Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 + Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 + Romans 10:8b-13 + Luke 4:1-13

…the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  (Romans 10:13)

            As most of you know, we had a church full of college students from the University of Michigan camping out here this past week. A dozen undergraduate students decided to use their spring break, when many of their friends were heading home or to the beach, to engage in a service project for a feeding program in Lower Manhattan. It was a joy to welcome these young people here, and I am grateful to all who provided bedding and food during their time here.

            Several years ago, I accompanied an alternative spring break pilgrimage to the US-Mexico border with a group of University of Virginia undergraduates who participated in the campus ministry at my church and at the Presbyterian church a stone’s throw away. Thirteen students and five adults, myself included, flew into Tucson and drove the 60-some miles to just across the Mexico border at Nogales, one of the busiest immigration points along the southern border. 

            The purpose of this trip was not to doanything. It was to see and meet and listen and bear witness to what life was like for those seeking to cross into the US from Mexico and Central America. One group that we met were housed at the San Juan Bosco Migrant Shelter where we spent time with people who had been apprehended after crossing over into Arizona. They were brought back into Mexico, and the San Juan Bosco shelter is where they stayed until they could either appeal for entry into the US or find the means to return home.

            Most of the people there had spent all that they had and sold what they owned to get across the border. For many, the steep fees they paid to coyotes – migrant smugglers – were stolen as these desperate people were left to die in the desert. More than once, we heard that a smuggler had promised that, once across the border, Tucson was an hour walk away when in truth it is over 60 miles through the harsh desert. Many, many people have died trying to cross that desert on foot. Those who leave water stations in the desert for these folks are currently being prosecuted for their efforts. 

            At the shelter, we broke up into small groups with a few of us pilgrims, including at least one Spanish speaker among us, sitting with a few of the migrants. One of the most gut-wrenching stories we heard was from a young man from the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. He left his home with three friends because their families could no longer survive working the land. They were desperately poor and hoped to find farm work in America to send some money home to their families.

            So they raised what money they could, hopped on top of the great train that comes up central Mexico, La Bestia, it’s called, and took the dangerous journey north. They made it across the 20-foot-high border fence and made their way into the desert. After a couple of days, one of the four ran out of water. They had no idea when they might reach a town or city, and they knew that he could not survive for long, even if they shared what little water they had been able to carry.

            They were faced with a choice. Freedom for three of them in exchange for the likely death of one of them.

            They found a ranch house out in the desert and turned themselves in and were immediately sent back across the border to the San Juan Basco Migrant Shelter, where they now sat in from of me.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” (Luke 4:3)

Literature is filled with examples of people who have made deals with the devil. Faust may be the best known and things did not work out too well for him. If you’re a Charlie Daniels, fan (and why would you be?), you may remember

The devil went down to Georgia, he was lookin’ for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ‘cause he was way behind, and he was willin’ to make a deal.”[1]        

This song tells the story of Johnny who outplays the devil on his fiddle and wins the devil’s golden violin.

            Or maybe “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is more familiar to you. In Steven Vincent Benet’s telling, a farmer named Stone has fallen on bad times and says he just ought to sell his soul to the devil who, in the form of Mr. Scratch, takes him up on the offer. But when Scratch comes to collect, the old farmer calls on the great orator Daniel Webster to defend him. Webster, of course, wins, saves Mr. Stone, and outwits the devil.

            Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and Jesus’s refusal to accept Satan’s offers is not about outwitting the devil. Luke ends his account with the rather ominous line

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:13)

Satan does, indeed, return, as Jesus hangs on the cross and hears the taunts to save himself.Jesus does not merely trick Satan; he utterly defeats him and the powers of death over which Satan rules.

            Jesus does this by offering himself for us, allowing the evil powers and principalities of the world to have their way with his human body in order to point the way to God for all of us who participate in his crucifixion. And we do that daily by ignoring his calls to love has we have been loved.

            When we talk about Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness and trying to keep a Holy Lent by denying ourselves, chocolate may not be quite the sacrifice God is looking for. In fact, we cannot re-create the kind of self-denial Jesus practiced from the place of privilege we occupy. But we do experience similar temptations – temptation to power and privilege and prestige at the expense of all that is good and loving and compassionate in our lives. 

            So this is what Lent is really all about. Remembering who and whose we are, and not just us but all of humankind and all of creation; repenting of the ways in which we ignore God’s call to love and to serve; and preparing ourselves to once again receive the gift of salvation by God’s self-sacrifice on our behalf.

I cannot think of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days, hungry and tired and desperate, without thinking of the young men from Oaxaca. Tempted by the allure of liberty, an escape from deathly poverty. But they do not give in to that desperation, that temptation, and to hear them tell it, there was no debate amongst them. They could not leave their friend to die.

This is what it means to give our lives over to something bigger than ourselves. This is why Lent invites us to turn, to return, to reframe, to refocus on the One who loved us so much as to take on human flesh to point the way.

May your Lent be holy and filled with opportunities to feel God’s love and to share that love with the world.


ASEPSermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas