Sermon for Lent 1
For a pdf copy of Martha’s sermon click here.
St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for Lent 1, Year C
Feb 17 2013
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Deut. 26:1010; Ps. 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
We know it’s Lent; we’re talking about temptation. When you hear that word, what do you think of? No need to answer! But let’s pause for a minute and remind ourselves of Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness.
Jesus is very hungry, and he’s tempted with the power to instantly gratify that hunger. And think how many people he could feed! He’s tempted with power over all the kingdoms of the world. Think what he could do with that power! Think of how he could use that power! And Jesus is tempted to test just how much God loves him, to put himself in some ridiculous and extreme danger, and “trust” that God will bail him out. These are not minor temptations. In all three of them (except perhaps for the last one) one could put that power that is dangled in front of them to good use. One could justify it for good.
These are big temptations. Jesus is unmoved by this voice of such sweet reasonableness, offering these on-the-surface good things. We tend to think of temptations as inherently bad things that we should well stay away from. But they often are not bad things in themselves. The church has done unhelpful thing to the notion of temptation over the years. I’m afraid it is in part at least due to some prominent church men who led wild lives in their youth, came to regret it, and as they were prolific writers they spilled their remorse all over the page, and it has since become part of our theology. Take Augustine, a wild youth, who lived for decades with a woman to whom he was not married, fathered a child by her. When he became a Christian he was so guilt-ridden about this that he dumped her flat. We don’t even know her name …. And so, with that and others for examples, we’ve come to think about and talk about temptations as temptations of the flesh. Hence, Lent becomes about …. giving up dessert.
But for most of us this is not our real temptation. What tempted Jesus comes from the question “who am I, in this ministry I’ve been given?” This is the question the devil wants to answer, tempting Jesus with a personna. This is the temptation that threatens our spiritual life, that gets us stuck in place. The temptation we’re called to pay attention to is the lure of our persona, the “stage mask,” the self-image we’ve carefully constructed all our lives. This persona is not necessarily bad, or even necessarily egocentric. It is just that it is not true. It is the image we would project out to the world. It is the persona, often, others want us to be and reward us for. It is the persona we developed to win the approval of others. At an earlier time in our lives, this persona probably gave us some much needed self confidence. But It is not who we are, in our deepest selves. All the wisdom teachers tell us we have to embark on the difficult and sometimes painful process of dropping the mask.
I’m sorry to say that if we reflect on what happened to ourselves yesterday — and I mean yesterday — we will see ourselves projecting a self image and our subconscious mind working hard to sustain it. An example. A couple of days ago I was having coffee with some dear friends who also happen to be colleagues. I got going off on a theological perspective from a sermon I’d preached a couple of years ago. Their attention drifted off, and they even cut me off and changed the subject! Reflecting on this later, feeling rather hurt by it, I asked myself: why was I saying all of that, there, at that moment? The sermon when it was given was true speech. But Thursday morning, what I was doing was projecting a self-image, a persona i wanted to see reflected back to me. My dear friends were basically doing what friends are for, telling me to put a cork in it! If I hadn’t reflected on it — and plenty of times I don’t — I just would have felt vaguely put out and my mind would have self-justified. Unless we’ve really intentionally doing this work, we’re really good at denying anything that would conflict with our persona.
Contrast. I was talking to a woman Friday morning who told me that she was walking around Wednesday afternoon with a smudge on her forehead, and someone asked her about it, and she said she’d gone to an Ash Wednesday service. The other person asked “why?” She gave an authentic answer about what it means to her as a Catholic and how it reminded her of her mortality and God’s grace.
We know — when we take time to reflect — the difference between speech that comes from who we really are, and speech that is about maintaining our persona. Richard Rohr says this “the more you have cultivated and protected a chosen persona, the more … work you will need to do. Be especially careful therefore of any idealized role or self-image, like that of minister, mother, doctor, nice person, … these are huge personas to live up to, and they trap many people in lifelong delusion.” Think Lance Armstrong. and many other examples. Rohr says “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then I must watch my reaction to it.”
These temptations of our self-image are so present to us they are usually invisible, and it takes a time of self-examination and reflection to start noticing them. But what we are after here is our true selves. Our true, beloved selves, the deepest part of ourselves that is where we find God and our deep connection to each other.
It takes some strength and courage to do this work, and this is why all of today’s texts, the texts chosen for the first Sunday in Lent, emphasize God’s presence and blessing. The Gospel lesson tells us that when Jesus goes into the wilderness, he is filled with the Holy Spirit. And if you read ahead, you would learn that when Jesus leaves the wilderness he is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit never left him, through his trial in the wilderness.
Psalm 91, one of the most beautiful of the psalms, speaks of God’s tender love, presence and protection. “Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name.” Psalm 91, speaks of God’s tender love, presence and protection. We so want to believe it. We need to believe it, we need to teach it to each other, we need to help each other feel the presence and protection of God.
The passage from Deuteronomy is about exactly this. The context is worship. And this text casts worship as a place where we are joined into the ongoing story of God and God’s work in the lives of our ancestors and by extension, our own. Note how pronouns switch. They move from “He” (the wandering Aramean, Jacob). then to “us.” (When the Egyptians treated us harshly, and we cried out unto the Lord,” and then to “I.” “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” From him, to us, to I. So the story becomes part of us, just as we recite the story of Jesus when we celebrate the Eucharist, the story becomes part of us and becomes our story. And then look what happens: they/we are called to this great feast that becomes radically inclusive, a celebration with the enemy and the alien.
Attending to our own speech, or own projections, reflecting on our daily lives, noticing those little humiliations and our response to them, is for the gift, the great gift, of uncovering our true, beloved selves. We are strengthened to do this by reminding ourselves of God’s presence and protection. By telling that story over and over, in a way that is inclusive and extends to the other. Consider, how much your authentic story of the presence of God in your life might be another person’s saving grace.
Quotes are from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 127-136.
Insights about the Deuteronomy passage came from “sermon brainwave” at www.workingpreacher.org.