Sermon for Lent I
St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield--Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
It’s a joy to be with you during this transitional time in the life of the cathedral congregation, having bid farewell to one clergy leader, but not having yet welcomed the next one. And this is all happening, of course, at the beginning of Lent, which is itself a season of transition, as we move from the sober penitence of Ash Wednesday to the joy of the Resurrection, first going through the intensity of Holy Week. Yet, I’ve been around long enough, doing what I do, to know that many Christians—many active members of St Paul’s, no doubt—will find this most holy and spiritually rich of seasons to be a rather empty experience, a hollow ritual that they don’t really connect with very well, something dry and boring. As a pastor, I find this fact quite troubling.
But I’m not alone in this. Both priests and parents in the time of the ancient Hebrews—that is, the time when the Book of Deuteronomy was written—had this very same concern. They were troubled that both young people and adults were failing to make the connection between their religious observances and their own daily reality. They were not able to hear or read the story of their people, and see their own story, see themselves, in that larger narrative.
So, most likely about 700 years after Moses, give or take a century or two, the anonymous author of Deuteronomy “channels” Moses as he speaks to the people of Israel in a time of great transition in their life together. They had escaped slavery in Egypt through the parted waters of the Red Sea. For the moment, they were in a holding pattern in the middle of the Sinai Peninsula, in the desert, living in tents. But they had been promised a new home in the land their ancestors had come from, and Moses was trying to get them ready to form a sustainable society and culture in a place none of them had ever seen. So he says,
When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you … you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground … and you shall go … to the priest … and say to him, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then … you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. [This refers to the patriarch Abraham.] And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
A wandering Aramean was my father ….” Our Hebrew forebears didn’t have a document like what we would call a “creed,” but, if they did, this would probably be the opening line. Unlike our creeds, it would not consists of a series of propositions, but would, rather, be a story of a people, an identity forged in the crucible of slavery, liberated through the sovereign action of God, and lived out in the Land of Promise. And this story, this narrative creed, is the background and the context in which we understand the Christian confession of faith that St Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans: “… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” These words might not actually tell a story, but they certainly imply a story. They imply the story that is familiar to us, and which the season of Lent is preparing us to tell and hear once again: God came among us in the person of Jesus, and showed us the only fully human life that has ever been lived. Then, in order to share that life with us, he gave it up, bearing the full weight of human alienation and taking that burden to the cross. Dying, he destroyed our death; rising again on the third day, he restored our life. We whose identities have been forged in the crucible of slavery to sin and death have been liberated by a sovereign act of God, and in our life together as the Body of Christ we live into that freedom. This is what we call the Paschal Mystery, and it’s our story. It’s our identity. It is who we are. For our Hebrew ancestors in faith, the narrative begins, “A wandering Aramean was my father.” For us, it begins, “God raised Jesus from the dead, and now Jesus is Lord of all.” The experience of the people of Israel being saved from Pharaoh’s army by the parting of the Red Sea waters is a premonition, a foreshadowing, of our being saved from the power of sin and death by Jesus’ passion and resurrection. That’s a story that we can never tell often enough, and that we never tire of hearing.
Yet, strangely, it’s a story that we don’t know as well as we should. More and more I see the results of studies and surveys that name ignorance of scripture and ignorance of our tradition—which is to say, ignorance of our story—as a key factor in the decline of attendance and participation, particularly among young people, in the Episcopal Church, and other churches. We either never learn, or forget through neglect, the story of God’s people, the story of us. The words our liturgy week in and week out—our prayers, our hymns, our scriptures—but especially in Holy Week, presume that we are familiar with the story. But we’re not. So we don’t pay attention to the prayers, we don’t relate to the hymns, and we don’t understand the scriptures. And it’s all because we don’t know our own story.
So, can we change that this Lent? Lent is about repentance, and an assurance of God’s infinite capacity for pardon. Can we seize the moment? When we do become intimately familiar with the story of the people of God, we then know that story to be our own, the source of our identity. Our identity is in Christ. We have clothed ourselves with Christ in baptism and been marked as his own forever. His story becomes our story. So as we look at Jesus’ own example of struggling with temptation in the wilderness, we see that what got him through the ordeal was his knowledge of his identity, his knowledge of the story of his people, the people of Israel, as his own story. This is what enabled him to quote scripture in response to the Devil’s temptations. By knowing his story and then by telling his story, he was victorious over the one whose purpose it was to draw him away from the love of God.
If you were here on Ash Wednesday, you heard me say that the whole purpose of Lent is to prepare us for Easter. When we are secure in our identity, when we know who we are, when we know the story of Jesus to be our own story, keeping Lent can be both effective and efficient in achieving its purpose. On Easter, we will renew our confession of faith in Jesus. We will tell ourselves the old, old story once again. In word and in sacrament, we will break that story open and share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity. For those of us who know the story already, the re-telling of it in ceremony and song will be anything but empty or dry. In it, we will see the very glory of God. Amen.