March 5, 2003
Spring was once the hungriest time of the year. The coming of Spring its Middle English word is the root of "Lent" meant a lot of work to do. Farmers had to prepare their fields, plant, and nurture, but the harvest was still a long way off, and last year's stores were at their lowest. It was time to work, but not yet time to feast.
Today our economy works differently, so hunger and hard work aren't things we associate with Spring. Let me suggest something closer to you: Finals week. You've been putting in the time all semester, and it's getting even more intense, and your body is begging for sleep, and your psyche is begging to go to the beach. But slacking off now will only hurt you later. It's crunch time.
My wife Kim and I have four young children. Our crunch time comes every day: late afternoon. I'm still at work. The kids are tired, restless, and hungry. Kim is trying to manage homework and practicing, placate a fussy baby, answer the phone, and cook dinner. The kids are smelling the food, begging for a snack, and whining when she tells them to wait for dinner. But they do have to wait. It is not yet time to eat; it is still time to work.
There was a time in Jesus' career when things were really falling into place. He had built an impressive record of healings, exorcisms, sermons, blessings, parables, forgiveness, and feedings. The crowds were growing. His disciples were on the job. He was on a smooth upward curve to greatness. But Jesus knew that crunch time was coming. He told his disciples:
"The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."
And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let her deny herself and take up her cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save her life will lose it; and whoever loses her life for my sake, she will save it. For what does it profit a person if she gains the whole world and loses or forfeits herself?" ...
... When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:21-25, 51).
Jesus knew his groupies weren't ready for what was coming. The revival meetings, altar calls, Bible camps, and sinners' prayers had managed to turn these people in Christ's direction. But what lay ahead demanded more: that these people go in his direction. So Jesus took his fans on a long, difficult course to turn them into disciples, and to prepare them for his final week.
Something stands between you and a happy Easter, he said. It's a cross. Oh, not my cross. Your cross.
Lent is one of the ways the Church helps you bear that cross.
Now I know some of you are too spiritual to need a yearly refresher in how to follow Jesus in deliberate self-denial. I bow down before you in awe. To you Christmas and Easter are like every other day! Your patriotism is so profound that you don't observe the Fourth of July! You are so self-confident that you shrug off your birthday, and your friends and family admire the way you forget theirs. When you marry, the way you ignore your anniversary and Valentine's Day will make your spouse swoon in ecstasy. In fact, you are more spiritual than Jesus himself. He disciplined his life and work and mapped it onto sabbaths, Passover, Pentecost, and the other holy days of the Jewish week and year.
Think you're above Lent? Here's a test. Pray this prayer, the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, which is read twice in every Orthodox Lenten service from Monday through Friday:
O Lord and master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to your servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors
And not to judge my brother or sister,
For you are blessed to ages of ages. Amen.
If God granted those requests, would your life look different? Then Lent is for you.
I also know some of you are wary for an opposite reason. You feel too tired for Lent. You are apathetic, restless, burned out, depressed. You're skeptical about prayer and Bible study and every other spiritual exercise. You feel like a vacation from Christianity, not a six-week intensive course. And you sure don't feel like yet another Christian pep rally. Nowadays they only harden your heart.
Well, I'm not here today to excite you. In fact, I identify with you. This year my deadliest sin has been sloth. It has been especially hard lately to rouse myself to do all sorts of things. Sometimes it is as my heart is chained down and God is far away. I don't need adrenalin. I need help.
Some of you are athletes, and you know what that feeling means: I'm soft. And the solution to a chronic lack of energy is not sleeping it off. You don't follow your impulses, you listen to your trainer. If you are genuinely exhausted, you need to rest. If you are just listless, you need to exercise. Either way, you cannot afford to slack.
So much of our church and our wider culture has slacked for so long that out-of-shape now seems normal. When out-of-shape seems normal, we no longer believe we could be any other way. We no longer ask why we can't do the things Jesus expects of us, and Christianity looks harsh and unreasonable.
So every year Lent reminds us that the real problem is not that Christianity is unrealistic, but that we are unrealistic about Christianity.
Consider the generation of your grandparents (and my parents). How hard did they have to work compared to us? And how strong is their generation compared to ours? Do you see sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, or idle talk in their generation like you do in ours? Do you see chastity, humility, patience, or love in ours like you do in theirs?
Their generation denied itself. Our generations really haven't. So ours flounder around searching for an identity. Just as Jesus said, "Whoever would save her life will lose it." The difference isn't that we Gen-Xers and Millennials are young and they are old. It's that we're flabby and they're buff. They would shred Lent.
