A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Let us pray: O Lord, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the god of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
“What a pleasure to be here. That may be an unusual way to begin a sermon on the first Sunday of Lent, yet I feel privileged to continue sharing my ministry among you at the beginning of this season of Lent which is a time in the church calendar set aside for examination and reflection on who we are as the people of God. As you may have already discovered, I usually begin my comments from the pulpit by stating the purpose of a sermon or homily on any occasion, and for that matter, the task of the preacher at any time, is to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ. I will try to do that this morning as we celebrate, assuming that is the right word, the Holy Eucharist in the context of a new penitential season. It has always struck me as unusual, and maybe even a bit unseemly, to incorporate this designated time in the church calendar which has specifically been set aside for prayer and fasting, to be an occasion for festivity or joy. We are on the horns of a dilemma in our liturgies, especially during Lent when we are expected to repent of our sins at the very same time, and in the very same service where we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Clearly, there is a keen sense of irony in all that we are doing today.
Consider this. One of the most biting criticisms that is frequently leveled against the church in its lectionary choice of readings, particularly in the required use of the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday just three days ago, is the admonition and phrase “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.” No ambiguity there: it’s very straightforward. Having said that, we then turn right around and smudge our foreheads with ashes in the sign of a cross that everyone can see from several feet away, and then proceed to symbolically display our piety for the rest of Lent. Are we therefore modern day hypocrites like the scribes and Pharisees-of-old because of this? Well, to some degree “yes we are,” and to a certain extent “no we’re not.” It all depends on your point of view.
But all that emphasis on ashes was last Wednesday, and now it’s Sunday morning, the First Sunday in Lent, and we are dealing with another puzzling issue. Why is it that during this penitential season we flip the switch each Sunday and come out of our somber mode and frame of mind, in order to savor the fellowship and joy of the Eucharist as a feast occasion? The truth is, no matter what season we’re in, Sunday as the first day of the week is always a day the church recognizes as a feast day; and that sets a contrasting tone for the following weekdays. During Lent however, we are to use the majority of our time in a mode of reflection where we seek to get in touch with the deeper questions of the meaning and purpose of life. The struggle is one of balancing prayer, reflection, fasting and penitential discipline alongside the joy of God’s presence in the Eucharist with the concomitant benefits of Christian fellowship. No easy task. Checks and balances are in order.
So where do we go, and what do we do, with this penitential season of forty days and forty nights that’s now upon us? Several questions immediately come to mind.
First - How can we use the time of Lenten self-examination to most productively discover a deeper sense of God’s purposes in our own lives?
Second - How can we use the traditional methods of Lent, such as the collects, prayers, disciplines, fasting and so on, to help us achieve our fullest benefit of reflection on the life of Christ?
Third - How can we remain committed to the daily tasks of modern life, that, on the surface at least, tend to drive us farther and farther away from the insights of faith?
… and perhaps most critical of all
Fourth - Is a successful Lent possible nowadays? Or is it simply a religious anachronism; inconsequential and completely irrelevant?
When you stop to think about it, these can be, and in fact are, very disturbing questions. Much as I would like to address these matters with accurate, ready answers and thereby resolve such complex issues with clarity, it is not in my power to do so – and frankly it would be dishonest to even try, because I struggle with the same confusion and perplexity regarding these days of Lent that most of you do, or anyone else does, for that matter.
Maybe then, this is the year to attempt something a little bit different. Instead of fighting the culture, and trying to take on a discipline that is so out of character for us that it’s unnecessarily painful; perhaps this Lent we should allow ourselves permission to simply “give it a rest.” What I’m suggesting is that 2019 may be the year we should not over-extend ourselves devotionally in pursuit of Lenten piety. Perhaps it’s time instead to reflect primarily on what has made sense to us about Lent in our past, and how that insight might help us in turn to observe a more meaningful Lent for the future.
Speaking then only for myself; I am taken back to the year 2000 when I was on sabbatical at the United Nations in New York City working alongside the Anglican Observer to the UN. It was a heady time for me, getting certified with diplomatic credentials to sit-in on Security Council sessions, and meet several world-famous leaders. 2000 was also the year the United Nations formulated the Millennium Development Goals, which were eventually incorporated by the Episcopal Church as part of its stated theological framework for social justice and ministry. And just for the record, the Eight Millennium Development Goals were to:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education for children
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability …and
8. Create a global partnership for development with other nations
Well, you might legitimately ask, what do the Millennium Development Goals have to do with our religious Lenten penitential observances? That’s a fair question; and I would contend that as I have struggled with these particular goals and objectives over the past 19 years as they’ve impacted, defined, and to some extent improved the human condition, I now see that Lent – at least for me religiously - is a time to put my beliefs into practice.
And what are those beliefs? While they are not entirely original to me, I have come to affirm the following tenets of faith, and I do this in light of my renewed baptismal vows that mark me as a Christian. In simplest terms…
I believe that no one should go hungry.
I believe that everyone should have access to clean water.
I believe that all children and families deserve a healthy start in life.
I believe that no one should live in poverty. …and
I believe that together we can begin, maybe not finish in our lifetime, but at least begin to
heal a broken world.
To my way of thinking these are very sensible and straightforward beliefs. But the question lingers - How do we do it? Our Prayerbook suggests an answer and outlines a cogent response in the Summary of the Law.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
And furthermore, in our Prayerbook’s order of worship at the Penitential Litany we conclude with this phrase:
Accomplish in us Lord, the work of your salvation.
That we may show forth your glory in all the world
…to which we acclaim as baptized believers a purposeful and resounding … AMEN.
And we ask all this … in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.