March 17, 2019: The Second Sunday of Lent
I wish I had a dollar for every time I started to write my sermon for today only to highlight all of it and press the delete button. I would have a fistful of dollars, to be sure. I had trouble putting my words together for today partly because we’re continuing our study of The Sermon on The Mount and the portion in front of us today is something we’ve all heard over and over and over. We’ve heard these words over and over and over because Jesus’ instructions to us about prayer contain a prayer we recite nearly every single time we gather for worship. What more is there to be said about the Lord’s prayer? And what is there to be said about Jesus’ instructions on fasting? Do people even fast anymore, or is that just something we do when we have to have blood drawn for lab work? The pastor of the church where I grew up fasted during the season of Lent, but he didn’t do so well following Jesus’ instructions. His fast permitted him to only drink water and orange juice for the whole 40-day season, and by the last few weeks of Lent he always looked really rough. By Palm Sunday he was terribly moody and not a lot of fun to be around.
I also had trouble putting my sermon together for today because I’m just so deeply troubled by the horror and evil that took the lives of so many of our family members in New Zealand on Friday. When I say these Muslim worshippers were members of our family, I’m not simply talking about the connection we share with them in our spiritual lineage with Abraham and Sarah. When I call them members of our family I am speaking about the Christian theological claim that human beings, of all races and colors and creeds, are tied together, as Dr. King once said, in an inextricable web of humanity. The book of Genesis tells us that God created everything we know and see in the span of five days and looked at all of it and called it ‘good.’ On the sixth day, Genesis tells us that God scooped up a big handful of dust and formed the first man and the first woman. God looked at these creatures, made in God’s image, and God did not call them ‘good’…God called them ‘very good.’ Then God told them to be fruitful and multiply. We have a huge family because of our faith in God and in Jesus Christ, but really our family is huge because our faith teaches us that the whole human race is one big family. And fifty of those family members were killed on Friday while they gathered to worship.
That is enough to cause deep grief and sorrow, but so much more has come into the light since Friday. It is now known that the gunman committed this horrific act because of supremacist ideas of race and religion. Of course, the talking heads have taken this and run with it in every direction. Some say the gunman was inspired by the heat of political rhetoric across the globe at this point in time. Others say he is evidence of a world headed toward sectarianism and tribalism. Still others point to a worldwide trend in social services being cut to free up strained budgets, social services like comprehensive care for people that includes mental health care. Depending on the moment, any and all of this could be true. The thing that bothers me most in all of this is how when the gunman or terrorist looks different from us we cry out for their blood and then classify whole races and religions as just as violent and evil, but when the gunman or terrorist looks like us, whether in a synagogue in Pittsburgh or a mosque in New Zealand, we denounce it and call it evil but we never make such blanket assessments.
Of course, the shooting at the mosques in New Zealand was not the only tragic thing that happened this week, it is just the thing that got the most attention. There are families still digging through the rubble of their homes and their lives after the tornadoes in Alabama at the beginning of the month. There are people in Venezuela, mostly children, who are digging through sewers and landfills to find anything to eat because the government and the country’s leaders are so corrupt that the only thing they can think to do right now is protect themselves and the power they have amassed. In Puerto Rico and in places along the coast of Florida, whole villages and towns are still without power, running water, and basic services after the devastation of hurricanes Maria and Irma almost two years ago—two years ago. And how about the college admission scandal that broke this week. That situation is tragic for many reasons. It shows how corrupting the influence of money, power, and privilege can be. It also unveils the tragic nature of higher education in America, the no-holds-barred indoctrination of youth and parents that getting into a good college is the only way to be successful.
You don’t have to be a person of faith to recognize tragedy and evil in the world and how there seems to be so much of it right now. Our faith does not give us bigger hearts to mourn or wetter tears to cry when people are gunned down in their houses of worship. Our faith does not necessarily give us more compassion or love for those who are torn apart by natural disasters or disastrous leadership. Our faith also doesn’t necessarily give us more common sense. But what our faith does is give us hope and unique ways to understand where God is and what God is doing when tragedy and evil do their worst. Our faith also issues to us a call and gives us powerful tools to work with God for the eradication of evil in the world.
