Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
First Sunday in Lent
17 February 2013
Day Texts: Deuteronomy 26.1-11
Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16
I continue to engage in an "experiment" of my own in my preaching. Namely, trying on an extemporaneous style. This adapted from the original MSS and the audio, which wasn't clean enough to post. Thanks for having solidarity with me in this!
I always enjoyed Lent growing up. I loved the minor key German chorales that sang of sacred heads now wounded and going to Dark Gethsemane. Loved actually living the stories of Holy Week, as we journeyed liturgically with Jesus from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the heartbreak of Good Friday. As far as ways to reflect on such easy topics as, you know, sin, suffering, mortality, failure and death, there’s definitely worse ways to go about it.
But this year, its feeling to me like the Grinch has stolen Lent. Because for once in my teutonic existence, I’m not actually really feeling the whole existential angst thing. Maybe it comes from returning home to a city where its cloudy and grey pretty much every day. Or maybe it just feels like there’s enough suffering in the world already.
Or maybe, Lent’s not all it was originally cracked up to be. Because back in the day, in the early early church, before the Dark Ages brought the dark to the ages, the 40 days leading up to Easter wasn’t primarily focused on guilt and sin. Rather, it was focused on identity. Namely, our identity in Christ. And initiation into a new community, a new family, as a new creation.
See, this time marked the final home stretch for folks seeking baptism and inclusion into the people of Jesus. These catechumens, as they were called, did go through some fasting, and penance, and public scrutinies and even exorcisms. But these were in the service of deepening their experience of the mysteries of faith, a way of building anticipation for the moment, at the Easter Vigil, when, having seen their old self buried with Jesus, they would enter naked into the baptismal bath, be immersed in the waters, and arise to be anointed with oil. Like Jesus at his baptism. To be called, like Jesus, beloved sons and daughters of God.
It makes me wonder about how I’ve always read our Gospel lesson for today. Because I think I’ve always read it through the Grinch’s lens of a miserable Lent. And so always thought, “man, Jesus is baptized and told God loves him, and then is sent to starve in the sand for 40 days? What a raw deal. That’s tough love.”
But I wonder: perhaps Jesus might have enjoyed his time of sojourn in the desert. Now granted, the whole fasting thing is not exactly cake. But maybe Jesus spent his time communing. Living into his newly declared identity of beloved child. Maybe he took the time to bask in the beauty of stars at night in a cloudless desert sky. Discovered and explored hidden caverns. Drank deeply of the cool of the shade. Living into being a community, a Trinity, with the Father and Spirit, and so, growing deeper into his truest identity and self. A sureness of intimacy with God that no voice of temptation could ever shake.
And see, I think this might be what St. Luke’s after here in his telling of the story. Because Luke’s is the only Gospel that says that Jesus was led into the desert WHERE he was tempted. The others say “TO be tempted,” as if that were the point. But for Luke, the temptation is secondary. Its the being led - by the Spirit - that is central.
And see, if Jesus’ desert sojourn was really about knowing himself more deeply as God’s beloved child - and if the purpose of the early church’s practice of Lent, and even our Lent, is about knowing ourselves as God’s beloved children - then its no wonder to me that Satan assumes the mantle of Grinch, and tries to disrupt Jesus from the path. Trying to make this time more about the lack of food, or the lack of power, or the lack of security. Taking the focus off of God and identity, and onto practices and failures, lack and unworthiness. Questioning again and again, “if you really ARE God’s Son...” while dangling the carrot of achievement and success in front of the one seeking grounding, not in the doing of things, but in the being of someone. God’s someone.
Now, regardless of what you think about El Diablo - whether you think he’s a little red guy with hooves or the spiritual equivalent of a monster truck rally - this Lenten temptation is very much real. The Grinch that tries to steal Lent from us, again and again, is the nagging, whispering, satanic voice trying to steal the gift of knowledge of God’s love for us by focusing us on our lack of love for ourselves. The goal is a disrupted communion. The goal is a heart ten sizes too small.
I’m not going to write the rest of this message in Dr. Seuss rhyme. Lucky you. But what I would like to do is try on an old preacher trick. The infamous three-point sermon. I’d like to explore three different ways we could try to view and so live Lent as a time of internalizing, exploring, and deepening our identity in Christ. A time of taking the words “you are God’s beloved child” and letting them sink from our heads into our hearts. A re-orienting time of initiation, or re-initiation, into the desert adventure of companionship with God.
So here goes. A draft of a manifesto for a Spring Revolution. Because Lent means spring. And God’s after what Dorothy Day called a revolution of the heart.
First, off, what if we viewed Lent as an experiment? Much to my mother’s chagrin, I’ve been learning a lot from the Buddha recently. And one of his main teachings is that truth is something that we do. That we learn. Not just think. What if Jesus went out into that desert, not so much to contemplate the knowledge that he was God’s beloved, as much as to live it out? To experience it? To practice it?
It reminds me of my dear friend Marcus from Denver. Marcus was part of a subculture known as “crust punk.” Basically, a bunch of kids who dropped out of high school and ride the rails, or hitch-hike, all across the country, learning how to make things and survive and explore. Modern day Beats, scruffy Jack Kerouacs. Magnificent beards too!
