Genesis 9:8-17; Psalms 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15 February 21, 2021 -1st Sunday in Lent
We move now…in our exploration and proclamation of the Word…into the season of Lent. Jesus turns his face like a flint toward Jerusalem…toward the time of trial… toward the cross…toward the fulfillment of all things God meant to say to the world and all God wanted to give the world. Onward and upward.
The early Christians set this season of the year apart for the reception of new members into the faith. It was a time of fasting and repentance, prayer and giving of oneself to the One who came to redeem us all…to reveal the nature of God to all people…and to become more like Christ in thought, word and deed.
The initiates died to the world…and entered a life devoted to God…as their Creator, God…their Redeemer, Jesus …and their Sustainer, the Holy Spirit. This intentional devotion of self to something greater than self…is a way to find more meaning in who we are by becoming less…to walk through the refiner’s fire and to pass…once again… through the waters of baptism.
There is a Before and an After that has changed us…changed the way we related to the world…changed the way we could relate to the world. It was no longer a transaction…now it was a relationship …with Christ…and with each other.
Today, our custom is to give up something for Lent. Now, we do without something we crave…out of respect for all that he gave up for us… as the Righteous One who did what he did on behalf of the unrighteous.
This season that calls us to look beyond next year…even beyond this day…to the moment that is before us …and to invite Jesus into that moment …and all the moments to come.
We are given the gift of detachment from the world and invited to ask ourselves what is truly important.
We live in a time that invites us…urges us…compels us…to reach out for what we can buy to make ourselves feel better…for the day….to define ourselves by what we have rather than by what we are devoted to.
In his great BBC series, Civilisation, Kenneth Clark follows the course of art and architecture, politics and literature from the time the Vikings went out to sea to conquer England and Europe… up to late 1960s America.
His eye is on what was important and what was indulgent, what was enduring wisdom and what was a passing notion. His quest was messianic in its conception and totally provocative in its execution. Jesus came to tell us what was important and what was not and to change the way we relate to our world, too.
Clark wrote his series because in the late 60s the young people of the day were cynical about the legitimacy of institutions and he wanted to show the young people of his day…the next generation…what they were taking for granted.
People only build great structures that last for centuries, he maintained, only when they had an appreciation for the arc of human progress and wanted to be a part of the human adventure…even if they weren’t going to be around for electric lights…running water…and humans landing on the moon.
But he ended the series in the late 1960s and he had to ask what great contribution humanity…Americans in particular…were making to that arc of civilization he had been describing.
He decided that we were celebrating conspicuous consumption…the thrill of having things just for the sake of having things…things we will one day leave behind.
Funny, in a sad way, how he started out with such an ambitious and uplifting thesis and finished with such a commonplace conclusion.
He could not have foreseen, then, how mediated our lives would become in the 70s and beyond…going from one television in every house to a TV in every room…from a laptop in Apollo 13 to a smart phone in every pocket…from all the news that’s fit to print to all the news that fits the network’s editorial/political point of view…to all the news that will recruit like-minded people to our cause.
The machines we built to serve us now demand that we serve them. This is a fundamental source of uneasiness in our lives and we need to name it.
We are so much better off than the people of Jesus’ time…but we have so many more ways to miss the joy of life because we don’t take time to think about what we are hearing and seeing.
We swallow ideas without chewing on them…bringing to life the old saying, “If you don’t watch where you are going, you just might end up there.”
This has been a hard year, but it has also been a year when we have been given the opportunity to sit quietly, focus on our breathing, contemplate on how we got to the place we find ourselves in now…and reflect on how we can make better use of each day we have been given under the sun.
So maybe this is a good year, too, to observe an unusually rigorous and demanding Lent. I was talking to a friend the other day and asked him what he was giving up for Lent.
He told me he was giving up alcohol, caffeine, carbonated drinks and milk.
“Wow,” I said. “You must be very dedicated to Jesus and mindfulness and living a better life.”
“No,” he replied. “I am having stomach problems and the doctor told me I had to.”
I pray my friend discovers something while his stomach is settling down. May he discover that there is a whole world out there that he can learn from. May he learn to stop…and breathe…several times a day…take walks in the woods …write a poem…send a note of encouragement to a friend…or an enemy.
