Sunday, March 26, 2017

In Plain Sight

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 26, 2017

Year A: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

In Plain Sight
            As many of you know, for most of my ordained life before I came back here to St. Paul’s, I served for about five wonderful years at Grace Church out in Madison – a small, beautiful suburban town about twenty miles west from here.
            To be honest, I had never thought I would live and work in a place like that. Sue and I had always seen ourselves as city people and I certainly imagined myself as a city priest.
            So, I wasn’t sure that Madison, with its picture postcard perfect downtown, was the place for me, but, as usual, apparently God had other ideas.
            When I first drove around the town and as I began to learn about the church, I honestly wondered if there was going to be much ministry for me to do! At first glance, everything and everyone looked so good, so well put together.
            I thought to myself, assuming these people accept this guy from Jersey City as their priest, then this might be pretty easy, maybe even kind of boring.
            However, soon enough I learned that things were not as perfect in Madison as they may have appeared.
            I remember learning about the many Hispanic immigrants, the people who did much of the cooking and cleaning and landscaping in town, who lived in close quarters in the apartments above the stores and restaurants on Main Street, sort of hidden away, but really, if you took the time to look, they were in plain sight.
            And, I discovered that the people at Grace Church and their friends and neighbors, just like all of us, had their share of troubles – mistakes that couldn’t be unmade, fears about the future, crumbling relationships, loneliness, grief over what – or who – had been lost.
            Over time, I discovered all of that and more. It was sort of hidden, but if you took a little time to look, the suffering was in plain sight.
            And then, I came back to Jersey City and I thought that, sure, there would be plenty of challenges but, at least here the suffering and the needs won’t be hidden at all, for the most part they’re right out in the open, right out on the street for all to see.
            And that’s partly true, right?
            But, you know what happened after a while?
            Just like I now almost never hear the fire engines as they barrel down Duncan Avenue with their blaring sirens, well, now sometimes I don’t really see the suffering and need on the street as I make my way along Bergen Avenue, barely noticing the addicts hanging around outside of Royal Liquors, don’t really see the suffering and need as I try to get through Journal Square, barely noticing the homeless people spending their days on the benches, don’t really think about the suffering and need behind the rundown houses and apartment buildings all around our neighborhood, across our city.
            All too often, if I notice these people at all, I see them as just problems or obstacles or annoyances or jobs to do or even cautionary tales, but not as people with their own regrets, fears, disappointments, hopes, and dreams.
            All too often, I don’t see them as much-loved brothers and sisters.
            And, maybe you don’t, too.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, the disciples and the neighbors don’t really see the man blind from birth.
            The disciples see him not as a person but as a theological question: did God punish him because of his sins or the sins of his parents?
            And the neighbors don’t really see the blind man. Even though he’s been there with them in plain sight for years, they don’t really know him. I imagine they just think of him as “The Blind Man.”
            In fact, they don’t seem to know his face so after Jesus heals him they’re not really sure if it’s the same person or someone or someone who looks like him.
            And, some of the Pharisees only see the formerly blind man as a way to catch Jesus breaking the law.
            That’s all very bad, right?
            But, you know, what’s even worse than not seeing the blind man – what’s worse than not really seeing the suffering people in plain sight all around us in Madison and Jersey City and all over the place  – what’s even worse than all that is not seeing the glory of God at work all around us.
            Aside from the formerly blind man, pretty much everybody else, all for their own reasons, misses the big, amazing thing: God has given sight to the blind man!
            In and through Jesus, God was at work in that place.
            And, yes, in only slightly less amazing ways, God is at work right here in Jersey City, in plain sight, if we bother to look.
            If you pass through Journal Square, you may have seen an old man who usually begs outside of Duane Reed, near the top of the escalators.
            He’s nearly always there, bent over, leaning on a cane, mumbling words that I assume are pleas for help.
            Seeing him as “Sad Bent-Over Old Homeless Man,” I think I’ve given him a dollar or two, and maybe some of you have, too.
            But, I’ve never talked to him. I don’t know anything about him.
            Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, on my way to the PATH train, I rounded that corner and I saw one of our neighbors talking with him. I stopped to watch, hoping that he wouldn’t notice me.
            It looked to me like this wasn’t their first conversation. They know each other. And, I bet that they know each other’s names.
            After a few moments of conversation, the neighbor placed his hand on the bent-over man’s shoulder, bowed his head, and said a prayer.
            Only after that did he place money in the cup and continue on his way.
            The bent-over man was right there in front of Duane Reed, right there in plain sight – and our neighbor saw him, saw him not as an obstacle or an annoyance or a cautionary tale but as a beloved brother.
            I’ll admit that in the moment I was both moved and a little ashamed, but as I’ve reflected on that scene, I’ve realized that I had the privilege of seeing the glory of God in plain sight right there at Journal Square.
            And, then there’s our parishioner, Gladys.
            Many of you know that this afternoon Jersey City Together is going to have an action here at St. Paul’s, describing the deplorable conditions in buildings owned by one of the largest landlords in our city – deplorable conditions that are sort of hidden until you look more carefully - then they’re right there in plain sight.
            Often, there’s no heat and leaking pipes, holes in the walls and ceilings, and mold in the bathrooms.
            Often, if tenants are even just a day or two late with rent, the landlord takes them to court forcing them to pay expenses for cases that are always just dropped.
            Often, longtime tenants are being forced out so the landlord can illegally raise the rents, and Jersey City continues to lose affordable housing.
            And, often tenants are retaliated against if they dare to complain about any of this.
            So much of this suffering goes on all the time. It’s so much of the backdrop of our city and our neighborhood that we may not even notice.
            Well, as many of you know, for months Jersey City Together has been investigating this landlord’s properties, gathering information on these terrible conditions.
            A couple of our parishioners have been very much involved with this, including Diane, who’s been using her realtor expertise, and Gladys, who’s been using her unpleasant personal experience as a tenant in one of these buildings.
            Despite some personal risk, on Friday morning Gladys attended a meeting with the landlord and Jersey City officials where we discussed these issues.
            And, at the action this afternoon, Gladys is going to stand up in front of the landlord (if she shows up) and I bet well over a hundred residents and she’s going to tell her story, shedding light on these deplorable conditions that, if we look, are in plain sight.
            On Friday, as I looked across the big conference table at Gladys, I realized I had the privilege of seeing the glory of God in plain sight right there in a brave woman determined to take the risk of speaking up for our neighbors who we may not notice, but who are actual people, much-loved sisters and brothers.
            It’s the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the Sunday when I wear rose (not pink!), rejoicing that it will soon be Easter.
            But, we still have a couple of weeks of Lent left, enough time to practice seeing the suffering that’s all around us, enough time to practice seeing the glory of God at work, all around us, in plain sight.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Holy Women

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 19, 2017

Year A: The Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Holy Women
            You know, we human beings are amazing – just look around at all we have built.
            Especially here in the city, almost everything that we see and hear around us – the buildings we live in, the streets we walk or drive, the clothes we wear, the music we hear – all of it started as an idea in someone’s head.
            Almost everything around us was built and is maintained by people using extraordinary skill, remarkable expertise.
            Just one example is the cell phone, these little devices that connect us to the whole world, giving us access to more knowledge than can be found in any library, the stuff of Science Fiction to most of us even just a generation ago.
            And, at our best, we are amazing in our ability and willingness to care for one another, to care especially for those who are too young or too weak to care for themselves, doing our best to make sure that everybody is fed and nurtured, even – especially – those who will never be able to pay us back.
            But, of course, we human beings are also skilled at things that are not so good.
            We are often quite willing to set aside, to ignore, our common humanity and divide people up based on superficial characteristics – where they’re born, the color of their skin, how they worship, the mistakes they may have made in their lives, those who are seen by the world to be winners and those who are seen as losers.
            We are also good as scapegoating certain people.
            We say to ourselves and now even sometimes out loud, “If only we could get rid of this person – or this group of people – then, then, all our troubles would disappear!”
