The Cirrhosis of the Lenten Sermon

March 25, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I have waited till the end of Lent to tell you what I think of Lent, so as not to prejudice it for you. Unfortunately, I don’t like Lent. Or Advent. I’m not that crazy about Epiphany either. And the secular holidays drive me insane: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, the uncanny kiss of Passover and Easter each year. You have no idea what it is like to plan a Seder in my family. I am particularly annoyed by the September Jewish Holidays, Yom Kippur and Rosh ha Shana. They plop right into September and stop its forward motion. And they do so every year at just about the same time. These holidays are best known by how many questions people ask about them. Occupy Faith NYC is constantly having to change our events because of Purim, which by the way is not Yom Kippur or Rosh Ha Shana. Plus, isn’t it spring in Australia when it is fall here? What is Easter like there? Christmas carols drive me crazy with their snowy flavor, as if people in Miami wanted to think about snow in December. Once I learned just how relative time and space are, I realized I could no longer be a Christian in the way I was a Christian as a child. It just couldn’t be done, once time and calendar exploded and other cultures were imagined as real, in their own way and ways.

When I was a child, you couldn’t buy bread on Sundays and on Easter you got a new outfit, including a matching cloth coat and hat. Meals had times when you were supposed to eat them. And during Lent you always gave up something like chewing gum or chocolate. I heard yesterday from one of you that you knew someone who ate a Cadbury egg every day of Lent as a way to remark it. That reversal of the old ordinary at least remembered what Lent used to be, and it struck me as somehow respectful of what used to be a season.

Just to be fair, I also adore ritual. I love the idea of forty days in which to do something. And I like it when particular people keep their particular tribe going with particular holidays. I love the touch of the holy onto the months and days of pencil and ink and Google calendars. I love the impetus to take ordinary time into holy time and holy time into ordinary time. I make up absurd rituals just to enjoy them, like walking a hundred blocks to resolve a conflict or not eating for a day because I am very upset about something. I just don’t like what Lent has become. It has become a joke. During Lent way too many of us chuckle about what we are not going to give up. Lent has become like an old hotel lobby that has seen better days. People wear last year’s Easter cloth coats there. They no longer fit.

I have more substantial arguments with Lent as well. The idea that Lent means “giving something up” is offensive to the poor. What “excess” do people without excess give up? Also, by now, in the 28th day of Lent, most people who did give up something up on Ash Wednesday have taken it back up by now. Four weeks is plenty for any kind of abstention. Better to live simply all the time than to live simply some of the time and make a fetish out of it. Finally, I don’t even know what abstention has to do with Jesus in the first place. I long ago concluded that Lent was something for rich people, who had so much they had to give up something, to be true to the Jesus that loves the poor. There were no punishments if they took it back up early. This year, the Protestant denominations all put out pamphlets and publications about giving up something that would “mean” something to you, like the Internet or social messaging. Again, what that has to do with Jesus I’ll never know. Jesus lived a simple life all the time, not just on Sundays, and not just during Lent. Jesus is also a man of the feast, a man who makes fun of rules, a man who challenged the kind of people who have ritual abstentions on behalf of 315 days a year of gorging. Here almost ends my complaint with Lent.

My final complaint will take us back to Joseph, through Jacob, and then back to Jesus. Ritual needs generations for its complete observance. Like Joseph, though, we long ago left our family to live in Egypt. We too took jobs with the Pharaoh and found ourselves useful to Pharaoh. We interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and we managed his wealth and we planned for the lean times and the fat times. If only Joseph had a smart phone, he could have stayed in touch with his brothers on Facebook. But Joseph, for a long time didn’t have a people. He too probably had to make up his own rituals in his own way in his new land.

The spiritual meaning of the Jacob cycle is here: it is about the separation of a family and its reunification and it intends that separation and reunion to be emblematic for humanity. As Mary Oliver says in her poem just read, we are always finding our place in the family of things. You do not have to repent for being good or for flying. Every generation finds its own place in the family of things – which family is both ritual observance and being with a people to have that observance. It is also the loss of that observance and its redefinition, where you are, as you are.

