the Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 22nd, 2020
Today’s Readings are:
1 Samuel 16:1-13
If you don’t have a Bible in front of you, click here to see these readings.
As a father and as a priest, I end up talking about colors a lot. I have two little girls at home, and it seems like we’re always discussing what our favorite color is. Gwendolyn’s began as orange, then it was pink, or purple, and now it’s beige. And Fiona, who’s almost two and just beginning to talk, doesn’t have a favorite color. So we guess at it: will it be red? or yellow? or grey or beige or rainbow? Mine? It’s green (the best color).
The church has favorite colors, too. And, just like our favorite color might tell us something about a person, church colors have really deep meaning. White is the color of Easter and Christmas, because white is a color of newness and hope. Purple, like I’m wearing now during Lent, is the color of penitence. Green is the color of that long, growing period of ordinary time, when we nurture the life of Christ within ourselves and hope to plan God’s seed of hope and love in the world.
And there’s one color that we don’t see much, and that’s rose or pink. It’s the color of joy, and, even though we don’t see it much, it’s one of the most important colors. There are two rose days of the year, and they’re in Advent and Lent, those times when we Christians are asked to prepare, to slow down, to reflect on our lives, our relationships with one another, and our relationship with God.
And if you’ve ever given something up for Lent, you know that Lent can be tough. I once gave up sleeping in for Lent, and while everything was all fine and peachy-keen on days when I had work, it was really hard to pull myself out of bed on the weekends. And so on Saturday mornings I would lift my voice to God and cry, “Why, O Lord! Why did I promise to get up at such a decent hour!”
I jest, for many of the things we give up are much more difficult than just sleeping in. For in Lent we’re turning away from the bright and shiny things in our lives that steal so much of our attention, and we reflect on what really matters: our family, our friends, loving our neighbor, and God. And while we might, after Lent, turn back to those things like chocolate and television, during Lent we’ve done without and, hopefully, made our bonds with family, friend, and God stronger. But this work is tough. Self-denial isn’t easy. But it’s good and it’s important work to live more hopefully and a more fully life-filled life.
But then there’s this rose color, this light, joyful, almost Easter-pastel-like color deep in the heart of Lent and of Advent. Rose is the color of Joy. It’s the reminder that, no matter what happens, no matter how hard times are and how tough our Lent is, Christians are never without Joy. And we’re never without Joy because we know that God is with us. That’s what Emmanuel, Jesus’ other name, means: God is with us. And God is with us not just in the nice, happy times of summer, but in times of penitence, of grief, of doubt, and of sorrow as well. For God didn’t come down to be with us as some prince or some mighty ruler, issuing dictates and laws from on high while he slept all day and ate fine food. No, when God came, he to be in the muck of this world, to walk with the tired, the lonely, the anxious, those who didn’t know which way was up and who were doing everything wrong. His feet probably smelled pretty bad, and that’s because he cared more about healing and guiding people than whether or not his feet smelled. And his word to us in all of this was: God loves you, I love you. And that love – not powers not lawmakers not authorities – that love is what made all the difference.
This time of rose in our Lenten purple is an image of Jesus Christ, who was our guiding light in the dirtiness and sorrow of the world.
Now, in normal years, we come to all this with relief. We say, “Fwew! It’s Pink Sunday! Finally, our priest will stop with the doom and gloom and preach a sermon about how there’s still Joy in the world.” This Sunday, the fourth in Lent, is kinda when we can catch our breath. It’s like lunchtime on a long day of work, or the seventh inning stretch in baseball, or hump day, when all’s downhill to Easter from here.
