Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a 40-day season of sacrifice leading up to Easter in the Christian liturgical calendar. Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness of the desert before beginning his mission, according to the Gospels [e.g. Matt. 4:1-2].
To fast for 40 days is a big commitment. This year, for Lent, I’d like to ask all who are watching or reading this sermon to make a much smaller, but very important commitment: to wear a mask whenever you’re around other people. In fact, I’d like to ask you all to wear two — a surgical mask on the inside, and a cloth mask on the outside. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, double-masking in this way increases protection from the Covid-19 virus from under 50% with just one mask to a remarkable 90% or greater rate of protection with two masks.
This discipline, this small sacrifice of our personal freedom, is one that we should be more than willing to make, to hasten the end of the pandemic. It’s the least we can do to stay well and to keep others around us from getting sick with this terrible disease, until the coronavirus vaccines are more widely available.
For whatever reason, different people seem to be more, or less willing to make different kinds of commitments. Liberals, for example, tend to be more willing to mask up and practice social distancing during a pandemic, while conservatives have shown over the years that they’re generally more willing to devote themselves to creating large, well-funded, and powerful churches. Whether we’re sacrificing according to the commands of faith or science, it requires a willingness to take committed action.
When people become more liberal in their spiritual beliefs, they naturally tend to become less committed and less disciplined. This is because, if you don’t believe God is going to condemn you to hell if you slack off in religious practices, you might not feel quite as strong a motivation to pray and fast and go to church and donate and volunteer.
This is a typical consequence of the phenomenon of being “spiritual but not religious.” What it often means is to believe in some spiritual teachings, but not necessarily to commit oneself to a specific set of religious practices — especially if the practices require a high degree of self-denial and self-discipline.
I think this can be an important phase in our spiritual journey, but it’s not the final destination. We are called to be transformed in the perfection of the divine image, like our teacher Jesus Christ, and to do this we must be willing to make a serious and ongoing commitment.
Jesus committed to go to the cross for his mission in life. What commitments, what sacrifices, are we willing to make? A more rigorous prayer life, other private or communal spiritual disciplines, generous financial giving or volunteering for a church or charity, perhaps even serving as a missionary or in some other form of ministry? Imagine the beautiful world we could create if progressive spiritual people would show the same zealous degree of commitment, devotion, and personal sacrifice for the cause of the Kingdom of God on Earth, as our fundamentalist brethren demonstrate, sadly all too often for causes that do not align with the priorities of the Gospel as taught by Jesus.
One of the most important aspects of commitment is patience and perseverance — in other words, not giving up too easily when we don’t immediately see the results we’re expecting or hoping for. To get anything good in life is a process. For example, consider the process of planting a field with crops. First you sow the seeds, then you water them, then you spend a lot of time pulling weeds, and finally — after a long summer during which the soil, the sun and the rain work their magic — the fruits of your labor are ready for harvest. If you weren’t committed to take care of that field, you’d see a lot less fruit, or maybe none at all.
Or consider Aesop’s fable of “The Crow and the Pitcher.” As the story goes, a thirsty crow comes across a pitcher with water at the bottom, beyond the reach of its beak. Instead of giving up and resigning itself to the suffering of a parched tongue, the clever bird begins picking up stones and dropping them in the pitcher, one by one, until finally the water rises to a level where the crow can slake its thirst, quaffing the water of life.
When I was a little boy, my mother used to give me moral instruction as she was teaching me to read, and I remember we used to read Aesop’s Fables together. The Crow and the Pitcher was my favorite fable — perhaps because I admired the intelligence of the crow, or because I appreciated the moral of the story: that through wisdom and determination, we can reach the goals we seek, even when at the beginning it may seem hopeless.
We must have the same attitude and take the same approach to our spiritual life. For if we truly seek to drink deep of the living waters of the Divine, we may have to pick up many stones and drop them in the pitcher of commitment — not just once, not twice, but over and over again — for God wants to be pursued, to be loved with gusto, such that we would do almost anything, whatever it takes, to relieve the thirst of being apart from the Source of our salvation.
Human beings are certainly willing to do whatever it takes when the reward is gold, not God. There are many stories of people who have given up all momentary pleasures and devoted themselves with an almost religious devotion, for long periods of time, to the quest for material riches. For example, in 1864, four prospectors from Georgia went on an expedition to Montana in search of gold. They worked incredibly hard and tried panning and digging in place after place, with no luck. Finally, just before they were ready to give up, they struck it rich at a creek they named “Last Chance Gulch,” upon which was built the capital city of Helena, Montana.
