Economy | 3rd in Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9

1 All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! 2 Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. 3 Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. 4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples. 5 Look, you will call a nation you don’t know, a nation you don’t know will run to you because of the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you. 6 Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. 7 Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness. 8 My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. (CEB)

Economy

If we’ve been paying attention to and participating in the Season of Lent, this text from Second Isaiah seems almost jarring. Isn’t Lent about less, not more? Isn’t Lent about giving up our excesses, not filling ourselves with them? Isn’t Lent about fasting, not feasting? In fact, in most liturgical traditions, we avoid using the word Alleluia in Lent because it’s a joyous, celebratory word. So, what’s with this invitation to feast; and not only feast, but feast for free!? Isaiah beckons us to bask in God’s abundance: to eat, drink, and be satisfied beyond measure. It feels odd for a text in Lent. Yet, what makes this text very Lenten is that the invitation is for us to feast on the abundance that God provides rather than relying wholly on ourselves.

I remember seeing a Reader’s Digest @Work piece that told of a woman who got out of her car to go into work and she saw one of her coworkers heading toward the entrance. She was about to say “Hi” to her colleague when she heard her coworker muttering under her breath, “It pays the bills. It pays the bills. It pays the bills.” She realized her coworker was steeling herself for the day ahead: a day of work she clearly loathed.

At some points in our lives, don’t we all experience the daily grind of work, work, work as grueling and unfulfilling? Even if you’re one of those lucky few who absolutely loves what you do to earn a living, you still might have days when you feel as unfulfilled as this woman in the @Work piece obviously was. Sometimes we have to psych ourselves up just to get out of bed.

If we live in the midst of unfulfillment, it can quickly lead to depression. I wasn’t surprised when, several years ago, a psychologist colleague of mine said that most of the people he encounters every day are living in some stage of depression, whether an early stage or more advanced. “Most people” is a lot of people. I might have even been included in his quantification of “most people,” because ministry—like many other professions—is stressful work. Believe it or not, it isn’t all rainbows and Easter Lilies.

Our culture has many suggestions for overcoming this sense of unfulfilling drudgery. Some of you may have heard of Retail or Mall Therapy. It’s where you go shopping to make yourself feel better. Lots of people do it. But the problem with retail therapy is that by the time the therapy session is over, you’ve only exacerbated the problem. You’ve either added more bills to your credit card statement that have to be paid off, or you’ve blown a hole in your bank account. We kill ourselves in endless circles—not of work and PLAY—but of work and PAY.

This cycle of work and pay causes our worldview to skew toward an assumption of scarcity rather than abundance. We can never feel content when all we see is what we don’t have; when all we feel is that there isn’t enough. And scarcity is scary. It’s frightening to think that we might not have enough. And that fear piles even more stress on us.

But God has something to say about how we live. God offers us an invitation to feast, to fully sate our hunger and thirst. God offers this invitation without a hitch because money is no object. The rich and poor alike can feast on abundance. You can’t buy what’s given for free. God implores us to listen and to eat what is good.

And therein lies another problem. We don’t always want to listen to others. I know this because I don’t always want to listen to others. My kids don’t always want to listen to me. A lot of people think that if the world would just listen to them, then the world would be in a lot better shape than it is. We—Christians included—don’t always want to listen to God. We’re willfully disobedient in more than one way. We can be as hard-headed and willfully deaf to God’s revelation as the rest of humanity.

But God again calls us to listen—incline your ear—and come to God so that we can live—truly live. Those who come to God are party to an everlasting covenant which is represented by God’s steadfast and sure love, as exemplified by God’s love for David. David is set before us as an example of God’s faithfulness. God was with David throughout his life, and God made promises to David that were kept. But, this invitation to participate in God’s providential delight suggests that God’s covenant is no longer a covenant just for David and David’s line. It’s a covenant that extends to all the people.

