(13 April 2014)
by Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson
Matthew 26 and 27
The Passion Narratives are a central feature of each gospel, focusing on the last week of Jesus’ life.
The passion drama is a story within the story of Jesus, one that includes all kinds of losses: betrayal, abandonment, physical suffering, humiliation, and death, as well as loss of control, of relationships, and of justice.
Other scholars point out the painful truth that the passion story, written first as an internal Jewish conversation, became fodder for lethal anti-Semitism for millennia. Passion plays from the middle ages, all the way through Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” have fed into dangerous, racist stereotypes.
This ugly underbelly fits into a larger narrative of the ways in which the dominant culture uses religion to oppress and to marginalize. Christianity that is held captive to this narrative must be overthrown by the prophetic, liberating gospel we have come to know. And overthrowing is always costly, thus “the passion.”
For this reflection, I have reduced my own understanding of Jesus’ passion to a message more simple and stark: Through losses, changes, and challenges — though weary — do not give up!
I continued to press on, limping, my feet aching, slipping, sliding, desperately wanting to sit down, chilled to the marrow. Even in this sopping wet state I could feel the hot tears welling in my eyes. Eventually I cried out to God and said, “God, what is this all about? Why am I out here? What am I doing here? Am I crazy?” then came the still, small voice of the Spirit as I sensed God saying, “No, David, I am just teaching you to endure; I am just checking you out.”
Finally after some six hours Carol arrived to collect me and I could hardly bend down to get in the car. I looked at her and said, “If I were a quitter, today would be the day I quit.” But as Carol turned the car, I knew once again that God was saying, “No one, after putting their hand to the plough and looking back, is fit for the (Kin)dom of God!”
We have all been there, for many reasons, as diverse as each of our stories. Who can we go to, to admit that we wonder how we got here? We wonder if what we are doing makes a difference. We wonder if we are really crazy to care, to love, to work for justice, to minister, to do what we do, day after day. God, are you checking us out?
We are also checking You out!!! We are asking who You are, and what You want, and what You want with us in particular.
Jesus suffered his moments as well, as he journeyed to Jerusalem. After pouring himself out on a three-year, unrelenting road trip, he must have wondered, “Am I crazy? God, is this really what you want? How will it all end?”
The point of the story is, if we do not give up, if we hold on and hold out, and if we endure, we can trust the God we know in Jesus to use our suffering as the compost for something new, and good, and just. That will make a difference, changing lives and history.
I think of so many. Like those parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School (Newtown, Connecticut, USA), who bravely put their suffering to work so that others will not have to suffer the way they have. Or those LGBT people in Uganda who are standing proudly and suffering for justice with so little protection. There is a powerful intensity of “suffering transformed” that inspires awe and courage in the rest of us.
Suffering is part of being human. Unnecessary, undeserved suffering is the most poignant and mysterious of all. Jesus’ suffering and loss, his humanness before the Mystery, makes him most accessible to us, and most like us.
Finally, can we, like him, offer up our suffering and passion — our tears, our pain, our doubts, and our fears? Can we keep on and not quit until that day when hope and victory arrive at an empty tomb?
(13 April 2014)
by Rev. Elder Hector Gutierrez
The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”
“Hosanna to David’s son!”
With Palm Sunday´s celebration, we begin our spiritual itinerary into Holy Week. One more time, we are convened to the paschal mystery as Hans Urs von Balthar said, “There in Jesus´ paschal mystery we recognize that God has not just redeemed the world but disclosed God´s own being”. I think we will never understand the profound reflection in this mystery, because it overwhelms us. That´s the reason we need to come again and again to this celebration, not just once a year, but every Sunday in our worship.
Palm Sunday offers to us, in a concentrated, advanced way, all that we will celebrate during the Holy Days because present to us is the figure of Jesus, as the suffering King that is acclaimed, yet at the same time scoffed at.
This Palm Sunday, we are not just recalling what happened almost 20 centuries ago; we have the opportunity to live with the same hope those in Jerusalem showed to Jesus in his triumphal entry. The call of the Christian liturgy is for us to be keenly present to the realities of an unjust world and live into our responsibility to change it.
For me, it is so hard to imagine the Palm Sunday that Jesus experienced was a festive and organized celebration, with the people exhibiting good behavior. Of course, that is not what happened. I imagine their actions were more like an authentic, joyous manifestation of their hope. Finally, they felt it was the right moment to express loudly their expectations, not just in the spiritual way, but in their full lives with all their being. It was more like a protest, motivated by the sense that something was about to change for the better.
We can celebrate in a new way this day, remembering that Jesus made his entry to Jerusalem mounted on a donkey, showing humility, gentleness, and peace, and surrounded by the crowd that was his community. We, as MCC, can celebrate Holy Week in the same spirit by being with the people in need, showing we have the conviction to reply to God´s calling with renewed, radical, inclusive acceptance of all people.
Let me share with you one experience from my early days as a clergy person. I was ordained a catholic priest in 1994. My first mission was in a small town that had just one ranch. The new priest was required to be in charge of the ranch, which had around 50 families living on it. I will always remember the day I arrived in that community. I experienced an incredible welcome two miles before the chapel; all the people were waiting for me so they could offer a special reception with a mariachi, fireworks, and shaking hands with everybody. Of course, nothing comes without some requirement from our lives. I understood with humility, that was my Palm Sunday in my life as a priest.
In the same community, just weeks later, I experienced the other not so comfortable face, when some people would stand up and leave the chapel because I was the priest in charge to celebrate the mass. At that time, I shared my ministry with a very old, traditional, and retired priest, who used to celebrate the mass in Latin. He told the people that I, the new priest, was a product of the devil because I did not use the Latin. This experience marked my ministry and my conviction; it helped me keep in my mind and heart that I would need to be prepared to live the reality that just because I am a clergy person does not mean I would always be welcome. Not everywhere would I hear “tu casa es mi casa.”
I used to celebrated Palm Sunday in the communities with banners that showed what change was needed in the context where we lived. The crowd that welcomed Jesus in Jerusalem had the expectations that something new would happen soon. If we have the goal to welcome Jesus in our community with our palms, we need to also have the commitment to work to change the unjust things and behaviors in the world so that it can be a new day for our many siblings to expect a better future.
On this fifth Sunday of Lent, I invite us to hear the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from Martha’s perspective. What follows is what I imagine Martha would have said about what happened that day:
Oh, hello. Just tidying up a bit. You know, I have a reputation for that. You remember that story, don’t you? Jesus had come to our house for dinner — the house that my sister Mary and my brother Lazarus and I lived in — we were his family of choice, and he was always hanging out at our house. Well, I was flying around in the kitchen clanging pots and pans trying to get everything ready. I was pretty stressed out about having Jesus over for dinner, so I really flew off the handle when I noticed my sister Mary was just sitting around chatting with Jesus instead of helping me out. So I said, “Jesus, don’t you care that I am in here doing all this by myself? Tell Mary to get in here and help me.” He replied, “Martha, Martha, Martha, you worry too much. Mary has chosen the better part.”
Well, I have sort of gotten a bad rap from that story ever since, but my brother wouldn’t have come back from the dead if I didn’t have chutzpah to march down the road and meet Jesus that day.
I have to say, I was a little miffed with Jesus for not showing up sooner. Mary and I had sent word to him several days earlier that Lazarus was ill. So when I heard that Jesus was on the road just outside of town four days after we had buried Lazarus, I went out to meet him. With my hand on my hip, I said, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” And no sooner had those words come out of my mouth, I said in the same breath, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
Have you ever had that happen to you? You know, it’s like you make a complaint and a statement of trust all in one sentence. I pointed out to Jesus that because he was late, Lazarus was dead, then turned around and implied that he could do something about it. Conversations with Jesus are often like that. He is just as interested in our complaints as he is in our trust and faith.
Well, Jesus and I got into this whole theological discussion. He said to me, “Your brother will rise again.” And I thought he was talking about the belief our religious leaders, the Pharisees, had taught — that at the end of the age, the righteous dead would be raised. So I responded, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But Jesus threw me for a loop when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then he looked into my eyes and asked, “Do you believe this?”
