|Sunday, February 26th, 2012||
The First Sunday of Lent
The Reverend Nina R. Pooley
Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nina Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Yarmouth, Maine
Sunday, February 26, 2012 ~ The First Sunday of Lent
Beginning in the Desert
We begin this Lent with Genesis: God is doing something new, creating a covenant with Noah and his family and descendents, to begin a new relationship between God and God’s people.
We begin with the overtures of Mark’s Gospel: the beginning of the first Gospel, in which God fulfills God’s on going promise to Israel to begin something new for God’s people through the messiah. We meet Jesus for the first time, hear the beginning of his new life: his baptism, and the voice from the cloud telling him, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased,” and by the end of these verses Jesus has begun his ministry.
We begin at the beginning of God’s creativity and possibility and new relationship. Or that’s where we’re supposed to begin Lent but we don’t, do we? Because, let’s be honest, for the vast majority of us, this isn’t our first Lent.
We carry a lot of baggage into Lent, the Lents of years past: memories of things given up, of successes and failures when it came to temptation, of spiritual practices well exercised, or not. Of getting it right. Remember that time I got it right? And all those times I didn’t? It’s hard to walk into the desert carrying all that stuff with us, and harder still to find a way for this season to be less guilt-giving, and somehow more life-giving for us.
We begin by being very clear on why we’re bothering in the first place. Answering that question that comes up in the midst of preparing and packing and rearranging our lives for any major journey… “Why are we doing this, exactly?” The foundation of this journey is a profoundly simple one. We are journeying this Lent because God has made a covenant with us. This covenant is unique – it is unilateral. Only one party in this covenant has any power; that party has chosen to be beholden to these promises for all time. God makes this covenant with all future generations; an unconditional covenant of love in which God promises to remember us even if, and when, we forget God. A covenant that is all God’s own doing, the very self-giving of God. So this journey isn’t about our doing so that God will agree to be in relationship with us. God has already made that promise, is already in that relationship with us. This journey isn’t to earn God’s grace, it is in response to that grace. This journey is to allow us to receive God’s grace more fully.
Next we need to know where we’re going, or at least in what direction to head. This morning’s Gospel is our sign post – Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. Before the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus had to go out into the desert. Before he could do for everyone else, even Jesus had to be for himself. To fast and pray; to face temptation; to learn to live amongst the wild animals, and to be tended to by angels, Jesus went out into the wilderness.
Mark’s gospel is pretty brief about Jesus’ time in the desert, isn’t it? Still dripping wet from his baptism, with the voice from the cloud echoing in his head, Jesus is driven into the wilderness, and is tempted by Satan.
Mark doesn’t tell us more about the temptations Jesus faced than that. And there is grace for us here – there’s room here for us to experience our own way in the desert. To acknowledge that our personal temptations are here, not just grand messianic, Son of God kind of temptations, but also the everyday temptations we experience. All those things that get in our way of being in healthy relationship with God, with those we love, and with our true selves.
And the verses this morning don’t end there – they show us why we go, and what we are looking to once the forty days are over: for after his baptism, after the temptation and time in the desert, the testing and the proving, Jesus emerges knowing who he is and what he is to do in response.
When Jesus emerges from the desert, John had been arrested (for being John) and Jesus comes to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. And now he speaks aloud for the first time in Mark’s Gospel: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
The kingdom of God that Jesus is talking about is one that will be created on earth, it is near, it is about to happen, it is close by in time and space, and, as Marcus Borg points out, the phrase here could also mean it is available to you, it’s accessible, right now.
And God’s kingdom is different from the kingdoms of the earth, different in its priorities and its justice – for it will be a kingdom of peace and mercy, justice that is restorative.
Repent, Jesus says, and believe in the good news. Belief in Jesus’ language and context is not an abstract concept, it’s not about how you feel or think it’s about what you do.
How you act - live out this good news right here, the kingdom of God is at hand. Change and live that out, and it will be.
Lent is about intention – tending a renewed relationship with self and God. And from that renewal, that intentional relationship with God – a new life emerges in the here and now.
A story of one moment in the desert: On Ash Wednesday, after celebrating the noon service here, I got ready to go to the park in Portland and participate in Ashes to Go. I hadn’t realized until I was getting ready how uncomfortable it made me. I was tempted to ignore the opportunity, to bow out, after all the designated shift would make it difficult for me to get back here for the 6pm service, and this is my real job, to be here, isn’t it? But I could hear one of the petitions in the litany we had just said together – “We confess to you, Lord, Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us.
So I drove into town and met David Heald outside a parking garage. David and I were both surprised by how hard it was to put on the vestments and walk a few blocks in the Old Port. It took courage to do that and it was tempting not to. But there is both safety and accountability in numbers – so, in full vestments, we walked together with our sign and our table and our flyers and two little plastic containers of ashes… to offer a moment of prayer and reconciliation to those who walked by. And once there we faced a greater temptation – to get caught up in nervous conversation, and socially box everyone out – so we wouldn’t be exposed to their stares or their ridicule – so we wouldn’t have to interact with ‘those people.’ That was one that we had to pull ourselves out of a few times over the course of our shift, but we did pretty successfully for the most part.
We met people where they were, we answered questions, we had our picture taken on several iPhones, we met people from out of town who didn’t have a church here, we met people from down the road – literally, who are looking for a church, we met Lutherans who didn’t have time in their work day to get to church, we met a few lapsed Catholics who were glad for the opportunity to take part in this beginning of Lent without having to go back into a church they were no longer attending. We met some Episcopalians who cheered us on…we met a lot of homeless men who at least said hello, a bicycle delivery person who nodded at us and crossed himself as he road by, a young man dressed like a gangster who tipped his hat at us and said, “God bless you.” We met a little girl who with her mother waiting patiently asked us very seriously what this was all about – David took that on and he says he got a vaguely passing grade, but I think the fact that she and her mother chose to receive ashes at the end of that conversation is a definite success. While he was talking with them, a twenty something young woman rushed over to me, “Oh my God, it’s Ash Wed. I had completely forgotten – you saved my life!” When I put the ashes on her forehead, adding to the many piercings, she told me that her mother would be so pleased. And I thought, I’m making a mark on your face that will please your mother! There was a gentleman who was obviously struggling with reality, who found us and dropped to his knees in front of me, head down. When he didn’t get up soon thereafter, David tried talking to him but he asked us if he could say his own prayers please. And he continued to pray. When he tried to get up, he got disoriented and we both knelt down again beside him, David steadied him by his arm and I put ashes on this forehead while whispering the prayers. He then got to his feet and walked off. While the least comfortable moment for me, it was also probably one of the most profound of the day. Even when it felt like we might be surrounded by wild beasts, or at least a much wilder world than the Cumberland Foreside or Yarmouth, I think it’s more likely we were being tended by angels.
Commend the faith that is in us…live it out loud, as large as life – in action and word, right now. For the kingdom of God is right there, you can almost reach out and touch it, it can happen. If only we will live out the faith that is in us.
Jesus moves from those 40 days in the desert to a public ministry. We spend this time in the desert, so that we might begin to begin to recognize or remember our true selves, and recognize God in relationship with us; and so that we might emerge from the desert, in good time, alive to the faith that is in us, and able to live that out in the world.