Please let me be clear. If you have found an abstention or practice that has made Lent meaningful for you, please forgive me. I am glad you have found a meaningful ritual by which to practice your faith. I might even ben jealous. I don’t mean to mock so much as to probe. What does a good Lent mean? Does it mean abstention? Surely there are good reasons to abstain, and not just during Lent. Does it mean repentance? Yes, but repent of what and to whom? Did Jesus ask us to repent? Does it mean to suffer the time of temptation with Jesus, his forty days in the desert? Or to live the seven lean years alone, like Joseph almost had to do? Yes, but was it just forty days? Or only seven years? When and how did it end? It sounded like it ended pretty quickly, when Jesus spoke back to the devil on the spot? Did it take forty days more? If so, why? Getting the timing and temperature right on the bread of Lent is very important. Could you have a good Lent in a week? Or a day? I think yes.

I’m done complaining. Lent has become cirrhotic, in the same way that livers become cirrhotic. Livers harden into meaninglessness, often by the application of too much alcohol but also in other ways. They no longer do what they were meant to do, which is to clear the body of toxins and lies. When religion comes up hard and hardened, it no longer does what it is supposed to do. Religion exists to clear the system. It processes, usually through some kind of timed ritual, what is good and what isn’t good. Lent has become trivialized into candy and meat, into abstentions of meaningless kinds. Its triviality is the joke. Temptation is no joke, whether it happens in Lent or on Mother’s Day.

So if trivial is cirrhotic, then what is beneficial? What is a clearing? What is a good ritual in a world where ritual has become trivialized or relativized? Must we reunite our families in order to have religion or can we wear a cloth coat on Easter Sunday anyway? By the way, some of this shift in ritual is fantastic: it means that the exploded time clock of a globalized world has come home to mean something. We are no longer people of the western calendar or time zone alone. We know other people have other ways and we respect them. We know Jesus is one way and he is probably our way but he is not the only way. These are major breakthroughs in human thought—and they are happening everywhere and to them I say alleluia. And I mean it. Rituals are the last thing to catch up with seismic cultural change. Let’s be gentle to ourselves when we say that. We may not have the rituals we need yet but we make them all the time anyway.

One of the reasons we did the Jacob cycle during Lent was that you could often redeem a tradition by going back further in the tradition. We went back to Jacob to see if there were hints in his story and his family’s story to bring us through not just Lent but this whole first part of the year. We decided to go fairly deep in that story (for those of you not here, this is our twelfth and final day in the stories of Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and now Joseph. We have been at this cycle since January 1.) This is also the last day for us at Judson of the Jacob cycle. What we have learned: sometimes you have to leave your family in order to find it. Sometimes you have to work for Pharaoh in order to get a job, even if you are an artist or interpreter of dreams by trade. What Jacob and his tribe have taught us in the art of travel and the art of going home. Apparently you have to both move and stay put. Sometimes also you have to leave the religion of your childhood to find the religion of your adulthood. Let me give you some examples.

We got an email last night from Peter Gaitens, our former administrative assistant, last night. It was the announcement of his father’s death. Abe Gaitens has died in Vancouver. Many of us remember the times Peter left us for a couple of weeks over the years to go home and be with his father, to relieve his sister’s of his father’s care. Peter is now staying in the Catskills and had to drive over to Philadelphia to catch the plane with his sister to Vancouver. All the way, through the night, the frogs were darting across the road in this early spring. He couldn’t help but hit some of them. Of course, Peter, with his great eye, would notice the frogs on the road as he went home to observe his father’s death. It’s always something like that. When my father died, I was not there. He was alone. I had to go get his old Rambler in North Carolina and drive it back North. It became my son Isaac’s first car. What I really remember about my father’s death is all the red clay dirt on the tires. Frogs. Red Clay. Joseph teases his father to his home with camels and amaranth. Ritual drives are different from ritual observances – and they are also what we have left of ritual. Often the very trip to connect is the form of our giving up and going on.