What is it that we eat? Some would suggest that we feast on the word of God which is nothing short of grace to all who listen to it. I have a Biblical commentary series titled Feasting on the Word. Others would suggest that this invitation is an invitation to change our worldview from one of scarcity to one of abundance and contentment, trusting more fully in God’s gifts.

The prophet tells us to seek the Lord while there is still time, to recognize our sin and turn away from it. We’re invited to return to the Lord and are assured that God will have mercy and will abundantly pardon us from our sins. Fear of God’s wrath has no place here as a way of keeping us from coming to God, because God invites us to come and experience the fullness of God’s grace.

Closely related to humanity’s belief that we don’t need salvation is the fact that most people in firmly believe that our thoughts are like God’s thoughts, and that our ways are like God’s ways. I guess it’s easier to believe in an anthropomorphic God than a sovereign God who reigns above us. One of our favorite things to do is to put God in our box. After all, if God doesn’t think the way we think about what’s good and right, then God’s not a very good God.

It’s easier to try and make God conform to our image rather than recognize that we are created in God’s image. We want God to conform to our way of thinking about life and goodness rather than conform to God’s way of thinking about these things. We want to be the final authority in determining what is good and what merits salvation and eternal life rather than allow God to have God’s say regarding these things. We want God to be our obedient child, while at the same time we fail to recognize that we are God’s disobedient children.

For the people of Israel who were in exile, Isaiah points to the subtle spiritual threat that a life in exile poses for any people who live in exile. They’re invited to conform, to be integrated into Babylonian society and find their security within the confines of that society. They’re ushered into exile with open arms to become captives of transaction and materialism that are foreign to the ways of God, and the Jubilee-style economy of God. They’re enticed to participate in a culture that binds them, even as it appears to free them with an invitation to be a part of this life in exile.

For us, the state of exile isn’t so much a physical dislocation and separation from the Promised Land as it is the dislocation of our lives from reliance upon God. When the principalities and powers lure God’s people away from God’s service by false-promises of wealth, power, fame, authority, accumulation, whatever worldly thing it might be: then, we are in exile. For us, exile is a metaphor for a people of God who have accepted or resigned themselves to their full citizenship and participation in a materialistic world and do not live the life of faith.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, a much as we thought differently. God’s ways and Gods thoughts are much higher than our feeble brains can reach in the greatest height of our imagination. God is infinitely bigger than we are, yet small enough to care deeply about every single one of us: more deeply than even we can imagine.

That’s why we have Isaiah’s invitation in Lent. While Lent is a season in which we ought to practice spiritual disciplines, those disciplines are not ends. Fasting, penitence, prayer, abstinence, Bible study, sacraments, worship, these are pathways through which we move toward and experience the abundance of God and focus ardently on God’s grace.

Every Sunday, I stand before a people who are in exile, and I have to admit I’m right there in the middle of it with you. The difficult part is that we either forget or refuse to accept that we’re in exile. The enticements and lures of the principalities and powers that would draw us away are strong. They’re called “powers” for a reason: they can have power over us if we aren’t careful. If we want to be honest with ourselves during the season of Lent, we need to consider the possibility that we might be more deeply entrenched in exile than is comfortable to admit.

Yet, we have this beautiful invitation where God simply says, Come… Listen… Live…. And we are invited to feast on all the goodness of God. That’s why we gather together for worship in a spirit of confession and forgiveness. And that’s why the prophet’s words should be heard by our ears as a promise—even if it’s a promise we don’t fully understand. We are invited to “Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness. My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:6-8 CEB).

Even when we find ourselves in exile, surrounded by all the things the world offers, it’s still true that confession, repentance, and prayer lead to God’s mercy, God’s pardon, and God’s sure, steadfast love. The unending grace of God stands in contrast to society’s unquenchable thirst for accumulation. True abundance is God’s immeasurable and abundant grace.

So, even though it’s Lent, and we’re kind of supposed to avoid being too joyful with words like Alleluia, how can our response be otherwise? Even as we live in a society full of people who are tragically captive as exiles, how can our response to this invitation to God’s abundance, how can the response of anyone who has heard the invitation to turn from exile and receive God’s abundance and grace be anything less than a thankful, joyous, Alleluia!?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen! And Alleluia!

