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The First Sunday in Lent

And just like that, the Lenten springtime has begun. 40 days of preparation and renewal, getting us ready for the joyful celebration of Easter. It feels like it was just Christmas, but here we go.

In the invitation to a holy Lent that is part of the Ash Wednesday service, we lay out the history of Lent in a few short sentences: Lent historically was the season of the church when new converts to the faith prepared for baptism, preparing to join the community; and when those who had been separated from the church by ‘notorious sins’ could be restored and reconciled to the community. 40 days to be made ready to join, or to rejoin, the community of God’s people. So Lent is a reminder to us of God’s forgiveness, and of our need to continually repent, reset our lives and reclaim that forgiveness. As Fr Frank said in his sermon on Wednesday, it’s not just about the chocolate. This season is serious business.

The season of healing and reconciliation, a time to mend broken relationships and end our isolation from one another: These forty days are our chance to set things right. We all could use a little time to work on getting back into right relationship.

Our two scripture stories today take us right there, to the breaking and healing of relationship. Adam and Eve are created and put in the garden, living in a world of mutual trust with one another and with God – but then they are tempted, they fall prey to distrust and pride, and they pull away, from God and from one another. Whose fault is it? It’s his fault; it’s her fault; it’s the serpent’s fault. Even in the question of blame, the problem is made clear: The union we were made for, between us and God and between us and each other, is broken.

But then we come to Jesus in the wilderness preparing for his ministry, clarifying his vocation, knowing/fearing that if he chooses this path, he will have to give up everything. For forty days he struggles with this. And he grapples with the temptation to stay separate and not to reconnect in that union – to be self-sufficient, to gather power into himself, to distrust God’s mercy and provision for his life. But he resists, and stays steadfast in his faith in God – and because he sets forth on his path, we are shown the way back to ours. The way of Jesus leads back to love and to life lived in union again.

But looking at the world as it is now, it’s obvious that it remains such a strong temptation for all of us to pull away from one another. To pull into groups and tribes at war and conflict with each other – we’re one year into the Russian war on Ukraine, and so many more years into endless other wars and conflicts in our own country and all over the globe. To isolate ourselves from God and even from those we love – our collective mental health is at an all-time low, manifesting most of all in young people. We continue to succumb to the temptation to disconnect from the ground of our being and union in love. And we suffer because of it.

You could say that this disconnect comes to us naturally. I’ve been reading a few books on animal cultures, exploring the idea that cultural differences can be observed among animals in the wild. We’ve tended only to use the word ‘culture’ to refer to human society, yet learned and shared behavior and language is prevalent among animals as well. Even amongst others of their own species, animals will gather into groups, associating with those who vocalize the same as they do or have the same hunting habits, or even with those who share the same perception of beauty. Orcas in northern Puget Sound won’t mix with orcas in southern Puget Sound, even though they’re genetically the same. Certain flocks of Amazon parrots make similar sounds that can only be described as regional dialects, different from other flocks nearby even though they are the same species. Crows make tools, passing along techniques from one animal to others, which then become normal for their group – but different from how other crows make their tools. Animals have distinct cultures, even tribes. There’s something natural, apparently, about gathering with others who share a common culture – and natural, too, about fighting with those who are in a different group.

And yet most of us humans feel called to reach beyond these ‘natural’ boundaries we experience, to find the common humanity we share despite differences of culture, language, color. Babies seem to do that naturally; we all have to work to do it as we grow older. It is one of our ongoing struggles of living together in a diverse world, seeking to move beyond differences, to live into the vision that is also a part of our spirits and souls, the vision of connection across all peoples. That’s a way that we are called to move past what comes naturally, the temptation to separate into us vs them. That’s one kind of reconciliation work we are called into as Christians, hard work as we interrogate our assumptions, our behaviors, our souls.

That work involves overcoming what comes ‘naturally.’ And yet in other ways we struggle to live in what should be an entirely ‘natural’ way. Human beings also are social animals – we need each other in order to thrive and survive in this world. It is natural for us to be with each other. And yet we seem to have a regular temptation to do what is not natural, to withdraw and go it entirely alone. To act as if we can be self-sufficient and a god unto our own selves. ‘It is not good that the man should be alone,’ God says in the creation story, and God first creates other animals, and then creates multiple humans, created in open and honest relationship with one another, naked and vulnerable to each other and to God. But as that story shows, we find so many ways to turn from that relationship. So many ways to wall ourselves off even from family and friends; walling ourselves off from God in our very center. It’s not natural at all, but we do it all the same. Restoring natural relationship with others around us, and the source of our life within us, is another kind of reconciliation we are called into.

So our invitation to you for this holy Lent is to work on connecting to God and to one another again. This has been a long strange time of crisis, these last few years. We have lost some of our sense of how to be in right relationship with others. Lent can provide a reset, a time to stop and turn to a new path. Time to wonder and explore: What are the habits that have crept up on us over these last few years, that are keeping us from connection with others and with God? Too much indulgence of the instinct to stay in and stare at the screen? Fear of other people as agents of contagion? Social awkwardness because you just haven’t spent time lately with people besides your close family? or with anyone? Too much alcohol consumption, maybe? The temptation to see others in categories, rather than as actual people? Too much attention to our own fragility and ‘triggers’? Laziness – let’s be honest – because it’s just too much work to put shoes on and go somewhere? These are the notorious sins that have been keeping us separated from one another. But they’re not inevitable. They are habits that we can break, with God’s help.

Instead, we can nurture the habits that lead us back into right relationship: setting and keeping a regular prayer time, where we sit in vulnerability with God, acknowledging our needs. Finding time to read from scripture and other nourishing texts, wisdom from others for our path. Making an 8-minute phone call to one longtime friend every week. Prayer and study and real conversation with a small group, or a spiritual companion. Regular attendance at church, where you mix with people you may or may not know well, who may not be just like you. Cultivating curiosity about other people who think or talk or act differently from you, to know and understand them beyond the news headlines or the curated feed of social media. Looking more deeply in order to find our common humanity.

This is work we need as people of faith, in this time and in this place. And it is work that our world needs us to model and share, too. I invite you into it, to take this on as your discipline during this season of preparation. Ours is a reconciling faith, this message of Jesus – reconciling those who have been opposed to one another in this life, and reconciling us to the deep love of God at the heart of all things. The good news of Easter lies ahead of us, news that we can celebrate together, in community, restored to God and one another. In these 40 days and beyond, may God overcome our temptations, and lead us into hopefulness and joy. Amen.

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