Monday, December 25, 2017

24 December 2017 - 4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent  — 24 December 2017
Trinity – 7:45, 9:00 & 11:00 am

2 Samuel 7:1-11,16  |  Psalm 89:1-4,19-26  |  Romans 16:25-27  |  Luke 1:26-38

As we approach Christmas, we are surrounded by many familiar artistic images – from copies of great paintings to simple line drawings.  Perhaps the most common is the manger scene of the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem.  Another common one is the three wise men.  Still another image common at this time is actually not of this time but of an event a day short of nine months ago (do the math), the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.  In the Church Year we celebrate this event every March 25, but on this Fourth Sunday of Advent this year we also read this in the Gospel today. 

So familiar a story, from Like’s Gospel, from paintings medieval, renaissance, baroque, romantic, modern, that I suspect we have forgotten what a very strange story this is, and what (I think!) is its most important point.

(I’m going to put the issue of the historicity of this story aside; historicity is an issue, but not for today.  Perhaps some other time.)

For all its familiarity, we may not always completely notice that the angel, God’s messenger (that’s what angelos means), is not delivering a divine command.  Gabriel is not a bailiff from the heavenly courthouse with a summons.  God is asking for Mary’s cooperation.  It is God’s purpose for the redemption of fallen humankind to become incarnate, to become enfleshed as a human being in the human world.  But that requires a human consent, because that’s how God does things.  God is not a puppetmaster. 

Mary could have said no.  Do we take that seriously?  Mary could have said “No.”  Maybe Mary wasn’t the first young woman whom God asked!  Maybe Gabriel had gone to Amber (let the reader understand), and Amber said “WHAT?”  Mary could have said, “You’re kidding, right?  Are you crazy?”  Remember, in the context of turn-of-the-era Galilee, what God is asking this young woman is a Really Big Deal.  (In fact, in any context to be the mother of the Incarnate Word of God is a Really Big Deal.)  We can well understand it if Mary had said, as I myself often do, “Don’ wanna, don’ gotta, ain’ gonna.”

But Mary didn’t.  Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary was not only holy, she was gutsy.  And she was willing to share in God’s plan of peace, justice, and healing.  “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior,…for he has remembered his promise of mercy.”

You may recall the brief instance later in St. Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus is teaching, and “a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But [Jesus] said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’”  [Luke 11:27-28]  Jesus is not changing the subject away from Mary his mother, but focusing our attention on the real reason Mary is blessed.  “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”

There are a lot of things to be learned from today’s Gospel reading.  One of the things that I’m not sure we always catch on to is what it says about who God is and how God deals with us and our world.  An important teaching in Christian (and other) theology is the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God.  And that’s true.  We believe that ultimately, God rules.  The problem with the way we often understand that, and I suggest we see it especially in the Calvinist tradition (although that’s unfair because we’re all guilty of it) is that we think that God is the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe in the way that we would be Sovereign if we were Ruler of the Universe.  We all too often are control freaks.  We would love to be puppetmasters.  But God is not us.  And God is not a control freak.  God is not a puppetmaster.

God is love.  I hope we realize that I don’t mean that God is a warm fuzzy feeling.  (Indeed, God is very often not warm and fuzzy!)  But God is self-giving.  That is the very nature of God.  God’s own internal being is self-giving, and that underlies what we articulate as the doctrine of the Trinity (but I’m not going there today).  Externally, God’s self-giving expresses itself in creation.  God created the universe out of love, and love respects the freedom and the autonomy of the beloved.  Love does not control.  The 17th and 18th century Deist philosophers were not completely wrong:  God created the universe with a structure of what we call scientific laws, and God doesn’t fiddle around with them.  God lets them be.  God does not manipulate the world.  The universe is what it is and does what it does. 