            Jesus himself experienced this on Good Friday when the crowd turns against him, thirsty for innocent blood.
            And, you know, all of this dividing and scapegoating can actually work - for a while, but only for a while.
            Soon enough, new troubles arise, and once again we need to find someone else to blame, someone else to expel, someone else to destroy - and the dreadful and bloody cycle starts all over again.
            Jesus, though, Jesus has no use for any of our divisions and rejects our scapegoating.
            Throughout his ministry, he shocked his friends and enemies by hanging out with - by loving - all the wrong kinds of people, the people who were looked down upon, the people who did the wrong thing, the people who were despised and even hated, the outcasts like, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well.
            It’s a long and tragic story, but Jews and Samaritans were related to each other, and like many families, they fought, often and bitterly.
            Now, when we hear “Samaritan” we think of the “Good Samaritan,” but Jews in the days of Jesus would have had a hard time imagining that any Samaritan could ever be good.
            But, in today’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus crossing one boundary after another, entering the land of the Samaritans where, tired out by his journey, he comes upon a woman at a well.
            Now, for a number of reasons, Jesus shouldn’t be talking with this woman.
            They’re alone, she’s a woman, and she’s a Samaritan.
            And, on top of all that, she’s not just any Samaritan – it turns out that she’s a Samaritan woman with a rather complicated marital history and her present situation seems, let’s say, irregular.
            And, probably because of those complications and that irregularity, this woman seems to be an outcast in her own Samaritan community. Note that she’s alone at the well under the noonday sun – presumably the other woman had been there earlier in the day, when it was cooler.
            So, maybe this woman prefers to be alone – or, maybe, she has no choice.
            Jesus, in his usual way, crosses over all of these boundaries and asks this Samaritan outcast for a drink of water – and, of course, she’s surprised.
            But, Jesus is just getting started.
            Jesus offers her what he calls “living water” – water that quenches thirst forever, the living water that gushes up to eternal life.
            And, for the first time in the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals his identity – not to his family, not to Peter or the other disciples, but to a despised Samaritan woman.
            And, we’re told that, somehow, Jesus tells this amazed woman “everything” she had ever done.
            It’s quite a story, right?
            Yet, maybe the most amazing part is what happens next.
            You know, it might have been wise if the Samaritan woman had kept all of this from her neighbors who had ostracized her. It would have been understandable if she just held this most remarkable encounter close to her heart, but that’s not what she does.
            Instead, this woman with the complicated marital history and the irregular living situation, this woman forced to go to the well in the noonday heat, she goes into town and sticks her neck out, risks ridicule and even more rejection, and she tells people about Jesus.
            And, we’re told that many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of her testimony.
            For us Christians, the Samaritan woman is, maybe, the first in a long line of holy women.
            The first, but far from the last.
            The gospels don’t tell the Easter story in quite the same way, but they agree that on Easter morning it’s women who first discover the empty tomb, it’s women who are the first to share the Good News at the heart of our faith – that love defeats hate and life conquers death.
            And throughout Christian history and in our own time there have been holy women who have continued to stick their necks out to share the Good News, who remembered and lived out Christ’s command to love one another, especially the poorest and the weakest.
            Lately I’ve been reading about one of those women, a holy woman that I hadn’t even heard of until recently: Mother Maria Skobstova, otherwise known as Mother Maria of Paris.
            A century ago, like many Russians, she fled the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually landed in Paris where, despite having been married a couple of times, she was allowed to become a Russian Orthodox nun.
            And, like her American contemporary Dorothy Day, Mother Maria believed that the heart of the Christian life is to love our neighbors as ourselves.
            She opened houses of hospitality where she housed and fed the poorest.
            Mother Maria believed that, “The way to God lies through love of people.”
            I read a wonderful description of this cigarette-smoking woman wearing her flowing Russian nun’s habit negotiating with butchers and bakers to get the lowest prices for what she needed to feed her people.
            When the Nazis occupied Paris, she and Russian Orthodox priests issued false baptismal certificates to desperate Jews – and for this, for this sacrificial love for the hated and despised, for this love of the scapegoat, Mother Maria was arrested and sent to the concentration camp where she died not long before the end of the war.
            Holy women.
            And in our own time and place, I think of our deacon Jill Singleton and what she has already accomplished over at the Lighthouse, providing shelter for the poorest and most despised, for the scapegoats of today, people who have fled war and oppression and have received asylum here in the United States – asylum, but, let’s face it, not necessarily a particularly warm welcome.
            Yet, over there on Storms Avenue, the light of welcome, the light of love, the light of Christ is shining out.
            And, a couple of months ago, our parishioner Trish Szymanski invited me to a meeting downtown about starting a supper club for refugees, an opportunity for them to eat foods familiar from home, to be together, and to know that they are welcome here.
            By the way, I was the only man at that meeting, and since then it’s been this group of committed women who pulled the first supper together.
            On Thursday night, three refugees from Syria along the planning team and sixteen donors gathered for a delicious meal – a meal that was prepared by one of the refugees.
            At the table, boundaries crumbled as people broke bread and shared conversation, recognizing our common humanity that’s far important than whatever may divide us.
            It was a taste of the Kingdom of God, the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus – Jesus, who has no use for any of our divisions and rejects our scapegoating - Jesus, who crosses over all kinds of boundaries and hangs out with all the wrong people, including the Samaritan woman at the well, an outcast who took the big risk of sharing the Good News, the first, perhaps, in a long line of holy women that continues to this very day, right here and right now.
            Thanks be to God.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry

Liturgical Churches Union Lenten Worship Service
New Redeemer Reformed Episcopal Church, Jersey City NJ
March 15, 2017

Mark 1:9-15
Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry
            May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
            I am so glad to be back here with all of you during this holy season of Lent as together we break open the Word of God, as together we look into our hearts and reflect on the times and the ways that we have fallen short, the times and the ways when we have failed to be the Body of Christ in the world and sinned.
            I am so glad to be back with you as together we repent and ask forgiveness from God, God who is always so quick to forgive and pour grace into our hearts, into our souls.
            I want to thank our president and my friend, the Rev. Nathaniel Legay, for that kind introduction.
            And, I want to thank my brother and sister clergy for their friendship and support, not only at this service or during this season, but throughout the year as we work together to be the Body of Christ here in Jersey City and Bayonne.
            Thank you also to the choirs of New Redeemer and St. Paul’s and Incarnation for enriching our prayer and praise this evening.
            And, thank you to all of you for coming out this evening in less than ideal conditions, to worship God who loves us all so very much.
            I am especially glad to be back in this place, in this house of God, which has a special meaning for me.
            Not long after I arrived back in Jersey City, I had the honor of preaching here at the IMA Thanksgiving service – and, I’ll admit, I was nervous. It’s not easy – or at least not easy for me – to preach in an unfamiliar place with people I don’t know.
            I was concerned about how I would be received.
            But, I shouldn’t have worried, because the IMA and this beautiful congregation welcomed me with warmth and love – especially your pastor – a good and faithful minister who I know you and all of us are missing very much – our dear friend, the Rev. John Milligan.
            And, we pray that he is enjoying the start of his well-deserved retirement.
            One quick Rev. Milligan story that always makes me laugh when I remember it:
            Folks from St. Paul’s and Incarnation know that I don’t usually preach too long on Sundays (or, at least I don’t think I preach too long!) but I know that at these Lenten services the sermon is the centerpiece so, you know, I need to beef it up a little bit.
            Anyway, a couple of years ago at one of these services I preached for about twice as long as I normally do. After I was done, feeling good but also a little tired and kind of sweaty, I sat back down and Rev. Milligan, who was sitting next to me, he leaned over and said:
            “Very good. Short and sweet!”
            But, there’s another reason why I’m especially glad and honored to be in this house of God this evening.
            I am so glad that this service has once again brought together Episcopalians and Reformed Episcopalians – in a way, it is a family reunion, since we both share deep Anglican roots.
            Tonight is a reminder that despite whatever theological and cultural differences we may have, whatever divisions and disagreements we may still have, our truest and deepest identity is in Christ.
