What am I doing right now? Drinking a (free) cup of coffee at IKEA, of course (and two little coconut chocolate oat balls, which at .49 each represent quite the splurge on my part!)
One of the things that is difficult about working and committing to living on SNAP benefits for a season is planning. So far, we have found that it is more than possible to live within the constraints of our SNAP benefits, as long as you have the luxury of time to plan out and prepare your every meal.
My family is blessed with two working parents that have the luxury of flexible work arrangements, which means that we have more time than many to plan our meals. It is a luxury that I often take for granted, and one that I am increasingly aware of as we continue this experiment. Even my best laid plans fall to the wayside if (read: when) I forget to pick up an ingredient (like, say, dried chickpeas for your curry, or eggs for breakfast).
Which brings me to IKEA. One of the inevitabilities of my work as a pastor is that I do not always work in an office. I am often on the road, traveling to visit parishioners and shut-ins, out and about in the community, or participating in clergy groups that help me improve myself and my work as a pastor. In practice, this means that I am not always in a position to pop on over to the manse and heat up leftovers, nor am I always in a location where I can heat something up that I have brought with me. Most difficult of all, very often the people I am visiting want to meet over a meal. I have already had a few people ask me whether I can get lunch with them during this experiment, or whether it will count if they pay for the meal.
After a good deal of thought, I have come to the following set of conclusions that (I hope) will guide my decisions about food on the road without becoming so legalistic that I miss the point of this whole process:
1) If free food is available to anyone, I can eat it without counting the cost too. So the coffee at IKEA, which is free for anyone with a Family Card, is free for me, as is coffee hour at church on Sunday.
2) Speaking of Sundays, did you know that the 40 days of Lent technically do not count Sundays? According to my Liturgical Year Professor, Mary Luti, this is because “each Sunday during Lent is like a mini-Easter.” If Mary Luti says Sundays in Lent don’t count, we won’t count them either. This amounts to a small and gracious reprieve for our family once a week, which takes on an added significance when you consider that our kids didn’t choose this Lenten discipline, and don’t understand why we suddenly aren’t eating dessert every night.
3) I will still go out with folks within the context of my work. As a Christian, meals and hospitality are intimately connected, and it would be bullish of me to isolate myself for the sake of purity. At the same time, I will try as much as possible to capture the cost. This will mean sacrifice in other areas. It may sometimes mean that I enjoy my “Sunday reprieve” on a different day of the week. But I believe this discipline is important enough that it is worth suffering a little bit for.
So that is where we are with this. As a side note, IKEA coffee tastes simply delightful after a week without it!
Monday, Feb 23
Monster: 1 piece toast, 1 egg water
Alex: Oatmeal, 4 dried apricots
Sarah: 1c Oatmeal, half banana, tsp honey, tea
Monsters: leftover pasta with peas, yogurt, milk
Sarah: potatoes, leftovers, tea
Alex: free lunch at office
Calypso Beans, cornbread and greens from the garden
Peanut Butter, Cookie
Tuesday, Feb 24
Monsters: leftover pancakes
Sarah: leftover pancakes, Peanut Butter
Alex: toast with jam
Monsters: leftover rice, beans, cornbread, dried apple (already accounted for)
Alex: Chana Masala with rice (already accounted for)
Sarah: leftover rice, beans
Pasta with mushrooms, home dried tomatoes, canellini beans
Snack: tea, two lindt truffles, grapes, peanut butter
If there were one food item that my family seems to universally adore, it would probably be beans (steak *might* be a close second for the kiddos). My partner in crime has never, at least to my knowledge, met a bean he didn’t like, and as a result, prominent shelf space in our kitchen is devoted to his favorite legume. There are beans in our cupboard that I have never heard of, beans whose names I have forgotten, and beans who are like dear friends at our dinner table.
But here’s the problem with beans–if you want to make something tasty with them, you have to plan ahead. And as much our family loves them, we often aren’t thinking about tomorrow’s dinner the night before. Which is why many of our beans have been sitting on the shelf instead of being put to use.
Well that is about to change. Because we are seeking to live more simply in Lent, beans have automatically taken a prominent position at our table. They are hearty, they are healthy, they are tasty (when done right), and most of all, they are cheap. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cost of beef in the Mid-Atlantic (where I live) looks like this:
Type of Meat
Price per pound (as of Dec 2014)
Beef for stew
Chicken Breast (boneless)
These are average prices, which do not factor in our family’s preference for organic and local meat products. As you can guess, you end up paying a premium for higher quality meat. In our case, the awesome meat vendor at the local farmer’s market sells mouthwatering sausage for 6.99/pound, which means that we will be saving our appetite for sausage until after Lent is over.