(We now know what the Deists did not, that the laws of the universe do include a certain amount of chaos.  But I think that’s just part of the autonomy with which God endowed the universe.  Some modern theologians have suggested that chaos theory is how God can sneak in “miracle,” but I’m not at all comfortable with that.  It sounds too much like a reversion to the “God of the gaps” which too many religious people have used to avoid taking science seriously.  But I am digressing…)

The big mistake the Deists made was they thought that the Great Clockmaker of the Universe had just wound up his Creation to set it running and then walked away from it and is no longer involved with it.  Au contraire, say I.  Yes, God does not manipulate the physical workings of the universe; God’s actions in the world are not expressions of what in St. Thomas Aquinas’ scholastic philosophy would be called “efficient causality.”  God works in the world, and specifically among human beings, not by manipulation but by grace; grace, God’s own loving self-communication.  Grace empowers, but does not manipulate.  (Modern neoscholastic theologians speak of grace as “quasi-formal causality,” and thirty years ago I understood what that meant, but now I’m an old guy, and I forget!)

Here’s the point (finally!):  The Gospel reading today is about God’s grace.  God created the universe as an expression and as the object of the divine love, and God created us to be God’s stewards of this little corner of the universe.  But, as we say in one of our Eucharistic Prayers, “We turned against you, and betrayed your trust, and we turned against one another.”  So what does God do about that?  Does God manipulate us all to better serve God’s will?  Does God attach puppet strings to us so God can control us?  Does God take us down to the basement and put us on the workbench and disassemble us and change out a few parts and tighten our screws?  Does God remotely access us to upgrade our system?  No.  God’s purpose is to come among us, as one of us, to share God’s life and God’s love, to show us God’s love, to invite us into God’s love, to pay the price of love.  And so God asks us.  That’s how God works.  God offers the divine presence.  God offers grace.  In an obscure corner of the world, God visits a young peasant woman, and presents the divine plan, the divine hope.  And she says Yes.  “Let it be with me according to your word.”

That’s who God is.  That’s how God is.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

2 November 2017 -- All Souls' Day

All Souls’ Day  — 2 November 2017
Trinity – 12:15 pm

Wisdom 3:1-9  |  Psalm 116:10-17  |  1 Corinthians 15:50-58  |  John 5:24-27

The celebration of the Communion of Saints – living and departed – in one form or another, at one time of year or another, goes back a very long way in the history of the Church, back into the early days.  In the New Testament, and in the earliest days of the Church, the “saints” – that is, God’s holy ones, God’s holy people – meant all faithful Christians, including you and me.  But over the years the celebration came to focus on the extraordinary saints, the heroes of the faith, especially the martyrs.  But we ordinary folks, and particularly our departed family and friends, seemed to get left out.  Except that we didn’t, really, because it has been a custom among peoples all over the world to have some annual celebration or remembrance of our dead ancestors.  

The Church, of course, developed and scheduled Holy Days to compete with and to absorb pre-Christian festivals – a classic example being the setting of the observance of the birth of Jesus – about whose actual birthday we have absolutely no idea at all – at the time of the celebration of the winter solstice.  And of course All Saints’ Day came to be observed in the medieval Western Church – apparently originally in Ireland – at the season in which departed family were remembered.  (For example, Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas.)  This settled into a three-day sequence, centering on All Saints’ Day (November 1), preceded by All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) and followed by All Souls’ Day, focusing on those “ordinary folks” who we had forgotten were also saints.  

Meanwhile, under the influence of some of the less healthy aspects of the theology of St. Augustine, the concern grew that since human beings are all rotten to the core and on our way in handbaskets to hell, All Souls’ Day became a day of moaning and whining, with black as the liturgical color and the chanting of the funeral hymn Dies irae (“Day of wrath, O day of mourning”), perhaps especially known through musical compositions by Mozart and Verdi, though Gabriel Fauré declined to set that text in his Requiem Mass.  All of this degenerated into a system of attempts to pray or buy Grandma’s soul out of purgatory, resulting ultimately in the sale of papal indulgences, which finally led the German priest Martin Luther to say “Enough!” and to challenge the whole corrupt system, five hundred years ago this past Tuesday.

Protestantism on the whole dumped the All Souls’ Day business, considering it irretrievable.  Some Reformed churches dumped All Saints’ Day as well.  Anglicans, naturally, waffled, at least until modern times.  But folk religion is not always wrong, and our desire to remember and pray for our departed family and friends has a legitimate place in our spirituality and worship.  Not because they need us to cajole God to let them through the pearly gates, but because we love them and therefore we pray for them.  And they, being with God, pray for us.

