This Lenten Season, Episcopal Relief & Development invites you to join us as we meditate on the commandment to love our neighbor and consider the meaning of this fundamental instruction in our daily lives.
The Rev. Robin Denney, a parish priest and former missionary focused on agricultural development in Liberia and South Sudan, wrote this year’s meditations. Robin’s reflections are poignant and personal and challenge the reader to consider the question, “Who is my neighbor?”.
Welcome to the first week of Lent! Each Sunday, we will share a link to a video and reflection questions that you can use as a resource for journaling or deeper learning during the week.
You can also use the video and notes from this reflection with friends or a church group to reflect on this week’s themes from the daily meditations and the Sunday lectionary readings.
Today’s themes: In our Sunday lectionary readings this week, and in the daily reflections, we will be considering the themes Responsibility and Temptation, as well as Care of Creation.
Today’s Lectionary Readings
This video tells the story of rural farmers in Nicaragua who have learned new ways to help alleviate hunger and end poverty within their communities. The people in this video are experiencing more chaotic and unpredictable weather, impacting their ability to survive as small-scale farmers. One farmer said, “We are seeing turmoil in the plants themselves.” They are building resilience not only from new farming techniques but also through their faith. The farmers talked about God’s call to care for the earth and how scripture and trusting in God are also essential tools in farming.
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
— Matthew 4:1-4
In the Lord’s prayer, we ask, “Lead us not into temptation,” but that is precisely where the Holy Spirit leads Jesus after his baptism. After a mystical experience of God’s favor, being called the beloved of God, Jesus finds himself famished in the wilderness. This reminds me of Mother Teresa’s story, which we reflected on last week. An uncomfortable truth emerges: We are at the same time beloved of God, called by God, and also hungry, tempted and in pain.
It can’t be an accident that Jesus’ ministry was forged in the wilderness. Jesus was hungry, famished, not only for food but also for freedom and justice for his people and a renewal of faith through love and mercy. Overcome by hunger, Jesus is offered a way out. Acknowledge that this world is the most important thing: having our desires met, having the power to set people free, to keep people safe.
Admit that, and you can have the pain of this deep yearning end. In the face of temptation, Jesus holds fast to God, placing love of God at the center of his being.
Being beloved of God is an invitation to leave behind our worldly identities—our jobs, successes, or relationships—and instead to plant our identity in God’s mercy and grace. Jesus’ ministry began in the wilderness, with his identity planted firmly in God. Temptation failed to draw him away, but rather burned away the illusion that anything else could be more important, and he was ready to go out and proclaim, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near!”
What temptations draw you away from God? What identities do you hold most dearly? Is the Holy Spirit inviting you into the wilderness, or are you already there? What is God calling you to let go of, or hold more loosely (beliefs, possessions, identities, regrets, relationships, vocations), so that God can be at your center?
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
— Genesis 2:15
The temptation of Adam and Eve starts here, not with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God gave them a purpose, a responsibility, and it is simple: “to till and to keep.” In Hebrew, the word “till” is also to serve or be a servant, and “keep” is also to protect, safeguard, and steward. Adam and Eve forget their purpose as caretakers of creation. They turn their back on responsibility in favor of selfishness, greed and envy. It is a story we know all too well in our own lives and our contemporary world.
We are constantly tempted to see creation as a resource to be exploited for our comfort and wealth. We have chosen by our actions and inactions personally and collectively to benefit in the short-term while mortgaging the lives of future generations and the planet itself. It is a terrible and pressing truth. We see mass casualty events, displacements, conflicts, disasters, and an increasingly uncertain future due to a changing climate. To live each day under the weight of this untenable truth, we compartmentalize it. We absolve ourselves of the responsibility to act because we are tempted to think the problem is just too big. But God is the champion of hopeless causes!
New technology is being invented. A new generation inspires us by their witness and action, and organizations like Episcopal Relief & Development are helping those most impacted by the changing climate to make a full and sustained recovery. But even if it were an utterly hopeless cause, we would still be called by God to be servants and stewards of creation because it is in our very souls, the first call of humanity.
Does hopelessness tempt you to inaction? When do you feel most hopeful for our world? Have you had an experience of serving others or caring for creation that filled you up? How can you act today as a servant and steward of the earth?
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
— A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis
Francis is one of the best-known saints. Born in a wealthy merchant family, Francis walked away from it all to embrace a life of poverty and service. He lived day in and day out as the Good Samaritan, binding up the wounds of the ill and dying, and feeding the hungry. He even crossed the front line during a crusade to try to convert a Muslim ruler and, in so doing, developed a respect for Islam.
Francis’ compassion and mercy caused him to see those who suffer and those of other faiths—and indeed all of God’s creatures—as his neighbors.
