Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 13, 2005, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, MA.
Refusing to Live by Bread Alone
I’d like us to take a few minutes to imagine that we’re the director of a movie. Let’s say you’ve got a camera crew with you and you’re flying in a small plane through clear blue skies. Peering out the window, you can see miles of desert laid out far below you, an endless tumble of barren hills stretching to the horizon and baking in the hot noon sun. The pilot takes the plane down for a closer look. Now you can make out more details: jagged crevices, rocky slopes where a few shrubs manage to cling to life, and miles of chalky stone and sand. There’s not a tree in sight, no bit of shade, no water to be seen. The plane moves slowly over this barren landscape and then you spot something. What’s this? It’s a man, a solitary figure, completely alone. Why is he here and what is he doing? Because you’re the director of this movie, you get to decide. Maybe the man is pacing slowly back and forth, all his attention concentrated within himself, as if he’s deep in thought, as if he’s wrestling with something, locked in some kind of mortal combat. Or maybe he is sitting down, leaning against a rock in whatever shade the merciless sun will give him. He’s tired; he’s thirsty; he hasn’t eaten for days. Maybe he is looking out across the desert or maybe his eyes are closed. Maybe his face is motionless and calm, so that you can see nothing of the struggle that is going on inside him, or maybe he is grimacing, and you can see lines of tension around his eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, in his clenched jaw. Maybe the man is completely silent, or maybe from time to time you hear him cry out something so loudly that his voice makes echoes in the lonely hills.
During these 40 days of Lent we are invited to take our place beside this man, to do the work that we need to do to clarify our own deepest commitments. Let me say right up front that prayer, fasting, and self-denial – some of the traditional disciplines of Lent as we follow Jesus into the wilderness – may sound almost quaint to us today, and maybe even repellent. Heaven knows that many of us grew up thinking of Lent as a life-denying season in which we were supposed to sorrow morbidly over our sins – 40 days of wallowing miserably in a vague and relentless guilt, 40 days of beating our breasts and confirming our conviction that fundamentally we’re no good: not lovable, not good enough, not worthy of God’s concern unless we work very hard to earn that approval and whip ourselves into shape (just listen to the self-hatred in that metaphor!). The penitential focus of Lent can certainly be misused to increase our self-rejection and to encourage the fear that deep down we’re worthless.
But this image of Lent is a perversion of the truth and profoundly unbiblical. It’s worth remembering that in the early Church, Lent was not considered, as one writer puts it, “a dreary season of restriction and self-torture.” (1) It was considered, she goes on, “an opportunity to return to normal life – the life of natural communion with God that was lost to us in the Fall.” Adam and Eve refused to accept any limits to human freedom; they refused to accept their dependence on God; they refused to live within the limits that God set for them. So they reached for the forbidden fruit and tried to take God’s place. “They wanted it all.”
It is Christ who reverses Adam’s sin. Jesus begins the work of redemption by undertaking a forty-day fast. When Jesus is famished and the tempter comes to him, Jesus says no to every lie: no to the lie of self-sufficiency, no to the lie of self-promotion and self-display, no to the lie of empire and dominating power. Jesus freely accepts human limits and refuses to put himself in God’s place. He restores humanity to the harmony that Adam and Eve broke, to “a life in which God [is] once more the center and source.”
Lent is the beginning of our journey to Easter. It is God’s loving Spirit that leads Jesus – or, as Mark puts it in his Gospel, drives Jesus – into the wilderness to wrestle with his temptations. It is the same loving Spirit that sets us on fire with the desire to wrestle with and finally to be free of our attachment to anything less than God. God’s love is not in question: just as Jesus was baptized as the beloved with whom God is well pleased and only then was sent into the wilderness, so too we enter these 40 days grateful for our own baptism into God’s love and confident that we too are the beloved and marked as Christ’s own forever. We don’t need to waste time trying to earn God’s love or win God’s approval: we already have it. Already God loves us to the core. That’s not the issue. The only reason to take up a spiritual discipline during Lent or any other time is that we want to know that love more fully. We want to live more in tune with God’s Spirit. We want God’s love to be more manifest in our lives. We want to receive God’s strength and grace so that in these dark and troubling times, we can be better bearers of God’s light. In order to do that we have to identify where our energy for love has been trapped, so that God’s Spirit can move through us more freely.
Lent is the season for asking ourselves very soberly and honestly: What holds me back from loving well and wisely? What are the addictions or temptations in my life that damage my capacity to love and to be present to myself, to others, and to God? Where have I let fear, anxiety, or resentment constrict me and hold me in? Where has greed or shame or pride inhibited my capacity to love? If God’s love is like a river that wants to flow freely through me, where am I busy setting up dams and building walls that impede its flow? Is there a spiritual practice I might take up during Lent that would help make me more available to God?
For example, am I moving so quickly, am I so excessively busy, that I simply have no time to love well, to give anyone or anything my full attention? If so, then maybe I need a Lenten practice of slowing down, of giving myself the gift of daily time for quiet reflection and prayer and for unhurried conversation with someone I love.
Am I drinking too much or eating more than my body really needs? Then my Lenten practice might be to eat less or none of certain foods, or to eat what I eat with full attention, sensing within my hunger for food my deep hunger for communion with God.
Am I avoiding any honest encounter with myself by distracting myself with hours of television or talk shows? Am I afraid to turn off the radio and TV set and actually to discover what is going on inside me? If so, then this might be a good season to fast from the media.
Am I caught up in the grip of negativity, of persistent self-blame and self-criticism? Then my Lenten practice this year might be to pray and to listen for God’s love, or to make a sacramental confession and receive the gift of absolution. I know one person who’s decided that her spiritual practice this Lent will be to renounce putting herself down. Someone else I know has decided to spend these 40 days renouncing the impulse to gossip and to put other people down.
Am I tired of consuming too many fossil fuels and leaving too big a footprint on the earth? Then maybe I can give up driving one day a week or buy some shares in clean wind power to help my family move toward being a carbon neutral household.
Or maybe this Lent you find yourself burdened by despair or fear. The world’s many troubles may seem too daunting to deal with and you may feel like ducking under the covers until everything sorts itself out. If so, then maybe your Lenten practice this year could be to ask God to cast out the spirit of fear that is in you, and to help you find just one thing you can do, one place to volunteer or to contribute your energy, so that when you get up in the morning you know that in some small way you are helping to mend the world.
These are only ideas to spark your own thinking about where temptations may be imprisoning your spirit and what spiritual practice might help to set you free. Spiritual disciplines don’t have to be grim. If right now you feel depleted and distant from God, the best discipline to take up might be the discipline of play – maybe you need to have some fun, to go play that musical instrument you’ve always wanted to try or to pull out that box of watercolors.
During this season we wrestle, as Jesus did, with the tempting voices that urge us to pull away from love. It’s a hard battle that we undertake in Lent, but it’s a worthy one. It’s also one we do not wage alone, for Jesus fights beside us. And when we come to the limits of our own power, when we feel helpless to face down temptation, when we discover, no matter how hard we try, how many times we fail to love ourselves and others well, we can fall to our knees and appeal for help to our dear Savior, the one who has power to save. And then, by God’s grace, the devil leaves us and suddenly angels come and wait on us.
(1) Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, p. 72. The ideas and quotes in this and the following paragraph are gratefully drawn from pages 72-73.