Discovering our Inner Lost Sheep

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I spent a fair amount of time watching the Olympics a few weeks ago. While I am enthralled by the acrobatics of Simone Biles or the sheer dominance of Michael Phelps, I often find the less successful athletes much more compelling. One such athlete is Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 100 meter freestyle at the Olympics in Sydney. In many ways, Eric was the unlikeliest of contenders. He had only taken up swimming eight months before the start of the Olympic Games. To put that in perspective, that’s like, well, someone taking up swimming eight months before they compete in the Olympic games. Nevertheless, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Equatorial Guinea a wildcard draw as a way of encouraging participation by developing countries. Thus, Eric was competing at the highest level of his sport despite the fact he had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool until he arrived for his first heat.

There’s no question that Eric was deeply sensible of his inadequacies, but he decided to go through with the race anyway. In an extraordinary coincidence, all of his competitors false started and were unexpectedly disqualified. This left Eric to complete the race entirely by himself. In the Disney version of this story, Eric would have set a world record, but in reality the race was excruciating to watch. eric_moussambaniWithin a few strokes, it became clear that he had never swum any significant distance. By the time made the turn at 50 meters, people were openly wondering whether he would be able to finish or even survive the race. Ultimately, he completed the race, winning his heat (remember, he was the only competitor) with the slowest time in Olympic history. Though his performance initially elicited laughter from the crowd, the spectators gradually realized they were witnessing a true Olympic moment. We assume that the Olympics are meant to celebrate superhuman feats of athleticism, but Eric reminded us that in the end, these athletes are as frail and vulnerable as the rest of us.

This morning we hear two famous and related parables about human frailty: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These parables follow essentially the same formula: something is lost, someone seeks and finds it, and there is much rejoicing. What is striking about both of these parables is the extraordinary effort that is put into finding the lost. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find just one. Even though Jesus seems to imply that this is standard practice, the fact is that losing sheep was part of being a shepherd in the first century. One lost sheep out of a hundred would barely register; it was the cost of doing business. In a similar way, this woman spends the day turning her whole house upside down in order to find the one coin she misplaced, potentially losing wages or time to run her household. At the very least she had to use precious lamp oil to look for something that wasn’t worth all that much in the grand scheme of things. When faced with similar situations, most of us would simply conclude that we could probably take the hit: we can live with the loss of a sheep or two. The implication of these parables, however, is that God doesn’t engage in this kind of calculus. As Henri Nouwen writes, “God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter…From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed…to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy.”

Now it’s important for us to consider Jesus’ audience. Even though the occasion for this teaching is the fact that Jesus has been criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is not speaking to them. He is actually addressing the scribes and Pharisees, the people who supposedly have their life together and ostensibly have no need of repentance. We might imagine their impatient response to these parables: “It’s certainly a nice thought that God will seek out those poor sinners even when it is a waste of everybody else’s time. In the meantime, here we are, doing our very best to stay out of trouble and keep our noses clean. We have never left home and have always done what we are supposed to do. What do we get from this God who seeks out and finds the lost?” imgresJesus has a startling suggestion for the scribes and Pharisees: “What if you’re the ones who are lost? What if you are the lost sheep who has strayed from the flock? What if you are that lost coin that rolled under the sofa?” With these parables, Jesus insists that everyone needs to be found, because everyone is lost in some way. The message of these parables is as much for those who have wandered off as it is for those who think they never left.

The scribes and Pharisees aren’t the only ones who have had trouble understanding this. We know we have a generous God who reaches out to the lost and rejoices when they return. It has been burned into our brains by years of faithful church attendance. The funny thing about religious people is that for all of our talk about God, we would much rather be left to our own devices. We do everything we can to conceal our vulnerabilities, to hide our inadequacies, to imagine that we have everything under control. We all like to think that we are Michael Phelps or Simone Biles: confident that we will succeed as we prepare to knife through the water or soar through the air. But this is only true on the rarest of occasions. Most of the time, we are much more like Eric Moussambani: plagued by deep feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy as we stand before the largest pool we have ever seen.

This is the nature of our human condition. We are inadequate; we are broken, and we are lost. But we begin to overcome this condition through the practice of repentance. Repentance is often misunderstood. It’s not about pleasing God with acts of contrition. It’s not even about being sorry for our sins. Repentance is about acknowledging the fullness of God’s reality even as we recognize our own inadequacy. It is about trusting that God’s grace and love transcend the hopelessness and sinfulness that characterize so much of the human experience.

