February 22, 2015 – First Sunday in Lent
Preaching the first Sunday of Lent is a little bit of a let down. After Mardi Gras Sunday with all its frivolity and lively music, the first Sunday of Lent feels austere by comparison. Which, I guess, is sort of the way it’s supposed to be.
All in all, I do like Lent. I like its spareness. I like its focus on how we find our way back to God when we have wandered away. I am grateful for the invitation in this season to search out what is most true in our lives and to take steps to live more deeply connected to that truth. I even like the call to meet God out in the wilderness (either literally or metaphorically) where the sky is clearer and the clutter lessened. And I’m particularly grateful to be part of a community that is walking this Lenten journey together because it’s a lot easier to go out into the wilderness when you know there are others with you.
We begin this Lent with a story of covenant. God’s covenant with God’s people.
It is five short chapters from the story of creation to chapter 6 of Genesis when God sees that every inclination of the hearts of humanity is toward evil. And God is sorry to have made humankind and God was deeply grieved. (Genesis 6.5-6.)
There’s nothing to indicate that after the flood there has been a change in the nature of humanity. But we do learn that there has been a change in God. God recognizes humanity’s inclination to evil and God chooses to make a covenant with us anyway. A covenant that God will not destroy us or the earth because of our propensity for turning from God’s ways. The covenant is not just with us humans but also with all living creatures—with all animals. God creates a reminder—the rainbow—not for humanity but for God. The rainbow isn’t a reminder to us, it’s a reminder for God. One commentator says this covenant God makes with us and all living creatures is made in the face of (and anticipates) betrayal. The divine heart will be broken again and again (and that’s the story of scripture that takes us all the way to the death of Jesus in our Lenten journey) but still God reaches out in compassion to choose life and goodness for us; choosing to be known by us and not to hide God’s face in anger from us. We will hear God speaking through the voice of the prophet Jeremiah many generations later, “Surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Jeremiah 29.11)
At a fundamental level, this first story of Lent is about repentance. Not our repentance, but God’s repentance. Made in God’s image, we too are invited to repent, to change our hearts and minds as God’s own heart and mind was changed.
And then we hear the voice of the psalmist pleading with God not to remember his sins. (I’m assuming the psalm was written by a man but we don’t know. It could as easily have been written by a woman.) “Be mindful of your mercy and of your steadfast love…Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me!” (25.7) And having just heard, in Genesis 9, of God’s covenant with all human kind and with all living creatures we know that God has promised not to remember our sin or to see us exclusively in terms of our transgressions.
Having encountered the grace of God that does not remember us according to our sins nor give us what we deserve, we respond with gratitude. And in our Lenten journey, we join the psalmist in praying, “Teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth.”
For centuries people have practiced three basic activities during Lent; called by many the three pillars of Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving (or what I’m going to call service—that is, giving to others).
Historically, Lent has been about giving something up—to take on some kind of suffering so that we can identify a bit more with the suffering of Christ. These days, in many congregations, the emphasis in Lent isn’t so much around suffering because, honestly, don’t we have enough of that already—if not individually, then certainly collectively in our communities and world? Instead of the emphasis in Lent on suffering, many of us put our Lenten focus on taking an honest look at our lives and doing something that shapes us to become more and more the people God has created us to be. To do something that conforms our hearts and minds, our thoughts and our actions, to be more and more God’s beloved.
Now that’s not a private, individual goal—to see ourselves as God’s beloved but also a communal action—to see one another and all people as God’s beloved.
What we do to let the truth of our belovedness (and one another’s belovedness) sink deeper and deeper into the fiber of our being may be giving something up or it may be taking something on. It may be setting something aside so we have more space for encountering our belovedness or it may be adding something to the rhythm of our day so that we might experience our belovedness and the belovedness of others more and more.
For generations, people have used the three practices of prayer, fasting and service as a means for what we give up or what we take on.
So, first, prayer. That might seem rather obvious. But for many of us—particularly progressive Christians, I think—we’re not exactly sure what we think about prayer so it can be easy to let that be something that other people do.
If we grew up in the church, we typically learned that prayer is talking to God—going through our list of things we, or others, need. And that is part of prayer—bringing our desires and longings before God. But the other side of prayer, which not very many Protestants learn about in church, is listening. Finding tools to quiet the constant chatter in our own hearts and minds so that we might listen for the presence of God. A presence that sometimes shows up in dramatic ways, but perhaps most often, in the still, small voice that the prophet Elijah heard. 
Perhaps there is a practice of prayer that you want to give up or take on this Lent. To commit to some discipline of prayer this Lent that will draw you closer to the great love of God for you and for all people. It might be as simple as starting out each day with words of thanksgiving and an intention to be open to God’s presence. It might be using the PC(USA)’s Daily Prayer app or D365 app or using a devotional book. It could be keeping a prayer journal or saying a prayer with your family before a meal or before bed.
Or it could be giving up the words for prayer and instead practicing quieting your heart and mind to listen to God. It doesn’t have to be for a long time. Start with two minutes. Another option could be to give up skepticism about prayer and try praying.
Remember, your prayer doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. If you forget to do whatever it is you committed to for a day or two days or a whole week, just start again. The point is not to do it perfectly. The point is to do something. Something that connects you with God and with how beloved you—and all of us—are to God. Something that helps you open yourself to the truth and let it sink in drop by drop by drop.
