Our second reading this evening comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, beginning with chapter 5, verse 20 and continuing through chapter 6, verse 10. Let us hear this Word of God.
20bwe entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
1As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says,
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
How many of you have given up something for Lent? While the majority of those in the United States who give us something for Lent are Roman Catholic, more than 30% of Protestant Evangelicals also say they now give up something during the season of Lent. According to Twitter, the most popular items this year include giving up social media, alcohol, chocolate, and potato chips. I must admit that I find it ironic that the first item on the list is social media because the person usually uses social media to make this grand announcement that they are giving up social media.
That points us toward one of the challenges in “giving up something for Lent.” The hope is that by denying yourself something you enjoy that you will create space and moments for deeper relationship with God. Unfortunately for most of us giving something up for Lent often becomes a mere test of endurance and even a mark of pride at how long we have been able to avoid alcohol or desserts.
So, this year I invite you to discover a new lens in the traditional “giving up something for Lent.” With both our Daily Scripture and Prayer Guide and our Wednesday Evening Lenten Services, I invite you to embrace the spiritual practice of Sabbath. In a sense, I am inviting you to add to your spiritual life a practice which begins by letting go. It is a letting go so that we might be filled.
That is usually not how we think of being filled. It takes work to be filled, right? As we hear Paul’s long litany to the Corinthians in our text for this evening about how he has suffered for the gospel, we begin to start compiling our own lists of accomplishments for Jesus; the things we have done or endured for the sake of the gospel. If we wear our hair shirts and don’t eat chocolate or check Facebook 100 times a day then surely there will be a star in our crown by the time we get to Easter morning.
But perhaps the gospel is something different. As we were sitting at the French Market eating dinner on Friday night, J Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA, shared with me an illustration his father had showed him as a child. He said his father had taken a $10 bill and put it inside his closed fist. He asked young J. Herbert to get that $10 bill out of his hand. Try as he might he was not able to pry open his father’s fingers. His father then opened his hand and gave the $10 bill to J Herbert. He once again closed his fingers to make a fist and asked his son to put the $10 bill back in. Once again despite his persistent effort, J Herbert could not put the money back in his dad's hand. Yes, whatever your good thing – from a $10 bill to giving up something for Lent – yes, whatever your good thing might be, you can't get it in nor can you get it out unless you are unless your hands and your heart are open.
My friends, living the Sabbath is not merely a momentary pause in the midst of our otherwise crazy life. No Sabbath is a lifestyle of grace, a lifestyle of open hands so that we might both give and receive amazing gifts from God; so that our lives might be filled from the inside out. If our practice of Lent is just to give something up, and to hold on so tight to that giving up, then no matter how great we feel about ourselves there's no way for the Holy Spirit to get in. The season of Lent, and our theme this year of living the Sabbath, is not a work harder, add burdens, self-improvement plan. No, it is loosening our grasp, confessing our need for control, and opening ourselves to grace. We do not need to pick up and try to shoulder another burden on top of all those we already carry. We need to set that burden down.
My friends now is the time of salvation. Now is the time to accept the grace of God. As we make our way to the cross and the empty tomb, I invite you to live the Sabbath. We will discover various means of living in God's grace as we journey together, but tonight let us begin by opening our hands, by receiving ashes, by leaning into a life with Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen