Sermon by Stephaine Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, February 21, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
In the prayer she composed for our newsletter last Friday, our Associate Minister, Alanna Sullivan, asked: God, how do we begin our Lenten journey when we have been wandering through the wilderness this whole year? I think this is a question that will be lifted up in many prayers today, and in many sermons as people gather to worship. Because the beginning of Lent marks also the beginning of the pandemic. The last time we worshipped together in our sanctuary, it was the first Sunday of Lent 2020. The student deacons from Yale were here to spend the afternoon with our student deacons, and Ian Oliver, pastor of Yale’s Battell Chapel, was our preacher. It was a communion Sunday, and Lara Glass and Jesus Romo Llamas stood in the aisle and gave everyone a squirt of Purell as they came forward for bread and wine. Little did we know that two weeks later, our students would be gone, our campus empty, and our sanctuary closed. And we would all be sheltering in place, waiting to see what would happen next.
A lot has happened. But we’re still waiting. And in the midst of that waiting, Lent arrives once more, while we are still locked down, still locked out, still unable to gather. As we take our first steps, following Jesus once more into the desert on Lent’s first Sunday, you may be wondering how to begin a new Lenten journey when it feels like you haven’t yet stepped off the path of the last one. I am wondering that myself.
The stories that Liz Hanson and Sam Carson read for us this morning invite us to think about that first step. What steadies us as we begin a new journey toward Good Friday, toward Easter? And what next steps does that first step makes possible?
Liz read for us the account of God making a covenant with Noah after the devastating flood that wiped out every living thing on the earth, except for Noah, his family, and the living creatures they sheltered in their ark. The book of Genesis portrays this flood as God’s response to human violence, an attempt to start over with human beings. But it also portrays God as regretting that attempt. In the chapter before the one from which Liz read to us, God promises never again to wipe out all life from the earth. God will be a God that living creatures can rely on: As long as the earth endures, God says, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. God will be the God not only of humans and animals but of the rhythms of the life of the earth itself.
We meet Noah in our reading as God begins to elaborate the covenant by which this promise will be sealed and enacted. God’s promise not to destroy is like a stone dropped in a pond, creating ever-expanding circles of care. I am establishing a covenant with you, God says to Noah and his family. And then: I am making a covenant between me and you and every living creature. And then: I am making a covenant between me and the earth. God’s promise to Noah reaches far beyond that one human family to include all human families, all animals, all living creatures, and finally the earth itself. Noah and his family take the first steps of humanity’s new journey surrounded by God’s expansive promise that, no matter what mistakes they make, they can keep going. And they do make mistakes: they come into conflict with each other almost immediately. But humanity keeps moving through the generations, held in God’s promise to sustain life itself, day after day, season after season, year after year, drawing its life from God’s life.
The passage from the gospel of Mark that Sam read for us is also a story of the first steps of a new journey — this time, the journey of Jesus into his ministry. He doesn’t take those first steps alone, but in the company of those who make their way to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. And as John is pulling him up out of the water, Jesus sees the Spirit descending and hears a voice speaking, saying: You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.
From there, things happen fast. “Immediately,” as Mark loves to say, the same Spirit that dropped down so gently from heaven at his baptism drives Jesus out into the wilderness to live among the wild beasts for forty days and to be tempted by Satan. Mark tells this story in exactly two sentences, and somehow the brevity of it makes it more unsettling.
But forty days in the desert with Satan is not the last unsettling thing to happen in this passage. John, who baptized Jesus at the beginning of his journey, initiating him into his ministry, gets arrested and thrown into prison for criticizing the king. Hovering over this news is the knowledge that he will never be seen alive by his followers again.
It is in the wake of John’s arrest that Jesus, who might have lain low in order to avoid John’s fate, raises his voice to begin his own prophetic ministry: the kingdom of God has come near, he says. Repent, and believe in this good news.
If it’s God’s expansive covenant with all living creatures and the earth itself that allows Noah to trust his feet to ground from which the flood water have barely receded, what is it that allows Jesus to raise his voice in a fearful time, when the violence of the rulers is so capriciously wielded against the ruled? Mark seems to say that it is his experience of being known and loved by God: you are beloved, he hears God say, with you I am well pleased. Knowing he was loved, Jesus could spend forty days in the desert resisting the temptation to abandon his journey. Knowing he was loved, the angels in the desert became visible to him, and allowed him to receive their care. Knowing he was loved, he could speak good news into a fearful time. Knowing he was loved, he had the capacity to help others see that the kingdom of God had come near.
We begin the journey of Lent with ashes smeared on our foreheads, reminded of our mortality: we are dust and we return to dust, we are told. We begin with the words of the penitential Psalm 51 in our mouths, sorry for the pain we have caused, longing to be changed and renewed.
But we also begin this journey as loved children of God, whose faithfulness reaches us in the rising of the sun and its setting, in the turning of the seasons, in the rain and the sun and the snow. It reaches us in the voice that says, that even when we are in the wilderness, God is near, as close to us as our own breath. A voice that invites us to live and choose and love undergirded by the promise of this good news, no matter what is happening around us. A voice that urges us to remain turned toward love, even when it feels that we are lost.
As we take our first steps on a path whose dimensions we can’t quite make out, whose edges we feel for in the dark, love can give us direction. To feel the power of God’s faithfulness in the covenant God made with Noah, we need to tune our lives to the rhythms of the natural world so that we can feel God’s faithfulness in the movement between day and night, winter and spring, seedtime and harvest. To feel the power of God’s love that undergirded the ministry of Jesus, we need to tune our lives to the rhythms of that love. How do we do that? By loving. Let somebody know you love them this Lent. Let them know you are walking beside them. Make somebody else’s prayers your own, be the angel offering care in the desert. Be the voice that says: beloved, you are loved. For if the first step of our Lenten journey is to love, we will safely arrive, as our pilgrimage blessing says, where we are boldly going.