Unity Lutheran Church
13 March 2019 + Midweek Lent 1
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
There is nothing quite so satisfying as that unusual but strangely familiar sensation of stepping outside, bundled up in your winter jacket, hat, and gloves… only to realize, all of a sudden: Huh, it’s actually not that cold today. I had that strange sensation this week — stepping outside to walk the dog and not trying to get him to hurry up and do his business already. And then: actually hearing the birds chirping! And perhaps best of all: not fearing the sudden tug of the leash as Roscoe the Dog lunges toward God-knows-what, promptly causing me to slide across a sheet of ice as I struggle to maintain my balance.
These are days of warmer and fresher air, melting snow and greening grass, longer days and brighter evenings. At the risk of provoking Mother Nature to revenge, I think it’s safe to say that the long-awaited, welcome renewal of spring is finally starting to creep in.
If the winter season has seemed especially long and harsh to us humans, though, have you ever considered fish? I hadn’t — or at least not until hearing a story on NPR last week about “winter kill.” According to Mike Vogelsang, the North District Fisheries Supervisor with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “winter kill” is a phenomenon where particular breeds of fish in certain lake climates are prone to die-off due to frozen water surfaces and low oxygen levels beneath. Nature’s way of “thinning out the herd,” Vogelsang calls it. Or “buried alive,” this claustrophobic preacher squeamishly responds.
Still, Vogelsang’s team can at least monitor oxygen levels in the lakes in his district to try to predict the severity of these “winter kills” — valuable information for those who will fish these lakes come spring and summer. Some lake associations have even begun lending nature a helping hand by installing costly and complex aeration systems, in an attempt to boost oxygen levels and lessen the impact of the winter kill…
…which is fascinating to me, as a human being who is 100% not a fisherman or much of an “outdoorsy” type at all. But also as a preacher, considering our Lenten theme at Unity this year: Renew Us, O God. I have very little knowledge of the lake aeration process, but the image of pumping oxygen into a frozen-over winter lake is surely one of renewal.
These images of renewal — from spring dog walks to aquatic aeration — can remind us of the renewal of Lent, too. Lent, after all, comes from an Old English word that literally means “spring.” Where the natural world blossoms with new life, our liturgical life traces a similar journey of renewal and new life, week by week, until at last we reach the resurrection celebration at Easter…
…when many churches will gather around the new fire at the Easter Vigil to hear again the great story of God’s salvation in the pages of sacred scripture, including, perhaps, the words we just heard from Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
A new heart. A new spirit. These, too, are images of renewal, indeed images of resurrection.
The people returning from exile in Ezekiel, returning to their homeland, were not exactly the pinnacle of righteousness. Earlier in the book, God condemns them for their misuse of their land, their lawlessness, their injustice, and their general disregard for the laws God had given them to live by. The people were simply incapable of living in right relationship with God and with each other. They had forgotten what it means to be human.
It’s hard to be human with a heart of stone, with a heart closed off to living in relationship — and so this is a story about how God acts and what God does. This is, essentially, a divine heart transplant. This is a story of resurrection and renewal. This is God’s gift of another second chance to God’s people — the gift of a heart of flesh, a real, beating, human heart, capable of love and connection and relationship.
This kind of renewal far surpasses the renewal of spring, however good it feels to walk outside and not immediately freeze. This kind of renewal is more like pumping oxygen into frozen lakes — but so much more powerful. This kind of renewal restores in us the capacity to be human.
No one in my experience has grasped what it means to be human quite like the man who literally wrote the book on it: Jean Vanier, the Canadian philosopher and theologian — and author of the book Becoming Human — who celebrated his 90th birthday last fall. To mark the occasion, he offered us a gift in a YouTube video about his “10 rules for life” to be more human. Among them: Talk about your emotions and difficulties and vulnerabilities. Take time for deeper relationships — ask “how are you?” and mean it. Put down the phone and be present with people. Overcome prejudice and actually meet people who are different from you. Vanier should know: After all, he’s spent his life living among people with physical and intellectual disabilities in the L’Arche community homes he helped found.
Opportunities for renewal and becoming more human abound this Lent. There are the obvious ones: enhancing your spiritual life with these midweek services or a small group or a service opportunity (insert plug for the Food Pack this Saturday here!). But what about the less obvious ones? Things we can do in our everyday lives: Take a walk outside and notice the beauty of creation. Put down the phone for a night — or a day!? — and spend time talking with a loved one. Hold the door for a stranger and maybe even smile and ask them how their day is going.
We might actually be surprised at what it means to live with a heart of flesh, to be more intentional about our relationships with those around us, to practice being more human, to open ourselves to letting the Spirit renew us this Lenten spring.