February 22, 2015 – 1 Lent B
Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-13
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
The Great Litany. I have to admit I’ve never been a big fan. And I’m not alone I know. There’s always a little grumbling in the congregation when folks see we’re doing it. Mary Ward has always referred to it as the Great Listening. Anne Tippett, on our staff, grew up calling it the Great Big Litany. It is big and long, arduous in some ways. And today we chant it which makes it a little longer. Fortunately for you I wasn’t the one doing the chanting. Had it been me, we would have to add a line: From off-key chanting, and Robert’s horrid, wretched, and despicable voice, Good Lord deliver us. You know, in the old days, St. John’s did the Great Litany whenever there was a 5th Sunday in a month. One rector’s wife, I am told, when we did the Great Litany would slip out of the church at the first Good Lord, deliver us and walk up the street to baste her lamb roasting in the oven so that it wouldn’t dry out and then arrive back just as the Great Litany was wrapping up.
I’ve never been a big fan of the Great Litany, that is, until September 11, 2001. On that day, when the country was under attack, and our hearts were so vulnerable, we wondered what we might do in terms of worship to help each other. At noon on that day we gathered right in here and read the Great Litany. Just a few days prior we had erected a tower of scaffolding from the floor of the sanctuary up to the ceiling right in front of the altar and the Ascension window. The day before, workers from Massachusetts had begun removing the Ascension window so that it could be restored. Visqueen had been put in place of about half the window. The artisans working on the window climbed down from the tower and knelt with about 15 of us and we read the Great Litany. I think it is safe to say that it was the first time I had PRAYED the Great Litany. And, as I prepared for that prayer service, I came across something at the end of the Great Litany that I had never noticed before. The Supplication follows on page 154 and boy did it fit for that occasion! The rubrics say that it is recommended especially in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster. I always keep a handkerchief in my prayer book and I had to use it a few times that day so I could see the words to read them.
Each day that week, we did the same thing. At noon we prayed the Great Litany and the Supplication. And each day more people came. On that Friday, more than 400 people knelt in their pews for what I had always approached as an archaic and irrelevant liturgy. It had always seemed so depressing in its intense focus on what is wrong with everything in the world. But at that time, it was clear that there is something wrong with everything in the world. We are separated from God. We are divided by sin. We make a mess of the things we can control. And that which we cannot control often makes a mess of us. People threaten to destroy the world. The world threatens to destroy the people. The Great Litany, so fitting for that time, points out that , even when things are relatively peaceful and calm, something is wrong. Something is missing and we need help. Good Lord, deliver us.
But why in the world would God deliver us? Look in the mirror. Look around you. Why in the world would God deliver us?
God spared Noah and 7 others we are told in the flood narrative in the book of Genesis. He spared a sampling of all earthly life. God had made all that is and then it wandered off from its original potential and purpose. His creation decided it didn’t need that which had made it. The flood narrative reminds us that God has every reason to destroy us, that the one who creates can always choose to put creation away. But, of course, the main point of the flood narrative is that God chooses not to do that. We might think he spares only the 8 good folks left in the world and destroys all the bad but look again. He puts the rainbow in the cloud to show us the choice he makes daily to spare us. He promises not to destroy us. That is a statement about God. It is not a statement about us. The flood narrative shows the on-going decision God makes to spare us. But why in the world would he do that?
Jesus is baptized in the gospel lesson. The waters of baptism correspond to the waters of the flood. The creator who could destroy us chooses to love us instead. The word beloved in the gospel lesson comes from the word to choose. God chooses to spare us, chooses to love us, could choose otherwise, and surely is tempted to choose otherwise, yet God chooses to love us. Not just to spare us and hope for some change. God chooses to love us. God doesn’t just choose to love Jesus his Son. He sends his Son to show us his on-going choice of loving us. The rainbow was an expression of the covenant of God’s love for his people and his creation. But we don’t get it, so he sends a new covenant, something maybe we can identify with more clearly. We are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ so that we may be raised to the new life of God’s love for us, his choice every day to spare us and bring us closer to him.
Jesus is tempted after the voice expresses God’s choice to love. He is tempted to forget God’s love and make his own way. He is tempted to do things for himself rather than trust that his Father will make all things well in his way. And so we are tempted. We are tempted to forget God’s love for us and prove things ourselves. We are tempted, it seems, either to prove our worthiness or our unworthiness. We try to make God love us, or try to prove he doesn’t love us. And through it all, God simply loves us. God’s love is his response to the human condition.
We pray for guidance and direction. God responds with his love. We pray: have mercy upon us, and God responds: I love you. We pray: spare us, good Lord, and God responds: I love you. We pray: Good Lord, deliver us, and God responds: I love you. We pray: we beseech thee to hear us, good Lord, and God responds: I love you. I choose to love you.
God always begins and ends with his choice of love. It’s not that he is some dysfunctional being ignoring all the problems. God is loving us into loving him, loving us into loving ourselves, loving us into loving each other. We don’t make it through by our own strength. We make it through by God’s choice to love us.
We begin the season of Lent, not with an emphasis on how bad we are and how much we need to improve. We begin by emphasizing God’s great love for us. Were it not for that, we would have drowned long ago. We are here because God loves us, no other reason. So be loved and live with joy in the resurrection of Christ Jesus. By his grace we live and move and have our being.