4th Sunday of Lent: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Many years ago, I attended a vestry retreat where the leader, a professor at the local seminary, guided us in a reflection on the parable of the prodigal son, our gospel reading today. We were asked to put ourselves into the story. Given that we were all active members of the church, and were willing to take on service, it is not surprising that all of us identified with the older brother: he stayed home, was responsible, and never had a big party thrown to celebrate him. The father tells his older son that, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”. But that’s not what the older son feels.

I have often thought about that discussion, because the more I reflect on it, the greater the problems are. First, this makes engagement as a layperson in the life of the church appear to be a joyless experience. If that’s the case, the church has failed. Yes, there is work: we fill out reports for the diocese, and the national church; we make sure we have materials for our services; we set things up and we take them down. It can be a lot, especially when you are a small congregation. How do we make this work (because it is work, let’s be real) be to some extent filled with joy? What is needed so we feel we have been celebrated, that we have not been taken for granted as workhorses?

The other problem is that we are all, at some time or other, both brothers. We may not, like the younger brother, have wasted our inheritance on sex and drugs, but we have turned our face from God. Even though we work hard, our confidence in our virtue may be a bit too smug. And maybe, sometimes, we are the father, welcoming a friend, sibling, or other relative who had drifted out of our lives.

Paul tells us that “from now own, we regard no one from a human point of view”, but that seems to me a counsel of perfection. We are all too human, all too often. Many of us often, no matter who we are and what do, feel put upon and taken advantage of: we are the older brother. But if we remembered, like the older brother, that God is always with us, would that make it easier? Would we take some of God’s abundance to celebrate?

Lent asks us to examine ourselves, to be honest about our failings. Even if we are often the older brother, we can think about how we too, like the younger brother, have not always had our eyes on God. We too need God’s mercy.

There’s a corollary, though. If we are the younger brother, we need a big party to celebrate that we are here, we have turned our focus to God. We need to learn to celebrate as we go, so we can embed joy in the work.

Are they worse sinners?

Third Sunday of Lent: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

One of my pet gripes are people who attribute some longed for outcome, whether recovery from illness or the return of a missing loved one, to prayer. I appreciate their gratitude, and know the value of prayer. My first response however, is to think of those who have also prayed for a loved one who did not recover, a missing person who is found, but dead. Why is one set of prayers accepted and not another? Are those who are found alive, or who recover, more virtuous than those who die? Does anyone deserve to suffer as those whose prayers are not answered do?

Jesus takes this point from the other end: in responding to allegations that Pilate had mingled the blood of dead Galileans with the blood of Roman sacrifices, in violation of Jewish rules for caring for the dead, he asks if they “were worse sinners than all other Galileans”. And the obvious answer is no. The same is true for the eighteen people who died in the collapse of a tower. Instead, we are told we all need to repent: to turn to God. That doesn’t mean that we won’t die, but in repenting, we gain the life that matters, eternal life with God. Repentance does not exist on its own, however. Jesus turns from telling us to repent to the parable of the fig tree. And the gardener reminds the owner that the fig tree needed to be fed; it needs manure. And we are both the gardener providing nourishment and the fig tree needing it. Repentance involves not just an inward turning to God, but action.

In my experience, these are all intertwined. I can’t feed others unless I am fed. We are fed in many ways: by hearing the word in scripture, by prayer, and by teaching, of course. But we are also fed in our human relationships, the communities in which we live. All of those can serve as food for us as we seek to turn towards God, and then feed others.

Exodus today gives us the story of Moses and the burning bush. I was struck by God’s assertion that “‘I have observed the misery of my people … I know of their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them.'” While the Hebrew scriptures focus on the special care the Lord has for the Israelites, we know too well that the Lord does not rescue all who suffer. You only have to observe what is happening in Ukraine at this moment (or any other war) to know this is not true. The history of atrocities (including many carried out in Jesus name) is a reminder that suffering has not disappeared. Jesus knows that those who suffer are not more to blame than the rest of us. What is offered instead is eternal life.

When the Lord tells Moses that “IAM WHO I AM”, there is another promise: of God’s presence with us. We will not be alone. Sometimes that is even more important.

In a few minutes we will pray for the world and those in need. We offer these prayers knowing that many prayers we offer regularly cannot be answered easily. When we pray for the hungry and the homeless, refugees and migrants, for victims of war and oppression, and for those we love who are sick in body, mind and spirit, we do not expect instant solutions. I hope that those we pray for feel God’s presence. But our prayer is not enough: we turn to doctors, nurses, and others when we are sick. We provide food for the hungry, and work to house the homeless. We try to figure out how we can help victims of war. In doing these things, we do Gods work in the world. Through us, and the things we do, we hope we share God’s presence with those who suffer. Eternal life is indeed good news that feeds us, and allows us to help others.


Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

The authors of scripture were, like many of us, often anxious and afraid. The world was uncertain. In today’s reading from Genesis, the Lord speaks to Abram in a vision. The focus is on Abram’s anxiety about his legacy. He is childless, yet the Lord still promises Abram that he will be succeeded by his own child. He tells him to “look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Abram’s descendants will be as many as the stars. Abram believed this, unimaginable though it might be. Then the Lord promises Abram the land he was in “to possess”. After Abram offers a sacrifice, the Lord makes a covenant that Abram and his descendants will hold all the land from “the river of Egypt” to the Euphrates.

I read this with a sinking heart. There are many wars around the world, most over who possesses, or controls, the land. Is Ukraine part of Russia? How would we know? What are the appropriate borders of Israel? What rights have people who live as minorities in nations around the world? These struggles take place in the context of nation states, entities which largely emerged in the 19th century, swallowing smaller political units with different linguistic, cultural and religious traditions. As a historian, I know that there is nothing about thinking God has provided land to you which has been good for the world.

Today’s Psalm takes on fear and anxiety in another way, focused on trusting God: this is not about conquest and possession, but surrender to God. “One thing have I asked of the Lord; on thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life . . . The Lord will sustain me . . .O tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong and he shall comfort your heart.” (Ps. 27:5, 14, 18) This is another way to imagine a covenant with God: not as offering possession, but offering protection and comfort.

The image of protection recurs in the Gospel. Luke has Jesus foretelling his death, while telling the Pharisees it is not yet time. Unlike most of us, at this point Jesus is not driven by fear, just by his understanding of time. And then he offers the lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

We are seeing terrible scenes of destruction in Ukraine; while Ukraine is not the only place suffering from war and destruction, its location in Europe has made it a focus of greater attention than other such struggles. The battle for possession is one that leads to violence and grief. If we think of the Lord offering shelter and comfort in the psalm, or Jesus as a hen seeking to shelter her children, we are offered a way to engage with these conflicts. How can we help? What can we do to offer help, shelter, and comfort? The Psalmist hopes that,”In the day of trouble, he shall keep me safe in his shelter.” Can we too be like a hen gathering her brood to protect them? God acts through us; it is our job to find ways to act for God.

He shall give his angels charge over you

First Sunday in Lent: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” This passage from Deuteronomy is one of the oldest in the Hebrew scriptures, and its commandment a central one in the Hebrew scriptures. It includes the instructions to the Israelites of how to thank God. That thanks comes with a recitation of the salvation history to that time: life as an alien in Egypt, enslavement, and escape. They say that Lord saw “our affliction, our toil, and our oppression”. They acknowledge that the departure from Egypt was accomplished with “a terrifying display of power”. And then brought them to the land they are now in, a “land flowing with milk and honey.” In response to that gift, they are to present to the temple the first fruit of the ground they have been given.

Reading this while watching scenes of refugees from Ukraine traveling to Poland and other European nations reminds me that there are still many “wandering Arameans”. It is not just Ukrainians: Afghans, Iraqis, Congolese, Uighurs, and Rohingya are among the many who have taken to the roads fleeing war and violence. They are fleeing because of “terrifying displays of power”. The Israelites were fortunate, because their Lord gave them a rich land; but not all are so lucky.

The passage from Deuteronomy is not really about refugees, though it is difficult right now not to think about them. It is about giving thanks, giving back to God from the gifts we have been given. Our offerings are a representation of our thanks.

Today’s psalm is full of promises: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge. . .There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.” It is a lovely promise, but many of us can provide examples of how it has not come true. Many of those who have trusted in the Lord have suffered, whether through war and violence or illness. What does it mean when God gives “his angels charge over you”? Are we to be the angels? I think the core of the psalm is later, because trouble will come, and then God says, “I am with him”. And sometimes, in my experience, that is enough.

As we enter Lent, many of us have given something up, or taken something on, to better attend to God. In the Gospel, Jesus reminds the devil not to put God to the test. Instead, he fasts for 40 days in the wilderness. My mind keeps returning, though, to refugees fleeing war. They have already given up so much. They are trusting: maybe God, maybe just other people. May we do what we can to help them. And may God give his angels charge over them.