An article by Brandon Ambrosino in the Religion section of the Hufington Post sent the wheels in motions. I am indebted to Pete Rollins book the Idolatry of God as well as his video Atheism for Lent for providing me with the courage to preach this sermon.
I swear to you it happens to me every year! It usually happens when the first person asks me what I’m giving up for Lent. When you’re in the line of work that I’m in, I suppose you should just get used to it. But somehow that particular question makes me wish I did something else for a living. People don’t usually mean much by asking the question. At this time of the year, “What are you giving up for Lent?” is sort of like when people ask you, “How are you doing?” They’re not really interested unless you have a pithy answer. I must confess that over the years, I’ve come up with more than a few pithy answers. Like the time, shortly after I first came to Newmarket to be your pastor and my Mother, who does not observe Lent asked me what I was giving up for Lent and in a feeble attempt to make my Mother laugh, I told her I was giving up drugs and sex for Lent. Things went very quiet on Mom’s end of the phone line. The truth is that the answer I most feel like giving when people ask me what I’m giving up for lent requires so much time to explain that I rarely answer the question truthfully. But t’is the season for confession, so please forgive me but I’d really, really, really, like to give up Lent for Lent. I mean who among you, woke up this morning and said to yourself, “Oh goodie it’s Lent! Yippie!!!”
I remember when I first started going to church, I was a teenager, and I don’t mind telling you that my first experience of Lent almost sent me packing. All I heard was that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. All that talk about sin made me feel so guilty and worthless. I was just 15 years old and I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to commit much in the way of sin, and all I kept hearing was repent, repent! The message I received loud and clear during those first few Lents in the church was that I was nothing but a wicked sinner, a worthless worm! Poor, poor, pitiful me! But have no fear, cause Jeeeeesus can make you better. All you have to do is give something up for Lent!!! Jeeeeesus, he’s on his way to be executed on a cross, because of you, so you owe it to Jesus to feel lousy because he’s going to sacrifice everything for you. They’re going to nail him to a cross because of you. You wicked sinner. The least you can do is give something up for Lent. I know, how about a little chocolate? That’s it, that’s it, just give up some chocolate for Jeeeeesus! Hands up anybody who has ever thought about giving up chocolate for Lent. Now Lord knows, I could sure do with giving up chocolate, I mean lets face it, I could give up chocolate and maybe loose a few pounds andhave something to say to folks when they ask me what I’m giving up for Lent.
I remember years ago, listening in on a conversation between two little kids about the merits of giving up chocolate for Lent. Little Katie asked her big brother why people were giving up chocolate for Lent and her big brother carefully explained that: “We have to give up chocolate for 40 days and 40 nights so that when Easter comes, we can really, really enjoy the lots and lots of chocolate that the Easter Bunny brings us.”
So, while I’m busy confessing my distaste for Lent, let me move on to that other Lenten subject that I love so very much: temptation! Chocolate!!!! First of all, let me just say: I firmly believe that chocolate is a sublime pleasure, not a sin. Yes, chocolate can be sinful. When I have all the chocolate and you have none; that’s a sin. So, I brought you all a little taste of temptation. The very idea of giving up something you love for Lent strikes me at the very least as self-indulgent. So, I brought enough chocolate for everyone to have a taste, because today I want to see if we can move on from wanting to give up Lent for Lent.
Let me remind you that there is indeed some very good news about Lent. You see Lent doesn’t appear in the Bible. Lent is not based on any biblical instruction. Nowhere in scripture will you find anybody saying, “You shall keep a holy Lent; ponder your sinfulness; give up your pleasures; for you are a worthless worm.” Lent is a season that was developed by the church to encourage people to fast, confess, repent and pray. Now the people the church was trying to convince to fast, confess, repent, and pray were for the most part uneducated, superstitious and illiterate and to keep the masses in line the clergy used fear and intimidation. Death was all around and so why not play on people’s fear of death. Life was full of danger and all sorts of evils lurked around every corner, so why not play on people’s fascination with the temptations of evil. So, over the centuries the church developed what some theologians like to call worm theology. Miserable sinners that we are: why we deserve to have to wallow in Lent. I mean if we want people to rejoice in the glories of God’s grace why not deprive them for a while so that they can really whoop it up come Easter. Now, I know I’m over simplifying things here. But I hope you get the idea. Lent is a season that was designed by the Church to control its members (pardon the pun). All that excessive wallowing in guilt went a little over the top and even the church has had to re-think Lent. For years now the church has been encouraging people to forget about giving up things for Lent and instead try taking something positive for Lent. But even these attempts at putting a positive spin on Lent hasn’t done much to encourage people to embrace the season of Lent. I mean come to church all you good, busy people, and we’ll make you feel so guilty that you’ll feel compelled to add one more thing to your busy days. For forty days and forty nights, excluding Sundays, you can take on some Lenten discipline or other to make yourself feel good about you.
