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Third Sunday of Lent – March 24, 2019
“But with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
I once read a time-management related weblog where I encountered an article about the danger of wasting time. The author’s premise was this: the worst kind of time-wasting trap that we can fall into is not goofing off. It is doing fake work. When we are goofing off, we know you are goofing off. However, when we are doing fake work, we are doing things that seem like real work, except for the fact that they aren’t. So, for example, when I should be writing my sermon and I am instead filing papers on my desk, re-shelving my books, and checking e-mail and Facebook, I may be in my office, I may feel like I am working. If you were to peek through my window, I may even look like I am working, but I am not working. What I am doing is using fake work to assuage my conscience because what I am really doing is avoiding what truly needs to be done. I do it all the time. The reason the bushes at my house are pruned is because I do it when I really should be raking the leaves, and so on.
Which brings me to Lent, this wondrous forty-day season of the Christian liturgical year that should, if nothing else, save us from “fake piety.” It is a chance to allow God to change our wrong-headed and self-centered desires, so that our lives will follow our hearts in a more faithful direction. Lent is, in the broadest sense, about the admission that in order for us to embrace the life for which we were created, that we need God. As much as we sometimes hate to admit it, we are in need of God’s guidance, God’s grace, God’s redemption, and God’s forgiveness. In order to be kingdom people, there are things we need to make certain we do, and there are things we need to make certain we avoid. Lent is a time for us to remember this, and to make the necessary adjustments to our hearts and minds, knowing that as Jesus teaches, where our hearts are, there we will find our priorities and our desires.
The problem with Lent is that too often if becomes a parody of itself. We find ourselves doing fake work, practicing fake piety, giving up something trivial when what God is instead calling us to do is to allow God to fully reclaim our lives and transform our experiences as God’s covenant people. Our God is the God who, in many ways reshapes and reclaims our lives and experiences through intentional practices and intentional disciplines of eschewing the temporal, the tempting, artificial emptiness of the world around us, disciplining ourselves to embrace the fullness of life and faith and devotion that it is God’s will for us to have.
In this morning’s text, Paul makes one of his more oblique arguments in this first epistle to the church in Corinth. Using an example from the Jewish people’s time in the wilderness during the exodus from Egyptian captivity, he describes the kinds of things that test our faith. He discusses the evil some desired, the idolatry some committed, the sexual immorality some participated in, the testing of God some did, and the complaining some did while listing the consequences suffered by the people of God.
Then, in what almost seems like a pivot, he describes a God who tests us, yet not beyond our strength and in ways common to everyone, and not in ways we cannot endure. As I read and reread this text in preparation for this sermon, I was struck by Paul’s use of the word “endurance” as it relates to faith. I find myself wondering how often we consider endurance as it relates to how we live our faith. We may sometimes find ourselves thinking of faith as binary: we have it or we don’t; one or zero, on or off. We may consider ourselves to have strong faith or weak faith, or as I discussed last Sunday, faith that grows or shrinks depending on how we nourish or neglect our faith.
Yet here, in this morning’s text, Paul discusses endurance, a word we generally associate with subjecting ourselves to greater and greater levels of physical discomfort, even pain, until our bodies and our minds adapt and become stronger, more resilient, able to overcome greater and greater burdens. It is one thing to regard the strength in our faith as an ability to believe the gospel with greater and greater confidence and less and less doubt. Yet it seems to me that the endurance of faith is something else entirely; not merely an ability to subscribe a set of theological precepts, but an ability for us to withstand the things in this life that challenge our faith, only to have our faith (paradoxically) come out stronger on the other side of these things.
And this, sisters and brothers, is why we observe Lent as a time of reflection, self-examination, and repentance: done well, Lent shows us our weak spots, and helps us discipline ourselves so that they can become places of God’s strength, so that we can endure the trials and temptations of this life.
Lent is a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter. It is a time for us to look inwardly and to be honest about what is inside us, about our priorities, about what is in us that can stay and what is in us that needs to go. It is a time for us to take up, continue, or renew the holy habits such as giving, praying, reading scripture, listening to God, serving others, and fasting so that we can experience the richness of Christ and the life prepared for us as children of God.
We live in a time when there is so little free time left anymore. We work long hours. Our children are involved in a million different things. We barely have time to devote to the necessities. How then can we be expected to invest time in what appears to be luxury? When I was in seminary, I heard a presentation at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes gathering by Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham. In that presentation she said, “You cannot wait for free time to make itself available for you to nourish your relationship with God. The devil will never give you enough free time to do that. You have to make that time. You have to claim it for yourself.”
I realize how difficult all of this sounds. I realize that taking time for spiritual disciplines sounds like one more thing to feel bad about not doing, one more thing to cram into an already overloaded calendar. And yet, when we choose the right things on which to spend our limited time, those properly-chosen things can become a means by which we both regard and judge all of the things vying for our time and attention.
A dozen or so years ago I was a distance runner, until I was injured by running when I was actually hurt. I completed two half-marathons and one full-marathon. There were hundreds of miles of endurance-building preparation I put in, running on the rural, wooded roads of Prince George County. To be quite clear, I am not one who adopts healthy new habits easily, as I am certainly a creature of habit and routine. Yet I did it. At first, it felt like torture as I had no endurance at all, then it felt like rote (and quite boring) obedience. However, after awhile, it became so much more. Running actually became something to look forward to, something that began to shape my day and inform my other routines. Running gave me holy periods of silence, away from phones, screens, and all of the noise of the myriad things vying for my time and attention.
