Again and again

The Revised Common Lectionary does an interesting thing with texts. Sometimes the assigned readings for the day repeat the basic stories of another season of the year. Today’s ratings are an example of that. Two weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, the Gospel was Mark 9:2-9, Mark’s version of the transfiguration story. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, so in the middle year of the lectionary cycle, year B, the readings are somewhat shorter. In addition, readings from John are more liberally scattered throughout the year than in some other years of the cycle. Then today, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we return to the story of the transfiguration. Today’s Gospel is Mark 8:31-Mark 9:9. The entire transfiguration story is read again, this time with a bit of context.

One of the reasons for following the readings fo the lectionary is repetition. We learn by repetition. Those who follow the lectionary return again and again to texts that they have read before. Every three years, we cycle through the worship readings and then return to cycle through them again. My career as a preacher involved 14 trips through that three-year cycle. The texts became familiar and then they became friends and then they challenged me.

Lent is a critical season for Christians because it is our time to face hard realities, accept our mortality, and practice the process of grief. In the early yeas of Christianity, Lent was the season of preparation for membership in the church. It was a six-week journey through the texts, traditions and theology of Christianity, culminating in the story of the Resurrection on Easter and membership in the community. That celebration came only after a serious period of fasting, praying, studying and preparing. In the contemporary church, Lent retains its somber tone, but some of the more severe practices have fallen away. We might join our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers eating fish on Fridays from time to time, but we’ve largely given up fasting as a discipline. Many Christians have no sense that there are any dietary regulations in the faith, for they have been relegated to the past in most churches.

But we cannot escape the hard realities of this life. We are mortal. Not only will we experience death, but we also will be called to walk the journey of grief with the death of those we love. Grief is a part of life itself. You might not know it from listening to some of the preachers of the prosperity gospel, who speak only of the benefits of belief.

Today’s Gospel, however, reports of a particularly hard conversation between Peter and Jesus. Jesus had begun to teach his disciples about his own death. They were challenged by that kind of thinking. They had expected the Messiah to escape death. They wanted the promise of eternal life to mean that they wouldn’t have to grieve or experience pain. Here was the one they believed to be the messiah proclaiming that he himself would die. This wasn’t part of their thinking. They wanted the coming of the messiah to mean that death and pain could be avoided. Peter was upset enough about it to take Jesus aside to speak with him privately. Mark’s gospel reports that Peter “rebuked” Jesus. It leaves the exact words of the exchange to our imagination, but it isn’t difficult to picture the emotional intensity of Peter’s argument: “Jesus, tell us about your triumphal entry into Jerusalem and about the vanquishing of the Romans and about eternal life in your kingdom. We don’t want to hear about sorrow and sadness and death and destruction.”

The reading of this text as a prelude to the transfiguration reminds us that it wasn’t just Jesus’ appearance that changed. The understanding of who the messiah was and of the very nature of salvation itself was transformed in the eyes of the disciples, who began the journey of deeper faith and a way of thinking about God not in terms of an unlimited span of time, but of a whole new way of thinking about time and life and death.

Again and again we come back to the familiar readings and again and again we are invited into a deeper faith.

When I was a child, a somewhat heated discussion arose in our congregation. The materials promoting One Great Hour of Sharing, an offering received during Lent, included a filmstrip that contained pictures of malnourished children and poverty housing. One of the adults in our church thought that such pictures were not appropriate for children to see “especially right before Easter.” Others argued that shielding children from the harsh realities of the world was not appropriate and that there was more to Easter than candy eggs and new clothing. You can imagine how closely we paid attention to the film strip after having overheard part of our parents’ discussion of it. I can still picture the children with distended bellies eating rice with their bare hands. I can remember the black and white photos of tar shack houses with mud for floors and no furniture.

Again and again, we have to hear Jesus words that suffering and grief are not to be avoided, but rather to be shared. Following Jesus is not a path of avoiding suffering, but rather choosing to pick up a cross. Believing in Jesus is not a way to avoid death, but an assurance that even in death, God is with us.

In the congregation where we are worshiping here in Washington, the theme for Lent this year is “Again and again.” Today’s message will be “Again and again we listen.” We repeat the process again and again in part because it is difficult. We go back to the familiar texts. We listen over and over in part because “God has yet more truth and light to break forth from the holy word.” We are still learning. God is still speaking.

Retirement is teaching me that there is a time to step aside and allow others to take the lead. There is genuine grief in not being in the role of preacher and teacher of a congregation. I miss our people. I miss the work. OK, I don’t really miss all of the meetings, but I do miss being involved in the day to day life of the church. Lent is the season when I practiced for the seasons of grief in my own life. It is a lesson that I need to learn again and again.