Water in the Wilderness Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Lent 3, 2011 The Israelites were on a journey through the wilderness. They had settled in Egypt generations earlier, but as xenophobia gripped the ruling class of Egypt, the descendants of Jacob found themselves unwelcome, and even persecuted. Under the leadership of Moses they fled from [...]
Water in the Wilderness
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Lent 3, 2011
The Israelites were on a journey through the wilderness. They had settled in Egypt generations earlier, but as xenophobia gripped the ruling class of Egypt, the descendants of Jacob found themselves unwelcome, and even persecuted. Under the leadership of Moses they fled from Egyptian bondage, but even freedom isn’t without challenge, hard work, and unpredicted setbacks. And so in their journey they sometimes got very tired and even scared, and when they lost sight of why they were doing something new and why they left the place where they had been oppressed, they started to romanticize the past, longed for it even, and forgot how unwelcome and unwanted they had been in the land they left.
In today’s reading we see the people in one of their contentious states. They want Moses to wave a magic wand and make everything instantly better for them; but that never really happens, does it? They start feeling sorry for themselves and even ask if God is with them or not in this wilderness journey; they even seem to suggest that the way things had been in Egypt might have been better than all this journey to the promised land business…ah the good old days of oppression.
The people are so negative, fearful and habitually cranky that Moses calls the place where they are camped Massah and Meribah (meaning “testing and contention” in Hebrew). It was if they were living in a state of being chronically miserable, and Moses named that state, “testing and contention.”
The people start again longing for the days of bondage, telling Moses that at least as slaves they had water to drink.
Moses demonstrates that God is still with them on their journey as he strikes some sort of porous rock formation and discovers water within the rock and the people don’t die of thirst after all, neither do they have to go back to the place they left in order to experience divine grace. They are reminded once again that God will not call us to a place where God’s grace can’t sustain us.
Remember, throughout the long hard journey, they were nourished by manna, a flaky substance which in reality was probably an insect or plant secretion. It was tasty and nourishing, but they couldn’t hoard it. They were to gather just what they needed each day, trusting that there would be more tomorrow; and so we pray even still, give us this day our DAILY bread. Also, throughout the journey, they found quail to eat. And now they discover that there is water in certain rocks. The journey to Life’s wonderful promises may take us through some desert times and experiences, but even in the desert there is manna, quail, and water-filled rocks…but we find those miracles with hope and gratitude rather than with fear and regret.
When we release the past to the past and dare to move forward, even into the uncertain and unknown, we can trust that there is grace equal to our every need, quails flying by, flaky sweet sustenance on the ground, even a water-filled rock to quench our deepest thirst as long as we keep moving forward without looking back. We are by nature resilient and we can trust not only our own resiliency but also a divine Power to help us maximize our resiliency in our times of need; so keep moving forward. The Promised Land is not the place of bondage we left; it is the place of hope toward which we must keep journeying.
This message is of course repeated in the Gospel lesson this morning.
The writer of John’s gospel works with water as a symbol of new birth, new awakening, developing a new consciousness throughout these early chapters of the gospel. In the 1st chapter we see Jesus’ sacred value being affirmed at his baptism. In the second chapter we see him turning water into wine, turning consciousness into a force for healing and abundance.
In chapter 5 we see a man waiting by a pool of 38 years waiting to be healed, but not until Jesus asks him, “Do you want things to be different? Do you want to be healed?” does the man even give real thought to the matter. At first, out of habit, the man argued for his limitation. He said, “I don’t have anyone to put me in the healing waters; there isn’t anyone to give me what I want, no one to do my work for me.” But he then must have taken responsibility for his own thoughts and feelings, and once he made the decision that he really would like to experience something better, then he got up and walked away from that old pool at long last. 38 years doing the same thing the same way day after day and year after year did not result in his healing. Only when he was willing to do something new and hear something new and experience something new did his life change for the better. Jesus challenged him take up his mat and start moving forward, and by doing so, the man’s life was changed.
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still, not if you want a miracle, and a miracle is a change of perception that leads to a change of experience. You can’t have a miracle without change.
In John chapter 4, we have still another water story. In this story, the water that never runs out, that can constantly refresh the tired and discouraged is symbolic, representing grace that is without limit. Even in the worst of times, dare to look for manna on the ground, quails in the air, water in the rocks! Such grace is extended to an unnamed Samaritan woman.
Samaritans were not highly regarded by most people in Jesus’ community. The animosity toward the Samaritans by Jesus’ community was longstanding.
About 800 years before the time of Jesus, Assyria conquered Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel and resettled it with people from various parts of the Assyrian empire. The settlers picked up some aspects of the indigenous religion and eventually built a temple on Mount Gerizim. In Jesus’ day, the Judeans (descendants of the people of the southern kingdom of Judah) believed that the Samaritans were not truly Jewish because they may have been descended from those early Assyrian/Samaritan settlers.
