Lent 1 – 3/1/2020 – St. Paul’s
You’ve moved to Marfa, and it’s a long way from the town you know best. Time flies, and it’s been a couple of years since you visited the community that really shaped you. But something comes up, and it turns out you’re going to spend a little while back where you used to belong. And you can’t not go and see that one person, who knows you so well and loves you despite all, and from whom you tend to shy away because they’re like a refiner’s fire that burns away the dross and leaves you with no way to hide the truth. But you’ve been away a couple of years, you’re a lot more worldly wise now, you’re not going to be seen through as easily as in the old days, so you’re off guard.
And the conversation starts simply and straightforwardly. What’ve you been up to? There’s lots of things to say to that. What’re you working on? That’s a bit harder, because you know it’s a two- edged question. It doesn’t just mean What’s keeping you busy? – it really means, What’s the part of you that’s being tested, what’re you learning, what’s not working, and where are you having to grow through your mistakes? But you blunder on, taking the question at face value, and offer up quite a few things, taking refuge in the quantity, and hoping the number of different activities will prevent the conversation settling on any single one of them. That’s a lot of things, says your refiner’s fire. Which is the one that really matters?
Oh dear. You’ve dug yourself right down into the place where you can’t escape, like being buried in sand at the seaside when only your face and arms are still visible. You can’t lie to a question like that. It’s too obvious. Your whole jokey manner and casual charm has completely failed. Something drew you into this conversation. You could have avoided it altogether. Part of you wanted this. But most of you for a very long time has been running away from it. Hmm? says the refiner’s fire, pointing out, wordlessly, that you haven’t answered the question.
Actually, you say, since you put it that way, none of the things I’ve mentioned is the one that really matters. And at this point you lower your eyes, and look at the floor, because the truth is you feel shame. Shame that your life is so full of padding and the real quality is so deeply buried inside. Shame that so quickly, so suddenly, this person who knows you rather too well and understands life rather too acutely has got to the heart of it all in about five minutes. And then, rather surprising yourself, you utter a sentence that begins, The one that really matters is…
And you begin to regain a bit of your composure, and your self-respect, because you’ve said something good, and true, and in its way rather beautiful, and it turns out you’re not a superficial person after all, you’re actually perceptive and full of self-knowledge and even wisdom, now you mention it. And you think, maybe the refiner’s fire isn’t so scary, so humiliating. Maybe we’re on a level. But the refiner’s fire hasn’t finished with you yet. There’s another question. So, if that’s the one thing that really matters, why aren’t you filling your whole time with that? And in an instant you know you could give a hundred answers, but each of them would be foolish and empty and cowardly and thin, and would make it even worse than it is, because they’d all be true, but they’d all illustrate the one thing you don’t want to say, which is that your life is an elaborate organized conspiracy to avoid the one thing that really matters. And only the refiner’s fire can really see that. Which is maybe why you’ve been away these few years. And why you feel so naked and embarrassed and yet inspired and repentant now. Because you’ve just got a glimpse of what it’s like to lose the whole world and gain your own soul. And you’re feeling exactly the way you should be feeling on the first Sunday of Lent.
Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe tells the story of how three young children find themselves orphans, and how their 19-year-old and rather self-absorbed uncle, Ian, in an extraordinary assumption of guilt, holds himself
responsible for their parents’ deaths. Ian immediately leaves college and over the next 20 years takes it upon himself, without resentment or bitterness, to set aside the plans he had for his own life and instead give all his time to bringing up his dead brother’s three children. It’s not an easy ride, but, in losing the world, he gains his own soul. By the time the children are leaving home the different family responsibilities are wearing him out, and he finds himself overwhelmed by the muddle and untidiness. At this moment in walks Rita, a strident, 20- something, self-styled clutter counsellor 9a Marie Kondo type). Rita vigorously and unsentimentally throws out 90% of the contents of Ian’s fridge, along with half of the attic, basement, and almost every other room. With unerring perception, she recognizes the exhaustion of the lingering memories and unmade decisions represented by every item of clutter. To everyone’s surprise, Ian falls in love with and marries Rita. Maybe it’s because she returns him to the simplicity of the one thing that really matters – the simplicity that led him to do such a radical thing when he was an apparently carefree 19-year-old all those years before.
Right at the beginning of his ministry, immediately after his baptism, Jesus goes out into the wilderness for 40 days to discover what really matters. And in his imagination he’s surrounded by three kinds of clutter.
The first kind of clutter is the desire for comfort. Anyone who says they don’t share a desire for comfort is lying. When you’re wearing painful shoes and you change into well-fitting ones, it feels great. When you’re sleeping five to a room with only an abrasive blanket and no heating and you move into a carpeted en suite double with ironed 100% cotton sheets and central heating you feel like a million dollars. When you’ve gone days without any proper food and someone provides a hot, nourishing and tasty dinner you feel like a different person.
