We’re almost mid-way through the forty days of Lent. This is a good time for a halfway check-in, sort of a fifth-inning stretch. How are we doing? Did you plan to give up something for Lent? Maybe you planned to do some extra charitable work? Or, like many contemporary Christians, did you get ashes on Wednesday and then go on with life as usual? Whatever you did or didn’t do, Lent is a time for reflection and preparation. Reflection on how we’re currently living our life, and preparation not just for the Easter season, but preparation for the rest of our life here on Earth — and preparation for the life to come after that!
Lent originally was a time of joyous preparation and teaching for the new Christians – the catechumens who would be baptized and received into the Church at Easter Time. The readings and practices throughout Lent were designed to teach the newbies about this unfamiliar Christian belief and reinforce the faith of the existing Church. A sort of Spring Training before opening day at Easter. But over the millennia the training got more formalized and professionalized. Gone were the sandlot neighborhood games and in came the coaching staff and batting practice. The focus shifted to showy penance and denial. The “penitential season.”
But the season is still about training – using the routines and practices of the season to grow as Christians, to grow closer to our God. It’s a time to discover what we’re doing well, what we’re NOT doing that we know we should be doing more of, and, of course, what we’re doing that’s getting in our way. Lenten practices – whether giving something up, or doing something extra – are keys to showing us how we’re doing – where we need more work, where we need some specialized drills, and what bad habits are holding us back. I’m not someone who looks at Lent as primarily PENANCE. When we fail God and ourselves, we can’t “make it up” by being punished. What we are called to do is repent – to turn our face towards God. Lent is here to help with that.
What do our readings today tell us? We heard two really strange stories from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is teaching in the towns and villages of Israel as he makes his way towards Jerusalem. The locals give Jesus news about some pious Jews from Galilee, Jesus home area up north. Pilate had these worshipers killed while they were preparing their sacrifices in the Temple. Yes, the same Pilate who washes his hands of Jesus’ blood later in our Gospels. The Romans were not nice guys. Maybe Pilate had them killed because they were Zealots, not happy with the Roman occupation. But the crowd is buzzing about this news. The people must have been “tsk-tsking” about what those Galileans must have done to bring this trouble down on their heads. Jesus asks the gossipers, “Do you think they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans? —No”, Jesus says. Jesus then asks about another recent Jerusalem news event; ... “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? —No”, Jesus says again. After reminding his listeners that unless they repent, turn their faces in another direction and make a fundamental change in their life, they might all perish just as these others did.
His listeners must have been as puzzled as I was when I first read this. Well, if the people that suffered this disaster weren’t any worse sinners than the next guy, but the bad thing happened to them anyway, so why did they need to repent? The next words Jesus speaks begin to make it clear: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
Why was the tree in danger of being cut down? It wasn’t hurting anybody, it was innocent. It didn’t drop branches on his garage. The tree was happy. It made shade, it was aging gracefully, and it probably looked really good for its age. The tree in this parable wasn’t doing anything bad, it was a good-hearted and well-intentioned tree, it wasn’t a “sinner tree.” The tree just wasn’t giving the owner and Creator of the vineyard what he expected from that tree. Our Creator has expectations for us.
Jesus used this parable to urge repentance. Repentance means to re-orient, literally, to change the direction in which you aim your face, change where you look for your happiness. The owner and the tree had different ideas about the purpose of the tree. The patient gardener, trusted by the owner, asks for a little time, just one more growing season. He’ll tend and teach and encourage the tree, and maybe it will give him who created the garden and planted the tree, maybe it will produce what’s been expected of it from the beginning. Perhaps next season it will fulfill the Creator’s purpose for it. “If not, you can cut it down.”
This is a good description of the real purpose of Lent — clarifying our purpose, deciding to live a more purposeful life, and cutting loose of the adhesions holding us back. Welcome to spring training. Lent is the training time of year.
When we think of Lent, we think of Jesus going off into the desert for 40 days without food or water. That’s our vision of Lent. In a symbolic imitation of Christ, we spend 40 days with a little deprivation. We might eat soup, put on pious faces and decide Lent is a good excuse to lose a little weight or permanently give up smoking once again. And make sure others know what we are giving up for Lent.
On Ash Wednesday evening, just a few weeks ago, Rev. Paula Roulette, Pastor of the Lutheran Church here in town, gave the gathered Skaneateles ecumenical community a pointed homily on the scripture readings for the day. I thank Paula Roulette and the people of United Methodist who hosted, and our choir who elevated the worship service, thanks to all for a wonderful opening of the Lenten season. Pastor Roulette reflected on Jesus’ familiarity with the Rabbinic teachings on the importance of true humility versus parading your piety and announcing your charity with trumpets. Rev. Roulette’s reflections helped me understand Lent is an opportunity to be responsive to the Old and New Testament prophets’ calls for repentance. Lent is a chance to practice turning our face in another direction.
