Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Promise of Lent

Lent is a great time to do a bit of spring cleaning,
to declutter out soul by letting go of something
that weighs us down and so clears out some space
to receive the life that comes to us through
Jesus' resurrection at Easter.

RCL • Year B • Lent 1
Genesis 9:8–17
Psalm 25:1–9
1 Peter 3:18–22
Mark 1:9–15

Watch on YouTube here

Into the Wilderness

After Jesus was baptized, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. [And] he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”

A week ago Saturday, we had our first Quiet Day of the year, here at St. John’s. It was designed to help us get ready to enter Lent, which so often sneaks up on us and catches us by surprise, especially this year with Easter coming so early. When we were off on our own, I happened to pick up a book of sermons by Taylor. If you are not familiar with Barbara Brown Taylor, she is an Episcopal priest, a professor of religion, and a writer, who is well known for her sermons. I read a sermon entitled, “Lenten Discipline,” (from Home by Another Way) which offers some insights into the purpose and promise of this season we call Lent. I found it very helpful, so I would like to share it with you today. What follows, then, is Taylor’s sermon with a few modifications and additions. She begins:  (Taylor's words are in blue). 

The Origins of Lent

Do not bother looking for Lent in your Bible dictionary, because there was no such thing back then. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted forty hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending forty days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later,… when the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten very ho-hum about their faith.
When Jesus did not return as quickly as his followers had thought he would, they stopped expecting so much from God or from themselves. They hung a wooden cross on the wall and settled back into their more or less comfortable routines, remembering their once passionate devotion to God the way they remembered the other enthusiasms of their youth. Oh, to be young again, and to believe everything is possible.
     Little by little, Christians became devoted to their comforts instead: the soft couch, the flannel sheets, the leg of lamb roasted with rosemary. These things made them feel safe and cared for—if not by God, then by themselves. They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian. And before long, it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They did not get arrested for championing the poor. They avoided extremes. They blended in. They decided to be nice instead of holy, and God moaned out loud.
     Hearing that, someone suggested that it was time to call Christians back to their senses, and the Bible offered some clues about how to do that. Israel spent forty years in the wilderness learning to trust the Lord. Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness before he heard the still, small voice of God on the mountain, the same mountain where Moses spent forty days listening to God give the law. There was also the story about Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness—a period of preparation between his baptism and his ministry—during which he was sorely tested by the devil. It was hard. It was awful. It was necessary, even for the Son of God.
     So the church announced a season of Lent, lent from the old English word lenten, meaning “spring”, which is not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to springtime for the soul, to a spring cleaning for the soul. Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone, and not by what we can supply for ourselves.

Outward Bound for the Soul

The Season of Lent is like an Outward Bound for the soul. No one has to sign up for it, it’s not required. But if you do, then you give up the illusion that you are in control of your life. You place yourself in the hands of strangers who ask you to do foolhardy things, like walk backwards over a precipice with nothing but a rope around your waist, or climb a sheer rock face with your fingers and toes. But none of these is the real test, because while you are doing these exercises you have plenty of people around and lunch in a cooler.
     The real test comes when you go “solo.” The strangers put you out all by yourself in the middle of nowhere and wish you luck for the next twenty-four hours. That is when you find out who you are. That is when you find out what you really miss and what you really fear. Some people dream about their favorite food. Some long for a safe room with a door to lock. And others just wish they had a pillow, but they all find out what their pacifiers are—the habits, substances, or surroundings they use to comfort themselves, to block out the pain and fear that are normal parts of being human.
     Without those things they are suddenly exposed, like someone addicted to painkillers whose prescription has just run out. It’s hard. It’s awful. It’s necessary. Necessary in order to encounter the world without anesthesia, to find out what life is like with no comfort but God. I am convinced that ninety-nine percent of us are addicted to something, whether it is eating, shopping, blaming, or taking care of other people. The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.
     That hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that does not stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick our pacifiers into our mouths and suck for all we are worth. They do not nourish us, but at least they plug the hole.
To enter the wilderness is to leave our pacifiers behind, and nothing is too small to give up. Even a chocolate bar will do. For forty days, simply pay attention to how often your mind travels in that direction. Ask yourself why it happens when it happens. What is going on when you start craving a Mars bar? Are you hungry? Well, what is wrong with being hungry? Are you lonely? What is so bad about being alone? Try sitting with the feeling instead of fixing it and see what you find out. See what you find out about yourself, and see what you find out about God.
     Chances are you will hear a voice in your head that keeps warning you what will happen if you give up your pacifier, “You’ll starve. You’ll go nuts. You won’t be you anymore.” If that does not work, the voice will move to level two: “That’s not a pacifier. That’s a power tool. Can’t you tell the difference?” If you don’t fall for that one, there is always level three: “If God really loves you, you can do whatever you want. Why waste your time on this dumb exercise?”
     If you don’t know who that voice belongs to, remember who it was that Jesus met in the wilderness. Then tell the devil to get lost and decide what you will do for Lent.

Get Thee To A Wilderness

Well that is where Taylor’s sermon ends, and where our work begins. So what are you going to do for Lent? What are you going to give up? What are you going to take on? It doesn’t need to be much, but it needs to be something.
     A good place to begin is to ask yourself, “What are my pacifiers? What do I do on a daily basis that only serves to keep me distracted and insulated from the pain and futility of life?” These are important questions because, as Brené Brown has taught us, “You cannot selectively numb emotion.” That is, you cannot numb grief or sorrow without also numbing joy. When we are afraid, we may consciously or unconsciously seek ways to numb our fear and anxiety, but in so doing we will also numb our faith and hope.
     So when we are feeling a bit depressed or lonely or overwhelmed, we grab a double-cheese burger at McDonald’s, or we pick up a peppermint latte from Starbucks. At best, these only provide temporary relief. When the sadness returns (and it will), we head back for another fix, and it just becomes a vicious cycle. Because at the end of the day, you can’t get enough of what you don’t need.
So the Season of Lent gives us a wonderful opportunity to do a bit of spring cleaning, to let go of some of the clutter in our soul. So, today, decide what you are going to do for Lent. Perhaps you will give up fast food, or staying up late, or listening to the radio in the car. Perhaps you will put God first by giving God the first five minutes of your day, the first five minutes of your lunch, and the first five minutes of your evening. Again, you need not do much, but you need to something, and you need to do it with intention. It will be hard, it will be awful, but it is necessary.
     And so for the next forty days and forty nights, I invite you to take a vacation. Pack lightly. Leave behind one of your pacifiers, and get thee to a wilderness. And know this, when you arrive, you will encounter the devil and the wild beasts, but you will not be on your own. The Holy Spirit will guide you and strengthen you, and angels will attend to you. Some of those angels will be heavenly, and some are sitting in the pew right next to you.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, February 22nd, a.d. 2015
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

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