But notice there’s two kinds of comfort. There’s the kind that’s a means to an end – that gives you good rest, nice furnishings, healthy food, undemanding company, and a sabbath from the tension of the world, all so that you can be ready for action like a boxer re-entering the ring after a break or a racing car returning to the track with fresh tyres. And there’s another kind that’s an end in itself, that seeks a home, furnishings, electric gadgets, relaxing surroundings, accumulated possessions, luxurious travel, all to attain a kind of perfection of ease, security and well-being, as if one could elevate to a nirvana of peace through physical satisfaction alone. How much time, energy and imagination do we spend seeking such a dream? Command these stones to become loaves of bread, says the tempter to Jesus. Live the dream.
The second kind of clutter is the longing for attention. Look at me, we say, when we’re five years old, taking the big slide down into the swimming pool. Look at me, we say, when we’re a little older, ensuring our Facebook friends or Instagram recipients know what a fabulous and stylish time we’re having at a show or a party. Look at me, we say, when we feel we’ve done all the work and got none of the credit, when we’ve done something truly selfless and not been rewarded, when we’ve said something clever and no one laughed so we insist on saying it again.
What is the cult of celebrity if not an attempt to gauge worth by fame, love by popularity, value by visibility? When we don’t know if what we are or who we are matters, we can take solace from the fact that everyone’s talking about us, everyone knows our name, we got zillions of likes and everything transferable about us has been forwarded to all the inboxes on the planet. But isn’t this anxious, even insatiable greed to be seen a way of not acknowledging our true self-worth? Throw yourself down, says the tempter to Jesus. Then everyone will look at you, and your acrobatic angel friends doing stunts with you. Then you’ll know you really matter. You’ll go viral.
The third kind of clutter is the craving for control. I remember a woman saying to me about her rather emotionally-unintelligent husband, He’s one of those men who likes to be in charge of things. I don’t think he wants his organization to achieve anything in particular, he just wants to be the one who decides what everyone gets paid and how all the desks are arranged. He thinks I’m wasting my life because I work with people whose problems I can’t make better. He wants to see results, count outcomes, achieve change. Sometimes I worry he only wanted to have children so he could make them turn out as he wanted.
It feels like every advert is offering us greater control: remote control over our technology, effortless control over our car, painless control over our calorie intake, intricate control over our stress levels. We’re being promised a life that can be operated from a control panel, without the need for or distraction of untidy relationships. The tempter shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and says All these I will give you.You can have the whole planet under your control, just like that.This is what a good job, a secure household, a successful education, and a steady record of health offer: comfort, attention and control. You could call them the three central aspirations of our culture. They’re not, in themselves, bad things. They and their pursuit take up enormous quantities of our lives. But today, at the start of Lent, we see them for what they are: clutter. Clutter that crowds out our life and means that when we sit down in front of the refiner’s fire, and face the question, Which is the one that really matters?, we find our head drop, and a quiet realization reach us: None of the above. Comfort is a detour on the way to joy. Attention is a distraction on the road to love. Power is a diversion on the way to truth.
When God became a human being in Jesus Christ, God hired Rita the clutter counsellor and cleared out all that didn’t really matter – the comfort, the attention, the control. Jesus took up a path that had naught for his comfort, a life that was almost all spent far from people’s attention, and a way that renounced control. He went against all the aspirations of our culture. He spent all his time on the one thing that really mattered: us. Today, at the beginning of Lent, we come before the refiner’s fire, we confront the two questions, What’s the one that really matters? and So why aren’t you filling your whole time with that? – and we call for Rita the clutter counsellor, clear out all that doesn’t really matter, and humbly but seriously resolve to spend our time on the one thing that really does matter. I wonder what that is.
Jesus of the temptations,
you enter the wilderness
of our hungers,
our lust for power,
our eagerness to test God:
be with us on our journey to Jerusalem
Jesus of hopes,
you set aside your glory,
choosing to cradle us
in your scarred hands:
hold us in your tender embrace
Jesus of the Feast,
you are broken
so we might be healed,
you pour our your self
so we might be drenched in your grace:
feed us from the simple gifts of creation.AMEN
Call to Offering
In the story of Adam and Eve,
we see creation’s splendid possibilities
and humanity’s tragic limitations.
In Christ, we see humanity’s strength
and God’s glory made manifest –
the harmony of creation restored.
We offer these gifts as we seek
to restore balance and beauty
to a world gone haywire with temptation and deceit.
Beloved of God, go now into the vast universe to be the people of God:
Resist temptations that lead to destruction:
May you create more beauty.
Resist temptations that lead to isolation:
May you out more to a world in need.
Resist temptations based on false promises:
May you rest in the hope of God.
May you safeguard its balance and harmonies!
And in all these things,
let the Spirit of Christ fill and inspire all your deeds
as you seek to be a faithful part
of Christ’s reconciling ministry.
As you go forth with the blessing…..