Archive for fasting

The Way of Subtlety and Comfort

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 4:1-13

1.

Jesus has just been baptized.

That was quite an amazing event, wasn’t it?

For one thing, the Holy Spirit showed up. Up until this point in the story, we didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Holy Spirit.

And then, to boggle our minds even more, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus bodily, like a dove.

For another thing, a voice from above spoke. “You are my Son,” it declared, “the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

This voice called Jesus “Son.” By simple inference, the voice belonged to a parent, a heavenly parent, God.

So, okay, let me get this straight. The Son was there; the Holy Spirit too; and also, by inference, the Father?

Why, that’s classic Trinity!

And thus from his baptism we’ve just learned something amazing and mind-boggling about Jesus’ identity!

And that’s just the first phrase of today’s Gospel!

What comes next is even more mind-boggling.

Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit; and Jesus is led by that Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted for forty days by the devil.

If we clean up the sentence a little, it really says: The Holy Spirit leads God the Son to the devil.

Wait a minute!

Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the devil? It almost sounds like they’re working together.

But I thought the devil was God’s enemy! Just what kind of collusion is going on here?

2.

Let’s talk about the devil today, shall we?

Just who or what is the devil? Can we make any sense of him at all?[i]

Is the devil a spirit?

If so, then I guess we don’t need to take him very seriously. After all, science has taught us that our world is material. We don’t talk about or even believe in spirits anymore—ghost stories of a bygone era.

Well, then, is the devil a personification of evil? Because evil, after all, is real.

Ah, but there again we see a breakdown. For evil is a misguided understanding of our world. Rather, things fall apart; systems collapse; people suffer maladies of the mind. It is our task to repair the brokenness. Science is pointing the way. With enough tinkering, we can fix anything.

So, then, is the devil just some kind of abstract idea?

Maybe. But, if so, it’s a silly idea. Our reason and experience are enough to show us that!

Do you see the difficulty? The devil has been so misunderstood and otherwise battered back and forth from age to age, from culture to culture, that we simply don’t believe in the devil at all anymore—or if we do it’s some lame caricature, a personal being sent to tempt me into something scandalous—sexual misconduct or embezzlement.

“The devil made me do it,” we say.

But I don’t read anything anywhere about the devil being involved in any way when the Prodigal Son ran off and blew his inheritance on a wild life. If the devil didn’t make him do it, why should it be any different for me?

3.

I wonder: Maybe our world doesn’t believe in evil anymore precisely because we have cheapened the devil to a comic-book villain.

But what if we do take the devil seriously? What if, instead of seeing the devil as a red-skinned man with an athletic physique, a rather fashionable handlebar mustache, and a scary laugh—what if we consider him more as the Evil One, or maybe as the archetype of evil? Would we then also take evil more seriously too?

Whatever else you think of the devil—of Satan—whatever material and spiritual notions form your worldview—I’m asking you to set these aside for a while.

Okay?

Now, think about organizations you know, collective bodies with which you are familiar: churches, schools, companies, corporations, cities, nations.

Doesn’t each of these entities possess a kind of corporate personality?

We talk about school spirit. Don’t we mean by this a kind of overall feel of the place, some intangible sense that makes the school different and unique from another, similar school?

So, we can also speak in the same way about larger entities. For instance: Google has a corporate personality; and Google’s corporate personality is very different than Yahoo’s.

So then, what about for nations? Doesn’t the United States have a corporate personality—the spirit of our nation? And it’s much different than the spirit of, say, Mexico or Canada.

Corporate personalities are a thing. But how do you qualify them? They’re bigger than any one person or policy. They transcend changes from one administration to the next. The cast changes but the story stays the same.

Have you ever noticed? Over in the book of Revelation, John addresses letters like this: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus”; “To the angel of the church in Laodicea”; “To the angel of the church in Smyrna.”

I think this is what John is getting at: corporate personalities. He personifies these corporate personalities by calling them angels.

So, what if we wanted to write a letter to the corporate personality of our fallen world? To whom would we address our letter? An angel, perhaps? A fallen angel?

1 John 5:19 says it this way: “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.”

Our fallen world has a corporate personality. And this corporate personality has a name: Satan, a. k. a. the devil.

And the Spirit led Jesus to this devil in the wilderness, where he was tempted for forty days.

4.

So then, what about these temptations?

First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread. The fast was over; Jesus is famished. So why not? Looking ahead, wouldn’t Jesus do just this anyway—command bread into existence—when he feeds the 5,000? Doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me.

Second, the devil tells Jesus that all the kingdoms will be his in an instant, if he will just worship him. But this was something the Jews were hoping for and expecting anyway, that a messiah would come and sit on the throne of David. And, anyway, Jesus is already King of kings and Lord of lords. So, again, what’s the big deal? Is this even a temptation for Jesus?

And third, Jesus is tempted to cast himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. He knows he’s going to die for the sins of the world. What is Satan’s ploy? Trying to scare Jesus away from the cross? Does Satan maybe not understand that Jesus will in fact truly and surely die when he is crucified?

