A sermon for the first Sunday of Lent
There’s a fable by Edwin Friedman called, “The Bridge”.[i] In it, a man on a mission is interrupted by a stranger on a bridge, who asks him to hold the end of a rope he is carrying. The man obliges, upon which, the stranger, securely attached to the other end of the rope, jumps off the bridge. The fable unfolds as the protagonist considers his obligations to the stranger who has now put him in a frankly untenable position.
Now, we are familiar, through our prayers, with the fact that we are dependent on one another and on God for our life and its welfare: we pray during Compline, “O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: … and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil.”[ii] We are, in all sort of ways, yoked together, and we are nothing without the grace of God.
The second temptation, though, is enacted by the stranger, who by his action chooses to abdicate all accountability for his life, with all of its gifts and its promise and its problems; he throws off all responsibility for its (literal) trajectory, and tries to make another bear its entire weight.
The temptation to fall from the pinnacle of the temple is less, “Let go and let God” than “Let go and force God’s hand”; or, as Jesus would have it, “Let go and test God”. Let go and try to manipulate your Maker. Then wait and see how that goes.
Oh, it is a temptation, to put all of the weight of the world on someone else; to shed accountability by means of another’s responsibility; to elude guilt by making a scapegoat; to become helpless, and in doing so, pretend to innocence.
We see it in the stories of Genesis. You know, although we didn’t read it today, that Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, for their disobedience; yet Eve told the serpent the command that God had given them, and as we did read this morning, Adam was right there with her – he was as much a part of the whole thing as was she.
If the first temptation was to eat what should not be eaten (and we will come back to that), the second was to deny all responsibility for what was consumed; to pretend that we were taken in.
It’s how we deal with racism, with sexism, with poverty: we didn’t create these conditions, we didn’t know right from wrong, we didn’t see …
It’s how we deal with one another, sometimes: if they’d behaved better, I’d behave better. They shouldn’t be so sensitive. They should just get a job. I didn’t think they were serious. I didn’t know, they didn’t tell me, it was loaded.
The man on the bridge, in the story, the man on a mission left holding the rope was not oblivious to his new and unwanted responsibility. He was, whether he liked it or not, for now his brother’s keeper. He tried to help the stranger by handing him back the agency for his own rescue:
“While he could not pull this other up solely by his own efforts, if the other would shorten the rope from his end by curling it around his waist again and again, together they could do it. …
“Now listen,” he shouted down. “I think I know how to save you.” And he explained his plan.”[iii]
I’ll let you look up the ending of the story for yourselves, and decide on its moral. I think it’s taken us about as far as its rope will stretch; while “our common life depends upon each other’s toil”, our salvation is not in our own hands, it is the gift of God.
But, oh, if we would be human to one another, and to ourselves; own our agency, help those at the end of their rope as we are able, and participate in our own rescue, through repentance and a return to the community of love … God has never yet let us down, let us go.
The temptation to abscond from our own lives, our agency, our responsibility, by throwing ourselves not even on the mercy but on the miracle-working of God, strikes me as peculiarly selfish. In the third temptation, the pitfalls of absolute power are obvious. In the first, the hunger for bread is thoroughly human and understandable; it is no sin to eat. But in the centre, here on the pinnacle of the temple, the temptation to make our lives everyone’ and anyone’s responsibility but our own, at least once we have reached the age of maturity, is a thorough corruption of the human spirit, and the image in which we were made.
Of course, Jesus, who is all integrity and wisdom, will not fall for the devil’s tricks.
Jesus, whose very life embodies the self-giving love of God, a life lived not for himself alone but for the whole world, will not fall prey to the temptations of selfishness.
Which brings us back to the first temptation. Interestingly, although the second and third temptations switch places throughout the Gospels, this one always comes first. I wonder what that means.
There is no sin in eating bread, in sustaining body and soul together. There is no virtue in fasting for its own sake, but only if it is used to bring us closer to the God who sustains our lives, and reminds us of the hunger for righteousness which seeks the kingdom of heaven, in which all are fed, and forgiven, and beloved.
What Jesus resists is the temptation, once more, to selfishness. When we see Jesus with bread in the Gospels, it is always to share. Whether it is feeding the multitude on the mountainside, or remembering the plea of the child: “Who among you when your child asks for bread would give her a stone?”, or giving of himself on the night before he died, breaking bread and handing it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat: this is my body”; not falling but freely giving of himself. Not falling, but giving freely of oneself; for that is how we find ourselves among the ministe
[i] Edwin H. Friedman, “The Bridge”, in Friedman’s Fables (The Guildford Press, 1990)
[ii] Book of Common Prayer, 134
[iii] Friedman, “The Bridge”