We beseech Thee to hear us, Good Lord: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 2020

 

“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and
flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine,
Good Lord, deliver us.”

English-speaking Christians have prayed or chanted these words for almost 500 years. Often, they have been chanted in public procession, beginning at their first use back in 1543. The Great Litany is the first piece of the liturgy officially published in English and it was first used before Henry VIII embarked on one of his failed attempts to defeat the French. Since then, it has been prayed in times of plague and war. We use it here at Grace on the first Sunday in Lent both to mark the changed liturgical season and to emphasize human sins and shortcomings, and our need to repent, to ask God for forgiveness, and to receive God’s mercy and grace.

In many years, the language and imagery of the Great Litany seems not really to speak from or about our experience and our world. Words like “flesh and the devil” or petitions to “beat down Satan under our feet” remind us of the vast cultural distance that separates us from the people of the sixteenth century.

This year, our experience of the Great Litany may be different. Prayers that our political leaders would do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth seem eerily on point and all of us are praying that we be delivered from plague and pestilence.

Ancient words made new and meaningful again. As we worry about immediate threats like the spread of coronavirus, about the health of the economy, about the direction of our country, and about the growing threats of global climate crisis, it’s increasingly clear that human existence is fragile, that the world we have known and in which we many of us have thrived may be in the process of becoming quite different, with threats on all sides, not just to our comfortable lives and living standards, but to human life itself.

Ancient words, ancient stories. We heard two stories that have deep power in our culture. From the gospel of Matthew, the story of Jesus’ encounter with Satan. It occurred immediately after his baptism, immediately after the voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And it’s as if this scene is set up to challenge that statement, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that God is well-pleased with him.

From Genesis, a foundational, perhaps the foundational story of Western Christianity, and with it all of western culture. The story of the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden. It’s a story we think we know. The reading from Romans 5 shapes our interpretative lens: “As sin came into the world through one man, and through sin came death…” The lectionary and our previous assumptions teach us that this is the story of original sin, the fall, an explanation of why there is evil in the world, why humans die, and why we have to work hard to achieve anything.

While that’s the story we know, it’s not the story that appears in Genesis 3. In the first place, the words “sin” nor “Satan” or the devil do not appear in the text. It’s the story of a woman, a man, and a serpent, who we’re told “was more crafty than any other of the wild animals that the Lord God had made.”

The inclusion of the verses from chapter 2 helps us understand the authors’ perspective on human beings and on creation. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden, the Hebrew literally reads, “to serve it and to guard it.” Human beings were created to be in partnership with the garden, to protect it and preserve it. It’s a very different notion than that which appears in Genesis 1, when God commands the humans to have dominion, lordship, over all the animals and plants. We see here a sense of human beings cooperating with creation, given responsibility to protect it. One more point—there’s no sense here that before the fall, humans were intended to live in idleness, rather, they were placed in the garden for an end and a purpose. Created in the image and likeness of God, God intended them to flourish and to aid in the flourishing of creation.

But something happened. They met a talking serpent who gave them a different way to think about themselves and God. The serpent questioned what God had told them and promised them that by eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would become like God.

Everything the serpent tells them is true, if somewhat one-sided. They did not die after eating of the fruit of the tree and they did gain knowledge. And the fruit was desirable. Eve ate because the fruit was beautiful, good to eat, and would make one wise—all of these are appropriate reasons for her decision. And, I would add, of the two humans, at least the woman showed some agency: “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

What were the consequences? They gained knowledge; most immediately, of their nakedness. They were ashamed. So whatever intimacy the two beings, “bone of bone and flesh of flesh” had had was suddenly gone—they needed protection from each other. And they needed protection from God. Their nakedness and exposure broke the pair’s intimacy with each other; it also broke their intimacy with God. Instead of becoming like God, they becoming frightfully aware of their difference from God. They wanted to escape from God but God wasn’t done with them. God sought them out in their hiding place, and when God located them, God showed continuing care for them by sewing clothes for them from animal skins. Any punishment would come later.

It’s a story of disobedience and rebellion against God. God created the humans for a purpose, for relationship with God and to participate with God in the care of God’s creation. Rejecting that purpose, they chose to aspire to be like God and so spurned their true nature, having been created in the image and likeness of God. It’s the story of humanity; it’s our story. Like Eve and Adam, we grasp for the beauty and knowledge we can see; and in grasping for what we want, we turn away from God and deface the image of God in us. The knowledge we gain is knowledge of our own fallen humanity, knowledge of our shame and embarrassment.

The man and the woman in Eden grasped to become something other than who they were and who they were created to be. In the gospel reading, we see Satan testing Jesus to see what sort of “Son of God” he would be. Would he be one who gave people what they wanted—bread for their stomachs? Would he be one who would take all that he could, who would rule the world with power like the Roman emperors? In the end, Jesus chose a different model and would follow a different path, one that would end in a humiliating, tortured execution. In the end, Jesus accepted his identity as God’s beloved son, and loving the whole world, he offered himself for us.

The story of the man and the woman in Eden is a story about humanity, about our nature. We are curious, we desire wisdom and new, exciting experiences. We want our freedom and we want to challenge the limits of our identities and nature. And in so doing, we come up against our own limitations and discover, if we are discerning, our nakedness before God.

The story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is in some ways a very similar story. He is presented with everything any human being could want, wealth, power, popularity. But Jesus chooses to follow his call, accept his identity. In so doing, he shows us the possibility of human existence, and in the end, by his death and resurrection, offers us the possibility of being remade, truly in God’s image.

