Luke 15.1-3, 11-32
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
One of my favorite seminary professors, Ed Everding, had a wonderful, three-word paradigm for examining a biblical text: SAYS – MEANT – MEANS. And you can do this, too, when you’re reading scripture. SAYS: What do the words on the page actually say? Is the passage a poem, a story, a song, a prophecy, a letter? (The one genre you won’t find anywhere in the Bible is a science textbook.) What kind of language does the writer use? MEANT: What might this text have meant to the people who initially heard it or read it? What sort of message might they have derived in their historical setting? And finally, MEANS: Now, that we know what it says and what it may have meant millennia in the past, what might it mean for us in our setting today? Let’s try it with today’s text.
SAYS: The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best-known stories of Jesus in the Bible. Even people who have never stepped foot in a church may know this one. Obviously, it’s a parable, which plunks down a story and provokes the listener to wonder what other meaning is there. It’s important to look at the words on the page and perhaps look at different translations if you aren’t a linguistic scholar. It’s also important to look at what ISN’T on the page. For instance, in this story, we never hear about the mom. Is she dead? Is she silent?
The other thing missing is the word “prodigal,” which doesn’t appear in the text. In fact, the word “prodigal” never occurs in the Bible, but it has grown up as part of the tradition over the years. The first biblical use in English is a description in the 16th century Geneva Bible, which is the English translation used by the Pilgrims of Plymouth. The meaning of “prodigal” is oftentimes thought of in a pejorative sense of being wasteful and excessive. But the Oxford English Dictionary also offers another definition: someone or something that “has, gives, or yields something on a lavish scale; generous, copious, abundant.” Now, just hold onto that idea for a few minutes.
MEANT: What do we think the parable meant to those who heard it? One of the obvious meanings is that we are like the son who has gone astray, rejected God, fallen off the tracks, and are trying to find our way home. We may see the father’s reaction as one like God’s: that no matter what we do (wasting our inheritance, living with ritually unclean beasts like swine, rejecting the love we’ve been shown), God always offers us an extravagant welcome home as a consequence of reconfiguring our minds and our hearts and setting off in a better direction.
I took some of the words for this morning’s prayer of confession from the “Full to the Brim” Lenten resources we’re using, and it clearly cast us in the role of the son who has missed the mark. That is the dominant way the parable has been interpreted, and it’s not wrong. All of us mess up on a regular basis, and it’s important for us to see the errors of our ways and get back on track.
But there was this phrase that I read in our bulletin a few weeks ago, and it really struck me: “a frugal faith.” A frugal faith…it’s not a good thing, is it? Having come from New England, I can assure you that there are plenty of Congregationalists who think that frugality and thrift are biblical virtues that should be lived out every day. Surprisingly, there really is nothing about frugality in the Bible. There is one reference to scarcity in Deuteronomy, but it is usually referred to as a counterpoise to God’s abundance. Is that surprising to you? Didn’t you think that the injunction to be frugal was part of our faith? I wonder if we’ve allowed millennia of cultural build-up about our fear of scarcity to shade the ways we view our faith.
That’s not all: In the New Revised Standard Version, there are 79 references to abundance starting in Genesis and ending in Jude.
MEANS: What are some of the meanings of this parable that might serve us today? Is there a character you identify with in the parable? Someone whose experience and outlook resonates with you? To be sure, we can still see ourselves in the role of the younger brother who has gone astray, or we can see ourselves as the resentful older brother who has done all the right things, but who isn’t celebrated by their father…nobody killed a fatted calf for him!
I think sometimes we let ourselves off the hook by playing small and saying, “I’m a sinner and much like the younger brother,” though may very well be true. I know there are times when I need to ask for forgiveness and promise to try and transform my behavior and outlook. Even though we’re a pretty neat bunch of people, all of have done things we regret and want to be forgiven for and to change.
What if we saw ourselves in the role of the father? What if we could become people whose first response is to extend grace and abundance? What if we could be people who are more than willing to forgive wrongdoing when the offender expresses contrition and comes home? What would it take for us to have that kind of faith-in-action? How might that change our lives? Isn’t that part of what we pray for every Sunday: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or in John Philip Newell’s words, “Forgive us the falseness of what we have done as we forgive those who are untrue to us.” We’re supposed to emulate God’s grace and forgiveness, in fact we only ask for it to the extent that we have offered it to others. Listen carefully to the Lord’s Prayer.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting any of us should be a doormat and get used by a wrongdoer. Good boundaries are important, and no type of abuse is acceptable. That’s not the kind of unhealthy behavior we’re referring to.
