During the church year, there is only one day when clergy across the globe will stand before their community and invite the gathered people of God to fully immerse themselves in the season. There is no Christmas or Easter invitation; nor is there an Advent, Epiphany, or Pentecost invitation. There is only one invitation, and it is to the observance of a holy Lent: “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” (The 1979 Book of Common Prayer 265).
In anticipation of this invitation, which will happen right after today’s homily, I’d like us to spend a few moments pondering what it might look like to observe a holy Lent. Lent is an opportunity to go deeper in your relationship with God. For some this means getting reacquainted with God after losing touch, for others it is a chance to take their spiritual life to a new level. It’s a bit like a spring cleaning of the soul, and the only way it happens is if we are intentional. If we say we want our house to be clean and tidy, to smell the freshness and appreciate the beauty of a home that has been deeply cleaned, but never make the time in our calendar, our home will continue to be a bit dusty and likely full of things it’s time to let go of. The key to observing a holy lent is to be intentional about your desire to grow closer to God, to deepen your connection to Christ and the Holy Spirit.
In addition to being intentional, it also helps to be realistic, to set a simple goal. Sometimes it is helpful to let go of something, and other times it is helpful to add a practice. Sometimes it’s a matter of doing both. Spend some time reflecting on what your turn to instead of God. When you are feeling tired, stressed, anxious, sad, or angry do you turn to sweets or alcohol? Do you turn to television or social media to numb the pain and fill the time? What might you let go of so you can turn your focus towards God?
When Jason and I asked our kids what they wanted to give up during Lent so they could better focus on God, we got some interesting answers. Lucas, our 6 year old, gave us a series of answers. First he offered to give up lunch, then playing, and finally, feeling particularly generous, he offered to give up school. We said we didn’t think God would want a growing boy to give up an important midday meal, playing, or learning at school (much to his disappointment). At that particular moment, Logan, our 10 year old, started to walk into the room, and Lucas slammed the door in his face. We suggested he consider giving up being rude to people (i.e. not slam doors in peoples faces and in general, mind your manners). Well he liked that idea, so Lucas has given up being rude for Lent. (His Sunday School teager suggested he might want to continue this practice after Lent, too). While it might seem a bit silly for a 6 year to give up being rude, to work on minding his manners, we talked about the deeper meaning behind it. That as followers of Jesus, we make promises in our baptism, and one of them is to respect the dignity of every human being. An easy way to start this as a kid, or as an adult, is minding manners, holding doors, and putting others first.
Like Lucas, I’m choosing to give up a behavior, or rather, to work on it. I want to give up my temper, something that more easily flares when I don’t consistently take enough time with God walking in the woods. I’m hoping to make more time for God in the woods, and in turn surrender my frustrations to God, letting go and knowing God has all of my struggles, all of my hurts, and all of my joy. I wonder, how is God calling you to be intentional this Lent? What is impeding your relationship or keeping you from going deeper? What are you surrendering yourself to instead of God? Or what practice might you add to go deeper?
Another way to frame our intentionality during Lent is to remember the prophet Isaiah’s words in today’s excerpt from the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah was speaking to a fractured Israel and Judah, who were on the rocks again, even after surviving the Babylonian exile. There’s a cyclical nature to the story of God’s people: people cry out for help, God saves them, they forget and go astray. When the people find themselves in trouble again, the cycle repeats. Even though God had recently saved them, the people had already forgotten, they’d already gone astray, and once again found themselves in trouble. Isaiah, who aches and hopes for a restored Israel and Judah, is once again pointing them towards God. He is telling God’s people that they’ve misused fasting. Instead of fasting in a way that points people towards God, leaders were using fasting in a way that caused further injustice, further oppression of God’s people. He gives them the answer to receiving God’s help on a silver platter, he says:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am (Isaiah 58:6-9).
If the people want God’s saving help again, all they need to do is have greater concern for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized amongst them. This good news was not just for the people of God thousands of years ago. This is good news for us too. If we really want God’s help, we must take action and fast against injustice: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless.
So I wonder, once again, how God is calling you to be intentional this Lent? What do you need to surrender to God? What spiritual practice might you need to add? What injustice in your life needs fasting--who in your life might God be asking you to help? Amen.
Did you know today’s gospel lesson features a word which is used one time in the entire New Testament. Just once….Can you guess which one it is?
Hunted. It’s such an unusual choice of words that it nearly jumps off the page. "In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him" (Mark 1:35-36). They hunted for him like he was wild game or a missing child. They were desperate for him and they would stop at nothing to find him. We’ve likely all experienced the kind of desperation the disciples were feeling, that need to find something, maybe even to find God. Yet what I find most fascinating about this passage, is what it has to teach us about Jesus, and in turn ourselves.
