildren and wonder what kind of a world we are leaving for them? It wearies my soul.

Your list of evil and injustice may be very different than mine, but the responsibility of Christians to resist evil in the name of God is the same for all of us. The Christian responsibility I just read is not from a service of ordination or consecration for someone dedicating her life to full-time Christian service. This challenge and empowerment are for all of us at our baptism. This is a bold affirmation of the priesthood of all believers, and it makes me wonder how many Christians would agree to be baptized if we took those words to heart?

Babies often don’t take too kindly to baptism water being poured or sprinkled on their heads. A cartoon circulated on Facebook awhile back showed a baby talking on a phone to someone and saying, “You wouldn’t believe it. This guy in a dress was trying to drown me, and my family just stood around taking pictures!” I remember one baptism where a young child resisted the chilly water by pulling away from the pastor and wailing for all to hear, and I commented “Maybe he understands the significance of baptism better than we do.”

Resisting evil and injustice can be dangerous work, and the coward in me tends to see the baptismal font as half full when I focus on the heavy responsibility those words carry. But then I read the first part of the vow again and I see the meaning of those words in a whole new light. The sentence begins, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you….” Working for justice is not a burden to endure; it is a talent to be embraced, a gift of freedom and power to be accepted. God is not asking us to do the impossible all alone but is gifting us with the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit to do the work God calls all of us to do.

I am reminded of Jeremiah’s call from God when he was just a child. To paraphrase Jeremiah’s response – he says, “Not me, Lord. I’m just a little kid. Nobody will listen to a teen-ager?” And God said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to go alone. I’ve got your back. I’ll tell you what to say.”

By its very nature, baptism is not an isolated anointing. It is a sacrament of inclusion in the Body of Christ. It is a celebration of the power of community. No one gets baptized alone. The whole congregation promises to be the village that raises a child or a newborn Christian of any age. Baptism is a statement to the world that together we who have heard the call of Christ can and will support and encourage each other. We will celebrate the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves, even when that means admitting we are part of the injustice.
The Hebrew prophet who wrote this part of Isaiah knew that way back then. Listen to the second part of our text for today:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Those words are addressed collectively to the nation of Israel by their creator and sustainer. They are God’s chosen people – not chosen for privilege like a Jacuzzi baptism, but to be God’s servants to open blind eyes, release those who are captives to sin and death, to be a light to the nations. And as followers of Christ we are the New Israel called to that same mission and purpose. Born of water and spirit we are all God’s beloved children given power and freedom by the one who makes all things new to be God’s chosen servants in the world.

This Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus is a perfect time to reaffirm our own initiation into the Body of Christ. I know many of you, like me, were baptized as infants or children and don’t actually remember the occasion of your own baptism. I know some of you may not have been baptized yet, and that’s ok because water doesn’t make us children of God. We are all born that way. Water used in baptism is just a symbol of the cleansing and renewing power of the Holy Spirit to make us new creatures as followers of Christ. That commitment to Christ is something we all need to recommit ourselves to on a regular basis because it is not easy to follow the narrow path of discipleship, especially in trying times like these.

So I invite you to reaffirm your commitment to be a faithful follower of Christ by responding to these questions as you are led by the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith we renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
acknowledge what God is doing for us, and affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
I do.

According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?
I will.

THANKSGIVING OVER THE WATER

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit,
you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Stumbling Block or Cornerstone? Sermon on I Peter 2:1-10


I saw a great T-shirt for baby boomers like me on Facebook this week. It says, “Built in the ‘40’s; some parts still in working order.” In our crazy throw-away world where planned obsolescence is part of every marketing plan, this text from I Peter about a cornerstone in a rock solid foundation has a lot of appeal. We live in a whirlwind information age where knowledge and beliefs seem to shift under our feet like desert sands.

When my children were young our go-to vacation place every year was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And every year we built sand castles on that beach. Ours never quite looked like this one, but you’ll notice this one was built in a shelter where it was protected from the elements; so I don’t think it counts as a real sand castle. This one was at a national sand sculpture contest Diana and I visited at Virginia Beach a few years ago, and it was obviously built to last several days while this impressive contest went on.

