Be not afraid:
We never observed Lent when I was a kid. We noticed our Catholic and Methodist classmates “gave up” things for Lent, usually chocolate or soda pop, but we did not regard chocolate and soda pop as the root cause of evil. Money was the root of all evil, and since we didn’t have any of that, we didn’t have anything worth giving up for Lent. Or so we thought.
In any event, we weren’t sure what good it did to “give up” something if we were just going to go back to it in six weeks.
Of course, as with much of life, there was more to Lent than appeared at first glance: Lent is a time for “spiritual discipline,” for setting goals and developing strength, and practicing self-control and all that. But that came later.
In my church, as a kid, we did not emphasize spiritual discipline, but spiritual energy – the Apostle Paul (one of our big heroes) was not a product of “spiritual discipline” – the Lord just knocked him off his donkey one day and said, “Paul, things are different now, and you’re different, and it’s not going to go back to normal in six weeks. Go change the world.” Spiritual life was not about disciplined achievement, but grace, even grace at the business end of a lightning-bolt. Energy.
Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for Lent, even for me. Lent has to do with confronting sin – that’s what Jesus did in the wilderness – (we can go for that) and strengthening ourselves against something – whether “sin” or “the devil” or the ravages of time (we can go for that, too).
In her sermon a couple of weeks ago, Mary pointed out Mark’s account of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is told in just two verses, with no details on the temptations. Matthew’s account, which is today’s gospel lesson, gives details: stones-to-bread and temptation-of-political-power and to “prove you’re the son of God.” The resistance that Jesus showed is an example for us to follow, but Mary pointed out that a large part of what Jesus was doing was getting His own act together. Maybe in Lent we should focus on our own spirit – getting our own act together.
Since it is one of the lectionary lessons for this first Sunday in Lent, the story from Genesis also must have something to do with what Lent is all about.
This morning I almost had us sing “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” – a.k.a. “At the Cross” – which has the line “Would He devote that Sacred Head, for such a worm as I?” though not in this hymnal. In this hymnal the words have been “watered down” (my Grandma Cora would surely say) to “sinners such as I” – we don’t much care to describe ourselves as “worms,” these days, it undermines our self-esteem – not that we’re very keen on admitting to being sinners, either. We’re all like politicians at that point – “mistakes were made,” we’re willing to say, “but not by me.”
Admitting to being “sinners” – confessing sin – can be overdone, of course… can be like “waterboarding” – sometimes churches beat people up so much they’re willing to confess to anything. I know someone who got so tired in her church of the constant repetition of “confessions” of degradation and hopeless worthlessness and unrelenting error and deliberate evil, that she changed churches,just be able to look herself in the mirror on Sunday morning. Wallowing in sin can be tedious and painful (and not just when the church or somebody does it to us, but also when we do it to ourselves).
Still, “Such a worm as I,” resonates with reality; there is a kind of worminess to the human condition, the condition of the world. You could say, getting back to that Genesis story, that apple had a worm in it, and the worm has been there ever since, partly in the world, and partly in us – though you might not want to think about that image too near to lunch.
Maybe we and the world are not totally depraved and wicked and awful, but to say we’re “persistently inclined to sin” fits our real experience. I’m not the most evil creature imaginable, but I won’t be offended if you’re cautious about turning your back on me until you get to know me – I’m willing to confess to that level of untrustworthiness in myself, and justify that level of wariness in you. (Ronald Reagan said, “Trust – but verify.”)
Lent has something to do with that wormy reality of our personal and shared condition. Only, real worminess – not something made up or exaggerated. The world was a good place – “a garden,” the story says – and things got messed up, and we can’t quite get back to the “garden” part of it; that’s why we recognize the story, and it’s told at Lent so we can think about what to do.
Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness show it’s useful to give attention to ourselves, and to confess – or discover – the part we play in making ourselves the way we are, and making our world the way it is.
The psalm today, Psalm 32, speaks to that.
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. (Ps 32:1-7, nrsv)
It’s about confession, confessing, of all things, “sins” – “transgressions” – the very things that “undermine our self esteem.” Since penitence is one of the things we connect with Lent, this psalm is included for Lent’s Kick-off Sunday. And what does it say about sin and self-esteem?
Not that confession makes you feel bad, but that silence makes you feel bad. “Sin” – or “mistakes” or “failures” or “limitations” or whatever euphemism works for you in this spot – sin undermines our self-respect, “dries up the bones” – when we try to hide it, especially from ourselves, when we “keep silence,” especially to ourselves and to God. Ask any psychiatrist or psychologist or counselor or social worker or mom or dad. They’ll all tell you that if you feel bad about something and you don’t talk about it, it will eat you alive. Confess – it’s good for the soul.
That’s why churches have confession in the first place: not to make you feel bad (though sometimes they forget that), but to let you air it out. That’s why this psalm about confession begins with the word “happy” – blessed.
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered. (v. 1)
And how do they get happy? they confess. They admit to what is real. If we aren’t dealing with the reality of ourselves and the world – the bad as well as the good – our sins will eat us up.
Not that we can’t overdo it – we can overdo anything. Some people think the Apostle Paul (or somebody, writing in his name) comes close to “overdoing it” when he describes himself as the “chief” of sinners. (I Timothy 1:15, kjv) It’s almost like bragging. “Getting real” is not about always confessing, or nothing-but-confessing – reality includes the flip side of confession, forgiveness – that’s what it’s for.