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Citizenship | 2nd in Lent

Philippians 3:17-4:1

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself. 4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

Citizenship

Do you remember the old arcade and Atari game Space Invaders? If you do, your life has just been dated. For those of you who didn’t grow up in the ‘70s or ‘80s, it’s the game that revolutionized the video game industry. If you enjoy video games today, it’s because of Space Invaders.

One cool thing about Space Invaders is that it didn’t have an end. It kept going, level after level, the invaders moved faster and faster, until you died. The only thing you could win in that game was one level at a time, and your singular goal was the High Score. A player could only strive to reach the next level, and the next level, and the next level, until your hands cramped up and you couldn’t get that last invading ship. We know from other writings that Paul described the Christian life as a game: a race you ran—and kept running.

When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he did so from a prison somewhere in the Roman Empire. So, honestly, it seems a little arrogant of Paul to tell the Christians at Philippi to imitate him. I mean, he was in prison. He was a criminal. As a Roman citizen, Paul was executed by the Roman authorities by having his head chopped off because of his crimes against the Roman State. So, why would anyone follow Paul’s example? Why imitate a guy whom the government said was a criminal?

Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to imitate him comes after he recounts a hymn about Jesus Christ: a hymn which is at the center of and pattern for his argument in Philippians. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11 CEB).

(We might remember that our Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, was also executed as a criminal by the government).

Just prior to our text, in verses 7-16, Paul describes how he has followed that same pattern of Christ’s self-emptying. Not that Paul had achieved perfection, not that he had arrived at the end-goal of the Christian life. Paul tells us plainly that he hasn’t (c.f. Philippians 3:12-13). But Paul was pursuing something he called “the prize of God’s upward call in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:14). Perfection in Christ was the goal toward which Paul strove, and he insisted it’s the goal toward which we should all strive—the race in which we should compete. Each Christian person should live in a way that’s consistent with whatever level of faith or perfection we’ve reached (Philippians 3:16 CEB).

John Wesley was one of many people who believed Christian perfection is not merely a proper aim, but a real possibility. After all, Jesus commanded us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (c.f. Matthew 5:48). And Wesley didn’t believe that Jesus give us a command that was impossible to fulfill.

But Wesley was also skeptical of anyone who actually claimed to be perfect or to have reached perfection. For him, the mark of true maturity in the Christian Faith is to know that one is not yet perfect. Perfection is the goal toward which we strive but, in this life, it’s always beyond our reaching it. Yet, perfection still is our goal, and our expectation should be to achieve it with God’s help, even as it remains out of reach.

Several years ago, Rev. Adam Hamilton spoke at Annual Conference. If you don’t know of Adam Hamilton, he’s the pastor The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. It’s the largest United Methodist congregation in the United States. He’s a prolific author. When he spoke at conference, I remember him saying that one of his habits is that he tends to categorize people on a pyramid of spiritual maturity.

The majority of people in the church fit into the largest level at the base of the pyramid. These are the children and infants in the faith (and he meant infants according to Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 3, not necessarily actual infants and children, though they fit into that category, too). The next two levels up the pyramid each denoted a smaller number of people who had reached an increased level of maturity until you finally got to the pinnacle of the pyramid. This represented the smallest number of people who had reached the highest level of maturity in the Christian Faith. (If you compare it to the old Food Pyramid, this is where all the candy and sweet stuff is).

But Adam also said that anyone who thought they were in that pinnacle category… he automatically dropped them down a level or two. The reason was that no person whose faith had matured to that level knew they were in that category. People who are at that highest level of Spiritual maturity, like Paul, know that they have so much room for growth that they’d never put themselves in it. Spiritually mature people don’t say that they’ve reached perfection or that they’re entirely sanctified because they don’t realize they are. In fact, the spiritually mature know that they are neither perfect nor entirely sanctified. Spiritually mature Christians only see room for growth.