Jesus just had an exhausting twenty-four hours. He taught in the synagogue and healed a man with a troubled spirit. He went with his four disciples, including our two guys Andrew and James, to Simon and Andrew’s family home. There they discovered Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. Jesus went to her bedside, took her hand, and lifted her out of bed. Her fever disappeared and then she even felt well enough to provide them with some hospitality.
At this point, it had already been a very long day. I’m sure Jesus was ready to kick off his sandals and head to bed. Instead, the entire village gathered at the door and he began to minister to each of them, offering his words, his touch, his presence. He cured those fighting illness, healed those with fractured minds, and mended those with broken spirits.
The next morning in the dark, early hours Jesus left the house where his friends were still sleeping. He knew he was exhausted, and there was only one way to remedy the situation. He wandered off to a deserted place to pray. He took the time he needed to pause for prayer. When Jesus hits the pause button on his life to pray, he peels back all the layers, all the expectations, all the needs of those he serves. When Jesus pauses to pray, he is not the Messiah, the Savior; he is not Mary and Joseph’s son; he is not a teacher; he is not a healer; he is not a miracle worker. He is simply a young man, a beloved child of God, really, the beloved child of God.
Throughout Jesus ministry, we see him widen his circle of care. He begins his ministry by healing one man with a troubled spirit in a synagogue. The same day he widens his circle of care by healing a relative of his disciples. He could have stopped there, and only used his gift for those in his innermost circle. Instead, what we see Jesus do is widen his circle of care so that it includes every aching soul in that village. Jesus knows his calling is to continually expand his ministry, but if he’s going to do so, he has make it a priority to pause for prayer. In doing so, he deepens his connection with God. In deepening his relationship with God, he discovers he has more endurance, more patience, and more energy to help his disciples learn to expand their ministry. When Jesus’ anxious disciples discover him alone, praying, he redirects their anxiety towards their call to widen the circle of care. He says to them, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38).
I bet, we’ve all experienced exhaustion. Whether you’ve been the caretaker of children, parents, siblings, friends; a caretaker of a staff or colleagues, of a ministry or a community--you know that it takes endurance, patience, and self-care. And when we don’t take the time for self-care, our patience and endurance run out. There’s a reason flight attendants instruct fliers to put their own oxygen mask on before assisting their fellow passengers. Destin Sandlin, an engineer and aspiring astronaut, explains the science behind this rule in a video where he enters a special chamber with an astronaut to find out what happens if you don’t put on your mask. After a few minutes without sufficient oxygen, he starts to lose brain function and can’t identify basic shapes. Soon, he can't even speak or put his mask on and someone must step in and put it on for him to prevent him from dying. So always put your own mask on first before helping others because, by the time you've helped everyone else, you may not know how to help yourself.
Unlike many of us, Jesus seems to understand this. If he is going to be ministering to others, he has take care of himself. How does Jesus ensure he is well cared for, that his well won’t run dry? By pausing for prayer. Throughout his ministry he will wander off by himself to a deserted place and pauses for prayer. By reconnecting with God, he’s able to widen his circle of care, while also calling his disciples, and us, to do the same. As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus’ example of evangelism, ever widening the circle. Yet we can only sustain ourselves, sustain the circle we are already in, let alone widen it, if we make a practice of pausing for prayer. Jesus needed to, and so do we. How do you find yourself pausing for prayer these days?
I know I am prone to get caught up in my tasks, so the last couple months I have changed how I begin my morning routine, working hard to be intentionally slow, snail like slow, in my morning rituals. Because once I’m buzzing around like a bee, it’s hard to stop, it’s hard to slow down and simply be present. So right now, I am slowing down, savoring the silence with God over a cup of coffee. Beginning a conversation with God during exercise. Lifting up prayers on my meditation mat, before engaging the silence once more or sitting with scripture. Only then, am I ready to begin helping my children wake up and get ready for school, or come to the church and begin my work here or in the community. One of my favorite ways to pause for prayer is to get lost in the woods. The walking works off my buzzing, and I begin to slow down, and the great silence takes over.
So again, I ask how do you find yourself pausing for prayer these days? Has it been sufficient? Has it restored you enough that you are able to widen the circle as our faith calls us to?Lent is just around the corner, and this is just as good a time as any to begin thinking of how you might use that season of intentionality to deepen your spiritual practice. How might God be asking you to pause for prayer between now and Easter? Amen.
This week for our first Annual Meeting since merging, Rev. Heather & Rev. Molly asked the congregation to reflect: How are we better together? Here is what the people of God at Saints James and Andrew had to say, in the form of a word cloud.
Meet our preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm,
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood,
Lay Preacher, Postulant
Lay Preacher, Verger
Coffee with Clergy
Do you want to get together to talk about your spiritual life or learn more about our community? Contact us and we will find time to get together.