Lent 101: the blessing of God

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

Welcome to Lent 101.
Want to make sure everyone is in the right Lenten worship series …?
I’m your teaching assistant,
and I have our thought for the day for you:
“because good beginnings never end ….”
And our learning objective of the day: “I am blessed.”
Just so you know. Don’t leave now, but now you know.

I. Introduction
The premise that undergirds our lenten worship theme is also its promise:
the affirmation that we as followers of God in the way of Jesus all have yet a lot to learn.
It’s the premise on which we build;
it’s the promise toward which/into which we grow—
our roots and our wings.

Even though many of us have grown up in the church—
even though many of us were raised in Christian homes—
even though many of us have spent years, decades, even lifetimes
studying Bible and theology and church history,
even though the cycle of the church year
brings us this season of Lent every year—year in and year out,
even though the lectionary brings us these particular texts every three years,
no matter how much we know …
more importantly perhaps, no matter how much we think we know,
we all have a lot left to learn.

I have, this past week, still thinking about last week’s Transfiguration text,
been struck by the importance of the disciples’ transfiguring.
Yes, the story is about Jesus’ transfiguration—Jesus’ physical transfiguration,
but I was struck by the realization that I have read the gospels’
(except maybe for John’s) portrayal of the disciples as doofi—
not only a small village in Greece, but also the plural of doofus.
I have often pictured Peter, on the Mount of Transfiguration,
among many other contexts, as a good natured but clueless goofball.
I have pictured Peter, James and John on the mountaintop and in the garden
as the stooges of impulse and appearance prioritized.
But we all have a lot to learn,
and maybe to lock into such a monolithic interpretation of the disciples
lends evidence to my own doofusness—or doofusdum—whatever that would be.
And perhaps, portraying the disciples as those constantly misunderstanding—
or as those constantly having to reevaluate—rethink—
has less to do with them being doofi
and more to do with them, in fact, being disciples of integrity!
“Smarter than the average disciple, Boo-Boo!”
I have tended to think that the disciples persistently not “getting it”
made them more like me,
but maybe, it makes them more like I should try to be!

I think I’ve mentioned this before: back when I was taking tae-kwon-do,
my instructor laughed at popular perceptions of the black belt
and said, “When you earn your black belt, you can begin to learn.”
The Japanese term, in fact, for a black belt, shodan
literally means first or beginning step.
Nidan and sandan (for second and third degree blackbelts)
literally mean second and third steps.
We all have a lot more to learn.

Now, this truth can manifest itself as a great frustration
especially for the more goal-oriented—
in a society that so values achievement and status.
On the other hand, it can manifest itself as a great freedom—
the ever-present challenge and possibility of more.

Maturity has to do with realizing there is no graduation,
there is simply the gradual ongoing shaping—
learning, growing, deepening.
We have none of us arrived.
We are all on the way.

II. Overview of the Season
Remember, we started our Lenten journey this past Wednesday—Ash Wednesday,
with the reminder of our mortality— “Remember, mortal, you are dust,
and to the dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The tradition of Ash Wednesday probably started around 600 C.E.—
over 1400 years ago!
And it’s always served as a reminder of mortality.
Though during the Middle Ages, instead of marking people with a cross,
the ashes were simply dumped on people’s heads!
And the ashes, many of you will know, are the burned palm leaves
of last year’s Palm Sunday celebration.

That’s part of our faith message:
we locate meaning even in the ashes of celebrations past.

Mardi Gras (which is Fat Tuesday in French),
the day before Ash Wednesday (the day before the day before Lent),
became the day for cleaning out pantries of the foods given up
during the Lenten fasting.
People prepared to remove temptation by first indulging it!
What a faith tradition is ours!

In some traditions Mardi Gras is not a day,
but the days extending from TwelfthNight or Epiphany to Ash Wednesday.
It allows for more indulging in preparation of not!
Carnival is another well-known aspect of these festivities,
and there’s an irony to the etymology of the word “carnival,”
associated as it is with all kinds of indulgence.
The word “carnival” comes to us from Latin words
meaning “farewell” “meat” or “farewell” “flesh,”
and carnival represents another way to indulge temptation before fasting—
to indulge temptation in preparation for resisting temptation.

With Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent starts
not with a birth, but with death—the reminder of our deaths,
and it will end with a death too,
but it’s what happens between that’s most important.
Dorothy Cadigan and I have enjoyed appreciating that poem,
often read at funerals, that celebrates the dash between the dates on headstones.
And that’s part of what this reflective season of Lent is all about—
what we make of our lives—our dash—
the time period after our births and before our deaths,
but it’s also what happens after the death of Jesus and before our own—
what we make of Jesus’ life and death in the living of our own lives.

Yes, remember, you are dust,
but just as God took of the dust and made us,
just as Jesus picked dust up, spit in it, and made blind eyes see,
as you remember that you are dust, remember too, remember always,
what all God can do with dust!
For dust is the end, but dust is also the beginning,
world without end, amen, amen.

So Lent began with Ash Wednesday this past Wednesday
and today finds us on the first Sunday of Lent.
Now this will come as a review for many of you,
but Lent is a season within the liturgical year—the church year.
Lent is 40 days—starting Ash Wednesday, ending Easter, not counting Sundays.
The very basic definition of Lent: a time period in the church year.
We’ll expand this definition in weeks to come, but we’ll leave it at that for now.

Notice that this time period begins with the reminder that we run out of time,
and ends (with Easter) on a day that claims, ultimately,
God will not allow time to run out on what’s most important.

The word “Lent” comes from the Old English and the German, lengten
originally meaning spring, but literally and etymologically,
coming from the roots of words meaning “long day,” lengten
(a different etymology, oddly enough, from the word “lengthen”).

So yes, the very word Lent constitutes a reference
to the annual season of the calendar year
in which we follow this liturgical season of the church year,
but constitutes also affirmation and celebration of a time
when more light, naturally and inevitably, creeps so very gradually into the darkness.

III. Scripture
We consider two texts this morning:
one of the last stories of Noah from Genesis (Genesis 9:8-17),
and the story of Jesus’ baptism from the gospel of Mark (Mark 1:9-15).
Remember during holy seasons (like Lent),
the committee that picked lectionary texts, considered texts together.
The readings for the day are, in other words, intentionally linked,
not randomly chosen.

Considering both texts,
what we find is that we begin with blessing,
and that if we forget that, we’re reminded of it.
Genesis begins with blessing (it is all very good).
Our Noah story reminds us of that—
including, again, a blessing of all creation—
the promise not just that God won’t punish in this way again—
won’t give up on relationship, but also the promise to all creation
that it won’t suffer because of God punishing human beings for what they do.
Notice I can’t say creation won’t suffer because of what human beings do.

So what we have in Scripture
is illustration of Paul Ricoeur’s idea of a second naivete.
We start with Eden, true, but let’s be honest, says Scripture,
that’s not where we stay.
And it’s on the far side of evil that the ark comes to rest—
not on the far side of a poor choice,
a man and a woman who disobeyed God,
but on the far side of a generation lost in selfishness and greed—
on the other side of behavior that grieves God greatly.
And what affirmation do we make then?
The same one. Creation is blessed, but not naively blessed.

I find it interesting, don’t you? that the sign of this new covenant—
this new expression of blessing—is a rainbow—
which you get when you have both sun and rain.

Jesus’ baptism reminds us as well: the story begins, and it is very good.
A voice from heaven makes that abundantly clear:
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus is affirmed by God—blessed by God,
but then immediately, Jesus is driven into the wilderness—
there to be tempted by Satan and ministered to by angels.
Kind of sounds like an experience of sun and rain at the same time, doesn’t it?
Jesus is driven into the wilderness and temptations loom.

So what do we make of this?
Two things, today:
one, and again, it’s on the far side of trials and tribulations
that the only good news worth listening to is proclaimed.
A Jesus who hasn’t been through the wilderness has nothing to say.
That’s one. And two, whatever is to come, the beginning was very good.
And not only is the beginning good, but so is the potential.
So is the possibility. So is the future.

It’s a little known fact
that for those forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness,
the people of the wilderness noted a rainbow presence—
and not a rainbow stretched in a gentle arc across the wilderness
from one point on the horizon to another,
but a finger of color pointing down from above.
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

IV. The Tragedy of Our Time
Many of you have no doubt, like I, over the past weeks,
heard so much about the tragedy two years ago over in Charlottesville
when George Huguely and Yeardley Love became national news.
All so very sad.
And the more details that came out about their lifestyles,
the sadder it has all become.

