Beyond the Wildernesses: a sermon for Lent 1B

JusticeThis sermon is inspired by the work of Dr. Cornel West whose words and challenges infuse this sermon with courage and passion. The questions which frame the challenges are from W.E.B du Bois as quoted by Cornel West. Listen to the sermon here

On Ash Wednesday, this week, we began the season of Lent. Traditionally the Lent is a season for contemplation, repentance, confession, and self-denial designed to prepare us for Holy Week. 40 days, not counting Sundays because all Sundays are a celebration of resurrection, 40 days leading up to our commemoration of Jesus’ death and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. 40 days inspired by the stories recounted by the gospel storytellers known as Mark, Matthew and Luke about Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, which of course are patterned after the story in the Hebrew Scriptures about Moses spending 40 nights on Mt Sinai, or the 40 days and nights it rained in the story of Noah and the flood, or the 40 years the Hebrew people spent wandering in the desert.

The gospel-storytellers cast Jesus out into the desert where he encounters Satan, the personification of evil. The first Sunday in Lent always includes a reading from one of these three gospel-storytellers about Jesus’ encounter…..this year our lectionary follows Mark, which you heard as our first reading. I’ve chosen the version out of Matthew for our gospel reading because it expands further on Jesus encounter with the personification of evil.

For several weeks now, our Adult Study Class has been ReThinking the concept of Evil; that is we have been looking at evil in light of all the ReThinking of Christianity that we have been doing for the past several years. How does our evolving Christian theology change the way we think of evil? Once you move beyond the doctrine of Original Sin and the Fall from grace as the prevailing explanation for the existence of evil in the world, from whence cometh the problem of evil. So, in preparation for those classes I’ve had the privilege of delving into the subject of evil. I’ve spent weeks, no months now, but it feels like years now, researching the topic of evil. I get all the fun jobs around here.

Turns out most of us don’t really believe in Satan. Sure, the guy still haunts the deepest darkest recesses of our psyche’s – both our personal psyche and our collective psyche. But when push comes to shove, we’ve confined Satan to the pits of hell, which of course we all know doesn’t exist anywhere but in our collective imaginations. What we have here in this morning’s story, is metaphor heaped upon metaphor. Metaphors are those things we use when we don’t really have words to adequately describe particular phenomenon. Meta which means beyond and phor which means words, metaphor means beyond words and that works both ways. Metaphors describe those things that are beyond words and when looking at metaphors we are supposed to look beyond the words of the metaphor itself. Satan is used to describe that which is beyond words and we need to look beyond the word Satan itself to understand the metaphor of Jesus encounter with Satan.

The gospel-storytellers place the story of Jesus temptation in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. Baptism was and is a public act; a sort of declaration of intent to be a certain kind of person.  Jesus is about to step into his life as a public teacher. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist who preached a  baptism of repentance; repentance means to turn around, to turn from the direction you’ve been going, to turn around toward God so that you might live in God, recognizing that God lives in you. No sooner does Jesus engage in this public act which sets him up as a committed follower of YAHWEH in a world where committed followers of YAHWEH where hanging on crosses all over the place; no sooner does Jesus set himself up against the powers-that-be than he is driving by the Spirit into the wilderness where the personification of evil, Satan himself pays Jesus a visit for the sole purpose of enticing Jesus to follow Satan and not YAHWEH. Isn’t that always the way? Each and every time we resolve to follow one path, someone or something comes along and entices us to follow another. When that someone is the personification of Evil himself, well who else would be up to the task of tempting Jesus other than Satan himself. The gospel-storytellers are setting up a battle of cosmic proportions between good and evil. Our very lives write large upon the canvass of the heavens themselves, cause you know the big guy up in the sky and all the heavenly host will be watching this one; just as they tune in each and every time we are come face to face with the choice between good and evil. What better way to begin a season, which encourages contemplation, repentance, and confession?

