A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
Year A – March 16, 2014
David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate
Send your spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your Word, and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus Name. Amen.
Part of my work in the Diocese of Virginia involves working as a facilitator with clergy who are in transition, either newly ordained or newly placed in a church as an assistant or as a new rector. The program is called Fresh Start. At about this time each year as he did this past Thursday, Bishop Shannon Johnston leads us in a half-day retreat in which he traces with us the services of Lent starting with the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday and continuing through the Easter Vigil. He’s done this now for seven years and each year he brings some new insight into this holy time of year. He has shared with us that each year in his own discipline he finds that he receives new insights. It is a real gift for us as we seek to grow ourselves no matter how many years we’ve been at this business of parish ministry. For one thing, it’s an encouragement that we do not have to do things exactly the same way each year. While he shared many things for us to think about, I want simply to begin this morning as we enter this second week of Lent with something he called to our attention. It has to do with the meaning of the word “Lent.” The word “Lent” simply refers to the lengthening of days. Yes, Lent is a season of penitence, self examination, fasting and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word as we heard in the invitation to the observance of a holy Lent on Ash Wednesday, but the lengthening days reminds us as each day in Lent passes that the days get brighter. With each new day, brighter than the day before, comes hope. Hope comes because we know how the story turns out. Yes, Jesus will be crucified, yet God will raise him from the dead. There is reason for us to be a people of hope.
You and I who are gathered here this morning want our faith to be deepened. You and I want to know the power of forgiveness. You and I want to know we are loved, and we want to be assured that God is with us in our journey from day to day.
You and I, like the psalmist, are on a journey. On that journey he called out the words we recited in Psalm 121. As we cited those words just now, what went through your mind?
I lift up mine eyes to the hills;
from where is my help to come?”
My help comes from the Lord,
The maker of heaven and earth.
The Lord will not let your foot be moved,
and the One that watches over you will not fall asleep
Behold, the One who keeps watch over Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.
It is the Lord who watches over you;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand. . .
For me this time as I was thinking of today and what might be said, the words “keep” and “watch over” in this psalm struck me as I began to contemplate once again the meaning of God’s unconditional love and care for us as God’s beloved.
Think about it for a moment. There is a difference between having and keeping. You and I may have our favorite things, our favorite possessions. I have, for example, a new Subaru Forester to replace the one totaled in a crash last December. I love my new car as I loved my old Subaru. It is something that I possess. I care for it—I hope not to the point of idolatry—though I admit I worried last Wednesday when I had to leave it in the St. Paul’s parking garage to be parked by a garage attendant! While I love it and care for it I do that in a much different way from the way we care, for example, for our collies and our Tonkinese cat. We are pet owners, yet our animals are not merely possessions. They are beloved creatures of God to us. Therefore, we watch over them not for our sake, but for theirs. We do all we can to protect them from harm because if they suffer, we suffer too. Their love for us is unconditional.
One of my favorite Anglican theologians, Yogi Berra, once said, “One can observe a lot by watching.” It’s true, you know. We can learn a lot, for example, by observing the bond between a dog and its owners. Our recent experience may be like one you have had with an animal you loved. Last summer, in July, with a week still left of our vacation for further travel after our time on the Vineyard, we learned from a phone call that our beloved 13-year-old collie, Annie, had taken a turn and was failing quickly. Our sitter arranged to get her to the veterinary clinic. We left Martha’s Vineyard immediately to return home hoping that we could get back in time to be with Annie for her final moments. The veterinarian assured us she was not suffering and that she would probably hang on until we could get home. We arrived at the animal clinic the next evening and found Annie still alive but very weak. We carefully carried her home so she could spend her final hours in her familiar surroundings and with us at her side. That night, once home again, and with us there for her, amazingly, she began to respond. She started to drink water, and the next morning she began to eat again, and miraculously was able to stand once again. Though frail, as each day passed she grew stronger and was able to manage fairly well. The veterinarian said it was a miracle. Her theory was that Annie, at her advanced age, had perhaps figured that we had left her. She had given up and was ready to die. Her trust in life and her desire to go on once again, however, seemed to return when we came back and she knew that we had not abandoned her. That time for all of us was a precious gift. For six more months she had a pretty good quality of life. Then, one day in mid January, she suddenly went into a rapid decline once again. She seemed now to be telling us it was time. Dr. Gaffney, another vet from the same clinic came to the house. He gently and kindly assisted her in leaving us quietly and peacefully. Lady, our four-year-old collie, Beau Thai, our cat, the two of us, who were a mess as you can imagine, and that compassionate vet surrounded Annie as she slipped away in peace knowing that she was not alone even at the end as she was leaving this world. As we carried Annie’s body out to the vet’s car, I mentioned to Dr. Gaffney that this must be a very hard part of his work as a veterinarian. He said that yes, the hard part was seeing people like us grieve over the loss of their beloved animal, but that he considered it an honor and a privilege to be able to be with and to assist an animal when it was time so that that there would be no more suffering. His perspective and his words were a real comfort to me.
