Sunday, 8 March 2009

I’m a little uncomfortable about Lenten resolutions


Tempting chocolates: what did you give up for Lent?

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 8 March 2009: Genesis 17: 1-7 and 15-16; Psalm 22: 23-31; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38

May I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Lent in Ireland has traditionally been a time for making resolutions – resolutions that are often like New Year’s resolutions.

We start out well, giving up drinks, or sweets, or smoking or chocolate – at least for the first week or two.

But now that we’re into the second week of Lent, I imagine Lenten resolutions are much forgotten today, just like New Year’s resolutions.

How many of you can remember what your New Year’s resolution was this year?

And if you can remember it, have you stuck to it?

But I have to confess that there’s something that makes me feel a little uncomfortable about New Year resolutions or giving up something for Lent.

It’s as if I’m challenging myself to do something or give up something not so that I’ll teach myself a little bit more about behaving as a disciple of Christ, or starting to shape myself once again in the image and likeness of God.

It’s more like I’m doing things that will make me a more pleasant person, either to please myself, or please someone else who’s important in my life.

How many people give up smoking, not as a spiritual discipline, but because they think it will be good for their health? Or, perhaps, make them a little more acceptable socially. How often do I give up cakes or sweets, not as part of my spiritual discipline, but because I might lose a few pounds off my stomach or around my waist?

We do things like this, not as spiritual disciplines, but to reshape, remould ourselves in an image and likeness that I or my friends will find more acceptable.

And when we fail, when we go back to our old habits, how often we feel precisely that – that I’m a failure, that I’m worth a little less in the eyes of others, that I’m not quite as close to perfection as I thought I might be.

And we’re constantly reminded in advertising and through the media of the need to be perfect. If only I drove this car, had that new DVD player for home viewings, cooked in that well-stocked kitchen, or drank that tempting new wine or beer, then I would be closer to others seeing me like a perfect Greek god.

How modern pressures try to force me to be in the image and likeness of the false gods of advertising and so-called “celebrity” and “reality” television!

Saint Mark’s Gospel this morning reminds us of our failings in discipleship, in taking up the cross. How often we want God to be a god made in our image and likeness, rather than us being shaped in God’s image and likeness.

And that’s how the disciples behave in our Gospel reading this morning. They want Jesus to be a messiah who will meet their expectations.

When Jesus starts telling his disciples what sort of demands are being laid on them if they want to be his followers, they react with shock and horror at what he has to say.

They weren’t expecting a counter-cultural Messiah, a Messiah who would be rejected by the social and religious leaders of the day. They were expecting a lot more than that. And they were hoping that the coming of the Messiah would make things easier and more comfortable rather than more making things more difficult and more demanding.

Peter takes Jesus aside and gives him a good ticking off. After all, who did this Jesus think he was? If he was going to be the Messiah, he had better start behaving like one, like one that had been expected to act … to act with power and command.

When we find we fall short of other people’s expectations, it’s often not because of who we are, but because of other people’s expectations – false expectations – of us.

How often have you heard someone say, “I’m surprised to hear you say that,” or “That’s not the way I expected you to behave”?

And how often do we do that to God?

How often do we pray to God expecting God to do something? And if we don’t get the answer to our prayers, we blame God for not answering me, for not being God in my image and likeness?

Instead of praying to God, asking to be more in God’s image and likeness!

The beginning of the creation story is that we are made in God’s image and likeness. What a compliment!
The beginning of the Gospel stories is that God in Christ took on our image and likeness. Once again, what a compliment!

Now Lent, in part, is about preparing to accept that in taking on our image and likeness, God in Christ totally identified with us – with all that is difficult in life, with all that is messy and dirty in our lives, with all that is painful and gross in my life – to the point of actually dying in the most messy, dirty, painful and gross way possible.

If Peter knew what was ahead of him, he might have been even stronger in his rebuke of Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning.

But the triumph comes not in getting what we want, not in engineering things so that God gives us what we desire and wish for, so that we get a Jesus who does the things we want him to do.

The triumph comes in a few weeks time, at Easter, in the Resurrection.

And in the Resurrection, in the Easter hope, all those compliments that God has paid to us are given their climax, their completion, in God inviting us once again to be like God, to be in God’s image and likeness, to live in the hope of Easter, to live in the light of the Resurrection.

Prayer is not an easy way of getting the things we want. Prayer is about shaping us so that we can be the people God has created us to be.

And when we pray, when we truly pray, then we have to act truly too, behave not just according to our wishes, but to behave as true disciples and believers.

But behaving as true disciples is difficult. At times it means going against the images and false gods of “reality” and “celebrity” culture.

Instead of speaking up for me, and bringing my shopping list of demands and hopes for success to God, true discipleship and true prayer means making God’s priorities my priorities: the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the isolated, the marginalised, the victims, the unloved.

That’s difficult. But then, nobody said that being a Christian was going to be easy … that being a Christian wouldn’t cost anything.

As the German martyr and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, might have put it, being a disciple means having to pay the cost of discipleship. There is no cheap Christianity and there is no cheap grace.

Or as Jesus tells Peter in our Gospel reading this morning, if I want to be his follower, I need to be prepared to deny all things that society would want me to desire, and to take up my cross and follow Christ.

And so this Lent, we can deny the ambitions and desires that others would want to lay on our shoulders, we can resolve to turn our priorities on their head, we can decide to live in the light of the Resurrection, to look forward in hope to the joys of Easter, and to seek God’s will for us, for our neighbours, for humanity, for the world.

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached during a broadcast Service of the Word on RTÉ Radio 1 on Sunday 8 March 2009.