Well, Marcus also happens to be a Christian. And he and a bunch of his friends travelled, specifically to live into their faith in God’s promises. To try out what it might be like to have nothing except God, and be utterly dependent upon God’s providence and promises for survival. Their life on the road was a grand experiment. And oh the stories he had to tell!
What if life with God in Lent was more like On the Road? A time to set out on a journey, to try things, to live the Beat life...which, at its root, means “beatified?” If we stopped trying to achieve or manufacture some sort of identity, and instead, clothed ourselves in nothing but our God-given identity, and then, see what happens?
Might it look like a 40 day trip in the desert, putting on the practice of prayer and fasting? Perhaps. Or maybe it looks like trying to fast just once. This week. Seeing what its like. Taking a baby step. A first endeavor. And then, reflecting. Conversating. And then, figuring out a next step. Life as an ongoing process of discover, experimenting with what being God’s child means right now. Not as we imagine we’re meant to be. But as God tells us we are. Right now.
Takes away some of the pressure, right? It can be more of a time of wonder, and less one of fear. In the Gospel, Satan tries to disrupt Jesus’ experiment, praying on his hunger, offering him an easy closure in the form of a quick fix. Just turn the stones to bread, and its all over. But Jesus resists. Like Marcus, decides to live by the Word of God alone.
What a life of freedom it would be to live our spirituality as an experiment. Lent’s a great time to try out the little experiments (and the grand ones too) that you’ve always wondered about. Test it. Try new things. Make mistakes. Fail! And then explore a different angle. What would Lent be like if you knew you couldn’t fail? Because you already know who you are. Now its just a matter of living into it!
I wonder if we might live differently. Able to engage in a second way of looking at Lent - that of resistance. Satan quite clearly tempts Jesus with the promise of power. In exchange for idolatry. Worship me, and you’ll have complete control, whispers the Grinch. And Jesus, being the Son of God, has all the power in the world to zap him out of existence. And yet, Jesus does not.
Jesus knows who he is. And whose he is. And whose he is not. And because he is secure in himself, he does not need to use violence or force. But he does resist. Throws idolatry and false worship and false promises into the abyss. Turns down the offer of power, and also the promise of miraculous attention, just as he will, years later, when he is being raised upon a cross. Because God, in God’s love for us, would rather forgive than raise a finger of force.
But he does resist. Gandhi called his great nonviolence work “experiments in truth.” Rebellion against the empty lies of the devil and the empty promises of violence, this is part and partial of our true identity. Perhaps it will mean giving up things the world offers, refusing to believe their empty promises, just as catechumens are called on to renounce “the devil and all his empty promises.” It might mean re-examining our idolatrous complicity with the powers and principalities of this earth. It might mean suffering, and losing control. (Hence why we’re participating in the Season of Non-Violence! See link here for more)
But as children of God, experimenting in truth and love, freed from failure, and made alive by the Spirit, we are given the time to be faithful. We are given the promise of love to give us hope. And we are armed with weapons of love in the war of the Lamb, which is to smash all lies, disbelieve all falsehoods, doubt our doubts, and to live our callings. It will bring us into conflict with the world. And it is a rebellion worth undertaking.
And we do not engage it alone. Because Lent is also a time of solidarity. We do not experiment alone, but as part of a great workshop, a lively laboratory, of colleagues, dead and living and yet to come. And resisting and rebelling against the death-dealing idolatries of the world will mean coming into relationship with those who have been oppressed by them. It will mean walking with the poor, the marginalized, the betrayed, the beaten, and yes, even the damned. It will lead us into the wilds of human suffering. And into the ecstasies of human community.
And it will lead us to one another. In this community, here. We will journey together, and we will discover together, and hold one another, and guide one another to oases. And we’ll also fail one another. We are companions with one another, and fellow travelers with Jesus. We will face dangers, just as Satan tempted Jesus to leap from the roof of the temple. Jesus was promised angelic companions, but Jesus knew that he already walked in the fellowship of the Spirit. We are sometimes tempted to go it alone. But Jesus has left us, not only with the Spirit, but with each other.
This is a time when we will delight in discovering together the wilderness. Sharing observations. Supporting one another’s experiments. Carrying each other in the resistance. Remembering, like the ancient Israelites, who we were, as slaves, and so knowing we are meant to be, as the liberated, and the being-liberated, and the liberating. And, helping each other remain capable of being surprised, able to wonder, able to adventure. Its a time to grow deeper together, and to fail forward. Together. All of us.
And of course, this manifesto is not complete. What new ways of living Lent, of being children of God, can you devise? I look forward to exploring them together. I look forward to receiving them from you, here, in this flourishing, beautiful oasis in the midst of the desert of the world.
And best of all, as John Wesley once said, best of all, God is with us. If Lent, if Christianity, is just about achieving, if its just about misery, if its just about struggle, then by all means, let the Grinch have it. But maybe, just maybe, we can steal it back. By refusing to live any other truth about ourselves than the truth declared by God and sealed by the blood of the cross. The truth that we are God’s children. That we are claimed and beloved of God. That we belong to one another. That we are free to live fully and explore broadly and fail miserably. And that we are never alone. We never walk alone.
So. Welcome to the Spring Revolution. Welcome to Lent. Welcome to life. Welcome to who you really are. Amen.