Did you ever play that board game risk as a child – you had to take over the world as you made successive moved. You would win more armies and try to beat your neighbors. If you tried to take over too much at first, like a large country such as Russia the risk was too high and you would always loose. The idea was to pile all your armies up on a small area like Australia and then move out from there in domination.
My parents took a risk when they opened a bed and breakfast on the South Coast of England. My Brother and Sister and I all decided to move out in the same year and my parents liked the house but did not know what to do with it with so much space, so they opened this bed and breakfast. The first client they had got up in the night, broke into the office, and left without paying. They closed down for a while to contemplate what to do next. Should they risk opening again? After some time to think and some new locks on doors they took the risk, and it has paid off. They love opening their home to people and years later it has been so rewarding.
I took a bit of a risk coming here, and you took a risk taking on a foreign rector – this is a community not unfamiliar with risk.
Do you get the theme yet? I am talking about Risk in case you hadn’t noticed.
Jesus took a risk in the Gospel today. He spoke to a woman, of questionable reputation, who was a foreigner, in a culture that saw this as taboo unless the woman was accompanied by a relative.
If he had written up his actions for a seminary ethics exam he would have failed it!
It was a risk – but a calculated one I think. It wasn’t reckless.
Imagine her in the heat of the day coming out of the heat haze. Perhaps he saw she was a woman as her image came into proper sight. Then as she approached he might have seen her wearing too much make up, or too many decorations on her clothes. Did he get the idea of what kind of woman she was?
But he still spoke to her! Can I have some water? She was shocked, why was this man speaking to her a Samaritan woman?! It was taboo and dangerous.
If you knew who it was you would ask me for water – what was going on – he was asking for water now offering water, and he had no bucket, he could be mad. But she took a risk herself and kept talking to him. She asked about this water and liked the idea of not coming to the well again.
At this point Jesus perhaps saw that he was taking a risk and said that he wanted to talk to her with her husband – as it was not appropriate to keep talking without him. I don’t have a husband she replied – and he opened up a further line of conversation. I know, he said, you have had five, and the man you currently have is not your husband. Perhaps it was five, perhaps it was four but you get the idea, and Jesus knew what kind of woman she was. But he did not judge her, and she did not feel his judgment – he treated her as a human being and talked to her about spirituality.
He talked about her Samaritan heritage and their desire for worship – and the Jewish idea of worship and went beyond both by saying that there was a truer form of worship beyond places and traditions – but one that was worship in spirit and truth. He was giving her the living water she needed – telling her that she could worship and that she would be heard by God.
But it was a risk. His reputation could be in tatters – the Disciples recognized it when they got back – he was risking everything talking to this woman.
I think it was a wise risk rather than a reckless one though.
Ministers have a code of ethics in terms of their pastoral relationships because we are not like Jesus and are flawed people, so wise guides have developed ethical models for us when we get into pastoral relationships. The problem in some pastoral relationships is that the pastor is confused about their own needs and fulfils them in mixed up relationship with those in pastoral care. They are feeding their own need, not helping the other person deal with theirs.
Jesus was not like this. We know that he was prepared. He had faced his own temptations in the wilderness and understood himself including his needs – so he was seeing this woman clearly and he could help her genuinely. If you wanted to use Jungian terms he was a fully ‘individuated’ person, fully aware of himself.
So he took a risk and saw a genuine humanity in this damaged person and was able to help her.
What about us? Should we take risks in serving the Gospel? Well I know that this community has taken risks. Nine years ago setting up a service for children might have felt like a risk – it was different and it was new, but you did it, and today I saw that it has paid off. Those children are able to encounter the gospel in a unique way just for them because of the risks you took as a community.
Then there is the building. When the flood came you could have put it back exactly as it was before, but you decided to take a risk on reforming the shape, and now we have a remarkable space in which people can encounter the divine and hear the gospel in a way that may transform their lives. It is a risk that has paid off.
What risk might we be called on to take in future in the service of the Gospel? Well, there are two things I think about that. Firstly, we need to know each other, me as a new Rector and you as a community, as Jesus knew himself and understood who he was, so then he could be at peace with himself. We need know each other well and be at peace with each other. But peace is not the end product – it is from this place of awareness and peace that we act – we take risks within the Gospel so that people in the community we serve might encounter it in new and fresh ways.
I pray that it might be so.