The average life expectancy of our sandcastles was always less than 12 hours because that’s how often the high tide rolls in and washes away the most elaborate and the simplest of sand creations. The score is always high tide several hundred, sand castles zero.

I don’t know if Jesus built sand castles on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but he knew about foundations. He told a parable once about those who failed to heed his words were like people who built their house on sand, and those who built on solid rock were like those who took the Gospel seriously.

I Peter picks up on that foundation theme. It says Jesus, the rock rejected by the good religious leaders of his day was made by God into the very cornerstone, the most important piece of the foundation of God’s kingdom; and no high tide, tsunami, tornado or earthquake is going to every knock that foundation down.

That’s the good news Christ offers us in our dizzy, foundation-shaking world. Two pieces of background about these three letters attributed to Peter in our New Testament. I say “attributed” because many scholars agree that the style of language and historical references in these letters indicate that they were written after the Apostle Peter’s death, probably by one of his followers. While we would consider it unethical to claim someone else’s authorship of our work, it was a common practice in biblical times to attach the name of a famous person to a document in order to give it more authority. I share that for information, and to let you know I will refer to this text as something Peter wrote because it is easier to say that than “the author of I Peter.” And if “the author of the Epistles of Peter” comes up on Jeopardy you will be in the know.

The other important background Peter gives us at the outset is that this letter is addressed to several churches in Asia Minor or what is modern day Turkey. The people in those churches were Gentile Christians living in a pagan land where they had no pre-existing faith foundation to build on. Chapter 2 of this letter, which we read this morning, begins with a plea to these newborn Christians to “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” It goes on to promise them pure, spiritual milk so they can “grow into salvation.” Peter meets them where they are on their faith journey and offers advice on how to mature in their faith in a setting that is hostile to the ways of Christ.

Peter knew how important a strong foundation was for whatever challenges any of us face. All humans have to deal with pain and suffering personally and as a community. We need a strong foundation when those problems happen, but you can’t build a strong foundation in the middle of a hurricane. Our faith roots need to be deep before adversity strikes, and that firm foundation begins with a solid, trustworthy cornerstone.

Let’s take a look at that first verse again. “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” That would be a pretty good list of things to give up for Lent, don’t you think? And it’s not too late. Feel free to pick any or all off that list and start now. We’ve got 4 weeks left, and self-help experts say it only takes 21 days to change a habit. I like to think of fasting from something during Lent as a way to do Spiritual spring cleaning. One problem with that practice is we often give up things for lent that we should give up forever, but we’re lucky if we make it to Easter. I shouldn’t say this if you don’t know it already but there’s another problem. The 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays, and some people take that to mean that when it comes to giving up something Sundays don’t count; so we really only have to make it 6 days before we get a cheat day! Really? If it takes 21 days to establish a new habit that plan is doomed to failure.

The more serious issue here is that to make any really lasting changes to rid ourselves of sin like malice, insincerity, envy and slander will only work if have a firm foundation to start with. Faith and values can’t be invented on the fly; they have to already be part of our repertoire or we will come up empty-handed when temptation or tragedy strikes.

“Letters to a Young Muslim” by Omar Saif Ghobash is a very good book that can promote interfaith understanding. One thing that struck me in particular was a section in that book that dealt with what happens to young Muslims who move away from the strictest and most fundamental expressions of Islam. Many are not able to handle their newfound freedom and responsibility for their own actions because they have been controlled by unquestioned external authority for so long and are not prepared to think for themselves. In other words they don’t have a firm foundation of values and beliefs they have tested and claimed for themselves. So when the siren songs of worldly sins and pleasures confront them, many lack the life skills to help them cope. They either rebel against all authority, often with disastrous results; or at the other extreme become vulnerable to some other form of authoritarian leadership that offers a false foundation.

That situation is not unique for Muslims. Moral development for all of us requires room for doubt and dialogue to build foundations that have time to set and hold in a safe and open environment. That’s why Peter says newborns in faith need spiritual milk to grow strong foundations. They aren’t ready yet for solid food.

I was blessed this week to attend the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. The leader for that two-day event was The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence who teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. The key thing she taught us was to pay special attention to the verbs in a biblical text. She said that too often we are distracted by nouns that we have to look up or try to explain or figure out how to pronounce. I Peter 1:1 is a good example. It says, “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” and the first thing I had to do was go scrambling to a biblical map to try and figure out where in the world those places were. It’s interesting information to know, but has little real value or relevance to our daily lives today.

