Sermon illustrations


Hard, Hard Things

We suffer these things and they fade from memory. But daily, hourly, to give up our own possessions and especially to subordinate our own impulses and wishes to others—these are hard, hard things; and I don’t think they ever get any easier.

You can strip yourself, you can be stripped, but still you will reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment. It may mean books or music – the gratification of the inner sense – or it may mean food and drink, coffee and cigarettes. The one kind of giving up is no easier than the other.

Dorothy Day, The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus, Plough Spiritual Guides: Backpack Classics, 2017.

Identifying Christians

On the whole, though, Catholics (and Protestants) aren’t identifiable at first glance. Yet, on Ash Wednesday I’m always surprised by the number of people I see on the streets and in the subways sporting black smudges on their foreheads. And sometimes, despite the tacit but rarely broken code of not making eye contact on the subway, someone will notice your ashes and you’ll exchange The Nod, a kind of half-smile and tilt of the head that acknowledges that we’re not as distant from each other as we think.

Kerry Weber, Mercy in the City, How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job, Loyola Press, 2014.

Opening Our Windows Towards Jerusalem

In this short excerpt from a series of sermons for the Lenten season, pastor and author John H. Baumgaertner shares this short poem about the Lenten journey:

Opening our windows toward Jerusalem

And looking thitherward, we see

First Bethlehem,

Then Nazareth and Galilee,

And afterwards Gethsemane;

And then the little hill called Calvary.

Taken from John H. Baumgaertner, The Bitter Road: A Lenten Journey with the Suffering Christ from Bethlehem to Calvary and the Garden, Concordia Publishing House, 1969, p.33.

Lent: Preparing for a Banquet

Not long ago, just as the season of Lent had got underway, a friend complained to me, “I know it’s Lent, but where’s the joy?” It is easy to understand why Lent is often misunderstood as a period of savage and destructive negativity. Doesn’t it encourage a despairing view of life “full of sound and fury”? It begins, after all, with Ash Wednesday and the grim reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. This is hardly the prelude to a party! Nevertheless, reminders of our mortality are salutary. Understood in the context of a life of faith, they prepare us for a celebration. Lent is about getting ready for a banquet, about preparing for a wild party.

While there can be a great deal of fun in a spur-of-the-moment party, the preparation for a great banquet takes a lot of time and effort. Getting ourselves ready for this particular wild celebration demands our being willing to be probed by hard questions about the meaning of our longing. This particular party requires that we bring with us, especially our passion and our need.

We live in an age when everything has to be palatable and easily digestible. Hard questions and tough decisions have to be reduced to the-consistency of cream of wheat. We have neither the stomach nor the teeth for solid food. Lent, however, is a time when real meat is served to feed the mind as well as the soul. There used to be a steak house in New York that displayed a sign: “If you find our steaks tough, then quit. We don’t want weaklings here!” Lent is a serious time and, if the moment is right, it can present us with life and death issues. It isn’t, however, meant to be a grim time. It is an opportunity for truth-telling, for our discovering the true grounds of joy and hope.

Alan Jones, Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for our Journey Home, Harper San Francisco, 1995.

Recovering a Vision and the Taste of the New Life

“…the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it. … It is through her liturgical life that the Church reveals to us something of that which “the ear has not heard, the eye has not seen, and what has not yet entered the heart of man, but which God has prepared for those who love Him.” And in the center of that liturgical life, as its heart and climax, as the sun whose rays penetrate everywhere, stands Pascha.

Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, St. Vladimir’s University Press, 1974.

Repentance for the Religious

Written almost a hundred years ago, this excerpt from the Reverend John W. Rilling points out one of the main reasons we continue to observe Lent, a period of repentance and discipline for many who call Christ Lord:

“The most awful thing in the death of Jesus,” Archbishop Soderblom reminds us, “is that it was brought about by men who were following or believed themselves to be following good and honorable reasons for their actions. Men of various classes, the guardians of religion and of public morals and of the order of society itself united to crucify Jesus. They were men like you and me.”

That is why we keep Lent. That is why the Church lifts up her voice and calls all Christians repentance. ‘Turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning.” There is an old Passion hymn, a great favorite in Luther’s day, that opens with the question, “O thou wretched Judas, what hast thou now done?”

