Several summers ago we did a special summer Bible study on biblical covenants. We traced and discussed all the covenants between God and his people – beginning with Adam, continuing with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and reaching its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Covenants: the memory and the promise that we will hold God alone and above all things, He will be our God, and we will be his people. Covenants are the means by which God builds his people.
- Adam and Eve – God creates the foundations of family in a loving couple
- Noah – the family grows into the “nuclear family”
- Abraham – the family expands into an extended and network of families
- Moses – the family is now a network of tribes
- David – the family now extends to and covers a nation
- Jesus Christ – the family now covers the entire world
All along the way we, the people of God, as individuals and as a people, have not kept the faith in all times and places. We have not always worshiped, lived, and loved as people of the covenant. In the end, what seems inevitable, inescapable, and almost predictable is that we will break the covenant. But look at the pattern… make a covenant, break a covenant, and a bigger, better one takes its place. Covenants are the work of a God who remembers His promises, even when we forget.
So often we are a people, a church with amnesia. So we do things like Bible study and studying covenants in order to remember and remember rightly. And sometimes it is the remembering rightly that is the harder part. I am not given to telling jokes in homilies, so think of this as but a poor parable about remembering rightly with an ending that might lead you to chuckle.
It was the tradition of the family to gather Sunday afternoon at 3:00 pm for the weekend family dinner. The parents and three kids were there, plus assorted and varying guests. The center piece was always the pot roast. While reflecting upon it all, the dad realized he needed to be more expressive about the deep abiding gratitude he had for the gathering and the pot roast. So, the next Sunday, at table, he expressed how important the meal together was and how grateful he was to everyone for being present. He has special words of thanks and praise for his beloved wife.
Later, while cleaning up, he told his wife, “Honey, I have had lots of pot roasts, but yours is just incredibly delicious and way better than the others. What is your secret?” She replied that the secret was in cutting the ends off the roast. He paused, thought about it a little, and then asked, “OK…. How does cutting off the ends make it taste so good?” His wife replied, “Well, that’s because…. Because… well, I really don’t know. It is just the way my mother taught me to prepare a roast.” After some discussion, curiosity drove them to call her mom.
After posing the question, her mom said, “That’s right, cutting off the ends if the secret. You do that because…, well because, … uhhh… well I don’t rightly know. Your grandmother showed me that was the way to do it – and you can’t argue with success – but I really don’t know the why of it all.” So of course they got grandmother on the phone in a conference call. After hearing the whole background and question, grandmother responded, “What in the world are you all getting on about? When I was preparing Sunday dinner there were a dozen or more people at the table. I only had one roasting pan and the only way I was getting that big roast in the pan was to cut off the ends.”
The pot roast parable, in part, is a story about remembering, especially about our traditions. Traditions can be big or small, important and not. Not all traditions are created equal. If each one of us are to be a person faithful to Gods’ eternal covenant in Christ; if we are to be a church faithful to that covenant, then we must be a people who remember rightly and hold onto the Traditions that go to the heart of faith, the heart of the covenant.
There are lots of church traditions that come and go. They are good for a time because they help the faithful of that time, but in time, they lose their ability to draw people close to the heart of the covenant. But ashes, alms giving, prayer and fasting – these things have been present in the ages before Christ and in the millennia since. It is the experience of the Church that these traditions of Lent help move people to the embrace of family that God is building up through these successive covenants.
On Ash Wednesday, one person approached me and wanted to know why we had made up a new blessing for giving ashes, “What’s wrong with you Franciscans, aren’t the traditions of the Church good enough for you.” She was asking why we didn’t use the “ashes to ashes” blessings. She explained it was important that people remember they are nothing, nothing but a pile of dust, corrupt, sinful, and not worthy of such a savior. That is what she remembered. But has she remembered rightly. She wanted to know where this “Repent and believe in the Gospel” came from. In my best deadpan, I replied, “the Gospel according to Mark 1:15 and then designated for use by the Roman Missal for the Ash Wednesday liturgy.” I don’t exactly recall what she said – memory has been fused with the 40th anniversary of SNL – all I can now picture is Gilda Radner saying, “Never, mind.” I wish the woman had stayed and had been interested in discussing why we have the Lenten traditions of ashes, alms, prayer, and fasting. I wonder what she thought about them. Did she rightly remember?
Here is a question for you. The traditions of ashes, alms giving, prayer, and fasting – how do they go the heart of faith and the heart of the Covenant? Do we remember rightly? Or put another way, are these things drawing you closer to God? And maybe the answer is “not really…” – which is OK for an answer but only if it leads you to ask “Why not?”
It is a little like the pot roast story. When you ask the right person you will get the answers that are rightly remembered. In the treasury of the church’s memory, people have expressed the right practice of these Lenten traditions as
- Intentionally making decisions about what is nice and what is necessary. Keeping the needed and jettisoning the nice in order to make room for God. Said another way, it is making time for family.
- Turning off the myriad of lights in daily life in order to see more clearly, hoping that in the self-induced darkness we might actually be able to see our way forward a little better.
- Changing directions in life, pondering “what does the family ask of me?” – what is God asking of me. Of course, another way to say that is “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
People ask me about giving up this thing or that for Lent – and what do I think? In general, I think giving up something alone can be like cutting the ends off the pot roast. But, giving up something so that you can fill up the space and time with something that draws you closer to the heart of God’s family, closer to the heart of Christ, closer to the embrace of the Covenant – now that’s a tradition worth remembering.
Whatever we do this Lent, we need to remember rightly. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” This is Lent.