This is a Gospel story. It is a Gospel story that takes place in an apartment building.
My friend Darcy is a residential property manager. His job takes him all across Canada, to apartment buildings in the North of British Columbia and in the South of Ontario. At these apartments, Darcy works with his staff of local building managers – with what another generation called superintendents – to make decisions about maintenance and renovations and interactions with the city and about the thousand and one other things that make a building into a place that people want to live. And at these apartments, Darcy meets with those especially attention-getting residents whom the building managers have saved just for him.
One of these residents was something of a legend. He was the source of constant complaints from his neighbours: the thumping music and the shouting at his almost nightly parties kept the whole building up well into the wee hours of the morning. He was selling drugs out of his apartment. And he and his many guests had damaged the building on several occasions, pulling doors off of hinges and kicking holes into drywall, although no one could say if the damage was a consequence of something as deliberate as vandalism or, rather, if it flowed out of plain-old drunken carelessness.
As many of you know, eviction is really hard. It is an expensive and time-consuming pain. That made Darcy wonder if there was another way. And so he decided that what he was going to do was to metaphorically “stand beside” this tenant. He wanted to see what would happen if the two of them could look at the horizon from the same perspective, if there was a way that they could discern a path that they could walk on together.
Looking at the world from his tenant’s perspective, Darcy immediately saw that this man’s goal was pretty clear: he wanted to party all the time. Darcy said, “I don’t understand that. I can’t understand that. And I don’t have to understand that. What I have to do is to reconcile his goal to party all the time with my goal that the party happens somewhere else.”
And so Darcy got on the internet and found a house for rent, all by itself at the end of a lane, perfect for parties. Then he went to a couple of contractors who were working on the apartment – they had a truck, now empty of the lumber and other equipment that they had installed – and he said to them, “If I keep you on the clock, would you mind helping someone to move?” The contractors said, “You bet!” And then Darcy knocked on tenant’s door. And he said:
“I’ve found you a place to live, I’ve got a truck and a couple of guys ready to move you. If I give you $300, will you move out right now?”
The guy said, “Okay.” And, just like that, he was gone.
Now, that story kind of amazes me. I think I’m amazed because most of us – myself included – when confronted with someone who was behaving like that tenant would probably say: That son of a gun. I’m going to fight this guy. I’m going to win. He’s not going to get a nickel out of me. I’m going to teach him a lesson.
But Darcy didn’t do that. Instead, he took an action that saved him a heap of time and his investors several thousand dollars. Think of the cost of eviction, the rent that the tenant might have defaulted on during a protracted legal battle, the damage that he and his friends might have continued to do to the building, the ill-will that another three or five months of all-night parties would have created with the other tenants, the stable tenants who would have refused to move in when they heard that the apartment was party central For $300 and a couple of hours of overtime, Darcy solved his problem. That was an extraordinarily shrewd entrepreneurial move. But, more than that – and this is why I’m telling you this story this morning – it was a Gospel move, it was a Kingdom of heaven move.
Notice. Notice that Darcy’s interaction with the tenant was not predicated on win/lose model. When the tenant said “yes” and moved out, nobody lost. Everybody won: Darcy got a quiet apartment in which the doors stayed on their hinges and the drywall stayed undented and the tenant got a new venue and enough money for several kegs of beer. Notice that this “yes” flowed out of empathy. Darcy stood beside his tenant and looked with him at possibility. Notice that the empathy that Darcy extended was unilateral. And notice that his empathy was one step ahead of where the tenant was.
It is that unilateral and one step ahead empathy that really gets into Gospel territory. Darcy somehow figured out how to let go of all of the complaints of the playground: It’s not fair; He started it; Everybody thinks that he’s mean; I’ll only say I’m sorry after he says that he’s sorry. Darcy decided that, even if his tenant wasn’t going to move an inch towards reconciliation and a common solution on his own, Darcy was going to move towards him.
So. It is the end of the flood and Noah and his family step out of the ark and onto the miracle of dry land. We tend to concentrate on the earlier part of this story. And we tend to tell that story to children: countless picture books feature a boat overflowing with cute animals. In many ways, that is a strange choice. The flood is a hard story, a disturbing story, a story that demands that we ask: does a tale that features God killing everyone tell us something true and real about God?
