The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Watch the Sermon Here
I must acknowledge that I was not looking forward to the beginning of this Lenten Season. Ash-less Wednesday loomed as one more way to sustain the pandemic mourning, I was already feeling.
Wasn’t there enough brokenness this year? Aren’t we living more in the shadow of the Cross than the joy of Resurrection? Did we really need another reminder about how much we have done without? Couldn’t the prayers alone remind us of our human frailty, our dependence on God, the transience of life?
Yet, my supervisor at the hospital, a Rabbi whom I admire, and trust persisted to make Ash Wednesday possible. I resisted. After all my Bishop directed that we do not impose ashes this year.
Piously demeaning the need for people to wear ashes, demanding that we all need to be more attentive to the purpose, rather than the sign of this sacramental, I stood my ground. She lovingly looked at me and admonished, “That isn’t pastoral, it’s preachy.” I hated to hear it, but she was right. She should have gone further, it was judgmental. Apparently, my grief was revealing underlying anger, stifling my ability to love.
A truly loving response would be to help those who needed this moment of faith to be gifted with it in as meaningful a way as possible. We distributed blessed ashes in plastic containers to employees, just enough for the faithful to self-impose them in a moment of prayer at the time of their choosing.
Throughout the day, they came, doctors, nurses, assistants, technicians, clerical staff, custodians, across all hospital departments to accept the invitation to self-impose and pray. They taught me a valuable lesson. Why it’s a bit off to view Ash-less Wednesday or lack of worship in person solely as forms of loss during this pandemic period. Why this observance of Lent is more important than ever, with or without ashes.
Let’s start by acknowledging that we are living in the shadow of the Cross in ways we never imagined. Let us accept that Lent calls us to reckon with the reality of the darkness, our grief, our mourning. Let’s acknowledge that remaining with it lives only in the shadow of the Cross. limiting our understanding of what this means for those of us who embrace a life as Christians.
Today’s Lenten Gospel passage invites us to reflect on a central theme of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world. John states it in a familiar sound bite, a popular bumper sticker; so often quoted, it’s sometimes no longer heard, nor thought about deeply, and often misunderstood, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
John opens us to a rich awareness of the Gospel. We do not live in the shadow of the Cross alone. It is a pithy and perfect summation of our faith. It’s an update on our whole Salvation history, God’s covenant with God’s people, God’s love story continues. Salvation extends to the world through God’s love.
For it was love that stirred up God’s heart at the pleading of the slaves in Egypt, love that offered the law and security of the promised land through Exile, love that raised up Prophets who declared God’s compassion for all, love that stirred the first Century Church as it extended beyond the Jewish community to the Gentiles, and love that sent Jesus to be the incarnate light into the darkness of the world.
This Gospel isn’t a sound bite, a pithy phrase, a bumper sticker, a reason to exclude others from God’s love. It is a declaration of God’s desire for us to join in the work of redemptive love. It is less about judgment, more about being the light when we find ourselves mired in the shadow of the cross. God so loves the world that he sends us to confront evil; to heal brokenness, to act with God’s divine compassion. Nothing separates us from the love of God – it is part of our story – it’s in our DNA, grace freely given powers our capability if we are open to the task.
Lent is a perfect time for this reflection. We can choose to act or forfeit our opportunity to offer God’s redemptive love to our broken world.
Richard Rohr offered this profound meditation this morning:
“We’re told by developmental psychologists that there’s a staging in our growth in love. We have to start with self-love and respecting the self. If we don’t respect ourselves, we won’t know how to respect anybody else.
Then God moves us to group love, family love, which is basically the love of people who are connected to us or who are like us. A lot of people don’t even get there. They don’t know how to love their family or those close to them or those in their group.
From there, God moves us to the third level, which is universal love; I’m afraid a much smaller number of people get to this place. As we see in politics, in our country, and throughout the world, at best most people just get to the second stage of knowing how to love people who are like them: their race, their nationality, their religion, their political party. When we stay at this second stage of group love, we clearly don’t create a healthy society. We see this in the rise of white nationalism and the violence at the U.S. Capitol that took place earlier this year. Many of us who identify as white in the United States are just coming to understand that it was this second level of exclusive love for our own group that was the foundation for most of the oppressive systems of our nation.’
(Richard Rohr – Center for Action and Contemplation: Stages of Growth in Love Week 11 – An Expanding Love)
Yet, living in the darkness is overwhelming isn’t it?
God’s desire is often stymied by human failure.
Stymied by human failure when we reduce our faith to a theological cliché, when we limit our understanding of faith to mental affirmation alone without action, when we cheapen grace to a something we receive, failing to give in response, holding God’s beautiful message of love to ourselves. When we limit our vision, failing to acknowledge the darkness others are forced to live within, emphasizing our own personal experiences.
When we neglect this Gospel’s central message.
God so loves the world he gave his Son as a living, breathing sign of how to live, how to love, how to serve.
God so loves the world he sends us.
To raise a prophetic voice, to imagine a world where God’s love is at work over and over again. A world where we create the community Mother Kate spoke of last week in her sermon. A world where we extend God’s love in its limitless supply, responding to all of God’s Creation with God’s divine compassion.
We can’t do this alone; we must do it together and place our trust in Jesus.
Place our trust in Jesus – be honest about those things that keep us from loving others, those times when we are complicit with and benefit from words, decisions and actions that limit the lives of others.
Acknowledge that our faith is not just something we covet for ourselves, a means to serve our own yearning for piety.
Accept the reality that sharing God’s love for all might conflict with our own comfort, accept that the life God give us is not for securing blessings based on our own self – interests and needs.
My conversations with staff at the hospital on Ash Wednesday helped me to understand a little more about what it means to live in the shadow of the cross.
Living in the darkness can enhance faith, drive us to mine hope, desire reconciliation, work for reparation. From prayer requests, to smiles, expressions of sadness, and sometimes glee, the ashes became more than a sacramental moment without touch, the entire experience words and actions became one of deep intimacy. Seeking respite from the heaviness, reaching beyond the shadow, together we acknowledged the transience of life, the brokenness of spirit, and the profound need to trust in God’s love. Together we witnessed the faithful who came for more than ashes, who bowed their heads in prayer, sought connection, basked in a sometimes-awkward silence, embodying the hopeful nature of life that comes with our sharing of God’s love.
Yes, God so loves the world. He sends us.