Woe is me, the good that I would do, I don’t do. The bad that I shouldn’t do, well that is so appealing that, of course I do do it. Woe is me. For I am a wicked fallen creature. Forgive me so I can try again, even tough we all know that the temptation to sin will come again and I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself. Woe is me. Woe is me. Woe is me.

I know, I’ll give up chocolate, say a few prayers, and I’m of to see the wizard the wonderful wizard of OZ, because, because, because, Jesus loves me, and there’s a big cross coming at the end of Lent and I want to be ready to party come the resurrection. But what if we look beyond the words? What if we see Satan as more than the simple personification of evil? What if we see Jesus as more than the simple personification of good? What if we see ourselves as more than simply the tempted who are doomed to fail? What if we actually followed Jesus into the wilderness? What will we find in the wilderness? In our individual wildernesses? In our collective wilderness? What temptations lurk waiting to lure us of the path we have chosen?

Let’s begin with our collective wilderness. We are good, loving, intelligent people. We want to create a world where everyone can live in peace. We all want to create a world where no child goes hungry and everyone has a roof over their heads. We all want justice for our people and for all people even our enemies. None of us want to be a part of systems that corrupt, abuse, and oppress. If it were up to us, there would be no bombs, no war, and no need for crime, prisoners would be treated and re-educated and transformed into model citizens.  We are good people and we want to do good. But in our wilderness, we encounter temptations that are bigger than our resolve, fears that send us back into old patterns, which keep us trapped in institutions whose systems exploit, abuse, oppress, kill, and wage war. We are all good people. We are all trapped in systems that perpetrate evil. It is as if we are doomed to be in league with the devil.

Now what about our individual wildernesses? Oh, there’s all manner of evils there in the deepest darkest recesses of our wildernesses. You know, all that stuff that makes us afraid, afraid to act, afraid to stand-up, afraid to love, afraid to be? So, we don’t act, or we do act but not with integrity, or honesty, or with love, but out of fear, or worse indifference. I’ll take consumerism for 1,000 Alex, ask me no questions and I’ll tell you the answer; a car a big shinny car, or a house a big beautiful house, or a fancy new gadget that can do all the things I want it to do. I’ll take entertainment for 500 Alex, ask me no questions and I’ll tell you the answer; movies, music, sports, or gambling, celebrities, gossip and a big dollop of nostalgia. I’ll take distractions for a 100 Alex, ask me no questions and I’ll tell you the answer; wine, women and song, addictions, abuses, indulgences, and a measure of excitement. The game of jeopardy amuses us so much that we can’t hear the cries of the starving, the oppressed, the abused or the dying. Let the bombs fall where they may just give us our stuff, our games, our busy lives and we’ll do the good that opportunity allows and be on our way.

Our wildernesses are dark and deep and we have promise to keep, no time to look where we don’t want to see, eyes front, move along, get it done, don’t look too deeply or you’ll fall from a great height. What if we looked beyond the words Jesus and Satan, beyond the words good and evil, beyond our dualisms, to the reality of what it means to be human in a creation that continues to evolve? Beyond our dualisms toward the reality of what is, and beyond what is to what could be? Beyond, the beyond to the Reality that lies at the heart of all that is?

 We are not good or evil. Creation is not good or evil. The world is not good or evil. Our enemies are not good or evil. Yes, there is good and evil in us. Yes, there is good and evil in creation. Yes, there is good and evil in the world. Yes, our there is good and evil in our enemies.

The question is not about a choice between good and evil. The QUESTIONS are much more complex. Sometimes we need to change our questions in order to see beyond the limitations we have drawn around where we can go and who we can become.

Try these questions as a response to evil. Instead of asking why is there evil? Or where does evil come from? Is this person evil or good? Or is that thing evil or good?  Try asking: How does integrity face oppression?  What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?

Some of you may recognize these questions, they were asked shortly after the second world war when the civil rights movement in the United States was beginning to crank up it’s non-violent resistance to racism. Social activist and prisoner of the US government, William E. B. du Bois, asked these questions in response to the evil his people were facing from a society that was trapped in evil. How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force? Following in du Bois’ footsteps, the social activist Cornel West responds today with answers born out of his own struggles for justice. How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force? When faced with the systemic evil in which we are all immersed Cornel West insists as only he can that we must individually and collectively respond with: Integrity not Cupidity, Honesty not Mendacity, Decency not Indifference, Virtue not Venality.

