It was wonderful to be invited to preach the first Sunday in Lent 2015 at United Presbyterian in Amsterdam, NY. We had a beautiful experience of worship together as we meditated on scripture from Genesis 9: 8-17.
This past week I had two spiritual conversations. One with a longtime friend who is also in ministry and the other with a colleague here in this Presbytery. The conversations were different—but both were moments when I could feel God’s Spirit breaking into my life and into theirs, and that the conversation was not just between the two of us, but that the Spirit had come and pulled up a chair alongside us. I love it when conversations like these happen—unexpected gifts, beautiful offerings of not only friendship—but deep and real conversation with others who are engaged in seeking God and who want to share time to talk about how that’s going.
The first conversation was with Earl Johnson, who some of you know, he was the longtime pastor at the Johnstown Church, nearby—and he’s also been the author of a couple of books and a column in the national publication, the Presbyterian Outlook. Earl called to talk with me about a new book he’s considering and shopping around for a contract to write. It’s on the Gospel of Mark, which is the Gospel we are in the midst of listening to in worship during this Lenten Season. Mark also is my favorite Gospel, so I was eager to talk and hear what Earl was up to in his head with these new ideas for a new book. Earl also wanted to talk with me about ecology and environmental destruction and how as a Presbytery we can be and do more around this top issue for people of faith. Larry Deyss, who has been preaching here this month, is equally concerned that we find ways to engage and address issues around the environment as people of faith. Earl had some new ideas for me on Mark’s Gospel and some new ways of looking at it. It was a fascinating conversation, listening to his thoughts and being reminded again of why it is we still study these ancient words, over 2000 years old—why they still make sense for our life today. I hope we see this new book out of Earl, it will be a gem and a gift to all of us.
Thursday night I had dinner with one of my girlfriends, who is also a pastor and who I worked with for five years in my last call, she served at a neighboring congregation to the one I served and she and I have many things in common, including that her daughter is a senior at the same school where I went to college and like my family, she has a pet rabbit. We had the typical girlfriend’s dinner, talking and catching up—my daughter Sofia joined us. It was just good fun. Of course, much to my daughter’s dismay—and she told us to knock it off—almost as soon as we started—we started talking about church. Karen asked if I was preaching this Sunday and I said I was. She shared that in her research on the Hebrew Scripture reading for Sunday, where we hear the story of Noah building the ark, that the Hebrew word for ark is the same word that is used later in Exodus when we hear the story about the Baby Moses and his mother making a nest-like boat for him out of pitch and sticks to float away on the Nile River. The Hebrew word TEBAH is the same for both the ark and the little raft for the Baby Moses. I had never heard this before, and never learned it. To be honest, I really struggled with my Hebrew in seminary so it’s not surprising I missed this little detail.
The word is not used to describe anything else in the Bible, just these two things, which means it is a special word.
Now I do not know if that gets you excited, but it really excites me! It means that what we take for granted as the-story-we-all-know about the ark has something even deeper going on. When the word is translated into our language, English—the translation is LIFESAVER.
The Ark of course, saved lots of lives—the lives of the people and the animals on the boat—and then all of our lives afterwards. And the basket that was made by Moses’ mother and that she and his sister set off into the Nile River saved not just his life but later through Moses—the live of the Israelite people. These LIFESAVERS in the biblical narrative are not just about one specific person or one specific group being saved, but about a whole bunch of people—an entire group in need. Maybe Noah’s family, maybe Moses’ mother and sister only though it was about them—but in God’s larger plan—it was about so much more than that. God’s LIFESAVER or LIFERAFT is bigger and more expansive than we could ever imagine.
All of this has gotten me to thinking—where are my life rafts?
Where are the life rafts for our churches today?
For our communities?
For groups of people or in the spirit of today’s reading—for groups or species of animals that struggle to stay alive?
What gifts come along and into our lives in new and fresh ways that literally show us the way or show us the path—something that was obscured and difficult to find or even to perceive?
And when do we truly need a life-saver or a life-raft?
The other question is—do we still believe in these miracles? Do we still believe that God is going to provide such things for us?
An even scarier or more provocative question—what if the lifesaver or the life-raft God sends us (and I believe that God always does), isn’t what we wanted, or doesn’t look like what we think we need, or is so strange we do not even recognize it? What do we do then?!
Let me say that my two conversations with spiritual friends, both of them very different people in my life were lifesaving moments for me this week. They were unexpected gifts that arrived in my life and helped me to see God in a new way and to hear the call of Jesus once again.
Other life-rafts or life-savers for me this week?
The joy and time I spent with my daughter, we had so much fun together this week, more fun that we’ve had in a while!
Working the grill for two hours straight at another church in our Presbytery frying bacon for a youth group fundraiser and remembering during that time my first call in ministry and the many, many other times I helped youth groups raise money for summer mission trips with pancake dinners. I felt like I was going back and using old spiritual and vocational muscles that have been dormant in my life for a while. And it felt good.
Catching glimpses of beauty even in the midst of our snowy and cold weather.
Reaching my hand out of the car window yesterday to hand a homeless man standing in the freezing cold looking for money. Our hands briefly touched and he said to me, “God bless you.” Why should I receive such a blessing as I drove away in my warm car with a full tank of gas? What sort of grace was that?
After washing dishes one night this week turning salsa music up loud and dancing in the kitchen with my husband.
A text from a friend with news that made me laugh at the ridiculousness of life.
A call with a mentor about plans for the future and ministries that transform.
Gentle nudging words pushing me in directions I need to go, and caring words to remind me that together we are on the right path.
I share these moments from my life this week because we all have these moments. They are different for each of us, but God shows up and offers us a glimpse of heaven and a glimpse of grace.
In ways that are big and ways that are small and mundane.
God is always around, always nearby, always present.
We just have to open our eyes and look.
I think I might not have noticed those moments I just described as lifesavers or liferafts for myself if over dinner on Thursday night my friend Karen hadn’t shared what her study of the Bible had taught her this week. I might have looked at them differently. And yet a door was opened.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. These 40 days are about paying closer attention to God and deepening our spiritual journeys. In your bulletin you will find some ideas about Lent and a calendar for you to use with your children, grandchildren and your families.
I want to encourage you to dwell on this image of a lifesaver.
A life raft.
Where is it for you each day?
What small act of salvation happens in your life, the life of this congregation, this community or our world.
We desperately need them in ways that are big and ways that are small.
Lent is about drawing closer to Jesus, the ultimate salvation, the ultimate grace. Seeing him face-to-face in a new way on Easter. Receiving the grace that propels us forward into a living that is a life-raft, a life-saver for others.
Grace, love, salvation.
Let us pray…..