So that’s why we read in v. 9, “Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” But Jesus breaks with that tradition and does associate with this Samaritan woman and offers her symbolic water that doesn’t run out. So, like the water from Moses’ rock, Jesus’ water (the power to think with optimism) seems to be potentially endless, able to help us be resilient in our times of need. That must have been a very profound message in the late 90s when John’s gospel is being written (almost 3 decades after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed). John’s community is having a type of wilderness experience themselves, and John is having Jesus remind them that there is water in the wilderness (sometimes in unlikely places, like in a rock, or at a well in Samaria). John is reminding them that there is a deep well of hope within us and we can access the water of that inward well and have the power of hope saturate our consciousness, especially in the difficult times. That must have been a powerful message for them, as it is for us as well.
The Samaritan woman is at the well at Noon. That is a non-traditional time for water gathering. People who have to carry heavy buckets of water far distances usually prefer to do so early in the morning before they are tired and before the heat becomes oppressive. But this woman is at the well at a non-traditional time. She is moving forward in new directions in her life and because she broke with the constraints of how others have always done things, she encountered Jesus and that encounter led her to her own life changing miracle!
This water of optimism is shared with the woman in a very practical way. She is asked to go get her husband. But she doesn’t have a husband, and in fact, after five husbands she is with a sixth man who has not bothered to enter into a covenantal relationship with her.
This woman has been treated as an object, being used and dumped by man after man, until finally finding a man who won’t even give her the social advantage of being officially married. To this woman who has been dehumanized for so long, Jesus offers affirmation of her innate dignity. He speaks to her. He asks her for water. He offers her encouragement. He approaches her not from a point of prejudice of privilege, but with mutuality and respect. Others have treated her badly but he doesn’t treat her badly. He therefore communicates to her that she has sacred value, just as she is.
The woman will never have a better past. Like the Israelites in the desert, she can’t go back; she can’t rewrite the story of what has been. Her power lies in discovering the newness that is available to her NOW, and moving forward with faith into a future that can be infinitely better and certainly different than anything she has known so far. That’s what she has allowed to happen at the well, at noon, with this new experience of this radically new sort of prophet called Jesus. The woman learns what philosopher William James would teach 2000 years later when he said, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that people can change their lives by altering their attitudes.” By allowing herself the power of new thinking, the woman learns to believe in herself, to release the idols of the past, and is refreshed with spiritual water that changes her life forever.
In the story Jesus says God is spirit and in spirit is how God is to be experienced. Jesus’ community thought the Jerusalem temple was the special place for pilgrimage and worship; but at the end of the first century when John’s gospel is being written, there is no such temple anymore. So, the idea that God wasn’t displaced just because a building was destroyed must have been encouraging; God isn’t limited to the rituals, traditions, and teachings of the churches of the past. God is spirit and spirit is always moving forward in the direction of divine promise.
God isn’t limited to a mountain in Samaria or to a temple in Jerusalem; God isn’t limited to any religion, tradition, language, or community. Whatever we have allowed God to be to us so far, God must yet be infinitely more. To experience the more-ness of God, we must keep moving forward. And there is water in the wilderness of our on-going journey!
Do you need a miracle today? In other words, would you like to see things differently so that you might have more hope and more joy in your life? If so, then release the past to the past and be present to what is available to you. Appreciate what got you to this place in your life, but don’t idolize it and don’t condemn it. Just acknowledge it, bless it, and keep moving forward. Don’t long for what was, be grateful for what is and have faith in what still can be even though it will be different than anything you’ve known so far. If you will trust that kind of journey, there will be magic rocks and bottomless wells in your wilderness to refresh you, renew you, and lead you to the miracle you need most. Such life-giving water is even available to you right now, and this is the good news. Amen. © Durrell Watkins 2011
I thank God for water in the wilderness.
I am thankful for the power of hope.
I give thanks that hope is blessing me now.
And I trust that there are miracles in store for me.
Let miracles manifest today;
in the name of the indwelling Christ.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Lent 2 (2011)
Genesis 12.1-4; John 3.1-8
I was at the theatre, a small off-off Broadway theatre in New York where I was doing an internship, when my mother called me one night. It was a call I had spent most of my life to that point dreading. She was telling me that my grandmother didn’t have long to live. I got to speak to my grandmother on the phone briefly. It was the last time I would hear her voice.
Rather than spending hours trying to find a flight to Shreveport or Little Rock or Dallas, and then waiting for the flight, and perhaps having layovers, then renting a car and driving the rest of the way to where my Grandmother lived in Arkansas, Robert and I decided it would be about as easy and maybe even about as fast to just drive and leave immediately, which we did. We drove all night. Well, Robert drove…I prayed and cried mostly.
We made it in time. And I was able to spend the last hour of my grandmother’s life with her. I was so grateful for that chance to say goodbye.
Journeys often begin in the dark. The dark night of the journey’s beginning can seem interminable, but the dark night invariably leads to dawn. As the Psalmist so wisely affirmed, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
In the Genesis reading today, Abram must leave what he has known, leave what he is comfortable with and begin a journey into the darkness of the new and unknown. Such a journey requires faith. St. Paul said we journey by faith, and not by sight…journeys are full of the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the unscripted, the unfamiliar, so do embark on a such a journey requires faith…trust in the goodness of God and in the goodness of the journey itself.
We don’t like journeys most often. We like familiarity. We want to lock spirituality down with creeds and sacraments and hymnals and traditions…nothing new, nothing different, nothing unexpected. But that’s not the life of faith.
