Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Groundhog Day: Learning what one can do with a day

The movie Groundhog Day (1993) was our second discussion on faith, religion, and ethics in film.

Groundhog Day is the engaging story of an egotistical, self-centered weatherman from Pittsburg named Phil who experiences one of the worst days of his life: the assignment to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA. Shockingly, he wakes up the next morning at 6AM to find that it's still Groundhog Day: he is living out the same day: over and over again!

I believe that it is Phil's progression that is so fascinating and informing to the viewer.

First, he has to figure out what is going on. He starts in denial of the situation: this can’t be...he remembers Groundhog Day happening...is this an elaborate hoax? Could he just be dreaming?

At the end of this first repeated day, he seeks proof: breaking a pencil in two and leaving it on the nightstand. He wakes up at 6AM to fine the pencil whole where it originally was: it’s Groundhog Day again!

Next, it’s on to “fixing” his problem. Rita, his producer, is supposed to solve problems (she can’t). He goes to an MD: nothing’s medically wrong. He goes to a psychologist: he’s never heard of anything like this. He’s willing to explore it more in their next session: tomorrow, which of course will not come...

Defeated, Phil moves on to depression, hanging out with the town drunks in the bowling alley: bemoaning the fact that nothing he does seems to make a difference. He drives the drunks home:

Phil: Let me ask you guys a question. What if there were no tomorrow? 
Gus: No tomorrow? That would mean there’d be no consequences...no hangovers...we could do whatever we wanted! 
Phil: That’s true. We could do...what ever we want!
(runs over the mailbox) 
Gus: Hey Phil, if we wanted to hit mailboxes we could
let Ralph drive... 
(police cars are now chasing them) 
Phil: It's the same thing your whole life: Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don't mix beer and wine, ever. Oh yeah: Don't drive on the railroad track! (which he does) 
Gus: Well, Phil, that's one I happen to agree with. 
Phil: I don’t know Gus...sometimes I think you just have to take the big chances...I’m not going to live by their rules anymore!!! 
Ralph: I noticed that. 
Phil: You make choices and you live with them...

Phil is thrown in jail: but wakes up in bed at 6AM on Groundhog Day. No consequences! He can do whatever he wants.

And so begins a long period...years perhaps...of Phil exploiting his situation to the fullest. By learning what will happen on this one day, he is able to acquire through manipulation: money, sex, and so on. He learns what people will do or say, and then through trial and error is able to do what is necessary to convince them of doing what he wants. He lives the life of fantasy.

Phil finally decides to focus on acquiring Rita, his producer. He starts learning her likes and dislikes, figuring out what to say and not say, each “day” moving forward. The date progresses: they slowly move from a first drink...to dinner...to walking in the moonlight as the snow comes into town. Finally, after many attempts, they have what Rita describes as “a perfect day.”

When they are making a snowman together in the town square, Phil pulls out materials to make the snowman’s face: it is my belief that Rita must have mentioned during the last attempt that it would be fun to make a snowman, so Phil was ready. What happens next seems to me to be real. What I mean is that, as they finish making the snowman, a group of kids come and throw a snowball at them. What follows is a joyous snowball fight, where Rita falls on the ground and spontaneously pulls Phil towards her. He falls next to her: they look into each others eyes...and they kiss for the first time. I believe that this is “real” in so much as that Phil has not experienced this before. They continue with a waltz in the newly falling snow, leading to Rita’s words: “a perfect day.”

Phil, however, pushes forward: he wants the perfect night as well. He moves to fast, expresses that he loves her, and she...furiously...realizes she has been manipulated. After all: how do you fall in love with someone in a single day!

Phil, however, cannot repeat this magical moment! Each consecutive day now falls short of Rita's "perfect day." He can not orchestrate the spontaneity of the joy in the snowball fight, or falling next to each other leading to the perfect first kiss. Not only is there no way to repeat the “perfect day”, but the truth dawns on him that all of his manipulations cannot lead to something real!

This leads him to a major depression:

(The clock, in slow motion, turns from 5:59 to 6:00. Phil is lying in bed...) 
Phil: Okay campers...rise and shine...and don’t forget your booties cause it’s cold out there today. It’s cold out there every day...

