Benediction Online

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sermon for: Lent I B_RCL _ March 1, 2009 
St. Benedict’s, Los Osos 
(The Rev) Brian McHugh +

It is Lent again. A colleague of mine recently wrote , "During Lent this year the Hebrew scriptures take us week by week through covenants in our holy history. This Sunday the church offers us consideration of the rainbow-sign of the covenant with Noah. It is worth taking time with patristic and medieval typologies of the Ark itself: the Church is the Ark. Lent is the Ark. Wisdom is the Ark. Even our heart is the Ark – a place of safety and yet a place of transformation. Enclosed and tossed upon turbulent seas of sin and chaos and culture, these 40 days of Lent give us a time of growing, transformation, renewing our lives from the core of our hearts. Thus, we emerge from Lent and Holy Week to face again the uncreated Light of the Resurrection, the shadow of which we observed at the Transfiguration. But we have to prepare rigorously to meet this new Light. And so we make our way into the desert, or seal ourselves up into the ark to practice a 40 day "Night of Purification" in this Season of the Soul."

Like everything else that we do as part of our religion, Lent has only one central purpose: To bring us close to God. The Epistle today from the First Letter of Peter, in The Message version, puts it in the context of the meaning of Christ’s life: He went through it all—was put to death and then made alive—to bring us to God. We must take care that none of the “things” we do, or don’t do, give up or take up, should in any way distract us from coming close to God.

The Sufi poet Rumi, in his always sharp clear way, voices the urgency of the call of the Lenten season to stay focused and come close to the Mystery of God and of Life:

Why cling to one life
 till it is soiled and ragged?
The sun dies and dies
, squandering a hundred lived
 every instant.
God has decreed life for you; 
and God will give 
another and another and another.

Why do we have the story of Jesus baptism today? Because Baptism is the entranceway or gangplank into the Ark that is the Church. Like Noah’s Ark, the Church is meant to be a way of Holy Living that keeps us afloat and safe from the waters of chaos; not necessarily protected from the “assaults” of “many temptations” and from the “weaknesses of each of us” mentioned in the Collect, but fortified against them by our relationship to God in Jesus Christ.

I mentioned earlier that Lent will be a time of being taken week by week through covenants in our holy history. What was the Biblical storyteller’s purpose in telling the mythological event of the Great Flood? There are stories of a great destructive flood in the mythologies of many cultures and peoples. But the Biblical story has a purpose unlike the others. For Jews and Christians, the story is a reflection on the meaning of the Rainbow, which they interpret as a sign of God’s power and Goodness, preserving them in the face of potentially destructive floods and other disasters. Any Jew or Christian who knows the essential nature of God as Love, Mercy and Justice would be disturbed by a picture of God as purposely destructive of almost all the Earth’s people. But the real meaning of the story is made beautifully clear by the explanation of the rabbis that is found in the Zohar:

How did the Blessed Holy One respond when Noah came out of the ark and saw the whole world destroyed and began to cry over the holocaust? Noah said, "Master of the world, You are called Compassionate! You should have shown compassion for Your creatures!" The Blessed Holy One answered him, "Foolish shepherd! Now you say this, but not when I spoke to you tenderly, saying 'Make yourself an ark of gopher wood ... I am about to bring the Flood ... to destroy all flesh' ... I lingered with you, spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world! But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed do you open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?"

This ancient Flood story isn’t about a destroying God; it’s about a God Who has made an eternal covenant with his Creation. It is about the giving and the preservation of Life. This is how we understand the nature of that Mystery which we sense to be at the heart of Life. It is also a story which makes clear that each of us is responsible for the welfare of the human community. Noah rejected that responsibility and death ensued. But both Abraham and Moses argued and bargained with God, and saved the men and women of their generation.

Lent is a time of growing, transformation, renewing our lives from the core of our hearts. There is a story from the sayings of the Desert Fathers of an old Abbot talking about the conversion of the heart with a young monk”:

Once there was a woman of ill repute in a city. She had many lovers. The governor approached her and said: "If you promise me you will behave properly, I will take you for my wife." She promised, he married her and took her to his own home. The lovers who still wanted her, said; "That official has taken her, If we risk going into the palace, he'll catch us and punish us. But we'll get out of that. Let's go round the back and whistle to her. She'll hear it and come down, and then we'll be all right.” But the woman, when she heard them whistling, blocked her ears, bolted the doors and hid herself in the innermost part of the house.

The old abbot explained the story. The woman of ill repute is our soul. Her lovers are our passions. The governor is Christ. The innermost part of the house is our heavenly dwelling place. The whistlers are the devils. But the soul can always find refuge with its Lord.

St. Francis de Sales neatly summed up the meaning of this story: Let the enemy rage at the gate, let him knock, let him push, let him cry, let him howl, let him do worse; we know for certain that he cannot enter save by the door of our consent. In other words, Evil can only overtake us if we permit it. We need to stay strong and focused on God. This is the point of Jesus’ testing by Satan for 40 days in the Wilderness.

Lent is a version of Christ’s Forty Days. And it is symbolic. For us, the Wilderness is a part of daily living, coming close to God, drinking in Devine Grace and Power and Love, of understanding and living into Jesus’ words after John’s arrest: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”

Our prayer and our path for the Lenten season, centered firmly in our knowledge of the God of the Rainbow, the God of Jesus, the God of the Covenant, is beautifully expressed in the Psalm appointed for today:

My head is high, God, held high;
I'm looking to you, God;
No hangdog skulking for me.
I've thrown in my lot with you; …..
Show me how you work, God; 

School me in your ways. 

Take me by the hand; 

Lead me down the path of truth. 

You are my Savior, aren't you? 

Mark the milestones of your mercy and love, God; 

Mark me with your sign of love. 

Plan only the best for me, God! 

We board the arks of Church, Lent, Wisdom, our longing hearts, open to transformation, heading always to the Light of the Resurrection.


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