LENT — Just Passing Through

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. …
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-19 ESV)

Abraham is that man who never received the things promised.

He heard, he listened, he trusted, and he believed. In things he would never live to see.

This is what faith is.

I don’t have a home. I am a sojourner through this world, at home nowhere, belonging to no one, no kin have I who will claim me, a stranger and an exile everywhere I go. Like Abraham, I wander, a promise in hand not for myself but for my descendants.

I want a home, and I shall never have one. My home is wherever I put up my tent, water and feed my stock, sleep and wake with Jennifer. I desire a better country, a tribe that will claim me, but I shall never have that and shall never live there. I have a promise of belonging but I shall never belong.

I believe. I trust God. I thought I might live to see the promise of God, to hold it in my hand, to live in it and breathe it and be it. But instead, it is far off, a shimmer on the horizon, more mirage than substance. It is real, but only because God has made that promise, and not because I actually have hold of it.

We who are church are too at home in the world. Too comfortable with place, too attached to a people, too convinced that the way we have come to live is the promise God has made to us and to all people for all time. There is something to be learned from those who wander, that we too grasp the promise of God, perhaps more fully, because we cannot easily mistake the way we live for the promise of God.

As church, we must remember the only promise we have that means anything is that we shall be raised from the dead. Yes, we shall be a blessing and have a homeland and descendants more numerous than the stars in the heavens, but every time we actually try to secure those promises for ourselves, we fail — we act rashly and unjustly, we confuse means and ends, and we think impermanent things are really the promises God made to us all along.

We are exiles, wanderers, just passing through. That is who we really are.

LENT — Laughter

1 The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:1-7 ESV)

Laughter. Sarah says she and her husband will become objects of … well, what exactly? Ridicule? That such old people have a baby of their own, one they made in what appears to be the conventional way? (Though they had some help; this family appears to need lots of divine help to conceive children.) Amazement? Pity?

Sarah isn’t clear why people people will laugh over her. She’s just clear they will.

She names their son Isaac, Yitzhaq יִצְחָֽק, which means “he laughs.” Sarah laughed at this promise several chapters ago, when the three men who appear to be The Lord visit. She denied laughing at what is clearly the promise of God, but God — before setting out to Sodom to deal with its brutal and murderous hospitality — hears and upbraids her. “You did laugh.”

And in the passage that immediately follows. Hagar — who Sarah has no love for — laughs. The occasion of that laughter is the weaning of Isaac, and the great feast held on that day. Again, we aren’t told why Hagar laughed, only that she did. And this is the cause for Sarah to well and truly expel Hagar and her 14-year-old son into the wilderness.

Laughter.

We laugh for many reasons. Joy. Amusement. Amazement. Pity. Derision. We laugh with and at people. Sarah says everyone who knows will “laugh over her” (כָּל־הַשֹּׁמֵ֖עַ יִֽצְחַק־לִֽי). Not with her, but over her1. She sees herself as an object of pity and derision, of amazement and amusement, of the “what were they thinking?” kind of judgement.

This is what it means sometimes to receive and bear the promise of God. Derision, perplexed amusement, a condescending pity. To be laughed at, and not with. Whatever Hagar meant with her laughter, Sarah took it the worst way possible. Because she herself took it the worst way possible.

Sometimes we are bad bearers of the promise. Reluctant, doubting, past our ability to bear the Good News of God with any goodwill, magnanimity, or joy.

But we bear the promise anyway. Because that promise is not ours, it’s God’s. And while we may be recipients, we also convey that promise to others. Abraham will never realize all the promises made to him — descendants more numerous than grains of sand, a home for those very descendants, being a blessing to the nations (peoples) of the world. He received them, but they weren’t for him.

We receive them. But they aren’t for us. That’s the strange reality of this promise for God. We receive them, trust them, believe them, and carry them on for others. Because they aren’t for us, even as they are.

We are all the bearers of a promise from God that is much bigger than we are.


  1. Though to be fair, the JPS Tanakh translates this passage as “with me,” as does the Christian Standard Bible. And that has a very different implication than the ESV’s “laugh over me.” Still, Sarah’s laugh is dismissive and even a little derisive, and that suggests she thinks others will laugh that way too. ↩︎

LENT — Even in Affliction

6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.
7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” (Genesis 16:6-10 ESV)

The great question of our age is about suffering. Why does a God, who is all-good and all-powerful, allow suffering?

