Today is the First Sunday in Lent. It is also the time we are once again conducting our time of examination of what it means to be a steward. A mailing will be going out tomorrow.If you are viewing from afar, and you wish to participate, let me know and I will make sure you get the information packet.
If I was to think of a theme for this time it would be A Grateful Heart taken from George Herbert’s poem Gratefulness, which begins;
Thou, that hast given so much to me, Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
It reminds us that it is with a spirit of gratitude that we respond; our own giving, especially here at St Paul’s, being a response to God’s gifts to us. We give our time, our gifts and skills, our attention, our love, our friendship, our wisdom and expertise on the Bishop’s Committee or organizing various outreach programs or keeping our campus looking good and functioning well our care in stewarding, volunteering, our money, with a spirit of thankfulness, and as a natural response to all that we have received.
The season of Lent brings the church back to basics. Lent, we were reminded on Ash Wednesday, is a time to focus on prayer, on almsgiving and on letting go of those things that form a barrier between us and God. It’s a time for reviewing our life with God, of knowing we are dust – mortal, fallible and fragile, and living from an awareness that all we have is gift. Reviewing our giving as a church seems a natural part of that.
Like the Israelites in our passage from Deuteronomy it is the best of what we have that we offer. Our giving is not an afterthought but our ‘first fruits’. When we know where all our blessings come from we can’t help but give. For the people of God it will be in response to God’s saving help. God delivers them from slavery in Egypt, leads them through the wilderness and gives them land that promises to produce an abundant harvest. Their offering is to be in remembrance of all that God has done for them during times of need and doubt. So today might be a day for you to remember what God has done for you and be thankful.
This kind of giving is sacramental, not because it is a sacrifice, but because it is an outward sign of the grace and gift of God in our lives. Whatever gifts you bring to St Martin’s (and for some of course that won’t be financial) they are given in love and faithfulness and they mean a great deal to God, and to you. Take time today to remember what it is that you bring and share those thoughts with God.
We have a great treasurer, Dan Wonsowski who sees every day how our money is raised and spent, the care that goes into using our resources, supporting our ministry, creating opportunities, for worship, for community, for welcome and outreach and mission and supporting those who are vulnerable, for prayer and sacred space at the heart of this city, offering music and good food and hospitality and art and resources for business and community, for the people that pass through St Paul’s each year. It is a great privilege to see this and be part of it and know that what I give financially each month is part of that too. It’s part of the flow of time, care, skills, money, attention to detail, welcome, faithfulness, expertise, prayer, friendship and love that is needed to do the work of God in this place. We each contribute in our own ways to the life of God’s Kingdom here, and we are all grateful for the gifts of one another today.
So how does our focus on stewardship and gratitude find its place on this first Sunday of Lent with our Gospel reading today, with Jesus tested in the wilderness?
Another line from the end of George Herbert’s poem helps us here.
Not thankful, when it pleaseth me; As if thy blessings had spare days: But such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.
In the wilderness Jesus shows God his heart. A heart that when tested, pulses with the love of God and is totally orientated to his Father in loving gratitude. Led by the Spirit into the wilderness Jesus works out what the words he hears at his baptism will mean for him. You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
And so he shows us, shows God, and himself what kind of Beloved Son of God he is, and is going to be. Each time Jesus is tested we see him coming home to the core of who he is, to the truths at the heart of his belief and his calling. We see that his whole life will be a life lived in gratitude to God. He shows us how to live in gratitude as we re-orientate our lives to God this Lent.
As Jesus wrestles with these three temptations he resists taking power into his own hands; to change the natural order of the world; to turn stones into bread to satisfy his own needs, to seize power and authority over the kingdoms of the world, rather than trust that in time God will give this authority to him, to test God rather than trust God and the constraints of the earthly life he has been given. Each time Jesus calls on Scripture with words from Deuteronomy, to stay true to the purposes for his life and the call to worship and serve God. Rather than rules and regulations that constrain him, these words of Scripture are words of life.
One does not live by bread alone. There is more to life than serving self. Jesus’s life will be a life poured out for others. Here he resists the temptation to turn stones into bread for himself, but later he will take bread and give thanks and break it and feed 5,000 hungry people in another deserted place. Guided by God Jesus will know when and how to share God’s abundance. The words Jesus chooses in response to this temptation are those used to remember God’s provision in the wilderness, as the Israelites learned to trust God for the manna he gave day by day. Here Jesus shows what it means to trust in God’s provision. His life will be about more than just providing food, it will be about sharing the food that God gives with others – the Bread of Life. This is what we do with our relationship with the Marfa Food Pantry.
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. The whole of Jesus’s ministry will be about bringing in the Kingdom of God, God’s rule of justice and peace. It is not about seizing power, the worldly power that the devil tempts him with. God’s way seeks to find a new way of having authority, the way of loving service rather than domination. Jesus chooses this more difficult way. A humble way that in God’s good time will change the whole world.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus chooses to live with the constraints of his earthly life; to share our humanity with us. He chooses to be with us, in the world, not above it or outside it. He refuses to jump from the temple but stays rooted in the here and now. Later, again in Jerusalem, he will give up his life, face rejection, shame and humiliation and go willingly to the Cross, in confidence that God’s will for life will overcome the evil and pain, that this costly way of being in the world will lead to.
Through all of this we see Jesus define his way of being in the world as God’s Son. It is a self-giving life of gratitude towards God. A life lived for others, following God’s way of service and love, being in the world, for the world. And his way of living in gratitude to God means that he chooses to be where God is, with us. His heart is with us. His faithful obedience places him alongside us, bringing God’s love and humble ways into our lives to transform us and show us a new way to live in the world.
For each of us there is that same temptation about whether we trust God or not; trust his purposes for our lives, when we want to be successful rather than faithful, when we are seduced by power and wealth, when we are tempted to compromise rather than hold our ground on the things that matter, choose for ourselves rather than for others, when we avoid the path of suffering and take the easy way out. Jesus invites us to orientate our hearts and to live from that place of love, faithfulness and gratitude; to place our hearts with him.
When we see Jesus choose to be with us with all his heart, how can we not respond with love? And that is the most precious thing you bring today. Your Love.
What better way to live this season of Lent – with all our heart, with a grateful heart.
So come and follow Jesus
you who have committed yourselves already,
and you who would like to do so for the first time;
you who have given yourselves to the care of creation and to the suffering ones of the world
and you who feel moved by the Spirit
to begin to offer yourselves;
you who have been faithful in your life commitments
and you who have failed.
Come, for our Lord invites us to follow him,
and to make new beginnings in our lives.