Friday, March 2, 2012

A Haunted Forest

Sermon preached February 26, 2012

Texts: Mark 1:9-15

Sometimes things come together in worship in wonderfully surprising ways – a hymn chosen weeks before says just what it needs to say, an anthem sung by the choir or by Tapestry fits perfectly the theme of the sermon. It happened last week when one of Tapestry’s songs had a line in it about the journey of faith encouraging questions. Sometimes I get goose bumps when such things happen. All I can do is give thanks to God for that kind of serendipitous grace.
And other times – well…. Take today for instance. Weeks ago Marilew Barnidge came to ask me about UMW Sunday, United Methodist Women. I knew that I was planning the sermon series I finished last week, so I thought it would be good to wait until that was done. Next Sunday is a communion Sunday, so that probably would not work as well, so we chose today. Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent and what I had not considered is that the traditional reading for the first Sunday in Lent is the temptation story of Jesus. So here we are – women and temptation.
Just for fun, I thought I would type women and temptation into an internet search engine. I did this at home because I was not sure what might come up. It ended up being kind of interesting. There were a number of advice sites – Bible churches and an Islamic site – about avoiding the temptation of women. One site claimed that beautiful women seem more a temptation for men than handsome men are for beautiful women, but another site was claiming that women, too, can be tempted by men. Then there was a link to a film called “Women in Temptation” a Czech romantic comedy about a therapist whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. I watched the trailer, and it looked like it could be a funny and enjoyable film, though I cannot be certain because I don’t understand a word of Czech.
I really did not want to preach on women and temptation anyway. And my sermon title has nothing to do with United Methodist Women. I am grateful for the work of United Methodist Women in this church and in The United Methodist Church. I am honored that as pastor, I am a member of United Methodist Women. My sermon today, however, is focusing on Lent, and on our theme for Lent – “journey to and journey through.”
John Wesley, to whom United Methodist Christians trace their beginnings, was an advocate of the importance of growth in the Christian life – growth in grace, growth in faith, growth in love. To use the theological term, he considered “sanctification” a vital part of Christian life, and believed that Christians should be moving toward “Christian perfection” which Wesley defined this way: By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor ruling our tempers, words and actions. (January 27, 1767) By “tempers” Wesley meant something like attitudes and dispositions. Our journey of faith is a journey to that kind of life, and I will be saying more about that in coming weeks.
The journey of faith, however, is not all sweetness and light. It is not all smooth sailing. Sometimes the way is wide and smooth, but sometimes it is narrow, bumpy and potholed. Sometimes the landscape is beautiful, and sometimes we travel through haunted forests. We have the testimony of many that this is the case.
Anthony of Egypt (251-356 CE) was among those early Christians who believed his faith needed to be lived out away from the mainstream society, away from the Roman Empire, which during his life became much more accommodating to the Christian faith under Emperor Constantine. Many took to caves along the Nile River to live out their faith. There were thousands of such hermits by the end of the fourth century and about 5,000 who had established themselves in the desert outside the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Anthony was one of these. Collectively these Christians have come to be known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and their writings on the Christian journey of faith have been preserved. Saint Anthony of Egypt once said, “This is the great work of a person: always to take the blame for his or her own sins before God and to expect temptation until the last breath” (The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Paraclete Press, 88). The journey of faith can be potholed roads and haunted forests.
Another Desert Father, a man known as John the Dwarf had prayed to God to remove his passions. He went and shared with an old man, “I find myself in peace, without an enemy.” The old man told John, “Go, ask God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have. For it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” (The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, 110)
But we can look even earlier in our faith tradition, to our Scriptures for testimony that the journey of faith can be arduous, can take us through difficult places, haunted forests.
Right after Jesus is baptized and hears the remarkable words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” he is driven out into the desert, the wilderness, by the Spirit. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:11-13)
Mark provides no details about the temptation of Jesus. All we know is that he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. He was alone, but not – there was Satan, there were wild beasts, there were angels. Jesus was tempted. He engaged in spiritual struggle. Other gospel writers tell a more detailed story. Mark keeps it brief, and that is o.k. We are left to fill in some of the silent spaces.
Jesus was tempted. Temptation comes in different forms and in different ways. We are tempted to lose our way, to miss the mark, by our vulnerabilities. We might let the image of Satan be an image of being tempted by our vulnerabilities. Jesus was hungry. Jesus was perhaps lonely. Maybe Jesus was afraid. Perhaps Jesus was uncertain. All these may have led to temptations. When we are hungry, we might be tempted to make a quick stop to eat something that is not so good for us. When we are lonely, we may reach out to some other in inappropriate ways. When we feel uncertain, we may try and mask our uncertainty by shouting our opinion more loudly. We can be tempted to mask our fears with false bravado.
We can also be tempted by our strengths, the wild beasts. Jesus had extraordinary faith. He had a special relationship with God – you are my son, the beloved. He could have been tempted to trade on these in some inappropriate way. When we have strengths we like to use them, sometimes ignoring the shadow side of such strengths. If we are good with hammers, we treat every problem as if it were a nail.
So there is temptation, Satan and wild beasts, and only in the midst of the struggles do the angels come and wait on Jesus. Sometimes it is only as we struggle, only when we follow the journey of faith into the haunted forests, that we grow. Here is a stark statement of that truth from Ernest Becker. [To change, to grow] is… the going through hell of a lonely and racking rebirth where one throws off the lendings of culture, the costumes that fit us for life’s roles, the masks and panoplies of our standardized heroisms, to stand alone and nude facing the howling elements as oneself (The Birth and Death of Meaning, 146). I think that is a good description of the temptation story of Jesus – Jesus facing the howling elements as himself before moving into ministry.
Christian life is a journey of growth, a journey toward deeper, richer, wider love. It is a journey through some difficult places. It is a journey through some of our own unpleasant stuff. If we are to grow in grace and faith and, most of all, love, we cannot hide our vulnerabilities or the shadow sides of our strengths in a big locked trunk. We have to journey with and through them, giving all that we are to the work of love, the work of Jesus in our lives and in the world.
Like the Gospel of Mark, I cannot fill in for you where you are most tempted, where your vulnerabilities may be leading you astray or where the shadow side of your strengths may be moving you away. I can offer a couple of quick pictures for you to use as you ponder this part of the journey of faith.
Thursday night I attended a lecture given by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and legal scholar whose works I have been reading for years. Her lecture was about the importance of education in the arts and humanities for democratic citizens. In part of her lecture she identified the forces in human life which she believes get in the way of humane personal development. We are born helpless as humans and there is a certain shame about our helplessness and incompleteness that can lead to desires to be overbearing, over-controlling. We develop early a sense of disgust and aversion, which while it can be helpful – our disgust at the smell of sour milk prevents us from drinking it – can also be damaging when we project all that we find disgusting onto those who are different from us. We seem to have a high deference to authority and to peer pressure and so give in even when authority and peer pressure work toward evil – as in the Nazi Holocaust. When we can be anonymous, these negative forces in our personalities become more powerful and expressive – people say things anonymously on the internet they may never say in person. Feeling anonymous and egged on by a crowd we might scream out terribly inappropriate things at a hockey game. (see Nussbaum, Not For Profit, 28-44)
Mark Whitlock recently reminded me of the work of Gerald May. In his book Addiction and Grace, May offers an analysis of the human situation. We humans have an inborn desire for God (1). Both repression and addiction turn us away from that desire, with addiction being the more potent force getting in the way of our desire for God. Addiction uses up desire…. Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire…. Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy o things that are not their true desires. (13-14). For May almost anything can become an addiction in this sense.
So where are your addictions or temptations to addiction? Where are those places in your life where you have projected disgust onto some other or been tempted to do so? Where have you given into authority or peer pressure or been tempted to do so? Where have you been over-controlling instead of trusting? Where do you hear the voice of Satan or the cry of the wild beasts inside? I ask myself these same questions.
The journey with Jesus is sometimes a journey through the haunted forests that such questions create. It is a journey through our own stuff. It is a journey that means opening the trunk of our lives to see all that is there – the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful – our vulnerabilities and the shadow side of our strengths. Here’s the good news. Jesus has been this way before. Jesus walks with us. We have each other. Sometimes the angels who minister to us as we struggle with Satan and wild beasts are the people sitting near us this morning. Amen.

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