The Sunday Sermon: Into the wilderness

We are doing a little time travel this morning. The Gospel passage we just heard takes us back to the beginning, almost the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel story.

We are offered three distinct events in Jesus’s life here, each one related in Mark’s typically terse style, just a couple of sentences each. Jesus is baptized – we pondered that event back in January; Jesus goes on a wilderness retreat; and Jesus begins his preaching ministry. The wilderness retreat is our focus today.

“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.”
That’s it. We have to look to Matthew or Luke for details: the conversation with the tempter; the “man does not live by bread alone”, the pinnacle of the temple. Mark, the earliest Gospel writer, gives us none of that. We are left to use our imaginations: what temptations did he face? What were the wild beasts? What did he learn about angels before he launched his mission? And what can we learn from his experience?

Tempted by Satan: the temptation of Jesus is the traditional story for this first Sunday in Lent. Last week we were almost exactly halfway through the Gospel, as Jesus was transfigured on the holy mountain and from there set his face towards Jerusalem.

But today we are back to the beginning. Well, OK, Lent is a good time for beginnings, new spiritual resolutions, a spring-cleaning of the soul. The Genesis reading, too, reminds us of the new beginning after the great Flood, when God started humanity over again with the eight persons saved in the Ark. Lent is that time when we try to take an honest, unflinching look at our spiritual lives and scrub our souls clean in preparation for Easter.

Photo by John Gibbins SD Union Tribune

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, was a day for personal reflection and confession, a day for individual encounters with the divine through prayer, repentance, and sacrament. I experienced dozens of those encounters in the Ashes to Go initiative, in our group outside the courthouse downtown: asking someone’s name, praying with that individual, marking the forehead and then asking if there was someone they would like us to pray for. We touched people one by one with the unconditional love of the God who knows us each by name. Each encounter was sacred and precious, as we saw the Christ in each other. It was a very focused way for me to begin Lent, and I would like to think that it gave many of those individuals a focus too.

But there is also a corporate and institutional dimension to Lent. The church as a whole observes spiritual disciplines, which we experience in our worship. We simplify our ceremonies, we refrain from baptisms and weddings, we omit the A word and the Gloria. And, while we are doing personal self-examination, we would do well also to do some self-examination as a church.

Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect on the church’s need for reform and repentance, whether it be our part in historic racism, our reluctance to be fully inclusive, our use of Scripture as a blunt instrument of oppression, our imperialist missionary past, our attachment to outward and perhaps outworn structures of our tradition, and the myriad other sins that the church has committed over the centuries.

This is a fertile time in the life of the Cathedral, as we begin our second year together, as the Vision for Mission committee creates a strategic plan. We are called as a community to reformation and renewal, to think outside the box of old habits, to open ourselves up to the creative power of the Holy Spirit. As we do that work together, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus.

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Mark says it happened “immediately”. The way he tells it, you get the impression that Jesus had hardly gasped for breath after being submerged in the Jordan River before an irresistible force pushed and prodded him to a strange new place, a place of solitude, a place of challenge, a place where malicious forces tested his resolve and danger threatened, and where he was forced to rely on God’s goodness, the goodness that had bathed him in love and approval at his baptism. And, having survived the wilderness time, having perforce let go of all the social and religious structures that had supported him, he was now prepared for the mission God called him to: the mission of spreading the good news of God’s kingdom and calling God’s beloved people back to the covenant they had forgotten. I believe that the church has to go through something very similar in this new, post-christian world. If there are times when you feel breathless at the power of the Spirit driving us out to new places, remember this story and give thanks for that life-giving energy.

Last weekend the Diocese of San Diego held its 41st annual convention. We were fortunate to have the Rt Rev. Sean Rowe as our keynote speaker on the first day. Bishop Rowe serves as bishop of two PA dioceses, and after seven years as a bishop, he celebrated his 40th birthday on Monday. His is a fresh, youthful, and very creative voice in our House of Bishops. Bishop Rowe spoke of the radical change that the church needs to make in order to continue to share the good news of Jesus Christ in this 21st-century world. He called us to go back to the beginning. The 21st century church will need to look more like the 1st century church than the 20th century church, he said. We need to go back to our roots in the New Testament. We need to shed a lot of baggage.

As it happens, his three main points, at least in my mind, connect with the three activities that Jesus calls us to and that we focus on in Lent: to pray, to fast, and to give.

Bishop Rowe urged us to pray: to enter seriously into a journey of discipleship. Discipleship is a way of life, not a Sunday morning destination. Discipleship means being intentional in all that we do, seven days a week. Christians are not born: they are formed. The church’s number one purpose is to form disciples of Christ, to teach those who are called about our sacred story, to create opportunities for service, to encourage regular habits of prayer and study, to provide a community which is truly one body, honoring all members and mutually vulnerable and trusting, opening our hearts to the world, even when it means our hearts will be broken. How are we forming Christians at St. Paul’s? when was the last time your heart broke for the world? What formation activities are you committed to?

 Bishop Rowe urged us to fast: to let go of our unhealthy attachment to structures and habits which are holding us back. As he spoke I thought of my friends in South Sudan who have so little: homes and churches made of grass, their only diet what they can grow themselves, an economy with virtually no money, and yet the worship we shared was filled with joy and exuberance. They lived in a place where bandits might attack at any time, and yet they gave thanks to God for every moment of their day. What would it be like to be so free, to live so precariously? Would it build our trust in our loving God? Do we dare try to find out?

And Bishop Rowe urged us to give: to share what we have freely with others for the sake of the Gospel. This might mean tithing, giving away a percentage of our income off the top and living gratefully on the rest. It might mean offering our skills and gifts in the service of the world, through our outreach activities, and through organizations like Episcopal Relief and Development, which this year celebrates 75 years of worldwide ministry. It might mean parishes becoming less self-sufficient, blurring ownership of resources and personnel so that more people can hear the Gospel and more Christians can be formed. It might mean some soul-searching about what is enough, and being willing to let go of the rest.

The other day NPR carried a story about Walmart giving their lowest-paid workers a two-stage raise over the next year. When I heard the headline I really, really hoped for a couple of seconds that the senior executive they interviewed would say, “We are doing this because those of us at the top of the company hierarchy have realized that we have all that we need. we have enough, so we are giving the surplus away.” Of course that wasn’t what he said. I don’t think our culture knows what “enough” is. Certainly the market is never satisfied with current levels of consumption: its whole purpose is to induce us to consume more and more, far beyond what we need, whether it’s home size, electronic gadgets, or even food.

The call to give is especially challenging for those of us who are used to plenty, both as individuals and as churches. At Convention my colleague Lane Hensley from St. Margaret’s challenged the other five of us who pastor the largest churches in the diocese, and we stood up as a group at the end of Bishop Rowe’s presentation and stated our commitment to letting go of some of our autonomy and comfort for the sake of the wider church. I don’t yet know what actions that commitment will lead to, but I think our relationship with St. Luke’s is a first step, and a budding interfaith group of women clergy in our city is another.

When we follow Jesus into the wilderness, we will, like him, encounter Satan, wild beasts, and angels. Temptations abound in this new journey. we love security; we love power; we love knowing what comes next. Satan uses fear to discourage us, to conjure up wild beasts that seem to threaten us, beasts of scarcity, famine, and abandonment. But God’s favorite phrase in Scripture is “Do not be afraid.” As we learn our story, as we are formed as disciples, as we discover angels, we will learn that God is to be trusted, and that there is joy in following the path of discipleship. We can let others have more, without suffering from having less. The effort of staying in control, resisting the unknown, is exhausting and leads only to death. The Jesus we follow into the wilderness calls us rather to live: to live dangerously, to risk generously, to fail magnificently, so that we can fully participate in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

In the eyes of the world, Lent seems to be a gloomy season, a time of unfashionable self-denial, all about less. Less food, less frills, less fun. But for us who are following Jesus into the wilderness, it’s a season about more. In the desert there is more space, more time for God, more room to run. So let’s make this a season of more: more exploration, more growth. More joy. And more life.

The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges
February 22, 2015

First Sunday in Lent

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