Dogs at the Table

...or to put it another way, "Perish, priest!"

Friday, March 02, 2012

A Sermon for the First Week of Lent, preached at King's Chapel, Halifax

In the name of the One God, who creates us, who calls us, and who makes us holy. Amen.

I have a confession to make: I am far more orthodox than my reputation apparently suggests. I have been known to disparage the mystique, privilege and presumption that surrounds ordained ministry, finding more of my personal identity in the vocation and dignity that we all share in baptism. I have been told that I want to reduce the whole notion of ministry to function, although I do, in fact, place a high iconic value on ordered ministry...and there is some perception that those branded “modern,” “liberal” or “progressive” in the church are somehow lacking in their knowledge or awareness of sin. While I am not discomfitted with the label, I need to make argument and take issue with my supposed ignorance and unawareness of what sin is, how it touches my life, and its implications with regard to both the church and the world. As the criticism flows, apparently unable either to identify sin or confess to it, my faith is supposedly rooted in the core values of tolerance and acceptance with a healthy emphasis on secular humanism to leaven the mix. Given this evening’s gospel, it might be a good time to set the record straight.

The temptations of Christ in the wildness of desert, city and mountain are not unfamiliar to any of us. As Mark describes in a parallel gospel, Jesus is in the wilderness with both beasts and angels. Like the leopard, the lion and the she-wolf that confront Dante on that medieval Good Friday night, we live in the physical and spiritual realm of the gut, the head and the heart; and with the unholy trinity of self-indulgence, indolence and violence.

Of course, the great difficulty that we have with sin is that we always try to make it personal, because as long as it's just about me, then at least no one else gets hurt. As long as we’re at the centre of our own universe, then sin doesn’t really matter, except insofar as it affects only me.

And let’s be clear – we’re talking about sin. Not mistakes, not errors of judgement, not peccadillos, but sin. That deep-seated, in-bred, natural, instinctive measure of self need equaling self worth, and some sense that if our needs are well met, then our worth is well measured.

But there’s the rub...Because it is right about here that we need to learn about the true nature of sin. That truth is, sin is never just about me. And it's never just about you. Even if your sin does not involve me, you are deceiving yourself to think that I am not in some way affected. And even if I don’t think my sin has some level of butterfly effect, in fact, my actions do have some influence and impact on others.

And then we want to graduate sin in some way -- one sin is worse than another, don't you think? Even Dante suggests that the sins of lust and appetite receive far less torment in hell than those of pride and betrayal. Is that just because they are more self-involved? Is that really what we think about the nature of sin? It seems to me that there is really only one distinction, which becomes clear in the gospel – there is either sin, or there is not sin.

So let us look at the temptations and see what it is that separates us from God and from one another.

The temptations teach us about the nature of sin, and, I suppose, some speculation on the nature of the tempter; we are to draw out the consequences. So let us examine them each in turn.

The first temptation seems simple. You’re hungry. You can feed yourself. Just do it. What does it matter? Nobody gets hurt. You need to eat. The question of sin doesn’t seem to enter into it. It isn’t sinful to provide for yourself. Victor Hugo wrote hundreds of pages about the theft of a loaf of bread. There’s no theft involved here. A stone...a loaf of bread. Presto - changeo...or should we say, hocus pocus. Nobody’ll notice.

Except the leopard. Ah yes, the leopard. One of those beasts in the wilderness.
Symbolizing the sin of “incontinence” – no, it’s not what you think – this first temptation invites Jesus to dismiss his self-control; to exercise a lack of restraint seemingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

But let’s be clear about this. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. That is the lesson of the Garden. Just because you can eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil doesn’t mean that you should. And now having the knowledge in humanity of what is good and evil – right and wrong – can’t we recognize what is truly wrong here?