For true reconciliation to occur, there needs to be an act of contrition, a commitment that transformation is happening. The younger brother says, “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’” Is that enough? How does the father know that this isn’t an empty promise? Part of the answer is that he doesn’t know for sure: that’s where grace comes in. What is motivating the father is there on the page in black-and-white: “His father saw him and was moved with compassion.” (It’s that weird Greek word, splagknidzthomai, which means gut-wrenching compassion, which is one of the key issues for Jesus, because it is a characteristic of God and ought to be for us.)
Can you think of a time in your life when someone has asked for forgiveness, and you have been unwilling or unable to go forward with that? Can you think of a time when someone was unapologetic or unwilling to change…but you forgave them anyway? I’ve had some big situations like that where I have been wronged by someone close to me and they never owned their part in the situation, and it takes a long, long time to say, “You are forgiven.” And the strange thing is that even if they don’t know you’ve forgiven them, there will be a change, a transformation, in you. There is a burden lifted from your shoulders, a lightness that takes the place of heaviness. You can even feel it in your body, maybe in your shoulders releasing or the pit in your stomach letting go.
I want to get back to that earlier definition of prodigal: “has, gives, or yields something on a lavish scale; generous, copious, abundant.” Is there a character in the parable whose behavior is described that way? It fits in rather well with our Lenten theme of “Filled to the Brim” or even our cup overflowing. When you hear the story of the father killing the fatted calf and ordering his staff to prepare a feast, what do you imagine that looks and sounds and smells like? There is music and dancing! Do you envisage a variety of things on the table? Dates? Fresh bread? Honey? Wine? Veal? Cheese? It’s lavish isn’t it? It’s “generous, copious, abundant,” isn’t it? So, why isn’t this referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Father?
The father is not someone who lives with frugal faith, is he? (The older brother, who can’t get over his hurt, perhaps does live a frugal faith.) How can the father just release the pain that his son’s departure and living with pigs must undoubtedly have caused? I think the answer is twofold: grace and compassion. The father lives an abundant faith, one filled to the brim with love and the dearness and power of relationship. That’s his primary concern, not keeping score with his son about how much money he blew. An abundant faith doesn’t count the cost. It doesn’t keep a tally in the record book of insults and slights. An abundant faith looks to compassion, love, hope, and grace as the path to God, because these are the characteristics of the One we worship and in whose image we are made.
May we, each of us and all of us together, strive to live abundantly. And may your cup overflow.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
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Part One of series on Sabbath, related to Genesis 2:1-3
Sabbath practice is a core practice of the soul; rest, quiet, slowing, appreciating, blessing, enjoying, celebrating, intentional remembering and focusing, valuing, re-creating
Genesis 2: 1 – 3
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.
For the Word in Scripture,
For the Word among us,
For the Word within us,
Thanks be to God.
Breathe. That’s all.
Let’s all take a breath together: inhale…….exhale.
Two more: inhale………exhale……… inhale……… exhale.
It’s a cycle, isn’t it?
Both parts are important.
On the seventh day, God rested, says the first Creation story. We just heard that in our morning’s Scripture reading. What you didn’t hear was that the Hebrew word for refreshed “vaiynafesh” literally means exhaled. The Hebrew text is saying that on the seventh day God exhaled. Our culture is more inclined to inhaling, to taking in; do more, want more, gain more, be more, take in more information, more data. Being busy can even be seen as a sign of importance.
But are our lives busy or full? Did you know that the Chinese pictograph for ‘busy’ combines heart and killing. The Christian mystic Thomas Merton actually went so far as to equate activism and overwork with violence.
Are our lives structured not just to inhale, but to exhale?
Do we know how to exhale and rest in the arms of God, in the cradle of Creation?
A big part of the first Creation story in Genesis is the teaching of the importance of Sabbath to the Jewish community. It was a characteristic practice to stop all work on Friday at sundown when the traditional Jewish day ends and to enter into Sabbath time until the next sundown. There is a story told of Jesus walking with his disciples on the Sabbath. They plucked some heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees, who tried to protect the people’s piety and to respect Torah law through lots of rules, accused them of sinfully breaking the Sabbath. Jesus’ wise response was that the Sabbath was made for the people, not the people for the Sabbath.
So how can Sabbath as an exhale be for us?
How might we learn from and be served by this teaching?
