Sermon for 2/21/21. Lent: Past, Present, and Future

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1 Lent

Psalm 25:1 – 9            Genesis 9:8 – 17         I Peter 3:18 – 22         Mark 1:9 – 15

God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’ Genesis 9:17

How can it be, we ask, that we got through Lent, Passiontide and Easter, Pentecost and Ascension, Advent and Christmas 2020, and Epiphany 2021, and find ourselves now, a year later, in Lent 2021?  Just as we have traveled one full year from Lent to Lent, so we have lived one full year with and under the threat of Covid-19, creating havoc in our routine and in our view of life.  In fact, we have almost ceased counting the months that we have dwelled under the seemingly never lifting cloud of Coronavirus.  A heretofore unarticulated, but now more and more often voiced, resignation has overcome us.  

And so it is, almost overnight as it were, we found ourselves on Wednesday last, at Ash Wednesday, the beginning of 40 days and 40 nights, during which time our liturgy and the readings of each day and each Sunday instruct us to contemplate the path that Jesus Christ, whom we acknowledge as the Son of God and Redeemer of human kind, took to his crucifixion and his subsequent resurrection.  So it is that we have been taught to prepare our minds for the great celebration of Christ’s victory over death, Easter: the Feast of the Resurrection.

Some among us sought and were successful in having membership in or locating a parish where they were able to receive the anointing of ashes on their forehead as a visible reminder of their own and our own mortality.  Lent reeks of solemnity, resounds with The Great Litany in procession, and more regular visits to the Confessional.  We were taught in earlier time that Lent was the time to keep our eyes downcast.

But, I stand now before you, in absentia, that is, not in my usual place in the pulpit of our sanctuary, to plead for a different view of Lent, and I say:

Now quit your care and anxious fear and worry;
for schemes are vain, and fretting brings no gain.
Lent calls to prayer, to trust and dedication;
God brings new beauty nigh; reply, reply,
reply with love most high.

To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes,
or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal;
but to be led to where God’s glory flashes,
his beauty to come near.  Make clear, make clear,
make clear where truth and light appear

    (Hymnal 145)

As we were assembling last week via teleconference for our annual meeting, the question of Ash Wednesday liturgy was raised; someone voiced a concern: “Who needs to be reminded of our mortality, when the invisible Covid-19 is daily before us with relentless new cases of infection and new tallies of death as reminder of the Human Condition?” Since our meeting, I have given much thought to that question, for it mirrored my own thinking, not only because of Covid-19, but because as a medievalist by training, I have reflected long and hard on the evolution of the Church-catholic’s theology and practical impact of Lenten discipline on the lives of the faithful.

And then, as if to put my mind at ease, our lectionary for this First Sunday in Lent provides an answer, one worthy of our consideration.  “And God said to Noah. ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’” (Genesis 9:19)  For me, a solid and simple theology is incorporated into this ancient declaration, and that declaration eases my concern about a Lent that places primary emphasis on human mortality.  The First Letter of Peter, appointed for reading today, clarifies further what our approach should be as we prepare in Lent to present ourselves before the Divine Creator.

LENT PAST: Restoring the Covenant
The Church, through its teachings as delivered by its clergy, has rightly taught the faithful to be mindful of the sacrifice that God in Christ offered in order to restore humankind to covenant with God.  But we dare not forget—God has again and again expressed his desire for reconciliation and restoration.  The Church catholic teaches us rightly to honor and to revere the crucifixion, that ultimate sacrifice, the sweat-like drops of blood, the blood itself from the pierced side, the life itself that were all offered to restore the covenant that we of humankind had ignored or cast aside. 

How could the Baptized Faithful better demonstrate their understanding of and fealty to the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, than to make sacrifices themselves, while acknowledging that “giving something up for Lent” was just a visible sign, a sign that could never secure admission into the covenant with God?  God could not and cannot be bought!  Indulgences were no longer “in.”