In a world of constant change, we want to have something that doesn’t; but the only constant in the universe is change. To live is to evolve, and evolution is change. A life of faith is the call to move forward, and to trust that there is more to discover, more to experience, more to give, more to receive, more to learn. A life of faith requires some time in the dark where we have to trust because we just don’t know what’s next.
In the Gospel lesson, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness because he is afraid. Meeting with Jesus involves some risk for him, and he doesn’t trust, that is, he doesn’t have faith that it’s worth the risk. We don’t like risky religion, but religion at its best demands us to move past our comforts and personal desires and into a life of trust and forward movement. Such trust is called faith, faith is the power that can move mountains, those mental obstacles that keep us from seeing our potential and the possibilities in life.
But even though Nicodemus is afraid to meet with Jesus in the light of day, he summons as must courage as he can, and he meets with him at night. He doesn’t have much faith, but by using as much faith he has, he will develop more. And so, in the dark of night, he begins his journey of faith, at first timidly, but moving ever forward until his faith grows to serve him better.
He will need to grow in faith, grow to trust divine goodness to the point where he experiences a new beginning, a spiritual birth. Spirit, breath, wind, energy…it moves powerfully, never static. It can’t be seen, and yet you know when you’ve encountered it. To be born of spirit is to experience power, and we get there by daring to begin the journey, even at night, not knowing exactly where it will lead or how long it will take. But if we can use whatever faith we have, we’ll build on that, and renewal will eventually happen. Miracles may even occur.
Within a seed there is more life than anyone can see by looking at the seed. But plant that seed in the dark, cool ground, and it begins a journey of evolution that allows the life within it to spring forth. The journey through the darkness can be a powerful experience that allows us to express new life. Begin born from above, being born of spirit begins by accessing the Christ within, the divine life within us that is present even in the uncertainty, in the darkness. Even in the darkness, we are not alone.
Dylan Thomas writing for his father who was on a journey through terminal illness said, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The darkness, the mystery, the unknown require boldness. Can you imagine the courage it takes to be born? When your mother’s body is your whole world, and you leave that world to come into a larger, brighter world…that must be terrifying, but we all did it. That same courage is still within us, and it will still take us to new experiences, new worlds, new realities when we let it; when we dare to let go of the past and move forward into the unknown with all its powerful possibilities. Andre Gide said, “Human-beings cannot discover new oceans unless they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Speaking of the journey of seeking truth and meaning, Gide said, “Believe those who are seeking truth; doubt those who find it.” And about the journey we take to live authentically and with integrity, he said, “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.” The journey isn’t always gentle, it often feels less than safe as if we are stumbling in the dark, but it can lead to some bright and amazing places. In religious terms we could say the Lenten journey leads to Easter joy.
The dark sacred night and the journey that it represents are symbolized in stories throughout the ages.
Jesus is arrested at night. And that begins a difficult journey that leads to a powerful experience we call Easter.
Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon is also the goddess of hunting…of searching for sustenance. Searching for what will sustain is blessed by the deity of the night.
The Hindu god of the moon is called Soma. He travels through the night sky in a chariot pulled by white horses. His journey gives light in the night that gives way to the new dawn.
A Shinto priest named Kurozumi developed the habit of complaining all the time. He expected the worst. For his glass to be half empty would be an improvement. He saw everything through the lens of fear and victimization. Everything was rotten. Everyone was out to get him. Everybody was evil. The worst of all possibilities was what was bound to happen in his imagination, and he felt compelled to tell everyone who would listen just how dreadful things really were. And this lifelong habit actually made him physically ill.
Kurozumi’s disease progressed, and he decided that if his life was going to be cut short, he didn’t want to waste his final days being bitter all the time. So, he made a conscious decision to praise everything. He would see the good in things, and if there was no apparent good, he’d make something up. It was difficult at first, his habit of complaining was so well established, but he was determined to create a new habit.
He got sicker and sicker, but he would not be distracted from his mission of expressing praise and gratitude everyday for almost everything in his world. He would find something good to say about every person, every situation, every occurrence. Everything and everyone was beautiful in some way.
One day, weak and near death, Kurozumi fell to the floor, and even in that pitiful state he offered praise and thanksgiving for whatever good he could imagine, and suddenly he inhaled deeply, and a new surge of vitality filled his body! He was, in an instant, cured of his malady! And not only was he cured but he was so full of positive energy that he could breathe on others and they would recover from their illnesses too. Kurozumi’s long and difficult journey through the habit of complaining to the new reality of finding joy wherever he looked transformed him into a miracle worker.
Psalm 63 begins, “My God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you.” A few verses later, the psalmist writes, “I think of God throughout the night.” Don’t be afraid of the dark. The dark time can be a time of healing, a time of rest, a time of renewal, a time of learning, a time of inner communion, a time of establishing new patterns that will lead to miracles. The dark time can be the beginning of a journey that leads deeper and deeper into the mystery we call God. The dark time will give way eventually to the rising sun, but it has value even before then. The bible tells us, “God is Light and in God there is no darkness at all.” In the dark times, we can trust the light within us, the divine presence that is with us throughout our journey.
