Sunday, March 18, 2012

4 Lent

Laetare Sunday
March 18, 2012

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo

Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-21

+ I was tempted this Sunday morning to wear pink to church. Of course, I would have clashed with the altar hangings. And don’t even get me started imaging what Pastor Strobel would say when he heard that Father Jamie showed up wearing pink vestments.

But today is “Rose Sunday” or, more traditionally, Laetare Sunday. Laetare is Latin for “joyful” and it is called this because on this Sunday, the tradition introit in the old Latin Mass was “Laetare Jerusalem”—“rejoice Jerusalem.” It’s also called “Mothering Sunday” or “Refreshment Sunday.” It was traditional on this Sunday to wear pink vestments. We also have a similar Sunday in Advent called Gaudete Sunday, in which pink vestments also can be worn. Over at St. Stephen’s, we will be having traditional Laetare Sunday simnel cake at coffee hour in honor of this special Sunday.

And it is a special Sunday. It is sort of break in our Lenten grayness, so to speak. And it is a reminder to us. We are now passing into the latter days of Lent. Palm Sunday and Holy Week are only two weeks ago and Easter is three weeks away. And with Easter in sight, we can, on this Sunday lift up a slightly subdued prayer of rejoicing.

Still, I can’t help but face the reality of the fact that we are now over half-done with the season of Lent and I personally have not preached about the one thing we preachers should be preaching about in Lent.

This past week, I went out for coffee with a young woman whose been attending St. Stephen’s, and is becoming a good friend of mine, Leah Elliott. She very jokingly made the comment over coffee: “Father Jamie, all your sermons are about love and baptism.” She, I think, meant that in a good way (I hope so anyway).

And yes, it’s pretty true. If I’m not preaching about love, I’m probably preaching about baptism. And I have preached about both already this Lenten Season.

But I have not yet preached about the so-called “elephant in the room.” The elephant, in this case, is, of course that ugly word and that ugly concept—Sin.

I know, we don’t want to hear about sin. I don’t want to hear about sin. Most of us have had to sit through countless hours listening to preachers go on and on about sin in our lives. Many of us have had it driven into us and pounded into us and we just don’t want to hear it anymore. But the fact is, we can’t get through this season of Lent without at least acknowledging it. Certainly, I as a priest, would be neglecting my duty if I didn’t at least mention it.

Besides, whenever there’s an elephant in the room, I—and I’m sure most of you—like to face it. And in facing the elephant, we sometimes realize the power we thought that elephant had has been overcome.

As much as we try to avoid sin and speak around it or ignore it, for those of us who are Christians, we just can’t. We live in a world in which there is war and crime and recession and morally bankrupt people and, in looking at all of those things, we must face the fact that sin—people falling short of their ideal—is all around us. And during this season of Lent, we find ourselves facing sin all the time. It’s there in our scripture readings. It’s there in our liturgy. It’s just…there.

I certainly have struggled with this issue in my life. I don’t like preaching about sin. I would rather not do it. But…I have to. We all have to occasionally.

The fact is, people tend to define us by the sins we commit—the define us by illness—the spiritual leprosy within us—rather than by the people we really are underneath the sin. And that person we are underneath is truly a person created in the image of God. Sin, if we look it as a kind of illness, like leprosy or any other kind of sickness, truly does do these things to us. It desensitizes us, it distorts us, it makes us less than who were are. It blots out the image of God in which we were created. And like a sickness, we need to understand the source of the illness to truly get to heart of the matter.

Alexander Schmemann, the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, (and I believe he’s echoing the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth here) wrote, “Essentially all sins come from two sources: flesh and pride. And if we are honest with ourselves, if we are blunt with ourselves, if we look hard at ourselves, we realize that, in those moments in which we have failed ourselves, when we have failed others, when we have failed God, the underlying issues can be found in either our pride or in our flesh.

This season of Lent is a time when we take into account where we have failed in ourselves, in our relationship with God and in our relationship with each other. But—and I stress this—it is never a time to despair. It is never a time to beat ourselves up over the sins we have committed. It is rather a time for us to buck up.

It is a time in which we seek to improve ourselves. It is a time in which, acknowledging those negative aspects of ourselves, we strive to rise above our failings. It is a time for us to seek healing for the leprosy of our souls. And, in seeking, we do find that healing.

We find that healing in, to use the language of Martin Luther, “the long dark shadow of the Cross.” In the Cross, we find our healing. The Cross is a very potent symbol for us in our healing. Gazing upon the cross, as those Israelites gazed upon the bronze serpent that Moses held up to them, we find ourselves healed. And as we are healed, as we find our sins dissolved by Christ on the cross, we come to an amazing realization.

We realize that we are not our sins. And our sins are not us. Our sins are no more us, than our illnesses are. For those of us who have had serious illnesses—and as many of you know, I celebrated ten years of being cancer-free last month—when we are living with our illness, we can easily start believing that our sickness and our very selves are one and the same. When I was had cancer ten years ago, there were moments of despair and frustration. There were moments, as I lived with that illness within me, when I couldn’t see where the illness ended and where I began. We had become bound to each other in a way that I despised and hated. But now, as I look back at that time, I realize I wasn’t my cancer.

For those of us who have had serious illness, it is a good thing for us to ponder and look back at our illness. It is important for our healing process to ask ourselves: how did it happen? Why did it happen? How can I prevent from it happening again? The same is true of sin.

In this seasons of Lent, it is important for us to ponder the sickness of our sins, to examine what we have done and what we have failed to do and to consider how we can prevent it from happening again. But, like our illnesses, once we have been healed, once our sins have been forgiven and they no longer have a hold over us, we do realize that, as scarred as we have been, as deeply destroyed as we thought we were by what we have done and not done, we have found that, in our renewal, we haven’t been given new faces.

We haven’t been changed into some kind super beings. We haven’t been instantly transformed magically into angels or saints.

Rather, our regular familiar faces, scarred and destroyed as they were, have been restored and renewed. Our faces, that essence of who we are and what we are to others and to ourselves, have been made into what they were intended to be—beautiful. Our faces, in which we can reflect the image of Christ to others, can show that image without flaw or shame or embarrassment.

In the shadow of the cross, we are able to see ourselves as people freed and liberated in Christ. We are able to rejoice in the fact that we are not our failures. We are not what we have failed to do. But in the shadow of the cross we see that we are loved and we are healed and we are cherished. And once we recognize that, then we too can turn our faces toward each other, glowing with that image of Christ imprinted upon us, and we too can love and heal and cherish.

See, sin does not have to make us despair. When we despair over sin, sin wins out. Rather, we can work on ourselves, we can improve ourselves, we can rise above our failings and we can then reflect Christ to others and even to ourselves.

So, on this Laetare Sunday—this Sunday in which we rejoice that we are now within the sight of that glorious Easter light—let us gaze at the cross, held up to us as a sign of our healing God. And let our faces and our souls be truly healed. And, in doing so, let us reflect that healing to others so they too can be healed.

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