Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
How many of you have had this experience? You are leading a meeting in which the group comes up with plans for an activity. You ask people to take on a certain job, no one raises their hand, and you say “OK, I’ll do that myself.” How about this one? You realize that something needs to be done, and instead of going through the work of asking someone to help and showing them how, you just do it. How many times have you done that thinking in the back of your mind that you would probably do a better job anyway but also feeling angry and resentful toward everyone else? Today the theme is temptations. I don’t know about you, but as an introvert who doesn’t like to make phone calls and is sometimes awkward with small talk, my biggest temptation has to do with going it alone, trying to do everything myself, isolating myself from others, and isolating myself from God. During Covid it has been interesting to watch how insecurities and ego needs have driven to drive people to try to prove themselves by making their own bread, establishing their own kingdoms, and otherwise do everything on their own, without others – and without God. It has also been interesting to watch people go the other way and say it’s too much, give in to the temptation of opting out and joining the great resignation, giving up any responsibility – metaphorically throwing themselves off a cliff — and letting God take care of it all.
After his baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness facing with temptations. We have just begun our third year in the wilderness of Covid, have spent the last week in the wilderness of war, and are facing temptations all over the place. As a friend said a year ago, these past couple years have been the lentiest Lent we have ever had. Covid has revealed the sin of solipsism, a selfishness and self-centeredness that puts us at the center of the universe and sees our problems and struggles as unique to us, rather than part of the human condition. Solipsism is why we worry about the price at the pump more than the planet or the people of Ukraine. Solipsism is why we have millions of doses of unused vaccine expiring in American warehouses while millions others are expiring themselves because they couldn’t get vaccines in the first place. Though you don’t hear much conversation these days about American exceptionalism (or Christian or Episcopal or white European exceptionalism), it flows deep in our veins. What has been called “humble narcissism” is in our DNA and defines much of how we live our lives. It makes us think that our faith is private and that our task is to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, alone.
Today’s passage from Deuteronomy tells us that this is not how God works. Moses reminds us that God is with us, and has been with us since our ancestors were slaves and refugees. Moses tells us that God works not just through individuals but through tribes and nations and people – humanity as a whole. Romans picks up this theme, telling us that God makes no distinctions, that God’s love and hope and healing are open to all and that we are all in this together. It’s tragic that it takes something as awful as a war in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear weapons, an attack on a nuclear power plant and a disastrous climate report to shake us out of all that and remember that we are part of a global community, interconnected and dependent on one another… and interconnected and dependent on God. Two weeks ago, few of us knew what a Ukrainian flag looked like. Now they are flying everywhere. I was struck by a message that last Sunday, the Anglican Church in Kyiv still gathered for worship, that in fact churches around Ukraine were full, and many church members slowed their own departure in order to help refugees along the way. The Ukrainians are not perfect. The stories of refugees who were people of color being turned away from the border with were a reminder that the sin of racism is one they share with us. Remember, however, that God’s power is greater than human sinfulness. Though all may have fallen be short of the glory of God, God is still at work. How symbolic is it that people took refuge from missiles in mikvah – ritual bathing areas for a purification ceremony used before worship — in the basement of a Jewish Synagogue. Mikvah is the model for Christian baptism. The people sought shelter in baptismal waters and emerged empowered for new life. As we heard in Romans, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” That’s true right now. Have you seen the images? People are literally standing up to tanks. A brewery that used to make beer is now making Molotov cocktails. It reminds me how two years ago, a distillery in the Old Port stopped making gin and made hand sanitizer instead. Yes temptations exist. When we are in the wilderness, our insecurities, fears, fragile egos, and everything else will be in front of us. Did you see what happened when Jesus stood up to all that and said no? All those things went away. When Jesus stood up to the devil, the devil departed. When Jesus said no to the temptations, his time in the wilderness was over. At that moment his real ministry began. This day, the same thing can happen – is happening — to us. Have you heard the weather report for today? Have you read the Covid statistics? We are wrapping up our time in the wilderness. This first Sunday in Lent is not the end. It marked the beginning of something completely new. It is time for our ministries to start all over again.
The word Lent comes from the Old English word which means lengthen, and refers to the great lengthening of days, the light that continues to group until the coming of Easter and the new light of spring. The season of Lent is here to help us tend the soil, prepare the fertile ground, for seeds to germinate and that new life to begin. Yes, on the one hand we are tempted to go it alone, without others, and without God. On the other hand, we are tempted to turn it all over to God and forget our role as the people of God and the hands and feet of Christ. Too much, however, is at stake to let either of these take place. The world needs us, the people of Ukraine need us, the climate needs us… and most of all God needs us. Lent is a time to recognize the reality of our sins, repent, receive forgiveness, and let them go. Lent is a time to recognize the reality of temptations, stand up to them and say no. Lent is a time to say yes to God and let our ministries begin. Without God and without one another, we will stay in the wilderness. With God and with one another, we can come out of the wilderness, stand against the greatest of evils, and be people who bring hope and life. Lent is here to let that happen today.