10 February 2008

“Holy Irrelevant? Lent and Sin in an Age of Prosperity”

The Revd Darren McCallig (left), Church of Ireland Chaplain and Dean of Residence, Trinity College Dublin, and the Revd Canon Patrick Comerford (right), Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College, at the Chapel in Trinity College Dublin on Sunday 10 February 2008, the 1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4: 1-11

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Easter is coming early this year. Many people will only notice this because two bank holiday weekends are coming one after the other in a row. Unless they had pancakes in the canteen at work last Tuesday, or resolved (yet again) to give up smoking on Wednesday, I am sure many people will not have noticed that Wednesday was Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

Lent has come early this year. But has Lent become wholly irrelevant in the prosperous and increasingly secular Ireland we live in?

Giving up smoking on Ash Wednesday is one of the few Lenten resolutions that survive in Irish society. But even as I was growing up, Lenten resolutions were broken and forgotten as quickly as New Year’s resolutions. How many of us promise on New Year’s Eve to give up smoking, to drink less, to cut out sugar or to lose weight? How many of us can remember our New Year’s resolutions for this year, never mind those for 2007?

Someone I know well tells me how, as she was growing up, she gave up sweets for Lent. But she didn’t really. She saved sweets for Lent. She stored them in a tin box under her bed, got great pleasure in looking at them as they mounted up in great numbers – she even managed occasionally to lick some of them without actually eating them. In this way, she kept to the letter if not the spirit of her self-imposed Lenten mortification, and managed to tease and mortify the other children in her family.

With this memory of Lent, is it any wonder that many people find Lent wholly irrelevant today? It was all about not doing something, rather than doing something. It was all about what I might gain today, rather than preparing for something more important in the days ahead.

The tradition of Lenten discipline and abstinence grew up as people began to associate Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness – our Gospel reading this morning – with the 40 days of Lent. But Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness were not a preparation for the events of Holy Week and the days before Easter. Nor were they a withdrawal from the pressures and demands of the real world. Rather, they were a preparation for the full mission and ministry of Jesus in the world – just as the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai or the 40 days Elijah spent walking to Mount Horeb were times of preparation for real engagement with the real problems of the world.

Lent originally began as six weeks of preparation and instruction for the newly-converted Christians before their baptism, before joining the Church, on Easter Eve. Lent should still be a time of preparation for our ministry and mission as people who walk in the light of the Resurrection, for our mission of calling the world into the Kingdom of God. And the temptations or distractions that take us away from that mission and ministry are similar to those faced by Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning.

As that Gospel passage was being read, did you notice the sequence of events as they are recalled by Saint Matthew? How, as the drama unfolds before us, we are moved in each sequence to a greater height each time?

We start with Jesus standing on the ground, amid the stones and boulders of the wilderness. From there, he is taken to the pinnacles of the Temple, and is able to look across the city. And then he is brought to the mountain-top where he looks across the kingdoms of the world.

The movement is from the particular to the general. As readers we are challenged to move from the temptations that affect our own lives to temptations that have consequences for the lives of those around us, and then to temptations that concern the world we live in. It is a dramatic movement from my own life to the spiritual lives of others, and then to the social, economic and political life of the world. It is a stern reminder that there is no such thing as personal sin unless there is also social sin.

How often has our Lenten observance been like some spiritual self-improvement course instead of considering the wilderness that is the world around us?

In each case in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus is asked to be complicit in social sin for tempting, self-centred reasons. Whenever I am tempted to look after my own interests first, there are always consequences – potentially dire consequences – for those around me.

In the first temptation, Jesus is invited to take control of the essentials of life for his own personal comfort and gain. He is asked to prove himself by turning the stones into bread. He is asked to take control of nature and the environment and to use them to meet his own personal need for food. The consequences of looking after my own needs when it comes to the supply of food has left us with an abundance of food in northern Europe, both naturally grown and produced food and genetically-modified food.

Controlling the supply of food without fully considering the social consequences for others and the needs of others is one of the first great social sins. When the Church feeds the hungry, we are seen as encouraging charity. When we challenge the reason they are hungry we are easily accused of interfering in politics and economics. As the late Dom Helder Camara said: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”

Try to imagine how famished Jesus was after 40 days in the wilderness. I get a migraine if I don’t eat regularly; I cannot imagine how unbearable life is for those who are hungry on a regular and continuous basis, day-by-day, every day.

