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[This sermon, preached by our own Fr. Jeffery Hubbard, is a beautiful mediation on the Pre-Lenten Season and an excellent guide for all Christians as we prepare for a Holy Lent.]

An Untitled Sermon
on 1 Corithians 9:24-27
Preached on Septuagesima Sunday, January 28, 2018 at Church of the Advent, Rochester, MI
by Rev. Jeffrey Hubbard

I wonder if you’ve ever engaged in a struggle. Not something superficial, like trying to find your keys or your wallet or your phone in the morning, but a real struggle. Something sustained. Something that took time. Something that took everything for you to come out on the other side victorious, having shed blood, sweat, and tears along the way.

I don’t know what it might’ve been for you. Maybe it was the struggle to finish something – your education, a work of art, achieving a certain level of mastery in your field. I know several people who have black belts in various martial arts, something that often takes close to a decade. Maybe it was to master a musical instrument, or ballet, or complete a marathon.

Even if we haven’t pursued one of these types of goals – whether in athletics, or the arts, or academia – we can look at those who have and find inspiration. That’s part of why sports has a nearly universal appeal – whether you’re a former high school all-star, merely an armchair quarterback, or just someone who tunes into the Olympics every four years – we find the stories of those who overcame injury and adversity and obstacles – those who were told they were too short, too small, too slow – we find these stories inspiring, because we can see a little of ourselves in them. And in that inspiration we can find fuel to help us through our own personal struggles, whatever they may be.

It’s inspiring because we know the cost. Those athletes didn’t get to where they are by sitting on their couch, eating Doritos and watching highlights of Stephen Curry or Tom Brady on SportsCenter… They spent long hours and late nights over many years disciplining their bodies, not pushing themselves to the limits, but beyond the limits of what they thought their bodies can endure. We see on TV the moments of celebration and joy – confetti pouring down, trophies hoisted up – but these are not the moments that champions are made. No, champions are made in the moments when no one is watching – not in the moments on a big stage with glamour and drama and fanfare, but in the many, many moments that led up to it, in a small gym, with nothing but grit and determination and the compulsive drive to put in one more rep when you’ve given your all, given your best, given what you thought was the last that you could.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success suggests that it takes ten thousand hours to achieve mastery in any skill. That’s a long time. To break it down a bit – that’s two hours a day, every day – no breaks – for nearly fourteen years. The dedication it takes to achieve true mastery of something – true mastery – to get up early, go to the gym, put in the time, do all the reps – and do it every day, consistently, over the course of years – even when you might not feel like doing it, don’t want to do it, think you can’t do it – is something most of us will just never do. Which is why most people are watching SportsCenter rather than appearing on it.

I want you to imagine a scene – a full stadium, a roaring crowd, the biggest stage. An athlete crouches down in the starting blocks ready to run his race. The crowd has an idea of what it took him to get there – the discipline, the self-denial, the dedication – but only he knows what this was like on a visceral level, only he felt it with the strain of every muscle, every day, at every training session. The noise of the cheering crowd fades into a blur: feet meet track as his heart pounds and his lungs heave with each breath propelling him towards the finish line, towards the prize until he reaches the end, and realizes he’s won.

I’m not describing, as you may think, a scene from the Olympic Games, but the Olympic Games’ younger sibling, the Isthmian Games, held in ancient Corinth every two years. When Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians about a runner running the race, or a boxer fighting in the ring, both for the prize, he was speaking the Corinthians’ language, talking about something that was close to  home for them, geographically; as it is for us, culturally.

Christian life, Paul says, isn’t sitting in the stands, it’s getting on the track and into the ring. And because of that it takes discipline. It takes self-control. And he tells us some great news – unlike in the Isthmian games, where the athletes competed for, literally a perishable wreath, a garland made of pine needles and celery, we discipline ourselves knowing we will receive an imperishable, and eternal crown. If athletes, then, are willing to discipline themselves and exercise utter self-control in what they do, when they do it, how they eat, how they treat their bodies, how much more ought we want to have discipline and self-control, we who have before us an imperishable crown?

In two and a half weeks, we’re going to enter into the season of the year that is the most intense in our training and discipline. We’re going to gather here, and Father Shaun is going to call us in the name of the Church to a Holy Lent, observed by the exercises of prayer, fasting, and works of mercy – all not merely spiritual things, but physical as well, like the athletic discipline Paul uses as a metaphor.

So why are we talking about this now, rather than in two and a half weeks?

As many of you may be aware, we recently switched calendars here at Church of the Advent. Jodi and I know some wonderful Eastern Orthodox people who are Old Calendarists, they follow a different calendar than the rest of us – the Julian Calendar rather than the Gregorian – as a way of preserving the Church’s tradition. And so we now could be considered Old Calendarist Anglicans.

One of the great aspects of this Old Calendar we now observe is today – Septuagesima Sunday. You may have noticed that today I’m vested in purple, and we’re not saying “alleluia” or saying the “Gloria” in our service, but it’s not Lent yet.

For most of the history of the Western Church, we’ve observed a pre-Lenten season, which begins today, Septuagesima Sunday. The word Septuagesima simply means “seventy,” letting us know that we’re now within seventy days of Easter – sixty-three to be exact. Next Sunday we’ll mark Sexagesima Sunday, letting us know we’re within sixty days of Easter, followed by Quinquagesima Sunday, when Easter will be exactly fifty days away.

Around fifty years ago, many of the Western Churches decided to get rid of the pre-Lenten season and the so-called “-gesimas,” so why start observing them again?

When I found out I’d be preaching on Septuagesima Sunday, I wanted to learn all about it, and hoped to learn some compelling reasons to give to you why we should be observing the “-Gesimas”. So I pulled out a dictionary on the liturgy that I have, and in the article I read, after describing the “-gesimas”, it closes with the following little editorial:

“It is clear that [the ‘-Gesimas’] have largely fallen out of use. Quite apart from the philosophical question as to whether a period of preparation (i.e., Lent) should itself have a period of preparation, there seems little merit in continuing to name Sundays after inaccurate Latin calculations, and it seems very unlikely that anyone will wish to revive their use.”

I’m really tempted to Google the guy who wrote this article and send him a copy of the order of worship from today’s service, If he thinks “it’s very unlikely that anyone will wish to revive their use,” he obviously hasn’t heard of Church of the Advent.

And so why observe the “-gesimas”? Why observe pre-Lent? I mean, he makes some valid points. If Lent is a preparatory season, why have a preparatory season for the preparatory season? Not getting much help from the experts, I decided to do my own digging, and I came up with three reasons.

First, it’s ancient practice in the Daily Office – and this practice is preserved in the Daily Office Lectionary in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer – to read the book of Genesis from its  beginning, starting on Septuagesima Sunday and continuing through pre-Lent and into Lent. And so during pre-Lent, historically, Christians would be reading the stories of creation, of the garden, of the man and the woman, of the serpent, of the fall, of brother murdering brother, of growing sin, of the flood. If we were to look for a reason we need Lent, that’s the place to start, that’s where it all starts. Reading these stories reminds us of the Fall of mankind, of our own sinfulness, and thus why we need to fast, pray, and perform works of mercy, which are means of grace that help us become less sinful and more holy. If you’re looking for a good devotional practice during pre-Lent, I would suggest for you to read and meditate on these opening chapters of Genesis.

Second, pre-Lent provides a time for examination of conscience, in preparation to make a confession on Shrove Tuesday. During this time, we have a chance for self-examination, to consider and discover what are the sins that most beset us? Traditionally, on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, Christians would go to their priest for confession and sacramental absolution. Pre-Lent provides a good time to consider what are the sins to be confessed. Father Shaun, Father Richard and I are all available to hear confession. I am willing to make myself available all day on Shrove Tuesday, at any time, to hear confession. If you have any questions about confession, feel free to ask one of us priests, but one thing I do want you to know is that the secrecy of the confessional is absolute. What is said in a confession can never be repeated to anyone – I couldn’t tell Father Shaun about it, or my bishop, or my wife, it is something that is kept inviolate, no matter what, between the penitent, the confessor, and God. Historically, the Anglican stance on confession is “all may, some should, none must.” Whether you go to confession is up to you. However, I can tell you as someone that has gone to confession myself, the grace that is received in confession is a great gift to the Church, that I hope you’ll receive. But even if you decide not to confess to a priest on Shrove Tuesday, and instead pray a prayer of confession and ask God for forgiveness privately, this pre-Lenten season gives opportunity for an examination of conscience.

And finally, pre-Lent gives us a time to prepare for and transition into the Lenten fast, so that when the forty days begins, we’re ready to enter into Lent fully. I’m sure I’m not the only one this has happened to, but often it takes me some time to really adjust and get into Lent, for it to really sink in what I’m doing and why, and to get to a point that I’m making the most of it rather than just going through the mechanics of it. Sometimes it can take a couple weeks, and by the time I’ve fully entered into Lent, it’s half over! Having a season of pre-Lent helps us prepare, so when Lent arrives we can make the most of the full forty days.

And so this is why we hear Saint Paul’s great words of encouragement now – to alert us of what we’re going to be doing in Lent. It won’t be easy, it will take self-control and discipline. Like an athlete preparing for the Olympic – or the Isthmian games – our faith is one that takes practice. Becoming holy is something that takes practice. Lent is a time to get in some of those ten thousand hours of practice that we might win the imperishable and glorious crown.

Of this training that awaits us, one of the early Church Fathers says this: “The initiate is summoned to the sacred contests, which, with Christ as his trainer, he must undertake. For it is Christ who, as God, arranges the match, as sage lays down the rules, as beauty is a worthy prize for the victors, and more divinely as goodness is present with the athletes, defending their freedom and guaranteeing their victory over the forces of death and destruction. And so the initiate will quite gladly hurl himself into what he knows to be divine contests, and he will follow and scrupulously observe the wise rules of the game… He will follow the divine tracks established by the goodness of the first of athletes.”

As we prepare to run the race, we don’t do it alone. We do it with each other, and most importantly, with Christ. As the collect we prayed this morning reminds us, it is through God’s goodness that we are mercifully delivered from sin and death. As we run the race, as we exercise discipline and self-control, it is not through our own efforts that we win the imperishable crown, but through Christ’s grace in our efforts, enabling our efforts, through Christ’s presence with us, through Christ’s power sustaining us, from beginning, to end.

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