And so we pray with the psalmist, “Lead me in your truth and teach me…for you I wait all day long.”
Fasting. The second pillar of Lent is fasting. Fasting is typically focused around food. Giving up meat. Eating fish on Friday. Skipping a meal. And lots of people give us chocolate or dessert or alcohol during Lent. But in this day and age when eating disorders plague girls and women and boys and men, it’s time to stop linking spiritual growth with the restriction of food. We need to reframe fasting with what leads to life, not to death.
Speaking for God, the prophet Isaiah puts fasting in a much larger context than being about food restriction. Isaiah says, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free?” (Isaiah 58.6)
Pope Francis often quotes the early Christian mystic John Chrysostom who said: “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” This year Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others.
In his annual Lenten letter, Francis wrote, “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians.” More than giving up candy or alcohol, Pope Francis urges Christians to fast from indifference to others. Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of [God’s] love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” He continues, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
When we fast from this indifference, we can began to feast on love. Lent is the perfect time to learn how to love again. Jesus—the great protagonist of this holy season—certainly showed us the way. In him, God descends all the way down to bring everyone up. In his life and his ministry, no one is excluded.
We could also choose to fast from shame and guilt. To fast from defensiveness or blaming. To fast from anxiety and the desire to control circumstances and others. To fast from being strong and needing to have it all together. What takes up room in your life that keeps you from being fully the person God has created you to be? Can you fast from that?
Remember, it’s not the fast itself that is most important. If you’re fixated on the fast, you’ve missed the point—as if it’s something you can accomplish by your self-denial. The point of fasting is to clear some space in your life for God and as Chrysostom says, to benefit others. The point is not the practice itself but what the practice opens up in your life that leads us in God’s truth and enables us to walk in God’s path.
And so we pray with the psalmist, “You lead the humble in what is right, and teach the humble your way.”
Service. The third pillar of Lent is service. Almsgiving is how it’s traditionally said. Alms, of course, being money, food or other donations given to the poor and those in need. Let’s call it service. Giving ourselves, our money, our time, our energy to others who are in need. So perhaps this Lent you will commit to contributing more money to an organization whose mission you care about. Or if you are not currently in the practice of giving money to others, you might commit during the six weeks of Lent, to give $5, $10, $20 a week to make a difference in the lives of others. Maybe you’ll make a contribution to a particular ministry at Central. Or each week when you go grocery shopping, you’ll pay for part of the groceries of the woman who is behind you in the line at Kroger. After the death of a homeless man Thursday night, perhaps you will commit to supporting an organization that serves the homeless. Or whatever is your interest and passion.
The service pillar of Lent includes our money and our time and energy. So perhaps you’ll volunteer during Lent or take on a new responsibility where you already volunteer. Or maybe you’ll reflect on how your volunteer service is not only helping others but also making space for God in your life and for God to be seen through you. Perhaps there’s something you can do in your neighborhood—like shovel the snow from a neighbor’s sidewalk or brush the snow off their car. Or offer to run an errand for someone who doesn’t get out of their house as easily as you do. Maybe during Lent you’ll commit to extending an act of kindness to someone you don’t know each day or each week. Or write a thank you note each week. Or bring personal care items for Central Louisville Community Ministry’s clients or take pet food to an animal shelter. Or a hundred other ways there are to move beyond our own individual lives in order to see and affirm the belovedness in other people.
And so we pray with the psalmist, “All the paths of God are steadfast love and faithfulness.”
So I wonder what you will do this Lent? What will you give up? What will you take on? so that the truth of your belovedness and the belovedness of others can seep down a little more deeply into your heart and mind?
Below is a prayer by Ted Loder, an activist for social justice and a retired pastor. It expresses some of our longing during Lent.
Let Something Essential Happen to Me
by Ted Loder
let something essential happen to me,
something more than interesting
let something essential happen to me,
Speak to my condition, Lord,
and change me somewhere inside where it matters,
a change that will burn and tremble and heal
and explode me into tears
or laughter or love that throbs or screams
or keeps its terrible, cleansing silence
and dares the dangerous deeds.
Let something happen in me which is my real self, God.
let something essential and passionate happen in me now. Strip me of my illusions of self-sufficiency,
of my proud sophistications,
of my inflated assumptions of knowledge
and leave me shivering as Adam or Eve
before the miracle of the natural–
before the miracle of this earth
that nurtures me as a mother
and delights me as a lover;
the miracle of my body
that breathes and moves,
hungers and digests,
sees and hears,
that works the most amazing messages
of what and when and how,
coded and curled in every cell
and that dares to speak the confronting word.
let something essential and joyful happen in me now. something like the blooming of hope and faith,
like a grateful heart,
like a surge of awareness,
of how precious each moment is,
that now, not next time,
now is the occasion
to take off my shoes,
to see every bush afire,
to leap and whirl with neighbor,
to gulp the air as sweet wine
until I’ve drunk enough
to dare to speak the tender word:
“I love you”;
“Let’s live forever beginning now”;
and “I’m a fool for Christ’s sake.”
* * *
1. Terrance Fretheim “Genesis” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 398.
2. These three “pillars” come from the Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21 reading assigned for Ash Wednesday.
3. 1 Kings 19.12 NRSV translates it “the sound of sheer silence.”
4. The entire story about Pope Francis’ reflections on Lent is from http://time.com/3714056/pope-francis-lent-2015-fasting/, accessed 19 February 2015.