I remember also when my friend Chuck Eastman died. Chuck had been the interim at the church I served in Miami and it only made sense to keep him after I arrived. He had been their interim three times over the years. He had no where to go. You’re not supposed to keep interims around but I did, much to my delight. Chuck weighed in at 350 pounds. He went to bed around 5 a.m. We had a daily ritual: he would go to sleep when I woke up at 5. We made those morning emails as funny as we could. They were our “art form.” My favorite ritual line of his: A memo to the morning, differently observed. He was well loved for pulling tricks with rituals. One Easter he hired a 12 person Mariachi band to accompany “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The music director was not amused. Some times here we dance the Electric Slide, as a way to show how graves slide open to show our joy. Another Easter Chuck gave a serious sermon in an Easter Bunny outfit. When Chuck died, we had to talk the morgue into unzipping his black bag to give him something that we called, through our tears, last rites. Ritual is always exploding and we are always making up new rituals that seem right to the families and frogs of our driving, texting, and facebooking days. We had to bribe the coroner’s office in Miami to open the bag and we did get the bag open for our Protestant version of last rites. Another ritual: John Cormier’s cell phone call to his mother one Mother’s Day here helped us all along, as he sang and we all pulled out our cell phones to sing, “I just called to say I love you.” We may do it again this year, due to popular demand for a return event. When they did the autopsy on Chuck, they discovered that he had cirrhosis of the liver. He would have wanted us to know. His son, Brian, is now a pastor in Ohio and his long estranged wife just remarried. Life goes on. Family goes on. Families explode. Rituals go on. Lent may not be a keeper but marking the boundaries between life giving soft things and death dealing hard things really matters. These clearings and borders, these separations of the holy and the ordinary so that they can reblend, these things MATTER.

I have to also say something about Trayvan Martin and hoodies and the way human beings are symbol-making people. President Obama said “If I had a son, he would have looked like him.” You can imagine old Jacob sitting around his fire wondering what Joseph looked like after all those years. Could he recognize him if he saw him? Thank God Middle Collegiate Church – and many of you – are wearing hoodies today, as a way of saying we recognize in that boy one of our own. Family may have exploded to Vancouver and Carolina and Mariachis and cell phones. It may be as much on Facebook as it ever was in cloth coats. But our desire to touch our own, to be touched by our own, remains. What we want is ritual and time that is not trivialized but rather a way to make time and touch tender and meaningful.

What would I like you to know? I would like you to know that families separate and reunite, that rituals are important, that they carry us to great clearings. Without rituals, we stay confused and chaotic. Through ritual, we make meaning out of chaos. We separate time into its holy parts and ordinary parts by touching time with time. We are allowed to make new rituals as well as to maintain old ones.

Michael is in Seattle with his family today, helping his brother move, helping his mother deal with a knee operation that didn’t quite take. I consider him my brother, as you all know. You can get in a lot of trouble having family at work. And you can get in a lot of trouble not having family at work. Rituals will help tend the trouble. Learning to make new rituals also helps. What would Christmas be around here without Teddy Bears? They stay in Erich’s office after they are gathered by Ruby and his team. One year Anastasia, Erich’s daughter, came to work with him and found all of them there in his office. She was five. She couldn’t believe her father had that many Teddy Bears. She always thought that after he dropped her at school, he went to an office.

Some of you may know the Tappan Zee Bridge that spans the Hudson River between the storied town of Sleepy Hollow and the bustle of Nyack, New York. It was built to last 50 years and has now lasted 56. A new car bridge is being proposed at the cost of 5 billion. A creative idea has occurred to New Yorkers, especially since it will cost 150 million to tear the old bridge down. The idea is a Tappan Zee Greenway. Why not keep the old bridge up, next to the new bridge, as a walking, biking span? Said another way, why not let the side stream congregation live along with the emerging congregation? Why not assume the old rituals and seasons will live on top of the new ones, the way crowded cemeteries keep receiving new bodies? Why not imagine Facebook as a sacred site as well as a social site? Some people call it the new front porch. Jacob must have missed Joseph something awful over all those years. I still miss Chuck sometimes at 5 when I rise. He would close the church down, do the “night shift,” I would do the day shift. We knew they were connected through our early morning jokes. And we knew that early morning was an ending for him and a beginning for me. The old monks did morning prayers. We did emails. So what? As long as our seasons and our rituals are ours, they will keep our families and our time and our seasons together. Amen.


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