Well, like many of you, I'm sure, at the very beginning of the COVID pandemic lockdown, Gregg and I were home, watching a lot of TV. A lot of Netflix, a lot of movies and series on Netflix. One of the shows that we really enjoyed is a reality show called Tidying Up, about a Japanese woman, Marie Kondo, who comes into people's homes, and helps them to tidy up, to declutter and to become more organized.
And it truly is a really spiritual process. It's a very spiritual experience. When Marie comes into people's homes for the first time, she gets down on her knees, and she bows to the house. And she extends a prayer of gratitude to the home. And then she invites the homeowners to gather all of their belongings into a big pile. Then they are to hold each item, one by one, to see if it sparks joy for them. That's Marie’s go-to line, her mantra, if you will. Does this spark joy for you? And if the item doesn't spark joy, it is donated or disposed of.
At the end of most episodes, the homeowners tell her that they feel so much lighter, so much freer. In fact, one homeowner actually cried and said, Marie, you have given our family a whole new life.
Now I share that with you today on the first Sunday in Lent, because that's what Lent is all about. It's a time for us to tidy up our spiritual lives, to get rid of the things that are no longer sparking joy for us, the things that are no longer serving us, so that we can feel freer and lighter and experience new life.
And I know that may be confusing for some of you who grew up in a Christian church, as I did, that said that the season of Lent was about giving up the things that bring you joy. We were told give up chocolate and candy and all the things you like. Because Jesus suffered on the way to the cross. So now you need to suffer.
But that's not what the season of Lent is all about. The season of Lent is not about giving up the things that bring you joy. It's just the opposite. The season of Lent is about giving up the things that are keeping you from your joy. So if watching cable news has been keeping you from your joy, how about a 40 day fast from cable news? If social media has been keeping you from your joy, how about a 40 day fast from Facebook? Maybe you'll feel lighter, freer, more joyous. It's not just me saying this! The Pope said it.
Last year at this time I shared with you the words of Pope Francis, who last year said instead of giving up chocolate, give up worry. Give up fear, give up bitterness, and fill your hearts with joy. That's the purpose of the season – to let go of those things. That's why our New Mexico friend Father Richard Rohr said, “You grow spiritually, not by addition, but by subtraction.”
Letting go. Surrender. That's what this season of Lent is all about. We are intentionally doing that. We are going out into the wilderness, to wrestle with some things, and to let them go, just as Jesus did in the Gospel reading today, for the first Sunday in Lent,
Jesus goes out into the wilderness for 40 days and nights. Now we hear a lot about the wilderness in the Bible. In fact, the wilderness is mentioned in the Bible more than 300 times. So we know that Moses was out in the wilderness. John the Baptist was out in the wilderness. Jesus was out in the wilderness, and it was a place where they could connect more fully with the light and presence of God. If you look up the word wilderness in the dictionary, it says it's a place that is essentially undisturbed by humankind. It's not a literal place, my friends. The wilderness – that pure, undisturbed place – is within you. That's what Jesus meant when he said, The kingdom of heaven is within you.
There, during Lent, for these 40 days, we're venturing into the wilderness, into the silence, so that we can connect with that power and presence of God that is within us. Now, 40 is also a number that appears in the Bible quite a bit, doesn't it? So it rains for 40 days and nights during Noah's Ark. We know that Moses is atop Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights before he gets the 10 commandments. And as we see Jesus is out in the wilderness. Again, this is not a literal number. The writers of the Bible understood numbers symbolically, and 40 represents a time of spiritual completion. That's why Lent is 40 days long. It's a time for us to venture into the wilderness, and do some spiritual work, so that we can experience new life on Easter morning.
Now, I've got to address this, because we are a progressive church. If you came here for the first time, you'd be like, ‘Wow, all these readings are about the devil. What is this church all about?’ Well, we know our first reading from the Genesis story is the devil tempting Adam and Eve. And our Gospel story is the devil tempting Jesus. Most of you who have been coming to Douglas UCC over the years have grown in your concept of God, you no longer view God as some old man with a long gray beard who lives up in the clouds, who's keeping track of all of your mistakes. You know God isn't a person. Now it's time for us to grow in our concept of the devil. The devil is not a guy, a red guy with horns and a tail and a pitchfork. The Bible never described the devil that way. And in fact, most of the world's major faith traditions do not believe in the devil and hell, they don't believe in the guy with horns and a pitchfork. Jesus was Jewish. Jewish people don't believe that. So what was going on here in this story? Well, it's a symbolic story. Jesus is not wrestling with that guy.
The early Christian church took a Greek god, Pan, who had horns and hooves, and they fashioned the devil after Pan, because Pan was the creature of the wilds of the wilderness. But that person doesn't exist. Just as God isn't a person, the devil isn't a person. There is no outside person, tempting you. So what is happening in this story? Who's Jesus wrestling with then?
Well, the Hebrew word for Satan means adversary, opponent, stumbling block. Jesus is wrestling with those thoughts, those temptations those desires that are getting in the way of his becoming more fully divine. Now I know there are Christians who believe that Jesus from when he was a baby in the manger was already God, holy, perfect. Well, if that's the case, then why would he have to overcome temptation?
Throughout his life Jesus is becoming more aware of his light, and at the age of 30, before he can begin his ministry of teaching and healing, he has to go through this period, this 40-day period, this time to wrestle with his demons, to wrestle with the ego, to wrestle with those thoughts.
It's not an outer voice. It's an inner voice. It's the voice that Jesus would later call the Father of Lies. It's the voice that tells you lies. The voice within you that says, ‘You're not good enough. You're not smart enough. You'll never have enough. You can't do that at your age.’ The Father of Lies.
The truth of your being is that you are a child of God. With God, all things are possible. What we are doing during the season of Lent is ,we're venturing into the wilderness. We're going into the silence, where we can hear more fully the voice of the Divine. We can stop attuning to ourselves, to the things of this world, to those desires and temptations, to the voice of the Father of Lies. And we can attune ourselves more fully to the truth. So that's what I want to invite you to do. Make this the most meaningful Lent you've ever had in your life. Start today. Find time every day to be still and know, to connect with God's presence and power that is within you. Don't be afraid. Go into the wilderness. For as it says in Hosea, Chapter 2, “The wilderness will lead you to your heart where I will speak.”
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Clara May Rowland
Throughout the church world during the season of Lent, people strive to become better Christians. Therefore, we should not look upon it as a forbidding or a sad season of fasting and prayer, but as a spiritual experience that means much to all of us if we enter into its observance in the right spirit. Primarily the purpose of Lent is to prepare us mentally, physically, and spiritually for a new awakening; to resurrect us out of old states of consciousness into a new realization of life; and to permit us to re-consecrate and re-dedicate ourselves to the will and the work of Jesus. Through our spiritual awakening, we shall find renewed life and health, a joyous freedom from burdens, and best of all, peace of mind. Our preparation consists, first of all, of a careful and honest appraisal of our thinking habits in order to see how they can be improved. In early days, penitent Christians began Lent by acknowledging their sins and by entering upon a period of public penance. Today, we know that we can find release from error and the effects of erroneous thinking in the past by bringing our mind and heart into unity with the Christ-mind so that its divine ideas may guide our thinking into constructive channels. We always have the help of the Spirit of truth within us. During the Lenten season, we become especially aware of the desire in our hearts to expand our spiritual nature. The power of the Spirit at work in us will back us up in our desire to prove we are truly children of God. During Lent, let us re-consecrate our eyes, our ears, and our tongues to this Truth.
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