March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
Earlier this term I was having trouble with one of my classes. I just couldn’t seem to get in sync with the students, to connect with them, no matter how hard I tried.
Then one day one of those silences opened up in the room, one of those gaps, and for once I didn’t try to fill it, to talk into it. I was talked out.
A few seconds went by. Then a student made a comment, a good one, an insightful one. Then another student, and another, and after a while they weren’t talking to me, they were talking to each other, and for about twenty minutes I just sat back and enjoyed, deeply enjoyed, one of the best discussions I’ve had in all my years of teaching.
And I hadn’t had it. They were having it.
All I’d done is run out of things to say.
For by grace you have been saved through faith [Ephesians says], and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.
Through a friend of a friend I got a call to visit a woman in Lebanon who is chronically ill and unable to leave the house. I was busy, and it was a little bit of a drive, but I was asked and so I went. And it turned out to be a lovely afternoon. The sun was shining as I drove down. I could feel myself relax. And the woman I met was so thoughtful, and prayerful, and deeply Catholic: longing for the sacraments, longing for the Eucharist. She sat in this big easy chair and I sat across from her, her little dog on my lap, licking my hand, and I could feel the Spirit moving in that room—I could feel the Real Presence of Christ.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.
Jesus doesn’t say today in this great passage today from John that God will love the world if we first believe in him. He says, “God so loved world he gave his only son.”
Later in the gospel of John Jesus doesn’t say, love one another and then I will love you. He says, “love one another as I have loved you.”
There’s nothing here about fasting or alms-giving or what we should do with our bodies or how we should vote or even what Church we should belong to or doctrines we should believe in.
Fasting is necessary, and important, and good—all the spiritual practices of Lent are necessary and important and good—but we don’t do these things to earn God’s love. We do them to honor this love. We do them to show our gratitude.
I’m really good at not emptying the dishwasher. A genius, really.
The key is timing: if you get it right you can avoid emptying the dishwasher for weeks at a time. Months.
But the reason I’m trying this Lent to break this habit isn’t to make Barb love me more but because I know she already does. Because I want to show her that I love her, too. Because I want to make her smile.
Fasting and praying and alms-giving are ways we try to clear our minds and clear our hearts so we can see what is always already true–and the best thing about them is that we always fail. The best thing about our Lenten resolutions is that we can’t keep them. They show us again and again how hungry we are and irritable and proud and so how very much we need the grace of God.
And then they teach us freedom, they teach us joy, because God never stops loving us. Beauty and justice and grace are always and always pouring down on us. It’s we, in our ignorance and our smallness, it’s we who turn away. God doesn’t “condemn” us, to use the language of John’s gospel: we condemn ourselves. We “prefer the darkness to the light,” the shoddy to the real, but that’s our choice, that’s our doing, not God’s, and that’s really good news, the best news of all. For we are his handiwork. We didn’t make him, he made us, and he is always making us, lovingly, unceasingly.
A couple of weeks ago Barb and I went to the American Kennel Club dog show, over in Albany, at the Linn County Fairgrounds. We were sitting in folding chairs watching the terrier group being judged when I felt this presence over my shoulder. I turned, and there wasn’t a person standing there, there was a dog, lying down–a brindled mastiff, so big her head came up to my shoulder. Lying down. And she was beautiful, absolutely beautiful, with this wonderful black and caramel fur, 175 pounds of her, and when I asked permission and started to pet her, she got up and lumbered over and put her enormous head with her enormous jowls right up against my chest and began to nuzzle and sniff me, up and down. Very slowly. Very softly.
I swear, that head was as big as my torso, big as a carry on, and yet there was this sweetness about her, this gentleness. I just fell in love.
So many people I know and care about are suffering. Every day someone I love seems to get a blood test back, or a rejection letter, or divorce papers. I look around and I know how anxious we all are, and grieving, and afraid, and that’s all true, that’s all real, and in some way I can’t prove or explain I believe that Christ is present in that sadness and present in that grief, though I know it doesn’t help to hear that. It’s just a thing to say.
But there are brindled mastiffs, too, and sunny drives to Lebanon, and twenty minute discussions that just seem to happen, miraculously, if only we can get out of the way. Everything is true, the darkness and the light, the sadness and the joy.
“Tell me about despair,” Mary Oliver says in her great poem, “Wild Geese.”
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
We don’t have to earn this, this beauty, and we can’t. “You do not have to be good,” Oliver says in the first stanza of the poem. “You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting,” and that’s really right, that’s really sound Catholic doctrine, too. That’s the whole, astounding point of what Jesus is saying today: that love comes first, God’s love, and that everything else is our response, or our failure to respond.
This is the last stanza of the poem:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Announcing your place in the Kingdom of God, we would say. And not just the world offering itself, but God offering himself, through the world.
This is why we fast, and should fast–this is why we pray, and should pray–this is why we give alms and should give alms–because Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior is present in the world and present in our lives whether we believe in him or not, whether we deserve him or not–and we can never deserve him, we can never be worthy of him–but he’s here, high in the clean blue air, or leaning back in an easy chair, in a little house in Lebanon–and sometimes we know this, and sometimes we believe this, and then we are saved.
This is why we fast: out of joy.