Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday in Lent – February 17, 2013
The world woke up to rather startling news on Monday morning: the Pope is resigning in two weeks. At 8 pm on February 28, Benedict XVI will no longer rule over the Roman Catholic Church. It was the big news buzz for most of the week but will no doubt fade into the background until sometime in March when puffs of white smoke signify the election of his successor.
That’s the way news works, isn’t it? Today’s news becomes Yesterday’s news and gets stale very quickly as some fresh item emerges. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes news like the massacre of school children, the uncountable rapes of women, teen suicides that are the result of bullying, and statistics on poverty and homelessness, to which we need to pay serious attention, too often succumbs to the latest Hollywood scandal, what game politicians are playing in Washington, D.C. or who got traded in the NFL.
News is never self-derived. You can’t come to the news. The news has to come to you. How often do we greet a friend we meet in the store or on the street? “What’s new?” we say. In other words, what’s the news in your life? And, parenthetically, “tell me something good.”
I don’t know if you’ve come to church this morning with an expectation of hearing any news but I’m delighted you are here because I have some news to share. It is news about a future that is different from the picture most news commentators paint for us. It is news about an alternative way of life far different from the one society has fashioned for us. The news is this: God has drawn near to us.
God has graciously surprised us by coming among us as a poor baby who grew up to be a carpenter in Nazareth and preached a message of love and justice and healing and reconciliation. The news is that our God in Christ is completely accessible to us. We don’t have to climb a mountain like the disciples did in last Sunday’s Gospel. We don’t have to leave our families and loved ones and sell all our possessions. God in Christ is fully here with us. How? Through the word that we proclaim.
In the word we hear in the first reading from Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are instructed to remember their deliverance from Egyptian slavery and to celebrate the bounty of their new land. God was accessible to them and made a gracious covenant with them—a promise that God would be their God and they would be God’s people. God did not leave Israel helpless but came near to and guided Israel.
Paul’s letter to the Romans proclaims that “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” Paul assures us that in Christ, God has drawn near and that this accessibility is for all. God is ever busy accessing all of us. God seeks us out, reaches out to us, even intrudes on our lives, and draws near to us in Christ. Whenever and wherever the Gospel is preached, Christ shows up and is in our midst.
Scripture, through the Holy Spirit, announces news. Good news. It is news that God is in Jesus who walked this earth and has shown us the way to live with and love one another. It is news about what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do to make all things new.
And, unlike the news you will hear at 6 pm on any given evening and may forget by the following day, this is news that has been proclaimed for more than two thousand years in every language and in every corner of the world. This is news we don’t want to forget. And it is news we need to share. God has drawn near to us.
The world’s wisdom to us says we must work hard and get ahead—no matter how we do that. When we fail, it is because we didn’t do enough on our own power, spend enough hours in the office, schmooze enough with clients, cut the best deal no matter what the cost to ourselves, or even that we’re just not good enough—period. Competitive sports send a similar message to our kids—that their value is based upon how productive they are, how many times they score.
The “gospel” that our culture tries to sell us is that we have no intrinsic worth. It’s all about “winning,” which translates to power, status, and money. Jesus tells us that there is nothing we can do to be more deserving of God’s love. No contest need be entered and won to earn salvation. Grace is a free gift given without condition and given in abundance to anyone who will receive it. We need not be more penitent so that God will draw nearer to us. God is already as close to us as our heartbeat and our breath.
Lent should not simply be a time to regret our failures and faults but to celebrate, really celebrate the wonderful gift that God has already given us: God has drawn near to us. It should be a time to practice living fully by the grace of God alone and not by what we think we can supply or achieve on our own nor beat ourselves up because we have not achieved success in the way the “gospel” of our secular culture dictates.
On the first Sunday in Lent we always hear about how Jesus was led into the wilderness, the desert, a place of barrenness to be tempted by the Devil. During those 40 days and 40 nights he came to grips with who he was as God’s beloved one and what God’s mission for him in the world was going to be. Jesus came fully into himself in the wilderness claiming both his divinity and his calling as Messiah.
I have some more news for you today: We are a parish—the Parish of Saint Paul’s on the Green and the root of the word “parish” is the Greek paroikia (πάροίκία)—a place of exile, a place where you might find a paroikos (πάροίκος)—a stranger, a resident alien, as the reading from Deuteronomy says it.
That’s what a parish is meant to be—a place of radical hospitality for the πάροίκος—the stranger, the one who comes among us as guest. That is not a sideline of what we do. It is at the very core of the Gospel and at the very heart of our identity as a church. And to this place of exile from what can be a crazy, intolerant, harsh world, we too come to grips with who we are and are meant to be, to discover and affirm the person God has created us to be, to embrace ourselves as God’s beloved ones and recognize our call to partner with God in creating a new world.
A theme we have selected this Lent is “Don’t just give up, give back.” One way we are being asked to do that is by our support of the homeless through monetary gifts and designated items needed by that population.
Here is another way to give back and do something newsworthy this Lent: go out there in the world where you spend 90% of your time and share the good news you have heard. Invite someone to the feast. Share the inheritance you have been given. Talk about your life in God here. Relate an experience of a time when being here in church was life-saving or life rejuvenating.
How often do we tell a friend about a good restaurant, or movie, or book, or hairdresser? Tell people how you have found your selves in this parish- paroikia (πάροίκία) and how God has come near to you. And, if you are afraid you will come off as too “preachy” or as a holy roller, just invite. Just invite.
Advance the dream of God by telling someone about the bounty God has given us. God has drawn near to us! This is news we don’t want to forget. And it is news we need to share.