But these times are different. This year is different. Our lenten fasts aren’t just from chocolate or sleeping in; they’re from work, or school, or church. Our governor and our bishop has asked us to cease meeting in our church buildings until at least April 14th, which is after Easter. Then there’s the worries, the anxieties, and even the fears of what the coronavirus is, how it will affect us and our loved ones, and what the world will look like after all this is over. Any joy we have might feel paper thin at the moment. One of my friends just told me that, even when he’s having fun with his kids or out in the garden, his worry about the future is always at his shoulder, looking at what he’s doing, asking him if it’s all really worth it. Is Joy really realistic at these times? Shouldn’t we just forget about rose-Sunday, Joy Sunday? Isn’t Joy too difficult in times of grief?
Well, to put it firmly, no, for Joy – real, Christian Joy – isn’t paper thin. For Joy isn’t something you just lose yourself in, like a good book or movie. Joy isn’t just that thing you feel at a party or when you’re out with friends, so that when you look at your watch, you think, “Wow, time really flew by.” That’s fun, that’s happiness, not Joy. And those things are important, so deeply, deeply important, but Christian Joy is something else. It’s something different.
I’ll tell you a story. All seminarians have to go through what’s called “CPE”, which is basically an internship as a chaplain in a hospital. Besides the general, good work of visiting folks in the hospital, we also had a variety of other things we had to do. One of these was to play a bystander in some police training. The idea was that, if we saw how the police were trained, we could better serve them as chaplains and priests. This particular training was what to do if there was a hostile gunman at a hospital. My job was, when the police came in the door, to run at them and scream “help! help!” They were training their wits and their focus, and my job was to make the training as real as possible.
At one point, I was asked to lie down in an empty room as if I had been shot. I did, and that’s fine, but when the training began, things seemed so real: there were gunshots (paintballs, really, but they sounded real), screams, shouting, everything. I was terrified. My heart and stomach were both in my throat, and I wanted to slink back further and further into the corner. But I had nowhere to hide, and so I just laid there.
Then an officer came in, checked me, called the room “clear”, and his fellow officers continued on. But he stayed there, at the door, to keep watch. And that’s what he was supposed to do: find the wounded and make sure they’re safe. And so he stood there, guarding me, keeping me safe.
And, yeah, it was a training exercise. There was no gunman. The bullets were just bits of paint. But it seemed so real, and to me on the ground, and for my wits, it was real, But you know something, when I looked up at that officer, standing there above me, protecting me, something else rose up in my heart. It was a feeling of safety, of being kept and held and protected. That officer was there and I was safe. The anxiety and worry didn’t go away. I wasn’t whisked away from that terrifying place. But I was safe, and that made it all okay.
It’s an odd feeling that I’m trying to describe, but what I can say is that seeing that officer there grounded me. It made me think of my favorite stories, of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, which are so much about hope and struggle and a light shining even in the darkest night. It made me feel a presence of something larger than me, that same presence I feel when Jesus says his great I AM statements, a weight I know now to be tied so tightly to the Eucharist. I AM the Bread of Life, Jesus says. And while that sight didn’t take away my worry, nor did it fill my gas tank or my bank account, it grounded me. It filled me, filled me with something I had known so little of: courage, and a heart to face what was before me. It filled me with what we call Christian Joy.
I’ve spoken to nurses, doctors, old priests, and veterans who know this feeling. It comes when we’re at our wits end, when the end is not in sight, not for miles. It’s a ground that is real, and that is true. It’s that thing that nurses and doctors, soldiers and teachers are trained to recognize and to draw from. And it’s what we work at as Christian disciples when we say our prayers every night and every morning; what we build with God every Sunday when we take the Eucharist, what we’re really promising when we say the Baptismal Covenant, and what receives us when we confess our sins and are reconciled to God: it is Life. It is God.
You may not ‘feel’ that Life right now. You may not feel courage or hope or Joy, even this Christian Joy that I’m describing. But these things aren’t feelings; they’re Truth. Whether we know it or not, feel it or not, can even muscle ourselves up to hope for it or not, God is with us. God is with you. God loves you. Forever and a day God will love you. For in God is our true, full, and everlasting home, the home of all Life, all Hope, and all Life. And that Love is given to you, freely, even now.