The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Refreshment Sunday

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
John 3:14-21

Here we are, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, right smack in the middle of the 40 days. Today is known as “Laetare Sunday”—“Rejoice Sunday.” Actually, it isn’t today but the Thursday before Laetare Sunday—this past Thursday—that marks the middle of Lent, and in earlier times it was that day that was observed with special signs of joy in order to encourage the faithful during their Lenten observance. Later it was transferred to the fourth Sunday, as a time to “lighten up”—with flowers allowed at the altar table and rose-colored vestments instead of the penitent purple. All this was supposed to be emblematic of the joys of life, albeit observed with some restraint, and with solemnity.

This Sunday is also known as Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday, referring to the former practice of Christians making their pilgrimage to the cathedral or “mother” church on this day. I like the image and symbolism of this day—a day to anticipate the joys of Easter before we enter into the starkness and seriousness and sadness of Holy Week.

And so in the spirit of laetare, I thought I would lighten things up by sharing with you this morning some actual epitaphs from the tombstones of folks who were able to make light even of death, perhaps in the knowledge and hope of God’s promise of Easter resurrection. I have a friend whose hobby is visiting old cemeteries and doing rubbings of interesting epitaphs. These are some of his collection.

On the grave of Ezekiel Aikle in Nova Scotia:
Here lies Ezekiel Aikle, Age 102. “The good die young.”

In a Ribbesford, England cemetery:
Anna Wallace: The children of Israel wanted bread, and the Lord sent them manna. Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife, and the devil sent him Anna.

On the grave of Ellen Shannon in Pennsylvania: Who was fatally burned March 21, 1870 by the explosion of a lamp filled with “R.E. Danforth’s Non-Explosive Burning Fluid.”

And, finally, I have heard that on the tombstone of W.C. Fields is the epitaph: “Better here than Philadelphia.”

It’s good to laugh, good to “lighten up.” But there are serious things to consider this day too. By now in mid-Lent we ought to be aware, acutely aware, of things done and things left undone, and that, outside of God’s grace, there is little health in us. Those sins painfully disclosed in the Great Litany few weeks ago—our pride, false judgments, hypocrisy, and unfaithfulness, to name a few—they have haunted us like angry ghosts.

We can stand only so much reality before it begins to burn. Like looking directly into the sun, such self-examination makes us recoil and we abruptly turn our gaze elsewhere. We realize as Mae West once concluded about herself, that we are as “pure as the driven slush.”

The danger in persisting in a steady diet of rigorous self-examination is that it can lead to a deadly condition called despair. We ask ourselves: “Why bother?” Why try? Why not just toss in the towel in terms of doing battle with “the world, the flesh, and the devil”? “Jesus may have done it successfully,” we sigh, “but who are we compared to Jesus?” We are, “by nature,” Paul says, “children of wrath, like everyone else.” So why not just let it all go. Quit trying to be somebody you aren’t and put an end to the charade. Drop back and punt for Lent.

Well, the Church in her enduring wisdom has countered this all too human tendency of ours to jump ship and has come up with this great idea of “Laetare Sunday”—and set it on the 4th Sunday in Lent. Inspired by the opening words of the Introit at the Mass, “Rejoice for Jerusalem and be glad for her,” Laetare’s emphasis moves towards a graceful lightening and away from the usual Lenten heaviness. A relaxation of our penitential fervor is permitted. No mea culpa on this day. Maybe even an “alleluia” or a smile or two come out to play.

It was in England that the custom of “refreshment” first evolved into Mothering Sunday—a day for visiting mothers in their homes and for visiting the mother church. And think how nicely that idea fits and connects with today’s Psalm: “He has gathered them from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south . . . Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercies and for the wonders he does for his children.” 107.3,21

And the theme continues with that same loving, saving, homecoming embrace in Ephesians: “God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loves us . . . shows us the immeasurable riches of his grace and kindness towards us,” and right into the assuring and parenting, grace-full arms of the gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life. That is the love with which our God loves us.

So lighten up. Loosen up. Celebrate “up” the Church seems to be telling us on Refreshment Sunday. Don’t forget that you are sinners, but don’t forget either that you are saints who sin, children of God by God’s grace, and not miserable wretches haunted by a Divine perfectionist.

Furthermore, on a more human level, the Church seems to be reminding us that we won’t keep at anything very long unless there is joy in it. Determination will dry up, every time. Resolve will run aground, every time. We will become dull and sullen. We will run out of energy and enthusiasm. All that prayer and fasting and submission and sacrifice, without joy and celebration, will make for stale saints. We’ll suffer from “irritable saint syndrome.” And that is not the purpose or goal of Lent or of the Christian life.

A sense of grace, an understanding of God’s unconditional love for the world in Christ, underlies all the disciplines for Lent or of any other season. The scripture readings today serve as a reminder of that relationship. Jesus didn’t give his life for us because we deserved it. It wasn’t that we merited that work that somehow motivated God to give his only begotten Son to the world – to be born, and live, and die, and rise again as one of us. The Scripture never mentions any particular “redeeming” values attributed to humankind at all, except to say that God counts us as his own children, as his daughters and sons in need.

A Savior given in grace and received by faith with thanksgiving is therefore the model for all Christian joy and celebration. It is not only the theme for the Eucharist, but for our Christian lives as well.

God is love. God is merciful. God is forgiving. And God is able. This core truth should never be forgotten—even in Lent. And the result for us is that we are rescued by Christ in his suffering, and death, and resurrection from taking ourselves so damned seriously – in Lent and other times – from becoming legalistic bores, who just can’t quite equate “joy” with “church.” From becoming dull and depressed in our hard disciplines and calling it suffering for the sake of the Kingdom; from becoming hurt and angry when things don’t go our way, and claiming abuse and mistreatment and injury.

Jesus says, “Are you kidding me?!” After all I went through for you; after all I’ve forgiven you; after all the love I have for you—the immeasureable riches of God’s grace—Rejoice! Rejoice! in the great love of God.

Let this day be a bell for us that rings out, telling us we can relax. That, as Paul says, “This is not your own doing but the gift of God.” We can let go of this need to prove ourselves to God through self-mastery and self-control. We can laugh at ourselves—at our silly inflatedness and our comical hypocrisy judgmentalism. We can breathe again. Be inspired. Be disciplined as an act of gratitude, not as a means of justification.

In the Middle Ages, there was a holiday known as “The Feast of Fools.” (And though it probably did not occur on Refreshment Sunday!) It was a day when all the “sacred cows” of the time could be lampooned. Minor clerics could make fun of important clerics and bishops and the populace could make fun of the political leaders and even kings. They could be laughed at – the high brought low and the low brought high – and, therefore, everyone could be seen in the proper perspective. At least for a day.

Maybe this Sunday of Refreshment we should take a cue from history. It’s such a great spring day! Go somewhere and celebrate! Have a great lunch. Spend the afternoon outside. Sit in the sun. Sit in the grass. Have a great day doing whatever is pleasant for you. Have some fun. Drink in grace; feast on faith. Thank God for all God has done for you, and all God has forgiven you (way worse things that you have to forgive anyone else for), and FORGIVE and REJOICE! And BE NEW!
Go ahead and do it!—even if you don’t deserve it.

And if anybody happens to object, you just tell them that God said it was okay.

And may the Lord’s love and grace and joy envelop you and enliven you and satisfy you – mind and body and soul – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – this day and for ever more. Amen.