To Lengthen

Lent2, Year C, Luke 13:31-35, St. Paul UMC Denver, CO February 24 2013

"I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you." - Augustine of Hippo (should have said "about 1700 years ago")

Lent! Wooooo...

So, what is this weird word “Lent?” It was just Christmas and no one’s, like, confused about what that means. Or, maybe people disagree what it’s about but everyone knows the basic idea behind it.

It’s presents, right?

But, I mean, people are, like, “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays,” or whatever and they kinda know what that means. And it’s cold out but people try a little harder to be warm. Maybe they give away some money or some of their stuff. Maybe they tolerate their family or relax with friends. Eat too much. That kind of stuff.

But no one’s like, “Happy Lent!” or “Blessed Lent to you, Logan. Hope your Lent is super penitential! Good luck giving up soda or swearing or whatever!” It just isn’t that exciting or relatable you know? Lent! woooooo....

But all the word “Lent” really means is “to lengthen.” It’s almost spring and the days are getting longer. That’s it. The light is slowly stretching its rosy fingers into evening. Soon buds will appear on the trees. Flowers will burst onto the scene. Spring is coming and the earth smells fresh and it’s exciting and—well, it’s pretty sexy, right? Happy Lent, everybody!

But all of that isn’t really part of the official Christian observation of Lent. Jesus was in the desert just last week. Out in the desert! The wilderness! And the devil was there with him, you know.

Actually, I don’t know what that means, exactly. Like, does it matter if there’s a scaly guy with long fingernails, creepin’ on Jesus? Or maybe, like, a really good looking person in a dark grey flannel suit, perfectly tailored. Out there in the desert, you know? In the first century.

Or—I dunno—maybe Jesus is wrestling with his own demons. The sky just opened up, after all, and the Holy Spirit falls on him and calls him “Beloved” with a capital “B.” And I have to think that Jesus thought of the song from Isaiah that Mary sang when she found out HE was coming and there was nothing she could do about it. Imagine Mary singing that song to Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord. Surely all generations will call me blessed. God has brought down the powerful, lifted up the poor, filled the hungry, sent the rich empty away.”

And then a few years later... the Holy Spirit is alighting upon Jesus in front of all of these people and he’s gotta get outta there, because maybe he’s got this song stuck in his head that his mom has been singing to him since he was a just little guy. And the Spirit is calling him Beloved. And how to do you fulfill something this big? This is an amazing song about God’s relationship with God’s people. It’s a ridiculous song about hope where no hope seems to be found. And not only that it’s handed down to you by your mother.

Well, I dunno about you but I might run out into the desert. If I’m supposed to bring down the high, and raise up the poor and fill the hungry -- Jesus, I might thinking about raising an army. Get my people together, you know. Perform some miracles. March on Washington—or, sorry, Jerusalem. Sorry. I got carried away.

But, anyway, Jesus is out in the desert for 40 days, not eating, not drinking, being tempted by the devil or his demons or whatever, and that’s why people give up chocolate for Lent.

Or maybe not.

You know how time kind of compresses sometimes? Or maybe it stretches out?

Ice

My mom and I were traveling to see family for Christmas. I was driving, and we were flying across southern Minnesota. It had snowed a couple of days before, but the day we were driving was nice. Maybe a little overcast, but driving conditions were good. Except, the thing you have to know about that area of the country is it’s flat. I mean flat. Flat flat. And there’s nothing to stop the wind. Nothing. It’s flat, okay? So this wind blows snow over the road all day and night and there’s nothing to stop it. And where the snow blows over the road a lot for extended periods of time you get ice.

Anyway, I’ve got the cruise control set at 75 miles per hour. My mom and I are talking and carrying on, helping the time go by. And we drive under one of the many, many overpasses that help cars over Interstate 90. “These overpasses are dangerous” -- I’m sure my mom told me when she was teaching me to drive -- because they not only block wind, but also channel wind around them. And when there’s snow blowing around an overpass there’s also ice. So you go under the overpass, get a break from the wind for a second, fly out the other side and get hit by the wind again ... while you’re driving over a patch of ice. And then your car skids out of control.

