Friday, March 18, 2011

Facing Biblical Temptation

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5A:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

If you were here on Ash Wednesday, you heard about an initiative by two dozen Chicago-area Episcopal parishes. Each sent a team of lay and ordained leaders to offer the imposition of ashes at public transit platforms. “Ashes to Go” is the name they gave to the project. One parish led the way last year. They placed ashes on the foreheads of 37 strangers. By that arithmetic, organizers this year hoped to reach hundreds.

Ashes can be administered in a variety of ways. The standard approach has the officiant make the sign of the cross in ashes on the recipient’s forehead, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That may or may not be the best Good News the Church can impart. I prefer to say to people, “Remember that your body is dust, and to dust it shall return; and remember that you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I think that message reflects a more faithful Christian anthropology.

Poor attendance at Ash Wednesday services prompted last year’s action. As did a desire to bring the church out into the public square—and what’s more public than the transit system? One might add, what’s a more vulnerable and guarded moment in a person’s day than the commute to work?

Simultaneously, student ministry groups at the University of Northern Illinois and Northwestern University in Evanston brought Ashes to Go to Starbucks at their student unions.

Tunnel City Coffee, anyone? Paresky snack bar? Stop and Shop?

I’m thinking that religion in the public square could become a fraught issue. If we admire our Episcopal compatriots for their chutzpah, how comfortable are we with a free-market approach, any and all religions conducting their rites on public property or in workplaces and facilities giving permission? I’d guess the blogosphere could barely contain the arguments, pro and con.

Our own Diocese is one of several that offer outdoor liturgy. The Rev. Christopher Carlisle, our Missioner for Higher Education, in teamwork with a Lutheran pastor and a UCC minister, has launched Cathedral in the Night, a portable outdoor church setting that uses lighting to create holy space, and has the purpose of engaging students and young adults in reaching out to community residents in need or crisis. The debut took place in January on a side lawn of St. John’s, Northampton, notwithstanding the thermometer reading of five degrees. If this venture reminds you of the outreach of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Boston, offering eucharist to homeless people on the Commons, I believe it’s meant to.

The church that lives unto itself will die by itself. The church that does not engage children, youth, and young adults creatively, on their terms and in their public spaces, neglects Jesus’s call to let the young come to him.

The church that does not locate itself in the community where people are hungry, unemployed, unwell, unsheltered, rejects Jesus’s call to find him and love him where he is. The church that lives unto itself will die by itself, having deprived itself of the true passion of Christ for making right a world gone wrong.

Later in this service today, we will thank God for showing us concrete instances of divine justice being made real in the world. Tahrir Square was on my mind when I chose that prayer. I’m not sure I always know what people mean when they call a contemporary event biblical, but that’s exactly what I want to call that improbable, inspiring, wondrous rebirth of a nation that is so wanted by so many that they have demonstrated multiple gifts of the Spirit of God. Can we imagine a holier liturgy than what happened near that public square, culminating in a moment on the Friday of Rage when soldiers swiveled their tank turret guns from facing into the square, aimed at the people, to face the presidential palace where Hosni Mubarak would soon be dislodged? True biblical justice requires the beating of swords into ploughshares (and tanks into who knows what); but turning a turret gun into a lever that lifts a people from bondage is biblical enough for me.

In Tahrir Square, Muslims turned east to pray. Coptic Christians encircled their praying compatriots, to protect them. To meet the requirement that hands be washed before prayer, the demonstrators rubbed the paving stones of the square to let the grit of sand clean their hands (the prophet provided that option somewhere in the holy writings of Islam, that where water is lacking, sand will suffice, an eminently practical leeway for desert people).

Is there much difference between that sand and those ashes we employ in the cleansing of hearts that Lent invites? The next state of this year’s palms from Palm Sunday will be the ashes of next year’s Ash Wednesday, evidence that the Spirit transforms, and the universe wastes nothing.

