An Undisciplined and Dissipated God

“Let us begin the Fast with joy. Let us give ourselves to spiritual efforts. Let us cleanse our souls. Let us cleanse our flesh. Let us fast from passions as we fast from foods, taking pleasure in the good works of the Spirit and accomplishing them in love that we all may be made worthy to see the passion of Christ our God and His Holy Pascha, rejoicing with spiritual joy."
This is the Hymn on the 1st day of Great Lent as it is celebrated in Orthodox churches around the world.  According to Fr. Nicholas Ceko, Dean of St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Alhambra, California, In the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church, the first day of lent is known as ‘Clean Monday.’ It is the day on which we, the Church, joyously begin Great Lent.  The happy, springtime atmosphere of Clean Monday sets the tone for the Lenten spirit of repentance and self-control, as described by Jesus our Lord in the Gospel.”  He continues to describe “Clean Monday” as a day in which many Orthodox Christians go “out to parks with their children, fly kites, and spend time outdoors in the natural beauty of God’s Creation” -  a custom that “serves to break through our routine in order to take time for the simple things of life and see the goodness and beauty in all that God does for us!”[1]
Growing up, I hardly recall my Lenten experiences as “joyous” – give up chocolate or, when I was a bit older, give up caffeine (talk about non-joyous deprivation!) – and this while I was yet a Presbyterian – a fairly austere lot to begin with!  But even in the Episcopal Church, our Lenten observance is marked by a somewhat somber tone – flowers and other decorations removed from our places of worship; colorful vestments set aside as the non-descript Lenten array drapes over pulpits, lecterns, altars and clergy alike; and the ‘a’ word replaced by ‘paralegal’ or another 4-syllable word in choir rehearsals leading up to the celebration of Easter [sing the Celtic Paralegal].
But a few years ago, through Facebook, I learned of a movement in the Church of England called “Love Life, Live Lent” – a movement which since 2007 has encouraged nearly half a million people to take part in daily acts of generosity and caring, building deeper relationships with our neighbors, our communities and with God.[2]  This year, I discovered another UK Lenten movement called 40 Acts: Do Lent Generously – forty days of giving back, doing good and living generously.[3]  What I’ve enjoyed about both of these movements is that they really help me to remember the point of Lent: self-examination and repentance? Absolutely.  Deprivation and austerity? Absolutely not.  Norman Wirzba , Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School, writes,
“The time of Lent is not about saying ‘No’ to anything made or provided by God. It cannot be, because everything God has made is good and beautiful, a gift and blessing that God has provided. . . If there is a ‘No’ that has to be said, it will be a ‘No’ directed to the distorting and degrading ways we have developed in appropriating these gifts.”[4]


“Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.’”[5]  So begins our gospel story this morning.  The younger of the two sons says to his Father, “I want right now what’s coming to me” and upon receiving his inheritance, he “packed his bags and left for a distant country. There undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had” (that’s the way Eugene Peterson tells the story in The Message).[6]  I had to look up “dissipated” – it means “to spend or use up wastefully or foolishly.”[7]  With our critical eyes - some of you perhaps, with the wise eyes of parenting – we look at this young man and shake our heads knowingly.  How stupid. How foolish. How careless. How wasteful. And then, perhaps if we are willing to be honest, we might look into our own critical eyes in a mirror and quietly whisper, “how like me.” 
No, most of us haven’t squandered away all that we’ve been given, we haven’t been completely undisciplined and dissipated, throwing caution to the wind.  Perhaps we are carefully saving for a rainy day, perhaps we are giving a percentage of what we’ve received to our church, perhaps we are living, on the whole, quite responsibly.  And yet, might there be some ways in which we too are blind to the consequences of our actions?  What choices do we make each day that have an impact on others in our global community?  Do you know if the stores you shop at treat their employees well?  What choices do we make each day that have an impact on others in our own households?  How much time in your calendar is blocked off for your family? How willingly do we allow other appointments to encroach upon those precious minutes or hours of time?  Lent – a time for self-examination and repentance, to be sure.  And such an honest look at ourselves can be painful – something we’d rather avoid. And perhaps that is where our Lenten practice can feel a bit devoid of joy. And yet, what is the promise of that honest look?
For the undisciplined and dissipated son, such a willingness to look at his situation honestly was enough to turn him around, to send him back home to his father.   And he went back home, expecting very little – hoping beyond hope that perhaps his father might bring him on as a hired hand so that he would at least get three meals a day. He even practiced his speech on the way home: ““Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”[8] Perhaps he recited it as a mantra to guide his steps.  “Father, I have sinned. . . . I am no longer worthy. . .  . Father I have sinned. . . .”
But before he even had a chance to say these words to his father, “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  The son began his practiced speech, “’Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you’ . . .  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 4for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”[9]
How stupid. How foolish. How careless. How wasteful. How absolutely undisciplined and dissipated of our God.  Thanks be to God!
“Let us” continue our Lenten “Fast with joy. Let us give ourselves to spiritual efforts. Let us cleanse our souls. Let us cleanse our flesh. Let us fast from passions as we fast from foods, taking pleasure in the good works of the Spirit and accomplishing them in love that we all may be made worthy to see the passion of Christ our God and His Holy Pascha, rejoicing with spiritual joy."
May this be a season when we take time to go outside to fly kites, to spend time in the natural beauty of God’s Creation, a time when we break free of our routine in order to take time for the simple things of life and see the goodness and beauty in all of the undisciplined and dissipated things God does for us not because we deserve them, but because God loves us and wants nothing more than to run out to us, put his arms around us and kiss us.

