First Sunday in Lent, Year C
Once upon a time there was an old farmer from the lovely island of Hawaii. He loved his land with a deep and beautiful intensity, so much so that when he sensed that he was about to die he had his sons bring him outside and lay him on his beloved earth. As he was about to expire he reached down by his side and clutched some earth onto his hands. He died a happy man.
He now appeared before heavenís gate. God, as an old white bearded man, came out to greet him. "Welcome," he said. "Youíve been a good man. Please, come into the joy of heaven." But as the man started to enter the pearly gates, God said, "Please, you must let the soil go." "Never!" said the old farmer stepping back, "Never!" And so God departed sadly, leaving the old farmer outside the gates. A few eons went by. God came out again, this time as a friend, an old drinking buddy. They had a few drinks, told some stories and then God said, "All right, now its time to enter heaven, friend. Letís go." And they started for the pearly gates. And once more God requested that the old man let go of the soil and once more he refused.
More eons rolled by. God came out once more, this time as a delightful and playful granddaughter. "Oh, granddaddy," he said, "youíre so wonderful and we all miss you very much. Please come inside with me." The old man nodded and she helped him up for by this time he had grown indeed very old and arthritic. In fact, so arthritic was he that he had to prop up the right hand holding up the Hawaii soil with his left hand. They moved toward the pearly gates and at this point his strength gave out. His gnarled fingers would no longer stay clenched in a fist with the result that the soil sifted out between them until his hand was empty. He then entered heaven. The first thing he say was his beloved island of Hawaii.
In Lukeís gospel today, we find Jesus, freshly baptized, called, named, claimed and set apart for his very unique ministry in the world. Jesus is aware that his life has a unique purpose in the heart and mind of the Almighty One. But that is where his certainty ends - as it does for many of us. There on the edge of the desert, with the waters of baptism still damp in his curly hair, Jesus continues to be fuzzy, unfocused, unsure of what his ministry - what his life - what his call is all about.
Jesus desert sojourn is a profound act of self love for he is valuing himself - and God - enough to take the time to figure out why he is unique and what it is in his human nature that can stand in the way of Godís purpose for his life. Jesus is pausing to wrestle with the temptation to do things his way, instead of Godís way. And what he discovers, there, in that desolate wasteland of lime stone and sand, is somewhat unsettling.
Jesus knows when he goes into the desert, that for better or for worse, his job is to be the Messiah, to be Godís covenant of love and hope in the flesh. But the Jewish concept of the messiah at that time it that he will have spectacular power, a prince, the leader of a conquering army that will set Israel free from Roman occupation.
So when the devil beguiles him, Jesus must be seriously tempted to respond positively. After all, this crafty fellow is offering him all the techniques for messianic success. Turning stones into bread, so material comfort can be found. Assuming authority and power over all the kingdoms of the world, so that political power can be won. Jumping from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that Godís miraculous power is within him.
But Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, knows that the solution to lifeís problems cannot be found in quick spectacles or manipulative power. Jesus discovers, by contending with the devil and sending the devil away, that his calling is not to be a superstar, but to be a servant. His ministry is not to wear a crown but to carry a cross.
Chances are that the evil one will not tempt us with such grand enticements. Nevertheless, we face temptations daily. One of the temptations I would like to focus on today is the urge many people feel to fight change, especially change in the church. Look it, none of us likes change and yet change is about the only thing we can count on. Things change, always have, always will. The church has changed, is changing and will continue to change and yet there are many who just like the old farmer, have a closed fist desperately trying to hang on to the past, to the known, to the familiar. And as long as that fist is closed, what can God put into it?
Iíll give you a current example. Several months ago, the new rector of Sacred Heart cathedral announced that they were considering remodeling the church. Without even knowing what changes were planned, a group of people believed that one of the changes would be moving the tabernacle from the center of the church to a side chapel reserved for the Blessed Sacrament. Fearing this, people have mobilize and invested an incredible amount of energy into fighting this proposed change. Enormous energy has gone into this and frankly I canít understand it.
Tell me, if we move Jesus from here to here, is he any less present in this church? And if we were to remove the Blessed Sacrament from the church entirely, Jesus would still be here because he told us if two or more are gathered in his name, there I am in their midst. And couldnít it be just slightly possible that God is behind this change. Maybe God is telling us that we need to change our focus from Jesus in the tabernacle onto Jesus in the tabernacle of our brothers and sisters. Because, my friends ultimately, where we reserve the blessed sacrament is no where near as important as to how we treat the blessed sacrament which is contained in the tabernacle of the people we encounter daily.
What is the source of all this resistance to change? It is because we are afraid, afraid of the unknown, afraid of that which is even only slightly different from our own experience. Where is the faith in that? Where is the trust in Jesus words at the end of Matthewís gospel when he said that I must go to the Father but know that I am with you always, even to the end of time?
I suspect that the source of this fear for many people is because we are really not sure what is going to happen to us when we die. We fear that either we will simply cease to exist or that there will be a harsh judging God who will throw us into the pit. For many salvation is not assured, our ultimate fate is in jeopardy. But this is not the gospel. The gospel is that through Jesus we have been saved. Our salvation is assured, itís in the bank, you know how we say that only three things are certain: life, death and taxes, well add a fourth, salvation. Itís a done deal folks, and its so simple. All we have to do is ask for it and weíve got it. Could it be any easier?
Once we accept the truth of this, we can begin to trust and let go of the soil of the church that we have known. Once we let go, we can enter into that promised land where we will find that which we have always been seeking, a church, no matter how much it has changed, which leads us into an eternal relationship with God.