Scripture Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
“But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
"Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’"
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
I am my own harshest critic. Tell me I’ve done a good job on something, I’ll come back with five ways I could have done it better.
This was exacerbated back in the days when I performed music more regularly - either with the concert band or in recitals and smaller ensembles -- even in choral groups.
When I work on a piece of music for performance - particularly when it’s a solo flute piece - I know it inside and out. I know the spots that I don’t have to think twice about, I know the places that trip me up, the spots where my pitch tends to slide, the runs that my fingers move by muscle memory, the phrases that need some extra breath support (and even the places where I can sneak an extra breath or two in case I run out of air early). I know how it’s supposed to sound and I know how hard I’ve worked on it - and it’s rare that I’m completely happy with how I’ve performed it in front of an audience -- even if no one else can tell where I tripped up or where it wasn’t up to my standard.
I quickly learned to say “thank you” and move on, while keeping my criticisms to myself - but it’s taken even longer for me to say “thank you” and not beat myself up over what didn’t go right or according to my plan or expectations.
The story we heard from scripture is a familiar one to most of us - and I love how in some other cultures, this story is known as “The Lost Son” as opposed to “the Prodigal Son” because it invites us to consider which one of the two was really “lost” -- perhaps both were.
In any case, the lens we’re going to use this morning might be a different take than the one most of us are familiar with. We’re more used to looking at the characters and finding yourself - are you the father who declares his son worthy, or the resentful brother, or the wandering son, or the absent mother, or the onlookers who watch this man spiral out from afar - or maybe even one of the people at the party, witnessing this joyful reunion.
This week, as we think about our “Good Enough” theme - we’re going to march right in to some places we as humans like to avoid as much as possible: fear and judgment.
So fun, right?
In the discussion group for sermon-writers with this series, there were some thoughts that laid the groundwork for this view - first the idea that the fear here is the fear of doing anything that might damage our ability to live fully, thus paralyzing ourselves from doing anything.
And judgment is about the judgment against ourselves that we are the cause for all of the problems. In other words, beating ourselves up when it doesn’t go to plan, thinking that we are the sole determining force behind our circumstances, especially when things go awry.
Now, this isn’t about not facing the consequences of our actions - or believing that we should go through life thinking that everything that happens to us isn’t our fault….because we do mess up and make mistakes and have to live with the ripple effect of our actions.
The difference here, though, is around judging ourselves as being unlovable and unworthy because we make mistakes or make unwise choices.
First of all, we usually consider fear to be a negative thing, right? We don’t want to go there - fear tells us that something is dangerous and unsafe (either physically or emotionally) and that we must eliminate the threat by running away or fighting it. I was listening this week to Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens podcast, where she talks with Hillary McBride, who is a therapist and researcher specializing in spirituality and trauma. She talks about fear and how we as humans live with it. She shares that the brain developed as a body survival organ - not the other way around. And that it’s important for us to change the narrative about fear so that we can give ourselves permission to go toward it so that we can have a different relationship with it. Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, like swallowing or digestion. We can’t get rid of it. But when we can make friends with it, we can get curious and do things differently in a way that is not controlling us (as people desperate to get away from it, because let’s face it, most of us try to distance ourselves from uncomfortable emotions).
In the story here, it’s the Prodigal Son going towards his fear - dealing with the consequences of his actions he thought he might receive from his father - that turns out to be a blessing. He works through it and comes to a place where he’s reconciled himself to however things turn out. He doesn’t fight it…he doesn’t run away from it…but engages it and makes the choice to come home to dad. So often our fear can prevent us from fully engaging in the things that we need to address within our families, our friendships, our schools, our workplaces, the organizations we are a part of - even our churches! If there’s something that is causing us fear - we have to sit with what that is, be curious about it, engage it reflectively - and proceed. Because we’re never going to be healthier and more whole human beings if we don’t move toward our fears in a productive way -- and the same is true for any group of people.