For those gold prospectors, like the thirsty crow, persistence paid off. But what about the riches in heaven that can be ours if we devote ourselves to the life of the spirit? How committed are we willing to be in pursuing those rewards? If we are not committed to the things of God — if we do but little in that quest, despite a passion to work hard for material gain — does this reveal our faith to be empty? We must look deep within and ask ourselves what we really believe.
If we decide we truly do believe in a spiritual calling — a higher calling from God, which we are called to make it our highest priority, then we should be sure to choose our commitments carefully. Not only would we be wise to commit ourselves to a life of spiritual discipline, but it is important that we make the right commitments. I don’t mean necessarily that one religious practice is better than another — that’s not my point — rather, my point is that whatever religious practices we choose should be chosen with wisdom and discernment, that they may lead us on the path of a healthy and fulfilling life. God’s plan is not for us to be miserable, but to live with integrity and be at peace in the way we live.
Oftentimes when people decide to commit themselves to a religious lifestyle, they go beyond what they can realistically sustain, overshooting the mark into an unhealthy extremism. For example, a friend of mine told me the story of a devout Mormon couple whose zeal for their religion ended up destroying their marriage. In the Latter-day Saint tradition, there is a special full-body undergarment that people wear to remind themselves of the commitment they have made to God. This “temple garment,” as it is called, is supposed to be worn all the time, day and night, with rare exceptions such as when changing your clothes or bathing.
Now I can see how such a practice could be a positive thing, if it helps a person to remember their faith in times of difficulty or struggle. But the Mormon couple I mentioned had pledged not to take off their temple garment even during sexual intercourse. This extremist interpretation of the religious practice caused them to feel ashamed of their sexuality, and ultimately led to the husband visiting prostitutes and the marriage ending in divorce.
Although some may find this an amusing example of the perils of excessive religious fundamentalism, before we laugh too hard, we should remember the teaching of Jesus, who advised us to “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” [Matt. 7:5]. The truth is, many of us have a hard time following the path of healthy moderation between the extremes of unsustainable self-denial and a lackadaisical attitude toward our faith and behavior in life. Many people tend to go back and forth from one end of the spectrum to the other, overcompensating for periods of carelessness and overindulgence with crash diets or New Year’s resolutions that are so severe and unrealistic they can never be kept for more than a few weeks.
Lent is an appropriate time to experiment temporarily with severe sacrifices and stern self-discipline. Sometimes it can be a good idea to push ourselves to the limit, to find out how much we can endure for the Lord. But let us remember that Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days, not his entire life. And he hung on the cross for one day, rather than crucifying himself over and over again.
In the ordinary periods of our lives, we should be committed to a practice of religious discipline, of communion with God, good works and selfless sacrifice, that is sustainable — a practice that we can keep. As part of that discipline, it is important that we fix our attention and focus our time and energy on the things that are truly meaningful and beautiful, and not give up too easily on pursuing such things, such as helping others, creating art, working for justice and equality, and other noble callings and causes that are worthy of our wholehearted commitment.
In so doing, we should use wisdom, evidence, and experience to determine how to pursue such goals in our lives. Religion is an arena where people are often resistant to change. Old traditions die hard, but it’s important to keep an open mind about how to be religious in a way that is effective — both for our own spiritual growth and for the betterment of the world. If something isn’t working, it’s best to try something different.
Based on this principle, I’d like to mention that as we enter a new season of the liturgical year, we’ll be making some changes to the weekly content produced by our church. Every week from now on, my sermon will be 10 to 15 minutes, instead of closer to 20 minutes which is what I was doing before. I’ll use the extra time in my schedule to produce a two-minute message which will be released in the middle of the week. The goal is to get more people to click and listen to some of our church’s teachings, without expecting them to sit through a long sermon. Also, to shorten the services even further, most weeks from now on we’ll have only one scripture reading instead of two.
We’re making these changes in recognition of the growing need, in a fast-paced and high-tech age, for churches to experiment with how best to reach a larger audience with the message of the Gospel. Nowadays, most people have short attention spans, and this is especially true for online content as compared to in-person meetings.
Strong commitment doesn’t mean blindly doing the same thing again and again without learning from the results, especially in the early stages of a new venture or experience. It’s important to try different ways of being religious until you find what works — what creates the best possible outcome for yourself and others.
On that note, I hope you’ll be experimenting with new ways to be more committed to God, to your own soul, and your brothers and sisters in the human family during this season of Lent. There’s no better time each year to experiment with spiritual disciplines and practices that you might not ordinarily attempt. Challenge yourself to do something different, something special. Be more devoted to living a life of integrity than usual, and use what you learn from the experience to help you make wise commitments throughout the rest of the year.
Watch on video (starting at 8:28):