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Lent: Tending. Loving. Caring

Date: 18/02/2024/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

Lent – Tending, Loving, Caring: Solitude and Isolation

Mark 1:9-15

Free Community Church 

18 February 2024

Good morning –

Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Lent. Lent is a period of spiritual preparation and reflection – lasting for 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. So today, we also begin our Lenten sermon series “Tending. Loving. Caring” – TLC in short.

Lent is a time to reflect on one’s life, acknowledge and confess our sins, and seek forgiveness from God. This act of repentance is often accompanied by prayer, fasting, and acts of charity. The goal is to turn away from sinful behaviour and turn toward God, seeking a closer relationship with God.

Yet, it is not easy to acknowledge and confess our sins. Often, when we realise we have sinned, instead of finding a closer relationship with God, we run further away.

There are many stories in the Bible of reconciliation we are familiar with. But I often wonder – what if the stories went another way? In the parable of the prodigal from Luke 15, Jesus tells of a son who asked his father for his inheritance, and squandered all of it in dissolute living in a far away land. He came to his senses, made his way back repentant, and was welcomed beyond his imagination by his father.

This parable is one story we preach on regularly – and from the feedback we collected last year, some of you find it quite repetitive. I would invite those of you who feel this way to be patient with me – because every time we revisit a passage or a story from the Bible, there is something new we are unpacking. At least, every time I do it, I have something new that I have learned to share. God is still revealing things to us.

So what if this story from Luke 15 went differently? What if the son did not come to his senses? Well, he would continue to help himself to the pods he was feeding to the pigs so that he wouldn’t starve.

What do you think are the reasons why the son does not return home when he realised he was wrong….

I want to invite you to be more vulnerable here – after all, Menti is anonymous – are there times you do not return home? Or find ways to make amends, reconcile, repair broken relationships?

In my life, I can think of two – I stay away because of shame and fear.

I was afraid. Afraid of facing the consequences, afraid of facing the person i have wronged or hurt. That relationship remains broken.

Shame and fear shape many of us. We were taught to be ashamed of who we are. Shame and fear were tools used to discipline us, or control us – when we were children, and even when we become adults.

Underlying this shame and fear, is one’s understanding of one’s relationship with God. If we see God as a loving parent, then we would be like the son in Jesus’ parable – we would return because we have faith that we are loved. If we see God as an angry judge who is keeping a record of our wrongs and punish us for them, then we would keep away and avoid returning.

This Sunday’s lectionary passage from the Gospel is from Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

“You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Have you heard that spoken to you? You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.

Well, I think that is not said enough –

“You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

“You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

“You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

I want to keep repeating it so that you know keep inside that God loves you. I want to keep repeating this in many different ways so when you feel shame, when you feel fear, you are anchored in this one truth – that God loves you. And that love is unconditional. God loves you, and nothing you can do can lose that love, then you will no longer be afraid.

1 John 4:16-18

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as God is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

The truth is – we will make mistakes. And we will keep making mistakes. We will do something wrong. We will screw up. We will sin. Knowing that we are beloved, knowing that God loves us unconditionally means that we know we can turn around and return home, return to God, we can seek forgiveness, we can repent, we can have another chance to get it right. And we will make another mistake. And that’s ok. That’s part of being human. God still loves us.

Two Sundays ago, Pauline talked about how Jesus moves from public to private, from private to seclusion. She shared that she was reminded of Henri Nouwen’s article “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry.”

I often wondered why so many people avoid solitude. After all, in my solitude, I have always found peace, and deeper connection with God.
As I was preparing this sermon, things started to make sense. Because sometimes it isn’t solitude but isolation.

What do you think is the difference between solitude and isolation?

Solitude is a state of being alone without feeling lonely. I would say that on the walks alone during my retreat in Iona, I was experiencing solitude – instead of being lonely, I felt connected, even though I was alone. I felt connected to God.

Isolation, on the other hand, is being disconnected, separated from God.

In the lectionary passage, right after the voice of heaven says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” what happened? Jesus was driven into the desert by the spirit, and tempted for 40 days by Satan.

I wonder what happens to us when we hear “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” I suspect we too would encounter voices that tell us the opposite. The voice that tempt us seek to lure us and keep us away from God. And that voice often use shame and fear.