Desperate people are so willing to do desperate things when they are hungry they are even willing to go against their own better interests. The Children of Israel murmured after 40 years in the wilderness without proper food and shelter. They were so unsettled they were even willing to go back into slavery in Egypt. The fear of hunger allows people to accept structural injustice and unjust societies. Yet, as Archbishop Helder Camara pointed out in his book Spiral of Violence (1971), structural violence is the beginning of all violence.

In the second temptation, Jesus is invited to take control of sacred and civic space for personal gain. He is taken to the heart of the city and the pinnacle of the Temple and challenged to show that he can command and hold power.

How many of our religious and political leaders in our society, in our world, use their political and religious leadership to give themselves power and command, to control, and to guarantee their personal gain? The use of political power for personal gain is so common among politicians in our society today that it makes people cynical and alienates them from the political process. But how often have those with religious power also used their power to protect their own personal interests?

From the heart of the city and the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus is then taken to the mountain top, where he is shown all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Why do these temptations start on the ground, move to the pinnacle of the Temple, and reach their climax on the mountain top? Moses receives the commandments on the mountain top; Peter, James and John witness the Transfiguration on the mountain top; Christ is crucified on a hilltop.

The invitation to throw himself from the pinnacle holds no attraction for Jesus who later refuses to come down from the cross. He is not afraid of death. He knows where the true Temple is. Who or what is worshipped in the temple of your heart?

When he was threatened with death and murder during the apartheid era in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared: “I cannot help it. When I see injustice, I cannot keep quiet … But what is it that they can ultimately do? The most awful thing that they can do is to kill me, and death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.”

In the final temptation, we see the real connection between social sin and idolatry. There is a world of difference between being political in the party sense and being prophetic in the unexpected sense.

When I visit the sick in hospital, I am showing pastoral care.

When we question why they are on trolleys, or why we have a two-tier health service in one of the richest countries in the world, we are bringing together pastoral theology and the prophetic call of the church – but we are accused of being political or, even worse, of being party political.

When we greet others with the sign of Christ’s peace at the Eucharist, we are being liturgically relevant.

When I ask why the world is not at peace, why hundreds are killed in clashes and wars in Iraq, Sudan, Kenya, Afghanistan and Chad, I am bringing the liturgy to life in the world, but I am accused of being political.

In each of these temptations we see the subtle attraction of doing the right thing but using the wrong means.

Would it have been so wrong for Jesus to attend to his hunger, to take control of the Temple and the city for the right theological and political intentions, or to usher in the Kingdom of God hastily by taking control of the kingdoms of this world?

There must always be a link between the means and the end. If we fail to keep the end in mind, we will always be tempted to use means that appear to serve our own interests, but ultimately destroy us.

Faith can never be enough for a Christian. Indeed, even the Devil himself sees that Jesus is the Son of God. When we neglect and deny the needs of the world, we neglect and deny God and who Jesus really is for us. But if we serve God and serve others, then God will see that our own real needs are served too.

After saying no to each of these temptations, Jesus is waited upon by angels. The words in our Gospel passage can also be read as telling us messengers of good news ministered to him, those who proclaim the Gospel served him. At the heart of the ministry and mission of the church, at the heart of our proclamation of the Gospel and our diaconal service, at the heart of our true worship of God, there is always a call to the Church to minister to and to serve the needs of others in a world that often deprives them of food and shelter, of political and religious rights, and of a true place in this world.

This is the ministry and mission Jesus was preparing for during his 40 days in the wilderness. This is the ministry we in the Church need to remind ourselves about during the 40 days of Lent. And if we do this, then we can truly live in – and truly invite others to live in – the light and joy of the Resurrection as Easter breaks into our lives.

And now may all our thoughts, words and deeds be in + the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached on 10 February 2008, the 1st Sunday in Lent, at the Sung Eucharist in the Chapel of Trinity College Dublin, as part of the Sermon Series, "Holy Irrelevant?" An MP3 file of this sermon is available to listen to and/or download on:

Sunday 10 February 2008 - The Revd Canon Patrick Comerford - "Holy Irrelevant? Lent and Sin in an Age of Prosperity"

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