Mother Ann’s sermon preached on Feb. 26, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Feb 26, 2023 in Lent, Sermons

The First Sunday in Lent

Feb. 26, 2023

A Time for Turning

Last Sunday we were celebrating the feast before the fast. At the altar stood gleaming candlesticks, angel statues, and vases of flowers; before all hung a silken frontal, and above all shone the jeweled sunburst of our altar window. But that was then, and this is now. All that’s been stripped away, and in its place we face barren branches and coarse stone. Our eyes take it all in. There’s no mistaking the shift. The great wheel of the Church year has rolled past the lingering afterglow from Christmastide, and carried us into the sobering starkness of Lent. 

As Christians, this great wheel of seasons is our birthright, forged over centuries of keeping Christ’s memory alive. Back when the Church was very young, many hoped it would not be long before Jesus returned in glory, as he said he would. In the meantime Christians told treasured stories of what life was like with him. One of the most poignant was the story about Jesus fasting forty days in the wilderness, as he prepared to live openly as God’s own. Time went on and the Church went on preaching about Jesus. Friends, neighbors and total strangers were being converted, and still he had not returned. Clearly they would need to continue on longer, and they asked themselves the perennial Christian question, “What would Jesus do?” They found their answer by following his example: Jesus had set aside forty days for fasting, for self-discipline, for letting go of self-concern, and deliberately living as God’s own. With this example plainly in view, the Church began preparing these crowds of converts for baptism, by entering forty days of self-discipline.

In addressing one group of baptismal candidates, a fourth century bishop put it this way: “If you see a poor person, take pity on him. If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him. If you see a friend being honored, curb your envy for him.” In other words, notice how you’ve been trying to make everything all about you, and take a break from self-preoccupation. In time the Church came to realize that this was not just a onetime message for new Christians, but an all-time message for all of us. Among Christ’s disciples, and we are the disciples living today, the forty days leading up to Easter have become a time of self-discipline, a time of spring training for all of us. 

Repeated each year, this training equips us to detect unseen evils around us and within us. As our reading from Genesis makes clear, the snake is ever lurking around paradise, furtively tempting us to reach out and grab whatever we want. Eve falls for the heady deception that she can grab the apple and grow wise like God, judging for herself what is good and what is evil. She carelessly sets the same temptation before Adam, he bites, and now that evil arrogance has infected both of them. Oh they have become wise, all right. They now know what is good and what is evil…and they have chosen evil. This lesson was not lost on the early Church, for as new converts were led to the font for baptism, they were instructed to first face west, the direction of dusk and descending darkness. Since they had just spent forty days in preparation, the priest now asked them, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” and altogether the converts answered, “I renounce them!” The priest then asked, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” and altogether they answered “I renounce them!” Then the priest asked “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” and once again all answered “I renounce them!”

Next, one by one the converts turned boldly on their heels from west to east, toward the horizon of sunrise and dawning light. And as they turned the priest solemnly asked, “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” and all acclaimed, “I do!”. The priest continued, “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” and all acclaimed, “I do!” In closing the priest asked “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” and all acclaimed “I do!” There, they had made their open confession of faith; by the grace of God they would follow Jesus in turning darkness into light, evil into good, self-centeredness into God centeredness…For forty days and forty nights they had disciplined themselves to make this decisive, lifegiving turn, just as Jesus had shown them. We join in their turning to this day, each time we baptize: these questions and answers are quoted from the Book of Common Prayer. 

Last Sunday Mother Katherine invited each of us to note on a slip of paper some lifechanging turn, great or small, we will attempt during Lent. Those slips are now buried in the Resurrection garden adjoining the columbarium, resting forty days and forty nights until unearthed and burnt on Easter Eve, to ignite the Paschal Candle. Katherine+ hasn’t called us to heroics, but simply to a good faith effort at turning some bit of our own darkness into light. If you weren’t here last week it’s not too late–just jot down a word or two that name some light, with God’s help, you will be turning toward in coming weeks. Then see that the slip gets into her hands by Palm Sunday, and your own darkness will be consumed by the flames of Easter light.

As for quietly keeping the weeks between now and then, I’ll share a few tips that have supported me in turning my own darkness into light. Listen and see if any of them might be helpful to you. First, give yourself a break from ceaseless activity. Racing from one pursuit to the next is brutal. Find a time and a place where you can duck out of the deluge of stuff coming at you. Or, make a conscious habit of slowly breathing in and out, in and out, several times each day, focusing your attention on this lifegiving rhythm within you. Close your eyes a few moments, and then look around. Who do you see that could benefit from your loving care? Or, take a mini-fast from social media and other screen distractions, and turn to God in prayer. Light a candle, if it helps, or add some gentle music, and ponder some way to devote more attention to the people who love you. In the end, no one ever looks back on life, feeling they’ve been too good a father, or mother, or brother, or sister, or friend. Or, make a mindful gift to some charity that meets human needs, like Episcopal Relief and Development, which is speeding earthquake relief to victims in Turkey and Syria. It’s simple, really. Make one or more of these disciplines your own throughout Lent–taking breaks from constant activity, breathing deeply and deliberately, cutting down on screen time for the sake of people you love, or making a donation to help those in need–succeed at one or more of these simple disciplines, and you will already be on your way to turning darkness into light. Amen. 

© 2023 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 10:30 AM on Wed., Feb. 26, 2025.