This moment, as uncertain and as difficult as you may find it to be, this very moment can be a magic moment, a God-filled moment, a moment where you make the decision that will lead you to be born from above, renewed, moving to a place of such profound hope that not only is your life healed it becomes a source of healing for others. You don’t have to be afraid of the dark, and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
Night and Day both belong to God.
Times of uncertainty call us toward faith.
Faith will sustain me.
With the Inward Light, I am a miracle worker.
And so it is.
“Clouds and darkness surround us, but Heaven is just and the day of triumph will surely come when justice and truth will be vindicated.” Mary Todd Lincoln
Serpent Says: Hearing the Snake Again (for the first time!)
Genesis 2.15-17; 3,1-7
Lent 1, 2011 Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
The creation myth we heard read today from Genesis may be my favorite story in the whole bible, because it sets the tone for how we are to read the rest of the bible. There are two different creation myths, side by side in the opening chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1, there is no snake, no garden, all of creation is very good and the human family is made in the divine image. For its high anthropology, I like that the story in Genesis 1. But three hundred years before the story in Genesis 1, the story we find in Genesis 2 and 3 was formed. And that story is a much more interesting allegory and requires us to work harder to make sense of it. It also has interesting characters. So, I’m glad this second, though older, creation myth is the one we are looking at today.
In the story read today, God has planted a garden and then realizes that a garden needs a gardener to care for it. So, God creates a gardener from the earth itself, but of course, the gardener needs some companionship. So, God performs surgery on the gardener and removes one of the gardener’s ribs and from that rib fashions another human. Maybe that is meant to suggest that we are meant to live and work side by side in unity and cooperation.
Well, we now have a garden, a gardener, and the gardener’s spouse. In the garden there are many shrubs and trees and plants of every kind, but for some reason, smack dab in the middle of the garden is a magic tree.
It’s odd, isn’t it?
God didn’t think that a garden would need a gardener.
God didn’t realize that a single human would need a friend of some kind.
And God somehow didn’t understand that it might not be a good plan to create a magic tree, put it in the big middle of everything without hiding it or creating any hindrance to gaining access to it, and then to say to an infantile couple, “See that tree, that one right there…you can’t miss it, I put it in plain sight…that tree with its delicious and beautiful fruit, leave it alone.” Really God? These people are what, a few hours old? To say they are immature or naïve is understating the case! You’ve made something beautiful and tasty, put it plain sight, pointed it out, and then told extremely young people that they must leave it alone. Did you really expect that would work?
Well, the magic tree gives people the knowledge of good and evil.
Remember…God made the tree.
At this point in the story, God has made everything that has been made.
In later mythology, a few isolated verses will be strung together to create a story about how evil enters the world through a cosmic battle, but in this story, there is no battle, no fallen angels, no big bad boogey man, there’s just God and God’s creation and God’s not very well thought out plan.
So if there is evil, according to this story, who made it? God!
And for that matter, there isn’t any particular act of evil in the story; there is a set up for failure (but that’s God’s bad), there is non-compliance with God’s arbitrary rules, but no one does anything evil in the story.
How one even knows about evil is by eating fruit from the magic tree that God made!
Now, God does tell the couple that if they eat the delicious, beautiful fruit that God has made and pointed out, they will drop dead. And that leads us to chapter 3 where we read, “The serpent was craftier than any of the other animals God had made.” Again…who has made everything in this story? Not in later stories, but in this story as we read it on its own terms? God had made everything. God has apparently made evil if it exists, according to this story, and God has made the magic tree that reveals evil. God has made an infantile couple. And God has made a terribly clever snake. I can’t believe a story could be this comical by accident! Someone is trying to make us both smile and think!
Well, the woman in our story is minding her own business one day when a snake approaches her and says…
Let’s stop right here for a minute. The snake “says”???
Hello?!!! Of all the characteristics snakes possess, is verbosity or erudition among them?
Back to the chatty snake…
The snake says to the woman, “Did God really say don’t eat any of the delicious beautiful fruit from the most prominently displayed tree in the garden?” And the woman says, “Sure did. God said if we eat that fruit we will drop dead.” And the snake says, “You won’t drop dead you’ll just be smarter and will know good from evil.” And the woman eats the fruit, and she doesn’t drop dead, and she does now know good from evil. She passes the experience on to her husband (though we are never told where the justice of the peace came from who married them…maybe they’re married because they say they are, and we could do a whole sermon on that, but let’s not go there today). The only character in the whole story who tells the truth is the poor maligned, vilified snake!
Well, after the woman and man eat the magic smart fruit, they realize they are naked and so they make clothes for themselves, thereby creating the fashion industry.
In this strange garden tale, God is not all-knowing; God is not even very wise. In the story, God creates evil, God creates the tree that reveals evil, God creates the serpent that tells the truth about the tree, and God creates a couple so stupid they don’t find it strange when a snake strikes up a conversation. How from that story did we ever think the snake or the woman were the ones who looked bad!
Now, in this story, the snake is just a snake. Much later the snake will be identified as a deceptive, diabolical character who actually personifies evil. But that isn’t in the story itself. And, in various cultures, serpents represent wisdom and divine power and protection and even healing. So, we could interpret the serpent to mean lots of things…if we hadn’t been told he was bad, we might have never made such an assumption…but isn’t that true of a lot of people…if we hadn’t been told that same-gender love and attraction was bad, would we have ever thought it was?