He gives up. He goes to a bewildered Rita, telling her that the one good thing he was able to do was to give her a perfect day, even if she cannot remember it. And he steals the groundhog and drives off a cliff in a dramatic explosion of fire...only to again wake up at 6AM on Groundhog Day. 

Time passes: and we arrive in the local diner with Phil and Rita:

Phil: I'm a god. 
Rita: You're God... 
Phil: I'm a god. I'm not *the* God... I don't think......... 
Phil: I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. 
Rita: Oh, really? 
Phil: ...and every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender... I am an immortal.... 
[Phil sets out to prove this to Rita, describing details of several people in the diner] 
Rita: What about me, Phil? Do you know me too? 
Phil: You like boats, but not the ocean. You go to a lake in the summer with your family up in the mountains. There's a long wooden dock and a boathouse with boards missing from the roof, and a place you used to crawl underneath to be alone. You're a sucker for French poetry and rhinestones. You're very generous. You're kind to strangers and children, and when you stand in the snow you look like an angel. 
Rita: [in wonder] How are you doing this? 
Phil: I told you. I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it's always February 2nd, and there's nothing I can do about it.

Rita commits to spending the day with Phil to "witness". In the wee hours of the night, as Rita is falling asleep, Phil quietly speaks to her:

Phil: What I wanted to say was...I think you're the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I've ever met in my life. I've never seen anyone that's nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you something happened to me. I never told you, but I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don't deserve someone like you. But If I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.

Phil wakes up the next morning at 6AM: Rita is gone...it's Groundhog Day. Phil, however, has learned something. He approaches this day differently. He starts doing some thoughtful things. He gives a old beggar money. He shows up to work with coffee for Rita and his cameraman Larry, suggesting a different angle to do the broadcast better and asking Larry what he thinks. These are thoughtful gestures, and he starts to really learn about people: seeing value in the lives of individuals, rather than simply learning facts to manipulate. 

He then decides to better himself. One day, while reading a book in the diner, he hears classical piano on the radio. He decides to learn how to play the piano: each day a single lesson until he can improvise jazz.

There is one more moment of transformation. He sees the old beggar struggling in a dark alley. He compassionately brings him to the hospital, and waits until the nurse returns. The old man has died. Stunned, Phil demands to see the chart:

Nurse: Sometimes, people just die. 
Phil: Not today.

Phil makes it his mission to save the old man: giving him nonstop attention the next day: hot food and encouragement. It is not enough: the man collapses that evening, and nothing Phil can do will change it. Phil is not a god: he cannot stop death.

This is the final transformation. The next day, his on air conclusion is very different.

Phil: When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter. From Punxsutawney, it's Phil Connors.

We see that Phil is now dedicating each Groundhog Day to do what he can do for others. Even though the single day will likely repeat itself, life is too precious to do anything less than what he can. By dedicating himself to the service of others, Phil saves himself in the process. And, ironically, it is in this selfless living where Phil and Rita learn that you actually can fall in love with someone on a single day....

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Woman at the Well

(A sermon on John 4:5-42 preached at All Saints' Littleton on 3/27/2011)

The Gospels are full of individual people’s encounters with Jesus. It is my belief that many of us have been trained to hear these Gospel moments in a particular way.
We assume that the person who encounters Jesus does so out of need: growth...healing...forgiveness...restoration...whatever it is, it’s always something. Something is desperately needed or desired, and Jesus either gives them what they need, challenges them, or changes their focus.
Ultimately that does happen to this morning’s Samaritan woman: she indeed has a need that Jesus recognizes...and she changes her focus. But the journey there is rather unique. She does not come looking for Jesus, and she originally asks nothing of him
In fact, it’s the other way around.
It is JESUS who asks her for water. He is the one that is thirsty. She is the one with the jar, able to give him a drink.
Anna Carter Florence writes that, in his asking the woman for a drink, Jesus gives her the chance to recognize the face of Christ in a stranger:
There is something beautifully simple in the staging of this scene as well as its premise: Jesus is thirsty at the well, and we are the ones with the bucket. The deeper metaphorical conversation that follows makes no sense until we really take this in. Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey? (Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 2 eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p.95)
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”

