Sermon, March 5, 2017

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 ?and Matthew 4:1-11

Last week, Wednesday to be specific, several of us gathered here in the sanctuary in the evening.? We had, as we do every year, saved the Palm branches from last year?s Palm Sunday celebrations.? Palm Sunday starts with remembering the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey.? It is remembered to be a celebrative time with the waving of Palm fronds.? However, before the Palms are dried up and swept away from the streets where they lay, Jesus is killed with many who thought him a conquering hero having turned against him.

So we collect the used and leftover Palms every year and store them.? They dry out very nicely.? We burn them, add olive oil and mark our bodies with the ashes as a symbolic way of remembering so many things.? Hopes, dreams, relationships, commitments, dedications unrealized, at least in the way that we had once hoped things would go.? It works that way for nearly everyone, doesn?t it?

Over the centuries of this ritual of ashes, it has also grown to be a time remembering our mortality.? The dust of the Big Bang burst forth from singular density expanding out to create the Universe, the stars, the galaxies, the solar systems, the planets and even you and me.? We are made from the dust of the essence of all that was and is.? And, we are all too aware that our bodies die, the chemical processes stop and our bodies return to the dust out of which we were raised for our lifetimes.? It is no wonder that Ash Wednesday is not very popular.? We enjoy more the resurrection themes of Easter rather than the reality and the certainty of our deaths.

Yesterday in the early morning hours of Saturday, Laurie Enynon?s mother, Jean died.? I was privileged to be with the family in the afternoon before she died over at Garden Villa.? I kissed Jean on the forehead and wished her a good journey through the pathway of all souls as I left her room.? More than once while I was away last month on sabbatical leave, I slipped in to visit Donovan Walling and Sam Troxal. Donovan?s journey into the portal, or pathway, of all souls is drawing very close.??? A couple of weeks ago as Donovan was seriously close to death, I kissed him and wished him a good journey.? He is still alive, so I remain convinced mine is not the kiss of death.? It is rather, for me, a mark of blessing of the person and the body that are about to separate.? It is my intention to say that a person is loved and that they have been, are, and will be forever a significant part of my life.? I take this time to encourage all of you to be close to the death processes of those you share this life with.? The best way I know to embrace life is to remain close to death.

This morning, in the brief time I have to speak on this first Sunday of the Lenten season, we? have two pivotal Scripture stories.? We have the Genesis account of our mythical fore-parents being cast out of their innocence into the wilderness of life.? And then from Matthew?s Gospel we have the story of Jesus going out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, where he is tested to see if he is ready to adopt or to be adopted by the servant role to be the Messiah, the Christ.

This is a Sunday given over to wonderful symbolism and none of it should be taken literally but all of it should be taken seriously.? The Gospel writer, Matthew, is writing originally to a Jewish audience, people who know, and find meaningful, traditional Jewish themes.? And, we must always remember that in many places in which Jesus had followers, they were all Jews, like Jesus. Early Christianity, before it was Christianity, was an extension of Judaism.? Those early followers of Jesus took Jewish themes and wrapped them around their understanding of Jesus of Nazareth as their Jewish Messiah. It took the better part of a century for early Christianity to separate from Judaism.? And, few things were more pronounced for them than the number 40.? Numerology was in general very significant to many ancient faith systems.

To the ancient Jewish audiences, to hear something mentioned about 40 days and/or nights was as striking to their ears as when we read a novel that starts, ?And it was a dark and stormy night.? The number 40 is used almost 150 times in the Bible.? There 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt.? Noah and his family were in the Ark for 40 days and nights.? We are in the wilderness of Lent for 40 days not counting the Sundays.? The last I checked we are about 40 days and nights in the Trump Administration.

In our text this week Jesus is in his wilderness preparing for who he wants to be and to garner the strength and resolve to do the things that God will be luring him to accomplish in his ministry.

I spent the last twenty eight days of my sabbatical time pondering who I want to be and how I want to respond to these days of our lives.? It has been a wilderness time in our social lives these last 40 days and nights, with people talking over each other, against one another, and in total opposition to the clear beliefs of another person on the multiple news feeds of our lives.? The temptation, the test is to stand so strongly against another set of beliefs that one cannot even see the humanity of the other in the conversation.? The temptation is to lash out at ideas that are contrary to those we hold so dearly in our hearts and minds.? The temptation is ?fight or flight? instead of ?stay and engage.?

The tests that Jesus experienced in his wilderness journey follow a literary pattern that is common in describing great men and women of the ancient world.? That is not to say that Jesus did not have a wilderness vision quest in which he experienced the big questions that we all face if we bother with such an intense introspection and openness to the holy in our lives.? But, most likely the story about Jesus was told in a formulaic manner.? We should not get hung up on the details of either the Garden of Eden or of Jesus?s Wilderness Experience but rather recognize for ourselves what it means to no longer be naively innocent in regard to the world of politics and the real lives of oppressed people.? We live in a wilderness of competing needs for security, safety, and opportunities.? And we must choose whose way we will follow on our journey.

The test today is to not overreact but to be willing to act for justice and intolerance without denigrating the other.? The test is to support our positions without giving in to fear.? The test is to find grace in the tests of our days, our lives, our faith realities when we are certain we are right and others are wrong by listening and engaging in ways so that perhaps new positions of understanding can be reached.

The test today is to disagree, march, post, protect and resist those things that we see as injustice and inequality and as false statements, but not to be intolerant of those who stand in opposition and disagreement to us.? Never has a time been where it is more acutely necessary to discover new common ground, new connections that will grow to higher ground. We can hold one another accountable and we can hold our government officials accountable, but giving in to the test of this time by hating and belittling is not the answer.

Across the hallway from our office suite are the four Head Start classrooms.? Each day these 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds are in some state of learning what it means to be outside the relative innocence of their home environments and learning to engage with a wide and diverse world, while having to learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.? The teachers have a mantra that I so enjoy.? I hear it replayed every day in the midst of the screaming, crying and tantrums of pre-schoolers.? The teachers will say,? ?Calm your bodies and use your words with the one you want something from.?

Most of us will need the discipline of calming our anxieties, our nearly constantly stressed minds and bodies, so that we can listen and choose our words carefully to most accurately get at what we most want in these wilderness days of Lent 2017.? Jesus was walking toward his death on that execution cross.? He did not know it and nor did God desire it. But, he knew, undoubtedly that he wasn?t in the Garden of Eden anymore.? Nor are we.? But he died for living the essence of what he believed was most important.? He was living in opposition to the tyranny of the state and religious structures of his day that were denying basic human rights, basic religious rights, basic rights and opportunity to having enough food, enough freedom to have a decent life.

Calm your bodies and know your truth.? Few people deserve to be thought of, much less called, deplorable.? It is the most opportune time to live the ways of Jesus of Nazareth.? They will know whose we are by the way we engage and live in the midst of these most trying times.