All of a sudden, I realized Jesus had shifted the conversation to a deeper level than just what the Pharisees taught about resurrection. He was asking me about my relationship with him. So there I was, standing in the middle of the road, and by this time my hand had come down off my hip, and in the eternity that gathered around that simple question from Jesus, “Do-you-believe-this?” I answered, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It was a confession of faith that transcended any theological category or debate. Jesus was inviting me to move out of my head — thinking about him, Lazarus, what the Pharisees taught about resurrection — and to move into my heart: “What do you believe about me Martha?”
After that conversation, the strangest thing happened. Jesus went to the tomb where Lazarus had been buried for four days. There was a huge stone covering the entrance, and Jesus told those who were gathered there weeping and mourning to take away the stone. Well, you know me, the practical one. I quickly turned to Jesus and said, “Ewh! There is already stench, and you want us to open up the tomb?” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” In that moment, I knew that consenting to rolling away the stone would not only change Lazarus’ life forever, but mine too.
So they rolled away the stone, and after Jesus had prayed a very simple prayer, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” We had never heard Jesus raise his voice. I mean, it was really loud. I think that is where you get the phrase, ‘loud enough to wake the dead.’ And sure enough, a few seconds later, we saw this mummy-like figure stumble out of the tomb, squirming, trying to stay upright, trying to walk, but Lazarus’ hands and feet were still bound in his grave clothes and his face still wrapped in a shroud. We all just stood there speechless, and finally Jesus said, “Unbind him. Let him go.”
You could say this is a coming out story. Jesus is always calling us to come out. To come out of the places that are killing us — maybe it is a job, or a relationship, or an addiction, or an attitude. Jesus says ‘come out.’ Jesus is asking us to consider the things in our lives that keep us bound and stumbling — half alive: fear, hatred, resentment. Jesus says those have no hold on us as his disciples.
Oh sure, Lazarus came out that day, but I did too. I came out as a disciple of Jesus. My confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah was life changing. I had served Jesus meals in my home many times, and we had had many conversations, but that day on the road when he told me that he was the resurrection and the life, when he told me that everyone who lives and believes in him will never die — a great shift happened in my soul. Suddenly, I realized that the kind of life Jesus was talking about was ‘abundant life’ here and now. In that moment, without actually saying the words ‘come out,’ Jesus called forth a knowing in me that had been there all along, but now I was ready for it. Now I was ready to live more fully into the life that was before me.
Well, it’s about time for me to go. But before I do, let me just ask you, “How do you need to come out? What stones in your life need to be rolled away so you can hear Jesus’ voice of life more clearly?” Those are some life and death questions to think about as you journey toward Easter.
(30 March 2014)
by Rev. Elder Darlene Garner
No matter what our chronological age might be, many of us are probably still trying to make sense of our lives — to answer the proverbial question, Who will I be when I grow up? The global movement of MCC and our congregations are also beginning to engage the question, What is it that God is calling us to become and to do as 21st century people?
This is the one. 1 Samuel 16:12b
I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Psalm 23:4b
I am the light of the world. John 9:5
Everything that is illuminated becomes a light. Ephesians 5:13b
From the moment of the birth of Metropolitan Community Churches, God claimed us as God’s own and said, “This is the one.” This is the newborn Body of Christ that can heal the broken world. As diverse peoples from every nation, this is the one that can embody my unconditional love, break down walls of exclusion, and bring forth justice and peace.
MCC has gone through a lot of trials and tribulations through the years, and God has been with us every step of the way. When we were hiding in closets of shame, God led us out toward reconciliation of our sexuality and our spirituality. When our families rejected us and we were excluded from other communities of faith, through God’s grace, we created a beloved community that offers an Open Table where all people can find a place. Even when AIDS and other forms of disease ravage our bodies, God gives us the strength to overcome even as we offer comfort, consolation, and care. We have come, and are coming, through all of that and so much more. As we now look toward the future, we have no fear, for we know that God is still with us.