But whatever we think the serpent represents, in the story itself, the snake is just a snake. The snake is as God created it. The snake is the most honest character in the story. And the snake is strangely chatty which for some reason no one questions. You’d think the woman or the man, however young and naïve they were would have noticed that none of the other animals had much to say.
Now, we aren’t making fun of the story (though we might be tempted to snicker a bit at those who pretend to take the story literally); we are just honestly looking at the story as it really is. And the story, as it really is, happens to be humorous, as fables often are. I also think it says something wonderful about a relationship with God that can be so playful…that the creators of this story dared to make God look comical shows great trust in the goodness of God. One doesn’t make God the buffoon in one’s story if one thinks God is an ill-tempered, punishing monster. God is the author’s playmate in the story. That alone is a lesson worth embracing.
If we can separate the story from the layers of interpretation that have been laid upon it over the centuries, what might this garden story with its naïve couple and chatty snake really be trying to tell us?
It might be an allegory for the natural maturation process of our lives: In our infantile stage of life, we don’t know much. We have our needs met (diapers changed, formula provided, baths given, etc.) and there are also things in plain sight we are taught to avoid (hot irons, electric outlets, etc.). If we don’t avoid these dangers, we will learn (the hard way) lessons that will make us wiser, if a little rumpled for our efforts.
As we grow, we become more curious, ask more questions, take more risks, challenge limits, etc. Along the way, (serpentine) voices of (sometimes hard) truth will tell us that we can do more than we thought we could, but if we do more we will lose the luxury of blissful ignorance. We will no longer live in a paradise of presumed safety and pleasure. We will have to work out our own life’s meaning.
The time comes when we leave the comforts of the garden (home) and we must find our own way in life, working, studying, negotiating, making mistakes, experiencing pain and disappointment as well as joy and achievement. We’ve learned then that we are in many ways vulnerable (naked) and we have to take care of ourselves (covered with fig leaves). We can never return to the garden of infancy, to the understandings of our childhood, but we can move forward and create our own destiny, which is really what we want to do.
The serpent is not only the honest character in the story, he is the one whose bias isn’t toward maintaining the status quo, but rather toward learning and exploring and investigating and moving forward. Because of the wisdom the snake invites the woman to embrace, the couple leave paradise, but they don’t die…they thought they might, but the only thing that died was the mistaken notion that change wasn’t inevitable. The couple dare to begin to create their own world of achievement and life-long learning.
The story isn’t meant to debunk scientific discoveries. The story isn’t meant to blame women for the difficulties of the world. The story isn’t meant to say that we are innately evil. The story isn’t even meant to suggest that since the fictional couple in the story are heterosexual all real people should be. The story isn’t meant to be accepted uncritically in any way.
The story is meant to show us that life is about learning and moving forward…such growth won’t always be easy, and we may even be tempted to long for the good old days of the blissful garden, but our real power is daring to learn, to try, and to grow. Knowledge is power and there is always more to have. The power of knowledge may cast us out of the garden of blissful ignorance, but it leads us into a life of growth and achievement where we become the directors of our own destiny. In this story, there is no devil other than the ones we may choose to imagine, but there is opportunity and challenge and hope and growth and possibilities and empowerment. We may lose blissful ignorance, but we gain powerful wisdom and that will lead us forward into adventures of love and integrity and fulfillment. May this Lent be such an adventure of love and learning and growth for all of us; and may our Lenten journey lead us all to Easter joy. Amen.© Durrell Watkins 2011
I don’t fear knowledge. I don’t fear learning.
I don’t fear wisdom. There is nothing to fear.
My journey is leading me to real joy.
God is my playmate along the way.
And I trust that ultimately, all is well.
And so it is!
“If the account given in Genesis is really true, ought we not, after all, to thank this serpent? He was the first schoolmaster, the first advocate of learning, the first enemy of ignorance, the first to whisper in human ears the sacred word ‘liberty,’” Robert G. Ingersoll
Six Don’ts and Some Stuff to Do Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Ash Wednesday 2011 Ash Wednesday begins the Season of Lent. The Ashes that we receive tonight remind us of our mortality; but that need not be a depressing gesture as much as a call to action. Knowing that our time in this human experience [...]
Six Don’ts and Some Stuff to Do
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Ash Wednesday 2011
Ash Wednesday begins the Season of Lent.
The Ashes that we receive tonight remind us of our mortality; but that need not be a depressing gesture as much as a call to action.
Knowing that our time in this human experience is finite inspires us to make the most of our time.
We don’t have time for petty grudges. We don’t have time for useless worry.
We don’t have time for a false sense of guilt. Our earthly years are limited, which makes them precious, and we will want to use that precious time wisely. That’s why we are committed to Sharing the Light with the World.
Now, as we know, this is the first day of Lent. Lent is a Season of 40 days, but it takes 46 days to experience those 40. How come? Because Sunday is always a celebration of Easter! We don’t count Sundays, so we don’t drab down our worship services on Sundays at Sunshine Cathedral during Lent. Sunday is a celebration of life 52 weeks a year! So, we have 6 days of Lent, and a day off…6 days of Lent, and a day off…that’s why the 40 days of Lent take 46 days. You might even hear an Alleluia or two on Sundays during Lent, we’re just that zany!
