by Ken Sehested
Years ago I preached a Lenten sermon in the form of a defiant open letter to God.
“Dear God. I’ll be brief. Like sucks. And, with all due respect, what does that make you, you being the author of life and all?
“On the other hand, maybe I won’t be brief. I have an earful of things to say.”
I recalled that sermon this week after visiting Brazilian pastor-theologian Odja Barros testified in our congregation. She was asked to say where she sees God at work.
“I have confess,” she began, “that the first thing that comes to mind is to say where I see God’s absence,” going on to name just a few of the places, in concrete detail, where breaking and bruising and battering dominate the landscape. Deus absconditus.
Lent is the liturgical season where this confusion rises to the surface, and we—especially people of privilege—are asked to enter the wilderness from which God, apparently, has absconded: where things don’t work out, where movies lack happy endings, where the faces of children are not cherry-cheeked, downy-soft, delightfully radiant.
Lent is the season when “Moonlight” upstages “La La Land.”
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Years ago, at an Ash Wednesday service, the pastor made a stunning confession.
“Ash Wednesday is actually my favorite holiday,” she said. Pretty strange, we all thought—and she immediately acknowledged it was an unusual claim. Not Halloween candy and masquerades, not Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie; not Christmas gifts and visits from Santa; not even Valentine’s Day romance, or Presidents’ Day sales, or chocolate bunnies on Easter, complete with all that good organ music and the onset of spring.
Ash Wednesday? Burned palm fronds smeared on the forehead, in a shape that originally marked one for assassination? What kind of masochistic movement is this?
The preacher went on to point out that Ash Wednesday is the only counter cultural holiday we have left—the only holiday that hasn’t been co-opted by commercial interests, marketing opportunity, and mind numbing entertainment.
Hallmark makes no cards for Ash Wednesday.
Lenten attention turns to those whose hopes have been hammered, whose promising futures have been disfigured, to those whose hope has been ripped from their hearts: jobless, childless, relationships broken, homeless—all who face dawn with bleak resignation, dusk with galvanized fear, who gasp for breath, or squat in full-throated rage, at the annulling of Creation’s fertile promise.
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The traditional emphases of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are intensely personal but never merely private. The depths of our hearts are connected with the depths of the world. The brokenness of our personal lives is intimately bound up with the rupture of the world itself. The logic of focused attention to personal repentance is not segregated holiness but public healing, of “the earth and all who dwell therein.”
Such disciplines represent strategic interventions designed to confront gluttonous appetites—appetites that are seeded and nursed in ways even the most kindly fail to see. The deadliest thing about privilege in the midst of privation is that we often are not even aware of it. Lent’s aim is to disabuse us of such innocence. Not to molest us (discomforting as it may be) but to amend and befriend us according to the Beloved Community’s covenant terms.
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It is important to affirm that our appetites are rooted in the goodness of creation, bestowed by a lavishly generous Creator.
The root of Fat Tuesday—Mardi Gras, Carnival, the impulse to jubilant feasting before Wednesday’s ashen brand—recalls the opening act of Genesis, of God’s extravagant delight and earth’s profligate bounty;
•of Eden’s original fruition;
•of the Israelite trekkers’ manna, when those clans of larger families gathered more but had none left over, the smaller gathered less but still enough;
•of the Good Shepherd’s picnic table, at which even enemies are seated;
•of the Abba’s surety of daily bread and multiplied provisions;
•of the community’s common purse in Acts, from each as was able, to each as was needed.
With wretched results, however, our appetites have been distorted. Fat Tuesday has become a drunken brawl, and bigger-barn schemes of the surplus hoarders abound (and soon, it appears, to be tax-sheltered).
Ash Wednesday begins as an act of truth telling. The fatness that was once a blessing (“May God give you the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth” Genesis 27:28) has mutated into an affliction (“violence covers [the wicked]. Their eyes swell out with fatness” Psalm 73:3-9). The purging disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are necessary to regain our vision, to unstop our ears, open our eyes, to clarify the fact that God did not intend the world to be arranged this way, that God has a plan for hill-bowing, valley-lifting restoration, and that an RSVP has been placed in our hands.
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Lent is the reminder that the capacity for risk and the capacity for reverence are correlates. The terms of Christian faith are clear: The sake of God is bound up with the sake of Jesus—which is to say, our own personal stakes are tied to those of the hungry, the parched, the refugee, the exposed, the ailing, the imprisoned, for it is such as these that Jesus has elevated as gatekeepers to Heaven’s welcome (cf. Matthew 25). Such neighborliness—in contradiction to every america-first boast—is the measure of godliness. All shall be known by their fruits, not their professions.
Our 40 days in the wilderness with Jesus are creating in us the capacity for practicing resurrection, for the time when generative passions dismantle disastrous ones, just as surely as light scatters dark. Only then can earth’s new song harmonize with Heaven’s melody of peace.
The significance of "Moonlight's" upstaging of "La La Land" goes beyond the accounting mistake at the Oscar ceremony. The former movie's jagged edges, the sarcasm of being nicknamed "Little" in a world of big, is more reflective of Lent's profile of our present misbegotten drama, however more pleasant the charm and verve of the latter.
So carry on penitent pilgrims. However seductive our own la la land, the wilderness holds more promise. Here a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, will lead the way; water will gush from the rocks; manna will fall according to each dawn’s demand.
The world teeters. What a great time to be alive. Laissez les bon temps roulez.