Today is Valentine’s Day what a very incongruous beginning to Lent…or so it may seem. Valentine’s Day is all about romantic gifts, and dinners, and flowers, and hearts filled with chocolates; and here in church we have no flowers for the season, some of you may have sworn off chocolates and sweets as fast of your Lenten discipline, and the mood of our worship certainly doesn’t have much sense of the romantic about it.
But let’s be clear about St. Valentine – or as clear as we can be. His stories are a bit murky, but we know this much: he was a Christian priest in the third century in the Roman Empire. It was a time when the Emperor Claudius was trying to strengthen the Roman army and he felt that soldiers were distracted from their duty by their wives and sweethearts, and so attempted to outlaw marriage. Valentine, however, would marry couples secretly. He also gave aid to Christians in Rome during times of persecution and disenfranchisement. Eventually, Valentine was beheaded for his Christian faith and action on February 14. At some point later, he was canonized. Then, during the Middle Ages, he became the patron saint of marriage and sweethearts. According to legend in France and England birds began mating in the middle of February, so St. Valentine’s Day came to be celebrated as a day honoring courtship; maybe that’s where the term “love birds” came from.
So Valentine was a real person, a Christian martyr, someone devoted to Christ and his faith, and he cared about love. And Lent is all about love. Think about it – when you love someone you want them to be their best, their true selves. We see this as friends, as parents, as spouses. It can be painful to watch someone we care about struggle to be the person we know they are inside, to be the person that God created them to be. There are so many things that call us away from who we are as people made in God’s image, redeemed by Christ – so many temptations. Temptations of fear, of weakness, of desire for acceptance; temptations of power and control; temptations of grandiosity and being the center of attention; temptations of silence in the face of injustice or harsh words in the face of cruelty and suffering; temptations to take the easy way out, the comfortable answer, myopia towards the hardship of others. So many temptations. What are yours? What calls you away from God’s love and your true self?
Jesus knew about temptations. We heard Luke’s version of the story of Jesus being tempted when he went into the wilderness on retreat after his baptism – forty days. And even after all those struggles, he didn’t get a break. The devil had some final, very important temptations in store – misuse of power, desire for glory and fame, proof of Jesus’ divine identity.
Sometimes when we’ve been through something that’s really hard, that we’ve intentionally prepared and braced ourselves for, we get through it – only to find ourselves on the edge of falling apart, taken by surprise. We’ve gotten worn down, buffeted, feeling vulnerable, perhaps feeling alone – and the temptations that come to us then seem so much greater than they would have otherwise.
I said earlier that Lent is all about love. Lent calls us back from the place of temptation and fragility, calls us to be once more who we really are: beloved – beloved by God and very much in need of God. We need God’s wisdom, knowledge, insight, correction, and guidance if we are going to be the people God knows us to be. We need to remove the roadblocks and the hindrances – or allow the Holy Spirit to do it. That’s part of love. And one of the tools we have for doing that is praying the Great Litany as we did this morning. It’s kind of like what’s known in Twelve Step groups as the Fourth Step – making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of our short-comings and character defects, and how we act when we are presented with choices and challenge in our lives and the world around us, and what we do when we meet circumstances beyond our control. There are some of you who don’t like the Great Litany – that’s OK; it’s not important to like it, but it is important to do it, just as it is important to say the Confession, and even, where and when appropriate, to make a private Confession.
The Great Litany, and self-examination, and the Fourth Step are necessary because being a Christian, being a disciple of Jesus, is both about what we think/believe and what we do/how we act/what decisions we make. In order to gain strength and confidence in acting and living as disciples, we practice – both at church and at home – so that we can make our faith real and active out in the world. We practice remembering we are beloved. We practice speaking the truth in love. We practice asking for, offering, and receiving forgiveness from God and one another. We practice gathering for food and spiritual nourishment around our family table, the table of the Lord, so that we can go out and feed, love, strengthen, heal, and forgive other members of the human family.
One of the practices in which Jesus was so deeply rooted and grounded was reading and meditating on Scripture. When the devil tried to tempt him, in every instance he had a word of Scripture to stand on that reminded him why the devil’s invitations were not to be accepted: One does not live by bread alone; Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him; Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Scripture was, for Jesus, a touchstone, a resource, a reminder of the faithful and powerful loving-kindness of God.
If we are Jesus’ disciples, it is good for us to practice in the same way he did. So I have a challenge for you during this Lent. Find, choose, and memorize a passage of Scripture that speaks deeply to you. You can flip through the Bible – the Gospels and Psalms are always good places to look, or use a concordance, or an on-line search to find a passage of about eight to ten verses that speaks to where you are in your life right now. This is not to be about proof-texting or cherry-picking, but words that speak to your soul…and memorize them.
You may already have one or more verses of the Bible memorized. Many people know the Twenty-third Psalm by heart, or Matthew 11:28 which is stitched into the kneelers at the altar rail, or even – if you’ve spent any time with Joyce Kulzer – Philippians 4:13 ~ I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. All of those are great, but I want you to choose something new, something that you feel the Spirit is speaking through to you about what God is calling you to do, to be, to remember.
To help you out with this, I’ll be sending an e-mail with the directions about how to do this – how to look for a passage, how to work on memorizing it, how to learn it in your heart and bones so that it becomes prayer. And then on the Fifth Sunday of Lent I’ll ask you to bring in your passage. We’ll collect them in the offering plate, anonymously if you like, offer them to God, and then get them all written down in a single document, available for inspiration and encouragement for one another. But the most important thing is for each one of us to practice being grounded in Scripture, just as Jesus did. That way we can know in those times of stress and trial and temptation, that we are very much beloved of God, hidden under the shelter of his wings, guided and directed by his eye as we live life in the Way of Christ.
Let us pray.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday in Lent
February 14, 2016