Sunday, 4 March 2012

What’s the point of Lent?

(A sermon at Hodge Hill Church, 26/2/12)

The desert waits,
ready for those who come,
who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading;
or who are driven,
because they will not come any other way.

The desert always waits,
ready to let us know who we are –
the place of self-discovery.

And whilst we fear, and rightly,
the loneliness and emptiness and harshness,
we forget the angels,
whom we cannot see for our blindness,
but who come when God decides
that we need their help;
when we are ready
for what they can give us.

(Ruth Burgess)

One of the gifts of the ‘Everybody Welcome’ course that we’re following during Lent in Hodge Hill is the way it seeks to open our eyes to how church looks and feels to someone who comes as a ‘stranger’ – passing by, coming in, meeting people, joining in, for the first time. And thinking about this again, I was moved to remove a poster which has been bugging me for, oh, the 18 months or so since I started here.

The poster has a simple message: “Life before Jesus” (sad face), “Life after Jesus” (happy face), “Any questions?”. I have two big problems with it. The first is it’s not true. Any of us who have lived through the loss of a loved one, or illness, redundancy or divorce, or who have suddenly found ourselves unable to do what we’ve always done or loved dearly, or have found ourselves suddenly ‘not at home’ – we know it’s not as simple as that. As if being a Christian somehow makes it ‘smiley faces all the way’, no questions, no doubts, no struggles.

My second big problem with it is that it’s not anything like the gospel. Or to put it in Lenten mode, it hasn’t been ‘tested in the desert’. In Mark chapter 1, just before the desert, we see Jesus baptised: the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends like a dove, a voice from heaven says, “you are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased”. Wonderful. Awesome. Joyful. And then he’s slung out into the desert.

And then just after the desert, out comes Jesus, proclaiming to anyone who’ll listen, “the kingdom of God has come near – repent, and believe in the good news”. But he doesn’t just proclaim it, he lives it – he brings the ‘good news’ to life, and specifically among those who have been pushed to the very edges of society. Those who know the desert as he does.

The ‘good news’ of Jesus is good news that has been tried and tested in the desert. We talk about Lent as a journey, and it is – but a journey through the desert – the ‘testing place’, the ‘training ground’, of Christian faith. The place where we learn to live with limits (some chosen, many more unchosen). The place where we discover our attachments (what are the things we think we can’t do without?). The place where our insecurities emerge (what are the things that make us ‘edgy’? what inner voices come out when we’re not feeling ‘at home’?). The place where we learn to live with boredom! The place where we find ourselves wrestling with ‘internal dialogues’ like this:

Are you hungry?
I am famished
Well, what's wrong with that?  Are you dying?

Can you stand being hungry for a while longer?
Maybe.  I guess so.

Okay, so what else?  Are you lonely?
Yes, I am!  I am terribly lonely!

What's wrong with being alone?  Will it kill you?
I don't like it.

That's not what I asked.  Can you live through it?
Probably not, but I'll try.

(Barbara Brown Taylor)

I want to offer three ‘rules of thumb’ for the desert journey of Lent. The first comes from the Iona Community’s daily liturgy: “We will not offer to God offerings that cost us nothing”. Or, we might also say, “We will not offer to others ‘good news’ that has cost us nothing”. The second is this: “We will not give up, or take up, anything during Lent that we don’t expect to leave us changed by at the other end.” What’s the point, if it’s just a 40-day blip and then ‘business as usual’? And then the third: “We must expect to be changed, not just for our own good, but for the good of others.” The desert is for anything but self-indulgence, or self-improvement. In the desert, we learn to resist turning stones into bread for ourselves, so that we come out of the desert ready to share our bread with our neighbours.

And if none of that is specific enough, let’s remember the five ‘values’ that we as a church committed to nurturing, just over a year ago – compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope – and which we explored together last Lent. Easy to say, harder to do. But let me share with you just a little of the hard-won, painstakingly-learnt wisdom we shared and discovered together last year, that points us not just to the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ of Lent. Maybe pick one, rather than feel like you need to try all five. And stay with it for the next six weeks. And see what happens…

  1. Let a stranger in. Physically perhaps, but certainly ‘emotionally’. Notice someone – maybe in the news, maybe on the street, perhaps even your next-door neighbour. Maybe someone who’s been labelled: ‘old’, or ‘young’, or ‘disabled’; ‘single mum’, ‘homeless’, or ‘asylum seeker’. And try asking them (or, if that’s not possible, ask yourself), “what’s your story? how do you feel?”. And you’re learning the beginnings of compassion.
  2. Give up grumbling, take up gratitude. Simple! Well, for some of us, moaning takes a lot of ‘weaning off’, so 40 days might end up feeling like an eternity. But as we discover the gifts that we have been given, and slowly open our hearts to be thankful for them, we discover that we are freed to share those gifts generously with others too. And we discover that generosity, like gratitude, is infectious.
  3. Admit a mistake or two. This is one that I find really difficult. I hate having to say I’m wrong. But how about finding someone that I need to say ‘sorry’ to, or even just to tell them that I’ve screwed up somewhere, each week of Lent? What better way is there to restore, and nurture, trust?
  4. Listen to someone. I mean really listen. Not necessarily a stranger – maybe someone you know well. But give them a good listening to, rather than our normal half-distracted efforts. And don’t try and get in there with ‘answers’. Don’t try and ‘fix it’. Don’t even dare to suggest you ‘know how they feel’. Try practising a bit of gentle, patient attention. It’s how real friendships are grown.
  5. And finally, how do we nurture hope? It’s easy to tell people there’s hope, to talk about hope, to encourage people to ‘be hopeful’. But that’s to fall back into offering good news that hasn’t been tried and tested in the desert. It’s not about talking, it’s about doing it. ‘Enacting’ hope. Making it a reality that can be seen, felt, lived in. Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see”. We can’t do better than that.

(with thanks to Stephen Cherry for many of the insights here)

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