Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Third Sunday in Lent

My Lenten journey with the people of Christ Church, Rochdale continues today. The gospel reading for this day is Luke 13:1-9

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The questions posed by Jesus in today’s gospel reading appear to be “ripped from the day’s headlines.” While we don’t have any confirmation from outside the Bible about the particular incident of Pilate mingling the blood of slaughtered Galileans with the blood from their sacrifices, what we do have are numerous references to confirm Pilate’s barbarism. One example, recorded by Josephus, is about a group of Samaritans who were climbing Mt. Gerizim that he had killed. So whether or not it happened, it’s credible.

Jesus seizes on the current events of his day to ask the theological question that is raised whenever bad things happen to innocent people. The first incident is a ruthless act ordered by Pilate on behalf of the Roman government. “Do you think that this happened to the victims,” Jesus asks rhetorically, “because they were worse sinners than others?” The second is a tragic accident, the collapse of a tower over at Siloam that raises the very same question. “Do you think those who died were worse sinners than others?” Jesus asks.

I suspect you’ve heard this question or maybe even asked it yourself before. When something big happens, we want to know why. We want to find a reason. Notice that, if you don’t hear anything else I say today in this sermon, that Jesus is very clear in his response: no, they were not worse sinners. These events were not some punishment from God. Jesus rejects the notion that tragedies like this are connected to moral behavior. Those people did not deserve to die. Period.

It would be comforting in a strange way if the world were that predictable, so that I could remain good and then be safe. On the other side, it’s easy to scapegoat people – when bad things happen it has to be somebody’s fault and conveniently it’s often the people we trust the least whom we are quick to blame. Some, in the name of Jesus, did this after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, deciding that these things must have happened because of God’s judgment on New York City and New Orleans. If bad things only happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people, there is some comfort in that. We can keep ourselves safe by behaving. Going to church keeps us safe from harm. Putting a silver cross around our necks is a kind of “lucky charm.”

But of course that isn’t how the world is. Sometimes people who have never smoked a cigarette their whole lives, get cancer and die. Sometimes people get all the aerobic exercise they are supposed to and eat a low-fat, healthy diet, go out one day for their usual six-mile run and drop dead of a heart attack. Sometimes chaos is unleashed, and things happen for no good reason. Sometimes life is uncertain, and not fair. There are just no guarantees. So Jesus is clear: no…they were not worse sinners.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t important things to ponder after such tragic events. Precisely because the world is not always tidy and predictable, we can take such moments and reflect on them. Moreover, they can become for us occasions that invite true repentance. They can be wake-up calls for us.

Repentance. In Greek, it’s meta-noia. It’s the same root found in our English word, paranoia. Para-noia is when you are, literally, “out of your mind.” Noia, in other words, is “mind.”  Meta- is the prefix we know from metamorphosis; it means “to change.” So metanoia means, literally, “to change your mind.” We do well to remember that this Lent. Repentance isn’t a feeling. It’s not about feeling sad, or remorseful, or guilty and certainly it isn’t about feeling ashamed. In fact, my experience is that shame is a stumbling block that very often keeps us from true repentance and real change.

Most people I know, including myself, don’t like to have to consider changing our minds about much of anything. Most arguments are more about stating our case louder and louder rather than about listening. We try to keep things in order, holding onto the “way we were raised” or the “way we were taught” as if that settles the matter. People were taught for centuries that the world was flat, though. People were taught for a long time that black people were inferior, and that women must never be ordained, and that the first European settlers and the native Americans got along just swell and sang kumbaya over turkey and cranberry sauce.

This story is told from the desert tradition:

Once upon a time a visitor came to the monastery looking for the purpose and meaning of life. The Teacher said to the visitor, “If what you seek is Truth there is one thing you must have above all else.”
“I know,” the visitor said. “To find Truth I must have an overwhelming passion for it.”
“No,” the Teacher said. “In order to find Truth, you must have an unremitting readiness to admit you might be wrong.”

