A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent.
“The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”
I will never forget the week that I realized I was living under the thumb of depression. I can’t remember what possessed me to pick up the book, “Darkness is my Only Companion,” by a fellow Episcopal priest, Kathryn Greene-McCreight, but I remember where I was the week I read it, and how it felt to realize that the heaviness I carried wasn’t unique or undiagnosable or foreign.
Lying on the beach of a lake in Iowa — did you know there were beaches in Iowa? I didn’t! — with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law on towels in a line, I was glad my sunglasses hid my tears. These words described exactly what I was feeling, they shone light on the burden I’d only halfway-consciously been carrying for more than year. One might think that realizing you’re acutely depressed would be itself a depressing realization, but I felt so free. It was the moment that I realized I wasn’t alone, other people had been here, too. And it wasn’t a helpless condition, there people to talk with, habits I could try, medications that could help my ailing mind. There was the light of hope in the midst of this darkness.
I share this story as a snapshot of what it might look like to realize the truth. I’d been living with acute depression for more than a year, frustrated with myself for my inability to sleep, for my inability to concentrate, for my trouble to motivate myself and to behave and be present the way I wanted to. Realizing the truth of my condition felt like freedom. Facing the truth was a ray of warm light.
This is the purpose of Lent.
Truth is a sticky word and a confusing concept in our day and age. Congresspeople preach that the facts aren’t what’s important, conflicting interpretations of trends lead to opposite policy solutions; what one person sees as an addiction, another sees as a harmless coping mechanism, or a desperate call for attention. What one person sees as sin, another sees as expressing their true selves. Which matters are black and white — which are true-or-false — and which ones are grey, which matters or events or relationships or convictions are not on the scale of truth?
This is a community of varied convictions, and that’s part of what makes this community a precious example of the Kingdom of God. There are people here who are not living in the truth, and we don’t know which ones those are. The wheat and the chaff grow up together, separated only at the harvest, at the end of time. Until then, each of us, every one with conviction, must live in the humility of the possibility that they’re crooked. It’s that same humility that drives Lent, that same self-reflection that urges us to depend on God alone.
“The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”
At night, when Charles wakes up and realizes he’s alone, he calls out. He calls for Momma, or for Daddy, he implores us to come and show him that he’s safe, even in the darkness. And of course, we do come.
It’s the same for God, in the darkness, when we wake up to our sin, our distractions, the ways that each and every one of us has been denying the truth of God as our Lord and King, we call to God, and God is generous, he is generous to all who call upon him. He is the same Lord of all.
We see in the Gospel lesson today that Jesus does not believe he needs to make abundance for himself, that God the Father, his Father, will provide whatever he needs. The devil will not win, will not goad him into rationalizing just one more loaf of bread, just one more palace, just one more bungee jump for the adrenaline rush.
Here’s the thing that’s actually tricky about the truth. Only God knows the truth of each of our hearts. As Deuteronomy declares, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”
As our Collect today, the prayer of the day, proclaims, “Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.”
Our sins, though the motivations are the same, do not look all alike. For one person, having two glasses of wine is sin, as they seek to numb themselves from the pain of their lives, while for another drinking half a bottle is simply taking part in a celebration. For another person, buying a new nail polish is of no moral significance, while for another, they are obeying the monkey of consumerism that is firmly attached to her back and her wallet.
The truth of sin, of the ways that we deny God as Lord, looks different for each of us, as we are tempted in ways to play on our weaknesses. The antidotes look different. Like in Mary Poppins’ medicine bottle, when each spoonful tastes like something wonderful to each person — the actions, or practices, or habits that excise sin from each of our hearts looks different on the outside. Truth may look different on the outside, but that’s only to a casual observer.
The truth is that each of us sins and falls short of the glory of God. The truth is that the medicine for us all is the body and blood of Christ, the forgiveness God offers through the love of his Son, and the new chance God gives through eternal life.
I’m not going to tell you to give up chocolate, or to circumscribe boundaries around your social media use. I’m not going to tell you to eat fish on Fridays or to fast from television. I am going to urge you, as I urge myself, to ask God to show me the truth of myself in these next weeks. To try to notice the things I use to block God out, to numb myself to the truth, and instead to let the truth in.
The freedom of truth is the greatest gift that God gives us. It is the truth that sets us free, it is the truth that makes us whole. Followers of Jesus are a people who commit to being humble in the face of truth, to letting the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord change the whole way of our lives.
As our forebears did in the story from Deuteronomy this morning, we are called, especially in this season of truth, this season of acknowledging God as our Lord, to take the step of laying out in front of God the things we’re tempted to find security in, the things we want to hold on to in case something goes wrong in our lives. To put it another way, as the Israelites are called to give their first-fruits to God, we are called to give to God any competing source of security and truth. Any other thing that we might seek for our identity, our sense of self-worth, our vision of who we are in the world. God has enough truth to cover every bit of each one of us. God has enough truth and enough love, God is king-enough for every part of all of our lives.
So we’re called lay down on the altar anything that might try to compete with God as ruler and love of our hearts.
But even more messy, we’re not called to just relinquish, or abandon those things on the altar, not just throw them at the feet of God and walk away. Because what do we do every time we gather together? We bring up our offerings — not just the offering plates, but the very bread and wine that becomes Christ’s body and blood — those offerings are blessed by God through the hands of the priest on God’s own altar, and then what happens to them? What happens to that bread and wine, and what happens to the money in the alms basins?
It goes back into the world, it goes back into the midst of the people. The less-than truths, the stumbling blocks, the false identities, these are transformed by God, they are put under God’s truth, and they are made back into something good, again. So the real burden, the real test of Lent, is not whether you can be strong enough to stay away from chocolate for a whole 46 days. The real burden, the real test of Lent, the real moment of truth, is not to banish all the extras from our lives, but to live the truth of Jesus as Lord above any other truth.
Fr. Jordan mentioned one of our favorite preachers, Sam Wells, in his Ash Wednesday sermon, and I’m gonna go and mention him again. I watched a conversation he had last week with some other preachers; they were asked whether Christians could, ethically, have nice things. He related a story of an inheritance that his wife received, and how they chose to use this unexpected chunk of money. They could have written a very large check to a charity and been done with it, but they realized that this would have been to squander the gift they’d been given, it would have been a way to pass the buck, to put the responsibility and the burden of good-use on somebody else.
So instead, they used the money to buy a huge, dilapidated house, to fix it up to its former glory, and then to use that space to bring the university and the city together. Over the five years they lived there, it became known, both by homeless people in the neighborhood and students alike, as a place of warmth and refuge, somewhere that you would be seen for yourself alone, a place where you could face the truth. Indeed, my call to ministry happened in the kitchen of that home, and our rehearsal dinner was held on its porch.
Yes, writing a huge check would have been a good thing to do, too, but the Wells family chose a more complicated, involved, and truth-ful way, to take on the burden of using their gift well, of sharing it in a continually-transforming way. To offer the money on the altar of God, and then to put it to use for the sake of God’s kingdom.