As we consider the weightiness of our responsibilities and temptations this week, it is important to remember what we have already learned about humility. As Francis reminds us in his prayer, humility is a way to consolation, understanding, love, blessing, forgiveness and eternal life. What Jesus calls us to is impossible, yet it is through God that all we are called to be is in fact possible.
Francis found that along the way, as he sought to bless others, it was that very act that blessed him in return. Each action in following Christ’s way of love leads us deeper into God’s mercy and grace. There is something about loving our neighbor that transforms us.
When have you sought first to listen and understand someone else instead of speaking your mind? When have you reached out in love or compassion and expected nothing in return? What helps you to let go of bitterness or selfishness? When are you your best self?
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
— Romans 8:19-21
Paul talks a lot about what it means to be a neighbor, about how the divisions of culture, gender, nationality, wealth and slavery fall away in the face of the unity we find as beloved children of God. In this passage, the family of God is thrown wide to include not just humans but all of creation.
God’s love is in all and through all. Every living thing is connected by that same source of life and love and, therefore that same hope in Christ. From decay and destruction everywhere in the universe comes new life and new hope. From the rotting leaf to the exploding star springs raw material for new life. From rich compost to stardust, the stuff of creation is ready to nurture the tiniest baby organism or the newborn solar system.
I have never grown out of my childhood fascination with rescuing insects. We lovers of small squirmy creatures tend to find one another. A Muslim scholar and friend taught me to care for ants because the Quran tells us that the ants once cared for Abraham. One time in seminary, a retired bishop joined me in rescuing worms from a rain-soaked sidewalk. That bishop taught me a nursery rhyme about worms as we transported them one by one to safety. We were both late to chapel that day. When I see that moment again in my mind, laughter wells up deep in my soul. I have committed many years of my life to teaching creation care and improved agriculture techniques, and yet it is still the single wriggling worm returned to good soil that fills my heart with joy.
What if every living thing you encounter today is your neighbor? What if God gives you eyes to see creation that way? Would it be overwhelming, joyful, terrifying, hopeful, heartbreaking, silly? And perhaps so much more!
But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among these does not know what the hand of the LORD has done? In his hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of every human being.
— Job 12:7-10
The heart of my workshops with small-scale farmers over the years has been this passage and Tuesday’s verse from Genesis. Many small-scale farmers, especially in post-conflict zones, have a hard time seeing their work as valuable. Many of them did not set out to be farmers. It was what was left to them when other endeavors failed, or conflict uprooted their lives and dreams. In some of the countries where I worked, more than 90 percent of people are farming, and most people experience a hunger gap between when their stored food runs out and the next harvest. It was even worse in conflict zones, where displacement meant leaving behind crops and food, and constant displacement disrupted the handing down of agricultural knowledge between generations.
Farmers who gather together in bible study, examining these passages for themselves, time and again determine that the work they do as farmers is honorable before God, the first call of humanity. They see God as the great farmer and look at what lessons they can learn from their own microclimates and ecosystems to help their crops flourish. I have seen farmers double their yields with simple techniques that are also good for the environment (like mulching instead of burning). Climate resiliency and closing the hunger gap are possible without expensive inputs or supply chains.
When I am tempted to think that nothing can stop the world from becoming more dangerous and desperate with each passing year, I remember the small-scale farmers I have met: those who, by their faith and courage, and despite literal hunger and trauma, found the hope to try again, to pray, to listen and to learn from the world around them.
Who inspires you to find hope? What has helped you see your work as valuable and honorable before God? When you want to give up, what helps you to continue? Have you ever learned from creation? What can you learn from your neighbor today?
Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
— Romans 5:18-19
Temptation is ever before us and, as Paul laments, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19) And yet it is from this seemingly hopeless place that we find redemption. Our job is not to redeem ourselves, to make right choices by our own strength, or to somehow right the wrongs of Adam and Eve, but rather to humbly rejoice in the freedom and salvation we find in Jesus.
With our identity rooted in God’s love and what Jesus has done for us, it is easier to find our way to humility, and from a humble heart to see the ways we have fallen short and find the yearning to live our lives closer to God’s dream for us and all creation.
We are not set free so we can ignore the responsibility God has given us toward our neighbor and all creation. We are set free from an identity of relying on our own strength so that we might rejoice in the grace of God at work in us. That humility helps us to turn from temptation and empowers us to works of love and mercy.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
If you are able, spend some time today observing creation. Whether by gazing at the world through a window, or going for a walk, a ride, a hike, a swim, a row, a bike… Take some time to observe the tiniest thing and the biggest thing, and everything in between. Are you able to stop and pray? Ask God, from the midst of creation, to help you see what you need to let go of, lament or repent of, and what you need to celebrate, receive and rejoice in.
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