The Sunday Sermon: First Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017
Scripture: Exodus 3:1-2, 7-15
Lent One: Theology
Forty days, not counting Sundays. The Season of Lent. Forty days that are meant to remind us of the scriptural accounts of the forty years that the ancient Hebrews spent wandering in the wilderness and the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying, before beginning his public ministry. Forty days that we, too, are to fast, pray, discern, and decide who our Lord will be, and how, as we follow the Way of that Lord, we may be saved. Forty days … not counting Sundays. Wait a minute.
Why aren’t we counting Sundays? Instead of starting Lent every year on a Wednesday and not count Sundays to make it forty days, why not start on a Monday and count Sundays to make it forty days? Call it Ash Monday and begin then. Why not count Sundays?
Maybe you’ve read the insert and know one response, already. In case you haven’t, here it is: In the ancient church, before any splits, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant, when there was just “one holy and apostolic Church,” Sundays were, of course, a “feast day” for all. Every Sunday was a celebration of the love of God for the world in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Every Sunday was a little Easter. Ever Sunday was a celebration all to itself. So, while sacrifice was not prohibited – one could certainly keep their discipline of “giving up” or “taking on” – it was not required. So, Sundays didn’t count in the forty days of Lent.
I’m taking up that understanding for us this year in our Lenten season. And while, I certainly encourage you to maintain your “fasts,” and your Lenten disciplines, but on Sunday mornings together in this sanctuary, we’re going to feast – on the Word of God and on six doctrines of our church. I’m going to stretch us in our understanding of that Word and in our enactment of those doctrines so we may fill the table with “food for thought” and then dig in to the feast and discover the many, many ways we may experience and express God, Christ and ourselves, community, our world, and our work for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Let’s begin in prayer … Pray with me …
And continue with our first feast. God … Godself. Theology. Where in the world do we begin? This section of my manuscript changed a lot in the last few days, but I finally decided on this and typed it up: Close your eyes. (Go on …) Clear your head, your thoughts your mind, as much a possible. Every time a stray thought about the day ahead or the most prominent ache you’re feeling creeps in, push it out. Be as clear as you can and identify what comes into your mind when I say the word … God. Clean slate, clear mind … God.
Now tell me …. What “came to mind?” Congregation shares …
I was hoping for as much. Our experience is one source of three that we use for moral guidance as we think of things religious. It’s the last source we use, most often, to share with others or to authorize our actions, mostly because it’s so “personal” and prone to reflect more of our personal hopes and expectations. We just heard that in the responses shared, variety. But it is a source, and I believe a powerful one, in guiding us.
The second source we most commonly turn to is tradition. The church’s tradition is not quite as “varied” in its expression of “God.” In fact, hardly varied at all until the last fifty or sixty years. But even with feminist, liberationist, and non-theist expressions of Woman Wisdom, the global poor, and the “Ground of All Being,” the primary expressions of “God” remain patriarchal and transcendent. I discover that each year during our Confirmation class as we explore this, the first “mystery” of our faith. God as “he” and as “external to life” rule the minds and imaginations of our eighth graders. That’s not wrong. It’s just … incomplete.
So, this morning we turn, as we always do on Sunday morning, to our bible. The third and initial source for our moral guidance as Christians. Now, I know, as we turn to our scriptures that for Christians the revelation of God is found most profoundly and completely in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ. And the scripture that reveals this revelation is found most directly in the New Testament. But I’m going to read this morning from the first Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, almost from the beginning. I’ll read a very familiar passage about the first person in our bible to be called as a messenger by the mystery we’re feasting on this morning.
Listen for the Word of God … Read Exodus 3:1-2, 7-15 The Word of the Lord …
So there we have it. In the second book of our biblical canon, in a dialogue with the first person “verbally” called by God to “go to the people,” after exploring our personal experience and the church’s tradition just a wee little bit, we discover in scripture who the mystery at the center of the universe, the mystery we most commonly call “God,” is. God … (um, well) … is. That’s who God is. Is. A conjugation of the verb “to be.” The mystery, itself, in our reading, names itself “I am.” The mystery, the “More” we experience, the sacred, the divine, “God,” is … is.
