First Sunday in Lent
A sermon preached by Clare Heard, LLM, on 22nd February, 2015
I would like to start by asking you some questions:
- Have you given anything up for lent?
- What would you find really difficult to live without?
- Are they the same thing?
- Lastly, what associations do you have with the word discipline?
I ask these questions because I think many people think giving things up for lent is rather out of date – far more fashionable now a-days to take things up, isn’t it?
And if we do give something up, how many of us ever choose to go without the things that really matter to us? People are rarely willing to part with what they consider as essential for a comfortable life.
Lastly, in today’s modern society the word discipline often has rather negative connotations. It can be associated with abuse, dictatorship and generally something rather unpleasant. The word rarely raises positive thoughts with people, especially the younger generation.
So what I’d like to do today is explore these issues a little further and see how the practice of disciplines, and in particular abstinence, frugality and giving, can open up us to God’s grace and lead us on in our journey of discipleship.
Lent is a time of reflection and preparation in the Christian calendar. As Peter said last week, it is a time for listening to God. I like to think as it of a chance to create space in our busy lives and hear a little more from God, a time to try and capture something of his vision for our world, a time to reset our priorities and challenge ourselves again.
On reflection….I think too many of us, myself included, have a tendency to be like the disciple in this poem….comfortable.
Disciple – Godfrey Rust
I will follow you
I will go to the ends of the earth for you
as long as the earth is round.
I will die to the flesh
in the sure and certain hope of resurrection.
I will put away the old man
for safe keeping.
Your yoke is easy-
I don’t mind what it costs
if I can afford it.
I don’t mind doing my bit on the cross.
We could have a rota
Put me down for a couple of hours
and please don’t use nails.
I will follow you
with helpful advice.
I will follow you
wherever I want to go.
For many people in the West today, Christianity is a comfortable religion. We do go to church for an hour on a Sunday and hopefully, little by little, as James said a few weeks ago, this participation in liturgy, gradually transforms our lives.
But I think we can still all be a little too comfortable, and if that’s not the case and you are far more Godly people then me, then please bear with me whilst I preach to myself!
The gospel reading today gives us a classic pattern for Christian life. It starts with Jesus baptism and confirmation by God as his beloved Son, a time of affirmation and joy, it then moves into the temptations in the desert, a time of preparation, challenge and uncomfortableness, and then Jesus ministry begins and he goes to choose his disciples and then on - to pour out God’s love to the world – a process that involves challenge, suffering and ultimately giving all that he is.
The period of lent is the in-between time, from the joy of Candlemass, the presentation of Jesus, and all the expectation that goes with it, to the events of Holy week and the ultimate joy of the resurrection. It is a desert time, a time of challenge and suffering. A time to be uncomfortable.
However, none of us really want to be uncomfortable - thinking about it can be a little overwhelming. Not many of us are strong enough or Godly enough to make drastic changes to our relatively comfortable life styles, even if we do think change is needed. It’s too hard and we find too many excuses. So what can we do?
This leads me onto the practice of spiritual disciplines as a path to Christian discipleship, a way to take small steps that will slowly transform us and let God’s light shine both within us and through us.
There is not an exhaustive list of spiritual disciplines, but some of the more common ones include: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, service, and prayer.
These disciplines call us to move beyond surface living, beyond the instant gratification and consumerist culture that we live in, to something deeper, something done in the power of the spirit and in union with Christ, something transformational.
The good news is that beginners are welcome. As Thomas Merton rightly points out” We do not want to be beginners but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all of our life”!
I like to think of the disciplines as building our spiritual muscles. In the same way that exercise can be painful and hurt, particularly when we first start, but still be doing us good – making us fitter and stronger, so disciplines can help us to grow our spiritual muscles – if we can practice resisting temptation with the small things in our lives, like chocolate or alcohol, we will be in a better position to resist the larger temptations when they show their faces, like greed, or infidelity. If we practice giving small amounts to charity, we will be better able to be generous when something larger is asked of us.
