February 21, 2010

When was the last time you met the devil? Or is that just an ancient metaphor, one that doesn’t really apply to us in the 21st century? The bizarre images we have of the devil, the Halloween costume images with horns and a tail, come from medieval paintings that tried to make sense out of the senselessness of plague and war and death. And some of the other imagery, of fire and brimstone and sulfurous smoke, comes from the valley outside Jerusalem, called Gehenna, where garbage was burned. In the early biblical references to what we’ve come to call the devil, the word is “adversary.” In several places the Bible presents a heavenly courtroom with God as the judge and the adversary trying to get the better of God’s creatures. Often the adversary is something of a prosecuting attorney, accusing someone – like Job – of only loving God because his life is good. The adversary, or accuser, which is what Satan means in Hebrew, is one who challenges a person’s faithful relationship with God.

That’s really a much more useful, and spiritually helpful, way to look at temptation than a red faced guy with a pitchfork. Most of us don’t go through life confronted by diabolical urges to murder our neighbors or steal candy from little children. The things we wrestle with are a lot more subtle, and often they look like good and reasonable alternatives. The first invitation Jesus hears is one of those – you’re hungry, why not just turn these rocks into bread – or maybe brownies? In the days after the earthquake in Haiti, desperate people were doing just that – making cakes out of mud and maybe a little oil, and baking them, just to fill gnawing stomachs. Let them eat cake, indeed! Sometimes pregnant women do something similar, eating clay or other things that don’t have any nutritional value, but somehow seem like they might satisfy a peculiar hunger.

Jesus’ predicament is that he has the apparent ability to work magic to meet an immediate apparent need. Isn’t that what credit cards are? Plastic money, often used for things that don’t last, that don’t satisfy for more than a few hours or days. The whole world is reeling from a long spell of playing with plastic money, trying to turn stones into bread. We even use that word, bread, as a slang term for money. The plastic for those cards comes from the rocks called coal or oil, and we are still trying to turn it into bread – bread that doesn’t satisfy. Have you ever noticed that panhandlers never ask for credit cards? They want the real stuff, the stuff that’s exchangeable for hamburgers or something more chemically enticing.

That first temptation is to use something for a seemingly good purpose which it can’t possibly fulfill. We face those temptations all the time – trying to fill up the empty spaces in ourselves, the hungers, with things that will never ultimately satisfy. We’re often tempted to fill up our calendars, our stomachs, and our homes with things that may seem good, but can’t fill the deeper hunger. That hunger is filled when we recognize who and whose we are, the good creation of God, and why we’re here – to give thanks.

What else is that adversary up to? “Worship me, and I’ll give you all the kingdoms…” We pay homage to all sorts of unworthy ends. When I was in Nevada, people from other parts of the church used to ask me where the cathedral was. I said, there’s a whole row of cathedrals, right down there on both sides of Las Vegas Blvd. At least that’s where a lot of tourists seem to worship. The locals use the casinos that are closer to home.

Where do we spend our bread, or our plastic? What is worth our time and attention? That’s what worship actually means – a focus on what is most worthy. We can get pretty wrapped up in our own understandings of what is worthy, so much so that we forget who is at the source.
I spent Ash Wednesday in an ecumenical meeting, with a group of leaders from eleven Christian communions that have been wrestling with hard issues of relationship for a long time. All the historically black Methodist churches are part of this group, along with the historically Euro-American churches. They – we – have been trying to work on issues of racism in the church, and how racism gets caught up in our understanding of ordained ministry. The group just about gave up two years ago, and closed the office and laid off the staff for this group, after an incident that was interpreted as racist. We came together to see if there was any hope left for our relationship.

When the presiding bishop from one of those other churches came to Wednesday’s meeting, it was the first time anybody from his communion had participated since the blowup. I went up and tried to apologize for the precipitating act – because it came from an Episcopalian – but he blew me off. He said, ‘today is today and yesterday was yesterday. We’re not going to dwell on the past. I’m here to see if we can get this body moving again. It’s time for all of us to grow up a little more and recognize that when we disagree it’s not necessarily because of racism.’ And before the day was over, we celebrated communion together, and we gave thanks – even with alleluias, on that first day of Lent!

We almost always have something to learn from each other, but sometimes the adversary throws a wrench in the works and says, “oh, no, you’re absolutely right, and he’s completely wrong. Worship that for a while.”

What do we do with that third encounter with the adversary? “Throw yourself down, and let the angels bear you up.” Sounds like Shaun White and his snowboard, only Jesus doesn’t get a board or a halfpipe. It’s an invitation to an ego trip – the grand entrance, or in this case, maybe the grand exit. We know Jesus is important, why doesn’t he simply join in, and say, “look at me!!!” Something like that would certainly get a lot of attention for his big project. But Jesus has come to do somebody else’s work; he knows who he really is, and it’s not the center of attention. Like John the Baptist before him, Jesus points to the one who sent him – I come to do my father’s will. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

The world around us mostly thinks it’s OK to play the “me-first” game. That attitude is what’s hampering our ability to have a civil conversation about health care and healing the sick, something that Jesus did even more than feeding people. The “I’m right” game is what led a senator this week to say he was leaving Congress. Others tell me that Washington has become far less civil and able to do the hard work of politics because so many will only line up or socialize with people who seem to think exactly the same way.

The church has a term for this urge to go on ego trips and play the “I’m right” game – original sin. It’s that part of each and every one of us that thinks we’re the center of the universe. The adversary doesn’t really have to work very hard when there’s so much support for multiple ego-centric universes!

So what do we do? Build up our defenses and go into battle against the devil? A frontal assault doesn’t usually work too well. The (Eastern) Orthodox approach the problem of taking ourselves too seriously with a rather different tack, by being more exposed and vulnerable. On Easter, the Orthodox tell jokes, some on themselves, because, they say, resurrection is God’s cosmic joke on the devil.

If Lent is a preparation for Easter, new life in baptism, and a new kind of readiness to live as a resurrected people, then the prescription for our ego-centric universes and the wiles of the devil is to lighten up and not take ourselves quite so seriously. The appropriate response to all those temptations is to give thanks for what is, even in the face of how much and how often we mess up. Giving thanks does lighten the heart, when we remember where that milk and honey, the abundance of the fruits of the earth, that real bounty comes from – it comes from God’s grace, not the plastic stuff.

Let go of those rocks and embrace the good which God has given. As the Scots are fond of saying, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Remember who you are, and whose you are, and give thanks.