MCC is illuminated by the light of Christ, and the spirit of Christ shines through us. This means that even today we are the light of the world. We are still a strong beacon of light that breaks through the darkness of ignorance and fear. We illuminate pathways to wholeness, holiness, and healing. We brighten the hopes of people seeking to begin a relationship with God and the aspirations of people yearning to be free from discrimination and oppression. Just because we exist, people can pursue their life purpose, the world can find its way to justice, and all of us can know peace.
As wonderful and life-giving as MCC is, we cannot allow it to come about that tomorrow our light will have been overshadowed by the accomplishments of our past. We were not created to continue being who we were in former years. God is calling us now to transform ourselves into who God created us to become — an embodiment of God’s unconditional love that perpetually breaks down walls of exclusion and brings forth justice and peace.
Metropolitan Community Church is compelled by an unfinished calling and a prophetic destiny.
We are a global movement of spiritually and sexually diverse people
who are fully awake to God’s enduring love.
Following the example of Jesus and empowered by the Spirit,
we seek to build leading-edge church communities
that demand, proclaim, and do justice in the world.
The MCC Governing Board, Council of Elders, and Senior Leadership Team are gaining great clarity about what is needed from us in order to lead our movement closer toward this vision. We are as focused as a laser beam in pursuit of this vision. Yet YOU are the one for which the world still waits.
“It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us….
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you….
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”
(23 March 2014)
by Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson
I have always loved this story of the Woman at the Well. In the 42 years of preaching in MCC, I have never tired of this story from John, chock-full of preachable text.
Rev. Elder Ken Martin preached in the 1970’s from John 4:28, “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town….” Rev. Martin focused on what we have to leave behind to claim our new, liberating life in Christ. After all these years, I remember how I felt hearing a sermon on one phrase of one verse of one of the most lengthy stories in the gospel. That’s why I always called Rev. Martin a “preachers’ preacher!”
There are some stories, like this one, that seem divinely designed for MCC preaching, and I plan to preach on it myself in this Lenten season. Here are some possibilities:
Jesus engages a transgressive woman in a rich, challenging theological conversation. As MCC begins to engage in a time of creative possibility around our own statement of faith, how can we be as fearless, honest, and engaging as these conversation partners? Jesus interrupts her marginalization by taking her seriously as a person of faith, worthy of conversation, worthy of his time, worthy of living water. As MCCers, we embarked on a journey nearly 46 years ago of taking faith into our own transgressive hands. God is with us as we embrace our faith once again!
Sometimes I see her as a heterosexual woman who might be acting out sexually in response to abuse in her early life, whose innocence is in need of restoration. Or a drag queen engaging in a lively repartee with a handsome stranger, finding more than she bargained for, a man who would not just use her and throw her away. Or a transgender woman who is restored to community by the kind and respectful attention of an itinerant preacher from a religious and cultural background that might have put her off at first. Maybe she is a lesbian harboring her secret in a hostile culture, or maybe she is someone who has been a victim of sex trafficking who cannot imagine a different life.
Or, rather than project any possibility on to her, we can allow her to shine through in this amazing text. She gives Jesus one of his earliest opportunities for differentiating himself, for coming out as radically inclusive!
Jesus’ transgressive behavior in making a social and spiritual connection with this woman frightens and bewilders the disciples. He takes them to places and encounters they might avoid otherwise. Where is Jesus taking you — taking us — that might scandalize others?
To quote Rev. Elder Hector Gutiérrez’s favorite theologian, Schillebeeckx, in this story we come to see Jesus as the “sacrament of the encounter with God….” It is a story full of worship:
We speak about open communion in MCC, as we are “fed” at the welcome table. In this story, Jesus tells his disciples, scratching their heads, that he has food they know nothing about. That food, that living water, that generous Love that will not let us go, is here for us, right now.
Many of us have been, or could be, that woman at the well, no matter our orientation or gender identity. We are resigned to isolation and hurt; we are skeptical, tired in our spirits, and full of unfulfilled ideas and yearnings. But just scratch the surface, and we are open to liberation, miracles, healing — and to eating, drinking, and connecting with the Holy One.
