A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The lectionary readings for the last Sunday after Epiphany are here.

Did you find an alleluia in your pew? What was your reaction when you saw it? In a moment, we will gather up all of our alleluias and put them away for the season of Lent which begins this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday. For most of the church’s calendar year we sing and say it often. Do you know what it means? However you spell it, with or without the ‘h’s, with the ‘j’ or the ‘i’ it means Praise the Lord.

We don’t put it away during Lent because we aren’t allowed to praise God during this season. Praising God is never out of season. We put it away as a lesson in intentionality, so that we pay attention to when we say it and why. It’s a bit of an ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ thing. When we temporarily set aside our standard word of praise, it frees us up to ponder all the reasons we offer our praise to the God who created us and calls us beloved.

In our Old Testament lesson today we read of when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and said they are for our instruction. These commands teach us how to love well, how to be God’s people in all of our everyday, ordinary activities. And then Jesus comes along and says that he is the fulfillment of the law, as we heard a couple of Sundays ago, showing us in flesh and blood what it looks like to love as God loves so that we too can live God’s law. Jesus shows us how to live in the spirit of the law rather than to use the letter of the law to condemn and oppress others, or ourselves.

God gave Moses the commandments on a stone tablet not to weigh us down but to give us life. And life is growth. Every living thing grows and changes continuously. On the mountain, hundreds of years after the commands were given to Moses, the disciples hear God say “this is my son, listen to him,” and Peter wants to preserve the moment. Understandably so, but to do so would be to stop living and instead become like an engraved stone. Life isn’t static, life is a journey.

Jesus calls us all with the invitation ‘follow me’ and after the transfiguration, that moment when the disciples see Jesus for who he is and hear God’s voice, Jesus says, let’s keep moving, keep living on earth as in heaven, walking the journey of life as God intends in the ordinary, every day moments of our lives.

When Jesus sums up all of God’s law by telling us we are to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourself, he means that we are to love in all three directions. It isn’t a pick and choose buffet but a three course meal. The way we love one is both influenced by and influences the other two.

If we only focus on loving God, our faith becomes a set of religious practices, not a way of life. This is what Peter wanted to do on the mountain. It is the mindset that leads the Pharisees to use religious practices to control and oppress others, making religious practices more important than the relationships they are to cultivate. Our relationship, our love for God, disconnected from our relationship with others has no real purpose or meaning. Jesus teaches us that our love for God is shown best through the way we love others.

If we focus only on loving our neighbor, we can stay so busy that we avoid loving ourselves; or worse yet, we can begin to see our neighbors as an object through which we earn God’s favor, seeking salvation through our helping rather than in listening to and following Jesus.

If we only love ourselves we become our own savior, with no need of God or others. But this one goes the other way around, too. If we don’t love ourselves, if we focus on how horrible we think we are, this spills over into how we love our neighbor and God and what we think of them. Showing disdain or even hatred for others isn’t about them but about ourselves.

When we trust what God says and listen to Jesus, when we take Jesus seriously and follow him, we learn to balance the three. We see God as the source of all love and goodness and we see the image of God in our neighbors and ourselves.

God created us good and when we say we are depraved we are denying the image of God in us. The image of God within us, however, does not make us perfect. We are good AND we make choices with the free will God gave us that don’t always line up with God’s plan for Creation. We are good AND we are not perfect. But we are not depraved.

When we answer God’s call to repentance, it isn’t so that we can submit ourselves to punishment, but so that we can receive God’s grace. Do you remember a few weeks ago we talked about the meaning of repentance? It means to change our hearts and minds for the good. The season of Lent as a penitential season is about letting our hearts and minds be shaped by God’s love so that we can love God, our neighbor, and ourselves better.

I’m not a fan of giving up random things like chocolate, wine, or bacon for six-weeks just to take them on again after Easter. This only proves what we can do for our own glory.

Lent is NOT about proving ourselves worthy of God’s love, it is about being grateful for the love God has for us and learning to live into that love by following Jesus. Lent is an intentional time of letting go of our behaviors and practices that get in the way of or cause harm to our relationships with God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Letting go of those daily activities that cultivate fear, apathy, anger, or hate and instead spend the time practicing our awareness of God with and within us.

Lent isn’t about beating ourselves up, but the the assurance that God’s forgiveness is guaranteed, just not automatic. God has already offered us the gift of forgiveness but like any type of medicine it does us no good if we don’t take it. God’s forgiveness and our repentance sets our relationship with God, each other, and ourselves is proper order. When we continue to berate ourselves or see ourselves as depraved, we are denying the goodness of our creation and distrusting God’s power and promise of forgiveness.

Lent is a season of cultivating our gratitude for who God is and what God does, a time of gratitude for who and Whose we are.

During the next six weeks, when we start to say Alleluia out of habit, because we all will, be gentle with yourself and each other. Don’t let our self imposed religious rules cause you to forget the image of God in another or yourself. Be grateful that we have a loving God to praise. Give thanks to God for loving us and being willing to forgive us. Seek new ways to praise God for creating us from love, in love, and to love.

So, listen to Jesus. Get up and do not be afraid. Be attentive to the light of God’s love in the darkness. Let this coming season be a time of intentionality and gratitude so that we continue to become more and more like Jesus every day, every season of the year. Alleluia! Amen.

2 thoughts on “Listen!

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