Faith isn’t a security blanket to keep us snug and warm. At the heart of Lent is this notion that true repentance is not about stability, but about being shaken up. It means we have to learn, one way or another, to live with contradiction and ambiguity as we encounter “the other” and then listen to that person who sees the world from another angle than we do. It’s almost always pretty unsettling stuff. But it’s an election year so we have lots of opportunities to practice! It is easier to just shout louder than it is to listen, and easier still to make our world smaller and smaller until it is filled only with people who tell us what we already know to be true. The problem with that way of being in the world, however, is that we stop learning and we stop growing. And when that happens, repentance becomes nothing more than a psychological exercise, a kind of spiritual narcissism.

The Christian journey is about growth in Christ, and there is never growth without change. So Jesus invites us to true repentance in these forty days. And he seems to be suggesting in today’s gospel reading that the uncertainties of life can become an opportunity for spiritual growth. It isn’t always about big national tragedies. Sometimes it can happen when a person who is very dear to us dies. Or when we encounter failure, or lose a job. Or when a priest leaves a parish and there is some amount of uncertainty about what will come next. Anything that helps us to see that we, too, are mortal; that we, too, will one day return to the dust, can become an occasion for us to ask: how might these lead us to rely more and more on God’s mercy, one day at a time?

And that, I think, is the main thing in today’s gospel reading. The parable of the fig-tree that doesn’t produce figs is a “right-brain” way of making this same point. A fig tree that doesn’t produce figs isn’t doing what it’s meant to do. (Is it even still a fig tree?) The owner of the vineyard says to the gardener that he may as well cut it down; it’s just wasting soil. The gardener, however, buys the tree another year by digging around it and fertilizing it in the hopes that it will still bear fruit. The tree gets a second chance—another year to see if it might do what it is meant to do.

Jesus invites us to see our lives in the same way and to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  What if when tragedy strikes, we ponder the implications long enough to ask the question, “what if that was me?” How would I be remembered if I died today? And is that how I want to be remembered? What if in the very asking of such a question we discover the seeds of change within us and become willing to dig around the ground of our lives, and to fertilize our souls?

Such moments offer us an opportunity for real change—for new possibilities—to see the world through new eyes, and therefore for authentic spiritual growth. What happens when we hear God giving us a second chance, another year “to bear the fruit that is worthy of repentance?”  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. How might your mind be changed, and then your life, if you were told you had twelve months to live? What needs to be dug up in your life? What needs to be fertilized, so that you can bear fruit worthy of repentance?

Sometimes people think that this must mean that they should “live every day as if it were their last.” But think how intense that would be, and really almost crazy – like the film Groundhog Day on steroids. Rather, I think what we need, is to make room each day in our lives for putting first things first: for God and for each other and for making the neighborhood a little bit better of a place to live in. What we need is to learn to pay attention to the normal stuff of life: dinner together and a fire on a winter night and a kid’s soccer game. What we need is to “open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.” What we need is to discover (and re-discover) that each day is a gift and then fully live that present moment.

What needs to happen for you to tap into the creativity God has given you, the gifts God has given you to use in service to others, that make you more fully alive? If your present life bears no resemblance to the way you answer that question and you begin to make some real changes—even incremental ones—then this will indeed by a truly holy Lent that leads to the joy of Easter morning.

Those Galileans who were killed by Pilate or those eighteen who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them: were they worse sinners than anyone here today? No, of course not. But let the very asking of the question be for you and for me and for this faith community an invitation to re-evaluate our priorities, and an opportunity to make some changes that allow us to return to God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Second Sunday in Lent

My Lenten journey with the people of Christ Church, Rochdale continues on this Second Sunday in Lent

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If Lent is about giving up those things that keep us apart from God, then here is what I am wondering on this Second Sunday of Lent: what old beliefs and religious baggage might we be carrying around that we need to let go of, in order to encounter the living God in new ways?

