(N.B., with help from Willimon, Pulpit Resouce)
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd
Lent 1 – Year A
February 13 – Year A
I didn’t really take Lent seriously until I was in university. To be honest, Lent wasn’t even on my radar screen before then. Lent just seemed like a religious game that I didn’t want to play. Smearing ashes on my forehead. Keeping the “A” word buried in a tomb. Liturgically beating our chests in ritual repentance. All of this seemed so – medieval. Religious hocus-pocus that may have meant something at some time, but lost its meaning as the world “progressed” beyond superstition and religious fantasy.
But it’s amazing how life can turn up empty when left to our own devices. And how such emptiness can make you look at things differently.
I had been a fairly confident young man. I was studying music. I was going to be an orchestra conductor. And, as any musician will tell you, you need to have a bit of an ego to stand in front of 50 to 100 equally ego-obsessed individuals and suggest that your way is the best way. Confidence was one quality I was not lacking.
When you’re young and haven’t experienced failure. The first one can flatten you.
Without sharing the gory details, I had a few big set backs, both personal and professional. After which I found myself in an Anglican church hearing the words from the prophet Joel in the language of the old prayer book:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. (Joel 2:13)
For me, these were words of refreshing honesty. Strange truthfulness. Perverse openness.
Failure felt dirty. But there was good news in knowing that my failures, my limitations, my brokenness, could be offered as a gift to God. Not that God was offering worldly success in return. But that God wanted from me the parts of my life the rest of world didn’t even want to know about. God wanted my tears. God wanted my anger. God wanted my disappointments and my regrets. No one other than God could take what the world calls ugly and dirty, and transform it into a gift for the Almighty.
Maybe it was the Holy Spirit talking, or maybe it was the need for a deeper expression of faith in my life, or maybe it was both, but Lent became for me a time of deepening my understanding of God and how God works in the world and in my life. The ashes smeared on my forehead confronted me with my mortality. The silence of the “A” word aroused my longing for new life. The prayers of confession exposed my self-conceits.
So now, Lent is, for me, a time of devastating honesty. Honesty about myself: where I’ve failed. Where I’ve succeeded. Where I’ve fallen short of what God wants for me. Where I need God’s healing in my life.
Sometimes Lent is the spot where pain and pleasure intersect purging me of all that limits abundant living.
But other times Lent requires more from me then I’m ready to give. Because my sin is too great.
But what I’ve learned foremost is that sin is the great equalizer. The grand leveler. None of us gets off scot-free. In today’s second reading, Paul writes to the church in Rome, singing to them of the triumph of Christ. He describes for them the entrance of sin and rebellion into the world. We are those who have gone astray, who have preferred our wills to God’s will. The results of this sin are all around us. The history of this past blood-stained century, the headlines in this morning’s paper tell the story.
Yet to this story Paul contrasts the story of Christ. Christ brings life to our death-dealing ways. Christ offers forgiveness for all our sins. In Christ, it’s like God starts all over with creation, from the beginning, and sets us toward a new future.
This Sunday, this first Sunday in Lent, think of church as a place where all our contradictions are underscored, examined, and questioned. Think of church as a place where we confront the truths about ourselves that we spend the rest of our lives avoiding. Here, with God’s help, we try to tell the truth about ourselves. And sometimes, the truth hurts.
The whole world is busy trying to climb up the ladder of success; here we kneel down in confession of sin. The world keeps telling us that we are basically good people who are doing the very best we can. Here, we admit that we are those who wander, who rebel, who fail; in short, we sin.
On a Sunday like this one, alongside of an “everybody welcome” sign, over the door of the sanctuary we should put a warning sign for unsuspecting visitors: BEWARE: TRUTH BEING TOLD HERE!
How is it possible for people like us to tell the truth about ourselves?
Left on our own, I doubt that we would be able tpo achieve the kind of honesty God asks from us because we have a way of beating ourselves up. If we think God is judging, I wonder if we don’t do a better job. Honesty would be utterly impossible were it not because in Jesus Christ, we hear first, that we are loved; God’s love is the safety net in which our honesty lands us. As Paul says to the Romans, though our sin was serious, in Christ, “grace abounded,” which is a fancy way of saying, “love and forgiveness flourished.” Our misdeeds are abundant, as we admit every time we say a prayer of confession. Yet, as Paul says, in Christ we have received abundant grace. We could not get good enough for God, so God in Christ has made us good enough through his saving love for us. We could not do right by God, so God in Christ did right for us.
The good God who had every right to punish us for our failure to be good, instead loved us back into relationship with God. This is the great and wonderful contradiction of our faith, the great contradiction of God’s love for us, upon which rests our hope in life and in death.
So maybe we shouldn’t put the sign up: BEWARE: TRUTH BEING TOLD HERE. Maybe instead we should replace it with, WELCOME: LOVE AND FORGIVENESS BEING OFFERED HERE.
May this be so among us. Amen.