May he get into a conversation with someone he doesn’t agree with…to try to understand why they think that way. May he see that he is part of the problems he has been complaining about all these years…and see a new way to become part of the solution.
May he laugh at the irony of his own situation instead of getting all steamed up about how clueless everyone else is about the lives they are living.
I am re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book written in 1974 by a guy who taught English at Montana State University in the 1950s and 60s. It turned out to be an all-time best seller…still in print… the most widely read philosophy book ever in the world.
I appreciate it a lot more now than I did 40 years ago, but I still get just as excited as I did back then about the parts of the book where he is riding his motorcycle over the Beartooth Pass, from Red Lodge into Yellowstone Park, or when he is sitting in one of the classrooms in Montana Hall where I took the required English classes of my day.
Even back then, he was trying to get people to slow down and think through what they are doing, why they were doing it and how they could be more mindful of the great gift of knowledge and civilization we can enjoy and grow into…and out of…each day.
He was a technical writer…writing about machines and how they work… for us…when they work…for us. So far, my favorite passage takes place in Gallatin Canyon when he explains what a great insight he got from the first sentence in a pamphlet that explained how to assemble a Japanese bicycle.
It said, “Assembly of a Japanese bicycle requires great peace of mind.” I guess today we would say, “Operating the audio-visual equipment at our church requires great peace of mind,” or “Waiting for a call to get my covid vaccination requires great peace of mind.”
We are going through an epic flood of information and technology today. It impacts us even harder now that we are living lives in isolation.
It strikes me that the best way I have ever heard about to contend with it is to do what Jesus did…2,000 years ago …after he passed through the waters of his baptism by John.
The Spirit is forcing us out into a greatly tempting wilderness where we are called to resist the temptations of the devil to find our way back to a form of civilization that does not demand our souls of us…that calls upon us to simply love God and our neighbor.
With our Lenten sacrifices…whatever they are…we seek a time that still leaves some of the innocence and joy of discovery of just being alive… having eyes to see and ears to hear, hands to touch and a mind to explore.
We are so blessed to be alive. Do you realize everything that had to happen just the way it did so you could be here today, taking in the big, wide beautiful world that we live in this moment?
My great grandfather, James Albert McDonald, came to America from County Wexford, Ireland, in the late 1880s or early 1890s. He married Anna Mary Catherine Banderob, a first generation American from Prussia. My mother’s mother was their third daughter. It took them four children to have a boy.
He was working to build a trestle for a railroad one day when a co-worker picked up a beam of wood, turned around and swatted him off the trestle.
I feel great sadness at the hardship Anna Mary Catherine and her children faced without him…and for all he missed…but if that would not have happened, my great grandmother would not have moved to Montana, and I never would have been born.
Jesus had to die to bring about a time of hope and joy in what is important and what will come next.
But Anna Mary Catherine did move here…and I have been born. Recalling it, I am reborn in a way. Just that one little insight helps me keep from complaining about all the hand-me-down bicycles and clothes and baseball gloves I had to put up with. And it was a pretty good life.
Both my parents would tell you today that Montana…even Shelby…was a great place to raise kids in the 50s and 60s, when Robert Pirsig was growing into the person that wrote the most read little philosophy book ever.
Don’t complain about the world. Give thanks that you are in it, in America, and yes, once again I will say it, in the Flathead Valley…but don’t tell anyone else how beautiful it is here. They might start to move here in great numbers.
I give thanks that a lot of righteous dreams have come to me…even though people more righteous than I am had to die so I could live out my days under the sun.
Let us give thanks for Jesus Christ who came into the world not to condemn us, but to save us… not to make us feel bad about giving up caffeine and alcohol and carbonated drinks and milk…but so that we might glimpse…and having glimpsed…that we might live into…eternal life.
Lent is that one season when less is more, when a simple thought becomes a deep well with cool, sweet water down in it.
Let us steer our ship with hope, leaving fear astern, and let us become more like Jesus with every step we take in worship and in the world toward Jerusalem.
Let’s all have a happy…supremely joyous…Lent, my friends…enjoying what we find right there in front of us when we deny ourselves a couple of the pleasures…or temptations…that we think we just cannot live without.
O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.