First Sunday in Lent
Preacher: John Michael Hayes
There’s a line from T.S. Elliot: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason”, that comes to mind with these readings.
Jesus goes into the desert to fast and he is tempted. And what does Satan offer?
A little bread after a long fast. What could that hurt?
The ability to rule – real power to do good, power to fulfill his mission, to get things done of course – right? You want to change things in the world – what’s wrong with a little influence. Do you have any idea how long its going to take before they get with your love each other program?
What’s wrong with a little dramatic demonstration of God’s approval and caring so folks would know your identity and destiny, Jesus?
Food, power, recognition. These are not necessarily bad things. On the surface they are good things, even very good things. So what’s the problem, Jesus? Why not go for it?
This is why:
Temptation is as relational as sin itself; it begs the question and it cuts to the heart of what this brief life of ours is all about: whom do you serve? Whom do you love?
Satan tell Jesus: ‘Worship me and it will all be yours.”
Jesus tells Satan: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
We have to answer the same questions. whom do you serve? Whom do you love?
We know we answer that question not with words, because talk as they say is cheap. Even our deeds do not necessarily reveal where our heart really lies. We often do the right deed for the wrong reason. In Elliott’s poem Beckett rightly worries if his courageous protest is based in trust and love of God or a perverse spiritual pride. Here at St. Luke’s we can do very good things for reasons that are less than worthy.
Are we any different? We want things to look good. We want to look good to ourselves. We want others to think well of us. We want the pride and the respect of people. We want to belong. Whom do we belong to? Where is our heart?
Jesus as any good rabbi said that the whole of scripture comes down to this: Love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself. Loving and serving God can only be as real as how much we love other human beings, the other beloved children of God. Idolatry is the persistent temptation and it can be very subtle business indeed.
Like most adults you don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell you that all of our motivations are complex business – even at our very best, we are never entirely selfless, giving and loving. We are just not able to be that good. On our own we haven’t a prayer –literally- of making ourselves better people. We need grace to become who God intended us to be.
Our call to Christian life, our baptismal vocation, is a call to conversion; not the once and done emotional turn around – that can be real, and that can be a start in the right direction – but real conversion is the long hard meditation on life and its realities, the hard incremental work of conforming our minds to the mind of Christ, increasingly seeing things as God sees them without the distortion of our wish-fulfilling fantasy, letting the Holy Spirit guide us in the difficult work of confronting the sin that is in our hearts.
St. Paul’s words –“confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” – have too often been taken out of context invoked to sell the “cheap grace” of quick conversion. If we truly believe – believe as relational act, trust deeply and surrender to – Jesus and the salvation he offers, then our lives will be lives of conversion, spent in ever deepening immersion in the life of the Spirit within us.
We can’t save ourselves, but we do have to work at our salvation. The eastern fathers talk of a “synergy” between God’s grace and our efforts; God initiates our relationship and God meets any puny, half-hearted effort of ours with abundant, extravagant grace. That’s how it works.
Lent has begun. Lent is the gift of an intense and intentional period of focused attention and effort at conversion. Don’t mistake it for a self-improvement project. It’s rather self-deconstruction time. It’s re-centering, re-orienting time. Like Jesus we have to follow God’s call into the desert, there to know and love God, to allow God’s work in us to be effected, that we can obediently engage the world in the work God has given us to do.
Jesus goes into the desert to prepare himself for his destiny; the ultimate mystery of his love for humanity, for the life of the world, the self-emptying sacrifice on the cross that forever joins God and humanity. We the church of Jesus are to be Christ for this still ailing, broken, too often wicked world. Lent is not for our self-improvement, but to move us along in our vocation to be Christ for the world.
From ancient times the Church enjoins three ways to respond to God’s grace: prayer, asceticism, and the sacraments. These are always on offer of course, but especially in Lent we should attend to these.
We are all beginners in prayer. Jesus enjoins us to pray in secret and make no show of it, and to pray from our hearts for what we need and desire. We are told that it is truly the Holy Spirit within the depths of our being that prays when we pray. The more we pray the better our prayer becomes and what we ask of God is more becoming of our true nature. What we desire more closely comes to match what God desires for us. In prayer our vision and centering are changed. We come to see things as God must see them. Just as we tend to become like the people we choose as our human companions, when we immerse ourselves in prayer we become more like God. We become clearer in our vision and understanding, and most importantly we become more truly loving.
I don’t think for one minute God cares that anyone gives up chocolate or beer, or for that matter that they fast vigorously for all of Lent. None of that makes you a better person; none of that makes you more worthy of love in God’s eyes. Asceticism is tricky. It readily becomes doing the right deed for the wrong reason. Fasting can easily become a self-improvement project, a source of secret pride and accomplishment – or a spiritual veneer for what is really just a diet to look better. It can very easily appropriate elements of the crazy, toxic idolatry of the body our culture is imbued with. Fasting, or almsgiving, or service work can be very good things, perversely made into a bad things that serve our ego and its idolatries.
The wisdom of ascetic practice is that it puts a space between our desire and its gratification, a space that lets in enough light that we can see beneath the surface of our desires, the deeper anxieties and impatient urgent insistence that drives desire and know them for what they are – unconverted parts of ourselves that worship other gods. When we clear that space between desire and gratification, we can open a space where we can clearly see the difference between what we need and what we want. That is a space that God can enter. That is the point and the only point of asceticism. If ascetic practice breaks wakes up the mind and breaks down some of the hardness of our hearts, if it opens us up to God, it is worthy effort.
The sacraments are communal visible signs of God’s life in us, visible signs of the Holy Spirit infusing the church with new life. Baptism and Eucharist are of course the principle sacraments of immersion in God’s life in Christ. In Lent we should especially try to attend the Eucharist with devotion and attention, perhaps if we can more than once on Sunday. If the church is a hospital for sinners, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is good therapy for the soul. The Episcopal Eucharistic liturgy of course contains the communal sacrament of reconciliation, thus the Anglican aphorism about individual confession: “all can, none must, some should”.
In the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism of my boyhood and adolescence, confession was always an individual affair. Every parish church would be filled with penitents waiting for their turn in the confessional on Saturday evenings. Despite the legalism and rote repetitiveness, and the horror stories of boogiemen priests berating poor souls – much of it was very good in its way. That world and that practice is long gone.
The beauty and genius of the Anglican tradition is that it reformed what needed reforming in the Catholic tradition and did not throw out so many babies in the reformation bathwater.
The practice of individual confession grew up in the Irish monasteries that carried on the legacy of the desert fathers and mothers. The wisdom of the practice is that just as sin is always relational, penance is also relational. The practice of confession embodies the reality that my sin is communal not private , it is not just between me and God.
In Lent especially there is real value in letting a priest be your confessor and examining your life with another, and have your penitence witnessed. Of course, Fr. Van and I are available for confession, as are other priests of your choosing. Something to think about.
And so, following Our Lord, into the desert of Lent we go together. Let us pray for one another and the whole church that we all may be renewed in this holy season to become more truly and deeply the people and the church that God created us to be.