            Together, we Episcopalians, Reformed and otherwise, along with our friends from the Methodist tradition and Christians of all different stripes across our city and beyond, we are the Body of Christ in the world.
            Amen? Amen.
            The challenge, of course, is to live like we really are the Body of Christ.
            Especially in times like ours, especially in a time stained by fear and hatred and so much ugliness and, yes, sin, we need to resist the temptation of living just like everybody else.
            A few minutes ago we heard just a few verses from the first chapter Gospel of Mark.
            You know, I’m glad we have all the richness and detail of the other three gospels, but I love the barebones quality – the fast-paced speed – the economical storytelling - of the Gospel of Mark.
            Whenever I read it, I feel like Mark is in a hurry, that he just can’t wait to tell his story – can’t wait to tell THE story – can’t wait to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ.
            So, in just the few verses appointed for this evening, Mark tells us about Jesus’ baptism, when he heard a voice from heaven reveal his true identity:
            “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
            In just the few verses we heard tonight, Mark then tells us about the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by Satan.
            And, in just the few verses we heard tonight, Mark tells us about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when the Lord calls people to repent because the kingdom of God has come near.
            In his fast-paced, barebones way, in just a few verses, Mark links together three elements of the Christian life: baptism, temptation, and ministry.
            Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry.
            My St. Paul’s people know that there’s little I love more than baptizing people. It’s one of the greatest joys and privileges of ordination and I’m sure my clergy brothers and sister would agree with me.
            And, I’m also sure that we could have some interesting and lively discussions about the meaning – or the many meanings - of Baptism, about what happens when we are washed in that holy water.
            For me, there are two meanings of Baptism that are most important.
            First, in the water of Baptism, God makes an unbreakable bond with us, that no matter what we do or don’t do in our lives, God’s bond with us can never be dissolved.
            No matter how hard we may try – and some of us try really hard – that holy water never really dries off.
            And, second, in Baptism, we sign up for the Christian life with all of its costly demands to love God, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love even our enemies, to see Jesus Christ in one another and especially in the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, and the naked.
            Since the baptized Jesus, and the baptized us, are called to this costly life of love and sacrifice, it’s no surprise at all that, man, the temptations come fast and furious – fast and furious for Jesus – and for us.
            You know, in his fast-paced and barebones way, Mark doesn’t stop and tell us exactly what temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness.
            Matthew and Luke, they give us more detail, telling us how Jesus is tempted to make bread and break his fast; tempted to throw himself from the Temple and put God to the test; tempted to crown himself as king of the all the earth, if only he bows down to Satan.
            But, Mark, he doesn’t give us those details, which, actually, I kind of like, because it allows us to fill in the blanks and imagine Jesus in the wilderness facing down all of the temptations that you and I face all the time.
            And, I think the greatest temptation that Jesus faced, not only during those wilderness days but throughout his ministry, is the greatest temptation that you and I face as baptized people here in Jersey City, here in our world today.
            The greatest temptation is to just live like everybody else.
            For Jesus, maybe the temptation was to try to forget the words from heaven he heard when he was baptized – to try to erase from his memory that God had revealed his special identity, that he was the Beloved.
            For Jesus, maybe the temptation was to just go back to the carpentry shop in Nazareth and live out his days with his family and friends – to let someone else proclaim the kingdom of God, to let someone else suffer the consequences.
            And, that’s the same temptation that you and I face every day.
            We’re tempted to forget our baptism, to try to erase from our memories that we are called to respond to God’s love by loving one another, by loving our neighbor, by, yes, even loving our enemies and those who do us wrong, to love them all as we love ourselves.
            We’re tempted to forget our baptism, to forget that we are not to judge one another based on how much or how little they have, that we are not to judge one another on the worst thing we ever did in our lives, that we are not to judge one another, period.
            We’re tempted to forget our baptism, tempted to forget that we are called to forgive and to forgive again, to give and not to count the cost, to share our spiritual bread and our baked bread, to share it with all of the many spiritually and physically hungry people who are all around us.
