The First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
In 2008, I had gotten a job to become a dean of a university in Canada, and it was an exciting moment. I was leaving a position that I held in New York City. I had been a professor of moral theology and ethics, and also I was an associate priest at a local parish on 10th and Broadway, Grace Church, New York. As I was taking my leave from that I received a text from one of the members of the church, and she asked if she could see me.
There was something really important that had happened in her life and she wanted to talk about it. We met at this coffee shop that was between 8th Avenue and 7th Avenue on about 20th Street, called Cafe Grumpy, and it had wonderful coffee. We sat outside and she told me that she had been fired. This was the beginning of the incredible recession that the country was going through. She was the first casualty in this incredible downturn.
She was absolutely devastated. She had never been fired before. As she was speaking about it to me, her Blackberry went dead. That seemed to seal her fate. She had never been fired, it was amazing. She had gone to Princeton as an undergraduate. She got her MBA from Penn – from the Wharton School of Business. She had taught in China, and worked in China. She had lived a life of complete achievement. This was the first time she had been fired.
She suddenly realized that everything that she had organized her life around was upset by this experience of being fired, of being rejected, of being shamed. Of being told that she was no longer needed or necessary. Immediately I felt the need, pastorally, to tell her about every instance I had experienced where I had been fired. So I began with the first time, it happened when I was nine years old.
I was employed by a local pharmacy, and in those days, to make those little pre-made bows with the sticker on the side that you put on the gift to make them festive – you actually made those in shop. There was this huge crank, and you took ribbon and you would turn the crank exactly 12 times and it would go fupoop, fupoop, and it would make this incredible beautiful little bow.
My job was to count 12 times, take the little sticker off, put it into the box, and then move on – like piecemeal work. Except that that sound, and that turning of the crank was hypnotic, and so I miscounted and got to 13. Then I thought well, what do I do now? So I decided well, I’ve got to even it out, so I did another one, 14. Then I realized oh my gosh, it now looks like it has a dog ear folded back. So I did 15 and 16, and then it looked wonderful, if a little bushier than the rest.
I took it and I put it in the box, and I hoped that the owner wouldn’t see. Then I kept on cranking, and unfortunately I kept on getting lulled to sleep a bit by that kind of fupoop, fupoop, fupoop. I hit 16 and then I decided let’s up the ante. Let’s make something really special, because then I’ll be showing some initiative in my work. So I made this large bow, it looked like a ribbon-ey pineapple or pine cone. I placed it on the counter next to the box, and just as the owner didn’t think I was making a mistake, I made three of them.
Put them side by side, as if to say to him, you’re welcome for this creativity. I went home. There was a call, he spoke to my mother, he didn’t speak to me. I was fired. And of course there have been other moments in which I’ve been fired. There are moments in which I’ve worked myself to the bone, only to have it come up short in the eyes of others. There are also moments in which I’ve threatened the boss, and the boss decided he wanted to move in a different direction.
I told this young woman that being fired was one of the things that made her human. It was in many ways a kind of gift, in time she’ll see it that way. I was thinking about this exchange with her the other day as I was reading about the layoffs from the big three, and how many people who have spent their lives giving themselves to this corporation are now finding themselves having to begin again.
I am struck by how powerful these moments are in people’s lives when you experience this incredible disillusionment. When you suddenly realize that everything that you’ve organized your life around, the understanding that you have has to actually change. And has been the image or the idol has been toppled from its pedestal. Now in the old days, we would call this kind of devotion to the corporation a kind of being a workaholic, a kind of pathology.
But what’s happening today, according to a recent article I read in The Atlantic, is actually, what’s happening is people are making their work a kind of religion. They’re organizing their life, their self-understanding, their virtues, their values, their time all around this pursuit of work which is their means of purpose and meaning in life. When that topples off the pedestal, they are right to experience themselves as being in the wilderness. We’ve made, this article says, our desks into altars.
I suppose, in the moment in which I was tracing all those moments in which I had been fired, I was trying to say something about what it meant to have a desk. And what it meant to have an altar. One of the things that I’ve had to struggle with myself is, as a priest, my altar is my desk as it were. One of the things that I’ve had to come to see is that even in such fragile relationships, as being a religious leader, even that can be a kind of false religion from what I actually need to see in God.
Now maybe it isn’t work for you, but is the organizing principle in your life. Maybe it’s things that you take for granted. Maybe it’s your health. Maybe it’s the success of your children. Maybe it’s your place in a community or in a club. All of us have these ways of organizing our lives around very material things, things that can be counted upon. And we imbue in them meaning and purpose. And when they fail us, we find ourselves in the wilderness.
We find ourselves not knowing exactly who we are anymore. And not knowing where to go. We’ve lost our way. So when a child gets lost or gets sick, we go into the wilderness. Or when our bodies betray us and suddenly we realize that knees that we have been relying on for years, are no longer reliable, we experience incredible, profound suffering and uncertainty. When our place in a community or in a club, or someplace where we know ourselves secure, suddenly becomes insecure, we can experience a kind of existential trauma.
All of these are kinds of false religions – a little bit like that religion of workism. And when those things fall, we are right to feel ourselves bereft. We are right to feel like we are in the wilderness. But, of course, there is an incredible grace in those moments of disillusionment. Because when the scales fall from our eyes, we can actually begin to see, face-to-face, the truth of our lives with new depth and new resiliency.
Now, everything we have in our reading from the gospel of Luke today is meant to give us that sense of grace and resiliency. Everything we’re reading about in terms of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – His testing, is the better translation of it, from the Greek. It’s meant to give us some hope and solace for the wildernesses we experience. And many pastors and preachers and theologians like to wax allegorical about these kinds of temptations that Jesus is experiencing.
