Saturday, March 08, 2014

Don't Tempt Me!

“Don’t Tempt Me!”
by "Fr Paul" Bresnahan

Years and years ago there was a young man in a congregation I served in  Euclid, Ohio. He fought a battle with his own inner demons and got himself into one scrape after another first at school, then with the police and the courts, and then with drugs, and all along with his family and especially his mom. I never gave up on him, and often pleaded his case. I spoke up for him, and then when we had time together I would gently but firmly “box his ears”. Finally the day came for him to leave home and leave Ohio. When he did, I wrote him a brief note wishing him well, and telling him that he would always be in my prayers. Some years later, I went to another church this time in West Virginia. The young man showed up at my installation service there and came up to me at the coffee hour. With great care, he opened his wallet and there, folded, worn, stained and tattered was the note I had written him years before. He simply nodded to me and said; “I want you to know how much your prayers have meant to me over the years.” I was humbled to know that one simple, hastily dashed off note, and those prayers I did indeed offer on his behalf meant so much.

Many of us wage a daily battle with our inner demons. Mental illness of all sorts, depression, bi-polar affective disorder, and so on are epidemic in an anxious age. My spiritual director refers to depression as the common cold of the human spirit. She also likes to point out that; “It is time we put the FUN back into dysfunctional”. 

So now, as we come to Lent we recognize that there is the temptation to surrender to these inner demons. This battle may deflect our attention from God. After all that’s the whole purpose of evil, to hide the good and the God from us. After all the obvious alternative is to surrender to evil is the surrender to the Will and Grace of God. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus,  “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.  ~Ephesians 3:20,21. It is after all, a matter of orientation; shall we look to evil or shall we look to God?

When we come to the matter of temptation, there is not only the obvious struggle between between good and bad, there is also the battle of a more subtle kind, between two goods. For a congregation in the midst of a process of discernment, for instance, we are often confronted with a choice between two more more “good” candidates. The search and discernment process for a new bishop is likewise a choice among good people. The reference point in any discernment process is that resonating sense deep within that this is God’s choice among us. 

Here’s where the spiritual “rubber hits the road”. Discernment includes God in the process of selection. In the case of St. Paul’s Church, your discernment process is fast upon you. But the question is not who do you want to “hire” for your next priest. The question is more appropriately framed, “Who does God want us to call into this portion of Christ’s family?” No matter how professional we may wish to make the priesthood, it is not a job as much as it is a way of life. 

The priesthood of the church is not merely held by one man or woman, it is held by the priesthood of all the faithful. ~I Peter 2:5. To be a priest in charge of any congregation means that we are all charged with the responsibility of providing leadership to a congregation. Yes, a salaried individual is brought into that family system and is expected to bring to it a professional capability to provide sound leadership. But the burden of caring about the place is something we all share in carrying. We live with it all the time. And not just the clergy, but if we are the family of God in this place, we are all charged with the joy and care of providing leadership in and on behalf of this church. We all share in that leadership. 

This brings us then to the inner demons Jesus faced. The subtle and crafty one led him into the wilderness, where Jesus could be alone with his thoughts. Now he faced three great questions within the depths of his soul.

There came this voice; “Jesus, see all those hungry people out there? Why don’t you just tell these stones here to become bread? You’re hungry and so are they.” O how tempting. In the twinkling of an eye, the planet’s famine would be over.

But Jesus replies, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Among those words are; “Feed my sheep!” This Jesus, tells Peter three times, after asking him, “Peter do you love me?” “I am the Bread of Life”. “I have come to bring good news to the poor.” “I was hungry and you fed me”. The word of generosity and sharing pervades the Gospel. We too live not just by bread, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. 

To be sure, Jesus could snap his fingers and change stones into bread, but how much more of a miracle if his church fed millions on a daily basis and not just communion bread, but to transform poverty of both economic and spiritual sorts, and that’s what God has placed us here to do. Imagine a whole nation feeding the multitudes not just with food stamps or whatever system it might design. Imagine a nation putting all its poor to work so that inner city and rural youth would not have to turn to crime and to drugs but have the hope of their whole future ahead of them. Imagine a nation led by the generosity of God. God, is still waiting, because it takes more than a twinkling of an eye or the snapping of a finger to feed the hungry or bring hope to the poor. 

Then there was more; this same demon said, “Go ahead and prove it. Prove you’re God. Go ahead and jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and let’s see if the angels will indeed bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone. Yes indeed, the devil can quote scripture. But even if he were dead and buried and rose from the dead again in plain sight of all, we won’t believe. Surely no silly trick like a leap from a Cathedral Tower with CNN and Fox looking on, would persuade a skeptical age of God’s being within us. It will take much more than a sign. It will take the courage of a long dry spell in the wilderness dealing with our own demons for us finally to remember to turn to God.

“Don’t tempt me!” Jesus said, “Don’t put me to the test.” It is the way Jesus looks at us that asks a deeper question, “It is you who will be tested. If you want to prove something, prove you exist. And do something to show you care about God’s children and your own brothers and sisters.” The proof of God’s existence has nothing to do with a sign or a wonder, it has to do with that long and honest journey within the deepest corners of our own hearts where we may know the truth about ourselves.

Then finally the crafty one led him up on a high mountain. Here upon a mountain top, you will remember he had been “Transfigured” in the story we heard just last week. It was a lofty experience. This week in a moment of time he saw all the kingdoms of the earth: the Roman legions and the Zealots of his own day who plotted and schemed the overthrow of the Empire. He saw The United States, the Ukraine and Vladimir Putin and the Crimea. He could have taken power into his own hands then and there to spare us from all the bloodshed that ensuing centuries were destined to see. 

“Get thee hence Satan! Get out of my sight.” And he Evil One departed until an opportune time. It must have been tempting. Take power and establish dominion. But such was not the choice of this God, this Jesus. For him the power would be established in weakness, vulnerability, compassion and love. He would give his life for others and submit himself to the Powers and Principalities and let them have their way with him. And yes he was dead and yes he was buried. 

And if that were the end of the story we wouldn’t be here today to talk about the Temptations of Jesus. If that had been the end of the story, that is exactly where it would end and we would never have heard another peep out of him. But as we all know Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It is rather a kingdom of the human heart and the heart of God. That kingdom has no end, and there are no emperors, no kings, no presidents, no potentates, but God alone. It is Christ the King who rules now in our hearts. In his baptism and in our own, we learn to die with him in order that we may rise with him.

We learn of the power of God in this Jesus. His love, his forgiveness, his compassion, his justice, and his reconciling power triumph over all powers of this world. 

We learn of his power as we feed his poor.
We learn of his power as we go to the wilderness of our own hearts and discover God’s love there for us and all God’s children.
We learn of his power as we look to his dying form on the cross, knowing that Christ the Kings reigns forever at the Right Hand of God the Father.

Having seen this kind of power, you and I know that all it takes sometimes if for us to dash off a quick note to someone who needs a word of encouragement, perhaps a phone call, maybe a cup of coffee or tea. “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr Paul 

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