Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deep Survival

Here's this morning's homily. The Gospel is Luke 4:1-13. The painting, "Jesus Tempted," is by Chris Cook, an artist from Georgia.

One of the subtexts here is that my own parish is in very bad financial shape at the moment and may be on the endangered list. Dark times all over, in through here.

Update: We're in the middle of a huge snowstorm, so church is canceled this morning. I plan to go into deep survival mode by staying inside and drinking lots of coffee.


Writer Laurence Gonzales, in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, explains how people get into trouble in the wilderness. Each of us carries in our head a mental map of the world. When we’re in unfamiliar territory, that mental map no longer matches reality. If we’ve gone out hiking near dusk and have taken a wrong turn, we may believe that the parking lot lies beyond the next bend, only to find that the next bend reveals nothing but more trees. People who cling to false mental maps, rather than taking stock of where they really are, endanger their lives. They press on along strange trails as darkness falls, saying to themselves, “I know the parking lot has to be around that bend, and if it isn’t, I’ll just keep going until I find it.” They never get to the parking lot. Instead, they succumb to fear, exposure and exhaustion.

“Being lost,” says Gonzales, “is not a location. It is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind. It can happen in the woods or it can happen in life.” Being lost, simply put, is a refusal to accept the reality of where we really are and what resources we really have. Young children lost in wilderness have better survival rates than adults, because they instinctively find ways to take care of themselves. If they’re cold, they find a place to curl up and get warm, rather than plunging ahead and risking hypothermia. If they’re tired, they lie down to sleep, rather than expending their energy in fruitless effort.

To survive an ordeal in the wilderness, Gonzales says, “You don’t have to be an elite performer. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to get on with it and do the next right thing.” And the next right thing can be wrenching. “One of the toughest steps a survivor has to take,” Gonzales says, “is to discard the hope of rescue, just as he discards the old world he left behind and accepts the new one.” I must realize that I am lost somewhere in the woods. I have no idea how to get back to the parking lot, and I can’t count on anyone finding me. I have to figure out how to survive here, in the world I’m really in, not the world where I want to be.

The forty days of Lent invite us to follow Jesus into the wildernesses of our own lives. Jesus leads us as the Spirit led him. This is true even when Lent doesn’t coincide with foreign war, domestic economic disaster, and statewide threats to essential institutions: schools, libraries, prisons, healthcare systems. Everyone I know is in turmoil now: afraid of losing jobs and homes, fearful of the future, unsure how to care for neighbors when we don’t even know if we’ll be able to care for ourselves.

Enter the devil. Temptation thrives on fear and scarcity, real or perceived. Episcopalians don’t tend to believe in literal demons, external and embodied forces of evil, and so we may be tempted to read Jesus’ tempter as metaphor or hallucination. Writer Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, offers a more helpful definition. “Each of us acts as the Antichrist,” a pastor once told Norris, “when we hear the Gospel and do not do it.”

In this morning’s Gospel, the devil offers three temptations, all connected to pride, supernatural power, and the desire for rescue. He challenges Jesus to prove his identity as the Son of God by feeding himself, by claiming power over the world, and by daring angels to rescue him from a life-threatening fall. Jesus, famished although he is, easily resists these temptations.

Jesus is in the wilderness, but he is not lost. He knows who he is, whose he is, where he is, and what surrounds him. His mental map is the Word of God, the ultimate reality. He refuses to change stone into bread, instead embracing whatever other food God has provided in that place. He refuses the power the devil offers, instead embracing the power of God and of his own God-given ministry. He refuses to throw himself from a high place, instead embracing the wilderness itself. Harsh though it may be, he will stay on the solid ground God has granted him, rather than plunging in some other direction in a potentially disastrous quest for the parking lot.

How do Jesus’ temptations translate into ours? I think it’s significant that when the devil dares him to act as the Son of God, he stubbornly insists on being the Son of Man, rather than relying on miracles. He responds with his humanity, not his divinity. Mere mortals can’t change stone into bread: well then, he won’t either. It’s as if he’s saying, “I refuse to feed myself in a way my human followers can’t use to feed themselves. I’ll eat only the food everyone around me can eat.” The Gospel tells us to feed our hungry neighbors; the devil, instead, tempts Jesus to use a privileged source of nourishment for himself. It would be easy to justify this; “If I starve to death,” Jesus might think, “I can’t go on to heal and redeem anyone else.” But Jesus knows that God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, and will do the same for him.

Similarly, the temptation to worldly glory and authority is a trap. “Jesus! Worship me, and you’ll be rich, famous and powerful!” Jesus knows that he’s called to self-sacrificing service, humiliation and powerlessness, the seemingly dry dust from which God will bring forth the miracle of resurrection. He dismisses the devil’s promise as easily as most of us dismiss spam e-mails promising instant riches. Reality, we and Jesus know, doesn’t work that way. If you grab at seemingly easy money, you may discover that you’ve sold your soul.

By this point, the devil’s getting a little desperate. His appeal to hunger, that most basic of instincts, hasn’t worked; neither has the appeal to worldly power. All he has left is the appeal to circus tricks. “Go ahead, Jesus! Jump off the temple! Let’s see if angels rescue you!” But the devil has no promises this time; he’s as bound by gravity as Jesus is. He doesn’t say, “I’ll save you.” Even he must ultimately appeal to God. All he can say is, “Prove God is with you by making him rescue you.”

Jesus doesn’t need to prove that God’s with him. He knows God’s with him. He doesn’t need to be rescued because he hasn’t been abandoned and isn’t lost. He knows that he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be, doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing: the next right thing.

Mere mortals can have a much harder time figuring out what the next right thing is. But it’s easier to know what the wrong things are, the fatal turns and plunges. We abandon the Gospel, becoming anti-Christ, whenever we care only for ourselves and not for others; whenever we succumb to the lures of wealth and power rather than practicing the disciplines of service and sacrifice; whenever we rely on desperate and risky appeals for rescue, rather than quietly taking stock of the ground on which we stand.

The devil leaves Jesus, but not for good. Temptation lurks in the background, always “waiting for an opportune time,” as this morning’s lesson puts it. Resisting temptation requires continuous discernment and constant humility. But when we choose the wrong path, we can retrace our steps, returning to the God who always loves us.

To survive our wildernesses, we do not need to rely on miracles. We do need to maintain both our humanity and our faith. We need to remember who we are and whose we are; we need to make an accurate, clear-eyed assessment of where we are and what resources we have. We don’t have to be elite performers. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to get on with it and do the next right thing: following the right map, the Gospel that tells us to love and serve God and our neighbors.

“I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus tells us. If we follow him, we cannot be lost, no matter how far from home we seem.



  1. This is just what I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  2. Oh, I like this. Too bad snow kept you from delivering it. The line of Gonzales' about "Do the next right thing" resonated with me, too, when I read it in an article a while ago; I have it jotted down at my desk. Inertia/sloth is my besetting sin and that is a helpful counterattitude.

  3. Anonymous3:34 AM

    Wow. This was just wonderful. Lost in the woods... wanting to get back to the car:
    diagnosed with metastatic cancer, grieving a death, diagnosed with a chronic illness...and wanting to find the way back to 'before' and having to give that dream up. Learning not to be afraid of death but to go on living, one next right thing at a time. Thank you.


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