            We are tempted to forget our baptism and fool ourselves into thinking that this broken and suffering world is all that there is, and that there’s not enough for everybody, so we need to grab as much as we can for ourselves, to build ever higher walls and keep out strangers, that, no matter what, in the eyes of the world, we need to be winners and not losers.
            We are tempted to forget our baptism, to forget that there is one Body and one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all – we’re tempted to forget that while we Episcopalians and Methodists all have our beautiful and rich traditions, our truest and deepest identity is Christ.
            Yes, Jesus was tempted to be like everybody else – and so are we.
            But, we know that Christ was able to resist his temptations – he remembered the water of Baptism – he remembered the words from heaven – he remembered who he is and to whom he belonged – and he lived out his mission, giving away his life for us all.
            And, with God’s help we can resist our temptations – we can remember the water of Baptism – we can remember who we are and to whom we belong.
            And, as we resist and as we remember, then we, the Body of Christ, can take up our ministry – we can proclaim to all of Jersey City and Bayonne and beyond that the kingdom of God has indeed come near.
            We can call on our brothers and sisters to turn around, to change their ways, to repent – to join us in the great work of building God’s kingdom right here and right now.
            And, you know, that’s exactly what I see happening all around us – what I see happening here tonight.
            Especially over these past few years, in the face of violence and poverty and racism and hatred and deep divisions, in the face of so much sin, Christians in our community from many different traditions have come out from behind our church doors and walls.
            We have come together, not giving up our different ways of being church, but recognizing that we are much-loved brothers and sisters, that our truest and deepest identity is Christ.
            Joining with other people of goodwill, people of other faiths or no particular faith at all, we’ve formed Jersey City Together, working together in a way that we never have before to treat all of our fellow residents with the dignity they deserve.
            And, there are more and more opportunities for us to pray together out in the street, and during Lent and Holy Week, and right here this evening when this Episcopalian has the great honor of preaching in a Reformed Episcopal church, a reminder of the one baptism we all share and the one Lord we all try our best to follow.
            In just a few barebones and fast-paced words, the Evangelist Mark links together baptism, temptation, and ministry.
            Baptism, temptation, and ministry.
            God has made an unbreakable bond with us in Baptism, strengthening us to resist the many temptations we face, and giving us all the grace we need to be the Body of Christ, right here and right now.
            Thanks be to God.


Sunday, March 05, 2017

Temptations Made Just for Jesus and Just for Us

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 5, 2017

Year A: The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Temptations Made Just for Jesus and Just for Us
            You know, just like everybody, I guess, it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in my own stuff – easy to spend too much time in the office, easy to not pay attention as I make my way around the city, lost in my own thoughts and plans and concerns, not really seeing what’s going on around me.
            As you’ve heard me say before, I really do try to be mindful, but all too often I give into the temptation to look away and no longer see the world around me, no longer see the people passing me on the street as beloved children of God.
            But, every once in a while, I’m forced to pay attention.
            As we have for the past few years, on Ash Wednesday we offered “Ashes to Go” over at McGinley Square.
            Thankfully, this year it wasn’t too cold – and maybe that helped me really see the people passing by – the many people trudging their way to work or school, and not looking very happy about it, not one bit.
            We could see the people hitting the bottle (or maybe something stronger and even more dangerous) first thing in the morning and well on their way to a daylong stupor.
            Lots of people ignored us while some gave us a second look, looking at Rev. Gary, Vanessa, and me – wondering what we were doing there or maybe dimly remembering a long ago time when Ash Wednesday meant something.
            And, there were the people who were delighted – and in some cases quite surprised - to see us, people who wanted that smudge of a cross on their foreheads, who wanted the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return – the reminder that we depend on God for every breath.
            Spending a couple of hours at McGinley Square, I was struck by how rough it is – the heavy traffic passing through that confusing intersection with drivers blaring their horns and running the light, pedestrians crossing wherever they like, desperate people begging for change, people drunk or high, and lots of litter, bottles rolling and paper blowing in the wind.
