Preparing for Lent, I read a compelling article in The Christian Century, in which a Congregational minister describes his life changing experience with an app on his smartphone. Called WeCroak, the app sends a text message to the phone five times daily. The texts arrive at random moments, but they always say the same thing. Don’t forget, you’re going to die. Matt Fitzgerald says the app made him a better parent, a better pastor, and helped him set aside some long-term grief. Through the app, he learned that happiness can be willed and sustained through practice, and that joy, like Christ, arrives on its own terms. After six months, the pastor turned his faith toward Jesus in a new way. Because although the app continues to remind him that death is inevitable, he also keeps in mind that by grace we shall rise again.
My first thought: What a brilliant Lenten exercise! My second thought: WeCroak is not a good title for a Lenten sermon when we are sleep deprived by Daylight Saving Time.
We come this week to the season of Lent. If we did a word association, how might you describe the Christian approach to the season? We are dust. We are worms. We are miserable sinners. We are unworthy. Some people describe Lent in competitive terms: forty days to feel more wretched than thou. (cf Jay Sidebotham) May I suggest an alternative approach? Think about what Lent has to do with grace. How can this season be a blessing? In what way can all our Lenten exercises lead us to new life?
We always have the opportunity to choose to dwell in place of stagnation or death, or to find new life. What I love about Lent is its invitation to consider what is most important in my faith life.
Our scripture lessons today paint a picture of what it may look like to live in the presence of grace.
Deuteronomy speaks of grace as a collective experience. Although the Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a single sermon delivered by Moses, it is probably a collection of laws and exhortations that grew over a period of about 150 years. Today’s reading is the conclusion of the covenant laws that comprise the heart of the book. The offerings given in thanksgiving for the providence of God are not given to support the Temple but to nurture those who are landless and thus lack self-sufficiency. Those who have been blessed by the new life in the Promised Land share with those who have no resources. The action of the entire community testifies to God’s faithful deliverance to new life and provision. The story is not of individuals but of an entire community who dwell in the blessing of the Holy One.
Paul focuses more on the working of grace in individuals, although he emphasizes the connection between us that derives from Christ. When he writes to the little Christian community in Rome, Paul admonishes them to remember that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek with respect to salvation. Neither our ethnic nor religious background can be used as an excuse for exclusion from the grace and salvation of God. Paul criticizes those who absolutize observance of the Law as the source of righteousness, echoing the message of the prophet Joel (2.32) when he says that salvation belongs to all who call on the name of the Lord. Understanding Jesus’ work and following his teaching are life-giving for all who want to live in harmony with God’s will.
Our gospel lesson teaches that evil, which undermines our spiritual life, often derives from our inclination to walk away from the primary relationship that identifies us. Underlying the dialogue between Satan and Jesus are two competing stories of what brings us life. The Adversary offers the deceptive story of life rooted in the Ego: self-indulgence (make yourself bread from stones), self-aggrandizement (all the nations of the world will belong to you), and self-serving religious identity (the son of God could jump from the top of the temple). Jesus responds with scripture quotations that show his awareness that genuine life and identity are rooted in God. He knows that life is more than food, true worship and service are not about us, and that disciples trust God, instead of testing God. The story Jesus offers is rooted in a narrative about the grace of God, which supersedes Self, and offers new life, eternal glory, and divine identity.
The teaching we can receive from these lessons might go beyond the usual early Lenten sermon about avoiding temptation and submitting to the will of God.
We are under assault every blessed day. Every day we are barraged with messages that seek to tell us that we are not enough, that we are defective, that we are generally unlovable in our natural state. We are too wrinkled or too pimply, too fat or insufficiently muscular, need to get a “better” wardrobe, car, or diploma. And the gospel teaches us that nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is that we are deeply, foundationally, entirely loved by God, in our natural condition, which is to say in our imperfection, with our physical and spiritual limitations, our inclination toward doing the wrong or foolish thing, and our built-in obsolescence. We are precious treasures in the eyes of God, infinitely beloved. God’s love for each of us is unconditional and not based on what we do or how we appear.
The Lenten exercise of repentance – our turning back toward God – is more about remembering our identity than it is about just avoiding temptation. And please do not hear this as an endorsement of sin or of avoiding responsibility. The point is that when we are able to remember who and whose we are, we are less likely to be attracted to behaviors which are destructive of our relationship with God and one another. What we do can be based on the love of God, which we can come to know by practice.
As a group of people who come together in community to follow Jesus – and yes, to be a Christian we are supposed to be in a community and not solitary practitioners of the faith – we must be both conscious and intentional about working together. Our collective action reflects our identity. As an Episcopal parish, we exert significant energy on group activities. In addition to our corporate worship and our time in fellowship (both good things), we spend time and energy in the service of others. Those who serve meals at Downtown Daily Bread, those who spend a night at the Safe Haven shelter, those who bring in food and personal care items for the needy: you are all serving those who lack resources.
If you haven’t been able or inclined to participate in these ministries, there are opportunities in the near future. Read your bulletin to find them.
As individuals who want to build a relationship with God, we can be intentional about learning the ways of God. The groups which gather to pray (Wednesday at 5.30) and study the Bible (Monday evenings), or which will be examining the Episcopal tradition (Sundays after church) or building the Beloved Community (Wednesday evenings in Lent) are seeking to learn about life with God in the center. There is always room for more people. Feeling shy? Pray the Stations of the Cross or walk with labyrinth after church (instruction booklets in the basket in front of church). Too busy with the family? Take home the family devotional from the back of the church.
We are nearly at the end of winter. I encourage you to embrace Lent as a season for seeking grace. Practice diligently the art of turning to God with some glance or phrase of love and trust at spare moments in the day (Evelyn Underhill). Do not allow this moment of spiritual growth to get away from you. Do something to build that relationship! By grace we shall rise again.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy Welin at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral on March 10, 2019, for the First Sunday in Lent. The lessons for the day, which can be found at this link, are:
- Deuteronomy 26:1-11
- Psalm 91:1-2,9-16
- Romans 10:8b-13
- Luke 4:1-13
- Matt Fitzgerald. “Shaping my mind to die.” The Christian Century. November 7, 2018.
- Jay Sidebotham. “Monday Matters.” March 4, 2019. http://renewalworks.org/news/
- Brian C. Jones. “Commentary on Deuteronomy 26.1-11.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3989