Sermon for Sunday, February 22, 2015 || Lent 1B
Wednesday 4:45am. My six-month-old daughter is screaming and has been for the last hour and a half. I’ve been doing what the method we’re using says to do: go into the nursery every five minutes and say the same script. Don’t pick her up. Just assure her you’re there: “It’s time for sleeping baby girl. Mommy and Daddy are right outside. We love you very much.” Then leave, start a new five-minute timer, and hope she settles down. Over the last six weeks or so, most nights have been pretty good. The twins are waking about once per night, but going back to sleep after a bit of nursing. We’ve been getting used to this wonderful new routine.
But Wednesday something is different. My daughter will not settle down. She just keeps screaming. With each five-minute check, my patience wears just a little thinner, which is bad because you’re supposed to be calm when you go in and say the script. During each five-minute interval, I sit at the top of the stairs, watch the timer, grind my teeth, and resist the urge to start banging my head against the banister.
By about the ninth or tenth interval, I am downstairs pacing the living room. And a new voice has joined the cacophony upstairs, a voice inside me telling me to let loose my frustration. “Stomp around. Punch the couch cushions. Kick over the laundry basket. It’ll help.” So I punch the couch cushions for a bit, swearing under my breath. And you know what? It doesn’t help at all. It just gets me more worked up. The only way to help my daughter calm down is to be calm myself, and punching couch cushions is not exactly the ideal definition of serenity.
So the questions I have are these: why do I perpetuate this pattern every time one of my babies has a bad night? Why do I give in to this irate voice time and again? And a final question, one which the voice does not want me to ask: where do you come from? When I’m calm enough to ask this last question, I see with sudden clarity my interior landscape. The demonic forces, of which the irate voice is ambassador, are marshaling to attack. They control a small, but strategically significant piece of my inner territory, and they want more. They want me to give in to anger and pride and the desire to isolate myself. Isolation, you see, makes me an easier target. And anger and pride are to these demonic forces like the marbling in a rib-eye steak. One look at their territory tells me why they want more. They’ve spoiled it: polluted the rivers, clear-cut the forests, and trampled the grass until all that’s left is mud sticking to their boots.
On the other side of the battlefield, the territory of God’s kingdom stretches to the horizon: Vast tracts of land waiting to be tilled and cultivated; fruit trees in blossom; rivers overflowing their banks with fresh, living water. But as my eyes scan this interior landscape, I’m horrified to discover no heavenly forces marshaling to defend God’s side of the battlefield. There are no walls to keep the invaders out, no minefield, no anti-infantry firepower of any kind. Surely the demonic hordes clamoring behind their pickets will overrun and despoil this good land.
I look again. Why aren’t the hordes charging? Why hasn’t the attack begun? And then I realize the horde has no leadership. No one down on the battlefield is in command. Demonic forces are experts, I’m sure, at disobeying orders, but you have to receive an order to disobey, and the horde hasn’t received one. They just stand there, calling out challenges and cruel taunts – to no one apparently, as the other side is empty.
But then, as I continue to survey this inner battlefield, two things dawn on me. First, their challenges and cruel taunts do have a target: Me. And second, they do have a commander. Me again. They won’t charge into God’s territory until I cede it to them. They will do all in their power to trick or persuade me to do so, but until I give in, they’re stuck in their own little cancerous kingdom.
Then a third thing dawns on me. My daughter is finally asleep again and the sun is rising outside. The sun rises over my interior landscape as well, and I look closer at God’s territory. It seemed so empty when I was focusing on the hordes clamoring for martial action, when all my attention was drawn by the demonic forces trying to force-feed me anger and pride. But now that I’m focusing on God’s territory I see the emptiness was just an illusion; a reverse mirage, so to speak.* God’s territory isn’t empty. It’s full of God’s love and grace: so full, in fact, that my normal narrowness of vision misses the fullness completely.
The season of Lent, which we began the same day as my daughter’s early morning wakefulness, offers us the invitation to expand our normal narrowness so that God has even more interior space to fill. We accomplish this expansion, paradoxically, by doing its opposite – by fasting. A fast is a series of intentional choices not to partake of something that has power over us. Most often we think of fasting as having to do with food, but that’s only if food has power over you (and it does over many Americans). But each of us has those things – the correct term is “idols” – to which we cede God’s territory within us. Whatever your particular idol is, that’s the thing from which you should be fasting. Right now mine is my anger at my own frustration when my babies don’t sleep when they’re supposed to.
I found the phrase “anger at my own frustration” in the Litany of Penitence, which we pray on Ash Wednesday. The Litany gave me the language I needed to put my idol into words. If you have trouble discerning what your idols are, take a look at the Litany. You can find it on page 267 of the Book of Common Prayer. I invite you, during this season of Lent, to take an honest look at your interior landscape, see what demonic forces are marshaling at the edge of God’s territory, and then choose each day to fast from whatever the horde is persuading you to do – or not do.
Fasting is our way of telling those demonic hordes that there won’t be a battle today so you might as well go home. The more we (their commanders) fail to issue the attack order, the less interested those forces get in standing sentry at the battle lines. They get bored. They retreat, not because they have been beaten, but because the internal violence they so revel in never occurs. As they retreat, God’s territory nips at their heals; replants the trampled, muddy ground with fresh orchards; and reclaims the land as God’s own. And the little cancerous kingdom diminishes.
I commit this Lent to fast from the anger my own frustration causes me. I hope you will join me in your own fast, whatever it may be. Don’t listen to the voices urging conquest. Instead, allow God’s territory to grow rampant across your inner selves. And then be part of the same rampant growth of God’s territory out in the world.