Servant leadership is a key concept for all disciples. As we go off to our work today, we will be called upon to be leaders in any number of ways. At work, with subordinates as well as coworkers – will they see Christ in us, in our business practices, in our ethics and in the way we treat others? At home, with spouses and children, family and friends – will they see Christ in us, in our quality time with them, in our loving patience in the face of frustrations, in the behaviors we model by the television we watch or the activities we engage in while at home? Every one of us who wishes to be great in the kingdom must be the servant of all.
Lent is a time to make all things new. And the first thing that has to be changed is our hearts. We are sinners, every one of us. We know that. But sometimes we act as though we were the Savior himself, longing for places of honor and tying up heavy burdens for others to carry. We servant disciples must come to the level of conversion that we realize our salvation is the greatest thing that we have, and that same salvation calls us to help others on the way to it. We have to humble ourselves, for our own salvation, and the salvation of everyone in our lives.
That whole notion of the measure that we used being used to measure us is a little scary, I think. How often do we fail to give people a break? How often do we forget that the person who just crossed us may be having trouble at home, or might be facing the illness of a loved one, or any number of things. We confess our sins and long to be forgiven, just like Daniel did in today’s first reading. And our God longs to forgive us those sins. But God’s expectation is that the mercy he has shown us will be the mercy we show to others.
“Seeing is believing,” or so they say. It’s not an entirely accurate saying, either. The real definition of faith, as St. Paul reminds us in his writings, is that faith is believing in spite of the fact that we don’t see God face-to-face. But there is some truth in the statement that seeing is believing, and that’s a truth that can be found in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Because sometimes we get stuck and can’t get out of the rut of our sinfulness. Or sometimes we get caught up in our day-to-day concerns and activities and can’t notice the Spirit working in us. And that’s when God needs to make a visit to his people. And he does that all the time, our God who is not some remote deity that made us and left us to our own devices. Our God is intimately involved in our world and in our living, and our God often makes entry into our world and our life events. This is what we call a “theophany.” It’s God doing a God-thing.
I hope I have your attention now. Because today’s readings seem to be screaming that we should indeed wake up. All kinds of waking up is going on in today’s readings. Abram fell into a deep sleep after preparing the sacrifice and was enveloped in a terrifying darkness. He woke up to God’s presence ratifying the covenant. Peter, John and James had fallen asleep up on the mountain. They woke up to see Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. Our readings proclaim our God doing God-things in and around his people, and we are called to wake up and take notice of it, lest we sleep through our salvation.
Because left to our own devices we are lamentably sleepy. In the eleven chapters of Genesis that come before Abram is called by God, things have gone a little off-course. Adam and Eve have desecrated the Garden of Eden by partaking of the forbidden fruit. Cain has murdered his brother Abel in a fit of terminal envy. God has drenched his creation in the flood as punishment for rampant sin and the arrogance of building the Tower of Babel. Humanity had become so used to its sinful ways that nothing seemed to focus their attention on God. The complacency of sin had led them to drowsiness and sloth. All of humanity, like Abram, was cloaked in a terrifying darkness.
The covenant that God forms with Abram is interesting. Every animal of sacrifice is procured, and cut in half. This was an ancient covenantal ritual in which the two parties to the covenant would walk down the center of the bisected sacrifice in order to ratify the covenant. The meaning of this ritual was something like, “should I ever break the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me.” This was a very common ritual in ancient times, but here there is a significant difference. The difference is that Abram does not walk through the sacrifice. Only God does – in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. The significance of that is that God takes the initiative in making covenant with us. We have to but wake up and see it, as Abram did.
In the verses that precede today’s Gospel reading, the disciples have been sent out in pairs to heal the sick and drive out demons. Then Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Finally Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” And Peter responds with great faith that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus instructs them that his followers must take up their crosses and follow him. But even Peter misses the significance of that cross when they see the Lord transfigured before them. Waking from a deep sleep, they see the Lord transfigured in glory. And it’s that glory they want to dwell on, remaining there in three tents. They have already in their weariness forgotten that to get to the Lord’s glory, they have to get through the cross first. There is hard work to be done: diseases to be cured, demons to be cast out, hungry people to be fed. It’s not going to be easy. Everyone suffers for the faith in some way, but everyone will also be glorified by that faith. All we have to do is wake up and realize it.
We too have once been enveloped in a terrifying darkness. The light of the Gospel and the joy of the sacraments banishes that darkness, if we but move forward in faith. The problem is that so many times we get dragged back into that darkness. It’s so easy to return to sinful ways, bad habits, patterns of brokenness, the shame of addiction. We want what we don’t need. We seek easy answers rather than work through the tough times. We make Gods out of success, and money, and pleasure, rather than honor the God who compassions us through failure, poverty and pain. We see to all our own creature comforts with little regard for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. We return over and over and over again to the terrifying darkness of sin in thought, word, and deed. Lent reminds us that we cannot survive living that way. We must confess our sins and wake up to be children of light.
And we children of light have been adopted to become light to others. The forgiveness we have received demands that we become Christ to others. We are called to become conduits of God’s justice, mercy, compassion and love. God’s justice has been poured out on us so that we in turn can reach out to others, helping to make things right and alleviate the burden of the oppressed and marginalized. God’s justice demands that we see every person the way God sees them, eliminating every form of racism, violence and hatred from the earth. God’s mercy has been poured out on us so that we can reach out to others and show them mercy too. That mercy demands that we forgive as we have been forgiven, that grudges and resentments be left at the foot of the cross. God’s compassion has been poured out on us so that we can then be compassionate to others. That compassion demands that we have concern for every person God puts in our path, that we take time out of our busy and hectic schedules to listen to a hurting coworker or look in on a sick neighbor. God’s love has been poured out on us so that we can love as he has loved us. That love demands that we discipline children with patience, that we honor and respect our parents, that we go the extra mile to share the gifts we have been given. We must wake up to live as God’s people.
