Invitation to a Holy Lent
Strange as it may sound, I love virtually everything about Lent, beginning with this service, which kicks Lent off. I love the ashes and the reminder of our mortality. I love the penitential Psalms and the litany. I don’t know why I love all that stuff. It all sounds kind of depressing. But I do love it, and I always have.
But perhaps my favorite part of this service is the Church’s invitation to a holy Lent, which we will hear as soon as I wrap up this sermon.
Every Ash Wednesday, the Church invites us to observe a holy Lent “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” We’ll talk about each of those particular practices in our Lent formation program, so I won’t say more about them this evening. But I want to say something about why we do those kinds of things, why so many people give things up or take things on for Lent.
My example is the Apostle Paul.
As you probably know Paul did not start out as an apostle or a saint. Quite the contrary! As a young man, Paul was hostile to the Christian movement and actively persecuted Christians. That changed when the risen Lord appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Having met Christ, Paul became a devout believer and ultimately the greatest missionary in Christian history.
Along the way, Paul also became a great saint. And Paul was willing to tell you all about his saintliness, as he does in our reading from Second Corinthians.
But even after many years of faithful service, Paul still had plenty of room to grow, and to his credit, Paul talked about that, too.
Two quotations stick out for me. The first comes from Romans. Paul said, “I do not understand my own actions…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:15, 19). Even as he was coming to the end of his life, sin continued to hold Paul back, as he admitted.
Now, there are two ways to go wrong once we acknowledge our sin. One wrong option is to become complacent about sin, as if sin didn’t really matter. The other wrong option is to give in to despair, to a sense of helplessness in the face of our ongoing sinfulness. Ironically, those two very different options have the same result: we quit trying to do better.
Paul avoided both wrong options. To the end of his life, Paul kept working, kept growing in the knowledge and the love of God. We see that in a second quotation, this one from Philippians. “Forgetting what lies behind,” Paul said, “and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13-14).
In that straining forward, Paul is an example for us, particularly at Lent. Even as a mature Christian, well on the road to sainthood, Paul knew both that he had room to grow and that growth remained possible for him, with God’s help.
The same is true for us. We are sinners, and we are in the process of being set free by Christ. We struggle with sin, and we grow in Christ.
One thing is sure. Over time, we change, for better or for worse. Over time, our habits, good and bad, shape who we are and who we become. If we complain all the time, we become one kind of person. If we focus on gratitude all the time, we become a different kind of person. Our actions matter. Our habitual actions, the things we do over and over again, often without even thinking about it, those actions matter a LOT.
Today, and this season as a whole, is an opportunity for us to think about our habits, good and bad, and then to make conscious decisions about the kind of person our habits are helping us to become.
All of us have a mix of good and bad habits.
Most mornings, I stretch when I first get up. That’s a good habit, especially as I age. Most days, I keep grazing after lunch, peanut butter crackers, dates, trail mix. That’s a bad habit that gets more and more problematic as I age and my metabolism slows down.
After supper, Carrie and I play a card game most nights. That’s another good habit; it keeps us connected. But before bed, I sometimes play Sudoku for a couple of hours, keeping me up too late, keeping me up well past when Carrie goes to sleep. That’s a bad habit.
I could go on about my habits, much longer than any of you want me to! The point is, if you haven’t already done so, spend time this evening or tomorrow morning reflecting on your own good and bad habits. Pray about them. And decide which ones you want to work on this Lent.
My goal every Lent is to make some temporary changes and some more permanent ones.
Here’s an example of a temporary change. I gain a little weight every winter, so I give up sweets and snacks for Lent. By Easter, my weight will hopefully be down again, and I’ll resume my normal gluttonous habits with great joy.
Here’s what I hope is a more permanent change. I’ve gotten a little slack in my prayer routine lately, so I am recommitting to every part of my daily practice. Hopefully by Easter, I’ll be back in the groove and will stay there.
And here’s a work in progress, that will probably always be a work in progress. I’ve put on my purple complaint bracelet. For the next seven weeks, I’ll fine myself every time I complain. The complaint bracelet makes me more mindful of my speech.
I doubt I’ll ever quit complaining entirely. Indeed, I don’t actually want to quit complaining entirely. Some days really are hard, and I need to be able to talk about them with Carrie or others. But I’d like to get to the place where I complain infrequently and only when I truly need to. So, I wear the purple bracelet every year and, hopefully every year, I make a little progress in controlling what comes out of my mouth.
I come back to the Church’s invitation to all of us to the observance of a holy Lent. I hope you will all take that invitation seriously. None of us knows exactly what the future holds for us. None of us can fully control the kind of person we are in the process of becoming. But if we make wise choices in our actions, if we cultivate holy habits, if we do the kinds of things that help us to grow in our relationships with God and neighbor, we will move in the right direction.
It will still be true that, like Paul, we can’t always understand our own actions because we too often choose the evil we don’t really want over the good that is our heart’s deepest desire. But it will be equally true that we keep straining forward to the goal, which is intimacy and ultimately union with God.
That is the joy and the purpose of this Lenten season.
Now, please stand as you are able….
2/25/2023 09:05:43 am
Great sermon; great advice!
Leave a Reply.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan