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!