Centuries before John Wesley, Saint Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, wrote a treatise called On Perfection in which he expressed that the essential activity of the Christian is to imitate the nature of God in whose image we have been created. But the emphasis was on each person working at a change in our nature. In fact, Gregory of Nyssa said, “Being something does not result from being called something” (Callahan, trans., St. Gregory Ascetical Works, pg. 98). We can call ourselves a Christian, but that doesn’t make us one. Saint Gregory suggested that those who identify themselves by the name of Christ should become what the name implies and adapt ourselves and our behavior to the title. Saint Gregory also said, “For this is truly perfection: never to stop growing towards what is better and never placing any limit on perfection” (Ibid, 122).

So, when Paul tells the Christians at Philippi to become imitators of him, he’s speaking from a lifetime of striving toward that same goal of patterning his life after that of Christ. Remember how far Paul has come at this point, which wasn’t too far from the date of his execution. Paul was once an enemy of the church. In the early part of Acts of the Apostles, Paul was the bad guy in the story. For him, being conformed to the image of Christ required a complete change of allegiance. In truth, that change of allegiance is required of everyone who would claim the name of Christ.

Paul offers a comparison by reminding the Philippians that many people live as enemies of the cross, whose god is their belly, and who take pride in their focus on earthly things which, Paul says, is really their shame. These people, it seems, were busy enjoying an indulgent lifestyle and being rather pleased about it. But that runs contrary to the example of Christ Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God, didn’t consider being equal with God something to exploit” (Philippians 2:6 CEB). Instead, Christ emptied himself, which led to his death on a cross. The example we have in Christ is one of self-sacrifice and self-emptying, not gluttonous excess.

In most instances in Scripture, when Paul has a disagreement with someone or some group, it’s over their teaching. In this case, it’s pretty clear that Paul disagreed with their behavior. Those who act like their god is the belly have not thought it necessary to have the same mind as Christ. Their minds are on earthly things rather than heavenly things. They keep for themselves instead of empty for others.

There is also a political bent to Paul’s words that we can’t ignore. He said, “Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20 CEB). Philippi was a Roman city, populated by many Roman citizens. They might well have been proud of their status as citizens of the distant Imperial city. Acts 16 tells us that Philippi is where Paul declared himself to be a Roman citizen.

So, on one hand, part of Paul’s intention here might be to remind the Philippians that they are citizens of a much greater country than Rome. On the other hand, it’s possible that many of the Christians at Philippi were slaves. So, to remind them that they held citizenship in heaven would have been especially meaningful. The Empire might be happy with their status as slaves, but their status in heaven was that of full citizens.

Another piece to the political bent of what Paul wrote in verse 20 is his use of the word savior. In the undisputed letters of Paul, this is the only place where the word is used. The Roman State used the title Savior for the Emperor, who was venerated as a god in the imperial cult. Our expectation is a savior from heaven: a savior with real power, not the pale shadow of power wielded by a human emperor and his government. Our savior isn’t a human ruler enjoying sumptuous feasts in his palatial estate, receiving the wealth of the world for himself.

The savior we expect from heaven is the one who emptied himself and gave himself over to death for us. Our savior is the one who created us, whose creative word called all things into existence, and that savior, Jesus Christ, will transform our humble bodies of flesh and blood into a glorious body like that of his own resurrection body.

In the final verse, Paul encourages the Philippians to stand firm in the Lord. He doesn’t tell them to wait for heaven or to pray for personal salvation. Paul wants the Philippians to live as though the dominion of heaven is shaping their lives now. We can stand firm in the Lord because the source of salvation—real salvation—comes from Jesus Christ.

We who claim to be Christians owe our primary allegiance to Jesus Christ and the dominion of God. That allegiance must come before any other claimants for our loyalty. Belonging to Christ is both a privilege and a responsibility. We, like Paul and like the Philippians, serve a savior who was condemned and tortured by the government and executed by crucifixion. Paul encourages us to stand firm in the Lord because our citizenship and salvation are from heaven.