But there’s also a lot of judgment in this story -- and not from the father…not even really from the older brother, though he’s clearly resentful. The judgment here comes from the Prodigal Son himself. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
I am no longer worthy.
Now, certainly the younger son here made some bad money decisions, and some morally questionable ones as well. There was nothing to fall back on when the famine hit. But he was also willing to work, and hired himself out to make ends meet…in the midst of a society where he could work for a whole day and still not have enough to live on. So there were clearly forces beyond his control that contributed to him looking enviously at the scraps the pigs were eating.
What these confluence of events leads to, however, is him confronting his own sense of identity - his own worthiness and belovedness. The situation he finds himself in - which is partly his fault and partly that of his circumstances - leads himself to believe that he is unworthy of a relationship with his father - to be a person not deserving of his place in the family. He doesn’t measure up to the standard anymore because he’s hungry and alone and things didn’t go as he had planned. He believes himself to be a bad person…rather than a person who may have made some bad choices.
The father, of course, proclaims him loved, wanted, valued, and worthy.
Exploring the story through the lenses of fear and judgment made me think a bit about a quote from Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, she writes:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” (p 56)
Perfectionism is really about fear - fear that we aren’t worthy unless we try to measure up to impossible standards. When we fail to meet those standards, as we inevitably do, it serves as proof that we’re really not worthy or loveable or valued. We wrap our identities up in what we produce or what we do - thinking that if others love the gift we gave, or admire the job we did, or compliment our actions -- then they are affirming our worth. All the while, we judge ourselves internally for not doing enough, not being enough, not living up to whatever image of a perfect life we dream of.
What I see in this story is that God cuts through all of that. The father doesn’t care about the stuff his younger son lost - or even the stuff his older son resented never really enjoying. The father wants - and restores - relationship. Love. God sees through the words we hurl at ourselves for not being enough. God holds the fear that paralyzes us from going forward. God steps in and says it’s not about what we do or don’t do that impacts God’s stance towards us - it is always love and God always deems us worthy. It is only through that grace that those wounds we carry are able to heal - the judgment silenced, the fear acknowledged, the sin forgiven.
The voices of fear and judgment run through our lives so strongly. But the truth of it is that we are worthy of God’s love just as we are, no matter what we’ve done - or not done. Fear can hold us back from embracing this because we believe we have to measure up to some impossible standard - and judgment keeps us there because we end up believing we’re somehow the problem when we can’t attain those unreachable goals. But the invitation here is that everyone is invited to the party. Everyone is good enough just as they are. There is no standard to reach - just a willingness to return home to that source of great love. It’s not about perfection - but about resting in a relationship that surrounds us in grace and mercy each and every day….and about God meeting us in that place.
So this week, think about going toward your fear, wherever that may be….letting go of that inner critic…trusting that God surrounds you in love no matter what happens. Find the space to rely on that grace that proclaims you worthy and good enough - and that draws you deeper into that source of God’s great love - because God rushes to meet us no matter where we are. Amen.
Scripture Luke 13: 1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'
He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’"
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
Ok, I’ll be honest - this is kind of a bummer of a scripture passage. At first glance it seems like the only good news here is that the tree has one more year to produce anything remotely resembling good fruit before the owner looks to cut it down. I mean - Jesus here gets news that Pilate had killed a whole bunch of Jewish Galileeans while they were worshiping God and had their blood mixed with their sacrificial lambs. And not to mention the people crushed to their deaths when the Tower of Siloam fell on them.
These are horrible, tragic situations that the crowds bring to Jesus’s attention - presumably to get him “to do” something about it. Condemn Pilate or start an angry revolution. Blame Roman structures for killing innocent people.
Instead, Jesus invites repentance and tells a story about a fig tree where the owner demands the gardener remove it because it isn’t producing anything worthy and instead the gardener intercedes on its behalf and manages to convince the owner to give it one more year to bear fruit. It feels like a strange response for Jesus to give to a crowd primed and ready for action.