(16 March 2014)
by Rev. Elder Hector Gutierrez
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Romans 5:15-17 (New International Version)
It is amazing how much we need to hear, as well as preach again and again, these words about justification to counter the rhetoric that we hear about discrimination, segregation, condemnation, and judgment toward many of our siblings, for various reasons, in different corners of this world. I think all of us are still suffering in our hearts because of the impact in Uganda from the terrible decision made by President Museveni after he decided to sign into law the bill criminalizing our LGBT siblings in that country.
How easy it can be to misunderstand and misread the Sacred Texts to condemn and to persecute people in the name of god. I intentionally do not capitalize the letter “g” in this case because I believe this decision was not made in the name or spirit of GOD. Too often, we point at who is not “following the normality” that is imposed for good conscience, even when our own thinking and actions are so far away from the real message of the God who is more human and humane than we are willing to be in many situations.
MCC, we have an immense task to fulfill. We must share the good news of “God´s abundant provision of grace.” We must live out the truth that all human beings are equals. We cannot keep silent toward the injustices that are seeking to prevail in so many places and countries. MCC, and each of us as members of MCC, have been called to offer to this world the authentic face of God through our lives and justice work. John’s gospel is clear as it reminds us, “For God so loved the world Grace came, that whoever believes shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.” (John 3:16-17)
I want to bring to this reflection the thoughts of Martin Buber [i], “Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much. Certainly it is the most burdened of all human words. Precisely for that reason it is the most imperishable and unavoidable. And how much weight has all erroneous talk about God’s nature and works (although there never has been nor can be any such talk that is not erroneous) compared with the one truth that all [people] who have addressed God really meant [God]? For whoever pronounces the word God and really means Thou, addresses, no matter what [their] delusion, the true Thou of [their] life that cannot be restricted by any other and to whom [they stand] in a relationship that includes all others.” (Martin Buber; I and Thou, Scribner Classics, 1986, NY; inclusified)
This Lenten season, more than ever, we must provide a different approach. Let us make a profound commitment to seek recourse and to fight for the rights of all humanity, to remain vigilant that we are called to be justice for all our siblings, no matter what.
[i] Martin Buber (8 February 1878 – 13 June 1965) was a Jewish Scholar, theologian and philosopher, and he is considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers. He believed the deepest reality of human life lies in the relationship between one being and another.
(9 March 2014)
by Rev. Elder Darlene Garner
God placed the human in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
And God commanded, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;
but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
for when you eat from it you will certainly die.
Genesis 2:15 (NIV, Inclusified)
Many Christian churches follow the lectionary, which provides the scripture texts around which each weekly service of worship can be designed. The lectionary usually follows a three-year cycle. The theological focus for the First Sunday in Lent this year is “original sin.”
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, original sin is a doctrine that can be taken to mean the sin that Adam committed and the consequences of this first sin — the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam. (http://www.newadvent.org/
The Baptist church of my youth taught me that because Adam sinned by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, every human being born after him is also a “sinner” who is “bad from birth” and doomed to spend eternity in hell. The only way to avoid the consequence of original sin would be by exercising one’s “free will” and choosing to deny oneself the privilege of having an independent thought in order to live only by the strict “do’s and don’ts” of the church. Then, and only then, could one have any hope of being saved from eternal damnation.
Other things came into even clearer focus when I read the book Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality by Matthew Fox (1983, published by Bear & Co., Inc.). It opened my eyes to see the vastly improved quality of life that is possible when one lives with a psychology that says, “The soul loves the body” (as in creation spirituality) rather than “The soul makes war with the body” (as in the fall/redemption theology of my youth). To this day, I choose love over war.
Then I heard this song:
Just for an hour, how sweet it would be
Not to be struggling, not to be striving,
But just sleep securely in our slavery.
My heart would say “Yes,” and my feet would say “Go!”
That somehow my sisters and I will be one day
The free people we were created to be.
(Words and Music by Carol Etzler (now Eagleheart), 1974 published by Sisters Unlimited, RR 1 Box 1420, Bridgeport, Vermont 05734 USA)
Sometimes I Wish is a folk song written 40 years ago. The lyrics are just as challenging today as they were when they were written. Carol was writing then about the specific awareness of her lesbian sisters, yet the lyrics also reveal a different meaning to the consequences of what happened when Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As I see it now, human naiveté and complacency died that day. Suddenly, Adam saw that his living was not to be about “me” but about “we.” As he chewed on that bitter fruit, he just knew that he would be accountable to God for the impact that his actions would have on others.
His (and our) eyes were opened to the truth that our attitudes and actions are almost always the sole cause of human pain, suffering, oppression, and exclusion. We have to accept responsibility for this; we have to care. We can no longer close our eyes to what we can now see. We can no longer close our hearts to one another nor deny that the so-called “other” is really just the other part of “we.”
Throughout the Lenten Season this year, let us see one another with eyes wide open and show that we care more about “we” than about “me.”
(5 March 2014)
by Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17;
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
“The Pace and Place of the Journey”
Well, here we are again. It is Lent. Ash Wednesday begins a forty-day journey (plus Sundays) to Easter. This season in the life of the Church is fashioned after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, where he fasted and prayed and struggled with temptation in an effort to discern his true relationship to God. Each year, Christians are called to slow the pace of their hectic lives and enter into forty days of introspection marked by spiritual disciplines such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting in order to discern our true relationship to God.
The pace and place of transformation and healing, says Jesus, are in secret. Our quiet center is the place of transformation. It is that quiet space, that secret space, that empty centering point in the hearts of all believers where we wait upon God to speak to us, to see us in the silence, and to name us in a deeply intimate way.
In the history of the Christian Church, the way people have made this Lenten journey is to ‘give up’ or ‘take on’ certain things. This giving up or taking on is what is known as spiritual practices or disciplines. Fasting, the giving up of food, or a bad habit, or too much television or internet; prayer, the taking on of a specific time and way to talk to God; and almsgiving, the giving of ourselves to others through acts of kindness or presence, are spiritual practices that prepare the soil of our souls for God’s work of transformation in us.
Sometimes we confuse the practice with the transformation. The practices in and of themselves do not transform us; they clear out a space in our lives for God to act. Our passage from Matthew 6 makes this point. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘if you pray’ or ‘if you give alms’ or ‘if you fast.’ He says ‘when’ you do these things; spiritual practices in the life of a Christian are not optional. I believe we are called to spiritual practices throughout the year. Lent helps us to understand this by giving us a jump start.
Jesus warns us that we need to be clear about our motivation for these spiritual practices. Some people engage in the giving up and taking on of spiritual disciplines to flaunt their willpower, or to appear holy, or to prove to God or themselves they can earn grace and forgiveness. Their practice will not result in transformation. Their practice will result in the source of the motivation: praise and admiration from others or failed self-reliance.
But when our motivation is to come before God in the secret places of our hearts, to clear a space for God to act through the practice of spiritual disciplines, then the reward is transformation in the secret places of our hearts.
For this forty-day period, all of us are invited to enter into covenant with God and one another, to be intentional about the journey we will make together. We covenant with God and one another because God is a God of covenant. God’s covenant with us is redemption and transformation. God accomplishes in us what we cannot do for ourselves.
That is the essence of the message of Psalm 51. The psalmist cries out to God: “Create in me a clean heart and put a right spirit within me. You desire truth in my inward being, so teach me wisdom in the secret places of my heart.” God does not require us to ‘work on ourselves’ until we are worthy. God doesn’t look at how holy and pure we think we are because we pray and fast and tithe. The only thing God asks of us is a willing spirit and contrite heart.
Lent opens those secret heart places in each of us. It is an intentional journey with Jesus into the wilderness. What other geography is there that invites this kind of transformation? Terry Tempest Williams says it this way
It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on.