Like Space Invaders, there’s only one way to finish the course of the race we’re running as we model our lives after the pattern of Jesus Christ. With Paul and the saints who have gone before us, let’s aim for the high score.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Thanksgiving | 1st in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

1 Once you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you take possession of it and are settled there, 2 take some of the early produce of the fertile ground that you have harvested from the land the LORD your God is giving you, and put it in a basket. Then go to the location the LORD your God selects for his name to reside. 3 Go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him: “I am declaring right now before the LORD my God that I have indeed arrived in the land the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”

4 The priest will then take the basket from you and place it before the LORD your God’s altar. 5 Then you should solemnly state before the LORD your God:

“My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. 6 The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. 7 So we cried out for help to the LORD, our ancestors’ God. The LORD heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. 10 So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, LORD, have given me.”

Set the produce before the LORD your God, bowing down before the LORD your God. 11 Then celebrate all the good things the LORD your God has done for you and your family—each one of you along with the Levites and the immigrants who are among you. (CEB)

Thanksgiving

This text brings several important questions to mind for me. Why do we worship? How does memory shape us as a people? Why do we give? To whom do we belong? These are, at their heart, deeply theological questions. One of the first things Dr. Teresa Berger, the professor of my Introduction to Christian Theology class, taught her students was that we are all theologians. Theologians are not limited to pastors, seminary professors, and seminary students. Every Christian is a theologian because thinking about God is theology.

It’s Sunday and we’re in church, so I’m guessing most of us have thought about God today. At least, I hope we have. By my professor’s definition, you are a theologian.

Deuteronomy 26 begins with an act of giving that is really an act of thanksgiving. This is a liturgy—an act or work of the people—that they should continue to do (c.f. Deuteronomy 26:16-19). The people of Israel were given this liturgy so they could remember their story. For the Jewish people, memory often proved itself the mother of faith for the way in which God’s promises were, not merely retold, but rehearsed and relived. The word re-member means to put something back together, as opposed to dis-member which is to tear something apart. This liturgy made the people remember who they are, where they came from, and whose they are.

If you look at the liturgies of the Old Testament, they almost always give instructions for what the people are to do and recount why they are to do those actions. There is purpose behind acts of worship. And there is purpose behind our acts of worship. It’s the memory that frames that purpose in our hearts and minds. “Deuteronomy knows that when a people forget their past, they lose their present and future” (Archie Smith, Jr., Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, pg.28). If we forget that God has saved us, how can we live as salvation people?

Worship helps us re-member to whom we belong. God is always the one who acts first on our behalf. God delivered the people from bondage in Egypt to liberty in the Promised Land. God delivered us from bondage to sin and death to freedom from sin and a new life that is eternal in God’s presence.

How closely do we pay attention when we work through the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving? We declare that we are all made in God’s image, that our very life comes from the breath of God. If we’ve ever wondered who we are or whose we are, our liturgy of worship declares that we belong to God, that we were made by God so that we could be loved by God. Even when our love for God and each other failed, God’s love for us remained steadfast and unwavering.

Deuteronomy also makes clear that Israel was the victim of suffering and oppression in Egypt, and God delivered them. God chose them. God moved them from a land of oppression to a land flowing with milk and honey. Are we not victims of the oppression of the evil one, sin, and ultimately death? Yet, God has come to us, claimed us, and made a way for us where there was not a way. In Jesus Christ, we have become God’s own possession and people, and we are heirs to all the promises of God alongside Israel. In Christ, we are healed of the oppression of sin, and death, itself, has been defeated by resurrection.

Then, there’s the question about giving to God. In this liturgy from Deuteronomy, the act of giving culminates in celebration with Levites and immigrants—the priests and the aliens, the insiders and outsiders. In some parts of the world, the church erupts in celebration when the pastor invites people to give for the offering. Wouldn’t that be amazing to see here? That kind of celebration can only happen when the people who give remember that everything they have is a gift from God. That kind of remembering makes people want to give; excited to give. People who understand that they are the recipients of abundance can’t wait to acknowledge that gift by returning the first fruits to the one who first provided the gift to them.

