A Sermon for The First Sunday of Lent, Year A
So last, Thursday, the day after Ash Wednesday, my best friend from high school posted on Facebook the following announcement: “I am giving up caviar for Lent.”
After appropriately droll congratulations, a number of other friends jumped in with their own pronouncements:
I am not going to smoke cigars, said one woman.
I will not eat liver and onions, said someone else.
I will refrain from driving a Ferrari, I offered.
My husband will not dust this Lent, said another.
Of course, all this electronic silliness had a point. Chuck was underscoring how we can use Lent to avoid something that we’d never do anyway while sounding all righteous at the same time.
I was thinking about that as I re-read Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. I mean I can honestly say that I can safely resist the temptation to turn a rock into raisin bread, I wouldn’t even dream of troubling an angel to act as a parachute or I know I can easily turn aside the temptation to run the universe my way.
Both the silliness on Facebook and the seriousness of the Gospel tell us a couple of things about the Christian life that become very clear if you make even a partial stab at a Lenten discipline.
First, it is tempting to turn Lenten disciplines into a show of piety designed to impress our friends and, maybe lull ourselves into thinking that we really don’t need to change anything substantial about ourselves.
Second, we forget that the real spiritual damage comes not from doing something radically out of character but from when we do the things that come very easy to us—only at a time and a place and in way that distorts our relationship with God, each other and creation.
Look at the temptations that Jesus faced:
He is tempted to turn stone into bread. Well, Jesus who fed the 5000 could do this in a heartbeat, right? The temptation was not to do something Jesus couldn’t do, but to do it at the wrong time and for the wrong reason.
He is tempted to throw himself off the temple roof and let angels bear him up for all to see. But instead, Jesus waits to slowly walk among everyday people in his ministry healing and teaching, to walk the road to Calvary and die on the cross—where he would finally defeat death. The temptation was to cut that short and avoid the cross altogether.
Jesus is tempted to earthly power, when instead, in God’s time, he will assume his place as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Jesus’ journey in the desert reminds us that Jesus overcame both human-scale and divine-sized temptations. These divine-sized temptations may never come our way but what does come our way is the temptation to use the gifts and abilities and opportunities we have frivolously, impulsively and selfishly. We are all the time tempted to use what God has given us not for others but instead to fritter them away in the service of self.
And we will all time be tempted to cut short what God cultivates in us will always come in a time and in a form most accessible, most attractive to us.
I wish holiness of life was something we could just do. You know snap our fingers, buy a packaged system, just re-boot ourselves. But it takes a life time and God wastes nothing. Look at one procession we did this morning. You may have been asking yourself, why was the choir walking around and around the church this morning while Father Ray was leading us through this really long prayer called the Great Litany.
Well, I could tell you that it’s fun and you would accuse me of having a strange idea of “fun.” And you might be right.
But as we were walking around what we were doing was a kind of physical prayer. We turned this space into a kind of labyrinth and we walked in prayer around the church and past the font of baptism and then gathered around the Eucharistic table. In this way we were reminding ourselves that the Lenten journey through the desert, through the temptations of life, into the city and then the passion and to the cross and resurrection is in itself the entire journey of faith.
We walk. We work, We pray. We moved towards God. And Christ accompanies us the whole way.
(A little later we will help another member of our congregation as she starts on her spiritual journey. See Part Two below.)
The great thing about this is that God wastes nothing in this journey. The Tempter, the Deceiver, wants us false god of spiritual scarcity, wants us to think that whenever we fail at a temptation that we are done, finished, out of the game. Forever.
But as the psalm today reminds us, when we are honest about what we don’t know, where we fail, where we are distracted, we are free and healed and on the way to wholeness.
That’s because God wastes nothing in this journey. God uses all the temptations we’ve turned aside and given into, all the prayers we’ve said and neglected, all the opportunities to serve we’ve taken and the ones we’ve run away from as the raw material to shape us into the people God created us to be.
On another Facebook discussion about Lent, Mother Laura Howell of Trinity, Bethlehem asked the question “what are you giving up and what are you taking on this Lent?” One priest of our diocese offered this observation:
I was told by my long ago deceased spiritual director, the prior of Holy Cross, that he neither gave up nor took on [anything during Lent]. He used Lent to try to do what he was supposed to be doing [all along]. Since then I've [come to see that Lent is about] spiritual self-correction and challenged [my congregation] to do one exceptional deed each day during the season and tell no one about it.
Using Lent to do what we are supposed to be doing! Now there’s a radical idea! Instead of taking away something we might not miss all that much anyway, instead of giving into the temptation of thinking of Lent as time of spiritual scarcity, let's use the time we’ve set aside in Lent--this tithe of our year-- to do a little more of what we are supposed to do anyway.
And what we’ll discover is that all of life is a constant call to re-orient ourselves towards faithfulness. That every day is step on the journey to holiness. So taking on a focus on better health, or a more intentional time of prayer, or decision to do something useful for the community, or to attend worship a little more often is not about marking off a spiritual checklist but are human-sized, everyday ways that God gives us to cooperate with Him in making us into the people God created us to be.
The following was an introduction to the enrollment of a young adult as a candidate for baptism.
Today we are doing something else that's different.
We are enrolling Melissa for baptism.
As a young adult, she is taking classes about the Christian faith. She has a sponsor, Peg , and a presenter, Dale , as well as people that she has chosen as other sponsors—godparents, if you will, to help her grow in her Christian life.
Today, we will enroll her as a candidate for baptism. And we have a book here just for that purpose.
My friend Chuck, who is the American Baptist pastor I told you about in my sermon, might – if he were to see this—think that we Episcopalians have become some sort of proto-Baptists. One of our members, Roger, has commented to me that we Episcopalians talk about baptism a whole lot more than in his former Protestant church!
But if you look closely at Book of Common Prayer, and read the rite for Baptism, you will notice something. The baptism of infants and children is the exception not the rule. The norm for baptism in this church is the baptism of adults who have come to see and know themselves as Christians, as followers of Jesus, and want to be initiated into the gathering of God’s people, the Church.
Now we baptize babies and children because we believe that Christian parents in Christian households will raise and shape Christian children.
But Christianity has always been a faith of proclamation and conversion. We communicate the Gospel and we are changed. And so, this prayer book that we have had in our pews for the last 38 years, envisions a church that proclaims the Gospel and invites adults into the life of faith. And a companion book to the Prayer Book, the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services, suggests a process of training, teaching, and publically affirming adults who seek baptism. We are following that today.
Melissa is choosing a life of faith as a follower of Jesus Christ. On April 19, the Great Vigil of Easter, she will be baptized. (This will also be her 17th birthday!) She is not the first adult or young adult we’ve baptized at Trinity, Easton in the last few years, but she is the first to walk through the Catechumenate in this parish. And we will walk with her through this process, too.
Melissa is giving us a gift. She. By her enrollment today, she reminds us that the journey of faith and the work of being formed in Christ is something we do our whole lives, every day.Today she will be enrolled. In two weeks, we will present her with the Apostle’s Creed, the oldest creed of the church and the foundation of our baptismal covenant, and two weeks after that, we will present her with the Lord’s Prayer, the foundation of our understanding of Christian Prayer. All along the way, we will pray for her by name and uphold her as she walks the journey of faith.