A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 24, 2013 (II Lent, Year C)
As most of you know by now, I rarely quote theologians or spiritual writers in my sermons. It’s not that they don’t have wonderful things to say. They do — and they’re usually far more eloquent than I could ever be.
But I don’t usually quote other people for several reasons. First, I’ve sat through enough sermons that were basically a bunch of quotes strung together and there are few things more likely to induce sleep. In fact, if you have a newborn baby I highly recommend this as a proven method to get them to sleep through the night. Second, I just think it’s so important to preach the gospel rather than to preach about the gospel. That’s a trap some preachers fall into — quoting everyone under the sun but forgetting to make the Scriptures come alive in a way that speaks to everyday life. And finally, I’m just too lazy to go around digging up relevant quotes — even with the internet.
You can probably see where this is headed. I stumbled on a quote about the season of Lent that really resonated and I thought I’d share it. In the name of full disclosure, I didn’t find it by perusing some huge leather-bound theological tome. A monk gave it to me. Presumably he found it by reading through a huge leather-bound theological tome — they have more time for such things.
But as part of my own devotional life I meet with a monk at Glastonbury Abbey once a month. It’s basically a spiritual check-in; a way to share where I am in my own walk with our Lord and I always leave feeling refreshed and grateful. I admit I still find it rather surreal that we have a monastery here in Hingham — if you’ve never been there I highly recommend it. They have a bookstore, a chapel, outdoor Stations of the Cross, and the monks offer various spiritual programs to the public. Anyway, I went in to see Brother Timothy on Friday and he gave me a quote to reflect on from a Franciscan friar and author named Richard Rohr.
He writes, “There are only two moments that matter. One is when you know that your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive. The other is when you know your life, as presently lived, is entirely pointless and empty.” So two extremes: in the one, there’s hope and joy and fulfillment. In the other, there’s despair and bitterness and emptiness.
Rohr goes on to say, “You need both of them to keep you going in the right direction. Lent is about both (baptism and penance). The first moment gives you energy and joy by connecting you with [God]. The second gives you limits and boundaries and proper humility, so you can keep seeking [God] and not just your small self.”
I love this because it points to the creative tension of discipleship. God loves us for who we are simply because we are God’s creation but without authentic relationship with God, there’s no point. We live our lives in between these two extremes realizing we are God’s beloved but also that without God we are nothing.
The season of Lent demands introspection — that’s what this quote invites us into. And when we look inside to examine our relationship with the risen Christ, we’re really talking about discipleship; about the way we follow Jesus in our own lives.
Now I realize it can be difficult to claim discipleship. At first it sounds like such a lofty title — something reserved for Jesus’ first followers. Most of us don’t introduce ourselves at cocktail parties by saying, “Hi, I’m Bob. I’m a disciple of Jesus.” Though if you ever walk into a crowded coffee shop and can’t find a seat, I do recommend this technique. You’ll have your own table in no time. Guaranteed.
But the word “disciple” simply means student or pupil. Jesus gathered disciples around him to teach them about a radical new way of relationship with God. Jesus didn’t engage his ministry in isolation — he called disciples together to teach them, to share in his ministry — which is why we gather as a community of faith week after week after week (unless there’s a blizzard or school vacation).
What all of this points to is that you and I are disciples. We are members of a community that is gathered around Jesus Christ. And to recognize your discipleship is to claim your identity as a Christian. Granted it’s life-long work but it begins anew each and every day.
These two moments Rohr points to also bring us to another source of creative spiritual tension. The dynamic between individual faith and communal faith; between our own spiritual identity and the spiritual identity of the whole worshiping community. Think about those original disciples. They all had their own experiences with Jesus — meaningful interactions or occasional rebukes (usually in Peter’s case) — but they were also in it together. They had one another to lean on for support when times were tough. The same goes for us as we bring our own spiritual lives to the altar but only with everyone else who gathers as a community.
The point is, Jesus doesn’t call us to be hermits, to keep our faith hidden away in a cave or exclusively in our own hearts or to keep Jesus as a personal trophy on a bookcase where we can dust him off whenever we need him and then put him back up there where we can ignore him until we decide we need him again. Relating to God on our terms rather than God’s terms. Which, as Rohr puts it, leaves us only seeking our own “small self” — that ego-driven, self-centered self.
But here’s where Lent comes in — and the practice of engaging in a Lenten discipline. The word discipline shares the same root as the word disciple. Granted, the word “discipline” is word that can make us uncomfortable. We either think of being sent off to military school or being punished. Yet taking on a Lenten discipline isn’t about punishment or abuse just as Lent isn’t about guilt but invitation. A Lenten discipline is about drawing us ever-closer to God. It’s a discipline of joy.
When we submit to discipline we surrender something. In the case of a Lenten discipline we’re surrendering ourselves to Jesus. It may be participating in one of our Lenten programs or setting aside time for prayer or reading Scripture. There are many possible disciplines intended to bring you closer to God and I encourage you to think about what you might take on over the next few weeks.
Lenten disciplines, like the entire season, are forms of preparation. We are preparing ourselves throughout these forty days and forty nights to walk the way of the cross with Jesus. Much like an athlete surrenders his or her will to a coach to prepare for a big race, we are surrendering a piece of ourselves — our own ego and desires — to Jesus. The reward is both the journey itself and the fulfillment of Easter joy on the day of Resurrection that is to come.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck