Monday, February 27, 2017

Entering the Season of Lent

February is almost gone and with its departure will begin the Christian season of Lent.  It starts this week on March 1 which is called Ash Wednesday.  That is the first day of Lent, the official start of 40 days of fasting and prayer, piety and solemnity, devoting oneself to contemplation, meditation, and reflection on one's own spiritual condition.  This practice dates back to the days of the Early Church where it was customary to observe a time of preparation for those who were going to be baptized on Easter Sunday morning.  The time of preparation allowed the new converts to Christianity to consider what they were going to do because baptism was a serious undertaking.  In a world where Christianity was often outlawed, then becoming a Christian was literally a life or death matter.

Lent was also a time when those who had been separated from the Christian Community or persons who had committed serious sins could be reconciled and restored to the Church by penitence and forgiveness.  The entire congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our baptismal faith.

Modern day Christians are invited to consider the Lenten Season to be a time of self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and doing good deeds for others.  People are encouraged to read and meditate on God's Word and to take the time to be more devoted to regular and faithful attendance to worship services.

The beginning of Lent is similar to the beginning of a New Year.  It gives people a chance to make a new start.  If people had made resolutions at the end of the last year and have already forgotten them or broken them, then Lent provides a chance to begin again.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and a church service is often held during which worshipers come forward to receive the mark of ashes on their foreheads as a sign of their repentance.  Ashes has been a sign of repentance that dates back to ancient Israel.  When persons wanted God to know their sincerity in obedience to God's commands, they would sit in ashes and put on clothes made of sackcloth and cover themselves with the ashes.  Getting down to the lowest level of society in this way provided a visual that the person repenting was sincere.  Today, we receive only a smudge of ash on our foreheads but that small mark is representative of our sincerity that we want to have as we begin the season of Lent.

Then, there are six Sundays in Lent where we hear the ancient stories from Israel's history about the fall of humans, the lives of the patriarchs, and the acts of the prophets in addition to the ministry of Jesus as he made his way toward Jerusalem where he would give up his life for humanity.  Those six weeks help to prepare us for what we will encounter during Holy Week when we recall Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, his Last Supper with his disciples, and his death on the cross.  Silence falls on Saturday as we await Jesus' resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.

We recall anew these stories year after year to remind us of God's mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ for all people.  It is important to our experience as Christians to be engaged and involved in our faith community during the Lenten Season in order to fully appreciate the story of Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead.  We are all encouraged and urged to be present in worship for each Sunday in Lent as we hear the stories and reflect upon their meaning for our own lives.

Will you devote yourself to practices of faith and love for the weeks of Lent?  Will you do deeds of mercy for others and acts of piety for your own spiritual fulfillment?  Will you consider fasting from a food or practice that you find dear for the season of Lent so as to connection with Jesus' story of his own temptation and testing?  If you will consider making this a "Holy Lent" through these Christian practices, then your Easter Celebration may be more meaningful this year than in years past because you set your mind on things above for a season in order to be more fully human at its end.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sermon on the Mount--Jesus' State of the Union Address?

For the past two Sundays the Gospel lection has been focusing on Jesus' teachings in Matthew's Gospel that we call "The Sermon on the Mount".  Matthew 5 begins with the familiar Beatitudes that list character traits of those who desire to follow Jesus.  It continues with the other familiar passage wherein Jesus says that his followers would be "the salt of the earth" and the "light of the world", two metaphors for how Christians are to relate to others in the world around them.

This week, Jesus' teachings confront the religious leaders of his day as he begins each section with the phrase, "You have heard it said..." and then puts one of their teachings on its head by saying, "But I say..."  These passages are sometimes referred to as Jesus' hard sayings because he confronts the teachings of his day that have to do with how people live.  Those teachings are just as relevant today because they have to do with anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing by oaths, things that all of us hear about on a daily basis as we live together.

Jesus lived in a day when males were dominant over females.  Women were considered to be the property of a man, moving from the house of parents who ruled her life to the house of a husband who provided for her needs.  Our modern marriage ceremonies once contained the phrase, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" but such language was removed from the ceremonies of most mainline churches in recognition that women are not property and cannot be given by anyone to anyone else.  Instead, we ask, "Who presents this woman...?"

Women lived with their husbands and were considered to be caretakers of the house and children and the men in the house were considered to be much more valuable than they were.  If a man who cared for a woman died, then she would be considered to be at the mercy of society.  Hebraic law commanded people to care for "widows and orphans" because they were considered to be the most helpless persons in society.  It was the duty of all to care for those who had no one else assigned to care for them.  Immigrants and refugees were also to be cared for by society because they had little to sustain them on their journeys.

Women had few rights and a man could decide to divorce his wife for no reason.  He only had to tell he that he no longer wanted her as his wife and then he could abandon her.  If a man simply tired of having a woman as his wife, he could expel her from his house and she would have no place to go.  Jesus is addressing divorce because it was part of a one sided social system of his day, with only men having the right to ask for a divorce.  Jesus was trying to teach the men of his day that they should have serious grounds for divorce before asking for one because it was not a matter to be considered trivial.

Jesus' social teachings were directed toward society of his day that was grounded in the ancient Mosaic law that moved society from "an eye for an eye" to exacting punishment that would fit a crime instead of promoting chaos and havoc in society.  Before the giving of the law to Israel, bands of people would attack and kill entire tribes or families in retribution for a fault that was done to one person.  The law attempted to make retribution equivalent so that the punishment would not be more severe than it should.

Jesus wanted those listening to him to consider how people should live in relationship with one another, not becoming angry over little things or cursing one another (swearing oaths against others to bring them harm) or desiring what others had including their wives.  Such were common practices in Jesus' day.  Jesus wanted those who would follow him to know that members of the Kingdom of Heaven would be different than those who inhabited earth.  They would strive for higher goals and a better way of living.

Jesus' teachings are just as relevant today as they were when he gave them.  We still have rampant violence in the world around us.  We still have some who wish to exact retribution for every slight.  We still have brokenness in society that needs repair.  Jesus' teachings of love and mercy need to be repeated often in the ears of all who would listen so that grace may heal the wounds of many who have only heard judgment preached by those who profess to be followers of the Prince of Peace.