Sermons given at the 10.30 am Sunday service are regularly available as audio downloads and some in written form below.


The Season of Lent

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Every season of the Church Year is a season of celebration. Lent is no different. But we don’t readily think of it that way. The traditional ‘disciplines’ of the season, prayer, fasting and works of mercy, feel like burdensome duties interrupting the course of life as we want it, life as we prefer it. We wonder what we can “give up”; we fear trivializing Lent’s high calling and rich opportunities--can we connect the proverbial dots?

Still, Lent is a season of celebration.

I call it that because among the cycle of liturgical seasons Lent brings its own gifts of insight and experience which the other seasons do not. The chief gift it aims to bring us, I think, is the gift of focus. Lent is above all a season of focus. Or better, it’s a season of focusing on. What we focus on is the human condition.

The Liturgy of Ash Wednesday is unique in the way it draws our mental and spiritual focus on our mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In contrast to all our efforts at prolonging life, Ash Wednesday’s service reminds us of the inevitability of our death.

But in quoting those words from the Book of Genesis (3.19), the Ash Wednesday service prompts us to recall our creation, how ‘the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground’ (2.7). Ash Wednesday prompts us to remember how we have been God-inspired with God’s breath blown into us so as to bring us life (Genesis 2.7). After all, we can only grasp where we’ve got to when we grasp where and how we began.

And where we’ve got to is not a good place. However much the human condition has been improved outwardly by science and invention, by art and education, by social policy and healthcare, or by the sheer momentum of social evolution,[1] we remain beset by ego-ism, self-will and, increasingly, inner and outer isolation and violence which individually and together corrode the fabric of our humanity. The tragedy in New Zealand a few days ago is an extreme instance, but an instance nonetheless. It’s easy for comfortable middle-class people like us to turn a blind eye to this, but even that exemplifies our problem: people who have ears but do not hear, eyes that do not see, noses that do not smell (Jeremiah 5.21).

In seeing people’s situation thus there can be many Christian responses... But before and behind all responses there is a renewal of awareness of the priority of God and of the calling to which humankind is called; I mean the call to dwell in the garden.

What do I mean ‘to dwell in the garden’? I mean to re-connect with what God wanted for us when God created us in the first place. I interpret that first creation and our placement in what Genesis calls a ‘garden’ to mean this:

  • To realize that our life is a gift, in fact the gift of God’s life to and in us;
  • To live in the world as God’s gift; that is, to live in the world not as an end in itself nor as a possession to be misused, but as a means to enjoy God’s gift of life and to enjoy and use the world respectfully to that end; the world too—all that is outside and around us—has its own purpose in God to be discerned by us in so far as possible, to be respected; and so, to live thankfully, eucharistically;
  • To live not by or for ourselves simply, but to live with others; to make of that shared life a life that is fruitful, generative; free of shame, deceit and fear;
  • To live obediently toward God; I mean, to respect the order of God’s creation in so far as we can know that; then, insofar as God speaks, to ‘hearken to his voice’; to be yielding, not self-willed both as individuals and as communities.

As soon as we reflect on our situation, within ourselves, within our relationships, and as a local, national and global human family, we see how far we have strayed, and how we need to be drawn back to God’s ‘generous heart’.[2]

That is the opportunity of the season of Lent. In that respect, it’s derivation from the old English word for ‘springtime’ is utterly apt. Lent calls us to focus on our first creation in the garden, to focus on all the generosity of God in creating us in God’s ‘image and likeness’ (Genesis 1.26); to focus on the God-connectedness of life in the garden, and on the right-relationship with God, one another and the creation, that was natural to us. The season of Lent bids us return to that.

To return we must turn. Hence the theme and practice of repentance, or turning, emphasized through this season. Such turning is not a returning “empty-handed”, as we sometimes say. Far from it, repentance is a fruitful kind of turning, as the ‘prodigal son’ discovered. When we repent we’re meant to step toward, even into, the garden where our true selves are to be found and where right-relationships thrive.

All this is costly. Steering a course toward that goal takes time, intention, mindfulness, energy. Often the steps we take are feeble, unsteady; our gains meagre. But God honours the intention, and values our steps, however small and fleeting, more than we can imagine. That’s why through Lent we’re reminded (as we will be again in a few minutes) of God’s ‘generous heart’.

There are some other words to remember too as we progress through this season. St Teresa of Avila wrote them, and we sang them at the Taizé service last Sunday. They give us a sense of what to expect as we return little by little to the garden of our first creation:

                        Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,

                        those who seek God can never go wanting,

                        God alone fills us.[3]

Grasp that and I think we’re grasped the spirit and purpose of the season.

Amen.

 ~

@ The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

The Second Sunday of Lent, March 17th 2019

 

[1] Notwithstanding Steven Pinker’s argument in his massive study The Better Angels of our Nature. The Decline of Violence, Its History and Its Causes (London: Allen Lane, 2011): ‘Believe it or not...violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence’ (p. xxi).

[2] The proper Eucharistic preface from Ash Wednesday through Lent 4 (Common Worship: Services and Prayers, p. 309).

[3] Nada te turbe, nada te espante. Quien a Dios tiene nada le falta. Solo Dios basta.