What happens when Jesus tampers with the natural order of creation? As the agent of creation, to alter the order itself Jesus would be at best, ironic; at worst, duplicitous. If Jesus is disingenuous about something small, how is his message to be trusted? He himself will tell us that the one who may be trusted with very small things may also be trusted with very great things. In the course of Jesus’ ministry, a loaf of bread in the wilderness may seem a small thing, but it is only when Jesus is true to the Father and to himself that he is then able to teach us about the bread of life. When Jesus promises to feed us with the Bread of Life, we trust that he is not feeding us stones.

And then there is the problem of what we might call “instant gratification.” Again, the lesson of the Garden teaches us in our humanity that work has worth, that we must labour for that which will feed us. Turning stones to bread, without the wheat, the egg, the water – what value has that?

This leads us into the ethical consequences of turning stones to bread. This is not simply about the individual. When we satisfy ourselves without thought, what does that say to others who are starving? When we skip over those steps which are requisite and necessary as well for the body as the soul, we devalue both the body and the bread, taking food for granted and not cherishing the process that brought it into being or to our table.

And even the leopard cannot live on bread alone.

So now we find ourselves on the parapet of the temple. “Cast yourself down – God’s angels will save you. It says so in the Psalms.” This time we hear the lion, not roaring, but purring–seductive. The lion who brings us the sin of violence. The lion who will not tear us apart, but watch as we do it to ourselves.

In the good old days, there used to be eight deadly sins, you know, and the sin that got dropped from the list is the sin of our time and age. It was called acedia: A deliberate and intentional lack of care, or forethought; a profound indifference that grows as a cancer to the point that, as Kathleen Norris suggests, “we cannot even care that we do not care.”

This is the second temptation in its raw form. Don’t worry about yourself; let somebody else carry you, hold you up, do those things for you that you ought to be able to do for yourself. Just throw yourself off the temple; nothing bad will happen.

Do you recognize this as the sin of negligence in our age? We don’t need to care about the earth, or the environment, or the poor, or the disenfranchised, or the starving in other parts of the world, or the peasant that picks the beans that make our coffee, or the seamstress that sews our hundred-dollar shirt together for pennies an hour in Indonesia. We don’t need to hold governments accountable. We don’t need to vote. We don’t need to worry...just be happy. There is surely an exhilaration to throwing oneself off the temple.

But the lesson of adolescence is the often tragic and hard-learned lesson that to engage with life does, in fact, require some level of thought and concern. Stupidity is still punished by consequence, and yet we still don’t care.

Jesus rightly recognizes that God’s angels, frankly, have better things to do. To impose one’s negligence as another’s responsibility is a denial of the dignity of creation. God gave us free will; we exercise free will; there are responsibilities that come as a result, and to ignore the consequences of our actions is nothing more than throwing ourselves off the temple parapet.

And that is the sin of acedia, testing the limits of our apathy.

And in our world today, it seems that human foolishness is so often praised that whole industries are prepared to watch us make jackasses of ourselves. Let us do violence to ourselves and others because no longer care.

And in the end, only the lion is laughing.

Which brings us to the mountain top. Not the mountain of the Transfiguration. Not the mountain where the law is given. This is the mountain where the tempter invites Jesus to forsake the Father for all the world’s riches. This is the mountain where to give in is to become prey for the wolf.

The wolf, you see, represents the sin of malice where the intention is to hurt someone else. This is not simple lust, nor the gratification of a whim, nor the lack of thought or concern. When we encounter the wolf, we knowingly hurt another person. Not only do we come to the centre of our own universe, but we are willing to hurt or destroy others to stay there. We are blind to the presence of the God in our life, to the promise of the good promised in creation and in Christ. For Dante, the sins of the wolf take us to the frozen pit of hell where, completely absent from the warmth of divine love, we find encased in the ice those who betray the ones for whom they have first professed their love or loyalty: Judas...Brutus...Cassius. It is paradoxical that in this mountaintop moment, Jesus, perhaps, glimpses the pit of hell.

