Posted by ParishAdmin on March 28, 2012 under Sermons |
At the first Wednesday evening service of Lent this year, I compared Lent to a spring-cleaning. This came in reaction to my own trepidation about and my own issues with this season. At times, it feels as if the season of Lent confirms some of the assumptions of our non-Christian friends about us: We are supposedly a joyless lot that focuses on sin, and sin alone, that sees the devil around every corner and that is quick to point out failure rather than enjoy and unearth the goodness and beauty of creation. And especially when it comes to issues connected to our body, Christians supposedly are quick to call sinful and flawed anything and everything that creates joy.
And Lent seems to fit the bill as priest smudge our heads on Ash Wednesday reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as the confession takes over such a prominent place in our liturgy, and as the first letter of John every week keeps reminding us that we deceive ourselves if we say we have no sin.
Of course, all of this is true.
We are finite. And we sin. Every day. Every hour. Every one of us. And indeed, Lent is a time to remember that our death and our inability to live up to God’s will are all part of who we are. We fail God’s love in many ways, in all aspects of our lives.
However, I firmly believe that this Lenten reality-check is not meant as a means for self-flagellation, as a tool for beating down our soul, or as an excuse for a theology that denies the beauty of our bodies, the awesomeness of our creative skills, the life-giving character of our sexuality, and the amazing abilities of our tastes and senses.
Rather, Lent is an invitation to search our hearts and minds for those things that put a strain on our relationships with God, with one another, and with our true and beautiful selves. And Lent then invites us to ask God to remove these things, to remove all that obstructs God’s overflowing and abundant love for you, for me, and for all of creation.
Lent really is more akin to a spring-cleaning, where we dust off our shelves and remove stains to discover once again that God loved us into being and that God delights in this very creation.
But this is all easier said then done, isn’t it?
Even when I speak of spring-cleaning I can envision those, who rather than rejoice in unearthing what has been hidden for too long, focus on the layers of dust and dirt that have accumulated. In Lent, we somehow turn into German housewives and househusbands who are infamous for their cleanliness: Even the smallest spot has to me removed! I know of compatriots for whom toothbrushes are not just instruments of dental hygiene, but they are also an essential weapon in the domestic arsenal to fight even the most minuscule pollution. You can have a meal on the floor of my parents’ house!
I do appreciate the cleanliness when I visit the fatherland. However, this can easily turn into an obsession, an obsession that is focused too much on the fight of dirt all the while forgetting about the beauty around.
Overly harsh Lenten practices of self-examination can turn into this kind of obsession too.
And that’s problem.
It’s a problem first of all, because this obsession overlooks the very fact that it is God, who is the one to remove sin. It is not our job to obsess about.
Secondly, if we focus just on removing sin we will not get the whole picture: Just like an overly obsessive cleaner will not have an eye for the beauty of the home he is cleaning, so an overly obsessive penitent will not see the beauty so present in herself.
At this point though, I am not just speaking about our own created beauty anymore, which indeed is awesome and was gifted to each and every one of us by the One, who loved us into being compassionately and even passionately.
But I am speaking also about something more, something even more profound and even more beautiful. To explain what I mean, let me share a story.
Almost two weeks ago, I attended the diocesan annual clergy retreat. Unlike the clergy conference, which happens in the fall and which does not lack boisterous moments (remember where there are four Anglican priests there is always a fifth) the clergy retreat in Lent is a silent retreat. Yep, no yapping for 48 hours. And despite of what many of you think, most clergy, including this one, are actually introverts. Hence, the clergy retreat is right up our alley.
This year’s retreat leader was the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, sometime Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. During his five talks, Bishop Frank focused on the challenges of ordained life – and he pointed out one of the occupational hazards of being a bishop, priest, or deacon, and this occupational hazard is self-doubt.
Lest you think doubt happens only to lay folk like you, let me assure you clergy aren’t immune to doubt either. We doubt God. We doubt our work. And mostly we doubt our own self and our own self-worth.
Frank gently reminded us therefore about something we do know and preach about, but which we need to hear ourselves too. Frank reminded us that God loves us. Indeed God loves each and every one us, even clergy.
Frank then shared a number of tools that might help us to discover and strengthen this love. These tools include regular prayer, the engagement of scripture with our minds and senses, and the participation in the sacraments. Yet again, this should sound familiar to you, as these are the tools recommended by the church on Ash Wednesday for all of us during Lent. These are tools that help us all discover the love of God.
And Frank also called to our minds once again that God’s love is not something we need to earn. But God’s love for us is very much a reality. “The very fact that we are created is a sign of love,” Frank said. “The very fact that we are created is a sign of love.”
Furthermore, this love is not something that solely comes from the outside, but God’s love is also planted deeply into our hearts, deeply into our very being, waiting to be discovered, longing to be unearthed, craving to be found. And nothing and no-one can remove God’s love from our hearts. Indeed nothing you can do and nothing you can be can sever God’s bond of love with you.
Without knowing what Frank would talk about, I had brought to the retreat an icon from my office for meditation. It is the icon of the “Mother of God of the Sign,” a particular type of icon of Mary and Jesus, which you find on page 2 of your bulletin. It is important to note that in this type of icon, Mary does not hold the Saviour of the world on her arm outside herself. But God’s incarnate love dwells inside Mary, deep within.
Of course, this is exactly the point of the Annunciation, which we celebrate today. When the angel announced unto Mary, God broke through the barrier between human and divine just like Gabriel’s stick breaks through the divide on the picture on your front-cover of your bulletin (see second picture), which is an early 16th century depiction of the Annunciation from my hometown. At the Annunciation, old difference, separations, and contradictions were overcome and God tore down the walls around our self-inflicted captivity and imprisonment.
And more: At the Annunciation, God took habitation in Mary.
God no longer dwells only in the heavens far away. But God dwells under a human heart. Mary is not just the human mother of the child Jesus, but Mary is the mother of God. Or better: Mary is the God-bearer. Mary bears God, who has a home in her.
This onetime, singular event, however, has consequences for the whole human race, too. At the Annunciation, God took habitation in Mary in a concrete way, but God took also habitation in humanity in more general terms. The divine flame, the divine presence jumped from Mary’s heart to our hearts and God took habitation very personally in each and every one of us, too.
Yes, God dwells in our hearts. God is intimately connected to who and what we are. God is closer to us than even our heart-beat!
The journey of Lent therefore is not just about removing the obstacles that keep us from embracing God’s love by naming and confessing the sins in our lives, in society, and in the world. Neither is Lent solely about discovering the beauty that God created us to be – as awesome as that discovery will be. But Lent should also and maybe foremost be a journey to claim our identity as God-bearers. It is about discovering, unearthing, and embracing God, who waits in our hearts, praying inside of us, embracing every part of our being, and yearning to be found by us, all the while loving us in ways too deep for words – each and every one of us.