Lent 5A’20
29 March 2020
Romans 8. 6-11
St. Luke’ Facebook Church
North Little Rock, Arkansas
The Rev. Carey Stone

God grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

In churches like ours that observe the season of Lent, one of the questions that’s frequently asked is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” The answers are usually things like, chocolate, fast food, sugar, TV, or social media. But an answer I have never gotten or given to that question is “Church.”  I don’t think any of us would have ever thought we would be giving up church for Lent this year! Yet here we are virtually joined together across the miles with the help of the internet.

Worship inside a church building is one of many things that are nothing like they were just two weeks ago. It’s been interesting to listen to some of the changes that COVID-19 has brought with it. Some extroverts are literally climbing the walls, while the introverts, secure in their lodgings, with Netflix and extra popcorn are saying, “now this crisis thing really works for me!” Others find that they are losing track of time, forgetting what day of the week it is. Sleep has been a problem for some of us, we’re either having difficulty falling asleep, or we’re waking up in the wee hours and not being able to get back to sleep, and in some cases being awakened by a scary nightmare. Symptoms of anxiety and depression have worsened for some of us. Some folks are staying glued to the TV feeding on the news media, and that’s really not helping them to be in a better place.

The Chinese character for the English word crisis is made up of two words translated, “Danger and Opportunity.” Put together “crisis” is a “dangerous opportunity.” While we don’t minimize the danger we are currently in, it doesn’t negate the fact that there’s also an opportunity, for progress.    

It has been heartening to see and hear about folk who are using the pandemic as a creative opportunity. Some schools are feeding hungry school children who relied heavily on the school in order to eat. Then there’s all of our health care professionals who are putting their own health on the line to help those who are suffering, grocery store employees who keep showing up so that we can keep food on the table. Law enforcement officers who are continuing to patrol our streets to keep us and our property safe. Politicians working together on behalf of the American people – what a concept! Then there are the faith communities who are still praying and acting on behalf of others, through feeding programs, and many other forms of practical assistance. Four of us stand here today as outward and visible signs of all our needy souls that are hungry to be fed. Our souls need the food the bread from heaven, that only God can provide.

In today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans we hear powerful reminders of our soul’s need: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We need to unpack the phrase Paul uses “the flesh.” There are times when the word “flesh” is used by itself, this is usually when Paul is referring to the human body. But, when the word “the” is added “the flesh” he is talking about something that’s much more than skin deep. Some writers have referred to this as our “false selves,” the selfish and egocentric self that seeks to rule our lives and to call all of the shots.

Douglas Travis, explains it this way, “Jesus died that his followers might become who they truly are; who God created them to be.” In other words, on the surface there is an egocentric and false self, “the “I” of our egos that focuses on what I can create, determine, and control.”[1] The ego is necessary in order to navigate life, but when the ego is in control, even when we win, we lose, it’s an insatiable and merciless tyrant.

Beneath the surface, there is a “true self”, the self that knows it’s need for God, and seeks God’s will over and above its own.” The journey of faith that we are on, is to transform us and help us fully become that true self.

Transformation is what the Church has been, is, and always will be about! But what about social justice for all, feeding the hungry, and helping the oppressed. Those are all really good things and the Church across the globe are actively involved in those things. But when we lose sight of the Spirit and forget that our own souls are impoverished, and in need of soul food, we contribute to a church that is irrelevant, who has forgotten it’s mission: helping people turn from their false selves and false programs for happiness, and turn toward the true self that God made them to be, and to live life led by the Spirit.

This internal transformation results in loving God, loving our neighbors, and having a healthy love for ourselves, which will ultimately impact the external world around us.  All kinds of good stuff can emerge from people who are fully alive and living out their divine purpose and calling.  Again, Douglas Travis writes: “One becomes one’s true self by turning their will and their life over to the care of God (to use the felicitous language of Step Three of Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps). “To set the mind on the flesh (the false self) is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit (True Self) is life and peace!

There’s an old Native American legend that I believe can sum up my remarks today:

One evening a village chief and his grandson were walking through the woods, when they happened upon two wolves that were engaged in a fierce battle. The grandson looked up at the chief and asked, “Grandfather which wolf will win?” The chief and wise grandfather saw a teaching moment for his grandson, and answered, “the one we feed the most.” 

[1] Douglas Travis in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2(Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville 2010) p.139