The First Sunday in Lent – The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The First Sunday in Lent – February 14, 2016

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 | Romans 10:8b-13 | Luke 4:1-13 | Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save. Amen.

Here we are in the season of Lent, the season of penitence and renewal. Here’s what I like about Lent: it’s a time to get honest. As I said to some of you on Ash Wednesday, with all the work we do buoying our self-esteem, feeling positive about life, and living like we’ll go on forever, sometimes it’s a relief to just acknowledge that we’re actually pretty messed up and we’re going to die anyway. We can stop beating around the bush and pretending and just be honest. Maybe this sounds morbid and negative to you, but for some reason, I’m finding it appealing this year. I can’t do everything after all? Oh, phew.

So it is helpful indeed that we begin our Sunday scriptures in Lent with a focus on Jesus’ temptations, on his having to get honest himself about his own weaknesses. He doesn’t launch his ministry with a glorified sense of self and overweening confidence and optimism. He starts it with 40 days of fasting in the desert. Nothing like a wilderness retreat without food to make you real honest about what’s so. And there in the desert he learns three things about himself:

  • he’s a mortal human being with physical limitations;
  • he is impatient with the world as it is and wants it to change;
  • and deep-down, he doubts that God is really with him after all.

Three hard facts about himself, three things he has to come to terms with before he can really begin his work. Throughout his life, and especially in his passion and death, we see these things return: his humanness, his prophetic vision, and his doubt. Only when he begins with that honesty can he effectively be the Messiah for the world.

And that honesty, that self-realization, comes about because it is on these three points that the devil tempts him. Not on any other.

We sometimes joke about temptation, as if it’s all about sins of the flesh and too much chocolate cake. Those may be temptations for some of us. But the devil is too smart to try the same temptations on every one of us, because what might be a temptation for one leaves another indifferent. No, the devil knows each of us intimately, and knows exactly where to get at us. We may share many temptations in common, but the mix is usually unique to each individual. And so each of us have to face into temptations rather like Jesus did, alone in the wilderness.

Now, if the image of the Devil coming to you with a leering smile to offer some enticing proposals just doesn’t fit with your rationalist mindset, I’ll allow you to envision this another way. In each of us there are things that go against God, go against our love and care for other people, and go against our deepest and best self-interest. But we do them anyway, or we’re tempted to. Whether you choose to personify the desire to do these things as the devil or not, theologically it’s the same thing. We don’t always do, don’t always even want to do, what is the right thing. Which is why we offer confession each Sunday in church, and privately in more detail with a clergyperson if we choose to – a practice I commend to you. We have to get honest somewhere.

I want to get honest with you about one temptation I do think many of us share. That is the temptation to anxiety. There’s a Far Side cartoon of a little dog in the kitchen at daybreak, making himself a cup of espresso, and the caption is, ‘While their owners sleep, nervous little dogs prepare for their day.’ I have that cartoon on a coffee mug, and it always makes me think of New Yorkers. Whether we’re wired up on espresso or not, we all tend to be nervous little dogs. It’s what propels us so quickly down the sidewalk. It’s what gets things done late at night. It’s what pushes us through the incredible complexities of school and housing and grocery shopping that make up our daily existence in this city. It’s why I just couldn’t make it when I tried living in the suburbs again.

Anxiety and nervousness fuels us in many ways. But it also harms us. It makes us snappish with people who get in our way.  It makes us resistant to change and new possibilities. It makes it very hard for us to sit still, to be quiet, to wait upon the Lord and renew our strength. And it makes our community life crazy. Yes, even here: with all the wonderful things going on at St Michael’s, many of us are also feeling very anxious. With new people coming into the congregation and into leadership and coordinating roles – both in the staff, and in volunteers – comes new energy and excitement. And also with all of that comes anxiety. Ack! Things are changing! I don’t know all these people. Ack! I’m in charge of this ministry now! What do I do? Ack! We’ve never done it this way before! How do we know it will work??

Meanwhile outside of St Michael’s, we have the most bizarre presidential race in recent history going on, unexpected violent attacks in our own country and around the world, sudden change on the Supreme Court, and rumors of another recession on the way. Who wouldn’t be anxious?

Psalm 127 says

It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early,
and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.
For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

So take a breath. Sit for a minute. Refocus.

There are perhaps as many scriptures telling us not to worry as there are about what we should do with our money. We tend to ignore both messages. Because they get at a core question: do we, or do we not, believe in God?

Do we or do we not trust in God’s ability and willingness to provide for what we need?

Do we or do we not trust in the power of prayer to affect people and outcomes in this world?

And the problem, of course, is that we’re just not so sure. Maybe we want to have faith, but we worry all the same. We’d like to believe, but we’re too anxious to do so all the way. And so we take it all in our own hands – or in our own hearts and minds, at least, where we gnaw on it over and over. From where it issues forth to affect our behavior, our willingness to trust each other, our care with the words we speak (and email) to one another, our priorities on how we spend our time and our money. And so we drive ourselves, and each other, crazy.

There’s a pretty major temptation for all of us, in other words. So what are we to do about it? What can we do when the Devil approaches with this one again? Or if you’d rather, when the psychological bubble of worry emanates up into our consciousness again?

Well, what Jesus does is a good model to follow. Here’s what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t make himself really busy and write up a list of twenty things to do today. He doesn’t snap in anger at the voice tempting him, or go lose himself in partying with a bunch of other people to avoid it. He doesn’t try to logically argue himself out of the temptation, saying look, self, I know you’re hungry, but surely you can make it another day without eating the rocks. Or any of the other ways we might be – shall we say – tempted to deal with the temptations. He responds simply, not using his own words but using scripture – using the teachings of his faith tradition and the wisdom passed down through the ages and the word of God to answer. Just as we can.

Here are a few such words from scripture:

  • Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.’
  • Jesus also said, ‘Do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say.’
  • Paul said to the Philippians, ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’
  • The first letter of Peter says, ‘Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.’
  • And again, Psalm 127 says

It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early,
and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.
For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

Do you hear the message? This means you. This means all of you, and me. This means all of us together at St Michael’s. This means all of Jesus’ followers throughout the world.

When that devil-bubble comes upon you, as you know it will – as maybe it is doing even now, as you find yourself feeling anxious about being anxious – get honest about it. Learn to recognize the symptoms. The fast walk, the higher-pitched voice, the hunched shoulders and the urge to tell other people they’re not doing it right. Answer it head on. Use scripture. Memorize those words, type them up and put them on your mirror to see in the morning, tattoo them on your forearms. Stop for a beat, breathe, pray for help. It will do you good. It will do your neighbors good. It will do our whole community good, and our world. Be still, and know that I am God, says Psalm 46. Or as Julian of Norwich says it, All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Amen.