Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sunday's Sermon: Temptation and Protection

Matthew 4: 1-11
John 17:6-19

What do you think are the most common temptations for humans today?  The three that were mentioned to tempt Jesus were food (appeasing the senses?), the temptation to test Jesus’ relationship with God, and power.  While power is still a temptation for many of us, I think we are currently very tempted by possessions or wealth, by popularity or fame, by things that feel like they make us happy temporarily, things that make us feel good, things that we can tend to become addicted to – drugs, alcohol, fast paced life, etc.
How many of you have seen the movie, The Devil Wears Prada?  The movie’s main character, Andi, starts as a person with goals and integrity.  She wants to be a journalist, and she has written about injustices such as poor work conditions.  She is in a committed relationship and values her time with her friends.  She enjoys her life, and has a cause or meaning, a purpose in her future.  Her values do not include shallow things like appearance, being thin, high fashion, owning expensive purses, clothing, things.  She puts work in its proper place as one aspect of who she is.  She is down-to-earth, centered, and knows where she is heading and what she wants.  When she first applies for the job as Assistant to the Director of Runway Magazine, she is appalled by the value system that surrounds her – the emphasis on accessories that make no real difference to one’s well-being, the insistence on being thin, on looking “right,” on dressing “right.”  She scoffs when 2 belts that most of us would think are identical are held up to a dress with the comment, “Oh, I just don’t know which is best.  They are so different!”  But when she takes the job, she finds her values and her identity being slowly challenged, slowly and subtly being undermined.  She finds herself giving up more and more of her time with her friends and significant other in order to work.  She finds herself being pulled into the drama and the appeal of a fast paced career with models and glamour and eventually into valuing the entire system of clothing and accessories and being thin and owning purses that cost thousands of dollars – all things she didn’t used to care about.  The choices she is faced with – to choose depth, meaning and relationships, or to choose appearance, glamour, fame and achievement are subtle choices, but she finds herself choosing for the latter again and again, and she finds herself saying to those who would challenge those choices, “well, I didn’t have a choice!” She chooses to do what her boss asks her to do, even when it means that she ends up deeply hurting a colleague who was becoming a friend. And the entire time she is slipping she repeats that phrase, “I didn’t have a choice.”
What made her descent, her decline into a life that the movie, and I imagine many of us, would consider sinful so easy for her was that she didn’t realize she was being tempted, tested or making bad choices in the face of those temptations.  She didn’t realize that she was choosing “evil”, even when she did something that devastated another human, that took away another human’s hopes and dreams.  She told herself that she made that choice because she had to keep her job. But that lie that she told herself, that the job was the most important thing, that lie led her more and more into “hell”…she lost her friends, she lost her significant other, she lost her sense of self and her values.  As her boyfriend breaks up with her, she receives a phone call from Miranda, her “devil” boss, and she says, “I’m sorry.  I have to answer this,” still not realizing she is making a choice.  As her boyfriend walks away he says to her, “You know, in case you were wondering?  The person whose calls you always take – that’s the relationship you’re in.”  Even after all of those losses she still didn’t realize the choices that she was making or that she had a choice to make, until the “devil” character, her boss, Miranda, in the film pointed it out to her by comparing Andi’s choices with her own.  Andi could see that Miranda’s choices were hurtful, were harmful, were devastating.  But until Miranda pointed out that Andi had made the same choices, Andi couldn’t see. Until the one who asked her to do these terrible things points out to her that she chose to do them in order to get ahead, she did not see them, could not see the choices she made as choices.
Jesus, in his temptations, knew he was being tempted.  Andi didn’t.  How much easier is it for us to slip down that slippery path when we are unaware of the path we are walking? I think about this for the alcoholic (or for anyone struggling with an addiction).  At one point the alcoholic person was just a person having his or her first social drink.  Most people in this culture do drink socially, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the alcoholic, at some point, went over the edge into the addiction, into the action which was damaging to him or herself and others. Which drink was it that was one too many? How was he/she supposed to know which drink that was? Was the line clearly marked in the sand that said, “you can go this far, but no farther?”  No.  Of course it was not.  I think the same is true with everything else that tempts us to take what we want at the cost to others (and to ourselves).  I don't think we always know that we are choosing something destructive, damaging, evil until it is too late.  Sometimes we don't even see it then.  Are we aware of how our buying choices affect people around the world?  Are we aware of what we do that damages the environment?  Do we know when we have taken more than our share and failed to care for others?