But that’s another sermon.
Today, I’d like to focus on what we might call the moral of the story, the moment when God places his bow in the sky. This is not a cutesy rainbow, not a rainbow that has a bowl of Lucky Charms at its end or features My Little Pony dancing across it. This is the bow that is part of God’s bow and arrow – it is a weapon, like a sword or a dagger or a club. God places it in the sky, God hangs it on its rack like a rifle, in order to announce: I will never turn violence on humanity again.
What is extraordinary about God putting away the bow is that humanity doesn’t have to do anything to get God to behave this way. Humanity doesn’t have to apologise, to make a sacrifice, to go church, to write a cheque, anything. God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s empathy is unilateral and it is a step ahead of humanity.
God hopes that we will respond with empathy of our own. God wants us to respond with empathy of our own. God calls us to respond with empathy of our own. But God is going to give us this gift, God is going to hang up that bow, God is going to engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy whether we reciprocate or not.
God knows that extending this kind of empathy is a risk. Sometimes, when God unilaterally extends empathy to us, we don’t respond – or we respond with hostility. We remain as selfish as ever. And sometimes when you and I unilaterally extend empathy to another, we are greeted with cynicism or apathy or anger.
The story of Jesus’ life is that of unilateral, of radical empathy. And the story tells us that this empathy will not always be welcomed, that sometimes it will be greeted with violence. That violence comes because those who are invested in the status quo, those who like things pretty well the way that they are, find unilateral empathy to be profoundly threatening. In God’s empathy, all of the labourers in the vineyard received the same wage no matter when they begin their workday and the first are last and the last first and prodigals are welcomed home with parties.
To participate in the Gospel empathy is a risk. But the promise of the Gospel is that the risk is worth it.
Darcy’s story has an epilogue. I don’t think that it is an epilogue that he ever expected.
Months after he found his tenant a new home and, thereby, found quiet in the apartment building, Darcy ran into someone who knew the tenant. “Have you heard about Mark?” the mutual acquaintance asked, “You know Mark, the guy you got to move out?” Darcy said he hadn’t heard anything about him.
“Well,” the mutual friend said, “When you got him to leave, something changed for him. Mark was shocked, I think: no one had ever talked to him the way that you di before.
“Mark has stopped drinking. He’s stopped dealing drugs. He’s got a honest job doing roofing.
“He’s going to church now.”
We can’t know. When we engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy, we can’t know what seeds we might be planting. We can’t know what new covenant we might be inviting into being. The Gospel tells us that this empathy might lead us to the cross. And it promises us that it will lead to resurrection.
Good morning friends,
For some irresistible reason, I can’t stop myself from wishing you all a “Happy Lent” as well as a Holy Lent. I know it is contrary to what we may have heard about this somber season of repentance and fasting and sacrifice… but as I have grown in the faith I have become ever more thankful and even joyful for this time and encouragement to be deeply honest with myself about who I have been, who I am now and who I hope to become. Perhaps, this season of reflection and preparation can serve you in the same way.
I don’t suppose any of us can remember precisely when the word “sin” was first spoken in our presence or had any real grasp of what it might mean at that point. For your sake, I hope it was in a healthy loving way of truth telling although I know very well that is not always the case. I remember as a child a kind of dawning awareness that the people who were using the word seemed to be accusing me of crimes I had never committed; were telling me that I was defective in some profound way and that there was nothing I could do about it because someone in the dim past had eaten an apple they weren’t supposed to eat.
Well, I discovered that I could, in fact, reject and resent the whole concept. It just seemed ridiculous as if it didn’t apply to me in any way. Though I didn’t understand the implications very well at the time, it proved to be the first step on a long walk apart from the life and teachings of the church as I knew it…so you might have some idea about how amazed I am to find myself standing here preaching on the subject.
Looking back, I have the impression that in the church of my childhood it was just “sin, sin, sin” all the time… and then finally Jesus on the Cross looking down at the wretched sinners. It was like a perpetual Lenten mood without either the Epiphany or the Resurrection of Christ to guide us on this fragile journey of discovery and transformation. And that, as I see it now, was the problem.
