Sunday, March 13, 2022

2 Lent, Awakening from a world-induced sleep

Lectionary: Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35 

I begin with a story about one of my sweet dogs, Ollie, now departed. Ollie was a mixed breed dog, and it wasn’t a good mix. We loved loving Ollie, but he had quirks which sometimes made loving him a bit…
challenging at times. Ollie got in trouble a lot because he often was not a good dog. When he got in trouble, he was put in time out which meant he had to go to his crate for a period of time and wait to be let out.

Over time, when Ollie did a bad thing, he just went ahead and put himself in time out. We’d come home, watch Ollie walk himself into his crate, then look around to see what he’d done. As time went on, Ollie would put himself in time out and walk right out again. He knew we’d forgive him, so he didn’t bother spending any real time in the crate. He just went through the motions.

I tell you this story because that’s how so many of us treat Lent, but we aren’t meant to go through the motions of a penitential time-out, emerge knowing we’re forgiven, then go about our lives as usual. When we practice Lent, we are responding to God’s invitation to us with an invitation of our own. We are inviting God to change us.

The word “Lent” means spring and the season of Lent is a short, finite bit of time we set aside to allow new life to be formed in us. Our traditional Lenten practices of prayer, abstinence, and almsgiving represent our invitation to God to not only plant the seeds of new life in us but also to change the very nature of the soil, that is ourselves – our souls and bodies, which will receive the seeds of this new life.

Medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, talks about the “greening” of our souls which is, I think, a good image for our discussion of what Lent is and isn’t. I picture Hildegard’s concept like this: we go about our lives basically unaware that the demands and influences of the world cause the soil of our souls to slowly but steadily become hard and cracked like a dried-up river bed in a drought. At our invitation, the hands of the Creator reach into the soil of our souls, breaking through the hardened dryness.

The Almighty kneads our soul-soil, crushing the hardened bits of anger, judgment, hatred of self or other, that have formed in us. Then those great hands of Love trickle in water from the well-spring of life, Jesus the Christ, kneading and kneading until that life-giving water has softened every hard, dry spot in us.

This nourishing divine massage transforms our dryness into rich soil. Into this soil, the Creator places the seeds of new life for us, sweeps the surface of the soil smooth, sprinkles on a bit more life-giving water, and asks us to wait while the seeds within us take root and grow. 

This is Lent.

In our reading from Genesis, the dryness of our souls is depicted as a famine that forces Abram to leave his homeland, his identity, his security – and go to a new place to which God will lead him. The Scripture says he is afraid.

So, God comes to Abram in a vision and says those famous words of divine comfort, “do not be afraid.” Then God promises to protect Abram and lead him and his descendants to a new, abundant life. The key to this story is how Abram responded: leaving behind his identity, his land, and his life, and walking into the unknown trusting completely in God and God’s promise to him.

When we practice Lent, we enter a period of self-examination that brings to our awareness how and where we’ve become dry and hardened. This is the terrifying darkness Abram experienced - the realizations that we have such darkness within, and that we can’t save ourselves; because only God can save.

We always have the option to refuse God’s grace. This is what Jesus is lamenting in the gospel reading from Luke when he cries: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

When we choose to refuse God’s grace, however, we own the consequences. As Jesus warns the Pharisees, “…your house is left to you” or, in other words, ‘Have it your way. Walk on in the darkness. It leads only to death.’

When we offer our invitation to God, the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving offer deeply meaningful as well as tried and true ways for us to practice a holy Lent. Taking extra time to pray during Lent, we become aware of the voice of our Creator who gently calls us to awaken from our world-induced sleep. In prayer, we see the face of Love looking back at us, inviting us to leave behind our old identity, our old life, and walk into an unknown future trusting completely in God’s love, guidance, and promise of abundant life.

When we fast during Lent, we are actually and symbolically emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. When our stomach is empty, it cries out to us to fill it. 

Most of us here have the privilege of knowing that we can eat, and so we can choose not to eat (if that is medically safe for us) so that we can experience an embodied emptiness in solidarity with those who truly hunger. When we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved by compassion to do something to relieve it – even if that requires a bit of a sacrifice on our part.

When we give alms during Lent, we are consenting to enter into a new relationship with the poor. Within each of us is the capacity to judge, blame, and avoid those who are needy or suffering. This protects our own comfort and relieves us of the responsibility to answer their cry for help. During Lent, we make time and find real ways to draw near to those in need and welcome their story into our awareness and them into our lives. I think of the refugees we are welcoming into a new life here in Webster Groves, and the people of Ukraine whose need is presently so great.

So let’s not approach Lent like my dog, Ollie, going through the motions of a Lenten time-out. Let’s go deeply, faithfully, fully into the darkness of our inner hardness of heart and invite God to work the miracle of greening our souls so that we can run toward the new, abundant life God is preparing for us. Amen.

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