Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent - March 18 2018

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119;9-16;Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Are we tired of Lent yet?  Does Lent still have meaning in our own time and place?  Why this seemingly unending focus on the death of the Messiah?  Why does the church do this year after year?

 I could regale you with history and tradition – that this period of time was set aside to finalize a three-year process of preparation for Baptism; or that this aspect of Jesus’ life is just one of the phases traced out in our liturgical year and if we didn’t have Lent, Epiphany would be far too long; or to make us suffer so that Easter feels a whole lot more exciting.

Or I could explain about the spring festival Beltane and the harvest festival Samhain, taken over by the church to remove their pagan roots.

The thing is, the reasons for the season are ancient, and we don’t necessarily know what was in the minds of those who first suggested it, but we do know that it was definitely linked to the story of Christ.  It’s forty days because the stories in scripture often described periods of forty days – the 40 days of the Noachine flood, the 40 years of Israel in the wilderness, the 40 days Jesus faced temptation in the desert after his baptism.

Lent has been a thing since the second century but at that time it was only a few days, as a preparation for baptism.  By 325, at the Council of Nicaea, the church leaders were talking about extending it to 40 days, but it wasn’t adopted everywhere at first.  But it was a period of very serious fasting – only one meal a day, and I suppose today we would describe it as most resembling vegan.  In the 8th century, a second meal was permitted. 

And so on.  But now?  Does it still serve a purpose?

I suppose it does, if we say it does.  But I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about fasting, or asked the question, what are you giving up for Lent?  In recent years, at least in many of the mainstream churches, the focus has been more frequently on taking on something extra, rather than giving up something. 

So people might enroll in a daily study, of Scripture or prayer practices, or meditations – and there are still some links on our website to such programs.  I know a priest friend of mine who is doing the 40 days 40 bags exercise – the idea being that each day one fills another big garbage bag or box of items in their home to be discarded or donated, and thus simplifies their life while benefiting others. 

On the other hand, some churches don’t “do” a liturgical year of seasons intended to reflect particular places in Jesus’ life; the pilgrims of New England even outlawed Christmas!

The churches in the greater Catholic family – from Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, to the Anglican/Episcopal Church – still hold a 40-day Lenten season, and we do read those parts of the Scriptures that focus on the death march of Jesus, because it is Jesus’ submission to death that destroys the power of sin and death, while his resurrection restores humanity to a grace-filled relationship with God.

So Lent is for us symbolic of the sufferings of Christ, and it may also be physical, if we engage in a fast, or it may feed our spiritual lives, if we take on a study or daily meditation.  Lent is what we make it.

My Lenten study has been the book Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman.  I’m not reading it every day – but the reading that I have been doing has really helped shape my thinking about, obviously, race relations in America – since that’s what he was writing about.  But that’s the not only issue that has arisen for me. 

Thurman wrote about what he calls the “three hounds of hell” – three psychological responses to being on the receiving end of oppression, which also turn out to be three psychological weapons used in the defense of oppression. These three are: Fear, Distrust, and Hatred.

In each case, an oppressed person or population may find these emotions uppermost in their lives, and affecting how they survive on a daily basis.  But the odd thing is, those who oppress others also feel these emotions.  So both oppressor and oppressed could easily fear each other, or distrust each other, or hate each other. 

But that doesn’t make their shared feeling of fear, to take one example, the same fear.  This is because the two parties unequal in power and status.  The oppressed fears the loss of life and autonomy, while the oppressor fears the loss of power and authority.

So they are each afraid, but each one is afraid of something different.    And for each, the fear the other has, seems illegitimate and unjustified.

How can a rich or powerful person be threatened by a weak and poor one?  Why is it necessary for the powerful to malign the oppressed, and blame them for their troubles, when the trouble clearly stems from the powerful’s actions and systemic constructs?

Alternatively, if the system we have is, as we pronounce and claim, an equal opportunity system, why don’t the poor and powerless just follow the rules and work their way up?  Why do they have to upset everything?

The problem is, we’re not all working off the same facts.  Over and over again, we see evidence that the equal-opportunity systems we think we have set up are anything but equal-opportunity systems in reality. Those who benefit do not see the inequalities built in, because those inequalities don’t affect them. 

The inequalities built into the system don’t keep them out.  They can see them or not, but they always have the option of going home, turning on the lights, making dinner, watching TV, reading a book, and no one is going to roust them for sleeping on a park bench or steal their wallet at the homeless shelter or call the cops on them for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or jay-walking or selling single packs of cigarettes…

I remember seeing a sign in a courtroom once, long ago – it said “We prosecute rich and poor alike for stealing a loaf of bread.” 

The thing is, the rich probably won’t be stealing a loaf of bread, will they?  But the poor might be just desperate enough to do that.

So Thurman has been my Lenten discipline this year – in an effort to see the world as others see it, others not like me, others who are hurt by aspects of the very same system that supports me.

Thurman was firmly of the opinion that Jesus was firmly on the side of the oppressed, even though he counseled forgiveness and peace to his followers, and even though he submitted to death on the cross at the hand of those who were oppressors or who at least used their common oppressors to maintain their own security at the price of his life.

Why then did he counsel peace and forgiveness?  Because fear, distrust, and hatred eat up our souls.  They are degrading, de-humanizing, and deadly.  They are not the way of God.

How are we to move away from fear to forgiveness, from distrust to trust, from hatred to love?  How does Jesus’ death help us?

That’s the Really Big Question posed by Christianity, and most particularly in the seasonal symbols of Lent and the events recounted during Holy Week.  How does Jesus’ death help us on that journey?

I’m going to leave you hanging there.  Ask yourselves, of what am I afraid?  Whom do I distrust?  Whom do I hate?  And what has Jesus to say to me about those feelings?  What has Jesus to say to me about what to do about those feelings?

We’ll talk more about these questions in the next few weeks….  Meanwhile, I’d like to suggest and invite you to come to the Holy Week services, as many as you can.  Let the liturgies, the prayers, the music, and even the silences sink into your mind, heart, and soul, and let them speak to your spirit.  Maybe you can tell me what Jesus has to tell us all about of this.

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