Rev. Elder Darlene Garner
A great deal of importance was placed on burial in the Jewish religion in ancient times. Ordinary citizens, military personnel, and even criminals had to be properly buried, according to religious law. It was an old Jewish custom to place the dead in the sepulcher, which would remain unsealed for the space of three days, during which period the body was frequently visited by members of the family in the hope that signs of a return to life would be found.
Many men and women had traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Never did any of them imagine when they set out from home to follow the one who embodied their hopes and dreams that their journey would take them to Calvary instead, reluctant witnesses to Jesus’ death.
Matthew tells us that, of all the disciples who had made the trip, Mary of Magdala and the other Mary were the ones who were still around when evening came. Only they were present to watch as Joseph of Arimathea, in accordance with Jewish tradition, prepared Jesus’ body for burial, laid him in a tomb, rolled a big stone across the entry, and then went away. They were the sole ones to witness that Jesus’ body had been properly respected, the last ones to mourn publicly for him, and the only ones to keep watch for any signs of life.
The very next day, in spite of the fact that Jesus already had been crucified and died, some of the religious authorities must have been afraid that burial might not be enough to keep him down. They went to Pilate, pleading that he order the tomb to be sealed and the grave secured until the end of the third day. It is interesting that Pilate did not actually issue such an order. Instead, he told the authorities that if they wanted such an unusual thing (actually sealing the tomb) to be done, they would have to do it; and so they did. The religious authorities themselves went to the tomb, sealed it, and posted a guard on loan to them from Pilate to keep watch. And so it was in this way that everything that could be done was done to ensure that the one the authorities had killed would stay dead.
Until preparing this reflection, I confess that I had probably paid too little attention to that which took place on the day after Jesus was crucified and buried. Perhaps because of the deep sadness I always feel on Good Friday and the absolute joy that courses through me on Easter, the fact that a whole day came in between had just never before carried any significance for me. That has now changed.
I think of the times in my own life when someone intentionally put an obstacle in my way that they believed I would never overcome. I think of the occasions when others did everything they could to make sure that my dreams died, never to rise again, and when people just gave up on me. I even think of the moments when I was the one with the power and sealed another’s fate. I also think of when I’ve been in what I call the “in-between times.” This is what I call the period between the time when one door closes and another one opens or the time after “what was” and before “what’s next.” Regardless of the surrounding circumstances or anyone’s intention, the impact of all these kinds of situations is often an emotional, psychological, and/or spiritual death experienced as struggle, suffering, and conflict.
The good news of this Gospel is that even when it seems as though the circumstances are killing us, we do not have to die. I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The hotel owner Sonny says to his disappointed British guests: “In India, we have a saying: ‘Everything will be alright in the end.’ So if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.” Outward appearances are often deceiving. Sometimes it does get worse before it gets better. Do not give up too soon.
One of my favorite life coaches is Iyanla Vanzant. When writing about where God is when someone has seemingly sealed our fate or when we are in those in-between times, she offers these words of wisdom:
I once read that struggle, suffering, and conflict are like magnets that draw us closer to God. It is not until we feel totally helpless, confused, sometimes desperate, that we become willing or able to turn to the awesome power of life and living our Creator offers us. We may know God exists. We may understand our connection to God. Yet it seems that it is not until we are down or on the way down that we invite God’s presence and power into our life. It doesn’t have to be this way. God not only offers emergency care, S/He is a source of preventive care.
Your Creator always wants the best for you. Your Creator has a mission, plan, and purpose designed just for you. Sometimes when things are going our way, when they are comfortable or easy, we forget about God. We get off track, out of line; we move away from the plan, mission, and purpose. Difficulties in life are not meant to break us or break us down. Our greatest challenge may be a simple reminder, the only way we will remember that there is a Higher Authority to whom we are accountable. The real challenge we face is to keep God, God’s word, and God’s way in the forefront of our mind — in good times as well as bad.
From Faith in the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey to Peace
by Iyanla Vanzant
Our challenge this day is to enter into a state of acceptance — to know that all is well, even when we do not see or understand how it will turn out. God’s compassions never fail and are new every morning. Even when we are behind sealed tombs, we can trust that God is up to something good.