And so we celebrate All Souls’ Day today, now as an extension, as it were, of All Saints’ Day, so we can focus in our prayers and remembrance upon our own saints, our parish, our friends, and our families.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

9 July 2017 - Proper 9 / 5 Pentecost

Proper 9 / 5 Pentecost  — 9 July 2017

St. Peter’s, Bettendorf – 9:00 am

Track 1:  Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67  |  Psalm 45:11-18  |
  Romans 7:15-25a  |  Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

“To what will I compare this generation?”  [Matt. 11:16]

“To what will I compare this generation” indeed!  What a thoroughly contemporary sentiment!  Or, as perhaps we might say, reading the paper or watching TV news or checking the newsfeed on our computers or phones – as I do say! – “What is your problem?!  Just get over it!” 

As anyone knows, who has ever been in a position of leadership – in politics, or the church, or education, or business, or as a parent – no matter what you do, somebody is going to complain about it.  You can’t please everyone.  And sometimes it seems like you can’t please anyone.  Poor John the Baptist – he comes out of the desert a severe figure of strict asceticism, looking like a reminder of the great prophet Elijah, warning about, even threatening, the near coming of God’s Kingdom – and people whine about that.  Poor Jesus – he takes up a similar theme of God’s Kingdom, but he walks around the countryside and the lakeside, proclaiming a message of love and acceptance, visiting people in their villages and sharing meals with anyone who will eat with him, from Pharisees to outcasts – and people whine about that.  Just get over it! 

In the Gospel today we hear some of Jesus’ sayings which Matthew the Evangelist has strung together.  Not necessarily originally said by Jesus all at the same time.  Most of them come from a tradition of the sayings of Jesus, which the evangelist Luke also uses, but Luke often strings them together in a different way. 

Actually in today’s reading from Matthew 11 one of the sayings has been left out, as you may have noticed in the bulletin listing:  verses 20-24, in which Jesus reproaches the cities of Galilee.  I have no idea why the Lectionary Gnomes left out these verses; the Lectionary Gnomes do a lot of things I don’t understand.  But it doesn’t really make much difference.  If they had left these verses in, then I would feel a need to preach about them, and I’d rather not!  You can look them up when you get home.  Or not.  And that’s okay too.

Anyway, in the next section of today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus thanking his Father that the mysteries of God's Kingdom have been hidden from the wise but revealed to children.  I am reminded of St. Paul's reminder to the Corinthians [I.1:25], "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."  Our own standard operating assumption is that for Knowledge we have to consult the Experts.  (An Expert, of course, is anyone with an attaché case more than ten miles from home.)  (Maybe I shouldn't knock it; here I am sixty miles from home with a vestment bag!  I don’t know whether that counts!)  I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from serious Bible study, or the study of theology or church history or any of that stuff – quite the contrary! – but we do need to know that all that academic stuff is not a requirement for entry into the life of the Kingdom.  Jesus did not say “Study me,” he said “Follow me.”

Jesus goes on to say, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  This line has been referred to by New Testament scholars – the “wise and intelligent” folks from a couple of verses earlier! – as “the thunderbolt from the Johannine blue” – that is, it sure sounds a lot like St. John’s Gospel, and St. John’s Gospel is as we know pretty much sui generis, in literary style unlike the other three Gospels, and (probably) rather later in composition.  On the contrary, I am inclined to think that this fairly explicit claim by Jesus about his relationship with God the Father comes out of the sayings in the Jesus tradition from which the Gospels are compiled and composed.  John the Evangelist didn’t just make up stuff like this!

Jesus continues: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. [Y’all remember the “Comfortable Words”?]  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  “Learn from me” – but not “take a study course” but “Take my yoke upon you.”  But a yoke is a means of harnessing oneself or one's beast, to work; furthermore, Christ's yoke is the most demanding yoke possible, for it requires a total commitment to the mission of God's Kingdom.  And yet this burden is the one that liberates and truly refreshes and renews; as we pray day by day, "to serve you is perfect freedom."  “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Unlike the yokes and burdens of some religious (or other cultural) obligations, Christ’s yoke is a yoke of grace, and his burden a burden of love.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

25 June 2017 -- Proper 7 / 3 Pentecost

Proper 7 — 25 June 2017

Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 9:00, & 11:00

Track 2:  Jeremiah 20:7-13  |  Psalm 69:8-11, (12-17), 18-20  | 
Romans 6:1b-11  |  Matthew 10:24-39

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [Matt 10:34]

There are still a few of us around who remember the little section of the Prayer Book Communion Service called “The Comfortable Words.”  That was the part that began, “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.”  The first of those sayings, you may recall – or not! – was from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

(Those were in the “old Prayer Book,” as opposed to the “new Prayer Book.”  But the “new” Prayer Book is forty-plus years old now, and the “old” Prayer Book that it replaced only lasted for about fifty years.  And the version of the Prayer Book before that only made it for a bit over thirty.  But I digress.)

