Lent is a journey into gratitude: it is both a choice to be made and a commitment to be practiced. So if we want this season to fill us with grace – if we seek to “renew a commitment to Christ grown dull by lives marked more by routine than by reflection” – then we must make time for the Lord. (Chittister, p. 111, The Liturgical Year)
Specifically, we must take time to trust the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Because you see, trusting God takes practice; it is not automatic but requires some rehearsal. Especially in a culture like our own where spontaneity is celebrated and making it all by ourselves through personal initiative have become the hallmarks of successful living. Even jazz artists like Wynton Marsalis note that all good improvisation is born of serious and vigorous practice.
So listen to this – it is so sobering: there seems to be a consensus developing among palliative care nurses who attend to those in the last 12 weeks of life. When they ask their patients, “If you had it to do over again, what would be different?” five common regrets emerge:
First, I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me. Second, I wish I had not worked so hard. Third, I wish I’d had the courage to express my true feelings. Fourth, I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends. And fifth, I wish I’d let myself experience more happiness.
Now I don’t know about you, but what I hear being articulated in this chorus of regrets is heart breaking: it tells me that countless people feel they’ve wasted too much of their lives on things that don’t really matter. No wonder St. Paul told those early believers in Rome who wanted to live in the way of Christ that they “must not be conformed to the ways of the world – squeezed into a mold of social conformity – but rather be transformed by the renewing of you mind into a living sacrifice for the Lord.” (Romans 12) Let your heart, soul, mind and body practice the habits of gratitude and love and you will learn to trust the Lord God in all things.
So let’s talk a little bit about trust – and taking the time to playfully practice it. And I want to do this by asking our youngest people a few questions because I think you can help us all, ok?
· First, do you know anything about making a promise? What kind of promises do you make in your life?
· Anyone play sports – what kind of promises do you make here? Do you make promises in your family – like what? Anybody involved in scouting? Are their promises you make to be a good scout?
The first story in the Bible today talks about God’s promises and learning to trust them – but it is a weird story. The two main characters are Abram and Sarai – they are both close to 100 years old – and God has promised that they will have a baby but it hasn’t happened yet. So both of them are getting worried that maybe God isn’t going to keep this promise – and that’s frightening to them because they left their old home for a new country and everything on the way to their home seems upsetting.
· So God tells Abram to go outside and look at the stars – have you ever done that?
· Have you ever tried to count all the stars in the night sky? Impossible, right?
And that’s the first way God asks Abram and Sarai to practice trusting in the Lord’s promises: look at the stars – I will give you more children than all of these stars – and today we are the evidence! Did you know that? We are part of the proof that God’s promises can be trusted because our Christian faith comes from Jesus – who was a distant relative of Abram and Sarai – and there are millions of Christians and Jews all over the world.
Do you know anybody that goes to another church in town? What’s the name of that church?
· How about somebody that goes to a synagogue: do you know the name of that house of worship?
· Can you see the map we’re using during Lent? Do you know the names of some countries where there are Christians and Jews?
Sometimes it is hard to practice trusting God’s promises all by ourselves so we need to look for some clues and evidence – we need some help – and the first truth for today is that the stars in the heavens and each and all of you are part of the proof. You are signs that God keeps God’s promises – and as a reminder, would you put a star sticker on your hand?
The second way God helps us practice trusting the Lord’s promises is through our ceremonies and times of worship. In today’s story about Abram and Sarai when Abram was still worried, God created a ritual to help show just how serious the Lord was about keeping this sacred promise.
· Have you and a friend ever said something like, “Cross my heart and hope to die?” Those are serious words, aren’t they?
· So why do people say them?
Sometimes we use serious words and actions to make the point that we really mean what we say – and that’s what God did to show Abram that the Lord could be trusted. Now I know it sounds rather strange and maybe even a little creepy to us, but do you remember what took place in the ceremony God asked Abram to perform in our reading? Abram had to take some animals – a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtle dove and a pigeon – and what did Abram have to do with them? He had to slaughter them, cut them in half and put one side of their body over here and the other side of their body over there and wait.
· Now why in the world would God ask his friend Abram to do something like that? Well, back in the day it seems that people who lived out in the desert would sometimes make a deal and seal it with a similar kind of ceremony – something that was a little frightening – and very serious.
· And once they had cut the sacrificial animal in two – and put part of it here and the other over there – they would walk in-between the bodies. And when they both got to the middle they would something like, “If I break my promise to you, may something like this happen to me.”
Back in those times this was called “cutting a covenant” – later that become “cutting a deal” that we say today – because this ceremony was another way God showed Abram just how serious God was about the promises. And it is important to note that only God walked between the sacrifices – Abram was asleep or having a vision and didn’t walk through the middle – it was God alone who brought all the commitment to the ceremony.
· Are you still with me? A pretty wild ceremony, yes? Very, very serious, too – but we still have serious ceremonies today that help us remember God’s promises, don’t we?
· Can you name some? Ash Wednesday – Maundy Thursday – Good Friday - funerals… there is always a serious part to a wedding ceremony, right? And even baptisms and Sunday morning Holy Communion have serious parts to them.
So religious rituals and ceremonies can be another way to help us take time to practice trusting God and loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – and what are some of the practices we do every week in worship that help us rehearse God’s promises? Can you name some of the parts of our worship celebration that we do every week?
· We sing hymns – old and new – and what messages are in these hymns?
· We say prayers: and what type of prayers do we say?
We greet one another with Christ’s peace… we say the Lord’s Prayer in unison… we read scripture… have a conversation about the meaning of the Bible for our time… the choir sings as we take up an offering… and all of these things have meanings beyond just doing them.
One of the practices we share every week includes reading the gospel – part of the story of the life of Jesus – and why is that important and valuable? It has something to do with what Jesus shows us about God’s nature and love; it has something to do with practicing trusting the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. You see, as Christians we believe that Jesus shows us as much of God’s love as we can possible comprehend. So if we want to trust the Lord, we believe we need to spend more time with Christ.
Take today’s gospel as an example where Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem and tells us that time and again God wants to come to us like a mother hen aching to protect her babies but we push the Lord away. It is God’s nature to care for us and protect us but because most of the time we’re too busy or distracted to receive this love Jesus winds up weeping for us like the Lord. Isn’t that a fascinating insight? That when we push God away, the Lord weeps? Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote:
If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Christ’s lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world – wings spread, breast exposed – but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.
Jesus could have chosen any other animal in the Bible to help us think about the Lord – the mighty eagle of the Exodus or the proud lion of Judah - but he spoke of a mother hen who brings a deep mercy and a fierce loyalty mixed with her vulnerability. “And that is so typical of Jesus… he is always turning things upside down…”
… so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to the losers and paying the last first. No wonder he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get, that way our options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks. Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. He will be a mother hen – like the Lord – who stand between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
And so we read the gospel every week to help us grasp the depth of God’s love.
· We gather every week in community to take some time from the busyness to practice loving the Lord. We give a portion of our day to the Lord in ceremony and story, in silence and the breaking of bread so that we might know the Lord’s love – and then make it flesh in our own time.
· We meet to experience, practice and rehearse God’s mercy – to be nourished by God’s grace from the inside out – and let it change us. But like that momma hen, it is always an invitation – a promise – and we have to receive it and make time for the Lord lest we discover that all we have at the end is bitter regrets…
This is the second Sunday of Lent – 10 days into the journey towards the Cross – take a moment in the quiet of this place to see if you are using it well...