Sunday, March 10, 2019

Phil Kniss: When the hunger is hard

Lent 1: “God’s hand delivers us”
Luke 4:1-13

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So what do you think of our Lent worship theme—
“Blessed Hunger, Holy Feast”?
Holy Feast—I think we can all grasp that fairly well.
But what makes hunger “blessed”?

And let’s get something straight before we get very far into Lent.
The hunger we speak of is not my 3 p.m.
craving for a handful of snack mix.
It’s not even the intense hunger pangs I might feel
when it’s time for dinner and I was too busy to eat lunch.

But then, you’d hardly expect me
to compare my afternoon hunger pangs
with the sort of hunger we speak of
on the first Sunday of a 40-day fast?

I doubt many of us, if any,
have ever managed a 40-day fast from food,
even if slightly modified.

But in Lent, it’s hard hunger we speak of.

The kind of hunger we are calling “blessed”
and which scriptures speak of in many ways and in many forms,
is hunger that threatens to lay us low,
it’s a deep void, when we are empty of what we long for most,
it’s a hunger that is not easily and quickly remedied,
at least not usually.

Even you haven’t fasted from food for 40 days,
I happen to know that many of us, most, in fact,
have at some point in our lives,
hungered in the way we speak of.

There are those who grieve, deeply,
having lost a loved one—a spouse, a child, a parent,
a sibling, a dear friend.
And it’s been long enough that other people
seem to have moved on and nearly forgotten your grief.
But you . . . daily . . . carry within a painful, aching, searing hunger,
a void that for some reason refuses to be filled.

There are those living with deep hunger and pain
at the ending of an intimate relationship.
Life did not unfold in the way you had expected,
or in the way that was promised as much.

There are those experiencing confusion and even paralysis,
because you stand at a life-changing fork in the road,
and both choices hold opportunity,
and both hold loss.
And you hunger for peace of mind and clarity.

There are those who have been deeply wounded—
maybe by a stranger, but more likely by a friend or family member.
The anger and bitterness has settled into a deep hunger for justice,
but it’s unlikely the in-justice will ever be acknowledged,
much less repaired.
So you live with the hunger.

There are those living with a spiritual void—
what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”
There is a loss of faith,
loss of hope,
loss of joy in life,
which is beyond you to know how to regain and refill.

If you identify with any of these,
the season of Lent is for you.

And even if you don’t identify right now,
the season of Lent is still for you.
Lent is a time for us all to embrace hunger,
and to stay in that state for a time.

So briefly, let me locate us in time,
according to the church calendar.
Last Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday.
We didn’t celebrate it because we were celebrating membership.
But it always falls the last Sunday before Lent.
Today is the First Sunday in Lent.
And in seven weeks we celebrate Easter.

I want to make sure we see ourselves on the timeline.
We are between Transfiguration and Easter
in more ways than one.

On the Mount of Transfiguration,
Jesus and his disciples had a shimmering mountain-top encounter
with Moses and Elijah,
and a voice came from heaven with a blessing on Jesus.
On that mountain, the disciples, and, by extension, we,
got a clear vision of this close connection
between heaven and earth.
There’s not much that separates them,
we are led to assume.
In fact, a couple of the disciples try to create a separation.

At least, that’s how I interpret it.
Peter pipes up.
Master, let’s put up three shelters,
one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.
Let’s institutionalize this moment.
He didn’t use that word, but that’s what he meant.
He meant,
Let’s take this shimmering experience,
this gauzy curtain that barely separates heaven and earth,
that lets the God-light through,
and let’s make a permanent, substantial home for it,
so we can always point to that structure and say,
See? this is where God is, and this is what God is up to—
and down there . . . in the valley . . . is not.

Luke 9 doesn’t tell us
that Jesus gave Peter a big eye-roll.
But I like to think he did.
What the Bible actually says is,
Peter “did not know what he was saying.”
In Bible-speak, that’s an eye-roll.

So that’s the Transfiguration.
And the Resurrection is a little bit like that,
in the sense that this separation we try to maintain
between earth and heaven breaks down.
It was symbolized, in fact, when at the moment of resurrection,
the curtain in the temple was ripped in two,
the curtain supposedly separating the holy from the ordinary.
Again, a shimmering experience was afforded the disciples,
this time, first to the women,
and soon afterward to the men.
God was putting them on notice that,
“I choose to be with you here, in the ordinary,
in your human experience of suffering and death.
I will make your ordinary the stuff of the holy,
by being with you in it.
Suffering and death don’t get the last word.
I do.

I talked about the Tree of Life yesterday,
in my meditation at Allen Brubaker’s memorial,
and how that tree formed bookends for the Bible,
in Genesis 3 and Revelation 22.

I’m saying something similar today,
about the mountain tops that bookend the season of Lent
in our church year—at least the calendar we follow—
the Mount of Transfiguration, right before Lent, and afterward
the Mount of Olives,
the central hub of the passion of Jesus,
and all the glorious and terrible events that unfolded near it.