Our worship began today with the Decalogue. Those first two commandments are really big: no other gods and no graven images. Love only the Lord your God.

Yet we are prone to relate to things that are not god as if they were God. Good things like money, nation, work, our political views, family—even church. None of these things are God, and yet we sometimes forget this and act as if these things can save us. But only God deserves our ultimate allegiance.

The forty-day journey of Lent is about the invitation to return to the true God who has brought us out of bondage and is leading us toward the Promised Land.

One of the idols I invite you to let go of this Lent is what I sometimes call the “Santa Claus God.” This is the god who is making his list and checking it twice and who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so you better be good for goodness sake!  This is the “god” we too often address in prayer with a never-ending wish list of all the things we want god to do for us.

I know I’m mixing up my liturgical seasons, but hear me out! The problem with thinking of God as “Santa Claus” is that Lent becomes a season where we try to be really, really good. And if we aren’t careful we start to believe that somehow if we get it all right, then we’ll earn our reward on Easter morning: Cadbury eggs and chocolate bunnies.

But as I told you last week, quoting the fourth-century preacher, John Chrysostom, everyone is invited to the Easter feast. All means all. And by the way, if some newcomer shows up on Easter morning at the eleventh hour and sits in “your” pew, it’s your job to make them feel welcome and find another seat! Don’t tell them you’ve been in that pew every Sunday of Lent and it’s yours!

God’s love is that deep and that wide, and our Lenten work is to try to become a bit more loving ourselves.

The problem, I think, is that all of us have some old tapes playing in our lives. Maybe one of the gifts of Lent is that we become still enough to listen to those old tapes and then figure out which parts are still valid and what parts we need to let go of. Maybe your old tapes come from the nuns you had in grammar school, or a stern pastor, or a well-intentioned Vacation Bible School teacher, or maybe from a parent or grandparent. And to be fair, let’s remember that we can’t be sure what those nuns or pastors or VBS folks or grandparents really did say or what they meant to say. Memory is a funny thing and we heard many of those messages filtered through our own young ears. Nevertheless we all have these old tapes and some of it leads to healthy adult faith. But other parts may be keeping us from hearing and experiencing the living God in fresh ways.

Are you with me? Lent is about leading us to the heart of God. The true and living God revealed in Jesus Christ, who has called us by name and who calls us beloved. Our work is to let go all that keeps us from that God, because in so doing we discover the meaning of true repentance and amendment of life that lead us once again to the empty tomb.

What would happen to us if we were to give up fear and shame for Lent? Or since it’s probably impossible to give it all up, to at least make a right beginning? We may well hear the reminder that we are dust in new ways. We may well remember that we are human and not divine, and that we don’t have all the time in the world. So the time to live is now. To pay attention to what is, rather than trying to re-do the past, or control the future. We might encounter God anew in this time and place, speaking to us in and through Word and Sacraments and the sacred stories of our own lives.

In today’s first reading, we hear about how the Word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision. That’s code language, so don’t miss it. God doesn’t tap Abraham on the shoulder and have a face-to-face chat. Maybe that’s an old tape we need to let go of. We sometimes think (maybe because of the nuns or the pastor or the VBS teacher or maybe just because that’s what we thought we heard as kids) that the way God calls people is that the skies open up and God speaks in English, as clear as day and says things like: “hello Rich…this is God…go directly to seminary…do not pass go and do not collect $200.”

It doesn’t work that way, though, not in our lives and actually upon closer reading we discover, not in the Bible either. We sometimes read too quickly, eliminating the doubt and the struggle and the uncertainty that Abraham must surely have been feeling as he wondered if in fact Eliazar of Damascus might indeed be his only heir and that he needed to settle for that. The voice of reason must have told him that, since neither he nor Sarah were getting any younger. Yet somehow the Word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision. I think you need to be extra still to hear that voice.

God isn’t encountered directly. It would kill us. Even Moses only gets to see God’s backside. The mystics and prophets and poets have their visions and dreams. The rest of go on “hints and guesses.” We do the best we can to make sense of those.

