Video link sermon
We need Lent. Maybe this year more than most.
Most of us want to be good. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve tried to be good. Of course, it didn’t work as planned. And even when I was a little child, I noticed how it felt inside when I wasn't good. One of my cousins actually liked being bad. I remember him just blurting out, "Let's be bad." He was six weeks older than me, so I figured he knew something I didn't. When I was eight, he teased and bullied me into my first felony. I boosted a tiny 10-cent notebook I did not want, but it was small. I slipped it into my shirt and tried to walk out casually as if nothing in Kresge's 5 and 10-cent store interested me that day. I agonized over that theft all day and night. The next day, I snuck back into the store, waited for the right moment when the only clerk was busy with a customer, surreptitiously approached the cash register and quickly and silently placed a dime on it. I hoped the judge would go easier on me when I inevitably got caught and tried.
When this happened, I remember feeling I was now a criminal. Forever. No hope. No possible redemption. I feared the next Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we presented ourselves before God who would decide who lived or died, who was to be written into the book of Life, and who was out. Who would die this year, and how; who by fire, who by sword, who by hunger, who by thirst. The litany of specific deaths was long and precise; among the many ways we could die was plague. I remember the phrase, "...and who by plague."
The Jewish Passover celebrates release from bondage to sin and being passed over by the angel of death. God visited ten plagues on Egypt, the last a deadly plague which took the first-born, the eldest child in each household. To be spared this plague the Hebrews smeared the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts.
Today the world is being visited by another plague, a plague which takes the eldest among us. Fortunately we have the blood of the Paschal lamb smeared on the doorposts of our lives. Jesus is the Passover lamb provided by God for each of us who believe God and struggle to follow him. My grandmother Clara was an aggressive housecleaner. Bubbe - which is what everyone calls their grandmother - Bubbe lived on the top floor of a three-family tenement just outside Boston. Uncles and aunts and cousins lived on the first two floors. I loved visiting. It was such a change from our farm in Stoneham. Weiss Farm was a working dairy farm, with 72 cows and three hired help who lived with us in our farmhouse. Try as my mother might, there was a perpetual layer of dust and grime tracked in from the barn and farmyard. Compared to that, Bubbe's house was paradise! But, every spring, before Pesach, despite how clean her house seemed, my Bubbe got on hands and knees with a soapy bucket and stiff brush and scrubbed front stairs, back stairs, floors and corners until, as my mother marveled, "You could eat off of the floors."
It’s not that the floors were dirty. Bubbe was performing an old Jewish ritual. Just before Passover, the woman of the house swept the cleaned cupboards with a large feather to remove even the tiniest trace of leavening.
Leavening represents the action of sin within us. Sweeping up crumbs with a feather represents self-examination, searching ourselves, gathering up even the smallest of sins and physically removing sin and its corrupting power. Holy Week coincides with Passover because Jesus was celebrating Passover. There was no leavened bread at that Seder meal, not even a crumb. Leavening's power to leaven a whole loaf is like the power of sin to grow and corrupt the whole person. Jesus said, Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, warning us to be ever vigilant. To be “good enough” is not good enough. Sin is pernicious. A little becomes a lot. We are cautioned not to settle, not to grow complacent.
We usually look at Lent as a time of penance. That's okay, but this is also a time to examine the interior of our house and give it a good cleaning. Before I became a Christian, I didn't understand sin. I thought sin was a matter of what you did or didn't do. Your behavior. Jesus opened my eyes to understand that sin is what is inside the house, not outside. It's not enough to avoid plotting revenge on our enemies. Even simply thinking about how good it would be for something bad to happen to them, that's sin. If we haven't got rid of our feelings of anger at someone, that's sin. If we harbor bad thoughts towards our accusers, our antagonists, those who've brutalized, terrorized us, that's sin.
Halfway cleansing is not enough. Bubbe didn't scrub her back steps so the family could eat off them. She wasn't scrubbing the back stairs; she was scrubbing her soul.
Lent presents us with a scrub brush and soapy bucket. Do we ask God to level out the steps; to make things easier? Do we ask God to change the circumstances, the trials in front of us? Or, do we ask God to help us, advise us, transform us, soften us inside; mold us to our original soul-shape? Do we really trust God?
Jesus reminds us of our need for thorough cleaning in today’s gospel. Jesus sees the man. The disciples see sin. In those days, deformity was thought to be the consequence of sin. The disciples ask Jesus, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus said, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." Jesus makes a divine mud of spit and dirt and smears the grimy paste on the blind eyes. The blind man obeys Jesus’ instruction to wash himself. Like Bubbe on her knees, he scrubs himself clean. And he sees.
Self-examination allows the feather of the holy spirit to sweep away the sins of the mind still imprisoning us. Surprisingly, self-examination can free us from the paralysis of holding on to present fears and release us from the sorrow and pain of nursing past grievances.
As you wash your hands many times each day for the next few weeks, be like my Bubbe. Make your hand washing a time with the Lord, a time to not only scrub your hands free from the leaven of polluting germs, but to cleanse your soul of the crumbs of sin.
Be well and be safe.