Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34
Blessings and welcome this morning. Eighth Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany on our Church Calendar, and as I mentioned last week now on the old calendar in the heart of the season of “Pre-Lent.” Today, Sexagesima Sunday. This “pre-lent” was I think intended as a time of “leaning forward.” Perhaps the little town of Bethlehem really just disappearing now into the far distance of the rear-view mirror. Ash Wednesday only ten days away, and for all of us who are planners not too early at all to begin to think about the Lent that is before us.
A season in which we would turn with some intentionality, some care and conscientious attention to the condition of our lives. St. Benedict in Chapter 49 of his Rule for Monasteries said “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” And perhaps we might say, “the life of a Christian.” But, he goes on, “Since few, however have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life more pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of our own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
A time of recollection. An offering of ourselves. To think about who we are, to reflect on how we believe God has called us to live our lives. The word “vocation”—and to think about how we are called in our families and relationships, in the use of whatever gifts have been given to us in this time of our lives. In work, in friendships. As we are able to contribute to the corner of the world where we have been placed. Neighborhood. Work and school. In the life of the Church. I’m struck by the language as Paul describes himself and the leaders of the Church and the whole Christian family this morning in this passage from First Corinthians. “Servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” We could just about spend all Lent just unpacking those two titles and job descriptions and only be touching on the surface of what they might mean. What they might mean for us, in all the unique situations of our lives.
As we begin to think about a season of reflection. Of focus. Of clearing away some of the distractions. A season of renewal. As we would think about practicing some kind of discipline as a way of giving a sharper edge to our process of attention. Sometimes to add a little restraint in terms of food and drink, or in entertainment. Or to make a commitment to take a quiet walk after dinner every evening. Or to write those letters to the grandchildren we’ve been meaning to write. Or to read Morning Prayer. (You can even get that on your smartphone or kindle!) Or perhaps a time of devotional Bible reading. No general template. What works for me; what works for you. The idea is about clearing away some of the clutter. Creating some inner space.
At the end of this Lent we will come to Holy Week and Good Friday, but we would know that Good Friday is simply another day on the Calendar and Christ on the Cross is only a story or a painting or an image or icon or piece of jewelry to buy at a religious supply shop unless we in our minds and in our hearts are ready to open up and to receive and to incorporate his reality into the reality of our lives. So we would make some space here for him. Cultivate a sense of receptivity.
The three readings this morning seem to me just right to have with us as we begin to think on these things.
This wonderful passage here from the second part of Isaiah. The Prophet giving voice to God’s word to the scattered peoples of the exile. In the refugee camps of Iraq and the ghettoes of Egypt and Syria and Iran. Defeated, broken, humiliated. Struggling even to hold on to a shred of identity. Questioning why all this happened. Wondering. Doubting. Perhaps sometimes in anger. Sometimes in fear. Sometimes in doubt. Sometimes in despair. “Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’” But no. And this wonderful hymn of restoration. Healing. Promise for the future. Hope. “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing. For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his suffering ones . . . . Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” And then this remarkable phrase, and to think about that Good Friday that will be here in a couple of months. “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” No greater love than this.
And then Paul to the Church in Corinth. What we know is that this is a Church caught up in almost more division and conflict than we can keep track of. And I guess in that way the typical Church of every generation since. Some feel superior to others because of their spiritual giftedness. Prayer and prophesy, healing, teaching. Or because of which apostle may have baptized them. It’s not what you know, after all. It’s who you know. Or because they’re better educated. Or more affluent. And there are people who do bad things, and conflict about how to respond. And there are grievances and hostilities, and you just have a feeling some of the members of the First Church of Christ in Corinth are about ready to rent some property down the street and open the Reformed Church of Christ in Corinth. Which of course breaks Paul’s heart. The pastor, trying at a distance and by this letter to say a word. Which he does. A word of encouragement. To keep the main thing the main thing. Eyes on Christ.
And in just these few sentences this morning, to say a word about not any of us getting too full of ourselves. Of course we do the best we can. Try to do the right thing. Stand up for what we believe Christ has called us to do and to say and to be. But, he says, with a sense of provisionality as well. A recognition that no matter how clear we are that we are in the right, we still are not able to see all the way to the heart of the other. We’re making our judgments on circumstantial evidence, on what we can see, but not as God will judge, with full knowledge of the heart. And in fact we don’t even know ourselves, truly. We who can practice denial and rationalization and self-deception without even realizing it ourselves. We do the best we can, yes. But we need to know when to hold back and to leave the sorting out of things to God. From whom no secrets are hid. We are in his hand, and his peace is beyond all human understanding. In the meantime, we would be gentle with one another, and with ourselves, and practice love. We are his servants, the stewards of his mysteries.
And finally this section of the Sermon on the Mount. The birds of the air. The lilies of the field. Not to say that we don’t roll up our sleeves, or to seek the Kingdom and the righteousness of God for our lives. But to trust him. Certainly if there is any deeper practical truth than this one in all of scripture, I’d be interested to know what it is. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Take a breath. Live faithfully, and let God be God.
Getting ready to get ready. As we come to receive the gifts at the altar. To prepare for this season of preparation. Looking forward to a time for anticipation. “Pre-Lent.” Ordering our lives, reordering our lives, as best we can, that we might be servants of Christ and stewards of his mysteries, channels of his peace, forgiveness, healing--ready to receive and to share the richness of his blessing.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.