Sunday, March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Lent (year B)
St. Anselm Church – Sudbury, MA
Good morning! Today we are beyond the half-way point in Lent two more weeks until Palm Sunday and three weeks til Easter. The church calls this Sunday Laetare Sunday, which is latin for Rejoice. And it’s the imperative form you must rejoice! We mark this Sunday with rose colored vestments. So today we take a break from the self-denial aspects of Lent. So if you have up chocolate you can eat it today! But more importantly, it’s a time for us to rejoice. Even though there’s always much to lament, to work on and improve, in our own lives and as we look at our community and society, there’s also much to rejoice about. God is good! God is always working good, even in the midst of sadness or suffering we find good breaking forth. I was reminded that when I noticed the flurry of new inscriptions on our Gratitude board in front of the Church. People are seeing lots of good, inside and outside, small but meaningful graces, a sense of healthy self-worth, beholding the love of family and community. So Rejoice!
Lord Jesus, you were sent to heal those of humble heart. Lord have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you call sinners to be your friends and become their best self you created them to be. Christ have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you intercede always for our good. Lord have mercy.
I found it hard to prepare to preach on this Sunday’s readings. There was plenty to unpack, but I wasn’t feeling it…you know, on the heart-level, from the ‘God-space.’ It all seemed heavy and serious, from the ‘head-space.’ Quite contrary were my feelings, really, to the spirit of Laetare / Rejoice!
The first reading from the second book of Chronicles recounts how the Jews came to be exiled in Babylon (about 2500 years ago). The Babylonians invaded, destroyed Jerusalem, and carried off the people into exile for 70 years.
This story of destruction, we hear, was not just about an evil enemy who did a terrible thing. It’s actually about a social sin — how we sin together in a society, not just through individual acts but in how we organize our life, our laws, our economy, in ways that are sinful or deaf to God’s values.
The collective sin of the Jews in Jerusalem, we hear, brought about the conditions where this bad thing was the consequence of their actions. For years the powerful in society had ignored God’s values, exploited the poor, worshiped money and prestige, made unholy alliances, engaged in idolatry, and thus their sin was the pathway into the trap of Babylonian aggression. Many prophets and teachers had spoken up, but they were persecuted, silenced, ignored or even killed.
Now that’s dark — not just because we feel for the dispossessed and exiled of 2500 years ago — but because as we look around may say, ‘has anything changed that much?’
We immediately think of how homelessness and poverty are higher in the US now than in decades. ¼ of children are below the poverty line. 1/7 of Americans are going hungry. We see signs of an unjust economy. We see the pain of war and poverty in the massive migration of people for safety and survival. We look at how racial injustice is still so present with us, a deadly and persistent problem marginalizing millions and even resulting in tragic deaths.
The prophets of our time also have been largely ignored or paid lip service. Rev. Dr. Martin Luthe King Jr. is celebrated as a hero now, but was assassinated in 1968. The legacy of civil rights may be strong in law, but we see that racial equality is a principle yet to take root in the hearts and deeds of so many. When will theory be reflected in our moral practice of the day-to-day ways people relate to one another?
So you see how I was feeling a disconnect between the dark evocations of our first reading — true though they surely are — and the injunction of Laetare, to rejoice this Sunday?!
But there is something to rejoice about amidst this darkness. As someone wrote on the gratitude board, that they are learning “to love God, their neighbor and even themselves — better.” Yes, we can get better!
We can rejoice because the transformation of our world into a place of love and not hate, of peace and not violence, of justice and not oppression, of sufficiency for everyone and not of deprivation for anyone, is NOT OUR WORK ALONE.
If we had to do it alone, our virtue could never measure up. On our own we are not up to the task. But GOD, who alone is just, IS up to the task, but requires our cooperation. All the ills of the world will be remedied by us working together with each other and with God.
Have you ever had someone say something nice to you, and tell you that you’ve made a difference to them? And then you feel shy, amazed, even moved to tears? You think, “how can I, with all my many deficiencies and limits and sins, have been a help to them?”
It’s because they saw not you alone, but God working in and with you. You and God accomplished whatever good it is, and thank God for them for telling you — for expressing their gratitude! For, you know what, in hearing that you will know your soul’s worth. You will be reminded that God’s goodness is alive inside you beyond your natural capacities. With God all things are possible.
This is why Jesus came, after all — to make up for what was lacking, to carry out God’s will by partnering divinity and humanity.
We go wrong when we give up, and just forget about a morally better world and just serve ourselves. It’s easier that way, but dead and lifeless and alone in the end.
We might also find ourselves lifeless and alone if we work harder and harder for justice but count it as our work and not God’s work. Arrogance and exhaustion infect and wear us out.
But when we are partners with the Lord, it’s not overwhelming, exhausting, and it doesn’t become all “I, I, I, Me, Me, Me”. It becomes about US – and full of possibility and hopefulness.
As Jesus told Nicodemus in the gospel dialogue:
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.”
Hear that…the world might be saved through him. All of us! Everyone, is a sister or brother! Those we count as family and those we don’t. ALL will be saved through Jesus.
Christ is savior, but he needs companions to bring it about, to make it take root — not in some cosmic magic wand he waves from on high, but in the nitty gritty of trying to get better at loving those we find hard to love, at respecting ourselves enough to love ourselves as we are, and to know that while we are not perfect, God choses us to live this life because we matter and make the world lovelier by our living.
St. Anselm’s is a place full of lovely people. In some ways I think we are better spiritually for having suffered together the pain of closure and vigil and reopening — once for a long stretch of time, more recently for a short one. Many found amidst that pain, stronger bonds of companionship with the Lord, deeper friendship with one another in the community, and a more generous spirit of offering up for the good of all whatever skills, resources, gifts and presence you had.
Scars heal but they usually remain visible. The same was true with Christ’s, after all — Risen from the dead, he still bore the wounds when he visited the disciples and said to Thomas, put your hand in my wounds so you will believe it’s truly me. Yet wounds and all, Christ was alive and risen and glorified: death turned to life.
For this we rejoice! For the fact we have so great a savior who is not a magician to make things change in a flash, but one who says, ‘come with me and let us do this together.’
Real healing, real improvement, real justice and peace, real reconciliation and restoration, can happen through the Lord.
St. Paul reminds the Ephesians: “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.”
All good is gift, as your words on the gratitude board so obviously reflect — grateful for your loving family, grateful for shelter and food, grateful that God has come to meet you in prayer, grateful for this community, grateful for health, grateful for sobriety, grateful for being forgiven, grateful for your children. There are more on the board, some of them washed away by the rain, as if taken as cherished prayers to God’s very heart.
We rejoice in the God who comes to save us! We rejoice because Jesus wants us — even though some days we may feel broken or incapable — to be his trusted companions in the redemption of ALL the world.