LENT PRESENT: Living under the Covenant
I, for one, have often attempted to imagine what life and religious observances might have been like for those first century Christians, those who were set on preparing for the immediate return of God’s Messiah.  Our Book of Records instructs us that this preparation extended beyond 40 days and 40 nights.  Their preparation was daily and without ceasing.  Surely, they had first-hand knowledge or believed in the reports handed down to them via trustworthy forebears and sought then to appropriate into their own behavior, actions worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice. 

For the record, I gave up on that mental exercise, because it had already become clear to me in my youth that I could not live or duplicate Lent in One A.D.  How could I imitate their approach to prove themselves worthy of the Second Coming of God’s Messiah?  Their social, economic, political, and religious circumstances were so different from my own. 

How could I, when the closest that I had come to a camel, for example, was during a visit to a local zoo?  And I, a teenager, barely survived a Boy Scout jamboree on an uncomfortable cot in a tent, which did not have the electricity that I needed if I were to read my book prior to lights out.  How can I now, in 21st century United States, relive Lents of millennia past when, by pushing a few buttons, I can establish vocal and even visual contact with relatives, colleagues, friends around the world and can ask them whether the Resurrected Christ has made his appearance there?

So, when I arrive at Lent and, especially at Lent in this year of great turmoil, I am confronted, as are you, with two realizations: 1) Lent, ushered in on Ash Wednesday, is about life, about living our own individual reality, while, at the same time, Lent is also how we live life in community.  2) In Lent of the Present, we are living the Lent of the Future of previous generations, but in our own way.  We are living in a continuum. 

You may and must map out your own travel plans as you journey through this holy period.  But as for me and my house (of one), instead of denying myself something and casting my eyes towards the ground, I intend to be proactive, with eyes opened and ears unstopped, to marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.  I intend to revisit frequently our Baptismal vows: to respect the dignity of every human being, which translates for me into rethinking who my neighbor is, as I recognize that my neighbor is not limited to the family across the road from me.  My personalized observance most assuredly means the reassessment of my thoughts about and behavior towards those whose religious views differ from my own.  I will make sincere efforts not to dismiss individuals who are struggling in and with their own relationship to God, but whose struggle seems either overbearing or so totally unenlightened.

LENT FUTURE: Grace, A Condition secured by our Divine Creator
I do not have to worry about Lent in the future.  It is my deepest desire that Lent 2021 will become for us all a time not only for reflection, but also a time for preparing the road to the future.  To try to recreate the past in our Lenten discipline is to ignore the comforting and reassuring words of God’s promise, which is recorded in the encounter with Noah.  Not once, in God’s conversation with Noah, but seven times does God iterate his promise and his insistence on looking to the future.  God caused water to cleanse, to wash away the transgressions of Noah’s generation, the misdeeds of the past.  Indeed, God reminded Noah of the reason for the Great Flood.  However, God’s intentions were forward looking, forward moving.  God wanted Noah to live, to thrive, to prosper under the Covenant of Reconciliation. 

The letter of Peter underscores that same promise when he writes, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (I Peter 3:18)  As phrased by Peter, it is our clear conscience that we gain through the grace of our baptism.  God clearly wants Noah and those with him to go forth and to live, to lead authentic lives, and nothing less is clearly the intent of Peter.  God’s covenant is not seasonal, a category that we check off.  Thus Lent, as well as everything we undertake in life, has its grounding in the Covenant of Grace

Lent, if we plumb this Holy Season to its depth, is about life as a continuum under the grace of God, recalling the past, living in the here and now, seeing in each day, not just for a season, an opportunity to give thanks for the gift of life and how we, by so doing, establish our present as the future for those who come after. And so it is that I implore us to put away “our sack cloth and ashes,” and give thanks to the Divine Being who made us and to ask for guidance in striving always to uphold the covenant extended to Noah and renewed in the sacrifice on the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth.

For righteousness and peace will show their faces
To those who feed the hungry in their need
and wrongs redress, who build the old waste places,
and in the darkness shine.  Divine, divine,
divine it is when all combine!

Then shall your light break forth as doth the morning.
Your health shall spring, the friends you make shall bring
God’s glory bright, your way through life adorning;
And love shall be the prize.  Arise, arise,
Arise! And make a paradise!  

Hymnal 145

Carl Klein (who has played organ for us in the past)