Wednesday, February 28, 2007

In The Wilderness

Dispatch from Tanzania

I'm sure many of you have been reading the news about the Primate's meeting in Tanzania. The American Church has been asked to refrain from blessing a certain group of people, ordaining them as Priests or consecrating them as Bishops. I hope the irony of this is not lost on you. We are told that the Primates went to a former slave market in Zanzibar and there repented of the church's complicity in the Slave trade. The silence of the church in those many years was deafening. And now finally we repent!

It seems to me many ears are deafened again to the cry for justice. Can you imagine Jesus singling out any group of outcasts for exclusion from the blessing of the church? Can you imagine Jesus telling any group of people; "I will not bless YOU!" It is unthinkable to me! What are these Primates thinking about? I am convinced that at some future time another group of Primates will gather in Tanzania to repent of this action. The word "Primate" is an unfortunate name for leaders of the church in this context. It makes them seem somewhat sub-human. God have mercy on us! It is thus we tread the wilderness road of Lent.

Galilean Idol!
By Paul Bresnahan

The prayer we say goes "Lead us not into temptation" and so we certainly mean that, no doubt. But we are also children of a time that is fixated on the cult of celebrity. Whether it is all the publicity and attention around the tragic events of Anna Nicole Smith, O. J. Simpson, or an astronaut caught up in jealousy and capital crime, we are drawn as a moth is to a flame by the exploits of those on the "People" pages of our weekly tabloids. We live in a time when sex, money, and power are the driving engines of our culture. Even in our better moments we cannot help but be utterly charmed and drawn into the charm, beauty, and youth of our "American Idols." Compare that with the ancient virtues of our faith: poverty, chastity, and obedience and wonder with me, if you will, how far we've come.

We enter now into the season of Lent. And we, like Jesus, have a wilderness to endure. How shall we, like him, find the wherewithal to stare down our deepest temptations? Is Jesus a measure in any sense against which we could compare him against the "American Idol"?


It amazed me, I confess, when I discovered that so many in my congregation adored the television show "American Idol." There must be a puritanical streak left in me from my New England ancestry because the very notion of idolatry still evokes an automatic sense of revulsion. But then I, too, watched several episodes of the show and found that the cult of personality has indeed an especially powerful tug to it. The beauty and talent of youth and the aspirations and hopes of fame and glory are so utterly alluring. Like pure sparkling gold, the dazzling glitz of the cult of personality cannot help but draw us in unthinkingly into its grasp. How can anything so sexy, young, beautiful, and talented be anything but pure and lovely, gracious, and effervescing?

But then something so often goes so horribly wrong. Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith, while so voluptuously beautiful, are also so likely to die so young, and under the cloud of self-inflicted self-destructive behaviors. Pete Rose and "OJ" Simpson were so skillfully powerful on the field in their respective sports. But then it all slipped through their fingers in the former case because of gambling the latter under the cloud of a horrible capital crime. The hands that hold the wealth of the greatest multi-national corporations cannot escape the temptation to overreach the boundaries of ethical behavior. Even Ken Lay of Enron is gone now it seems, swept away with the excesses that left tens of thousands penniless and out of work.

And so the engines that drive our culture are Sex, Money, and Power. We are drawn into their pull like a vortex pulls all that comes within its grasp. Unless we are careful, vigilant, and sober, we can become drunk with self-indulgence, and succumb to the destructive tenacity of each.

It is no wonder the Bible warns us about idolatry. The golden calf is still very much with us dear friends. But its glitter and glitz is far subtler than we might at first suspect. We may not take it seriously. But when we take stock in the cold light of day of what so often happens to our idols, we might have a better sense of what it means to plod the wilderness with those people of faith who have come before us. Thus now we enter upon our Lenten journey.


It must have been tempting when Jesus faced the evil one. He could have fed the hungry with a wave of his hand. It was tempting. He was God we're told. He could do anything. Why not feed the hungry? He was famished as the devil rightly observed. So are the poor by the millions around the world. Why not just change the stones to bread? It was so tempting. And yet he knew, as do we that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3). How tempting it must have been to feed his beloved poor!

He could have made peace, too. He could have just taken all the power of the nations into his own hands and he could have imposed an arbitrary rule of peace as imposed by God. He was God, let's remember. Talk about tempting. Feed the poor and impose peace! That must have been so alluring. They all wanted someone to come down out of the clouds and usher in the new reign from above. We still do. But Jesus would not. All he had to do was worship the evil one. He could have taken the sword into his own hands and done what we've been doing all through history. Only he could have done it once and for all! Talk about tempting. But he will not take up the sword the nations of the earth.