            It’s not the desert or the forest, but like many parts of our city it is a kind of wilderness – just like many parts of our city, it’s a wilderness filled with temptations, temptations made just for us.
            Last Sunday we heard the story of the Transfiguration, that mountaintop experience for Jesus and his friends, a foretaste of Easter, a preview of love defeating hate, of life defeating death.
            But, today on the First Sunday in Lent, we back up to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – or, actually, just before the beginning.
            Jesus has been just been baptized, heard the voice of God reveal who he is, and now we’re told that the Spirit has led him to the wilderness for forty days of fasting, a miniature Exodus, when a starving and exhausted Jesus will face temptations, temptations made just for him.
            You know, Satan the tempter is quite skilled at coming up with temptations that hit our vulnerabilities and since Satan is well aware of who Jesus is, he comes up with temptations perfectly suited for the famished Son of God.
            Come on, just make bread and feed yourself!
            Come on, throw yourself from the Temple and show everybody that you really are the Son of God!
            Come on, you can be a real king, ruler of all the earth!
            But, of course, unlike God’s people in the desert and unlike us all too often, Jesus the Son of God is able to resist these temptations – and, I’m sure he faced and resisted other temptations throughout his ministry, temptations to turn away from his path, temptations to just live like everybody else and let someone else proclaim God’s Kingdom and suffer the consequences.
            But, instead, Jesus chooses to offer bread to others, chooses life over death, and, as St. Paul writes to the church in Rome, that makes all the difference for Jesus and it makes all the difference for us.
            Yet, Evil is still very much at work in the world, well aware of who we are and able to come up with temptations perfectly suited for us.
            Come on, forget about school or your dead end job and join those guys on the corner, make easy money dealing poison in our neighborhood!
            Come on, life is hard, a couple of drinks in the morning won’t hurt, they’ll just take the edge off!
            Come on, the people who disagree with you, who see things differently, they must be evil or just plain stupid!
            Come on, you know there’s not enough for everybody, so grab as much as you can, look out for number one, be a winner not a loser!
            Come on, you know that this person – or this type of person – is the source of all our problems so just pick on them, just get rid of them, and then everything will be just fine!
            Come on, don’t bother looking for beauty in this world, don’t waste your time looking for God in the people walking past you on the sidewalk or sitting next to you in traffic, or beside you on the bus; suffering and drudgery and ugliness is all that there is!
            Come on, you know that you’re not worth much of anything, that you’re not smart enough or good looking enough or lovable enough, so don’t bother hoping for anything good in your life!
            Come on, you know that hate beats love and death defeats life, every time!
            Yes, Evil is on the loose, still hard at work.
            But, although Satan is skilled at coming up with temptations made just for us, the truth is that when you peel away the particular details, it’s actually always the same temptation: give into despair and just live like so many of the people out there.
            For Jesus, the temptation really was to use his power for his own glory and benefit, to be just like so many rulers of the world, past and present.
            And for us, the temptation is to live like the guys on the corners or the unhappy-looking people trudging their way to work, or the addicted opening a bottle first thing in the morning, or, so many people without hope and without love.
            Today is the First Sunday in Lent. We began a journey on Ash Wednesday. We’ve silenced the “a word,” we’ve covered up or put away the shiny stuff, we’ve shifted our focus to confession and repentance.
            It’s Lent here in church – and, in a lot of ways, it feels like it’s been Lent out in the world for a long time – but, we know that this journey is going to lead us to the cross, where we see God’s love for us so clearly - and we know that this journey will bring us to the empty tomb and new life of Easter.
            We know that we’ll face many temptations, temptations made just for us, temptations at home, in our neighborhoods, at school or work, out in McGinley Square, on the bus and in traffic.
            We may be ready give up in despair and live like so many others, but today we’re reminded that Jesus has been in the wilderness. He’s been down this way before.
            And, Jesus continues to walk beside us, strengthening us to resist temptation, and, yes, he is always quick to forgive when we slip up.
             There are plenty of temptations made just for us, but we know that, in the end, life defeats death and love conquers hate.
            Yes, it may be Lent, but, actually, it’s already Easter.