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.
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