A sermon by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
March 17, 2019

I suppose discussing Lent with Unitarian Universalists might be odd for some of you. That said, I’ve been surprised and also pleased to notice that several of my friends observe Lent in unique and meaningful ways.

Where I grew up Lent was mostly a Catholic thing that I learned about from my friends whose parents forced them to give up video games or red meat from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. The Lenten denials are meant to mirror the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert.

Throughout Jesus’ time in the desert the Gospel writers tell us that Satan tempted him with bread, taunting his hunger. Then Satan bribes him with power and finally challenges Jesus’ commitment to God. Jesus persists and eventually moves on toward Jerusalem and therefore to his eventual death and resurrection, or so the story goes.

The point of Lent is to practice self-denial and soul-searching so that your heart and soul might focus on what truly matters. In other words, it’s a 40-day challenge get your head and your heart right.

And so, for centuries, people have given up all sorts of things to prepare their hearts room for life’s higher callings. Some people give up chocolate or sweets all together. In the past decade, Social media has become a popular pastime to give up. Rather ambitious people might give up alcohol. St. Augustine, the great church father, urged people to observe Lent but warned that sex should not be given up, as doing so risks turning Easter morning into something very naughty.

In seminary I heard a few classmates say they gave up Lent for Lent. They’d deride Lent and quote the book of Ecclesiastes, which says: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil” (2:24). I’ve heard others wonder aloud why any god would want people to give up the very things that make life joyful. After all, as the saying goes, you only live once.

I have known some people to scoff at Lent. Their scorn for the tradition has to do with the fact that so many people in the world have very little to begin with. They ask smart questions like: how can a religion ask for sacrifice and denial when thousands of people have next to nothing in the first place?

I enjoy pondering questions like these. As a philosophy major, I’m a sucker for thought experiments. But these seeming contradictions do little to answer why in poor and developing nations Christianity and its traditions are spreading like wild fire; in numeric terms, it’s not growing by the thousands, it’s growing by the millions.

So, how can a religion that demands sacrifice and denial be dying in the wealthiest and most comfortable nations while thriving in places where freedom is tenuous and food and water scarce?

Of course, I don’t have an adequate answer to those questions. In fact, whole religious studies departments in universities with billion-dollar endowments aren’t able to give a sufficient answer, either.

Even as Christianity and other Mainline Denominations (to which Unitarian Universalism belongs) experience decline here in the U.S., countless people throughout the world hunger for authentic religious experiences; and they find a lot of meaning in ancient spiritual rituals like self-denial and contemplative prayer.

People do this for a lot of reasons. Some do it to curb addiction, others to salvage relationships, or to learn a bit about their habits and tendencies. But most of us do this because we want to get in touch with life’s deeper meanings; we want to get in touch with our soul.

We long to be a part of this world and to serve a purpose in it; we long to feel; we long to clear the excess in our lives to make room for what really matters.
In the past few months I’ve been astounded to watch as Marie Kondō’s book and Netflix show The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has taken the world by storm. Her positive approach to throwing old junk away and organizing your house to spark joy has inspired thousands of people to bombard Good Will stores with mountains of unused stuff.

It turns out that having less actually makes us better, even happier people. And speaking personally, it feels quite wonderful to get rid of a bit of the junk in my life.

I have a colleague who retired a couple years ago. He tells a story about the day he found himself standing in his office at the church he served for more than 23 years—with only one task left: clear everything out. He looked around and saw 23 years of his life on the shelves and hanging on the walls—pictures colored by kids, stacks of old magazines and journals, little knick-knacks, and piles of half-read books.

He couldn’t help but cry at the thought of leaving this space where he had read and wrote and counseled couples and comforted the bereaved for more than two decades. It was in that moment his wife walked through the door and said, “If you plan on having a wife in your retirement you had better throw this crap away.”

A couple hours later his wife says a dumpster magically appeared. He filled one small box with a few letters and pictures, donated most of his books to a prison library, and threw the rest of the stuff from his office window into the dumpster below.

Many of us can empathize with my colleague’s accumulation of stuff. Most of us live rather comfortable lives. We have most everything we want, and almost certainly everything we need. Our closets are crammed with clothes, our basements with boxes of who knows what. We have garages stacked from floor to ceiling and our mailboxes are stuffed with packages of even more stuff. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner we eat until we’re full, and sometimes until we’re too full.

But we work hard, don’t we? We tell ourselves that we’ve earned this luxury. And perhaps you have. Everyone, so far as I’m concerned, deserves a little luxury and pleasure for pleasure’s sake. But why then, with all this luxury and stuff and entertainment do newspapers frequently carry stories about people in constant search of simplicity and quiet? Why is Kondō’s book about throwing crap away one of best-selling books in America, not to mention the fact that it’s categorized as a self-help book and a work on religion and spirituality?

