Lent I 2016
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
February 14, 2016
“Baptism and Identity”
One of the great privileges of my life is getting to walk my daughter to school a couple of days each week.
Over the four years that we have been in Rome, this has amounted to many miles of travel and many hours of conversations along the way.
My daughter has been fond of asking her parents to relate “stories from our childhood” during these walks, and let me tell you…4 years of mining the memory banks for stories yields many repeats and retellings of the same stories.
However, this week, when asked for a story from my childhood, I was able to tell one that I hadn’t shared with her previously.
To be honest, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t shared it before, because it is a story that strikes at the core of what I believe, and one that illustrates just how different the kingdom of God can be from the world in which we live.
When I was 9 years old, my family moved from Monroe, Louisiana to New Boston, Texas.
As anyone who has ever moved knows, when you leave the familiar world that you have always known and have to face new situations and new environments, it can be a time of great learning and openness about who you are and what matters most to you.
The first thing my parents did upon arrival was to find a church home, and we started attending St. James Episcopal Church.
My parents took their baptismal vows very seriously, and growing up, I just assumed that all Christians put their love of God into concrete actions of loving neighbor similarly.
Growing up revealed to me that isn’t always the case, but at the time I was convinced that the Holy Spirit empowered all baptized Christians to heal the world in the name of the risen Lord, as that was what I witnessed through their ministry.
So before we would go to worship, we would pack a lunch/breakfast and go share the meal with a man who lived on the streets of Texarkana named Marshall.
He was a small man, haggard from his abuse of wine, but with a kind smile that started in his eyes and spread to his cracked, stained lips.
As a 9 year old, I enjoyed sharing this “communion” each Sunday, and saw the connection between the meal we shared with Marshall each morning and the meal we shared at the Lord’s table afterward.
This continued for awhile, until one Sunday we looked for Marshall but couldn’t find him.
We asked at the bus station…but no one had seen him.
We looked at the used car lot where he would often sleep…still no Marshall.
Seeing some others who lived on the streets as well, we asked them if they had seen Marshall.
“You mean that little old wino? Naw we haven’t seen him.”
Finally we had to give up the search and go to church, and went home afterwards feeling a bit discouraged and worried.
The next morning, there was an article in the newspaper whose headline read: Homeless man’s body found in dumpster in downtown Texarkana.
My heart sunk as my parents and I read the article.
It seemed that the unidentified man had been knifed in the night and his body disposed of hastily in the dumpster…a nameless victim of the streets thrown in the trash, never to be thought of again.
Except we knew that man had a name…it was Marshall.
Child of God, brunch companion…worthy of the same honor and consideration that all God’s creatures merit.
That was the moment I realized that the world doesn’t see creation in the same way that we Christians are called, by virtue of our Baptism, to see it.
There is a disconnect between what St. Augustine called the Earthly City, and the City of God…between worldly values and the values that undergird the kingdom of God.
Nowhere is that more present than in today’s Gospel, where Jesus, fresh from his Baptism in the Jordan River and full of the Spirit, is led into the wilderness.
Just like the Israelites freed from the yoke of slavery and traversing the wild and unforgiving wastes of the wilderness, Jesus goes into the wilderness freely and faces a multitude of temptations.
All of them have to do with second guessing his core identity, given from before the world came into being, and confirmed in his baptism…Jesus is the Son of God and the devil tries his darnedest to convince him otherwise.
“If you are the Son of God…then you must have superpowers…show yourself by turning these stones to bread.”
“Worship me instead of your Father and I will give you the nations.”
“If you are God’s Son and so special, then throw yourself from the holy Temple Mount and God will officially anoint you by saving you.”
Jesus, full of the Spirit and fresh off his Baptism, refuses to take the bait…he refuses to believe that his value, worth, and identity are based upon anything other than the fact that he is a child of God.
And consequently, he spends the rest of the Gospel showing that all these things are eventually made manifest through him, but not at the behest of the devil whose interest is worldly conceptions of power, domination, and other models of self definition.
He feeds the multitudes with bread.
He is proclaimed King of Kings after his Passion and Resurrection.
He is the High Priest who both falls, and is raised up.
We who are beginning the 40-day journey through the wilderness of this Lent will be faced with several temptations.
For those of you who have chosen to take on disciplines or deny yourself in some respect, the challenge will be great to stick to your Lenten regimen.
But I submit to you that regardless of what discipline you have chosen, or what item you have chosen to deny yourself of, the ultimate temptation that underlies all is to forget that you are a child of God, and to forget that your neighbor is as well.
The devil tried to convince Jesus that he was special, and wanted to encourage him to use that specialness to his personal advantage.
Jesus instead claimed that…YES, indeed he IS special, but that his status and power, granted him by God and confirmed in Baptism, is to be used to reconcile the world to God and to promote the truth of God’s reign rather than support the false reign of the powers of this world.
God’s reign puts popes and the poor, paupers and princes on equal footing as children of God.
Valued because they are beloved by God.
Like Marshall is, like the pope is, and like we all are.
Of course, to those who have worldly power, the baptismal call is to use their power to promote this truth, and I have been greatly encouraged by the way Pope Francis has continually used his office and prestige to reinforce the values of God’s reign.
It is clear to me that he sees himself and others as children of God, and I imagine he faces several temptations to use his power in a different fashion.
How about you?
How will you use this Lent to confront the temptation in your own life to deny that you are valued as a child of God, and to see this value in others?
The good news, that Jesus defended in the wilderness, taught about in synagogues and Galilee, and eventually went to the cross to proclaim, is that we are all one through the God who created us, loves us, and sanctifies us in Baptism.
Lent is a time to practice living this truth out, even though the world may wish to sway us toward another, less fulfilling narrative.
Will you make the journey with Jesus this year?
Will you enter into the wilderness of these forty days, full of the Spirit, and proclaim the truth of the Gospel in thought, word, and deed?
Please say yes.
For God’s sake, and for the world’s…say yes.