We are a people who have been given so much. God has reached out to us in great love and mercy and has taken the initiative to form a covenant with us, first with the sacrifice of Abraham, and in the last days through the blood of the Cross. We deserve none of this, because we as a people and as individuals have turned away from God over and over again. But over and over again, God has sung to our spirit, giving us grace, and calling us to be sons and daughters of light. But we have to wake up and receive it.
Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
That line sounds like such an outrageous goal that it would be easy to write it off and pretend it's not part of Scripture. But we know that's not true. Perfection is the goal of the disciple's life, and a wonderful goal for Lent. Am I saying that you have the possibility to finish Lent and be completely done with the Spiritual life, knowing that everything is now perfected? Most likely not. But we are called to move in that direction. Real perfection, of course, will only come on that great day when we enter the heavenly Kingdom prepared for us by Jesus our Savior, who will make all things new.
So we must begin by changing our hearts and attitudes, working from the inside out. We cannot be people who pick and choose who to love and who to hate. We must love all people – yes, even our enemies – if we are to take up our crosses and follow our Lord. The weight of that cross is enormous, and it's hard to pick it up and walk onward, but we never have to do that alone. We can rely on our Savior who shoulders the cross with us, helping us to love as he does, and ultimately by providing the example par excellence by stretching out his arms and dying on that cross.
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It would be so much easier if we could define our own righteousness. If we could choose who to reach out to and who to ignore, life would be good, wouldn’t it? If we could hold grudges against some people and only have to forgive some people, we would easily consider ourselves justified. But the Christian life of discipleship doesn’t work that way.
That’s where the Pharisees went wrong. They were able to define their six hundred and something laws in such a way that if you just kept your eye on those, you were okay. Empty legalism replaced true righteousness and lip service replaced true worship. Jesus wasn’t having any of that. Our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees or we have no part in the Kingdom of heaven. It’s that simple.
So when we bear grudges, we murder. When we label people and then write them off, we are liable to judgment. Because justice and righteousness in the Kingdom of God isn’t about looking squeaky clean, it’s about being clean inside and out, changing our attitudes, changing our hearts, renewing our lives.
If Lent purifies us in this way, we can truly pray with the Psalmist, “with the LORD is kindness and with him is plenteous redemption.”
If we take one thought out of Lent this year, it should be this: we need a Savior.
Even before Jesus’ time, Esther knew this. Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai was a deeply religious man. His devotion incurred the wrath of Haman the Agagite, who was a court official of King Ahasuerus of Persia. Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman in the way prescribed by law, because he felt that it was idolatry. Because of this, Haman developed a deep hatred for Mordecai, and by extension, all of the Israelite people. He convinced King Ahasuerus to decree that all Israelites be put to death, and they cast lots to determine the date for this despicable event.
Meanwhile, Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, is chosen to fill a spot in the King’s harem, replacing Queen Vashti. Esther never had revealed her own Israelite heritage to the King. Mordecai came to Esther to inform her of the decree that Haman had proposed, and asked her to intercede on behalf of her own people to the King. She was terrified to do this because court rules forbade her to come to the king without an invitation. She asked Mordecai to have all of her people fast and pray, and she did the same. The prayer that she offered is beautifully rendered in today’s first reading.
Esther knew that there was no one that could help her, and that it was totally on her shoulders to intercede for her people. Doing this was a risk to her own life, and the only one that she could rely on was God himself. Her prayer was heard, her people were spared, and Haman himself was hung from the same noose that had been prepared for Mordecai and all his fellow Israelites.
God hears our own persistent prayers. We must constantly pray, and trust all of our needs to the one who knows them before we do. We must ask, seek and knock of the one who made us and cares for us deeply. But most of all, we must always be aware that like Esther, we all need a Savior.
This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah.
In all fairness, I think it should be noted that even though Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, he was a very unwilling sign to be sure. Not only did he prefer to take a ship anywhere but Nineveh and end up getting swallowed by a big fish, even after this wonderfully successful preaching, he sat under a shade plant and lamented the mercy God had on the Ninevites.
But, that said, he was indeed a wonderful sign to the Ninevites. And they didn't require from him miracles and wonders. They heard his word – the word of the LORD – and reformed their ways, they straightened up their act. That's what Jesus is extolling here. It didn't take anything but hearing the word of the Lord for those evil Ninevites to turn to God for mercy. But the Israelites, who had in Jesus a much better sign than that of Jonah – a very willing sign for one thing – they still demanded a whole side show to test his words.
What about us? What does it take for us to make a change in our lives? Has God been trying to get through to us, but we keep holding out for some kind of sign? Shame on us when we do that – and most of us do at some point. We, like the Israelites, have a wonderful sign in Jesus, and we would do well to take up our own crosses and do what the Lord asks of us.
Ancient sources say that we are to pray the Lord's prayer at least seven times daily. Why? Because the Lord's prayer in all its wonderful simplicity reminds us that God is God and we are not.
To those of us who are concerned with our own prestige and dwell on our own ego, the Lord's prayer says "hallowed be God's name." When we would like all of our problems solved on our own terms and everyone to do things our own way, the Lord's prayer says, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…" For those times when we over-consume the goods of the earth, or want more than we can afford, or covet things we don't need, the Lord's prayer says, "give us this day our daily bread" – because that's all we need. For us sinners who prefer to hold grudges against others, the Lord's prayer says, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." And when we stray into all sorts of temptations and give in to all the wrong things, the Lord's prayer says "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
The Lord's prayer is powerful in all its simplicity. Whether we say it seven times a day or even just once, we need to say it with full thought of what we are asking of our God. And God will hear and answer that holy prayer.