March 11, 2017

Temptation: Stuff We Learn in the Wilderness

We celebrated Ash Wed this past week and thus have begun the church season of approximately 40 days or six weeks before Easter we call Lent. Lent is not the most fun Christian holiday season. It tends to be more solemn and serious. A time of introspection - It is certainly not a bad idea (we get to spend time thinking about ourselves (LOL)..a time when we work our way up to Holy Week; and a time to think about evil in the world and evil in ourselves - which we call sin. A time of humility and contrition - that may seem a little out of date or out of fashion in today's world. It recalls some old fashion stereotypes of Christianity; that ALL we are concerned about is sin and guilt and shaking fingers at folks. Morality, and the do's and don'ts of life. That ALL Christianity is really about is judgment and pessimism.

There is the old story of the country farmer of few words. His wife went away to visit her sister and she made her husband promise to go to church that Sunday and when she returned she checked on him and quizzed him about it and asked the farmer if he went to church? And he said "yep" . And then asked him what the minister preached on and he said "sin". And then finally asked well what did he say about it? And the farmer replied: "he was 'agin' it!". (May be true but it would make for an awful short sermon).
You and I know that Christianity, our faith, is not exclusively or mainly about sin. But I think we also reject a modern attitude that sin and evil are passé; that all there is to life is fun and games, and a sentimentality that all religion asks of us is that we be nice to each other; or the triteness and childishness of an over emphasis and indulgence on mundane things of our culture such as entertainment gossip or the latest technology gimmicks to while away our time. So without getting too heavy or shrouded in what Calvin called the total depravity of man - what about sin and temptation? How shall we think of it in today's world?
First of all to me when we talk about temptation what we are talking about is something very natural - perhaps not even a bad thing? When we talk about temptation we are talking about choices. And life is all about choices. Remember Jesus was "led" into the desert by the Holy Spirit - by God. Could we assume God wanted Jesus to be tempted and wants us to be tempted? Not in the sense that God wants to get us to do bad things or separate the wheat from the chaff; but in the sense that to be human is to be tempted. Isn't that one of the reasons Jesus went through it?
In a way, It is getting to know (and love?) our free will. To encounter responsibility, not with fear and trepidation, but as a gift to participate in our own life and the life of the world. To become co creators - to be fully God's children. If you have to leave early (although I really will not be much longer) here is one of most important things I want to say: We always look at temptation as a chance to do evil when maybe it is a chance to do good? My guess is that most temptations in life could be viewed not as potentially falling into sin and evil as much as they could be seen as the possibility of experiencing and sharing God's grace - of seeing goodness and beauty and justice in a new way. To use a word from the movement, an opportunity to overcome. (Every time you are tempted to cut someone off in traffic or not let them in, you have an opportunity to drive safely and graciously and put daily life in better perspective. Every time you are tempted to walk by on the other side of a vagrant or street person, you have an opportunity to acknowledge their humanity and if not give them any money, a least say hello and good day and wish them well. Every time you are tempted to respond in anger or continue an argument you have an opportunity to end it with a kind and forgiving word)
As it does this year, Lent begins in the lectionary with the story of Jesus' temptation in the desert; where jesus is challenged or invited by the devil to do three things: 1. Turn stones into bread- Jesus is starving and why not take care of your basic needs? /. 2. Jump off a cliff - test God - see if He is real and will protect you. When have we not all called on God for more protection? / 3. And fame and power - After all you are the Messiah/the King --all the benefits are rightly yours Jesus. And of course Jesus' life was full of many other temptations and choices of what kind of life he would live - to define what it meant to be God's son / the Messiah.

When Christianity has talked about human temptation and sin, historically, we have the seven deadly or cardinal sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Not "evil itself" (whatever that is?) but the opposite of seven major virtues. And thus rather than totally evil they are abuses or excesses to ones natural good faculties or passions (gluttony abuses one's desire to eat / sloth an abuse of our needed and useful rest) (Wikipedia). And although we read about major stories or examples of these great sins we probably do not think about ourselves as committing them often. If we think about them at all we tend to think of ourselves as committing minor infractions (much less than the super villains of the world)....We do not outright steal in our greed but we tinker with a tax return or embellish an expense account...I am not on the whole a wrathful angry person but please do not secretly tape what I say about other drivers in my car in traffic.