Fr James Martin, in his homily this Sunday in Outreach, an LGBTQ Catholic resource, writes:

“I’ve been a spiritual director long enough to know that if God’s voice in our lives has a certain quality, so does the voice of the evil spirit. In general, it is a voice of despair and hopelessness. This can manifest itself in various ways: incessant negativity, an overweening ego, a petulant way of looking at the world and so on.”

I recognise the voice of the evil spirit too. It is the one that goes “you are unworthy. You are not good enough. You are not loved. You do not deserve to be loved. You are tainted. You are unwanted.”

I want to inoculate and immunise you against this voice. This voice of despair, of hopelessness, of shame, of fear. This voice that drives you to isolation, and separation from God and separation from people.

Because when we are not anchored in the love of God, when we are not inoculated against this voice, when bad things happen to us – be it illness, be it losing a job, or break up of a relationship, this voice will tell us “this is God punishing us.” These things happen – life, death, illness, loss – because this is life. Sometimes it is because of our bad decisions. Sometimes it is other people’s bad decisions.

I want to remind you again and again, the voice of God, the voice from the heavens that says “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

The Apostle Paul puts it eloquently –

Romans 8:38-39

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Be anchored in that love. Because God desires to be in relationship with us. God desires us to be connected with God. That is at the core of worship, that is at the core of communion, that is core of what we do here at FCC.

To address what keeps us away from God – shame and fear, we need to be anchored in this one truth we keep repeating – God loves you. When you trust, and have faith that God loves you, and nothing you can do can lose that love, then you will no longer be afraid.

This is the starting point for Lent. Before we head into repentance, before we look at ourselves in the mirror to see where we have gone wrong, and what sins we may have, we are anchored in God, who is love.

Knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God, then we can begin that journey to face our deepest fears, our wrongdoing, our sins. This is what Lent is about. We will explore repentance, holding ourselves accountable as we continue in Lent.

Knowing that we would encounter a loving parent running out to embrace us, instead of one who would punish us, helps us make that journey home. Perhaps that’s what the son in the parable knew – how much love the parent has for him.

As I was writing this sermon, I realised that those who need to hear this the most, may not get to hear it, because they are isolated – and they have been keeping away or running away from church, from God, from community. I know far too many LGBTQ folks who avoid church because they were told they were sinful who end up isolating themselves, and only hearing the voice of judgement (there is something wrong with you) and despair (you will end up in no good) instead of the voice from says “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

During Pauline’s sermon Expecting the Unexpected, there were many unexpected things – I certainly didn’t expect that a few of you vulnerably shared about experiencing the suicide of a friend.

I have experienced suicide of people I know – and they were isolated and disconnected, even if they were not physically alone.

I want to address this –

We want to be a community that not only preaches God’s love, but lives out God’s love. We want to be a community that mirrors God’s unfailing love. We want (and I know we will fail often) to be a safe space, to be a non-judgemental space, so you know you can make your way home to open arms that will embrace you, even when you messed up, even when (and especially when) things go wrong.

Early this morning, Will, one of our members, shared on Facebook (and I have his permission to share with you all)

“Because I had a mental relapse during the first 3 days of CNY, I talked to my counsellor in the care center for help. My counsellor gave me 2 options in my life; go to work or go to hospital A&E for mental struggles. I chose hospital A&E to save my mentality.

If you have thoughts on committing suicide or homicide, it’s important to call a crisis helpline or talk to a social worker for a referral mental help. Don’t live your life in a closet. Time to come out, be safe and happy.”

We want to be a community where you are able to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and as you open up, you realise instead of being rejected when people see the real you, you are embraced for being the real you, you grow to embrace yourself, and deeper in your connection with God and with the people around you.

We want to be a community where you can share your burdens with – so we can walk with each other towards growth and wholeness. Pauline and I, and the leaders of this church are here for you.

This season of Lent, we want to invite you to tend to your inner life, to learn ways to love yourself and the world around you, and to care for what God has called you to care for.

One of the programs we have this Lent is the Spiritual Companion programme where we are accompanied by companions as we reflect through some guiding questions. This require quite a bit of resources, and we would like to invite people to indicate their interest so we can tailor the programme to the number of people signing up. Please indicate your interest at http://fcc.li/lent2024 so we can work out a plan.

Amen.