Or consider the hundreds of thousands of Americans your age who are surrounding Iraq right now. Do they have a problem with sloth or faint-heartedness or self-respect? How do you think they will handle their crunch time? Do you think they prepared for it through a regimen of naps and beach trips and video games?
Christianity is a war, folks. Jesus invited us to be fellow warriors, not spectators.
You want a piece of that? You want to be ready? Then get your ash up here.
In a minute some of us have the privilege of, well, slaying you in the Spirit. We mean for this act to be more than just something exotic that you do in chapel then wash off before lunch. Ash Wednesday begins a season of asceticism. Denying yourself isn't just an experience. It submits your life aspirations to those of God the Father, as Jesus did.
Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, made headlines in 1998 with a campaign to force his employees to revolutionize every aspect of their business to take advantage of the Internet. He called it "DestroyOurBusiness.com." You know what? Compared to Jesus, Jack Welch is a reactionary. Welch just wanted to discover new means for meeting the same old business goals. Jesus laid down all of it. He didn't just surrender parts of his business plan; he surrendered himself. He pursued the will of his Father, though he knew it would lead to rejection. That means that he took his life, his followers, and his legacy utterly out of his own hands. He handed them back to the One who had sent him. By accepting death, he invited the Father to save both his life and his legacy.
That's asceticism. That's trust. We call it faith.
And in the crunch, the Father came through for him.
If you come down to take up your cross, you are setting your face to go to Jerusalem. You are handing your life and legacy over to the Father as an invitation for the Father to bestow eternity on them. You are inviting Easter by preparing for Good Friday.
So don't come down here casually. Do a little accounting first. Are you sure you want to take this on? If so, what happens next? What should be denied? What should be handed over and taken up? What stops today, and what starts?
If your local church has special ways of observing Lent, then I urge you to do what your community is doing.
If not, then one traditional way to observe Lent is to hand back something you love as a symbol of handing over everything you love. You could give up something big or something small: Video, music, dessert, caffeine, whatever. What you give up, give to others: Give the money you save to people who don't have the luxury of fasting. (Don't forget to take Sundays off; the Lord's Day always celebrates the Resurrection, even in Lent.)
I am not talking about dieting to lose weight or breaking habits for self-improvement. These things may result in God improving you, but Lent is not about self-improvement. Lent is about salvation through self-denial.
Another way to observe Lent is to give up something you love for something God loves. Look at Jesus does on his way to Jerusalem in the ten chapters following Luke 9:51. This is what he means by cross-bearing! He sends out his disciples again and laments the cities that turn them away. He counsels mercy on strangers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. He teaches Mary and rebukes Martha. He trains his people to pray the Lord's Prayer. I'm only in the middle of chapter 11, but you get the picture.
Yes, studying for your classes can be ascetical, if it prepares you to face God's future. It would be good if Lenten study helped train you in how to follow Jesus throughout and after college.
Yet another way to observe Lent is to impress the cross on your life with worship and spiritual discipline. Pray St. Ephrem's prayer often. If your church features the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, then visit them. I suggest you read Luke 9-19 at least once between now and Palm Sunday. Pray through them. Confess the shortcomings these texts expose in you. Rejoice in sufferings that resemble the ones there.
Then, in the week from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, do the same thing with Luke 20 through 23. And on Easter Sunday, treat yourself to Luke 24. If you've followed him this far, meeting him risen will be an unforgettably rich experience.
A couple more things: Make your ashes an invitation for others to ask you if they may keep you accountable for the rest of the season. We are more likely to stay faithful if we do these things together.
Finally, this goes without saying: No whining.
It's only fair to tell you what I plan to do. I pondered this for weeks, and got the answer only Monday. This summer I will be coming back to Westmont to take a tenure-track position. My colleague and "big brother" Jonathan Wilson won't be here to guide me as he did before. (Crunch time!) So my Lent will be a season of preparation, dedicated to working and praying to gain God's vision for my role here.
I know that not all of you intend to change your behavior this Lent. That too is an honorable tradition in many healthy churches, including my own. If you will sit out this Lent, then sit out Ash Wednesday, OK? Don't start something you won't finish.
If you take up your cross today, don't judge those who don't. If you don't, don't judge those who do. ("Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother or sister.") Lent is not the only way for disciples to train. And all people are welcome here, not just disciples.
As we pray and you prepare to come, why don't you write on your chapel card what you will do differently this Lent? Bring that hope forward with you. If you like, you can read it to the person who is slaying you. Feel free to cross yourself in response; the world won't end!