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. And the message is essentially this:

Do not be afraid
I am your shield
The future is in my hands, not yours. Trust me!

And the text says that Abraham did trust God. The promise is renewed and the covenant is remembered and God reckons Abraham’s trust as righteousness.

I wonder is this pattern is an invitation to all of the children of Abraham—Jew and Christian and Muslim—in every time and place, whether we worship on Friday or Saturday or Sunday morning. If it isn’t a kind of touchstone experience we are invited to return to in Lent—to the core meaning of faith which is not ultimately about our doctrines or our ethics. Both have their place – and what we believe surely ought to influence how we behave. But first and foremost is the fundamental question raised by the Decalogue and by the patriarchs: where is your trust? Do you dare to put your trust in the living God? Or to say it another way, to allow God to be God so that you and I can be more fully human.

Do not be afraid;
God is your shield;
Do not worry about tomorrow.

It’s hard to hear that message—let alone believe it—and then let it sink in and live it. In the midst of all of the clutter of our lives there are countless voices insisting on precisely the opposite: that we should be very afraid: afraid of the terrorists, afraid that the market will crash, afraid of sexual predators, afraid of each other. It is easy to believe that God helps only those who help themselves, that we control our own destinies, that we can measure out our lives in teaspoons and keep ourselves safe.

In our fear and anxiety, we think that if we give up certain things then somehow God may love us more. But that’s not possible! God is already crazy about you, and me. Lent isn’t an opportunity to manipulate God. We give up certain things so we can strip away the excess and then be still in the presence of the living God—so that we can listen better. We go into the wilderness not as punishment, but for quiet.

So I wonder what happens if we allow ourselves to risk hearing the Word of the Lord from the pages of an ancient text and into this time and place, spoken to each of us by name:

Do not be afraid;
God is your shield;
Do not worry about tomorrow.

Lent is a time for discovering  and rediscovering this ancient wisdom, and I pray that these words might sink in deeply here at Christ Church. It is easy in a season of transition to be pulled back to the past. You hear things like “we’ve always done it this way” and “we need to hold fast.” But behold God is doing a new thing here. It will be rooted in the past, but not constrained by it. Do not worry about tomorrow. Be open to God right now, in this in-between time. Listen and pray and trust in the living God who is in our midst. God is your shield. Do not be afraid.

I pray that we might put the “wild” back into this wilderness season in order to seek and question and wonder and risk. I wonder what happens when we take on the practices of Lent that we were invited to on Ash Wednesday: ancient practices that still hold within them the seeds of transformation?

Today we hold up the Decalogue (the heart of which Jesus summarized in just four words: love God, love neighbor.) To meditate on that Teaching, which is sweeter than honey, is to be invited into a process of self-examination and to acknowledge where we have fallen short, and then to seek amendment of life and true repentance. Always with God’s help.

And so we pray, and fast, and meditate on the scriptures. We give alms. We will not get it right all the time. No one ever has. Fortunately, though, God is merciful.children of Abraham, we walk by faith.  Letting go of our fear, we turn our hearts to the true and living God. May God reckon that to us as righteousness, as the journey continues to unfold.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The First Sunday in Lent

This year I am journeying through  the forty days of Lent with the good folks at Christ Church in Rochdale. The readings for the First Sunday of Lent can be found here.

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In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to all the Israelites…” (Deuteronomy 1:3a) This is how Deuteronomy, the last scroll of the Torah, begins. It has been a long journey, but they are finally almost there: thirty-nine years and eleven months since crossing the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit. As the Book of Deuteronomy begins, we are meant to imagine Moses and all of those refugees from Egypt standing there in the wilderness. They have almost arrived. They can see the Promised Land. They can practically taste the milk and honey that had been promised to them four decades earlier and now they are all huddled together, about to embark on something new.