That is what Jesus is doing in The Sermon on The Mount when he instructs the disciples on prayer and fasting—he is giving them new eyes and ears and hearts to help them navigate a complex world. The first thing that should jump off the page at us today is just how rough Jesus is on how the current religious establishment goes about prayer and fasting. Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,” and he goes on to criticize how and where they pray. Jesus then says, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites…” and he goes on to criticize how they look so awful when they fast. Jesus is so rough on the religious folks of his day because their religion was all about them, about their needs and their need to look good, and it had nothing to do with God. It seems almost silly to say, but Jesus’ main point at this point in his sermon is to remind the disciples that their first and most important duty as people of faith is to be attentive to God. That seems like a no-brainer, but if Jesus’ followers are only about themselves and not about God, nothing but trouble lies ahead.
In order to be attentive to God Jesus teaches us to pray. This begins by recognizing that the world we live in is not yet the world as God wants it to be—the kingdom has come into the world in Jesus but the full kingdom of God is not here. At least not yet. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” we are making the confession that stuff happens in this world and to us that is counter to God’s will. When we make this prayer we are speaking the truth that mass murder in churches and mosques and synagogues, that evil dictators and corrupt governments, that traumatic religion and abusive religious leaders are a direct affront to the will of God. By bringing these things into the light we make the bold claim that one day God is going to make it all right. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the moral arc of the universe is long but it always bends towards justice and this is what we pray in the Lord’s prayer. The moral arc of God’s universe may not fully be there yet, but each day it is bending more and more in that direction. We are in-between people—we live in between the time when Jesus first brought us the news of God’s kingdom and the time when God’s kingdom will come fully and completely. God’s people look at every tragedy and every act of evil, terrible and consuming as they may be, as weak and infantile compared to the glory and newness and transformation that is yet to be revealed to us.
Until the time comes when God’s kingdom comes in fullness, we pray for food and forgiveness enough for the journey. That bending arc of the universe does not allow us to be complacent or idle. God recognizes our physical and spiritual needs and so Jesus teaches us how to pray for food and for forgiveness. We do not pray for food that will last us until the end of the week or until the end of the month, but bread enough to last us this day and this day alone. We then pray for the forgiveness of our sins, the debts we owe to one another and to God. This prayer, these petitions, force us to trust the One who created us and has loved us from the moment we were formed in the womb. Jesus teaches us in this prayer how to relinquish the control we think we have over our lives, and place that control into the hands of the One who controls the universe. Power is easily abused; violence is commonly used to take control; we hurt ourselves and one another—this is not how God wants us to live and this is not how God wants the world to be. Praying and living the words of the Lord’s prayer inches us closer and closer to God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and isn’t that the greatest aim of our faith?
Now, we still have to deal with the whole thing about fasting, and really it is a matter of clutter. Yes, clutter. How many things do you have to do each day? How many alerts are set on your phone because you simply cannot remember everything you have to do in a day? How many committees or boards do you sit on? How much of your time is drained away by fear or worry or anxiety or all three? What prejudices do you hold on to? What judgments do you cast on others in the church or at work or at home? What habits consume your daily living that are not good for you, your relationships, or for your walk with the Lord? Fasting is about decluttering, it is about giving up in order to get back to the essentials, about keeping the things that give and bring you joy and getting rid of the rest. Fasting is not just about food, though food can be a stumbling block for some. The real estate of our hearts and minds is expensive and limited, and there are so many things that have enough buying power to just move right into the neighborhood. But not everything that wants space in our hearts and minds is worthy of these bodies that were created by God. Fasting is a gift, eternal permission to evict what is holding us back in order to make room for the things of God.
Prayer and fasting are the unique practices of our faith that can and will make us capable of understanding and living in and making sense of the world as we know it. Do you remember the two questions I asked in my sermon last week, the questions that we will ask together of each portion of The Sermon on The Mount during our Lenten study? The first question is. “What do Jesus’ words teach us about God?” The second question is, “What do Jesus’ words about God teach us about our life as his followers?” Today I think the answers are quite clear and filled with a tremendous amount of hope. Jesus teaches us today that God is deeply concerned with us and with the world and wants to be in a deep and meaningful relationship with us and with the world. This relationship is built through prayer, where we learn about God’s will and desires for us and for the world. This relationship helps us to see that the world around us is not quite as God intends for it to be, but that one day God’s kingdom will indeed come. Jesus then teaches us to pray for only what we need today and that if things are too cluttered, up here and in here, it is OK to give up and clean out. These practices are the key to coming closer to the heart of God, and they make us capable agents in bringing God’s kingdom closer and closer to earth.
My friends in Christ, do not be dismayed and do not be afraid. God has not forgotten us and God has not abandoned this world. God is here and God is calling each of us in love to have hope and to greet each day with joy. With eyes open to the God’s marvelous creation and hearts tuned to sing God’s praises, let us pray as often as we breath, and may that prayer always be, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, one earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.