Compare that with the cost of beans, which range in price from $.99/pound to almost $3/pound. Then factor in the fact that you lose poundage from meat when you cook it, whereas beans gain weight when you prepare them. A pound of ground meat will yield 4 servings; add any bones and you can end up with as low as two servings per pound of meat purchased. A pound of beans, by contrast, can yield 10 servings! So for us, at least, this question is a no brainer. Beans will allow us to stay well within the limits of our commitment for Lent, while also allowing us some wiggle room for the (inevitable) surprises that come with having two small children in the house.
Which brings me to this evening’s meal, which is simmering pleasantly on the stovetop as I write this. Tonight we will be liberating one of our older bean companions from its jar: the humble Calypso Bean. Also known as the Yin/Yang bean, the Dalmation Bean, and the Orca bean, Calypso beans have a pleasant black and white pattern, and are a perfect addition to soup, or you can make up a pot (like we did) and allow the beans to shine.
Many thanks to the website Pen and Fork, who created the lovely and simple recipe below:
1 pound dried red or black Calypso beans
2 tablespoons bacon fat
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 medium)
7 cups cold water
2 teaspoons dried Italian herb mix
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Soak the beans overnight, or use the quick soak method outlined above.
2. Drain the beans and rinse with cool water. Set aside.
3. Heat the bacon fat* in a large sauce pat or small stock pot over medium heat. Stir in the onions and garlic and stir, cooking just until the onions and garlic are fragrant, about 2 minutes.
4. Add the beans to the pan, plus 7 cups of cold water. Turn the heat to high and bring the beans to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer.
5. Stir in dried herbs. Simmer, uncovered, until beans are tender, but not mushy, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
6. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. (Don’t be stingy with the salt unless your doctor told you to, in which case, ignore me.) Stir in fresh thyme if using.
And finally, here is our total spending (and eating) for Friday and Saturday:
Friday, Feb 20
S: 1 c. cereal, 1/2 c milk, 1 egg, tea
Alex: 1 c. oatmeal, apricots
Monsters: egg, 1/2 c oatmeal, apricots, orange, milk
Monsters: leftover pasta and broccoli, salami
Alex: 2 pb sandwiches, 2 carrots
Sarah: leftover dinner, tea
Monsters: cheese crackers, vanilla grahams, Hummus and Carrot
Sarah: 4 cups tea, 2 girl scout cookies
4 Baked Potatoes (SC, Cheese, Broccoli and 2 slices bacon) and salad
Saturday, Feb 21
Sarah:tea, cereal, yogurt
Monsters: Orange, Banana
Alex: Men’s breakfast ($5 donation)
Monsters: leftover pasta with butter, carrot, hummus, milk, frozen corn
Alex: peanut buter sandwich
Sarah: 5 carrots, hummus, peanut butter
Chana Masala with Rice
This brings our total spending for the first week (beginning with Ash Wednesday) to $39.76, which means that we have saved $48.24 to date!
The Study gets its name from a parable in the Gospel according to Luke, in Chapter 16:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31)
In our group, we studied Scripture and researched issues impacting the world’s poor like access to safe drinking water, sustainable farming practices, and disaster aid. We covenanted to a communal review of our own personal finances, and ultimately we all pledged to give a significant portion of money away to organizations that made an impact on world poverty.
One of those organizations was the Mennonite Central Committee. If you have ever visited a “10,000 Villages” store, then you have encountered just one of the myriad ways in which the MCC pursues justice and fairness in the world. Much of the work of the MCC focuses on addressing world poverty and injustice, and they do an incredible job of it. But they also encourage those of us who live in the first world to tread more lightly on God’s creation. One of the ways that I encountered them doing this during my time in seminary was through a popular cookbook called “More with Less.” Written in 1979, the cookbook had a novel approach to mealtime– why not encourage mealtime practices that minimized our impact on creation by sharing recipes for meals that most of the world relies on? The cookbook is as much educational in terms of world poverty and eating practices as it is a tool for making your own dinner.
Because we were embarking on this journey, I figured it might be time to break out the cookbook. Sure enough, we found some recipes that will help us stay within our budget but eat well at the same time. Our first recipe from the cookbook was “Caribbean Beans and Rice,” and it was delicious! We made just a few amendments: we halved the recipe, and used a can of tomatoes in place of a fresh tomato. Enjoy!