I wonder though if that was, in fact, the point.
The political scene in Judea was tense. The people longed for sovereignty and the glory days of King David. The religious elite were trying to accommodate the Roman Empire so that the Jewish people would survive - or you had figures like Herod, who enjoyed a fair amount of power provided he could pay his tribute - taxes - to the Empire.
Galilee throughout Jewish history had been a place of political unrest - sometimes violent unrest. In Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual for militant groups in Palestine to wage guerilla-style warfare on the Roman army - and the people had strong expectations that the Messiah was going to be a great military leader who would unite the people and show the Romans the door with a great army behind him. Jesus would not have been the first person that people would have looked to in this way - in the documentary from Jesus to Christ, Prof. Allen Callahan references the Jewish historian Josephus, who tells a number of stories about people who, as Prof. Callahan tells it, “some guy wakes up in the morning and he thinks he's the Messiah or something. Or he's a prophet and he gets a group of people to follow him. He says we're going to go out in the desert and we're going to an empty place. We're going to go out there and we're going to wait for God to do something for us. So a whole bunch of people may go with him, maybe thousands, go with him out to this deserted, unsecured place, and they wait for what Josephus calls "the tokens of their deliverance." And the Romans send a vicious police action out there and kill everybody.”
So when Jesus gets news of this most recent violent act on the part of the Romans, and he’s already accumulated this following around his teachings about God’s kingdom, there’s definitely an expectation on the part of the crowd that “now is the time! Jesus, you need to do something to respond and show these Romans that we can’t be bullied anymore! Let’s swing into action, or condemn their actions - bring that kingdom you’ve been talking about into reality right now” - that’s the energy that would have been in the air.
Jesus, however, doesn’t respond that way - he doesn’t use the news of these killings to instigate more violence. He doesn’t rally the troops or encourage the crowds to an uprising. He doesn’t cave in to the pressure of the crowds to *do something* - he instead urges the crowd to consider their own actions and motivations (perhaps -- repent or perish meaning turn away from violent ideations lest you find yourself in that same boat, or perhaps repent or perish meaning turning toward the way of peace and justice and God’s kingdom). Take a step back, he cautions. Pause and consider the state of your hearts. You’re reacting out of fear, false expectations, anger, hatred. Repent -- turn away from these things having a hold on you, acknowledge them and name them -- or perish if you engage without fully reflecting on what’s going on inside.
A reading like this gives some insight as to the story Jesus tells them next - about the owner and the fig tree and the gardener. The owner is angry that this fig tree is barren. It’s been barren for three years. Every year, he looks for fruit and there is none to be found (nevermind that it takes 3-5 years for fig trees to produce fruit and some immature fig trees produce fruit that never ripens). Clearly, the owner’s expectations aren’t in line with reality - and he demands that the gardener *do something* about that tree -- to cut it down.
The gardener knows the owner isn’t acting out of a right place within himself - that he’s placing unreasonable expectations on the tree, that the tree isn’t ready yet to bear fruit, that the tree needs more time. The owner only looks at the tree for what it can do and what it can give him -- figs -- and he doesn’t have the perspective the gardener has as to what is going on with the tree. He’s angry, he’s been worn down by seeing this tree do nothing for three years, he wonders if there’s a viable future for this tree - and so he acts out of that place in his request for the gardener to get rid of it. The gardener, instead of complying with the owner’s demands, offers a different path forward - offering the owner his own opportunity to repent and act out of a different place - which allows the gardner the time to do his job, tending to and nurturing the tree so it can be ready to one day bear fruit.
How often are we prompted, pressured, or cajoled into action when the wisest course is to sometimes take a step back and respond in a different way?
The gardener fertilizes the tree - enhances the soil and gives it nutrients to strengthen the plant instead of cutting it down like he was asked.
Jesus, when faced with news devastating to his people, tells the people to take a breath and not respond in haste.
