In 1891 the famous preacher, Bishop Phillips Brooks, preached an Ash Wednesday sermon at All Saints in Worcester. His sermon was entitled, “The History of Sin.” I read the sermon and it is very good. It is what the title indicates and also about God’s forgiveness. But this year I’m choosing to preach on “A Very Partial History of Grace” in Lent 2022. Here’s why.
Lent is about “our mortal nature.” “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And it is about sin and repentance. Psalm 51 tells us: “I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.”
Doesn’t it feel like we have been living through Lent for the last two years? We have remembered we are dust as 900,000 people died of COVID-19 in our country and we lived in fear of the disease. And we have been very aware that sin is all around us as well as within us. The sin of the unimaginable insurrection at our Capitol. The sin of racism which has been with us for hundreds of years. The sin of failure to address climate change. The sin of the invasion of Ukraine.
Maybe a way to address the lived Lent of this time is with an old/new approach. The Book of Common Prayer tells us that for the first Christians “Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism.” Tom Synan, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, writes this:
“For these converts, I can’t imagine Lent was a sad time. Lent was an exciting and important time. Why? Because they were on their way to becoming Christians. They completely understood that transformation was theirs to have and by the end of the season they would be a new creation. Through the water of baptism their old selves would die and they would be raised to a new life of grace.”The Rev. Thomas P. Synan
Perhaps, we could respond to the Lenten life of these two years by committing ourselves to a renewal of our baptism, to recommitting ourselves with the enthusiasm of those early Christians to following Jesus in his mission of mercy, compassion and hope that is out to change the world. Even in these challenging and difficult times. As my new favorite author, Greg Boyle S.J. writes: “St. Paul tells us to ‘put on Christ.’ Putting on Christ is the easy part. Never taking Him off is the hard part.”
In this “Very Partial History of Grace,” let’s look at two ways to do that.
The first is to remember. “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return,” states the Prayer Book. Jesus also asks us to remember. When the apostles were confused about things Jesus did, he would tell them, “You will understand if you remember about the loaves.” That is a reference to the Feeding of the 5000. 5000 people in a deserted place. At the end of the day they are hungry and the apostles want to send them away because all they have are five loaves and two fish. Jesus takes what they have, thanks God for it, blesses and breaks it, and gives it away. God multiplies the Grace and all 5000 are fed and there is food left over.
Jesus did that again and again. Remember the wedding feast at Cana. They run out of wine to the embarrassment of the bride and groom. Mary asks Jesus to do something about this. He orders the six stone water jars, each holding 20-30 gallons to be filled with water. Jesus blesses it and the water becomes wine. Six stone water jars holding 20-30 gallons each. Jesus gave them 120-180 gallons of wine. In September our youngest daughter is getting married. It is a big wedding. We have a large family and Grace and her fiancé have many friends. But Betsy and I are not ordering 180 gallons of wine!
Jesus, like his Father, creates more than we need. We don’t have just enough grace to get through the day – even in these troubled days. We have more than enough grace. And, at the end of our lives, we will have more life. Not because we earned it, but because we can’t use up all the life God has prepared for us.
Another “remember” from Jesus. Praying over bread Jesus says, “This is my Body. Given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” Given FOR YOU. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author, had an experience of FOR YOU when he was out shopping in downtown Louisville Kentucky on March 18, 1958. He wrote:
“In Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs. It was as if I suddenly saw the beauty of their hearts, the core of their reality as loved by God. And if only everyone could realize this! But it can’t be explained. There is no way to tell people that they are all walking around, shining like the sun.”
Or as Phillips Brooks writes, “the more you become radiated with the divinity of Christ, the more you are truly human.” This Lent, starting with ashes on our forehead, may we know we are radiant with Christ.
The second invitation for Lent this year is to go deeper – go deeper into the faith we already have. Here is an example from history, an example from the life of another Episcopalian, George Washington.
In 1777 in New Jersey, American soldiers encountered British troops. It was not a planned battle. The troops just happened to cross paths. A battle broke out and the American troops were forced to retreat quickly. As they did so, they left seven wounded soldiers on the battlefield. They assumed those soldiers would be taken prisoners. But to their horror, as the soldiers looked down from the high place they had fled to, the British soldiers massacred the wounded Americans. And they did so in the most brutal ways – smashing heads, stabbing them repeatedly with bayonets.
Word of the massacre spread quickly. The Americans wanted revenge. But immediately General Washington sent out orders to all American troops that all prisoners of war were to be treated humanely and with dignity. American soldiers were never to do what British soldiers had done on that terrible day in New Jersey.
Throughout the war the American soldiers obeyed that order from General Washington. There were numerous stories that resulted from the respectful treatment of prisoners. When the war ended, many freed British prisoners decided to stay in America, build homes and start families.
Maybe Washington himself wanted revenge, but he did not act on those feelings. He went deeper. He went into his soul and responded with dignity and honor. Washington gave those orders from a thoughtful, prayerful place of depth.
Let’s make this holy season of Lent a time to go deeper. Deeper into our God-given souls where grace is unlimited. Where we remember we are the beloved of God. And recommit ourselves to our baptism. Recommit ourselves to our new life in Christ. Recommit ourselves to the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for us.