Sermon of the Week
Courage for Lent: About that Quarantine
Keywords: Temptation, Dar Williams, Fasting, Courage, Worries, Quarantine, Coronavirus.
The sound that greeted me this morning,
as I headed over to my car to drive here before dawn
was the sound of birds chirping.
I love that sound.
Through the dark months of November through February
I didn’t hear it very often on Sunday morning.
The birds are all down south somewhere on their winter break,
enjoying chips and salsa and maybe drinks with the worms in them.
But today the birds were loud, and noticeable
as if they were trying to get my attention,
with all that built up energy of being away for so long
and looking forward to a beautiful spring.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for spring.
Winter seems so long, and confining,
and I have no where warm to fly off to.
February is the longest month,
even if it is technically the shortest, whether it has the extra leap day or not.
I first heard the singer/songwriter Dar Williams perform when I was in college
I’m guessing she’s not particularly well known among this group
but she became a favorite of mine
mainly because she’s thoughtful and wordy
and that seems to fit my musical sensibilities just fine.
Every year, when things are snowy and cold and it seems like it has been dark
for months and months,
because it has been dark for months and months
I remember Dar Williams’ song called February
which is a slow, almost melancholy song about relationships
and the long days of winter.
It has this verse in there about this couple walking and spotting a flower
and it being so out of place, there in the winter:
And February was so long that it lasted into March
And you found us walking a path alone together.
You stopped and pointed and you said, “That’s a crocus,”
And I said “What’s a crocus?” and you said “It’s a flower,”
And I tried to remember, but I said, “What’s a flower?”
And you said, “I still love you.”
And I love that, even though it is so sad,
because it so beautifully captures the dreariness I feel sometimes about winter
and maybe a yearning toward spring…
And then one morning, you’re met with the sing-song of birds
so beautiful and urgent that they wake you up
and you’re looking forward to the sunrise.
Spring will be here before we know it.
Next week is Daylight savings, where we turn our clocks forward an hour.
The birds already know what time it is, and hopefully, we will too.
Warmer weather has been treating us early this week,
and there are already Royals baseball games on the radio.
I’m ready for spring, and I’m also ready for Lent,
that for us always happens right around this time, also.
Lent is a season of looking forward,
of reflection and preparation for the death of our Lord Jesus,
and then the joy of his resurrection.
The themes of this season are meant to help us focus on the future,
on why the things God has done for us,
that God keeps doing for us,
prepare us and shape us to be better, stronger, more grounded people,
how we can follow Christ’s example
about how to get through some hard times
with hope, and faith, and with courage.
Courage seems to be an important word for people of faith these days.
Courage is the power to do something that needs to be done,
even though it is scary, or dangerous, or just not very fun at all.
It is doing the right thing, even when it is hard.
It is standing up for the good,
even when others want to tempt you to look the other way.
It is making a sacrifice for a bigger principle.
It is about using the gifts and resources and talents you’ve been given
for a particular purpose, even if you don’t know how it is going to end up, exactly.
So courage and faith often go hand in hand,
faith being the ultimate trust we have in a greater power, a higher good,
the very love of God,
and courage being the actions we undertake, in faith,
that risk love
that believes that doing the right thing matters, even if it’s hard.
Courage is sustained by faith,
grounded in the example of our lord Jesus Christ,
and is gift of God for us,
even if it doesn’t always feel like a gift we want at the moment.
This month, we’re going to be looking at Lent
by talking a bit about courage,
where we can find it,
how it can inform our actions
the ways we can find strength from it.
Or, to put it another way,
we’re going to be exploring ways of taking up courage for Lent.
Sometimes we talk about giving up something for this season.
The practice of fasting, for a day or for a season, is ancient and well accepted,
and these days I know people who are giving up chocolate, for example,
though I don’t really know why.
Others are giving up alcohol, or trying to kick a smoking habit
which is great.
Some give up meat during Lent.
Some are giving up cursing
(and I know some of those people, and to them I say ‘good luck’).
Others are abandoning social media for a spell.
All of that is well and good,
and if this is a sort of spiritual practice that works for you
that helps you stay mindful of your relationship to the creator
and the beautiful way that she made you
helps you love yourself and your neighbor better,
then it’s a healthy practice for this season.
Others often take this time to add a little something
maybe some extra volunteering, or a financial donation somewhere
as a way to remind themselves of the importance of their time and their resources
and how these are meant to be shared for a broader purpose.
