I begin with two simple propositions. First, Lent is a season to listen for and hear the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19: 12) in the wilderness of our lives—the voice that cannot be found in the metaphorical wind, earthquake, or fire of our lives. Secondly, the purpose of hearing and listening is the open us to receive and respond to God’s forgiving, reconciling and redeeming love. Without these two ingredients, the spiritual disciplines commended in the Ash Wednesday exhortation[i] do not make much sense. Absent these fundamental propositions, the disciplines of “prayer, fasting, self-denial, and the reading of scripture”[ii] might well lead to spiritual “hubris” or self-indulgent spiritual pride.
Here is a third proposition. God loves you and me. God loves you and me just as we are. We have done nothing to earn or deserve God’s love. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. This is mind boggling. This is God’s radical love. Some people really test this proposition. Many years ago, I heard Bishop, Festo Kivengere[iii], give a talk entitled something like, “God Loves Idi Amin”. Idi Amin would certainly be someone who tested the proposition that God loves everyone. He was a tyrannical dictator who terrorized the Ugandan people. The Bishop himself had witnessed and tasted the oppression of Amin’s regime. Yet, Kivengere proclaimed that God loves even reprehensible human beings like Amin. We could easily generate a list of people we believe God should, at the very least, have a hard time loving.
It is one thing for God to love everyone, but Jesus calls us to follow and to do likewise. Most of you have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). A Good Samaritan, is almost universally recognized as someone who tries to help someone who is hurt, poor, or unable to take care of themselves. However, a close look at the Lucan text reveals a deeper meaning. The basic story is that a man leaves Jerusalem for Jericho. Jesus’ audience would assume the traveler to be Jewish. They would know it to be a dangerous road, so they would not be surprised to hear bandits beat and robbed traveler. They know it was a busy road so there is no surprise that a priest and Levite came along. That the priest and Levite did not stop to assist the injured man is disturbing to you and me, but not necessarily to Jesus’ audience. A priest or Levite of that time and tradition was required to maintain ritual cleanliness in order to perform his duties. In telling the story, Jesus says the robbers “departed, leaving him half-dead” (Luke 10: 30). Touching a dead body would make the priest or Levite ritually unclean. So, Jesus’ audience could rationalize, though perhaps not condone, the priest and Levite’s inaction.
If Jesus intended to criticize religious leaders, he could have made the merciful third traveler a Jewish layman. Instead, he made the helpful third person a Samaritan. This was absolutely shocking for Jesus’ audience because there were centuries of animosity and hate between the communities. So much so that when Jesus asks who was the neighbor, the lawyer could not say “the Samaritan”. Instead, he said: The one who showed him mercy (Luke 10: 37).
Because we associate the word “Samaritan” with people who help those in need, this parable does not appear to be confrontational. But, by casting the hated Samaritan as the one who cared for the half-dead Jewish traveler, Jesus turns his audience’s whole world upside down. He demands the nearly impossible—for the lawyer to say, and the Jewish audience to think “neighbor” and “Samaritan” in the same breath, and to put the adjective “good” and “Samaritan” together.
Not only does God love people we think God should have a hard time loving, Jesus wants us to reflect this expansive love through our lives. Jesus wants us to reflect this expansive love through our lives. Jesus wants us to reconsider those we put on our list of unlovables, and to treat them as neighbors, in the fullest and richest biblical sense. Bishop Kivengere got it. I confess that I have some spiritual work to do to convert an intellectual understanding into practice.
This morning, we have experienced the spiritual practice known as the Great Litany[iv]. It would be easy to conclude that we are what the 1978 Book of Common Prayer referred to as “miserable offenders”[v]. When I was growing up, the Great Litany was used more frequently during the liturgical year. Though some of the language and theology has been updated, it is hardly an exercise in building self-esteem. The Ash Wednesday absolution still urges us to turn away from our “wickedness”. That we do not regard ourselves “miserable offenders” or “wicked” does not diminish the Good News of God’s unconditional, reconciling and redeeming love. All of us are aware of our deficiencies in responding to God’s love, our lack of effort and devotion to our spiritual lives, and our timidity as disciples. In my mind, the season of Lent is not a time for self-flagellation. Instead, I believe Lent is a gift from a loving God. Lent is an opportunity to open up to new possibilities born of a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ, and our commitment to follow. I believe the traditions of Lent are intended to help us let go, to turn away from the way we live; to turn towards a renewed life in Christ.
Let me offer some ideas about the pattern of letting go and experiencing new possibilities:
- Fast on judging others. Feast on Christ dwelling in them.
- Fast from apparent darkness. Feast on the reality of all light.
- Fast from discontent. Feast on gratitude.
- Fast from worry. Feast on God’s providence.
- Fast from complaining. Feast on appreciation.
- Fast from bitterness. Feast on forgiveness.
- Fast from self-concern. Feast on compassion for others.
- Fast from discouragement. Feast on hope.
- Fast from problems that overwhelm. Feast on prayer that sustains[vi].
In classic Christian spirituality, Lent is a time for repentance. Repentance feels stern and foreboding. Combined with words I discussed earlier, it feels like the Church is trying to make us feel badly about ourselves. I believe repentance is about acknowledging that we have strayed and fallen short of the mark. Repentance is cleansing and makes it possible to be renewed and transformed, and to try new ways of living. So, instead of fearing or avoiding repentance, we can embrace and celebrate it. So, in this spirit, I want you to listen to this brief rabbinic tale.
Rabbi Eliezer told his students that everyone should repent the day before death. “But, Rabbi,” one of the disciples piped up, “how can anyone know when he will die?” “Exactly,” the great Rabbi replied. “That is why each person should repent every day”[vii].
—The Rev. Canon John E. Kitagawa
[i] The Book of Common Prayer, 265.
[iii] 1919 – 1988.
[iv] The Book of Common Prayer, 148-153.
[v] The 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Morning Prayer, 6.
[vi] Synthesis: A Weekly Resource for Preaching & Worship in the Episcopal Tradition; Lent I, 2013, 2.
[vii] Synthesis: A Weekly Resource for Preaching & Worship in the Episcopal Tradition; Ash Wednesday, 2013, 3.