Sunday, March 9, 2014

Happy Lent

Today we begin Lent, that season in which we as Church recognize how we have fallen short of what we are called to be by God and our Baptismal vows.  These 40 days that we observe are mindful of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his ministry.  It is also mindful of the 40 years that Israel spent in the wilderness before coming into the Promised Land.

Forty is a magical number in the Bible.  It really means many, but when applied to days or years, it often has to do with a test.  Noah, Moses, Elijah, all went through 40 days of testing in order to be confident in the faith that resided in them.

The custom of fasting and doing penitence is quite old. It was part of Middle Eastern culture by at least 1500 years before Christ.  It is already a fixed part of the life of the Church by about 150 AD.  The Eastern churches celebrate a longer Lent than we in the West.  The fasting was either an abstinence of certain foods, or a day-long fast like Ramadan depending upon which group of Christianity one belonged.  And it was also the period that those wishing to be baptized prepared for that event at the Vigil of Easter. During the Middle Ages, this practice fell into disuse, but with the changes in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s, this period of preparation for Baptism was re-established.  And many churches today take this period to instruct adult converts to the Faith.

Our readings point us not to fasting, however, but to the test that both Adam and Eve and Jesus must face.  The primal couple is placed in the garden of
God with all things provided for them save one:  They were not to eat of the tree of good and evil—or the tree of knowledge.  All too often we hear stories about the Fall of humanity due to Eve’s actions.  It is interesting that the concept of ‘forever fallen’ does not exist in Judaism.  In Genesis, God has created humanity in God’s likeness—holy and good.  Many Christian traditions claim that Eve’s disobedience brought damnation for humanity for all time, but that is a belief system that develops much later in Christianity. 

I prefer to understand the story of Adam and Eve (and remember, you guys, that Adam was there all along) is a matter of trying to usurp the power of God.  Satan entices them not merely to eat fruit.  But to aspire to divine knowledge, to depend upon themselves rather than the Creator that had molded them from the dust.  What Adam and Eve succumb to goes beyond their humanity.  They aspire to equality with God.  And when we think about it, most of our own sinfulness is rooted in the desire to go it alone, or to ignore the Holy in our lives.

Paralleled with the story is the temptation of Jesus.  This story is different from the beginning:  Following Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Matthew, the Spirit
leads him into the wilderness.  And after fasting, Jesus is confronted by an Accuser or a Tester. That is how the word Satan translates in Hebrew. Like any good rabbi, he had to undergo his ordination exams.  The tests are on very basic human desires:  Food, Safety and Power.   Satan quotes the prophets and the psalms.  But Jesus responds to each of the tests with a quote from Torah—the Law.  And they are all from the part of Deuteronomy that reminds the people of Israel how they are to live after their 40 years in the desert and while entering the Promised Land.

Jesus does not respond to the devil with his divine power.  He manifests his faith in God from his own humanity.  He speaks from the knowledge that any good Jew would know—what it means to be a good man, a good person.  Jesus models, not a superhuman faith;  he shows each of us that when we know Who runs the universe, we don’t have to resort to God-like knowledge or even God-like power.  He signs for us that we can depend upon a holy faith because it is given by God.

Temptation is not a sign of weakness.  It is part of life.  What we do with it, is
our responsibility.  We all hunger after food, safety and power.  But if we have walked with God, if we have come into the presence of the Holy One in our lives, we know Truth when we hear it.  We know of goodness when we see it.  We know how to depend upon God in the face of temptation.  That is what Jesus models for us in this passage.

But though we KNOW the difference between good and evil, we don’t always rely on God’s power to avoid the evil.  We participate in it.  And sometimes we participate in it without doing anything at all.  Adam and Eve strove to become God.  Jesus, who was God, strove to be human.  At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus understood his place in the Universe;  his work was to show us God. 

Lent is the time when we can touch our own divinity and our own humanity in the wildernesses of our lives.  We have survived the winter.  The hope of a new season is upon us.  But there is a greater hope for all of us:  It is the hope that we can change.  No matter how young or how old, we are called to that transformation to live truly into the life of Christ.  

Lent is the time when we can practice, with the help of others, to be just a bit more than we were.  As a community of faith we all know our sinfulness.  In
Lent we don’t have to pretend that we are sinless.  We come together as Church, as community, as family—all looking for the holiness to which we have been called.  We walk this journey with Christ together, all knowing that our issues are different, but our efforts are much the same.  It is a time to reconcile, to remember, to offer, to embrace in the name of Jesus.  Not for ourselves—not that we individually might become holier, But that we might create a better world. 

All too often Christianity becomes a personal religion.  It becomes a Jesus-and-me type of thing.  For me, that isn’t faith; that is just self-improvement. Jesus invites people to live together in harmony, in Shalom.  His message was to bring God into that incredibly complex thing called community.  And while we can only change ourselves, the change in each and every one of us changes the whole.  That is why Lent is important.  We are about changing the world during Lent.  We are about our own transformation, but that transformation changes us all.  Lent is the time when we are conscious that those changes are about loving one another. 

 So I invite you to these weeks of transformation as a way to change yourself, to change your family, the parish, the Church, as a way to change the world in the name of the God who loves us more than life.  AMEN

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