The divine name is the first and most central affirmation of any person of any religious faith anywhere, an affirmation of the reality of something more in the midst of all creation, in the unseen “crevices” of all that is seen and heard and touched, in the depth of all that exists. God is. If we say we are a religious (or a spiritual) person, then we must say “God is.” There is no arguing this for us. And yet we can’t stop arguing, can we? Why? Because we just can’t stop in the place that our scripture account says “God,” Godself stops, that is, in the verb. We have to keep going. We have to add more words to answer Moses’ questions, to satisfy our own sense of incompleteness, to provide a deeply desired certainty and security that very frankly our scripture and our “God” don’t offer.
God is … (fill in the blank without a period).
Transcendent. God is … imminent. God is … external and supernatural. God is deeply internal and part of creation. God intervenes. God interacts. God is primordial. God is consequent. God is judgment. God is love. God is “he”. God is “she”. God is Jesus, Spirit, three-in-one. God is good. God is great. (Now we thank God for our food …! I couldn’t resist.) But none of that is what the mystery itself says about itself. Or more accurately, all of that is what the mystery says about itself. “I am … all of that …” and so, so much, much more.
And yet, we insist on making “God” only some of that, or worse, only one of those. I can’t help making the connection between our insistence on limiting the expressions we use for the experiences we have of the mystery we call “God” with the most recent Public Religious Research Institute study of the “religiously unaffiliated.” Brandon has been leading us in deeper discussion of generational involvement in traditional worship in the Thoughtful Christian class the last two Sundays. I find it no wonder at all that thirty-nine percent of youth and young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine check the “none” box when asked if they belong to a religious community. Thirty-nine percent! Now, do you think that’s a statistic for the wider world, for others and we’re any different? Look around you. How many eighteen to twenty-nine year olds do you see here?
In 1922 (!), Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist called to serve First Presbyterian Church in New York city, and later Riverside Church, noted that
Ministers (and I’m going to widen the lament to include all of us!) often bewail the fact that young people turn from religion to science for the regulative ideas of their lives. But this is easily explicable. Science treats a young (person’s) mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young (person): “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any (one) who is worth while, turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.”
Fosdick concludes this thought, saying, “My friends, nothing in all the world is so much worth thinking of as God.” But we have somehow managed to get thirty-nine percent of the youth and young adults of our country to stop thinking about it.
This “demographic group, and those in groups younger and older than them, are not denouncing the reality of a “More,” of something sacred in this world, in creation. Oh, some may be, but most of those “nones” have a powerful sense of a sacred something present in the world and in their lives. It’s just not the sacred something of, “the God” of, the church (or the Temple or Mosque). Because we’ve limited the sacred something to “certain, specified, predetermined conclusions.” We’ve taken the “feast” off the table and offered up a restricted diet of bread and water.
Well, not this year. Not on these uncounted Sunday of Lent 2017. On these days we feast. Remember this in your Lenten prayers and reflections, your fasts and sacrifices, during the remaining thirty-six days, not counting Sundays of Lent this year: Anytime during these days, when you’re thinking about God, and you start thinking about something that “is” or “isn’t” … then tell yourself, you’re not thinking about God.
God is. “I am,” says the mystery. God is.
God is compassion. God is inclusion. God is mercy. God is promise. God is the holding of hands, the sharing of tears, the joining of laughter. God is relationship, collaboration, and conversation. God is joy, and hope, and peace. God is you as you give joy, offer hope, and work for peace. God is love. God is … Now that’s a feast.
Can you imagine the guests who may arrive, or who just might return, if we would only set our table with the feast that is ours to consume?
Let’s sing, make or offering and then gather together at our common table on this, the first feast day of Lent 2017.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / March 5, 2017