[1] Nicholas Ceko, “On the Beginning of Great Lent, the Holy and Saving Forty Days,” St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Church website accessed online March 20, 2014.
[2] Love Life Live Lent,  accessed online March 20, 2014.
[3] 40 Acts, accessed online March 20, 2014.
[4] Norman Wirzba, “Preparing for Joy,” Lent, vol. 46 in Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, (Waco, TX: Baylor Universtiy Center for Christian Ethics, 2014), 12.
[5] Luke 15:11, NRSV.
[6] Luke 15:12-16, The Message.
[7]Dissipate,” Merriam-Webster, accessed online March 20, 2014.
[8] Luke 15:18b-19, NRSV.
[9] Luke 15:20b-24, NRSV.


Believe God. End Stop.

“Abraham believed God.”  Three simple words that make a world of difference.  Much of our language about belief refers to “belief in.”  A child might ask a playmate, “do you believe in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus?”  Politicians tell us whether or not they believe in global warming?  Scientists are sometimes asked, “don’t you believe in creation?”  Even our baptismal covenant, shaped as it is by the words of the Apostles Creed asks us “Do you believe in God?”  But in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, there is no IN --- the text does not say, “Abraham believed in God;”  it says quite clearly, “Abraham believed God.”  Three words – not four – and it makes a tremendous difference.
Brian McLaren, the featured video-speaker at last Tuesday’s Lenten program, published a book in 2004 with the best title ever:  A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian.  And by the way, I recommend the book for much more than its title!  In it, McLaren describes the Jesus of his childhood - Jesus calming the sea, Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus, Jesus talking to the woman at the well  - familiar stories told by women in Sunday School classrooms whose only props were flannel boards and felt-backed cutouts of big boulders, a simple home, and familiar Bible characters.[1]  But then he writes,
“When I reached my teenage years, though, I lost that Jesus as one loses a friend in a crushing, noisy, rushing crowd. The crowd included arguments about evolution. . . arguments about the Vietnam War. . . arguments about ethical issues like civil rights and desegregation and a hundred other things. I wondered if women were really supposed to be submissive to men and if rock ‘n’ roll was really of the devil. Were Catholics really going to burn in hell forever unless they revised their beliefs and practices to be biblical like us?”[2]
This story comes to my mind, I think, because it strikes me as the difference between “belief” and “belief in.”  Our childhood faith seems more like that Abrahamic faith of simply believing God. End stop.  Whereas, once we start thinking, our faith often gets mired in matters of the type of God we believe in. It becomes less about relationship and more about dogma and doctrine.  It’s too bad really; because, at the end of the day, which is more compelling?  Or more importantly, which is more fulfilling?
In Abram’s encounter with God which we heard in this morning’s Old Testament reading begins with an invitation and a promise:
“'Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' So Abram went.”[3]
Abram didn’t stop to ask, “what kind of God are you?” Abram simply believed – Abram accepted the relationship and found himself blessed.
           We can avoid many of the pitfalls of believing IN by simply believing God.  When we believe in we engage in all kinds of divisive debates about the nature of God . . . the nature of humanity. . . creedal statements [riffed here, sorry readers] . . . when we believe, we are blessed --- by abundance, by grace, by love, by promise, by hope . . . by a future that is secure.  So that when St. Mark's celebrates its 300th anniversary, may they write of us, "and they believed God."

[1] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 44.
[2] Ibid., 44.
[3] Genesis 12:1b-4a.


Game Over in the Wilderness

Sermon Preached on March 9, 2014
Lent 1A – Matthew 4:1-11
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)

On Ash Wednesday, the liturgy for the day includes an invitation to the observance of a Holy Lent.  The invitation includes a number of specific acts to be undertaken during this 40 day season: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  Historically, this 40 day period was a time in the early Church in during which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism, that great sacrament through which we are adopted as God’s children and made members of Christ’s Body, the Church.  The 40 days of Lent are, as Bishop Jeff Lee, wrote in his Ash Wednesday reflection, “about the pilgrim way we all walk together toward the waters of new life waiting for us at Easter.”[1]  In other words, our entire Lenten journey is preparation for baptism – or for those who have already been baptized, preparation for the renewal of the baptismal covenant.

