The Rev. Peter M. Carey
1st Lent – Sermon – 13 March 2011
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, VA
In the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
Today we pray that we might lead a holy Lent. A holy Lent. Holy. Lent. On Wednesday, I preached about the sense that holiness has to do with being whole; that to live in a whole way, we must consider our sinfulness, but also consider our blessedness.
All too often, the church has been a reminder of our sinfulness, of the ways that we don’t live up to God’s gift, of the ways that we fall down, and the church has all too often only been a source of reminding us of this sinfulness. All too often, I find myself encountering people who are in some sense “recovering” Christians – be they Episcopalians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians or whatever room of the great mansion they may come from. They are, in some senses “recovering” from the baggage laid on them.
Speaking of sin is important, because it can help us to really live in such a way that we know that we can’t “do it” all on our own. As Paul said, he “sees the good, but can’t do it.” We may know in our hearts and minds what it might mean to live well and good and lovingly and morally, but sometimes, we just can’t quite make it happen. Speaking of sin is important for the Church because it is a helpful antidote to arrogance and narcissism. Speaking of sin is important, in order to help us to focus more on God and our neighbor than on our self.
Speaking of sin, however, can’t be all that the church does. In order to help people live holy lives, in order to help people to live whole lives, we also need to constantly remind ourselves of our blessedness. Surely the poor in Spirit need no reminders
that they are sinful, and that they “are dust and to dust they shall return.” No, the poor in Spirit need to be reminded, and reformatted as the blessed. Surely those who are persecuted for righteousness sake need no reminder that they are to be humble, or that they are sinful. No, they need reminders that they are blessed, that they are children of God, despite the fact of their earthly persecution, despite their suffering.
And we too, need to be reminded of our blessing. We too, need to be reformatted and recast, and transformed into the children of God. To live holy lives, and to live whole lives we need both the reminder of our failings, and the reminder that we are blessed. It is the sense that we may tell a coworker, or a student, or a friend when they have had a failure, “you are better than this.” Being told, “you are better than this,” means that 1) yes you messed up – and there may be consequences, and you may need to pay the piper, however, 2) it also means that the promise is there for you to do much better.
And so we are called to live a holy Lent. I might retranslate it that we should live a “whole” Lent. What is keeping us from living whole lives? What is standing in the way of our reception of the blessings that God has given us? What is keeping us from fully embracing our status as blessed children of God? Is it even our focus upon our weaknesses and sins that stand in our way?
As we consider entering into Lent, it is common to “give something up” such as chocolate, or alcohol, or television, or grumbling, or fried food. Or, it is also common to “take something on” such as a reading project, or prayer or an exercise regimen. I wonder whether these actions and these strivings bring us to greater wholeness. I wonder whether these actions and strivings bring us to greater holiness. Does giving up chocolate bring us closer to God and to our neighbor, or does it merely make us self-righteous and crabby. If it does, I say eat your bon bons and be kind to your neighbor.
Does giving up television bring us to greater depth of prayer and connection with Jesus and open our hearts to a world in need, or does it merely mean we are acting “holier than thou” when Major League Baseball begins in earnest. If it does, I say watch your television but spend some time in prayer.
Wholeness and holiness. I pray that we might live a whole Lent, remembering our sinfulness, the sense that we are dust and to dust we shall return but also remembering that the dust we are made of is also stardust – stardust! We are made of the same stuff as the stars. We are dust, and yet we are also children of God, held, caressed, and blessed as his beloved babes, always. Can we live in the place between? Can we live in the midst of the tension between sinfulness and blessedness while we know that we are sinful, and yet we are also forgiven and blessed? Yes. This is what it might mean to live a holy Lent, a whole Lent, embracing both our dustiness and our childlikeness.
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
-Book of Common Prayer, p.265