february 28, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
February 28, 2010
Psalm 27
Luke 13:31-35

“What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s the standard question during this liturgical season. I’ve asked it, of friends, and colleagues, even some of you. “What are you giving up?” It points to the bigger picture—“How are you denying yourself? What are you withholding, to gain better insight into your life?” It’s not all bad, this question. But, when we get stuck there, we risk missing the point of Lent completely.

What keeps us from union with God? What keeps us from ushering in God’s kingdom, on earth as in heaven? What keeps us from being transformed by God?

Daniel Deffenbaugh reminds us the meaning of the Lenten journey: “The metaphor of the inward and outward journey has always been appropriate for the season of Lent, emphasizing deliberate reflection on the obstacles that beset us in our spiritual life and the hope for new direction as we look ahead to the promise of Easter.” Inside and out: obstacles on our own spiritual path, obstacles on the road toward the reign of God—a whole new world of justice, wholeness, and peace.
Identifying these obstacles, and then giving them up for the 40 days plus Sundays of Lent, can help redirect and reorient us toward God and God’s work in our lives.

But. Sometimes, I fear, we risk missing the point. I know I do. I wonder what I can give up that is challenging enough to stretch me, but not out of my reach, not difficult enough that it will lead me into failure. Or, I give up chocolate, well, because I’ve given up chocolate before. Perhaps we use Lent as an excuse to practice weaning ourselves off the things we shouldn’t be doing anyway: smoking, or texting while driving, or eating lots of junk. Or perhaps we think of things that will send the right message, attract the right kind of attention to our pious and faithful practice…I think pastors, or others who try to “model” their faith to others, might be especially susceptible to this trap. Or, perhaps we think of things that will earn awe and appreciation for the sheer difficulty. Giving up coffee, or all tv, or email, or cell phones, or processed food…those things we have come to think of as necessary to daily life, but aren’t… It’s not that giving these things up is bad…it can be very good…but…sometimes we get stuck in denial for the sake of denial.

Sometimes denial, the means, is mistaken as the end. And Lent isn’t about denial. It’s about transformation. Lent isn’t about sacrifice, it’s about clearing clutter and sacrificing what isn’t important so there is an empty space waiting, once again, in which God can come and dwell. Denial and sacrifice can be the means to the end of transformation, but they are not the ends in and of themselves.

Kenosis—the Greek word used in conjunction with Lent meaning “self-emptying” or “self-denial” is a self-emptying so that God can fill us. Denial not for denial’s sake, but denial as preparation for transformation.

In Lent, we are invited to deny ourselves so that we can be reborn as new creations—to live more fully as the citizens of God’s kin-dom come on earth, as God desires us to be.

So “What are you giving up?” should perhaps be replaced with “What are you doing (or not doing) to invite God’s transformation?”

In Barbara Cawthorne Crafton’s piece “Living Lent” you heard me read a few moments ago, we were called to face the lavish intemperance and utter excess in which we live. Often, we fool ourselves into forgetting. We numb ourselves so we won’t feel the pain of settling for the superficial. We justify it because it is easy to find people who are just as heavy-laden, overstuffed, and rushed as we are. Crafton names this a “collision between the needs of our souls, and our appetites.” She asks us to consider: How have we created and fallen for the illusion that stuff—things—addictions—food—shopping—agonizing over appearance—drugs—alcohol—reality TV—that this will fill us, help us, restore us, and save us?

Kenosis—self-emptying so that God can fill us. Clearing clutter so there is, once again, an empty space waiting in which God can come, and dwell. Letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence, so that we can be shaped by God’s grace.

This isn’t easy. This is harder than giving up chocolate. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “It is hard. It is awful. It is necessary, to encounter the world without anesthesia, to find out what life is like with no comfort but God. I am convinced that 99 percent of us are addicted to something, whether it is eating, shopping, blaming, or taking care of other people [to the neglect of our own souls]. The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.”

Anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.

So, we might each ask ourselves: What do I use to fill the empty place inside that belongs to God? What do I use to fill the empty place inside that belongs to God?

Only once we have identified this filler, can we ask, What am I doing to invite God’s transformation? What must I push aside, or put away, or turn from, or turn to in order to hear the still small voice of God?

This morning’s very short lectionary gospel story from Luke begins in the middle of the story. It starts in chaos and frenzy and fear—with people running up to Jesus, yelling, “Run for your life! Herod’s out to get you! He’s going to kill you!”
Jesus is already skating on thin ice. Powerful people are out to get him, and bring him down. Now is the time to mind his Ps and Qs. The people, scared for him, ask Jesus to give up what he’s doing…they ask him to deny himself…to deny the work of God he’s doing. And Jesus refuses. Instead, he squares off and calls out their hypocrisy…names their transgressions…unveils the unfaithful and downright nasty ways “the faithful elect” have been acting…Herod and his vengeance will have to wait—look at all there is to do! God’s people are hurting! God’s world is groaning!

In the parts of the 13th chapter of Luke immediately preceding this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus has been doing this work—God’s work—removing obstacles so people can experience God’s transforming grace. A woman, haunted for 18 years with a terrible affliction—constant pain, humiliation, isolation…Jesus heals her! Behold, the glory of God! Light and space and zest—to miraculous proportions…Transformation occurs…and all the people do is…well…

Listen to verse 14-17: “The meeting-place president, furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the congregation, “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.” But Jesus shot back, “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and things nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the pain she has been tied to these past eighteen years?” When he put it that way, his critics were left looking silly and red-faced…”

They remembered to give up working on the Sabbath. But they failed to hear the still small voice of God: relationships are more important than rules…love trumps the law…keeping the Sabbath holy is about finding and sharing wholeness and redemption.

Listen to verse 23-30: “A bystander said, “Master, will only a few be saved?” Jesus said, “Whether few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires your total attention. A lot of you are going to assume that you’ll sit down to Gods salvation banquet just because you’ve been hanging around the neighborhood all your lives. Well, one day you’re going to be banging on the door, wanting to get in, but you’ll find the door locked…You’ll protest, “But we’ve known you all our lives! Only to be interrupted with an abrupt, “Your kind of knowing can hardly be called knowing. You don’t know the first thing about me.’ “That’s when you’ll find yourselves out in the cold, strangers to grace. You’ll watch Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets march into God’s kingdom. You’ll watch outsiders—strangers and sojourners and sinners who have turned toward transformation—stream in from east, west, north, and south and sit down at the table of God’s kingdom. And all the time you’ll be outside looking in—and wondering what happened. This is the Great Reversal: the last and despised will be first in line and head at the table, and the so-called faithful first will end up last.”

They remembered to seek salvation, and that this meant turning from sin. But they failed to hear the still small voice of God: calling yourself a Christian means nothing if you fail to extend the peace and love of Christ…judge not lest you be judged…he who is without sin cast the first stone…calling on the name of Jesus publically means nothing if you do not seek to live his teachings.

I’m going to try to stop asking people what they are giving up for Lent, and try to start asking what they are doing to invite God’s transformation. More importantly, perhaps, I’m trying to focus less on what I’m doing and not doing for Lent, and trying to focus more on how I can order my time and daily decisions and schedule and interactions so that I am clearing a space for God to come, and dwell, and transform. I trying to spend time at the beginning and ending of each day, taking long, painful looks at all the thing and habits I use to fill the empty places that belong to God, and trying to remember to invite God in, to come…and dwell…and transform…

May it be so. Amen, and amen.

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