The connection between the Lenten wilderness of 40 days and baptism is made quite clear in this morning’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel.  “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”[2]  Baptism and wilderness:  for Christian living, the wilderness is unbearable without baptism and, perhaps more significantly, without the reality of wilderness living -  wilderness temptations - our baptism is rendered meaningless.  

 “The tempter came and said to Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But Jesus answered, ‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”[3]  In Baptism, the candidates are asked, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”[4]

 “Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”[5]  In Baptism, the candidates are asked, “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”[6]

  “Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”[7]  In Baptism, the candidates are asked, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”[8] And In the world of some of the best arcade games of the 1970s and 1980s, our response – “I renounce them” – might be punctuated with flashing lights and the words, “GAME OVER!”

“After Jesus was baptized” he was in the wilderness for “forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished” and then, as if hunger wasn’t challenge enough, the temptations began.  But through the experience of Baptism, Jesus was ready.  For in baptism, Jesus learned the most important truth when “as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”[9] In baptism, Jesus learned his true identity – beloved child of God – and in the wilderness Jesus was given the opportunity to put on this new identity – an identity rooted in the stories of his faith and an identity rooted in the covenant relationship between God and humanity: “’Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him ‘ . . .and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”[10]

Forty days in the wilderness, forty days in the season of Lent, a season in which we are being invited to put on our new identity in Christ – beloved children of God – and to allow that identity to seep into our very being so that when faced with temptation – whether the temptation is for more power, more recognition, more money, more control – so that when faced with whatever temptation comes our way, we can turn once again to the promises made in baptism to find that sure footing in our true identity, beloved child of God. 

A few weeks ago there was a short essay in the Christian Century called “A Fool’s Awakening.”  Its author, Brian Doyle, described a time when he was a teenager in which he realized he was being a fool.  When his father announced that some relatives were coming over for dinner the next weekend, Doyle recalls:

“I shoved my chair back and whined and snarled and complained. I believe this had something to do with some vague plans of my own that I had of course not shared with anyone else as yet, probably because they were half-hatched or mostly imaginary.”[11]

When Doyle’s father responded calmly, Doyle writes, “I said something rude.” When his mother added her own thoughts to the conversation, Doyle writes, “I said something breathtakingly selfish.”  Then, when his sister added her two cents to the conversation, Doyle writes, “I said something cutting and sneering and angry.”[12]  And then Doyle describes the moment of transformation:

“As I remember it was just as my mother was putting her teacup on the table. . . just as my father put his big hands on the table and prepared to stand up and say something calm and blunt to me and cut the moment before it spun out of control, that I realized I was being a fool.”[13]

Now, my guess is that if you are anything like me and if we are anything like Doyle, we have all had moments where we recognize, in an instant, the foolishness of our ways – the wrong path we have taken, the words we have chosen poorly, the simple act of kindness that we allowed to go undone.  Unless you are quite blessed, I suspect we have all had at least one of those kinds of moments.  And here is what I loved reading in Doyle’s essay: 

“For a second,” he writes, “I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was. I understood, dimly, for an instant – I believe for the first time in my life – that I was being a fool. I kept right on being a fool, of course. You cannot escape yourself that quickly, not as a teenager, or later either, it turns out. Often you keep playing a bad hand even when you know it’s a terrible hand and you should laugh and throw down your cards and say something self-deprecating and apologize and tiptoe into the next moment.”[14]

It is just such a moment that I imagine when I hear theologian Frederick Buechner’s words of wisdom: 

“It can be a pretty depressing business [to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become], but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[15] 

And that, my friends, is the journey we are embarking upon in this season of Lent.  A journey of self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  A challenging journey to be sure.  A journey that threatens to take each of us into the heart of the wilderness  where we will, no doubt, encounter our foolish selves.  But it is a journey we do not take alone because we carry with us the living memory  of God’s words to us in baptism: You are a beloved child of God. You are a beloved child of God. You are a beloved child of God.

“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your  Lord?”[16]  Let us take this journey together as we prepare once again for the Easter renewal of our baptismal vows.

[1] The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee, “Gritty Resurrection,” in Renew a Right Spirit within Me: Journeying Toward Easter with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind, (Living Compass, 2014).
[2] Matthew 4:1.
[3] Matthew 4:3-4.
[4] BCP, 302.
[5] Matthew 4:5-7.
[6] BCP, 302.
[7] Matthew 4:8-10.
[8] BCP, 302.
[9] Matthew 3:16-17.
[10] Matthew 4:10-11.
[11] Brian Doyle, “A Fool’s Awakening,” Christian Century (February 19, 2014), 12.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Frederick Buechner, “Lent”, originally published in Whistling in the Dark, accessed online at The Frederick Buechner Center on March 5, 2014.
[16] BCP, 302-303.