Matthew’s story of our Lord’s temptation, however, reminds us not to take for granted either the Spirit’s work or the universe’s bounty. If this story, worn smooth by the wind-devil of annual familiarity, if this story doesn’t convey to us how Jesus could have scrubbed his whole mission, could have lost the leverage of his forty days’ fast, could have blown it all by a poor choice, a false choice, then let’s hope the desert sand roughs us up enough to reconsider what we’re hearing.

The tempter waits to the 41st day—likelier, night—to attempt to mislead Jesus, whose body is so weakened because he is famished: he joins the countless millions victimized by famine. While we think of famine as what happens when the rains and the crops fail, famine is more often what happens when tyrants neglect their people, re-routing daily bread to private accounts. Jesus chooses to know what it is to be famished. And in that natural state of fixation on food, he hears the tempter offer him a way out, a way to regain strength for his mission: command some stones at hand to become bread. “If you are secure in your identity,” hisses the serpent, “use your power for yourself.”

I borrow the serpent not so much from the first lesson as from Nikos Kazantzakis’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, an astonishing book. In the film, it is a viper that rises to this conversation with Jesus, suggesting how the conversation, the temptation, is ultimately an interior one. The serpent is the presence of very real threat, but the words project our Lord’s own struggle with the nature and purpose of his power and his mission. This story is replete with a devil and a host of hovering angels, but let’s reject the temptation to externalize this drama and realize that the war is being waged within.

Delusion and hallucination transport Jesus to the highest turret of the temple in Jerusalem, the very place where his days will end, the place where true dangers lurk. Again, the tempter appears in this premonition of the final temptation that Jesus will face when the devilish mix of organized religion and imperial power will set him up for what they hope will be his fall. “If you are certain about your relationship to God, don’t you imagine yourself immune from death?” hums the voice that would mislead.

As he handled the first temptation, so Jesus reconciles this second one by asserting what he knows of God. These temptations are like shifting winds filling the sails of a small boat on a vast sea: the sailor navigates by sighting the pole star, the guiding principle.

And it makes sense that the third temptation requires a very high mountain. The dominant spirit in human life is revealed there. God is encountered on mountaintops in so many religions. Pride, hubris, motivates climbing as well. Americans can’t be the only nation to think of themselves as a city built on a hill, a light shining on a mountain. From a high place boundaries blur and imperial pretensions extend. Such is this third critical question Jesus must face: is his kingdom of this world?

Today, biblical temptations face the people of Egypt. At first, in the early days of their revolution, Egyptians took care of one another across social divides. Not only did Coptic Christians encircle Muslims to guard them while at prayer; Muslims encircled Coptic churches, when threats were made to attack the Christian community. But this past week, both Christians and Muslims have yielded to temptation, and at a time when security forces are few, violence has flared between the religious communities and lives are being lost in chain reactions of violence, perpetuating ancient feuds.

In our own country, a congressional investigation of Islam tempts some to generalize, judge, and blame. Legislators are tempted to balance budgets on the backs of the poor. Some are tempted to demonize collective bargaining as a quick way to turn stones into bread.

In Japan, an untold number of people may be tempted to give in to despair in the wake of such massive violence in nature. A catastrophic earthquake demolishes the most basic security we take for granted, that the earth will support us. To call this calamity biblical is a misnomer. What may be called biblical in this national tragedy will be the rising of its victims from the ashes, the inspiration of courageous leaders, the compassion that will care and carry, the hope that will dare navigate the future by spiritual powers that are the gift and work of God.

And each of us faces temptations to make a poor choice, a false choice, a wrong choice. In Matthew’s story of Jesus in the desert, his interior struggle culminates in the sudden appearance of angels waiting on him. Hidden in the swirling burning sand that roughs us up is God who, our collect tells us, knows the weaknesses of each of us. What we are able to find in our temptations is God, at work in a mighty way to set right a world gone wrong.