Lent in Real Life

Preached on 5 March 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
First Sunday in Lent, Year A

I go to Weight Watchers.  Our leader, Janet, often reminds us to be realistic in our planning and setting goals and calls out our tendency to fantasize about ourselves and our lives.  Using herself as an example, it goes something like this:

I say to myself, “I don’t want to pack my lunch tonight; I’ll get up early and do it.”  Somehow, I think that during the night, while I’m sleeping, I will magically turn into a morning person.

As we head into Lent, it’s important to know ourselves and recognize the reality of our lives – what we have control over and what we don’t; our responsibilities and schedules, our personalities and habits – as we decide how we want to observe Lent and what will make it a fruitful, holy time.  Our lives will not magically change overnight.  Ann Weems puts it a bit more eloquently in her poem, “The Way.”

The way to Jerusalem
looks suspiciously like Highway 40,
and the pilgrims
look suspiciously like you and me.
I expected the road to Jerusalem
to be crowded with holy people…
clerics and saints…
people who have kindness wrinkled in their faces
and comfort lingering in their voices,
but this is more like rush hour…
horns blowing, people pushing, voices cursing…
This is not what I envisioned!
O God, I’ve only begun and already
I feel I’ve lost my way.
Surely this is not the road
and surely these
are not the ones
to travel with me.
This Lenten journey calls for
holy retreat,
for reflection
and repentance.
Instead of holiness
the highway is crammed
with the cacophony
of chaos.
Is there no back road
to Jerusalem?
No quiet path
where angels tend
to weary travelers?
No sanctuary
from the noise of the world?
Just this?
Can this hectic highway
be the highway to heaven?[i]

Can this hectic highway be the highway to heaven?  The highway of our lives is not going to magically become less hectic just because it’s Lent.  So, how do we observe Lent in Real Life?  And that has two aspects: the Reality of our own lives and schedules; and the Reality of what’s going on in the world.

Immediately after his baptism, when the voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved Son.” And right after the Holy Spirit descended on him, that same spirit led him out into the desert.  There, he fasted for 40 days before facing the tempter, the devil who repeatedly challenged him, “IF you are the Son of God…prove it.”

Offering false promises, the devil tempts Jesus to use his power and privilege for his own self-interests, offering an alternate vision of the world.  This is a vision that is very different from God’s vision in which we are intimately connected with God, with God’s people and God’s world.

Now the point of this story is not to prove who Jesus is or how perfect he is.  It’s about facing temptation, examining it, naming it, figuring out what leads us astray.  In Real Life, we are bombarded with messages – temptations – that challenge our worth, our identity as children of God, that offer us alternative visions of the world, offering half-truths and false promises to tempt us to put ourselves in the center; drawing us away from God’s vision in which we are not at the center, but intimately connected with God, our neighbor, and the whole creation.

In the invitation to the observance of a Holy Lent, we are called to self-examination and repentance.  For the past few months, we have use the contemporary Lord’s prayer in which we pray, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

We have used a Confession of Sin in which we “repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.”

Now, whenever we start talking about evil, it can make us squirm inside.  And I think I can safely say, that you are all good people, you are even nice people.  You are not evil.  You are doing your best to do what is right and to make the world a better place.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t participate in the evil in the world or that you have no need of self-examination and repentance.

I believe we are living in a time of trial; perhaps we always have been. So, what do we do?

Now I want to say just a few words about charity and justice.  We are usually much more comfortable with charity work than with justice work.  Both are necessary.  Charity offers compassionate help to those who are suffering; we feel good when we help others and no one feels threatened.  Justice, on the other hand, is working to address the cause of the suffering.  That usually means challenging people in power; questioning the way things are and calling for change.  It’s uncomfortable and may even be risky.  There will be others who oppose what you’re doing.

Going back to the confession where we repent of evil that enslaves us; evil done on our behalf.  Let’s think about how we participate in evil, how we collude with power – and yes, doing nothing or staying silent is still participating.

I’m going to offer some examples and I want to remind you that none of this is new; it’s not about political parties or this administration.

I have a smart phone.  I love having the internet in my pocket; I tell myself that it makes my life easier or better or something.  But, the civil war in the Congo has often been waged on the bodies of women.  It’s horrific.  The war is, in part at least, over a mineral that’s used in cell phones.

Thousands of children die every day from preventable causes; lives that could be saved by food, vaccines, malaria nets.

Families are torn apart when immigration laws are aggressively enforced.

People fleeing political persecution, violence, war, any number of threats, are turned away at our borders.

People are threatened with losing health insurance or food assistance or educational opportunities from preschool on up.

Women die from cervical or breast cancer because those in power decide they cannot go to the high-quality, low-cost health care provider of their choice – even when there is no other choice.

People in Flint still have lead in their tap water.

People work full-time and multiple jobs but still can’t afford food or rent.  Military families depend on food stamps.

Pollutants are discharged into the atmosphere, the waterways and onto the land, harming wildlife, endangering species, and destroying habitat.

You get the idea; the list goes on and on.  This is the evil that enslaves us; the evil done on our behalf.  It is the other half of Lent in Real Life.  The list is overwhelming but it needn’t be paralyzing.  It’s impossible to address everything, but entirely possible to do something.

Now what would repentance be?  How do we turn toward God’s vision of a world in which we are intimately connected with God, with God’s people, and with God’s creation?  We face the evil, examine it, name it, and resist it.

It is incumbent on us as Christians, as citizens, as human beings, to resist injustice and evil.  When the outcomes of policies and practices are suffering, we hold people accountable, whether they’re in our families, in business, or in government.  Often, the most effective way to resist evil is through the political process.

You see, it turns out, that hectic, chaotic highway to Jerusalem is the only way.  It’s Real Life.  How will you navigate Lent on the hectic highway of Real Life through the chaotic highway of the Real World on your way to Jerusalem, on your way to Easter?  There is no quiet backroad tended by angels.  Jesus never said it would be easy.  But it is the way of life.

[i] Weems, Ann. “The Way.”  Kneeling in Jerusalem:Poetry for Lent and Easter. (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).