Finding Lent in a Crowd
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, February 7th, 2021
Somehow, I would never think to use the words “repent” and “good news” in the same sentence. “Repent” feels like a weighty, old word like “Thou” and “Shalt” and “Doeth,” a word that needs to be dusted off before we use it. The smell of “repent” is something like milk that you think should still be good until you take a whiff. For me, the traditional visual image of “repent” is from the movie, “The Apostle” in which Robert Duvall plays a preacher in a jam-packed revival tent who is waving his Bible and preaching a message of “repent or else!”
On the other hand, “good news” is fresh and lively, something that you and I never tire of hearing, especially during this seemingly endless pandemic. “Good news” does not live anywhere close to the same zip code as “repent.” “Good news” is an unexpected acceptance letter from the admissions office or the report saying that the Covid text is negative and you can finally breathe again. “Good news” is when you ask one of life’s most important questions, “Will you marry me?” and you get the response that you had prayed for. “Good news” is that smell from my childhood of walking into my grandmother’s house and smelling homemade yeast rolls baking. “Good news” makes all your senses smile and makes you want to run outside and dance or post that “good news” to every social media site you can find.
The word that Jesus uses to build a bridge between the moldy, dusty old word “repent” and the delightful charming words, “good news” is “believe.” It is not generic believing any more than it is generic good news. For Mark, God has entered this human comedy and tragedy in the person of Jesus. With God on the loose in Jesus, repent has a new ring to it and it is a plural ring. Jesus invites not one of us but all of us to “repent” and to keep on repenting.
Why? Because with God on the loose in Jesus, all the barriers that resist God’s future are going to fall, including the most formidable barrier of sin. In the next chapter of Mark, Jesus will not only instruct a paralytic to pick up his bed and walk, but will tell him, “Your sins are forgiven.” In those four words, Jesus announces what every one of us needs to know: Sin is real. Sin is not just church talk. And, sin is not simply an individual affair, it is a community affair, a national affair, a global affair. Sin diminishes us individually and communally; it makes us less than what God imagines for us.
When a paralytic stood upright in Capernaum, the barrier of sin started to crumble not just for that healed man but for the whole world. And on the third day after the day the church somehow calls “Good,” God’s grace overcame even the tyranny of death as the barrier of sin collapsed. Repentance, turning our lives around, orienting them toward God is possible because in Jesus, God makes it possible.
Believing is not one more thing on our list of things we must do. Believing happens because God makes it possible to believe in something more than ourselves. Just like repenting, believing happens not once and then we are finished with it; it happens again each morning and every night. “Believing” happens not just individually but in the community, because no matter how hard we try, you and I cannot believe alone.
It is not uncommon that when someone learns that I am a preacher, they start to explain how they can believe alone. They explain that they don’t need to waste their time trying to believe with a bunch of religious hypocrites in a church that will say one thing and then do another. They can believe by themselves and certainly do not need any preacher telling them what to believe or how to believe; they are like ole Scrooge greeted by the charitable solicitors at the beginning of A Christmas Carol; they simply wish to be left alone.
These solo spiritualists know something about the Christian faith that I have yet to figure out. I simply do not know how to believe alone, much less how to repent alone, and how terribly sad it would be to try to celebrate the “good news” that Jesus shares with us alone.
There have been more than a few times in my life, hard times, tragic times, when I have needed the community to repent for me, to believe for me, to claim God’s “good news” for me. During those times, when I was honest about my faith, God was absent or even worse, God was cruel and I wanted to have nothing to do with that kind of God. In those hard times, tragic times, I needed fellow believers to hold me and listen to me, to communicate through touch and occasionally with words that God could handle my doubts, could hear my rage, and was far more tolerant about uncertainty than I am.
What about you? How many times have you come to the Lord’s Table wondering if all the words the pastor said at the table was just so much religious mumbo jumbo or watched a child be baptized and thought it nothing more than a quaint initiation ritual for this crazy club we call “church” or stood by the grave of a loved one and laughed inside when words were spoken about new life?
I will confess that sometimes for me these rituals have been simply going through the pastoral motions, just “doing my job.” And, yet, thankfully, I can say that more often than not, it has been through these holy rituals that the God on the loose in Jesus has pierced my hardened heart, given me a reason to repent and a yearning to believe. Often this has happened as I have watched you live as God’s sacramental community, demanding that every hungry person be fed, refusing to live in hate even when it provides the most shelter in America today, extending words of comfort to those others are too busy to notice their loss.
Maybe with the first sermon of Jesus in Mark as our guide, this Lent is when you and I will realize that we can never turn to God or return to God alone; we can never believe or keep on believing alone, and we cannot embrace and announce the good news of God’s astounding love for the world in Jesus alone.
So, what if this Lent, Lent 2021, is more than a virtual one spent in the relentless solitude of our homes? What if you and I set aside a few minutes for Lenten reading, reflection, and prayer in each day ahead until Easter, but do not do so alone? What if we spend our lunch time and dinner time each day during Lent, not in front of a TV, but in front of a ZOOM screen or on FaceTime with other friends as we read and pray ourselves through this holy season? What if you and I give up something we treasure or take on something new during Lent, but do so with a company of other believers, realizing that we can no more observe Lent alone than we can be Christian alone?
After nearly a year of mostly virtual worship, a frequent conversation among my clergy colleagues is: “Will people come back to church when the pandemic is over or under control?” There is an underlying fear and malaise behind that question that I find misguided, at best. The “good news” Jesus announces in the first chapter of Mark and then lives out as he invites common folk like Peter and Andrews, James and John, to follow him is community “good news.” Solitary faith works about as well as a bicycle without wheels. So, I can only warn you that whenever that day of in-person gathering happens, “Look out for I have a ton of hugs stored up that I cannot wait to share with all of you!”
Lent has arrived and the gift Jesus gives the church in this season is not simply the gift of repentance and forgiveness doled out to individuals, it the good news that you and I do not need to navigate faith alone, the good news that you and I cannot navigate faith alone, the good news that whenever we come to the Table of our Lord we do so with a widely disparate group of people, each of whom is a God given gift to us, each of whom who holds an essential piece of the puzzle to living our faith.
Who in their right mind ever wants to open any gift, much less this gift, alone?