God’s Loving Paths/Blessed Connections

Sunday, February 22
First Sunday in Lent

Focus Theme
God’s Loving Paths/Blessed Connections

Weekly Prayer
God of our salvation, your bow in the clouds proclaims your covenant with every living creature. Teach us your paths and lead us in your truth, that by your Holy Spirit, we may remember our baptismal vows and be keepers of your trust with earth and its inhabitants. Amen.

Focus Reading
Psalm 25: 1-10

To you, O God,I lift up my soul.

O my God, in you I trust;
  do not let me be put to shame;
  do not let my enemies exult over me.

Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
  let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways, O God;
  teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
  for you are the God of my salvation;
  for you I wait all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy, O God,
  and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.

Do not remember the sins of my youth
  or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
  for your goodness’ sake, O God!

Good and upright is God;
  therefore God instructs sinners in the way.
God leads the humble in what is right,
  and teaches the humble God’s way.

All the paths of God are steadfast love and faithfulness,
  for those who keep God’s covenant and God’s decrees.

All Readings For This Sunday
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Focus Questions

1. What sort of spiritual enemies do we face today?

2. What makes a prayer “proper”?

3. What does “wilderness” feel like in your life?

4. What spiritual practices help you to draw close to God?

5. How might fasting lead to prophetic action?

Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey

On three of the first four Sundays in Lent, our focus reading is a psalm: in a season of self-examination and reflection and perhaps even wrestling with God, we have the opportunity to enter into not just the psalmist’s inner thoughts and prayers, but the prayer life of Israel itself. We find that we are not so very different from our ancestors in faith in a place and time however distant from our own. And, in our own time, haven’t we come to a keener appreciation of our need, individually and communally, to a deeper life of prayer? What better teacher for us, then, that the psalmist?

Like many psalms, this week’s reading includes both prayer addressed to God and faith claims about God. Also, at times, within the very same psalm, it feels as though the psalmist is going in more than one direction emotionally and spiritually. While the lectionary reading includes only the first ten verses of Psalm 25, it’s helpful to read the entire psalm to sense the range of emotion it expresses. Sometimes the psalms shock us with decidedly “un-Christian” prayers for vengeance, but we usually edit out those troubling phrases for public prayer.

We’re missing the point, however, when we avoid the raw honesty of the psalmist’s cry from the heart. Today’s psalm, of course, only asks for protection from foes who hate the psalmist with a “violent hatred” (v. 19). One wonders at times whether we’re hearing from an extrovert who’s processing out loud, or from an introvert who has written down the deepest struggles of his soul. In any case, Brian Erickson observes that the psalms “read more like monologues than conversations, exercises in spiritual eavesdropping.”

If we set aside all judgment and preconceptions, and approach the reading humbly and openly, we hear the inner heart of the psalmist at work, struggling with fear, anger, frustration, and distress, and then climbing to a secure place of trust, close to the heart of God. The psalm moves back and forth, at one moment complaining about the “wantonly treacherous,” and then turning abruptly to humble prayer, asking to know God’s ways and to receive God’s mercy.

Keeping things nice and proper

Wouldn’t we admit to a similar mix of conflicting feelings, at least sometimes, in our own inner life, if not in our prayers? Perhaps we’re tempted, or trained, to keep our prayer life “proper,” that is, polite to the point of being dry, sterile, and at times, even obsequious. We’re convinced that we have to avoid saying the wrong thing or using the wrong words, let alone showing the kind of emotion that might roil within us. We keep a cap on our feelings and our inner thoughts, even while we long to draw close to the One who formed us and knows us in the depths of our being. Feelings are things that we handle with exercise, therapy, medication, acquiring things, any number of distractions. But prayer, we seem to believe, is for proper thoughts and acceptable feelings, just praise, just thanks, just certainty. It’s no wonder then that we don’t emerge from prayer strengthened and renewed and that we don’t feel drawn back, again and again, to regular times of prayer.

What better time, then, than the season of Lent to examine our prayer life for its honesty in expressing our deepest hopes and beliefs about God? Lent: that time when we might make some “extra” room for God and pay some extra attention to our spiritual life (as long as we put that “extra” room right in the middle of our lives, not in what’s left over). Unlike Lent, Advent doesn’t feel the same as the world around it, as it easily gets lost in the bustle of Christmas preparations. But Lent happens at the bleakest time of year for many of us, when nature is brown and rainy and chilled, and the snow (up north, at least) is getting old, very old. We know spring, new life, is coming, but it’s hard to remember what its warmth, its greenness, feels like when late winter weariness bears down on us. The setting is right, then, for a wilderness mindset, not the beautiful wooded wilderness we want to preserve but the stark, barren wilderness, the kind where the Hebrews wandered and Jesus was tempted.

How do we re-create the wilderness?