My generation, the Millennials, has all but turned its back on organized religion in search of creating new spiritual environments that are very much Lenten in flavor; they’re hosting intentional dinners with friends and neighbors, holding all night dance church, creating spaces where the point is to lose yourself in search of yourself, going on weeklong silent retreats to cloisters and monasteries, and food churches where the whole point is to feed and eat alongside your human kin; Millennials are throwing away smart phones for dumb phones, clearing out closets, putting themselves on purchasing fasts, and living in tiny homes.

But it’s not just my generation that’s showing a fondness of Lent-like living. Throughout history people have warned of the dangers of living lives of excess and urged us to sort ourselves out.

Aristotle said we are to live in the mean, not too much, not too little. Jack Kerouac told us to practice kindness because heaven is nigh. Bodhisattvas and Jesus both recommend simple, selfless lives. St. John Lennon told us to imagine no possessions. And then asked, “I wonder if you can.” St. Lennon also told us to “Imagine there’s no countries” where there’s nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too. I wonder what St. Lennon would think about our never-ending wars and cesspool politics?

In this political climate, when every other day someone announces a run for the presidency claiming that I and only I have what it takes to save us from the perils of this age. These candidates characterize the current state of things as being unlike anything the world has ever known; it is tempting to actually believe what they’re saying.

We all know that war and poverty, and religion and immigration have bedeviled the human race since our primate ancestors first fought for the rights to a watering hole.

So, who here would judge anyone for seeking sanctuary from this world in the expanses of nature, or the solitude monasteries? After all, when the day is done and I throw my feet on the footstool and flip on the evening news, you and I see the same thing: wars and rumors of war; we see the strained and tear stained faces of people standing outside mosques and synagogues where yet again some deranged man murdered innocent people; we see elected officials justify fake emergencies while children are born and raised in cages in the name of “national security.”

Most of us here lead relatively stable lives; the worst the world has to offer only comes to us when we drive under overpasses or switch on the TV. We are shielded from the worst the world has to offer. But just because we have food to eat and our cities aren’t overrun with terrorists doesn’t mean we don’t suffer a form of war, too.

There is more than one kind of war. There are the wars that go on in families, the wars fought in marriages, and the wars we wage with each other that are often invisible and so persistent that we hardly notice we’re fighting them.

There are wars between parents and children, between people who are at the same time friends and yet enemies. We fight for an endless list of reasons: we fight because we’re hurt, we fight to inflict pain, we fight for our rights, and we fight because inside we’re a warzone of sadness and confusion. It’s tempting to think that this is just the way of the world, that the human animal is a selfish, vengeful creature.

In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of The Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate and Union soldiers gathered to reenact Pickett’s Charge. The Union men gathered on the hill while the Confederate men stood in the open field where, just 50 years earlier, 50,000 men lost their lives. When the signal was made for the reenactment to begin a great yell was let out on both sides as the men ran toward one another. As they got closer the men threw down their guns and instead ran into one another’s arms. There they stood in the old battlefield hugging and weeping as thousands of onlookers took in the sight and sound.

Fred Buechner, who likes to tell this story, says, “if only we had eyes to see what those old men saw as they fell into each other’s arms.” The question this begs is, how can we learn to see as those old men saw that day on the battlefield?

How can we look into the eyes of the enemy and behold someone worthy of love and respect? How can we learn to live as Jesus taught, and love our neighbors as ourselves? How can we learn to live as Lao Tzu wrote, knowing that “nothing but good comes to him who loves others as he loves himself”?

The point of loving someone as you love yourself is about kindness for others. But it’s also about you. You love others for your own sake. You don’t cook meals in the soup kitchen just because you know someone needs a hot meal, you do it because when someone lies in bed at night with a belly full of hunger pain and when families starve to death a part of our humanity dies, too.

The fact is, we are all one big, interconnected human family. A great preacher once said, “Not to give of ourselves to the human beings we know who may be starving not for food but for what we have in our hearts to nourish them with is to be, ourselves, diminished and crippled as human beings.”

The point and purpose of Lent is to make room in your heart for the needs of world. To clear away the junk so that you can truly love others as you love yourself. To do what you need to do to make room in your heart for the people who never get a chance to be heard; to make space in your life for people whose lives have been robbed by human trafficking or war, or genocide or oppression.

The purpose of Lent is to learn how live in a way that everyone can rise each dawning day to a world of safety and possibility; because in the end there will never be peace until everyone knows peace. So, my friends, what are you giving up for Lent?

Amen. I love you. And by God bless us all.