Yesterday was a "Top Ten" day in my vocational life as Canon to the Ordinary in Western Mass, as the ordained and lay leaders from the five Worcester parishes gathered together at All Saints Church to discuss the work we are called to do together, as The Episcopal Church in Worcester. It was a joyful day for me - and to my knowledge this is the first time something like this has happened. It also comes at a time when I've developed close bonds of affection with those parishes, and am particularly getting to know those in the midst of clergy transitions - which includes three of the five parishes:All Saints, St. Luke's, and St. Michael's on the Heights.
Have I mentioned I LOVE living in the second largest city in New England? Today and next Sunday I am with St. Michael's - who in just two weeks will welcome The Rev. David Woessner into their midst as deacon (then priest)-in-charge.
Lent is a holy time of preparation: forty days mirroring the time that the ancient Israelites, and then prophets like Elijah, and Jesus, spent in the desert. The readings for the day can be found here. What follows are my notes for today's sermon at St. Michael's.
The “Cliff Notes” version of today’s sermon (for anyone who may check in and check out along the way) can be summarized in three words: Baptism, Testing, and Proclamation. And in fact, while I’ll be with you all again next Sunday – I’d suggest these three words will get you all the way to Easter.
Lent begins where it will end at the Easter Vigil: with the waters of Baptism. This is the first we see of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, which includes no birth narrative, but simply an introduction that “in those days he came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized…”
So we are all gathered at the Jordan River, when suddenly the heavens open and the Voice says: “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
I think about that same Voice calling Abraham and Sarah to journey to a new land. Or that Voice calling to Moses from the burning bush. Or that Isaiah with his unclean lips heard asking “whom shall I send?” Or that led Ruth to covenant with Naomi and to promise that wherever Naomi went she would go. I think of the Voice that Esther trusted even when it meant her own life was endangered. “You are my beloved,” the Voice says to Jesus at the Jordan River – and to all the saints who lived not only in ages past but whom you can meet in shops or in lanes or at tea or at Dunkin Donuts. There are hundreds of thousands still, including those twenty-one Coptic Christians killed recently in Egypt, and each of us as well who have been claimed and marked and sealed as God’s own, forever, in Holy Baptism.
Mark’s Gospel is sparser on details than the other three; there is in it a sense of immediacy and urgency that shuns details. So we don’t get the specifics about Jesus’ wilderness experience. There are no temples he is tempted to jump from; nor is he promised the kingdoms of the world. We are simply told that he was tested there in the Judean Desert. That he faced his own time of trial. But with or without the details this is a reminder to us that Jesus was like us in every way save sin. It is a reminder of his full humanity. To be tested is to face the possibility of choosing otherwise. Jesus resists Satan but like us, he was free to have chosen otherwise. If we lose that detail we fail to grasp who Jesus truly is.
In this sparse gospel, however, there is one word about Jesus’ time in the wilderness that we must not miss. In Matthew and Luke we are told that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. In Mark, however, Jesus is driven there. He is pushed. That suggests at least some level of resistance on his part—which again forces us to confront him in his full humanity.
We should note that this time of trial—this period of testing—comes right on the heels of his baptism. It is as if to say that the wilderness is where all is stripped away so that only the Voice of Baptism remains: “you are my beloved.” All else is exposed as deception and distortion. That is the only truth in Jesus life—in spite of what others say about him and project upon him. The wilderness is not "punishment" - it's where we find clarity. I think of Wendell Berry's words, in "The Peace of Wild Things," which go like this:
I come into the presence of still water.And I feel above me the day-blind starswaiting with their light. For a timeI rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
So Jesus is driven into the wilderness, I think, to gain that kind of clarity and after it is done, he begins his public ministry. He proclaims in word and deed the good news of the kingdom of God. He heals, teaches, challenges the authorities, and ultimately he dies and is raised again. The destination for this Lenten journey we embark on takes us to Holy Week: to Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday and Good Friday and ultimately to the empty tomb.
Baptism, testing, proclamation. This pattern isn’t only about Jesus, however. It represents the pattern for the Christian journey of faith as well. Substitute your own name for that of Jesus, or the name “St. Michael’s on-the-Heights” and you get a pattern for ministry. You are God’s beloved, claimed in Holy Baptism and this same Voice calls St. Michael’s to mission in this city of Worcester. You don’t have to do it all; in fact you have some wonderful partners, Episcopal and ecumenical. But you have a role to play – and pretty soon a new ordained leader to walk this journey with you. Not to do ministry – that is the work of all the baptized. Not to be the hired help either; but to be a partner in this journey, in this next chapter of your life-together. Exciting times lie ahead in this Lenten season and beyond, to the proclamation that begins at the empty tomb that Christ is alive, “…no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, he comes to claim the here and now…daily in the midst of life, our Savior with the Father reigns.” (Hymnal 182)
Baptism is not fire insurance; nor is it an inoculation against struggle. In fact, this pattern of wilderness and testing is as central to people of faith as God’s love is. We are not driven (or led) into the wilderness as a punishment. Rather, we are driven (or led) into the wilderness because that is where we discover for ourselves what matters—who we really are, what we are called to do with these lives of ours. In the Sinai Desert for forty years God’s people were transformed from a band of ex-slaves into a chosen people with a mission. After the exile, Isaiah announced the construction of a highway in the desert—a way home through the wilderness. So here, too, Jesus is in the wilderness not only to be tested, but to clarify what kind of messiah he is called to be. The desert mothers and fathers in the history of the Christian church who likewise went out into the desert did so in order to find faith.
What happens to us when we begin to see Lent as a time to do the same: not as a time for punishment or shame, but as an opportunity to be with the wild beasts, to be ministered to by the angels, to encounter the living God again. What if we see Lent as a gift which allows us to re-discover the meaning of our baptism, and to re-claim our several callings as God’s people in mission? And for St. Michael’s in particular, to begin to claim your own unique mission and ministry to do the work God has given you to do in this time and place?
Forty days is not enough time to figure all that out, but it’s as good a place as any to begin. To see Lent in this way is to see these forty days as a gift from God that lead directly into the Great Fifty Days of Easter. Together these next ninety days reveal to us the heart of the gospel and what it means for us to be a people who take up our cross to follow Christ.
I pray then that this Lent will be a season of intentionality. For the most part I think we Episcopalians do Lent pretty well, but along the way we’ve also picked up some bad habits. One of those is that we tend to get so introverted in our Lenten practices – so internally focused—that we are in danger of forgetting that we are living members of a Body. The practices of Lent – prayer and reading Holy Scripture and almsgiving, that is to see the poor in our very midst and to hear the prophet’s call for justice—these practices remind us that the work of Lent cannot be done in isolation from our neighbor or apart from the community. True repentance includes repenting from those practices that are little more than narcissism masquerading as Christian spirituality.
True repentance isn’t about feeling badly; it’s about turning around to re-orient our lives. That often begins with a change of heart, or a change of mindset. Most of us don’t like to change our minds. We prefer our certitudes, our particular pundits, our sense of moral superiority. But in the wilderness all of that is stripped away. In the wilderness we truly need one another—we need the gifts of hospitality, we need to help one another and focus on God and neighbor.
The wilderness can bring authentic humility and an awareness of our creatureliness, of our common humanity. We really are dust, and to dust we shall return. This awareness leads us to acknowledge our dependence upon God alone. Prayer and fasting, study of Scripture, a focus on the needs of the poor can bring us to a new sense of our own spiritual poverty and the need we have for one another.
I pray that this is a holy Lent here at St. Michael’s, as always, with God’s help.
I pray that this is a holy Lent here at St. Michael’s, as always, with God’s help.