The First Sunday in Lent
Last time I offered the Word here, on the first Sunday of September, we were almost six months into the Coronavirus pandemic, praying to discover some secret that would bring a quick end to the anger and the isolation.
And here we are, six months later, scanning the horizons of our experience, looking for signs of grace that will companion us through the rest of this dark winter of the soul as we learn some painful lessons about how to change our ways of learning to live with isolation and anger. We need to regain our balance and find a new equilibrium, a new solid rock on which to stand while we help our planet heal in ways that will sustain and support a vital, just and peaceful future.
Celebration Circle has chosen “Signs of Grace” as our worship theme for Lent. And what IS “Grace?” For a long time, my working definition of “grace” has been “unmerited favor.” That fits pretty well with Webster’s description as “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification; a virtue coming from God,” or “an act of kindness, courtesy or clemency.”
In the middle of the night on Friday I woke up with an image that could have made this a much shorter reflection. I didn’t have the courage to offer it as the only word from me this morning, but I did think it could serve as a headline:
Question: What do I think is a sign of grace?
Answer: That’s easy. We all know a song that illuminates God’s grace: “Blest be the tie that binds … our hearts in Christian love …”
From where we stand, on the frigid frontier of Spring, I want to hold up a few signs of grace that seem to be emerging in our scattered garden of earthly delight. Some of these glimpses of grace sprouted out of the lessons for this week. Some others came from the engaging conversation in our School for Christian Growth class on “Meeting the Divine, as well as the work we’ve done in Celebration Circle to craft this new liturgy for Lent.
And there were other signs of grace that popped up from the drama downtown, as the second impeachment trial of the former president blew the fallout of this winter’s political blizzard into some significant snowdrifts of evidence, while laying bare some slippery, frozen excuses. How do we let ourselves look with fresh eyes?
There’s a lot to ponder here, enough for a rich and revealing Lenten practice. Let me open the curtain by raising up three possible places to begin:
- Biblical glimpses of God’s loving presence.
- A Cord of Commitment helps us to stay “in this together” as we recognize and accept God’s grace.
- An invitation to be part of a container to carry God’s grace in the world
Biblical Glimpses of God’s Loving Presence
Our Scripture for this week takes me back to three familiar images, God’s rainbow after the flood, Jesus’ model of suffering and relief as a liberation model for us (if we can accept it), and the Jesus’ baptism as a model of claiming God’s call.
Let me begin with God’s covenant with Noah: “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy all flesh.” And God introduces the rainbow as a sign of that commitment: “When you see the rainbow, you will know that I am with you and will not kill all flesh.” The rainbow has become a sign of the commitment by the Creator to preserve life. The Scripture doesn’t have the Creator promising to take away all discomfort, or all frustration, even all death. But it does point to God’s grace in preserving life on the planet. Are we listening? Who is going to do it? We can’t shrug and continue to do what we are doing now.
In The first epistle of Peter, we see a model of suffering and sacrifice as the path to a good conscience and life in the Spirit. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is a pattern for returning to harmony with God: release and return. This counter-cultural path means living with the law of God written on your heart. And this leads me to the core teaching of Jesus, that the path to harmony is built on compassion rather than conviction. That means having the Law of God written on our hearts: Love God and love our neighbor. That seems like a pretty good guide for learning how to be a creative, inclusive community, working for peace and justice.
Finally, let me turn to the Gospel lesson for the week, where Mark describes the baptism of Jesus as Jesus’ commitment to following God’s call on his life, and in response, an affirmation by the Creator of Jesus’ belonging: “This is my beloved…!”
There are a lot of indications in Scripture that Jesus knew from an early age what was on the road ahead of him. But his baptism by his cousin John may well have been the moment of his own inner commitment to pick up God’s call and live into it, even though the road led to the cross. …
These three signs of grace invite us into the season of Lent this year as a time for discerning how we are called to be part of the creative, inclusive Body of the Creator, and how being bound together as part of that Body makes it possible to help carry and share the grace of God.
A Cord of Commitment helps us stay “in this together” as we recognize and accept God’s grace.
As I pondered these images from scripture of God’s grace and the commitment it takes to receive them, my gaze shifted to my own experience with commitment, and what it takes to stick together when some kind of flood threatens to sweep us away
The meme, that flows within us here at Seekers, “Thank God we’re in this together!” points to our widely shared belief that being part of a larger body helps us step from convenience into commitment and stay there even when it isn’t easy.
It’s our commitments that help us know and claim the cords that bind us. Sometimes we just know we’re bound together, but as I’ve been thinking about entering Lent this year, a year when we can’t get together to share, and pray, and mark each other’s foreheads with ashes and wash one another’s feet, I’ve wondered about the “cord of commitment” that binds us together even when we must stay apart.
I may not be able to describe that cord of commitment that binds us together but I know that I feel the comfort of community even though we must stay physically apart “for our own good.” Thank God we’re in this together!