In Deuteronomy, the word most often used regarding the land is “possess.” The people possessed the land, but it is abundantly clear that the land still belonged to God. The people do not own anything. They merely possess. In a sense, they are eternally beggars who reside in a land that is not their own, who rely utterly on the unfathomable generosity of God-the-landowner. I think that’s why God tells the people to celebrate with the Levites and the immigrants because such a celebration reflects the people’s own situation as immigrants residing in God’s land, living off the bounty only God can provide.

Due, in part, to American culture, our giving has become a private, inward moment instead of the communal, outward celebration described in Deuteronomy (and found in other Christian congregations of the world). How would our own sense of what we possess and how we give be altered by the memory that we are resident aliens, that what we have is God’s, and we’re living every day on God’s gift of abundance? What kind of remembrance might it take to get us celebrating an invitation to give our first fruits and tithes to God?

I think it would take a radical shift in priorities and how we organize those priorities. Because, it’s easy to forget our identity as God’s people. The world is full of distractions that draw our attention elsewhere. In one sense, we can get comfortable with our wealth, but in another sense we can get so tied up in worrying about our wealth and the fear of scarcity—that we might not have enough—that we’re pulled away by one of the many worries of the world. That’s why Jesus told us, “Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 CEB).

When we forget—even for a moment—that all we have is from God, that we are beloved of God; when we forget whose we are; when we forget our deliverance from the bondage of sin and death; then our acts of worship, thanksgiving, and praise, themselves, can become meaningless. And we might question why we’re even bothering to show up in this place on Sunday mornings.

For example, in Deuteronomy, the giving of the first fruits of the harvest and the reciting of the story of deliverance are inseparably linked. The meaning of the people’s giving of the first fruits is found in recounting of the story of God’s liberating act for the people. Without the story of liberation—without the remembering—the act of giving would hold no meaning for the people making the offering. If we forget the story—our story—then our worship won’t make sense. It’ll feel empty.

So, how do we organize our lives, our sense of worth, our sense of self, our sense of history, and our sense of priority? How do we remember who and whose we are?

One way we can begin is by remembering our own story.

Do we remember our own story? And by that, I don’t mean our personal history—though that certainly plays a part. What I mean is, do we remember that we are a people who were utterly lost and broken (and by “we” I mean all people, not just us in particular), we were created in the very image of God yet turned away from that glory in rebellion so we could chase after our own devices and desires, we were born to live in sin and to die because of it. But God intervened in our human mess by sending the Eternal Word to be born among us, to live, to teach, to suffer, and to die on a cross for us so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

Do we remember our story? Do we remember where we’ve been as a human race and, by God’s grace, where we’re being led?

It’s important to remember. There is joy in remembering because—no matter what hot mess is going in in our lives right now—the memory reminds us how deeply we’re loved and how deeply present God is with us right now.

Why do we worship? Because more than any other thing we do, worship forms us as a people who live according to and unto God’s rule and reign of love and peace for all creation. Worship helps us to re-member whose we are, why we give, and how we’re called to live as people of the promise.

We must remember God’s work of creation, because we were created. We must remember God’s work of redemption and salvation because we have been redeemed and saved by a God who loved us before we were formed in our mother’s womb. We must remember, because Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.

With such a remembrance of who we are, whose we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re being led, what can our response be but celebration? How can we not rejoice with priests and immigrants, insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies?

In a way, the journey of Lent prepares us and helps us to remember according to this same pattern. The psalmist reminds us that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5 NRSV). Suffering comes before deliverance and salvation. This journey to the cross must be undertaken before we celebrate the joy of Easter. We must remember what God has done for us, how God has suffered for us, because it’s part of our story. The great invitation of Lent is to remember again the depth of God’s love, and the profundity of God’s overflowing grace. We were once outsiders. But now we are God’s people only because God has opened the way for us.