The purpose of Lent is not for us to beat ourselves with our shortcomings, to bewail our sins and weakness. The purpose of Lent is for us to discover and confess who we are—that we are broken human beings, broken by our self-indulgences, our sins, our disobedience, to admit that we are naked before God. When we do that, we make room in our lives for God’s grace and mercy, and we allow ourselves to begin to be recreated more fully in God’s image, more fully human. May this Lent be such a time for us, a time of self-discovery, repentance, and being recreated. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marked by Ashes: Poetry for Lent by Walter Brueggeman

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day …
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Another Poem for Lent: Affliction by George Herbert

Affliction

by George Herbert

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart;
As wat’ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face:
Nothing performs the task of life:
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life: dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief:
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, Thee.

Walking the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison, April 7, 2017

At the entrance of the Dane County Jail

This is the fourth (I think) year we’ve walked the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison. It’s a strange, uncomfortable experience in that for me, I’m walking streets I walk nearly every day as I go to and from work or grab lunch or run errands. This year, as in past years, I encountered familiar faces as I walked, among them two elected officials of county and city government.

This year, in addition to the usual distractions of city traffic and people going about their business, we had to compete with construction on Capitol Square and with the Solidarity Singers, who seemed to be a larger group than they had been in recent weeks.

To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to today’s event. For whatever reason, my spiritual focus has been elsewhere, and my energy diverted to other matters. If it hadn’t concluded at Grace, I doubt whether I would have participated.

I was surprised how quickly I was caught up in the experience. It wasn’t just the familiar stations, and the meditations that connected Jesus’ suffering with the suffering on the streets of Madison. It was also about making Christ’s suffering present on these streets, at the door of the Dane County Jail, opposite the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum, and at the steps of Grace where a homeless person died in the winter of 2014, and where so many homeless people have sought refuge over the last thirty years, and hungry people have been fed.

We do so much to protect ourselves from the knowledge and experience of human suffering on the streets of our city. The homeless and panhandlers are harassed and shoved out of sight. The inhumanity of the Dane County Jail is at its worst several stories above the room in the City County building where Madison’s Common Council and the Dane County Board of Supervisors deliberate.

To walk the way of the cross in Downtown Madison is to bear witness to the blood on our streets and in our city. It is also to see in that suffering and pain, the suffering and pain of Jesus Christ.

Today I realized that our little Stations of the Cross, walked as we’ve done it every year on the Friday before Palm Sunday, has become an essential part of my preparation for the drama of Holy Week.

 

For background on the devotion of the Stations of the Cross and how we do it here in Madison, follow this link.

The Meaning of the Cross in the Twenty-First Century: A Lenten Study

The Meaning of the Cross in the Twenty-First Century
A Lenten Series
Tuesday Evenings—March 7-April 4
7:00 pm
Grace Church Guild Hall 

Session I. The Death of Jesus in the New Testament

            Preparation:

  1. Read Mark 1:1-16:8, or Mark 14-15
  2. Read Philippians 2:5-11, I Corinthians 1:18-31, I Corinthians 15:3-4
  3. Read Hebrews 5:1-10, 9:1-23

Reflection Questions:

  1. How would you characterize Mark’s portrayal of Jesus? What are some of the key aspects of his ministry and activity?
  2. Looking closely at Mark’s depiction of the crucifixion, what is the meaning of Jesus’ death for Mark?
  3. What are some of the central elements of Paul’s understanding of the cross? What sort of “problem” does the cross present for Paul?
  4. What are some of the dominant images and words used for Jesus Christ in Hebrews?

 

Session II. The Meaning of the Cross in the Christian Tradition

Preparation. Read the following hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982

Reflection Questions:
1) What are some of the themes or images that dominate these hymns? What understanding of the crucifixion is reflected in the hymns?
2) Compare the imagery across the four hymns. What differences and similarities do you notice?
3) What attitude or experience of the crucifixion is implied for the writer/singer of the hymn?

 

Session III. The Cross in Feminist Perspective:

Preparation: Read the selection from Elisabeth SchusslerFiorenza’s Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet.

Session IV. The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

Preparation: Read the selections from James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Session V. Exploring the violence of the cross

Preparation: Read the selection from J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd Edition.

 

A White Lent

1. Now quit your care
And anxious fear and worry;
For schemes are vain
And fretting brings no gain.
To prayer, to prayer!
Bells call and clash and hurry,
In Lent the bells do cry
‘Come buy, come buy,
Come buy with love the love most high!’

2. Lent comes in the spring,
And spring is pied with brightness;
The sweetest flowers,
Keen winds, and sun, and showers,
Their health do bring
To make Lent’s chastened whiteness;
For life to men brings light
And might, and might,
And might to those whose hearts are right.

3. To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes,
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.

4. For is not this
The fast that I have chosen? –
The prophet spoke –
To shatter every yoke,
Of wickedness
The grievous bands to loosen,
Oppression put to flight,
To fight, to fight,
To fight till every wrong’s set right.

5. For righteousness
And peace will show their faces
To those who feed
The hungry in their need,
And wrongs redress,
Who build the old waste places,
And in the darkness shine.
Divine, divine,
Divine it is when all combine!

6. Then shall your light
Break forth as doth the morning;
Your health shall spring,
The friends you make shall bring
God’s glory bright,
Your way through life adorning
And love shall be the prize.
Arise, arise,
Arise! and make a paradise!

A Lenten carol written by Percy Dearmer. I’m grateful to Thinking Anglicans for drawing my attention to it. It’s lovely because of its quite joyful evocation of the beauty of springtime. And it is powerful in shifting the focus of Lent away from personal piety toward works of justice. I’ve borrowed the text from A Clerk of Oxford

 

Forty for 40: A Literary Reader for Lent

A remarkable collection of readings for the forty days of Lent. I think I’ve found one of my lenten disciplines!

Compiled by Nick Ripatrazone who writes:

Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.

There are some old familiar pieces here and many that I don’t know and look forward to exploring.