There’s something meaningful to the ability to step back and engage from a critical distance rather than one of reactive franticness. There’s wisdom to be found in going slowly and deliberately when the world feels overwhelming, when everything feels urgent and important, when problem after situation keeps mounting or popping up and it all seems like just too much. There’s strength to be found in tending to and nurturing our roots with practices of rest, prayer, joy, and gratitude - so that when fruit is produced -- when there is action that needs taking -- it comes out of a sense of groundedness in who we are and who God has created us to be and there’s an alignment of our giftedness and the moment a response is called for.
This is true of us as people - and it is true of organizations as well.
I think of a story I read in Margaret Wheatley’s book Who Do We Choose To Be?, a book that talks about how one honestly engages reality with integrity. She recounts a story from a few years ago about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which is the organization of sisters and nuns who lead various orders and chapters of women religious and how the Vatican tried to bring them out of autonomy under obedience to Vatican rule. As she tells it in the book, in 2012 the Vatican issued a doctrinal assessment and “Mandate for Implementation” - to which there was a huge response from Catholics both within this country and around the world. 800,000 emails and letters were sent to the LCWR and others to the Church hierarchy in support. She writes, “People treasured the nuns and their lives of dedicated service - some wrote of the gifts they had received from nuns in schools, hospitals, and service to the poor. The Vatican demands for orthodoxy dishonored all their contributions: their dedication to living a vowed life, doing Christ’s work, serving the poor and suffering. Instead, the measure of their good work was to be their compliance with orthodoxy.”
The way the nuns decided to respond was not reactionary, or fear based, or to rally the groundswell of support around them. Instead, they took a step back and took a values-based approach:
It took three years, but in the end - with a change of popes to help foster a more inclusive and trusting atmosphere, the LCWR was able to retain autonomy and continue in its work and mission empowering women in the Catholic church.
I admire their commitment to their values, to their practices that sustained them and gave them strength in the face of a powerful institution, to trusting the leading of the spirit rather than acting in haste (one way or another) to this call to conformity.
What, in your life, feels like a crisis to respond to now, that perhaps is an invitation to step back and ground yourself in prayer and spiritual practice? Or where can you nurture and fertilize your roots more fully, growing in strength so that when there is a moment in your life that calls for your response, you can do so from a source of groundedness in God’s love and courage?
Find the space in your life this week to be less reactionary - and more intentional. Even if you find yourself just doing business as usual, going on autopilot, stop for a minute -- and hop off the treadmill. Stop and observe what’s going on - and see if you can sense what God is doing for you and around you. Dig those roots deep - so that we may bear fruit for a hurting and broken world….and so that we may participate in God’s healing for ourselves and for others. Amen.
I wonder, too, if the crowds were demanding that Jesus *do something* against the Empire in response to these horrifically violent acts - and instead Jesus responds with this fig tree story (the owner demanding the gardener *do something* and the gardener choosing to show mercy to the tree - to tend and fertilize it - instead of something drastic).
How often are we prompted, pressured, cajoled into action when the wisest course is sometimes to take a step back and respond in a different way?
Scripture Luke 13: 31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."
He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
A Word of God that is still speaking, Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith “So much is out of our control”
So to be honest, when I first read the worship guide for this morning as I was prepping for this week and saw the phrase, “herding chicks” I immediately thought of the popular saying “getting your ducks in a row” - which led me to one of my favorite internet memes:
I do not have ducks, They are not in a row. I have squirrels at a rave.
I mean, doesn’t life feel that way sometimes when we’re trying to get our stuff together? The kids, the chores, the partner, the job, the volunteer commitment, the bills, the friendships, the meals, the appointments, the whatever-it-is-we-may-have-neglected on the hamster wheel of obligations and deadlines swirling about our lives. There’s this implicit assumption that we’re supposed to manage that stuff pretty well, or at least, let the right things slide (the kitchen counters are optional and if you have a pint of ice cream for dinner and unvacuumed floors, well, that’s life). Almost forgetting to pay the insurance bill or letting the coffee date slip, tends to be a bit more frowned upon.
