SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MARCH 1, 2015, THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Won’t ask for a show of hands, but I wonder how many of us really needed the collect for this Sunday. How many of us heard the words O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray . . . and just (whew) relaxed a little. We’re a week into Lent, and man, I need some mercy. So today - if any of you have taken a big swing at Lent . . . and missed spectacularly . . . this sermon is for you. Rather, it’s for us. Because I get to talk about fasting, about failing, and about forgiveness.
First - Fasting
From today’s gospel: If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. The first paragraph of our parish Lenten booklet says Lent is “a time of self-examination, penitence and special devotion for all Christians.” And it is. Among other things, Lent is a season to roll up our sleeves and make room to get God deep in our hearts and lives. That may sound strange coming from someone as smitten as I am with the gospel of grace that says God loves us not for what we do but for whose we are, not because we’re good but because we’re God’s. But is it? It’s really so strange? If we do love God, shouldn’t we want to be like him? And that means we have to change the direction of our lives. In Jesus’ words, it means we have to deny ourselves, which is a lot of work. You’ve heard me quote Dallas Willard: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” In Lent we aren’t earning God’s favor; we’re working to cooperate with God’s grace in our lives.
That’s why we fasted from sweets and treats last week, why we’ll fast from unnecessary spending this week. Set on fire by the grace of God, we’ve set about the slow work of turning our lives. And here’s why every fast and every little bit of effort is absolutely necessary: Because even the smallest action has eternal consequences. Every decision I make – whether to cut somebody down or hold my tongue, whether to be selfish or to share what God has given my family with someone less fortunate – everything I do today rings in eternity. One of the guiding lights of the Oxford Movement, E. B. Pusey, said this in a sermon in 1848:
This or that act may be a sin of weakness, or negligence, or ignorance; but if after repeated, and not repented, it will be known sin. And so people cheat themselves. They will not see their whole selves. They will forget that today’s act of gluttony, or levity, or selfwill, or seeking man’s praise, if it be added to those of former days, is not merely a slight sin, but is making them what scripture calls gluttons, or vain or heady persons. They will not see that each fresh, unrepented sin, is one more step out of the way, one step more on the way to Hell.
C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity - Every action we take reorients our life, turns us into something a little different than it was before, makes us “into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.” That’s why our fasting matters.
But how many of you are shocked if I say fasting implies failing from time to time. Point two: Failure. We read today from Romans 8, but go back just one chapter and Paul says “I don’t understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Rom. 7.15, 18b)
I’ve told a story about one Ash Wednesday here in Boston not that long ago - we did the whole Ash Wednesday liturgy: Ashes on our foreheads, confession, pledging to practice our disciplines, to give up things that were separating us from God. So I left the last mass that night and walked up the Hill toward our house, and just as I was setting foot in the convenience store on Myrtle Street, I practically bumped into another parishioner, a friend who lived right around the corner, who was on her way to the same store to buy the same pack of something both of us had just given up for Lent like 12 hours before.
I’m not proud of that story or just trying to laugh it off, to make light of it - it just illustrates something about us. Something Christians don’t have to try to cover over or hide - We start with good intentions, but we fall along the way. But the story can’t just stop there - and thankfully it didn’t stop there for me and my friend. We smiled sheepishly, and we started again the next day. See, that’s when the real work starts, when you reach a breaking point, but you start again. In Great Lent, Alexander Schmemann wrote:
[R]emember that however limited our fasting, if it is true fasting it will lead to temptation, weakness, doubt, and irritation. In other terms, it will be a real fight and probably we shall fail many times. But the very discovery of Christian life as fight and effort is the essential aspect of fasting . . . . No progress in Christian life is possible, alas, without the bitter experience of failures. Too many people start fasting with enthusiasm and give up after the first failure. I would say that it is at this first failure that the real test comes. If after having failed and surrendered to our appetites and passions we start all over again and do not give up no matter how many times we fail, sooner or later our fasting will bear its spiritual fruits . . . . There is no short cut to holiness; for every step we have to pay the full price.
If you fast, you may fail. But if you fail, don’t give up.
Last point: When failure comes, grasp forgiveness. From Paul’s letter to the Romans: For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8.38-39) Nothing - not height, nor depth, nor breaking a Lenten fast, nor anything else in all creation - nothing can separate us from God’s love. You know what can? Feeling too proud to ask for forgiveness, or feeling too unworthy to accept it.
Being a Christian means we believe sin is real and it’s dangerous. But it’s also believing sin is never the last word. What makes a Christian isn’t fasting; it certainly isn’t failing and giving up the fight; it’s fasting, failing and forgiveness. It’s understanding you are far more sinful than you ever dreamed, but far more loved than you could ever imagine.
In a few minutes, we’ll prepare for communion, and I want you to pay special attention to the words we’re saying: We can’t presume to come to God based on our righteousness, because we’re not. But - God’s property, his nature, is always to have mercy. That’s a prayer for people who fast and who fail but who go to the end of the long road of Lent. Lent reminds us to take up our crosses, and when we fall, we find we’ve fallen at the foot of the Cross, where our God says “Forgive them.”
In the Name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1) Dallas Willard, “Live Life to the Full,” in Christian Herald (U.K.) 14 April 2001 www.dwillard.org/ articles/artview.asp?artID=5 (last visited 28 June 2014).
2) E. B. Pusey, Parochial Sermons (London: Parker and Co., 1873): Vol. 1:214.
3) C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
4) Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's, 1969): 98-99.