Caribbean Rice and Beans
2 c. pinto beans or kidney beans
6 c. water
1 T. salt
In the morning:
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer just until tender about 40 minutes. Drain beans, reserving liquid.
Heat in large covered skillet:
2 T. oil or butter
3-4 cloves garlic
2 green onions, chopped
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 T. lime juice
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1 T. chopped parsley
Saute’ for about 5 minutes.
2 c. rice
4 ½ c. reserved bean liquid (add water to complete measurement)
Thursday, Feb 19
S: 1 c. oatmeal, 1/2 tbsp butter, tbsp b sugar, tea, egg
Mini Me: egg, 1/2 c oatmeal, apricots, orange, milk
Alex: 1 c. oatmeal, apricots
Alex: peanut butter sandwich
Mini Me: Chicken Nuggets (4), broccoli, leftover pasta, pretzel,1 c. milk
Sarah:cheese and salami sandwich
Caribbean Rice and Beans, leftover salad greens (4 servings total)
Ash Wednesday marked the first day of our family’s commitment to stick to the limits of the average SNAP benefit in PA ($3.85 a person a day in 2014). And for most of the day, it went remarkably well. Except, that is, for a few tiny things.
I had been particularly concerned about the reality that I was going to be giving up coffee for this experiment. Every morning I make myself a french press full of coffee that I drink throughout the morning. I’m the only coffee drinker in the house, so I don’t ever worry about someone taking my last cup. I use about 3 Tablespoons of coffee every day, and not the cheap stuff, either. At least since the end of college, I have stuck to Fair Trade coffee, and I was unwilling to give that up just to save a few bucks. Which means that each 12 oz bag of coffee I buy is going to cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $8-12. A 12 oz bag will make you 62 9-oz servings of coffee, which means that each time I fill my cup up, I am drinking anywhere from $0.13 to $0.19 of my daily allotment.
And then there is the way I prefer to drink coffee. My grandpa used to tell me that only people who don’t like coffee mess it up with milk and sugar. Well I enjoy my coffee (A LOT), but what I really like is a cafe au lait, and that milk adds up. On SNAP benefits, the coffee I like to drink suddenly became a luxury. Every cup was going to cost me nearly $0.50, compared to $0.03 for a bag of tea. The decision was easy.
So I bid farewell to my delicious coffee and put away my beloved french press. And I took advantage of a free drink loaded on my Starbucks card to enjoy one final delicious, ridiculously overpriced coffee.
So that’s where I am. In the place of coffee, I have armed myself with a box of Tetley’s and, by God’s grace, I have yet to experience a caffeine headache. I haven’t snarked at my family in the morning, and, surprisingly, I haven’t missed coffee all that much (then again, ask me in a week).
For the rest of the family, things have been going pretty well. Mini-me doesn’t seem to notice anything has changed, and Baby is just along for the ride. As for the adults in the house, our plan is to eat mostly vegetarian, and to focus as much on whole grains, legumes, and dairy to make a balanced diet.
How much money do you spend every day on food? That is what I found myself wondering recently. I was wondering because I had recently come across the statistic that the average family on food stamps receives benefits roughly equal to three dollars per person, per day, on food. Three dollars. That makes one dollar for each meal, day in and day out.
Interested to know more, I did some research. Turns out that in Bucks County, where I live, there were 37,733 people receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as of April 2014, a total of 6% of the local population. The average monthly benefit per person in PA in the year 2014 was $119.41, which works out to roughly $3.85 a day, and $1.28 a meal.
Given that nearly one sixth of the world’s population lives on a dollar a day, $1.28 per meal didn’t look so bad. But that was before I did the math on my own family’s spending habits at the table. I was astonished to discover that, over a three month period, our family spent an average of $682 a month on food, which, in a family of three healthy eaters (and one baby, who is just beginning to eat himself), works out to $7.34 per person per day, over twice as much money as is provided in the average SNAP benefit.
That number, which over the course of a year works out to over $8000, places our family slightly above the middle 20% of the country in terms of total spending on food produced both inside and outside the home. Compare that to the lowest 20% of the country, who in 2011 spent on average $3500 on food, and the highest 20%, who spent nearly $11,000, and you get the sense of just how vast the chasm is in our country between those who have plenty to eat, and those who count every penny.
What was most amazing to me was that our family considers ourselves to be fairly conservative in our spending. We produce most of our meals at home, mostly from scratch, and we tend to favor making our lunch over picking something up at a restaurant. And yet we still managed to rack up a sizable grocery bill! A grocery bill, mind you, that betrays our relative comfort, for our family has the luxury of time to spend preparing meals from scratch or exploring recipes in the latest Ottolenghi cookbook.
