I’m not giving up chocolate for Lent

The First Sunday in Lent Image
March 9, 2014
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Create in us new hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. AMEN.

This week we begin the somber season of Lent.

As I noted on Ash Wednesday
Lent provides us the opportunity
to prepare ourselves
for both the shock and the joy
of Holy Week and Easter

–       I didn’t use those exact words,
but that’s the gist of what we are about here.
And I noted that we cannot really appreciate
being happy, being joyful
unless we have also experienced
sadness, loss and grief.

During Lent, we tend to focus on our brokenness,
our falling short, our sins, if you will,
although I think that ‘sin’
is another one of those words that has lost its meaning,
so that we can truly, deeply experience
not only the sheer joy of Jesus’ resurrection,
but what that means for us
as humans created
in the image and likeness of God.

Traditionally Christians have used the season of Lent
to take on a “discipline.”
Most of us, when we hear that word “discipline”
think of being punished.

In fact, the root of the word
is the same as that of the word “disciple,”
which connotes “one who learns.”
Hence a discipline is something
that helps us learn.

From the earliest years of the church,
fasting was one of the most commonLenten disciplines.
Fasting has biblical precedents in both Hebrew scripture and the NT.
Limiting one’s intake of food,
living with one’s bodily hunger and thirst,
it is thought,opens one up to a real hunger forand openness to God’s presence.

Fasting is hard.
I’m not good at it.
Being hungry makes me feel ill;
it makes me cranky and short tempered,
not a nice person to be around.
And since it is my job to be around people
and NOT to be cranky,
but rather to be an “non-anxious presence”
in the face of all sorts of situations,
I choose not to fast.
That may be the weakest of rationalizations,
and perhaps I need to tackle it,
but there it is.

I have done what scores of others have done in the name of fasting:
I’ve given up chocolate, diet coke, desserts, coffee,
any of a long list of things that bring me daily pleasure.
This practice goes back to my childhood;
even then we were encouraged to “give something up” for Lent.
Back then I usually gave up ice cream, but one memorable year,
I tried to give up carrots,
a vegetable I thoroughly detested,
proving that I totally missed the point.

Perhaps many of you have similar experiences.

I would like to say that I have become a better person for doing this,
that depriving myself of chocolate or diet coke for six weeks brought me closer to God
or helped me to be more disciplined in my prayer life,
but that would not be true.

In my best years I have proved to myself
that I can actually live without those things,
and in my worst years
I have just given in to my weak will
and admitted defeat.

So for the most part,
I don’t give things up for Lent any more.
Nor do I necessarily suggest that others do so.
Hear me clearly:
there may be compelling reasons to give up a practice or a foodstuff or a thing for Lent,
and it may be useful in opening up a space for God,
but for most of us, giving up chocolate for Lent
is not going to make a meaningful difference in our lives.

What I have learned,
the wisdom I’ve gained slowly and painfully
over the last few years,
is that the discipline that most of us most desperately need
is the discipline that frees us to become more fully and completely
the people God created us and calls us to be.

If those words sound familiar, it’s because I’ve used them
from this pulpit repeatedly in the last year or so.
And let me say them again.
We need to claim our identity as ones created by God in God’s image and likeness,
and we need to embrace whatever practice that help us to do this  more fully, joyfully and completely.

It occurred to me a few weeks ago after I preached on this very theme
–on being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect
that one could fairly ask why I harp on this and don’t ever talk about our sinful nature.
And since this is Lent, and our sinful nature is very much brought to mind
– indeed our readings this week reflect on our sinful nature –
I want to answer that.

It has to do with the meaning of SIN.
I said earlier that I believe that sin is another of those words that has lost its meaning.
We tend to think of sin, when we think of it at all,
as doing something bad, something evil, something that God wouldn’t want us to do,
and that is fine, as far as it goes.

Sin, however, is more that breaking a rule or violating a commandment;
sin is something corrosive, something that eats away at our souls,
something that turns us away from God.

In one of my favorite novels, Gail Godwin’s Father Melancholy’s Daughter,
an Episcopal priest defines sin as “a falling short of your totality, choosing to live in ways
that you know separate you from the harmony of that totality.”[1] (p. 198)

In other words, sin is whatever behaviors, thoughts, habits we engage in
that stand in the way of us living into our fullness as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

When we repent
– and remember that to repent is not just to say “I’m sorry,” it’s to turn BACK TO GOD –
we are forsaking all those things that are stumbling blocks for us
and embracing those things which indeed lead us closer to God
and to our potential as God’s beloved children.

That theme is present in our reading from the book of Genesis today.
Most often we hear this reading as a story of our brokenness,
of our “original sin” and our falling from grace.
More recently, however, commentators have notedthat Genesis actually illustrates
the complex and paradoxical nature of the human condition, in which we can see humanity’s
“failure to develop into the fullness of being human[2],”  its “fearful avoidance of human potential[3].”

Which brings us back to Lenten disciplines.

Most simply put, we take on Lenten disciplines
– practices that help us learn something –
as a way of turning our selves back to God.
And we turn ourselves back to God
so that in seeing God we can see ourselves,
our best selves, reflected
and we can strive to live in those ways
that bring us into closer congruence
to that God in whose image we are created.

Giving up chocolate or whiskey or TV might do that,
might if these practices are undertaken
in order for us  to free ourselves
from something that stands
between us and God.

But if we give them up just to deprive ourselves,
just to give something up,
then we are kidding ourselves,
engaging in the most insidious self-deception.

So what are the things that separate us from God?

Often they are not material things
but rather attitudes, habits, behaviors,
things we do mindlessly and things we do intentionally
that undermine our best intentions.

We might spend some time reflecting
on which thought patterns or habitual behaviors
are most corrosive in our lives,
and then on how
we might disengage from such habits,
and refocus ourselves towards God.

This is not easy stuff.

It is much simpler to eschew chocolate or coffee than to admit to ourselves
that we are judgmental, or that we like to gossip,
that we tend to think the worst of everyone and everything,
or that we care more about ourselves
and our own comfort than we really care about anyone else,
most especially the homeless guy on the corner
or the client coming back to the food bank for the umpteenth time.

It’s much easier to say that we won’t eat meat on Fridays
than it is to change even ONE of those behaviors.
But doing most likely is not going to prepare us for Holy Week,
except in the shallowest of ways,
nor is it going to help us live more fully
into our potential as beings created in the image and likeness of God.

So what SHOULD we be doing instead?
There are many, many practices out there that can help us re-engage with God.
All of them begin with the kind of self-reflection I’ve mentioned,
naming those flawed behaviors we identify, and working to eliminate or replace them.

But they don’t stop there.
Ultimately whatever discipline we take on must have as its goal
reorienting us towards God,
kindling in us the desire be more Christ-like,
awakening in us a new awareness
of our own potential
and that of the those around us.

If you are on FBor otherwise on the internet you’ve probably seen suggestions.
and in our next weekly e-blast I’ll have some suggestions, too.

The bottom line, though, I think is this:
We are created in God’s image and likeness,
and we are called to live fully into that potential.

Our focus, then, is to look to God, look to Jesus
for what it means to live as God’s beloved children
and then to model our lives accordingly
one step at a time,
one day at a time,
into eternity.


[1] Gail Godwin Father Melancholy’s Daughter, 1991, Harper.

[2] Mark Biddle Missing the Mark, cited in workingpreacher.com http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1978

[3] Juliana Claassen  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1978