Living and dying

A sermon for Lent 1

A few hours after our services ended on Ash Wednesday, we got up in the dark and travelled to Georgia to see our son. Flying home last night, I was at first nervous that we’d miss our connection – our plane was late due to an earlier maintenance issue – and that we’d have to drive home from Dulles through the night. But by the time we approached the lights of the capital, we’d made up a lot of time. As the plane began to descend, it picked up some crosswinds. By the time the ground reached out to greet us, it was rocking like a boat on the wide ocean. I braced myself for a hard landing; but instead the plane pulled up sharply and we found ourselves once more climbing over the city, going around to try again.

We began Lent on Ash Wednesday with a stark reminder of our mortality: the grit and dust of ash smeared on our faces to remind us that we have been formed from dust by the One in whose image we are made – that we will one day crumble away with all of our monuments and memories. Yet we were made by One who never crumbles or stumbles, whose life-giving love endures forever. We are a shadow of what sustains us – a smudge of ashes forming part of a picture of glory.

There are many ways to die. Modern plagues continue to disturb our peaceful denial and threaten to isolate us even further from one another. Xenophobia and racism have gone viral along with the fear of the virus itself. We owe it to one another, to our communities and our families, to practice safe living – washing hands, staying home when we are sick, the sensible stuff – but we owe it to one another also not to care only for our own health, but for the welfare of those most vulnerable to disease, to economic distress. Without one another, our way of life cannot continue. We are held up by the arms of others – the face of the pilot emerging from the cockpit once we finally made landfall said it all – and how heavy a burden will we place on them?

There are many ways to die. On two Ash Wednesdays two years apart now, mass shootings have claimed the lives of the innocent, adults and children alike. How many of them wore ashes to school or to work that day, never dreaming that the end would come so soon? How has our temptation to the idolatry of violence and its tools, for protection and revenge, our insistence on our rights and our firepower over the commandment to love played into the hands of death and the devil?

Through the displacement of war and terror, through famine and unfair economic practices, too many still die of hunger in a world that is destroying its own environment for food production. The irony is crushing.

In addition to all of the little means of death that haunt us daily, there are the dramatic and the tragic, the unnatural and the unnecessary, the chaotic and deadly fruits of the Fall.

What would have happened if Jesus had chosen to take Satan’s suggestion, turn stone into bread? It could have been the beginning and the end of his feeding miracles. His compassion for the hungry crowds on the hillside would have been disrupted and damaged by the memory of how easy it is to fill one’s own stomach, and forget to pray for the hungry.

What would have happened if Jesus had consented to bow down before the devil, in order to harness his power and take over the principalities of the world? It would have been the end of the Cross and the Resurrection. It would have been the end of humility. It would have been the end of the Prince of Peace.

What would have happened if Jesus had chosen to take Satan’s suggestion, in front of festival crowds, and tossed himself from the pinnacle of the Temple? Whether or not the angels materialized, the divine experiment of the Incarnation would be over.

Jesus chose to be mortal, to be hungry, to be powerless. God chose humanity, so that we would have a new chance to choose life, to recognize the difference between good and evil.

There are many ways to die, and the Cross might be one of the worst of them; but Jesus came to show us life, the way to live.

His way of living is not grasping, nor self-satisfied. It is not death-denying, but it stands in solidarity with those who live in the valley of its shadow. It makes no deals with the devil. It is the way of love.

In the sacred story of our ancestors, the serpent told the woman that she would not die if she disobeyed God; she would, in fact, become more like a god herself. And it’s true that she didn’t fall like a fairytale character after one bite of the apple. But we die a little bit every time we turn away from the providence and mercy of the God, from our source of life and love. We die a little, we become a little less fully human, a little less connected to God and to one another, when anything less than love for God, love for our neighbour and our enemy made in the image of God guides our choices.

We do not become more godlike by striving for more power or satisfaction. Jesus showed us that in the wilderness.

And at the end of his fast, unbidden, the angels who would have broken his fall, had he needed them, came and ministered to him anyway.

We began Lent with the gritty reminder of our mortality, and we will end it with the glorious remembrance that God became mortal so that we might be raised to eternity. In the meantime, through the trials and temptations of the wilderness of life, may we be sustained and encouraged by the steadfastness of Jesus, and remember our common source and journey, and may angels come and minister to us when we need them the most.

Featured image: Jesus and Angel by Ary Scheffer (public domain), via wikimedia commons

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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