Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 † Psalm 32 † Romans 5:12-19 † Matthew 4:1-11
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I long for clarity. I ache for it. Things seem to get so complicated, so muddled. I don’t know which way is up anymore. I need wisdom.
I often find myself grateful for—and maybe a bit envious of—those friends and guides who have this moral clarity that enables them to say so economically and emphatically what they know to be true.
If you watched the show West Wing back in its day—one of my all-time favorite shows—the writer Aaron Sorkin had these characters who always seemed to be able to do just this. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett always had the best lines, the best comebacks, the best words to not only put his opponents in their place, but even more importantly, to set the audience back on our feet, to right the ship and remind us of what mattered, what is important, what is reliable and trustworthy and life-giving—at least as far as Sorkin was concerned.
More than the fictitious President Bartlett, though, I have friends who are able to do this, and how I admire them for it. My memory is full of those moments when a conversation snapped me into place as someone named something for what it was—especially if I had wrestled with it, haunted by a sense of wrong, but unable to name it. And then a friend would, and immediately I’m back on my feet. Suddenly I’m freed from this cloud of uncertainty, able to see clearly again.
How do we know? How do we find our way to moral clarity in the midst of such a complicated existence?
Truth is surely about consistency. And inconsistency is surely a warning that something is amiss. I was reminded of that this week by one line from a daily email I receive called the FiveThirtyEight Newsletter. This is Nate Silver’s data driven news sight that first made a splash when it predicted the presidential and congressional elections from a previous cycle with astonishing accuracy. Silver is a statistician, and so this newsletter is subtitled Significant Digits with each header including a number or digit of some sort.
One heading that simply said “$1395” caught my attention on Silver’s Friday edition. The summary, drawing from a Wall Street Journal article[i] noted that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any Justice Department investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. This is a good thing, I suspect, given the revelation that Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign while testifying to Congress that he hadn’t.
Of course the truth is more complicated than this given the multiple roles Mr. Sessions was playing as both a sitting senator and a member of Donald Trump’s campaign team. In response Sessions has said the meeting pertained to government business, and not to the campaign. Fair enough. But the Wall Street Journal investigation uncovered that related to these meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sessions made two payments of $1395—thus the heading in the newsletter—to a Sheraton hotel from his campaign account and not his Senate account. The inconsistency at least raises some questions about what is true and what isn’t.
My point is not to impugn the Attorney General. With such incomplete knowledge of the situation it is not my role to play judge and jury. But on the other hand, we are called not to be naïve about anyone in power, especially if patterns emerge that suggest conflicts of interest.
The even more important work, however, begins with us. It begins with me. This is the invitation of Lent, of course—to strip away all the distractions that blind me from the inconsistencies in my own life. To ferret out what is essential about who I am, how I act, what I rely on ultimately. To explore what fears and motivations drive my own behavior and lessen what I could be or, in fact, already am.
That’s one of the lessons of the garden.
The man and the woman have been given the garden by God. It is a thing of beauty to behold for creatures God calls “very good. It is a sustaining life force for lives that the scripture clearly suggest God loves. And it is important to note that when God places them in the garden, they are naked. They have nothing to hide them, nothing to cover them up. God knows all, and yet all seems to be good. Very good.
Things start to go south as they try to hide, as they try to add layers, as they imagine themselves as shameful, unacceptable, in need of something more than they already have.
The devil seems to offer the very same temptations to Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus has been taken into the wilderness straight from his baptism, straight from hearing, “This is my beloved. With him I am well pleased.” And in the next breath we find this temptation for Jesus to imagine himself in need.
You need something more.
You’re hungry. Turn these stones into bread. You do not have the power you need. Take power, grab control. Throw yourself down and force God to show that you matter, that you are worthy. Why would you believe it otherwise?
Now I doubt there is anything inherently wrong with these temptations. The serpent is crafty, not evil, in the Genesis story. It isn’t even certain that he is lying. If anything God’s promise that the humans will die if they eat of the fruit seems to be objectively untrue. Although this too seems a complicated, uncertain matter, if you take into account the millennia of debate around the meaning of this passage.
In Matthew, Jesus refers to the devil as Satan which, like in the book of Job, is a title more than it is an evil being with horns and a pitchfork—a tester, a prosecutor in court.
In these stories it seems the temptation is to add layer upon layer to cover what we truly are, the beauty of what we are which lies as much in our vulnerability and neediness as created beings as it does in our fundamental holiness, our goodness, as beloved creatures among a vast and interconnected creation of a loving and holy Creator.
The work, then, is to get back to basics, to get back to the naked truth, to strip away what keeps us poor.
You see, what we cannot accept in ourselves we cannot accept in others. What we cannot love in us, we are not able to love in another. We add layer upon layer to cover up what we are afraid of in ourselves, only to hide the truth that we are beloved, that we are good just as we are, just as we were made.
We associate Lent with wilderness because in the invitation to shed what we do not need for survival, what we do not need for the journey, we discover that we already have what we need, we uncover our true selves once again, and with it, freedom to be all that we already are.
My hunch, you see, is that God has given us all we need. And when we do not have what we need, and when others are lacking what they need, God is not to blame, but us. The way back to our true selves, to our true home, and to our true hope, is by this way of self-assessment and self-awareness. It is the only way, I suspect, to those simple, clarion truths that come to us as gift.
[i] See Paul Sonne, Rebecca Ballhaus and Carol E. Lee’s article “Jeff Sessions Used Political Funds for Republican Convention Expenses” in the Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2017. Retrieved March 3, 2017 from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/jeff-sessions-used-political-funds-for-republican-convention-expenses-1488509301?ex_cid=SigDig.
St. Andrew Sermons