February 14, 2016 – Lent IC – Good News

Sermon — Sunday, February 14, 2016 — Lent I — St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

In the name of God: Our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen.

Well, to get started, I want to say that I have Good News. It is, after all, the calling of the preacher to proclaim Good News. So if I don’t proclaim Good News today, I’m not doing my job.

So. Its fortunate that I have some Good News. The Good News is that its Valentine’s Day. Yes, Valentine’s Day, that day of the year when we all are called to practice, for a short while, the religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans, when we get to speak knowingly of Cupid the God of Love, and of Venus, his mother, and to bring them offerings of chocolate and flowers and Valentine’s Day cards.

It’s the one day of the year that helps us in the religion business to make sense of the fact that most of the buildings in our culture that we call churches look a lot more like the Parthenon – you know, that temple on top of the Acropolis in Athens erected for the worship of Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom – our churches look a lot more like the Parthenon than they do any building associated with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Think about it – the Parthenon is a rectangular box-shaped structure with a row of columns across the front, and all it needs to be identical to the design of White Memorial Presbyterian Church on Oberlin Road or Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Five Points, or about 80% of all the churches in Wake County, is a steeple on top. And on this festival that is really a celebration of erotic love and sexual desire, I have to say I wonder about the symbolic significance of that steeple.

Anyway, the good news is that its Valentine’s Day. But before you reach for that box of chocolates, I also have to say that there’s Bad News, too. And the Bad News, this year’s little joke on us, provided by the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church, is that its also the First Sunday in Lent. And in our culture, Lent is about denial, about giving up, about abstaining – its about acknowledging our sinfulness, admitting our imperfections, our difficulty in following the rules.

And also about redoubling our efforts to follow the rules, to avoid breaking the rules, because God is keeping score. Lent is about measuring up, or – more likely – not measuring up. And in that version of Lent, the God of Lent is God the carrot, God the stick, and God the cop on the beat. In that kind of world, chocolate is not welcome.

Now I want in the next few minutes, to propose some other ways of thinking about God, and about Lent. I will try to persuade you – in the words of Richard Rohr, the Franciscan theologian — that Lent is not about trying to change God’s judgmental mind about us, but about changing our fearful minds about God’s loving mercy towards us.

I’m taking on a difficult task — the despairing view of humanity, and its theological expression, that Jesus died an awful and agonizing death on the cross to satisfy the wrath of an angry God – is deeply seated in our western, and especially in our Southern cultural consciousness.

So I may not succeed. But, even if I don’t, I still have Good News. According to the Liturgical Calendar, all Sundays are Feast Days, even Sundays in Lent. So until tomorrow, even in Lent, as long as its Sunday, I guess as long as its Sunday somewhere, it’s a Feast day, not a Fast Day, so my advice is, go for that chocolate.

So, that’s the Good News for today, and the Bad News, and the Good News, too. But back to Lent, and to the place of Lent in our spiritual practice. Lets go back to Richard Rohr, and the idea that Lent is about changing our minds about God instead of changing God’s mind about us. Or, to get there another way, lets remember the words of Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Jones said the purpose of Lent was to convince us that each one of us goes through the world, preceded and followed by angels who proclaim continuously, “Behold, a Child of God. Behold, a Child of God.”

To me that’s breathtaking – that each one of us – you, me, all of us, is a Child of God, a beloved Child of God.

We get some clues about this way of thinking about God, and about Lent, from the Lessons for today. In the reading from Deuteronomy, the writer places us in the Promised Land of the People of Israel, and imagines someone bringing an offering of the harvest from the land that God had given him, and he explains why he brings this offering:

A wandering Aramean was my father, he says, who went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now, he says, I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.

So the offering of the man in the story is not an offering to satisfy a jealous and angry God, but an offering of thanksgiving for God’s favor, for God’s mercy, and love, and generosity.

And the story goes on – for God’s love and mercy and generosity is not just for the child of Abraham in the story, but extends beyond the experience of the man who makes the offering, extends also to the Levites who dwelt in the promised land before the people of Israel got there, and also the aliens, the strangers who have come there to join them, so that “the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with you all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”

In Lent we are called to recover our knowledge that God is a God of love and of mercy and of generosity. In the words of the Psalmist, this God of love and mercy and generosity will deliver us and protect us, this God is with us in trouble, and will rescue us, and bring us to honor.

Or, in the words of Paul, writing to the Romans, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

My favorite of all Jesus’ parables is the story of the Master of the House who goes away on a journey and leaves his servants in charge. Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a house whose Master is away, and who tells his servants to be ready for his return. Jesus says, Blessed are those servants who are awake and prepared when the Master returns, for when he returns, Jesus says, he will put on his apron and serve them. God is a God of love and mercy and generosity and abundance, who comes not to be served, but to serve us.

