Sirach 28.8-12

Matthew 10.26-31

The Pause That Refreshes

Fourth Sunday in Lent

            I’d like everyone to take a few deep refreshing breaths this morning. Ready? Inhale - exhale. Inhale - exhale. One more time: inhale - exhale. There; let’s all relax. I know it’s been a difficult week for lots of folks, so let’s just, for a moment, relax. Today we are smack dab in the middle of Lent, three Sundays done, three more to go. The church has a name for today, although not many use it anymore: today is Refreshment Sunday. The thought is that we have spent three plus weeks since Ash Wednesday in a spirit of penitence, of prayer, of fasting, or giving things up, and it’s a difficult thing to sustain for seven solid weeks.

            Think about it: we spent the first Sunday in Lent in the wilderness, the second Sunday with Peter’s confusing confession, and last week we stood under the folly of the cross, the crucified Messiah Peter had such difficulty grasping. So today we take a few deep breaths, we relax and refresh and prepare for the next three weeks of Lent. And I’m going to do that this morning by picking up some scraps of thought that have been rolling around in my mind, none of which, by itself, is sufficient for a full sermon, but enough I hope for a little extra thought. So: three sermonettes - and a coda, for Refreshment Sunday.

            Smack dab in the middle of Lent. I stole that phrase from Talitha Arnold’s devotion on Friday because it’s so spot on: “In case you hadn’t noticed,” she writes, “we are smack dab in the middle of Lent. Twenty-three days since Ash Wednesday.   Twenty-three more to Easter.” Now, math is not my strong suit, but that equation struck me as both right and wrong at the same time. Let me ask: how many days are in the season of Lent? Forty. What’s 23 + 23? 46. And if you pull out a calendar and do the actual counting, then you’ll see Talitha is right: Friday March 9 is physically 23 days from Ash Wednesday and 23 days from Easter. But how is she also wrong?

            I’m about to tell you something that, last time I shared it with a congregation, many years ago, got me into trouble. You see, Talitha counted right, except for the fact that there are no Sundays during the season of Lent. That is, the church does not consider Sunday to belong to Lent, because each Sunday is considered a little Easter. Lent is Monday through Saturday; we celebrate a little Easter each Sunday, and then get back into Lent. You many have noticed in the liturgical calendar in our bulletin that the phrase is “Fourth Sunday in Lent,” not “of Lent,” because Sundays do not belong to Lent. Now, when I shared this with a former congregation many years ago, one or two astute individuals approached me after church, “Wait a minute. Are you saying that if I gave up smoking or chocolate or television or whatever for Lent, the church is telling me I can still do it on Sunday?” Well, please forgive me, but the technical answer is yes, though the spiritual answer is likely No, and in either case you didn’t hear it from me. So Talitha was right, Friday March 9 was still the center of Lent, but she made the mistake of counting Sundays to get 23 and 23. If you skip Sundays you still get 20 and 20, so she is either wrong for the right reason or right for the wrong reason. I’ll leave it to the mathematically literate among you to figure out which.

Deep breaths: inhale - exhale. Inhale - exhale. One more time: inhale - exhale.

            The next two sermon fragments occurred because something in the news rang some biblical bells for me, and it took a while to put my finger on it, but I think I have it now. Let’s take the Matthew first. Shortly after the Parkland shootings that left 17 high school students and teachers dead, a number of our politicians kept saying things like, “Our students deserve not to be afraid.” “Our schools should not be a place of fear.” “Our children should not be afraid of going to school.” And then those same politicians went on to do almost nothing to address those fears.