Lent is about repentance, not penance. Repentance is different from penance. Penance is inflicting suffering on yourself as if in some way you can buy your way out of a fruitless life. Forget it. Jesus already picked up the check. Our job, our task is to repent. Repentance is recognizing I am either going in the wrong direction or as bad, not moving at all. Repentance is more than just recognizing it, repentance is also wanting to change — and beginning to do something about it. Lent gives us the chance to begin the practice of repentance. It’s not easy to change lifetime habits. Letting go of little things begins our discipline, our self-training to let go of the big things that are holding us back, keeping us from bearing fruit.
What’s the problem? Why can’t we just let go of harmful habits and fruitless activities? What ‘s holding us back? Why don’t we spend more of our days enjoying true happiness? Psalm 1 teaches us, Happy is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord; it is his meditation day and night. Our lives are a long way away from meditating on the law of the Lord. Our lives are full of adhesions, sticky things that keep us doing the same things over and over. We’re stuck repeating old patterns.
We’re familiar with physical adhesions. When a joint is injured, we immobilize it for healing. But our healing isn’t complete until we take physical therapy that rebuilds muscle and breaks the dysfunctional connections our joints and tissue made while immobile. We call these sticky connections “adhesions.” Any one of us has life habit adhesions that hold us back from happiness, that overly occupy us and keep us from living even more fruitful lives. As Bill Porter reminded us last week, our “cozy ruts” are often really prison cells. These adhesions are both mental, emotional, and after a while, physical. Addiction is adhesion writ large.
During Lent we see what we cling to, what worldly thing or habit we’re hanging onto, or what good we’re unwilling to do. We see exactly what it is we need to manage better in our lives and begin to do something about it. That’s a first lesson of Lent. When we struggle or fail at keeping to our resolution, we see just how difficult it is to overcome our frail human nature – by ourselves. That’s a second lesson of Lent. When we pray for God’s help in overcoming the temptations, the adhesions, the addictions that lead us to sin, that may be the most important lesson of Lent.
Judaism, the earlier form of our religion, has several seasonal holy days that somewhat resemble Lent. Yom Kippur is intended to be deeply self-mortifying. The Day of Atonement is notable, among other things, for a total fast during which pious Jews abstain from all food or drink for 24 hours. It’s important to note that fasting is not a punishment or a bribe or a repayment to God atoning for sins. God alone decides who shall live and who shall die, who shall be inscribed in the book of life for another year and who shall not. The fast is designed to heighten your sense of the awesomeness of the day, to acknowledge that God alone extends the gift of Life. Forgiveness has already happened in the Days of Awe, the ten-day period of repentance preceding Yom Kippur.
The Jewish concept of forgiveness gives us the background to understand repentance. There are two kinds of sin; sin against your fellow man, and sin against God. Holding on to resentment or hatred in your heart hurts no-one but you, nonetheless it is a sin against God who wants our hearts right. Repentance is expressed and atonement is achieved through several steps. Step 1— Be aware that what you did was wrong, that you have sinned. Step 2 —be truly repentant in your heart, and be personally grieved, sorry for what you have done and make the decision to never do this again. This is repentance and what the prophets demand. This is the rending of the heart, not your garments demanded by God through the prophet Joel.
If it is a sin against man, there’s Step 3: go to the person you have wronged and make restitution. Restore the balance. Pay what you have defrauded. Compensate for harm done. Not as punishment for yourself, but to restore equity, balance between man and man and balance in the universe. If your sin was also a crime, of course society may require additional punishment. But that is justice being meted out and has little to do with forgiveness. There are two more steps. Step 4 — ask for forgiveness. Whether or not the aggrieved person forgives you is not what matters here. It is your repentant humbling of yourself to ask forgiveness that is important for you. The final step 5 — when the opportunity to again commit this sin presents itself, DON’T take it. This is the sealing of repentance in the Jewish tradition. Your atonement is complete.
Repentance for sin against God is similar with one exception. There is no restitution, no repayment anyone can make to God other than a repentant, rent heart. The one great all-time payment for all, all of mankind’s sins has already been made by Jesus Christ. In his death God himself compensated for sin in full. Jesus’ freely accepting crucifixion and death restored the cosmic balance redeeming all who have ever lived and sinned and all who ever will.
Think of Lent not as punishment or repayment, but as a warm-up. It’s a training in the tools and skills for repentance. Lent is Spring Training for your heart, a mastering of the wants of our human heart, our mortal ego, that get us into trouble and sin. Lent is the season to examine the slo-mo replays of our life, to zero in on the weaknesses in our technique, strengthen our skills. We’re in training. Let’s use the early mornings, the endless drills, the coaching, and relentless practice to repent, to turn our face towards opening day at Easter. Happy and rejoicing that we have turned our faces towards and have drawn closer to our God. God wants for us to be happy. Here’s the good news. There’s still time. Lent has a way to go.
Let us pray.