This sort of thing is commendable also, as a Lenten discipline.
It isn’t an either/or proposition,
giving something up OR taking something on.
There is no right way to walk these forty days leading up to holy week.
It just matters that you’re seeking a way to ponder the meaning
of God’s incredible love
the gift of God’s selfless compassion
and the call to participate in God’s beloved community.
And so, in the area of adding a little something,
we’re going to be exploring how we can add some courage to our life of faith,
with God’s help.
This story of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness
is almost always the way we begin the season of Lent.
Most of the time, when we look at this story,
we focus on the temptations themselves,
and the fact that Jesus is struggling with these things that are good things
honestly good and worthy things
and we ourselves wonder why he doesn’t take the tempter up on the offer.
That one we get rather intuitively,
because we know hunger, or at least we kinda know hunger,
though most of us have been fortunate enough not to know the kind of hunger
that Jesus is dealing with here.
For most us,
we’re most likely to see this story about bread and think something like this:
Hungry? Maybe I shouldn’t. All those carbs.
I’d love some fresh baked,
just-out-of-the-oven French bread
oh, and if you have some of that butter
that is just warm enough
that it barely stays butter
but it melts all over the bread, that’s perfect, thank you very much.
But THAT’s not really the temptation that Jesus is confronted with, is it,
whether to have those carbs or not.
Yes, Hunger is the first question he faces,
after Jesus has been out in the wilderness all that time, for forty days.
What would you do, if you’ve not eaten in two weeks? Much less five.
What about if your kid hasn’t eaten, or your partner?
We shouldn’t be quick to judge people
who make rash decisions in that moment so harshly.
Hunger does powerful things to people.
But, says the tempter to Jesus, in a moment just like that,
here’s an easy way for you to find food!
Just make it happen. Snap of the fingers.
Go ahead, such a minor thing, no one will likely even see you do it,
much less notice that a rock or two are gone.
And, according to the story, Jesus thinks about it.
Because he’s hungry. He’s really really hungry.
But this is not mainly a story about Jesus and his hunger, not really.
This is a story about Jesus, and a larger purpose. God’s purpose.
About Jesus’ unique role as savior of the world.
So Jesus is facing off against the tempter, the text calls him the devil
and everything Jesus is doing is more about THAT.
His answer isn’t really about the hunger,
but about whether he’ll be DISTRACTED from his purpose.
One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God….
This distinction is an important one.
Does this mean that Jesus wants us to be more concerned
about faith than about food?
(I’ve heard someone actually say that, once,
actually cite this passage
when coming across a canned food drive at a grocery store,
when he wanted to walk by and not be confronted
with the choice of whether to donate or not….
One does not live by bread alone but by the very word of God…
my Lenten discipline of abandoning curse words being challenged that fine morning,
and showing that sometimes the tempter does in fact like to quote scripture)
No, not at all.
Jesus spends his time feeding the hungry,
and talking about how God fills the hungry with good things.
The early church was all about food for the hungry.
No, this is a particular moment in the life of Jesus
where he has to decide how to use the powers and gifts he has.
Is he going to make things easier for himself, take the shortcut,
when doing so would mean empowering someone who has a nefarious purpose?
No, Jesus is not going to do that,
even when he’s famished. Even when he’s starving.
The other two temptations are just like this one, really,
but with grander displays of possibility:
Throw yourself down from this pinnacle of the temple, Jesus,
show to everyone that you are the Son of God
and they might just believe!
I can show you the way to consolidate political power, Jesus.
All the kingdoms of the world, and their splendor,
I have it here in this easy to follow five step plan
only $29.99 and I’ll even offer you four easy installments
I’ll give it to you for a song, if you just worship me.
And why wouldn’t Jesus want people to believe he is who he is?
Why shouldn’t Jesus just take the shortcut to power, the easy path to victory?
Well, because God says not to do it that way,
because it’s manipulative, and wrong, and dirty,
the very opposite of holy, the very antithesis of faithful.
Be gone, Satan
Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.
And off he goes, end of scene.
So we might focus on the temptations themselves
and that’s an acceptable focus,
and it is helpful for us to think about how we get tempted in our everyday,
though sometimes I worry that we get too caught up in our own temptations
our own failings, our own shortcomings,
and see these temptations of Jesus, and his faithful response,
as ways to ramp up our guilt at the ways we struggle with them.