Since Jesus does not ask for water again after, I’ve come to the decision that she asks this question after giving him a drink (the text doesn’t say one way or the other). I personally believe that the water leads to the dialogue. She is perplexed, to be sure, but I think she gives him something to drink.
Her words themselves remind me of Mary’s to the angel Gabriel in Luke’s Gospel: “(Gabriel) came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But (Mary) was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:29)
As the text says: Jews don’t share things with Samaritans. Jewish men aren’t supposed to even talk with Samaritan women, much less share a drink of water. Most would have rather died of thirst than interact in this way: and Jesus clearly isn’t that thirsty for water. The woman rightly senses that this is not an ordinary encounter. 
Jesus said: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
This is, of course, quite a statement. She looks him over, and shrewdly declares that he has no bucket to get this living water from the well. Still, she recognizes that something is going on here. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” She reminds Jesus of both their common ancestry and their difference, all in one statement. There’s a willingness to engage him, but also a clear understanding that she is faithful to her traditions.
Jesus answers: “...those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Showing faith, she takes a step further. “Give me this water” states an openness to be transformed if he can do as he says. Again, she echos Mary’s willingness to say yes to God.
Then comes what seems like an odd twist. Jesus invites her to “Go, call your husband, and come back,” to which she replies “I have no husband.” Jesus agrees: "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband".
This development confuses modern readers. Many people tend to assume the worst about this woman: concluding that Jesus is revealing both her sin and his willingness to interact with her despite it. It’s possible this is true: but the text never mentions sin. or the woman repenting, or even acknowledging sin.
“Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what's called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband's brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother's wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous...”
This dialogue shows the woman how much Jesus really sees: not only does he know her specifics...five marriages, now gone...Jesus also sees how she...and all women...are caught in a society of dependence. He sees how their identity is based on their marriage circumstance, and how vulnerable this makes them in this society. Lose concludes that “..she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers -- dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy.”
She responds positively but cautiously to this invite: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
The key to understanding these words comes easier with a comparison.
Consider this in light of last week’s encounter with Nicodemus. There we had a learned, powerful male insider...today we have an unnamed outsider; a five timed married woman.
The Pharisee Nicodemus...a man of religious and economic power...seeks Jesus out under the cover of darkness, but fails to understand him. In his amazement Nicodemus asks, “how can these things be?”
The Samaritan woman...the wrong faith and gender, with no wealth or power...engages Jesus in the light at his choosing, understands his words, and in the midst of her amazement, expresses faith.
It is only our lack of context that clouds her response: is she mistaking Jesus for a prophet? Is she attempting, in a strange way, to change the subject away from her marital status? On the contrary, her response to Jesus is an enlightened one. She recognizes Jesus’ authority as a prophet, which he clearly does have, and her question about worshiping on the mountain addresses the ancient argument between Samaritans and Jews. She looks to him to address what has become a terrible divide between people of a common ancestry. Jesus does:
“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The Samaritan, with insight, puts it all together:
“I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
And Jesus speaks clearly: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
The unnamed Samaritan woman, who first gave Jesus a drink of water, now leaves the jar behind. She know has living water to share with her community. She is the first in John’s Gospel to tell others to come and see. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Come and see for yourselves...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Night Studies with Nicodemus

(A sermon preached on John 3:1-7 at All Saints' Littleton, NH on 3/20/2011)

Alyce McKenzie, a Perkins School of Theology Professor of Homiletics (which is seminary talk for preaching), tells a story about sitting in the waiting area at her local Discount Tire store just last week, as her new tires were being put on her car. She picked up a women's magazine and was intently reading an article called, "How to supercharge your metabolism." She writes:

I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I'm waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: "How to be born again" and I heard a man's voice ask, "Wouldn't you like to read something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?"

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn't reply immediately, he asked, "Well, have you?" I said, "I'm glad you asked that question. I've been reflecting on Jesus' words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don't think Jesus means 'born again' as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it's over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that's done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it's a lifelong process."

