The First Sunday of Lent | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 6 March 2022 | Deuteronomy 26:1-11 | Romans 10:8b-13 | Luke 4:1-13

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who walks the wilderness with us.

Good morning, friends! Welcome to the first Sunday of Lent. This is the season when we prepare for Easter joy by walking through the hungry wilderness together. For many centuries of the Christian faith, this has been a season of penitence and fasting and prayer.

Some of us choose to take on new spiritual practices, or give something up, or both. Some people fast from something and feast on something else. But whether or not we’ve taken on any special practice for these forty days of Lent, our readings and our prayers take us through the wilderness. We ask for God’s help in our sin and our need, and we walk through deserts with Jesus and the prophets.

In this season, we come face to face with our own deep need, with the limits of our own power and goodness, and especially the reality that we are mortal. And that is really hard work. We don’t always like to face our own limits. We like to get what we want when we want it. We’d like to think that we’ve never done anything seriously wrong. We’d prefer to think that we can accomplish whatever we want if we try, and we can keep on doing that forever.

But Lent reminds us that need and hunger and dissatisfaction are part of our lives. Lent reminds us that we have done harm. Lent reminds us that we’re not always able to do everything we try to do—that we fail. And Lent reminds us that we’re all going to die. Inspiring stuff, isn’t it?

I actually do believe it’s amazing that we have a season for this in the church. I was thinking on Wednesday about how strange and how remarkable the church’s work in Lent is. I was in New Harmony with the other parish I serve for Ash Wednesday, and we did Ashes to Go there.

Some Episcopal churches have started doing this lately, and it was our first try at St. Stephen’s. We went outside to a busy corner with our ashes and one of the prayers from the Ash Wednesday service, and we offered ashes for anyone stopping by who might want them. And when we put the ashes on, we said the same words as in that service: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We’re mortal. We all return to earth and ashes someday.

You might remember that Wednesday was a glorious, beautiful sunny day. Everybody was out walking dogs and riding bikes. And we spent that gorgeous spring afternoon telling people they were going to die. What weird work the church does, right? Who else goes around telling healthy people on a gorgeous spring day that they’re going to die? And then, after we spent the afternoon telling people they were going to die, we did a longer service inside the church, like what y’all did here. And we also told everyone there that they were going to die. What a weird thing to do.

But here’s what’s even weirder than spending the day telling people they’re going to die: People really wanted to hear it. So many of the folks who came by our corner thanked us for being there. Some of them couldn’t make it to mass that day yet still really wanted somebody to remind them that they were dust and to dust they will return. The folks who came to the service found comfort and beauty in it.

It turns out that there is something liberating in saying these things out loud, in naming our need, in admitting our limitations, even in facing our mortality. It turns out most of us really do know at some gut level that we’re in want and we’re fragile and we can’t do everything and we won’t live forever. Pretending otherwise can be exhausting, and Lent gives us space to tell the truth about all that.

On one level, we don’t want to hear about our limits—yet at the same time, there’s a freedom in it. There’s a peace in it. And I think that’s what the people who thanked us for the ashes were feeling. And it’s why we do Lent.

In so many parts of life, we face so much pressure to be self-sufficient, to be capable of everything, to pretend that we’re not fragile and mortal. We whisper our needs and shout our achievements. We post the pictures online that look the best. When we write a report for work, we list all the successes and not so much the things we wanted to do and failed. We’re constantly being marketed to with an array of products that claim to keep us from aging, or at least keep our aging from being visible to others.

Teens and even younger children face pressure to do more and more and build a limitless list of accomplishments as well as succeeding in school. Young adults feel the pressure to become perfectly self-sufficient yet also vibrantly connected with others. Older folks sometimes feel pressure to maintain the same lifestyle that they used to and not show signs of changing with age or needing some help. Often our culture tells us that needs and limits and signs of mortality are a cause of shame, to be hidden.

And that’s why I actually do think it’s inspiring that we get to tell each other we’re dust and we return to dust. We get to tell the truth about our limits here, and we have traditions that help us do it. We get to tell the truth about failure here. We get to admit that we don’t always have everything we need or want. We get to ask for help. We get to admit that we can’t accomplish everything, and we can’t do anything forever. And those truths can be painful—but it’s also such a deep relief, such a deep freedom, such a deep peace, to realize that we don’t have to pretend anymore.   

