Doing the Practice of Lent

Doing the Practice of Lent

Homily for Lent I

March 6, 2022

Doing the Practice of Lent

Homily for Sunday, March 6, 2022

First Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11


This morning I’m going to first going to tell us the point of the homily and then go back and make it. The point of this morning’s homily is: our Lenten practices are not so much about “doing” as they are about imagining. When we “practice” or “do” Lenten disciplines, we often “do” them from a place of accomplishment: “I am taking on and ‘doing’ such-and-such Lenten discipline,” which then can lead to a dynamic of self-judgment when we have either “succeeded” or “failed.”  Whereas with God there is no success or failure, only invitation.

Now I’m going to back and make that point…

Did people of ancient Israel do the rite described in today’s lesson from Deuteronomy? Did they once a year bring the “first fruits” of the land to the priest at Jerusalem and say, “A wandering Aramean was my father …?” And did they then “together with the Levites and the aliens who resided among [them]… celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord [their] God had given?” Did the people of ancient Israel really do these rites? Maybe. But more likely is that today’s Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy describes an idealized, rather than an actual, practice.  

Scholarly consensus is that King Hezekiah of Jerusalem ordered Deuteronomy to be written to bolster his centralization of the Hebrew cult in Jerusalem during his reign in the late 8th century BCE. Needing a raison d’être both for his costly Temple repairs and also for the downplaying of other cities’ cultic places, Hezekiah caused the book of Deuteronomy to be “discovered” during the Temple renovations, at which point this quote-unquote “ancient” book was supposedly dusted off and its rituals presented as justification for Hezekiah’s centralization.

It is curious that the lectionary, on the First Sunday in Lent, a season in which many of us will have undertaken spiritual practices, offers a text about a spiritual practice that may or may not actually have been practiced. It is as though the lectionary is telling us – wink, wink – that we need not actually do our spiritual practices, that our Lenten disciplines merely set forth an ideal.

Let me give some context for Deuteronomy to help us to make sense, not merely of the text, but also of how today’s text might inform our experience of Lent. To give context to Deuteronomy, I want to turn to that genre of brief poem developed in Japan in the 17th century, the haiku. Because it may have been a while since we’ve heard a haiku, to reintroduce us, here are three:

No heaven, no earth –
The snow
Keeps falling – Hashin (1864 - ?)
Dragonfly on a rock –
Absorbed in
A daydream – Santōka (1881-1940)
In my garden
The first butterfly of the season
Just won’t stay – Abe Midori (late 20th century)

Haiku’s primary “work,” if you will, is one of imaginative evocation; that is, haikus are intended to evoke in the reader’s imagination what it looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like to be there and to experience with the poet the wonder of falling snow or the magic of a dragonfly on a rock or the fleeting beauty of a garden in spring. Similarly, the “work” of Deuteronomy is one of imaginative evocation. Deuteronomy needed to invoke the readers’ imaginations of what it was like to be there because, of course, they were not there. 

Deuteronomy’s audience – the cities of Judah during the reign of King Hezekiah – were not present for events Deuteronomy describes, which is Moses’ valedictory address to the people of Israel on the plains of Moab before they entered the Promised Land. And so Deuteronomy is filled with what linguists call “deictics,” or “pointing words,” that evoke in the reader’s imagination what it was like to be in the wilderness, to be gathered together with all Israel, and to hear Moses speak; deictics such as “at that time” and “remember:”

  • “At that time… The Lord commanded me to teach you statutes and rules…” (4:14)
  • “At that time the Lord said to me, ‘Cut… two tablets of stone like the first…’” (10:1)
  • “Remember… how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath…” (9:7)
  • “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt…” (15:15)
  • “Remember the day when you came out of Egypt…” (16:3)

Through these and other deictics, Deuteronomy helps readers to imagine being there even as they are not there.  Deuteronomy’s and haikus’ work of “imaginative evocation” is so similar that we even could write today’s lesson in haiku. For example:

Fruit in a basket
Priest –
Ritual for season’s bounty

A wanderer was
My father –
But me, a settled home

The Lord hears oppression and
Redeems –
Slaves no more

We could go on…. Note that absent from evocative imagination is any sense of success or failure, judgment or accomplishment. Haikus – and also Deuteronomy – merely describe, show, present and call attention to. Their work is not to judge – or to assign success or failure – but to invite us to imagine.

And here is why I think the lectionary gives us Deuteronomy on the first Sunday in Lent, just as we may have undertaken a Lenten discipline, which, realistically, we may or may not “do:” the point of our Lenten practices is not so much to “do” as to imagine. (Here’s the point!) Our Lenten practices are not so much about “doing” as they are about imagining. Imagining our inner life, our life with God, as more spacious, more free, more forgiving, more intentional; informed by more curiosity and more desire and more affection; and less informed by rules and judgment, and by “should,” “oughts ” and “supposed tos.”  

Whatever discipline we may have chosen – or even if chose not to choose a discipline – our choice reflects what we in our inmost selves know to be a place where we would like to imagine life differently. To imagine ourselves out of whatever unfreedoms might be keeping us from the life abundant Jesus wishes to give, and to imagine ourselves in to a place of greater freedom to receive that life abundant from God.  

To help us set aside any sense of success or failure, or judgment or accomplishment – and any “shoulds,” “oughts” or “supposed tos” – which tend to shut down our imagination, the lectionary brings us into Lent with Deuteronomy and its language of “imaginative evocation.” Which is also the language of haikus.

The warbler
Amid the bamboo shoots sings
Of old age – Bashō (1644-1694)

Here there is no judgment, no getting it “right” or “wrong” – only the poet’s invitation to imagine seeing and hearing a warbler sing.  

You shall take some of the first…fruit… and go to the priest… and say… "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”

Here there is no judgment, no getting it “right” or “wrong” – only the author’s invitation to imagine what it’s like to have the freedom to express gratitude to God.

As we enter the season of Lent and its invitation to imagine a more spacious, more life-giving relationship with God, I will leave us with one of my favorite haikus, from the 17th century master, Bashō.

The temple bell stops –
But the sound keeps coming
Out of the flowers

The hope of our Lenten disciplines is that once Lent is ended – once “The temple bell stops” – though Lent may be over, yet the “sound” of our expanded imaginations, the sound of a more free and spacious relationship with God in which we hear neither judgment, nor success or failure but only invitation, will continue to grow… will “keep coming out of the flowers.”


Image Credit: Thor Alvis on Unsplash

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