Temptations

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

One of the great deposits of wisdom in the Christian Tradition comes from the Sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, collections of stories and sayings from Christians who, especially in the 4th century, went into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia, to pursue a deeper relationship with God.

One day, a person trying to figure out their faith approached one of these Desert Fathers saying, “Father, give a word.” In order words, the seeker was asking, “How does one grow in God? How does one pray? How does one learn to be more loving and forgiving…how, how, how?”  The wise old teacher responded simply, “Go and sit in your room, and your room will teach you everything.” [The conventional saying, of course, uses “cell” instead of “room,” but modern hearers will perhaps hear “room” more smoothly.] Whether it’s a special room for prayer, or a bedroom, or a kitchen, or a church—the wisdom is the same:  sit still, pray and meditate and be present with yourself, your deepest self, and God will show up—for you, and in you, and around you. But it might not always be pretty.

Having just been baptized and filled with the Spirit, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and there (while not so much in a room), Jesus is brought face to face with himself. And within himself, temptations surface up in the form of Satan. Perhaps Satan showed up in person. Perhaps Satan showed up in a vision, or in Jesus’s imagination— whatever way we imagine it, it felt real to Jesus—as real as temptations feel when they show up for us.

Whether we picture the devil as a little red man with a tail and pitchfork, or whether the devil is more that little voice inside each of us that second-guesses and accuses, the temptations Jesus faces are ones that we might be confronted with from time to time.

The temptation of turning stones into bread, is really the temptation of gluttony, to satisfy ourselves with food and drink and stuff, to find happiness in these things.

The temptation of pursuing glory and authority of the world is not so different for us. There are the countless choices we make between doing the thing that will better our paycheck or professional standing or status, as opposed to doing the just, honest, true and decent thing.

And finally, the third temptation for Jesus to jump off the temple top and be rescued by angels. Perhaps it relates to us when we’re so uncomfortable in our own skin or our own situation, that we’re tempted to jump in any direction, to do something tragic or dramatic simply to change the situation.

To each of the temptations offered by the devil, Jesus quotes scripture. In other words, Jesus takes a deep breath, touches his spiritual base, and does whatever he needs to do to center himself and remind himself of who he is and of whose he is. Jesus can withstand the devil’s voice because Jesus has trained for this—through prayer, through showing and sharing compassion, and by spending time alone, learning from his room, from his garden, and from the sometimes painful silence that comes in the face of Truth.

This Season of Lent invites us to practice being along with God, being present with God.  Prayer, spiritual disciplines, self-reflection, growth in faith—all of this is training for spiritual battle.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout this season we’re reminded of classic spiritual disciplines such as spiritual reading or meditating on scripture, praying in a new way, saving money for a particular project or cause and giving it, fasting (whether that means giving up a particular food or drink, or fasting in a more creative way—avoiding waste, or limiting the use of water or plastic or gasoline.) Other things might easily become spiritual disciplines to clarify and steady: a daily walk, a time of reading or sitting still or writing in a journal. All of these, almost anything, really, if given over to God, if done with intention and mindfulness and a willingness to be used by God, can become spiritual disciplines to sharpen us and help us know when we’re being tempted. They help us focus. They bring clarity.

Wherever our spiritual “room” might be—whether a special place at home, or with others, or in the church, in a park, or a yoga studio or gym—may we have the courage to meet God and the strength, with Jesus, to stare down the devil.

We hear in today’s first reading that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after talking with God, the skin of his face was shining.

This morning, my face may or may not be shining, but I certainly had a recharge of energy and faith over the last few days. I attended a conference in Atlanta, with several hundred other fully vaccinated and negative-testing Episcopalians. We talked about further development of the “third spaces” in our church life– those places that are faithful expressions of our ministry, but don’t (and don’t need to) result in pledging, baptism-on-the books, Episcopal communicants in good standing. We explored existing and future economic models — not in an effort to float sinking ships but (continuing with that image) more to supply canoes and sailboats for a new kind of faithfulness– even if the waters are rough. We talked, and prayed, and explored. And Friday night was a highpoint: a service of songs and hymns, with classic sacred choral, jazz, gospel, and Latin music– led by Bishop Wright of Atlanta, with an unforgettable sermon by The Rev. Dr. (Senator) Rafael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and junior senator from Georgia.

All of this celebration and hopefulness was not done in a hotel convention center immune from world news. Like all of you, we followed with sadness and outrage, Russia began invading Ukraine. Our sharing of ideas for ministry and mission was done very much with the pandemic still like a cloud behind us, and still a little bit over us. And we were meeting in Atlanta, a place with a heightened sensitivity around Civil Rights– failures and success of the past, and of the present.

My face might not be shining like Moses’s but for me and, I think others, something about being together last week felt like God’s Spirit deepening our resolve to be faithful.  In the words of today’s Gospel, we deepened our faith in being transfigured into more into Christ.

When we reflect on today’s Gospel about the transfiguration of Jesus on another mountain, his face shone like light, too.  But Jesus wasn’t just transfigured in light, mystery, or a cloud of smoke. No, there’s a lot more going on.

By combining the traditions of the law and the prophets, by embodying those traditions, Jesus is showing us how to be transfigured in LOVE, and to be a part of God’s work transfiguring the world into the way of love.

Today, we add our voices to those of people all over the world praying for the people of Ukraine, for the refugees, and especially for the children. But we should not too quickly agree with the newscasters who make this sound unprecedented. There have always been crazy rulers and evil tyrants. And we continue to read reports of the United States bombs and explosives that have killed innocent people in Afghanistan, not to mention the many places around the world where our country has tried to solve systemic problems with brute force.   

As we pray, as we express outrage, as we pressure our leaders for peace, we also need to remember that we, as Christians, language of “casualties,” or “collateral damage,” is not a language we speak.  It’s not our way to enter into the debate about how best to “take out” the tyrant, eradicate the evil, or cheer for the best tactic for winning the game.  We follow the Prince of Peace and we have OUR marching orders.

Our collect of the day prays that we “may be strengthened to bear our cross” and be changed into the likeness of Jesus. In his nonviolent witness to the way of love and peace, Jesus unleased a new power in the world, to reveal the meanness and smallness of violence and to overcome evil by love.

On Thursday, a number of us from the conference visited the National Museum of Civil Rights.  Though the museum promotes an awareness of civil rights broadly and globally understood, but of course, just a few miles from where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up, Dr. King’s faith and vision have a prominent place.  Though King learned from Gandhi about nonviolence, this was simply a directed focus to the way of Jesus Christ, a way Martin Luther King knew intimately. King followed Jesus and remembered well those words from Matthew where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). Martin Luther King, Jr. simply applied the words of Jesus to the real world.

In 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an article that appeared in the magazine Christian Century. In it, he lays out five points about nonviolence.

First: nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. But it’s aggression is spiritual.
Second: nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.
Third: the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces.
Fourth: nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.
And fifth: the method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” 1957.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear, representing their two great traditions, and they still have their followers, in our day. Some of these followers call themselves Christians, but these modern-day followers of Moses love insisting on the letter of the law. The idea of the law becomes more important than the teachings and life of Jesus– so it’s the law of God that takes on a life of itself, and measures all people. If you follow the law (the commandments, moral codes, accumulated tradition of authority), then you’re right with God.

Elijah has his followers, though some of them claim aspects of Jesus. They like the scene of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, but forget that he did not resist physically in going to the cross.

Jesus complicates the role of law and prophecy when he embodies them both in love, and then goes on again, and again to show us what the love of Christ looks like in the world.

Jesus calls us to face down evil with love and there are many ways of doing this, but I think of at least three things we can do that allow for transfiguration.   Be AWARE. ASK for God’s intervention. And ACT in faith.

Be aware of whatever it is in you that rising to the surface—anger, resentment, fury, sadness, over the injustice, the evil, the meanness you see or feel.

Ask for God’s intervention, God’s help, God’s power. Pray for yourself and the transfiguration of hatred, and pray for the other person or people, that they would be released from the evil that’s got a hold on them.

Act in faith. Take some action, channel the anger, the rage, the hurt. Participate politically. Give money. Do something for someone else. Go to the gym or on a long walk to clear your head and be open to how God moves you to act. But don’t sit still in your rage, or it will turn inward and depress, deflate, and eat you up.

The Season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, and we will have a lot of opportunities this season to reflect on what it means for us to “bear our cross” and to be changed into Christ’s likeness, but a big part of that involves our being people of peace, and little by little, and as Bishop Wright of Atlanta sometimes says, “loving the HELL out of the world.”

May God help us to be part of the world’s transfiguration into the love of Christ.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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