At that the man shook his head as if to say "Geez, lady, it's a yes or no question. How hard is that?" He took his tract back and moved on.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee: a rabbi, and a leader of the people. He had come into some power under a mindset that to be born a Jew was to be born into the kingdom of God. Being of that kingdom, there were strict rules of conduct for acting and interacting with other people: and this new rabbi...this Jesus...seemed to be breaking the rules.

Alone in his study at night, Nicodemus was supposed to be deep in study: after all, the rabbis had taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. ("Late-Night Seminar," Patricia Farris, The Christian Century, 2002.) The distraction of Jesus, however, became to big to ignore.

Nicodemus went out into the night to find Jesus. Perhaps he had waited until night so that others would not see him. Perhaps he hoped for uninterrupted time with him, or perhaps it was because he simply found himself unable to wait any longer. All I can tell for sure is that this fits very nicely into John’s Gospel, for light and darkness is a repeated theme throughout his text. Hall Harris writes: “Out of the darkness of his life and religiosity Nicodemus came to the Light of the World.”

Upon arriving, Nicodemus says to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” I choose to believe these to be sincere words more than flattery. Regardless of which they are, Jesus basically ignores them.

Jesus answers “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus hears this and quickly responds in a literal sense. "Born again? How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"

John’s mystic Jesus shakes his head and goes deeper, to which Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?”

Anna Carter Florence remarks that the learned Nicodemus asks some rather stupid questions. First he mistakes Jesus’ words to believe one must literally be born again: “reentering the womb.” Then, after Jesus unleashes this incredible metaphor to illuminate mystery: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit,” Nicodemus sputters “How can these things be?” (In Feasting On the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, Eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 73)

Jesus responds “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand these things?!” We often hear this as a put down, but could this be something else as well? Perhaps Jesus is hinting at some irony towards his fellow rabbi: suggesting that Nicodemus is missing that the words are to be pondered and explored for meaning, rather than immediately answered. After all, the practice of rabbinical studies involves thoughtful consideration of words: taking them deep into one’s mind and heart in order to discern their rich meaning. Nicodemus is not answering in a way that reflects his legitimate role as a teacher devoted to God.

So, imagine that Nicodemus goes home after this exchange: back to his study to ponder Jesus’ words. What did he discover there?

Nicodemus would have believed, by the virtue of his ancestry to Abraham, that he was favored by God so long as he followed the rules. These rules made it clear to him who was righteous and who was a sinner. It was clear who was in and who was out. In his position of power as a Pharisee, Nicodemus was in control.

Jesus’ words challenged this. Jerry Goebel writes: "Imagine studying all your life to be among the elite and powerful only to be told that all of your theories are based upon a completely false premise.” Nicodemus is confronted with the reality that life is really not “all about me”, and that God could care less about what I know and what rules I’ve followed or broken, but instead wants to know who I’ve loved and what I’ve done for others and on behalf of God’s vision for the world.

Alice McKenzie, whose story opened this sermon, writes that Jesus' comparison of being born from above with the action of the wind was probably a frightening one to Nicodemus because the wind is unpredictable, wafting away items to which we have become attached and blowing in others we would not have chosen. It can be frightening to us as well:

If we start letting the wind of the Spirit blow through our souls, our church, our families, who knows what might be blown out and what might blow in? Resentments and prejudices we have cherished for decades might blow out the window. One of us may sit in church next week and sense some of our usual sorrow, wafting out the back of the sanctuary, in its place a fragrant breeze bearing hope. Next week when we come to church, some people we don't recognize may be sitting on the back pew or standing behind the pillar looking in, waiting for an invitation to come into the arena of light and warmth. And we may feel our feet moving in their direction.

Anything can happen when it comes to wind. The fog might lift from a whole church that thinks their best days are behind them. A whole church could feel the brisk, energizing breeze of hope, and purpose stronger than their pain. If we say yes to the question, "Do you want to be born again or born from above?" the belief in Christ we now recite with our lips could become the blood running through our veins.

