Saturday, February 20, 2010

Temptation: Earth Is Satan's Playground

Hebrews 12: 10 and 11 state "...[God] disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it."

This text is at the heart of our Lenten series. Our identity is rooted in God's activity. We place spiritual disciplines within this activity of God. The disciplines in which we engage are the activity of God shaping our lives. One can then say that the spiritual disciplines prepare us for life. This week, we are looking at how spiritual disciplines, especially that of being engaged by the Word of God in scripture, prepare us to face temptation.

Luke, chapter four, verses one through thirteen, are what we call the temptation of Jesus by Satan. Before moving into the details of the text, one must ask, "How am I to read this text?" One approach would be literally. The events that unfold in the Gospel of Luke happened just as they appear. This approach provides us with difficulty when we compare the temptation account of Luke with Mark who has none of the detail, or compare with Matthew who has a different order of temptation. A second approach would be to understand the story as mere parable. This would be Luke creating a story with no historical grounding in order to teach a lesson. I think another approach is appropriate. We can understand this story to be one that Jesus told his disciples, based on his experience, to prepare them for similar events in their lives. Jesus uses a mythological setting to teach.

To claim that Jesus is using this mythological approach to speak of real life events in his life to prepare his disciples for similar events leads us to ask "What is it that Jesus is teaching?" Prior to this section of Luke, we have the claim that God makes on Jesus at his baptism, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased." And, we have the genealogy that establishes Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus is being tempted/tested because he is the Son of God. As Jesus is confronted with hostility and rejection of his ministry, Satan tries to get him to use the power given to him as the Son of God to overcome the hostility. He is challenged to use his power to serve his own interest and serve his own self interest over God's call. He is challenged to use his power to name another as his master and serve someone other than God. He is challenged to use his power to make himself into the kind of leader that people wanted, and use this power to suit his own desires. We then move to Luke 22, where we hear that his disciples will be sifted like sand. They too will face the hostility and rejection that Jesus faced in his ministry. And here is the rub, there is seduction built into that opposition. The seduction is to use the power we have in place of obedience to God.

In their book "Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior" Ori and Rom Brafman recount the story of Captain Jacob Van Zanten, pilot of KLM flight 4805. This captain was the poster child for "attention to detail, methodical approach, and spotless record." He was the leader of the safety program for the airline. Flight 4805 left Amsterdam for the Canary Islands. Nearing the islands, the flight received word that a terrorist had exploded a bomb at the airport, which was now closed. The flight was rerouted to the island of Tenerife. Aware of necessary requirements for pilot rest, the captain was anxious for the aircraft to return to the sky and reach its intended destination. After numerous complications, word came that the Canary Islands airport was open. Just then, fog covered the airport on Tenerife. Visibility levels dropped. Captain Van Zanten knew that every second he waited, he risked losing his opportunity to take off. With passengers on board, the captain decided to take off. Out of character, he increased the power to the engines. His c-pilot challenged him, saying they had not received clearance. The captain hit the brakes, and told the other pilot to get clearance. Now the other pilot got clearance for the flight plan, but not for take off. Captain Van Zanten accelerated for take off anyway. "The jumbo jet was gaining momentum when, seemingly out of nowhere, the scariest sight Van Zanten could have imaged appeared before him. A Pan Am 747 was parked across the runway, and Van Zanten was approaching it at take off speed. There was no way to stop or swerve." Getting the nose of his plane in the air, but not the underside, both planes burst into a fiery explosion. 584 people lost their lives in that accident. A "seasoned pilot, the head of safety at the airline," in that opportunity, made a rash decision.

Temptation happens in that moment. With all of our intellect, all of our capacity, all of our ability, we turn to our power in an attempt to overcome the situation in which we find ourselves.

Fred Craddock writes, "there is in us and among us strong opposition to love, health, wholeness, and peace. Being committed to the way of God in the world does not exempt one from the struggle." Temptation is giving into the strength of the opposition. Simul justus et piccatur. Simultaneously justified and sinner. In our yearning for the way of God, inspired in us by the Holy Spirit given to us at our baptism, we claim the very things that serve as obstacles to that for which we yearn. Craddock goes on to say, "...temptation is an indication of strength, not of weakness. We are not tempted to do what we cannot do but what is within our power. The greater the strength, the greater the temptation."

Shakespeare wrote, "There is no error so gross but that some sober brow will bless it with a proper text." Scripture can be used to justify. Jesus has the opportunity to provide bread for the hungry, become a political leader to change the lives of his constituents, and convert people through miraculous acts. What person can argue that? And Scripture will back up the call to do so. But here is our challenge, and why we focus on the spiritual discipline of engagement with scripture. Listen to these passages, 1. God helps those who help themselves; 2. Good things come to those who wait, and, 3. To thine own self be true. Noble passages on which we strive to build our Christian lives. Until we realize this, none of those passages are in the Bible. If we don't know scripture, we won't recognize temptation and will fall prey to the seduction. There is an faithful and unfaithful way to engage with Scripture.

Our mission as the church is weakened until Scripture engages us, and at times, as we read in the next section of the 4th chapter of Luke, we find ourselves a odds with our own scripture. Then, the authority of Scripture has claim over our lives. With hold on our lives, the Word of God through Scripture disciplines and shapes our identities as God's people.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Perfect Makes Practice--Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

The church is, by nature, hypcritical. One of our greatest moments of hypocrisy occurs with the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday.