In the Lenten journey at this church, we have been invited to seek being Full to the Brim. I suggested at our Ash Wednesday service that, like our cycle of breath, we cannot be vital and ‘Filled to the Brim’ without the whole cycle. Likewise, we cannot be whole and vital without rest. And our first sacred story of rest is the Seventh Day story of the first Sabbath, the first great exhale.
I’m not talking about a return to dour restrictive rules of Sabbath that drain life; no dancing or card playing or visiting with people or frolicking and such. I’m talking about the wisdom and the necessity of exhaling in the service of the cycle of life. Go ahead, inhale fully again and then feel a long exhale again. Let it bring you to rest and ever closer to stillness.
Exhale, that’s Sabbath.
It completes the energy cycle of life, re-balances it.
In that first Creation story, we are given an image of the earth as without form and void. It is a kind of chaos that seems empty. Creation happens out of a kind of emptiness. We have to exhale in order to make room for the inhale. The womb has first to be an emptiness in order to be filled with the growing creation of a new life. This emptiness is not so much a denial of life as it is a letting go and a letting be. It is a kind of re-balancing. In our human body, it is a chance to blow off CO2 as a part of our life-giving cycle of respiration, in preparation for bringing in more O2. The first Creation story begins in emptiness and ends in a kind of emptying, a resting, a stillness, an exhale, a Sabbath.
Like a hibernating animal, like a planted bulb or seed in winter, there is an appropriate and necessary time to rest, to lie fallow, to not do.
I was trained as an exercise physiologist after college. It is a basic principle of exercise training that the process of becoming more fit and healthy requires rest after we challenge and exercise the body. It is in the rest time that the rebuilding to a better state happens.
How many of us trust that cycle?
How many of us here are practicing Sabbath rest?
I’m not talking about just laying down on the couch, although that could help. I’m not talking about kicking back and watching TV, although some quality viewing occasionally is renewing. We are invited into a Sabbath space and time that has a sacred intention, a certain quality of delightful exhale that puts us back in touch with the blessedness of Creation, the part of the first Creation story when God says, “It is very good”.
Pastor Jane Anne, before her recent sabbatical suggested that all church committees take time in our Lent season meetings for forms of Sabbath, not doing tangible committee work, but sharing in Bible study, prayer, and connection. She was inspired by the book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, in which Wayne Muller suggests we embrace “Sabbath as a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity.”
Our worship celebration here could be a Sabbath practice if it helps us remember who we truly are…
as images of God made of the dust of the stars,
as humble mortal beings of made of mud,
as a people called to Grace and to justice,
as part of a wondrous Creation with other wondrous Creatures and features.
Our worship celebration or any practice that we have can be a Sabbath practice if it slows us down enough, focuses us enough toward Spirit that we remember and feel again in our bodies and souls the Grace of God and the gift of life. Any practice could be a Sabbath practice if it truly re-creates in us a sense of rest, renewal, gratitude and connection to the GodMystery. It doesn’t have to be Saturday or Sunday, or a particular ritual or prayer, though those things might help.
In our Gospel stories, we often have Jesus going not toward the people and crowds, but, after his healing work, away from them to solitude and prayer. One way to translate what is translated as prayer is “to come to rest.” Jesus had the practice. He went to rest and renew. (And the disciples came after him, “hunted” him some translations say.)
It’s not that Sabbath time is superior to work time.
It’s that our work time is served by the wisdom and energy of balance and wholeness, Sabbath rest and its intention to be in a different way of being serve balance and wholeness. The spiritual paradox of this Sabbath rest and not doing is that it does create in its own way. The Rabbinic tradition says that on the seventh day God created menuha; tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose. The Jewish tradition also says that on the Sabbath we are given an extra soul, Neshemah Yeterah, a Sabbath soul which more fully appreciates the blessings of life and the fruits of our labor.
How are we nurturing our Sabbath soul?
I watched my Dad for years come home from work, empty his pockets and often change his clothes. It was a simple ritual of shifting from work to home. Now, I love the moment I get home and empty my pockets of keys, cell phone, and all the things I use in the outside world of work and marketplace. I empty my pockets and exhale. This can be a Sabbath moment on any day if I use it to really slow down, breathe, and pause to appreciate the gift of the day, of life, of the whole Mystery.
And even if you are not working outside the home, or are not ‘doing’ as much as you once did, you are not exempt from the call to Sabbath, for it is possible to fill all our not doing time with things that don’t help us exhale, rest, and renew in the whole-making Spirit of the Divine.