            That all made me think of something I noticed about the gospels, and about Jesus in particular, and I don’t remember when exactly this occurred to me, but here it is. Jesus had a habit of saying, “Do not be afraid.” We heard it twice in the brief passage Diane read this morning: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” In at least nine different gospel passages, Jesus repeats the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” And then, just for good measure - and I will preach a full sermon about this some Advent Sunday - “Do not be afraid” occurs five times in the story of the nativity. Why should Jesus’ birth require so many assurances about fear? And I remember very clearly the first time I noticed all of this I thought to myself, If the gospels spend so much time telling us not to be afraid, maybe - just maybe - there is actually something to be afraid of! Don’t you think? Remember when we were kids, in a time of trouble of crisis our parents reassure us by saying, “Everything’s going to be all right,” and the more they said it the more we wondered if it were really true? Perhaps there are things in life that rightly require a healthy dose of fear. Maybe all the shootings in our schools and churches and concerts and other public venues and events - combined with an obvious stubborn reluctance, if not outright refusal, to do anything meaningful about it, should tell us that fear is not an inappropriate human response. And if that fear drives us to work even harder to do the work that others have not done or will not do, then rather than fear mastering us, we will have mastered it. Maybe this is the upshot of Jesus’ words: “Do not be afraid of fear, for then it will have no power over you.” This is one of the reasons I appreciate Claudia Epright’s efforts to help us be engaged with the effort to limit access to the kinds of weapons that can mow down seventeen people in minutes. When we can gain control over those things that conspire to make us afraid, then we will have achieved something meaningful.

One more time: deep breaths: inhale - exhale. Inhale - exhale. Inhale – exhale.

Finally, a few headlines from the past several weeks, and we’ll begin with Parkland:

From National Public Radio on February 16:

“As An American Tragedy Unfolds, Russian Agents Sow Discord Online.”

From Bloomberg Business Week on the same date:

“Mueller Shows How Russians Sowed Discord with Dirty Tricks.”

From the New York Times on February 17:

“To Sow Discord in 2016 [Elections], Russians Turned Most Often to Facebook.”

And from the Los Angeles Times on February 22:

“Russia Tried and Failed to Sow Discord in America; Then it Discovered Social Media.”

There are of course multiple common denominators at work here, but the one that struck me most was not Russia, or the 2016 elections or even social media. Like Jesus’ repetitive “Do not be afraids” in the gospels, I was struck by the repetition of the phrase, “sow discord,” because it too is a phrase that can be found several times in the scriptures, primarily in the wisdom literature to which our reading from Ecclesiasticus belongs: “The sinner disrupts friendships and sows discord among those who are at peace.” I have to admit, this sounds like a lot of Facebook posts I’ve seen recently; “in proportion to obstinacy, so will strife increase.” The book of Proverbs says something similar in the sixth chapter: “A scoundrel and a villain goes around with crooked speech, winking the eyes, shuffling the feet, pointing the fingers, with perverted mind deciding evil, continually sowing discord...”. And a few verses later, “There are seven things that are an abomination to the Lord,” and the seventh and crowning one is, “the one who sows discord in a family.”

            And when we ask ourselves, as so many of us have, “Why do we as a culture, we as a society, we as a nation, seem so divided in these days?”, I think one of the answers may be that we have allowed discord to divide us. But the church of Jesus Christ, as we have said before, is about building up the body, whether it is the body of Christ, the body social or the body politic. The remedy to the sense of disconnect and discord that so many have observed is that there must be more of us doing the work of sowing concord, of breaking down what Paul in Ephesians called “the dividing wall of hostility” and building bridges of trust and hope, of unity and equality and yes, of diversity as well. When I read all those headlines and articles about sowing discord, I knew it was a biblical idea, and I knew also that you and I are called and equipped to counter it. We counter the sowing of discord with the sowing of concord.

[Inhale - exhale.]

Those are the three fragments of sermons that I’ve had rolling around in my head lately, and as I said, there is also a coda, a “P.S.” if you will, and it’s a happy one. I have a head for dates, and when I looked at my calendar last week, I realized there is an anniversary of sorts coming up: it was one year ago this Tuesday, March 13, that I met with the UCC Pastoral Search Committee for the very first time. Which means that it was at that moment I had the sense of God’s spirit stirring in me, beginning to lead me here to Chester. I had dinner with Lol and Kim at the Pattaconk, and a delightful conversation with the rest of the group afterwards, and I spent most of the ride back to Massachusetts that night on speakerphone with Debbie telling her all about you. It is an auspicious anniversary, and it remains a deep refreshing breath.

            Amen.

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