Guest blog sermon: A grown-up Lent
GUEST CONTENT! Tonight I was the celebrant at the evening Ash Wednesday liturgy at Christ Church Cathedral here in Cincinnati. The preacher was the Rev’d Canon Joanna Leiserson, and she offered one of the best Ash Wednesday sermons I’ve ever heard. What I liked about it is that she helped us all see Lent in a fresh way that is also squarely in line with our ancient practices and traditions. She was kind enough to share her text with me, with permission to pass along on this blog. Pastorally, I think Canon Leiserson told us just what we needed to hear in order to enter fully into Lent. I encourage you to take the time to read this, all the way to the end. You’ll be glad you did.
Finally, Ash Wednesday is here! Happy Ash Wednesday! Happy Lent!
This may not be everybody’s reaction to this day, but to tell the truth, I love Ash Wednesday. I love the “Invitation to a holy Lent” that we will all hear a few minutes from now. I love the Litany of Penitence that seems as if it was written especially for me. I love the way in which even the air around us seems muted, for just this day, as if the planet itself is listening. I love being reminded that the whole universe, including the human “We Are Invincible” species is “dust, and to dust we shall return.” And most of all, I love the fact that the retail world has not yet figured out how to market this day. I have not seen even one ASH WEDNESDAY MATTRESS SALE, or one ASH WEDNESDAY SUPER SPECIAL ON KNEE PADS.
So while the season of Epiphany is still in high gear, I begin preparing for Ash Wednesday and for Lent. I confess that I do this not just because I love Lent, but also to avoid a repeat of the year when I spent the entire Lenten season trying to decide what I was going to give up for Lent, until on Maundy Thursday I gave up.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are not universal Christian traditions. In some of the Protestant churches, the members do not even know what Lent is. If you did not grow up in the liturgical sacramental tradition such as the Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches, you might have seen Ash Wednesday as an alien and kind of weird annual tradition. Your grade school friends show up for school one day with their little black smudges and a strange look on their face that was a combination of disgust at having to give up something for Lent, and pride at having taken part in this secret society’s ritual.
And then there is the Great Sacrifice. When I was young, my friends gave up sweets, chocolate, and soda. One creative boy gave up swearing. Then, every year, the Lenten season ended with a veritable feast of sweets, chocolate, soda, and colorful language as soon as Easter came. It was as if the act of fasting and self-denial merited them a reward from God of the very thing they had given up.
Not being a cradle Catholic or cradle Episcopalian or a cradle anything, I was always baffled when they would ask, “What are you giving up for Lent?” My question, of course, was much simpler: “What is Lent anyway?”
When I was in grade school, my friends gave me their very best grade school theology. The ashes and Lent and the giving-up are things you do to be sorry for your sins between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Later I found out that Ash Wednesday and Lent are ancient traditions with ancient customs. But as with many ancient traditions, we have sometimes kept the customs but forgot the reason why. I wonder whether that is true of today. We still ask that old grade-school question: What are you giving up for Lent? We still have that old grade-school dilemma: Do we proudly keep the ashes on our foreheads to show we are pious, or should we wipe it off right away because Jesus told us not to show off that we are pious?
Maybe what we need to give up for Lent this year is our grade-school theology about Lent. Maybe it is time for Ash Wednesday to grow up. We can begin by the right question.
The question for the season of a grown-up Lent, is not “What will you give up for Lent?” or even “What will you do for Lent?” but rather “Who will you be in Lent?” or even “Whose will you be in Lent?”
The easy answer is that we are created to be people of God, and we are created to be God’s. We spend most of the year messing up, not being very godly at all. And so Lent is a time that the Church gives to us to restore a right relationship with God. This season is a time of penitence because we recognize that our relationship with God is often strained, if not downright broken. We are given an opportunity to restore our relationship with God through all those acts that the Church suggests—prayer, fasting, meditation, good works, repentance, and so on.
But going a bit deeper, a right relationship with God is also connected with a right relationship with our fellow creatures on this planet. As Jesus said, quoting from Deuteronomy, “One does not live by bread alone.” God did not create us to eat, drink, and live alone. Even if you or I were the only humans left on this earth, we are still part of a web of relationship with the flora and fauna of the earth on which our life depends. Every time we put food on the table, we become part of that line of connection to others—good or bad, just or unjust, ethical or unethical. So as Lent becomes a time for restoring right relationship with God and with those around us, a Lenten fast can give us the practice of become aware of, and paying attention to, those relationships that connect us—from the riches of the earth to the food on our table—and to those whom we depend upon to feed us.
A Lenten fast that goes deeper than giving up coffee may lead you to ask, Is the coffee in your morning cup grown by workers who can go home and feed their families with what they earn? A Lenten fast that goes deeper than missing an evening meal might lead you to ask, Are the eggs that you eat for breakfast laid by hens that can walk on grass and eat what they were created naturally to eat? Is the meat that you would have for dinner part of an animal who was allowed to feel the sun on his back, stretch his legs, and walk in a field? Is the barbequed pulled pork in your favorite restaurant processed by a company that treats the live animals mercifully and its workers compassionately?
This is not grade-school Lent. A grown-up Lenten practice that truly restores us to God and to one another has less to do with giving up something and more to do with giving pause—and then giving up whatever foods or practices or habits that are contrary to a beloved community of God. We are intimately connected through the internet—at least technologically if not spiritually. Perhaps we can use our invincible human technological connections to learn more about our connections to the foods that we eat. Find out how the animals raised for our use are treated, whether humanely or cruelly. Find out whether the methods used to keep fruits and vegetables healthy will keep the earth healthy as well. Find out whether the living conditions and wages of farm and processing factories are just or unjust. And then eat what is just and merciful, fast from what is unjust and cruel. This ethical approach to eating and fasting puts us in touch with our fellow humans and with the rest of God’s world. As a Lenten practice, we also become wiser stewards and companions of God’s creation.
So who will you be for Lent? Whose will you be? In a grown-up Lent, we will be not just chocolate-deprived or meat-deprived individuals, grudgingly sacrificing our favorite food for the sake of the gospel. In a grown-up Lent, we will be wise and faithful stewards of the community of life that God created us for. And in a grown-up Lent, we will be advocates of a grown-up world where God’s justice and compassion is practiced, not just during one season but in all seasons and for all of God’s creation. May you have a joyful, holy, grown-up Ash Wednesday and a joyful, holy, grown-up Lent.
While most content here in 7WD is provided under a Creative Commons license, this blog post should be understood as Copyright 2013 Joanna Leiserson. If you want to reproduce it, ask her for permission.