The congregation will have begun their worship by chanting the Great Litany. This is an ancient, beautiful, and exhaustive prayer for God’s grace, sung in procession. At CGS, members of the congregation join in the procession, so that everyone has the chance to follow the cross with their whole being as their Lenten observance begins.
So, today we prayed the Great Litany together. What happened? Tell me what that was like? (Members of the congregation offer answers).
How does our experience following the cross around the church connect to Jesus’s experience being led through the wilderness by the Spirit? (Again, various answers are offered).
If you have lived long enough to be sitting here today listening to this sermon, I bet you’ve been to some wildernesses. I bet there have been times when you felt lost, where the path was not clear, where the river beds looked dry, and the devil prowled around, offering you easy outs and simple solutions to your problems. If you have been paying attention to the news of the world, to the presidential election process, to the economy, to our parish prayer list, you will know that wilderness is not something way out there, not something exceptional to the rule; wilderness is our native ground.
God does not promise to pluck us out of the wilderness, like a helicopter parent, but rather to be with us in the wilderness, and to help us find our path, our peace, and our joy there. It is not escaping the wilderness that accomplishes our salvation, but trusting God in the wilderness that saves us. How do we do that? Let’s see what scripture tells us:
In the reading from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses and the Hebrew people have come through 40 years in the wilderness. They are looking over to the promised land, and Moses is giving them some final instructions before they cross over. He reminds them that their ancestor was a “wandering Aramean.” He reminds them that God saved them from oppression. God fed them through their wanderings. God has been faithful throughout, present, not absent, through this journey. Don’t forget that, he tells them. Every year, give the first fruits of your harvest to God. Make this a habit. Let this habit remind you who you are and who is the giver of all good things. He gives them a way to worship.
This way of worship will be passed down through the centuries, and added to as the people of Israel continue, until it informs the life of a young man named Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus will grow up in a family that gives its first fruits to God, and he will read the scriptures telling the story of God’s saving work in the synagogue of his community, and it will shape his understanding of who he is and who God is.
And then he will be baptized. And the Spirit (not the devil!) will lead him into the wilderness. And there, he will face trials, and he will be tempted to forget who he is and who God is. But having been shaped by the worship life of his community, he will be ready to stand up to those trials by trusting God. He will be hungry in the wilderness, but not defeated by the devil there.
And Jesus will go on to shape the worship of those who follow him. He will tell them, when two or three of you gather, I will be there, too. And when you pray, say this, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” He will tell them to take and bless and break and share bread and wine to remember him. In continuing to gather together, break bread, and pray, his followers can remember that the Spirit is with them in their wildernesses, just as it had been with Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness, just as it had led the children of Israel through their 40 years in the wilderness.
If you turn to page 304 in the BCP you will find the Baptismal Covenant. These are the promises that we make in the Episcopal Church when we are baptized into the body of Christ. The first part, as you can see, is a statement of faith – the Apostles Creed. The last part is a series of five questions that, together, set out what a Christian life looks like. Each life will be unique, but each Christian, in their own way, will incarnate these things.
The first promise, which we lift up today, is “Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breading of bread, and in the prayers?” This question is first on purpose. Worship comes first, not because God demands it, not because we will be banished from heaven if we miss mass one week – Episcopalians don’t believe that – but because worship reminds us who we are. Worship sustains us for everything else listed here. Worship realigns us, week after week, to the purposes of God and to God’s love for us and for all. Without worship and prayer, we will find ourselves face to face with the devil and be speechless.
In this church, most of what we do in worship and prayer is pretty old fashioned. It is a passing on of rituals and tunes and prayers that have been passed down to us for generations, sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia. We believe that we should not be cavalier about throwing off the wisdom of all the people of God who came before us because we don’t find it entertaining enough. We do reflect on our practice and change practices if we find that they are deforming us rather than forming us. But we do that not based on personal opinion or whim, but through a process of prayerful and theologically-informed consultation.
Let yourself fall into worship this Lent. Continue in the fellowship of the church, break bread with us, pray. This is God’s gift to you – you who, like your ancestor Jacob, are a “wandering Arameans,” searching for peace and meaning and gladness in a world where the sands shift suddenly and the landscape can seem pretty threatening. The Spirit will meet you there. And when Easter comes, you will have a deeper thirst and thankfulness for the grace of God offered to you through Christ.