A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 26, 2012
Traditionally, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, often called “Fat Tuesday,” which occurred this past week, has been a day of feasting, over-indulgence, and universal gluttony. Maybe not so much here in Oak Ridge, but in some places of the world Fat Tuesday is a day of merry-making on which carnival people dress in elaborate costumes and make fun. The American form of this merry-making with which we are all familiar is the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And one reason for such merry-making is many Christians have taken advantage of the day before Ash Wednesday as a time to enjoy all those rich, decadent foods and accompanying revelry before beginning the six-week period of self discipline known as “Lent.” The season of Lent has a long and constant history and has been an important practice in the Christian Church, being observed even earlier than the season of Advent and celebration of Christmas.
The word “Lent” actually comes from an old English word “lencten,” which means “lengthen,” a time of the year when the days begin to lengthen again. But spiritually speaking, traditionally Lent has been a 40-day period of penitence, soul-searching and spiritual renewal prior to Easter. The 40 days of Lent commemorate the 40-day fast of Jesus in the wilderness, as spoken of in this morning’s gospel reading. There is, no doubt, a link between Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness and the 40 years the Hebrews are said to have wandered in the wilderness, and the 40 days Moses was upon Mt. Sinai receiving the Law.
Jesus’ wilderness experience is said to have been a time of temptation and testing prior to beginning his ministry. Jesus’ ministry began in a struggle, it is said. Testing sometimes can be a good thing—like the one who is tested before being admitted to the bar, being tested before being given that medical degree, being tested before entering graduate school, and so forth. Testing almost always makes us stronger and better able to face future trials that lie in store for us. Some people have the naïve notion that once you become a Christian, or because you claim to be religious, your testing is over. We all know that nothing is further from the truth.
And so, in remembrance of Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness, Lent traditionally has been a time for engaging in a number of spiritual disciplines. Such as fasting as Jesus fasted. Simply put, to fast is to go without solid food for a certain period of time as a form of spiritual discipline. Those who practice fasting after the manner of Jesus do so believing that fasting helps one think better, teaches self discipline, underscores one’s dependence upon God, and sensitizes one’s compassion for others who are less fortunate.1 Fasting as a form of self-sacrifice has been looked upon as cleansing of the human body. Even followers of world religions other than Christianity practice fasting as a form of self-discipline.
Akin to fasting is giving up something else for Lent. A question that is commonly heard in some churches (particularly Catholic or Episcopalian) this time of the year is “What are you giving up for Lent?” It is a given, it is understood that you are giving up something for Lent. Giving up something during the season of Lent as a form of spiritual discipline is a custom that goes way back. As the faithful have remembered all that Jesus is said to have given up—during his wilderness experience and during his short life—they have been moved to give up something as well. Jesus gave up wealth and property, political power and popularity, and the comforts of home and family, in order to do what he felt he was destined to do. Some of the things that are commonly given up for Lent today include meat (other than fish), chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and sweets of any kind. (I would have a real problem with at least two of those—chocolate and sweets of any kind, in case you were wondering.)
Some people make use of Lent as a time to give up or rid themselves of what they feel to be “bad habits.” Swearing, watching too much television, playing video games, and so on. Such giving up is commendable. But the benefits often are limited, generally speaking, to the person who does it. Wouldn’t it be good if we could give up something for Lent that would benefit others as well as ourselves? For instance, how about we all determine to give up, as Dale Carnegie suggests in one of his classes, the three negative Cs—complaining, condemning, and criticizing? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us could give up complaining, condemning and criticizing, if only for six weeks? While we are at it, how about we give up gossip, bitterness, a grudge we have against someone, or prejudice against those who are not like us?
In a recent issue of the Christian Century, Lauren Winner writes that this year for Lent she is going to try to give up anxiety and worry. She confesses that she is a chronic worrier. She worries that she is going to get the avian flu, that her identity will be stolen, that she has forgotten some crucial appointment and there is a room full of people waiting on her, that she has lost her driver’s license while driving to the airport, that she forgot to turn the stove burner off before leaving the house, and so on. She writes, “For as long as I can remember, anxiety has been my close companion. . . . This year I’m giving up anxiety.”2 Giving up worry for Lent is not a bad idea either.
Giving up something for Lent need not be negative in connotation; it can have positive connotations as well. An alternative option for us during Lent is to fasten onto something good, such as a devotional study or book club. We began a new Lenten devotional series this past Wednesday night, using William Sloane Coffin’s book, Credo. No previous experience is required. Others may feel the need to fasten onto a set time of meditation or spiritual reflection, or devoting more time to communing with God through nature or even journal keeping or poetry writing.
And then, if we are not inclined to fast and give up some food or drink, we could consider giving up some additional time to the service of others. Opportunities to volunteer an hour or two each month here at our church are ample. For those who might prefer giving a few hours to the wider community, they can plug into any number of charitable organizations that our congregation supports—food pantries, ADFAC, Habitat for Humanity, the Ecumenical Storehouse, NHC, Methodist Medical Center, just to name a few possibilities.
Giving of oneself for the service of others reminds me of a cute story related by a volunteer at Stanford Hospital. A little girl named Liz was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Liz’s only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year-old brother, who had miraculously survived the same illness. The doctor explained the situation to Liz’s little brother and he asked him if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. The little brother hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save Liz.” As the transfusion progressed, Brother lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as all present did, when the color began to return to Liz’s cheeks. Then Brother’s face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked in a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?” You see, the boy had not understood the complicated process; he thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood, which would lead to his own death. But it was a sacrifice he was willing to make. Well, we are not expected to give blood during Lent. Although, when you stop to think about it, donating a pint of blood through the American Red Cross might not be a bad Lenten gesture either.
Well, for those of us who lean toward progressive or liberal Christianity, as we do here at this United Church, Lent can still hold meaning for us. For Lent is about self-improvement, making positive changes in our lives, making a positive difference in the world and the lives of others, and working toward the new life that Easter celebrates. The good news is positive change is possible for all of us. And we can all do something to make a positive difference in the world and in the lives of others. And in that regard, the many facets of Lent can serve to call out the best in us, if we are willing to let it be so. Amen.
1adapted from Huston Smith.
2Christian Century, Feb. 8, 2012.