The temptation to turn stones to bread. The temptations to worship the devil and all of his power. The temptation to throw oneself down and to test the limits of the their body. But I want to suggest to you, actually, one way to read this passage is straightforwardly as an experience of wilderness. Just as the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness until they found the Promised Land, so Jesus to fulfill all things, becomes subject to the wilderness as well.
To fulfill all the promises of God and Jesus that He would be God incarnate and human just like us, Jesus experiences the wilderness. And so do we. And in that there is grace and good news. Because if Jesus is feeling the same kind of assault, if Jesus walks through the wilderness, then we know that our own wilderness journeys have a kind of floor in them, a kind of presence of God that we’re never truly alone.
There are three things I want you to read and see and mark and inwardly digest in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke, because it’s critical to see it this way. The first is to note that it is the spirit of God who leads Jesus into the wilderness. So Jesus is not in the wilderness, a little bit like some kind of divine carpool being left off. Like the Father and the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness, and say to Him return my texts, so I know where you are.
The Spirit is actually with Jesus in the wilderness. And that is to teach us a very powerful point which is when you and I are in the wilderness, when you and I feel completely alone, when you and I feel completely isolated and bereft, God is with us through God’s spirit. And that’s good news. We are not alone, God is with us. God is there to lead us through that time. If you are experiencing the wilderness today, you are not alone. Not only do you have this wonderful community around you, but God is with you as well.
The second thing to note in this incredible exchange between Jesus and the devil, is there is this moment in which the devil is trying to humiliate Jesus, and says to him, if you are the Son of God, and Jesus chooses not to fall into that kind of script of humiliation and reassertion of ego. So often when you and I are in the midst of these kinds of testings, we want to reassert ourselves as we think we are in the midst of that trial.
So Jesus does not start quoting from the Book of Isaiah, as He might have, when the devil says if you are the Son of God, change these stones into bread. Jesus does not actually quote any of the prophetic writings about His identity as the Son of God, rather Jesus actually speaks words of scripture about what it means to be truly human. And He draws from the Book of Deuteronomy, from the sermons of Moses, from the thing that any Jew would draw from to retain his humanity in the face of a trial or in the midst of the wilderness.
He says we do not live by bread alone. He says we will not put our Lord to the test which could easily just have been the line from today’s psalm, He is bound to me in love. And most of all, Jesus said that one should worship the Lord your God. In doing that, Jesus is giving us some indications of how we retain our humanity when we are facing the assaults of the devil and the experience of the wilderness. When the devil is making play with us, we need only to hold fast to the fact that we are beloved.
That God is alone to be worshipped, that all of those false religions will fall because they are of time and space in matter, and not of God’s eternal promises. And finally, that God will provide for us even in the midst of hunger. Even in the midst of being famished, God will somehow provide for us, because God loves us. And finally, there is the last line of this passage in which we read that the devil withdrew from Jesus after Jesus had passed every test, until an opportune time.
Here again is a great teaching about the wilderness. Is that when you and I are experiencing these wilderness experiences, when you and I feel oppressed and bereft, when you and I feel lost and alone, when you and I feel that we are being assaulted and challenged, when you and I feel as if our humanity is being denied to us, the kind of cold news but good news of the scriptures is we’re always in the midst of struggle.
We live as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in a book he wrote upon this passage, we live between the curse and the promise. Between the curse of this world which as beautiful as it is, is still broken, and the promise of resurrection and eternal life which God is bringing into our being every step of our day. And because we are stuck between curse and promise, there is no way we will ever escape the chances and trials and wilderness experiences that we have.
This is important to us because there are times when we are in the midst of any kind of struggle that we want to engage in a little bit of escapist fantasy. The other day, I got something from the church pension fund. And they said to me the good news that in 13 years I can retire. And I immediately turned to Claire and I was like, oh my God, in 13 years I can retire! We’ll just go someplace warm and I’ll be tanned, and we’ll wonder about where we’re going to have dinner. Just have all the time in the world.
But then I sat back and I thought about all the retired people I know. And they never have it so good. God has placed us here. God has given us this day, the struggles we have are the struggles of humanity. This is the nature of what it means to be stuck between curse and promise, and that actually is good news. Because were it not for those struggles, we would never know what it means to lift up God in our lives. We would never know what it means to be beloved of God in spite of everything.
Years ago, I came into contact with a Pentecostal hymn. It’s sunk so deep inside me, it’s something that I almost know by heart. It’s by a hymn writer named Andraé Crouch. And this is what he writes:
I’ve had many tears and sorrows,
I’ve had questions for tomorrow,
there’ve been times I didn’t know right from wrong.
But in every situation,
God gave me blessed consolation,
that my trials come only to make me strong.
Through it all,
through it all,
I’ve come to trust in Jesus.
Through it all,
through it all
I’ve come to trust in God.
Through it all,
through it all,
I’ve come to depend upon His Word.
This Lent is a season of turning. It’s the season in which we remind ourselves of the wildernesses we are in, and the wildernesses that await us. And we mark this time of healing and repentance so that we would know that in the midst of these wilderness experiences that God is with us. The spirit walks inside of us, and Jesus walks along us, that we are not alone.
We have this moment so that we would know and read and inwardly digest scripture all over again, so we would know what it means to be fully human as thy humanity is revealed in Christ. And finally, we walk this way together so that whatever we’re facing together, we may reach out to one another, and pray for one another, and lift each other up and be transformed and know what it means to rely on God. To rely on Jesus. To depend upon the word of God. May you know those things this day and this season.