"...if we have food and clothing..."
“...if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content”: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
Texts: Deut. 26.1-11
1 Timothy 6.6-16
+ May I speak and may you hear, in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well it’s Lent. On Wednesday of this past week a number of us, here at the Chapel/Church and at the Church/Chapel, entered into Lent with a service whose defining characteristic is known as “the imposition of ashes.” Ashes in the sign of the cross were placed on our foreheads with the truly awful words ringing in our ears: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” I say they are “truly awful” words taking “awful” in its most literal sense: “Full of awe.” “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” Those awful words force upon our consciousness two facts that most the time we quite conveniently forget: We are mortal, one day we will die, and we are sinners.
Ash Wednesday is the way Western Christians mark the beginning of Lent. In the Christian East they do not have Ash Wednesday. Instead they have something called “Forgiveness Sunday.” For the Eastern Orthodox the forty days begins on a Monday; and on the Sunday before Lent the Sunday Divine Liturgy ends with the parish priest asking forgiveness from his parishioners for the ways he has failed them in the last year, first collectively and then individually. And each member of the parish asks him forgiveness for all the ways they have failed him in the past year. And then each member asks forgiveness of one another. I have seen this only once. The congregation formed a kind of double circle which moved in opposite directions slowly around the Church nave, each person looking the person opposite them in the eye and saying “Forgive me, brother” or “Forgive me, sister.” I assure you before it was ended there was not a dry eye in the building and there were not a few hugs and embraces. I, who was a visitor and who knew only the parish priest and his wife at all well, could not escape--although I tried very hard. Before the circle had completed its circuit, I had been included and was asking forgiveness of these people I barely knew or didn’t know at all. And they were begging my forgiveness. And I was teary eyed and was embracing people I barely knew or didn’t know at all. That was in the United States; I can’t help but wonder how the polite, proper and dignified English middle and professional classes would cope with a “Forgiveness Sunday”!
For all their differences, Ash Wednesday and Forgiveness Sunday agree on the fact that we are all sinners and that we all are in need of God’s forgiveness. And I assure you, I am painfully aware of the ways in which I have failed some of the members of this parish in the past year. Sin is not easy to talk about it. And it is very often, nay, usually easier to see someone else’s need of forgiveness than to come to terms with my own.
This morning I would like to lay before you two different illustrations for sin, two different vantage points for considering the sin with which we are all infected. The first you will find if you take a look at the Prayers of Penitence which we will say together in a few moments: Page 8 of your service booklets--our new Lent service booklets. See the two lines near the middle of the main prayer: “We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.” That’s a fair definition of sin. We sin when we fail to love God with our whole being and/or when we fail to love our neighbours as ourselves.” It is perhaps slightly simplistic to say that sin is selfishness, sin is self-centredness. But neither is that far off the mark.
Now with such a definition of sin, certain sins are rather straightforward; easy to identify in ourselves and others: Murder, theft, adultery, lying, etc. And other sins are not so easy to see in ourselves, although we can usually spot them in others. One of the main purposes of Lent is to help us discover in ourselves, and to confront, those sins which we all too easily dismiss as not that big a deal, which we justify as not really hurting anyone or of which we are simply unaware. And the sins of which we are most unaware are those sins of which I am guilty and you are guilty, my neighbour is guilty and your neighbour is guilty, those sins which we share with our culture and our nation. Take a look at our New Testament reading: “...for we brought nothing into this world, so we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” How fundamentally unlike the Gospel of Consumerism, which is shouted at us nearly every moment of our waking day, that is! “...but if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” Not exactly the cutting edge of marketing theory! Do you know why consumerism works? Do you know why every one of us is infected with it and why we find it so difficult to resist its charms? Because it whispers into our ears the same thing the serpent whispered into Eve’s: “You shall be like gods!” Consumerism finds ever new and subtle ways of insinuating that selfishness is good! Or, at least, it is not as bad as the press it has been given. Consumerism finds ever new and subtle ways of interposing the possibility that loving one’s neighbour, to say nothing of loving God, is not all it’s cracked up to be. For you can be like God, or deserve to be!
One of the time honoured ways Christians have discovered and confronted in themselves the sins which they all too easily dismiss as not that big a deal, or which they too often justify as not really hurting anyone or of which they are simply unaware is by fasting; giving something up and then watching what happens. I suspect that we are all so infected with consumerism that we have no idea what the Christian virtues of contentment and simplicity really mean. So I would like to issue an challenge this Lent: This year, let’s all take our fasting very seriously. Let us slash our purchases and give generously, sacrificially to charities, let us drive a great deal less and walk or cycle more, let us give up meat or eat it a lot less, let us turn off the television and read a book or spend time with family and friends. If we do this, I guarantee that we will discover a few addictions; we will discover some ways selfishness has gotten a hold of us of which we were unaware, and, perhaps, we will discover some of the joy and some of the pain of loving our neighbour as ourselves and of loving God with our whole heart. As a footnote, if Climate scientist are right there is no way we can claim with any integrity to love our neighbours who live on the other side of the world if we do not begin to seriously fast in our consumption of carbon--and not just for Lent!
I said there were two illustrations of sin, two vantage points for considering sin that I wanted to consider this morning. Heretofore, I have only considered the first, love, love for God and love for neighbour. The second one is less grand and has more of a homespun feel to it. In the American South they use to hunt raccoons with hounds. But to train hounds you need the carcass of a dead raccoon. So how do you train hounds to hunt raccoons, if you do not already a dead raccoon? An ingenious, if cruel, method was devised. Raccoons love shiny objects. So if you take a hollowed log and drive two nails into it at angles, just so, and place just inside the nails a shiny object, a bit of broken mirror or the top of tin can and set this log trap where the shiny object will catch the rays of the moon, you will inevitably catch yourself a ‘coon. And the thing is, all the raccoon needs do to win his freedom is let go the shiny object, but they almost never do.
We, you and I, are all too often a little like raccoons. Life lies elsewhere, freedom lies elsewhere, life and freedom are found in loving God with our whole being and our neighbour as ourselves. But love is difficult and demanding, more than a little frightening and demands discipline. Very often it means letting go of something which tells us that we are gods, or at least deserve to be. But that something, whatever it is, however shiny it is, however lovely it appears, however important it makes us feel, is only a tin can. All we need do is let go. And the life and freedom of God can be ours. Amen.