Now, why is Lent 40 days? 40 is symbolic of journeys, periods of waiting, periods of challenge throughout scripture. A period of 40 days is experienced so frequently in scripture, I’m led to believe that the number is more of a literary tool than a literal fact. But the stories all suggest that 40 days well spent can lead to a miracle. Looking at some of these 40 day stories, I want to share with you 6 don’ts and some stuff to do:
First Don’t – Don’t Forget, the Storm Can’t Last Forever! (Genesis 7)
Noah’s world was flooded and the storms came and came, for 40 days and 40 nights.
Have you ever felt like the crap just kept hitting the fan, day after day after day?
Always more bills than income?
Always one more complication as you struggle to regain your health?
Always more gossip vilifying you as you try your best to do your best?
The deluge of despair can seem endless, but it isn’t. Eventually the rain stops. 40 days is a long time, but it isn’t forever. So don’t give up. The waters will one day recede and you will step out onto dry land again!
Second Don’t – Don’t Let the Unhappiness of Others Infect You (Exodus 34)
Moses led his people out of slavery and into a period of being lost in a wilderness. The waiting and the wandering was so challenging that sometimes people actually missed slavery! They complained to and about the person who had secured their liberty because freedom is actually hard work. Moving forward is riskier than staying stuck, but it’s worth the risk!
Have you ever taken a bold step only to feel overwhelmed or lost or unappreciated after? Moses had that experience for 40 years. He tried to take a break from it by going on a mountain retreat, and that retreat lasted 40 days! Forty days on Mount Sinai without food, water, or companionship, and when he finally came down he had to haul two huge pieces of stone with him. And when he came off the mountain, there was more confrontation, more discord, and they were still lost for a long time. But Moses wasn’t his circumstances; he wasn’t limited by the difficulties around him. He chose, regardless of the cost, to be a liberator, to lead his people forward. Don’t listen to the people who are never happy, never pleased, never satisfied, never impressed…the constant complainers and agitators are never happy, don’t let them steal your happiness as well. The desert is a lonely place and we wind up there for a long time sometimes, but the wilderness leads to a Land of Promise, and even the desert is better than being enslaved by the past. God is with you in the desert, and you will eventually see the promised land, don’t let the negativity of others keep you from the journey forward.
Third Don’t – Don’t Sell Yourself Short (Numbers 13)
While on their seemingly never-ending journey, Moses sends scouts to survey the situation in the land of Canaan, to see if that can become their new home. The scouts reconnoitered for 40 days, but they came back to Moses after the 40 days full of fear and negative thinking and defeatist talk. They said, “sure enough, the land is great, full of milk and honey and fruit, but the people are HUGE, like giants. We cannot possibly deal with them.” And then the scouts went about spreading discouraging reports (oh the discouraging report spreaders we will always have with us). They even went so far as to say, “the Canaanites are like giants and we felt like tiny grasshoppers compared to them.”
Moses chose people he trusted to help lead the movement forward; but they didn’t want to lead. They wanted to shrink back, give into fear and anxiety, not attempt something new. They forfeited their leadership and became followers of fate rather than builders of a dream.
It only takes 21 days to form a habit, and these poor scouts had spent almost twice that amount of time talking themselves out of success, out of even making an attempt! The problem wasn’t that there were giants in the land; the problem was that they saw themselves as grasshoppers. When we believe in our greatness, the greatness of a challenge will not intimidate us. We can spend 40 days telling ourselves what can’t be done, we or we can spend 40 days attempting the impossible and working miracles. The choice really is ours.
Fourth Don’t – Don’t Give Up Too Soon (1 Kings 19)
Elijah was deeply depressed. He wanted to give up. People were out to get him; he really was in danger in fact. He was so discouraged, he just wanted to die. If not for angels, messengers of good news, he would have given up too soon. But encouraged by helpers, he found the strength to get back into life, and he spent 40 days traveling until he reached Mount Horeb, that is, until he reached a fulfilling, empowering, life-changing experience of God. He didn’t snap out of his depression over night, but he moved through it and he got through it and finally he received a miracle and then he was able to share miracles with others. Depression and disappointment happen, but don’t let them win. See a doctor, see a therapist, join a support group, pray and pray some more, affirm yourself, just don’t give up too soon. If Elijah had only pushed through his pain for 39 days he wouldn’t have reached Horeb…one more day and one more day and one more day until the day happens when we finally realize that God is with us, expressing through us, and then we can do things we had never before allowed ourselves to imagine. Depression happens, but we need not let it win.
Fifth Don’t – Don’t Let Others Decide Your Destiny (Jonah 3)
Jonah was told to go to Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Jonah’s people had been oppressed by the Assyrians, so he really didn’t want to spend any time in the land of his enemy. So he booked a cruise to Spain, but was thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish which spat him out at Ninevah after all. Ninevah, by the way, is named for Nine, the Assyrian fish god…a fish takes Jonah to Fish city…the writer was no slouch when it came to literary irony.