Nothing illustrates this practice of repentance better than the Eucharist. So many of you are struggling in some way. Some of you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of keeping your family together. Some of you are grieving the loss of a spouse. Some of you feel betrayed by someone close to you. Some of you are just coping with the day-to-day challenge of life. There are moments when all of us feel broken, inadequate, and lost. Even though we are fully aware of our lostness, we have the opportunity to experience the fullness of God’s grace every time we come forward to receive the Eucharist. When we come to the altar rail, we have the opportunity hear the sounds of divine joy as we recognize, even for a fleeting moment, that no matter how lost we are, we have been found by God.

The Gospel according to Roy Williams

Last week, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Both teams played with brilliance and passion. Indeed, it was the most exciting Championship game anyone can remember: there were countless lead changes and the result literally came down to the final moments of the game. Kris-Jenkins-buzzerbeater-jpg-300x169With 11 seconds remaining, UNC was down by three. Marcus Paige, the veteran Carolina guard, attempted an ugly, contested three point shot, which miraculously found the basket, tying the game. With 4.5 seconds left, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono drove the ball down the court and passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched and made a buzzer beating three pointer, winning the game and shocking millions of viewers. It was one of the great finishes in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one of those moments that reminded me why I enjoy watching sports.

The most compelling moment of the Villanova victory, however, took place off the court. After the game, correspondent Tracy Wolfson interviewed Roy Williams, Carolina’s highly decorated head coach. Though these post-game interviews are a standard and often tedious part of the sports viewing experience, full of platitudes and cliches, there was something different about this one. imgresWilliams’ face was red and swollen; it was clear he had barely composed himself for this interview. As he fought back tears, he told Wolfson, “I’ve been a head coach for 28 years, and the worst thing on a loss like this is I feel so inadequate.” It was a moment of searing honesty and undeniable truth. Carolina played brilliantly. They “left it all out on the floor,” as the saying goes. They shot astonishingly well (65%) from the three point line in spite of being the worst three point shooting team in the history of the school. They even made a nearly miraculous shot to tie the game with seconds left. In other words, they did everything right! Yet they still lost the game. No wonder Coach Williams felt inadequate. He was bereft, because everything he implicitly understood about the game of basketball and about life had come crashing down. After being asked what he said to his team in the locker room, Williams mused, “I just talked, I mean…nothing, because you can’t say anything.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his life before he had his experience of God’s grace: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul had everything going for him. He was doing everything right. He was more than adequate; he was confident that he could make himself worthy of God’s favor with his accomplishments. “Yet,” he continues, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” There was a moment in Paul’s life when he realized that in spite of all his accomplishments, he was inadequate. There was a moment when everything Paul understood about the world came crashing down. In this moment, Paul had to locate his trust, not in his own ability, but in the grace that had been made known to him in Jesus Christ.

Ironically, the most eloquent moment of the interview with Roy Williams was when he admitted that there was nothing he could say to his players in the face of their loss. With this admission, Williams uncovered a fundamental truth: when we come face to face with our inadequacy, words fail us. Several years ago, the Diocese of North Carolina released a video featuring the Right Reverend Michael Curry, who is currently the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. At one point, Bishop Curry describes what it’s like to bring Holy Communion to those on the margins of life. “What do you say to a person who is dying?” he asks. “What do you say to a person who is on death row? What do you say to a person that is addicted to a life that’s destroying them? I don’t have the words and you don’t. But Jesus does.” That is the gospel. As Roy Williams demonstrated last week, there are moments in our lives when words will fail us, when accomplishments will fail us, when our carefully constructed self-image will come crashing down. The only thing that will not fail, that cannot fail is the grace that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Forgetting to Remember

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  To hear audio of this sermon, click here.

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Jill Price. To read an article about her condition, click here.

Jill Price, a forty-something school administrator from California, remembers everything that has happened to her since she was eleven years old.  I want to make it very clear, I don’t mean that she has particularly vivid memories of her senior prom or the first time she travelled abroad.  Rather, Ms. Price remembers what she had for breakfast three decades ago. As a result of her unique and remarkable memory, psychological professionals have diagnosed Price with an otherwise unknown condition called hyperthymesia.  Others have simply and more romantically dubbed her, “The Woman who can’t Forget.”

