FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
Readings for this Sunday:
Deuteronomy 26:1-9 | Psalm 91 | Romans 10:8-13 | Luke 4:1-13
I highly recommend children! I think they are great. Get one or two or more if you can! If you can’t get your own, borrow someone else’s. Get a church full! Get to know them. Be in conversation.
There are many good reasons for this. I won’t go into all of them now. I just want to touch on one or two. First of all, there’s this: Children have the great effect of helping you—or at least me—to root yourself in truth. They are good truth-meters.
I was thinking about this yesterday as Barb and I were watching a little bit of the Republican debate with Pete. On a couple of occasions I found myself commenting on something that was said, and Pete’s presence in the room caused me, just a little more than usual, to ask myself if I really believed what I was saying, if it was really true. I was, I think, more aware than I might have been otherwise of how easy it is to be uncareful not only with our words, but with our thought. And because he listens to me—or at least he does a pretty good job of looking like he does!—I am aware that I have the power to shape his thinking. It isn’t just about me anymore, but him too. There’s a responsibility there, that, at its best, encourages me to tell the truth, to be as honest as I can with myself and others.
It makes me think of a word that we throw around every week here in worship—right near the beginning: confession. We pray a prayer of confession and then we hear about forgiveness. The fact that forgiveness comes after confession implies that confession has something to do with what’s wrong. And I suppose that’s true, although that certainly isn’t the goal of confession—to beat ourselves over the head, so to speak. And that’s not, of course, the only way we use the word confession.
We speak of our particular brand of Protestant Christianity as confessional. Right after the Bible, we Presbyterians value a collection of historical documents we call the Book of Confessions. It is a part of our constitution and it includes things like the Nicene and Apostles Creed, two of the oldest ecumenical Christian documents. There’s a Scots confession, although I can’t take credit for that. John Knox and a few others wrote it in 1560 over four days after Queen Mary died, and the Scottish Parliament declared Scotland a Protestant nation and wanted to confess what they believed. An interesting idea in this day when we wrestle again over the link between religion and state.
There are a bunch of others confessions too, all written during times of historic uncertainty and transition. Twelve in all, including Belhar, the one we’ve just adopted from South Africa, formed in the crucible of apartheid.
Confession, it turns out, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing. We use it in many ways in our day to day lives. So we’re hoping to explore a bit of what we think about confession over these next five Sundays of Lent as we make our way to Easter.
Today the texts seem to tie the idea of confession with another word: temptation. So let’s take a look at these together.
The social researcher Brené Brown is onto something with her work on empathy, shame and guilt that has something to say to the temptation that we face. Brown notes that somehow an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life. Only what is extraordinary is relevant anymore. To be ordinary is to be irrelevant. This is a tragedy. More than that, it is a lie; it isn’t true. It imagines a world of scarcity that is nowhere evident in even these scriptures on the first Sunday of Lent when we might expect to be bombarded with limits and “not enough.”
Instead we have this story in Deuteronomy that sets up a ritual, a liturgy, if you will, for the people of Israel, so that they will remember the abundance they were shown, so that they will remember the land they were provided—flowing with milk and honey, so that they would remember the signs and wonders associated with the God who is generous.
And we have this letter to the Romans in which Paul is pleading with the church to be open to the differences they find gathering together for worship—Jews and Greeks, immigrants and settlers, cats and dogs living together! And Paul reminds them: “The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” That’s a lot different from a God that we might have grown familiar with over years of confessional prayers who demands to hear about how sinful and wretched and “wormy” we are.
And then there is this story of Jesus’ own temptation. Luke assures us that this is not a story of scarcity, despite the hunger, despite the wilderness, despite the testing. At no time is Jesus separated from God’s love. According to the story, he is filled with the Spirit at the end of the episode, and at the beginning too. He is surrounded by God’s love, by a God who says again and again, you are my child. You belong to me. I could not be more pleased with you!
Apparently we are not the first culture to be tempted by a notion of scarcity. But ironically, it does seem there is an abundance of scarcity these days. Less than an hour after seeing the first news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death yesterday, the chatter already started about his replacement and who should or shouldn’t nominate a replacement. We couldn’t even let 24 hours pass! There is such a deep sense anxiety and unsettledness, and it misshapes us. It steals our life.
So Brené Brown goes to the research to survey the territory. What we do in reponse to scarcity culture is this, she says: “we wake up in the morning and we armor up. We say I’m going to go out into the world. I’m not going to let anyone see who I am. I am going to protect myself against the things that hurt the most—fear, blame, ridicule. I’m going to armor up and I’m going to be safe.”
One of the greatest temptations we face is to live so shielded against hurt that what we actually end up keeping ourselves from the human connection that makes us whole. We build a wall that ends up imprisoning us, that traps us in isolation and loneliness. And we end up imagining we are isolated individuals doomed to scraping through life, battling alone.
Brown reminds us that the remedy is counter-intuitive in much the same way that this gospel reminds us we are served by serving, we are loved by loving. The only way to be safe, it turns out, according to Brown’s research, is to take chances, to face what threatens us.
She says, “Our capacity for whole-heartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted. We can only love and be loved as much as we are willing to have our heart broken.” We have to drop the shield. “Vulnerability is the path to love, belonging, joy, intimacy, trust, innovation and creativity.”
If there is anyone who we would imagine to be vulnerable, surely it is Jesus, forty days from his last meal, all alone in the desert, being tempted.
But he isn’t alone. And he knows it. And this knowledge seems to be a key in his ability to cut through all the noise and hone in on what is deeply true. He remembers the Spirit that is with him. He remembers that he is a part of something bigger, held by a connection that is unbreakable.
In each of the three temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness, he recalls a deeper truth that enables him to look beyond the moment. He refuses in his hunger to be his own savior, to turn stones into bread to feed not only himself, but by implication all of a hungry and impoverished Israel. He doesn’t give into the idea that it is all up to him, and yet, he does feed the hungry throughout his ministry.
He refuses the devil’s offer of political power, and the doubtful claim that it was the devil’s to give. And yet, the proclamation of God’s empire of justice and peace is the focus of his preaching and teaching.
He refuses to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, and yet, he goes without a net to the cross in confidence that God’s will for life will trump the world’s decision to execute him.
In each case, Jesus confesses to the deeper truth that holds him and us steady in a world in which many are losing their heads. It is his confession of what is deeply true that makes the path forward possible. And that is our path too.
Was it easy? I don’t know. The story doesn’t really tell us. I know some days it is easier for me to remember than others. I suspect the same is true for you too. But confession seems to be about truth-telling, even when it may be difficult and seem threatening. Confession is about vulnerability, and ultimately about the path to love, belonging, joy, intimacy, trust, innovation, and creativity.
So, we’re almost done, but first, one more reason to have kids or find some to hang out with. I’ve been working for the last few months on a big project for a seminary program. I’m now into the writing process, and it is a lot of work. In fact, I’ll be taking next week to get something close to a final draft of it.
And my daughter Claire has on more than one occasion helped me to remember that I can do this thing. It seems that she has decided that she would take on the role of cheerleader over the last couple of months as I’ve been working. And she’s been great. She’s up in Bellingham at school, of course, but she keeps asking and texting encouragement. So a few weeks ago she wrote—in all caps—KEEP GOING BUDDY, WORK ON THAT PAPER. YOU ARE A SMART AND EDUCATED DAD WHO OCCASIONALLY WALKS INTO BODIES OF WATER WITH KEYS AND REMOTES IN HIS POCKETS BUT WHOSE FAMILY LOVES AND IS PROUD OF HIM REGARDLESS.
So we don’t need to worry about the keys and remotes and water right now. My point is this: confession is about remembering who we really are and even more importantly, the ocean of God’s love. It is only in this truth that we can be what we are to be—our whole-hearted selves—together.
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