Monday, March 6, 2017

Sermon: "Longing for Lent"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregationsl Church Of Amherst, UCC
March 5, 2017 – First Sunday in Lent
Matthew 4:1-11

“Longing for Lent”

The 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness wrestling with the temptations that the devil set before him has become a model for the Christian life.
The idea that we are to be Christ-like at all times and resist our innate tendency to give in to temptation and sin has been a goal and a stumbling block for Christians across the ages.

The 4th century Bishop, Augustine of Hippo, is often called the Father of Western Christianity.
But before Augustine became St. Augustine, and before he entered the monastic order, he was known for his excessive dalliances with wine and women.
As a young man he ran with the wrong crowd, boasted of his sexual exploits, and fathered a child out of wedlock. 
Years later, in his seminal book titled, Confessions, Augustine admitted that as he contemplated entering the priesthood his most often said prayer was, “Lord, grant me chastity…but not yet.”

Then we have Martin Luther, the German monk who kick-started the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago when he nailed his 95 complaints against the Catholic Church on the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg.
Luther was so obsessed with his own struggle to resist temptation he would often kneel for 6 hours or more confessing every sinful thought that ever popped into his head to his fellow priests, much to their annoyance.

On one occasion, Martin had just completed a marathon round of confessing when he came running back in because he had forgotten to mention some insignificant foible. To which the tired and exasperated priest famously replied, “Look here brother Martin, if you're going to confess so much, why don't you do something worth confessing? Kill someone! Commit adultery! Quit coming here with such flummery and fake sins.”

And then there’s Sophia.
Sophia is a 3 year-old girl from Cleveland, Ohio, who became an internet sensation last year when her father posted a video of her adamantly denying that she was responsible for the bright blue nail polish that had come to be smeared all over her fingers, all over her bedroom carpet, and all over her Barbie doll.

Through tear filled eyes Sophia insisted that she was not to blame,
because Barbie told her to do it.
In the video you can hear her father calmly saying to her, “Okay Sophia, you’re telling me that you were playing with Barbie and then out of the blue she said, “I want you to paint me with nail polish.”

To which Sophia tearfully responded, “Uh huh, and she said it a hundred times – a hundred times! - and I kept saying, “Nooooo!”

Then her father said, “Okay Sophia, but does Barbie know that you’re not supposed to use your nail polish inside the house and that she could have ruined your carpet and your bed and all of your blankets?”

And little Sophia, with tears still streaming down her face, responded,
“I know! I told her it was a horrible idea but she wouldn’t listen to me!”

No matter how old we are, or how pious we are, we all seem to do this dance.
This dance between wanting to give in to our inner wants and desires, and our need to check ourselves and keep ourselves from doing something that causes more trouble and pain than any desire is worth.

What makes this dance so hard is that our desires are by design always weaving in and out of and conflicting with the desires of others - and the desires of God.

We desire love, acceptance, security, safety, connection, control –
but often in our quest to hold on to and satisfy those desires we end up hurting or taking from others.     And when we do that we cause injury to the relationships we have with others.

Not always intentionally.
But because we know God desires for us to live in right relationship with one another we’re called to take stock of the things we do that cause harm – both to others and ourselves - and do what we can to bring healing.

As Christians we’re called to do this at all times, but because we naturally struggle with this, the Christian calendar gives us a period of 40 days to devote our attention to this quest for healing.

Admittedly, the season of Lent is the one season on the Christian calendar that few people look forward to.
If we compiled a Christian Calendar Top Ten list and ranked the seasons by popularity, Christmas and Easter would be up there at the top,
with Advent and Epiphany coming in a close second, because most people think they’re just an extension of Christmas any way,
and somewhere in the middle would be the long season of Pentecost that stretches between Easter and Advent - the one we call “Ordinary Time” –
the season few people get excited about because, well, it’s just ordinary.

But way down at the bottom of the list we have Lent.
A period of 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday
that is traditionally marked by prayer, fasting, and penitence for sins.
Who doesn’t look forward to that?!

I had a clergy colleague of mine confess to me recently,
“You know, I really dislike the season of Lent….It’s just such a downer.”

And in many ways, she’s right.
Lent calls us to think about things that we’d rather not think about.
Our mortality - the fact that we are made from dust and to dust we shall return.
And our sin.
We may call it our brokenness, our shortcomings, our transgressions, but whatever name we have for it, it involves admitting that we’ve been less than our best selves.
And that’s not something many of us want to do for one day let alone forty.

Especially for those of us who already lie awake at night thinking about all the ways we’ve come up short – as we review the mistakes we’ve made over and over again in an endless loop in our head.

Lent has also traditionally been seen as a long arduous trudge through 40 days of denying ourselves something that gives us pleasure, like meat or sweets – or taking on something that we hope will make us a better person – like a new exercise routine, or reading the bible more, or a pledge to purge our lives of unnecessary clutter.

Either way it’s work.
Which is why people say they’re taking on a "Lenten Practice" or "Lenten Discipline.Nobody ever takes on a "Christmas Discipline," which is probably why it ranks so high on the Seasonal Top Ten List.

The idea that Lent should be a time of healing and a time of letting go
is really just a microcosm of what it means to be Christian.

To be Christian is to admit that God is calling us to a life of constant renewal. We are to continuously recreate ourselves anew by letting go of fear, and misperceptions, and the things that we hold onto because we think we need them - because they help us feel safe and secure – when what they really do is keep us from building relationships with others, and with God.

I get why some of us are not feeling in the mood for Lent this year.
With all the emotions and feelings of division that we’ve had swirling around us in recent months.
I know many of us are tired of feeling sad, and angry, and scared and bewildered.
And it would be nice to just let all of that go.

Lent is about letting go.

Lent is not about getting LOST in the wilderness,
it’s about finding our way OUT of the wilderness.
And to find your way out of the wilderness you have to first admit that you’re IN the wilderness.

You have to recognize that you’re stuck – that you’re spinning your wheels – that you’re lost in the thicket of despair or anger or just plain busyness.

To find healing – you first have to admit to yourself that you’re wounded.
To find wholeness – you first have to admit to yourself that you’re broken.

So even if on the outside we’re saying, “Oh I don’t do Lent, it’s such a downer and I don’t want to go there” – on the inside we’re longing for Lent.
We’re longing for healing – and wholeness – and relief.

When Jesus was in the wilderness, the devil tried to cajole him into giving in to his hunger, dared him to toss himself off a building as a test of faith, and offered him the chance to rule over all the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus was able to resist this temptation to give in to his human side and his desire for security, for power, for protection from harm.

But we are not Jesus.
We are going to give in to our desires.
And when we do, we will sometimes hurt ourselves and each other.
But God does not fault us for that.
God does not judge us or reject us or stop loving us because we’re human.
What God desires for us is healing.

So I would encourage us all to make it our Lenten practice to seek healing.
To spend some time taking stock of our own pain, and the pain we may have caused others, even if it was unintentional - and do what we can to make amends.

I would also encourage us all to spend these 40 days letting go of some of the things we carry that cause pain and hinder healing.
Our anger, our fear, our bitterness, our guilt, our desire for control, our reluctance to admit that we’ve fallen short, because we’re human.

When you think about it, 40 days is not a lot of time to spend on making ourselves whole again.

Blessings to you all on your Lenten journeys.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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