That’s because Sabbath is not just a time or even space that we reserve. It is also a quality of presence or consciousness. It is effortless, nourishing rest. It is stillness that can produce a unique kind of renewal and insight. It is an awareness, a return to perspective, a sacred perspective that is about depth and delight, about re-balancing and re-creating, about remembering and feeling that we belong to God, to the Mystery, and that we are to love ourselves, each other, and all Creation.
There is a poem by Jane Kenyon that may help us feel into Sabbath time and space. The poem is related to the traditional Jewish day beginning in the darkness right after sundown.
Let Evening Come
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
As we continue in a Lenten journey of becoming Full to the Brim, I invite to us to remember that there are rhythms and cycles that make for life, ultimately, that make possible our coming back to acting for compassion and justice, to acting in service and offering a helping hand. No matter our age or stage, in our lives and in our culture, we can distort those rhythms and cycles and then distort and compromise the life force that sustains us and Creation, not allowing ourselves or the Earth to exhale, to rest, to renew.
God exhaled on the seventh day, resting and savoring the blessing that is Life. Today, the sacred invitation is simple. Remember the Seventh Day and exhale. AMEN
J.T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more
March 13, 2022 – 2nd Sunday in Lent
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Psalm 27 (NRSV); Triumphant Song of Confidence. Of David.
1 The [the Holy ONE], is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The [the Holy ONE], is the stronghold, the refuge, of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh--
my adversaries and foes--
they shall stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
4 One thing I asked of [God]
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of [God]
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of [God]
and to inquire in [God’s] temple.
5 For [the Holy ONE] will hide me in shelter in the day of trouble;
[God] will conceal me under the cover of [God’s] tent;
[God] will set me high on a rock.
6 Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in [God’s] tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to [the Holy ONE].
7 Hear, O[God], when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek[God’s]face!”
Your face, [God], do I seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
10 If my father and mother forsake me,
[God]will take me up.
11 Teach me your way, O [God],
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of [the Holy ONE]
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for [God];
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for [God]!
Wait. Wait for God. Some of you may have mastered the art of waiting. However, I think that most of us in the 21st century do not like to wait. We want things now or soon after now! We want communication with our loved ones now! Why don’t they text or call back? We want our fast food now! Deliveries from online orders now! We want news now! We look for the shortest line in the grocery store, the closest parking place to the store entrance. We don’t like to wait. If we have to wait…. well, then we look at what’s on our phone to keep us occupied?
Yet the ancient poet of Psalm 27 says to us, “Wait for God.” Especially when you are stressed and in crisis. When enemies, literal and metaphorical, surround you – enemies who are plotting war and bodily harm, enemies who are seeking to wreck your reputation through false scandal, enemy fears that you hold inside undoing your confidence – when you are set upon by any of these enemies, wait for God! The Hebrew word for “wait” here doesn’t mean just passively stand doing nothing. It means actively hope in God! Look for God! Be gathered in by the Holy ONE who is your light and salvation. Seriously! Of whom should you be afraid? God is with you and on your team.
I know – and the psalmist knew – that this waiting for God is easier said than accomplished. I suspect that is why the psalm was written. I know and the psalmist knew that there are long dark days and nights when it seems that God is not present, when we wonder where in the world is this God of light and salvation?! In our own lives, in the lives of those we love, in the lives of the world. I don’t know about you, but I can barely read the news from Ukraine without asking, where is God? I can barely read the news from Texas and Florida of the opposition against and exclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers and children. Where is God? I barely read the news about the urgency of climate change and destruction. Where is God? I sit with those in our congregation who are going through loss, illness, tragedy and hardship. Where is God? I acknowledge my own grief, fear, challenges within my own heart. Where is God?
This week, I read these ancient words over and over in different translations starting with the King James’s Version I first heard in my childhood, moving through the NRSV, the CEB and finally on to Nan Merrill’s wonderful book of contemporary paraphrase, Psalms for Praying. I was asking, “Where is God?” in these very troubled and frightening times of pandemic, war, climate destruction and personal trouble. After a week of impatiently waiting with this psalm, I was found by God who is always patiently waiting for me, for us, for the world, almost as if hiding in plain sight. God is here. When we think we are waiting for God, God is already waiting for us, with open arms.