As I said, to be tempted is human and I do not necessary think God is super worried or we should feel super guilty about everyday choices and natural tendencies to look out for number 1....(to be a little envious once in a while or to take a sick day and go to the beach one day) But we should acknowledge where it could lead. The deeper theological issue here is the insidiousness of all sin (yes the stuff not only in the world and others but in us); and that we dare do not forget what we are all capable of doing if we are left unchecked to our own desires. Christianity does not mince words that we are all capable of great evil. There is of course systemic evil in the world but to begin to think that it is all outside there in some devil incarnate or all in other people leads to disaster. Jesus told us to look inside. Jesus saw sin starting in the human heart. Christianity reminds modern society not to always point fingers - evil is over there in that group - or that people - or that country. That we are the good ones and they the bad.

Such a recognition is not a bad thing or downer. To not recognize it would be far worse and creates persons who are blind and full of themselves; who think they are better than. You know how I hate to disagree with our president, but it is ludicrous to think that any one person can accomplish things on his own; or they are the only one who can fix it. This is what the subtleties of racism and white privilege in our country are based on that we have to work through. It is also part of our failure as a church when we do not come together and make prayerful joint open decisions about our mission and future or let tradition or institutional mindsets get in the way of God's grace and vision for our future. Realizing our predilection to sin - being open and honest and vulnerable with others, empowers us to avoid temptation and opens us to Gods grace and goodness.

I was never big on giving things up for lent. Do you give up candy bars in hopes that you will get a greater sense or empathy of Christ's passion? It seems so trivial and incongruent with the enormity and magnitude of Jesus sacrifice. But lent can be an important time of self reflection - prayer - penitence. And so we seek and commit to each other to set aside times and places think about our darker feelings and desires - we want to get to know them a little better - face them - "understand what effect they are having on our lives". (Taylor) We do this not to feel guilty or make ourselves feel small. "We do it so these hurts, fears, insecurities inside of us lose their power to control us or so effect our choices" (Taylor). So that we can more clearly see the good and enjoy our freedom. We do it so we can open more widely the door of our heart to welcome Gods grace into our lives.
We work very hard to stay out of the wilderness of life. We have to admit that we plan and work hard to not worry about having enough bread, and being secure without God needing to help us; and being important and accepted if not famous. But my experience is that sooner or later - wilderness happens. You loose a job, a friend, a lover (Taylor). Personal anxieties or old demons take over and do all the talking inside your head. You find yourself in a hospital room or waiting area. You make a bad mistake in life and it seems like it will haunt you forever. There are even times in life when the busiest street corner can seem like a wilderness.
Barbra Brown Taylor has said that "Adam and Eve were not our only ancestors. Someone else has claimed us as kin. Adam and Jesus are both tempted by a chance to play God. . . . Whereas Adam stepped over the line and found humanity a curse, Jesus stayed behind the line and made humanity a blessing. One man trespassed; one man stayed put. One tried to be God; one was content to remain a human being. And the irony is that the one who tried to be God did not do too well as a human being, while the one who was content to be human became known as the Son of God.”
At the beginning I talked about what is at the core of our faith - and I think reflection and grappling with sin and temptation - like everything in life - can lead us to that core. In sum, what is the great temptation in life? The great temptation in life is to take our eyes off Jesus - to be less loving - less compassionate. Every story he told, every prayer he said; every healing and kindness he preformed reveal the love of God at the heart of all existence. When we chose not to likewise reveal this love - we have chosen poorly - When we choose in all our imperfection to reveal that love, we have chosen wisely, and we have used temptation itself for the glory of God and our own salvation. Amen.

Bob Bell
Sermon March 5, 2017 (Matthew 4:1-11)



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