This is the God who by water and the Holy Spirit has made us a new people, worthy to stand before God. This is the God who calls us to be his servants, who sets a table before us, this day, as every day we gather, who invites us to be his guests at this table, at this feast, that we celebrate this day, at this altar.

This is the God of love and mercy, this generous God who sends his angels to precede and follow us in this world, proclaiming to all who can see them, Behold, a Child of God, Behold, a Child of God.

But how do we see this God, how do we come to hear these angels, in this time of Lent? I must admit much of the language we have learned to use in our prayers and our thoughts about Lent aren’t all that helpful. We heard a lot of that language in the Great Litany with which we began this service. Much of that language is about judgment, about God’s judging us, about God’s wrath against us, and its about acknowledging our sinfulness, admitting our imperfections, our falling short, about all the ways we imagine ourselves making God angry.

This is language that we are given to use, at this season of the year – how do we hear it so that it is about God’s love and mercy, and generosity, not about God’s judgment, God’s wrath, God’s anger?

For today, I’ve got two suggestions. Here’s one – lets imagine that the language of our sinfulness is about our daring to bring ourselves completely before God – to bring our complete selves, our worst as well as our best selves, as we are, in all our limitations, our failings, our fears, our doubts – before God, as our offering, before God, as our offering of thanksgiving to the One who gives us our lives to live, and our companions to share our lives with, and all the opportunities for growth and celebration and love and creativity and resilience that our lives bring us. After all, we usually pray to open our gatherings what the Church calls the Collect for Purity – we describe God as One to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. If we really believe that, there is absolutely nothing about ourselves that we can disclose to God that God does not already know.

No surprises, there. And yet those angels still cry out “Behold, a Child of God, Behold, a Child of God.”

Last Wednesday, I found myself at an Ash Wednesday service in Chapel Hill, at the Chapel of the Cross. I came in late, and took the first available seat, which happened to be next to a man who was bald. And it was not my baldness, the baldness of someone too old to grow hair. Nor was it the shaved-head baldness of the young and fashionable. No, it was clearly the baldness of someone going through chemotherapy. And there we were, together, each of us more aware than we usually are of our own personal mortality, hearing the ancient words of reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

It occurred to me that Lent is a good time to sit more closely and openly with our finitude, to acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, and will die, and in the meantime are subject to what Hamlet calls the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Lets consider that our mortality is not a punishment for some ancient transgression but one of God’s gifts to us, that time unfolds as a series of opportunities for growth, for joy and celebration, for love and for caring, for generosity, for finding God where we know God already and always is, with those who need our support in this world – the poor and homeless and sorrowful and the hungry. For they, too, go through the world with angels before and behind them, and those angels still cry out “Behold, a Child of God, Behold, a Child of God.”

Without time, without mortality, every day is another day of the same thing, that time and change and mortality make life precious, make life dear, make life meaningful, make life worth living.

So lets try to imagine, when we use this traditional language of Lent, we are reminding ourselves that God knows us as we are, that our lives are God’s gift to us, that there is nothing in heights or depths that can separate us from the love of God, that in bringing our complete selves before God, offering up not only our best selves but also our worst selves, ourselves in all our humanness, we are offering ourselves up to the God whom we proclaim comes to serve us, comes to care for us, to bring healing and compassion and mercy.

That’s one suggestion., Here’s the second: its related:

Lets give up our belief in perfection, lets give up our belief that things that are not perfect are worthless. After all, if we are children of God, whom God chooses to associate with, then we must be OK with God, just as we are.

It is God after all who in Christ has overcome everything that separates us from Him, it is God who proclaims that we are all blessed wedding guests at God’s eternal banquet.

If we do so, we may find that God is even yet capable of surprising us, surprising us with the possibilities and capabilities found in the very brokenness of our lives. The Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen has a song I like, called Anthem. You may know it. Some of the lyrics run like this:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Perhaps Lent is about finding that we do not need perfection, that all we need is the lives that God has in fact given us. Broken lives, cracked lives, that’s how the light gets in.

God calls us to live our cracked and broken lives in the light, in the light that gets in because there are cracks. It seems to me that is how God’s generosity and mercy and love shines through, through the cracks, a transfiguring light that enables us to stand before God as children of God, a people free to celebrate God’s love, and God’s mercy, and God’s abundance. This Lent, God sees the angels before and behind us, crying out “Behold, a Child of God, Behold, a Child of God.” May we, this Lent, come to see and hear them too.