I admit I go a little over the top in lent on the fasting front. I give up a lot of things and many people think I’m crazy. But what I’ve realised, is that personally, fasting and abstinence are not my strong points. If someone gives me a box of chocolates, I eat the whole box, often in one sitting. As such, if I don’t give up lots of things, I simply substitute, and that defeats the point. What’s the point in giving up chocolate when I feast on wine gums and cake for the whole of lent?
So this is why I asked the second question – what would you find it hard to live without?
This is a very personal question – for some, like myself, it may be food related. I have other friends who give up facebook or TV for lent, I’ve even known someone who gave up sex – not sure whether his wife was pleased about this or not!
For others, it may be you need to start doing something you find difficult – maybe regular prayer, maybe serving others, maybe giving money or time to something or someone. The decision over which discipline to focus on at any time is a very personal one and requires us to examine ourselves carefully and to pray - but I would suggest that the thing you least want to do is almost certainly the thing you should be doing!
The reality is that we should all be practicing all of the disciplines some of the time, just as Jesus did. Our lives should include service, giving, prayer, fasting and so on…. but where do we start? I would suggest we start slowly!
Richard Foster’s book – Celebration of Discipline, is very helpful at examining the various disciplines and considering what they bring and how we may practice them. The book also outlines various pitfalls that it is easy to fall into when practicing the disciplines.
For example, we must not try to manage others – transformation is God’s work not yours. Each must focus on their own disciplines and their own transformation. As Tolstoy said “everyone thinks of changing humanity, nobody thinks of changing himself”.
There should also be social implications – the disciplines should help us to work for peace and justice in our world.
So taking the example of fasting - it is not enough simply to do without. We also need to think about where our food comes from and the impact on the environment and other communities of providing the food we do eat.
Similarly, if we think about giving, we need to consider how much we give and who we give to. Something that has made me really uncomfortable recently has been listening to some radio programs about wealth. Firstly Giles Fraser – Putting your money where your mouth is, and secondly Robert Peston, The Price of Inequality.
These programs made it clear, not only that the gap between rich and poor is as large as it was in the early 20th Century but also that many people do not feel any sense of obligation or responsibility towards others in the world who have less, and are even starving and dying. Is this the attitude God wants from his church?
Both these programs challenged me to think more broadly about the world we live in and the part that I play in it. How do I provide a fulfilling life for my children and my family and enjoy the gifts God has given me, whilst taking part in the care of the lonely, provision for the poor, care for our earth and so on? I don’t yet know but I think I probably need to do more than I am currently doing.
2 Sam 24:24 – I will not offer to the Lord my God that which has cost me nothing. As Susan Pitchford writes in her book on Fransiscan living: “If our giving doesn’t change our lifestyle, if it doesn’t cut into our comforts, somehow, that probably suggest something to us about the depth of our love, both for God and our neighbour.”
The same can be said of many of the disciplines - are they challenging us, making us uncomfortable and thus opening us up to God’s transforming spirit?
Inner transformation or righteousness, is a gift from God. Spiritual disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so HE can transform us. And as beginners, we need practice.
We develop a generous heart only by being generous. We become prayerful people only by spending time in prayer. We are transformed by God’s word, only if we spend time reading it.
Whatever you decide to do this Lent, I would encourage you to make it something that is not too easy – we need to be challenged, to be uncomfortable occasionally, we even need to suffer a little in the process. We need to learn to turn to God in our struggles, rather than depend on our props.
The purpose of the disciplines is liberation from slavery to self-interest and fear. We will never be free if we cling on to our props. We will never stand up and walk if we don’t let go of our crutches. We will never grow as Christ’s disciples, if we don’t practice following in Christ’s ways.
I pray that this Lent, through the practice of the disciplines, God would instruct us, lead us and transform us, that the depth of our love, both for God and neighbour would grow, that we may follow Christ and love, as he loved us.