What is Lent all about?
Some say it’s a time when we are supposed to find the presence of God in everyday life. The Most Rev. Dr. Jonn Sentamu, Archbishop of York from 2005 to 2020, suggested as much in his 2015 Ash Wednesday meditation when he said, “Lent is a time to get to know God better.” The metaphor of keeping Lent as being a journey during which we search for, find, and come to know more of God is so widespread and prevalent, one cannot find its origin.
It seems to be the most common way to think about Lent. But that way isn’t working for me this year, especially as I contemplate Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and its aftermath. If in our Lenten discipline we are to be, in some way, doing what a Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says — “keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast” — then we should pay particular attention to what really was going on there and seek to do during Lent what seems to be going on with Jesus in the wilderness.
Here we are at the end of the first period of what the church calls “ordinary time” during this liturgical year, the season of Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany during which we have heard many gospel stories which reveal or manifest (the meaning of epiphany) something about Jesus. On this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, we always hear some version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story so important that it is told in the three Synoptic Gospels, alluded to in John’s Gospel, and mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter.
Six days before, Jesus had had a conversation with the Twelve in which he’d asked them who they thought he was. They had said that other people thought Jesus might be a prophet and that some thought he might even be Elijah returned from Heaven or John the Baptizer returned from the dead. Jesus put them on the spot, though, and asked, “But who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
In the Episcopal Church, when we baptize a person, we pray that God will “give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will, and to persevere, a spirit to know, and love, [God], and the gift of joy, and wonder in all [God’s] works.” Similarly, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the prayer is that the baptizee will receive “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord, [and] the spirit of joy in [God’s] presence.”
In both traditions, our prayer is that the new church member will live a life of faith, in which he or she will develop and exercise the faculty of discernment, which is “the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action.” In today’s readings, we have two stories of discernment.
There’s a story about a pastor giving a children’s sermon. He decides to use a story about forest animals as his starting point, so he gathers the kids around him and begins by asking them a question. He says, “I’m going to describe someone to you and I want you to tell me who it is. This person prepares for winter by gathering nuts and hiding them in a safe place, like inside a hollow tree. Who might that be?” The kids all have a puzzled look on their faces and no one answers. So, the preacher continues, “Well, this person is kind of short. He has whiskers and a bushy tail, and he scampers along branches jumping from tree to tree.” More puzzled looks until, finally, Johnnie raises his hand. The preacher breathes a sigh of relief, and calls on Johnnie, who says, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but that sure sounds an awful lot like a squirrel to me.”
My best friend (another retired priest) and I often ask one another, “What are you preaching about on Sunday?” and our answer is always “Jesus.” For a preacher, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus. We’re supposed to take Paul as our model; he wrote to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” So we are to do the same, preach Christ and him crucified, or perhaps today preach Christ and him baptized.
On April 12, a little more than seven months ago, I was privileged to officiate and preach at a service of Choral Evensong at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Following the service, on our way home to Medina, my wife Evelyn and I stopped at a Lebanese restaurant in Middleburg Heights for a late dinner in celebration of our 43rd wedding anniversary, which that day was. After a lovely meal of hummus, baba ganoush, spicy beef kafta, and chicken shwarma, we went home to bed. A few hours later, around 2 a.m., I woke up with a horrendous case of heartburn. I took some antacid and went back to sleep sitting up in my favorite armchair. At 7 a.m. the next morning, I woke up knowing that I hadn’t had indigestion after all; I was having a heart attack.
We have three intriguing lessons from scripture today. First we have a denunciation of Hebrew worship, which also interestingly contains a verse most famous in American politics for having been spoken on the steps of the Lincoln monument by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some people who dislike liturgy, or some aspect of liturgy, like incense, or vestments or music, ignoring that sentence about justice flowing like streams, have used this text to prove that God also dislikes, liturgy, or incense, or vestments, or whatever. However, that’s not what this lesson is about and I’ll get back to that in just a moment.
The second lesson is a crazy excerpt from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. With all that talk of God playing a trumpet and people flying up to meet Jesus in the air, it reads like some sort of hallucination or LSD trip, or like the ramblings of our crazy uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving dinner, muttering about things people don’t understand. The thing about Paul’s letters, though, is that they’re intended to be read as a whole. Breaking them up into excerpts, as the common lectionary does, can lead to a misreading and a misunderstanding. Fortunately, the lectionary doesn’t intend the epistle lesson to necessarily be read and interpreted in conjunction with the gospel lesson, as it does with the thematically related Old Testament lesson, so today we’ll just set crazy, old uncle Paul in a chair over there and let him be today.
Finally, from Matthew’s gospel, we have a lesson in which Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven. He does this using a parable. Now, you know what a parable is, right? It’s kind of like a metaphor and it’s kind of like a simile, but it’s neither a metaphor nor a simile. In a metaphor, the speaker says or implies that A is B, when the listener knows darn good and well that A is not B at all, but metaphoric imagery challenges us to consider A in ways we might not have done before.
This is an old and familiar story, a comfortable story if you will … the parable of the sower. We’ve all heard it before and we know what it means because Jesus takes the time to explain it. Jesus calls it “the parable of the sower,” but it really ought to be called “the parable of the soils.” The parable presents the variety of responses to the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses the metaphor of the different types of soil into which the sower’s seed is cast. That “soil,” he explains, is people.
Some seed that falls on the path which, says Jesus, represents those who hear the good news but do not understand it. Because of the hardness or dullness of their hearts, the evil one, who resists God’s purposes snatches it away. It is not clear, in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation, why the devil seems to be more powerful in influencing the human heart than is God’s word, but then that is not the point of the parable. That, perhaps, is a teaching Jesus meant to leave for another day.
“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” Something similar happens in the Genesis reading from the Hebrew scriptures appointed for today: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’ * * * So Abram went, as the Lord had told him….”
Abram’s immediate response to God’s call is the subject of Paul’s comments in the Epistle reading from the Letter to the Romans. Abram believed God, believed in God, and acted on that belief, and that combination of belief and action is what Paul refers to as faith and that “faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”
When my nephew, who’s now in his mid-40s, was about six years old, he was given a homework assignment that he found frustrating and he just didn’t want to finish it, but his mother made him sit down and do it rather than something else more to his liking. In his frustration, he blurted out, “I hate you!” My late sister-in-law responded calmly, “That’s too bad because I love you.” After a moment of reflection, my nephew amended his angry outburst: “I love you, too,” he said, “but I don’t like you right now.”
In the field of linguistic anthropology there is a theory called “cultural emphasis,” which postulates that if a particular topic is of importance to a society, that will be reflected in that culture’s vocabulary. If there are many words to describe that topic, then there is a good chance that that topic is considered important; the greater the number of terms, the greater the subject’s importance. Often this is particularly true of terms pertaining to livelihood, such as methods of food production, or to the weather.
I really don’t like television commercials, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard. It’s a common complaint; we all talk about how much we dislike TV advertising. We all subscribe to Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services so we can avoid them. And yet, sometimes a particularly memorable advertisement tag-line will worm it’s way into one’s regular conversation. My step-father had one of those: whenever my mother made anything even slightly piquant he would say, “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball,” which some of you may recognize from an old Alka-Seltzer commercial.
Another one that ended up in America’s political lexicon was Clara Peller’s famous question in a Wendy’s ad: “Where’s the beef?”
My wife and I picked one up a few years ago from a commercial for the on-line auto insurer Esurance. Sometimes when we see someone doing something particularly bone-headed, one of us will turn to the other and say, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”