March 05, 2017
You would think that after almost 58 years in the world I could not be shocked by its hard realities, but that is not the case. At our recent diocesan convention, we heard testimony of horrifying things that happen routinely all around us. A woman from Fayetteville told of how, after being sexually abused as a child, she became addicted to drugs. To acquire these drugs, she became in effect a slave of drug dealers, who sold her body for certain periods of time. She called this “human trafficking,” which is apparently an integral part of the drug trade. I quickly add that this woman’s life has been redeemed, through the grace of God and the ministry of Magdalene House, a rehabilitation home started and supported by Episcopalians, but the situation she describes is still all too prevalent. At the convention, we also heard details about the sufferings of displaced people within war-torn Syria, which St. Peter’s Church in Conway and others in our area have been alleviating in amazing ways. I also learned that local high school students, of all colors and social classes, use heroin, and get addicted to it, much more often that I would have dreamed. Some of my shock at all this comes, no doubt, from having led a relatively sheltered, privileged life. But I must also admit that part of me doesn’t want to know these things. Part of me wants to be what is called “blissfully ignorant.”
In our day, it is relatively easy for some, including myself, to live an “anesthetized” existence. We can retreat into cocoons of privilege, avoiding encounters with those who are different from us and with those suffering from deprivation, violence, and discrimination. Trying simply to “live for pleasure,” as one of Oscar Wilde’s characters put it, we can inhabit a dream world in which there are no problems “out there” with which we need be concerned. Sometimes religion itself is used as a means of escape. As the Episcopal priest Robert Fruehwirth recently wrote, we sometimes approach practices such as prayer, Bible reading, and enjoyment of liturgy and music simply as means of having what might be called a “nice religious or spiritual experience.” We may even serve the poor and pursue justice mainly as ways to feel good about ourselves, rather than as ways truly to engage with God and the world around us.
But in today’s gospel, we see in Jesus the prime example of one whose faith drove him not to escape from reality but rather to enter into it and embrace it, knowing that this is where God is present and active. Escape may have been harder in his day than it is now. Even the richest and most privileged in the Roman empire could not fail to see oppression and suffering all around them. Jesus, of course, belonged to a religious and ethnic group who had long suffered at the hands of imperial powers. Nevertheless, anesthetization, or shielding oneself from true engagement, was still possible. After the Lord’s baptism, he wrestled at length with temptations to use wealth, religious popularity, and worldly power to set himself apart from the suffering world around him, and even to take advantage of it. But the divine Spirit that had driven him into the wilderness guided him away from this destructive path by helping him see through the devil’s deceits, even though Satan cloaked his purposes by quoting scripture. Ancient Jewish tradition guided Jesus as well. His people’s ten commandments, received directly from God after their liberation from slavery, pointed to a life in which one finds fulfillment not through self-seeking but through loving service to God and neighbor. The path our Lord chose involved much more humility and suffering than the devil’s proposal, but his life, death, and resurrection showed that this is the way to be rich toward God and live.
We too, as today’s collect puts it, are assaulted by many temptations, more than we usually realize. Over-eating, over-drinking, and obsessions with everything from sex to golf to work may indicate more than simply a lack of discipline. They may indicate unhealthy attempts to avoid facing realities about ourselves, about God, and about the world around us. We can even use religion itself to anesthetize ourselves when we see church as a means of escape or of setting ourselves apart from the world around us. Lenten disciplines, whether giving up or taking on things, are meant to help open us up to realities that God would have us face.
Like Jesus, we not only face the temptation to escape. The devil uses the mess the world is in to foster doubts and fears about the reality, presence, and power of God. Saints through the ages have experienced this temptation. Julian, a mystic who lived in Norwich, England, in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, is famous for her declaration of faith that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” but she also wrestled with all the apparent evidence to the contrary: the suffering she saw in Jesus, in herself, and in the world around her. Rather than despairing, however, Julian saw in the crucified and risen Lord a God who has “chosen to be open in compassion” to all of her reality and to the reality of the world. “All shall be well,” she testified, because of God’s loving, powerful presence in our midst, even in the worst situations, whether or not we can perceive it. She exemplified what the 17th-century writer Jean-Pierre Caussade called “the life of faith,” which, as he put it, is “nothing less than the continued pursuit of God through all that disguises, disfigures, destroys and so to speak annihilates [God].” Coming to such faith, once we open ourselves to God in the midst of all reality, is always a challenge, but the results can be blissful, as Julian found.
We are all faced with a fundamental spiritual choice. As Robert Fruehwirth put it, “Do we [choose to] live in a world where some things must be rejected as outside God’s power to redeem, where religion must cast some things out, or do we live in a world where God is present and at work, without constraints, in all things, to make all well?” The latter is the brave choice that our Lord exemplified. Even in the midst of his crucifixion, he trusted that God could lighten even that darkness and bring good from ill.
We Christians are fundamentally a people of hope. The light of the Resurrection shines, we believe, even in the darkest places, making, as some African-Americans say, “a way out of no way.” This is the faith that, we hope, informs our life together as a parish. This is the faith that impels us outward, to proclaim to all people the good news of God’s powerful, redeeming love.