Grace, peace and forgiveness to us all from Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen!
You all have only heard just a few of the 30 or so sermons that I have preached in the last couple of years. Maybe that’s good news… maybe it’s not. But there is a vicious rumor going around that says that the only topic this Deacon can preach about is God’s abundant love for all of us. Just two weeks ago I ended a sermon by saying: “In Epiphany we are reminded that God will go to any and all lengths to communicate just how much God loves us — so that we, in turn, may better love one another.” God’s grace is the center of gravity for me – not personal righteousness, not morality, not piety. We must, I think, always start with the sustaining love of God – God’s abundant “love offer” to each and every one of us –
- regardless of whether we are in inside the “in group” looking out or on the outside looking in,
- regardless of what we have done or have not done,
- regardless of what prayers or creeds we say or how we do or do not say them –
That “love offer” is what we need to hear on Sunday sermons and is what we need to tell each other because we are all longing to hear that we are loved – not isolated, not excluded, not judged.
And the sustaining love of God is probably the only antidote to the news this week. Who can help but be anxious about the spread of coronavirus, the roiling financial markets, causing increasing concern throughout the world about transmission, giving opportunities for singling out whole races of our fellow humans for suspicion and otherwise raising concerns about the spread of infectious disease? As The Rev. David Sibley of the Diocese of Spokane put it in a letter circulated by our Bishop earlier this week, “In a time of fear and panic, let us continue to dwell with one another, continue to be with one another, and continue to be at the Eucharistic feast with each other. I firmly believe Jesus would do the same.”
We find ourselves facing Lent this year needing God’s special grace and forgiveness even more than other years, I think. Our Gospel lesson tells of Jesus being tempted by pleasure, by an appeal to his ego, and by power. In spite of 40 days of hunger we watch Jesus make the right choice three times – and perhaps that gives us hope that we will make the right choice when we are faced with similar temptations in our life.
Lent may be the occasion to compare ourselves to Jesus and see how we stack up. That answer’s easy. Not very well… And that’s because… no matter how hard we try – we Christians are not very Christ-like. It’s true that we all have a spark of the divine, an image of God within us. But we also are under the control of something that Episcopalians rarely hear about in a sermon – we are enslaved to sin. I’m not talking about the triviality of sinning by having that extra bite of pie or ice cream or chocolate. I’m not talking of sin taxes on cigarettes, liquor, or gambling. I’m not even talking about a visit to Sin City where life is occupied with gambling or violence. I’m not sure what is worse – a few extra saturated sins or having to listen to some Puritan fanatic speaking against them.
We have trivialized the idea of sin – and hence, trivialized the idea of temptation. Francis Spufford, an English writer, in his 2013 book, Unapologetic, helps us reframe the concept of sin when he relabels it – well, I have to be careful to use the PG version here – sin is the “human propensity to muck things up.” No matter what the choice – no matter what the conditions, Spufford makes the point that we all seem to make the wrong choices all the time. We break things: we break moods, we break promises, we break relationships, we break our own well-being. Heck, even now I know that I’m probably going to mess up keeping this Holy Lent.
Admitting our own sins and confessing our sins in community allows us to see ourselves for what we are – not in comparison to Jesus – but as the old song says – It’s me, It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.
Realizing that we all muck things up in much the same way is the first step on a path of love — because once I see in you the same brokenness that is in me, I am moved to love you. Casting sin as the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up, therefore, lets us enter into a very Christian dynamic of, recognizing ourselves as broken, moving both towards God—since only God, and nothing of this world, can heal the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up —and moving towards our fellow humans —equally fallen and, therefore, equally crying out for love. While it can be healthy and useful to have regret about the ways we muck things up, and to even make amends if we can, we need not wallow in shame this Lent – because on a really basic level, if we did not mess things up, we would not need God. Really, there wouldn’t be any space for God in our lives.
I have a holy text to recommend to you this Lent. It’s actually a prayer that we prayed on Ash Wednesday – written especially for the 1979 Prayer Book by Dr. Massey Shepherd, an Episcopal theologian and divinity professor. I fall into the trap of thinking all the words in this book by ancient authors lost in time. But here are the words of a 20th century Episcopalian. They deepened my understanding of my own tendency to mess up and I think it’s worth our time to look at it. I’d invite you to open your Red Prayer Books to page 267-268. This Litany of Penitence takes our general confession that we say most weeks and dives deeply into our human propensities. Part of its analysis that knocked me off my feet last Wednesday was right in the first few lines. Typically, we Episcopalians “confess to Almighty God” if we are Rite I folks or in Rite II we generally confess our sins against God and our neighbor without specifying exactly to whom we are speaking. This prose addresses our confession of sin to God, to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth. If we take those words seriously, we are taking vulnerability to a whole new level.
Check out the top of page 268, “We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.” I have messed up so many important moments in my life by just being too impatient. Or try on the 5th paragraph on 268, “Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us.” Sometimes we miss prayer; sometimes we miss worship – but this prayer recognizes the good news that I do indeed have faith inside me — and the bad news that I choose not to share with others. Finally, near the bottom of the same page: “For our waste and pollution of your creation.” That’s messed up enough, but the litany also asks us to confess “our lack of concern for those who come after us.”
It is really a shame that we pray this prayer once a year, if we are lucky. I’d suggest if we are looking for something to read and meditate on – we could do much worse that to pray this litany this Lent. It calls us to consider not only our individual acts, but our corporate acts. It asks us to consider that there are so many ways when we separate ourselves –to build a wall to protect us — when we should be opening ourselves up to community to help us through our roughest times.
I’ll end with some Hebrew poetry that you might have heard earlier today. I’m going to use a strange word from the text, “Selah,” which some experts think means – pause, take a breath, reflect on the importance of what you have just heard.
While I kept quiet, my bones wore out;Psalm 32:3-6
I was groaning all day long—
every day, every night!—
because your hand was heavy upon me.
My energy was sapped as if in a summer drought. Selah
So I admitted my sin to you;
I didn’t conceal my guilt.
“I’ll confess my sins to the Lord,” is what I said.
Then you removed the guilt of my sin. Selah
Whether it is the temptation of the serpent in our Genesis creation story or whether it is Jesus confronting the devil just after being told that he was God’s beloved son at his baptism – the temptation to make bad choices is always present in our lives – not just in Lent. When tempted we have a propensity to muck things up — that’s sure a recurring theme in my life, and I’ll wager it is in yours. But the good news is that God’s love for each human is inescapable and not conditional on those choices. I guess the rumors really are true… this deacon, even in my sin and temptation sermon on the first Sunday in Lent, still ends up preaching on the universal and unfailing love of God.