Not quite sure what’s happening here; but, yet again, it doesn’t seem like that big of a temptation for someone who understands the profound mission before him.

If nothing else, the devil is subtle.

You know what I think is happening here? The Jewish world has long been expecting a messiah who would come and deliver his people from hunger, oppression, and ultimately death.

And that is in fact what Jesus did!

But the real temptation is to do these things according to the corporate personality of the world—the old way—not according to Christ—the new way.

5.

As Christ’s disciples, let us take heed.

The old way is tried and true; the new way, on the other hand, requires creative energy and innovation, an exploration into the unknown. The old way has been proven effective over time; the new way poses risks. The old way brings comfort; the new way, Jesus’ way, brings uncertainty.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to stick with the old way? The path of least resistance? Especially if it works?

The devil does not come to us as a fiend or bogeyman, standing on our shoulder and whispering in our ear, tempting us toward this or that scandalous sin.

Okay, maybe now and again.

But much more often, evil—and evil’s archetype, the devil—tempts us with subtlety and comfort.

But, if evil is as subtle as I say, how do we know the difference between temptation and blessing?

The answer is where I began: with Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” that voice from heaven spoke; and the Holy Spirit descended upon him bodily, like a dove.

The answer is with Jesus’ identity. When we know who Jesus truly is, then we can discern between the old way and the new, between the way of subtlety and comfort and the way of love.

[i] In the discussion that follows I rely on Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence, Chapter 1. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986.

Returning with Grace

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2016 by timtrue

Crossofashes[1]

Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

And so today we arrange our schedules in order to come to church and have a dark cross of ash smeared upon our foreheads so that everyone around us can see how holy we are!

But Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

Does anyone else see the irony here?  What’s really going on here?

Why does the church encourage us to come to church on this day along with everyone else in order to engage in a public act of piety?

For that matter—since we’re here—why does the church encourage us to fast on this day?  Did you know that?  The Episcopal Church—the mainline denomination that offers us so little direct instruction about how to live our lives—recommends that we fast on two days of the year: Ash Wednesday (today); and Good Friday.  Cf. BCP p. 17.

Again, if we follow this recommendation to fast on Ash Wednesday together, then aren’t we fasting publicly?  Aren’t we engaging publicly in an act of piety?

But doesn’t the Gospel passage fly in the face of public acts of piety?  In fact, this Gospel passage was appointed to our lectionary by church leaders.  Why would they do such a thing?  Why would they assign a text on this day (of all days of the year!) that calls us to avoid engaging in public acts of piety?  What’s really going on here?

The 2009 movie The Soloist tells the story of a Los Angeles newspaper journalist looking for a news story that will boost his public image.

He’s been a hot-shot journalist in the past, with praises sung by others in the field, etc.; but now things aren’t going so well.  Not only is the newspaper industry in decline; but also he just can’t seem to write the stories that sell anymore.

And on top of that his personal life is coming unraveled: his wife is divorcing him and his grown son is effectively estranged from him.  If only he can write a riveting story, he thinks, then he will get back in the good graces of the public eye.

So, with these motivations he sets out to find a human interest story.  After some searching he finds what he thinks is a sure winner: a Julliard-trained cellist who is now homeless.  He will befriend this homeless person and tell L. A. his story through his eyes.

Somewhere along the lines, however, the journalist’s motivations change.  Somewhere along the lines, as he gets to know the homeless cellist, he goes from using him in order to get back into the public eye’s good graces to actually wanting to help him.  Somewhere along the lines his motivation changes from self-aggrandizement to charity focused on another human being, a person who—homeless or not—deserves respect and dignity.

No longer is landing a good story his goal; but the well-being of another person.

Through a public act of piety, despite his initial motivations, this L. A. journalist is transformed.

Now, let’s talk about what motivates us for a bit.

We live in an image-conscious culture.  How you look, the clothes you wear; how you present yourself, your body language; how straight or crooked your teeth are; how much or how little hair you have; how thin or not-so-thin you are; even what kind of car you drive—all these things, like it or not, communicate a lot of information about you.

Wasn’t it some rock star that said, “You don’t know how long it takes me to make my hair look like I just rolled out of bed”?

We want to look good.  We want others to think we look good.  We want others who we think look good to like us.  And so on.

We live in a culture that continually tells us, “It’s all about you.”

But today, together, as we participate in this public act of piety, it’s actually a chance to reorient ourselves from the culture’s message.  Today, as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God is reminding us that it’s not about you.

Ash Wednesday is not about earthly accolades.  It’s not about what we do or don’t do.  It’s not about whether we engage in acts of piety that are public or private.  It’s not about whether anyone notices you or not, or about whether you’re communicating the right message or not.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday is about repentance.  It marks the beginning of Lent, a time of special devotion, a time of personal transformation, a time of grace-filled return to our Lord Jesus Christ.