Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene and St. Stephen's Church on Ash Wednesday: 2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10.
We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
I want to turn your idea of Lent on its head, and along with it, what is meant by the term reconciliation.
For many, if not most, of us, Lent is a time to take on some spiritual project (whether we do or not, we at least think we should). And that project is something akin to a spiritual house cleaning, or at least a “tidying up.” Perhaps the silver needs to be polished, or the kitchen floor stripped and waxed.
This is not a bad idea at all. Most, if not all, of our spiritual houses need cleaning. The question is “why?”
For the first ten years of my life, I was the only boy with two sisters, and so I had my own room. Like most boys it was frequently a mess—toys and clothes strewn everywhere—something like what my office looks like now. My mother’s job was, of course, to nag me, and sometimes order me and even threaten me, to clean it up. Eventually I did so, of course, but with the absolute minimal amount of work I could get away with. A lot of stuff got crammed under the bed and into my closet.
Once and a great while something like a miracle would happen and I would spontaneously clean my room on my own. Perhaps a friend was coming over or I somehow knew one of my grandparents was going to see my room. And when this happened, everything got cleaned—under the bed and in the closet—and actual cleaning supplies were used.
The difference between these two efforts had everything to do with what was motivating me, that is, “why” I was doing it.
Lent for most of us is cleaning up our spiritual house, or at least doing some small act of giving something up or taking something on, under duress. We do it because we think we’re supposed to, the church can be a nag about it, and, besides, it goes along with our sense that we need to get ourselves right with God, do whatever needs to be done to please him.
It is all well-intended, and even logical, but it is also wrong-headed.
The short-form of what Lent is actually about is this: when it comes to our reconciliation with God, it is our job only to receive that reconciliation as a gift. We cannot manufacture it no matter how many things we give up or take on for Lent. Our spiritual job is not to reconcile ourselves to God, but to accept that God has reconciled himself to us. And having accepted God’s free offer of reconciliation, our only task is to commit ourselves to living it as a way of life.
It is at that point that we might work on giving something up or taking something on in order to bring ourselves into this way of life. And that we desperately need to do because the way of reconciliation is almost completely counter-intuitive to our normal way of human living, which is the way of success and power and “she who dies with the most toys wins.”
Lent is a time to ease back into the acceptance and reconciliation that is freely offered by God. Most of us need this yearly opportunity to do so because the world around us does not believe in freely offered acceptance and reconciliation, either by God or pretty much anyone else. Lent is like the old medieval practice of a once a year bath, when you needed a tool to scrape off the layers of dirt—or, in our case, the layers of un-acceptance and un-reconciliation and un-freedom that we have accumulated.
That prepares us for Easter, which is the great celebration of God’s victory over death, and un-acceptance and un-reconciliation and un-freedom and everything else that keep us from being in love with God. And then the 50 days of Easter would be a good time to work on some spiritual practice or another that helps us keep in this amazing of life the love of God has laid out for us.
If you have already decided to take something on or give something up for Lent, that’s perfectly fine. Just remember about the motivation factor. Use whatever you are doing to get more deeply in touch with who God has really made you to be, and accepted and reconciled and loved without your having to prove anything.