We overdo it when we “confess” so long or so often we never get to the forgiveness, or – sneakiest of all – by confessing sins we haven’t committed, things we haven’t done.
Pope John the 23rd used to hear confessions of the nuns in the Vatican (maybe all Popes do – it would make sense), and when someone asked him what that was like, he’s supposed to have said, “it’s like being stoned to death with popcorn.” Lots of folks “confess” things that aren’t so bad, really – and that’s a waste. Martin Luther said, “If you must sin, sin boldly.” Don’t waste God’s time with popcorn.
Some prayers written up for church services are just boring – vague, pointless, harsh-sounding, and empty: “oh, Lord, we confess that in many ways we have done what we ought not to have done, and we have left undone many and divers things we ought to have done, and have grievously failed our companions in the world, and polluted our environment and have wretchedly failed to live up to…” and on and on and on.
Lots of drama, no specifics.
I have to believe God quits listening and goes home early from those confessions.
And we overdo it when we confess somebody else’s sin.
I went to a gathering of church folks several years ago, in a galaxy far far away, in a denomination other than Baptist (though pretty close), that included a presentation by someone whose whole ministry was getting the United States to end military intervention in wherever it was intervening at that time.
As is the custom at such gatherings, this leader was part of the team that led the closing service of worship for that event. He led the prayer of confession.
Somewhere in the prayer he said, “O Lord, we confess that we are warmongers…”
This was a man who had burned his draft card; who had been arrested for pouring his blood on military files someplace, who had organized people to oppose wars – he may have been guilty of many things – we all are – but “warmongering” was not one of them.
I mean, not really.
Maybe in some generic sense of “we’re all guilty of this or that,” or “I could have done more…” and so on, but really, in any practical sense… No, he was not a warmonger.
So what was he doing?
He was confessing Ronald Reagan’s sin, maybe (it was that era), which is kind of presumptuous, or “America’s sin,” or human sin – but he wasn’t confessing his own sin, which is what confession is about, what Lent is about – Lent is about “who are you? really.”
We don’t get forgiveness for confessing somebody else’s worminess, or some vague, generic failing. That’s not reality.
Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to contemplate Herod’s spiritual condition, or to repent the sins of Caesar or confess the moral flaws of the Roman Empire. Jesus went into the wilderness to examine the real Jesus – the good and the bad in Himself – and to bring that out on the table for the life that lay ahead.
I propose that as our model for Lent. That may mean we set aside whatever is our focus at the moment – even the good and worthy causes that command our attention. Lent will be over in six weeks, and we can go back to them with renewed vitality and reborn liveliness then, if . . . if we give some undistracted attention to our own hearts and needs, our strengths, or our other concerns, and even our “sins” or shortcomings or flaws or fears.
I don’t personally know any warmongers, I don’t know anybody who needs to give up warmongering for Lent; most of us already care about justice; most of us care about the poor and the uninsured and the homeless and the needy in America and the world. We are already concerned about those excluded because of race or gender or orientation or color or social standing or economic status or language. We don’t have to confess our failings in those areas – that would be popcorn repentance.
Lent is for a change of pace, a turning away from usual concerns. During Lent, let’s get real. Confess the real sins, the real needs we have, the things we don’t talk about to God or ourselves.
Take some time in the next six weeks to ask ourselves the question, “when we’re doing all these other things, what is it we’re not doing?” When we confess to being “warmongers,” what is it we’re not confessing.
Justice will still need to be done six weeks from now, we’ll still need to advocate for the poor, for the excluded, for peace; we’ll still need to oppose the death penalty, and oppose imprisonment without trial, and discrimination; we can pick that up right where we left off.
If we take Lent as a time to get down to the reality of our need and the reality of God’s grace and forgiveness, we can pick up those efforts with new energy, and new hope; so when Lent is over, Easter can be a time of new life in Christ really, for us and the world whose condition we help to change.
A David Psalm
1 Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be— you get a fresh start,
your slate’s wiped clean.
2 Count yourself lucky—
God holds nothing against you
and you’re holding nothing back from him.
3 When I kept it all inside,
my bones turned to powder,
my words became daylong groans.
4 The pressure never let up;
all the juices of my life dried up.
5 Then I let it all out;
I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.”
Suddenly the pressure was gone—
my guilt dissolved,
my sin disappeared.
6 These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray;
when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts
we’ll be on high ground, untouched.
7 God’s my island hideaway,
keeps danger far from the shore,
throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.
Genesis 2:15-17 (NRSV)
The Lord god took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty that any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. he said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes shall be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Sop when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loin-cloths for themselves.
Genesis 2:15-17 (The Message) 15 God took the Man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.
16-17 God commanded the Man, “You can eat from any tree in the garden, except from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil. Don’t eat from it. The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.”
1 The serpent was clever, more clever than any wild animal God had made. He spoke to the Woman: “Do I understand that God told you not to eat from any tree in the garden?”
2-3 The Woman said to the serpent, “Not at all. We can eat from the trees in the garden. It’s only about the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘Don’t eat from it; don’t even touch it or you’ll die.'”
4-5 The serpent told the Woman, “You won’t die. God knows that the moment you eat from that tree, you’ll see what’s really going on. You’ll be just like God, knowing everything, ranging all the way from good to evil.”
6 When the Woman saw that the tree looked like good eating and realized what she would get out of it—she’d know everything!—she took and ate the fruit and then gave some to her husband, and he ate.
7 Immediately the two of them did “see what’s really going on” – saw themselves naked! They sewed fig leaves together as makeshift clothes for themselves.