The literal encompassing energy of the universe, of all creation, is God, is Love. Love’s energy is always here. In fact, it cannot be destroyed. Our warring ways cannot blot it out of existence. Obscure it from our sight, yes. But not destroy it. So, where do I find God waiting? I find God is waiting, in the care that you, my Plymouth sisters and brothers, extend to one another in times of need. I find God waiting in the joy of our children’s faces, in the thoughtful questions they ask. I find God waiting in the courage of the activists among us who speak out against injustice, who welcome refugees and homeless folks into our community. I find God in the late afternoon light landing golden on the bare winter landscape as I walk the dog. I find God in the prayers you offer as well waiting in my own heart as I feebly pray for peace, as I haltingly write sermons, as I wait with scripture I may first not understand or grasp, may in fact even resist because of my fears that it’s wisdom might not be true. Yet as I surrender, even tentatively, to the wisdom I want to embrace, God shows up.
I read a Facebook post this week from a Plymouth member quoting Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert wrote, “You are afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control. But you never had control; all you had was anxiety.” Wow, that hits home! How often do we worry and worry, not just over small things, but also over the big, important things, yet things over which we have little or no control? Does our worry, our anxiety, bring us closer to God?
Where is God when we realize we do not have ultimate control over what is happening to our loved ones, to our beloved creation, to everyday people like us whose lives are literally being bombed into smithereens, to everyday people like us who are told they are not valid people because they are not made in the image of the definition of human being as “white, straight, middle to upper class, male?” Where is God when we are held in the grip of these very legitimate concerns?
God is waiting for us in our very fears and anxieties and worries as we surrender our false sense of control over them to God. Not surrender our agency for action, because God will call us to action that we can accomplish. But when we surrender the enemies of fear and crippling anxiety to Love, God is waiting for us. For God is the Love that animates the universe, weaving in and out of all situations, events and people. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” the poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, wrote.[i] And I would add the nurture, the compassion, the care of God, especially when we think all is lost and we can’t take anymore.
At those times, we can say with the ancient psalmist, “Hear me, when I cry aloud, and answer me! Do not hide from me. I am waiting for you to gather me in, to give me hope.” And in the rubble of our pain, God is waiting. When we surrender to the yearning for God’s peace and presence, we find God in unexpected ways, through unexpected people and situations.
How I wish I could tell each and every one of you exactly how you will find God waiting! Yet I cannot deprive you of your journey into Love for the wholeness comes in the journeying. How I wish I could banish the pain and suffering of the world! And of course, I don’t have that kind of power or control. None of us do. I can offer you the presence of Psalm 27. As I close today, I offer it to you in words from Nan Merrill’s Psalms for Praying. Hear and pray and let its yearnings wind through the yearnings of your heart.
Love is my light and my salvation,
Whom shall I fear?
Love is the strength of my life,
Of whom shall I be afraid?
When fears assail me,
rising up to accuse me, each one in turn shall be seen in Love’s light.
Though a multitude of demons
rise up within me,
my heart shall not fear.
Thought doubts and guilt do battle,
Yet shall I remain confident. ….
For I hide in Love’s heart
In the day of trouble, as in a tent in the desert,
away from the noise of my fears. …
Hear, O Beloved, when I cry aloud,
Be gracious and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart responds,
“Your face, my Beloved, do I seek;
Hide not your face from me.”
Do not turn from me,
you who have been my refuge.
Enfold me in your strong arms,
O Blessed One. ….
You, My Beloved, know me and love me.
Teach me to be love, as You are Love;
Lead me through each fear;
Hold my hand as I walk through
Valleys of doubt each day,
That I may know your peace.
I believe that I shall know the Realm of
Heaven, of Love, here on Earth!
Wait for the Beloved, be strong with courage … ;
Yes! Wait for the Love of your heart![ii]
May it be so! Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022. May be reprinted with permission only.
[ii] Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying, An Invitation to Wholeness, (Continuum Publishing, NY, NY: 1998, 46-48.)
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
Did you notice anything about Jesus that was missing? How about this one:
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from Heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and did become truly human. For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
Did you catch what was missing? These ancient creeds have a beginning on the timeline of Jesus’ life (born of the Virgin Mary), and there is an endpoint on his human timeline (crucified, died, buried). The creeds even name the man who did it: Pontius Pilate. But what happened to the intervening 33 years of Jesus’ life?
One of the reasons I wrestle with the creeds of the early church is that they omit what I consider absolutely central in the New Testament and in a living, vital Christian faith: the sometimes scandalous and dangerous life and teachings of Jesus.
The Nicene Creed is the earlier of the two, written by bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325…all male bishops of course, the council was convened by the emperor in a palace that belonged to Constantine himself, and the bishops were under the guard of Roman soldiers as they tried to define orthodoxy for Constantine.
