Harrowing Of Hell
February 14, 2018

The Blessings of Lent

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Welcome Christians to this season of Lent.

I wish you the great blessings of this season. Now I know that this may sound strange to our ears – the blessings of Lent—but, I assure you that there are, indeed, many blessings in this season of “penitence and fasting.” Lent is an interesting season because it is time of both of repentance and promise; a time of accepting of our human nature and a time of “changing direction” and returning to a more godly life. So, while it a moving away from those things that keep us from God—it is a moving toward a new and ever-deepening relationship with God.

It is hard to keep this inherent tension in Lent which is mirrors the tension we find within the limitations of our human life itself. As children of God, our life is one of hope. Our God is a God of love who wants us to prosper and live life more abundantly. God made us in God’s image. We are more than just our physical beings. God made us to be holy. But We are, as we recall today, formed from the dust and to dust we shall return. So, scientifically speaking we might say that humans are all made up primarily of oxygen, carbon and nine other major elements and when we die, our bodies will decay back into these elements. As Christians, however, we understand this a little differently; we believe that we are holy and spirit- filled beings whose time on this earth is limited but that when our earthly life is at an end, we enter a new life in Christ.

So, one of the blessings of Lent is a reminder that our time on earth is precious—precious in the way that things are that are finite. Being mindful of our limited time may help us to take our lives more “seriously.” Lent can be a time in which we pay attention to all that we do, all the ways that we fill our time, all the things that we hold to be important and question if our lives reflect what we value most. Lent can be a time to get rid of all the habits and activities that take away from what we truly value and give ourselves the opportunity to get back to what and who we love.

Fasting, the giving of alms, prayer practices and disciplines are spiritual tools that can help us do just that. Reading today’s gospel, however, reminds us that they can also be done in a way that is not helpful – to ourselves or to others.

Jesus tells followers, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Whatever we decide to take on or give up during Lent, if we want to be truly change, cannot be done to gain approval or the admiration of others. Whatever we decide to take on or give up during Lent is done for us and our relationship with God. Jesus, in today’s gospel, is giving us examples of what repentance does not look like. We probably all have bad connotations and images about the word “repentance” from those who have erroneously labelled particular acts or ways of being as “true repentance.” It might be a preacher speaking loudly about eternal fire and damnation and telling everyone just how bad they are or a zealot with a sign that tells us that we must repent, in the way that they know we must, for the “end is near.” Repentance has often been a term used by some to shame others. With its meaning thus distorted, repentance doesn’t seem like a blessing for most folks.

That is what Jesus is warning us about in today’s gospel. He is saying that we don’t want to make everyone around us miserable as we are making our fast. Nor, do we want to be silently judging others around us who are not fasting or refraining from doing things that we think they “ought” to be doing. Repentance doesn’t seem like a blessing because those that talk the most about the need for other folks to repent often seem to have conveniently forgotten that they, too, are in need of repentance. This is what Jesus is also warning us about in today’s gospel. “…Do not be like the hypocrites.”

But, if we think that Jesus is pointing a finger at us who have come here today to begin a holy Lent, we don’t know the Jesus of scripture and we have not heard what the prophet Isaiah is telling us. Jesus is not dismissing our attempts at self-examination. Jesus is not minimizing or critiquing our efforts to try to clear our hearts and minds by doing away with things that distract us. God does not despise our efforts to fast, dedicate ourselves to prayer, give generously to the poor, or volunteer our time and talent.

When Jesus speaks of hypocrites in today’s gospel, he is talking in terms of hypokritai the Greek term for stage actors who performed in masks. In its original meaning, the hypokritai wore stylized masks that made them into what they were not. One mask represented grief. Another meant happiness—by switching masks, one actor could play many different parts– and the many different actors in the chorus could become all “the same” by donning the same masks. So, while we can understand Jesus’ words in terms of our modern understanding of the word hypocrisy –the Grecian actors and their masks gives us a deeper understanding of Jesus’ original meaning. Actors were given a role within the drama—but at the end of the play, they would take off the mask and return to their real identity. In our lives, we suffer under the illusions we try to create for ourselves and the false “roles” we assume. So much of the stress in our lives is caused by this disconnect between who we really are and the person that we are trying to be for this or that person or in this or that situation. We try to mold ourselves to the needs of others. We bend ourselves to better fit expectations. We compromise what we believe is best for us and for our life. Trying to be what we are not can lead us into a lonely and anxious place where we are afraid to take off our masks. Our desperate need for approval can lead us into harming our health, ourselves and our souls.

Jesus tells us this Lent that our heavenly Father who sees in secret promises to repay us when we give alms…our heavenly Father who sees in secret knows we are praying…our heavenly Father who sees what is hidden sees our fast and loves us. The blessing of Lent that Jesus is talking about here– the gift of repentance– is a return to a real relationship with God. A relationship that is marked by true care and love …notice how Jesus talks about God here – God is our heavenly Father – and if we aspire to be  truly us, to be the authentic person God sees in us, we will really begin to experience God’s love for us, God’s good will towards us. When we do, we will find that we are less concerned with the approval of others because we are truly resting in and satisfied with the approval of God.

The prophet Isaiah says:

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

I wish you great blessings this Lent. May we honor the importance and brevity of our lives and may we, through repentance, change directions, remove our masks and find ourselves surrounded by, living within, and loved by God. That is where “true repentance” leads. Which is not, too my mind, a bad place to end up.