Actually, these “Comfortable Words” are still in the current Prayer Book, in Rite One, but they are no longer called “The Comfortable Words”; now they are introduced with “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.”  (Page 332, if you’re getting bored, or haven’t any idea what I’m talking about, and want to look them up.)  But the “Comfortable Words” title goes back to the first English-language Book of Common Prayer, in 1549, four and a half centuries ago.  Do these verses from the New Testament make us feel comfortable?  Well, actually, I suppose they do, and that’s fine.  But probably not exactly what Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had in mind when he compiled the first English Prayer Book.  As you’re aware, words shift meaning over the centuries, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.  The original meaning of “comfort” is not so much “make feel better” (the general modern meaning) as it is “strengthen.”  (The English word “com-fort” comes from Latin through French.  Check the OED!)  A related example is the still-in-some-use title “The Holy Comforter” for the Holy Spirit.  But the Spirit is not a warm fuzzy blanket, but a source of spiritual strength.  And what makes us strong may or may not make us feel good.  And very often not. 

And this, in case you were wondering, or may already have guessed, brings us to the Gospel reading today. 

There’s not much very “comfortable” (in the modern sense) about the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel.  You possibly may have noticed that today’s reading, from St. Matthew, follows directly upon the Gospel reading last Sunday, which also wasn’t very comfortable.  You may recall Jesus’ words last week: “…You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.”  [Matt 10:18,21-22a]

Well, it doesn’t get any better in today’s Gospel reading.  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  ‘For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’”  [Matthew 10:34-36; quoting Micah 7:6] 

Oh, that’s comfortable!

We should note that the part about “the man against his father” and so on is Jesus quoting the prophet Micah, where it is part of a prophecy of doom against Israel for her faithlessness.  Jesus’ disciples would presumably have recognized that, as would the Christians in Matthew’s community.  I’m not sure whether that’s very helpful for us, but it does mean that Jesus didn’t just make these words up on his own!  But it is still the case that Jesus is warning his disciples in his mission charge to them (which is what last Sunday’s Gospel reading and this Sunday’s is) that if they are faithful in proclaiming God’s Kingdom, they are not likely to be regarded as rock stars.  God’s faithful ones may very well end up in all kinds of worldly trouble, rejected, maybe persecuted, even unto death.  It was true for Jesus’ own disciples; it was true for Matthew’s community; it is true for us.  I think we need to take that seriously. 

No, it is not very likely in this country that faithful Christians will suffer overt persecution, although indifference and even scorn are likely to increase.  But there are many places in the world today where Christians are currently facing oppression and even death.  As was the case for the first three centuries of Christian history, at least on and off in the Roman Empire, and in other places for many centuries after that, up until and including our own time.

Jesus was not crucified because he went around saying things to make people comfortable (in the modern sense).  He certainly didn’t preach a “prosperity gospel.”  He said, “Follow me,” and we know, as he knew, where that would lead.  Yes, ultimately, resurrection; but first the cross.  As we hear St. Paul today, writing to the Christians at Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  [Romans 6:3-4]

Jesus speaks to us to challenge us, to strengthen us, yes, even, ultimately, to comfort us.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  [Luke 12:32]  Last week we heard him assure us, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”  [Matthew 10:22b]  He gave comfort – strength and assurance – to Dame Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  [Showing 13]  And to his disciples, including us, Jesus says, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  [Matthew 28:20]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

25 May 2017 -- Ascension Day

Ascension Day  — 25 May 2017

Trinity – 12:15 pm

Acts 1:1-11  |  Psalm 93  |  Ephesians 1:15-23  |  Luke 24:44-53

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  [Matthew 28:20b]

When we think of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ – (I don’t know how often you actually think about the Ascension of Christ, apart from on Ascension Day, but, after all, we do refer to it every time we say the Creed – “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father” – and so presumably you do occasionally think about the Ascension of Christ, at least briefly!) – what comes to our minds?  Well, a lot of the time, I suspect, maybe first of all, is this story that St. Luke tells us today.  In fact, Luke tells this story twice.  We hear his second telling in the first reading today, from the first chapter of his second book, that we call the Acts of the Apostles; and then we hear Luke’s first telling, from the 24th chapter of his Gospel.  They are mostly, but not exactly, the same story.