Though some have questioned whether Price’s astonishing memory is the result of hyperthymesia or a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, the practical consequences are the same: Jill Price has an extraordinarily difficult time making decisions.  You might think that a long and detailed memory would be an advantage when dealing with a dilemma, that recalling a similar situation would give one perspective when making a decision.  For Price, however, the opposite is true.  She is so overwhelmed with memories that she has no idea how to discern which are important.  In other words, she lacks the crucial ability to forget. Neuroscientists contend that one of the reasons human beings forget is so that we can recognize the importance of what we actually remember.  Ironically, Jill Price’s paralyzing ability to recall every detail of her past effectively prevents her from remembering anything of lasting significance.  The flood of information about who she was prevents her from becoming who she is meant to be.

In Scripture, there is an interesting tension around the notion of memory.  On one hand, memory is held up as one of the primary virtues of the community of faith.  Israel, for instance, was commanded to remember its liberation from the land of Egypt.  Jesus commanded his disciples to eat the Eucharistic meal in order to remember him.  On the other hand, there are moments in Scripture when God’s people are exhorted to forget.  In Isaiah, the LORD instructs the exiled nation of Israel “not to remember the former things or consider the things of old.”  In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul implies that the Christian life is about “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”  The writers of the Old and New Testaments, in other words, indicate that there is a complicated relationship between faith and memory.

imgresNowhere is this ambivalence more clearly articulated than in the passage we heard from Genesis this morning.  The story of the flood is one of the most familiar in Scripture.  Not only is it an important reference point in the biblical witness, it is also an indelible part of popular culture; just think about how many nurseries are decorated with images of Noah standing on an ark full of smiling animals.  But there is a way in which the very ubiquity of this story has taken away its power.  For many people, the story of the flood is so familiar, so timeworn, that it has become cliched.  But it is important for us to see this story not as a mere fairy tale about a rainstorm and a boat full of animals, but as the foundational statement about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.

The first pages of Genesis do not paint a particularly flattering picture of human beings.  After God creates the heavens and the earth in the first two chapters, it’s pretty much downhill from there.  From chapter 3 onward, all we read about is how human beings tried to put themselves in God’s place, whether it was Adam and Eve disobeying God’s explicit instruction regarding the Tree of Knowledge or Cain jealously murdering his brother.  The first chapters of Genesis describe a downward spiral of sin.  At the beginning of the flood story, the writer explains that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”  As a result, God is sorry that he created human beings.  God’s heart is grieved that these beings created to have free will used that very freedom to turn away from God.  God is heartbroken, and God decides to start over, to give the world a new birth, to blot out what he had made and start again.

But here is the astonishing thing.  God decides to save a small group of righteous human beings, the very creatures who had abused their freedom and sent the world into a tailspin of destructive sin.  It is implicitly illogical.  God knows that when these creatures with free will are left to their own devices, they ignore God and turn toward themselves.  And yet, God includes them in the renewal of creation. Moreover, even though God was working with these same disobedient creatures, after the flood God promises “never again will all flesh be cut off,” that the world will never again be destroyed as a result of humanity’s disobedience.  The Hebrew word the writer uses also implies that as a result of this covenant, it is impossible for us to be completely separated from God’s faithfulness and love.  Notice that this covenant is completely one-sided.  It is not contingent on whether human beings shape up.  God pledges to remember this everlasting covenant regardless of our repeated attempts to put ourselves in God’s place.  It is here that the complicated relationship between faith and memory becomes most evident.  In order to remember this everlasting covenant with Noah, God has to forget the countless ways that God’s people have rejected him.  Indeed, the remainder of Scripture is the story of God’s repeated attempts to draw us to himself and our repeated failure to respond.  God made a covenant with Abraham, gave the Law to Moses at Sinai, brought God’s people into the Promised Land, instituted a monarchy, sent prophets to warn God’s people, placed them into exile, brought them back from exile and still we refused to respond.  Nevertheless, God was able to forget all of these rejections because they were overshadowed by the memory of God’s covenant with Noah: the foundational promise a that there is nothing we can do to cut off our relationship with God.

In many ways, Lent embodies the tension of faith and memory.  It is a season that begins with a potent reminder of our mortality and ends with a reenactment of the final days of Jesus’ life.  At the same time, it is a period when we forego certain aspects of our lives, forgetting, if only for a time, our typical routine.  This paradox helps us remember Lent’s true purpose.  Lent is not about giving things up in order to somehow please God.  Rather, this season is an opportunity to forget everything that distracts us from our relationship with God so that we can remember God’s enduring faithfulness.  It is a time to name and forget our failures so that they can be overwhelmed by the memory of God’s everlasting covenant.  It is a season that enables us to let go of who we once were so that we can become who we are meant to be.

