Gen 15:1-12, 17-18; Ps 27 Phil 3:17—4:1; Lk 13:31-35
Two years ago this week, our community did not worship together. A new disease had come to town and we were sheltering in place, wondering what was to come. A week later, we gathered in front of our computer screens for the first time. To the familiar litany of prayer —“The Lord be with you,” “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” — was added a new phrase which soon became a familiar Anglican liturgical response: “You’re muted!” In those two years, more than fourteen thousand of our neighbors in Quebec have died, and more than six million worldwide. Many of us have lost friends, family members, or loved ones; all of us have lived with a new kind of fear. And so I’d like to begin with a moment of silence, to mourn, to rage, to give thanks that, after all that passed, we are still here.
Looking back, it feels as if the earth slipped sideways, somehow, into a future which was not the one we expected. In addition to the pandemic, we have seen the struggle for racial justice, the growing prevalence of extreme environmental events, and now, war. We’ve all been left in the strange landscape Abraham inhabits in today’s reading from Genesis: walking a path, in darkness, between lives that have been shattered, bearing the light, inviting the light.
All of which is why I was so glad to get to Lent this year. That may sound a bit shocking; after all, many of you have said that this time has felt like a perpetual Lent — an endless time of doing without. But that idea reflects the persistence of some really bad theology, theology which sees Lent primarily as a time to wallow in shame and in guilt — when Lent is really a time to be renewed in hope and in love.
Lent is the springtime of the soul: the season given us to soak in God’s love until our own hearts become soft and tender again after the rigors of living in this world. It is true that it is a penitential season, but that does not mean taking on guilt: it means letting it go. Christian penance derives its entire existence from the hope and promise of God’s enduring love. Like so many prodigals, we return home to the Father’s embrace — except that, unlike the Prodigal Son, we know that’s how the story ends. We know that our times of unfaithfulness, of anger, of petty hatred, are already forgiven. We know that even our more serious sins — murder, rape, harm done intentionally to another — will be forgiven when we ask for grace and change our lives. And we know that God yearns to give us that grace, for God himself has spoken, saying, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) In Christ, all is grace, and our Lenten task is to walk toward that divine tenderness until we can let ourselves walk into it.
But that is not all there is to our penitence. There is a strand to our Lenten observance that we do not speak about often, but which I think needs our attention, particularly in times like these. And I’d like to get there by way of Ninevah, the evil city which received the ministry of the prophet Jonah. When Jonah warned the Assyrians of Nineveh that they were about to be destroyed, they began to fast and pray. They dressed in sackcloth; they even dressed their cattle in sackcloth. Now, I am not privy to the mind of God, but I’m reasonably certain that whatever made God threaten to destroy Ninevah, it wasn’t what the cows had done! The cattle were wearing sackcloth not because of their own sins, but as a sign of solidarity with the repentance of the people. They took part in the act of contrition.
Unlike the cattle, none of is blameless. None of us has managed to live in perfect love: with God, with our neighbors, or even with our selves. But like those cattle, the Christian community observes Lent in part as an act of solidarity with the world. The “we” of our confession is not only “we in this room” or even “we in this room and those who are with us on the internet.” We bear the sins of of the world to the Cross in our confession, and the grace we are given is grace not only for ourselves, but for the world.
A number of years ago, when I was struggling spiritually, I read Edith Stein’s magnificent book, The Science of the Cross. In it, she referred to “the grace of abandonment” — meaning, the grace of feeling abandoned by God. I, who felt as if I had been, had an immediate reaction: You can take that grace and shove it! But gradually, with time and prayer, I came to see what she was saying: that even in our times of greatest desolation, when we feel that God has walked away from us, or from the world, or we from God, even then we participate in the prayer and self-offering of Christ for the world.
Our pain, our grief, our prayer participate in that of Christ, who allows us the immense dignity and honor of being not only co-creators of the world, but participants in its redemption. Christ’s Incarnation, death, and resurrection offered full satisfaction for the sin of the world, but we are the body of Christ. We participate in that work, not as the primary actors — that’s always and only Christ — but also not as baggage that’s just along for the journey. When Pope Francis and Vladimir Zelensky ask us not just to pray for Ukraine, but to fast and pray, that is what they are invoking. We are given the awesome responsibility of participating in Christ’s work of intercession for the world. This is our transfiguration: “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.” Phil 3:21
When we lose sight of this intercessory work, Lent can seem like a time to flog those who have actually been trying to do the right thing, while those who most need to repent go nowhere near the door of our churches. After all, we did not invade Ukraine. We did not refuse to wear masks; we were not careless with our neighbors’ lives. And there is truth in this, although it is not the whole truth. It is always a temptation to look at the great sins of others and to pretend that our own don’t matter.
But the intercessory nature of our penance reminds us that our faith extends beyond our lives into the life of the world. We are the salt, the yeast, the mustard seed — the hidden presence of Christ in this world that preserves it from rot and helps it rise again.
Look at Jesus. We find him, in today’s Gospel, walking toward Jerusalem, one man in an immense and tangled world, knowing what was to come. And when some friendly Pharisees come to warn him, he tells them, “I’m going to do my work, come what may.” He possesses a serene confidence that he is on the path God set for him, and that trust is all.
We do not all have that confidence. At times of great difficulty, we pray for light and salvation, not because we have them, but because we need them. And so, this Lent, immerse yourselves in God’s love. Direct your heart to what is good, what is true, what is honorable, so that you may be renewed in hope. (Phil 4:8) When we pray for peace, when we work for justice, we hold a light, even when it is hard for us to see it. And although our light may seem insignificant, remember: it takes only one candle to destroy the darkness.