SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MARCH 8, 2015, THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Imagine you just arrived at mass. Before you get out of the car, reflect back on your drive. Can you remember making it? If you’ve made the trip many times, your mind doesn’t need to pay attention to the commute. It runs to other things. This is kinesthetic memory - the ability to perform a task without total cognitive awareness. It’s muscle memory; it’s habit. You get out of bed each day, but you don’t intentionally “think yourself” from lying down to standing up. You type looking at a computer screen, paying no attention to where your fingers land on the keypad - you almost think the words and they appear. You can get so familiar with a task that you don’t even realize you’re doing it, so accustomed to it you can do it without thinking. And sometimes - unfortunately - that task is worship.
But slow down a minute, look at what we’re doing here a little more closely, worship a little more mindfully, and it quickly becomes apparent that there is a structure, an orderliness to what we’re about at mass. And here’s my thesis for the day: The mass is movement. Schmemann says “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession,” and Tom Howard says in the liturgy “we move ’through’ the drama of our redemption step by step . . . .” From the moment the doors open and the procession begins moving toward the altar, until the prayers are prayed and we’ve made our communions and go back out into the world, the mass is movement. And the medium we move through is the Christian story, in three specific movements (there are more, but focus on three): Let’s call them Law, Confession, and Gospel.
First movement: Law - And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Ex. 21.1-2) That line from Exodus is the beginning of the Decalogue, or “ten words” - the 10 Commandments. Many churches in Lent use the 10 Commandments in place of the Summary of the Law at the start of the mass - it recognizes that we are taking our lives into our own hands in coming to this God. The end of chapter 19, right before God gives Moses the 10 Commandments from Mt. Sinai, says: The Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.” And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” (Ex. 19.21-23)
As we begin the mass, we’re entering the precincts of the holy, but we’re so accustomed to it, it’s like muscle memory for us. Novelist Annie Dillard says we’re like
cheerful brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute . . . . On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some day and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.
In the mass, whether we know it or not, that’s the God we meet - a holy God who gave these laws that govern our lives and our interaction with him. That’s why our first response to hearing the Law is always to throw ourselves upon his mercy. Kyrie eleison - “Lord have mercy upon us.” The only reasonable greeting to a holy God is a plea for mercy.
That leads into the second movement: Confession - From today’s second reading: For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Rom. 7.18-19 (ESV)) Here’s the situation: God gave these laws we’ve just heard, the Decalogue (“ten Words”) - but Moses didn’t even get back down the mountain before the people had made a golden god for themselves. The whole OT is the story of a people who couldn’t keep the Law - and neither can we. So we confess. To use another biblical word, we “repent.” We kneel (a fitting posture), acknowledge our wretchedness, and admit to God that we have sinned in thought, in word, in deed. Paul Zahl says this should be the Christian’s default position:
Repentance – which means the diagnosis of one’s always being in the wrong in the face of God – is the characteristic human act. What can we do to contribute to our pleading, desperate hope for a place in God’s kingdom? What are we in a position to offer? Only our devastated confession . . . .
That’s really the only thing God asks of us, the only area we’re expected to develop. I told a friend this week in my office - If I grow in virtue, thanks be to God; if I grow in mercy, in acts of service, in charity, God be praised; but the only metric God measures us by is whether we’re growing in repentance.
We hear the Law; we confess our sins; and third movement: Gospel - Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. (John 2.19-21 (ESV)) If you’re pretty familiar with the Christian story, you know what’s going on here. Jesus dropped hints throughout his life that his mission was to suffer and die to reconcile the world to his Father. This is one of those hints - a temple was a house where the god lived, and Jesus had in himself the fullness of God, so the execution he expected would destroy that temple, and God would “raise it up” three days later. Here’s what Jesus was doing: He was making a way for us, sinful people, to come to a holy God without being destroyed. The gospel promise is that no matter how much we break God’s law we won’t be cut off like the Israelites were from the mountain where God came down - Jesus made a way for us to come to God despite our sin.
Notice those last three words: Despite our sin. If we don’t hear the gospel and say “That’s too good, so what’s the catch?” then we haven’t really heard the gospel. The gospel says “God loves you regardless of who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re going to do.” And nowhere, maybe, is the audacity of that promise more obvious than in Lent, when we take on a list of disciplines and some days we keep them, some days we don’t. The feeling I have when my head hits the pillow most days shows that the gospel is so weird and fantastic that I don’t have the capacity to believe it consistently – If I’ve had a good day, I think how lucky God is to have me for a follower. If I’ve had a bad day, I kick myself for letting God down. But notice the mindset behind both responses is that I’m responsible for my own standing before God. I save myself. That’s what Brennan Manning says is the root of our problem:
We fluctuate between castigating ourselves and congratulating ourselves because we are deluded into thinking we save ourselves. We develop a false sense of security from our good works and scrupulous observance of the law. Our halo gets too tight and a carefully-disguised attitude of moral superiority results. Or, we are appalled by our inconsistency, devastated that we haven’t lived up to our lofty expectations of ourselves. The roller coaster ride of elation and depression continues.
Because we never lay hold of our nothingness before God, and consequently, we never enter into the deepest reality of our relationship with Him. But when we accept ownership of our powerlessness and helplessness, when we acknowledge that we are paupers at the door of God’s mercy, then God can make something beautiful out of us.
The mass is movement. A journey or procession through the drama of our redemption. And Lent, also, is a journey. Schmemann also writes: “Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, ‘the Feast of Feasts.’” Are you letting God use this Lent to make something beautiful out of you? You know what’s right - the bible says the Law is “written on your hearts,” or as our hymn this morning said, “deep writ upon the human heart.” And you know that God know that you know you can’t keep the Law, you can’t always do what’s right.
Believe the gospel.
And let God make you beautiful.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1) Ideas suggested by Rick Thomas, “The Blessing of Doing Things Without Thinking,” 2 January 2014 (http://rickthomas.net/the-upside-and-downside-of-doing-things-without-thinking/) (last visited 7 March 2015).
2) Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (New York: St. Vladimir’s, 2002): 26.
3) Thomas Howard, If Your Mind Wanders at Mass (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995): 55.
4) Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row, 1982)
5) Paul F. M. Zahl, The First Christian: Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 114-15.
6) Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 1990): 78.
7) Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (New York: St. Vladimir’s, 1969): 11.
8) Romans 2.15; Jeremiah 31.33; Hebrews 10.16; Hymnal 1982, no. 372.