Before long, I was seeing and hearing things that had been heretofore invisible to me: the exquisitely subtle first signs of the changing seasons, how the air seemed to turn cool in gentle waves, the deep exhale of distant horses, the skien of southbound geese flying overhead, the deer I startled from its resting place in the hedgerow beside the roadway.
I became more aware of the people around me as well, the neighbor who had just had a wheelchair ramp installed. The carpenters putting the finishing touches on a new home on old farmland. Once I reached a level of fitness where I was not straining to breathe, if I was on an isolated enough road, I would sing while I ran, my footsteps keeping time, forming the bass beats, and my breathing in and breathing out the snare.
For me, the discipline of running still had to take place in the spaces between all of the immovable duties and responsibilities and roles I had to fill in my daily round. Yet what I never would have expected was how a time-consuming discipline that I never really wanted to practice in the first place became a lens through which I could regard the challenges and the difficulties of my daily life. I do not know if it was the endorphins or the sense of satisfaction that came from starting the workday with five miles behind me that did it, but this intentional practice helped me see my life in a brighter, clearer light. As such, the challenges began to seem less challenging and the complexities less tangled. I originally thought I would become a more hurried husband, father, and pastor, because I was dedicating myself to something that would consume my already-limited free time. Instead, the discipline of spending that mindful time on the road made me better, more aware, and more fully present in those moments when the people I loved and was charged to care for were with me.
I believe that these spiritual disciplines that lead us to a deeper awareness of our inward lives operate in the very same way. Prayer takes time, as does reading scripture and attending worship. Giving to the poor takes resources. Fasting will always be uncomfortable. However, all of these things can serve to give us a sense of clarity and perspective on both the blessings and the challenges of our harried lives that provides with the kind of “treasures-in-heaven” abundance that Jesus describes in the gospels. Just like running did for me, our spiritual disciplines can also help us to not only build endurance for our faith lives, they become the things that reframe all of the other things, giving us the strength, the patience, the grace, and the clear-mindedness necessary to do those other things, and to do them well.
As Christians, we make an audacious claim: the audacious claim that our God, the creator of the universe, desires an intimate relationship with us, and we make the equally audacious claim that God wants quality time with us, time without all of the noise and bluster of this world. God seeks for us to grow in our relationship with God, knowing that we will always think there is a better time to do it, or that we are too busy, or that our current level of involvement with God is enough.
But when we don’t our lives suffer. This is why God gives us endurance-building spiritual disciplines and why each liturgical year, the church gives us Lent to explore and experiment new spiritual disciplines, or to at least renew the old ones.
Our piety is not for show so others will think highly of us. The practice of our faith is not punishment for our sins. Christ did not merely come to inform humankind about salvation. He came to transform humankind so that we could begin experiencing eternal life in the here and now, in this life. At first glance, the practice of giving of ourselves, our time, our talents, our resources may seem like work; at first glance, prayer may seem like work that we do not have time to do; at first fasting, doing without certain things in the midst of a gluttonous consumer culture may seem quaint, antiquated, and unnecessary.
However, all of these things serve to put us in places where we can grow in our faith, grow in our relationship with Christ, build stamina and endurance in our belief, and before we realize it, these practices that once seemed burdensome and superfluous are essentials in our lives, things we would not think of missing because we need them, because the bring us into the transformative presence of God, because they help enable us to be what we were created to be: children of the Most High God, servants of Christ, prophets of the cross and resurrection in the midst of a world with radically different priorities than those attested to in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lent is a time for us to honestly examine and reexamine ourselves, to understand our need of God, to see both where we need to grow and what we need to become. Lent is a time for us to honestly ask ourselves where our treasure is and where our heart is. It is a time for us to start anew, to be forgiven for our past, to allow our sins to be burned away into ashes by the love and grace of God, so that we can begin new lives, with new practices, with new priorities, as children made in the image of the living Christ, to eschew the fake that accomplishes little and embrace the eternal that endures forever.
In Boston 1869, eight women organized the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society in response to a lack of women’s health in India. In November of that year, these women were able to raise the funds necessary to send an educator named Isabella Thoburn and a doctor named Clara Swain to India, where male doctors would not treat female patients.
“Ms. Thoburn began a school with six young girls in Lucknow. This school expanded to include Isabella Thoburn College, the first women’s college in Asia. Dr. Swain began her medical work, resulting in the establishment of the first women’s hospital in Asia. Both of these institutions are still serving the people of India.”
This gathering of eight women in Boston in 1869 is known today as the United Methodist Women, with 800,000 members. The UMW is a marvelous testimony to what God can and will do with the humblest of beginnings, the smallest of first steps. When those eight women began their ministry, the gathering was small but the dream was not—the dream was big and transformative and God-sized. It was persistent a sense of God’s justice confronting the injustices and the inequities of this world that drove them to take one faithful step, and then another, and another, and as they did, they became stronger and stronger until they became this wondrous mission we know today, a mission that in so many ways, in so many United Methodist congregations like ours is the social conscience of the church, pushing us to stretch and grow and live our baptismal vows “to confront evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
What first step is God calling you to take this Lent? What is pushing you, pushing you towards growth in God’s grace? How is God challenging you, stretching you, inspiring you to build the endurance that will see you through the adventure of Christian discipleship that is ahead of you? What is holding you back?
God’s grace abounds and the road ahead is filled with beauty and it awaits you, one step made in faith at a time towards the transformational newness of life that Christ gave his life to bring to you, to me, to everyone.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.