That’s when Moses says, “get comfortable…I’ve got a very long sermon to deliver.” Thirty-four chapters, small font. As you will recall, Moses isn’t going with them. And so before they go, he has a whole lot of stuff he wants to say to them about the lessons of the wilderness and the challenges that lie ahead. He is telling them what he thinks will be important to them as they make this transition without him as their leader.

Now this seems to me to be a pretty timely thing for all of you – as you have recently said goodbye to Molly and now enter into a time that may be something like the wilderness, a time to listen for God and expect miracles as you figure out the challenges that lie ahead and begin the process of calling a new priest to share this journey with you.

The basic premise of Moses’ sermon is simple, and like all great preachers he keeps returning to the main themes again and again. It goes something like this: in our precariousness, we know that we need God. When you are in the desert praying for daily bread and water, you literally mean it. You learn to live life one day at a time. You rely on God, hour by hour. You know that you are utterly dependent upon God’s mercy. As hard as life is in the desert, in a way faith is easier. The desert brings people to their knees; it makes prayer almost natural. In the words of the book by Anne Lamott, the three essential prayers become part of the rhythm of daily life.Help! Thanks! Wow!

Help, God! We have no food and we are really scared and we need you! And then of course there is miracle bread—whatchamacallit bread—manna. And it is enough. So thank you God. Or as Maya Angelou once put it: Thank you for your presence during the hard and mean days / For then we have you to lean upon. In the desert there are also plenty of opportunities to pray wow: at the parting of the waters at the Red Sea and that whole pyro-technic show on Mount Sinai where Moses encounters the living God, but also in smaller ways each and every day that the sun comes up, and there is water, and there is bread. Prayer flows more naturally in the desert, I think. Help, thanks, and wow become part of the fabric of daily rhythm of life.

And it isn’t all that different for us, is it? Difficult times like illness or loss or addiction or financial worries – or even the loss of a beloved rector—can drive us to our knees and become occasions when we truly, really recognize that we are powerless over so many things. We come by God’s grace in such seasons to believe in a power greater than ourselves. In our precariousness, we don’t need a seminar in how to pray: help, thanks, and wow flow out of our being…

But here is the thing: Moses knows that in a land flowing with milk and honey, in a Promised Land where there will be plenty of bakeries and an array of bread options to choose from, that it will be so much harder to remember God. And so he tells the people that the danger in the midst of affluence is going to be amnesia. They will be tempted to literally forget who they are and whose they are. They will be tempted to say to themselves: my hard work got me this bread and this milk and this honey and this nice house and this fast car. They may even be tempted to say, “to hell with my neighbor, he doesn’t work as hard as I do anyway.” They may be tempted to forget what slavery was like and treat the stranger in their own land as than neighbor. By the time all that happens, they will have long since forgotten the Lord their God, because you cannot love God whom you cannot see if you do not love your neighbor who is right in front of you.

Self-reliant people don’t pray for “help” because they don’t think they need any. Self-made people don’t say “thanks” to anyone; they just pat themselves on the back. Self-centered people forget to pray “wow” because their world gets smaller and smaller, leading to a kind of ennui where the most amazing things—like new fallen snow and a child’s laughter and a walk on the beach—are taken for granted.

Moses is relentless, however: remember, remember, remember. And you can remember best by teaching. So teach, teach, teach. Teach your children and your grandchildren. Tell them the stories again and again and again of what it was like under Pharaoh’s oppressive economy. Tell them what it was like to live in the Sinai Desert for four decades. Tell them what it was like to have nothing and yet to have everything because God was with us and because God saved us and because God gave us Torah and because God gave us water and manna and because God gave us to be companions to each other—one day at a time. If you can remember all of that when you get to the Promised Land, then all will go well. But even so, it will still be much harder to be faithful there than it was in the Sinai Desert.

Moses suggests that liturgy and prayer and faith practices are the ways to keep the lessons of the Sinai fresh. They will show God’s people how to remember from generation to generation. That is what we heard in the portion of this sermon that was read today, from the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy as the sermon begins to draw nearer to a close:

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.