We try to answer that, to square the circle, to make sense of all the things we see in the world that go against what we believe in our hearts and should to be true. Many give up in despair because there is no reasonable answer.

No answer past, “who are you, mere mortal, to question the ways of God?”

God promises justice, mercy, deliverance. And we live in a merciless, unjust, unredeemed world. It makes sense to ask, “How long, O’ Lord?” or even “Where is God?”

Abram and Sarai have been made a promise — descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky or the grains on sand in the desert. God has made that promise, and then has seemingly gone silent. A promise, and then no fulfillment.

Abram and Sarai take matters into their own hands. “If God is not going to do this, we will have to do this ourselves,” they say. Sarai gives her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abram. “Go make a baby with her,” Sarai says, “and that will fulfill this promise God has made to us.”

Abram does. Hagar conceives, and looked with contempt upon her mistress — “I have done something you cannot!” Sarai regrets having done this, is cruel to Hagar, and compels her to flee.

This is a very human drama. Hopes and aspirations meet human effort, consequences no one anticipated result, and we act — whether out of anger or fear or regret, we act.

It is a very human thought, especially in modernity, especially in the wake of our murderous 20th century, in the wake of the Shoah, in the wake of all the death and suffering we are capable of imposing upon ourselves. “If God will not save us, we must save ourselves.”

But note what happens here. God does not prevent or stop Sarai from abusing Hagar. In fact, God orders her back to her abusive mistress. Indeed, when Sarah later decides to expel Hagar and her son, Ishmael, from the little tribe that Abraham, God goes along with this, and sends her into the wilderness.

There’s a lot of human cruelty here which seemingly does not concern God or to which God actively consents.

But condoning the expulsion, demanding a return to abuse, this is not all God does here. Hagar is blessed too, and given her own promise, that her son shall be blessed, and her own offspring shall be too numerous to count. The name Ishmael (יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל) itself means “God hears.” And God has heard Hagar’s cries, and her son’s cries later too, and will provide water for them both.

God is present. God promises, and God saves. But not in any reasonable way. And not in any “moral” way or “good” way that we might understand. Like Hagar, we are not redeemed from history, we are redeemed in our history. The world is not remade anew. What came before — the very human acts that set into motion suffering, dislocation, and even death — are not undone. Everything that came before matters.

Hagar is made whole with a promise. Not that she will return to Abram and take the place of honor as the one who bears the promise of God to Abram (and to us), but that God will care for her and her son in the wilderness, and that he too will become a people more numerous than grains of sand. She is promised too, and so is Ishmael.

A lot more suffering is coming in this story of the promises to Abraham — war and conquest and exile. Much of that is seen as a deliberate consequence of the failure of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac to live up to their end of the covenant they will receive from God, but all that becomes the foundation for Israel’s great question — what does it mean that God has promised us so much and we are living like this, defeated and scattered and so far from home?

It is also a reminder that God is in the seemingly small things that tend not to make up the narrative of history — unending pots of oil and flour, thousands fed with a few fish and loaves, lepers made clean by a touch or a word, water turned to wine, the blind made to see, and a dead man who rose from the dead. These are what truly matter.

LENT — Outer Darkness

1 I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
4 You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old, the years long ago.
6 I said, “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.” Then my spirit made a diligent search:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah (Psalm 77:1-9 ESV)

Where is God?

In this forsaken place, this desolate place, this place of despair and darkness, of fear and isolation, it seems like God is not here.

God is not here.

But God is also too much — too much to remember, too much to consider, too much to contemplate. The mere though of God overwhelms.

But God … is not here.

And suddenly I wonder — will God ever be here? Is God done with me? Has God walked away from me? I cry out, and I hope to be heard. I seek comfort and there is none.

I have been abandoned. Cast out. It is cold here, I am alone here, in outer darkness, where I wail and am not heard, where I meditate and collapse. Where I exchange words for mere incoherent lament.

God … is not here.

Have I earned this? Probably. I have earned all that is coming. And this … this being forgotten, left unheard and unconsidered, is no doubt my doing as well.

But I have earned nothing from God. I deserve nothing from God. Not a hearing, not consideration, not redemption. I certainly do not merit grace. Because then … it would not be grace.

