Friday, December 28, 2018

What can we say March 1 (Lent 1 & Ash Wednesday)?

  {For Ash Wednesday, look to my blog from last year, with a package of ways to approach the homily.}

   Lent is here, a season that isn’t what it used to be. Robert Schuller updated things with a thought that would make Norman Vincent Peale proud, suggesting LENT should be Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking. There still is such a thing as sin – although the wise preacher can re-couch it as a fearful flight from God more than crass rule-breaking. Our texts are rich with insight. 

  I will pass by Romans 5:12-19, although I found a long, boring paper I wrote on the “second Adam” for a religion course in college. I’m grateful for the experience, as before that paper it hadn’t occurred to me that the New Testament was doing exegesis on the Old Testament, and relying on interpretations not in the Bible. The expanded mind can then appreciate all those historic paintings of the crucifixion that feature a skull at the base of the cross. It’s Adam’s, of course… Speaking of whom:

   Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7. Jonathan Sacks perceives in this story a leadership failure – which is the denial of personal responsibility. Then Cain, as if a chip off the old block, embodies the other leadership failure, denial of moral responsibility. Adam and Eve, not literally the first and only two people (although this isn’t worth getting into, is it?), are placed in extraordinary beauty and blessing, with a simple vocation: to till the garden, to exercise dominion, which is caring for God’s earth, not taking over. They are “free,” that is, permitted to browse and consume.

   But don’t overstate this freedom. American pew-sitters love being told they are free. Genesis 3 illustrates how unfree we are. We are in bondage to our limitations, to the first lure that comes along; our wills are shackled to self, as fearfully we lunge for power we don’t need and couldn’t exercise faithfully if we had it. God is God, but we have a hard time letting God be God. Hence our shame, our Fallen world, our desperate need for rescue.

   So much is homiletically interesting here. Mark Twain famously said “I don’t know why Adam and Eve get so much credit. I could have done just as well.” Lancelot du Lac arrogantly sang “Had I been made the partner of Eve, we’d be in Eden still!” Doug Marlette’s cartoon lampooned pious religious people who think their faction is above sin, unlike the others; he drew it when the Presbyterians were doing what Methodists are doing now. The devil offers the apple, but the smug couple replies, “No thanks, we’re Presbyterian.” I love Douglas John Hall’s assessment that we’ve been taught that we are like Prometheus, defiantly stealing the power of the gods (do you know the comic strip?)
   – and yet the truth is we don’t feel defiant so much as we are exhausted. His preferred mythological image isn’t Prometheus but Sisyphus, pushing that rock uphill all day only to have it roll down to the bottom once more. Is this the human condition? How is sin like pushing the world uphill on our own and wearing ourselves out?

   The business of shame is huge for us. Bodies confuse us; the #metoo movement has exposed how we mistreat bodies and are mistreated. Nadia Bolz-Weber shocked even the previously unshockable by advocating a shame-free Christian sexuality. How does the preacher wisely speak of bodies and intimacy, inviting people into holiness without afflicting them with shame, which is not of God? Maybe just asking this question without answering opens a door to conversation and hope.

   We might prefer God put us in a garden without such dangerous trees. But Russ Reno picks up on St. Thomas Aquinas, understanding God’s desire to shape our desires. “The first commandment cannot help but seem arbitrary… But this is as it must be. If God is to train the natural man toward participation in the supernatural Sabbath, then the commands must exceed our capacity for understanding. What then is sin? “Perverted people follow false gods, leaders and promises, all the while imagining them to be the source of life.” This “deceived discipleship” exposes the depth of our slavery to sin.

   Then we wind up with self-justification, which is laughably off course. Reno calls it “the alchemy of rationalization that sews together fig leaves.” St. Augustine sees the lure of the apple as our substitution for short-term vs. long-term goods. The apple really is good… “The lie works because it has the ring of truth.” Romans 1 speaks of exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and God handing us over to our choices. Haunting. Banished, fallen, we have no hope, except for the one in our Gospel reading.

   Matthew 4:1-11. My primary mantra in teaching preaching (see my Beauty of the Word!) is the question: How is this text about God, not us? We make Matthew 4 about us, but it’s about how amazing Jesus was is. Please don’t try the sermon “Here’s how to overcome temptation the way Jesus did.” Not one of us would stand a chance for one day with the devil after us in a desert. The point of the story is that Jesus won this victory for us who fail. We are left, not imitating him, but in jaw-dropping awe of him. He’s our Savior precisely because he dealt victoriously with “the prince of darkness grim.” It’s not about a technique to overcome temptation; it’s a relationship.

     Consider the terrain:  from Jericho, tourists lift their gaze westward and see “Mount of Temptation.” An ancient monastery, to mark the memory of Jesus’ forty day trial, is carved into the cliffs. Curious: it’s one thing for Christians to build a church where a healing miracle or the resurrection happened. But why venture out to the place Satan chose to assault Jesus? It’s not an American-west-kind-of-desert with cactus and tumbleweed. Steep, rocky hills, caves, wild carnivores lurking about.

   It’s a testing, not a temptation. Israel was tested (failing miserably), not tempted, for 40 years after coming through the water; Jesus passes through the baptismal water into the wilderness and passes test after test. 
These tests weren’t merely for a season: Jesus knew this him whole life, and in his final moments, which is one thing Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ got right. I love his depiction of young Jesus: every time he reaches out for pleasure, “ten claws nailed themselves into his head and two frenzied wings beat above him, tightly covering his temples. He shrieked and fell down on his face. His mother pleaded with a rabbi (who knew how to drive out demons) to help. The rabbi shook his head. ‘Mary, your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil, it’s God – so what can I do?’ ‘Is there no cure?’ the wretched mother asked. “’t’s God, I tell you. No, there is no cure.’ ‘Why does he torment him?’ The old exorcist sighed but did not answer. ‘Why does he torment him?’ the mother asked again. ‘Because he loves him,’ the old rabbi finally replied.”

   The test is this: what will Jesus do with divine power? Will he turn into Bruce Almighty? Doesn’t the story play out like The Lord of the Rings – that it is the rejection, the refusal to use ultimate power, that is the culmination of the story and the way to life? Little Frodo and the wise wizard Gandalf alone understand that renunciation of power is the way; Tolkien surely had Jesus in mind as he wrote. Even the Bible can be a tool of power: Matthew 4 has lots of Bible quoting by both parties. It’s not wielding biblical power to win, but yielding as Jesus yielded that gets to the heart of God’s Word.

   Lent begins, a season of fasting. When ordained, we promise that fasting will be what we teach and do – but we are lame or unwilling fasters. Give up donuts for Lent? Fine. Try not eating any food for a few days – for God. Try fasting from your gadgets for 40 days, or 40 minutes… We’re all about satisfying cravings, and being “available” – both of which expose how unable we are to get close to God. We did engage in a congregation wide fast from alcohol for Lent. Some tried it and failed. Some managed it and learned a lot. One guy told me “I couldn’t possibly do that” – which is what he needed to learn.

   Is this (or any) devil real? Baudelaire coined the idea that “the devil’s greatest wile is to convince you he does not exist.” Thomas Merton, taking the opposite approach, noticed Christians who attribute all manner of thing to Satan – and concluded that what Satan wants the most is attention. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters gives us a peek into a way of understanding how what is not of God tries so very hard to undo us. There is evil, and it is intensely personal.

   Crafting a sermon from all this is a challenge. Our best hope is to focus on how flat out amazing Jesus was during those days.

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