Sunday, March 09, 2014

In the Wilderness

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 9, 2014

Year A: The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11
In the Wilderness
This year we had the most amazing Ash Wednesday.
            We had three services here at St. Paul’s, each a little different from the other. At the evening service we were joined by our friends from Church of the Incarnation. It was solemn and beautiful and even, though it sounds wrong to say it, a little joyful.
            And then there was “Ashes to Go.”
            As I’ve mentioned before, I had never offered ashes to people on the street though that practice has been growing in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere over the last few years.
            In the morning Irma, Vanessa, Andy and Dee Dee and I stationed ourselves outside the kiosk at McGinley Square. Sue and I went back for the evening rush. The reactions to our presence and our offer were all over the place: puzzlement, suspicion, rejection, maybe a little mockery, curiosity, eagerness, and gratitude. And then there were all the people on the buses whose faces we could barely make out. But they were looking at us out there in the cold, maybe remembering and wondering.
            In total I “imposed” ashes on the foreheads of 42 people. And I know for some people it was the first time. Over the past few days I’ve thought a lot about that experience. It was a day of seed-planting. And I have no doubt that, as usual, God will take those seeds and do things that, for the most part, we’ll never know about.
            And now, it’s Lent.
            The word itself comes from a Germanic word for spring – which holds true in the Northern Hemisphere.
            But, all of us are now into these forty days of repentance and preparation.
            I’m sure you’ve noticed that the church looks different.
            We’re in purple, the traditional color of penitence. Most of the shiny things have been put away or covered.
            And this morning’s service is different. We started with penitence. Some of the prayers are different. We’re going to say the contemporary Lord’s Prayer. And we are most definitely not going to say the “A” word until the Great Vigil of Easter.
            Most of you know that during Lent we’re offering some special opportunities for prayer and learning. On Wednesday evenings there’s the Stations of the Cross and our Lenten book study, Speaking of Sin. And on four Saturday mornings I’ll offer the adult confirmation / refresher class.
            All of these changes and offerings are meant to help us have a richer more prayerful lent – to be better prepared for the joy of Easter that lies ahead.
            And then there’s the Scripture that we’ll be hearing in church during Lent.
            No surprise, the lessons appointed during Lent are meant to help us reflect on the big themes of repentance and preparation.
            Today we heard the story of Adam and Eve giving into temptation, disobeying God, eating the forbidden fruit, and messing everything up for all of humanity.
            And we heard the story of Jesus out in the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted but, unlike the first man and woman, he doesn’t give into temptation.
            It’s St. Paul who draws the connection between Adam and Jesus. In his letter to the church in Rome he writes, “For if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”
            In the wilderness Jesus resists temptation and begins his work of restoring the world to what it was always meant to be.
            But, I’d like to stay in the wilderness for a while longer.
            Jesus spent his forty days and nights in the wilderness facing and resisting temptations – those recorded in the gospel and, I bet, others that weren’t recorded.
            What about us?
            I’m guessing most, if not all, of us have had our own times in the wilderness – maybe right here in Jersey City – maybe in our homes or at school or at work.
            I’m guessing we’ve all had our own time in the wilderness – times when in the words of today’s collect we’ve been “assaulted by temptation.”
            The assaults of temptation take lots of different forms of course. We can be tempted to do something we know is wrong – tempted to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt someone, to take advantage of someone else for our own pleasure or advantage.
            But, I think the greatest temptation we face is giving into despair.
            We live in a broken world with so much suffering. We live in a world where sometimes airplanes vanish from the sky, where houses burn killing an elderly couple and their two adult sons. We live in a world where people are routinely treated as things to be used and thrown away. We live in a world where cancer spreads, vision dims, memories fade, and the people we love die. We live in a world where sometimes relationships get broken. We live in a world where one wrong move can lead to much pain and suffering.
            Much of the time it’s difficult to see or feel the presence of the angels ready to wait on us the way they served Jesus in the wilderness. Much of the time it’s difficult to see or feel the presence of the loving God who is right here suffering along with us, hard at work turning weeping into joy, turning death into life.
            One of my times in the wilderness happened in an unlikely place: Florida.
            Some of you know that for a year Sue and I lived in Gainesville, Florida where I served as the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida and as rector of a small church a couple of miles from the center of town.
            We went there because on paper it looked like a good fit, piecing together my academic and church backgrounds. We went there because we had both lived in New Jersey our whole lives and felt it was the right time to be bold, to try something new before we grew too old and settled.
            The people at both the university chapel and the church could not have been friendlier, more welcoming and supportive. We met some really amazing people in Gainesville.
            But, it didn’t take us long to realize that this was not the right move.
            We were simply too far from everyone in our lives.
            The breaking point came at Christmas. That was the year that up here there was a blizzard at Christmas. Flights were canceled and we couldn’t get home to be with family and friends. Instead we were alone in an emptied-out college town at the holidays. And on top of that we had to put our much-loved but so sick cat to sleep.
             It was a terrible time.
            I made the decision to try to get a job back here in the Diocese of Newark. I interviewed at two churches. I knew one was a long shot but the other was very enthusiastic. They flew Sue and me up from Florida to meet with them. It was all very positive and hopeful until I got the phone call that they had chosen someone else.
            I was – we were - in the wilderness facing the temptation to give in to despair.
            And, I’ll admit that unlike Jesus there were times when I gave into that temptation and I despaired – despaired that we’d ever get back home, that we’d ever be able to put the pieces of our lives back together again.
            Then, thanks to unforeseen circumstances my old position at Grace Madison became available, setting the stage for eventually getting back home here with all of you.
            Now looking back on our Florida wilderness experience it wasn’t exactly forty days and nights in the wilderness with no food and water, facing the assaults of temptation. People have suffered and are suffering far, far worse than not being able to get home from Florida.
            But, that experience has left its marks. It shook my self-confidence and has made me more careful and thoughtful when I make decisions.
            And it also taught me something that maybe Jesus also learned during his time in the wilderness: unseen and unexpected angels are standing by ready to wait on us. And, most of all, we’re never really alone in the wilderness. God is right there – right here - suffering along with us, hard at work turning weeping into joy, turning death into life.
            It’s Lent: a special time set aside for repentance and preparation.
            During this holy season and throughout our lives we face the assaults of temptation. Sometimes, like Adam and Eve, we’ll give in. And, other times, like Jesus we will resist.
            But, no matter what, when we face these powerful assaults of temptation, we are never, ever, alone in the wilderness.