Now, we can probably all acknowledge that part of growing up,
if we’re honest, is raising questions about the lifestyle
experienced growing up and wondering about and even trying other possibilities.
As parents and as a community, one of our most honest prayers,
is for our children and youth to survive their youth
without adverse and lasting consequences.
Nothing new.
That’s been the prayer of parents and communities for—well forever!

But Mike Gimbel, a substance abuse expert for the past 30 years,
who has served as the Director of Substance Abuse for Baltimore County,
and Director of Substance Abuse Education for Sheppard Pratt,
stated baldly in The Baltimore Sun Saturday a week ago,
“For the first time in my career, I’m advising parents
not to send their kids off to college, because it’s nothing but a big party.”

And surveys of college students indicate that
• 80% of students drink.
• 90% of students feel that they do not know how to drink responsibly!
• 60-70% purposely get drunk.
• 50% of men and 35% of women are binge drinkers (have five or more drinks in a row at least every two weeks).

If that’s not bad enough,
• 80% of first sexual experiences occur under the influence of alcohol!
• by senior year, 81% of students have had sex because they were drunk.
• in two-thirds of unplanned pregnancies, the woman was intoxicated during sex.
• 60% of STDs are transmitted when the partners are drunk.
• drinking games are used on campuses as a way for males to deliberately get females drunk quickly, often for purposes for sex.
• 90% of all sexual assaults occur under the influence of alcohol!

Not to scare you or anything! Scary as it is.
But to, as explicitly as we can, claim this place, this community, these people
as a context for blessing—a place to affirm and remind our children and youth,
you are better than this. You don’t need this to be valued—
to be admired—to be included—to be respected—to be loved.

That’s a message we need reinforced here.
Youth have for decades now grown up
amidst those who turn to too much alcohol—
too much casual sex—too much hooking up—
too much manipulation—too much violence—
too much anger and no means of dealing with it.
But there is more out there now.
The availability of everything is greater and easier.
And the social media exposes people and relationships
at a level and a speed and to an audience never before dreamed possible.
And that which is whispered in the dark
is virtually immediately shouted from the rooftops (Matthew 10:27; Luke 12:3).

And amidst a desperation they don’t know to name,
a fear they cover up so well they may not recognize it themselves,
too many children are utterly lost.
And these girls and boys, young men and women,
they can be the beautiful ones.
They can be the popular ones.
They can be athletic and come from privilege—
all the pretty princesses and handsome princes
you would never suspect,
Yet their living reveals their deep insecurities—
their deep fear—their deep need.
They do not know themselves to be blessed.

They live carnival lives, never realizing
their time is passing—
that they were to say farewell to indulgence
in the growing recognition that they had more to learn.
But too many indulge indulgence, not in preparation for anything,
but simply for the sake of indulgence.
And they’ve lost their way—whether they know it or not.

Also in the news recently, the tragedy that was Whitney Houston.
And it’s the same story, isn’t it?
Don’t know if you’ve had a chance to hear Kevin Costner’s eulogy.
He grew up Baptist, by the way! Did you know that?
Learned a thing or two about preaching, I’d say. Well worth your time.
He said, “The Whitney I knew, despite her success and worldwide fame,
still wondered: ‘Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?’
It was the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble in the end.”

V. Word of the day
We have a word for the day.
Actually, we have not just a word of the day,
but a transformative words of the day,
and the transformative word of the day is blessed.
To know you are blessed is to be transformed
and to live transformation.
But because every good thing has a shadow side to it,
the perversion, the inversion, the distortion, the rejection,
the denial of the transformative word is the tragic word of the day
and the tragic word of the day is lost.
If you don’t know you are blessed, you are lost.
And that’s true at whatever level to which you want to take and apply it.
If you don’t know you are blessed as a family member, you are lost.
If you don’t know you are blessed as a friend, you are lost.
If you don’t know you are blessed by God, you are lost.

Now, I don’t know how to bless someone …
well, that’s not entirely true,
but I don’t know what makes someone know they are blessed.
I don’t. Wish I did.
What I do know is some of what makes for better odds:
a family that names and lives their love for each other,
an extended family with conversations extending through the years,
a community, a community of faith—people who remind us
of concentric circles of care, of our surpassing worth,
and of God’s love for us.