Each of us needs to respond to the evil with: Integrity not Cupidity; cupidity, I had to look that one up. Greed, acquisitiveness, selfishness, avarice, meanness, covetousness, materialism.

Integrity not cupidity. Honesty not mendacity. Mendacity now there’s a word:  deception, deceit, falsehood, fabrication, Spuriousness, lies. Honesty not mendacity. Decency not indifference. Oh, we are well adapted to indifference. Rabbi Hershel warns that indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself. Decency not indifference. Virtue not venality. Venality: corruptible, subject to bribery, bent, unprincipled, mercenary.  Virtue not venality.

What if we look beyond the words of this tale of temptation to see beyond the tales of our temptations and respond to the presence of evil not with cupidity, mendacity, indifference, and venality, which keep the whole battle between good and evil keeping on; What if we move beyond the cosmic battle between good and evil and strive to meet evil and greet evil, the evil that lies within us and the evil in which we are trapped by systems beyond our control, what if we strive to meet evil with integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue? Would this not move us beyond conversations about evil toward a response which begs us to explore exactly how to respond with integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue?   What if Lent might serve as a way of equipping the saints, that’s you that’s me, that’s everyone, equipping the saints to aspire to integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue?

Forget woe is me. The planet has no time for woe is me. The children who have drones dropping bombs on their heads have no time for woe is me. Our time is sort. From womb to tomb. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Dust. West reminds us that each and everyone of us will soon be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. Justice is what love looks like in public, and tenderness is what love looks in private.

It is so very tempting to stay out in the wilderness. In the wilderness we can pray, we can reflect, we can confess, we can wallow in woe is me, woe is me, and wring our hands and shout at the devil and fall down on our knees in despair because the problems are bigger than us, and what can we hope to accomplish. Sure, we can remain in the wilderness bereft of hope and we can die in the wilderness. Or like Jesus we can move beyond the wilderness. We can pick ourselves up and dust our selves off and head toward Galilee because there are people to meet, places to go, things to do, hungry to feed, oppression to fight, wars to end, systems to engage, people to love, lives to save, worlds to change, life to live.

I don’t know about you but before I become food for worms, there are things I can do, love I can give, systems I can engage, votes I can make, money I can give, lives I can nurture, truths I can tell, people I can feed, oppression I can stand against, pain I can ease, crosses I can bear. We have been blessed with a vision of the future where everyone has enough, where love abounds, that vision itself is a blessing bestowed on us so that we might be a blessing to others. But first, we have to have the courage to go into the wilderness and face our demons. Some of those demons we can face together some of them we must face alone. But face them we must, so that we can see the evil that belongs to us, the evil that we are caught up in, and the evil that threatens to overwhelm us.

How does integrity face oppression?

What does honesty do in the face of deception?

What does decency do in the face of insult?

How does virtue meet brute force?

Let us take courage from all those who have gone before us in faith.

Let us take courage from one another.

Let us respond to all our many blessings and to evil with:

Integrity not Cupidity

Honesty not Mendacity

Decency not Indifference

Virtue not Venality

Let LOVE be our guide, LOVE whose public face is justice and LOVE whose private face is tenderness. Let LOVE be our guide so that we can strive for justice with a fierce tenderness, radical gentleness, and abundant courage. Let us strive to master the art of living so that the vision which we have been blessed with can be a blessing to others, as we let our very lives touch creation, and our fellow creatures using all the fierce tenderness, subversive sweetness, radical gentleness, and love so that justice might move us into the peace of our dreams. Let us journey together into the wilderness, let us face our demons, let us strive to be all that we are created to be. Let us be on our way, because Galilee and all the places beyond our woes are waiting for us to live.

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