The “cord of commitment” that binds us together in community and ministry is, itself, a sign of grace. We know it when we feel bound by it, but what can we say about it? As I worked on this reflection, I’ve had some intriguing ideas float past. I thought they might be an outline for what I was to offer today. But the more I tried to describe this “cord of commitment” the more it started to look like my little version of The Varieties of Religious Experience, and I knew that none of us had time for that. Here’s a short version.
An invitation to be part of a container to carry God’s grace in the world.
As the reflection from Frederick Buechner which begins our liturgy suggests, “
Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. … Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
We are each invited to reach out and take the grace that God is offering even in these dark times. And, at least from where I sit, as a family of faith we are working to create and care for the groups, the containers, that help with the delivery.
This season Celebration Circle is encouraging Seekers who are in mission groups to share from the call and life of the group, and as a long-time member of Celebration Circle, I want to share a bit of how the call of that group speaks to me and helps us serve as a container to share God’s grace.
Since I joined Celebration Circle in the fall of1983 I’ve been committed to working with whoever else was called to be part of the group to coordinate our worship life. We select themes for worship based on the lectionary and concerns in the life of the community. Then we compose the liturgies and special rituals, schedule the preachers and work with them to select the hymns and music. And for the past year we’ve had the invitation to experiment with technology to replace the more familiar elements like bulletins and hymnals. Our Zoom mission group meetings are busy, lively times, as the work helps us confront our assumptions about God and face our prejudices about worship.
My experience with Celebration Circle is typical of the experiences of members of all eight of our mission groups. You can find more detail on the Seekers’ website under “life together/mission groups.”
Here are a few things that look like examples to me of where Seekers Church is helping hold out signs of grace:
Since we had to shift from gathering in person to gathering online, Celebration Circle has been able to accept new ways of connecting and supporting that cord that binds us. In 2020 Celebration Circle created eight liturgies and held the space for 25 different people to preach, sharing their sense of God’s call on their lives. (All but two of those preachers are Seekers.) Gathering online for worship has been a challenge, but with the support of many people, and a lot of help from new technology, we have been able to stick together. The fact that I counted more faces on Zoom during worship last week than we had in the sanctuary a year ago suggests that CC has been open to reaching out for the grace of God by trying new approaches to worship.
Earth and Spirit Mission Group also helps carry the life of the community. Yesterday afternoon I received the e-mail invitation from Sharon Lloyd to gather as a community this coming Wednesday afternoon to help clean up Long Branch Stream. The mission group is working to be a vessel to help bring God’s grace to the Takoma Park community by helping to clean up the environment.
After worship this morning we are all invited to be part of a community-wide review and decision process that will determine how $60,000 of our budget for this year will be distributed to other organizations that are working for peace and justice. Each of the 25 organizations being considered is linked to someone in our community who can help us help channel God’s grace to those served by the organizations we support. ($60,000 is over 20% of our budget.) Cynthia Dahlin has carried this call for us for many years.
Then in a month we will have another meeting of all Seekers to allocate another large part of our budget to international organizations where we have the same kind of supporting links. Dave Lloyd has been carrying this part of our life together for many years.
The JAM team, Joan, Amy and Mary, has been supporting a growing number of Seekers who maintain an ongoing list of community prayer requests, and host a weekly prayer gathering on Zoom.
Every Sunday afternoon a group of about a dozen Seekers have been holding a quiet vigil to call for racial justice. Jackie Wallen has been called to carry this since it began in the early summer. I hope to see you there at 12:30 today. Dress warmly!
As we say in the Guide to Seekers Church:
God calls each of us to a life of love and service. Concretely, it is a highly individual desire, placed by God in the heart of each person, to be about particular works in the world and in the church. People may have multiple calls and recognizing this is important to us in Seekers Church. The spiritual journey for individuals in Seekers Church grows out of a commitment to answer “Yes” to a call from God as part of this faith community.
Each of us is in a position to reach out a hand open to the grace of God. Being part of a mission group offers the opportunity to know the strength of that cord of commitment that links us to a mission that is shared by others and supports deepening the roots of community. Bound together, we can reach out as a community wider world and help hold God’s grace so others may open their hearts to receive it.
In our lessons for this week we see Biblical glimpses of God’s loving presence. Think of the rainbow over Noah’s family as a reminder of God’s call on them to serve as co-creators, giving themselves with the assurance that God was with them. What might be, for you in these dark times, a sign of God’s loving presence?
There is a Cord of Commitment that helps us stay “in this together” as we recognize and accept God’s grace. Being part of a larger body helps us step from convenience into commitment and stay there even when it isn’t easy. Where do you have that sense of being bound together in community working for peace and justice, or who can you ask to help you find it?
In this little family of faith, we are each invited to say “Yes” to God’s call for us as we walk with each other on the Way. Where is God calling you, this Lenten season, to open your heart to God’s grace, and help offer it to others?
So here we are, back to where we started. The reflection question for Lent is What do I think is a sign of grace? One answer is a song we all know: “Blest be the tie that binds … our hearts in Christian love …”
May it be so. Amen.