On Fruitcakes and the Incarnation

Sermon on John 1:1-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here. To hear an abridged version of Truman Capote’s story read by the author, click here.

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Photograph of young Truman and his cousin taken by “the young Wistons.”

In 1956, Truman Capote published a short story about his childhood called A Christmas Memory.  It is a wonderfully evocative tale of how young Truman and his aging cousin, Miss Sook, celebrated Christmas in Depression-era rural Alabama.  The story centers around the pair’s Christmas preparations, the most important of which is the baking of thirty fruitcakes for “friends” across the country.  Capote describes how he and his cousin collect windfall pecans, purchase candied pineapple at the general store, and procure illegal whiskey from the unsmiling and terrifying Mr. Haha.  He also points out that the fruit of their considerable labor does not necessarily benefit their neighbors or relatives.  “Indeed,” he observes, “the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter…Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch.”  At one point in the story, Miss Sook wonders if Mrs. Roosevelt will serve their cake at Christmas dinner.  Of course, we all know that there is no way that that could happen, that the vast majority of recipients probably didn’t know what to do with this fruitcake from these people they barely remember, and I suspect that Capote and Miss Sook understood this at some level.  Every year, however, Truman and his cousin would pool their meager savings, invest an incredible amount of time and effort, and send more than thirty fruitcakes around the country to people who might not even want them.  From a common sense perspective, this whole enterprise seems inefficient and pointless.  If Capote and his cousin were to do a cost benefit analysis, it would be very clear that that this particular Christmas ritual is a waste of time.  And yet, they embrace this task with such joy, with such enthusiasm, with such delight that everyone can see why the process of making and sending fruitcake continues to be part of their Christmas experience.

This morning, we heard the extraordinary prologue to John’s gospel.  This passage is foundational to the Christian faith, which is part of the reason that it is always read on the first Sunday after Christmas.  This text describes the fullness of God’s creative power and then proceeds to illustrate the astonishing surprise of the Incarnation.  This passage invites us to meditate on one of the central Christian mysteries: that God became one of us, that the author of all creation became part of that creation, that the Word became flesh and lived among us.  But even as John describes the incredible power of the Creator becoming part of creation, he acknowledges that not everyone recognized the Word made flesh, that not everyone embraced the reality of God with us.  John tells us that the Word, Jesus Christ, came to what was his own, but that his own people did not accept him.  It’s a peculiar reference, particularly in John’s gospel.  John’s personality is somewhat unique among the evangelists.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke are perfectly content to depict the humanity of Jesus (all three have Jesus doubting, getting annoyed, and even getting hungry occasionally) John’s portrayal of Jesus is otherworldly and divine.  In John’s gospel, Jesus knows exactly what is going to happen to him; Jesus is initiates his own mission and he is in control of his own life and death.  So it is surprising, then, that in the sweeping introduction to his gospel, John would mention that people rejected Jesus.  The fact that people rejected the Word leads us to wonder about the purpose of the Incarnation.  The triumphal tone of John’s gospel seems to suggest the point of the Incarnation was to make Christians, to bring as many people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ as possible.  Why else would John make the distinction between those who do not receive Jesus and those who “believe in his name”?  Surely, the way to understand this distinction is that those who “believe in his name” are those who are part of the Church, whereas those who reject the Word are those outside the body of the faithful.  In this view, those who recognize the presence of God in Jesus Christ are “Incarnation success stories.”  But this leaves us wondering how it is possible for anyone to ignore the very presence of the living God among them.  If the Incarnation is all about persuading people to adopt a particular religious perspective, then the fact that some people rejected Jesus is problematic.  In fact, it means that the Incarnation was a failure, that God’s participation in history was for naught, that the Word becoming flesh was a waste of time.

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Many take great solace in the fact that Jesus knew how to throw a party.