Think of it – within 300 years the followers of Jesus went from being subversives whose leader was nailed on a cross in the Jewish homeland by Rome to become the official religion of the Roman Empire and whose theology was under the scrutiny of the emperor and his legions. The anti-imperial movement had been coopted into the establishment of the empire itself! Why does this matter? Look at Christian nationalism at home and abroad for the answer.
Perhaps that is the reason the creeds fail to mention the teachings of Jesus: they are too hot to handle, too full of subversive wisdom, too hard to deal with as the establishment rather than the movement.
When I was growing up in a New England Congregational UCC church, we didn’t say the creeds, and we didn’t observe Lent, which was true for our Puritan and Pilgrim forebears. Maybe some people knew that Lent was happening and what it was about, but I certainly didn’t. Growing up in a state with a large Roman Catholic population, I knew lots of kids who went to catechism after school, gave things up for Lent, and the public schools always had fish sticks for hot lunch on Fridays – all of which was mystifying to me. And that is because our Reformed forbears didn’t observe non-biblical holidays, because they wanted to return as closely as possible to the practice of the very early church and to shed centuries of accretion by the Church of Rome.
Lent was not widely observed in the church until Christianity was the established religion of the Empire. What can we learn if we go back before the Council of Nicaea in 325?
In the early Egyptian tradition of the desert mothers and fathers, Lent was an emulation of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time of testing, a vision quest that Jesus himself experienced. And in the church in Jerusalem, it was a forty-day preparation of initiates for baptism and full inclusion in the church at Easter.
Those are two very different ways to observe the 40 days.
Most of the church forgot (and sometimes still forgets) the life and teachings of Jesus! In just the same way the creeds do, the timing of Lent and Good Friday skip over everything Jesus did between the beginning of his public ministry and the week he died. The forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness prepared him to lead a new movement and preach the liberating reign of God and heal. If we focus on Jesus’ wilderness experience in Lent, we remember and observe the launch pad from which he set out on his ministry, and that can carry over into our lives today.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is historically separate and distinct from his crucifixion, thought they bump up next to one another in the liturgical calendar. Jesus was not tempted by Satan in the desert so that he could head right into beautiful downtown Jerusalem to be executed by Rome! He was tempted by Satan so that he could become ready to take on the religious establishment and the Roman Empire itself.
Please don’t misunderstand me: the crucifixion of Jesus is critically important, and we will get there during Holy Week. A profound truth of Jesus’ self-sacrifice is that “No one has greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
For me, the desert mothers and fathers had a strong point: Lent is about the wilderness pilgrimage of Jesus, being tempted by possessions, power, and fame — and rejecting them all. It is a refining quest in the desert that enables Jesus to emerge in the Galilee and become a teacher, sage, and prophet of God. Immediately after today’s reading, Luke says Jesus “returned to Galilee” and “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” And then comes his “inaugural address,” preaching from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Of course, any self-respecting Roman emperor wouldn’t want that to be the emphasis of the state religion! And Christian nationalists in our country or in Vladimir Putin’s Russia run away from the historical Jesus as well because the liberation he offers is anathema to them.
Then Jesus heals people, calls the twelve disciples, and then preaches the Sermon on the Plain (or the Sermon on the Mount as Matthew calls it), the crystallization of his prophetic teaching, which starts with “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Why don’t we have a liturgical season dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes? Is Jesus still too risky for the church to handle?
So, where does that leave us with Lent? Though you may not guess it, I love Lent as a season when we test our faith and try to go deeper. When we pray a little more, live intentionally a little more, consider our way of life a little more, our faith gains greater depth.
Lent is not simply a 40-day prelude to the crucifixion, but rather a challenge to live faithfully…to try and learn more about the life and teachings of Jesus and then put them into practice in our own lives…which is a lot harder than simply giving up chocolate for 40 days…and it yields longer lasting results.
My challenge to you is this: find a way to go deeper. Observe sabbath time each day, read our Lenten Devotional booklet (available in the Fellowship Hall), have ten minutes or more of silent or walking meditation, read the gospel of Luke that is in our lectionary this season, join the brand new study of Genesis with Art Rooze, or give up chocolate (but remember it’s not just to cut calories). Remember what Jesus said, “I came so that you could have life and have it in abundance.”
May we in this beloved community have the grace to grant ourselves some sabbath space this Lent as we delve deeper into our faith.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint.