Self Reconciling Love by Mother Mary Davisson
Groundhog Day happened three weeks ago. But some people compare this time of pandemic to Groundhog Day: not the emergence of a sleepy rodent, but the 1993 movie, where Bill Murray is compelled to live February 2 over and over. And over. Whether you are isolated day after day, or you’re working a risky job with endless emergencies day after day, or you’re just sick of endless sanitizing, you may feel that one day is pretty much like another.
Some of my friends have named this time “COVIDTide,” and others call it “endless Lent.” Meanwhile, today is officially the first Sunday in Lent. And as I prepared to preach about this first Chapter of Mark’s Gospel, I experienced yet another kind of “déjà vu all over again.”
Mark’s Gospel, which Episcopalians and Lutherans and others will be reading most Sundays in 2021, is the shortest of the four. It’s so short that we recycle some parts! Didn’t Jesus already get baptized on the Sunday after Epiphany? Yup. And on that Sunday, when we read about a strangely dressed man dunking people in the Jordan River, did you remember that we’d already had John the Baptist show up, back in Advent? Yup again. All that’s from Mark Chapter 1. And today, the baptism part of that story gets recycled.
But wait! There’s more! Last week’s Gospel, though it happened on a hilltop and not the Jordan River, was also a re-run: a re-run of God’s love for Jesus. “This is my beloved Son,” said Chapter 9, last week--though being God’s beloved son is no walk in the park, because Jesus comes down that mountain, experiences his disciples’ failure to heal, and predicts his own terrible death. Today, we’re back in Chapter 1, where we hear “You are my beloved Son.” And again: no walk in the park. God’s baptism gift is the Spirit--who immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness, to be tested. And so today, we come to Lent, those 40 days when we traditionally recall that Jesus was beloved and tested, and we try to face testing in our own lives.
One Lenten tradition is to give something up, something which might distract us from seeing the truth about ourselves. Sometimes, that tradition gets distorted. “I’m a terrible person, I don’t deserve beer or chocolate or whatever, so I’ll give it up for 40 days—though I’ll probably go back to business as usual the rest of the year.” Then if someone serves me a piece of cake, and I forget it’s Lent, and eat it: wow, what a sinner I am! And if I eat that cake with my elbows on the table, I’m probably beyond hopeless.
Of course, that “pickiness” is not what the Spirit intended by sending Jesus into the wilderness, and by calling us to a faithful Lent. For example: in the Lents of my childhood, we were only allowed to eat dessert on Sundays. But if we went to a birthday party on Saturday, that became our dessert day, instead of Sunday. My parents didn’t want our tradition to make our hosts uncomfortable. That helped me keep an open mind about what Lent is really for. Many of you know that I’m a port chaplain, which means that I offer pastoral care and other assistance to the crews of cargo ships docked here in Baltimore. Once, I visited a ship on Good Friday. When the crew apologized for a meatless lunch, I said that was fine, I wasn’t eating meat that day either. But by dinnertime, after I’d celebrated a liturgy for them, that dear crew had forgotten about no meat. They were all sharing a sausage pizza, brought by another visitor. It was part of their tradition to thank the clergy with food. So I just thanked them in turn, and shared their meal.
Lent isn’t a pickiness competition. Lent is for figuring out what we depend on too much. It might be chocolate. It might be feeling that our neighborhood is entitled to the best services, as Pastor A.J. preached about recently. Or maybe we’re hooked on success in our ministry, lay or ordained. I hate feeling like I’m failing, because in COVIDtide I can’t have a long sit-down with the seafarers I visit as their chaplain, I can’t babysit my grandchildren, I can’t even hug my mother. And I bet you feel the same way about the people you try to love, and the clients you try to serve. COVID has painfully reminded me that I shouldn’t depend on my fantasies of perfection. This week, for example, I’m trying to thank God for profound conversations I had about Lent with a few seafarers, at the top of the gangway, and not to stress because I couldn’t offer fuller liturgies. And another dependency to let go of is notions some of us grew up with, stereotypes about different age groups, or genders, or races, and how they’re “supposed” to behave. Let’s say goodbye, now, to all those “graven images.”
Figuring out where we need to change direction—to repent, as Jesus preaches after his wilderness experience--means facing painful truths. But it doesn’t mean hating myself. Lent’s about reconciling with myself, coming to grips with the truth of who I am now, and who I’m called to be. Lent’s actually about loving myself. Not because I’ve reached perfection-- or even come close--but because God loves me.
To have that courage to change, I need to love myself honestly. So I have to trust that God loves me already. As a young parent, what helped me face a toddler’s tantrums was to remember that God loves that toddler--and I can too. As a disciple, I can face my own struggles, remembering that God loves me, and I can too.
Facing the truth about whatever so-called “needs,” or privileges, or habits I prioritize over God, does require testing. But this testing makes our wilderness time a journey--not a time of getting stuck. On one of his earlier Groundhog’s Days, Bill Murray says, about winter: “It’s gonna be cold; it’s gonna be gray; and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? But then he discovers that a kind woman has compassion for him, and he starts having compassion for others. Yeah, it’s Hollywood, so romance appears almost magically, along with a seemingly bottomless wallet, making his new generosity easy. Sorry, our wilderness journeys won’t be that simplistic.
But we begin this journey with a simple, yet essential, truth, ringing in our ears: “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” You are my beloved. That’s a truth worthy of endless re-runs. And our journey will reveal, more and more deeply, that God loves us; that we can love ourselves; that with all our limitations as individuals and as a society: we can get unstuck from our failures. We can learn new ways of loving others. As Mark teaches, angels will minister to us along the way. Listen for angels reminding you: you are loved.
Life is full of repetition. Practice, practice, practice: in sports, in music, and in discipleship. But as Bill Murray finally learned, it’s not gonna be cold and gray forever. It’s not always Groundhog’s Day, and it’s not always Lent. But when it is, don’t be afraid to see your shadow. After all, we wouldn’t see our shadows if there were no light. God’s light shines on us. God will keep loving us through whatever darkness we need to face: in ourselves, our beloved church, our beloved city, our beloved nation. God’s love gives us courage to strive, to reconcile with ourselves, and with all God’s children.