Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

This Sunday, The First Sunday in Lent, I am at St. John's, Williamstown. I'm there at the invitation of their (still new) rector, Nathaniel Anderson. One big part of my work is to walk with congregations through clergy transitions. I was in Williamstown over two years ago, the Sunday after their previous rector retired after serving thirty years. Through the season of an interim rector, I returned several times as they began their search process to ultimately call Nathaniel as their rector. He's now been there about ten months. It is a great privilege to walk with congregations like this one through this kind of transition and to glimpse the new thing that God is doing in their midst. Thanks be to God!

In my last post, I mentioned that I am going to be preaching on the Psalms for a while in my itinerant preaching around our diocese. This week's Psalm is Psalm 91, and my sermon text is just the first two verses of that Psalm. 
The one who dwells in the Most High’s shelter, in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night - I say to the Lord, “My refuge and bastion,my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:1-2, Robert Alter) 
St. John’s, it is good to be with you again. It has been a while. Some of you may recall that my first time here was on the Sunday after the 2016 election. It also happened to be the Sunday after you had said goodbye to a rector who served here for three decades. A lot has happened since then, both here and in this nation. I'm going to stay focused today, however, on this parish.

I’m not sure anyone heard much of what I had to say that day. You looked a little shell-shocked. But I went back and looked and basically what I said was, “do not be afraid.” We knew then that Libby Wade would be arriving soon, but Nathaniel was not even yet a glimmer in your collective eye. I encouraged you to use that time for asking questions, for being open, for getting clear about where you put your trust. For using that time between trapeze bars as a gift.

I also said to you in November 2016, as I always do to congregations about to enter a time of transition that your season of transition would not end when a new rector arrives. It takes some time. By all accounts, this has been a pretty smooth transition and there seems to be much joy in Williamstown. The last time I was here was at a wonderful Celebration of New Ministry, and it was nice for me that people kept coming up to me and saying “thank you…we found a good one!”
I am pretty clear that in our polity I can’t take the credit for that. I give the credit to all of you, and to Nathaniel, for the good discernment work you did. And of course to the Holy Spirit. But I will say that it makes my heart glad, and that it’s a privilege for me to back here with you today. Thanks be to God!

I don’t want to bury the lead today so let me just say that even after all that has unfolded since we first met, I’m going to return to this same theme today on the First Sunday of Lent, and encourage you to use these forty days to get clear on where you put your trust. And to come at that by way of today’s psalm.

Across this diocese and around the world, we are making the journey to Easter. Some of you have given things up for Lent. Others may be adding new practices or reading the Bible daily. But however you embark on this journey, it is good to set aside some time for this important work. This past Wednesday, your rector invited you all, on behalf of the Church, into a holy Lent. Many of you have been doing that for a while now while the whole idea may be new to still others. But here we are. I’m grateful to be among you. At the Ash Wednesday Liturgy, Nathaniel reminded you about how:

…the first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.

These forty days provided a time to form new Christians by preparing them for Holy Baptism, because as Tertullian put it, “Christians are not born, they are made.” Lent was, for the early Church, also a time for people who had slipped away to come home. As a parish priest I often wished we could revive that practice somehow because most people who leave Church don’t leave in a huff; they just slip away. And I wish we could make Lent more of a time to help people find their way home again.

Lent was, and it remains, a season of penitence. But that’s not about shame or fear. It’s about the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior. We all are invited to repent and to renew our faith by self-examination and by turning back to God; by prayer, and fasting, and by remembering the world doesn’t revolve around us. We do that by reading and marking and learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture, so that we might become what we eat; so that we become a word about the Word. We do that by getting clear about where we put our trust.

We are dust and to dust we shall return. Which is a poetic way to say that we are creatures, not the Creator. We were born and we will die. Not “pass away.” Ash Wednesday refuses that kind of euphemistic language about our mortality. We are mortal and what we are all doing right now, by taking in breath and exhaling; we won’t do that forever. None of us. Sorry. So Ash Wednesday in particular and this whole season of Lent are about remembering this, and therefore living each day as present as we dare to each breath – each moment. To live with gratitude and to live in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. To take it, as they say in twelve-step programs, one day at a time.
That’s a lot. Lent can be intense. T. S. Eliot once wrote in one of the four quartets, “…human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” I think that’s right. And I think Lent pushes us to the limits. It pushes us into reality by refusing to let us live in denial. It pushes us away from wishful thinking and toward grounded Christian hope. It pushes us into the reality of our messy lives and to make amends where we fall short, not as a narcissistic exercise but as a way that makes authentic relationships and community possible. Lent is a season for truth-telling.