As I have reflected over these past six months, I have thought there is a sermon in there somewhere. Today, the words of Psalm 121 come to mind. “The Lord himself is thy keeper;” God does not merely possess us, God keeps watch over us throughout our journeys in life. You and I are God’s beloved. When we suffer or are in doubt, God is there to sustain us whatever may happen in our journey. As we read Psalm 121 we can identify with the psalmist. You and I can become fellow travelers with the psalmist in our own day. We have in our minds the picture of the psalmist approaching the hills which could very well be Mount Zion, God’s holy mountain and the place of the temple. It was not thought to be an easy journey to get there. The hills ahead loomed high and steep. In the opening verse, the psalmist cries out as he looks up to the mountain ahead. He calls out, “from where is my help to come?” That is the question you and I often ask when we find that the steep hills in front of us contain difficulties and dangers that can seem overwhelming. To think of life as a journey can be helpful. In the beginning, God breathes life into our being and at the end of our earthly travels we will breathe our last. In between these events we experience that wide range of things. Frequently we find our the journey is not entirely smooth sailing, yet like the psalmist there are angels who minister to us to remind us that we live in the assurance that the Lord will keep us—will preserve us—in the midst of all evil.
As individuals, our journeys take us along paths with many challenges that often call for more courage than we can muster ourselves. Our journey could include facing a decision whether or not to leave the job we have for another, or if we are to stay in our job, to re-create and re-imagine that job we have. Our journey could include a challenge to our health or the health of a loved one. It could include a financial crisis. It could include a tremendous loss and we wonder how we can go on. Any of these can bring on a crisis of faith. At these times, what lies ahead for us can seem like an insurmountable hill to climb. Like the psalmist, we look up and we ask, “From where is my help to come?”
For a community of faith the journey could lead to the challenges of trying to revitalize a congregation with a new vision for ministry and mission, or trying to breath new life into worship as we seek to hold on to the things that endure while being open to things that may enrich our worship in new ways. Pope Francis, for example, in his exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” invites us all to be bold and creative in the task of rethinking the way we have been doing things over the years. Such a journey calls for more courage and more confidence than a community may think that it has, or even may want to have because there is often comfort in the way things have always been. As any faith community looks ahead to new visions that require moving beyond its comfort zone, the hill may be more that it might want to climb. If, however, a faith community is willing to begin to move beyond its comfort zone there comes the question, “If we do that, from where will our help come?” It’s a natural question, and an important one, and there is an answer. We cannot recite this psalm without being aware of the words “keep” or “watch over.” It is a natural thing when faced with what seems to be insurmountable obstacles or even the possibility of change for you and me to feel that we are losing a grip on God. But this psalm is yet another example of the reassurance that God does not ever lose a grip on us. Again and again, Scripture reminds us that God watches over us and even in those times when we experience pain we will not be alone for the Lord will be with us, for
Behold, the One who keeps watch over Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord shall watch over your going out
and your coming in from this time forth forever more.
The Lord is our keeper, yet we must somehow be willing and able to give ourselves to the one who keeps watch over us. I find myself returning to the image of caring for a beloved dog. We do not possess that beloved dog, but we care for it with all our love and concern. We do that because of the mutual bond that exists between us and them. As we keep them and care for them, they give themselves to us. It is unconditional love both ways. That bond is like the unconditional love that exists between God and us.
Now, especially during Lent we have a chance to step aside from the routines of our daily lives so that we can remember who we are and to whom we belong. We have an opportunity to focus our attention on hope. Let us keep in mind that the days are lengthening and that hope lies ahead. Let us take each day as it comes. This time of Lent is a gift to you and to me and to the Church. It is a time when you and I come face to face with the essential truth that indeed, God is our keeper who watches over us. God wants us to be a people of hope.
What for you as you face this coming week and perhaps beyond, might be a steep hill that seems insurmountable? Rest assured. It is God who has the final say over all that you and I must face as we come into this world and as we leave this world, and all that happens in between. Most of all, whatever we face, God is with us. Our help will come from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. In that promise, we find our hope. Amen.