Our prayer book is very clear what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about. They are about facing our own mortality – remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. And it is about acknowledging sin and repenting for it.
I have heard it said that Lent is redundant this year. With this pandemic we are constantly being reminded of our mortality and our vulnerability. And sin is all over the place:
- The sin of the January 6 insurrection at our Capital
- The sin of racial injustice which has been with us for 400 years is getting clearer and clearer
- The sin of wealth inequality has become glaringly obvious as the numbers coming to our food pantries have doubled or tripled or quadrupled.
- And our sinful neglect of God’s creation has brought about climate change.
I’m proposing we have another theme this Lent. I’m proposing we have another “remember” in addition to “Remember you are dust”. Here it is “Remember you belong to God and you are claimed as Christ’s own forever.” And forever includes now.
This prayer by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should be our Lenten prayer for 2021:
“God we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we love you with all our hearts, souls and minds, and love our neighbors as ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent no chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and our moments of sorrow.”The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Now belonging to God does not preclude struggling with God. Let’s look for a moment at a statement by Jesus in today’s gospel that I have always struggled with. Jesus tells us to not pray in public but when we wish to pray we should “go to your room and shut the door.” Now for people like me that make our living praying in public, this is a harsh saying. So for most of my life I have simply ignored it. But then I found an insight from one of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggeman, and finally I understood.
Brueggeman points out this teaching of Jesus is by way of classic rabbinic overstatement- a type of speech Jesus employed frequently. Of course we are supposed to pray as a community- remember the “where two or three gather” statement. And someday we will gather together in this church, while we stay faithful to community prayer now through zoom and live-stream. But perhaps we need to pray alone as well because there might be some things we want to say to God that would not be polite to say in public. Look at the words of our liturgies – beautiful language awash with praise and thanks to God. But what if life has dealt us some unfair blows? Are there times you just want to argue with God? Aren’t there questions you would like to ask God that are not polite questions? I remember our daughter Caragh, when she was a teenager, asking one of those questions. She said, “Why is it that every time something good happens, we thank God. And when something bad happens it is all our fault?” Good question.
When we go to our room and ask the tough questions, when we go and shout at God that life is so unfair, when we dare to wrestle with God, one of two things can happen. We may succeed in wrestling some answers from God. Great. But perhaps we lose. Perhaps we don’t get the answers. But in losing we meet a God who is not our equal. We meet the BIG God. The God who is bigger than we are. The God who made billions of stars. And we realize the task of life is not wrestling with God but surrendering to God. We belong to that God.
To continue this Lenten theme I’m going to skip ahead a few days to Sunday’s gospel- the first Sunday in Lent. It is from Mark. You all know the story. It happens right after the baptism of Jesus. At his baptism a voice from heaven says “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Remember Jesus has not done anything yet. No miracles, no healing, no great sermons. But he is beloved.
Then he goes to the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan for 40 days. Now Mark does not tell what the temptations are. Matthew and Luke do. And Michael Curry has given us preachers permission to move around the Bible as we preach. Matthew and Luke mention the devil tempting the hungry Jesus with turning a stone into bread. If you really are the Beloved of God you can do this. You can’t be the beloved of God and be hungry. That wouldn’t be fair. But Jesus refuses the devil’s reasoning. Jesus holds together being hungry and being loved by God. The devil is saying “you deserve better than this. If God loves you, then you would never be hungry. Come with me and you can be full and fulfilled.” Jesus has to deal with this lack of fulfillment throughout his life. Jesus is continually frustrated – AND knows he is loved. Jesus has his heart broken – and knows he is loved. Jesus is tortured to death – and knows he is loved and love is stronger than death. Jesus does not need everything to break his way to know he is loved. God’s love of him is unconditional.
It works the same way for us. Can we have our hearts broken and know God’s love? Can we be unemployed and know God’s love? Can we have cancer and know God’s love? Can we live in the midst of a pandemic and know God’s love? Michael Curry is right. It all begins with God’s love, and that love working in us, will transform the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it.
The Jewish people have a wonderful insight into remembering God’s love given to us before we ever accomplish anything. They believe an angel places the soul in the body and then seals it by placing a finger over the mouth of the child. That is where we have a little indentation over our lips and under our nose. It is where the angel’s finger was when he sealed in that spirit. That is why when we try to remember something we instinctively place our index finger onto that little crevice. We are trying to remember and we are trying to remember our divine origins. We are made by God. We are made holy.
A long time ago, someone poured water over your head and said “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And then oil was placed on your head with the words “I claim you as Christ’s own forever.” Forever we belong to Jesus. And forever includes now. Hungry we are his. Sick we are his. Sad we are his. In everything good and holy we are his. Unconditional belonging is in the very heart of God. Martin Luther King’s prayer got it right. Let’s remember we are God’s beloved this Lent.