The Desert Inside Us--A Sermon Preached at Christ Church Cathedral and The Church of St. Michael and St. George by The Reverend Canon John W. Kilgore, M.D. on 18 February 2015, Ash Wednesday
In a few moments you will be invited to the observance of holy Lent, ‘by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’ And you will, if you desire, have ashes imposed on your forehead. Ashes from palm fronds of last Palm Sunday, burned. The molecules of living things on this earth. Perhaps of ones you knew here, or your forbears. And in the future perhaps molecules of you will be imposed on someone else’s forehead. Lent, and the ashes, remind us of our transient nature and of our place in God’s universe. And the ashes go on the foreheads of all - wealthy and destitute, educated and ignorant, compassionate and cruel. All of us, without distinction. So how do we live into this holy season? What are we to ‘give up’ or ‘take on’?
There are three lines in our readings today that seem to inform us, our lives of faith, at tis juncture. ‘Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,’ from Matthew’s gospel. ‘He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness,’ from the Psalm. And ‘Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near — a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!’ from the prophet Joel.
Our lives seem pretty good. But there is a lot of evil stuff going on in the world right now. ISIS is out there and has declared Christianity as one of their major targets. They seem to be attacking a major European capital every week. They have declared the fall of Christian Rome by the end of the year. And are very likely in America in full force soon. A fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel?
Maybe. But there has always been evil in the world. There have always been times of difficulty, of tension. We, in our life times, and especially here in America, have lived in a time of particular, peculiar, and privileged security. Almost everyone has enough to eat, while half the world goes to bed hungry every night. Our cities are secure, we don’t have rockets and IPG’s and suicide bombings going off every day in every market places and villages. And life expectancy is incredibly high. Until AIDS, almost all infectious disease were wiped out — smallpox, polio, TB. And the transient ones that killed, diphtheria, strep throat, meningitis, Neisseria, and others were treatable with antibiotics, discovered in the 20th century. We are privileged. We are fortunate. But it may not always be that way. Perhaps we have been lulled into a false sense of security. America is so much better than almost every other place in the world. By our world standards.
But do we know our need for God? Do we realize our transitory nature? And how are we to explore that during Lent, our appointed religious season for such exercise? Most of us will say, ‘Give something up!’ And that has been the traditional wisdom. Indeed I was with someone just a couple of days ago who said, ‘what is that old stuff about giving up for Lent? Aren’t we supposed to take something on? Giving up seems so wrong!’ Lent is not about giving up, or taking on. Lent is about knowing our need for God. About remembering that indeed ‘days of darkness and gloom…clouds and thick darkness’ are part of our earthly experience. While we might be lulled into a sense of false security, especially here in America, that is not guaranteed. Travail may come. And Lent is also about remembering that ‘we are dust and to dust we shall return…’ But the Psalm reminds us, ‘He redeems our life from the grave and crowns us with mercy and loving-kindness.’ But only if we know God. Which is why that first line is important. ‘Whenever you pray, go into your room, and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.’ If we don’t know God, we don’t know God’s salvation.
Which is why Lent is so important. Lent symbolizes Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness when he fasted and the angels tended to him. It reminds us of the forty years in the desert of the Israelites. And it is our yearly time to stop, slow down, consider our relationship with God, and work to improve it. It is not about giving up or taking on, but rather, about a time to get to know God better and to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation and what Jesus did on the Cross for our salvation.
Brother Ronald Rolheiser writes, ‘Lent invites us to stop eating, so to speak, whatever protects us from having to face the desert that is inside of us. It invites us to feel our smallness, to feel our vulnerability, to feel our fears, and to open ourselves to the chaos of the desert so that we can finally give the angels a chance to feed us.’
So how do we do that? What do we do? It depends on you and on what you discern in prayer to be your Lenten discipline. Last week I gave a couple of tips for finding ways to pray in small snatches throughout the day. Perhaps that is your Lenten path this year. Certainly that is about knowing God better. Possibly Lent is indeed giving something up: tobacco, or alcohol, or chocolate, or meat, or lunch. But any giving up is to be combined with prayer, and with giving. As I was instructed years ago by a great priest and mentor, fasting is always accompanied by prayer! When I learned that, fasting became a very different experience for me. That little prayer when hunger pains strike, ‘Lord, fill up my emptiness with your presence’ (praying in little snatches through the day!) is an amazing salve to hunger pains, and a true spiritual lift. And giving up, likewise should be accompanied by giving. if you fast a meal, perhaps that money should go to feed someone hungrier than you. Last year I endeavored to, everyday in Lent, call a friend that I had not been in touch with in some time. It was wonderful and uplifting out of the blue to talk and catch up. It was uplifting to me and to them. I gave up some of my time to others. But I was the one fed. I have to confess that I missed a lot of days. And endeavor to do it again this year, more consistently, and to combine prayer for those I am calling, after I learn their life situations.
I don’t know what your Lenten discipline might be this year. But I urge you to adopt one that is a combination of giving up and taking on. But more importantly, to make Lent a time of knowing God better in prayer. Go into your room and shut the door and pray to our Father in secret. These admonitions and disciplines in Lent are only tools to shift our focus from our earthly lives to our relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A day of darkness and gloom may indeed be coming, but He, Jesus the Christ, redeems our life from the grave. That is the message of Easter, but it is difficult to see if we haven’t been in the desert of Lent. I wish you a blessed Lent.