Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Whether we are aware, or inattentive, or at war, there is a sacred sound that nature makes. It’s not a singular sound, but a multitude. While we yet live in the frigid grip of winter, we use our imagination to remember “…what it is like to stand in the presence of a tree and listen to the wind pass through its leaves. The roots and body stand defiant and unmoved. The branches stretch out their tongues and whisper shhhhh.” (Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh, 2022, p. vii)
Trees make symphonies without moving, as if the stillness of their trunk could amplify their sound. A tree may appear to be still, but each leaf rattles in the lightest breeze. A tree may look all alone but down deeper, and you’ll find roots enjoined and entangled with other trees, plants, shrubs, flowers, and grasses. Roots unfurl in soil laid down by our ancestors. No soil could exist if not for the birth, life, and death of all the living things that preceded it. Thomas Merton said, “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” (Cole)
Retreat to a sacred place is life giving. Are there sacred spaces you love which seemed to love you right back? Whether in nature, or in a corner of your home, or in a church—perhaps this church? Today’s gospel calls out from all the sacred places you have known. Mountaintop experiences? Thin places where earth and heaven seemed to come together? Places you could see, or feel, or even hear, the Spirit of God alive in the world? We must be thankful for such places.
It is a profound and unique insight of our Hebrew ancestors that in addition to sacred space we can also find God in sacred time. You don’t have to go anywhere because sacred time can be everywhere. We call it the sabbath. Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, Jesus said, there I am in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). Eight days after he had told them about the cross, Jesus led Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop to pray. Jesus was transfigured before them. His face and clothing became dazzling white.
Here, in nearly the exact middle of the gospel, Luke instructs us in how to open the sanctuary of sacred time. The key that unlocks the door is prayer. In the poetic narrative of Luke, the ‘eighth day’ refers to Sunday, the day of resurrection and worship, the first day of a new week and era. Baptismal fonts around the world, for example, often have eight sides to invoke this promise of new life. Jesus discusses with Moses and Elijah his impending crucifixion. And the voice from heaven is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples with the command, “Listen to him.” This combination of prayer, discussion focused on the way of the cross, and the command to listen taking place on the eighth day kindles our liturgical imagination, reminding us of what Sunday can be. Here we have entered sacred time.
Here we come to become a living sanctuary for each other, our household, our neighbors, and our world. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” the Fourth Commandment says (Exodus 20:8). Sabbath is rest for the weary and hope for those who despair. Sabbath is a bridge that joins our love of God who calls us to rest with God’s love and concern for neighbor. (Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p.17). Sabbath gives rhythm to our week and centers our hearts in grace. Sabbath is God’s antidote to a life of slavery under all the Pharaoh’s of the world. Here, in sacred time, we learn again that we are not human resources. We are human beings. We are children of God. Even now we are filled again with the unapproachable light of God. Here we learn to breathe again, our hearts beat again, filled once again with the breath of God like Adam and Eve.
We do not understand how it is that we do this. Often, we cannot see the light that we bear. Peter, James, and John nearly fell asleep on the mountaintop. They would not begin to understand what they had seen until much later. How often do we see more clearly in hindsight than in the moment? Yet somehow, here, we are becoming a living-sanctuary of hope and grace each week in this hour of sacred time.
Like the first disciples, we do not always, or very often, know where Jesus is leading us. It is in the walking—in the following—that we learn best who Jesus is. Here it is in sabbath time, at the altar, the font, in song, in the Word, and in prayer that we reliably discover again the true light of our lives. Here, as we stand on the threshold of Lent, that Jesus uncovers the grace already in you to heal and transform the world.
More than most things, Lent “is about existing in the pain of the world, not rushing past it toward some kind of spiritual toxic positivity. There’s a heaviness in the air. I suspect you feel it too.” (Cole) Pandemic, social upheaval, political strife, and now another war. These weigh down on us. “In Lent, we are reminded we are free to say so. Free to grieve.” (Cole) Here in sacred time, we are free to be our honest selves, for that is the only way we can be healed.
Did you know 1 in 5 Americans will experience at least one mental illness at some point in their life? There is very nearly an epidemic of mental and emotional strife following on the heels of the pandemic. This Lent, our focus is on mental health. In art, poetry, conversation, and prayer we will attempt to lift the veil of shame we have cast to cover over and hide our anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts. (Later today, at 3:00 PM on Zoom, Parish Nurse Marcia and I will lead discussion on Mental Health and the Role of the Church. Find the link in the E-news or reach out to me after the service.)
Here, in sacred time, and sacred space, St. Paul insists, we become part of Christ’s glory, because “we are not like Moses, who veiled his face.” But “whenever anyone turns to the Lord, ‘the veil is taken away.'” And so, we, ‘with unveiled faces each reflect the glory of Lord Jesus, and are being transformed into his likeness” (2 Corinthians 3:13 &16) (Daniel Clendenin, My Journey with Jesus). We, like trees of the forest rooted in good soil and planted beside the river of living water whisper shhhhh.
Here, at the Lord’s Table, we are welcomed who don’t deserve to be served. Here, Jesus our Master is both host and food. Here, we find rest and comfort to heal our wounds. Here, the faith we received as a gift is reckoned to us as righteousness. Here, we are loved in a way that far exceeds what we are capable of. Before our well-being, there is God’s graciousness, before our delight, there is God’s generosity, before our joy, there is God’s good will. (Walter Brueggemann, Awed by Heaven, Rooted in Earth, 137-38) Let all God’s creatures rejoice! Amen.