But when we approach a text verbs first we usually find words that we all know immediately what they mean. When I did that with our text for today here’s what I discovered. The verbs that belong to the group Peter describes as mortals or others, i.e. non-believers, include “rejected, stumble, fall, disobey, have not received (mercy), and are not (God’s people).” By contrast the verbs attributed to believers include “long for, grow, tasted, come, chosen (as God’s own people), built, to be (a royal priesthood), proclaim, and have received (mercy).”

Not too hard to figure out which group we’d like to be in is it? We can stumble, fall, and not be God’s people by rejecting Christ, or we can believe and be chosen to be God’s own people, a royal priesthood. But here’s the other thing about those verbs. It’s pretty easy to see how a stone can make me stumble and fall, but how can a stone long for, grow, taste, come, offer, proclaim or be chosen as God’s own people?

Notice what Peter says about Christ in verses 4 and 5: “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Ever since “The Sound of Music” we’ve known that “the hills are alive,” but now we find out stones can be too.

The Holy Spirit can make stones come to life like Elijah’s valley of dry bones or like God blew breath into Adam and Eve or into frightened disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Living stones are not static– but moving, adapting, rearranging themselves into new patterns as situations around us change. Having a solid foundation allows us to dare to believe and trust in the true rock of our faith when everything else around us seems to be collapsing, be it a personal tragedy or a larger cultural one. When our faith foundation is solid we have the strength to rid ourselves of envy, guile and malice that can undermine the best of us because they are common practice in the workplace, on Wall Street and Main Street. When we are firmly anchored in Christ and his ways we can stand fast against the strongest of head winds to be the church even when no one is looking.

Those who believe receive God’s mercy, but it comes with a responsibility to be living stones in Christ and to proclaim and live the Gospel of truth, justice and love. If we fail to do so the house of God collapses like the walls of Jericho. Christ’s living stones don’t listen to the false prophets of prosperity and power. Those who put their faith in those will stumble and fall. Christ is a huge stumbling block for those who follow that path. To non-believers Jesus’ way of mercy and love looks weak, wimpy and dead, and the winner-take-all ways of the world seem victorious. Worldly power and success are very strong temptations, but Peter reminds us that those stones build a road that leads to destruction.

So knowing all that, why would anyone reject Christ and turn him into a stumbling block instead of a cornerstone? Part of the answer is that the people who rejected Jesus by killing him didn’t want him challenging the foundations their faith was built on. They wanted the certainty they thought a concrete set of laws would provide, giving them a handbook for life that had only two chapters–one on what was allowed and a second on what was forbidden—with no room for messy ambiguity. But Christ’s reign is built on a foundation of living stones which means we have to take responsibility for figuring out together what it means to follow God’s laws.

When Jesus was asked to pick the greatest commandment he didn’t pick a specific law. He said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:30-31) Those are living laws, foundational principles to live by, but we have to use our own God-given abilities to figure out how to operationalize those principles in real life situations. Neither the Bible nor any set of laws can cover every situation we may be confronted with. If that were the case we’d just need an app for that. Ask Siri, “Ok, in this situation what do I do?” and he or she would tell us. But in the real world God has entrusted us with the free will to choose wisely how we treat ourselves and each other. Our faith journey is a process, constantly unfolding as we learn and grow like living stones in the body of Christ.

But following Christ is not an easy journey. We also can become stumbling blocks for others if our behavior sets a bad example of what God’s living stones should be and do. Our failure to live the grace and mercy we proclaim becomes a huge stumbling block for others who are searching for a solid faith foundation.

A couple of dangerous stumbling blocks even show up in this text from I Peter. Verse 9 says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Lots of good people have stumbled over that verse by interpreting it to mean, “Look at us! We’re special! God likes us better than you!” How many people do you think are going to want to join any church with that kind of holier-than-thou attitude? The best way to remove that stumbling block is to take an honest hard look at our history as a church and a nation. Too much oppression and conquest of other people has been done in the name of our God to give us an A+ rating on the living stone scale. So if we aren’t special what does it mean to say we are God’s chosen people? It means we are chosen, not for special privilege, but to be God’s servants.

