The Rev. Hannah Hooker’s Lent 1B sermon
Reading the epistles is often like reading someone else’s mail. We always come in halfway through a conversation, we only hear one side, and on any given Sunday, we only get a small snippet. We do our best to piece the rest together. We hope to find some kernel of truth, of familiarity, something we can relate to, in the portion of the letter we hear. If worshipers are lucky, they have a preacher with some background knowledge who can give some context. Here is what I know about the community Peter wrote to. Like most of the communities whose correspondence we find in our scripture, they are suffering, and they are frightened that their suffering means that the gospel message they have recently heard and begun to have faith in does not provide salvation after all.
Peter claps back with one of the most beautiful lines in scripture, and, in my opinion, the entire literary canon. “…Baptism… now saves you– not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Many preachers out there are, as we speak, launching into a powerful sermon on Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, and I certainly won’t ignore it. But today, even though we only have a small snippet of someone else’s mail, we have more in common with the church Peter writes to than we might think. And Peter’s words are more fitting for the first Sunday in Lent than they might seem. As we begin our Lenten journey, on the heels of our Ash Wednesday experience, we, like Peter’s friends, are in need of a reminder.
This morning we began our liturgy by reciting The Great Litany. The Great Litany is the principle formula of intercessory prayer in our prayer book. It has its own section in the prayer book and even comes before baptism and the Eucharist. Something similar to it was used as early as the 5th century, and in 1544, Thomas Cranmer created the version that we essentially use today. It is an ancient set of prayers that is considered central to our faith, especially in times of suffering and national anxiety. This is why we tend to use it during Lent, the season when we prepare for Christ’s passion and resurrection through penitence, acknowledging our sins and weaknesses, giving them over to God, and asking for forgiveness. Because even though we hate to admit it, suffering and repentance go hand in hand.
The community that Peter was writing to seemed to have some confusion in their baptismal theology. And truthfully, most of us probably do too. In middle school, I overheard a boy tell his friends that he was going to wait until after college to get baptized, so that he could have a few crazy years and then be forgiven and stick to the straight and narrow later. He was thinking about baptism as a removal of dirt from the body, of sin from the soul. The assumption being, of course, that after such a cleansing, dirt and sin and suffering will be no more. I don’t know if he followed through with his plan, but if so, I’m sure by now he has discovered, like Peter’s friends did, baptism does not make sin and suffering disappear.
And yet. It is still our way to salvation – to never being separated from God; to being able to dwell not in fear and sin, but in hope. But holding onto to faith in our baptism in the midst of sin and suffering takes a lot of practice. We fall off the wagon as often as we stay on, and if it were an option, I’m sure many of us would vote for more than 40 days in the year dedicated to repenting of this bad habit.
Perhaps like the church Peter wrote to, St. Mark’s has not had the easiest of roads in the past few years. In the two years before I arrived, this congregation experienced some devastating deaths, and saw some beloved members move away. I could list a whole slew of folks that I actively miss around here, even though I never met them. That’s the impact they left. Then our rector of 7 years took a new call. And in the wider world we have gone through one of the most divisive political campaigns in recent memory, and we continue to wake up to news that our children have been slaughtered by gun violence. Of course our faith is shaken. Of course we struggle to remain committed to our common spiritual journey. We may even be angry with God, demanding an explanation for the suffering. An answer. A solution. But instead we get Peter reminding us: our baptism does not promise an end to suffering, and Christ, in our gospel passage, returning from the wilderness reminding us: our suffering is, in fact, redemptive. It is the road to the cross, to the kingdom.
Therefore, first and foremost, on this first Sunday of Lent, we begin by looking inward and admitting that our everyday vices and even our bigger mistakes aside, we have forgotten, in the face of our suffering, that in our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been saved, cleansed, forgiven. Not as dirt removed from the body, but as an invitation to dwell in the hope of the redemption that is promised. That this good news wins the day, every day.
And so, we at St. Mark’s are going to practice dwelling in hope of redemption together this Lent. We will repent, turn back to God, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We began with the Great Litany, and we will continue to pray for strength and support on our Lenten journey at the beginning of each Eucharist. We will also gather to walk Stations of the Cross on Fridays. In addition to holding each other accountable for our personal Lenten disciplines and fasts, we are reading a devotional booklet together. In regards to almsgiving, our vestry has taken on stewardship as their group Lenten discipline. While they reach out to us to put together a clearer picture of stewardship at St. Mark’s, we are prayerfully discerning our own financial commitment. This is our St. Mark’s Lenten Discipline.
And these practices, these Lenten disciplines will do so much more than serve as our acts of repentance and petitions for forgiveness. They will transform our common spiritual life and reveal our baptismal salvation. They will ease our suffering and renew our faith. They are difficult, and yet the bearers of the gospel. They will not remove all of our dirt, but they will lead us to the cross. Amen.