Adapted from a sermon preached March 1, 2020
I remember the first Ash Wednesday service I led for this church—about twelve years ago now. It was at Danforth Chapel on campus, and when the invitation was given for people to come forward and receive ashes I found myself staring out at several confused—and mildly terrified—faces.
A few of you grew up in more liturgical traditions and have observed Lent—or at least been aware of its existence—your whole lives. But for many of us, paying attention to these 40 days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter is a rather new experience. I don’t remember knowing much about Lent until I got to college. It is a season, however, that I have come to appreciate deeply. And I love entering into the season by observing Ash Wednesday. (O.K. With eating pancakes on Tuesday and then observing Ash Wednesday.)
We begin Lent, on Ash Wednesday, with this reminder: “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” Which connects us to this morning’s story from Genesis. This man we heard about, who gets put in the Garden of Eden—eight verses earlier God forms him out of dust. And if we kept reading through verse 19 of Genesis 3, we would read this part of God’s stated consequences for the humans’ disobedience:
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
That sets the tone, right, for this somber Lenten endeavor. From dust you have come. To dust you shall return.
And we also, this morning, get the story of Jesus facing the tempter in the wilderness. We always begin Lent with Jesus in the wilderness. Wilderness is a primary metaphor for Lent. I don’t know that there is one clear understanding of what we mean when we say, spiritually speaking, that we are “in the wilderness.” But it’s generally not good. We have some sense of desolation, of dryness, of barrenness. The wilderness is thought of as a place of deprivation—which may be why, traditionally, people give things up for Lent.
“Being in the wilderness” is not where we want to be, but a hardship we must walk through to get to the good stuff on the other side.
Except I’m wondering, as we enter the Lenten wilderness yet again, if we might do better to think of the wilderness in a more positive light. My wondering is prompted by comments Patrice has made about the goodness, the necessity of natural wilderness. And from my own reading of this morning’s texts over the past week.
We don’t generally think about the Garden of Eden as a wilderness, but a paradise. There are trees that are “pleasant to the sight and good for food.” There are streams of water and animals and companionship. It is lovely. But it is also wild. We may not want to call it a wilderness, but there is certainly a wildness to the garden.
I learned some interesting things this week about Genesis 2:15—the opening verse of the passage we heard at the beginning of worship: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
Significantly, I learned that the Hebrew word translated here as “till” means “to serve.” That humans were put in the Garden specifically to serve and care for the land. Not to tame it. But to honor it in all its wildness and beauty.
I also learned that there is a nuance to the Hebrew word that is simply translated here as “put.” God “put” the man in the garden. It means that the man was made to rest there, to settle down, to remain—like one would plant a tree in the soil.
We like to think there is something temporary about our time in the wilderness—it may be 40 days, but it won’t be forever. The wilderness is something to get through—not a place in which to dwell.
But what if the wilderness is where we have been planted by God? To rest. To settle down. To remain. And what if that is a good thing?
It is the Holy Spirit, after all—not the devil—that leads Jesus into the wilderness. And Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness bear similarities to the temptations of the first humans. There is a temptation to change their relationship with God and with the world around them. A temptation to inhabit a space—physical or otherwise—besides the place where God has put them.
Biblical scholar and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, in the story of Jesus’ temptation, the devil “subtly suggested that Jesus deserved better than God was giving him.” Which is exactly what the serpent suggests in Genesis 3: that the woman deserves better than what God is giving her—even though God is giving her paradise.
And this is the form our own temptations take so much of the time. The temptation to dwell on the belief that there should be, somehow, more for us. That things would be better in a different place or with different people.
And the wilderness may not be the cause of this temptation, but our best hope of resisting it. Because the wilderness, the wildness, can remind us that God’s creation is good. That, as part of God’s creation, we are good. That God has planted us where we are and, rather than just trying to get through the wilderness, we might settle in and enjoy it.
On one of my visits to the Catholic sisters in Atchison, I learned that in addition to their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Benedictine monks and nuns (along with a few other religious orders) also take vows of stability—which in their case means that they commit to living their whole lives in the same monastery.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer, explains that “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’ … Stability becomes difficult for a [person] whose monastic ideal contains some note, some element of the extraordinary. All monastaries are more or less ordinary.… Its ordinariness is one of its greatest blessings.”
As someone who attended four different elementary schools, two middle schools, and 2-3 high schools (depending how you count), I can see the appeal in a vow of stability, even as I recognize how counter-cultural it is.
As a pastor, I can appreciate the value of people committing to be church with a particular group of people. You could be somewhere listening to a better sermon this morning. You could be somewhere with better programs for your kids. You could be somewhere with more comfortable seats, better sound, better lighting, and—dare I say it?—better music. Maybe. But you are here. Not because everything here is better than everywhere else, but because this is your place. This is the place God had planted you. And when we stay planted, we can grow.
Those of us here this morning are not likely called to make vows of stability that will keep us in a particular monastery. But many of you have, in essence, taken a vow of stability to stay in this church by becoming members and otherwise committing to this community. Entering into marriage is a vow of stability. As is adopting or otherwise inviting children into your family. Some of you live out stability in your profession. Some of you are long-standing members of particular neighborhoods or clubs, or other groups. You may even have taken a vow of stability—as it were—to a particular coffee shop or auto mechanic. And if you have taken any of these vows of stability, you may have realized the benefits of being planted.
In some ways it seems counter-intuitive that stability and wilderness might go together. But I think they do. I think there is something in both of the biblical stories we heard this morning that suggests a blessing for those who stay, in a sense, where God has placed them.
I want to be clear that I am not saying people should stay in abusive relationships or toxic environments. I am not saying that we should never go to new places or try new things. There are often very good reasons to move on—from a relationship, from a job, from a place, from a church (though not this one).
Still, I think we should always be careful about our impulse to pull up roots. Is the Holy Spirit leading us to something new that God has? Or is the tempter enticing us with the niggling sense that we deserve better than what God is giving us; that the one fruit we can’t eat is the only one worth eating; that the timeline that God has set is far too slow; that the wilderness is not full of beauty to behold, but trials to endure.
All of this thinking about temptation and vows of stability sent me back to the sermon Roger Gibson preached a few months ago on contentment. He first made a very good point about the difference between complacency and contentment: “Complacency is acceptance and inactivity, . . . contentment is not tied to inactivity in our lives, but instead it is tied to trusting God’s activity in our lives.” He went on to say, “I have come to understand that contentment is a mindset, a mindfulness, that who I am, what I have, and where God has placed me right now is sufficient.”
It feels right to be here, in the wilderness, with you as we begin our Lenten journey. It feels right to be here: caring for the land, eating from the trees, appreciating the beauty, and clinging to God’s call.
It may be tempting to move on to the next shiny thing, but I invite you to rest where you are, to settle in, to remain. I invite you to sink your roots into the soil and lift your faces to the sun.