“Lent – Why Bother?”
The Rev. Dr. Ross M. Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
The title of this sermon is “Lent – Why Bother?” It may be my imagination, but I have the impression that Lenten observance no longer holds the attraction that it used to. The Lenten traditions seem to have lost some of their appeal. I don’t have any statistics to back it up, but my impression is that observing the season is less important than it used to be.
I have some hunches about the reasons for this decline in Lenten observance. For one thing, many of us feel that we are already over committed; we already have too much to do. Parents with school aged children have homework, sports, music, scouting, drama, clubs – the activity level and the demands put a lot of pressure on people. And so, when the church says: “It’s Lent” and we want you to add to your activity level, many people hear this as a burden rather than something that is life-giving.
A second reason: Many of the Lenten traditions in the Episcopal Church were developed when church attendance was more robust. During a time when church life was more central in many people’s lives than it is now. I’m thinking of the mid-week Lenten study or the three-hour Good Friday service. I remember my mother dragging my brother and me to the Good Friday service from 12 to 3 when we were in school. Churches were filled for these services.
Times have changed. Rather than bemoaning the loss of better days, I’m for finding new and creative ways of observing Lent that work for us now.
So, why bother? What is the point of taking on some Lenten observance: of giving up something that you normally do or of taking on a Lenten practice for the next 40 days? I would like to offer two reasons why it is worthwhile to observe Lent – not only worthwhile, but potentially life changing. Then, I would like to make some suggestions, some Lenten practices that you might work for you.
The first reason why Lent is valuable has to do with the hectic pace of our lives. We are over-stimulated from cell phones, tablets, email, face book, TV, radio. We’re swimming in information. We are stressed out and busy. We may be over-committed. Here’s something ironic: the pressures that make us too busy to observe Lent may actually be the reason why we need Lenten observances now more than ever. It is precisely because we are overstimulated and over committed that we can benefit from a 40 day period to change pace, to slow down.
The second reason why Lent is valuable is that it helps us appreciate Easter. My experience has been that if you take time to enter into the events of Lent and Holy Week, then Easter takes on new meaning. Imagine that there are two groups of people who are going to the summit of Mount McKinley in Alaska. The first group of people have decided to climb to the top. They have spent months planning for the trip. They have studied the mountain. They are familiar with all of the equipment they need to make the climb. One beautiful morning, they begin their climb. It takes five days. The second group arranges for a helicopter to take them. That takes 2 hours. As it turns out, both groups arrive at the summit at the same time. Do you think that they see the same view? Both groups are at 20K feet. Both groups have a view from the top of the world. The first group, the climbers who have made their way slowly, feel how high that mountain is. They enter into the experience of the summit in a way that is somehow different – deeper than the group who drop down from the helicopter.
Now, Easter is coming whether you observe Lent well or badly or not at all. But if you arrive slowly, if you take the time to reflect on Jesus’ passion, and if you find some ways of entering into the season, your Easter will mean more to you.
First, begin by asking God to show you how to observe Lent. Ask God to show you what you need and how you can honor him. We do not always know what we need or what honors God. There are so many ideas and options out there, it is tempting to think that you need to adopt someone else’s Lenten practice.
Now, for some suggestions about how to observe Lent. I am going to divide these into two groups or categories: giving things up and taking things on.
By giving things up, I mean abstaining from activities that you normally do in order to turn your attention to God. Giving up desserts or alcohol. Fasting. Giving up reading the morning paper and reading the Bible instead. Giving up spending on luxury items. The reason for giving up these things: when we go without, we recognize how we use food or alcohol or shipping to fill a void that only God can fill. When you’re fasting, you are hungry. You say: eating would feel good right now. But this is an opportunity to turn your attention to God. To remember that he is real food. That we live not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. What if you went for 40 days and spent money only on the things that are necessary?