Grace in the Time of Lent

3/4/12
Mark 8:31-38

Lent is the liturgical season in which you and I sort out our fallibilities and think about the constancy of God’s grace. We each have our own way of doing that. My college roommate, who is a priest at Madonna House in Canada, has a severe attitude towards reconciling man’s sinfulness with God’s sacrificial grace. His religious community is serious about being in the world, but not of it. I envy those who are able to follow the old, time -honored traditions of meditation, examination and confession.

At the other extreme are those who accentuate the positive to such a degree that they are practically Manichean. For example, the former organist at St. John’s in Stamford told the following story. His friend, Bob, was the organist at very large church. This mega church was built by Pastor Smith, a dynamic individual. The Rev. Smith was on TV on Sunday mornings with a wonderful program. Bob played glorious music. The problem was that Bob was bald and the cameras picked up the glow from Bob’s pate. So Mrs. Smith asked Bob to get a hairpiece, which Bob did. However, the Sunday programs were spliced from various tapings of other services. Hence Bob had hair at one point on Sunday morning and the next instant he was bald. The next instant his hair was back.

One day during Lent Mrs. Smith criticized Bob for playing music that was somber. Mrs. Smith wanted something bouncy. Bob protested that it was Lent. Bouncy was not what one expected. Mrs. Smith replied, “Why Bob. Don’t you know what the letters LENT stand for?” “No,” Bob replied. “Why they stand for Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking!” Somehow in all of that there seemed to be a conflict between appearance and reality.

Another example of this tendency to not want to face our corruptible state is illustrated by the following story. In 1955 I was working at a Methodist conference center in Arkansas. The leaders of the Methodist Church Women were gathered there. One evening, one of the leaders turned to me and said, “Don’t you think that people are just naturally good?” “No,” I replied. “Why, how can you want to be a minister if you don’t think people are naturally good?” “Perhaps it is because I read the Bible,” I replied. From then on I was persona non grata among those women. The desire to see ourselves as “just naturally good” and to miss the complexity of our inner lives is a desire for a Zen like composure and calmness.

The Bible is the saga of God pursuing man. Over and over God calls man back again and again to worship Him, to learn from Him and to seek to live in accordance with His commandments and will. God acts in a linear history, not cyclical, as He manifests the constancy of his grace and love for mankind. The patriarchs, the kings, the exiles, the prophets, and the sacrifice of the paschal lamb are part of a history that leads to the sacrificial atonement on the part of God through his Son. Our journey, mankind’s journey, is a pilgrimage as you and I are attracted to that which is mysterious and holy: the mysterium tremendum of God’s presence and the Holy Other of his revelation in Christ Jesus and the sacraments. Yes, throughout history there has been judgment by God of man’s disobedience, and at the same time the history of God’s parental love of mankind is one of a constancy of His grace. During Lent it is appropriate to think about the constancy of God’s grace. That constancy is part of the life and mission of the Church, His church and our church.

Now, I want to tell you a true story. Some time ago I was standing in line at a cafeteria. A man broke out of the line ahead of me and came up and stood right smack in front of me. “Do you remember me?” he asked. I looked at him closely. He was nicely dressed in a suit and tie. I didn’t have a clue who he was. “No, I don’t.” I replied. “Look closely.” “No, I don’t recognize you. Perhaps you have me mistaken for another priest.” “No. It was you.” “You mean at that church over there?” “Yes. It was you. Some time ago I was in a bad way, and I came to you and you helped me out. In fact I saw you ten times and you helped me. I lost my wife, my house, my car, everything and YOU DIDN’T GIVE UP ON ME. Finally my life got turned around. I now have a good job and am back on track.” He handed me his business card and I recognized his name. “Yes, I remember you now.” We had talked from time to time and occasionally I slipped him a grubstake. What I vividly remembered was that every time I saw him he was totally blitzed. “Are you in the program?” I asked. “Yes.” He replied. I used to go everyday. Now I’m down to three days a week.” (We were talking about A.A.) “Don’t let up,” I said. “Oh, no, I won’t.” “Thank you for telling me.” He offered to buy me lunch, but I declined and settled on a couple of meatballs.