The logic of the Gospel John is NOT: If you believe, then God will love you and save you. God's salvation is not a reward for belief. Nor does God withhold God's love, forgiveness and salvation until we believe. (David Ewart, www.holytextures.com)

Instead, belief is the invitation into a life-long journey of exploration: a willingness to say yes to where God will take you, an openness to discover new truth, and a gentleness in our encounters with others...wherever the wind may blow.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Mountain Home Companion

All Saints' Deacon, The Rev. Paul Higginson, usually preaches when I'm out of town. Here is his fantastic sermon for the first Sunday of Lent! (March 13th, 2011)

Well it's been quite a week here in Littleton, the Lake Wobegon of the East. Monday's storm hit us yet again with another blast from the Winter that won't go away. Snowbanks so high now you need a neck like a giraffe to see over them. Down at the Coffee Pot, on main street, the 6:30 AM boys, also known as, counter intelligence, are still debating the results of last Tuesday's ballots. "Pastor Wiesner" and his wife Darlene left town for Texas the other day to spend time with the in-law's, leaving the Episcopalians in the hands of the Smother's Brothers, AKA, the Rev. Phillips and the Deacon. Then just as we started to get used to a little sunlight in the morning we get to spring forward, back into the darkness.

As if that weren't enough the Church hasn't made life any easier with Ash Wednesday coming in the middle of last week launching us into the somber season of Lent. Even the use of my favorite Church word, dare I say Alleluia, has been put out to pasture until that far off Easter day. Then this morning we are met with lectionary readings that bring us up short with a dose of our short comings in the form of temptation, be it the fall of Adam and Eve, St. Paul's going on about his failings, or Jesus' own confrontation with the Devil himself. It's enough for us, the hearer, to be tempted to ignore the words altogether.

If we choose to ignore what we've just heard isn't that an idea that would make the Devil jump for joy, as temptation is such a primary tool in his kit? We are faced with temptations from the time we wake till bedtime and even then I would guess they continue in our dreams. I've heard it said that opportunity knocks while temptation knocks down the door.

With that thought in mind consider times when you've been confronted with big time temptation. Like a fishing lure, temptation is what attracts you. Inside your head is the notion of how much better off you'll feel if you take the bait. That voice inside screams at you to go for it and the voice of conscience doesn't sound nearly so loud.

What if Jesus had jumped from the pinnacle of the temple, the ride to the ground would have been a rush, but the landing a disaster. That's just how we are tempted daily with thoughts of pleasure, power or attainment that come to a sudden halt on the rocks below. The bait of temptation is just that, bait, luring us into believing what we want is better than what we have.

There is nothing wrong with wanting, be it for a better life, or self improvement, but when our wants move beyond our needs that's when the trouble begins. Do we need or just want a bigger house or fancier car. If we had the winning Power Ball ticket would that bring us all we ever wanted or is what we have enough already? If elected to a position of power is it for the common good where you could make a difference or will the position of control only tempt you to want more. When we choose to take what we want, like the people of the garden, the fruit that is not meant for us, that's when the devil wins, and we, made in God's image, become the losers.

One only has to look at the turmoil going on in North Africa or the Middle East to see examples of what happens when power over a people is used to hold another down. A pile of money will not guarantee stability, for as psalm 49 says, “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their house increases, for when they die, they will carry nothing away, their wealth will not go down after them.” As Kurt read in his commentary Ash Wednesday service, "a funeral car has no luggage rack." (From a George Strait song, used by Maryetta Anschutz)

Twenty first century temptation then leads us into the pitfalls attributed to the abuses of power over others, the accumulation of materials, and the false idea of security. When we step over the boundaries of the garden of God's grace that he has set us in and direct our energies toward more than what we need, life becomes headed for a train wreck.

Those who know me well understand that if you share a conversation with me you are almost guaranteed, in a very short time, to be subjected to some sort of pun. It can't be helped, it's just happens, a defect inherited from my mother. As I was preparing this week the words in the prayer book from the confession used in both morning and evening prayer got to me. “ we have erred and strayed like lost sheep.” That phrase coupled with Kurt's instruction to weave something in from Episcopal Relief and Development, or the acronym ERD into today's sermon gives us “erred and ERD”.