Well, not this year! We don’t have to keep up the control games of Lent. This year, I’m going to suggest something really radical for Lent. Something that ought to move us beyond the trivial self-indulgent, control games that we are tempted by the traditions of Lent to give up or take on. Before you get excited, I’m not going to suggest that we actually give up Lent for Lent. What I have in mind is more radical that simply giving up something that doesn’t really make much of a difference to the world. This Lent, I’m going to put it all on the table. This year for Lent I’d like you to consider the possibility of giving something up for Lent. This year, how about giving God up for Lent?
That’s right, I really mean it. How about trying to give up God for Lent? Now before you call the Bishop, let me try to explain myself. I believe for all intents and purposes, that God is dead. God’s probably been dead for quite some time, but the word hasn’t quite reached most parts of the church. Now I know that I am not the first person to declare that God is dead, but I suspect than not many preachers are willing to declare the death of God from the pulpit. So, many of us have been willing to keep up the pretense that God is not dead. Most of us are willing to go on worshipping a god that very few of us still believe is alive. I hope by now that you know the God of whom I speak. The great sky-god who dwells up there, or out there somewhere, waiting to sit in judgment. You know the God I mean, the one who created the earth and heavens, and who if you figure out just the right combination of words, and say them often enough, with gusto and a big dollop of faith, this sky-god will grant your wish, or not. If the answer is no, you know that it is only because this sky-god knows better than you what is good for you; and will only send you just enough trials and tribulations to bring you to your knees; and all you have to do is confess that you are in bondage to sin and cannot free your self and open your hearts to Jesus, who will save you from yourself, because Jesus is the only begotten son, of this sky-god who sent his son, here to earth to die a horrible death to pay the price for your sin, and if you just remember to check your brain at the door, you oughta be able to suspend your disbelief just long enough to repent, and figure out exactly what it is that you are prepared to give up in order to prove that you are a serious follower of Jeeeeesus. Chocolate anyone?
Today, I’m suggesting that we take a deep breath and realize that maybe just maybe there’s another way. This particular Lent, why don’t we stop worshipping the idol we have created in the image of the God our ancestors have projected into the heavens and open ourselves to the power of resurrection? It’s time to declare that the idol we have made of God is dead. It’s time to free ourselves from the demands of worshipping an idol. It’s time for us to open ourselves the possibilities of experiencing the ONE who is the source of all life, the creator of the cosmos, the ground of our being, the ultimate reality that we call God. Centuries ago, the Christian Mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “I pray God to rid me of God” and today, as we are learning more and more about the cosmos, about creation and about what it means to be human, I can’t help but think that Eckhart’s prayer is a prayer for the season of Lent. “I pray God, rid me of God!”
Let new images rise up! We are after all a people who believe in resurrection. We are a people who believe that God died for us. We are a people who follow Jesus of Nazareth who taught so well and so clearly that he was able to free people from thoughts and practices that separated them from the love of God. Surely, we have the courage to declare the idol we have made of God dead, so that we can look to the resurrection and there experience the living God, the One who dwells in, with and through us. Our God is so much more than we can ever begin to capture in an image we can conceive of God. Our God is not possible to grasp. We cannot hold tight to the idols we have created of God and expect to be able to open ourselves to the ONE who is was and ever more shall be the Creator, Sustainer, and Liberator of all that is, was and ever more shall be.
No words that we can utter can ever capture the One who dwells in, with and through us. But we can open ourselves to the possibility of encountering our God. We can pay attention to what God has done, is doing and shall do in the world and in our lives. We can partake of the experience of God who comes to us in the guise of our neighbours, our friends, our loved ones and even our enemies. We can drink deeply of life.
As followers of Jesus we can live into Jesus’ reason for living. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and live it abundantly.” Abundant life for all is the best description I’ve ever heard of the Reign of God, of which Jesus spoke, taught and died for. Abundant life for all.
There’s a definition of Lent that I love that comes from the roots of the world Lent in the old English word that means to lengthen. This year why not let lent be about lenting our spirits. Lenting our spirits as in lengthening our spirits; for in order to lengthen, or to grow, there has to be space. Let this Lent be about creating the space and letting it be a place where our spirits can grow! Don’t take on a bunch of stuff to do because it sounds like what you’re supposed to do for Lent. Do what will give you space for your spirit to lengthen. As the days lengthen and the light begins to shine more and more, let your spirits grow by giving yourselves space to experience the fullness of the Mystery of our God. Give up God for Lent to make room for the MYSTERY that we call God.
Lengthen your spirits.
As the days lengthen
and the light begins to shine more and more,
let your spirits grow by giving yourselves space
to experience the fullness
of the Mystery that IS LOVE.
Give up God for Lent to make room for MYSTERY.
LOVE who IS was and ever more shall be,
LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF.
Lent 1C – February 17, 2013 – Listen to the sermon here.