Sunday, February 25, 2007

Practicing to Remember

Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent
RCL, Year C: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Several years ago, I had occasion to use the library at Memphis Theological Seminary. After doing some research, I got into my car to make the journey back home. Just as I was about to leave the campus by turning on to Union Avenue, I saw a big sign that no one leaving the campus could miss. It read: “Remember who you are.”

I sort of wish we had signs like that posted at every exit to the church building. Let me tell you why.

When we gather for worship, we gather to remember. By hearing the story of our faith proclaimed in the readings of scripture and in the Eucharistic prayer, we remember who God is. We remember the love and sacrifice of Jesus. And we remember who we are and to whom we belong.

But how easy it is to forget all of that almost as soon as we walk out the church doors!

Our world too often reduces the dignity of our humanity to the throwaway values of what we consume, what we buy, or how close our looks match the slick, glossy covers of those magazines in the grocery check out lines. By contrast, the Church’s call to a holy Lent invites us to remember and to live more deeply into our true identity as adopted sons and daughters of God who have eternal dignity and value.

So how do we extend the remembering we do in our worship into the rest of the week, resisting the temptation to believe the degrading voices of our culture, forgetting who we really are and to whom we truly belong?

This is where today’s Gospel reading comes into play.

Right before today’s reading, Jesus is baptized. After he comes up out of the water, God “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). It’s a resounding endorsement of Jesus’ true identity straight from God Almighty. With those words still ringing in his ears, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. After 40 days without food, Luke tells us that Jesus “was famished” (4:2). He’s weak. He’s suffering. He’s starving to death. And it’s right then, when Jesus is at his most vulnerable, that the devil shows up with a sinister plan – to get Jesus to deny his true identity and to reject his vocation as the Christ.

“O Jesus, you’re so hungry. It’s been 40 long days. If you’re really the Son of God, just use your power to turn these stones into bread. You’ve suffered enough. Have something to eat. You know you want to.”

But Jesus refuses.

So the devil takes another crack at Jesus. Showing him all the kingdoms of the world, the devil says: “All of this belongs to me, and I can give it to you. You can bring the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven right now, this very instant. Just think of it. No more war. No more poverty, hunger, or disease. No more suffering or death. Just worship me and it’s as good as done.”

But again, Jesus rejects the offer.

So the devil tries one last time. Putting Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple, he says: “Come on, Jesus. You want people to believe in you and to follow you, right? Then give them irrefutable proof that you really are who you say you are by throwing yourself down from here. After all, the Bible says that God’s angels will protect you. If you do this, the whole world will accept you and your gospel.”

But yet again, Jesus rejects the offer.

The devil has tried to three times to get Jesus to deny his true identity and to reject his vocation. He’s tried to get him to exchange his integrity for instant gratification, to do something good and noble but for the wrong reasons, and to reject the way of the cross for the way of spectacular, crowd-pleasing success. And he’s failed.

So what’s Jesus’ secret? Especially given his weakened, vulnerable condition, how does he stay true to his identity as God’s Beloved?

In each of the three temptations, Jesus counters the devil’s word with God’s Word. Each time, Jesus responds with a passage from scripture, a passage that exposes the temptation’s promise for the lie that it really is, a passage that keeps Jesus centered in the presence of God and in the truth of his identity and mission.

I find it remarkable that Jesus can do this. How can he so readily remember those passages? Even on a good day, I have trouble remembering things.

But Jesus is having anything but a good day. He’s weak and vulnerable, close to death, and desperate for the relief of food and shelter. What makes it possible for him to so easily recall the sources of spiritual strength he needs in this desperate hour?

Jesus can counter the devil’s word with God’s Word because he’s internalized it.

It’s true that we don’t know much about Jesus’ life between his early childhood and the beginning of his public ministry. But I think it’s consistent with the Gospels’ portrayals of Jesus to say that he was regular in his attendance at worship, in hearing and reading the scriptures, and in the prayers. Through repeated reading, study, worship, and prayer over the course of many years the truths of God’s Word have become a part of Jesus’ very being – to the point that those truths surface almost automatically when needed.

There’s nothing supernatural about this. It’s simply the fruit of ongoing practice, of making certain spiritual disciplines a daily habit and way of life, something we wouldn’t miss anymore than we would give up brushing our teeth or bathing every day. It’s spiritual practices like this that make it possible for us to stay grounded in God and to remember who we are even when everything else in our lives falls apart.

In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard makes an important point about all of this. He says that “ … intensity is crucial for any progress in spiritual perception and understanding. To dribble a few verses or chapters of scripture on oneself through the week, in church or out, will not reorder one’s mind and spirit – just as one drop of water every five minutes will not get you a shower, no matter how long you keep it up. You need a lot of water at once and for a sufficiently long time” [The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1997), p. 356)].

Whether it’s reading and meditating on Holy Scripture, or any other spiritual practice, the same principle holds true. Unless we practice daily and for a sufficient length of time, its fruits won’t be there for us when we need them the most.

If our spiritual lives have turned into the equivalent of trying to get a shower with only a drop of water every 5 minutes or so, then Lent is a unique opportunity to turn up the intensity. So please use this Lent as a time to make your spiritual life as much of a routine part of your day as getting dressed or taking a shower. In addition to regular attendance at corporate worship, set aside time daily – even if only for 10 minutes or so – to read scripture and to pray. Take advantage of the many offerings here at the Cathedral, including the upcoming Centering Prayer retreat on March 10. And please don’t ever forget who you are – adopted and beloved sons and daughters of God – or to whom you belong – Jesus Christ, whose love and mercy know no bounds.