It’s a stewardship sermon. Take the first portion of what God has blessed you with and you give it back. Not just any portion—not what’s left over at the end of the week—because chances are that if we wait to see what’s left there won’t be anything. Take the first part, the best part—a tithe. Practice good stewardship not because God or the church needs your money, but because good stewardship reminds you that it was never yours in the first place. Moses continues:

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors. (HELP!) The LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders (WOW!) And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (THANKS!) So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.

Now Jesus was raised a Jew, not a Christian. I know you all know this but it is so tempting for us as Christians to forget this. And yet I am convinced that we cannot begin to understand Jesus and his ministry until we begin at least to understand the traditions that shaped him. He was raised on the Five Books of Moses, not on a King James Bible that had all his lines printed in red! So his parents and grandparents no doubt told him this story over and over and over again. Mary and Joseph told him about the forty years in the desert, about Egypt and the Promised Land, about how to pray Help! Thanks! Wow! The desert represents that place where you go to encounter the living God, the place where you go to remember.

So it is really not all that surprising that after his Baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days. Not three weeks, or two months, but forty days. Get it? He goes on a kind of vision quest (if it helps to think of it that way) in order to get in touch with the wisdom of the ancestors. He is tested there by the Evil One, just as his people had been tested so long ago. But in that testing (and in the resisting of temptation) he comes out stronger and clearer about who he is, and whose he is, and what his life and ministry and ultimately his death and resurrection are to be all about.

The forty-day season of Lent is patterned on this same kind of journey. We have now embarked on that journey together, having been invited this past Wednesday into a holy Lent. We won’t literally be going to the desert, although I have sometimes wondered what it would be like for us if we could pack up this whole diocese and go out together to Arizona or the Judean wilderness or the Sinai Peninsula. What it would be like for us to learn to rely on God and each other there one day at a time?

I invite you to live with that question for a while – in this season of transition. What will it be like for all of you to learn to rely on God and each other, one day at a time?

We aren’t going to Arizona, or Egypt, or Judea this Lent. But we are most definitely going on a journey. But all will be well, because Moses and Jesus—who both knew something about the desert—point us in the right direction on this first Sunday of Lent. They invite us to remember once more the solace of fierce landscapes, those places where we encounter the living God and rediscover the truth about who we are and where we can remember how to pray help, thanks, and wow. Those three prayers will eventually lead us all the way to the cross, and ultimately to an empty tomb.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Remember that you are dust...

As the Lenten journey begins again, I am with the people of Christ Church, Rochdale. In fact, as they enter into a season of clergy transition and begin their search for a new priest, I will be blessed to walk this Lenten journey with them. The readings appointed for Ash Wednesday can be found here.

I am blessed to begin this Lenten journey here at Christ Church, a journey that I’ll travel with you through the next five Sundays of Lent.  It seems fitting to walk this part of the journey with you, as the dominant metaphor for Lent is the wilderness- where the Israelites spent forty years and where Jesus went to be tested for forty days. More about that on Sunday, but sometimes clergy transitions can feel a lot like being in the wilderness. Here is the thing to remember: God is God.
And we know where we are going. We know the end of the story – when the women come to the tomb on Easter morning and discover that death could not stop Jesus. These days of Lent are a chance to get ready for that victory over death, in much the same way that Advent helps us to prepare for Christmas.

The great John Chrysostom, a fourth-century golden-tongued preacher, once preached an Easter sermon that is read to this day, especially among the Orthodox. I want to peak ahead to the end of this journey by reminding you what he said in that sermon:

If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.
He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious.
He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

So what’s the point of taking Lent seriously if everybody still gets invited to the party at the end?  What’s the point of Lent if God’s love is so indiscriminate? Why do all the prayer and fasting and penitence if God is just going to be gracious and merciful to even those who sneak in at the eleventh hour? Sin boldly and let grace abound, eh?

