Blessed be the Name of God
It started first thing last Monday morning. Well, in reality, it started at the end of the liturgy last Sunday. “Shine, Jesus, Shine” sung with energy, beautifully supported by Joanna, inspired by Tom Johnson’s wonderful preaching. As I stood near the entry doors, the song filled the room. Jesus, shining.
The thing is, that song has been running in my head ever since! So, this morning, I must start there.
Jesus transfigured. Standing on the mountain, with Moses and Elijah, in the company of his three closest followers, Jesus aglow, radiant.
Tom, almost glowing himself, made the point that this story attests so powerfully to Jesus’ divine nature, witnessing to his divine responsibilities and his intimacy with God. It’s no wonder his followers wanted to capture the moment, enshrine it, and abide with it, right there on the mountain.
This week, in contrast, we meet this same Jesus, but in an entirely different setting, a time much earlier in Jesus’ life, at the very beginning of his public ministry. “After his baptism,” that is how this story begins. Jesus, baptized at the hands of his cousin, John the Baptist; Jesus, 30 years old, just setting out.
This story is told by Matthew, Mark and Luke. We have Luke’s account this morning. Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was “led” by the Spirit. Mark says that the Spirit “immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.” [Everything in Mark’s gospel happens “immediately.”] Led or driven, the young man Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, in the company of the Spirit. Last week, the mountain top; this week the wilderness.
The story moves quickly to the exchanges Jesus has with the Tempter, Satan, the Devil, whatever we name the force that sought to corrupt and divert Jesus, the force that sought to waylay Jesus from the path he was meant to follow, the path that would lead to the Cross and, happily for us, beyond.
We are told that Jesus fasted for the 40 days he spent in the wilderness, all the while being teased and tormented and tempted by that Diverting Force, that Subverting Force. It is no surprise, then, that the first temptation offered to the fasting Jesus, had to do with food. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus responds by quoting the Scripture, Deuteronomy 8.3, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.” That seemed to put an end to that threat. Jesus was willing to stay hungry, “famished,” as the text says.
Next, Jesus was led up to a place where, in an instant, he could see “all the kingdoms of the world.” The Tempter said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, worship me, it will all be yours.” Make me your god and I will give you massive power and authority.
Jesus replies, citing Deuteronomy 6.13, “’Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus will remain without earthly glory and without earthly authority.
Then, doubtless full of anger and frustration, the Tempter took Jesus out of the wilderness and into Jerusalem, “and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple”—way up there! “If you are the Son of God,” taunted the Tempter, “throw yourself down from here, for it is written, [here the Tempter quotes Psalm 91, verses 11 and 12], ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’
Jesus replies, citing Deuteronomy 6.16, “’Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” God is God and you are not, says Jesus. And I will not mess with God.
The Tempter exits stage right and that is that. In Mark and Matthew, we are told that angels did in fact come and minister to Jesus. Our evangelist, Luke, says that the Tempter went away, awaiting “an opportune time.” So, to Luke’s mind, the story would continue but he doesn’t leave us any clues as to what he anticipates. In all three accounts, we see Good overcoming Evil.
Jesus, maturing into the fuller and fuller expression of who he is and is to be, drawing on the Scriptures, in this case the Torah and the Psalms, announces and sets his boundaries. And in so doing, defeats temptation, places himself clearly on the side of the angels and does what he is called to do.
Later tradition would use this story to testify to Jesus’ humanity. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “he was tempted as we are, yet without sin.” [4.5] That is, the writer attests, Jesus understands what our lives are like, easily and sometimes powerfully tempted.
The story of the temptation of Jesus gives us a look at what faithfulness is like. Jesus was given an intense opportunity to be faithful--certainly an occasion that he did not seek but rather one that came to him—an opportunity to be faithful and he accomplished it. He was, after all, led there or driven there by God’s Holy Spirit.
Last Wednesday, Amy and I were here for the imposition of ashes, the sooty mark on our foreheads sending us into Lent. It was a very rewarding time. Led and fed by Diana Peters, we began “these 40 days,” as our first hymn puts it. “As thou didst hunger bear and thirst, so teach us, gracious Lord, to die to self, and chiefly live by thy most holy word.” [v. 3]
On Ash Wednesday, we heard Harry Anderson read to us from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58. Like other passages in the Prophets, Isaiah there was telling us, through Harry’s careful reading, telling us what God expects: “…to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke! Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin! Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard…” [vv 6-8]
“…share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house…”
As Jesus was led by the Spirit to overcome temptation, I can easily imagine how the Vestry of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was similarly led some time ago to invite SPIN Café to come and be with us. I can easily imagine the Tempter saying, “No, protect yourselves from the people on the street. They are not like you. They are the other. You don’t need to bother with them.” But I can imagine the vestry countering this alluring invitation by reciting Isaiah 58.
Or perhaps, it wasn’t Isaiah 58 that brought forth faithfulness but rather Matthew 25, where Jesus says, “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me.” [vv 34.b-36] I can easily imagine either Isaiah or Matthew being the touchstone that caused, invited, forced the Vestry to welcome homeless people, to welcome strangers, into our place. The Vestry chose to offer a ministry of shelter rather than to do otherwise. They acted in accord with the mind of Christ. So, SPIN Café shares our dwelling.
Last Sunday, Marsha Vanderford, our valiant Senior Warden, invited us into Miller Hall for a long delayed social time. The Coffee Hour—the other sacrament someone has called it. She also asked people to write on sheets of paper placed on tables, to write a sentence saying something about what they saw or what they experienced in Miller Hall. I have not seen what people wrote, but Marsha has reported that the comments were “all over the map.” I was only in Miller Hall long enough to get a bit of coffee and to be photographed with David Carter by Jeff Neuberger.
But I was in there long enough to see evidence of our faithfulness, evidence of our hospitality, evidence of the Vestry’s recognition of the rightness, the necessity of welcome, welcome of those whom Isaiah calls “our own kin.” This same evidence also testifies to our willingness to sacrifice our exclusive claim on that room and the kitchen. That same evidence testifies to our willingness to be inconvenienced, even annoyed or worse, so that people without shelter have a safe place to stay for a time.
These folks who share our space won’t be here long term. They are looking for other accommodations now. As the unhoused population grows, our space will be tested and found wanting. SPIN Café will reside somewhere else. But in the meantime, they are here with us.
And for this period of time, however long it proves to be, we have been given a remarkable opportunity to do something of real value, something full of grace. Of course, we have to find ways to live together, ways that express mutual respect and the accommodation that living together, sharing a space, always requires. The Vestry and the Board of SPIN Café are at that necessary and sometimes prickly work right now. Anyone who has lived with another knows that that process needs to go on, likely, always. So it is with St. Stephen’s and SPIN. Both of us have work to do to make our arrangement work better. But who can be surprised at that?!
Whatever your feelings about our neighbors and Miller Hall, please recognize and admit that we have been given this opportunity to be faithful in a very clear way, for a while, for the meantime. There will be a time when they will be somewhere else, and then, we will recall this season where we sheltered these folks who needed shelter. I hope you will remember this time with thanksgiving, just as I will strive to do. Led or driven by the Spirit, we overcame the temptation to do otherwise. We consented “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly” with God. [Micah 6.8]
Going back into Miller Hall, led some of us to speak about “returning,” “recovering,” “restoring” and such words. The “re” words that suggest getting back where we were. And some folks doubtless were abruptly aware that getting back where we were is not possible just now. And when our unsheltered companions have left and we have Miller Hall to ourselves again, I fully expect that we’ll find, even then, that we can’t get back whatever it is that we remember. Simone Signoret, in her autobiography, said it well, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”
So, I ask you to join me in thanking God’s Holy Spirit for leading our Vestry to invite SPIN into our lives and our church home. With all of the complexities and disorientation perhaps that attends it, extending that invitation was and continues to be a decision, a choice, altogether congruent with God’s good intentions. And, remember, we are all here, at best, for the meantime.
Blessed be the Name of God