A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, FEBRUARY 18th, 2018
The term, ‘Mardi Gras’, as you know, means ‘Fat Tuesday’. One could be forgiven for thinking that it is was called that because we all get fat by stuffing ourselves with pancakes, maple syrup and all the rest of that good stuff.
However, the real reason why it is called ‘Fat Tuesday’ is because it was the day on which one would go rooting through the larder to gather up all the cooking fats, most commonly butter, lard, suet and rendered animal fats and use up every bit of them in a colossal binge that meant that they were entirely removed from the house by the time Fat Tuesday turned into Ash Wednesday, and the fast of Lent began.
Couldn’t they have just have kept the fats in the larder and not eaten them through Lent? Maybe. But perhaps they already knew, as we do, that one of the most effective ways of not succumbing to temptation is to remove the source of that temptation. Get rid of the fat in our larders, and it won’t be sitting there, seducing our appetites.
These days, we don’t really seem to bother with fasting very much, do we? Or if we do, it is more likely to be in order to prepare for a medical procedure, or for some kind of personal regimen, like a detox. However, it is gaining in popularity, especially among those who are interested in alternative medicine and the like.
From a scientific viewpoint, the benefits of intermittent fasting are actually pretty clear. Fasting – as part of an overall healthy diet – is good for you, so long as it’s only a day or so here and there. There is strong evidence to suggest that such fasting can reduce inflammation; that it can assist the body in becoming less resistant to insulin, which is good for diabetics or pre-diabetics. There is evidence that intermittent fasting can aid weight loss, partly because it requires us to train ourselves into a mental discipline that can say no to food. Intermittent fasting, self-evidently, means that the digestive system is not working as hard and that where there are upsets or inflammations, these may be alleviated. Some of the most interesting benefits of intermittent fasting, though, are in the brain, both physiologically and psychologically. There are multiple studies showing that the number of neurons and synapses increases as a result of healthy fasting, and at the end of last year, researchers at Harvard discovered that intermittent fasting increases the flexibility of cell mitochondria. Mitochondria are the little power plants of your cells and fasting makes them act more efficiently, which in turn can lead to delayed aging, lowered incidence of age-related disease, and longer life span.
Now, clearly this is supposed to be a sermon, not a medical infomercial, so why am I telling you all of this? First, the point I want to make is this: we think we’re so smart, don’t we? We think that our generation knows it all. We think that boring old religions are old has-beens and don’t have a lot of relevance in our scientific, supposedly enlightened modern world. What use have we of outdated and debunked myths like Noah and the great flood? What use have we of the Bible’s primitive and often strange worldview?
If we dismiss these things as irrelevant, we do ourselves a great disservice, and we risk ignoring millennia of received wisdom. As I wrote in our bulletins today, the story of Noah may be a myth, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it tells us about a human response to a cataclysmic disaster that befell a community, and it doesn’t diminish that community’s wisdom that, despite their lack of scientific knowledge, they were perceptive enough to realize that when they behaved badly this got in the way of them being at one with God. Similarly, it’s worth us bearing in mind that, even without the scientific understanding we have today, people have been quietly and carefully observing for thousands and thousands of years that by regularly not eating some meals on some days, people were happier, healthier and more focused. Christians – and other religions – have known this literally for ever. So why is it that people are only discovering fasting now and thinking it is the hottest new trend in the burbs?
It was this knowledge that drove Jesus into the wilderness, to go without food for the very extended period of forty days – a period, incidentally, that I could not endorse as medically healthy, although, in fairness, Jesus was the Son of God, and we’re not.
But the second reason for me going into all that medical infomercial stuff was to make the point that fasting focuses the mind and clarifies our thought processes. It is also said that, when practiced in more extreme ways, fasting can bring about an altered state of consciousness which can induce a single-minded spiritual state to the exclusion of all other distractions. It was this combination of things which compelled Jesus into the wilderness by himself.
Today we heard the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness as told by St. Mark. Mark is now thought to be the first gospel account that we still have, but there were other oral and written accounts of Jesus life that were floating around, some of which the writer of Mark may not have had access to, but that the writers of Matthew and Luke did have – hence the familiar stories we know of Jesus being tempted with the offers of bread from stones, the kingdoms of the world, and being saved from a fall from a height, are the fuller accounts that we find in Matthew and Luke. Some people take the temptation stories literally – that Satan showed up in some kind of material form in the desert and interacted with Jesus person to person. Horns, hooves, bat wings, fangs, who knows. But, as I say, some people think it was a literal event like that.
