Strangers to ourselves
This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Lent, 18 February 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. It was the Sunday following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and amid the national grief I wanted to explore ways toward what might constitute the beginning of a specifically “Christian” response — at least for myself and my own community — that did not rest on platitudes or attempt merely to soothe such grief and anger as cannot (and should not) be soothed.
Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan: Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Well, here we are again. Another Lent, another school shooting, another weekend where we are all too aware of the fragility of human life amidst the forces that work to undo it. The pain in Florida is all the more acute as the stories come out that the policies and procedures designed to protect against someone like Nikolas Cruz broke down, and that those who were most worried could not get the help they needed before he started shooting.
Such things should not happen; such things continue to happen. One person with evil intent can ruin untold lives as easily as pulling a trigger or clicking a button. So we learn, and relearn, painfully, every time. Decades of love and support between parents and children, decades before that of growth and marriage and life, ended in the blink of an eye. Why is it so easy to ruin life, while it’s so difficult to nurture it?
Even deeper than the questions of gun control or public policy, why on earth does violence, killing, and death come so easily to so many, as a solution to problems or an outlet for emotions — or even, as in the case of Nikolas Cruz, as a pseudo-vocation?
In the face of such challenges as these, the world seems less and less familiar to us, and once-intimate places and confidences and relationships begin to break down, without a clear sense of where we’re going or how the tension can possibly be resolved.
As I’ve said before, our Religion doesn’t offer a convincing or even a reassuring answer to these questions. But it does give us a language for the grief, and Lent is as good a place as any to start. We began today with the Great Litany, as thorough an account of sin and suffering as there is, with dozens of petitions for forgiveness and deliverance. Today I at least am glad for the petition for God “Finally to beat down Satan under our feet” since at the moment Satan seems a good deal more in our faces than usual.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of the personal nature of evil: not just impersonal forces at work in the world, but forces in which in my own small way I participate, and by which I affect others, individuals as well as communities. School parents in Florida are finding evil inescapably personal this weekend, just as you and I do in smaller ways every time we examine our conscience. Praying the Great Litany here at the beginning of Lent collects all our griefs and all our shortcomings into one cry to God, one cry which unites the seemingly disparate “Save us, else we perish,” and, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”
And then we get in the Gospel Jesus being tempted by Satan. St. Mark doesn’t give us details, but you’re probably familiar with the longer telling from St. Matthew: Jesus makes his own 40 day fast, his own Lent in the desert just after his baptism by John in the Jordan, where Satan comes to tempt him. The three temptations he faces are the three which undergird every other temptation we might face: the temptation first to change stones into bread, and so to remove a deadly threat both from Jesus’ own immediate experience and by extension one of the chief threats to life throughout the world. Second the temptation to rule all the nations, and, presumably, then, by wisdom and grace to solve all the problems they face and institute peace and justice once for all, at the cost merely of bowing the knee to worship the devil. And finally the temptation to cast himself down from the temple, for the angels to save and so reveal who Jesus really is, the son of God, and make everyone respect him accordingly.
You know the story: Jesus resists every temptation, and then he goes about his ministry. But it’s hard to overstate just how clever the devil is. He tempts Jesus with all the things he already is, he tempts him with the truth about himself: Jesus is the bread of life, the one without whom nothing was made that was made, the true life of all; Jesus is, in Isaiah’s words, the king of kings, before whom nations rightly pay homage; and Jesus is the Son of God, who needs neither angels nor human respect to prove who he is. The irony is, that if Jesus were to fall to the devil’s tempting, he would be betraying the very identity to which the temptations appeal.
This is how temptation works: the devil appeals always to what is closest and best about ourselves, not so that we might give up those things, but so that we might turn them to the devil’s nefarious purposes, and so find death in the midst of life.
In this way, sin makes us strangers to ourselves. We think we know what we’re getting into, and we find suddenly we’re somewhere we didn’t intend. A friend or a loved one confronts us, shows us how what we said or did affected them, and in that mirror we don’t recognize the self that we see. It made so much sense when we said it; it seemed inevitable, and self-evident when we decided on that course of action. And yet somehow it took us to a place where we don’t recognize who we are.
I think this is why it’s so hard for us to admit our wrongdoing, because it doesn’t always look like wrongdoing to us, despite the way it results in real, observable harm. And if it’s hard for you and me, how much harder for a whole community, or a whole nation, to see that its own dearest-held ideals have led directly to suffering, loss, and death.
So what do we do? Do we jettison group or national ideals, or surrender the whole project of self-examination in the first place? No, but this is where our religion might start to offer practical aid after all, where its language of grief and petition offers a solid starting point.
If we are often strangers to ourselves, then so much the more is the world, our home, a strange and unfamiliar place, full of unexpected threats and injuries. Much of our religion exists to mark and articulate the pain and the longing which go along with such a state. In the Church, and especially in Lent, we are given permission as it were not to feel at home in our world, or in our lives. And we are given a language both to lament this state of things and to hope for something more, something better, something warm and familiar and secure, something full of life, with a future beyond the current horizon, even if it be something we’ve never seen or considered before.
Lent takes us right to the doorstep of Holy Week, and to Jesus’ passion and death. We know that our own Lenten wandering will take us, too, right to the gates of death and beyond. The promise is that when we feel most a stranger to ourselves and to our world, there God is near, there God is more familiar to us than we are to ourselves. There a different pathway begins beyond zero-sum games of mercy or justice, compassion or righteousness, life or death. There God’s love recreates us, into the people we were always meant to be. There God’s love refashions the world.
This Lent, as we give voice to our grief, and voice to our longing for a better world and a better heart, let us not shy away from feeling a stranger to ourselves or to our world. It’s okay, to feel that things are not all right, and that we are not at home. We don’t have to have all the answers. But we do have to articulate our grief, and we do have to place our hope beyond where we can see right now.
So God draws near: mysteriously, unseen, where we feel most estranged and confused, even angry and unbelieving. There God sheds whatever tears are left after ours have long dried up, and in the desert where they fall a new world begins.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.