Mr Beeby taught me clarinet at age 11 or 12. He was a bit of a tyrant. He would scold you for getting scales wrong. He would snatch the clarinet off you and play it and say, it goes like this! He scared me. I had another teacher years later, I cannot believe that I cannot remember his name as I liked him so much, but let's call him Mr Smith. He might take the clarinet off you too, but gently, and he would play it and show you how to make the sound and tone. He really loved the tone and the voice of the clarinet, and got me to enjoy it again.
Today I am talking about teachers and tuning. Some teachers teach well and in a nurturing manner, some, not so much. When you learn an instrument you are meant to learn basics first, and gradually become proficient, until you get really good.
So we start with tuning the instrument, go on to learning scales. We play the music with technical accuracy, then with feeling, then in harmony.
The purpose of all this is that your individual voice disappears into the harmony of the ensemble. At one and the same time you achieve the height of your individual skill in musical expression - and lose yourself in the music of the group. You are found and lost simultaneously; the finding is a part of the losing and vice versa.
This is a lot like the Christian community.
Losing yourself is hard to do, and the small disciplines of lent of giving something up during this season are like putting training wheels on your spiritual life, or like learning the scales on you instrument, or like tuning your guitar. You don't appear in the ensemble fully ready to play your part as a master the day after you pick up your instrument. That takes years of tiny improvements day by day. But we give up chocolate, and for a moment contemplate how that feels. Or we give up alcohol and explore our relationship with it, or we take on an extra charitable commitment and ask ourselves how we fit in the world of need, or we read a spiritual book and allow its ideas to enter our inner world of conversation. Gently, over many years, we get to know ourselves better as spiritual beings. But not just ourselves. No, we get to know God also.
Nicodemus was open to the process of being tuned. He was a man of experience and accomplishment, but he was prepared to learn. Jesus used a humbling image for such a man, that he should be born again, becoming like an infant, immature and incapable - but Nicodemus, wary as he was, began to tune into Jesus message. Later on he would be a fully fledged follower. He had to lay aside many of his deeply held religious concepts and enter into contemplation as a wide eyed child again in order to be in tune. We all need refining - some for different reasons than Nicodemus, some for surprisingly similar ones. What one thing did jesus want to teach Nicodemus?
Many of us enter the spiritual journey of our adult lives with a confusing and often contradictory set of images about the divine. God can be a strange mix of the boogeyman, Santa Claus, our own father or mother and a benevolent uncle. We have to unpick these images as we grow, to understand that they are all projections rather than representations of the divine. Sometimes the image of god we carry inside us is harsh or critical. That is quite common, and why on earth would you give yourself to such an entity? Why would you trust the most tender part of your soul to a tyrant? Sometimes God is a bit like Mr Beeby.
So when we are tuning our souls in lent, and throughout our spiritual lives, it is not just our souls, but our concept of the divine itself that is being adjusted.
If you leapt into the arms of the divine. Would you fall? Answering that question is the spiritual task of a life time. But my belief is that God is more like Mr Smith an Mr Beeby. He loves us, he loves life, he wants to gently help us to live it to the full, and that was what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus. God loved the world so he sent his son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved!
So this lent, quiet the inner voice of protest and trust in some small way that you are truly loved by god, and are neither being judged nor criticised, and make a tiny adjustment. It is just for 40 days. It won't hurt. Maybe it will be the foundation of deeper and more lasting changes later on. Maybe it will be the start of your journey to accept the God who loves you, and accept the you he loves.
That late 19th century writer who got such a bad press, and sometimes played up to it: Oscar Wilde said:
I can resist everything except temptation.
I was tempted to stay in bed this morning. Whose idea was it to have me start on the day that daylight savings begins! I am glad that after being four months late I was not another hour late today. Tempting as that may have seemed.
We are talking about temptation today. Jesus temptation as an archetype for all temptation, and both individuals and institutions are tempted at times.
We think of temptation in different categories, the cliché of temptations of the flesh: such as food and lust, immediately spring to mind. We desire comfort, we need sustenance, and these needs can be so powerful:
You must be hungry: Turn these stones into bread – If you are the Son of God.
But there are other equally pernicious temptations – such as the temptations to take short cuts within relationships. The temptation to manipulate those around us with whom we share our lives. The temptation to take the easy route in an argument and lash out with effective but cruel words. Temptations that flow from a desire to be loved:
Does God really love you? Throw yourself off this parapet – you will see when his angels come to save you.
There are finally those temptations of the ego: temptation that is intimately interwoven with ambition. The temptations that power and position bring:
Do you want the world? I can give it to you, just worship me, not God.
And Christ is tempted as we are.
But where from? Do the temptations come from outside or from within?
perhaps we shouldn't: …excuse [ourselves] by accusing Satan. (Thomas Brooks)
This story almost gives us permission to see external things as sources of temptation – that woman – that man – that bar of chocolate – Satan.