The poets help us to do that, I think, in ways that prose cannot. We are inundated with information. But the poets invite us to see things we might otherwise miss. Eliot, already quoted, was a master at this. So was Mary Oliver, who died just two months ago. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life? Now there is a Lenten question for you to ponder over these forty days as you consider the fact that you are dust and to dust you shall return!

In fact, I think that Jesus was doing just that out there in the wilderness for those forty days. Figuring out what his life meant. I think it was something like what Native Americans call a vision quest. Of course he was also remembering the story of his own people, who spent forty years in the Sinai Desert, moving from slavery toward freedom. He took with him Torah, for sure. His responses to the devil reveal his familiarity with the Five Books of Moses, especially Deuteronomy. But he also took the poets with him. Or as we call them, the psalmists. He clearly knew the deep meaning of the psalm we prayed today. I like Robert Alter’s translation which helps us to hear what may be familiar words in new ways.

[The one] who dwells in the Most High’s shelter
    in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night -
     I say to the Lord, “My refuge and bastion,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Psalm 91 is a poem about trust. Like all great poetry is jam-packed – way more than prose could ever aspire to be. That’s the thing about poets; in just a line or two they can send us on our way.
  • Human kind cannot bear very much reality.
  • Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
  • I say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust!”
Trust takes us right into the heart of faith. On the second week of Easter, we will remember Thomas – who is told by Jesus not to lack trust, but to trust. It’s a misunderstanding to translate that as belief. Beliefs change over time, based on new evidence. The heart of Christian faith is not about our core beliefs but about trust, which is the antidote to fear. The whole of Scripture is about where we put our trust.

Psalm 91 is a poem about trust. Maybe it’s even a little bit na├»ve as the poem unfolds. The poet may even be so self-assured as to assume that nothing bad will ever happen to those who trust God. That’s the part of the psalm the devil quotes to Jesus in the desert. You heard that, right? The part about how the angels will be sent to protect Jesus. Even a poem can get quoted out of context and misused – because real life is always complex. Trust isn't magic. 

But Jesus won’t be fooled. He knows it doesn’t work like that. He knows the other psalms, too, those poems of lament for when life is not fair, when one feels abandoned by God. He knows above all else this: that trust in God isn’t an inoculation from being human. That trust in God doesn’t keep us from ever dashing our foot against a stone. When bad things do happen in this world – to good people, to bad people, to people like us who are probably a mix – this doesn’t mean our trust in God was misplaced. There is suffering in this world and maybe in your own life right now too. But that’s not an argument to put our trust into the hands of a crafty tempter. The poet knows, and Jesus as a pray-er of this psalm knows, that God is worthy of our trust.  

The biggest challenges in life may even result from those times when we put our trust in the wrong place. Only the living God is worthy of our whole trust. We know this already. In fact I would even venture to say that whether you’ve been here at St. John’s a long time or just a little while, you who have been claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever already know this. You who live in the shelter of the Most High, you who abide in the shadow of the living God, you already know that God is our refuge. Who was that guy again, who wrote “a mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing?”

I think Lent is a chance to remember what our best selves already know: that we are called to return, to reorient, to recommit to this living God made known to us in Jesus. And so I invite you to use this time to do just that. Not only as individuals but as a community of faith. How can St. John’s return, reorient, recommit to the living God made known in Jesus in order to serve this community of Williamstown and this part of Berkshire County? I cannot promise you that nothing hard or difficult or bad will ever come your way. We are traveling on the way to Jerusalem after all and to the foot of the cross. We who embark on this Lenten journey know where we are headed. But we also know – even from this vantage point – that Good Friday doesn’t get the last word. Not in the life of Jesus and not for us. We know that the God who raised Jesus on the third day is worthy of our trust.