Temptations of This Season

March 15, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Psalm 145; Luke 4:1-13

Late Friday afternoon, only two days ago, Westminster’s elders voted to move all our worship for at least the next two weeks into a livestream format. Our staff team decided to set aside the worship service we had planned and start from scratch. My job was to select new scripture readings and prepare a different sermon.

The choice of biblical texts was obvious: Jesus in the wilderness for forty days.

The story begins at the Jordan River. One moment Jesus shows up on the banks of the Jordan and slips into the murky water to get dipped by John the Baptizer. The next moment Jesus is “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” He leaves everyone abruptly and self-quarantines in the Judean desert for nearly six weeks. It’s the mother of all social-distancing stories.

For Jesus, the time standing down on his own serves to prepare him for his coming ministry. It’s a retreat from life as he knows it. He will emerge from it a changed man, ready to begin life as it will be for him.

How many of us will use this time of collectively standing down in a similar way? This is Lent, after all, when Christians are called upon to slow down – the word even comes from the old English lencten, referring to that time of year when the days get longer and there’s more light and more time and people can slow down and enjoy the renewing of the earth.

None of us would have wished for this Covid-19-imposed period of social isolation, but here it is. We’re all working hard to protect ourselves and those around us by not getting too close to one another and avoiding large groups and wiping down high-touch surfaces and asking people who aren’t feeling well to stay home.

And, we’ve all learned to wash our hands the right way.

Some of you may not have seen our Children’s Sermon last week. It involved me talking about the importance of water, and then teaching the little ones how to wash their hands properly – for 20 seconds. That’s how long it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice – and we did just that last Sunday, to my mother-in-law Carolyn. One mom reports that later in the week she heard her seven-year old at the sink, diligently washing their hands and singing Happy Birthday to Carolyn as they did. Children listen well, and learn.

What are we learning in the midst of all our preparations and efforts at mitigation? Perhaps we can begin to see in this time an opportunity to re-examine our lives and rediscover something about the world. Jesus goes on his personal Lenten journey to seek renewal for the road ahead. Maybe this time for us could be akin to those forty days long ago.

It sounds in the story in Luke as if Jesus, like us, doesn’t exactly choose the path on which he finds himself. One translation says “the Spirit drove him into the wilderness,” much as we are being pushed into this time of near-seclusion from one another. Jesus didn’t want to go. It wasn’t his idea. He would have preferred to stay with family and friends – as we all would.

But he goes, and he slows down, as we all are slowing down. He takes time to rest and reflect, as we all are doing. He makes sacrifices on his desert sojourn, as we all are making sacrifices in this period of caution and concern.

This may turn out to be one of the most meaningful Lenten seasons you and I have ever had – certainly among the most memorable. A few weeks ago, I thought the installation of the Westminster Bells would be the thing we’d all remember about this Lent. They’re in the tower and they’re stunning.

But we now join with Christians the world over who will not soon forget this Lent as the time a global pandemic forced us all into a desert of our own. As was the case for Jesus, in this season we’ve had no choice but to retreat from life as it usually is, stand down from our daily routine, and pause to reassess what matters most in life.

In his time of isolation, Jesus faced three tests, three temptations in the desert. Each one wanted him to forget about God. Each one tempted him to put himself in the place of God. Each one asked him to place his trust in that which will ultimately disappoint.

The temptations of this season. We face them, as well. Chief among them will be the temptation not to learn anything about ourselves and our world during this period. We will be tempted to pass through these weeks – or, perhaps, months – and emerge on the other side as if life could return to what it had been before. But there is much to discover in this time – and we may emerge a changed people.

Last Wednesday Unitarian minister Lynn Ungar wrote a poem that started circulating across the Internet almost immediately. It struck a chord in many, certainly in me, as we all prepare to withdraw and stay away. It speaks a truth that is slowly becoming more evident through these days. She titled it Pandemic.

“What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath—

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different [from what] it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.”

There’s a universality in this pandemic that should not go unnoticed. To put it succinctly: we are all in this together. In this Lenten season at Westminster we’ve been exploring the theme Losing Paradise and reflecting on Faith and the Ecological Crisis. That long-brewing, enormous challenge to life on this planet and this quick crisis that spurted on the scene only weeks ago both remind us that there is only one planet and we all live on it. We are all in this together.

This is not a foreign disease or a virus belonging to someone else that has invaded our space. In the polio epidemic of the 1950s – which I do remember, barely – there were all sorts of inaccurate stories about that disease…that it came from Italy, that poverty was the cause, that immigrants were the source. None of that turned out to be true.

We will be tempted to do the same with the coronavirus: to find a scapegoat. To blame. To otherize. It’s happening already – an Asian-American friend reports that he has felt the stares and fear and anger of people directed toward him. Our worst instincts in this country run deep; the pandemic will stir them up, and draw them out, and we will be tempted to stigmatize others. We will forget the poet’s admonition, offered only days ago, in the midst of our growing fear:

Promise this world your love–

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

But can we truly resist the urge we fell, the urge for self-preservation-at-all-costs as we face the pandemic? We see what fear is doing all around us: panic-buying, hoarding, watching out only for ourselves, blaming others, ignoring the advice of medical science, not taking the virus seriously. This is a threat to public health around the world the likes of which we have never seen – yet, it’s hard not to imagine ourselves somehow immune to it, or to see the virus as something someone else will get.

The temptations of this season.

People of faith have a particular responsibility in a time like this to remember who we are and what we hold to be most important in life. “They will know we are Christians by our love,” even – and, perhaps, especially – in times like this when it is difficult to love others. We trust in a God who hears the cry of those in distress, a God who will not abandon them – or us.

The psalmist sings with great confidence about that all-compassionate God:

“God upholds all who are falling,” the Hebrew poet says.

“And raises up all who are bowed down…

God is just in all ways, and kind in all doings.

God is near to all who call…

God…hears their cry, and saves them.”

We are the church, stewards of the grace of God. We carry Jesus, the light of the world, in our hearts and in our community. We have promised to love God and to love others, to serve God and to serve others. Like everyone else in this fearful time, though, we’ll be tempted to close ranks, to focus only on our needs, to hoard our privilege.

But we are the Body of Christ. When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. We will continue to do church, only in new ways.

What does this mean in practical terms at Westminster? We have reached out to other faith communities and offered the use of our livestream capacity for their services of worship. We may have a mosque gathering in this space, or an immigrant church, or a synagogue.

We’re in conversation with Groveland Food Shelf, our partner for many years, asking if they need us to step up donations for those who might be hungrier through these weeks. We’re planning to welcome guests to the free community meal called FEAST next Sunday, serving it differently, so it’s safe for all. We heard the governor’s announcement this morning that beginning this Wednesday all schools, K-12, will close in Minnesota. We will join other faith communities in offering to assist families and student, teachers and administrators, through this interim time.

Within our own church family, we will get creative in reaching out to those who are isolated in their homes. We may not be able to visit in person, but we can call and write notes and send gift packages. We may not be able to host education for children and youth on-site, but we can develop activities for use at home and reach out to families and others by using technology.

We hope to have Bible Studies and other classes for adults online soon. We may not be able to have committees and small groups meet here, but there are other, virtual ways to get together. Our session met late Friday afternoon using Zoom technology. We had never done that before. And look at us here today: hundreds of us worshipping together online.

Yes, we will continue to be the church. Working with other people of faith and goodwill, and with the medical community and public officials, we will get through these difficult days.

We will emerge one day from the desert. The isolation will end. The fear will subside. And we will be different people, a better community, for having gone through these times together.

So, let us take up the poet’s charge:

Promise this world your love–

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

Thanks be to God.


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