Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

As Long As It Takes (Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, RCL Year C), 6 March 2022

Lord God,
We ask you to hold the people of Ukraine deep in your heart.
Protect them, we pray; from violence,
from political gamesmanship,
from being used and abused.

Give, we pray, the nations of the world the courage
and the wisdom to stand up for justice
and the courage, too, to dare to care generously.

Lord, in your mercy, take from us all the tendencies in us
that seek to lord it over others:
take from us those traits
that see us pursuing our own needs and wants
before those of others.

Teach us how to live in love and dignity and respect
following your example,
that life may triumph over death,
and light may triumph over darkness. Amen. [1]

The Pope’s message for Lent is a poignant one, beginning with an acknowledgement that “going to some small extent without food [may not seem to] mean much, at a time when so many of our brothers and sisters are victims of war … and are undergoing such suffering, both physically and morally.” Nonetheless, insisted His Holiness, “Lent must mean something,” and he urged all Christians to focus on “the common heritage of humanity.”[2]

“There is,” wrote Mike Hirsley, a religion reporter for the Chicago Tribune, “a common thread as the days of Lent intertwine with the days of war: These are solemn times of reconciling daily routine with faith, of trying to make peace with God amid the earthly hostilities.” Hirsley quoted a local clergyman, the Rev. Robert Thompson, pastor of First Baptist Church of Evanston, Illinois, who echoed the Pope’s sentiment of universality: “My sense of this Lent is that its call for sobriety and penitence needs to be collective. It is difficult to keep the mood and manner of this particular lenten season private and personal.”[3]

Similarly, Ben Montgomery of the Hudson Valley Times Herald-Record wrote that while “Lent is always a special time … more people are praying for peace this year.” He quoted a Roman Catholic lay woman who commented, “I really think that people are worried this year with all that’s going on in the world.”[4]

These assessments are certainly true of Lent 2022, as we begin the season witnessing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and contemplating all that it may mean for the world, for our country, and for ourselves. They are made all the more disturbing by the fact that none of them was offered in recent days. The Papal Message came not from Francis, but from John Paul II in 1979, the year in which China invaded Vietnam, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Somalia was at war with Ethiopia, and Saddam Hussein came to power in a bloody coup and political purge in Iraq. The Chicago Tribune article was published in 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in response to which the United States invaded Iraq. And the Hudson Valley paper’s piece was published in 2003 after America had again invaded Iraq and gone to war in Afghanistan in response to 9/11.

We know too much about Lent intertwined with war, about trying to make peace with God in the midst of earthly hostilities. Perhaps this Lent you are trying to do so a personal devotional from Forward Movement or Upper Room, or with the lovely “Return to Me” bags put together by the Cathedral’s spiritual life team, praying, reading scripture, and making quiet spaces in your life.

Not too long ago, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and House of Deputies President Gay Jennings reminded us that these are not only Lenten activities:

We are always praying. We are always reading scripture. We are always seeking to love and serve our neighbors. And we are always learning and practicing Jesus’ way of love, especially as he calls us to cross racial, cultural and ethnic lines, to examine structures of oppression and their impact on our own and others’ lives, and ultimately to nurture Beloved Community.[5]

These things, they wrote, are part of “an adventure, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit,” a journey to a destination at which “no Christian should ever expect to arrive … a spiritual practice [that] no one ever finishes.”[6] That sounds a lot like a description of Lent.

Jennings and Curry echo the thoughts of St. Augustine of Hippo about peace; Augustine observed in The City of God that peace is an unattainable goal. The instability of human affairs, he wrote, precludes any people the degree of tranquility needed to reach a truly secure peace.[7] Most of us have taken the forty-day journey of Lent many times before; we are setting out on it yet again in yet another time when racial, ethnic, and international violence at home[8] and abroad[9] make its promised destination of peace seem so unachievable. But if the disciplines of Lent teach us anything, it is this: no matter how unreachable the destination may appear, the journey toward peace, toward that peace which surpasses all understanding must still be undertaken.[10]

The gospel lesson for the First Sunday of Lent is always the story of Jesus going off into the desert to be alone and to fast for forty days following his baptism.[11] I’ll bet you’ve heard a lot, maybe hundreds, of Lenten sermons through the years encouraging individual improvement through the private devotions and personal disciplines of the season. I know I’ve preached dozens of them, but now I think that Baptist pastor Thompson and Pope John Paul II are correct. Lent needs to be collective and as we do the personal devotions and individual activities in our “Return to Me” bags, we need to focus not so much on our personal spirituality as on our common human heritage. More than ever, Lent is about more than spiritual introspection and individual improvement. It is, to echo Bishop Curry and President Jennings, about nurturing Christ’s Beloved Community; it must be about striving for peace.

It occurred to me as I read this familiar gospel story once again that Satan’s temptations of Jesus are the temptations of self-centeredness and individual power, the very temptations that encourage national leaders like Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin to throw their nations into war with their neighbors, that drive fanatics like Osama Bin Ladin, Timothy McVeigh, and Dylann Roof to bomb buildings and murder innocent people, and that push powerful politicians to seek and try hold on to power at all costs:

… the temptation of self-sufficiency embodied in the Devil’s challenge to miraculously produce food without any other person’s involvement or assistance – to which Jesus answers, “One does not live by bread alone” but in community with God and others;

… the temptation of self-importance, to put oneself at the top of the pyramid of leadership and authority, and fight stay there whatever the cost – which Jesus counters with “worship and service”;

… the temptation of selfishly risking the destruction of oneself and others – to which Jesus simply answers “No.”

Self-sufficiency, self-importance, and risking self-destruction, the illusory temptations of self-centeredness and individualism to which human beings and human nations fall prey again and again and again.

