We gather together at this beginning of Lent in order to remember that our days on this earth are not infinite and that what we do with the time we have been given matters deeply to God. Yet there’s also a tendency to think that this day is partly given over to shame and guilt, for us to feel that what we’re doing is not enough, that we are not enough. In a few moments I will stand at the chancel steps and invite you to participate in the observance of a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and through reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And this feels like what I’m asking on behalf of the Church—on behalf of the Maker of the Universe—is for you to do more. To take on more in your religious life in order to pay for past missteps, so that you can earn God’s grace and mercy.
We began this service with a prayer that declares at its onset this truth about God: “God, you hate nothing you have made.” While it says more—and I’ll get to that other stuff in a moment—I want us to pause there. God hates nothing God has created. God doesn’t despise you when you feel as if you don’t measure up. Rather God looks at you and states emphatically that you are loved just as you are. Full stop. No hesitations or second-guessing. God loves you as a beloved child simply because God created you in all your uniqueness and quirks, with all your desires and passions, bestowing on you gifts and talents that God wants you to share with the world for its great good.
Far far too often as a priest I hear the ways in which people feel that they do not measure up to God. From the more pedestrian that they’ve not made it to church as often as they’d like, to the more heart-wrenching that they’ve struggled for years with an addiction. And therefore, they surmise, God does not—God cannot—love them or accept them just yet. That they first need to do more in order to make it up to God. I firmly believe, and I cannot say this forcefully enough, that this insidiousness that we all experience in our lives comes directly from the spiritual forces of wickedness that seek to destroy us and to draw us from the love of God. God never hates us. God never despises us. God hates nothing—God hates no one—that God has made.
And that, friends, is paramount—it is the bedrock on which the rest of our service today is built as we begin these 40 days together. The point of Lent is not for us to fall into despair, but to be honest about where we are in life and how much we need God’s help. Which is how on my better days I read the rest of our opening collect: that we desire a new and contrite heart recognizing that on our own we tend to wretchedly mess things up, and that God readily forgives us. That God, as the prophet Joel puts it, “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
And the best way for us to move forward to that fuller life we desire with God is through the ancient practices of our faith to which the Church invites us for a holy Lent: prayer, fasting, serving others, self-denial, reading scripture, and the like. Pastor Brian McLaren reminds us that the purpose of these practices “is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive.” More alive to the people around us and to the world in which we live. More alive by seeing and participating in the fullness and goodness of life. Far too often we see the invitation to these practices as just one more thing to add to our to-do list. That somehow we’ll be able to shoehorn in one more thing during Lent in order to make things right. Too often, McLaren suggests, “religious systems put on people more and more pressure: give more, read more, pray more, evangelize more, attend more, learn more, try more, work more, rest more, and fail less. It’s a treadmill.” “Let’s stop adding more things to the divinely inspired to-do list. Instead, let’s start counting what we’re already doing. Or put differently, let’s make the things we’re already doing count.”
Instead of practicing our faith, McLaren suggests, we should be “faithing our practices.” Doing so simply means becoming more aware—more alive—to what we already do in our daily lives and looking for God in those moments. Truly seeing the beauty of the sky and sun and the robin that has already returned this winter and the budding of the trees as we walk the dog each day. Or watching the news and imagining how God might see that conflict in the Middle East or the spreading of the corona virus to yet more people. Or perhaps it’s simply doing the dishes and folding the laundry as a contemplative act of love for the others you share your life with and not just a drudgery to be endured.
How might you slow down over the next 40 days and see the gift of life given to you by the one who loves you and all that has been created? What practices that already exist in your life can become opportunities for you to reflect on the love, mercy, and grace of God? How might you come to fully believe that the purpose of faith practices is to make you more alive to the work of God in and around you?
That’s the invitation given to us for Lent. To find and be found by God. As you faith your practices and open yourself up to the unfailing mercy and love of God, may you come to know deep peace and reconciliation in your life drawing you closer to the one who created you and loves you for all of eternity no matter what. Amen.
Quotations taken from Brian McLaren’s Finding Our Way Again. (Pg. 182ff)