Fortunately, the hymn is no longer sung, for as Luther pointed out it tends to keep the Passion back in a by-gone day as though it were none of our affair. More to the point is the personal and deeply penitent confession of that other Passion chorale, “Who was the guilty, who brought this upon Thee, alas my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.” He was wounded for our transgressions.

Taken from John W. Rilling, in God-The Eternal Paradox and Other Sermons, Ed. Paul Zeller, Muhlenberg Press, 1943.

Repenting our Anxiety & Opening Ourselves to Christ’s Kingdom

Lent is a time when we ask about the meaning of repentance. Lent could be a time not when we think about all the sin and suffering and self-denial that have been traditional with us, but when we ask in fresh ways what the people clustered around Jesus make of the world they are in. I put the question this way: Jesus affirmed that it is possible to be in the world in a new way, to be present to the people and problems around us with some newness and freshness.

The usual way of being in the world is anxiety, of being pressed and harried and worried, and that in turn leads to a stance of defensiveness and fear and a determination to keep what we have. Anxiety that believes that we best get what we can and keep what we got snowballs on us, and we get caught up in it and don’t know it’s happening.

Characteristically, Jesus asks a question which doesn’t require an answer because it’s so obvious. It is a question which just stops all our protests and explanations short. You know it well: Which of you, by being anxious, has ever added an inch to your lives?

I find that a biting, embarrassing question, because of course, it is true. Defensive and frightened and coveting has never really resulted in any gains. Partly we do it because we don’t know any better way and partly because it’s habit. In either case, he suggests another way: Seek the kingdom and his righteousness.

Put another way:

Get your mind off yourself long enough to care; be so concerned about the well-being of the human community that you don’t have to worry about your place, your church, your class, your values, your vested interests.

Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, pp.6-7.

A Social Media Fast

So in the last three years, in order to reorient myself and head back onto the narrow way, I’ve given up social media and/or the internet for Lent. At first it’s agonizing. I’m like a caffeine or nicotine addict going through withdrawal. I get all panicky and shaky, wondering what to do with myself. My fears assail me with the tales of all the fun, banter, and insider information I am missing.

I’m nearly asphyxiated by the thought that I am left behind or uninvited, that I am an outsider looking in while others are living the good, glamorous life of connectedness. I fight the urge to check in. As Lent carries on, my urge slowly subsides. To some extent, I experience my life as it was before the internet. I read more books. I am more fully present to my family and friends. I hear God better. I am less hurried, more like God, who is never in a hurry.

In Lenten silence and solitude via social-media fasts, I discover the words of Isaiah 30:15 to be true: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, / in quietness and trust is your strength.” It is a soul-soothing time. I realize that I need to flee to this desert more frequently. Probably, weekly. My Lenten practice has become a regular spiritual discipline. It allows me to disentangle myself from the cares of the world and follow Jesus more closely. It allows me to better love others.

Marlena Graves, A Beautiful Disaster, Baker Publishing Group, 2014, p.40-41.

Two Moments That Matter

There are two moments that matter. One is when you know that your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive. The other is when you know your life, as presently lived, is entirely pointless and empty. You need both of them to keep you going in the right direction. Lent is about both. The first such moment gives you energy and joy by connecting you with your ultimate Source and Ground. The second gives you limits and boundaries, and proper humility, so you keep seeking the Source and Ground and just your small self.

The paradox, of course, is that you find yourself anyway: your Big Self in God and your little self in you. God loves them both. Saint Teresa of Avila summed it up when she said, “We find God in ourselves. And we find ourselves in God.”

Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011.

A Trench in the Ground

At start of spring I open a trench
In the ground. I put into it
The winter’s accumulation of paper,
Pages I do not want to read
Again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the suns, growth of the ground,
Finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise,
have been inattentive to wonders,
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse,
of mind and body, I close the trench
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

Wendell Berry, New Collected Poems, Counterpoint, 2013

See also illustrations on Ash WednesdayDeathDustDying to Self, Easter, Holy Saturday, Humility, Resurrection

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Lent. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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