I think about the disciples.  In Matthew 16: 21-24, Jesus is talking about his coming crucifixion.  And Peter says to him out of love, compassion and probably fear, “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” to which Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  Did Peter know he was making a mistake?  That he was offering something dangerous and ungodly to Jesus?  If we had been in Jesus’ shoes, would we have recognized the temptation that Peter was offering him as a thing of evil?
Frederick Buechner says in his book Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC, under the term “Devil”:  “To take the Devil seriously is to take seriously the fact that the total evil in the world is greater than the sum of all its parts.  Likewise the total evil in yourself.  The murderer who says, ‘I couldn’t help it’ isn’t necessarily just kidding….”
            Whether or not you believe in a personified devil isn’t the issue here that I’m taking on today.  (If you are interested in discussing that, come to our bible study on Thursdays) But I am going to use that language today to talk about evil because I think it is helpful in acknowledging that evil is something bigger than ourselves.  Satan, or evil is known for cunning, for disguise, for being shady in the deals Satan makes with us.  Evil seems to offer us an ease from pain, a distraction from the struggles of life, it offers us comfort, enjoyment, fame, power, fortune. And it seems to sort of work for awhile, which is why people are willing to sell their souls for the distractions or “pleasures” or gifts that Satan gives.  If you drink, you don’t feel.  If you get into a numbing drug, or get high off of your latest purchase, or your latest achievement, these things distract from the emptiness, from the grief, from whatever it is we are trying to escape. If you get distracted by glamour or your job or your aim for a higher achievement, these too can work well as distractions from loneliness, from emptiness, from feeling unsure about who we are, what we are about, what we are doing.
These things, even the achievements that are escapes from what God calls us to, are bad or evil because they do take us away from God’s purpose for our lives, and because they hurt people, those who fall into the temptation most of all.  These distractions and these things we want that hurt us or others, these things that were supposed to take us out of pain end up causing us their own pain…addictions become slave drivers of their own that own us, eating up our money, our resources, our time and our attention, destroying our health, and sometimes again, destroying a lot more than that – relationships, work, etc. Destructive behavior destroys not only the other, but eventually our own beings as we care less for others, as we distance ourselves from love. Also, these pleasures can only distract for so long and then the pain comes back, usually more strongly since it has been “building up” in our systems un-dealt with.  We do have to deal with the pain and an addiction or distraction can only postpone those feelings, it can’t actually take them away or erase them.  At the point at which the distraction no longer works, we have to make another choice.  Do we find something else to distract us from the pain?  Do we find something worse or do we dig deeper into our addictions, into our avoidances, so we don’t have to feel?  Or do we come out and face the music?  Do we choose the hard road - the one that leads us through the pain but back to life?  I'm reminded of the studies that show us that everyone who has their basic needs met believes they would be "fine" if they only had twice the income they currently have.  Everyone.  Regardless of their net worth and current income thinks they would be okay if only they had twice what they have.  More doesn't make us happier.  It never has and it never will.  But we think it will.  And so we take more than is our need, more than is our share; and we hurt others by not giving what they need at a basic level.
“An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil.  It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.”  The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”  The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

The second scripture passage from today gives us an intimate glance into Jesus praying to God.  And he is asking for what we all might ask for in light of the tenacity, subtlety and cunning of evil.  Jesus prays to God for protection for us from temptation, from evil.  He prays our prayer. He prays for us. And yet we remain in the world. And we remain faced with temptations at times. The Good News in this is that when we do choose to abide in God, God will help us to see Evil and will help us to avoid or overcome temptations. When we choose to spend our time feeding the “good wolf” – spending time in prayer, with relationships that our healthy, with choices that are healthy, when we choose to spend our time productively and not ‘escaping” then we feed the good wolf within us and God helps us to win in the battle for our souls. 
In the end of the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, Andi does finally see the choices she is making and she chooses something different.  She chooses to walk away.  We always have this choice.  We always get the option to choose better next time.  On this last Sunday of Easter-tide we are blessed with the Good News of new life, a new choice, a new chance every time we choose for destruction and death.
Still, my prayer for all of us is that God would help us to discern the temptations. My prayer for all of us is that we, with God’s help, might have the strength to say “no” in the face of those temptations. My prayer for all of us is that we have the courage to feed the good wolf, no matter how painful to at times, and to rely on God’s protection even in the times of struggle when Satan is most near, most tempting, most cunning.