Saturday, February 16, 2013

No-Brainers




Here's tomorrow's homily, for the first Sunday in Lent. I've linked to the Gospel passage below.

*

My husband and I have just started watching the British science-fiction series Doctor Who. In the episode we watched a few nights ago, a high school is taken over by a race of aliens, disguised as humans, who are actually ten-foot-tall lizards with bat wings and ferocious teeth. At a crucial point in the episode, Doctor Who and his companions are cornered by a group of these creatures, who have been using the students to try to unlock a source of cosmic power. The head alien, waving his bat wings, booms at Doctor Who, “Become a God at my side! Imagine what you could do! Think of the civilizations you could save!”

I poked my husband. “Hey! It’s the Temptation of Christ! I’m preaching on that this weekend!”

Doctor Who, of course, says no, just as Jesus does in this morning's Gospel. That’s the thing: they know this story as well as we do. When a ten-foot-tall lizard with bat wings offers you ultimate power, you say no, especially when said lizard has been snacking on children. When anyone invites you to perform magic, offers you rulership of the entire world, or suggests that you jump from a tall building, you say no.

These are no-brainers. I’ve never gotten the sense that Jesus is seriously tempted by these offers; I always picture him rolling his eyes. These three challenges strike me as a pro-forma final exam. I suspect the real test came earlier, when Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil and had nothing to eat.”

Whenever I think about what those temptations might have looked like, I remember the moments in the Gospels when Jesus tries to go off by himself. He repeatedly tries to get alone time, and it never works. He’s constantly surrounded by crowds of people who need healing, by curious strangers hungry for good news, and by hapless disciples who can’t tie their own sandal laces without his help.

This pattern makes me wonder if the real temptation of the wilderness was the promise of sweet solitude, of all the time Jesus needed to pray and reflect and commune with his Father. True, he was fasting and hungry, but at least he wasn’t also worrying about feeding 5,000 other hungry people, or about helping the disciples catch fish, or about turning water into wine. If life in the wilderness was hard, it must also, in some ways, have been simple.

If I’m right about this -- if at least one of the temptations of the wilderness is the comfort of distance and disengagement -- the devil’s final three tests appear in a slightly different light. These three offers are, after all, things Jesus is going to get anyway. He will turn the stone of his death into bread for the world; he will be recognized as the ultimate ruler of creation; he will be thrown down from a great height and saved by the power of God. The devil’s greatest temptation isn’t power, glory or safety: it’s instant gratification. He’s offering these things right now, in a false form that’s removed from -- disconnected from -- the needs of the hurting world.

In time, Jesus will provide bread to all the hungry around him; but now the devil is tempting him to feed only himself. In time, Jesus will be adored and followed for his deeds of power and compassion; but now the devil is offering unearned glory divorced from love and service. In time, after a long painful journey, Jesus will plummet through the gloom of Good Friday and rise into the brilliance of Easter; but now the devil is tempting Jesus to test his safety net early, to prove that God will protect him before he has done the work for which he was sent.

The final three temptations, then, are of a piece with the previous forty days. Hey, Jesus, you don’t need to worry about messy human life; you don’t need to deal with crowds, or get your hands dirty, or be betrayed and crucified. You can stay alone, aloof, uninvolved: watching from a distance, an observer rather than a participant. You can stay safe.

Jesus says no. He knows this is a no-brainer. He knows his job is to love people in all their messy, inconvenient complexity, even when they hurt him, and he knows that there are no short-cuts to resurrection. The journey is the destination. 

Jesus knows this. Do we? It’s no accident that we hear this reading on the first Sunday of Lent, at the beginning of our own forty days, rather than the end.

I, personally, would find the devil’s offer, the easy way out, really tempting. I do find it tempting. February and March are the hardest months of the year for me. I’m always beset by work deadlines. I’m always disheartened by weather that refuses to get warm enough fast enough. I’m always cold, hungry, and tired. The idea of Lenten disciplines makes me roll my eyes. This isn’t a time of year when I want to add another set of tasks to an already overburdened schedule. It’s certainly not a time of year when I want to give up any kind of physical or emotional comfort. Unless I can turn hibernation into a Lenten discipline, I want no part of it.

Every year, I joke about giving up Lent for Lent. This year, I almost did. My Wednesday teaching schedule this semester kept me from attending Ash Wednesday services. Lenten soup suppers are equally impossible, and any kind of community service is a joke. I’m just too busy. Why not skip Lent, focus simply on caring for myself -- which feels like enough of a challenge, thank you -- and take the short-cut to resurrection, going into hibernation on Ash Wednesday and emerging on Easter? Why not simply observe, rather than participating? Why not stay safe?

It seemed like a splendid plan. But then I got hooked despite myself: I saw an ad for a United Methodist project, a photo-a-day challenge. On each of the forty days of Lent, participants take a photograph in response to a one-word topic, prompts like “return,” “injustice,” “wonder.” I like taking pictures. This seemed like a safe, easy no-brainer. I could do this.

I’ve done it for all of five days now, and I’ve discovered that it’s a lot less easy -– and safe -- than it looks. How do you take a photograph of a verb like “settle”? How do you take a photograph of an abstract noun like “evil” or “injustice”? What do evil and injustice look like, and where do they live in my neighborhood, close enough for me to take a snapshot of them? Once I’ve recognized them, how can I help change them? While my position behind the camera certainly makes me more observer than participant, the project has forced me to think about the world and its suffering. It’s forced me to connect, however tenuously, with the messy, complicated lives around me.

Our task during Lent is to engage with the suffering of the world, rather than retreating into comfort and complacency. Our task is to live into the day-to-day work of feeding the hungry and healing the sick, rather than taking a short-cut to Easter. Our task is to be fully human while we acknowledge Jesus as fully divine. And if taking pictures still seems like something of a safe way out, well, at least it’s made me think – and feel. The photo project has woken me up from hibernation.

Some temptations really are no-brainers. Most of us, I suspect, would know what to say to ten-foot-tall lizards with bat wings making enticing offers. But the devil takes many other forms, often more difficult to recognize. In the words of writer Kathleen Norris, “We act as the anti-Christ whenever we hear the Gospel and don’t do it.”

Amen.

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