It’s not hard to understand why repentance has such a bad name in our day. I found a list of 172 synonyms for the word in a thesaurus such as contrition, regret, remorse, guilt, self-reproach, and shame. Who really wants to dwell on such things if that’s all there is?
Somehow, by God’s grace, I was led back to a church tradition that taught that forgiveness follows repentance- repentance understood as a change of mind and heart that is both a turning from sin and a turning toward God. If the season of Lent in our life is about giving anything up that might cause us grief and suffering it is also about preparing to receive the gift of forgiveness, of healing and the clarity and strength to accept a better way of life…and that is ultimately a source of thanksgiving and joy not lamentation.
It can be quite illuminating in this light to read again the familiar stories of scripture that speak to this issue and seem to come with readymade, off the shelf interpretations. Take the account of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, for instance.
Most Bible’s today introduce the passage with a kind of superscript title such as “The First Sin and its Punishment” or “The Fall of Man” so that we are relieved of the burden of having to decide for ourselves what we are reading. As a further aid to our comprehension we have centuries of commentary drawing out the meaning for us under the head of “Original Sin” with a kind of Cliff’s Note version telling us in brief summary- “it’s Eve’s fault”.
Leaving aside any consideration of the devastating impact that such a dogmatic teaching has had on women over the ages let me just say that Adam and his spiritual descendants are never going to wriggle their way off the hook of culpability until they repent of their primary responsibility for the harm and injustice done on their behalf and then work to redress it.
Nevertheless, we still must recognize that any thought or recognition for what has been properly called our “Original Blessing” is- in that old Original Sin framework – cast altogether out of the picture, out of sight, out of mind even though it is the entire basis for our hope in Christ that we may recover our identity as the People of God.
Just imagine what it could mean if we recognized and recovered a living sense of our foundational story as originating in the blessing of all life and not upon the fall from grace or the curse that soon followed. After all isn’t our whole quest from paradise to heaven somehow rooted and nourished by the revelation that we are all, male and female, created in the image of God?
This story of the first family is certainly among the most ancient of the memories of the Hebrew people. I imagine it being told around the campfires on their forty-year journey in the wilderness while trying to come to terms with what it means to be a human being in God’s sight. It’s not so much about assigning blame to either Adam or Eve it seems to me as it is a deep intuition that “Once upon a Time” a Man and a Woman opened their eyes and knew that they were naked before God and each other. When the “other” came into being they were fully exposed -physically, emotionally, and psychologically vulnerable-and so they were afraid and tried to hide. In short, they became self-conscious and everything they knew began to change. There are still unplumbed depths to this story I am sure but to my mind this is a message that speaks poignantly to our time and place.
There is no human being in this room or on this planet past the age of five who hasn’t lived their lives with the consequences and the burden and the power and the responsibility of such a god-like awareness that is unique among all that lives. Knowing good and evil comes at a heavy price. Something died in us on that day. Perhaps our innocence, certainly our ignorance. But from the day of disobedience in Adam the Spirit of God has moved steadily, faithfully to the birth of the New Adam as St. Paul so clearly teaches to the One who was obedient in all things, even unto death- Jesus of Nazareth.
It is ordinarily and authoritatively taught that the Coming of Christ into the world was a sort of corrective plan B to offset the original sins of Adam and Eve or maybe even a plan C considering the fate of Noah’s generation but I wonder. Isn’t it curious that one of God’s own creatures was cunning enough to whisper in Eve’s ear the very thing that she would find most tempting. Does that make God complicit in the first sin? Could it mean that God didn’t know or couldn’t prevent the outcome? Simply allowing it isn’t much better. But what if, as some of us are beginning to wonder, the Coming of Christ into the world as He did was always the one and only Plan A. It is something to think about. More of God’s mysteries are yet to be revealed for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
What we do know for certain is that Jesus accepted the baptism of repentance from John and turned to God in a way that opened his entire being to the love of God in body, mind and soul and was received and revealed as the Son of God when the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove.
Then another remarkable thing happened. Whereas Jesus taught us to pray that we would not be led “into temptation” but rather “delivered from evil” the same Spirit that had just descended on Jesus led him into the wilderness to confront the Tempter who spoke in the same beguiling voice that Eve heard only now telling Him of the things that He in His majesty would find most tempting. And just as everything began to change when Adam and Eve said “Yes” so everything began to change when Jesus said “No”.
