It is the season of Lent, and again, come this first Sunday in Lent; we meet Jesus in the wilderness. There He resists. In the time honored tradition of a three part story, we are given a lesson about making and keeping human life—human. Here, as in our other gospels, the Lord faces and masters the various temptations which we also know. They include a kind of will to power, and a sort of pride, and a type of avarice. We come to church with some experience temptation and resistance and temptation. As the song writer says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment--which comes from bad experience’.
In many communities, including our own, the sun rises this morning, this Lenten morning, on experience of loss and hurt. This morning there are homes and families who have suddenly known unexpected loss. This morning there are friends and groups of friends who have been faced with mortal danger. At one breakfast table, a wife now sits alone, for the first time on a Sunday in 60 years. At another breakfast table, a family gathers for the first time, in a long time, and missing a member. It would help us to remember just how short our words do fall in trying to describe the depth of these moments. Our words arrive only at the shoreline, at the margin of things. Beyond this we practice prayer, a kind of sitting silent before God.
Our immediate community here along the Charles River today mourns unexpected losses in a recent, tragic fire. Along with the scripture and the music, amid the hymns and prayers of our worship, there walks also among us today, by the mind’s farther roads, a recognition of loss. There is some shock to loss. There is a kind of fear that comes with loss. There is, often later, an honest anger. There is some numbness. There is a real, and good, desire to do something helpful. There are questions, numerous and important. And there is the one haunting question, too, why?
We do not know why these things happen. We hurt, and grieve. In the bones. At the deeper levels, we just do not know, and for a community committed to knowing, and knowing more, and more, this means wandering in a serious wilderness. Give us an equation to solve. Show us a biography that needs writing. Provide us with an experiment. Happily we would organize a committee, or develop a proposal, or phone a list of donors. But loss, unexpected and unfair, is tragic. The tragic sense of life takes us out into wilderness, where we learn to resist.
Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.
We are in worship this morning to attest to something. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand. Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand. God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand. Worship prepares us to resist. So we see Jesus again in the wilderness. To resist all that makes human life inhuman. So here you are, come lent, come Sunday, come this Sunday.
This week you may, suddenly, find that a choice is required of you, through no fault, intention, planning or device of your own. Further, the choice you want to make perhaps could involve refusal and resistance: refusal of a request from an archetypal authority, resistance to a popular mood, resistance to an ingrained habit, refusal of the pleas of a friend. Russell Lowell predicts that at least once to every person and group comes such a moment to decide.
With all your heart you may want to refuse, to refuse. An invitation, a suggestion, a promotion, a direction, an order. Your heart may say: This is not me, not right, not good. Resistance always costs. Resistance means sacrifice. Resistance hurts. The slings and arrow of fortune's discontent draw blood. Resistance, refusal. Does such principled denial have a place in Christian living? Dare ask: Does God evoke and use refusal? Does Christ, God's everlasting Yes--in whom Paul says there is no longer Yea and Nay, but only Yes--Does Christ desire resistance and refusal?
For Daniel, refusal to give up his family name, his religion, his faith landed him, with the others, in trouble. You enjoy the story, I know. Daniel resists the order to blaspheme, and accepts punishment, even death. Bound in the heart of fire, the prophet of God is protected, strangely, by God who answers prayer.
For Naboth, refusal came more dear. Old King Ahab had every vineyard he wanted but one. He asked for the land. