I wanted to begin today by discussing Lent. Lent is a time to repent - or, to put it in less “churchy” words, to look at our lives, to reflect, to try to make some changes, to turn from one direction and go in a new direction, to grow, to try to be more worthy and more whole and just plain more Godly, as we anticipate what Jesus sacrificed, as we remember the things that we are a part of that lead and led, inevitably towards the cross.
As part of that, what is the most common Lenten practice that we know of? Giving something up. What kinds of things do people give up? There can be something good and healthy about giving something up: if we are really looking at our lives and we find something that is getting in the way of our wholeness, of our serving God and others. Then we can decide to make a practice of limiting, for a set period of time, but perhaps with the idea that if we can do it for a short time, we might be able to do it for longer, whatever it is that is interfering in our growth, wholeness and service to God.
But I found myself thinking about the falseness, so many times, of these deprivations or sacrifices. A good friend of mine told me that for years she gave up chips every lent. Chips were her favorite food and a staple in her diet. Every lent though she went through the tortuous ritual of throwing out all of her unfinished bags of chips. Of course there weren’t many by lent; fat Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi-gras, allowed her to gorge and cram down as many as she could ahead of time. And she told me that every year she felt sick for the first three days of lent; whether it was withdrawal symptoms or whether it was a chip hang-over from Fat Tuesday she was never sure. But after six long weeks of agonizing deprivation and anticipation, lent finally came to an end. The day before Easter her kids would go out and buy every kind of chip they could imagine, open the bags, and line them up in front of my friend. They would have a count-down and at the exact moment lent was officially over she would eat and eat until she was too full and sick to eat anymore, leaving her, once again, sick for the first few days of Easter.
These sacrifices on many occasions are almost like a game we play - “let’s see if I can give this up,” or they are a way of feeling like we’re really doing something in the name of our faith. But they represent a choice that a privileged or wealthy person (and we are all wealthy here by the world’s standards) makes for a short and specific period of time: a choice that can be “cheated” and even changed at any moment.
What do these deprivations actually mean in the bigger scheme of our faith? What does it mean in terms of our dual call to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves? What does it mean to the people God really calls us to care for - the oppressed and the poor?
To put it in more concrete terms, what does it mean to those who can’t afford and therefore don’t own a television that you give up watching TV for a month? What can it possibly mean to the person who struggles to find enough of any kind of food to eat that you give up chocolate or ice cream for a month? What does it mean to God that you “give up” something but aren’t giving to someone else who might really need it? The intent of these sacrifices is to focus on God. But often the Lenten practice of sacrifice gets warped and trivialized. And do we then use those deprivations to focus more on God, or do we end up focusing on something else - like on our own “religiousness” or even more, on a sense of deprivation? Are we taking the time that we would otherwise use watching TV or whatever else it is we have given up to volunteer with the poor, to meditate on the direction God wants for our lives or even very simply to pray?
As I said before, this Lenten practice started with good intentions. Get rid of the things that separate you from God and develop a closer relationship with God through doing so. But I think that many of our spiritual practices, this being one of them, have instead become bargaining chips in an “If I do x, God will you please give me y” kind of way. You may not be familiar with the term “prosperity gospel” but it is what is espoused by many of our rich and powerful preachers and their followers in the United States, people like Joel Osteen. It was reflected in the theology of the movie, Leap of Faith that we showed here on our first movie night as well. It is incredibly popular theology because it promises that if you just do “a” right or “b” right, if you give enough money to these prosperity gospel preachers, if you pray enough, if you give up something for lent, that God will reward you with riches, with prosperity, with “stuff” beyond your wildest dreams.
Just to be clear, I find no justification for this in our scriptures. Today we hear in two different gospels Jesus telling us that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, that bad things and good things happen to all people. We know the story of Job. Despite his faith and goodness, he lost everything. And while at the end, he is doing fine again, every time I hear the story now I am now reminded of a wonderful poem by Carl Denis about Job that ends with these words, “How foolish … To … assume that Job's new family, New wife and children and servants, Would be an ample substitute for the old.” A loss like the death of one’s children is a loss never to be recovered from. And no faith can protect against that.