On this day, we receive the mark of the cross on our foreheads in ash from the palms of last year. This is a highly visible piety. This public piety preceeds the text from Matthew where Jesus cautions his follows to be aware of practicing public piety .

Acts of piety are common to people of faith. They are spiritual disciplines that shape human activity. The caution related to piety is two fold: First, we must be cautious of what we think piety may accomplish for us. A member of the church approached me with a question. She told me she had placed her house on the market. A friend shared with her that a statue of St. Joseph should be buried on the property to facilitate the sale. She did so, but in the process of mowing her yard, she mulched the statue with her mower. Her concern, "Pastor, what does that mean?" I said, "The house will sell by the end of the week." To my shock, it did. Second, we must be cautious in assuming that a spiritual discipline that is good for me is good for all people. While there are cautions related to performing acts of piety, these actions can be spritual disciplines that shape Christian character.

If acts of piety, righteous deeds, can be beneficial, what is the caution that Jesus brings to his followers? The caution is phrased this way, "Beware of practicing your peity before others in order to be seen by them. We must understand, from this text in Matthew, that Jesus is cautioning people about acts of peity that are performed publicly. Public acts of piety were not limited to the Jews of Jesus' day. In verse 7of this text from Matthew, Jesus continues, "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words." Those outside the Jewish faith also engaged in acts of public piety. Professor Carey, in his book Sinners, writes, "For most people, the point of religion was Pietas, the appropriate service to the gods which insured a harmonious relationship with the powerful forces of life." When Christian's refused "to worship the imperial gods", they created a dilemma for the community. "...people looked to the gods for blessing and security." For some to opt out of that practice would place the region at risk. Thus, this caution to beware of practicing one's piety before others is a caution to engage in an act that seeks to placate the gods and control one's setting. To do so publicy makes one's spiritual practice a superstition.

The language of reward is used in this text. The reward of public acknowledgment and the reward of God. Two separate words are used when speaking of reward.

When speaking of the reward of public acknowledgment, one is hearing about a wage that is paid to a worker. It is about receiving a benefit from the outcome of one's work. The reward is promised in anticipation of the action being performed. Another member of the parish tells me that every day, when she gets into her car, she says a short prayer before starting the engine and beginning her trip. One day, as she strapped on her seat belt, she remembered an item she left in her apartment. Quickly, she retrieved the object, jumped back in the car, started the ignition, and took off without her prayer. Another driver ran a stop sign that day and totalled her car. "Pastor, is God punishing me for not praying.?" We may laugh at the naievete. But, what do you do to hold your life together? Even in the good days, do you find yourself bracing for the collapse?

When speaking of the reward of God, one is hearing about returning to one's original place. The reward is based on God giving up what is God's own to restore another, and pay off a debt. The children's song is "Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posy, ashes, ashes, we all fall down." The song comes from the time of the bubonic plague. The first sign of the plague was a spot on the skin, a rose colored spot with a dark circle around it. With thousands of people dying, it was not uncommon to see people carrying flowers as gifts for the bereaved. Bodies were burnt in an effort to handle the number of corpses and handle the disease. And, as the plague struck, people would collapse in the street. Ashes, in biblical times, were a sign of a person gone astray. Confronted with that wandering, the person is called to repent. The repentance included a change of clothes and showering oneself with ashes. The ashes were the spiritual practice that conveyed the yearning to be restored. The ashes this day are our yearning. The yearning begins with our failure. The yearning is filled with our need. The yearning is infiltrated with our despair. The yearning is only satisfied by God. Once dead to sin, we rise to new life, not through our own acts but through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Through Jesus, God returns to us. God restores us, not through the reward of what we have accomplished, but through the restoration of forgiveness. God, who is perfect, changes the way we exist and the way we act.

We live in a practice makes perfect world. Years ago, I announced on Ash Wednesday, that people could come forward to receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads. I pronounced the "h" in forehead. Neil, a lovable curmudgoen, corrected me after worship. The "h" is silent. To this day, and today included, I find myself haunted by the desire to say the word correctly. We are by nature bound to strive for perfection and burdened with our failure. Then, that which is useful to achieve perfection is attractive. Hypocritical in nature, the church sells its soul to be useful. We become the snake oil salesmen of the new age, hocking spiritual practices that bring peace, contentment, alleviate stress, and help us control our lives. We are in a ministry of self-validation. As a consequence, our message is, "To be happy, be like us." I know what goes on in the secret places of my heart. I do not wish upon you to be like me. Trust me, there is no hope to be found in you being liked by me, or being like me. For in the end, if my actions make me who I am, I am horrified with that identity. Mission rooted in self-validation is not God inspired, but consumes others for the sake of feeling whole.

Perfect makes practice. God changes things. We go out into the world for a different reason. We go out into the world to have God relationships with others. These moments are not, "This is what you need to do," but, "This is what God is doing in the world." I want to introduce you to God. Now, I will get out of the way. This is hard work, work that God makes possibile for us. In Hebrews 12, we read, "God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yeilds the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Hypocrites all, through the grace of God and God's perfection, Perfect makes practice.