17 February 2021
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In the words of our prayer book – the words Richard used to open this service – today we are invited into “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word” (BCP, p. 265). To list the familiar triad, we contemplate our own practices of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving in preparation for the passion and resurrection of Christ.
Each of us probably has our own idiosyncratic approach to this invitation. I happened to catch a recording of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert a few days ago. His guest the night of the recording was Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest who had appeared as a guest many times on Colbert’s previous show, having been dubbed the Chaplain of Colbert Nation. When asked about his Lenten practices, Father Martin described a tradition that goes back decades. When he was in college, some of his Jewish friends, curious about the Christian practice of Lent, asked him, “Who decides what you give up for Lent?” Of course, he responded, “I do.” His friends’ perfectly understandable response was, “Well, where’s the sacrifice in that?”
Jim Martin’s friends decided that they should determine what he gave up for Lent. There were to be three categories of fasting: one food, one spice, and one candy. So every year for the better part of four decades, Jim Martin has been receiving a phone call on the morning of Ash Wednesday from this Jewish friend telling him what his fast will be for Lent. I don’t want to misrepresent Jim Martin, so I should point out that he quickly added that he has additional Lenten observances beyond simply “refraining from cilantro.”
So, yeah, Lent can lend itself to idiosyncratic traditions.
Idiosyncrasies aside, though, we enter Lent as a time to intentionally alter our practices to draw nearer to God.
- Fasting can cause us to bump up against what may be ingrained habits, offering a consistent reminder to draw our attention back to God.
- Praying in “secret,” as the passage from Matthew encourages, can help draw us in – can help us focus on our intrinsic desire to be in relationship with God.
This makes sense, both intellectually and experientially.
As I reflect on the Gospel passage this year, though, I am reading it differently than I usually do. This past year has been – and, I apologize for the highly over-used word – but this past year has been unprecedented. The last full, in-person worship service here at All Saints, for example, was March 8th of last year. It has been almost a full year since we moved into this time of pandemic. This year my questions are different. I’m left wondering:
- Haven’t we given up enough already?
- Haven’t we been alone enough already?
So, what does a Lenten practice in a time of pandemic look like? I’m not sure that I would use the word “secret” six times to point toward what our practices could be this year. I’m not sure that Lent this year is best associated with deprivation. At least to my observation, I’m pretty sure everybody looks “dismal” over zoom (to quote Matthew), and I don’t think pouring oil over our heads will do much to solve that problem. It feels like our typical expectations for Lent are turned upside down this year.
So what might our Lenten practices be in this time? I don’t have any answers, each of us is different. I just have some wonderings.
What if, instead of using a fast as a reminder to bring our attention back to God…what if we make a Lenten intention to find God in the people around us — everyone we do come into contact with. Even masked, when we smile, it shows in our eyes. Or perhaps, when we notice someone’s movement at the grocery store, racing with a cart to grab a coveted place in the never-ending lines, perhaps we pause to make way for them. With intention. Maybe this year, instead of seeking God through fasting, or in secret, what if we spread out our arms and find God in the faces around us, sharing a bit of God with them along the way?
Or what if, this Lent, instead of a fast, we ask to be fed? Could our prayers be for nourishment? Perhaps each day we intentionally notice a thing of beauty and know that it is of God. Maybe we practice Compline during Lent, so at the end of every day we can be reminded that we are sheltered under the shadow of God’s wings (BCP, p. 132). What if we are able to “fast” from our fierce independence, intentionally opening ourselves to be fed by others around us?
So, this year, instead of deprivation or isolation, putting on a good show while in public or denying ourselves as a way of calling us back, what if we intentionally seek and share God’s nourishment
This has been a full year. Filled to overflowing. There has been such loss and such uncertainty. And yet, it does feel that we are moving toward hope. It’s not warming yet, but the days are lengthening. The virus – though still threatening – is receding. Perhaps this Lent in the time of Pandemic, maybe it’s about putting aside isolation and deprivation so that we prepare ourselves, bit by bit, for that bright hope that is to come.
We have been living through a trauma, as individuals, as a community, as a nation. May this be a season of healing, in whatever form that takes for you.
And as for James Martin, maybe this Lent he goes ahead and eat that cilantro.