Today marks the beginning of the season we call “Lent,” an old English word which refers to the springtime lengthening of the days. What is this season all about, these forty days (not counting Sundays) during which we are to be, in some way, doing what a hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says: “Keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast?”
A few years ago, Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, described Lent as a time for seeking and getting to know God better. Similarly, an essay about Lent in an issue of the National Catholic Register was titled “A Season for Seeking.” I’m not sure I buy that, however. As the Roman Franciscan author Richard Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” Lent is not so much a time for seeking God, who is always there, as it is for becoming aware of God.
And the interesting thing is that we are encouraged to become aware of God by becoming more aware of ourselves. Yes, Jesus does say to give with one hand not letting the other know what’s happening, but this seems more an instruction to follow the Deuteronomic command to “open your hand [to one in need] … to give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” rather than a direction to act without self-awareness.
Lenten Journal, Day 9
I woke up this morning thinking of cleaning toilets. Not in the future sense, the “I have to clean the toilets today” sort of thinking. I did that yesterday. At least I cleaned one toilet yesterday, the one in our master bathroom. Put a gold star on the calendar and mark the day!
It’s probably because I did that yesterday that I woke up this morning thinking about toilets and whether the job I did yesterday would have passed Doris’s standards. Doris was my boss when I was 19 years old and working as a janitor at a small acute care hospital in Southern California. Doris was the hospital’s Executive Housekeeper. She was, I think, the first Muslim with whom I ever had any daily interaction.
Doris was in her 50s when I worked for her, so I’m pretty certain she’s dead now. Actually, this is sad to say, I hope she’s dead. I would rather think of her in Paradise than imagine her facing today’s world of bigotry and the news of Muslims murdered for their faith. Because today I also woke up to the news that 49 Muslims had been shot to death while worshiping in their mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Lenten Journal, Day 5
“Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’” This is a verse from today’s Daily Office Old Testament reading; it’s supposed to be Moses’ words spoken to the Hebrews about to enter the Promised Land as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, a reminder of the debt of gratitude everyone owes to God, but today it reminds me of a political episode of a few years ago.
President Barack Obama, in a 2012 campaign speech, said, “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.” The “that” in that sentence was meant to refer to “roads and bridges” he had just referenced in the previous sentence, to the infrastructure which he had just described as the “unbelievable American system” that allows businesses to thrive. That was clear to anyone who heard the speech.
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. – Deuteronomy 26:5
I’m not preaching on the First Sunday of Lent, but if I was . . . I might preach about Lenten community.
“What?” some will ask. “The gospel lesson is about Jesus going off into the desert to be alone and to fast for forty days! Shouldn’t we be preaching about solitude and sacrifice and privation and that sort of thing? You know, Lenten discipline?”
Well, sure, you can do that. I’ll bet you’ve done that every year. I’ll bet our congregations have heard dozens, hundreds of Lenten discipline sermons. They can take another one.
However, as I read the gospel lesson again, it occurred to me that Satan’s temptations of Jesus are all the temptations of solitude: the self-sufficiency of miraculously producing bread without any other assistance – to which Jesus answers, “One does not live alone;” the loneliness of rulership – to which Jesus answers, “Worship and service,” an answer implying relationship and community; the selfishness of self-destruction – to which Jesus simply answers “No.”
Our gradual this morning asks a question of God about human existence:
What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?
Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the prince of Denmark in the play Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!
I have always been certain that Shakespeare was riffing on Psalm 8.
The prayer book version of the Psalm uses the word “man” in the generic sense asking the question about all of humankind, then literally translates the Hebrew ben adam as “son of man” recalling to us a term Jesus often applied to himself. While that may make a certain amount of liturgical sense, it distorts the importance of the Psalm. As translated in the New Revised Version of scripture, Psalm 8 asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” This is a little closer to the initial meaning of the verse, but the original Hebrew is not pluralized. This translation loses the awe and wonder of a singular individual gazing up at the night sky and overwhelmed by the presence of divinity.
You, who are on the road
must have a code
that you can live by.
And so become yourself
because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well . . . .
If you are as big a fan of the folk rock of the 1970s as I am, you will recognize the opening lines of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s 1970 hit Teach Your Children. Graham Nash who wrote the song has said that it was inspired by a 1962 photograph take by Diane Arbus of a young boy in New York’s Central Park playing with a toy hand grenade. I have no reason to disbelieve that, but I wonder also if today’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell address to the people he has led through Sinai to the brink of the Promised Land, might also have been in Nash’s mind. The song is a neat paraphrase of what Moses says.
The theme for today’s lessons is clear . . . we are almost “hit upside head” with the concept of Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is the law establishing the mandatory day of rest:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.
Our Gospel lesson relates two of Mark’s stories of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees about Sabbath observance: first, a probably made-up tale about the disciples plucking wheat, and second, a probably true story about Jesus healing a man with a crippled hand in the context of a synagogue Sabbath observance.
So what is Sabbath?
Here they are. The “Big Ten”! The words of Exodus that Right-wing fundamentalists want to chisel in granite and put in American courthouses unless, of course, they prefer the similar (but not quite the same) version in the Book of Deuteronomy.
My sort of go-to guy on the Old Testament is a Lutheran scholar named Terence Fretheim, who is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota. My first grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures was from a short, two-volume study guide he wrote with co-author Lutheran pastor Darold H. Beekman entitled Our Old Testament Heritage. A couple of years ago, Fretheim wrote a short online commentary on today’s Old Testament lesson in which he said:
The Ten Commandments are not new commandments for Israel (see Exodus 16:22-30), but they are a convenient listing of already existing law for vocational purposes. Moreover, the Commandments were not thought to be transmitted in a never-to-be-changed form. They were believed to require adaptation in view of new times and places.
This is why the version set out in Deuteronomy is slightly different.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” So said Moses in his farewell address to the Hebrews, to those who were about to enter the Promised Land and begin to become the nation of Israel. As that nation grew and developed it was ruled by tribal leaders and “judges,” by military leaders and priests, by kings (who were occasionally themselves ruled by queens), some of whom were mostly good and others of whom were mostly not-so-good. Throughout all that time, God raised upon not merely “a prophet,” but many prophets: Samuel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and many, many others.
And there were others who claimed to be prophets but turned out to be either false prophets or prophets of other gods. These were the ones of whom God decreed through Moses, “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of some of these prophets and their deaths: I think particularly of the 450 prophets of Ba’al who served Queen Jezebel with whom Elijah did battle. When their god failed them the people rose up at Elijah’s bidding and killed them.
A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”1
You’ve probably heard the old tale that “the Eskimo language has hundreds of words for snow.” If you research that, you’ll find it’s not true for the very basic reason that there is no single Eskimo language; there’s Inuit and Aleut and Yupik and Kalaallisut and Inuktitut and others and multiple dialects of all of them. In fact, there are eleven different languages spoken by the people grouped together under the title “Eskimos,” and most of them have up to thirty dialects. So, yeah, there are a lot of words for snow among the Eskimos in the same way there are a lot of words for snow among Europeans. (By the way, did you know that the native peoples of North America who live above the Arctic Circle don’t actually like to be called “Eskimos”? That is not a word in any of the languages; it’s an Algonquin word meaning “eaters of raw flesh” and they really don’t like it.)