Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
Deacon Patricia M. O’Connell
Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15; Psalm 25:1-9
Today is the First Sunday in Lent. The forty days of Lent recall Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness after his Baptism. Traditionally, Lent is a time of cleansing, of renewal and restoration–observed through the practices of self-examination and repentance; engaging in prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. (BCP, p. 265).
At its very foundation, Lent is a time to focus on the healing that is needed for our bodies and souls, personally and communally. It is a time for baptismal preparation and baptismal renewal–a time in which we ponder our own lives as individuals and ask how we can be better persons. As a community, we consider how we are living out our lives together as followers of Christ.
Lent 2020 was interrupted by a pandemic that is ongoing. Covid has been our wilderness experience for nearly a year now; it has been a difficult and challenging sojourn. It has changed our lives and our ways of being with one another and required major shifts in how we carry out our daily lives. For most of us, there have been times this year in which we have felt overwhelmed by grief and frustration. No question that this has been a tough year!
Recently while exchanging text messages with Pastor Barbara about February’s preaching calendar, she suggested that for herself she needed to lighten up the serious stuff. She asked for my thoughts on the subject moving forward into Lent.
Well, I wasted no time in getting back to Pastor Barbara. Of course, I had thoughts. I agreed with her that lightening things up and voicing words of confidence and encouragement are needed during this Lenten cycle. And I chose this Sunday of Jesus in the wilderness as my day to preach. Afterall, I reasoned, I am surviving my personal never-ending wilderness experience. Living with my wife Vivian’s ever progressive advanced dementia, which is most likely Alzheimer’s disease, has all the elements of being in the wilderness. And I am always looking for ways to put a positive spin on this situation, day in and day out.
I said to Pastor Barbara that it might be fun to turn Lent upside down and shake it out from a perspective other than the traditional ways of addressing atonement and sacrifice. And the first thing I thought of when I heard the words “lightening things up” was laughter, lots and lots of laughter.
It is well-established that laughter is good medicine for the soul. It is a cure for that which ails us. When we laugh, our bodies release hormones and chemicals that have positive effects on our systems. Laughter brings joy to our souls. It is a spiritual truism that when we are grounded in joy, our capacity to endure hardship with grace increases.
The 20th Century Prophetess Erma Bombeck lived her life from this perspective, “If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.” And it is in this spirit of making things better, of renewing and restoring, of healing, that I propose a spiritual practice of laughter for Lent 2021.
Given that Baptism is a central theme within Lent, we can prepare for the renewal of our baptismal vows on Easter by increasing the amount of joy we carry in our hearts. What better way to build joy than through the sound and feel of laughter?
Today’s readings contain at least three threads that we can weave together to boost our joy during this Lenten Season: the promise of a rainbow in the sky, the saving grace of water, and Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. They are all symbols and signs that assure us of the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. They also provide a means for transforming the sacrificial elements of Lent into a time of bringing joy out of sorrow, laughter out of tears, and good out of evil.
Following the Great Flood, God promised Noah that water would never again be used to destroy the earth. He gave us the sign of the rainbow with the words, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” Who isn’t moved to stop, smile, and breathe more easily when a rainbow appears in the sky? Who hasn’t felt inspired and assured of God’s faithfulness?
Peter alluded to the saving grace of water when he spoke about the eight persons on the ark who were saved through water. Peter said, “And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience…”
Baptism is an expression of faith and obedience. It is not just an outward cleansing; it is internal and requires of us a change of heart. A change of heart is the very definition of spiritual renewal. Through baptism, we are made whole, body and soul. We take on a good conscience, putting on Christ, and establishing ourselves as being at peace with God. When we put on Christ in this way, we put on joy. Jesus told his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
The third thread is my favorite verse from any of today’s readings, as well as the source of my deciding to make Lent 2021 about laughter:
“(Jesus) was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Yes, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan, and living with the wild beasts. There is also this: the angels waited on him.
The angels waited on him.
Is that not a saving grace in the wilderness? Is that not equal to the experience of a rainbow in the sky? Does that not speak to us of the steadfast love and faithfulness of God? Is not the picture of angels waiting on Jesus refreshing, like water in a harsh desert, or tears of laughter spilling over with joy onto our sorrows? Does not the presence of angels dissipate the temptations by Satan and the terror of wild beasts, just as laughter can make a bad situation more tolerable?
I do believe that when we bring laughter into our grief, it is an experience of angels waiting on us. When we practice laughter as a spiritual discipline during Lent, we open our minds and hearts to being renewed and restored. That spiritual practice can be as simple as taking a few seconds each and every day to intentionally laugh out loud. For Deacon Pat Unplugged, I have gathered forty quotes about laughter that I have put into a basket. Each morning, I will draw a quote to use for that day’s prayerful reflection and as is my custom, I will sync that laughter quote with music. I invite each of you to ponder your own ways of making laughter a Lenten practice for 2021.
In summary and to paraphrase from Psalm 126, the Psalm entitled “A Harvest of Joy”: When we go before the Lord to be restored, with our mouths filled with laughter and our tongues shouting of joy, we will be renewed in spirit. We will bring joy out of sorrow, laughter out of tears, and good out of evil. And on Easter Day, all the nations will say of us, “The Lord has done great things for them.”