This limited understanding of the Incarnation is only accurate from a human perspective.  John, however, makes it very clear that the Incarnation is about much more than getting people’s names on the rolls.  At the end of the prologue, John articulates the true fruit of the Incarnation: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  The Incarnation is not a means of classification, it is the outpouring of God’s own self, the sharing of an unfathomable grace.  John affirms that God’s fullness is poured out abundantly, without regard for who receives it or what impact it may have or whether it will be rejected.  The Incarnation is not strategically targeted where it will be most effective; it is an extravagant, inefficient outpouring of everything that God is.  We see this illustrated in the miracle at Cana in the very next chapter of John’s gospel.  Jesus is told that the party has just run out of wine, and his response is not to make a per capita estimate based on consumption trends, but to produce more wine than anybody could possibly drink.  Like Miss Sook’s fruitcakes, the Incarnation is not about precise calculation; it is about the expression of joy and delight.  The Incarnation cannot be a failure because its only objective is to bring the fullness of God’s abundant grace into creation.

We live in a time when the message we proclaim during this Christmas season is not always well received.  If people are not hostile to our proclamation of “good news,” they are often indifferent.  For many people, the central figure of the Christmas season is not Jesus, but Santa Claus.  Our tendency is to respond to this situation either diagnostically or defensively.  Either we attempt to calculate exactly who we need to attract and how we can market the gospel to them or we angrily respond with “Merry Christmas” when people wish us a happy holiday.  Today, however, we are reminded that we are not called to diagnose or defend, but to live our lives with joy, to experience life aware of the abundant grace that God has extravagantly poured upon creation.  We are called to be beacons of this grace, and we are called to embrace this Christian vocation with such joy, with such enthusiasm, and with such delight that everyone can see how we have been shaped by the fullness of God’s grace.

Opening Day

Today is Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season.

imgresI have been at least a casual baseball fan for much of my life (and by “casual,” I mean that I’ve always been at least nominally a Red Sox fan), but I really fell in love with the game about ten years ago, when I moved to Boston.  There are a number of aspects of baseball that appeal to me.  I love the history of the game; it is humbling to know that some MLB franchises have been playing since the Gilded Age.  I love the liturgy of the game; there is something very comforting about the unnecessarily detailed rules that are a central part of the game, like this unnecessary and beautiful ritual: whenever a pitching change is made, the manager walks all the way out to the mound, takes the ball from the pitcher, and hands it to the reliever.  I love the pace of the game; baseball is the athletic equivalent of Sabbath: it encourages us to slow down in the midst of our busy lives and experience the wonder of life.

The main reason I love baseball as much as a I do, however, is how well the sport embraces failure.  There are 162 games in the Major League Baseball season.  The Boston Red Sox, who were the World Series champions last year, won 97 of these 162 regular season games.  In spite of the fact that they lost 65 games, they were crowned as the best team in baseball.  Even more dramatic is the fact that Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters in history, had a single-season batting average of .406.  This means that in his best season, Teddy Ballgame himself was unsuccessful at the plate almost 60 percent of the time.  The best hitters playing today tend to have batting averages around .300, which means that they fail 70 percent of the time.  Baseball players and fans know how to deal with failure.  And this shapes the way that baseball fans look at the world, especially on Opening Day.  Every team begins the season with a mathematically equal chance of going to the playoffs, and even fans of historically bad teams hold on to this hope.  In spite of past failures, we always know that there is a possibility for redemption.  For baseball fans, the past does not dictate the future; instead, the future is shaped by boundless possibility.

I think the same can be said of the Christian life.  At its best, the Church is deeply aware of the reality of human failure, of the fact that sin is part of the human condition.  At the same time, the Christian community is also deeply aware that in spite of our human failings, there is always a possibility for transformation.  Paul tells us that Christ reconciled us to God while we were yet sinners.  God was aware of our human frailty, and held out the hope of redemption in spite of our inability to recognize God’s love.  We must remember that in the Church, the past does not dictate the future; instead, our future is shaped by the boundless possibilities available to us when we ground our life in God.

Busted

The second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament ended yesterday.

There is a thread that runs through the NCAA Tournament narrative every year.   It is the “Cinderella story”: the team that got into the tournament by the skin of its teeth, the team that no one has ever heard of, the team that no one saw coming.  Last year, the Cinderella team was Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that sounds like it was invented by the writer of a ’90s romantic comedy.  A few years ago, the team wearing the glass slipper was Butler, the first team from a “mid-major” conference to make the final four.  And of course, there is the tale of the charismatic Jim Valvano and his 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, a team with the stress-inducing penchant for winning games in their final seconds (earning them the nickname “The Cardiac Pack”).