This Sunday has been designated by the national church as ERD or Episcopal Relief and Development Sunday which is the Episcopal Church's worldwide charity arm, formerly known as the Presiding Bishops fund. It provides funding and relief both here and abroad for the betterment of the human condition at almost no administrative costs allowing for 99% of a dollar to go where needed. Funding and help goes to rebuild after disasters and empowers by offering lasting solutions that fight hunger, poverty and disease.

Events the last couple of days in Japan underscore the frailty of life on this planet. Earthquake or tsunami don't make exceptions for the wealthy, powerful or those who've stored away goods in barns for tomorrow. No doubt, although I haven't heard it yet, someone from a pulpit will be claiming that the people of Japan have brought this disaster on themselves. No way, and if that nonsense were so, what as a people have we to look forward too? No!!, again, sssssh-It happens.

There is no question in my mind that ERD will be there offering aid and comfort towards recovery. The temptation of course will be for us to turn our heads and claim, it's not our problem. Temptation says I need it more than the guy next door, but God says, “where your treasure lies there your heart lies also”. Again it comes down to what our needs really are verses our wanting.

So I ask you this morning if you could change the stones beneath you feet into bread, throw yourself recklessly into life with disregard, or command all that you can see, can any of that compare with what God has in store for those who are faithful to the call. Short lived satisfaction in exchange for Eternity!!!

What we are given beyond our needs is to be shared so that no one goes to bed tonight dreaming of what they need, but instead to dream of how they can wake in the morning and bring relief to those clinging to the tsunamis of this life.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Temptations in the Wilderness

I was away this past weekend, so I am rebroadcasting last year's sermon on Luke's version of the story. I think it is still worthwhile, and would love your feedback.

(A sermon on Luke 4:1-13, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church on 2/21/2010)

This morning we are called to do some Biblical Investigation.

It’s often suggested that there’s a fundamental choice to make with the Bible: either you believe it word for word, or you don’t.

This just isn’t an accurate understanding of our vast texts of Scripture. To start, there are different types of texts. The letters in the New Testament, for example, are correspondence: they are responses to an ongoing conversation and relationship. The Books of the Prophets, in contrast, are a mix of history, reflection, and insights to the future based on the present. Genesis is the tradition of how the Hebrew people came into existence in relationship with God, and Exodus is the story of their liberation from slavery, and their establishment as a nation.

And then there are the Gospels: four very different texts that together paint the picture of Jesus’ life, message, and ministry.

“Word for word” is simply not really the way that anyone really understands the Bible. Here’s a different type of example. This morning’s Gospel passage from Luke is nearly the same in Matthew, with only one major difference: the order of the second and third temptation is different, Matthew has the devil tells Jesus to throw himself off the temple before asking Jesus to worship him. Even thought there is a clear difference, no one worries which Gospel is right and which one is wrong: after all, they are essentially saying the same thing. The suggestion that word for word is what’s important isn’t true. Everyone interprets.

There are, of course, bigger questions concerning this particular text. After all, Jesus was alone in the wilderness, and yet we have an omniscient view of the story, recounting the conversation between Jesus and the devil. Clearly Jesus did not take a scribe with him into the wilderness. So this story either comes from Jesus recalling what took place, or else it comes from someone creating dialogue to speculate on what Jesus wrestled with while in the wilderness.

Part of me can imagine Jesus and the disciples sitting around a fire one night, and Peter saying “Master, tell us about your time in the wilderness.” Perhaps that happened. However, since the Biblical accounts we have place us in the middle of the event as observers of what happened, it is most likely that someone else created the dialogue.

So, where did it come from?

Whenever we have an account in Luke that needs to be better understood, we start by checking with the Gospel of Mark. We can be very confident that Luke used Mark as a source. There is no record in Mark of specific temptations in the wilderness, or any dialogue. However, Mark does say that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.

One might guess that Luke simply expanded on Mark’s account, creating dialogue to suit his understandings of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. After all, this is an acceptable literary device in the first century, and Luke clearly does this in various places. But before we can attribute something to Luke, we have to check with the Gospel of Matthew.