While Jonah is in Ninevah, he has a message for the city…they will be destroyed in 40 days! But Ninevah didn’t want to be destroyed, so rather than hearing the message as a death sentence, they heard it as a call to action. They made changes in their lives, and sure enough, they were not destroyed in 40 days. People out live their prognoses sometimes, people do better in their career than others predicted sometimes, people do better in school than some would have expected sometimes, people lose weight or stop smoking or learn to drive or learn a language even when others thought they never would. Don’t let someone else decide your destiny.
Jonah was terribly annoyed that Ninevah wasn’t destroyed. He really wished for their destruction, which says more about his character than theirs. There are people who want you to fail. They are hoping you will fall. They are predicting your doom. But you don’t have to listen to them; you can take responsibility for your own happiness, and they can choose to be miserable when you continue to thrive; that’s their business. You spend your 40 days learning to believe in yourself.
Sixth Don’t – Don’t Sell Out (Mark 1, Matthew 4)
After his baptism, Jesus went into the desert for 40 days. Mark says that beasts threatened him, but angels comforted him. Matthew says that Jesus was tempted to sell his integrity. The personification of Evil, called Satan in the story, tells Jesus that if he will do things his way, he will reward him with wealth and power. But Jesus said, “My integrity is not for sale.” And he defeated the temptation to sell-out, and he then began his very powerful ministry. Maybe your 40 days is a time of temptation…don’t lose yourself in that wilderness. Know what’s right, and do what’s right so that God can use you to be a powerful force for good in the world. Your integrity is the band of angels that will comfort you when the beasts are closing in.
40 days. What a perfect metaphor to lead us to Easter. We’ll wait. And wait. And wait. And then we’ll get excited on Palm Sunday. But then we’ll get nervous on Maundy Thursday. And then we’ll be terrified and heart-broken on Good Friday. But finally, our hope will be renewed and our lives will shine with joy again on Easter….it’s just like life, isn’t it? Ups, downs, waiting, moving, falling down, getting back up, being disappointed, and having our joy return again. Yes, a period of 40 days seems very appropriate and even therapeutic as we journey toward the Easter experience.
40 days well spent will inevitably lead to a miracle. That’s what the story of Noah, the stories of Moses, the story of Elijah, the story of Jonah, and the story of Jesus tell us tonight. We don’t have forever, but do we have now and we can spend now, this moment, this Season, doing things that will change us for the better, and as we change, the world around us seems to change as well. How will we spend our 40 days?
Some Stuff To Do:
I hope you will spend these 40 days of Lent (plus 6 bonus Sundays) worshiping every week at Sunshine Cathedral.
I hope you will take a religious education class to spend your Lenten season learning and growing.
I hope you will join us for a rich prayer experience at our Taize service next Wednesday and again the Wednesday of Holy Week.
I hope you will come to our special Good Friday event.
I hope you will support one or both of our feeding outreach programs we are conducting during Lent to help relieve hunger in our county and in our world.
I hope you will pray every day, and use Spirit & Truth magazine to help guide you into deeper ways of praying.
I hope you will be generous and faithful with your contributions because you love your church and you love how it helps you believe in yourself.
I’m not asking you to give up anything…if you spend your days in prayer, worship, and sharing, you will know what you need to release from your life, and it will probably be something like worry or regret or rage rather than chocolate, soda, or bubble gum.
I’m not asking you to fast; I don’t intend on missing a single meal, not even a snack. I may take my ashy forehead to Krispy Kremes right after this service. But I am asking you to let this be a season of learning and growing and sharing and praying and worshiping…and I promise, if you will open yourself up to God in those ways, you will experience God so profoundly it will astound you. And a season of Lent well spent will lead us all to Easter joy. This is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
Called to the Mountain Top Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin ~ March 6, 2011 I have to admit that it is a little strange talking about mountain top experiences here in Fort Lauderdale, when the highest point in Florida is Britton Hill in Lakewood, FL, which stands at 345 feet above sea level compared to Mt. [...]
Called to the Mountain Top
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin ~ March 6, 2011
I have to admit that it is a little strange talking about mountain top experiences here in Fort Lauderdale, when the highest point in Florida is Britton Hill in Lakewood, FL, which stands at 345 feet above sea level compared to Mt. McKinly in Alaska standing at 20,320 feet above sea level.
With that in mind, our gospel reading today has us with Jesus on a mountain.
After a few intense days to of ministry, Jesus felt he needed to get away. So he decides to go away with some of his closes friends. He takes Peter, James and John up a mountain and there they rest. Of course any time away with Jesus is not a regular experience; something interesting and something profound always seems to happen in the presence of Jesus. Today, our gospel reading from Mark is no different.
Often we notice that after Jesus has done something, he feels the need to get way. He feeds the hungry, heals the sick, encourages the down-trodden, and all the while finds that people are plotting against him. That’s a lot of work and a lot of stress and so he needs a time of Sabbath rest to recharge and renew. Jesus gives his best, he retreats for a time of self-care and refueling, and then he gets back out there to give his all again.
And that’s our example. We gather on Sunday for rest and celebration and encouragement and recharging so we can then go out and give our best to the world. It’s the Jesus way.
