We have several seasons in the Christian calendar year – Advent, Christmas Season, Epiphany Season, Lent, and the “Season after Pentecost.” But only one comes with an instruction manual in the Book of Common Prayer – Lent. I’ll be reading that instruction manual when this sermon is over in eleven minutes and fifteen seconds. (Actually, I offered a video instruction for the Easter Season – you can find it on YouTube, but it is not in the Book of Common Prayer – yet.)
The instruction manual includes the reason Lent was created. Lent is not in the Bible. It was developed by the early church and we are not sure exactly when. “Lenten practices” started in various contexts from the earliest days but Lent as a season probably started somewhere near 300 A.D. Lent was for two categories of people.
“This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
So if your sins rise to the level of notorious, Lent is definitely made for you. For the rest of us sinners who have fallen in numerous but more modest ways, Lent can still be a vital time if we enter into it like those people being prepared for baptism. Lent can be for us a time of re-commitment to our baptism, a “return to purpose” – our diocesan theme this year.
A few years ago I started a baptism renewal “call” at my visitations. After the confirmations and receptions at each church, I would say, “anyone else?” Anyone who wished could come forward, and I would place my hands on their shoulders and say this blessing “God has begun a good work in you. May Jesus continue to be your hope and inspiration.” The response has been amazing – about 80% of each congregation comes forward. Some come with tears in their eyes. That means the need to renew our commitment to baptism must be connecting to some desire deep in our souls.
This call is spontaneous. “Anyone else?” I’m suggesting we make Lent a time of intentional, planned out, re-commitment to baptism. There is a wonderful prayer we say immediately after the pouring of water in baptism.
“Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
“Inquiring and discerning” means to me “curiosity” – a curiosity about our faith and about God’s imagination. And courage means…courage. In the spirit of Lent and in the spirit of renewing our baptisms, I invite us to forty days of curiosity and courage. Let’s explore what that might look like.
Curiosity about God’s imagination
Consider 40 days of more bible study and more prayer – in groups and individually. When was the last time you read one Gospel all the way through? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If you are pressed for time, read Mark. It is the shortest one. The life of Jesus is one remarkable life, and with a spirit of curiosity, see if there is something there that you never noticed before. We know some of those stories so well; we just presume we know them. But the Holy Spirit likes to break through in the details we never noticed before.
St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, has a powerful way of praying bible stories. He says we should imagine ourselves in the story from the perspective of each character. Let’s look at one. There is that great story of the paralyzed person with four faithful friends. Jesus is in town and he is preaching in a house. The house is so full of people, not another one can squeeze through the door. The four friends know that if they can just get the paralyzed person to see Jesus, something remarkable could happen. They carry him to the house, but can’t get in. But they don’t give up. They climb up on the roof, tear the roof apart and lower their friend in front of Jesus. Jesus stops his sermon in mid-story and heals the man.
Ignatius tells us to use our imagination and read the story as if you are one of the four friends.
- Who is it that you are bringing to see Jesus?
- What do you feel like as you carry your friend?
- What does it feel like when you can’t get into the house?
- What are you thinking as someone says “let’s lift him onto the roof and then take the roof apart?”
- What do you feel like when your friend is healed?
Now pray the story as if you are the paralyzed person.
- Who is carrying you?
- What does it feel like to be so vulnerable?
- What does it feel like to meet Jesus?
Then pray the story as if you were Jesus. Now that might seem to lack humility, but we are all called to “grow into the full stature of Christ.” We don’t just admire Jesus. His very Spirit lives within us.
You see, the Bible is the Living Word of God because we are living. We bring our hopes and dreams, our challenges and pain, to the Biblical narrative and find our story there. Theologian Richard Rohr says there is a primal desire in our souls to connect our little stories to the Big Story. To find our own lives in the cosmic Life which is bigger than us and includes us.
40 days of curiosity might include intentional times of silence. What would happen if we shut everything off for a few minutes and just breathed? Did nothing except breathe in and breathe out, knowing that God is in the breath. The transcendent God is that close. Are you curious as to what that experience might be?
Let’s move from curiosity to courage. Later in this service, we will pray the Litany of Penitence. This is raw, honest, strong stuff.
“We have NOT loved you with our whole heart.”
“We have been deaf to your call to serve.”
“We confess all the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.”
“For our blindness to human need and suffering.”
It goes on and on. It is truly a litany. We only pray this litany on Ash Wednesday because we can only take it once a year.
Isn’t it interesting that we do this Litany after we have the imposition of ashes with those chilling words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You would think the imposition of ashes would be in response to the Litany of Penitence. Symbolic action following word. But no, we do the ashes first. Here’s why. It has to do with baptism.
The ashes are placed on your forehead in the shape of a cross. I know, I know, a lot of times it just looks like a smudge. I have been ordained almost 37 years and I’m still trying to get the ashes to look like a cross. But that is what is intended – a cross. You are marked with the cross.
At your baptism you were marked with a cross. Using oil, the minister made a cross on your forehead and said your name followed by these words:
“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
“Marked as Christ’s own forever.” That’s you. That’s me. Not “marked as Christ’s own when you are your most generous best self.” Not “marked as Christ’s own in the good times.”… “Marked as Christ’s own forever.” In life and in death.
In this service we get marked as Christ’s own again, with that poorly formed cross of ashes. We belong to Christ. Even when we do not love him with our whole heart. Even when we are deaf to his call to serve. Even when we are proud and hypocritical. Christ is not letting go.
That means we can say all the facts of how we are messing up and how far this world is from the Dream God has for it. There is no need to spin this. We can look at a broken world, take responsibility for the ways we broke it, and respond with courage because Christ is still with us. Christ is not giving up.
I invite us to 40 days of courage in responding to that Litany of Penitence. And because I made a vow on December first, 2012 to “stir up the conscience of the people,” I invite you to respond with courage to two of those prayers in particular.
“Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.”
We cannot turn a blind eye to the largest displacement of people since World War II. We responded then with the Marshall Plan. We are responding now with injustice and cruelty. Beyond the refugee crisis, we have long time immigrants here who live in fear. In these forty days of courage, and beyond, we stand with the refugee and the immigrant.
I invite us to stir up our conscience and respond to our confession,
“for our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.”
We live at a time when political decisions will greatly impact the world we leave to “those who come after us.” 40 days of courage means “concern for those who come after us.” Let’s stand with Pope Francis who says the degradation of the climate is a “sin against God.” And,
“The World’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact.”
I would say this rises to the status of “notorious sin.” We stand with our military leaders who have concluded that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that is already creating instability around the world and will likely create significant security challenges in the years ahead. And we stand with the Native Americans of Standing Rock who protest the “waste and pollution” of their sacred lands.
40 days of curiosity and courage
May we live into our baptisms knowing that we are marked as Christ’s own forever. May we live with curiosity and courage so we can pray at the end of these forty days:
“Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your son Jesus Christ our Lord.”