Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
March 4, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
"No" said Jesus, "I will not serve a power other than God. "No, he said, "I will not put God to the test." "No, I will not use my special gifts to turn stone into bread to benefit myself."
Emphatic and clear, Jesus refuses to succumb to the temptations given him by the devil in the wilderness.
In church we often talk about saying "yes." Yes to the gifts of God, Yes to the risks of being a Christian, Yes to loving others.
This morning we will consider the power of "no."
The power of "no" is one that a two-year-old often feels for the first time. She will try it out constantly. "No diaper change, no want apple, no want bath." Sometimes children this age will simply prance around saying "no" over and over - feeling the exhilaration of being able to take a stand, have a firm position.
I participate in a body movement group. We do lots of fun things exploring the wisdom our bodies have to share. One of the movements we do is this: we thrust our arms forward one at a time with hands outstretched and we shout "yes." We feel that yes all the way through our bodies.
Then we try something similar, but different. We thrust our arms forward with our hands palm out - like a stop sign - and we say "No!" This often comes out a bit more tentative for many. We practice making the movements stronger, more decisive and the "no" more definite and louder. It is surprising how good it can feel to say an emphatic "No!"
Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent. Wendy Wright describes those forty days as a "season that will draw us into a movement both chaotic and creative. We enter into the rhythm of disequilibrium - indeed, of dying - essential to the formation of new life." Traditionally this has taken the form of types of fasting, penance and almsgiving. Underlying these practices was a sense of emptying ourselves of the things that deaden our lives so to be better able to listen and follow God to the path of new life.
Donna Schaper, a U.C.C. minister, in her book "Calmly Plotting the Resurrection," writes: "Our question is survival of the extensive reach that death's dealings make into the living of these days. Just consider the unraised and unsaved nature of walking that has lost its life or singing that has lost its melody - bodies that have lost their bend, not just physically, but spiritually and psychologically as well. How do we keep death and its disciples out of our political bodies? How do we raise these bodies from their death? That is our question here."
This story of Jesus in the wilderness has something to tell us about saying "no" to things that keep us entrenched in deadening places. Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. He was not alone; he was "full of the Spirit". He had been in the desert for 40 days reflecting on his baptismal experience and how to do what he perceived his mission to be. It was this deep reflection and prayer that gave Jesus the strength to counter the temptations he was later given.
We, too, are strengthened when we claim space in our life for reflection and prayer. It is during those times we can touch again that power of which the psalm reminds us this morning: God is our refuge and our fortress; it is our God in whom we trust. When we carry the power of that belief with us, we are more able to refuse to participate in those things in life that bring death to our spirits, death to our culture. We are sure of our center; we are clear about our vision. When the temptations come we can see them clearly for what they are and we can respond to them with a "No!"
It would be nice to think that we have only occasional moments in the wilderness when we hear the multitude of voices tempting us to stray from our integrity and truth. But, the reality is we are, in many ways, always in the wilderness.
Evelyn Underhill said, "No Christian escapes a taste of wilderness on the way to the Promised Land." If our lives are always on the path towards new life we will often have parts of our lives where we are experiencing confusion, doubt, insecurity and anxiety - hallmarks of wilderness traveling. We're not sure where we are and where we are going. At the end of our passage from Luke today we read that the devil departed from Jesus until an opportune time. Jesus would be tempted time and time again. Our lives too will always have those trying times.
Our work life may be going well, but our personal relationships are in chaos. Our family life may be good, but our health is challenging. We are blossoming from new love, but our finances are troubling. There are always parts of our lives crying out for transformation - for change.
Cardinal Newman said, "To live is to change. To be perfect is to change often." This turns upside down our usual notion of perfection. How often we strive towards perfection thinking that when we get there we will have arrived at a place where everything is clear and decided and untroubled. "To be perfect is to change often," reminds us that fully engaging with life and living with the ongoing risks of change is a worthy goal.
Lent is about change, changes of perspective, of focus; change of heart. We are invited to enter into a radical commitment to rethink who we are and what we know.
Such a commitment requires that we create plenty of time for reflection in these days. Time to listen to the myriad of voices in our wilderness to discern which of them is God's longing for our lives. Time to see what we say yes and no to in our lives. Time to ponder how to say "no" to our ways of living that separate us from God and create brokenness in our relationships with others.
Sometimes those realizations will flash before us unexpectedly. Some blinders we have worn will drop and we will see a hard truth. We find we have fooled ourselves into believing we are living a certain way when, in fact, we are not. Such enlightenment can leave us feeling as if we're standing on shaky ground. But there is a benefit to that; we can no longer live our lives on automatic pilot.
All of us in this room are different today than we were last Sunday for the simple reason that the earth beneath our feet shook this week in a way that shocked, scared, amazed and terrified us. Such an experience changes us. As I listened to the stories of people who experienced the earthquake it was fascinating to hear the different ways we all responded. But, nearly universal, was how peoples' initial thoughts were about people whom they loved. I didn't hear anyone worry about what was happening at their office or even in their home until they had found out their loved ones were okay. Our priorities become clearer in quaking moments. Truths are revealed that can change how we live.
Knowing that can we let ourselves be led into the wilderness by the Spirit as Jesus was led? Can we allow ourselves to stand in shaky places where we do some soul-searching and question how we live our lives? Our mantra can be the words from Psalm 91 read this morning: " Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble."
Trusting in God, we can make bold moves in our lives and say "no" to those things that are not life-giving. No to lives so busy there is no time for stillness. No to accumulation of things we hope will make us feel more secure and more successful. No to making choices in our lives primarily based on what others will think. No to racist jokes and hate crimes. No to an economic system that strengthens the rich and weakens the poor.
Sometimes when we disagree with something we will remain silent, hoping that will balance the yes others may be saying. But, it does not. A strongly voiced refusal to participate in things that demean and diminish life is how we are called to respond.
Centered in our communion with God and the life that represents, we say no to death and its disciples that live in our bodies, churches and culture. We can risk being unpopular or even ridiculed because our worth comes not from the gods created by our culture or other people, but from our relationship with the God of our faith.
Rosa Parks said "no." Martin Luther King, Jr. said "no." Mahatma Gandhi said, "no." So did the woman who challenged the racist joke told around the office water cooler. So did the man who gave up his 50 hour a week job so he could spend more time with his family. So did the teenager who refused to do drugs with her friends. And the church that ignored its denomination rules and ordained a gay man. And the town that refused new development so its ecological system could stay in balance. And the people who delivered medical supplies to Iraq in defiance of the sanctions.
This Lenten season, may we make time for deep reflection and prayer dwelling in stillness with our God. In those quiet moments may we risk seeing the things in our lives that are not life-giving. May we be strengthened enough to boldly refuse to continue to live our life in that way. May we remember God's promise to always be with us in our wilderness wandering guiding us to a resurrection in our lives. Amen.