Ash Wednesday’s Sermon

Why is being an Episcopalian during Lent like playing football for Coach Vince Lombardi in the NFL?

I don’t know if you know it but Vince Lombardi was an altar boy, at one time aspired to become a Roman Catholic priest, and attended daily mass for the whole of his adult life. Maybe that explains why he was the winningest coach in the history of the National Football League. They don’t call the trophy awarded to the team which wins the SuperBowl the “Vince Lombardi trophy” for nothin’. As the head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, he never had a losing season. The people of the Green Bay community, which sold out every game of his entire tenure, called him “the Pope.”

In 1963, Vince Lombardi wrote a book called “Run to Daylight: A Diary of One Week with the Green Bay Packers. In it, he describes how he got his Packers ready to play week after week. On Mondays, they would look at game films. Lombardi says he never had to tell any of his players what they did wrong because they already knew. Instead, on Monday, Coach Lombardi would give each player one thing on which to work that week, one mistake to correct, one skill to improve, just one thing that would make them a better football player. And that, my friends, is good theology.

Compare this to your annual visit to your personal physician. Listen to that the doctor says: Lose weight. Stop smoking. Get more sleep. Stop drinking alcohol. Get more exercise. Cut back on sugar.

If you go to Group Health, you not only have to listen to the sawbones tell you all these things, they print them out in what they call a “visit summary” and send you home with a copy. The problem with this approach, as opposed to Vince Lombardi’s, is that it is too much at once, too many changes, too many major goals, too many projects, just too damn much.

You may remember that last October I read and recommended to you a book by Jana Riess called “Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.”

This is a very funny book in which this goofy woman tries twelve different spiritual exercises which she thinks may lead her to becoming a spiritual superstar. None of them worked out very well. She tried fasting. She tried lectio divina. She kept the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath for a month of Sabbaths. She tried generosity. She tried praying the daily office. She tried the Eastern Orthodox Jesus prayer. And she did not become more saintly. She shudda listened to Vince Lombardi.

If you seriously feel the need to do some major spiritual reconstruction of yourself, you could get yourself a spiritual director. There are such things ‘tho not everyone who holds him- or herself out as a spiritual director is necessarily the real deal. In truth, there are some real lulus out there who claim to be spiritual directors but are more like spiritual fruitcakes. A really qualified spiritual director can offer a lot of help to someone who wants to go deeper into the spiritual life, which can be immensely rewarding.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. These people are steeped in the classics of Christian spirituality: The 4th Century Apothegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers); The 14th Century “Cloud of Unknowing”; The Eastern Orthodox “Philokalia”; Dame Julian of Norwich’s “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love”; My favourite: Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection’s “The Practice of the Presence of God”’ The Russian Orthodox “The Way of a Pilgrim”; Saint John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul”; Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s “On Loving God”. But they’ve also read Vince Lombardi and so you might be surprised when your highly qualified, highly educated, highly experienced spiritual director gave you one thing to do, one change to make, one good habit to acquire, one thing on which to work.

Or you could do it for yourself by yourself. But, if you do, don’t try to do everything at once. Just one thing at a time.

Unlike giving something up for Lent and then snatching it back with great relish the moment the Forty Days are over, a better idea would be to make a permanent change for Lent, one that lasts beyond Easter, one that last for more than a year, one that changes – in a little way – who you are … you know, like, forever.

This might be a good and sensible and useful way to do Lent. In the Invitation to a Holy Lent, which I will deliver in just a few minutes, the Church invites you to do a very large number of things: self-examination; repentance; prayer; fasting; self-denial; reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. Holy moley!

Suppose we followed the Lombardi Principle and focused on just one of those things.

Take, for instance, daily intercessory prayer. Suppose you decide to pray for Charlie every day of Lent. Charlie’s a good guy. He is a long-time and valued member of this congregation. He is in all kinds of medical trouble. And he could certainly use all of our prayers every day.

If you don’t know how or if you aren’t very good at composing prayers which you think might be suitable for the ears of the Almighty, there is help. That’s why God wrote the Book of Common Prayer.

Here’s one, filed under Prayers for the Sick: “Heavenly Father, giver of life and health: Comfort and relieve your sick servant N. (that’s where you say “Charlie”), and give your power of healing to those who minister to his needs, that he may be strengthened in his weakness and have confidence in your loving care; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
If the “every day of Lent” part is a challenge, that tells you where your focus should be. A discipline only works if it is a discipline. You decide to become a daily intercessor for Lent, daily means daily, as in once a day, at least, every day. Most people who strive to become intercessors fix a set time every day at which they will pray. For Bishop Sandy and Mari Hampton, that’s right after breakfast. They don’t even get up from the table to clear their dishes; they just get right to their prayers.

If you are going to go to this much trouble just for the sake of our Brother Charlie, you may as well spread your sights a tiny bit wider and get the prayer list from Georgeanne. I mean, if you’re there and you’re praying, is there a really good reason not to include the rest of the folks for whom we, as a congregation are praying? Some people find it useful to use a notebook or journal in which they can keep their prayer list and into which they can paste or tape written prayers that they want to use for different occasions. There used to be a rubric before the Collect for Ash Wednesday in the 1928 Prayer Book which said “This prayer is to be said on Ash Wednesday and on every day during Lent.” The Collect for Lent might be a good one to tape in there, since this is a Lenten spiritual exercise, after all.

You do this for the forty days of Lent and it has already become a habit. You’re praying not just for Charlie but for whatever else you feel moved to include in your daily offering of prayers. And you don’t stop on Easter; why would you? This is, after all, the new you: you are now a bona fide intercessor, which maybe you weren’t before.

Jesus recommends this, you know. In this evening’s Gospel, Jesus says “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

So maybe there are still seventy-eleven other things that need improving in your spiritual life. Maybe you still have a long way to go on the road to sainthood. Maybe you can think of a lot else that needs work, maybe even a long list. If you feel that way, remember Vince Lombardi. And remember that there’s another Lent next year.

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