UnknownThis year, the Big Dance seems to feature nothing but Cinderella stories.  Eleventh ranked Dayton won “the battle of Ohio” by defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes on the first day of the second round.  Harvard University, not typically known for its athletic prowess on the national stage, stunned everyone with a victory over fifth ranked Cincinnati.  And Mercer (which is in Macon, GA, in case you were wondering) issued an astonishing defeat to Coach K and mighty Duke Blue Devils.  In short, the first few days of the tournament have been fairly surprising.  For those of us who follow college basketball primarily for human interest purposes, this is a lot of fun; underdog stories are always more interesting.  For those who like to fill out their brackets and predict what is going to happen during the course of the tournament, these Cinderella stories can be frustrating.  Invariably, the success of these underdogs leads to “busted brackets,” meaning that there are people who spend the rest of the tournament sulking about their ruined predictions.

This is around the time in the season of Lent when people start to “cheat” on their Lenten disciplines.  Perhaps you gave up chocolate and accidentally had an after dinner mint at a restaurant.  Maybe you promised to call a friend every day during Lent and you’ve missed the last few days.  Perhaps you vowed to read a book of the Bible during the season but just haven’t found the time lately.  In situations like these, it’s easy to assume that your Lenten discipline is “busted” and you have to wait until next year.  But the beautiful thing about Lent is that there is no equivalent to a busted bracket in the Christian season of renewal.  We always have the opportunity to try again, to dust ourselves off, and reengage our relationship with God.  Ultimately, this helps us remember that the whole Christian life is shaped by this process of reengagement and repentance.  We will fail in our lives: we will pursue our own will instead of God’s, we will hurt our fellow human beings, we will turn to the power of sin and death.  The message of the gospel, however, is that our failures do not define us, that our sins cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  We must remember that we have been created and redeemed by a God who loves us deeply, and that God’s love can never be busted.

Disaster

I’m pretty proud of my ability to make pizza.

Since seminary, I have been perfecting my technique, refining my dough recipe, determining the best topping combinations, and figuring out how to get through the entire evening without the smoke detector going off.  The result is that I am a fairly competent home pizza chef.  It is only after years of trial and error, however, that I have been able to get to this point.  Along the way, pizzas have lost all their toppings, failed to cook all the way through, and turned into bizarrely misshapen piles of dough.  Of course, I accompanied all of these disasters with ranting and raving, using, in the opinion of a good friend, “words and sentiment completely inappropriate for a priest of God’s church.”  But all of this failure eventually led to success.  I don’t claim to make anything like what you can get at Modern in New Haven, CT (go, if you’ve never been) or Lombardi’s in New York, but I can reliably put together a tasty pie.

So it was with confidence that I accepted our Curate’s invitation to prepare pizza for the youth group last Sunday.  Not only did I think it would be fun to hang out with the youth, I figured I would teach them a new skill in the process.  I arrived with everything prepared: my carefully chosen toppings were ready, the dough had risen and been kneaded the appropriate number of times, and I had a generous amount of mozzarella and parmesan ready to go.  Members of the youth group showed up and I demonstrated how to stretch the dough and arrange the toppings.  Everything was progressing nicely until I went to slide the pizza in the oven.  I had committed the ultimate rookie mistake and failed to sprinkle enough cornmeal on the pizza peel.  I watched in horror as toppings fell to the floor of the oven and the pizza dough collapsed into a unwieldy mess.  It was an old fashioned disaster.  But for whatever reason, I resisted the urge to utter the few choice words running through my head and instead said, “We can fix this.”  I retrieved the pizza dough from the oven, laid it out once again (with the appropriate amount of cornmeal), and invited the youth to replace the toppings that now lay woebegone on the oven floor.  We slid the restored pizza into the oven and, ten minutes later, enjoyed an imperfect yet tasty meal.

Pictured: Hope for Redemption
Pictured: Hope for Redemption

It occurs to me that the willingness to say, “I can fix this” is what repentance requires.  When I first started making pizza, the disaster of last Sunday night would have impelled me to abandon the entire operation and call Dominos.  But after years of trial and error, after years of realizing that everything can’t be perfect, after years of failing, I realized that there was hope for restoration.  We often get caught up in the notion that our failures have insurmountable power over us, that we cannot possibly fix what is wrong with us.  We get overwhelmed by our problems and imagine that there is no place or no way for us to turn.  Lent, however, is a time when we are reminded that each one of us has the potential for transformation, that each one of us can be restored, that each one of us can, with God’s help, be redeemed.  But first, we must say to ourselves, “I can fix this.”