When we are tempted, when the beguiling voice of the tempter comes whispering in our ear, or assaults our sense of touch or taste or sight, when even the scent of some reckless desire comes close we can draw strength from Jesus’ example and the Spirit of God to confront the tempter ourselves for the knowledge of what is good abides in us as well. More than this-when fear and anger, terrible sorrow or grave injustice tempt us to do harm to ourselves or others let us turn to God and each other for help and companionship as we pray for the courage and conviction to follow Jesus to the Cross, to the empty tomb and to the resurrected life. What a joy it will be to lay our sins and our sorrows at his feet at last. Happy Lent everyone!
When I was 20 years old, I decided to take a year away from university and move from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Calgary, Alberta, where I hoped to find work as a stagehand. I arranged to rent a room in a house, I sent my resume to every theatre company in the phone book, and I said goodbye to my friends. Stepping away from school was a hard decision. And it was a decision about which my folks weren’t especially enthusiastic: they felt pretty strongly that I should earn my undergraduate degree before going off on any adventures.
But somehow, that journey away from school and towards another city was something that I felt that I had to do. I wasn’t a Christian back then, so talking about a calling or the pull of the Holy Spirit would have struck me as foreign and maybe even ridiculous. But something – someone? – was calling me. It was saying: Go.
And so I packed everything that I needed into the back of my 1983 Toyota Tercel: my CD collection, a box full of books, a suitcase full of clothes, my Amiga 500 (that’s a computer – state of the art, 1989), a couple of posters, a pillow and a rolled-up foam mattress. And then I drove away from my parents home and into the mountains. Into the wilderness.
Vancouver and Calgary are about 12 hours apart. Some of those 12 hours takes a young man in an old car through towns, but much of the path is uninhabited and wild. This is something that folks from densely populated countries – for instance, pretty much anywhere in Europe – struggle to understand. Tell a person from Germany or France that, starting a couple of hours East of Vancouver there is nothing but forest, and she will generally assume that what you mean by “nothing” is that there is a small town every five minutes separated by some trees and a bunch of farmland, just like at home. But, starting two hours East of Vancouver, there is nothing, genuinely nothing but forest. Sometimes you are counting in hours between towns.
The mountain roads climbed and fell as I went East, and the wind was often cold at the summits, even though it was late summer. For a while, I could listen to the radio, but as the mountains increased in height and frequency, the radio stations decreased in power and in number. Pretty soon I was down to a choice between twangy country music and one of those preachers who sounds strangely furious while talking about how much God loves you.
And then, I rounded a pass and the radio was suddenly, entirely:
White noise. In that uninvited silence, loneliness rushed into the car like cold water. The full, desolate reality of leaving home was upon me. I had never before ached with such intensity for my childhood home, for my parents, for the places and people that I knew and I loved. I suppose that I had legally been an adult for a year or two, depending on which milestone you choose. But, in my memory, that day in the Tercel with the enormity of the radio’s silence and the wilderness all around feels like the end of my childhood.
It felt like the end.
One of the enduring themes in scripture is that of wilderness. And one of the enduring questions of scripture is whether our time in the wilderness is awful or wonderful, whether it is limiting or freeing, whether it is the best of times or the worst of times. And as near as I can figure, the answer that scripture gives to those questions is, “Yes.”
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is recounted in all three synoptic Gospels – so Matthew, Mark, and the Gospel that we hear today, Luke. It takes place near the beginning of all three books; it’s very nearly the first thing that happens in Mark. I’d like to wonder with you about the Son of God in the wilderness this morning. And I’d like to think about what Jesus’ time in that wild place might mean for you and for me.
We may roll our eyes at those plastic wristbands that read, “WWJD?”: What would Jesus Do? But actually, WWJD? is one of the core questions of discipleship. For those of us who have said “yes” to following Jesus, for those of us who, imperfect though we may be, are doing our best to imitate Christ, meditating on the question of how Jesus responds to life – including life in the wilderness – matters.
The first thing I’d like to pay attention to is where Jesus’ trip into the wilderness occurs within the wider story of Jesus’ life. Matthew, Mark, and Luke alike tell us that Jesus ends up in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. (There are a lot of great things about the lectionary, about the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next. But one of its downsides is that we don’t necessarily read scripture in order. Last week, for instance, we heard about the Transfiguration of Jesus rather than his baptism.)
What the synoptic Gospels tell us that the wilderness, this place of searching, of lostness: Jesus comes to it immediately after stepping into the Jordan, immediately after being in John’s arms, immediately after the Spirit descends on him and a voice from the heavens says You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. What this story tells us, in other words, is that following Christ doesn’t mean skipping suffering or getting everything that you want – the Prosperity Gospel is heresy, it a gross distortion of Jesus’ teachings. What this parable tells us is that, even as we experience loss and grief and loneliness, God is with is.
Second, the thing that takes Jesus into the wilderness, that leads him there, is the Holy Spirit. So, yes, the wilderness is a place of danger and disorientation. But it isn’t a place that Jesus ends up in by accident when his GPS malfunctions. It is a place to which he is called. As alone as he may feel, as much as he may wish for a map that is going to lead him home, somewhere the wilderness is where he needs to be, where he is supposed to be.
I suspect that many you – all of you, if you have lived any life – have had the experience of looking back on a wilderness experience – the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, the breaking of your heart, the dying of a friend, a time of deep loneliness or deep disappointment, the examples keep on coming – and you have surprised yourself by remembering that experience and saying, “thanks.” In a way that you can’t quite name, that time of lostness drew you nearer to God and yourself, it made you a little freer, more who you are supposed to be. That doesn’t mean that you are glad that the wilderness time happened. It does mean that, somehow, your time in the wilderness was necessary. Somehow you were called to it.
Third, notice the wilderness is a place of temptation. There is something, or someone, waiting there. The tempter, the one whom scripture calls the devil, is there. The one who waits is our shadow side. He invites us to wander off the path and do what? Stay in the wilderness forever? Or return while denying its lessons? Or make it into a place of selfishness? Each of the temptations that the devil offers is one of comfort and power and status. They are a temptation to Jesus to use his gifts selfishly, something that he never does. If you are hungry, make bread. If you are a King, then rule the world. If you are the Son of God, then defy death.
Now, when faced with temptation, Jesus defends himself against it not by rhetorical brilliance or by karate moves. He defends himself by quoting scripture. Absolutely everything that he says is taken directly from Deuteronomy. I wonder. I wonder if one of the things that is story is telling us is that, when we go into the wilderness, we already have what we need to survive. We think that we are going to have to discover some miracle, some secret weapon dropped out of the sky on a parachute like in the Hunger Games. But actually, we are already ready. We already have our faith in God, we already have our rock and our redeemer. What if that really is everything that we need.
Last of all (and this, assuredly, is not the last theme that there is to uncover – it is just the last element that I will name this morning), notice that the time that Jesus spends in the wilderness is very nearly too long. 40 days may be a mystical number in the Jewish tradition – assuredly it is an echo of the 40 years that Moses and the rest of Jesus’ ancestors spend in their own wilderness. But it is also something plainer than that. 40 days is near the limit of how long a human being can live without food. When a group of political prisoners go on a hunger strike, it is around day 45 that the first of them begins to die.
I want to underline this element because, when we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, the duration of our time there can feel unbearably long, longer than anyone could hope to manage: This grief has gone on too long, this illness has gone on too long, this time of unemployment has gone on too long. I want to hold up the example of Jesus at the very limits of where a human being can go, not as a way of saying that the wilderness is no big deal – God save us from Hallmark theology in which we proclaim that “Jesus did it, so you can too” – but as a way of saying that, even in our most lost moments, we may turn to Jesus with confidence and say, “Lord, you know what I’m going through. You know what this is like.”
Once I actually arrived in Calgary, my homesickness, my sense of lostness subsided – there was a new city to encounter, new people to meet, a new job to start. All of this newness allowed me to turn my attention to something other than loss. In Calgary, I suppose, there was a kind of resurrection.
In that car in the mountains, however, with its suddenly silent radio, Calgary was still an abstraction. My mind’s eye had nothing to rest upon other than the home which I had, inexplicably, foolishly, volunteered to abandon. In that moment, I came as close as I ever have to giving up. I though about turning around, about driving home. But I did not. Something called me on.
And so I drove. Further into the wilderness.