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Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey
March 4th, 2018
In the Night
It was early February, when, at long last, the doctor’s figured out what was wrong with my father. He would have to be transferred to another hospital, they declared — there to undergo a surgery to untie the knot that was slowly doing him in.
The availability of ambulances, however, was unpredictable, and so they had to transfer him when opportunity arose – which, as it turned out, was during the wee hours of the night.
Almost without warning, an ambulance crew swept into Dad’s room, woke him, and announced his imminent departure.
What with the painkillers and sleep aids my Father teetered on the edge of consciousness, dimly aware of the commotion of EMT’s, the long hallways, the hurtling darkness.
Day was breaking when, at last they wheeled him into new room. At length, he managed to drift to sleep, only to be awoken by a presence in his room.
A woman stood at the foot of his bed. The woman approached him, pushed her thumb against his forehead, mumbled over him, and disappeared again.
What was the meaning of this strange hallucination?
Apparently Dad’s medical chart identified him as Christian.
It was Ash Wednesday.
A quick glance at the top of this morning’s bulletin will inform you — though, no doubt you are already aware — that this morning is the third Sunday of Lent.
The first Sunday of Lent, this year, was eclipsed by Parkland.
I considered it one of the pressing obligations of my calling, as a minister of the Christian faith, to make my views clear regarding that tragic event.
The second Sunday of Lent, as you know, was lost when, for the first time in living memory, the church was cancelled in anticipation of slush.
I was reminded of the immortal words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Slush slush everywhere
And all of the driveways were dicey
Slush slush everywhere
And even the church steps were icy.
These events conspired to make me neglect my Pastoral duty to usher us, as a community of faith, into this new season of the liturgical year.
For all intents and purposes, we in the church — like everyone else around us — live our lives according to the calendar year — the one that begins with mittens and a stocking cap on a frigid night in January, rushes headlong into Spring, lingers through lazy days of Summer, weeps for the solemn majesty of the fall, and ends, again, on a clear cold night in late December with Orion dancing heel-to-toe in the treetops.
Like everybody else, we are bound to the calendar — and for this reason, it might be tempting to say “So what…”
So you forgot about the first Sunday of Lent…
No big deal!
If you were to venture such an opinion, I suppose it would be my place as a clergy person, to respectfully differ with you and say…
well, after all,
it is a big deal.
Lent may not have the same cultural cache or economic impact as Christmas…
It may not ring with the same triumphant zeal as Easter…
But Lent has its own unique significance and importance that should not be ignored.
But what, exactly, is Lent?
It’s actually a bit confusing because the word “lent” never shows up in the New Testament.
The word itself derives from the Germanic word lenz which means long.
How, then, one wonders, has this seemingly random German word come to be associated with the forty days that elapse between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday?
Well, as it happens, the Germanic word lenz shows up later in old English as lencten, and in modern English as “Lengthen.”
Lent refers to the time of year when the days lengthen.
Lent, then, is a word for Spring — the season when the days grow long.
“When the world,” E.E. Cummings says
Sodden patches of green peek out from beneath the furrows of snow that have blanketed the ground winterlong.
As the days lengthen, the buds begin to appear on the trees.
Crocuses pop up here and there by the wayside.
In the middle of doing something or other, we catch a little whiff, a rumor, carried on the wind, of the warmth to come… and we are transfixed.
Our souls cannot help but respond, yearning for more of this enchantment, more of this intoxicating life.
Surely this season, of all seasons, is the best time to celebrate
But even though “Lent” is named after spring, the lenten season is not exactly spring-like in character.
Traditionally, this period, that stretches from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, corresponds to the last forty days of Jesus’ life, when everything fell apart with a startling swiftness.
All four of the gospels dedicate a full third of their narrative to the last week of Jesus’ life – as if they are morbidly fascinated by Jesus’ descent into
Lent may be named after Spring, and it may occur during the heady season of new life,
but it intentionally turns its face from these joys –
concentrating, instead, on the suffering and death of Jesus.
Is the Christian faith determined to undermine joy?
If you were inclined to feel this way about the Christianity, today’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Mark, would do little to dissuade you of the notion.
The reading begins like this:
Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.
It’s a bit odd, isn’t it, to gather a bunch of people together, and begin talking to them about your own death.
To be sure, it does happen — especially when a person is clearly about to die, and arrangements must be made.
But that, surely, was not the case in this instance. Jesus was a young man in his early 30’s, and there was no evidence to suggest that these dire events that he foretold, including his suffering and death, were on the horizon.
Nevertheless, the text says, Jesus “said all this quite openly.”
How, I ask you, would you react, if a robust young man of about thirty years of age spoke to you “quite openly” about his on death.
You might say: “Don’t talk like that!”
You might say: “You’re crazy, that’s not going to happen!”
You might say: “Why are you fixating on death? Look around you! Life is so beautiful!”
And though we don’t know his exact words, this, presumably, is what Peter did.
He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him.
He might have sung…
Take my hand…
Lead me on,
Help me stand…
Why, Peter wanted to know, was Jesus talking openly about his own death?
Peter did not want his Lord to die.
He wanted his Jesus to live!
Have you ever been to a place that seems magical?
A place that has a mysterious beauty…
A place where the past seems to be present…
A place that seems to vibrate with a sense of eternity?
The Irish have a name for such places — they call them “thin places”
Places where, for some mysterious reason, the eternal seems closer than it usually does, in our normal lives.
I can think of a few places like this, that I have found in my life…
The small room on the eleventh floor of St. Vincent’s hospital where I held my daughter in my arms for the first time.
The embankment by a baseball diamond in Jersey City where, sitting alone, I knew that my first marriage was over.
The back porch of a tenement in Somerville, where I discovered, once again, that I could love and was loved.
A clearing in the woods in Wendell Massachusetts where I watched the moon behind ragged clouds, the night after my father died.
It may be that my “thin places” are not “thin” from any inherent virtue of their own…
They are thin, because of the circumstances of my life that brought me there.
I came to these places when eternity was leaning close into me, and as I looked at the moon,
as evening fell over the rooftops of Greenwich Village,
or as the snapdragons bobbed in my backporch window boxes
I felt close to eternity.
Lent is Important
Lent is important, because it reminds us of the presence of eternity.
During Lent, Jesus turned toward, and began his journey to Jerusalem — the place where, he knew, he would die.
Lent, like Jesus, speaks “quite openly” about death.
In this way — a way that has gathered wisdom over the generations — our religion brings us to a thin place.
It speaks “quite openly” about suffering.
It speaks “quite openly” about eternity.
So that we — you and I — can find, in our hearts, a way to recognize eternity.
To feel its presence