Armed with this knowledge, I found myself wondering: what might it look like to be in solidarity with those whom our government recently described as the “food insecure?” How might Jesus be calling me, a person of relative security and privilege, to respond?
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet writes:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
So here is the fast we choose: this year, in this holy season of Lent, we choose to stand in solidarity with the hungry and the food insecure in this nation we call home. This Lent, our family will participate in the Hunger Challenge: to eat within the constraints of the average SNAP benefit, or $3.85 per person per day, as an act of witness to the fact that, for many, this isn’t a choice at all. And we will donate the difference in our spending to the One Great Hour of Sharing, which provides food aid and emergency assistance to empower the poor and the oppressed.
Will this be hard? If my jonesing for Starbucks on Ash Wednesday is anyindication, then yes, we are in for a rough journey. But I also believe it will be worth it. Because sometimes the harder thing is exactly where we are meant to go. Sometimes God calls us to do something that makes us uncomfortable because justice requires it. Sometimes, in order to change the world, we have to change ourselves first.
Sometimes bad weather keeps us from worshipping together, but that doesn’t mean we cannot worship God. Below is the order of worship for Transfiguration Sunday for those of you unable to join with us today. Be safe out there, and know that you are in our prayers, and that you are in God’s hands.
We Gather Together
Lighting of the Christ Candle:you are encouraged to light a candle to remember God’s presence amongst us.
Call to Worship
Great is the Lord—Exalted among the nations.
Mighty is the Lord—King of heaven and earth.
Holy is the Lord—Beyond our understanding.
Let us worship our God and King!
Hymn Shine, Jesus, Shine
Call to Confession
God of transfiguration, you meet us in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary moments of life. We seek you in the valleys and on the mountaintops. Yet we admit that too often our eyes are blind to your presence, too often our ears are deaf to your call. When you reach out to us through the cries of the hungry and the homeless, too often our hearts shrink from your touch. Forgive us, we pray, and set us free to love and serve.
Give thanks to the Lord for God is Good and God’s steadfast love endures forever. Nothing we can do, nothing we have done, can separate us from the Love of God. In Jesus’ Name, we are forgiven. Amen.
*Response Gloria Patri
THE WORD IS PROCLAIMED
Prayer of Illumination
God of goodness and light, as you created the world by your Word and Spirit, breathe new life into us this day; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
First Lesson: Psalm 50:1-6
The mighty one, God the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge. Selah
Gospel Lesson Mark 9:2-9
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Sermon “Why We Need the Transfiguration”
How do we know God? It is a deceptively simple question to ask. On the one hand, it sounds like there should be a single, definitive answer. But on the other hand, sometimes knowing there should be an easy answer to a question makes folks anxious because they don’t want to get it wrong.
And so I have learned that, when you are a pastor, asking a question of this sort is likely to provoke a certain kind of response. I have become well acquainted over the last few years of bible studies, youth groups and confirmation classes with a facial expression that I can only describe as terror at being asked the question mixed in with a person’s desire to prove that they know the answer.
I have also noticed that there is a tendency to fall back on Sunday School learning when we are asked to think for ourselves with respect to our faith. For example, when I ask a question during the time for children, you can pretty much bet money that one kid is going to raise their hand and, no matter what the question was, they are going to tell me that the answer is “Jesus.”
Which isn’t bad, in fact it’s fine. “Jesus” isn’t a bad answer to a lot of the questions of our faith. But the trouble is that we so often stop there. I know I do sometimes—I tell myself it is enough to know that Jesus is the reason. But let me tell you something—we are cheating ourselves when we think that intellectually knowing the truth of our faith is enough. Because when we stop there, we miss out on the opportunity to experience those facts more deeply through our wrestling with our own belief.
Let me put it another way: there is a difference between knowing the answers and KNOWING the answers, and that difference is brought front and center in our Scripture today. For on this Sunday we celebrate Transfiguration, the moment at which Jesus, the answer to all our questions, is briefly and fully revealed ahead of his death and resurrection to be the one we have been waiting for, the Messiah, the King of Kings, in all his glory, on a mountain enshrouded with cloud and thundering with the mighty voice of God. And it turns out, at least in this particular Gospel text, that knowing that Jesus is the answer to our questions, sometimes leaves us with more questions than answers.
Knowing that Jesus is the answer to the question of who is God sometimes leaves us with more questions than answers.
Look to the text. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus leads a few of his disciples up a deserted mountain, disciples who moments before have proven that they intellectually know who Jesus is—when Christ asks, who do you think I am, Peter tells him, “You are the Messiah!” And Peter seems convinced that knowing this fact is enough—knowing it makes him the best disciple Christ could ask for.
But all of that knowledge flies out the window up on the mountain, for on the mountain those disciples, God bless’em, are confronted with the truth of what it means to confess Christ as Lord—turns out it is one thing for us to say it, but it is entirely another thing to see Christ enshrouded in Cloud, his glory revealed before your very eyes as he stars in his very own Clorox commercial, his clothes blazing white as the disciples’ eyes are dazzled and blinded by light.
It is one thing to follow a charismatic rabbi up a mountain, but it is entirely another thing to realize that before you stands the Holy One, to begin to grasp that God has quite literally taken on human flesh, and that the one with whom you have walked with and talked with and learned and ate and served with is also the very one whom you worship.
It is one thing to pray for God’s salvation and to hope for a Messiah, and entirely a different thing to hear God’s voice thunder in your eardrums as he claims your teacher as His Son.
For the disciples, the knowledge that Christ is truly Lord up on the mountain did not bring them certainty, or clarity, or even confidence. Rather, they struggle to see, to hear, to comprehend, and to believe it. They are dazzled and confused by what is happening around them. For this is not the safe realm of knowledge—this is the naked terror of truth. As Jesus blazes with glory, the disciples truly are terrified, brought to their knees and quaking, uncertain what to do or say because before their very eyes God’s reality has been revealed to them, and it has turned the world on its head.
It has turned the world on its head because if Jesus truly is the Messiah, then everything that Jesus says and everything that Jesus does takes on a new importance. When the revealed Lord tells you to pick up your cross and follow him, that commandment looks a little more serious than if he is just a good speaker. I don’t know about you, but if God didn’t say my life depended on it, I probably wouldn’t spend so much of my time visiting the sick, and caring for the poor, and giving my money to a profoundly human institution like the church. It would be much easier and more comfortable to just look out for me and my family, and to do the things that the culture around me says will make me happy.
But that is what Jesus does—When Jesus is revealed, it is meant to shake us out of our complacency, meant to remind us that things can and should be other than they are. Jesus didn’t come to maintain the status quo, or defend the way things are—Jesus was disruptive. In his living and in his dying, and in his rising again, our Savior revealed that God is working out a purpose that is completely at odds with the world—and God’s will cannot be thwarted, not by the powers of the world, not by Satan, and certainly not by death.
And that should shake us. That should dazzle and confuse us. In the light of the Transfiguration, everything should look different. And even in our confusion, the Transfiguration ought to be a source of strength for us, because not only does it reveal who Jesus truly is—our Lord and Savior—it also confirms our calling as disciples.
Remember, that in the midst of the confusion God directs our eyes on Christ, saying, “Look to Christ, my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
It is these words that are meant to stay with the disciples as the moment fades and the return down the mountain. As Christ travels to Jerusalem, and is arrested, and beaten, and ultimately killed, it will be these words that keep hope alive in the darkness. These words that will take on new meaning on Easter Morning when Christ’s resurrection confirms all that he has said and done.
As we stand on the other side of Easter, preparing for the season of Lent, these words are a gift to us as well. They are a reminder to us our work on behalf of the Gospel is not in vain. For even as the world seems to be at odds with Christ’s Kingdom, even as it seems at times to work against God’s purposes, we can trust that we are doing God’s will when we follow our Savior. We can trust that, through our fidelity to our Lord, this world that God created and that God loves is even now being transfigured, revealed as God’s Kingdom to those who are living in Darkness.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that “we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ Sake.” In transfiguration, Paul finds the power within himself to proclaim a light that shines in the darkness. For him, Christ is a source of hope, and a promise that God’s glory is being revealed, even in the darkness that he finds himself. I pray that we also might find ourselves transfigured by Christ’s glory, that we too might go out into the world and proclaim the life-changing gospel that we have been given by God for the good of others.
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. Amen.
As we prepare ourselves for the holy season of Lent, let us reflect in prayer on the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: that when we love the least of these, we love you, Lord.
Help us to love the least of these in prison. We pray for prisoners throughout the world. We pray that they may receive justice, that those who are innocent may be freed and those who are guilty may be restored and reconciled. We remember especially this week for Taiwan where 6 inmates held several guards hostage before committing suicide.