These are the things we’re supposed to be able to control and manage. The ducks we are supposed to have in a row.
But so much happens that is beyond our control - big things and small things - the diagnosis, the accident, the infertility, the storm, the war, the loss - we can’t even control how people behave or how they will respond to us - not even (or perhaps especially!) those who are closest to us.
How are we to respond when things happen that are beyond our control? You can’t manage grief or fit natural disasters on a timeline or predict the unpredictable.
It’s easy to ascribe those uncontrollable things to God - like if we aren’t the ones in charge, managing things as we would like, if our human need for control isn’t satisfied, well, then, someone else must be pulling the strings for it all to make sense. Or we talk about karma - some kind of cosmic balancing act to explain the bad things we have no control over. Either way, if we can’t control things, then surely God must be, down to each tiny little thing. It’s a way for many of us to try to make everything fit together, because let’s face it, it’s hard sometimes to admit that there is senseless suffering in the world. It makes us very uncomfortable.
I was listening this week to Emily McDowell on Kate Bowler’s podcast Everything Happens and she talks about this discomfort and the way we humans so often try to fix or solve or manage other people’s pain - or find a way to relate to it to make it about us - or try to minimize the other person’s painful experience. I don’t know if you know anything about Emily McDowell or not, but I first heard of her a few years ago with these amazingly honest greeting cards. Turns out, she created this line of greeting cards because after her cancer diagnosis, she found a lot of people in her life drifting away because they didn’t know what to say, or she would discover people wanting to connect but ultimately saying something unhelpful - like “Get Well Soon” when she didn’t know whether or not she would, actually, get well. Let me share a couple of these cards with you
[normal, lemons, hamster died - check out Emily McDowell's website!]
I look at Jesus in our scripture passage from this morning - Jesus who had all the divine power in the world, who performed wonders and miracles, who shared captivating stories, who proclaimed this liberating message of Jubilee and abundant life - and even he couldn’t control how people responded to him. Even he was surrounded by people, who in his hour of suffering, denied knowing him and drifted away. In this scene, I just imagine Jesus lifting up his hands in frustration as he speaks these words “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
I hear the longing in Jesus’s words - but also the recognition that he’s not in control of how people respond to him. He can offer his message, he can perform miraculous healings, he can teach the crowds along the sea or on the plain or in the mountain, but he had no control over what people would do in response. He didn’t have control over how the empire or religious elites would respond to him. He also chose not to be controlled by those things either.
It makes me consider that there are two invitations here - first of all, we have permission to admit that sometimes all we can do is just…let it go. Acknowledge that we don’t have control over the situation. Throw up our hands - in frustration, in surrender, in grief, in relief and like Elsa in Frozen…let it go. Jesus wants to gather and shelter the people - and yet he also knows the reality that what he offers will be rejected - and he accepts that….and he names it. There is power in just naming reality.
The second invitation is that we can turn to Jesus in these times - not because God controls the uncontrollable, but because God knows what it is like to experience life as one of us. The hurt, the pain, the betrayal, the suffering - the joys too - Jesus navigated those waters too. Jesus longs to be a shelter not so that we can be safe from harm and never have to worry about pain and suffering, but so that we can draw strength and courage to face the things that come our way.
I want to read a portion of one of the devotions here in the book - it’s titled “Being Honest about Disappointment” because let’s face it - disappointment and lack of control go hand in hand. I’ll start here on page 135.
I don’t always know what letting go looks like - but it starts with acknowledgment of reality, the awareness that some things are beyond our control, the trust in God’s presence with us in the midst of - whatever it is we’re dealing with (like the disrupted work week due to illness, the shipping delays, the price of gas, the health crisis of a friend, the response of others when you share vulnerably about yourself, the sudden loss of a job), and the ability to show grace to yourself in the midst of it all. And in those moments, you’ll learn how to better extend that grace to others, to show up in their lives in ways that are less about a need to fix or control or solve - and more about deep presence and compassion and kindness in the midst of the unpredictability of life.
This week - find some ways to let go and show yourself some grace, to stop trying to control and manage things that aren’t yours to control, to name honestly the reality before you, and to find shelter in Jesus, who longs for you to gather under the shadow of his wing. May we find life and wholeness in this good enough space. Amen.
Scripture Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
A Word of God that is still speaking, Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith “Ordinary lives can be holy.”
There’s a little ritual in our house that we taught Michael and now Genevieve is catching on to in her own cute little way.
Whenever we watch television and a commercial pops up, we say “boo, advertisements!”
It may be silly, but if you think about it, ads are designed to get you to want something or buy into something that you may not actually really need. Or, it presents you with a certain lifestyle that can be achieved - if only you subscribe to this service or purchase this product.
Want a carefree life of travel in your old age? Get there with our investment service.
Want to be popular? Drink this brand of beer.
Want your house to be perpetually clean? Or do you want to make cleaning fun? This brand of products will transform your life.
Want freedom and adventure? Just drive this car.
Ads don’t just sell us a product, they’re selling us a lifestyle. Values. Hopes and dreams. Oftentimes, these aspirations - belonging, predictability and security, spontaneity, freedom - are things that we are already yearning for. Hungry for. And whatever product or service is lifted up as providing us the key to finding what we’re looking for.
We find ourselves hungry for many things that we believe will bring us satisfaction.
In our story from scripture this morning, we see Jesus out in the wilderness - he was led there while he was full of the Holy Spirit and after his baptism by John. He spent 40 days having eaten nothing - and during that time was tempted by the devil - which wasn’t a bearded fellow dressed in red carrying a pitchfork as we commonly think of the devil or Satan, but rather a figure which in the Jewish tradition would have been understood as the “opponent” or “adversary” - a figure used to represent the forces that often make it difficult for human beings to submit to divine will. “The tester” might be a better understanding of how the devil operates here rather than modern conceptions of The Devil.
The devil comes and thinks Jesus would jump at the chance for instant fame and glory and to give in to the quick fix - he offers Jesus the things his heart wants. He’s hungry after all, with no food in the wilderness. Surely using his divine gift to turn a stone into bread would satisfy his belly. Having authority over all the kingdoms surely would have advanced Jesus’s purposes so much more easily than a ragtag band of misfit disciples and one-off healings and teaching in parables that were so often misunderstood. A chance to be saved from falling by angels in a spectacle that all Jerusalem would have seen? What a miraculous way to reveal his identity.
I mean - wouldn’t all these things have done wonders for the message that Jesus sent to proclaim?
What the devil offers here aren’t things that are bad in and of themselves.
But what the devil gets at is whether Jesus will serve himself - seek the fame and the glory with himself at the center - or if Jesus will serve God, using the ordinary and mundane to build a movement of peace, righteousness, and holiness in the everyday.
We all face our fair share of temptations - and I’m not talking about wanting that extra slice of cake for dessert...or even the temptation of buying those new kitchen cabinets that will make your Whole Life more organized (and I’m definitely not preaching to myself there at all…)
I’m talking about the temptations that we think would make our life perfect or more special or outwardly great or that would prop up the image of ourselves we want other people to see - the drive for more being a prime example of this that manifests itself in all aspects of our life, or the desire to fulfill and inflate my own ego needs over and above those of others - even God’s. It shows up in small and innocent ways - checking out the number of likes on your most recent social media post (and who liked it and who didn’t) thinking that it gives you a sense of belonging and community, believing if only you made more money it would solve all your problems or save your marriage or give you the freedom and security to pursue your desires, or wanting to be the best parent…or the best friend…or the best in your field…or the best teacher/therapist/lawyer/athlete…and receive all the recognition and praise and accolades for what you do.