And finally "Prove that you are God. Go ahead, jump off the pinnacle of the temple and do it where everyone can see it." The devil must have really tempted Jesus with that one. That's like doing it on CNN and Fox TV News live for everyone to see. We cannot help but wonder the same thing from time. For God sake just prove it once and for all! We cannot trust those who claim that they saw you rise from the dead. We want to see it live on television. Only then will we believe. That was tempting, too, I'm sure. So much so that Jesus said... don't tempt me!

So there he was tempted in the wilderness by those matters that most deeply trouble the heart of God. Feed the poor, bring peace, prove who you are so convincingly that we will finally submit to you.

If we are to believe in God it will have to be through the generosity of our own hearts that the poor will be fed. It will have to be through our own kindness and courage that we will find our way to peace with justice rather than rapacious greed. It will have to be through the discovery that the love of God and the love of our neighbors one at a time, and every group, race, orientation, and creed on the planet that God truly reigns in the human heart. There is no other way. "Everyone who calls on the name of God will be saved," Paul says in today's lesson from Romans. Notice that citation said "everyone." There were no exceptions. It appears that this is the only way. It is the way of Jesus.

And so we find ourselves glued to our television sets to see who will win. What a voice that young man has. How handsome. That girl sings with such confidence and passion. Her eyes are so full of excitement and hope. How we love these young people. And how much we worship youth, with all its beauty and charm. To be sure they remind us of a time when we, too, were perhaps somewhat more alluring than we have now become. There is something of an ephemeral quality to this charismatic quality that we do indeed worship in our American Idols.

Too often they, like the rest of us, are found to have clay feet, and a fatal flaw that is exploited through notoriety and self-indulgence. And so for them and for us all our true vulnerability becomes more apparent. When Jesus entered the wilderness he was very vulnerable indeed.

In fact the Galilean Idol was vulnerable not just in the wilderness. He was vulnerable throughout his life. When he healed, he could feel power "go out" from him even when a woman would touch but the hem of his garment. He refused to send them all away but broke bread, said the blessing, and gave them as much as their hearts and souls desired until there were baskets of scraps gathered up that numbered as many as his disciples. He healed them. He taught them. He fed them with every word that comes from the mouth of God. And if they found themselves at wits end, or maimed, or leprous, or outcast from the temple because they were of ill repute, he found a way to bring them closer to God. Even the rich tax collector found repose in his company.

This Galilean Idol was no ordinary example of a cult of personality. He was the perfect image of God made flesh. He was unafraid of the wilderness. He entered the wilds of his own deepest doubts and despairs with courage and profound honesty. He wanted to feed the hungry. But taught us to share and to live by the word of God. He wanted to impose peace in the midst of warfare and could have dispersed the Roman Legions with a wave of his hand. But he taught us not to worship Caesar's way but God's. We're still awkwardly avoiding that lesson. He wanted us to know him as the living God, but he chose instead to die on the cross, alone and accused of a capital crime. The instrument then of a shameful death became the vehicle though which he forgave us our sins and gave us eternal life.

This Galilean Idol did not want us to worship him; he wanted us to worship God alone. He avoided attention, and went to lonely places where he could pray. But the multitudes sought him out because he satisfied the deepest longing of the human soul... not for sex, money, or power; but for love, forgiveness, and eternal life.

It is interesting to me that the old virtues that our faith traditions used to teach with authority were poverty, chastity, and obedience. They are still the ideal of the monastic communities of Francis, Benedict, and Ignatius.

We are now in our own wilderness and we are being called to face our own deepest doubts and despairs with God's own courage and profound honesty. It is an anxious time where depression is the modern epidemic. And yet we have everything we could ask for. We have ample supplies of sex, money, and power concentrated as never before in the Euro/American West. And yet we ache for something more; or is it something else?

The tragic figures of Anna Nicole Smith and all the others point out to us that something is very wrong with the modern psyche. Wouldn't it be interesting if something as old and as ordinary as Lent could put us back in touch with the truth about us?

Ash Wednesday in the liturgical churches calls us to mark the foreheads of the faithful the burned ash of last year's palms; not to make a "show of our religion" but as a reminder of our mortality. Somewhere between the polarities of sex, money, and power on the one hand and poverty, chastity, and obedience on the other, is Christian stewardship. We all have these superb gifts from God. Let's return them to God and share them with one another as God intended. Those of us who can walk the way of the cross will find it none other than the way of life and peace. Won't you look with me to the Galilean Idol who is no idol at all? Won't you look to the face of Jesus and gaze into the heart of the love of God and don't be afraid any more. He will walk with us, and be our companion along the way. He will guide us as surely as day follows night unto the wellsprings of God's everlasting day.

1 comment:

Chuck said...

Thank you for this wonderful account of "in the Wildnerness." This is a new insight for me, and adds depth and meaning to not only Jesus' response to temptation, but the substance of his ministry.

Chuck Riffee