Preparing for Lent
2nd Sunday After Epiphany, Year A
Saint David’s Church, 1/16/05
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
Well, if you think there wasn’t enough time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Today is only the second Sunday after the Epiphany, yet we have only three more Sundays before Lent. Easter is early this year and with Lent coming so quickly it seems a good idea to begin preparing – or at least to begin thinking about how we will prepare.
Before I talk about Lent, let me remind you of something we’ve discussed before – the Law. You will remember me telling you, many times, that the Ten Commandments, the Law, was God’s great gift to God’s people. It was not given so much to condemn as to point the way to Salvation. These were God’s people who wanted to know how best to love and serve the God who loved them. The Law was God’s answer. When we hear Law we hear constraint and punishment. But the Law was, to the people of Israel, not so much burden as gift and means to liberation.
Similarly, we tend to think of Lent as a time of self-denial and guilt, of suffering and flagellation. But the purpose of Lent is not to make us miserable but to make us mindful – mindful of who and Whose we are. So, whose are we? Who is the one to whom we belong and whom we are expected to follow?
John asked a similar question in a recent Gospel reading. He heard about Jesus and sent his followers to ask, “Are you the one for whom we have been waiting or shall we keep looking?” And how did Jesus reply? He said, “Go back and tell John what you have seen. The hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the lonely are visited, and prisoners are set free.” We are, it seems, to be identified not by what we believe as much as by what we do. We, who wish to follow Jesus, are to feed the hungry, visit and heal the sick, set free those who are imprisoned. We are to care for one another.
When John asked who Jesus was Jesus didn’t say, “I’ve come to end hunger, and poverty, and illness, and imprisonment, and despair.” We might wish he had done just that. We may still hope that he will. But what he said was that he was one who responded to those needs, one at a time. I think many of us, facing the magnitude of the problems of our world become paralyzed. Since we can’t fix it all we do nothing. Since we don’t know how to be Martin Luther King we assume we can be no one. But I suspect that Martin Luther King, and many who have made huge differences in the world, didn’t start with a grand plan. Like Jesus, they simply did what was before them, met the need of each moment. Which is, of course, exactly what each of us is called to do.
Now I should pause here to acknowledge what you already know – I’m more a systems than a band-aid person. I don’t believe in just patching up the individual in front of me and ignoring the systemic problems that left them in need of patching up in the first place. You’ve heard me tell the story of my friend and colleague Ntsiki who says that if a bloody body floats down the river into your village a good Christian must pull the body out and bandage it and nurse it back to health. And if another battered body floats into the village the Christian must do the same thing again and again and again. But eventually, if those bodies keep coming, the Christian must go upriver and find out who’s doing that to them and put a stop to it.
We do need to take on hunger and poverty and the myriad things that maim and imprison the bodies and spirits of our sisters and brothers. But we do it one step at a time, addressing that which washes into our lives or steps into our paths. We start by healing one sick individual or comforting one despairing person.
Yet even that can seem overwhelming. We talked about this at the Vestry meeting last week. We got to talking about what one says to someone who is grieving the death of a loved one. Some of us were saying that we are so very aware that there’s nothing we can say that will make it better. Knowing that anything we could say would be inadequate, we hesitate to speak at all. Another member told of a time when she was grieving and how much a simple, “I’m sorry for your loss” meant. She reminded us that even little, inadequate things matter. We do have it within us to do the things we are called to do. By meeting each moment as it presents itself we may well discover that we have it within us to do more than we could ever have imagined.
Did you hear what Paul said in this morning’s Epistle? Talking to the church in Corinth, Paul said, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. You, and you, and you ... you are not lacking.
Now the good news here is that this fear of our own inadequacy is not some modern, or personal, moral failing. Apparently this has been a problem, a part of the human condition, for at least 2000 years. The bad news is that it’s not just a modern moral failing – we are not excused from the call to action because our world is more complex and our problems at least seem bigger. People have, it seems, always tended toward paralysis in the face of problems bigger than we know how to address.
But we’re only commanded to deal with this day’s need, this individual’s pain. We’re instructed to follow the example of Jesus, one day at a time. And we’re assured that we have what it takes, already within us, to do that. We are not lacking any spiritual gift necessary to do the work we were created to do – to be God’s stewards, God’s partners, in caring for the world around us.
Lent calls us, not to dwell on and condemn ourselves for our failures, but to remember what Paul has told us – we are not lacking any spiritual gift necessary. Lent doesn’t command us to give things up or take things on for their own sake, or based on how difficult it will be to do it and how unpleasant we will find it. Lent invites us to choose a discipline that will keep us mindful of who and Whose we are. Lent encourages us to embrace a discipline that will help us to become aware of those gifts and strengths and talents within us – and to nurture and hone them. Lent hopes to seduce us into taking the time to know ourselves and our gifts so well that using those gifts in the service of God and God’s people becomes second nature to us. In Lent we are invited to become who we were created to be – who we already are – so that we, like Jesus, respond to the needs before us, no matter what their size, without thinking twice. If we do that we may find ourselves feeding one hungry person – or we may save a whole village, or change the world in ways as yet unimaginable. But we will not be paralyzed by our own doubts or fears of inadequacy. And, should anyone ever send someone to ask us, “Are you one of them, one of the followers of Jesus?” we won’t have to marshal a lengthy defense. We can simply say, “Tell him what you have seen. The hungry are fed, those who mourn are comforted….”
It is not too soon to begin planning and preparing for your Lent. Let me know if you need any help.