Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What are You Getting for Lent?


So, what are you getting for Lent? That’s kind of a weird question, isn’t it? Normally we think of giving something up for Lent. You might even think of that as a Roman Catholic thing to do. Certainly it comes from their tradition and history, which is also our tradition and history. Some protestants may think that it is somewhat of a “works righteousness” kind of thing to do. Or maybe it is, like in the movie Chocolat, an unreasonable measure of control that isn’t really connected with kindness or compassion.

All of these things may be true, but they aren’t the whole story. First off, giving up something for Lent is a way that we can participate in something as the church catholic – meaning all who follow Jesus. And while some may think of giving things up as earning bonus points or sky miles, it can also be understood as a type of Spring Cleaning for your soul.

The word Lent has origins in Old English that simply named the season that we call Spring. Thinking of the word Lent as a synonym of Spring has changed my entire outlook on both of these seasons – for they really are one and the same. Typically, I think of Lent as that dreary time before Easter. It feels liturgically burdensome. I mean really, 40 days of recognizing my face in the mirror as though I were looking at a wanted poster? No thanks.

Spring, on the other hand, is when the sap starts flowing and the water is high! The bees are buzzing and the world begins to sing again with new life [unless you are still snowed in]. Of course the church set up a schedule years ago such that Lent and Spring do not always coincide, but I’m not going to worry about that today.

Lent is here, and Spring is coming! I know because I spent hours in my back yard yesterday, and there are still so many weeds that you would never know. Those weeds – they are a constant reminder to me of the need for maintenance. And so Spring brings with it a need to clean out the weeds and make space for new life. Likewise, Lent is a call to repentance. It is a call to turn from self-centeredness and toward a new and deeper devotion to God.

And that’s what makes me ask the question, what are you getting for Lent? Our maybe I should say, what is that you stand to inherit? Is your life a cluttered garden with weeds from the past choking out new life? Are you reaping what you have sown? Are you all alone in your consequence or reward, or are you a part of something beyond yourself that you may or may not even understand?

According to our readings today, we are not simply set to receive an inheritance. In fact we are part of the inheritance that God promised to Abraham so long ago. Think of it. You were thought of by God as a shining star in Abraham’s night sky. Like the stars, your light may have gone out by the time it reaches someone else who is set to inherit your faith many years from now. At least, that’s what I’ve heard about stars.

Either way, the inheritance we are set to receive is that we are included in the covenant that God made to Abraham. And this covenant was about protection. It was about inclusion. It was about a God that was not bound by a region or selected by a king. It was about this God choosing a people in order to demonstrate sovereignty and power and salvation. And so Lent is a time to remember that our inheritance is salvation, and that it comes from no source but God alone.

That may sound elementary – or even overly convenient – but the expectation that salvation is real and that it comes from God is an essential building block of our faith. If you’ve ever put together a Lego kit, especially one of the themed play sets, then you know that missing a step early on can make the whole thing a hot mess. And so it is with you and me.

We live in a culture of competing agendas and loyalties. We receive messages from birth about our bodies and the things we put in them and on them. We watch programs and share news feeds that expose the most self-centered among us as the most worthy of our time. But their God is the belly, the appetite, the hunger that creates hunger, and we love them.

Yet we are called to be more than that. In fact, we are given one another so that we can become more than our appetites, for our citizenship is not limited to a country, or a parish, or a voting district, or even a building. Our citizenship – the place that we claim and the place that claims us – is none other than the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is from Heaven that we receive salvation. It is not what we give up or what we take on that saves us.

Incidentally, Sue and I were talking the other day about the music program that she will offer for that Lenten lunch in a few weeks, and she noted that in her research on the season of Lent she found that there has been a shift in the way people discipline themselves. She found that it used to be that people focused on giving up as a way of exemplifying suffering or purging their sin. Now you are more apt to find encouragement to pick something up – like a healthy habit or a particular act of service.

I was thinking about that when I read Paul’s words about salvation from Heaven, but also when I read about Abraham asking God, “How will I know?” and then about God demanding a sacrifice. Of course we understand that – because of Jesus – God no longer needs a sacrifice. Yet I think that sometimes we still need them. The thing that interests me about Abraham’s sacrifice is that it wore him out, and in that state he received a vision and God made a covenant with him for land and offspring. And so, part of the promise of the discipline of giving things up is that it will make space for God’s vision. Likewise, in order to pick something else up, we usually have to put something down. So, whether you are picking up a new way to serve God or putting away something that keeps you from serving God, the likelihood is that it will wear you out, but it will also create the space for you to see what God is about more clearly than before.

I have to wonder if that was part of the Pharisee’s experience in our Gospel lesson. Just a chapter before Jesus was calling the Pharisees out as bad yeast and hypocrites. Yet here is one concerned for his safety from the King who beheaded John the Baptist on a whim at a party, even though he kind of liked what he had to say.

I kind of like the way that Jesus seems a little flippant. He’s righteously indignant to threats from Herod. “Look, you little fox, can’t you see that your people – who are God’s people – are suffering? I’m kind of busy. Tell you what, I’ve got to go to Jerusalem in a bit. They have a pretty low tolerance for those that challenge their authority, so that’s not going to go too well anyway. But that’s on my agenda, not yours.”

So, there are two things out of this story that I think connect with the rest of our story today. The first is that Jesus is on target with God’s mission. He’s teaching and healing now, but soon he will go to Jerusalem. And he is going there to challenge the system. He’s going there to complete God’s work of demonstrating faith, living as a sacrifice, and creating a new understanding of what it means to say, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!”

Then there is that line about wanting to gather the city under the wings of God like a mother hen, if only they wanted it! But instead, their house is left to them. That’s what they get. Like Aretha Franklin in the House that Jack Built, “Listen, I got the house, I got the car. I got the rug, I got the rack. But I ain't got Jack.”

We have to be careful about limiting the grace God might extend to others, but we also need to take seriously the idea that if we try to out-fox God then all we’ll be left with is a crumbling house. So, what do we do, and what do we get out all of this Lenten preparation? What is the inheritance that we are receiving even here, and even now?

Now, I’m the last person to suggest a three step plan to spiritual fulfillment, but there are things we can do to make us more aware of what God is doing. First and foremost, we need to expect God to show up.

God is present in our daily lives, and we are particularly aware of God’s activity when we pray together, sing together, serve together, and study together. When we share our life stories and our experiences, God is with us. When we take time for personal devotion, God is with us.

And once we become more aware that God is truly with us, we can begin to make sacrifices that open up space in our lives to receive God’s vision. The more space we create, the greater the vision. And finally, I believe that God calls us to look for others who are examples of faith and practice. Not only that, but God calls us to recognize that someone else may be looking to us as examples for their faith.

Above and beyond all of this, it seems to me that what we really need to remember is that our ministry together – and our personal journeys of faith – are all a part of something so much bigger. For, as it was noted in our Presbytery meeting last Tuesday, “The church is not the generator of its own mission. The church is the result of what God is doing.”

On our way to the cross this Good Friday, let us be about the work of making sacrifices that create an open space for God’s vision. That might mean picking something up and serving God in a new way. It might mean putting something down that separates you from God. Whatever we do, let us do it as those gathered under the love of God, ever hopeful in our salvation, and ever expectant that God’s will is being fulfilled through you and me so that everyone might say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Amen.
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