SERMON: 2 Lent C 3 24 19
Ex3:1-15; Ps63:1-8;1 Cor10:1-13; Lk13:1-9
There are lots of things in life we experience which cause us to invoke the saying, whatever it is, it's only as good as you make it. When we experience unadulterated joy without any effort it is a joy, indeed. The same is true more or less regarding any positive experience which doesn't demand much of us.
But more often our existence involves chipping away at those things we want to or ought to do, making our lives better for ourselves and for those around us bit by bit. What we find at the end of such labors is that the sense of engagement and achievement multiplies the benefit of the endeavor. When we've contributed to an enterprise and its success we are fulfilled, as well as pleased.
This reality may seem mundane. No. It is mundane. It is commonplace. Yet we realize again and again that it is true. And I bring it up today because I believe it is significantly true concerning the season of Lent.
This week I read an article from the New York Times magazine about Lent which caused me to reflect in a new way on the meaning and the purpose of the season. You'll notice in the narthex some copies of this article. I can print more if asked.
The article's writer is a woman who lived not far from Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. More out of curiosity than faith she started attending. Some time later she found herself confronted by the Lenten dourness, as she called it. She wrote, "What I didn't understand yet is that Lent concentrates guilt, then cathartically explodes it."
Personally I found that phrase both accurate and meaningful. We hear a lot these days about religion being outdated. Why bother? is a common question. I won't say I get asked this a whole lot by tons of people, but it often is evident in the disposition of people explaining why they don't engage in faith. They've not found it contains any benefit for them.
So here I found an article which relates how an ancient religious practice helped a person come to terms with something that had been weighing her down for years. She came to church. She admitted she was burdened by her divorce and her feeling she had betrayed her husband by divorcing him. She confessed that and was told by the priest she had to leave that burden of responsibility, that weight, in the church.
"I had to leave the sin behind," she wrote. "I walked out a new person."
Her description of the process is potent: "Lent, openly entered, gives guilt space, nakedness and, most important, narrative progression." She saw herself more clearly by coming to realize the advance of her guilt on her personality. "This is not about cultivating bad feelings, but slowly disrobing them, letting them reveal their true nature," she said.
A person may not have guilt. They may have another issue or a concern that weighs them down. Consider remorse, or disgrace, or regret, or shame, dishonor, failing, sin, stigma, contrition, crime, wrongdoing, misbehavior or misconduct, to name a few.
There may be some sense of potential relief but they don't know relief of what or how to obtain it. This is the progression that needs exploring to truly leave something major behind.
The idea the author posited, that Lent concentrates guilt then cathartically explodes it, is as dramatic as the shift from Lent to Easter in our calendar.
This type of understanding of religion, of Christianity, is what keeps us engaged. When we know or we learn that there are systems, programs, liturgies, practices, all of it, which we learned as kids and continue to use in our lives and that they give us hope and confidence and a way to be alive in the spirit, well, I just can't imagine a deal better than that.
Sometimes we are burdened in ways that we think we deserve. We take for granted that a bad decision or some interpersonal difficulty would keep us awake at night, or at least inhibit our happiness. We don't consider that God would gladly guide us on into spiritual freedom from that which sits on our consciousness like an elephant, immobilizing us. And that is precisely the purpose of Lent. It is not to encourage ourselves to cringe before God over our mistakes. It is to ask God's help in obtaining relief.
I know there are those who would ask, "If God does that for people why aren't people flocking to church in Lent for relief?" The answer to that question is that the relief comes only after thorough examination of whatever weighs us down. In our instant gratification society is it easier to try and ignore or forget than it is to deal with our messes, mistakes and misdemeanors.
But we believe God wants to help us, don't we? We base this view on our understanding of God, largely derived through our Bible knowledge and our sense of the experience of the Almighty.
So I've conjured up a new way to look at this matter of God wanting to help us resolve our burdens. You may know that each Sunday in our Bible study in the parlor we review our readings for the day. But we start each session with a close examination of the Collect. Each Sunday has a different collect, a prayer for collecting our thoughts before encountering the readings. The collects usually relate in some way to the readings for the day. We ask what aspect or feature of God we're addressing. It is just almighty? Or is it Father of Jesus? Or is it the God which performs miracles or shows mercy? Then we inquire what we're asking for in the collect and why.
I thought we might use that practice this morning not looking at the God addressed in the collect, but the versions of God in our readings.
In the Genesis reading we encounter God of the Burning Bush. Who doesn't love this story? Who doesn't recognize that God is helping Moses deal with his murder of an Egyptian and his desire to help the people? Interestingly, in this Bible tale, Moses is being recruited for important tasks that God will equip him to fulfill. Moses has his doubts, but God assures him he will have the power and the credibility to pull it off.
Wouldn't you like to have the God of the Burning Bush on your side as you work out your struggles and burdens?
In our Gospel we have to imagine two views of God: the cranky orchard owner who wants to cut down the barren tree and the gardener who's prepared to try for another year to generate figs from the same tree. Here's an easy question: which version of God would you like to have on your side as you deal with your dirty laundry? The cranky or the caring one? Yes, me too. The caring one.
I know it is difficult to generate much excitement about facing our awkward stuff with a partner that doesn't have a face or a phone or an office or a resume. Well, except that God's resume is that book we call the Bible. It's not easy to put all our stuff out there with a feeble faith and it's difficult even with a full blown faith. But until we do, however, we are not fully living into our potential as members of the body of Christ, fallen and forgiven. The way to build up our faith is to actually do the things we are invited to do, such as the penitence and fasting of Lent. The benefits actually greatly outweigh the demands. I recommend it. And I'm available to anyone seeking to pursue this especially deep engagement in the season.
A sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector