Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Welcome to Lent. Someone last night at our pancake supper wished me an “appropriate Lent.” I think that we can be more full blooded. I wish you a happy Lent, a joyful Lent. That’s not perverse. A “happy Lent” is not an oxymoron, not an impossibility.
I am well aware that Christians often emphasize human sin, punishment, self-denial, and guilt more than the goodness of God, of his creation, of our hearts and bodies, more than the love of God and our preciousness to him; that Christians can be more interested in shaming and accusing other human beings than in sharing God’s blessings. That’s not joyful. That’s perverse.
Still, Lent does direct us to look at parts of ourselves we’d rather avoid, our selfishness and fear and hatred and pettiness, and Lent does encourage us to deny ourselves, to practice at least a bit more restraint and discipline. Therefore, one of the dangers of Lent is that we see God disapproving of us, wagging the finger at us, and pushing us away from him. It’s an alarming and dreadful picture of God, and not true.
Let’s always keep at the heart of our faith God’s inexhaustible love and care for us, that each of us is his beloved child in whom he delights. We might better see Lent as part of Easter, a way for us to enter more fully into Christ’s life, his temptations in the wilderness, his journey from death to resurrection.
As we go through life, our journey in the wilderness, each of us makes decisions about how we orient our lives. What will lead us to the Promised Land, the Good Life? We can focus on external things, like social status, comfort, influence, wealth; or, we can seek intrinsic rewards – strong personal connections and relationships, growth and learning, character and virtue. Pursuing extrinsic rewards will not give us the good life; they will not give us fulfillment, meaning, and joy. The gospel offers another way.
In today’s gospel, Jesus told us that our spiritual practices should be in secret, that they should not draw attention to ourselves. If we pray to get noticed and to have people think well of us, if we fast or give alms so that others have higher regard for us, then our true motivation is for superiority, for social status. Our piety then is hypocritical, play acting. It appears to be directed for inner growth, for spiritual ends, but it’s really about receiving extrinsic reward, public recognition, a sense of superiority.
True spirituality, what strengthens our relationship with God, happens in secret, out of the public view. The benefit has to do with our inner transformation, not how others perceive us or treat us.
Almost everyone struggles between these, pulled on one side by the desire for external validation, power and honor, and on the other side by the desire for internal growth and stronger, authentic relationships. Lent offers us an opportunity to renew our orientation.
Lent is a time of repentance, and typically we associate repentance with punishment and self-mortification, feeling regret and grief, but repentance translates the Greek word, metanoia, which means a change of heart or mind, a change of consciousness, and it implies a “spiritual or inner transformation.” That’s what Lent is about, and why we can wish each other a happy Lent.
The intent of Lent is not to inflict pain and punishment. When we feel pain and sorrow, it is not God’s judgment against us. Our pain and sorrow may work to our benefit, if we allow it.
In a few minutes, we’ll sing Psalm 51: “the sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.” We just heard Joel: “rend your heart and not your garments.” Why does God welcome a broken heart? When our hearts are broken and troubled, then we often make room for God.
Our need often leads us to repent, to have a change of heart and mind, a change of consciousness. The inevitable and normal difficulties of life, our sorrows and disappointments, things that make us vulnerable and humble, these can promote inner transformation, the change of our habits, values, and attitudes.
In today’s gospel, Jesus directed us to pray, fast, and give alms – the basic spiritual practices. They promote our inner transformation, the change of our heart and mind. This Lent I hope that each of us will make an effort in at least one of these areas.
First, prayer. There are as many different ways to pray as there are people. I find most valuable simply trying to be still, silent; to try to cut off the images and noise running through my head; to focus on a single word. I don’t “achieve” this, but the practice of sitting still, simply trying to be present to God, has done as much or more to awaken me to his reality and care than anything else. For me, it’s been truly transformative.
Your way to pray may be different. Try different ways to pray. Try not to judge yourself. Try not to worry about how well you are praying or whether you are wasting your time. Prayer will not change our hearts and minds overnight, but gradually a real transformation takes place, helping us feel closer to God and his creation.
Fasting usually means reducing the amount of food we eat. The value in being a bit hungry is not simply to feel discomfort and annoyance. Rather, the discomfort can make us more grateful for how much we do have, how richly our lives our blessed. A bit of hunger can help us experience empathy, to connect with the millions, probably billions, who don’t have enough to eat or to connect with those who feel constant pain and discomfort. Feeling a little bit of the experience of other human beings might help us become more compassionate.
Fasting alone, just like any act of self-denial, is not guaranteed to strengthen our relationship with God. Our self-denial can be ourselves, trying to prove how tough we are, or how holy we are, or it can be about vanity. The spiritual value of self-denial is to help us be grateful and empathetic. Self-denial can motivate us to seek justice, to care about and identify with those in need.
The third practice is almsgiving, better known as acts of mercy or charity. Jesus said don’t let your left hand know what the right is doing. In other words, when you help someone, don’t draw attention to yourself. Keep a low profile. Work behind the scenes. That’s the way God operates.
Serving and caring for others helps us understand and identify with other people. It also involves us in giving and receiving. We discover that in serving often we’re not only giving, but receiving. There’s mutuality, reciprocity, that dignifies us, makes us more like God and makes us feel more unity with other people, that we’re all in it together.
Prayer, fasting, and acts of charity – these are the foundational practices of Christian piety, Christian righteousness. And here’s an irony. We practice them in secret, not drawing attention to ourselves, not making a public show, but the effect of them is highly social. They help us to develop stronger relationship not only with God and with ourselves, but with each other. They work toward reconciling us.
Lent is an opportunity to re-orient our lives to what is truly meaningful. It is a time to acknowledge our sin and short-comings, and the point of that is not to shame us or make us feel guilt, but to help us move through the shame and guilt, to accept ourselves and to feel God’s acceptance, to help us feel that we belong to God, close to God.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport