Thursday, February 14, 2008

What is Lent for?

So here’s our Lenten mantra this year: “Lent is not about giving up potato chips, but about hearing the story, fresh and deep.”

Today, we might ask “which story?”

Let’s start with the tornadoes in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. On Tuesday, February 5, storms moving across the South spawned a cluster of killer tornadoes, along with hail and heavy snow. Fifty-five people were killed, over a hundred injured, and countless homes, schools, and businesses were reduced to rubble.

Episcopal Relief and Development has already reached out on our behalf to affected dioceses, beginning assessment to determine critical needs. Don’t assume that working through dioceses means that we’re only taking care of our own. It means that dioceses have local arms and legs, networks and connections. What we heard the prophet Isaiah urge us to do on Ash Wednesday, our Church is doing: to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house, to cover the naked, and not to hide ourselves from our own kin.

Let’s call this a Lenten ka’ching moment: what the Emergency Relief Fund of ERD is disbursing, needs replacing. Your gifts placed in Raile’s Bowl this morning will go to that purpose.

Months ago, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori declared this Sunday Episcopal Relief and Development Sunday—a date well chosen.

Other stories circle around us today. St. Matthew tells us of our Lord’s dark night of the soul (in fact, forty nights and days) in the desert, facing down one temptation after another, and all on an empty stomach and in profound solitude.

The first of these temptations catches my imagination: “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

What I see when I hear those words is all the stones in this building that we have labored over, these past two years. That each is in its place is already a great act of recycling and change, these many hundreds of glacial pebbles rubbed off in the passage of the Ice Age. For farmers to plow, these stones had to go; and while some became fill and some were piled in walls, these became a church.

Are they of any use, unless they are turned to bread? If we fail to express our faith through works of mercy, compassion, and justice, how does our pile of stones, however charming, glorify God? Without our faith becoming action in the world, don’t we become cold and inert, stone upon stone, with a sad tendency to wobble in our cracking mortar?

There’s one temptation. But Jesus’s own ju-jitsu with the tempter asserts the primacy of God’s living Word over the importance of bread, even to the famished. I hear him saying that if we’re always in motion and never still, always adding to our lists and never emptying our independent souls as Jesus was doing in the desert, if we’re afraid to pray, afraid to really listen and to recognize God in our own experience—then we’ll become hollow and insubstantial. At least stones have mass and dumbly know how to support. Disciples, on the other hand (as we saw last Sunday), tend to get agitated and close up when confronted by change and transcendence. Think of Peter, James, and John on the mount of Transfiguration, nervously offering to build shrines to capture a passing glory while the demand from God is, “Listen to my beloved Son.”

What was Jesus doing in the desert? He was being empty so that the mind and heart and will of God might fill every cell and fiber of his being. He was knowing with God his own weaknesses so that God’s brand of might could build itself in him. He was listening, and he was hearing.

As if this day’s cup of stories isn’t overflowing already, we have yet another about listening. Adam, Eve, and the serpent all share a growing commitment not to listen to the LORD God. The way the story is told and taken, disobedience is the result, and the root of that word tells the story: the edience part of obedience is from the Latin audire, to hear. I’ll guess that the ob part, a Latin preposition, may mean towards.

Towards hearing. That’s what Lent is for: to move us towards hearing, fresh and clear and deep, the story of Jesus’s passion, God’s compassion, and our mission as Christian hearers. The kind of Lenten obedience that will reward us and delight God is not the obedience of grim will power, but the obedience of open-minded, open-hearted listening.

That’s our purpose in the Lenten lunch series that follows this service today and on the four following Sundays. Not business as usual, but time invested in community, gathered around tables for homemade soup and hearty breads. Then hearing a story teller who will help us walk the way of the cross, telling us one story from one day in that holy week that opens with Palm Sunday and, in Easter, refuses to end. We’ll be rediscovering that we’re always in holy week, that all time is within the reign of the Prince of Peace, and that we’re given the mission to claim all moments in his name—as Paul puts it in his letter today, exercising dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

After we hear John Ladd tell the story of Palm Sunday, our Lord’s dramatic entry into Jerusalem, we’ll choose into small groups, either one that will consider how this story speaks to our faith journey, or one that will explore how this story addresses issues of social justice in the world.

Then we’ll hear how this first of the stories of holy week has been enacted and celebrated in the Church’s life over the centuries, how we usually do it here, and we’ll be listening for inspirations as to how we might observe Palm Sunday this year.

All that in eighty minutes, including lunch. And you won’t have to wash the dishes.

You’ll just need to place yourself at the gates of Jerusalem and be open to what you hear and see as Jesus enters the city famed for killing its prophets, chewing up and spitting out its peacemakers. In that respect it could be any modern city, but to belong to all time a story first must have its traction in one time and place, even as it requires us to see and understand our own nature. Does any day in the Christian year do that better than Palm Sunday, when our very own voices call out Hosanna! and Crucify him! all within eight minutes in St. Matthew’s story?

For it is in our nature both to listen deeply and to listen not at all, to hear and understand, and to have an urgent truth pass through the chambers of our ears, in one side, out the other.

“Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.” We said those words that God, through the psalmist, says to us, and we’ll do well to hear them summon us to a Lent of listening. Listening to Jesus’s story so we rightly hear our own, and better understand our own nature, letting it be re-shaped to a finer obedience.

So, if Biscuit the donkey visits us again this Palm Sunday, you and I won’t be shown up as creatures less in tune with God than an ass.