I will remember the past deeds of the Lord, who spoke to me in fire and terror, who made himself known to me in a gentle snowfall, who has made ways in the wilderness and who has come to me in the past in moments of worship. The deeds of the past are the promise of the future.

God is here … somehow.

God is silent. But God is here.

God has delivered. And so … I shall trust. He is not done with me. I have earned outer darkness. I am a wretched man but God has done wonderful things to me and through me and with me.

God is silent now.

But he has not always been silent.

And he will not always be silent.

Selah.

SUNDAY — Repent and Believe in What, Exactly?

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:9-15 ESV)

I am close to finishing the first, rough draft of my novel, Kesslyn Runs. I say first rough draft, because this will be draft zero. I began this novel with one set of ideas in my head and as I wrote, the setting and the characters evolved. So, once I get the final chapter in place — I have three scenes left to write — I will go back and revise, update a few things, rewrite a few scenes, add, subtract, the usual work of getting to my real first draft.

The next scene I have to write is a baptism. It takes place in the waters of Moses Lake (there’s an actual lake here, twisting as it does snakelike through the scrubland; it’s kind of seasonal in nature, the amount of water being higher in the spring and summer irrigation seasons) during early May some years from now, and two of my characters are getting baptized. As I envision it, they will go under the water and come up with some idea that they are different people, that something profound has happened to them in the waters of Moses Lake. One of the characters has had some religious visions, but the other — a teenage girl, the Kesslyn has run away — is only beginning to wrap her mind and soul and heart around what she been invited to join.

I would like to have been baptized that way. Instead, I had water poured on my head as I leaned over a baptismal font in an ELCA church in Alexandria, Virginia.

And you only get baptized once.

I honestly had no idea what it was I was called to believe that day in September, 2001, when Jesus spoke to me. I know that very little has gone right, or according to plan, since then. I have no future with the institutional church, it has forsaken and abandoned me, cast me off, someone who is clearly beyond redemption and has no place among the called. I had this ministry, but a year ago I found out it was mostly a fraud, and while some real kids have found their way to me, it has been hard to tell the real from the fake. And it is hard to want to expend emotional energy caring about people who aren’t even real.

All I have left is this web site, which I have too long neglected. And this novel, about monks who rescue abused foster kids, about the failed pastor turned self-proclaimed abbot who leads them, about the girl whose escape plunges them all into chaos, how they live together, lives centered on daily worship, and how the liturgy and the eucharist helped them center their lives and find meaning.

It’s the community I want to live in. It’s the parish I want to pastor. It isn’t real, and it can’t exist, so I make it up, and hope … hope that this will speak to someone. Somewhere.

But this isn’t where I expected I would be 12 years ago, when I started seminary. It isn’t where I thought Jesus would lead me.

And yet here I am.

Jesus emerges from forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil, ministered to by angels (we don’t have that account, which is odd if you think about it), to speak to the people of home region. He proclaims what Mark calls “the gospel of God,” εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ, the good news of God. The time is fulfilled, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is at hand, so repent and believe in this good news.

We aren’t told here, however, what exactly this good news is.

It might be “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jonah got Ninevah to repent of its sin with far less, though he was threatening them, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!”

What time is fulfilled? What is the Kingdom of God?

This passage is about Jesus. We don’t see here how the people around him react to his being proclaimed “beloved Son” with whom God is well pleased. Or his pronouncements. We just have Jesus, wandering around Galilee, proclaiming something we are told is good news. That we should repent, turn, and believe in that good news.

But we aren’t really told what it is.

Because I’m not sure the Gospel is a thing, a set of ideas, a statement of truth that we can confess.

Jesus is the Gospel. He is this good news we are asked to believe in, have faith in, trust. He is the time fulfilled, the Kingdom at hand. I think Mark’s whole gospel account bears that out, as we witness Jesus calling and casting out and healing and teaching and feeding and entering Jerusalem and breaking bread and being betrayed and suffering and dying and finally rising from his tomb in a way that leaves us all utterly terrified.

He is the gospel. He is the good news. We follow him because that’s what trusting and believing in him means. He is the way, the truth, the light, the good news that all will eventually be overthrown and redeemed, restored and recreated.

Yet forty days, sisters and brothers, and we shall witness our salvation. The kingdom of God is at hand, calling us to follow, gathering us and leading us onward out of darkness and death and into life eternal. Repent, and trust in that good news.