Others, myself included, think that the temptations were just as real as that, but went on inside Jesus’ head – no one else there but him. This is still being tempted by Satan, but it is temptation in the way that we ourselves experience it. A battlefield in our heads, where competing desires wage war, and where we attempt to justify what we know to be the wrong course of action and convince ourselves that the wrong thing is somehow OK to do. That is what I believe is going on in Jesus’ head. Why do I think it’s that, and not a literal meeting with an embodied devil? Well, principally because Jesus was fully human and experienced everything that we experience and it’s a source of comfort and strength to us to know that Jesus felt what we feel but was able to reject it.
In short, Jesus went through a number of scenarios that offered him physical comforts, worldly power and influence, and the pride of ego. Each of these is very seductive. Each of these are temptations we face on a daily basis. Each of these can be so insidious that we don’t perhaps realize that we are even being tempted. Jesus went off into the wilderness, to be by himself, to fast because he needed to be rid of every distraction, and he needed every ounce of focus and mental strength to see the wood from the trees, to know when he was being duped, when he was being offered false justifications, and to get a real handle on what his mission in the world was meant to accomplish.
We’re not Jesus, but that shouldn’t excuse us from the same kind of single-minded reflection on what it is that we have been put on this earth to accomplish. We’re not just here on this earth simply to exist for ourselves, but to flourish and to accomplish for others. The common thread in temptation is the desire to serve oneself at the expense of others. Even seemingly innocuous or apparently virtuous acts can deceive us. Think about the motivation, say, behind giving up something for Lent, like chocolate or alcohol. What is the motivation here? Are we doing it so that we’ll look nicer and more attractive, or are we doing it to remove something in our lives that stops us getting closer to God? Motive is a complex and murky thing. It behooves us to keep on monitoring it just to be sure we are staying true to our ideals.
I believe that temptations are not just an individual thing, but that we can experience collective temptation, as it were. For instance – and I have sort of referred to this before – I think that we as a parish can be tempted, as a group, to stay in the safety of what I call ‘maintenance’ mode – sticking with the status quo, rather than venturing out into the risky terrain of what I call ‘mission’ mode. Like any temptation, it is a question of whether we are primarily thinking of ourselves, or thinking of others. We can justify in all sorts of convincing and plausible ways the need to stay in safe territory, but deep down, we really know what the right thing to do is. Following the way of Christ involves risks, and stepping out of our comfort zones.
So, yes, we can experience temptation collectively at a parish level, and we can experience it at a national level, and everything else in between. But how might temptation play out at a national level?
Without getting too political here, one might argue that a good example is the way in which we pretend to ourselves that national debt is not really all that problematic. We dress it up in obfuscating terms like ‘quantitative easing’ or ‘fiscal stimulus’ and, having created these euphemisms, we spend a bunch of money that doesn’t really exist.
One of the biggest collective temptations, globally, I would suggest, is the tendency we have to seek refuge in the language of ‘rights’ without an equal consideration of the matching ‘responsibilities’. This is something which has played out with tragic consequences in the past week. It is true that the 2nd Amendment gives people the right to own and use all manner of guns. But with every right comes an attendant responsibility. Anyone who exercises their perfectly legal and, one might say, reasoned, right to the 2nd Amendment has a set of responsibilities that run in tandem. Anyone who wants to exercise that right has an obligation to consider whether or not it is in the best interests of their entire community that they do so. Or, to put it another way, although an ant might have a perfect right to have a pet anteater, would it be in the best interests of its ant community to bring it into the nest?
A few decades ago, there was a popular bracelet that people wore with the letters ‘WWJD’ on it. Remember those? ‘WWJD’ stands for, “What Would Jesus Do’? I must admit that, at the time, I thought those bracelets were a bit corny. But, to be perfectly honest with you, the more I think about it, the more that question is the absolute litmus test of any action, individual or collective.
If you are thinking about how you can make your Lent more holy, just asking yourself that four word question at every opportunity will be time well spent.