A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Well, first of all, I’m going to tell you that I’m not actually sitting in front of the altar at the Church of the Ascension this morning. Some of you have probably figured that out. Through the miracle of Zoom, you see me sitting in front of a picture of your church, but I’m really still at home in New Hope. And I’m going to change my background just while we talk about Jesus in the desert so we can see exactly what the desert between Jerusalem and the Jordan River looks like.

This is where Jesus went in today’s gospel. So what do you think of when you hear the word desert, when you hear that Jesus went out to the desert? You might think of rolling sand dunes stretching to the horizon, but this desert actually is not like that. It’s not a sweeping landscape of dunes. It’s not sandy, it’s actually rocky and hilly.

There are wild animals here, as the gospel mentions, but there also are flowing streams down at the bottom of those canyons. And sometimes there are flowers. So there are unexpected blessings, even in the desert. Jesus was in this desert for 40 days after his baptism and before he began his ministry in Galilee. It was a place where he could get away from the distractions of daily living and focus. And that’s exactly what Lent should be for us. It’s a time to take a good look at who we really are, to look at who we really want to be.

It’s a time to let go of the tremendous burden, really, of pretending to ourselves and others that we’re perfect. It’s time to see ourselves as we really are and to remember that God loves us as we are. Maybe you’ve heard that saying, “God loves us just as we are. But God loves us too much to leave us that way.”

So here we are in Lent again. It’s the time, not yet, but soon, when the first crocuses of spring will start to pop out. So really, it’s a season of promise and possibility, and what will we make of it this year? I’ve been remembering, as I thought about this, that it was during Lent a year ago that the bishop asked us to stop worshiping in person. And we all scrambled to move to online services, hoping that it would be just for a little while. I thought we’d come back right after Easter or at Easter, maybe, that we’d be online just until the worst was past. And here we are, a year later, we’re still hoping the worst has past, but we know that this is not over.

My kids are both still working mostly from home. Lots of little kids, lots of children, students are still learning from home all or some of the time. And we know that even with all this online learning, some kids even aren’t really going. The parents are balancing getting their own work done and supervising their kids, and older people like myself are just staying home as much as possible.

So I think you could say that we’ve more or less already withdrawn into our own personal desert. I was on a webinar last week where someone said this whole past year has been a kind of Lent. Actually, I heard that a couple of times last week. So if we’ve been in Lent for a year, we ask ourselves, “What’s going to be special for us in the season of Lent this year?” When we talk about how to observe Lent, a lot of times, our thoughts first go to giving things up, like chocolate or whatever. But this year, it seems like we’ve already given up so much already. We’ve lost the freedom to go where we want to go when we want to go there.

We’ve lost the freedom to live without fear of encountering sickness and death in our day-to-day lives. We’ve lost the freedom to get close to other people, just to give someone a hug without worrying about it. We haven’t been able to celebrate Holy Eucharist with our church community. Maybe you’ve lost people you cared about. I know I have. And even those who have died during this time, you can’t have a funeral, a normal funeral, to mourn them properly. We’ve had weddings postponed and celebrations of baptisms that should be bigger and can’t be. Maybe you or people you care about have lost jobs and income. So it seems like we’ve all just given up so much already.

And in light of that, I’ve been thinking about what kinds of spiritual practices would make the most sense in Lent this year, because there’s no value in giving things up just for the sake of depriving ourselves of comfort and pleasure. We have to keep asking ourselves, “What’s the real point of what we’re doing?” The real purpose of our spiritual practices is supposed to be to bring us closer to God, to keep us grounded and knowing that we’re loved by God, even as, in Lent, we acknowledge that we are broken, imperfect, and that we need God’s love now more than ever. Lent is a time to face our sins honestly. And it’s also a time to name our sorrows in prayer.

So I was thinking that maybe this year, in light of everything we’ve already lost, instead of giving more things up, it might be better to pay prayerful attention to what we’ve gained. It’s just a suggestion, but I know you’ve all been thinking about silver linings. So what good has come to you in these months of isolation? I think first of all, at the top of every list should be the knowledge, the assurance, the belief that God is with us through all of this. The last thing Jesus heard before he went into the desert was, “You are my child, my beloved.”

His identity was being God’s beloved. And in a way, that’s our identity too. His strength in the desert is our strength in this desert where we find ourselves now, the assurance that God is with us and God loves us. And what else have we gained? Well, number two, and I think this is big, we’ve gained a greater appreciation of the importance of relationships in our lives. We’ve been reminded in a very real way that God’s grace comes to us through connection with other people. We know God’s love through the love of others. And as much as we miss family and friends, we’ve finding some new ways to connect.

I’ve actually rediscovered the telephone. I’ve made a point to call people, not just text, but to call them from time to time, to talk to my friends and family. We’re learning the both/and of Zoom. And I don’t just mean the downside of losing part of your head while you’re talking. We’ve learned that Zoom is no substitute for being there in person, for being together, but still, it does connect us sometimes in new ways that were never possible before, such as, for example, my being with you this morning.

My husband and I have daily video calls with our little granddaughters, who are two and four, and every call ends with “Love you, miss you,” but we’ve also strengthened our connection through those visits. We’ve done some video visits with far away friends that we don’t usually see too often in normal times. We’ve found digital ways to keep a community connected. We’ve continued to worship, and actually, our livestream services have made it possible for people with health and mobility issues who couldn’t come to church, even in normal times, to be with us in worship. I’m not sure if there’s anybody like that in your community, but I know that in other churches that I’m connected with, people have been glad to be able to be at worship all together, no matter what their physical condition was.

What have we gained? What have we gained in this season? I could go on, but I think each one of us will have different things on our list. Maybe you’ve been helping your neighbors. Maybe they’ve helped you. Maybe you’ve found more time to read and to pray. Maybe we’ll think of other things as we continue to ponder this question during Lent. As you get to know me, you’ll find out that I often have more questions than answers. So here are my questions for today, which I offer as something to think about in the week ahead:

Where are the flowing streams and blooming flowers in this desert we’re in, in your desert? In other words, where are the blessings? How can we make the most of this time apart? Can we come out of this time in the desert, and by this, I mean, both the church season of Lent and the year of Lent, which we’ve all been through. Can we come out of it better than we were when it began? What are we doing to stay connected? And how can we continue to serve others, even from a place of isolation?

The answers I know will be different from each of us, but I think it’s worth thinking about those things during this season. So I want to end these thoughts with a poem. It’s titled Lent and it’s by a woman named Ann Lewin. It’s not long, but I think it gets right to the point of what the season of Lent is all about.

Lewin says,

Lent is a time to learn to travel
Light, to clear the clutter
Find a space, a desert.
Deserts are bleak: no creature
Comforts, only a vast expanse of
Stillness, sharpening awareness of
Ourselves and God.

Uncomfortable places, deserts.

Most of the time we’re tempted to
Avoid them, finding good reasons to
Live lives of ease; cushioned by
Noise from self-discovery,
Clutching at world’s success
To stave off fear.
But if we dare to trust the silence
To strip away our false security,
God can begin to grow his wholeness in us,
Fill up our emptiness, destroy our fears,
Give us new vision, courage for the journey,
And make our desert blossom like a rose.*

Do we dare, this Lent, to trust the silence? Can we make room for God’s wholeness to begin to grow in us, to let God fill our emptiness and destroy our fears? Give us gracious, give us courage for this journey, gracious God, as we begin this holy season of Lent. Amen.

And now, I’m going back to church.

* From Watching for the Kingfisher: Poems and Prayer, by Ann Lewin

Preached for the Church of the Ascension, Parkesburg PA