Amen.

LENT — He Saw Their Faith

1 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. 2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he rose and went home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:1-8 ESV)

It’s not just me and God.

It’s not just you and God.

It’s us and God.

The paralytic here is brought to Jesus by “some people,” some unnamed friends or neighbors is merely folks who have heard about Jesus and said, “We know someone who can make you well!” They carried the man, these unnamed “some people,” whatever awkward distance was needed to get to Jesus.

Jesus saw their faith. Their faith. The faith of the unnamed people carrying the unnamed paralytic. Together, they all had an inchoate hope in the power of Jesus to heal. Whether they expected forgiveness or not, I don’t know. But because of their faith, Jesus tells the paralytic to take heart, his sins are forgiven.

We are supposed to be a community called to follow God, not isolated individuals, not atomized and alone in the face of God. Sometimes we carry others, sometimes we are carried, to meet a God who can both forgive our sins and command us to walk simply because we — we together — hope.

We hope not for things for ourselves, not for wealth or power, but for daily bread, for the lame in our midst to walk, the possessed in our midst to be free, the blind in our midst to see, and for those who have been cut off from us — or have cut themselves off, possibly on purpose — to belong again.

Jesus commands the man to walk, and he is healed. He gets up and walks. And the crowd is afraid, because God had given such authority to men — τοῖς ἀνθρώποις. Plural. What authority is this? The power to forgive, to heal and command the lame to rise?

Or is it the power to hope for others, to have a faith that is bigger than our individual selves?

Because we are not alone. We hope together. We yearn together. We have faith together. We confess our sins together, seek repentance together, and hope for our redemption. Together.

LENT — We

This should have been yesterday’s Lenten devotion.

1 In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.
3 Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. 4 I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. 7 To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. 8 To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. 9 To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him 10 and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. 11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. 12 He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. 13 As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. 14 Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice.

We.

We.

This is Daniel’s prayer for today, and like many of the great prayers of scripture, it is said in the plural. Not I, but we.

My favorite prayer in all of scripture, in Judges 10, finds Israel enslaved and oppressed by the Philistines and the Ammonites. Israel cried out, “We have sinned against you,” and God, for a moment, abandons Israel to its fate. “Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in your time of distress.” To which Israel responds with with despair or confidence or some measure of both:

We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day. (Judges 10:15)

We have sinned. Save us.

In Nehemiah 9, all Israel gathers to repent. We are slaves because of our sins, Israel says as it recounts the story of God’s calling, God’s redeeming from captivity, and the idolatry of their ancestors.

And when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, it is “our father” and “give us this day” and “lead us not into temptation.”

We. Us.

This is not some prayer of Jabez seeking selfish gain. This is not some magic talisman calling us to our best lives ever. This is not some contrite individual begging God for forgiveness. This is the whole people of God confessing its sin and seeking the promise of God’s redeeming grace.

One man is speaking, yes, but speaking for the whole people of God.

Daniel’s prayer is our condition. As we stand at the beginning of this 40 days of repentance, we remember — we remember — that we are not simply individuals, we are a people, called and gathered, lost and found, exiled and redeemed, waiting for the one who has and will deliver us from captivity. A captivity into which we have been delivered as a consequence of our sinfulness, our faithlessness, our inability to be the people God called us to be.

All of us. Not some, not many, but all of us. There is no righteous remnant that can claim to have survived the disaster because of its faithfulness.

There is no avoiding the calamity, no avoiding the price we pay for our sin, our idolatry, and our faithlessness. There is no avoiding the next 40 days, the path we must walk, the repentance we must do, and the place it leads us to.

ASH WEDNESDAY — To Be Broken

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:1-17 ESV)

The introduction to this psalm says, “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This is a confession, an admission of guilt, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. David has taken a man’s wife — how consensual it all was we do not know — impregnated her, and then killed the husband, a loyal and dutiful soldier, when he refused to unwittingly cooperate in his own cuckolding.

I like David. He’s a sinner who rarely thinks about what he does, and yet God seems to love David no end. But here, David is a bad man. He has lusted and coveted and murdered and possibly raped. And he doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong until Nathan confronts him with it all in the form of a parable.

We all need the confrontation sometimes, when we have done wrong, when we have sinned.