Not, like, a great feeling at 75 miles per hour. Suddenly everything is happening all at once. I tap the break, turn against the skid, the car skids the opposite direction, I turn against the skid, the car skids the opposite direction, I turn against the skid again and the car skids back again -- toward the ditch. We’re skidding toward the ditch and I kind of look over at my mom and think, “Mom is being super calm about this, that’s nice. I hope we don’t go into the ditch at fifty miles per hour or whatever and flip the car. That would really ruin Christmas.” And while I’m thinking this I notice the fresh snow on the shoulder of the road, and I think, “That snow will probably give us some traction. Do I try to straighten this out and drive into the ditch? Or maybe try to stop entirely.” Anyway, as soon as we hit that snow I turn into the skid one last time and the traction we gain on the snow helps us stop. I remember feeling like a pretty cool guy later on when I was explaining what happened to my uncles.

The point is, it felt like minutes -- and not just a few moments -- passing as we were careening toward the ditch. My entire being, focus, and desire were dedicated to one thing -- stopping us from landing in that ditch. Time stretched out in those moments. Time lengthened.

This is a rare thing. Not just for time to seem to lengthen, but to focus your entire being on one task. To feel utterly clear about your intentions, interactions, and attention. And I think the desert is a perfect image for getting real with ourselves and seeing where our focus really lies. Stark. Bare. Clean.

Narratives

Everything in today’s reading is happening all at once too. “Just then,” beings our passage. The chapter begins with “at that very time.” Right now. This moment. We’re following Jesus at a frenetic pace.

He’s making his way toward Jerusalem and he’s being bombarded by questions, requests, people, crowds, challenges. You can feel the tension. One thing happens after another, and to us, as outsiders, time itself seems to be compressing around Jesus. Actually time is so compressed that Luke jumps ahead at this point so that Jesus can talk about Jerusalem a little bit, and the way this story is going to end.

Jesus knows that the seat of power in Jerusalem is predisposed to reject his ministry. Jesus looked ahead in the desert. Quietly, he took stock of his life. He was tempted to take a short path, but he chose a longer one. The one he is on now. Jesus knows that Jerusalem refuses to listen to messengers who proclaim the justice and the reign of God. The city and its rulers refuse to hear the message of Jubilee that Jessie talked about just a few weeks ago. In this scene from Luke, Jerusalem is occupied territory -- occupied by kingdoms and economies that are antithetical to God’s grace. And as an occupied territory, it has and will continue to kill the prophets that call it back to its true, beloved, grace filled identity.

We are called, aren’t we, to a similar grace filled identity? Are we in a position to hear Jesus’ message about it? Do we have time for it?

In the desert Jesus rejects the temptation to complete his work all at once. Rejecting this temptation, he saw what was before him and chose the longer path. Jesus stands in a place where time has lengthened. Einstein knew this, that time is relative. That depending on your position, your stance, your outlook, that time might seem to go quicker or slower. No, I’m sorry. Time might actually go more quickly or slowly. And your position, stance, and outlook also has a great deal to do with the way you see the world, your priorities and God’s priorities for your life.

In today’s reading, Jesus rejects the temptation to fly toward Jerusalem at the Pharisees’ urging. He rejects also the notion that he ought to demonstrate himself before the corporate power of Herod, a representative of Rome, as if that would somehow hasten the culmination of his ministry. Christ rejects the story the world seeks to tell in order to live out his own story, his single minded obedience to grace, to God, his neighbor, and himself. This is the story of Lent and Easter. Of lengthening time toward the divine command to love God, and our neighbor as ourself.

The story the world bombards us with grasps at power, and dominance, and shortcuts to so-called success. It prioritizes these things so that we might dedicate our whole selves to them. With no time for our neighbor, we are compressed in time and space with people who look like us, believe like us, live like us. We’re divided from our neighbor and God by money, power, imaginary borders, and a story that constantly tells us we lack time for the neighbor. But Christ seeks to redeem us from our obedience to this narrative and to deliver us to a narrative of his own.

When we find ourselves driven by a single purpose we may find time lengthening before us. That purpose is love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Love for the beloved and for the enemy. Love through service and love through sacrifice. Love with faith that we may try and fail to do good and that we may try again when we fail.

This Lent, you may give up chocolate or meat, swearing or soda. You may take up a practice of prayer or service, exercise or rest. But whatever you do or don’t do let it be informed by Christ’s story of compassion, mercy, and sacrifice. This Lent, make time in the noise and distraction of the dominate story to remember the single command to which we are called -- to live in grace, and to love God, the self, and the neighbor. By focusing yourself upon this task alone may time lengthen for you and may you lengthen toward the divine. However you choose to observe Lent, may it be in a practice of lengthening time for the story of Christ in your life and in our world.

Amen.