Bad things happen to good, God-fearing people. We talked about this last week some and I will undoubtedly mention it again. But the bottom line is this: If you are faithful to God because you envision God as a kind of Santa Claus that rewards good action or even faith, and punishes the bad, or even just the lack of faith, you might want to find a new religion, one that emphasizes karma more. Because that just isn’t how the God shown to us by Jesus works.
As Cathleen Fasani wrote in a recent article to the Washington Post, “Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of … Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich. But if you're not rich, then what? Are the poor cursed by God because of their unfaithfulness? And if God were so concerned about 401(k)s and Mercedes, why would God's son have been born into poverty?... Jesus was born poor, and he died poor. During his earthly tenure, he spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.”
The bigger problem with prosperity gospel theology is that it completely wipes out grace. In the prosperity gospel model our faith becomes an economic system of rewards and punishments. You get what you earn, you get what you deserve. But God isn’t like that. God causes the sun to shine on all of us. The rain, too, falls on all of us. And God loves ALL of us, no matter what.
I think historically, people have done many things in an attempt to earn God’s favor. I large part of the protestant reformation was in response to the Catholic church charging people “indulgences” as a way to pay off their sins and to earn God’s forgiveness and grace. And if you are a person who struggles with guilt, it is likely that that guilt is a remembrance, especially when things go wrong, of the ways we have failed. We start thinking that somehow the bad things that have happened to us are because we haven’t been enough, haven’t done enough, haven’t been faithful enough. But the good news is that this is not true. God love you just the way you are. And out of that love, God offers grace, free undeserved gifts and forgiveness and love and care. God offers that grace to all of us, not as a response to anything we have or have not done. You cannot earn grace by its very definition. It is a gift freely given.
I believe with all my being that that Grace is always there for us. But receiving that becomes possible when we see it, if we are able to connect the dots and trust that that grace is from a God who loves us, if we can see the many beautiful good gifts that surround us as the sign and promise of God’s love, as they are. But whether we are able to see it or not, that grace is offered to everyone, NOT because any of us deserve it, or have failed to deserve it. It is there because that is the nature of God: God is the One who offers grace, every single day, to each of God’s children.
So, then, if we do not do our Lenten practices and other spiritual disciplines in order to earn God’s grace, why do them? Again, the original idea behind any spiritual discipline is to increase our closeness to God. We don’t do this to “earn” grace because grace can’t be earned. We do this out of gratitude and love for a God who has already given us grace. We do it to build a relationship with the amazing God who does love creation so much that She/He offers that grace to everyone. We do it because in growing closer to God we find that, no matter what else we are going through, we come to learn, experience and trust that we are truly held and supported and loved by a God who walks with us graces us even through the hardest times.
Today’s story from Luke is not an easy story. Jesus first says that bad things don’t happen to people because they sin, but then he goes on to say “I tell you unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” The second half of the lesson isn’t much more comforting. The fig tree doesn’t produce fruit and so the owner wants to tear it out. The gardener persuades the owner to give the fig tree another year to produce, but even then, the owner still says that if it doesn’t produce good fruit in another year, it will be ripped out. Not a really reassuring story, is it?
Except that the fig tree is not left to its own devices. The gardener promises to dig around it, to put fertilizer on it, to care for it. That gardener working hard to make us into the beautiful fruitful trees we are called to be is Grace, straight from God. That care for us, that pruning, that nurturing takes many forms: our life lessons, the church, the things that happen to us which confront us to change and to grow and to truly be servants of God, the many places we experience God’s love. When we remain open to God’s grace, we find ourselves in that place where we are dug around, where the hard places are pointed out and softened with some digging, some aeration, and in a place where we are nourished and fed, replenished, and given the best nutrition possible in order to grow so that we, too may produce fruit.
God does indeed call us to be the people of love, finding, searching, seeking and serving with that love. And when we follow God, we see grace all around us. But I remain convinced that it is not because we have “earned” it that God gives us grace. Still, through our faith and through our actions of faithful living we learn to see the grace that is offered. So, do we do our Lenten disciplines? Doing anything that brings you closer to God is always a good plan. And Lent is a good time to begin to do it (though truly, any time is). But we are called to these tasks out of love for God, out of gratitude for the grace already given. Amen.