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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
It’s an honor to be with you this morning. I want to thank Drew and the Vestry for good conversation over the past couple days, and the privilege of preaching here, though I admit that the first Sunday of Lent with talk of deserts and devils is a day that I too might have invited a guest preacher. I currently work for Forward Movement, in a ministry called RenewalWorks. The work is focused on spiritual growth. It’s about the spiritual journey, about what helps that journey move forward, and what gets in the way.
We gain insight into that journey by looking in the spiritual rear view mirror, seeing where and how God has acted. I’m wondering this morning if you’ll do that with me, if you remember a time when you felt like your spiritual journey moved forward, a period of growth or progress or deepening. What was it about that time that made it so? Maybe you can identify a time when your spiritual journey seemed stalled or stuck, ran out of gas, got a flat tire, lost mapquest, hit a wall, went into a skid. What was that about?
I’ve come to believe several things about the spiritual journey. First, everyone has one, a story that matters to God so it matters to the church. Augustine described it this way: everyone has a God shaped space inside. Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.
Second, everyone has had bumps in the road in that journey. As I talk with folks in the Episcopal Church I find that the thing that most often triggers growth and the thing that most often gets in the way can be the same: a crisis, a struggle, a hardship, or to use a biblical image, a season in the wilderness. Those seasons can be times of challenge and fear. At the same time, they can be times of discovery and growth. They can be times of testing, and at the same time, they can be times of formation.
Third, the spiritual journey is about going deeper in the spiritual life. It’s about spiritual growth, which is ultimately about relationship, love of God and neighbor, more a matter of the heart than a matter of the head. As our Presiding Bishop has said, if it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God. As we heard on Ash Wednesday, Jesus said: Where your treasure is there will your heart be also. All of which brings me to Lent, a season inviting us to take stock of our lives, love of God and neighbor, to reflect on growth and failure, challenge and formation in order to move forward in a journey.
In Lent, we journey to Jerusalem for Holy Week. The journey starts in the wilderness, a place each one of us knows something about. This Sunday, we begin the journey with Jesus, in a story told in the first three gospels, depicted in one of your beautiful windows, a story with this interesting detail, which is that when Jesus went into the desert, the Spirit that drove him there. God was present, active in the experience.
In the desert, after not eating for 40 days (I have trouble when I miss late morning snack), Jesus encounters the devil with temptations that have to do with Jesus’ relationship with God, his own spiritual growth. It’s a battle of dueling scripture. From this story Shakespeare was led to comment that even the devil can quote scripture.
Forty days into this fast, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. What would be wrong with that? Jesus would do other catering miracles. This seems a lot more important that turning water into wine. Why not do it now? Perhaps it is this: Going for the quick fix will close off what Jesus needs to know from God in the wilderness. Going for the quick fix will mean that Jesus is setting the agenda and not God. Going for the quick fix might satisfy urgings of the moment, but leave Jesus in debt to the devil. One of the desert fathers said: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart. Spiritual growth for Jesus, growth in relationship with the one he called Father came with trust that what he needed would be provided, in God’s time.
The devil comes back with a second temptation: Toss yourself off the top of this skyscraper to see if angels catch you. The psalmist said God would make that happen. Why not find out if it’s really true, Jesus? Make God prove that God is God. I wonder if the devil wondered if Jesus wondered if God had forgotten him. That’s a human wondering. I’ve wondered that in my wilderness moments. Jesus resists, again with an expression of trust in God’s provision, in God’s time. Letting go. Letting God.
Finally, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. They will be his if he worships the devil. What would that do to his relationship with the Father? Again, it’s a matter of the heart, and where we give our heart. I believe our Episcopal tradition has a special vocation to keep worship at the heart of what we do. You clearly know that, witness this beautiful space and the glories of the music you offer, the power of your liturgy. It’s a way, day in and day out, week after week, to combat the temptation to worship things that are not worthy of worship. Often they are not bad things. Just not central things.
Jesus comes out of this wilderness experience having faced challenge, but also having been formed in some deep way in his relationship of trust. Where is the lesson for us in that?
We all know something about wilderness. In the challenges, the wilderness we face, how can we focus on deeper love of God and neighbor? How can we build trust, in God and each other? How can we focus on spiritual growth? How can we keep our eyes on the prize, spiritual growth, discipleship of Jesus? How can we do that as individuals? How will this newly commissioned Vestry do that? How can this congregation do that? How can our denomination do this, as we explore what it means to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.
Lent is given to us with special intention: prayer, fasting, scripture reading, reconciliation, service, giving something up, taking something on. All those things are meant to help us grow. It’s at the heart of what Lent is about, in a world that too quickly looks for a way out of the wilderness, quick exit, quick fix. Years ago, a friend toured a mega-church in California, designed by a prominent architect. At the end of the tour, she asked the guide why she didn’t see any crosses around the building. The guide commended her astute observation and said, well yes, we don’t believe in negative symbols. He told her how his community understood observance of Lent by use of this acronym. He said Lent stands for: Let’s end negative thinking.
Our tradition calls us to another way, to see Lent as a wilderness where God may lead us, where God is present with us where challenge and formation occur at once, a rigorous season which brings about growth. Spiritual growth. That deeper relationship of love of God and neighbor, all in keeping with the idea that the word “Lent” really comes from ancient word for Spring. New life awaits. We’re headed in that direction in our journey. But we’re not there yet.
So welcome to the wilderness. Know that God is with you in that place. Knowing that, how will you face its tests, its temptations, the chance, the challenge to grow in trust, in love? How might this be a season of growth for you, in your spiritual journey, in the journey of the Vestry, in the journey of this congregation? It’s a matter of where we give our heart, trusting God, drawing strength from his presence, dwelling in his love from which we can never be separated.
(1) Jay is the Director of RenewalWorks and join us this weekend as the leader of our Vestry Retreat. Begun in 2013 as a ministry of Forward Movement, RenewalWorks serves as a catalyst for refocusing parishes (and the individuals in them) on spiritual vitality.