The wise priest under whom I served my curacy explained the Ash Wednesday cross on one’s forehead like this: “The first mark is an ‘I,’ ” he said. “Then the second mark wipes the ‘I’ away.” Lent begins with the story of Jesus facing forty days of the I’s of introspection and individual privation, but that is not what Lent is about. These forty days are about the I’s of interconnection, interdependence, and integration. Jesus wipes away the private temptations of individual power with the collective inspiration of relationship and community.

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning is from Deuteronomy.[12] In it, Moses details the liturgy for celebrating the Feast of Weeks, the origin of our Pentecost, a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest. It includes the admonition to Jews to remember and recite this statement faith: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.”[13]

This reminds us that solitude leads to community. Through God’s grace, the singularity of that rootless Aramean is transformed during forty years of desert wandering into the People of God; through that same grace, Jesus’ forty-day desert solitude leads to and becomes the Eucharistic community of his followers; and through the forty-day grace of Lent, we individuals are formed into the Beloved Community.

Lent is a time of personal discipline and private devotion, of fasting and privation, of prayer and scripture reading. but let’s not forget that introspection and individual improvement are the means of Lent not its goal. Lent is neither private nor an end in itself; it is collective and it has a destination. Lent’s forty days are leading us to the peace which surpasses all understanding.

Do you ever wonder, “Why forty?” We encounter that number so often in Scripture. The rains that flooded the earth in the time of Noah lasted for forty days and forty nights.[14] The Exodus took forty years.[15] Moses was on Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights.[16] Jesus was in the desert for forty days. To commemorate all these and much more, Lent lasts forty days. But why, for all of them, why forty something? I’ve read that whenever we read in the Holy Scriptures that something lasted “forty whatever” what it is really saying to us is “this lasted as long as it took.”[17] So it means that Lent lasts as long as it takes …

… “as long as it takes for us to know that we are not alone, that together we are more than individuals,”

… “as long as it takes to know that the One who loves us will not abandon us, will not leave us without nourishment, will not let us cease to be as if we had never existed, will not fail to care for us and support us,”

… “as long as it takes to know that national borders and cultural boundaries are frontiers to be explored not barriers to be invaded, that ethnic and racial variety is a diversity to be celebrated not a difference to be obliterated, that peace is more than the absence of war, that justice is more than merely following the law, and that love is not a zero-sum game,”

… “as long as it takes to learn that ‘there is no distinction between Jew and Greek,’ between black and white, between gay and straight, between east and west, between Russian and Ukrainian; that ‘the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all,’”[18]

Lent is not about introspection and individual improvement. It is about interconnection, interdependence, and integration. It is a journey from self-centeredness to community, from conflict to peace.

We have set out on it again and it will last as long as it takes, until life triumphs over death and light triumphs over darkness. Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on March 6, 2022, the 1st Sunday in Lent, to the people of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest preacher at the invitation of the Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Dean.

The lessons read at the service were Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, and St. Luke 4:1-13. These lessons are from the Episcopal Church’s version of the Revised Common Lectionary (see The Lectionary Page).

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Adapted from a prayer issued by the Rt. Hon. Lord Wallace, Baron of Tankerness and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The last petition is taken from a speech given by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zalenskyy before the European Union Parliament on March 1, 2022.?

[2] John Paul II, Message of His Holiness John Paul II for Lent 1979, Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[3] Hisley, Mike, Sacrifices Surface in Both Lent, War, Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1991

[4] Montgomery, Ben, Looming war casts new light on Lent, Times Herald-Record, February 6, 2003

[5] Becoming Beloved Community: The Episcopal Church’s Long-term Commitment to Racial Healing, Reconciliation and Justice, written in 2017, updated 2020 and 2021, p. 16

[6] Ibid.

[7] Augustine, The City of God, Book XVII.13, tr. Marcus Dods (T&T Clark, Edinburgh:1871), p. 199

[8] Martinez, Alexandra, One year after the insurrection, racial justice advocates warn that white supremacy remains entrenched in the US, Prism, January 6, 2022. See, also, Johnson, Derrick, White supremacy has endured beyond Jan. 6, diminishing voting rights, USA Today, January 6, 2022, and Schwartz, Sarah, Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack, Education Week, June 11, 2021, updated: February 08, 2022

[9] Dougherty, Jill, Putin lashes out with ominous threat to Ukrainians and other countries, CNN.com, February 24, 2022. See, also, Rainsford, Sarah, Putin’s angry speech rewriting Ukraine’s history, BBC.com, February 22, 2022

[10] Philippians 4:7 (NRSV)

[11] This year Luke 4:1-13

[12] Deuteronomy 26:1-11

[13] Deuteronomy 26:5 (NRSV)

[14] Genesis 7:12

[15] Numbers 32:13

[16] Exodus 24:18

[17] Newquist, Gusti Linnea, The Stockdale Paradox (Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent), Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Pesbyterian Church, March 14, 2021

[18] Romans 10:12 (NRSV)

2 Comments

  1. Catherine Smythe Zajc

    Greetings, and thank you, Rev. Funston …for the excellent, thoughtful sermon you delivered at Trinity Cathedral this morning at 8 a.m. AND, for posting it here. As I was mulling how to contact you about getting a copy, voilà, your website emerged and I didn’t even have to “Ask,” the sermon was already “Given.” Doubly blessed to be introduced to your website; I will meander its path as I can. Deep peace to you.

  2. eric

    Thank you, Catherine. Be forewarned… there’s a lot of stuff and nonsense on this blog, but I hope you enjoy it.

    Blessings,
    Eric

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