Texts: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Good evening, and blessed Lent. It is good to gather with you. Last night this room was buzzing, as we hosted our neighbors from Dar al Hijrah to celebrate Fat Tuesday. Thank you to everyone who brought ingredients and toppings, and who lent their equipment and their time and gifts to make it happen. It was a village effort, and the warmth in this room was a sign of how we as neighbors are connected, across culture, race, language and faith. “We are not good at fasting,” Jane said, as she explained Fat Tuesday to our guests, “but we are good at eating fat, and we’re glad you’re with us.”
And why should we be good at fasting? We have wondered together, most recently in Adult Forum this Sunday. Shouldn’t grace be sufficient for us? Until about 3pm today I had a sermon prepared to address this question. But with the news of another school shooting just this afternoon, perhaps the question is not why we bring ourselves to penitence, but how our faith speaks to us when we find ourselves already there.
Faith, according to Lutheran philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, can be described in two movements. The first is resignation. That is, coming to terms with our human limitations. Resignation is walking to the edge of a cliff, where we can go absolutely no further. Resignation is the realization that comforts and achievements of this life are temporary—our social status, career or material possessions. What matters most is beyond our grasp, hovering in the abyss. We cannot reach the love of God on our own.
This first movement of faith is simply reckoning with reality, opening our eyes to our frailty, as we so rarely do on our own accord. I for one would much rather live with comfortable illusions about what gives me value. For instance, that my education really does make me important, and that if I am a good daughter, then I am a good person. Or that my life matters because of the privileges I was born with. More often, we come to our human limitations when something else brings us there. The loss of innocent life. News of a loved one’s illness. The prospect of failure or rejection. And even then, we might prefer to believe that our value is the sum of all we can see and touch and describe. We might waver at the edge with our eyes squeezed shut.
Resignation, says Kierkegaard, is opening our eyes to our own end. But resignation is not the end.
The second movement of faith occurs when from that edge, in spite of full knowledge that we cannot carry ourselves any further, we leap anyway—toward the truth we most desperately need— toward the foolish hope that we, in spite of our finitude might still live and be loved. It is there, midair, on the verge of free fall, that God catches us. Impossibly, inconceivably, we are held and loved, and called God’s own.
We need both movements of faith, and both are happening all the time. But the spiritual life, like anything worth practicing, sometimes requires us to return to the basics. Like when my new piano teacher in sixth grade asked me to practice only scales and technique for weeks. I thought I way better than that, but I had to re-learn my posture, how to shape my hands, the precision of playing one note at a time. In Lent, we return to the scales of our spirituality, even while the full score of God’s grace sounds around us. In Lent we journey, step by step, shoulders up and eyes open. To see clearly how very temporary this world is.
Do not be afraid looking out into the stark,
because God, who hovers Eternal in the abyss,
God loves us so much, that He sent His Son to walk these cliffs,
to stand at the same edge, to face the same end, and overcome it.
Paul writes, “Dying, we live on. Beaten, we are not killed. Sorrowful, we are always rejoicing, poor, we make riches, and having nothing, we possess everything.” Christians, trust this: God who is Love has defeated death. And when we leap, She will catch us every time.