A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
March 21, 2021
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us,
in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront
one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work
together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.
“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”—John Henry Cardinal Newman
There are several ideas which have been used to think about the Season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, our Book of Common Prayer used two of them. The early church, we were reminded, spoke of Lent as the time which notorious sinners were reconciled and welcomed back into communion. It was also the final season of preparation for the Catechumens who were preparing for their full reception into the Body of Christ through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist. I find it interesting that in both of these cases, there is a singular reality: a sinner, a Catechumen and groups of sinners and Catechumens. In either case, it was also a season in which others—who were neither notorious sinners or Catechumens prepared to celebrate the life-giving and transformative mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith—the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
One way of understanding the connection between these seemingly competing ideologies of Lent, is that both are really struggling to understand what it means to be converted, to change, and to become. What is conversion about anyway? Is it a single dramatic life-changing moment-like, for instance, the experience of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus? Or is it rather, a slow and gradual process that takes place over years-over a lifetime? Is it possible that there are elements of both? Are there memorable moments which may or may not be rather dramatic, and many other ordinary moments which reveal new insights, and new ways of thinking?
March 21st is a dual celebration this year. For all the Western Church it is the final Sunday of Lent. It is a time of transition. Next Sunday will be the beginning of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday we will being to recall the pivotal experiences of the life of Jesus: the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem by riding on a donkey while the gathered crowd welcomes him as the messiah, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We will recall the Last Supper and the Institution of the Eucharist with the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday. We will recall the agony in the Garden, the arrest, and the trials of Jesus. We will recall the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Death and Burial, and finally the Resurrection. And then, in the fifty days which follow, we will examine the appearances of Jesus to his disciples as they struggle to understand what all of this means to them—personally and as a community of faith.
For the Benedictine family of monastics, and those connected to them, though, March 21st is the Feast of the Transitus—a fascinating word—the commemoration of the happy and holy death of Benedict of Nursia. I will have more to say about that in just a few minutes.
This final Sunday of Lent offers a moment to look back on this past month. How has Lent been for us this far? Did we choose to give up something this year? Did we choose to take on some good work or practice? In either case, how has that gone for us? Lent is not about accumulating gold medals for perfect observance. It is rather a very concrete season in which we struggle to understand change, growth, and conversion. It is a season in which we come to understand that there are things in us which are deeply rooted. To move from practice, to habit, to changed behavior is a real struggle. It is not easy. It is challenging. It is frustrating. Inevitably, we will fail in our attempts. But what do we do then? Do we give up? Do we throw our hands up in despair? Do we say that we tried, and we were just not able to do it? Or, do we admit that we failed, and start over? The challenge is to persevere—and not only during Lent, but in all of our lives.
Lent, then is like a way to understand the whole Christian life. It begins by saying yes to God’s gracious invitation. And then we try to find our way. If we are gifted with guides who have walked the journey before us, and who are able to help us understand what we encounter along the way, we are blessed indeed. Along the way, we will be fed and nourished and empowered to keep traveling towards our destination. If we travel with others, we are more likely to safe and protected from harm and dangers. And then something amazing happens. As we grow, we find that we have something to contribute. We will be able to assist others who join us along the way. In time, we may become leaders rather than novices or new believers. Together, we form a Beloved Community, a company in which each person is loved, respected, welcomed, affirmed, valued, and treasured. A host which spans time itself, and in which we have a foretaste, a foreshadowing of the joys which await us at the completion of our journey.
It is important, though, not to get distracted. The danger is that if we focus on the wrong things, we will find ourselves going down the rabbit hole and wasting valuable time, energy, and resources. This is especially true of the week which lies ahead of us. Remember this, Holy Week is not about how much Jesus suffered—it is about how much Jesus loved. It is about understanding the power of that saving, healing, and redeeming love to transform us from strangers, aliens, and outsiders into family, into community, into Church. It is all about love. And, as our Presiding Bishop reminds us, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.”
I mentioned, though, that today is the also the Feast of the Transitus, of the death of Holy Father Benedict. In the Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, there is a wonderful account of the last days of Benedict’s life. There is the final meeting with his Sister Scholastica (in which humbly learns about the power of her faith and prayer). Then comes the vision of her death—with her soul ascending to heaven as a dove. Benedict is then gifted with a vision in which he sees that connection of all reality—bathed in the warmth and light of God’s love. Finally, when he realizes that his life has come to a natural conclusion, Saint Benedict goes to the oratory, receives the Body and Blood of Christ. With his brothers surrounding him, and holding his hands up in prayer, he dies.
This is said to be a celebration of a happy death, and Benedict is viewed as the Patron of happy death because, as the Benedictine hymn, the Ultima, phrases it, Benedict’s good death was “anointed and serene.” It showed that the man of God, the man of faith, the man of prayer concluded his life as he had lived it—loving, serving, seeking God in prayer and in community.
Many of us have been tempted to think that this past year has been a time of Lent. The pandemic has called up to leave behind the “normal,” the “comfortable,” the “routine and familiar,” and to journey to a new place. It has been a frightening detour for us. And yet, it has also been a time of unexpected insight, growth, and change.
The past year has allowed us to struggle both to understand and to combat the coronavirus. Our world has been devastated by the impact of this disease. In our own country alone, the CDC website indicated that more than 538,000 people have died. This crisis will prove to be a defining moment for us—we will speak of life “before and after” Covid 19.
This past year has also allowed many of us to understand that our country has been afflicted with another devastating disease-that of White Supremacy. The deaths of countless Black women and men—some recorded on video—have opened our eyes to the constant violence with which Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color are afflicted on a day-to-day basis.
Just this week, we have been forced to realize that our Asian siblings have been singled out for scapegoating and abuse. They have been blamed for a pandemic which has nothing to do with them as individuals or as a group. For many of us, this has served as a wake-up call. Our BIPOC sisters and brothers have clearly told us that this is nothing new. This is what has been happening since the first Europeans arrived on our shores on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1585. Yet, to most of us, the violence and racial hatred remained invisible. We just did not see it! Rather than a coronavirus, it is a cancer which has eaten at the very organs, flesh, and bones of our community. Like the coronavirus, which attacks and often permanently damages the lungs, it has left us gasping for breath. While our Sisters and Brothers were profiles, harassed, assaulted, shot and killed, and smothered to death on our city streets by the very law enforcement officers who vowed to serve and protect them, we collectively have not been able to breathe.
It must be a moment of change, of growth, of transformation, of conversion for our country. We must finally choose to renounce—once-and-for-all—the sins of White Supremacy and Racial Hatred. Love means that we choose to stand in solidarity alongside our family members who are of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. Only then will Beloved Community be possible!
Our Lord used a beautiful image to describe this reality of change, growth, and conversion. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We may be tempted to fear that we have become a diseased, dried up, and useless grain of wheat. We may be tempted to throw up our hands in defeat and say that nothing can be done. We may be tempted to fear that we are dying. If, as Paul reminds us, “we are buried with Christ in death, and rise with him to the new life of Resurrection,” there is every reason to think that we may yet bear abundant fruit There is every reason to believe and to hope!