As I said earlier, Matthew and Luke have this same account in very similar language. This is important, because it points us to a different conclusion. When Matthew and Luke share a story that is an expansion (or doesn’t appear) in Mark, it is unlikely that they just happened to expand the story in the same way. Instead of originating with Matthew or Luke, it suggests that the story predates them, from a different shared source. We call that source “Q”: the “unknown source.”

No one knows if “Q” was a collection of accounts and stories of Jesus, or includes original material to the author. Did the writer of “Q” create the dialogue of the story, or record someone else’s version? We just don’t know for sure.

So, let’s put together what we know. The story is not unique to Matthew or Luke, so it’s not one of them expanding on an account of Jesus. While Mark doesn’t have the temptations or the dialogue, he does mention Jesus and Satan. All three Gospels place the account in the same sequence: immediately after Jesus’ baptism, but before the start of Jesus’ public ministry. With three Gospels concurring the action and order of events, we can reasonably conclude that this is established tradition of Jesus’ life, and that the dialogue was developed before Matthew and Luke was written.

So, after he was baptized, before speaking publicly, Jesus went off into the wilderness by himself. That we can say with confidence.

Having investigated the origins of the text, let us now look at the devil’s three temptations, using Luke’s version:

“Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
“If you will worship me, (all the kingdoms of the world) will all be yours.”
“Throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)”

In isolation, this seems like an odd collection of temptations. To figure it out requires the context of the wilderness.

People usually go off and spend extended time in the wilderness for one of two things: seeking or sorting. “Seeking” involves an epiphany: an eye-opening moment, transformation or deep insight. “Sorting” suggests that the moment has already happened, but one needs to go off to be alone to sort things out, find direction, and discern the next steps to take.

Jesus, in his baptism, had his epiphany: “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” Whether it’s incarnation or confirmation (pending on the particular Gospel and one’s interpretation), the eye-opening moment for Jesus (and us the readers) is when he comes out of the waters and the heavens open up. It’s clear that Jesus goes into the wilderness to sort, not to seek.

Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes into the wilderness to sort out what he is to do: what kind of beloved Son will he be? What will his ministry look like?

The devil’s temptations now take shape:

Temptation Number One: “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

This isn’t just about satisfying Jesus’ hunger after a fast, but something far greater is implied. By turning stone to bread, the devil is suggesting that Jesus take on hunger and famine. Feed the hungry.

Temptation Number Two: “If you will worship me, (all the kingdoms of the world) will all be yours.”

For the price of worship, the devil offers Jesus the opportunity to rule the world with justice. End the tyranny of Rome: instant regime change. Jesus could accomplish great things for the world by accepting this temptation, by “playing the world’s game for a good purpose.” (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, edited by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor.)

Temptation Number Three: “Throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)”

This doesn’t sound like anything’s offered here, but in truth it may the greatest offer of all. Take control of the temple. Establish righteous leadership. Restore the rightful place of the temple as the center of faithful living. All it would take is an example to the community, and Jesus could have ultimate religious power to be used for good.

It might be troublesome to realize that the devil tempts Jesus with good things. We tend to think of the devil leading us to only do bad things, but that’s often not the case. Feeding the hungry is a good thing. Governance with justice is a good thing. Righteous religious leadership is a good thing. To make it harder, all of these things fit into Jesus ministry: Jesus, throughout his ministry, will feed the poor, advocate governing with justice, and faithfully wield religious power.

The devil seeks to move Jesus only to solutions, or to taking “the end justifies the means” approach. The devil seeks to divert Jesus from faithfully walking God’s unknown path towards a more certain one with results measurable to the world...be it worldly goods, political power, or religious power. The focus for Jesus, however, is the kingdom of God...and remains so in the midst of the temptations.

Jesus emerges from his time in the wilderness fully embracing his role in the kingdom of God. His path not only results in good things accomplished, but the practice of them demonstrates love for God and neighbor. No shortcuts are taken.

We are called to the same pattern of living. As we enter the wilderness of Lent, we are invited to seek or sort out how we might faithfully walk the path of God with our lives...and come to realize that how we get there is as important as reaching the destination.