The phrase “a chosen race” is an especially dangerous stone to trip over for Americans. Racism is an insidious disease that is so clever it sometimes fools even those who have been infected with it to think we are immune. Any use of Scripture to justify exclusion of any group of people from God’s grace and mercy is contrary to Christ’s message of love for all. God chooses to redeem only one race, and that is the human race. I know people who when they are asked to indicate their race on a medical form or job application kick the race stone aside and write the word “human” in that blank.

The fact that this epistle bears Peter’s name is a little ironic. Peter is a translation of the Aramaic word Cephas which means “rock.” At one point in the Gospel accounts Jesus changes his disciple Simon’s name to Cephas or Peter, and says to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” If you know the embarrassing role Peter is going to play when we get to Holy Week, you know his faith proved to be very shaky when Jesus needed him most. So too, we’ve all had moments or years when we have denied Christ by our words or actions. And that’s OK because just as he did for Peter in their post-Easter encounter, Christ calls forth strength from us that we didn’t know we had. He strikes the rock within us just as Moses struck the rock in our Exodus story last week, and through us the Holy Spirit pours streams of mercy, grace and forgiveness that enable us to live as faithful aliens in a world full of stumbling blocks.

For that to happen we have to make a choice –cornerstone or stumbling block? We are living in turbulent times that require a firm faith foundation. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum we can all see that changes are coming for our nation. And if the government is getting out of the human services business, guess who is in the on-deck circle? The church. In addition to all the good ministries we are doing now, more is going to be needed from us to meet the needs of our sisters and brothers. We’re going to need a firm faith foundation. Lent is the perfect time to examine our foundations, get down in the crawl space where the spiders and other creepy things live and see if our foundations are built on sand or rock. We can’t call the basement doctor to shore up our faith foundation; we need to get a piece of the rock,” the living stone rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight” to be the very cornerstone of our faith.

To Dust We Shall Return, An Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That traditional reminder of our mortality that many Christians hear when ashes are imposed at the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and reflection has always given me pause, which I guess is the whole idea. This year, my first Ash Wednesday as a septuagenarian makes those words more real than usual.

Mortality is one of those things we do not often speak of in polite company. Our youth-oriented culture is built on a shaky foundation of denial that Ash Wednesday threatens to expose. Maybe that’s why most churches are not overcrowded on that somber day. But mortality is a natural and essential part of our human condition. It can be argued it is one of the most important parts of what it means to be human. We don’t believe any other creatures are aware of their inevitable death, although I’m not sure that’s true.

Knowing our days are numbered is really a gift that makes it possible for us to value and prioritize the time we have in this life, and having the confidence that death is only a transition to another form of being frees us to embrace that gift.

So this Ash Wednesday this 70 something is going to enter a season of Lent reflecting on what God is calling me to do with the days remaining to me. I have no idea what that number is, but I know full well that it is a much smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. On that score I find the wisdom of Psalm 90 sobering and uplifting at the same time:

“For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!” (Selected verses from NRSV)

There’s plenty there to ponder for the entire 40 days of Lent, and that’s only part of the Psalm. The psalmist’s words call us to give up our regrets over what is past and fears of what is to come, to affirm and accept our dusty existence so we can “count our days” and make each one count.

The psalmist reminds us that we are alive only because of the grace of God, and that when attendance is called each morning we need to be present in every sense of that word because we have big work to do. God’s work is entrusted to us, God’s servants. That’s a huge job description, but if not me, then who? If not today, when?
We can even dare to consider accepting God’s mission as ours because with our marching orders comes the promise of God’s glorious power and that power alone can “prosper the work of hands.” Anything we do that is not according to God’s plan is doomed to failure.

I confess I begin too many days throwing a pity party for myself for the things I am no longer able to do. Ash Wednesday is a great day to repent, to turn around and welcome whatever task God has for me now in this stage of my life. Bucket lists are popular ways we talk about the things we want to be sure we do before we die. They are a good first step toward acknowledging that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” But my challenge to myself and to you as we strive to keep a Holy Lent in 2017 is to ask not what’s on my bucket list, but take time in prayer and meditation each day to ask, “What’s on God’s bucket list for me?”