The major difference between them is that the first, Gospel, story, apparently takes place at the end of Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection.  (A very very long day, if you actually set a clock running on the events in Chapter 24!)  The second story, at the beginning of Acts, takes place 40 days later.  (“40 days” is always a symbolic number in the Scriptures, whatever the chronological reality behind it may be.)  I hope you are not distressed by this discrepancy.  You should not be.  Unimaginative literalism is an illegitimate child of the Enlightenment, not of the Christian tradition itself.  St. Luke was, or at least was functioning as, a Hellenistic historian, and in the Greco-Roman world historians understood their task as to explicate the meaning of events, at least their understanding of the meaning of events, not to provide a CNN transcript.  This is true of all of them – Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Suetonius, all that crowd – including the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.  On a spectrum of historical writers we would put them somewhere between Doris Kearns Goodwin [Team of Rivals, a history of Abraham Lincoln, presidency] and Hilary Mantel [Wolf Hall, a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII].  Probably closer to Ms. Mantel.  But I digress.

There are a number of references in the New Testament, direct and indirect, to the ascension of the risen Christ into heaven, where he reigns – as for instance in the Epistle from Ephesians today.  But St. Luke is the only one who provides a narrative, a story.  This suggests to me that the narrative is not the essence of the reality of the Ascension, despite the fact that this narrative so readily captures our imagination, which is probably why Luke uses it.  Luke likes to tell stories.  (We get most of our favorite parables through Luke.)  And after all, this narrative gives us “Toes.”  (Ah, you don’t remember.  Just as well.)

The problem with the narrative is that it seems often to imply, although I don’t think this is what St. Luke intends, that now Jesus is gone.  Yes, Jesus will come again, but as it turns out, his coming again is not any time soon (at least not so far!), although some Christian sects have spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for him, and other sects have wasted an immense amount of energy trying to decipher from misinterpreted Scriptural passages just when that coming is going to happen.  But the bottom line of all this is that we operate on the assumption that Jesus is not here.  And that is absolutely not what we celebrate on Ascension Day.

“But isn’t Jesus in heaven?”  Yes!

“And so he’s not here.”  No!

That raises the question of the relationship of earth to heaven, which is another homily, or another lecture series, or another book, for another time.  And still another question for another time is what we mean when we profess our faith that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

The important thing, I think, and the bottom line for today, is that Jesus is not somewhere else.  And certainly not long ago and far away, in first-century Judea or wherever.  Heaven is not somewhere else.  Heaven is here.  Jesus is here.  St. Matthew concludes his Gospel by telling it right:  “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Friday, April 14, 2017

14 April 2017 - Good Friday

Good Friday  — 14 April 2017
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Isaiah 52:13-53:12  |  Psalm 22  |  Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9  |  John 18:1-19:42
“So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.  Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’”  [John 19:5]
Pilate said far more than he knew.  For Jesus is indeed “The Man” – the Human Being.  Ecce homo; idou ho anthropos. Despised, mocked, beaten, bound, powerless, helpless, condemned to die – everything which our values tell us to avoid being.  And yet in this little vignette – so pitifully typical of so much of human life in all times and all places – it is Jesus, rather than Pilate, who is “The Man.”