Whatever the reason, we find ourselves on the mountain with Jesus today and we are not alone. Here on this mountain top is also Peter, James and John who were the first followers Jesus called which might explain why there were there and it may be that Jesus had a closer relationship with them since they were the first to befriend Jesus in his ministry; and for Jesus to be on this mountain top with his friends, whom he loved, also represents a closeness to the Divine. We seem to experience the divine presence more fully when we seek that presence together. Together, with open hearts and minds, we come together and we sing and we pray and listen and in the togetherness and the openness, miracles happen, not the least of which is we experience God in new and powerful ways.
A point of this mountain top experience for Jesus was that it was a transforming moment for Jesus and those with him. From what we know about transformation in our personal, spiritual, or professional lives is that once you have been transformed by something you are never the same. Once you learn something, you can’t unlearn it. Once you’ve grown, you can’t un-grow. Once you’ve made progress, you can’t go back. Transformation never leaves us where it found us and it won’t let us go back; it always propels us forward.
On this mountain top experience those with Jesus wanted to freeze frame this moment in time and make it stand still and be something that it was never meant to be. As Peter, James and John came to themselves, either from their nap or recovering from breathing at a higher elevation, they saw standing with Jesus, Elijah and Moses.
Why Elijah and Moses? Both of these biblical characters appeared at crucial moments in the religious and political history of Jesus’ people. Through Moses, Yahweh rescued Israel from Egyptian oppression. Through Elijah, Yahweh preserves the faithful members of the people from persecution. Both are these biblical characters are significant figures in the history of prophetic movements. Jesus is now standing in the tradition of these great prophetic witnesses; this is clearly meant to affirm Jesus’ standing in the tradition. Of course we are to listen to him! He’s another Moses. He’s another Elijah. He’s the voice of God for our time and our day. He, like these other figures, is a giant of faith and he is the symbol we can look to for inspiration in our own lives of faith.
Now let’s put Jesus and his mountaintop experience on hold for just a moment and take a look at our lives as we may recall moments when we were attempting to climb up the rough side of our own mountain experiences. Our mountains may come to us in the form a difficult relationship, trying friendships, dysfunctional families that we are still trying to heal from. Our mountain may come to us in the form of a job where seek to climb up the professional ladder. Our mountain may come to us in the form of a diagnosis. But whatever the mountain you might be facing today I can say with certainty that there is a way to make it to the top and claim your victory.
We are faced with the reality that getting to the mountain top of our lives might not be easy, we may have to zig-zag to get to the top our mountain, but it can been done! We may have to step off the ground that we find ourselves standing on, for right now, in order to take that next step that moves us further up the side of the mountain. And let us not under-estimate the power of climbing because as we are climbing the side of our mountain, we are being transformed. The victory in not just making it to the top of the mountain, it is taking the time to recognize the parts of our lives that are in need of change; then when it is time to come down the mountain, we do not have to meet those same challenges because we will have faced them and moved through them already.
Just like Jesus, when we reach the mountain top, we can rest and give thanks because we have been transformed by that experience and by the power of God at work in our lives. When I think about that transformative power, I think of the words of Marianne Williamson’s in her book A Return to Love. Williamson writes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” And that is the good news of our mountain top experience today!
But let us not be like Peter, James and John and want to build museums to freeze in time our past achievements. The past can teach us but it will not sustain us. The mountain top gives us the view of the future, the view of the path forward that we are to take. The mountain top keeps us from worshiping the past; the mountain top calls us forward.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, said, “I’ve been to the mountain top” he was giving an example of the transformative power of change in the world and the Divine in our lives. King, addressing the sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, the day before his death said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
We today stand on the scared ground of those who have gone before us to make the mountain top experience we have today a reality. Yet, we cannot rest in those celebrations because there is still too much justice work to be done. There is hope to share. There is healing to offer. There is growth and learning and positive change still ahead. Thank God for the blessings of the past, but let us never try to return to the past; (1) it can’t be done, and (2) the useless attempt will keep us from moving forward and upward to the mountain top!
There have been moments of mountain top celebrations in our community. We celebrate same sex marriage in some places, we celebrate the reality of same sex couples being able to adopt, we celebrate that G&L’s will be able to serve out and proud on our Armed Services and there have been many more achievements. Yet, looking out from mountaintop of Sunshine Cathedral reminds us that we still have work to do. We have looked over into the promise land of what it looks like for MCC to be the world’s Human Rights Church and we know what it feels like to stand in solidarity with those who are on the margins in places like Jamaica and Uganda. We know what it feels like to advocate for health care for all. And we are reminded that we are not to make this hallowed place a museum of the past, but rather a place of constant action that will carry us all forward into new adventures, new successes, new victories, and new achievements.
Eventually, we will have to come back down the mountain but when we come down again, we will know that we have been changed forever by our own mountain top experiences. And as you experience your climb up the mountain, your celebration on the mountain top; your descent down the mountain; appreciate the valley that you go through until you get to your next mountain and begin the next climb in anticipation of the celebration you will have at the top again. And this is the Good News of transformation from the Mountain Top!
I’m on my way to the top of God’s mountain!
On God’s mountain I give thanks for possibilities.
I look ahead and know that I can do great things.
I see the blessings God has promised, and I’m moving toward them today.
I move boldly into the future with hope and grace.
And so it is.