Lent 2 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 5 March 2023 | Genesis 12:1-4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 | John 3:1-17

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Amen.

Friends, welcome to the Second Sunday of Lent. In this season, we turn our hearts to God, and we remember our need for God’s help. Our prayers and our practices and our stories help us turn to God and ask for help in this season. Some of our scriptures give us stories of journey, where people meet God in the wilderness of the unknown.

When we’re in the wilderness or on a journey away from the comforts of home, our needs are more apparent to us. If we’re out camping in the woods, or even just traveling, we have to think about how we’re going to eat each meal and where we’re going to sleep. We can’t just open up the fridge and eat something, or go to bed in our normal bed.

When we’re in the wilderness or on a journey, we’re vulnerable. We have to think about how our needs are going to be met. And so in Lent, these stories help us to call on God. Stories of wilderness and journey let us remember how we need God’s help, and they give us models for facing the unknown.

Last week we followed Jesus into the wilderness in the story of the temptation. And we saw that Jesus was vulnerable like we are—Jesus faced hunger and thirst and mortality, and limits to what he could control. And when Jesus was tempted, he drew on scripture to strengthen him. He was able to face that vulnerability in the wilderness without escaping toward easy answers or betraying his calling and his relationship with God. He made it through the trials, and angels came to care for him.

And today, we turn to other journeys into the unknown wilds. God calls Abram to leave his homeland. Jesus calls Nicodemus to imagine the impossible.

So today we’ll look at Abram, and a little at Nicodemus, and we’ll see what we can learn from them about our own journeys into the unknown. And we’ll turn to our reading from Romans and our Psalm to remember how God meets us and cares for us in this kind of wilderness.

Let’s start with Genesis. God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s household.” God is asking Abram to leave all the things that are most familiar and safe to him, the place and the people and the protection that he’s had for all of his life so far.

God calls Abram to go to “the land that I will show you.” Abram doesn’t yet know where he’s even going ahead of time. He has to trust that God will lead the way. Abram has never seen this place before and doesn’t know where it is or what it’s like there. At this point, he doesn’t even know what the new land  is called. It’s so deeply unknown that Abram can’t even tell anyone where he’s going, because he doesn’t have a name for it.

God is asking Abram to do something that’s very hard to do—and God is also promising world-changing blessings on the journey. God promises to multiply Abram’s people into a great nation. And God says, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” God says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abram’s faith will bless the whole earth. And there’s a connection between this blessing and the call to venture into the unknown.

Finally we learn that Abram answers the call. “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” We also learn that he doesn’t go alone—his nephew Lot goes with him, and we later learn that his wife Sarai goes with him, and a whole household of flocks and herds and people. Even though Abram is leaving one community behind, there’s a community that goes with him into the unknown.

Friends, God calls us into the unknown too. Sometimes God asks us to leave what’s familiar and comfy.

Sometimes we have a clear sense of that call, even if there are some uncertainties. Maybe we know where we’re moving for a job or for school, but we don’t know how we’re going to find community in that new place. Maybe we know it’s time to retire, but we don’t know what life after that will look like. Maybe we’re feeling called to a new way to serve others, but we’re not sure what the next step is to do it.

And sometimes, we have a call and we can’t say what it even is—like Abram’s unnamed land. Maybe there’s a yearning in us to do more. Or maybe (and this one is just as important but sometimes harder to hear) we have a call to do less, to lay down some burdens and rest. Maybe we can tell that God is drawing us toward some new insight or some new change or some deepening of faith that we can’t yet put a name to, even as we feel it beginning to unfold in us.

Like Abram, we journey on in faith, and like Abram, we don’t travel alone. We are here for each other as we face the unknown. When God calls the church, we travel together.

And perhaps for us, like it was for Abram, God’s blessing is waiting for us in the unknown. When we have the courage to leave what’s familiar and expected and reassuring and take a step into God’s wild country beyond, we will be blessed and be a blessing. Our faith and our vision and our courage will expand as we go.

This is what happens with Nicodemus too, in our gospel. Jesus invites Nicodemus to stretch to something new. Nicodemus can’t understand what it means to be born again. And Jesus expands his imagination by teaching him about the Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings new birth even after we think we’ve grown up. The Holy Spirit goes with us into the unknown, because the Holy Spirit is unknowable.

Jesus says, “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” In Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, πνεῦμα, and so is the verb Jesus uses for the way the wind blows. So we could translate it like this:

“The Spirit spirits wherever it wants, and you hear its voice, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.” The Holy Spirit lives in the unknown. The Holy Spirit hovered over the unformed chaos at creation, and the Holy Spirit is with us in all our journeys through the wilds.

And don’t miss what Jesus says next. The Spirit spirits where it wants to, and “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” If we listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice, she can teach us to walk the winds too. We can become people who know how move through the unknown with freedom and grace. With God’s help, we can be people who survive and thrive in the wilderness by faith. 

In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul praises Abraham’s faith as what blesses us; the law helped to guide people in living well, but it was faith in God, relationship with God, willingness to follow God into the unknown, that mattered most. And friends, it is God who cares for us when we face the unknown.

St. Paul describes God as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” It is God who calls us toward what does not yet exist. And sometimes, like Abram, we have to let go of some things that already exist in order to make room for the things God is bringing that don’t exist yet. That takes a lot of courage. It’s one of the hardest things God asks us to do.

And yet, God shelters us in the unknown and the unimaginable. Our Psalm says God is our shade at our right hand. God guides us and protects us through it all. The maker of the heavens and the earth watches over our coming in and our going out, and all our journeys into the unknown.  

So friends, let us find courage for the wilderness in God’s care for us. In this holy season, let us always call on God’s help, knowing that we always need it. Let us venture forth together to claim the blessings of the unknown. And let us learn, little by little, how to hear the Spirit’s voice and walk the winds in faith. Amen.

Towards the Unknown (1950) by Mexican painter Gunther Gerzso and in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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.