Saturday, September 6, 2008

First in Lent, 2008

February 10, 2008 First Sunday in Lent (Year A RCL, Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7)

It’s not very often my practice to talk about a theme for a service. The propers of the day and season generally do that pretty well, it seems to me. But be that as it may, all week as I’ve been praying through the lessons for today and thinking about this Lent in this time of our lives and our world, I just over and over again find myself humming and singing to myself that lovely hymn with the text by F.W. Faber and the tune Beecher by John Zundel, in our hymnal at #470, and if you’ll forgive me for sharing that with you, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.” So I would offer this in the solemn winter of this Lent, the invitation of the Church and the hand of Christ extended to us: wideness, kindness, welcome, abundant graces, mercy, and healing. If we don’t come away from this Lent and as we approach the drama of Good Friday and the Cross with anything more than that, that would certainly be enough.

And so, I hope in that spirit, our reading from Genesis. The first morning of the world turns out to be more Caravaggio than Hallmark. From a distance and at first glance it may appear all sweetness and light, the fresh garden, the promise of abundance and joy and peace stretching out to the horizon. But step nearer the canvas, and things begin to change. You notice the shadow, the streaks of darkness, pools of collapsing light, harsh edges. A sense of foreboding rolls in from the margins toward the center, things beginning to tilt, unstable, off balance, almost shimmering with a potential for brokenness, for uneasy contrast, the half-light of unrealized hopes and dreams. Things fall apart. Somehow it all goes wrong, and we’re off to the races. Adam and Eve sit down at the sewing machine to create that first set of matching his-and-hers aprons, and before the history of the world is off the first page we are in deep water, trying to catch a breath in the midst of rolling oceans of guilt and remorse, catastrophe and unspeakable loss. A sense of things that are pulled apart that can never really be put right again, no matter how hard we might try. A tough way to begin a story. A tough start for a new world.

There was this bumper sticker saying that I saw printed on a tee-shirt and decided to pick up, mostly then because I thought it was fun to be provocative: white lettering on black fabric, Life is short. Then you die. A grim and difficult sentiment, no question. But it is Lent, after all, and you’ll just need to cut me some slack. The words set up over the gates of the Garden as those first two are thrown out of their Eden and into the world we live in. I think what attracted me to the phrase when I saw it first was and I guess still is this sense that all too often I live and we live in a space of well-constructed denial, where we somehow convince ourselves that it’s all supposed to be easy, that hard decisions and painful can be avoided. I heard someone talk about a culture of anesthesia. Immersed in entertainment, hard edges softened by the local pharmacy or state store or streetcorner entrepreneur. We just train ourselves to look the other way. Not to notice. Sometimes it takes a slap across the face to wake us up, and a pretty strong cup of coffee to keep us from drifting off to sleep again at the first opportunity.

Life is short. It really is. Slipping away a teaspoon –full at a time, which is at first hardly enough to notice. But which takes its toll eventually. I remember a teacher of mine in a graduate seminar on early 19th century English poetry saying quietly one day that no one under 40 would ever understand the later Wordsworth. A comment I remember resenting profoundly at the time, since at 23 I was pretty sure there was nothing beyond my understanding. But I know what he meant now. Not so much not being able to understand the ideas and themes or those wonderful and elegant structures of Wordsworthian language—but really what he was talking about was a different sensibility. Deeper down. One that we gain and develop only through the accumulation of failure and loss. A space inside of us created and sustained by our experience of limitation and regret. Life is short. And then . . . .

It is interesting anyway that we would set out on our Lenten journey with this foundational moment from Genesis spread out before us. Things fall apart. Our first parents, the master templates of our shared identity and character, swept up in the story of the Tree of the Garden, and the Forbidden Fruit. The whole thing seems so obvious. What were they thinking? How could they have been so careless? Throwing away the inheritance of a perfect life, and for what? But then, we do begin to know, as our lives roll along, that things don’t make sense sometimes—and that just because things don’t make sense, that doesn’t mean they aren’t real and powerful in our lives and in our world. People do crazy things. We all do. There is just no way to be honest about this journey of Lent and this road to Jerusalem and Holy Week and the Cross without this fact at the center of our awareness. Life is short, then you die. Just long enough sometimes to begin making lists of things that if we had them to do over again, we’d do differently. We hope we’d do differently. And the missed opportunities. The things we could have done but didn’t. I think about my life as a parent, a husband, a son, a pastor. Missed opportunities, things done and left undone. Holding back out of fear, or laziness. Or the belief that there would sooner or later be another round, a second chance. Which of course sometimes there is, and sometimes there isn’t. And then eventually the wheel slows down and comes to a stop. Sooner or later. And we are what we are, who we are. A mixed bag at best.

But the last thing to say about the story of the Garden is that failure, defeat, rejection, judgment, and exile are reality, but, it turns out, not the final reality. Lent as season with a beginning and an end, which is a context to keep us from sliding into a sense of helplessness and despair. That the hard journey out into the world is not one that they set out on alone. And that from the very beginning, in that first disobedience, there were the seeds of hope, renewal, redemption, a direction forward. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. Undeserved kindness, welcome, graces, healing. That from the moment they stepped out beyond Gates of Eden, they were headed back, headed home. The promise for them from the very beginning. No matter how long that might take.

So we’re called in this Lent to a season of repentance and renewal. First the one, then on the way through that to the other. To an honesty about who we are. That we would be like a builder who wants to drill down through all the layers of unstable soil to get to bedrock. But then also, to build up from that, to an openness to what might lie ahead, in the way of healing and reconciliation and restoration and victory. Chapter one this morning of the story that runs from Eden to Jerusalem and Holy Week and the Cross, to the Empty Tomb, and to the story of our lives. That all the mess we make of it is being woven together into a new fabric, for the glory of God and the promise of his Kingdom.

We all are just who we are, but in that I would wish you in a continuing way from this first Sunday, the blessings of a Holy Lent. That in Word and Sacrament and the opening of our minds and our hearts in prayer he may continue to work in us the good work that he wants to do. That he may be present for us and in us. That will be different for each of us, and different for each of us each year, as we come to this season as different people, in the chemistry that shapes our lives day by day. But that for all of us, that we may be shaped gradually, carefully, purposefully, to grow into him, into his image and likeness, and into the hope of his eternal life.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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