Again - these things aren’t bad in and of themselves - but are you doing it for a false image of how you want others to see you - or does it come out of your authentic self?
I can look back on times in my life where I clearly operated out of the former rather than the latter - where I thought my work in church planting and the spiritual pioneering Ben and I were doing in developing faith communities in re-imagined ways was going to spark a revival within the greater church - that what we were doing and the way we were going about it would be heralded as models to follow, and that this - along with the work of other pastoral entrepreneurs - would be The Thing that would save United Methodism from decline.
I have long since let go of any illusions of greatness there.
Or I think about the pressure of social media - I read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s article from 6 months ago this week, and she talks about this reality that we find most prevalent on social media that really resonates with me - and it happens not just on Facebook or Twitter, but in the course of everyday conversation too - where it feels like you’re expected to constantly on top of every single injustice in the world - she puts it as the voices that say “if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about ___(fill in the blank)___then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM”...which leaves her wondering: “am I doing enough, sacrificing enough, giving enough, saying enough about all the horrible things right now to think of myself as a good person and subsequently silence the accusing voice in my head? No. The answer is always no. No I am not. Nor could I. Because no matter what I do the goal of “enough” is just as far as when I started.”
The temptations are many - We are tempted by greatness. By self-importance. We’re tempted to internalize other people’s expectations and image of who we are - or maybe we’re tempted to disregard other people’s opinions entirely.
And yet what Jesus clung to in his trial in the wilderness, when he was tempted by greatness and shortcuts, was a complete certainty in who he was and what he was about…his place and purpose in God’s unfolding dream - and for him, that was good enough.
It makes me think about the story of Brother Lawrence who lived in the 17th century in France. Born into poverty, as a teenager he became a soldier and during that time in the army, as he fought in the Thirty Years war, he had a spiritual awakening. Upon leaving the army at the age of 26, he joined the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites where he found the holy in the ordinary work of cooking and cleaning.
He’s the one you may have heard stories about peeling potatoes for the glory of God. “The Practice of the Presence of God” was compiled of his sayings, letters, and conversations with the other monks and was published after he died. One of his sayings:
"Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do. . . . We can do little things for God. I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for the love of Him; and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before Him Who has given me grace to work. Afterwards I rise happier than a king."
It was said of him that he "forgot himself and was willing to lose himself for God, That he no longer thought of virtue or his salvation ... that he had always governed himself by love without interest.”
There’s grace in knowing who you are - your role, your limitations, your boundaries - in not giving in to the temptations to be something greater. That isn’t to say we don’t have dreams and visions - but it’s about what drives those aspirations - an interest in the self and our own image or for the sake of something greater? It’s about knowing what is ours to do - and what isn’t - and in trusting that God moves through all that we do, drawing things together for the unfolding of God’s purposes in the world. It’s about believing - down to our core - that God works in our ordinary lives - in the small selfless acts, in the moments we may not think are important, in the connections we foster, in the moments of silence we cultivate - all of it is vibrant with God breaking in to our existence over and over and over again - and that is what makes our lives holy…and that is what gives us the ability to be good enough - trusting that we do our part, we do what we are called and invited and challenged by God to do, and that God will be faithful in weaving our actions into the greater tapestry of peace and hope and justice in our world.
I want to close by sharing one of my favorite poems called Famous, by Naomi Shibab Nye - because for me it captures this idea of holiness being related to who we are in our fundamental core - people capable of connection and creating space in the midst of our everyday interactions for God to break in. She writes:
BY NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
May we in this season lean into God’s movement in our lives, making the ordinary moments one of divine presence and holiness, trusting that our openness to the movement of the spirit makes our efforts “good enough” because God makes up the rest. May we not be tempted by perfection or grandiose ideas that serve ourselves, but may we be reminded of Jesus who took no shortcuts, who - even in all his divine power - used ordinary people to transform the world. May we find grace and hope in that truth this season. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.