The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Please pray with me. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.
Today, we begin our journey in Lent, that 40-day period where we journey with Jesus in the wilderness, making our way to Jerusalem. In this season of Lent, we are called to remember and to repent. It’s a season of self-reflection and prayer and fasting and meditating on God’s Holy word. Everything about this season is for us to—with open eyes and an open heart—be honest with a clear-eyed view of where we’ve been and where God calls us to be. Walter Brueggemann says that “Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.” I think he particularly had Lent in mind. As we look at the scriptures and the hymnody and the prayers of this day, it calls us and points us toward how to keep and observe a Holy Lent.
Looking at that passage from Joel, we get a rather noisy wake-up call and prophesying of the day of the Lord in gloom and darkness. But the whole thing pivots on one small word: yet. Yet.
Yet even now return to the Lord with all your heart, rend your heart and not your garments, for our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
That same theme is picked up in the 103rd Psalm—about the faithfulness and the steadfastness of God’s love for you and for me. Part of the message of this season is that God never ceases to call us back; to call us to return; to rend our hearts. It’s important to remember that when Scripture speaks of returning, it’s from the Hebrew word, shub—meaning make a 180-degree turn—leaving behind that which separates us from God and one another and turning in a different direction, following the way of Jesus. When Scripture in ancient times speaks of the heart, it was believed that the heart was the center of our will and our intellect. When the prophet Joel speaks of rending our heart, he’s saying, tear it wide open to the love and the mercy and forgiveness of our God. Don’t just do it superficially, like rending our clothing. No, go deep—deep down deep. Open your hearts to a different way, a different way of being that reconciles us with God and with one another.
We don’t have to look very hard to see the ways in which we have strayed, the ways in which we have fallen short, and dare I say it, the way we have sinned. I know, speaking of hearts, that many of us this day are heartbroken with what we see going on in Ukraine: an innocent people, a sovereign nation under unprovoked assault. Yet even in the midst of the horrors that we see unfolding there, we see signs of hope. Think of ordinary citizens gathering on the borders in Poland and Romania, welcoming the refugees, the “strangers,” if you will: lifting up the light and mercy of a steadfast and loving God. Look at the people of Ukraine themselves, who, despite having their buildings and their lives bombed and shattered, stand tall, courageous. You can break our buildings, but you cannot break our spirits. Then there’s the global community coming together to stand with them and for them. So often the visual is what stays with us so deeply. Many of you probably saw another extraordinary vision of hope and resilience in the midst of darkness, in the form of that young boy in Kharkiv—as the troops were coming—who was filmed by a Washington reporter alone in a hotel lobby at a piano playing Philip Glass’s “Walk to School.” It’s a haunting piece, but for me it was a vision of resistance and resilience.
We don’t have to go to Ukraine to see where we have so much work to do as individuals and community in this country. We are in the third year of our pandemic, and we’ll soon mark the unimaginable one million lives lost in the United States alone. We’ve seen in the pandemic the systemic racism—that pandemic continuing to rear its ugly head. There’s the climate crisis. There are so many things that require each one of us to return and to pick up our cross and to follow Jesus. Sometimes it seems so much that we don’t even know where to begin. I think part of the danger in that is that we can get numb, or worse, complacent.
From this very pulpit over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny . . . whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” To build the Beloved Community that was intended from the very beginning, all of us have to feel these effects and to act. How do we do that? Well, Lent gives us a season to reset, to remember, to repent and to once again, renew our commitment to be followers of Christ who showed us the way. This cathedral will journey with you, offering some spiritual resources. You can sign up online for our daily morning prayer services. Once again, the clergy are writing daily Lenten meditations journeying through the Gospel of Mark. Discover ways to come together to worship, reflect, to look at God’s Holy word and our place in it. In addition, we have courses that are offered under the heading of Take on Lent, all of which are on our website.
I think sometimes we just need to see how God is in our midst, so I want to lift up two visual images for you to take on your Lenten journey that have meaning to me and I hope they will have some meaning for you. The first is an image that challenges me, in a good way. Some years ago, my husband John and I were traveling in Europe and we stopped in a city called Colmar, France, which is known as a little Venice. It’s a beautiful little town. We had one hour of free time and our tour guide said, “It’s a great place to shop.” Which is great, if you’re a shopper. I am not. Then, almost as an afterthought, she said, “Oh, and there’s a museum that has a famous altarpiece.” Well, that’s where I went and I made a beeline for this unnamed famous altarpiece, which thanks to my friends with the cameras have pulled up for you to see. It’s the Isenheim Altarpiece created by Matthias Grünewald. You see Christ on the cross in agony. On one side of the cross are gathered Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, his beloved disciple. On the other side, and this is the piece that challenges me in a good way, we see John the Baptist pointing to Christ with a bony finger and written in Latin is John the Baptist saying, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Christ must increase and I must decrease. Part of the discipline of fasting and meditating on God’s Holy word and rending our hearts, is to make space, to open up, to fill us more deeply and completely with Christ whose love surpasses all understanding: the one who helped show us the way.
The second image I offer for you is one that has come to mean so much to me, particularly in those times when I need less challenge and more comfort. It’s a reminder that Christ promised us to never leave us or forsake us, to be with us always. In those times when I feel broken or brokenhearted and don’t know what way to go, you’ll see on your screen, the image of the altar piece in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the Cathedral. Jesus is depicted holding a lamb up tight to his chest and to that heart that loves us more than we can possibly ask or imagine: a reminder that on our journey, no matter what, Jesus is with us to guide us, direct us, comfort us, challenge us, and to point the way.
In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans put it this way: “We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave us. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.” The truth of that, the embodiment of that changed the course of human history. If we will but embrace it and embody it, it will change us, too. Henri Nouwen said that “The miracle of the Incarnation is not only that Christ came, lived, died and rose among us, but Christ continues to come to live, to die and to rise in our midst.”
In these challenging times and in our journey to Jerusalem, hold fast to the truth that we witness as Christians, that God loved us enough to take on flesh and dwell among us so that our lives would never be the same. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.