See…Jesus didn’t even let himself turn rocks into bread
and here you are breaking your diet again.
That’s not helpful, and it is not the point.
Instead, this passage reminds us
that even Jesus faces temptations
and Jesus found ways to work through them with faith and with courage,
and so we are be able to do the same.
We all face temptation. It is a part of being human.
And struggling with those temptations takes courage
and if we can glean an extra ounce courage from our Savior’s strength
in the face of his own temptations,
then thanks be to God,
I’ll take all the help I can get.
One of my greatest temptations is to worry about tomorrow.
Is that one of yours, too?
Sometimes that worry is gentle,
just a nagging question about whether I’ve done enough to be ready
or am making the right choices.
Sometimes it is a greater concern:
did you see the news about .
Politics. Financial Planning. Job Security. My kids. Relationships.
Sometimes my worries are well founded, and sometimes they are not,
and, then again, sometimes we just don’t know.
How do we face our worries with courage?
If Jesus trusts in God’s care and guidance,
how can we take strength from that,
and look forward in trust?
That has been a really, really interesting question to ponder this week.
I’m sure you’ve seen all this news about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
And at this point, we could talk a bit about it,
but there’s so much that we don’t know yet, and it is not helpful to speculate,
but we know that it is already impacting the economy and travel and so on.
Is it going to be horrible, or will it flitter away. Unclear.
We know that there are other bugs going around that are more pressing right now,
like the flu.
Even so, my pastor friends and I
are talking about best practices for community health,
and public health professionals are doing great work
helping everyone stay calm but alert
reminding us about things like washing our hands and taking time off when we’re sick.
If things do become worse, we will implement additional measures
that are grounded in the best possible medical advice.
But this has also been interesting to me, in part
because of all this news about various quarantines in place due to the virus,
whether it is the Diamond Princess cruise ship or most of the wuhan province of China.
I heard one report that almost half of the adult population in China
are under travel restrictions right now, which doesn’t sound like much fun at all.
A quarantine is a separation, a time a part, for the sake of public health.
That Dar Williams verse has a great line in it you might have heard:
“walking a path alone together,” which must also be what a quarantine feels like.
The roots of that word quarantine come from Italian, where it means forty days,
which happens to be how long Jesus was out there, in the wilderness,
and also how long this season of Lent is, forty days,
this journey of reflection and spiritual preparation.
I’m often wondering what it was like for Jesus, there in the wilderness,
away from his friends, away from his people.
It must have felt like a quarantine, right, a certain isolation,
a break from seeing other people.
That isolation, maybe as much as the fasting, likely contributed to his mood
what he was feeling, and wrestling with, out there during the temptation.
Jesus didn’t have facetime or email, either,
like they do on the Diamond Princess.
It is hard to be alone.
And it’s not really good for us, either, that sort of isolation,
even if it might be necessary sometimes.
We are, as Aristotle once said, social rational animals,
and our relationships are built on interaction.
What are we to say about our temptation to worry
whether it is about this coronavirus
or about any one of a number of other worries floating around right now
some of them maybe trivial, and others really not so much.
Like any temptation, we can take courage on as our goal
the effort to face any concern with the right balance of prudence and caution
and to trust, in faith, that our very lives are in the hands
of the one who loves us and cares for us.
They’re like that on days when we’re not worried about anything,
when spring is on the horizon and we’re planning to go out and play in the sun…
and they’re like that in the winter of our lives,
when each day seems longer than the last one,
when we feel alone and isolated,
and we’re not sure we can make it any longer….
our lives are in the hands of the one who loves us and who cares for us, every day.
Jesus wasn’t ever really alone, in the wilderness. God was at his side.
And so too with us, through our worries, our temptations, our fears,
and even through our strength and our wisdom and our courage to face them,
knowing that we have good people working to help keep us safe
and doing our part to help that effort along the way.
As we ponder today the various temptations that we confront on a daily basis
lets remember to be gentle with one another about how we deal with them
and, instead, lets seek to gain strength from the one who offers us wisdom
through the faithful actions of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And may we find courage to face our temptations
trusting that God will help us do what we need to do
to make good choices
to lead healthy lives
and to seek wholeness for ourselves, our neighbors, and our neighborhoods.
May it be so.
Image: Temptations of Christ (San Marco) by anonymus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons