03/05/17 – Patience and Presence

For the last several years, I have had the privilege to teach at the Episcopal School for Deacons in Berkeley, where our deacon today, the Rev. Rebecca Morehouse, worked for many years and from which she has recently retired (or tried to retire). The class I have taught since 2013 has been Christian Social Ethics and in this class, I teach students (most of whom will become deacons in the Episcopal Church) a method for ethical decision making. The method is expressed in the word DISCERN, which functions as an acronym for a seven-step process, with each letter of the word DISCERN representing each step. So the “D” stands for “Determining possible outcomes” of the decision. This involves applying the utilitarian or teleological approach which seeks to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. English philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The “I” stands for “Imagining universal application”; imagining a world in which everyone made a similar decision if there were in a similar circumstance.  The “S” stands for “Seeking wisdom in your faith tradition” and we spend much of the class gleaning relevant wisdom for today from the rich Anglican Moral Tradition. The “C” stands for “Consulting broadly,” seeking wisdom from outside the Anglican Moral Tradition and even beyond the Christian tradition. The “E” stands for “Examining Personal Experience” and the “R” for “Reflecting on Biases” and the “N” for “Never Stop Praying.” We spend a semester unpacking each of these steps and then applying this method to several case studies. But this morning we’re not going to do that. This morning I want to very briefly unpack the penultimate step in the method and that is “Reflecting on Biases.” Part of this step involves engaging with three major thinkers of the 19th and 20th century: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophers who have been called the “Masters of Suspicion” and who have collectively asserted the everyone is driven by three major forces: sex, money, and power. Perhaps you can already guess which thinker is associated with each: Freud thinks that sexual desire often drives our unconscious impulses; Marx thinks that ideology controls society; and Nietzsche thinks we are all driven, in one way or another, by the will to power. Sex, money and power. These “Masters of Suspicion” do not necessarily think there is anything inherently wrong with sex, money or power, but they help us to see the many ways in which we can easily become controlled and manipulated by these forces every day. When we fall prey to these forces or to an inordinate attachment to them, we can very easily fall into sin.

Although these Masters of Suspicion were each wonderfully creative thinkers, they were not entirely original. The Jewish and Christian traditions had already recognized the dangerous potency of these three forces, as attested to in our readings this morning. The Scriptures wrestle with sex, money, and power in their own way, usually in terms of pleasure, possessions and pride. In our reading from Genesis, we see these three forces subtly at work in influencing Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. The Scriptures say, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food (to possess), and that it was a delight to the eyes (pleasure), and that the tree was desired to make one wise (pride), so she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” Pleasure, possessions and pride push humanity to fall headlong into sin.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus confronts these same forces in the desert when the devil tempts him to satisfy his hunger by miraculously turning stones into delicious loaves of bread (so pleasure), to possess all the kingdoms of the world and all of their splendid riches (possessions), and to assert his power over the angels to protect him from self-sabotage (power). By resisting these temptations, Jesus acts as the new Adam and begins reversing the effects of the Fall and begins renegotiating our relationship to power, possessions, and pride (sex, money, and power).

With this understanding, we can see why Jesus emphasized three particular acts of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount, which we heard on Ash Wednesday, when he emphasized fasting, alms-giving and prayer, in order to help temper our attachment to pleasure, possessions and pride.

In the Gospel this morning, we get to see Jesus in action, responding to the temptations of pleasure, possessions and pride, which the devil dangles before him with diabolic brilliance. I want to highlight two characteristics of Jesus’s response, which I invite us to imitate throughout this season of Lent.

First of all, Jesus responds to each of the three temptations with words from the Holy Scriptures. He had immersed himself in the Torah, in the teachings of the Prophets, and in the poetic prayers of the Psalms. He knew them by heart. While Jesus was physically fasting in the desert, he was spiritually feasting on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” So when the devil himself uses Scripture in an attempt to make Jesus grasp for power, Jesus is fully equipped with yet another reference to Scripture to quote in order to counter the attack. So this Lent, I invite us to feast spiritually on the Word of God so that we too can resist the devil’s many temptations and temper our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride. This Lent, we will immerse ourselves in the Scriptures by feasting on portions of the Gospel of John, starting next Sunday.

The second characteristic about Jesus’s response to temptation that I want to highlight is slightly more subtle and complex, but equally important. In order to appreciate this characteristic, we need to first appreciate how tempting these offers actually were for Jesus. These offers to miraculously make bread, to escape death and to become the king of all the world were extremely tempting offers for Jesus because he really wanted to do these things. We know he wanted to do these things because later on in Matthew’s Gospel, he does all of them: He miraculously makes bread (to feed thousands of people), he escapes death in his resurrection and then he commissions his followers to make disciples of all the nations of the world. So does this mean that Jesus eventually succumbs to the devil’s temptations? Absolutely not!

Jesus fulfills his deep desires, but he does so in God’s time and in God’s way, rather than in the devil’s way. The devil offers him the fast-food approach of instant gratification, which is tempting indeed. But God’s way often requires patience and long-suffering and sacrifice. The timing was right for Jesus to miraculously make bread when there was more than just his mouth to feed. And the timing was right for Jesus to escape the clutches of death only after he had endured the suffering of the cross and the grave.

As I preached about on Ash Wednesday, our process of spiritual growth and deification is a long and arduous one. Indeed, it is the way of the Cross, the via dolorosa, the path of pain and suffering and sorrow. Of course, we would prefer to bypass all of that and just get straight to the good stuff. As the blues singer Albert King said, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but Nobody wants to Die.”

Matthew’s Gospel teaches us that when it comes to the spiritual life, the fast-food approach is actually the devil’s approach. This is why we don’t just hop from Epiphany to Easter. We first walk the via dolorosa of the Lenten season. In this season, we train ourselves to trust in God’s time and to follow God’s way, even when it is full of difficulty, pain, self-denial, and boredom. It is in this season, that we renegotiate and recalibrate our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride; with sex, money and power. God wants us to flourish and thrive and God has tremendous blessings in store for each of us here as well as for this church as a whole. But, in order to claim them, we must first walk the way of the Cross. Before we can properly celebrate the glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday, we must first observe a holy and somber Lent. Before we can go to Heaven, we first have to die.

So what is this second characteristic of Jesus’s response to temptation that I want to highlight? I would say it is his patience, his calm refusal to rush and grasp at the rich blessings that are in store for him, his ability to be present to the here and now. This Lent, as we read through John’s Gospel, I invite us to practice being patient by being fully present to the here and now. One of the best ways I have learned how to do this (or at least start doing this) is by simply being in my body, being mindful and grateful for even a single breath that I breathe, a bite that I take, an aroma I smell, a texture I touch, a beauty I see, or a melodious sound I hear. As we will be reading parts of John’s Gospel throughout Lent, I will be highlighting an aspect of John that I noticed while writing my dissertation; and that is the Gospel’s emphasis on the body and the bodily senses, the Gospel’s invitation to experience the divine pulsating through our flesh, to be refreshed by the God who became flesh in order to help us see our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.

Being present to the here and now is actually very difficult work, especially when the “here and now” is troubling and painful and might be the last place or moment in which we want to be. But ultimately, this practice of mindfulness helps prepare us to receive the many blessings that are in store for us as well as those that are in front of us right now. This practice also helps temper our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride so that we may more fully enjoy our God-given pleasures, possessions and pride in God’s time and in God’s way.

So once again, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word,” but above all, by practicing patience and being present to the here and now through mindfulness and appreciation of our bodies, these temples of the Holy Spirit, and being renewed and refreshed by the divine Word who became flesh. Amen.