Now I’m telling this story not to aggrandize myself, but rather because I was so struck by the phrase, “YOU DIDN’T GIVE UP ON ME.” That afternoon I keep reflecting on that phrase, “You didn’t give up on me.” Isn’t that what we all yearn for from our parents - that they will always be in our corner? Isn’t that what we all want our kids to say about us – that regardless of how far they stray they are still our children and we will not give up on them? Isn’t that the marriage vow? “For better, for worse, for richer for poorer.” The tragedy in broken marriages is that the spouses give up on each other, and often give up on themselves. Do we not have in our experience a teacher who made a difference in our lives because he or she didn’t give up on us?

As I read today’s Gospel passage, I kept thinking that the message of the Gospel is that God does not give up on us. Regardless of how you interpret the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall – it underlines that there is a propensity in man to stray, to be self-centered and to pursue false idols. Time and again God calls His people to obedience and to a close relationship to Him. Time and again they stray, tempted by the world and by Satan. But God brings them out of Egypt and back from Babylon. Time and again the prophets proclaim the failure of the people to do justice and to walk humbly with their God. Time and again there is punishment and redemption. Throughout the Old Testament there is the dominant theme of the constancy of God’s grace.

When Jesus tells His followers that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, killed and rise again, they do not want to hear it. Peter objects. Jesus rebukes him. Jesus stands the religious expectations of His time on their collective heads. He rejects a military messiah, or the messiahship of a popular prophet. Rather Jesus draws upon the tradition of the messianic suffering servant of Isaiah and the tradition of the sacrificial Paschal Lamb of Exodus and Passover. In addition He incorporates the tradition of the apocalyptic Son of Man from Daniel and I Enoch. By using these three traditions, Jesus says that God does not giving up on mankind, on you and me. It is through suffering, atonement and through transcendent participation in our lives that God enters fully into our lives: living, breathing, laughing, crying, suffering, dying and then revealing the promise of eternal life. He is fully with us. The message of The Passion, Good Friday and Easter, to which this passage in Mark points, is that God in Christ Jesus does not give up on us.

Jesus’ challenge to His disciples, and to you and me, is not to give up on Him. To take up our crosses is to bear our burdens for Christ’s sake, not for our own gratification. It is to live a life where priorities are aligned, where there is self-denial and where we lose our selves in faithful commitment and service to Christ. Like an artist, or teacher or healer, you and I are find our lives by losing them - in this case by losing them in a closer relationship to Christ, by living in the constancy of God’s grace.

When the man identified me as the priest who did not give up on him, I could not help but think, “But that is the call of the Church – to not give up on people. That is why St. Andrew’s is here in the middle of the city. It is not to give handouts, but to proclaim the Gospel message of repentance and forgiveness. Our message is (as Andrew Greeley has pointed out) that in Jesus Christ you and I are offered a second chance, and even a second chance on a second chance. In the midst of the secular city our message is not one of retreat or simplistic optimism. It is one of hope and life. Life is more than the benefits of the world; it is to have a real life, a soul that is at peace with God.

My friend in the restaurant did not have to be told about bearing his cross. He bears his cross every day and night. So too do many of you. Mental illness in your own life or in that of another, physical illness, disappointments, setbacks, deaths, losses, crushing responsibilities - these are some of the crosses which many of you bear as you come to this altar each Sunday. You are to be commended in the bearing of your crosses, and you are to be encouraged that Christ Jesus bears your cross with you. He does not give up on you.

This Lent review where Satan beckons. Be blunt. Look where there isn’t appropriate sacrifice, discipline and charity. Review where you want to give up on others, or even on yourself. Offer that realization up to God as a sacrifice. Ask for His presence in redemptive solutions. Hear the assurance of the constancy of God’s grace in the words of The Great Thanksgiving. Know that in the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ, in the raising up of the bread and wine, the body and blood that you are assured that Christ will not give up on you.

Then, go out into the secular world empowered to proclaim the Good News of the God’s grace. Be empowered patiently and faithfully not to give up on those whose souls are restless until they find their rest in God (to paraphrase St. Augustine). Help the needy to receive the blessed assurance that Christ has not given up on them. Be not ashamed of Christ’s “words in this adulterous and sinful generation.” Rather, help others to say with you and with St. Paul that, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(I Cor. 8:39). In short, don’t give up. – Amen.