Sunday, February 20, 2011

Septuagesima, 2011

Good morning, and continued blessings. I said earlier this week with the sun shining and the temperature in the mid-sixties that if you didn’t have a calendar on the wall you might think it was mid-April, and that the baseball news on the radio was from PNC Park, and not from Bradenton. I don’t know that Old Man Winter is quite done with us yet, as last year at this time the snow was still high and deep and just parking around here was something of a real challenge. But even a hint of spring in mid-February is nice—and as the last of the ice and snow has disappeared from our roof it made it possible for me finally to get the Christmas lights down from the front porch.

It may be early to expect real spring, but as we move toward the end of this long season after the Epiphany we come today to the first of what traditionally were called the three Sundays of Pre-Lent, or “Shrovetide.” Today, Septuagesima, next Sunday Sexagesima, and then, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Quinquagesima. Seventy, sixty, fifty, in advance of the Quadrigesima, the great forty days of Lent.

And if Lent is for us to be a season of personal reflection and self-assessment as we encounter and become obedient to Holy Scripture and as we live in and with the prayer of the Church, a time of self-denial and penitence, fasting and prayer and spiritual preparation as we move in the symbolic journey from the wide world of our lives toward Jerusalem and Holy Week, the Cross of Good Friday and the Empty Tomb then of Easter morning, this “Pre-Lent” is an anticipation of that, and we might say, “a time of preparation for the challenges of the season of preparation that we will soon enter.” A season to get ready to get ready.

In the lectionary of the traditional Book of Common Prayer, the Epistle appointed for Septuagesima was First Corinthians 9, beginning at the 24th verse: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So--run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath—but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Pre-Lent then a season when we might, to continue with St. Paul’s imagery in a metaphorical way, go to the gym for a little extra weight work or cardio, in order to build strength and endurance for the spiritual contest that lies ahead.

Pre-Lent doesn’t appear on our calendars any more, but there is still something of the spirit of this season in the lessons appointed for us this morning, as I think what all three of these lessons have in common is a reminder of the high calling that is our inheritance as Christian people. And as we hear these words, that the words of this wonderful section of Psalm 119 settle in our mind, and in our heart, and become our own. “Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes, and I shall keep it unto the end.”

A reminder of our calling, and of our destiny: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” God’s word at Sinai to his Chosen People. And Jesus, as we listen once again to St. Matthew’s wonderful presentation of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We are of course in ourselves anything but “holy.” And “perfect” is a concept I can hardly even begin to process. I don’t care how many hours we spend at the gym. But God isn’t finished with us. And “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” That would be a word for us to keep in mind, as we head out into “Pre-Lent.” St. Paul in Second Corinthians. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away. Behold, all things are become new.”

Just to rest with that. To write out on a 3 x 5 card and tape to the bathroom mirror. “Behold, all things are become new.” That is how things really are, through the work of Christ, and we have the privilege to begin to catch a glimpse of it, to see for ourselves. If only in part.

The lessons this morning from Leviticus and St. Matthew and First Corinthians, as we allow them to echo around us, are not intended to communicate the idea that if we just would all work really really really hard and make fewer mistakes and concentrate we will somehow earn enough points to bring ourselves into God’s good graces. There just aren’t that many points out there to be earned, in reality, even if there were, the truth about who we are is that we wouldn’t in the end have the time and energy and inclination to win them all.

But what they do, as we listen to these lessons, as we listen to what they say in specific ways and to the music that emerges from them, is give us a glimpse of who God is, full of compassion, full of generosity, full of love. "Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes, and I shall keep it unto the end.”

Who God is, in his holiness, and his righteousness, and his mercy, in his peace, which passeth all understanding. A glimpse--in these weeks before the weeks before Holy Week--of God’s purpose for us in the renewal of the earth and of all the created order. And an invitation to begin even now, in our brokenness, as we find our hope in Christ, to see and recognize and give ourselves to the amazing and miraculous things he is doing in us and through us. In him, "Behold, all things are become new." To catch a glimpse of that, this morning, as we come together to the Holy Table and as we go out into the rest of our day and the rest of our lives. In him we are and we become more than ever we could ask for or imagine.

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