Do we remember our story?

How shall we respond?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Veiled | Transfiguration of the Lord

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

12 So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence. 13 We aren’t like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites couldn’t watch the end of what was fading away. 14 But their minds were closed. Right up to the present day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. The veil is not removed because it is taken away by Christ. 15 Even today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But whenever someone turns back to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom. 18 All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

4:1 This is why we don’t get discouraged, given that we received this ministry in the same way that we received God’s mercy. 2 Instead, we reject secrecy and shameful actions. We don’t use deception, and we don’t tamper with God’s word. Instead, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God by the public announcement of the truth. (CEB)

Veiled

Reading and understanding Second Corinthians is difficult. Preaching from it is even more so. It’s difficult to follow Paul’s argument when we take a small section of it, like 3:12-4:2, because Paul’s arguments are long and complex. The first words of our text: “So…” in the CEB and “Since, then,…” in the NRSV, tell us that this text continues an argument or point that Paul had made in the preceding verses.

Yet, even if we were to go back and look at the preceding verses in Second Corinthians, there’s still the problem that this letter is correspondence with a church community, and we don’t even have half of that correspondence. What we call First Corinthians was at least the second letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth (c.f. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11).

The letter we call Second Corinthians was at least the fourth letter Paul wrote to them. On one of Paul’s visits to Corinth, he experienced a falling out with the church there when one man publicly accused Paul of falsehood and no one in the church came to his defense. Paul left, and he was so upset that he canceled a later planned visit and, instead, he wrote a letter of tears in which he told the Corinthians of his overwhelming love for them. We don’t have that letter of tears.

Second Corinthians chapters 1-9 was Paul’s attempt to reconcile with the church at Corinth. In fact, having found out that the Corinthian church had punished the person who attacked Paul, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to forgive and comfort the man (c.f. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8).

But, chapters 10-13 are such a severe shift in tone from the first nine chapters that some scholars think those chapters are a fragment of yet another letter that Paul wrote sometime after he wrote the first nine chapters of Second Corinthians. So, Paul wrote at least two letters to Corinth that are now lost to history.

And, we don’t have any of the letters that the Corinthian Christians wrote to Paul, but we know that they wrote to him (c.f. 1 Corinthians 7:1). So, the obvious difficulty in tracking Paul’s already complex arguments is that we never have the whole story. That lack of information, which is a lack of context, makes Second Corinthians a little challenging at times.

What we can determine is that, in our text and in the previous verses at the end of chapter 2, Paul was defending his ministry as having come from God. The work he was doing among the Corinthians wasn’t because he was qualified for it in his own right, nor was his success at Corinth something that came from him. Rather, God qualified him for the work of ministry among them by the power of the Spirit. And, because it is a ministry of the Spirit and not a ministry of written law, Paul declares how much confidence and hope we can have that this new thing God is doing is permanent and everlasting. “So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence” (2 Corinthians 3:12 CEB).

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, on which we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. The ministry of Jesus was to reveal God and God’s deep love for every person to a broken and lost humanity. Paul used the imagery of the veil over Moses’ face to describe the separation between God and mortals, just as there was a curtain in the temple to separate worshipers from God’s holiness. But, in Christ Jesus—who is God the Word made flesh—that veil is removed. Jesus revealed God’s glory to the entire human race and opened the way of salvation to everyone.

The separation between God and human beings is taken away, and we now operate by the same Spirit that empowered Jesus for his ministry, and Paul for his. There is freedom where the Lord’s Spirit is. We Americans love the idea freedom. We believe we’re free, we will patriotically, insistently assert how free we are… even as we’re in complete bondage to almost everything around us… not to mention sin and death, and as we approach April 15: taxes. Don’t believe me that we’re in bondage? I dare you to take off your watches and turn your clocks face-down and see how long you last without utter reliance on the taskmaster-of-time telling us exactly where to be and when. And that’s only one example. But that’s not really the kind of freedom Paul is talking about.