And Jesus faces the tempter – the wolf. There is no longer seduction, as might be suggested to the appetite. There is no longer teasing, as might be suggested by careless action. Here, the cards are on the table. The agenda is out in the open. Satan lays claim, if only Jesus would allow, to his relationship with the Father.

Enough, Jesus says. You shall not–no, you cannot tempt the Lord your God much in all as you may try. Neither appetite, nor carelessness; neither violence nor betrayal; neither seduction nor confrontation will move Jesus from his mission, or take away his dignity, or violate the relationship with his father. Jesus confronts the beasts, and bests them at their own game.
Leopards, lions, wolves...fanciful stuff, perhaps. Metaphors to make us think. The wilderness is a place of beasts and metaphors, but have we grasped what this story says about God? It is easy stuff to look at sin, to see ourselves in it, to recognize the foibles of the human condition, and perhaps even the innate and inbred predisposition to have the world rotate around us.

But what of God? How does the profound nature of human sin affect God? If we don’t give some consideration to the affect of our lives on God, then we are still living as the beasts. This sin of which we speak – it does indeed separate us from God and from one another. It divides the temporal and the infinite, the physical and the metaphysical, the kairos and the chronos of history. Sin separates life from life, placing death in our midst – back to the Garden we go, reminded that because we now know the difference between good and evil, we may no longer partake of the tree of life. St. Paul reminds us that the wages of sin are death.

Over the ages of our existence, as we continued to separate ourselves from God, God tried, again and again, to restore the relationship. Delivering us from the flood, from the oppressor, from the hostility of others, by mighty acts, by subtle prophets, by both the profound and sometimes the profane, God could not show us how to restore the relationship with the divine, the created order, or one another. But God so loved the loved us...that he gave us his only begotten Son, to the end that whoever believes in him should ... have eternal life. The Father sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be redeemed. In Jesus, then, the temporal and the eternal are met together. The physical and the metaphysical become one. And we become one with Christ in his temptations, in his sufferings, in his death, and in his resurrection. As a foretaste of the eternal we share in the sacraments. As a foretaste of the Kingdom, we share with each other.

Because as we return to this evening’s Gospel we remember that Jesus not only overcame the beasts to show us that we too, out of the depths of our humanity, could recognize our separation, our frailty and our need, but was also ministered to by angels. Without going all “Della Reese and Roma Downey,” we are well reminded that these messengers of God whom we call angels are as real as our limited world view will allow. I have not seen the winged creatures that push us from the tomb or herald the moment that changes history, which, perhaps, says more about me than about angels, but I know the circumstances of my life have been changed because something or someone has be able to confront or challenge or console or confide in me in an instant, the reality of God.

I am, like St. Paul, as much a sinner and perhaps even more than anyone else. But my prayer is that of the tax collector in the temple–have mercy on me, a sinner. My prayer is that of the cleansed leper who is able to express gratitude. My prayer, in my doubts, is that of Job or Thomas asking just once for something more than faith. And perhaps the most dangerous prayer of all is that left to us from our Lord himself, that if I do not forgive others their sins against me, then God cannot forgive me my own sins. It is to recognize that in my own hubris I could constrain the actions of God, and be kept from participating in the gracious invitation to Salvation offered to us by God in Christ.

And that is the true nature of sin. Deliberately, intentionally, maliciously, violently, slothfully, carelessly thwarting the will of God. Distracted by the temptations of ease, of acedia, of betrayal, centering my world around myself, and forgetting the example of Christ. I am grateful for this annual recollection of the story of Jesus in the wilderness to set my own experience into the larger context of what could be.

But for now, I am left in the dark of Lent, with the beasts and the angels. Pray God, that the “light of the world” may show me the difference, that the presence of Christ may mirror to me the redeemed humanity of my neighbour, that the Spirit of God may strengthen my resolve to imitate more closely my Lord and Saviour.

And for you–may you overcome the beasts and embrace the angels as we walk through the wildness of the world.