Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 17, 2013
“Let Your Heart Break Open”
I can always tell when the season of Lent has begun.
That’s when McDonald’s starts running its Filet-O-Fish sandwich commercials during prime time TV.
In recent years, Wendy’s and Long John Silver’s have jumped on the Lenten bandwagon as they too increase their marketing of their fish sandwiches to coincide with Ash Wednesday, supposedly to reach all those observant Christians who are abstaining from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
There’s no irony lost in the fact that we might choose to emulate Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness by eating a 500 calorie fried fish sandwich, rather than a 600 calorie hamburger.
Those of you who are life-long Protestants may not be aware that Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
But then again, most Catholics are not even aware that this requirement is still in place for the rest of the year as well.
When I was growing up as a practicing Catholic, we abstained from meat and ate fish every Friday, not just during Lent. Many people believe that this rule was changed with the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960’s, but actually the rule was amended to say that Catholics could choose to eat meat on Fridays if they perform some other act of penance to make up for it.
I’m not sure if ordering a small Diet Coke to go with your Big Mac counts as a form of penance.
But why is abstaining from meat during Lent, or any other time of the year, held up as a spiritual practice that Christians should follow to honor the sacrifice of Jesus?
We may joke that the Vatican owns stock in Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, but some conspiracy theorists would say that’s not far from the truth.
It sounds like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but those of you who grew up Catholic may remember being told that the Friday meat ban began when a powerful medieval pope made a secret pact to benefit the fishing industry and alter the global economy. The result: Millions of Catholics around the world end up eating fish on Fridays as part of a religious observance.
This makes for a great story, but there’s no evidence that it is true.
The more likely reason for no-meat Fridays came about when the early church instituted the practice to honor the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on Good Friday. Meat was expensive and came from otherwise useful animals that sacrificed their lives for us by serving as a food source. Fish, however were considered to be expendable because they were plentiful, cheap, and had the added bonus of being closely associated with the meals that Jesus and his fisherman disciples shared together.
So there you have it, whether you were wondering or not, you now know why we have to endure Filet-O-Fish commercials during Lent.
Lent is traditionally the season where many Christians, not just Catholics, seek to emulate Jesus’ time of 40 days of fasting and resisting temptation in the wilderness by giving up some form of indulgence – like chocolate, sweets, alcohol, or some other luxury that brings us pleasure.
In recent years people have taken to giving up their reliance on technology by limiting the time they spend checking email or using their cell phone, staying off of Facebook, and doing less mindless surfing on the internet.
The criterion for choosing something to give up for Lent is that it has to be something that we would truly miss so every time we feel the urge to have it we become mindful that we are making a sacrifice for a full 40 days to honor the sacrifice made by Jesus.
But giving UP something for Lent has fallen out of favor in recent years as some claim the practice itself is self serving and self-indulgent.
Often our lists of things we’re giving up begin to resemble New Year’s resolutions that focus only on our own self-improvement.
We may see Lent as an ideal time to make the commitment to lose weight, eat healthier, or give up addictions in an effort to better ourselves.
The trend in recent years is to take something on during Lent rather than give something up.
We might pledge to try something new every day, to practice random acts of kindness to help others, to be more environmentally conscious and reduce our carbon footprint, or to keep a gratitude journal to remind us of all the blessings that we have in our life.
These are all wonderful things to do, and they do require us to make sacrifices – with our time, our energy, and our money.
But this drive to take something on rather than give something up may spring from our fear that simply depriving ourselves of something we enjoy is either not enough, or is too closely associated with all that is wrong with organized religion.
For some of us, the understanding that Lent is meant to be a time of penitence leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Because it harkens back to the belief that we human beings are fallen, sinful, and unworthy of God’s love.
That we are no better than the dust we are made of, as represented by the smudge of dirt that we have placed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
It’s no wonder that those who feel weighed down by the baggage of these beliefs choose not to observe Ash Wednesday or resist the notion of “fasting” or giving up something during Lent.
But perhaps our attempt to zero in on the sacrificial practice of Lent and hold it up as antiquated, is in itself setting too narrow a focus.
Jesus went into the wilderness to prepare himself for his ministry.
Three years before he turned his face towards Jerusalem and resigned himself to his fate of carrying the cross, he walked out of the Jordan River, still dripping wet from his dunking by John the Baptist, and he set off into the desert.