Help us to love the least of these who are refugees. We pray for the souls of the 300 migrants who drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean fromLibya to Italy. We pray too for all those who tried to rescue them, as they have done so many times over the past months and years, and help them deal with the grief and horror of the tragedy. We pray for the children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere held in family detention camps in New Mexico, USA. We pray for all those who have been displaced from their homes.
Help us to love the least of those who seek peace. We give thanks for the ceasefire announced in Ukraine and pray that it may hold. We pray for Syria, Burkina Faso, Iraq, Afghanistan, and for countries affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, especially Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.
Help us to love the least of those of all faiths and tribes. We pray for Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad and her sister Razan who were killed this week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA by their neighbor.
Help us, O Lord, to love our neighbors as You have commanded us to do. Help us to see in them the image of the living God who has come to dwell with us. And may we be transformed when we see You before us in the face of the least of these.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
Remember that everything we have, and everything we are is a gift from God. How will you commit yourself to be a gift to God’s world this week? How will you be a blessing in the one and glorious life you have been given?
WE ARE SENT OUT
Hymn 411 Arise, Your Light is Come!
Passing of the Peace
The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. And also with you.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Have you ever met one of those annoying people who has “never been sick a day in their life?” Nice to meet you, too. I have always been incredibly proud of the fact that, excepting the birth of my daughter, I have never been hospitalized. No surgery for me, thank you very much.
For a long time, I was certain that my aversion to the hospital was related to my desire to be healthy. I was convinced that I had stayed out of trouble through my own commitment to healthy habits, and it rarely crossed my mind that I was simply lucky. But the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realize that not getting sick has, at least for me, had less to do with my own strength than it had to do with my fear of my own weakness.
When I was little, my sister had appendicitis. Only we didn’t know that at the time, because it turns out my little sister is a stoic, and so when her appendix burst, instead of screaming in agony, she just complained that she wasn’t feeling well.
Somehow, my parents figured out that she was dealing with more than a flu, and by the time I saw her again, she was laying in a hospital bed with a scar on her tummy and IVs on either side, chowing down on chocolate pudding and watching cartoons.
One result of this experience was that sister became incredibly fond of the perks of hospitalization. She loved it so much that she howled and screamed at my parents when it came time to go home. I have what is very possibly a false memory of her hanging onto the doorway of the hospital room for dear life as my parents attempted to return her to life back home. I, however, came away with a very different impression. All I can remember about my sister’s hospitalization is sitting in the hallway of the hospital with my grandfather because I felt literally incapable of crossing the threshold into the room where my sister lay covered in tubes. After that, I became terrified of hospitals. I resolved never to end up in one. It wasn’t worth all the chocolate pudding in the world.
We may complain about health insurance and wait-times in the doctor’s office, but I would be willing to wager that every single one of us is incredibly grateful for the gift of modern medicine. Not a single one of us would be willing to give it all up and go back to the good old days. Why? Because we are terrified by our own frailty and weakness. We like to believe, and our culture likes to tell us, that we are only as worthy as our own bodies are healthy. We valorize the young, the hale, and the hearty, even as we turn away from the aged, the infirm, and those who struggle with body weight and image.
The Bible will have none of that. Consider the words of Isaiah 40 from our reading today:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
In God’s world, we all are vulnerable before the one whom we know as Creator and Redeemer. Not one of us can claim the strength and vitality of God on our own. The God we encounter in Isaiah is everything we are not–where we are weak, he is strong. Where we perish, he endures. Where we are sinful, he is constant.
For those of us who tie our value to our own strength, this could seem like bad news. The last thing we want to be told is that we cannot depend on our own strength to carry us. And yet, perhaps that is exactly the news that we need to hear: that we cannot carry on forever on our own. Eventually, we might need a little help from our Lord.
Perhaps that is why Jesus takes his disciples along with him for so much of the healing and the miracles in the Gospels. He wants them to see with their own eyes how much this hurting, broken world needs the healing and restoring power of God. Perhaps he knows that they cannot hope to understand until they see a glimpse of the Kingdom of God for themselves.
Perhaps this is what Ben Franklin had in mind when he reportedly said: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand”
And so when Jesus heals Simon’s mother in law, he does it not just for her, but for all who are gathered there. Scripture tells us that the whole city was gathered at the door of her house, and that they brought to him all the sick and the demon-possessed so that they might find healing.