We talk a lot, within Christian faith, of things like salvation and redemption, and I sometimes wonder if all we mean by that is just getting whisked out of a world of pain and sorrow off to a magic never-never land in the sky.  Well, there’s a bit of truth to that, in amongst the simplistic caricature of the reality of the thing.  But what God is really up to in God’s loving tireless quest for our salvation is not just to make sure we get tickets for heaven instead of hell, but to restore us to the fullness of humanity as God’s sons and daughters, to make it possible for us to become, finally, who we really are, who we are really meant to be, as human persons created in a finite world yet called to citizenship in an eternal kingdom and destined for everlasting glory.  God wants us to be fully, truly, human – each of us a full, true human person – not the poor bent twisted shadow of the real thing that the world seems to take for granted as ‘being human.”  The model, the example, the herald, the pioneer, the enabler of that new, restored, fulfilled humanity is Jesus, The Man, The Human Being.  Look.  Here’s the Real Thing.  Real humanity does not consist in getting power, but in giving love.  Jesus is it.  Pilate isn’t.

It’s not a part of God’s plan – not directly – that being a real human being must necessarily involve pain and suffering and death.  These are not good things; they are not, really, authentically human things.  But if we are to live in a world in which most people are capable of looking at The Man himself and crying “Crucify him, crucify him!” then the pain and suffering and death will go with the territory for those who are authentically human.

We look at Pilate, robed in all the pride and power of Imperial Rome; and we look at Jesus, robed in mockery and crowned with thorns.  Which one is really The Man, The Human Person? 

But of course, we know how the story turns out in the end.

But do we always remember?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

1 March 2017 - Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 1 March 2017

Trinity – 12:15 pm

Isaiah 58:1-12  |  Psalm 103:8-14  |  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”  [Matthew 6:16]

So, what are you giving up for Lent?

It’s funny how quickly this question arises for us, and among us, as we begin the season of Lent.  Or at least it does, and always has, for me.  Lent has always been, from my early childhood, about “giving up” something.  Or so it seems, and so I remember, although it’s probably not completely true!

The traditional themes of Lent are reflected in today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about almsgiving, prayer and fasting.  Likewise, as we will hear in a few minutes, the Prayer Book expresses the Church’s tradition about the observance of Lent, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  [BCP p 265] 

But what I remember most clearly from when I was growing up was especially the self-denial part.  Lent was for giving up stuff.  If it was something I enjoyed, I had to give it up.  (Incidentally, this is not an accusation of my priests or Sunday School teachers, it’s a statement about me and what I was hearing!)  We had to give up chocolate.  (Well, that’s probably not a bad thing!)  We had to give up desserts at dinner.  (Also probably not a bad thing!)  We had to give up going to the movies.  And at least in some years we had to give up television.  Or reading books that were purely entertainment or recreational.  Lent was really pretty miserable!  And you could tell how miserable it was by how disfigured our faces were so much of the time!  (Even without ashes!)

Perhaps you get my point.  And, I think, Jesus’ point.

This is not to say that any or all of these self-denials may not be appropriate parts of your Lenten observance.  That’s between you and God, and perhaps your spiritual director if you have one.  But to the extent that we assume Lent is a time to make ourselves miserable and not have any fun, we probably need to take a better look at what we think we’re about in our Lenten observance.

In these more recent times, as I suspect you know, we have tended to put more emphasis on what we were taking on for Lent rather than what we were giving up.  And generally, I think, that’s good.  Prayer, for instance, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  Yes, by all means.  Perhaps participation in some additional service activity.  And let us not forget the words of the prophet Isaiah:  “Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  [Isaiah 58:6-7]

But if we are honest with ourselves, we understand that if we are going to take on something for Lent, this may well, and perhaps should, involve giving up something else.  Not because there is any merit in being dismal, but because it’s good to remind ourselves that we can’t have it all.  And, frankly, in this modern world, particularly in our own society, we come perilously close to assuming that we can have whatever we want.  Most of us have too much stuff – physical, psychological, emotional – in our lives.  And just like our basement or our attic, sometimes we need to clean it out.

The season of Lent exists not for its own sake, not primarily at least, but because it is a time of spiritual preparation for Easter.  And Easter is not just the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, although it is certainly that.  But not only that.  It’s not “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia, How Nice For Him!”  The Risen Christ is the promise and the guarantee of our own eternal destiny; Jesus is what St. Paul calls “the first fruits.”  [1Cor 15:20]  I think we ought not to worry overmuch about the specifics of what that will be like.  We simply don’t know.  And that’s then, and this is now.  But we do believe, and have confidence, and trust, that this is not all there is.  And if we are wise, and faithful, we will prepare ourselves to be ready for then..  May God grant us all the grace of a blessed Lent!