Glynn Cardy March 20th 2022
1 Corinthians 10: 1-13, Matthew 4:1-11
When trouble brews, when bad stuff happens, we humans respond in various ways – some good and some not so good. There are fight or flight options. There are blame and shame options. There are options to do nothing or to do something. To feel the fear and shrivel. Or to feel the fear and stand.
Bringing God into the brew doesn’t usually help. ‘God is with us’ can be a cry, a prayer, or it can be a statement that the Almighty has (allegedly) taken our side and not the other. Loading God with partisanship is problematic.
Our first reading today, from one of Paul’s authentic letters, justifies suffering by reference to God. Paul says that God killed a whole bunch of their ancestors in the wilderness. Deliberately. Like with snakes. Because they did evil stuff. So, says Paul, you better watch out. Do evil stuff and God will smite you!
It’s tempting when trouble brews to revert to this sort of deity, if you can still muster belief in this sort of deity. It’s nice in our dark moments to think that God will get those do injustice, do wrong, like Putin, or any murderer or abuser we can think of, and deal to them. Like with snakes. Or worse.
Paul is trying to encourage his readers, when trouble brews, to be faithful to a moral code. His carrot, his encouragement, is that when you are faithful God is faithful, and sends some relief packages. His stick, his threat, is that when you are not faithful God, that same God, will punish you, kill you even. I think Paul’s stick undermines his carrot, even if you believe in that kind of deity.
And trouble does brew. Suffering comes. Whether it be war, or floods, or famine. Whether it be sickness, or loss, or financial hardship. Suffering comes.
Its in times of trouble that we need each other. We need each other’s encouragement. We need to know that we are not alone. We appreciate the little gifts, and the bigger ones too. We appreciate people going out of their way, sometimes a long way out of their way, to help us, or to help someone we care about.
When trouble brews these acts and words of solidarity, of companionship, of going the extra mile, are what I call ‘faithfulness’. You could think of it as a moral code, or better a moral compass. You could think of it as god (small ‘g’) – namely the acts and words of support – being the very substance of godness. If you want to know what our small ‘g’ god looks like, you’ll see she/he/it in the actions we do, in the words we say, when bad stuff happens.
Like, for example, Marina Ovsyannikova. She’s Russian, though her dad was born in Ukraine. Until a few days ago she was an employee of a TV station, state-funded Channel One. The one most go to for their news. Marina was a senior producer. A role that gave her access to the recording studio where, on Monday night, she upstaged the presenter by holding up a sign saying, “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.”
Being in the media game, and knowing how things can get distorted, she simultaneously released a pre-recorded video expressing her shame at working for Channel One and spreading “Kremlin propaganda”. She was whisked away, held by the police, and is yet to be prosecuted for her protest.
It takes a lot of courage to stand against the media machine of Putin’s empire, to express her faithfulness to her journalistic profession, and her faithfulness to Ukraine.
My point is that in the courage of her actions we can see the small ‘g’ god I’m describing. The god of solidarity, companionship, and bravery. And one can see in the words of Putin and his puppet, Patriarch Kirill, the big ‘G’ God who requires obedience to the narrative of the powerful, and punishes dissent.
Sometimes, maybe most times, acts of courage are complicated. I referred last week to Graham Greene’s character in The Power and the Glory called the ‘whiskey priest’. If you know the story, the priest is not without moral fault. Many of them. He’s a complicated character. Yet at the end, the time when it counts, even though he knows it is a trap that will probably lead to his death, he is faithful to his profession, and courageously goes to help a dying man.
In Lent, with its traditional emphasis on giving up luxuries, and not giving into such temptations, I think of that whiskey priest, and I think somewhere along the way Lent lost its way. The whiskey priest was slowly killing himself with alcohol. He was a bad example, and its not hard to find scriptures and Christians that would condemn his behaviour. The whiskey priest had also broken his vow of celibacy and had fathered a child. Again, its not hard to find scriptures and Christians that would condemn his behaviour. And yet, when faced with the choice between helping a person in need or seeking security for himself, he chose the former. And it was this choice, when trouble was brewing, when the needy needed a hand, that he put his up, ignoring the cost, and received in doing so the absolution of Greene’s readers who had followed the whole story.
My point is that giving in to eating Easter eggs before Easter Sunday, or Hot Cross buns before Good Friday, or whatever restraints on our usual habits we devise for a Lenten discipline, are minor when compared with the moral courage needed to stand up against injustice and wrongdoing, or to help another at a great personal cost.
Lent I would suggest is about doing things to make a difference in someone or many ones lives, rather than doing things, like moral and dietary disciplines, that make a difference in our own lives. And especially when trouble brews its what we do for the good of others, especially those suffering, that counts.
Every Lent there is one Bible reading that is always read: the story of Jesus being tempted, 40 days and 40 nights, in the Judean wilderness. It echoes of course the Moses story of wandering in the wilds for 40 years. And we know from that echo that this is a mythic story, not something that really happened. It’s a story about the makers of the myth, rather than the man Jesus who was long dead by the time it was made.
In the myth there are three temptations. The first temptation (stones to bread) was to prioritize his own needs, to deal with his own physical hunger. And we can only surmise that the Jesus groups of the first century as they made this myth were tempted to prioritize their own physical needs rather than share the little they had with those with even less. Which of course is always tempting when you don’t think you have enough, when you are worried about what might be ahead, and trouble is brewing.
To spin this temptation positively, the admonition, maybe like the feeding of the multitude story, is to take what little you have, break it, share it, and in doing so you will find blessing.
The second temptation in the myth (‘skydiving’ off the temple pinnacle) is to impress others with your miraculous powers and skill. Again, we can only surmise that the Jesus groups of the first century as they made this myth were tempted not to primarily help little people by doing little things but to prioritize impressing big people by doing big things. If your focus is on big people, then little people can get forgotten. If your focus is on big things, then little things might never happen.
To spin this temptation positively, the admonition, maybe like the widow’s mite story, is to acknowledge, be grateful for, and emulate little acts of generosity, of giving what you can, to help who you can, when you can.
The third and last temptation (kingdoms of the world bowing down to Jesus) is to desire power over others. Again, we can only surmise that the Jesus groups of the first century as they made this myth were tempted to seek and acquire such power, rather than be wary of it. Power gives us access to many things. It is though seductive, telling us that we have earnt it, deserve it, are made for it. It tells us that we are better than others because we have this power. However, power, like fire, needs to handled carefully, responsibility, with us being thankful for its benefits but mindful of its destructiveness. Like fire, power is a gift for the benefit of all, not an asset that a privileged elite can use to reinforce its privilege.
To spin this temptation positively, the admonition, maybe like the rich young ruler story, is that the ability to give, to give away, to share what you have is of far more value in the long run than any hoard of assets you might have. Real power, ‘fire’ used properly and well, is that which enables a community, and all the individuals – great and small – within it, to flourish.
The protagonist in the temptations’ myth is called the Devil. He says we have power, and when we use it for our glory, more will come our way. The counter-narrative is similar but different. Yes, we have power, and when we use it to empower others, more might come our way.
When trouble brews, when bad stuff happens, we need to respond not with indifference, but with a desire to make a difference. Like Marina. We need to respond by giving, even a little, when and how we can. Like Greene’s whiskey priest. When suffering and the fear it breeds comes, it is tempting to do nothing, save worry about our own and our own’s security. But our faith, the faithfulness that speaks to us, that whisper of a small ‘g’ god that doesn’t exist but insists, tells us to do something, or at the very least to stand in solidarity with those who are doing the somethings. To say, in word or deed, big or small, that injustice and its wrongdoings shall not prevail.