It is tempting to focus just on Jesus and the healings he performed, but consider for a moment the witness of Simon’s own mother in law. According to the story, she had been in her bed, sick with fever. It is easy for many of us to minimize the dangers of a fever, but consider that as of this moment, the fevers associated with malaria, cholera, and ebola have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people who can only dream of the kind of health care that we take for granted.
Whatever the source of her fever, it was serious. Serious enough that the disciples felt it necessary to pull Jesus away from his ministry to tend to Simon’s mother in law. And in that moment when Jesus tends to her and reaches out to her in her frailty, she is lifted up, the fever leaves her, and scripture tells us that immediately she began to serve him.
This is important. The word that is used in the text here is diakonos, which, you guessed it, is where our modern word Deacon comes from. In the Gospels, diakonos is used to describe the angels who attend Jesus in the desert and even Christ himself who “came not to be served but to serve.” We are meant to understand that she was not healed so that she might go back to an old way of life; she was renewed so that she might give her life in service to God.
This past Sunday, we ordained and installed elders and deacons from our community who, like Simon’s mother-in-law, had answered God’s call to service. When we make a leader, we remember that we are called to a life of service, and that this is a calling in which we all participate. None of us is inherently more qualified than another; our fitness, our age, our health, do not qualify or disqualify us. What makes us fit to serve God is our willingness to serve, to listen and respond to God’s calling on our lives. Service to God is the stuff of holiness. It is the spiritual exercise that molds us into disciples of God and beacons of light in the darkness.
Service to God and to one another forms us into a Church that can joyfully claim its heritage as:
a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation.
a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord. (The Calling of the Church, Presbyterian Constitution, F-1.0301)
With God’s help, we can do this. With God’s help, we can rise up. May we seek God’s help, both here in the Church which is Christ’s body, and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in our daily lives.
1Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.8“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
I just want to start our conversation today by acknowledging that I am about to say something that could very well sound like Presbyterian Heresy. My only consolation is knowing that, as the frozen chosen, you are highly unlikely to get riled up enough to walk out on me, but here it goes:
God doesn’t care how smart we are.
There it is. I said it. I, your Harvard educated, knowledge loving, greek and Hebrew reading Presbyterian pastor, just admitted that God’s primary concern isn’t how “smart” we are. Coming from the reformed tradition, this might seem like quite a shock—the very foundations of Presbyterianism rest on the ideals of the Enlightenment. John Calvin started the movement that encompasses Presbyterianism with the idea that our intellect is our first means to God—he believed that, given an education, the common man (or woman) could approach God by him or herself.
By democratizing access to the tools of religion, Calvin unwittingly spawned a revolution in everything that the church held sacred. Suddenly everyone had an (educated) opinion about God’s will for the church. Whereas before, the priests guarded access to Truth through the Word and the liturgy, all of a sudden every change was up for debate. And my, what a debate! Imagine, Christians debating and fighting over every aspect of the life of the church—basically everything we take for granted in this sanctuary was, at one point, considered heresy or worse by Christians who preceded us. Just a sample of things that educated Christians fought over:
-pews (a development of the reformation era that went hand in hand with Calvin’s belief that the work of liturgy was first and foremost not the sacrament, but approaching God through the accumulation of knowledge in the sermon
-candles: too ritualistic or a biblical symbol of Christ?
-stained glass: does it distract from or enhance the worship of the people of God?
-the organ: too modern, or a new means of making a joyful noise to the Lord?
-choir robes: are they a symbol of pride and vanity, or a reminder of our roles?
-the hymnal: is it ir is it not permissible to sing music that isn’t scripture, but inspired by it?
It is easy to forget that so much of what we take for granted was, at one point or another, the subject of debate, often involving two side who “knew” what God wanted, and who “knew” the other side was mistaken, sinful, or worse.
But Jesus doesn’t seem all that concerned these sorts of debates when he shows up at the synagogue in our reading this morning. He didn’t take note of how many candles there were (or weren’t). He didn’t comment on the music, and as far as we know he brought no special clothes. No, when Jesus turned up in the synagogue in Capernum, he was interested in one thing, and that was this: holiness.
Now holiness is one of those words that can mean a lot of different things to different people, so let’s think about what holiness is.
I’ve heard it said that holiness is like cheese…it’s all about maturity. I think we need a little more than that to go on, however.
So here it is: one of the best ways I can describe it for myself is that holiness is like exercise.
Most of us don’t go to the gym because it is our favorite place to be. We go there because we want to be healthy, and we know that one way to get healthy is to exercise. There are a lot of different ways to go about it—you can run, or lift weights, or take a yoga class. All of them will get you moving in the direction of the kind of healthy you want to be.