Even if nature around us and our living conditions themselves don’t conspire to put us in the wilderness physically, we sometimes attempt during Lent to create a kind of harsh and austere time period that trains us, conditions us, to greater spiritual health, much as we might go on a strict diet or a demanding exercise regimen for the health of our body. Unfortunately, most of my childhood memories about “giving up” things for Lent are about the amount of time I spent thinking about those very things! Spiritual disciplines can slide into programs to make ourselves acceptable in God’s eyes, purer, better–another kind of achievement to pile on the others.

However, Valerie Bridgeman Davis introduces the season of Lent with the observation that during this season of spiritual discipline, we might learn more important lessons, about “human nature and God’s graciousness.” She speaks of the internal struggle, about what happens inside us, because our inner life deserves and demands our attention and time. However, she cautions against a narcissism and an individualism that would focus on ourselves and forget the world around us: “The fast that only seeks to heighten our personal piety is not as desirable as the fast that will call us into prophetic action.”

Tending the life of the spirit

And that may strike just the right note for our Lenten disciplines. Our culture does not encourage us to tend to our inner spiritual life or to acts of justice and peace, in fact, it does everything it can to distract us from such efforts. If Lent inspires us to focus our energy and attention on our relationship with God, perhaps we will indeed draw closer to God (and to our neighbor), and when Lent is over, we’ll want to stay in this new place. Or perhaps we will discover that we have made room for God right where we are, because sometimes God has to come looking for us.

The psalms are a good companion for us as we set out into the Lenten wilderness. Thousands of years later, our hearts respond to the words, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, O my God, in you I trust,” as well as “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” And yet we also look around and feel pressed down and wonder why others are against us, or why people are treacherous, or why violence rules in the world. Perhaps we find that polite, evenly worded prayers don’t work as well in that case as a raw cry of the heart that goes in more than one direction and speaks with harsh honesty.

What battles do you wage?

This psalm’s prayer for protection from enemies might seem a bit of a stretch for us today, when our faith rarely puts us in danger. What sort of spiritual enemies do you face? Daniel Schowalter suggests that “the greatest battle most Christians will ever fight is within themselves: a battle between self-interest and God’s interest.” We’re in a war of sorts, caught between the call of God and the demands of a world that rewards “self-promotion,” not weakness or humility. What does it mean, in this setting, to offer up one’s soul? Is it a temporary offering, or is it a lifelong, wholehearted gift? Is it a gift that we offer with each new day, just as we are reminded that God’s own mercies are new each morning (Lamentations 3:23)?

Concentrating on “gift” is a good way to begin our Lenten practice, recalling the great gifts of God’s love in every age. That’s what the psalmist does, remembering God’s steadfast love “from of old,” not just in one’s own lifetime. This is a deep, inner-life, close-relationship love between God and humankind: what greater gift is there, than such a love?

Paying the cost of discipleship

For the most part, we’re already familiar with our Christian faith, not beginners, but Lent originally was a time for new converts to prepare for baptism at Easter. It was a long, hard road to this new life, and Brian Erickson challenges today’s Christians who have had a much easier way to faith: “The early Christians used the same evangelical strategy that Jesus did: brutal honesty. And so rather than entice prospective recruits with the many benefits of the Christian path, they highlighted the great costs. God’s ways are not our ways. Following Christ cannot be a part-time hobby. Faith is more than dogma and discipline; it is also direction.” One is reminded of Bonhoeffer’s “cost of discipleship,” and one also can’t help but wonder how our new member classes and evangelism ministries would be transformed with this early-Christian strategy!

This brings us back to the psalmist’s prayer, asking to be shown the paths, the ways, the truth of God. Those ways are not easy, even (or especially) for modern, apparently comfortable Christians, for our spiritual practices and disciplines prepare us to walk a long and sometimes lonely path. Reaching past our own wants and needs to care for the world God loves, to work tirelessly (even when we’re tired) for justice for God’s children (all of them, not just some, and certainly not just for us), to risk and to share and to love, to change ourselves and the way the world does things…all of these practices shape us, mold us, fashion us into more faithful people. We can’t stay in our rooms, or remain wandering in the wilderness, but must set out on the paths of God. Erickson quotes Frederick Buechner, who writes, “If you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.” And, Erickson observes, “Lent is a time to choose who we will be and whose we will be.”

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For a preaching version of this commentary (with book titles), go to http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_february_22_2015.

For Further Reflection

Mignon McLaughlin, 20th century
“I often pray, though I’m not really sure Anyone’s listening; and I phrase it carefully, just in case He’s literary.”

Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
“I pray on the principle that wine knocks the cork out of a bottle. There is an inward fermentation, and there must be a vent.”

Sofia Cavalletti, 20th century
“Help me draw nearer to God by myself.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“It’s good to do uncomfortable things. It’s weight training for life.”
“Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

Frederick Douglass, 19th century escaped slave and author
“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, � 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is � 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.