Some traditions put the Transfiguration at a different time,
but our church calendar is perfectly suited, seems to me,
to help us embrace life between the mountains,
when there is no shimmering gauze separating us from the holy,
only a deep, dark, and expansive wilderness,
a bottomless void,
and sheer emptiness.
It’s where the separation seems most distant,
most difficult to cross,
most un-likely to find fulfillment.
That’s Lent.

But . . . Lent does not paint a picture of hopelessness.
Not at all.
That’s why it is bookended with two mountaintop encounters.
Calendar planners, I’m guessing, were trying to preempt
the season from going off the deep end,
where Lent just becomes a time to wallow in despair.
No, the emptiness of Lent is more like a spiritual discipline.
We choose to enter the fast.
We choose to embrace emptiness and wilderness.
We choose to name and acknowledge the suffering.
And we have the courage to do so,
because we see the shimmering light before and after,
we know, despite some appearances to the contrary,
the space between earth and heaven is a thin space.
God is with us in the ordinary.
And we can trust God to provide.
There is Blessed Hunger,
and we can be sure of a Holy Feast to follow.

So with that backdrop,
let’s look at today’s Gospel reading, from Luke 4.
which takes us straight into the void.
It’s the story of Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness.

This is a test.
By that, I don’t mean a pop quiz.
This is a grueling spiritual workout for Jesus.
It's a story of Jesus finding out how deep he can go into hunger,
and how much he trusts God to provide the feast.

Jesus had just been baptized by John, in the Jordan River.
He has just been proclaimed, in public, by a voice from heaven
that he was the very Son of God, God’s own beloved.

Then, oddly, at the very moment Jesus should have been
most prepared to begin his mission,
at his point of greatest clarity about his identity,
on the heels of this public affirmation by God,
when he could have launched the first annual
Son of God, Son of Man, Preaching Campaign and Miracle Tour,

. . . the Holy Spirit sent him into the void.
“Sent” him, it says.

It’s hard to imagine the depth of suffering,
excruciating physical and emotional and spiritual isolation—
pure nothingness.
Try surviving 40 days in your own house,
all alone, with no phone, no connection to the outside world,
you cannot leave, you cannot have anyone join you.
Most people would crack or break under the strain.
Now, take away the stocked pantry and fridge,
the roof and walls,
the HVAC system,
and move into the desert.

That was Jesus, alone in the wilderness for 40 days,
sent there by the Holy Spirit . . .
met there by the devil . . . of course.
Who else would be in such a god-forsaken place?

In the desert, Jesus’ emerging identity was tested.
And it was hard.
As I said, it was a grueling spiritual trial.
It’s easy, if we’re not careful,
to dismiss these temptations as superficial—
that Jesus really didn’t struggle with them.
That they’re only symbolic.

But Jesus might beg to differ.
When Jesus was tempted
to use his power to turn stones into bread
and satisfy his intense physical hunger and emptiness . . .
when Jesus was tempted
to make things happen by his own political power and influence
rather than wait for God to move and act . . .
when Jesus was tempted
to attract attention and glory to himself
and force God’s hand to save him on demand . . .
the real underlying temptation—in all three of those—
was to reject the blessed hunger,
to scorn emptiness,
to deny being needy,
to shun vulnerability,
and take a short cut to the feast.

The real temptation was to disbelieve
what he heard at his baptism—
to shed his identity,
to release himself from his dangerous calling,
to forget who he belonged to,
and to grab hold of the intoxicating power
of controlling his own destiny,
satisfying his own desires,
and using power over others to accomplish his agenda.

Don’t think for a minute those weren’t real temptations.
And don’t think for a minute those same temptations
didn’t haunt him over and over and over
during his whole ministry,
most of all at the end.

We who are called by Christ,
are in exactly that position.
We, too, are given a name by God.
God calls us his own children,
adopts us,
calls us into a new community.

And we are constantly tempted, like Jesus,
to short-circuit the hunger, and go straight to the table.
We are tempted to satisfy our own desires on our own time-table.
We don’t much like hunger, truth be told.
We don’t much like wilderness.
We’d rather hop from mountaintop to mountaintop.

Now is the time to refocus, rethink, repent . . .
to reorient ourselves God-ward.
Now is the season for embracing the unfulfilled hunger,
and waiting with it for a while,
trusting God to provide the feast, in time.

Today, and every Sunday during Lent,
we choose to openly name, confess, and even embrace
the various ways we hunger,
and to sit with that hunger.

Yes, we will also, every Sunday,
acknowledge and worship God,
the preparer of the feast.

But an essential part of each worship service
will be the confession of our hunger,
symbolized by an empty bowl.
Let us now enter into that time of confession.

—Phil Kniss, March 10, 2019

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