No guarantees, never a guarantee, but the odds are better—
when commitment is to a person not an idea of that person.

Can our children and youth answer the question:
“If you blow it big time, to whom can you go?”
Can they answer that question pointing to us? Saying,
“They’re the ones who will love me through it all—
who will remind me that God loves me through it all.”
Because that’s a huge blessing.

In the words of Kevin Costner, again:
“To all those young girls who are dreaming that dream
but maybe thinking they aren’t good enough,
I think Whitney would tell you, ‘Guard your bodies.
And guard the precious miracle of your own life.’
And then sing your hearts out knowing that there is a lady in heaven
who is making God Himself wonder how He created something so perfect.
So off you go Whitney. Off you go.
Escorted by an army of angels to your Heavenly Father,
and when you sing before Him, don’t you worry,
you’ll be good enough.”

VI. We Live with Hope
We live as those with hope you see.
Our thought for the day is “good beginnings never end ….”
Many of you recognize thought for the day as the motto of our WEE school.
And many of us as parents can testify to good beginnings that haven’t ended.

In the beginning, God said it was all very good.
It still is. Good beginnings never end ….
The history is good. And so is the potential.
And we remind each other because we take turns forgetting
that we are never without hope—
no matter how our ark gets tossed about,
no matter the trials and temptations we face,
through the wildernesses, we are never without hope.
And this is not a glass half-full mentality. We’re not talking about optimism.
We are not optimists, but rather those who share the profound conviction
that God created us—that God loves us and is involved in our lives,
and because in the beginning, God was—
and because in the end, God will be;
and because all in between, God is,
how can we but live with hope—live in hope—live by hope?
To know you are blessed is to be transformed
and to live transformation.

VII. Assignment for the Week
So while you’re hopeful, let’s talk about your homework for the week!
And if church is more than just an hour or so you spend here—
if it has something to do with the way we live our lives,
then we always have homework.
Right?

So this week, within the fun of our theme,
we offer you this assignment.
It’s a two-fold assignment.
First, know yourself to be blessed.
Now, as we’ve noted, that’s sometimes a hard thing to know.
And not something you can force, but make the commitment this week,
to tell yourself morning, noon and night each day of the coming week,
three times a day, morning, noon and night: I am blessed.
Set your phone. A reminder on your calendar program.

We have a sign-up in the narthex.
We will email you a blessing at noon each day this week.
It can be your middle of the day blessing if you want.
This is not as silly as it may sound!
So important to hear the words—see the words—read the words
know the words: you are loved. You are valued. You are blessed.

Second, because you know yourself to be blessed—
even if it’s only because you’re telling yourself that,
bless—bless someone else.
You heard from Scott and the Service Ministry on John Duvall Mission Sunday,
you will read it again in the March newsletter,
there are two bodies of water in Israel:
the Sea of Galilee
and the Dead Sea.
Both are fed by the Jordan River,
yet one is full of life, the other as dead as can be.
And the difference?
One receives water at one end and gives out water at the other.
The other just receives and the Jordan River ends there.
(Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility)
To know you are blessed is to be transformed
and to live transformation.
You are blessed. Therefore, you bless others.

Now you participate in much blessing of others through the work of this church.
Money you give goes to support important ministry around the world.
The WEE school blesses children and families every day of the school year.
The Service Ministry projects
and many of the Formation ministry sponsored opportunities
offer people of our community so much—
whether that’s Operation Joy, Vacation Bible School,
whether that’s our month to support the Assistance Center of Towson Churches,
whether that’s a new venture we’ll be exploring,
whether that’s the witness you offer our neighbors
simply by showing up here on Sunday mornings—
your car in the parking lot proclaiming a priority more people need.
You participate in much blessing of others through the life of this church.

But this week, more directly, more personally,
even as you seek to bless yourself each day,
each day, tell someone else: “I love you. I appreciate you.
I value you. Here’s how and why.”
And then tell them, “And God loves you.
And when you stand before God,
don’t you worry, you’ll be good enough.
Trust me. Well, trust God!”

It might all just mean the difference between life and death.

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