When confronted, David didn’t argue, didn’t try to justify himself, didn’t get angry with Nathan and try to send the prophet away. He listened, and he heard, when Nathan said “You are that man!” And he believed.

He could not undo all the terrible things he did. But he could be broken, he could understand, he could acknowledge his wrong and repent. That he could do.

David sings here that the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. These, and not burnt offerings, are what God asks of us, what God will accept.

We who are broken — sometimes by God himself — come to God, contrite, ashamed, guilty. With things we cannot ever undo. With pain and suffering inflicted that will never be made right. And yet, we want to be made right. Let us be your people again, whole, blameless, justified, redeemed. Let us be your people again.

And so, silently, today, we listen — you are dust, and to dust you shall return. People of God. Thoughtless. Selfish. Frightened. Broken.

Beloved.

LECTIONARY — How to Behave

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:14-16 ESV)

I think I have confessed before here that I am not as knowledgable of the content of Paul’s letters as I should be. In large part, that is because Paul’s letters are letters, and not stories, and I find them harder to follow or even to be interested in.

But it’s also in part because we treat Paul more as a lawgiver than as a prophet. Paul’s “law” becomes both judge and gatekeeper — it determines who is in and out of the community (as he seems to intend in some of his letters) and whether or not we are actually church.

It’s the second one I struggle with the most, since it takes something of a Calvinist approach to the law — God wouldn’t give us a law we can’t keep, so if we don’t keep it, we aren’t God’s people. This goes against the entire meaning of the biblical story, which is about God calling a people who cannot keep his teachings, and God’s faithful struggle with that faithless people as God moves ever close to doing all the work this faithless people cannot.

We are church, whether we follow the teaching or not, because we are a people called and gathered by God.

The remnant are not a remnant because they are faithful, but rather they will be made faithful because they are the remnant.

Paul does tell us how to behave. The first letter to Timothy is full of instructions for deacons and elders. But here, he also gives us a marvelous confession of our faith. Christ is the mystery of godliness, and no matter how we act, Christ is our righteousness. I have to confess, I’ve never really seen this little hymn before, and it is truly beautiful.

And one of the ways we behave in the household of God is to proclaim and confess this faith. Together. A reminder of who we are.

LECTIONARY — Tell No One

2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. (Mark 9:2-10 ESV)

I’m not always the best reporter. Sometimes, when I’m sitting down to write a story, I find that there are questions I should have asked that I didn’t, and I either have to wing it — write my way around the glaring omission — or get on the phone and hope whoever it was I talked to gets back to me on time.

I think about this because of the awkwardness of the three disciples who travel up the mountain with Jesus. Peter doesn’t know what to say, so being hospitable around the risen dead — well, at least Moses died, and was buried, and is now somehow here; Elijah was taken bodily into heaven without dying first — strikes him as the best thing to say in the situation.

And when Jesus commands them to tell no one what they have seen until he has risen from the dead, the three disciples — already terrified — are far too frightened to ask him what he means.

They do what we all do — speculate among themselves what Jesus meant when he said risen from the dead, and hope they arrive at some kind of reasonable conclusion.

This is not a way to get answers. I know this after I sometimes am sitting with a scribbled quote wondering “what did this person mean when he or she said it,” and not being entirely sure, and not really wanting to do the work of getting clarity.

Tell no one what you have seen, Jesus says to Peter, James, and John. This spectacular event, the return of Moses and Elijah, the declaration from on high, “This is my Son; listen to him,” (a reiteration of what God spoke to Jesus when he was baptized in the Jordan River all the way back in Mark 1), all this seem to be an incredible revelation. Why keep silent about it? Why tell no one?

It is because, I think, that this second declaration of sonship, made to the three disciples, is not supposed to make sense outside of the entire story of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Son of Man, with whom the Father is well pleased.

Glory, sonship, the command to listen, none of it makes any real sense without what comes next — betrayal and suffering and death, followed by a rising that also leaves us terrified and perplexed.

And that also suggests that fear, confusion, and incomprehension are a part of this call, part of what it means to follow Jesus up the mountain, into the city, to join him in the upper room, to fall asleep with him in the garden, to linger — hopefully unseen — around the courtyard of the priests, to gather at the foot of the cross, and to wonder at the empty tomb.

It is okay to be frightened, confused, and to not know.

Because we are with Jesus.