Fr. John Allison
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
March 13, 2022
Christ Church, Hudson
As I have approached this second Sunday in Lent I have been reflecting much this week about Lenten disciplines—collectively within the context of the practice of our faith but also, more specifically on my own disciplines I have chosen for the season and I came across a quote from Thomas Merton that I have been pondering: “To believe in suffering is pride,” says Merton. “But to suffer believing in God is humility.” He goes on to explain that sometimes we take on tasks or undergo great ordeals and pride tells us that we are strong enough to suffer, that we can get through to the other side because we are tough. I do that often, especially in Lent. Indeed, Mother Kathleen reminds me every year when Lent comes around that the disciplines I chose need not be extreme, that’s it’s not about proving how much I can do without. It’s a good reminder for us all and it’s been shifting how I’ve engaged this season so far and opening me to seeing some of my ordinary habits with fresh eyes.
On Shrove Tuesday I broke my favorite coffee mug. For many years I drank three cups of coffee every morning from that mug that had been gifted to me by a dear friend and I was saddened by it’s loss. The next morning, I made my coffee as usual and chose another mug from the many that fill our cabinet. I sat down with my books and read and the morning proceeded as usual but at the end I noted that there was still coffee left in the pot. Hmm, I guess I’ll have four cups this morning, understanding then that the mug I had chosen was smaller than that which I was used to. The next morning, I again used the same mug and at the end of the third cup there was still coffee in the pot. I don’t really want a fourth cup I thought but it was the same amount of coffee and so I finished it. I needed to find a larger mug obviously. But it was then that I started to think about the idea of getting by with less. Was this an invitation to new way of being during Lent? I would keep this new smaller mug and stop with my usual three cups, even though that meant having less and leaving a bit of coffee in the pot. And so I did; it’s not a grand heroic discipline to be celebrated, I thought, but it is something I’m acutely aware of. Indeed, sometimes I catch myself filling this small mug to the brim so as to get as much as I can and then walking to my desk with small deliberate steps so as not to spill a drop, which I invariably do. It’s in those moments, when I catch myself following the letter of my rule but not the spirit that I see myself most clearly, that I see myself acting on impulse and without good faith. It may seem a trivial matter, and on the surface it is, but it’s also illuminating and, when I am willing to really stop and look, it’s instructive. It’s from such small things that we can learn lessons about ourselves and the larger kinds of suffering in our lives. Most importantly we can learn about God’s mercy for us.
To believe in suffering is pride, but to suffer believing in God is humility. Having a tiny bit less coffee in the morning is not real suffering; it’s barely a deprivation. But in that tiny deprivation, in my attempts to manipulate it and sometimes my outright failure in accepting it, I recognize a kind of lack within, an interior poverty you could say, that is the beginning of humility, of knowing that I am dependent on God’s mercy.
In our collect for today we prayed, “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: be gracious to all those who have gone astray from your ways . . .” That’s us, all of us, myself included, at various points in our lives. We may not sin grievously but we fall short in loving as completely as we can, that’s part of our lot as humans.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is warned that Herod is out to get him but he’s unbothered by it. He has work to do: he’s casting out demons and healing the sick and teaching the disciples. And his face is set toward Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. He knows his fate there. The people will not hear him; he’s not the messiah they were expecting, not offering the message they want to hear. Even his closest disciples will abandon him.
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing.” He says this mournfully, as if he’s has pondered the rebelliousness of the human spirit for some time and I imagine this image of the hen, with her wings outstretched sheltering the chicks from danger, from adversity of weather or whatever threat may come. And then I think we’re not like that, like those chicks. The image that comes to mind, rather, is one I remember from when our cat had kittens and as they grew became quite adventurous and would climb from the safety of the nest the mother had made for them. Kathleen often tells the story of how Leela, the mother cat, looked to her with what could only be described as exasperation in trying to return the unruly kittens to their shelter only to have them escape again and again, one after another. I think we’re more like those kittens than the chicks sheltering under the wings of the mother hen. We humans are a willful brood. We seek to go our own way. But, here’s the thing: God doesn’t stop loving us—no matter what. God is there waiting for us with infinite mercy, that we return. Or, to use the language of Lent, to repent. The Greek word that’s used is metanoia and it means to change direction. To reorient ourselves. It’s in that reorientation, that we begin to be live into God’s love for us, that we allow ourselves to shelter under the wings of the mother hen. That’s what God wants for us and Lent is a time in which we slow down and get our bearings and change direction as needed.
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: be gracious to we who have gone astray from your ways.
The emphasis on this second Sunday in Lent is God’s infinite mercy but it’s something that we recognize all through the season when we sign the Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy. Eleison, what we translate as “mercy” is from a Greek word that refers to olive oil, which in ancient times was used to sooth bruises and wounds. Likewise, the Hebrew word “hesed,” which refers to God’s steadfast love is translated as Eleison, mercy. Essentially, we sing, we pray, “Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.” That’s my prayer every day during Lent. It’s a prayer not only for myself, for when I recognize myself straying, even in something as simple as forgetting a minor Lenten discipline, but also a prayer for humanity, for all who suffer. It seems that now, especially, in this time in which war and violence are so visibly present, we must turn to mercy. We are called to put down those things, those habits and behaviors that prevent us from receiving God’s mercy. And it doesn’t stop there because we are called also to be vessels of God’s mercy for others. That’s God’s will for us and for the world. May it be so. Amen.