Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Feb. 18, 2024

Posted by on Sun, Feb 18, 2024 in Lent, Sermons

The First Sunday in Lent

Feb. 18, 2024

I don’t think we are sent or driven into wilderness or to times of great difficulty as punishment or to teach us a lesson or even to test our faith. To be quite clear, I am not suggesting that God does that to us. These times happen in one’s life though, and yes —I think we sometimes go to those hard wilderness places or temptations on our own. But God is with us there too, and because God is with us we can be transformed by that experience in remarkable, divinely inspired ways.

Have you ever looked back and seen the Spirit now give you ability to make some use of awful times? Can our season of Lent help inspire us to pray;
God, I didn’t ask for this, but how might you transform me in this mess?
I’m not sure how I got here, but give me a way to faithfully serve you in this wilderness.
Lord I’ve been so filled with fear, show me your light that I may follow.

We are children of God who need not just survive the wilderness times of our lives with regret, bitterness, or grief; we may quite possibly emerge from them renewed in hope, faith, and confidence.

Mark begins Jesus’ story with his adult self baptized by John. No Bethlehem barn, no Magi, no family genealogy. The story of our salvation begins with the calling of Jesus at his baptism. The Spirit descends upon him through the tearing open of heaven and the voice of God calling Jesus Beloved Son. Mark reveals how explosive a moment this is. It’s his way of telling us the battle between the forces of light and darkness are now underway, —although in Mark, Jesus is the only one who hears the voice from heaven, call affirming his identity. Then he is immediately driven out into the desert wilderness by the Spirit where Jesus faces forty days of temptation by Satan. In typical less-is-more fashion Mark doesn’t tell us what the temptations are or how Jesus faces them, nor does he say who actually wins the battle! In another one-verse leap we find John arrested and Jesus out proclaiming “the kingdom of God has come near” and calling them to “repent, and believe in the good news.” [1]

Now, forty days of constant tailor-made temptation by Satan sounds horrendous, and not what we hope for our forty day Lenten pilgrimage, though perhaps why people sometimes groan when they hear the word Lent. Brother Jim Woodrum SSJE, one of the Episcopal monastics I read, said Lent was not his favorite liturgical season, probably because his “track record with temptation is pretty dismal”…“I know you may find it hard to believe,” he says, “but I am the guy who gives up craft beer for Lent and by week two I have succumbed to the desert heat and am quenching my thirst with a cold, refreshing IPA straight from the devil’s hand!” In his frustration and disappointment with himself he writes, “I try to make myself feel better by thinking of something I can give up the next year where I might actually have success, like perhaps, asparagus.  Nothing banishes temptation quite like asparagus. Yet to give up something that would not be challenging is to set out on an ‘adventure in missing the point’; the point being that temptation is a part of our everyday experience.”[2]

It certainly is, and everyone here and on line can tell a story of succumbing. Like Br. Jim I too feel frustration and disappointment with myself when it happens, especially in the first week of Lent! But it happens. Some years ago I stopped working with a well-regarded clergy coach because he could not relate to my inability to stay 100% committed to whatever practice I undertook. How could he teach me become a better clergy leader if he never knew a discipline to include some lapses?

The Lenten practice of self-denial is not meant to be so easy as giving up something you already dislike; it needs an element of motive (a good kind!) —beyond checking that Lenten Discipline box. No matter what we take on or give up, “it is the sacrifice of the lower self for the sake of [growing into] the higher self.”[3] If we are not seeking our higher nature in undertaking such things, temptation will surely win out. The reason we do so is to fortify, build, train our spiritual selves, not for beating ourselves up saying ‘we knew we’d fail so what’s the use?’ Our daughter Rachel trains both pro and amateur athletes, and she’s relentless about small steps and the benefit of learning from perceived failure; these keep your goal in mind. It’s about taking small steps, bites, changes, increments, to build up the spiritual endurance we need, and taking time to rest. Notice on our Gratitude Boxes every Sunday is a feast day to rest, renew, and pray. It’s natural to dwell on the pain of giving something up in Lent, or the inconvenience of taking something on. Instead it could be about examining and adjusting to those ways which see us become better disciples of Jesus, and climbing over ‘tempting’ obstacles which separate us from God’s love.

St. Anthony, c 350 c.e., of the desert mothers and fathers, was among those who was said to have gone to the desert, not to run away from temptation, but to take ‘his demons’ head on. Scholars of these men and women say they practiced ‘spirituality from below’ in a sense. “Today’s spirituality is from the top down” one said, presenting us with such high ideals they are impossible to make real and so we hide or repress our weak points and limits when they clash with that ideal.[4] We hide them or pretend they don’t exist because we’re afraid to admit any weakness—a familiar practice in our culture! Instead the desert  mothers and father modeled beginning with ourselves, our strengths and passions, ‘spirituality from below’ or from deep within. As created children of God, this self-knowledge helps us walk in love as Christ loved us. When we trust what gifts God has given us we can discern our way to overcome those obstacles to the higher self God calls us to be. I may not yet experience pure freedom from those stumbling blocks and struggles, but sometimes I can see ahead, over them, to the glorious horizon.

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, where for forty days he was  “tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Did he stay and endure it as a trial to overcome, or stay there willingly to learn more about who he was incarnationally,” – as one both human and divine? (Woodrum). We know Jesus experienced much of human life, did his forty desert days with Satan allow him to experience first hand battling the temptations of our lives, for our entrusting him to help us overcome the same? St. Athanasius (c. 293 – 373, Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt) said, “Jesus cannot save what he did not assume.”

The Spirit was with Jesus in the desert temptations with Satan, just as Jesus goes with us on our pilgrimage, at the ready with us as we encounter that which seeks to separate us from the love of God. In these weeks of Lent I pray we have heightened awareness of those obstacles, and use them as a prompt to help us keep our eyes on Christ Jesus, especially when qualms loom large or we are tempted to think it’s all up to us on our own. Br. Jim said, “This is when Satan is apt to hand you a cold IPA to quench your thirst in the desert, which we all know does not quench thirst, but in fact intensifies it.”

There are pauses for silent reflection in our lenten liturgies, we use simple glass vessels, and omit prelude and postludes. The altar rail is in place and invites you to receive the bread and wine being still,  either standing or kneeling at the rail. I find it gives me a pause to be more fully grounded in receiving Christ’s body and blood and feel how very personal that relationship is. When you come to this cushioned rail this Lent, as you bring your hands together to receive the bread, imagine first letting loose of anything in the way of God’s embrace, any temptation, or a burden weighing on your soul – let it go and leave it here. And then bring your hands together and receive the body and blood of Christ. May it feed your hungry soul and nourish your spirit, sustain you in the desert, and raise you up to walk with him…for the kingdom of God has come near! Amen.

[1] Michael Raschko, A companion to the Gospel of Mark, 23rd Publ. Mystic CT, 2003
[2] Br. Jim Woodrum SSJE, The Lenten Discipline of Temptation 3/10/19 at SSJE.org
[3] Fr. Arthur Hall SSJE, Self-discipline: Six Addresses. New York: J. Pott, 1894
[4] Anselm Grün, Heaven Begins within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers, Crossroad Pub., 1999.

© 2024 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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