Thursday, 7 March 2019

“We need a little Lent, right this very minute.”: a sermon (Matthew 6: 1 – 21, Luke 4: 1 – 13)

Today’s sermon was a work in progress for the past week-and-a-half.  It began to take shape in my mind around the time when the result in a high-profile criminal trial was announced.  (Given the fact that there’s an appeal in process and the matter is still sub judice, I won’t be commenting on the actual trial or the actual charges.)  The sermon has changed a bit during the past week-and-a-half.  As a result, the sermon has had a number of working titles.

·        It began as “Observing Lent even in the age of Donald Trump and George Pell.”   

·        It morphed into “Even at a time when arrogance is treated as a civic and religious virtue, let’s do Lent anyway.”

·        I’ve eventually settled on “We need a little Lent, right this very minute”.

Let us pray. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

In your order of worship, you’ll find a copy of a drawing by the very talented cartoonist Jay Sidebottom.  The scene is during a worship service on Ash Wednesday.  As the minister is about to put some ash on the forehead of a member of the congregation, she says,   “Remember that you are dust…”, but then she adds “…but a very high quality sort of dust.” 



There’s some real and profound theological truth to this.

We are dust.

·        In contrast to the eternal God, the God who is Life itself, we are mortal; we are finite.

·        In contrast to the God of Love, the God who is Compassion itself, we struggle to reflect the love of God in any consistent way in our own lives.

We are dust.  Lent reminds us we are dust.

Nevertheless, we are “a very high quality sort of dust”. 

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity for rational, logical thought.

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity to appreciate beauty, both in the world of nature and in the achievements of human art.

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity for ethical choice.

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity to express love.

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity to worship the God in whose image we live, and move, and have our being.

We are “a very high quality sort of dust”.  And Lent should also remind us of that.

This is tremendously important.  There are many people for whom a warped, ultraconservative religious faith – Christian or otherwise - has taught them a destructive sense of low self-esteem, in which they believe that the true response of true faith is to always think, “I’m evil; I’m evil; I’m horrible; I’m horrible!”  An approach to faith – Christian or otherwise – which encourages this low self-esteem is a sick faith.

A healthy faith - again, Christian or otherwise – reminds us that we are “a very high quality sort of dust”. 

Lent challenges our personal arrogance.  We are dust.  Lent also reminds us that we are people living in the image of God.  We are “a very high quality sort of dust”. 

In both readings from scripture we’ve used today, we see both these concerns.

The lesson from Matthew was the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday.  Jesus is teaching his disciples about religious practices, good and bad.  Our practice of the faith shouldn’t call attention to ourselves and our own piety.  Long-winded, ex tempore prayers are unnecessary (particularly if they’re packed with pious jargon).  Don’t whinge or look dismal when fasting.  When you give to the poor, do it in a way that advances social justice and shows respect for the people you’re helping, not in a way that entrenches dependence or which insults and embarrasses the person who needs help. 

The lesson from Luke is the gospel reading for today, the First Sunday in Lent.  Jesus resisted the temptation to focus on his own immediate needs.  He resisted the temptation to go for a flashy, showbiz, special effects approach to the life of faith.  He also resisted the temptation to give in to despair and say “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

In both of these lessons, we are challenged, as those who seek to follow Jesus, to be “a very high quality sort of dust”. 

Those who remember the musical “Mame” will remember the song “We need a little Christmas”, sung by Dame Angela Lansbury (and, as we all know, there’s nothing like a Dame).  If you don’t remember the musical, you’ll know the song from watching “Carols by Candlelight” on TV.  Anyway, I’d like to paraphrase Dame Angela’s song by saying, “We need a little Lent, right this very minute.”  (Oh, blow it, I’ll sing it.)  “We need a little Lent, right this very minute.” 

And the reason we “need a little Lent” is that Lent challenges our arrogance.  Lent reminds us all that we are dust, even if it is “a very high quality sort of dust”.   Looking at the rampant arrogance in the world around us, I believe “We need a little Lent, right this very minute.” 

And here, I suppose is where the “colourful American political identity” and the “colourful Australian religious identity” I mentioned earlier both come into the picture.  We live in a time in history in which arrogance is treated as a virtue.  If the 1980s was the decade in which people believed “greed is good”, we’re living now at a time in which many people believe that arrogance is a civic and religious virtue. 

In the realm of business, in the realm of the media, in the realm of politics, and, sadly, in the realm of faith, some people are trying to tell us that we’re living in a “post-truth” era.  In other words, you can talk the worst rubbish imaginable, but if you seem sufficiently sure of yourself (arrogantly sure), people will follow you.  Sadly, it is possible for an arrogant con-man to become a senior leader either in the body politic or in the household of faith.  When this happens, it undermines the credibility of all the institutions in the community.

“We need a little Lent, right this very minute.” 

Lent challenges our arrogance.  Lent reminds us that we are dust.  … Donald Trump is dust. … George Pell is dust. … I’m dust.  … You’re dust.

“We need a little Lent, right this very minute.” 

And, at the end of Lent, Easter will once again remind us that we are “a very high quality sort of dust.”  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.