It is about improvement rather than a final destination. Exercise isn’t the goal—it helps you get somewhere that you want to be.
If exercise is about improvement, then it follows that the more you do it, the closer you get to your goal.
There is a cost, but if you do it enough it is worth it. Exercise takes time, and sometimes it will make you sore. You might even get hurt. But you have to push through it—you have to endure the difficulty—if you want to reap the reward.
It is easier for some of us than others. We don’t like to hear this, but we don’t all improve at the same pace. Some people start exercising and see immediate and obvious changes, while others of us struggle or notice little difference. But all of us improve. All of us are better for doing it.
Finally, maintenance is required. When you reach your fitness goals, you don’t get to stop and go back to the way you were before. If you want to stay fit, you have to keep exercising. Of course, uou can quit anytime you want, but if you do, it will cost you.
All of this is to say that holiness, like exercise, is a process. It is a question of character, less a why than a how. It is about the process of drawing closer to God. And just like exercise, the process of holiness can be expressed in a myriad of ways, but no one expression is necessarily the best version. And in fact, a healthy relationship with God is secure enough in itself to handle the reality that the process will always change.
In Presbyterian speak, Holiness is something that we call Sanctification, which is a fancy theological word that means that holiness is expressed through the ways in which we live out our lives as people saved and transformed by God’s grace.
So what might be the “spiritual exercises” of holiness that we are called to practice? When Jesus spoke about holiness, what did he have in mind? I have a few ideas:
Hospitality: our faith needs to be welcoming to others. Look at Jesus—he was willing to welcome anyone who came to him with an open heart seeking God. So we must ask ourselves: who is welcome at our table, and whom do we merely tolerate? Are we accepting others as they are in love, or are we rigid in our expectations about what the hungry and thirsty are allowed to look like?
Justice: Jesus came for the sick, the imprisoned, the broken, and the marginalized. In other words, he was concerned with justice for all of God’s people. In our scripture this morning, he addresses this problem by banishing the demon that possesses a sick man. Now, the medical establishment doesn’t recognize demon possession (and good luck getting your insurance to reimburse an exorcism) but how many of us can relate to the notion that we can be possessed by forces beyond us? How many of us have seen the damage wrought to loved ones and strangers who are possessed by poverty, hunger, addiction, sickness, greed, materialism, feelings of inadequacy? And so our own faith ought to be interested in healing brokenness, too, whatever form it takes.
Love: whatever we do, if we can’t do it with love, we are lost.
If you need an example of what this might look like, I draw your attention to our second reading this morning, from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Apparently the community was having some problems with hospitality. In this case, knowledge was getting in the way of being welcoming to newer Christians
You see, in Corinth, a port city known for its plethora of cultural and religious backgrounds, many new Christians were not Jewish but Gentile. Many of them had grown up surrounded by a culture in which people routinely sacrified meat before the idols of pagan gods. To eat that meat was to pledge your allegiance and fealty to the god or goddess.
More mature Christians like Paul understood those idols to be nothing but stone and wood. Any oaths or offerings made to them were meaningless. The meat couldn’t possibly possess the power of a God that didn’t exist, so there was no conflict in eating the meat if you were a Christian. But the newer Christians had trouble with this. They struggled already to maintain their relationship to Christ in a pluralistic society, and seeing mature Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols was apparently not just confusing, but dangerous to their faith in God.
So what does Paul do? Paul exhorts the stronger Christians to bend for the weaker ones—to hold off doing things, even things that are perfectly okay, in the interest of loving their brothers and sisters of nascent faith. To stay away from idol meat, even if you know it is just meat, because you love your brothers and sisters in Christ more than you love being right.
In other words, process. Paul exhorts the Corinthians, reminds us, that holiness, true holiness, isn’t about being right. It is about the work of hospitality, justice, and love, both to one another and to the world beyond the church. Because it is that work, that willingness to bend for one another, that will ultimately bear the fruit of a mature faith.
Because that is the goal, isn’t it? And I don’t know about you, but it is a lot easier to get there together than alone. We need one another to encourage, to exhort, to remind us that every path walked in faith is holy, and valid, and necessary.
So I have to wonder: what sort of team do we want to be? What sort of holiness are we after here at IPC? Because the Holy Spirit is out there, bidding us come. But we move forward if we aren’t together. It’s up to us to focus on what’s most important: love, justice, hospitality—and trust that if we focus on those things, the rest will work itself out.