First Sunday in Lent
St. Philip Lutheran Church
21 February 2021 + First Sunday in Lent
Rev. Josh Ebener, guest preacher
“Life of Pi” (a film released in 2012 based on the novel) tells the story of a boy named Pi Patel. Pi’s family owned a zoo in India. When Pi is 16, his father decides that the family will move to Canada and sell the zoo animals. So the family sets out in a ship with all the animals. One night there’s a big storm and the ship begins to flounder. Pi frantically searches for his family, but a crew member throws him into a 26 foot lifeboat; and Pi watches helplessly as the ship sinks. Pi survives, but the rest of his family and the crew does not.
After the storm, Pi finds himself in the lifeboat. It turns out Pi is not alone on the lifeboat; there is also a zebra and an orangutan. Suddenly a hyena emerges from the tarp covering half the boat and kills the zebra and the orangutan. Then a 450 pound Bengal Tiger comes out from the tarp and kills the hyena.
So here’s Pi, already having lost his family in the shipwreck, is stranded on this lifeboat; and just when he thought it couldn’t get much worse, now he’s stuck with this ferocious tiger.
I mean, imagine it for a moment. Having everything and everyone stripped away from you; and then being stranded out in the middle of the ocean with a tiger.
He then builds a small raft to stay on in order to keep a safe distance from the tiger. He realizes that he must feed the tiger in order to protect himself, so he begins fishing, and collecting rain water for them both to drink. So far, it’s working. He feeds the tiger, and he doesn’t become tiger bait.
At one point, the tiger jumps into the water to hunt fish, and at first Pi wants to let it drown; but then he helps it climb back into the boat.
Eventually he trains the tiger to the point that he can go back on the lifeboat; and he discovers that his caring for the tiger is actually keeping him alive.
What is striking about this story is what Pi goes through spiritually as he’s out there at sea 227 days with a tiger.
His situation is like adding insult to injury; there are many times that you couldn’t imagine it could get worse for Pi, and then it does. Bit by bit everything around Pi gets stripped away, until he has nothing left.
There are times he cries out to God: What more do you want?
And it’s when he has nothing left; starving, wasting away, the sun beating down on him, the hungry tiger lurking constantly. It is when he comes to the brink…that’s when he comes face to face with God.
It is when he has everything stripped away that it becomes clear that he is not in control, God is.
So this time of trial and struggle actually ends up strengthening his faith.
Pi says: God, I give myself to you. I am your vessel. Whatever comes, I want to know, show me.
Even though he has nothing left; it is in the beauty of nature out there on the sea, Pi feels the presence and power of God.
And out there Pi confronted his fears, and it turns out that which he feared (that 450 pound tiger) was the very thing that helped him to survive.
Now you probably haven’t been stuck out in the ocean with a tiger; but we’ve all been through times of struggle, times where things we held dear were stripped from us. We could call it a wilderness period in our life.
Indeed this past year of pandemic has been a wilderness period.
But like Pi, often times it is those very times that everything is stripped away, that our faith is renewed; it is at those times, when we are most vulnerable, that we have no choice but to put our trust in God.
In today’s gospel from Mark, Jesus goes through a time of struggle out in the wilderness for forty days. Everything is stripped away, hunger sets in, and there Jesus is tested.
Mark’s account has the unique detail that Jesus “was with the wild beasts.” (Not sure if there was a Bengal Tiger; but maybe lions, leopards or wolves.)
Why does Mark mention this? It accentuates that this is the wilderness, and the desolation and danger of that place. Even though the danger lurked, Jesus was unhurt by the wild animals.
Scholars also point to a connection with Adam, who lived with the wild beasts in Paradise, unhurt by them, that is until Sin messed everything up. This would speak to how Jesus comes to restore things to the harmony and goodness God intended in creation.
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. And this is what Lent is, 40 days out in the wilderness, to strip things away in order that we would learn anew how to really trust and rely on God; to grow in faith. To remove ourselves from all the distractions; in order that we could more clearly focus on God and God’s ways.
This is why Lent is a time of fasting. Normally we give something up (not things we’d rather do without: kale, dentist, taxes). But this Lent, it feels like, what more can we give up; we’ve given up so much since the pandemic began nearly a year ago. We’ve lost loved ones, health, jobs, routines, in-person gatherings and church. In some ways it seems like Lent 2020 never ended.
The point of fasting is that it is in the absence of something that brings us closer to God; it drives us into the hands of the creator. It forces us to deal with the reality that we are not self-sufficient, and realize how much we need God. Fasting is a way of humbling ourselves (as Psalm 35 says, “I humbled myself with fasting.”)
The tempter wanted Jesus to focus on himself and his needs (turn this stone into bread). But fasting reorients us. It causes us to instead of focusing inward, to focus outward. Instead of focusing on ourselves, to focus on others, and their needs. Jesus could have turned that stone into bread for himself; instead Jesus later multiplies bread to help others, to feed 5,000.
As the pandemic hit last year, the church I serve, St. Andrew/San Andres in West Chicago, we saw how our (largely Latinx community) was adversely impacted, and it moved us outward and compelled us to start drive thru food distributions every Saturday. Thanks to many partnerships, including our neighboring Lutheran churches, we are able to share food and resources with over 300 families a week.
The prophet Isaiah gets to this point about fasting being about looking beyond ourselves to focus on others when he says (in chapter 58): “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
The prophet is warning that if your fast hasn’t changed you and how you treat others then you’re doing it wrong. It starts with contrition, with emptying yourself. It starts with ash on our brows and remembering we are dust.
It starts by acknowledging our own complicity in systems of injustice. In systems that calls essential workers heroes yet refuses to pay them a living wage. And as a white person it means acknowledging my complicity in systemic racism.
Isaiah concludes that the result of the fast is that: “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”
“Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
“and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
This is the kin-dom of God breaking through. This is the restoration of things to the harmony and goodness God intended in creation.
So beloved, as we fast, may we remember that we are not immortal, that we are fragile, and therefore dependent on God.
May this wilderness time help us grow in our faith and may it move us outward.
May our fasting bring us closer to God. And then like Pi, we can’t help but to declare:
God, I give myself to you. I am your vessel. Whatever comes, I want to know, show me.