The story sets up a conversation between the Devil and Jesus like the Tom and Jerry cartoons I remember where a devil and an angel sit on each shoulder trying to influence the protagonist's behaviour. The writer does this for a purpose – so an internal process can be witnessed. Jesus is talking to the devil on a mountainside, but it is a personification of a voice within him.
Jesus was a person, as we are. If that is the case, it is ridiculous to suggest that he was not tempted as we are. And if he was tempted, then it was as real as ours is, and he does not have access to magical resources in order to combat the temptation, otherwise he is not as we are.
The temptation is not out there – it is in here.
And what kinds of temptation affect us? I cannot see inside your hearts, but you know. For a moment though, I want to focus on institutional temptations. Of the temptation that can affect communities. They fall into similar categories to those that Christ suffered.
First, like the stones and the bread, there is the temptation to obsess about material things. With a large building project like the one Transfiguration has been involved in recently it would be easy to think the building was everything - and it is important, very important, but only as a space within which the real church, the living stones, the people, can be nurtured and built up.
Then in the temptation to prove God loves him by jumping off the temple. We too could take short cuts in building up the relationships in the Christian community, rather than letting them grow naturally - we are insecure and worried that we are not loved, so we demand affection and we don't allow Christian charity to grow. Take time to get to know me as I get to know you, and take time to deepen your relationships with each other.
Finally, the temptation to power. This is the temptation to believe that we are right and should have our own way in the church. It's worst manifestation is when we start throwing missiles at one another across the pews. We must again take time to listen and understand one another, to give up our power and value the opinions of those we don't agree with. Only then can we discern our direction together.
These are communal temptations - and we should not be afraid of them - we should understand them, as we should understand our own personal temptations.
Rather than the external things being sources of temptation – we realise that being tempted is something intimately tied up with our personalities, with our ways of relating, with our very being.
In lent we give things up, as though giving up is the point – gritting our teeth till it is over. But a second look at the Gospel demonstrates that this is not what Jesus does.
He responds to his tempter. He has answers.
Make bread from stones – no – the sustenance of the word of God is enough for me.
Leap from this tall building – no – you must not put God to the test.
Worship me and be king of the world – no – it is not right to worship anyone but God.
Jesus responds to his tempter. And in his responses we have a hint at a way to get through our own wilderness experiences.
The Gospel of Matthew locates Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism. He has been told that God is pleased with him.
The temptations focus on Christ's identity. Are you the Son of God? Will God save you as he promised? Will you be the Lord of the whole earth one day?
In the last temptation Christ is faced with his destiny. If he is the Son of God he will one day rule the world. But how will he get there? Will it be in obedience to God and through suffering, or is there an easier way?
His temptations ask questions about who he is.
Thomas A Kempis said:
We usually know what we can do, but temptation shows us who we are.
That is the case here. The temptations focus on exactly who Jesus is. And his response is central to him being able to complete his life work.
He pulls through. Of course he does.
But he answers correctly, not because he is the Son of God, but, because he is prepared. And we can prepare too.
After his baptism, his initial encounter with God - in which he is given a vision of his own identity - he has spent time in the wilderness, with only one thought:
Who am I?
He prepared. Wondered, meditated, fasted, prayed, made space, took time.
He has explored the question of his own being. He has taken time to make the connections between scripture and his own experience that help to explain his role in the world.
And he has encountered a darker side to it all.
What if it is too hard?
What if he cannot go through with it?
Perhaps there is an easier way.
Richard Baxter encourages us to:
Be thoroughly acquainted with your temptation
Jesus has taken time, made space, fasted, prayed, and prepared. He resists temptation because he is thoroughly familiar with it, he is prepared for it.
The point is not giving up.
We do not give things up in Lent as an end in themselves. We do so for a purpose. We give things up to make space.
That space is for us to then use – as we fast, and discipline ourselves, and pray and meditate and read and think.
So that when we are faced with our temptations. The moments in which we are asked to make a decision, we are not surprised, we are thoroughly prepared. We know ourselves, including our shadows.
Our temptations are utterly a part of us. If we listen to them, they will teach us about the people we are. If we embrace them, and understand them, we shall be ready for the moments in which they test us.
So make space. Take time, but be encouraged. As Julian of Norwich reminds us:
He said not:
'Thou shalt not be tempted:
Thou shalt not be travailed:
Thou shalt not be afflicted.'
But he said:
'Thou shalt not be overcome.' Julian of Norwich
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