Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted[a] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Okay, Rick Santorum, maybe the devil does have it in for America.

Polling first in the Republican race, and trying to prove you can never be too conservative to get noticed south of the border, Santorum must live with the parsing of everything he has said to the media in the last twenty years. A few years back he told a conservative crowd that the devil is testing the United States like no other nation on earth.

I guess I have to agree and here is the evidence: The Kardashians, NASCAR, cheese in a spray can, Jersey Shore, Dick Cheney, any diet that begins in California, the summer blockbuster, and Bud Light. The devil is alive and well and living in America. Admittedly, Rick Santorum’s list would differ from mine, but the simple idea of testing is one which we both share.

Testing has a long and storied history. God said, “make a fruit salad out of anything you find in the garden, just leave that tree over there alone.” Abraham said “come along, Isaac, and bring my lucky knife. Don’t ask questions.” Moses said “I’m going up the mountain just now and all you people need to do is avoid fashioning livestock from gold.“ David asked, “that Bathsheba, is she married?” Time and time again, from Eden to the wilderness near the Jordan, people are being tested.

Notice that both God and the devil are in the business of testing. There is even one moment, in the Book of Job, where God and the devil are in it together: “Have you seen my servant Job,” God says, “there is no one more upright in all the earth.” The devil just shrugs: “Gimme five minutes with him, and then we’ll see how upright he remains.” And the wager is on.

So, if the overall heading is testing, temptation is an important subset. Temptation is about longing and desire. It is about what we think we need, or what we deserve, or what is readily available to us. It is about wanting what we don’t have and taking what belongs to someone else. It may be neglecting something that we are bound to do, or just doing nothing, which may be the strongest temptation of all.

One of the rules of thumb that we take to the Bible is that when a detail or a story is embarrassing or out of place with the overall narrative, it is more likely to be authentic. The story of David and Bathsheba—Israel’s greatest king engineering the death of his loyal general in order to steal his wife—is one of those so-embarrassing-it-must-be-true stories. The author of 2 Samuel could easily have omitted the story (as the author of Chronicles did) but decided to leave it in. Perhaps in his anger and disappointment he left it in, or maybe it was more abstract that that, simply ensuring that history has a balanced view on King David, the so-called greatest king.

So Jesus temptation in the wilderness, just two short verses in Mark, is a unique moment in the story that shocks some and puzzles others. In his perfection, Jesus would seem to be beyond temptation. But in his humanity, the same humanity that drives you and me, he couldn’t avoid being tempted, particularly in the cusp of all the celebrity he would soon face.

In many ways, the temptation story is there for every one of us. First, because we all face it, we can therefore relate to Jesus more readily. And secondly, because Mark adds no details, we can insert our own temptations, again making it something we can relate to and even unique to ourselves. We add ourselves to the story, and make it our own: Jesus tempted by shiny electronic devices, or anything malted, or anything that has a keel.

Now, this is annual meeting Sunday, and the topic is church, so maybe the temptation list should be more specific to the United Church of Canada circa 2012. Maybe the temptations should be more forward looking, with the things we seem unwilling to face or unwilling to admit even to ourselves as the life of the church unfolds. Now I have your attention.

First up, we are tempted to ignore reality. By at least one estimate, this one by a highly-placed church bureaucrat, where there are currently 90 United Churches in the City of Toronto, there will someday be as few as 15. And while I am certain that Central will be one of the remaining 15, we will be surrounded by the kind of change unseen in the history of the church in Canada. It will not be on the scale of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, once a large national organization, now little more than a memory, but it will be dramatic and it will seem quick.

We are tempted to ignore that all the mainline Protestant churches are in free-fall. That young people are even less interested in church than their baby-boomer parents, and that this national church we have so carefully positioned on the left of the political spectrum appeals to no one except the same people on the left who think religion is the root of all evil.

We are tempted, then, to turn inward. We are tempted to look after our own and focus on our own survival as a congregation at the precise moment when our neighbours need us most. The strongest urge in this new age of church closing will be becoming a denomination of one, to forget that we are part of a national church and imagine that the decline and fall of the United Church will not effect us as long as we look after ourselves.

We are tempted to turn inward even as the wider church becomes more bureaucratic, takes positions that seem like a parody of ourselves, and do the very same ignoring and turning inward that happens at a local level. I have been to General Council five times, and each time the topic under discussion was more disconnected from the reality on the ground. Denial is like a disease you catch, and the role of the local church is to make sure that the conversations that happen at the highest level of the church reflect what is truly happening in communities.

We are tempted to admit defeat. We are tempted to throw up our hands and say that if no one is interested in the message we have to share, that maybe we should shelve the message. Some will argue in favour of a vague humanism, a kind of “stone soup” theology that suggests we already have everything we need to live well and live together. Some will want a kind of “church-lite,” where we eviscerate our own tradition and remove the essential elements of what it means to worship God. And some will simply stay home, the future of the church seeming too hard to bear.

Finally, we are tempted to feel a little smug. When you one of the last congregations in the city with a Sunday School, and a healthy endowment, and younger people in leadership, you can tend to feel a little smug. You can imagine that you have done something right, when in fact, the thing that led to all this success may have happened long ago. The strategic location decision, for example, is 190 years old. Good luck taking credit for that.

So don’t ignore reality, don’t turn inward, don’t admit defeat, don’t feel smug and the list goes on. But don’t be too shy about telling the Central story (not the same as being smug) and don’t forget to always give God the glory for all that we do here.

As early as next week we will begin to take in people who have lost their church. In this, we have an opportunity to do some pastoral care, to try to understand the scope of this loss, and make some new friends. And there will be others. Churches will close, people will be adrift, and some will come to Central. We need to express, with one voice, that God’s mission is bigger than individual congregations and that we are merely a vehicle for people to remain faithful.

May God guide us as we enter this new time. May the Spirit speak through us as we share Christ’s message of compassion and new life. Amen.


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