Whether or not you had someone put ashes on your forehead this week, that’s what we’re doing together as a church in this season. We come to these 40 days in the wilderness so that we can face our need, our limitation, our mortality—and we do it together. We do this in community with each other in this church, and with Christians around the world and saints in ages past. We don’t walk this wilderness alone.

And what’s even more amazing is that Jesus walks this wilderness with us. Our faith teaches that God not only cares for us in our need and limitation and mortality, but our God has walked ahead of us in this wilderness; Jesus knows in his heart and mind and body what it’s like. In our Gospel today we read the story of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days. And in this story, even God incarnate experiences need, and limitation, and mortality. These troubles are inevitable for us, but Jesus chooses to experience them with us, and we see that in the story of his temptation in the desert.

Jesus is hungry, and he rejects the temptation to take a shortcut and ease his hunger. Jesus chooses to be with us in our need rather than use divine power to get out of this regular human problem. Jesus puts himself in the situation of those among us who are hungry and in pain and don’t get their needs met; that’s where Jesus decides to be when he walks into the wilderness and doesn’t turn stones to bread.

And Jesus as a human being wandering the desert lacks power over the world, and he rejects the temptation to claim it by bowing to the tempter. Jesus chooses to be in solidarity with us when we’re frustrated that we can’t do more and we can’t stop wars and our hopes and prayers and tears and best efforts aren’t enough to heal the world. Jesus is with us in that powerlessness too, that limitation.

And Jesus is mortal, and he rejects the temptation to try and force a miracle to prevent his own death. Jesus chooses to acknowledge that his bones will break, that he is the kind of fragile being who has to stay away from cliffs in order to stay alive. Jesus is with us in this too.

Our Savior Jesus is committed to facing the same troubles that we face. And that gives us strength to face them in a new way: The good news in this Gospel, the good news of Lent, is that we are not alone when we face lack, when we feel powerless, when we come up against our own limitations, and even when we face the reality of our own deaths.

Jesus chose to be with us in all of those trials. Jesus walks with us through that wilderness on purpose.  

And just maybe, when we choose to face our limits this Lent, we claim some portion of the purpose and courage we see in Jesus in this story. We didn’t choose these limits in the first place, but in Lent, we choose to tell the truth about them. When we say out loud that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we are claiming a deep power.

With Jesus, we are choosing to sit with our hunger and longing instead of trying to make it go away. With Jesus, we recognize we can’t control everything, so we let go of some things. And with Jesus, we take care of our fragile bodies; we choose to recognize our own mortality instead of pretending we’re immune to it. These are some of the hardest parts of being human; we need a lot of help with this; we need a whole season, we need rituals and prayers, we need stories, we need each other, and we need Jesus to guide us in this wilderness where we face our limits.

Facing our limits will take many different forms. Some of us will embrace a wilderness hunger by fasting from a food or drink or activity. We might also acknowledge our need for God by feasting on prayer or study or some other good gift that helps us to feel God’s love in our lives.

Some of us will need to recognize our mortality by being gentle with ourselves. Some of us might pause when we experience pain or anger or frustration to listen to that discomfort before we try to get away from it. We might lean into our lack of control by savoring the unexpected joys and feasts that come without our planning. Some of us might honor our limitations by giving up overwork or perfectionism for Lent.

Some of us will have great intentions and will fail to carry them through—and that’s okay too. This season is about failure, and we offer those holy failures to God too as we remember our need for help and forgiveness.

For some of us, doing anything extra sounds overwhelming right now—and that’s okay too; we carry each other through this season, and the stories and the prayers of the wilderness are here for us whether or not we decide to do homework about it.

Friends, I am so grateful that we have this season to help us tell the truth about ourselves, and so grateful we get to do it together. There is a mysterious freedom and comfort in this season. We don’t have to pretend that we’re limitless. We get to say our need and our pain out loud, and those are hard truths, but they are truths that set us free.

We face this wilderness together, and we claim Jesus’ companionship the trials of being human. Because Jesus is with us in this wilderness when we’re hungry and powerless and painfully mortal. And in this wilderness, Jesus feeds us with his own body, his body that knows our hunger so well.

In this wilderness we walk together, and Jesus guides us. As we face the knowledge that we will die, Jesus feeds us with the bread of life.

And that means we can claim a mysterious strength in telling these truths on purpose, and in remembering what we’re made of.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Amen.