He walked past the berry bushes and trickling streams and ignored the pangs of hunger and parched lips that urged him to shift his focus off of God and onto his human desires.
He did this for the same reason that religious observants have walked into the wilderness for thousands of years. Not to deprive themselves in an act of penance, but to turn down the volume knob on the unrelenting chatter of our human existence.
We can spend all of our waking hours consumed by our own needs.
Whether it’s our need for basic survival or our need to indulge our every want and desire.
All that chatter can easily distract us from seeking out and hearing the voice of God…and it can act as a cover for our own authentic voice that is desperately trying to be heard.
We may imagine that it was not the devil that Jesus encountered out in the wilderness, but the taunting voices of his own inner demons.
The voices that told him he was not good enough, not strong enough, not holy enough to do what it was God was calling him to do.
“You can’t survive without bread,” the voice said to him. “This is proof that you are only human and not as divine as you may think you are.”
“You can’t resist the tantalizing pull of power and glory,” the voice said to him. “This is proof that you will fail and not sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others as God has called you to do.”
“You don’t believe that God will ALWAYS be with you on this journey,” the voice said to him. “If you did you would not hesitate to test that presence by throwing yourself off a building, putting yourself in harm’s way”
We can say that Jesus was delirious and hallucinating after spending 6 weeks in the desert depriving himself of food and water…but there is something to be said for the spiritual practices of fasting and prayer….and the sense of clarity and focus that they bring.
We need not go to the extreme that Jesus did, of wandering in the desert for 40 days, but we can make an effort to turn down the chatter in our own lives by abstaining from the indulgences and behaviors that are making the most noise.
We may believe that Jesus was God incarnate and therefore he could easily overcome the temptations that he faced, but prior to beginning his ministry he lived 30 years fully immersed in a human existence.
Like all of us, we can imagine that he carried with him all the joys and pains of that existence. The times he felt lifted up, elated and celebrated. And the times he felt hurt or criticized, alone or abandoned, unworthy or unloved.
We can imagine that Jesus experienced times in his life when he had his heart broken like all of us do.
And ironically, in order to strengthen himself for the difficult ministry that lay before him, he needed to break his heart wide open all over again -
this time, in the loving presence of God.
All that we are is hidden in the recesses of our hearts.
Our hopes and our dreams, our fears and our weaknesses.
When we expose our hearts to God we allow light to pour in and illuminate those hopes and dreams, those fears and weaknesses.
That’s when the real work of tearing down and building up begins.
But we can’t get there if we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable before God.
Giving up our indulgences for Lent may seem like a silly and antiquated practice, but the problem lies not with the practice but with the way we’ve been carrying it out.
We may have mastered the art of depriving ourselves, of saying “no” to the things that bring us pleasure and joy because we feel the need to sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed for us,
but too often we miss the next and most important step.
We don’t turn to prayer and reflection to open our hearts to God.
For Jesus’ ancestors, tearing ones clothing was seen as a sign of penance, because it left one naked and vulnerable, but the prophet Joel told the people of Israel:
“Let even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” (Joel 2:12-13a)
Giving up our indulgences during Lent is the equivalent of tearing our clothing, removing the protective layer that serves as a buffer to the elements that may harm us. But if we truly want to build a relationship with God, we must take the next step and rend our hearts as well.
Earlier this week I came across a beautiful prayer written by Jan L. Richardson, a Methodist pastor, artist, and writer.
The prayer is called, “A Blessing for Ash Wednesday” and I share it with you now.
To receive this blessing,
all you have to do is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated to go.
Your entire life is here,
inscribed whole upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken
or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave in shadow,
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet to find.
It could take you days to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.
And so let this be
a season for wandering
for trusting the breaking
for tracing the tear
that will return you
to the One who waits
who works within the rending
to make your heart whole.
During this season of Lent, as we journey into the wilderness and leave our distractions behind, let us remember to listen deeply for the voice of God.
Let us allow ourselves to truly be vulnerable – to allow the light to flow into our broken places as we rend our hearts before God.
This yearly journey that we make towards the cross with Jesus brings us face to face with pain, deprivation, and death,
but it always, ALWAYS, ends in resurrection.
As we wander in the wilderness, we may just notice that the fearful and resistant person we see in the mirror every day has begun to whither and die,
as we’re born anew in the loving presence of God.