No you won’t find it in the Bible. I’ve looked and it’s not there. Nonetheless, here we are in the second week of Lent–that season that is not in the Bible. All through this week, I have enjoyed standing near the high altar and listening to the various explanations about why the cross and Jesus are covered up by the veils and thorns. But the bottom line is, Lent is not in the Bible. Which raises the question, “What are we doing here, anyway?”
The answer is found in the ancient Latin introit for this second Sunday of Lent: “Call to remembrance thy tender compassion and mercy, O Lord,” or in Latin, reminiscere. This season is about–remembering. Remembering what we are called to do; remembering who we are; remembering whose we are. So the stories we tell in church during this season speak to remembering. They tell of our forbears and their journeys or pilgrimages of faith. They tell of Jesus and his inevitable journey and death in Jerusalem. They tell how the early church came to terms with the meaning of the cross and resurrection.
Because these memories are also about God’s interaction with us, Lent is our time to come to terms with awesome fact, that God yearns for us and longs for us and will not let us go. Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, eloquently sums it up this way: “God has fallen in love with you, and wants you to come home.” No matter who you are and what you have done, where you have been and where you are going, God is in love with you and is waiting to welcome you home! Today’s stories are of the journey, the cross and the resurrection. They remind us again and again that God is saying to us: “Trust me, I love you! Trust me.”
Because it is easy to forget who we are, the first story addresses our lack of memory. It is the story of Abram and his calling. But first, a word about memory. Memory is not nostalgia, rather memory is recollection. Frederick Buechner, author and pastor, describes it this way. Nostalgia “makes an excursion from the living present back to the dead past;” a past that really never was. It’s the kind of conversation one usually hears at funerals. It’s the lies and stories we tell each other about a really unpleasant person. Nostalgia finds its way into the nice things we say. Tragic really. It never really was that way and we know it.
Buechner then describes recollection this way: “It is to summon the dead past back into the living present. This happens when a young widow remembers her husband in the cool of the evening or at sunset, and he is there beside her.”
When we lose our memory, we are lost and cannot find our way home. The story of Abram reminds us that who we are: heirs of Abram. No less than this patriarch of faith, we are called to walk by faith. We are called to trust when we do not have all the answers. Stay engaged without the solutions. Maintain the vision when we have not the proofs. We do this because we believe that God loves us and we do not really know why. Paddy Cheyevsky’s play “Gideon” describes our situation well in this dialogue between Gideon, chosen to lead his people, and God.
|Gideon:||I thought of you the whole night. I am possessed by the lunacy of love. O, just say it again, you love me, God.|
|God:||I do, Gideon.|
|Gideon:||I do not know why. I must say it, I do not know why!|
|God:||I hardly know why myself, but then passion is an unreasonable thing.|
Abram’s passion for God and God’s promise; God’s passion for Abram and the dream of fulfillment and completion are promises not easily imagined. Even in his advancing years, Abram was still without an heir. But there God was, promising that his descendants would outnumber the stars of the heavens. Imagine his incredulity! Yet, here we are today heirs of Abram our spiritual father. Remember relationship with God is one of trust, obedience, acceptance.
The next story highlights the temptation to surrender our nerve. Jesus is given a warning. Herod is after him. It’s a prime moment for him to bolt. The temptation to play it safe and play it cool. The biblical story is pretty consistent in its analysis. Life in faith is opposed to playing it safe, playing it cool. It is as simple as the fact that God calls us to love. God calls us to exceed our grasp by moving us toward a moral perfection or completion that is greater than our imagination. God calls us to action first and reflection second!
The hymn “Amazing Grace” by John Newton tells it best, both for him and for me. It was the song of my conversion. The story goes that Newton was a slave trader. He had grown attracted to Christianity, and one day, while reading a sermon of Anglican priest, John Wesley–founder of Methodism–he suddenly saw what evil he was doing. So shocking was his revelation that he ordered his ship to turn around mid-ocean, and returning to Africa, released his human cargo. Of this moment he would write:
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”
Action first, reflection second. Jesus warns his followers that the door is narrow, but we must be willing to go through it. Loss of nerve leads to a substitute for religion. Loss of nerve looks like lethargy, triviality and sincerity. Nothing more! Compare this way of being to the holy and mighty, transcendent God of history who, without nerve, is reduced to a mere feeling or set of feelings. Lent calls us out our lethargy with enormous consequences. Going home to God is not for the weak of heart. But going home never is!
The epistle today describes another temptation reminding us what happens when we lack faith. Crosses do get in the way. The cross shatters our illusion of control. Death challenges our grasp on life. Lent talks a lot about death and loss of control and the adversity arising out of them. Coming home to God means that something will have to go. Something has to die, even if it is no more than our tight grip on things.
The film “It’s my Life” deals with a couple who simultaneously learn that the wife is pregnant and the husband has terminal cancer. In one scene, the husband (portrayed by Michael Keaton) decides to face his fear of roller-coasters by taking a ride. He sits in the lead car, front seat, next to a twelve-year-old boy. As the man’s knuckles turn white from grabbing the bar, even before he starts, the boy says, “First time, huh?” When the car almost reaches the peak of the climb, the boy says, “Its more fun if you let go.” As the car careens downward, the boy joyously reaches upward, the man holds on, even tighter. At the end of the ride, the boy jumps out, turns to his seatmate, still white with terror, and says, “You can let go now.”
When it comes time for him to die, the screen is filled with bright flashes of brilliant blinding light. Then we see the man seated in a roller-coaster car at the peak of the climb. He joyously lets go and throws his arms heavenward! Yes, while there is death and life, tragedy and comedy, horror and beauty, it is still okay to let go, and let God. Even Jesus had to go there, and by doing so, made it possible for the rest of us to follow.
Lent is that time to confess our lack of memory, our lack of nerve and our lack of faith. But we do it knowing, always and forever, that God has fallen in love with you . . . with us–each and every one of us–and still wants us to come home! God says, “I love you. Trust me!”
Amen. And Amen!