These are questions worth living with for a while, maybe even for the next forty days or so. But let me at least point to two possible responses: one about the nature of God and one about the nature of human existence.

First of all, notice that even as the prophet Joel blows the trumpet and calls for a solemn fast, he reminds his listeners that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The psalmist reminds us that God forgives, heals, redeems, crowns; that God satisfies with good things and renews us like eagles. The psalmist, too, knows that God is full of compassion and mercy and slow to anger and of great kindness.” St. Paul reminds the Church in Corinth, and those of us assembled here today, that in and through Christ we are offered reconciliation with God, and empowered to become the righteousness of God—not someday but now.  Now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation.

So the message is consistent, in both testaments. And if this Lent gives us a chance to remember that we cannot earn God’s grace and love, but that they are freely offered to us and to all, then this Lent will have been a “success.” Lent, in other words, is not a means to an end. The goal of Lent is not to prove that we are God’s favorites. Rather, we embark on this journey as an opportunity to remember who God is and to recommit ourselves to deepening our relationship with that God revealed in Jesus Christ.

To say this all more simply: making time to be with God in Lent is a privilege, not a burden.

This leads to the second point, which is about us. In The Sickness Unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard explored the notion of despair, which he saw as a part of human life. Whether we know it or not, Kierkegaard insisted, everyone is in despair. The most basic form of despair stems from not even knowing you are in despair.

Kierkegaard is hardly light reading, and I suppose for many not a particularly happy read.  But I guess it depends on whether you take the short view or the long view. Kierkegaard understood despair to be caused by the tension between the infinite and the finite. Because we humans are finite, we will all one day die. We’ll put it this way in just a few minutes: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But that’s not the whole story. Yes, we are mortal, formed of the earth. But we have also have been created in God’s own image. We live with this tension between the finite and the infinite. Or to say this in a slightly different way, we carry a great treasure in earthen vessels. The resolution to this tension is to live with hope rather than despair. This is achieved only when we learn to put our whole trust in God.

It seems to me that this has everything to do with the journey into the wilderness upon which we embark tonight, a journey reminiscent of the forty years the Israelites spent in the Sinai Desert and of Jesus’ forty days and forty nights in the Judean wilderness. Lent is about learning to let go of false idols in order to rely on God one day at a time.  It is a place where we are given gifts: bread, water, Torah, neighbors. It is a place where we are encouraged to face our own temptations head on and learn to grow from them.

We come to Lent not to judge anyone else, but to work on our own stuff, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Too many of us carry around some baggage about Lent that tends to focus on duty and obligation at best and shame and blame at worst. If you are carrying some of that baggage, I invite you to let it go this Lent. Just let it go. Give that up this Lent instead of chocolate or scotch!

The Hebrew and Greek words for “heart” are used 814 times in the Bible to refer to the human heart and 26 times to refer to the heart of God. Five of those uses come up in tonight’s readings, even as our opening collect today asked God for new and contrite hearts. A simple word study makes it clear that Ash Wednesday is a matter of the heart.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus reminds his disciples that prayer and fasting and almsgiving are not a means to the end of winning God’s heart. God is already crazy about us. Rather, we are called to prayer and fasting and almsgiving in order to soften up our own hearts, in order to make sure that we keep them in close proximity to our treasure. Jesus doesn’t mince words. He says that our desire for wealth (and sometimes it’s a desire for security) draws us from the heart of God and into idolatry. He calls us back to the heart of God, which is “…full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.” He calls us back to the God who has already claimed us as his own and marked and sealed us in Holy Baptism. The practices of Lent are like doing cardiac exercises that will keep our own hearts healthy.  

The Easter invitations have already been sent out. Everyone is invited. No worries about that! But we have the opportunity, over the next forty days, to get ready by choosing to spend some quality time in the presence of God, by making room in our hearts, by reflecting and growing and deepening our faith. May we willingly and joyfully seize that opportunity.

Easter will be here before you know it!