Lent 1, A
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Gil Bailie tells the story of a teacher who wants to teach artistic imagination to her students. Her plan is to draw pictures on the board and have the students free associate, teaching them gradually to see beyond the mere shapes. She draws a circle on the board and says, “Johnny, what does that make you think of?” Johnny answers, “Sex.” A bit non-plussed, she erases it very quickly and instead draws a triangle: “Johnny, what’s that?” Johnny considers the drawing and thoughtfully answers, “Sex.” The teacher draws a square, “Johnny?” “Sex.” Frustrated, the poor teacher bursts out, “Johnny, you have a one-track mind. All you can think about is sex.” “Me?!” says Johnny, “You’re the one drawing the pictures.”
If I write Lent up on a board, what do you see? Lent – a time of prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. If you grew up in the Episcopal church or almost any church that observes Lent, this has become ingrained. Every year as we approach Lent all these things translate to one question – what to give up. I could do what I did last year, but, was that too easy? Should I try something really painful this year? Did I suffer enough? Enough for what? Really, how much must one suffer to please a compassionate, loving God? We, like Johnny, have gotten a bit stuck on one idea. With some help from St. Paul, and a great deal of help from St. Augustine (an extraordinary thinker who struggled with precisely the same single-minded focus as young Johnny) we have somehow internalized the concept that God demands that we be punished for living as the very creatures He created. One author says, “I was at least twenty-five years old before I learned that Lent wasn’t about punishing myself for being human–and it took me five more years to figure out that it wasn’t about giving up Hershey’s or taking on Pilates–so I don’t blame anyone who has decided to give Lent a pass.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
So, if Augustine, immersed in his own personal struggle to keep his toga where it belonged*, over-read Paul; if Lent and life and suffering are not, in fact, about rending our garments and gnashing our teeth over the choices of our great, great, great, (and so on) grandparents in a garden with a smooth-talking snake, what is the point? Why can’t I just keep my chocolate or my cell phone or my swear words or whatever I might have decided to forgo.
Do not imagine that we suffer to please God. That simply makes no sense. Not for a God of Love, of Compassion, of Justice. Such Lenten discipline as we endure, and certainly it will prove mild enough in the overall scheme of things, we endure in order to enrich our experience of God.
Jesus goes into the wilderness, driven by the Spirit. Jesus, free of sin, still wet with the waters of the Jordan after his Baptism, ears and heart still ringing with God’s approval – You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased – is not being punished. He is being prepared. Prepared for a life of relationship with God, of servanthood to all people, of life-giving ministry.
These lessons are less about sin than they are about identity. “IF you are the Son of God” says Satan, “IF you are the Son of God” then you can make bread”. “IF you are the Son of God”, prove it – he’ll save you.” “You know, Jesus, you’re out here in the wilderness – I don’t see any Father-Son loving thing happening. Worship me and you’ll get loving here and now.” The tactic is reminiscent of school yard tactics – “If you’re not chicken, you’ll skip class.” “If you were really my friend, you’d let me copy your homework.” The tactic works better with Adam and Eve than it did with Jesus, “God doesn’t really love you – God’s jealous of what you could become. Try that fruit. You’ll see.”
Our identities are rooted in our relationships. I am daughter, mother, wife, sister, friend, doctor, priest. To a large degree, these relationships determine my activities, my reactions, my sense of worth. Our relationship with God is at once the most important and the most nebulous of our relationships. 17th century philosopher, Blaise Pascal, describes an innate sense of craving, of helplessness, of emptiness within human beings as a God-shaped hole, a hole we try in vain to fill with everything around us. For Adam and Eve – tempted to doubt the love of the Creator, the fruit seemed perfect to fill the hole – “good for food” “a delight to the eyes”. Lacking a tree of Good and Evil, we reach for other things – from chocolate to alcohol; from tweets to TV; from computers to cell phones; from social standing to political influence – always trying to fill that God shaped hole. We live in tension between the opposing notion of innate human sin and the culturally endorsed opinion that if it feels good, it must BE good.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian author imprisoned in a forced labor camp for many years, and later forced into exile. He described the lessons of his Gulag wilderness in this way, “I learned two great lessons from being in prison camps. I learned how a person becomes evil and how he becomes good. When I was young I thought I was infallible, and I was cruel to those under me. I was madly in love with power and, in exercising it, I was a murderer and an oppressor. Yet in my most evil moments I thought I was doing good, and I had plenty of arguments with which to justify my deeds. It was only when things were reversed, when as a prisoner I lay on rotten straw, that I began to feel within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually I came to realize that the line which separates good from evil passes not between states, or between classes, or between political parties – but right through every human heart. Even in hearts that are overwhelmed by evil one small bridgehead of good is retained. And in the best of all hearts, there remains an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”
Lent – a time of prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial, yes. These are the tools we use to journey through a self imposed wilderness, that we might hear the small, still voice of God. There in the wilderness we learn to look at ourselves without our spiritual fig leaves – recognizing the bad, embracing the good and trusting God to love it all. **We learn to trust the Spirit that led us there to lead us out again, ready to worship the Lord our God and serve no other all the days of our lives. Amen.
*Thank you to Rev. Lynn Naeckle for the toga image
**Paraphrased from Barbara Brown Taylor’s “The Wilderness Exam”