There is another story told about a head-to-head contest between Jesus and the devil. They were engaged in a competition to see who could file away all the names in the book of life â on computer files. Each one had been working away madly for hours, when suddenly a flash of lightning blasted through the sky. Was the divine referee calling time? Maybe, but the devil lost. His computer crashed. âJesus saves.â
The powerful stories that we hear at the beginning of Lent are mostly about the competition between the powers of self-concern and concern for God and others. Presumably, the devil lost because he was so focused on beating Jesus that he forgot to save his work. On the surface of it, that seems like a pretty innocent fault. Yet our understanding of sin is mostly about self-absorption. When weâre so worried about ourselves that we canât think about others, thereâs something profoundly wrong.
Thatâs what happens to Adam and Eve in the garden. When the first human beings eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, their eyes are opened. The first consequence is they realize that theyâre naked, and itâs not something theyâre terribly happy about! Unlike babies and little children who donât care, the first two human beings suddenly become overly modest, ashamed, and fearful. We didnât hear the next few verses this morning, but the story goes on to tell about God strolling in the evening breeze looking for them. They hide in the bushes, and God calls out, âwhere are you?â Their ability to delight in the presence of God has been compromised by their excessive self-concern. Their attention has turned inward, away from their friendship with God.
The temptations of Jesus are pretty similar. After his long desert retreat, the devil challenges him to focus on filling his own needs. The devil sets those out as food, and fame, and control. Adam and Eve were also after food, and control, and becoming like God. What they got was a pretty unsatisfying meal out of one piece of fruit, lives that felt rather out of control, and a sense of shame rather than acclaim.
Human beings continue to wrestle with self-centered and even selfish desire. A great part of the opportunity of Lent is the invitation to look at how our loves are ordered. Where do we fix our hearts, and on what? Are we always thinking about ourselves? When we interact with others, are we mostly worried about how we are going to be treated, or what weâre going to get?
Our fundamental problem as human beings is over-concern with self â what the church has for centuries called âoriginal sin.â We think about ourselves more than about our neighbors, rather than loving our neighbors AS we love ourselves. If that balance is distorted, our relationship with God is equally distorted. Yet, by the grace of God, we have experiences that show us that the balance can be healthier â and holier â when we can get out of our own way. The selfless care of a parent for a small child, or the concern for a suffering mate or co-worker, shows us something of what right love can look like. A little self-forgetfulness is a good thing, and it does get easier with practice.
The horror of the earthquake in Japan is unleashing the experience of re-ordered loves, as people search for the lost and care selflessly for their injured and grieving neighbors. In life or death situations, many people can put aside an excessive self-concern. The challenge for most of us is to do a better job of it in daily life.
Lent began as a season of solidarity with others. Early Christians joined those who were preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil by praying and fasting alongside the neophytes. The whole community was renewed by Easter â the body had new members, older members found healed relationships, and together, the body was strengthened.
The Irish body was out in force around here yesterday. We arrived in downtown Albany right after the St. Patrickâs Day Parade had ended. Hordes of people were on the street celebrating, enthusiastically. We watched two people walk over to get on a bus, and very carefully set their beer bottles down in the middle of the street before they boarded. They obviously werenât thinking about the cars that would have to drive over those bottles. We saw others taking care of their friends who had had too much to drink. It was a fascinating mix of human beings â some self-concerned and others abundantly concerned for their neighbors.
An essential part of our spiritual journey as Christians is about improving the balance between self-love and love of others. Lent is a time to practice â by remembering that the world is not all about me, whether that means sharing toys in the nursery or taking turns merging onto the highway, or figuring out that all we have is a gift, and itâs meant to be shared. Itâs not easy â even Jesus wrestled with the lure of saying, âme first,â but there is abundant grace in the struggle.
Amazing things happen when we can let go of that obsession with our own selves and stuff. Last night the congregation of St. Davidâs in East Greenbush gathered downstairs for a joy-filled dinner. That congregation is composed of many Burmese refugees, including long-settled, English-speaking homeowners as well as families who have arrived from refugee camps in the last few months. It also includes multi-generational New Yorkers and people from the West Indies. Members of St. Davidâs and of other congregations help to support new immigrants with housing, clothing, employment, learning English, and discovering the nuances of living in this land. A lot of potential divisions are being bridged in that joyous community. Together Godâs people are being served and blessed by that experience.
Down the street last night, we also saw the Capitol City Overflow Shelter, where men from the Gospel Rescue Mission are offered a nightly home. That ministry is made possible by congregational volunteers from all over this city, and maybe the most amazing reality is that itâs housed in a place that wasnât sure it wanted to welcome homeless people. This cathedral congregation, St. Peterâs, and all the other Episcopal churches around here have found a new life and possibility because they have shifted their attention away from internal self-concern, even their rivalries to the needs of others. Partners in Outreach has resulted, and itâs bringing new life and energy to the members of all of those churches, as well as blessing those who are being served and the volunteers who come to work. Transformation in the love of God abounds when our self-focus and fear recede.
Lent is a time to practice the traditional disciplines of Lent, like the training athletes undertake to run a better race, or play a more effective game. Jesus had his own spring-training in those 40 days in the desert. He resisted those temptations to satisfy cravings for instant fame or a tyrantâs power, because he knew that they are poor substitutes for the blessing of friendship with God and neighbor.
The Lenten disciples of fasting, sharing resources or giving alms, prayer, and self-examination are all about recognizing that our self-centeredness wonât bring the happiness we seek. Healing, health, and holiness come in finding the balance between loving neighbor, self, and God. There will be times when the journey feels more like Gethsemane than Eden, but the freedom to love rightly will bring us to Easter, in company with the image of God all around us and within us. We might even re-discover the blessing of a walk in the evening breeze with a friend.