We might ask what we’re freed from, or for. What Paul wants us to understand is that we’re free from any sense that we have to earn acceptance from God. Those illusions are shattered so that we are free to see Christ and follow him.

You see, freedom, for Paul, is not something we can accomplish or generate for ourselves. We can’t free ourselves by revolution, or smashing our clocks to bits, or gaining wealth. Freedom is a gift of God that liberates us to be what God created us to be: namely, servants to all whom we encounter. That’s what Christ did for us, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8 CEB).

We’re free to see Jesus Christ and be who we’re meant to be because God has already accepted us and forgiven us. That freedom means we can reach out in service to others—as Christ did to the world. And we can have confidence in our activity of reaching out because we trust that God will equip us in the ways we need to be equipped for the ministry we do.

We’re also free from having to worry about human definitions of success and effectiveness in the ministry we do. Where the Spirit of God is, we’re free from the fear of failure and fear of criticism.

Paul also says, “All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 CEB). Paul dares us to imagine that we are being transformed in a way that gives glory to God. As humanity was created in God’s image (c.f. Genesis 1:27), yet that image was distorted through sin, the image of God in us is being restored as we are being transformed to more perfectly reflect God in our lives.

In that sense, our lives are being transformed by our God-given freedom. Our actions, our words, our thoughts all begin to reflect Christ as though we’re looking in a mirror. The end of the chorus of the song, Lord I Need You, says, “Holiness is Christ in me.” It’s exactly what Paul is talking about here. God’s Spirit equips us. God’s Spirit works through us. God’s Spirit leads us to lives of service to others. That is the freedom we have in Christ. We are free to be transformed into the image of God from one degree of glory to another.

John Wesley described this process as Sanctification. The work of God’s grace in us does not leave us unchanged! The Christian life is a process, and Paul is a prime example of this. He was an enemy of the church, a persecutor who approved of the murder of Stephen by stoning, who traveled around with official letters that allowed him to arrest anyone who belonged to Christ so he could drag them back to Jerusalem for prosecution. It was Paul’s encounter with Christ that began a life-long process of transformation into the image of God.

As Robert Prim put it, “…no one falls head-first into the pool of God’s transforming love and emerges fully formed as a perfect reflection of Christ” (Feasting on the Word: Year C, vol.4, pg. 451). We are all works in progress. The work of God’s Spirit moves each of us from one degree of glory to the next: oftentimes our transformation comes as one baby step at a time or like a spilled jar of molasses in a deep freeze. The Christian life is one of growth and improvement as God’s Spirit is at work in us.

Even as we move forward through this process of transformation, we experience setbacks. We occasionally flounder. And there again, Paul is a prime example, and so were the churches and people to whom he ministered. As I said earlier: this letter, Second Corinthians, was written as an attempt at reconciliation after Paul and the church at Corinth had a severe falling out. We know that change isn’t always a welcome experience. At times, it’s upsetting, unsettling, and downright annoying.

It is in the nature of God’s grace, and it is an ever-loving action of the Holy Spirit, to interrupt, turn around, and overturn so that we can see Christ more clearly and reflect Christ’s image more perfectly. Change brought about by the Holy Spirit moves us to new places, opens our mind and heart to new understanding, and opens our eyes to new views.

Our hope and confidence is in Jesus Christ and in the transforming power of God’s loving grace. When we act with love and mercy toward others, we reflect Christ to them and—by God’s grace—in some small measure, represent Christ to them. When God’s love works in us and transforms us into God’s image from one degree glory to the next, we begin to reflect, not ourselves, but Christ who lives in us and moves through us.

Even during a season as disheartening as this one must have been for Paul, he says that we don’t lose heart or get discouraged. Christ is the Lord of the church. And our ministry—whatever it might be, however it might take shape—is to invite others to the freedom we find in Christ Jesus: to live in hope as those whom God accepts, embraces, and loves. In Christ, the veil is lifted, and our lives are transformed to the glory of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay