a sermon for the fifth sunday of epiphany

It’s time for a calendar check. Today is the second to last Sunday in Epiphany, Ash Wednesday is 10 days away, and with it comes the beginning of Lent. Part of the Lenten season for many people includes the giving up of a token item, whether it be chocolate or caffeine or alcohol, the question persists: “what are you giving up for lent?” Some here may have tired of this practice of giving something up and instead focus on adding something, a new year’s resolution of sorts like I will become healthier, exercise more, or add some meditation to my prayer practice. However, in both the giving up and the taking on, we must ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing.

Are we giving up chocolate or caffeine or alcohol because we have an unhealthy relationship with it, or because it is something that while challenging is not that hard to accomplish. The same goes for adding a practice designed to better ourselves, by leaving it vague we’re leaving the definition of success open to interpretation. So, why do we do this Lenten observance?

For most of us, a Lenten observance is something that is traditional, something that we do because it is what we have always done. Others may feel pressured into having an observance so they don’t feel left out. Still others may practice an observance so they can brag to their friends about how disciplined they are: look at how good I can be at controlling myself for 40 days, oh and btw Sundays totally don’t count.

But, what would we say the reason for our Lenten observance is if we were to be asked by someone who was curious about doing one for the first time. What would you say if a friend or colleague approached you, knowing you were a Christian, and asked you about Lenten observances, their purposes, why you do what you do, and asked for direction in how they may start their own Lenten discipline.

Paul writes to the Church in Corinth today, defending his role as apostle, an agent directly appointed by Christ to spread the gospel. Paul writes that as an apostle “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” This obligation that Paul refers to is our obligation as the members of the body of Christ that is the Church. Our call is to proclaim the gospel. Our call is to become “all things to all people” so that we, as the contemporary agents of Christ may win some. When we accept that we are to become all things to all people, we begin to understand our call.

Paul is our example of how we should not only practice our faith, but how we should consider our Lenten disciplines. When Paul transforms himself in order to become all things for all people, Paul is not denying who he is, rather he is relying on who he is as an apostle of Christ to reach the widest audience by spreading the gospel as much as possible. For us in practice this means that to reach our neighbors, we have to become neighborly; to reach the oppressed we have to live their experience; to reach the poor and weak we have to know the pain and hunger they experience every day; to reach each other we have to know that care and compassion are not signs of weakness but the true strength that can only be found in the gospel. But, how can we go about achieving this confidence to become all things?

Mark writes of Jesus’ actions in the gospel today, and we’re treated to a common theme that is present throughout Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ commitment to prayer. Jesus’ words and actions come out of times of prayer and meditation. Often arising much earlier than most and walking off to a quiet, secluded space, Jesus’ time in prayer is a guiding force in his ministry. Jesus valued this time, so much so that only on rare occasions were other disciples invited to join him, and even then it was only a carefully selected few. This singular devotion to a discipline of prayer should serve as the archetype for our understanding of what it means to take on a Lenten discipline.

Jesus’ discipline is one in which Jesus is attempting to draw himself closer to God. Through prayer, Jesus can open the communication between himself and God, and invites into his world the presence of God, giving him the confidence to go out into the world to perform miraculous healings. Now, I am not asking each of you to take on the Lenten discipline of performing miraculous healings and/or casting out demons, but what would it look like if your Lenten discipline meant that you were opening (or even further opening) communication between yourself and God, inviting the presence of God into your world.

This is a real challenge. This can be an uncomfortable challenge, because it means making ourselves vulnerable before God. Many of us have experienced times of doubt, doubt about our faith, doubt about our purpose, doubt about the direction of our life, and these shadows of doubt continue to linger with us, sometimes much more present than others. These shadows of doubt act as a force to counteract our ability to be vulnerable before God. God is the all-powerful creator, and if we open ourselves fully to communicate with God, we are justifiably nervous about what we may hear. Doubt informs us that God won’t listen to us, for we are not important enough. Doubt tells us that what we are hearing can’t really be what God is asking. Doubt knows that what we are hearing from God cannot be right because doubt knows that we cannot live up to those expectations.

But, doubt does not have to win.

Giving something up or taking something on still lies at the heart of what many know about lent, and this is an important first step. There must be something that we need to either give up or take on in order to establish communication (or better communication) with God. But, while we generally have success in following through with our predisposed token acts, no real change occurs. So, what does it look like when we push ourselves to stand up against those doubts that are ever present, and commit ourselves to truly exploring what it means to practice a faithful lent.

If we look first to Jesus, and then later to Paul, we are clearly shown the power and fulfillment that comes when one addresses the doubts and establishes a deep connection with God. We know from the source, so to speak, that when we are open to communication with God, we can do powerful and even miraculous things, and these powerful and miraculous things are defined by the limits and boundaries that we personally are able to push. Your powerful and miraculous acts will necessarily be different than my powerful and miraculous acts for we have different gifts and different calls to serve, but when we commit to doing these acts we are in effect committing to working together to cast a net and impact the greatest number possible.

This is what our Lenten disciplines should be about. Our Lenten disciplines as members and visitors of Grace Church will be solely focused on opening the line of communication with God that we so often have shut off. Over the next 10 days I want you to consider deeply what it is that is keeping you from having the fullest communication with God. This may in fact be a vice like alcohol or certain foods, or it may be you need to make yourself healthy so that those doubts do not overpower the voice of God. I cannot tell you exactly what to practice for a Lenten discipline, because by definition it is a personal and intimate decision between you and God.

But, and this is the crucial piece, whatever you choose as a Lenten discipline for this upcoming season, you will be able to choose because you have put thought into it. You have considered what it means to practice this discipline. You can face the doubts that are present in your mind, because you are coming at them from a firm foundation. And, you have begun to understand how it is that through giving up or taking on, you are freeing yourself for communication with God. Through your discipline, you will be able to answer that person who comes to you and asks: why lent?

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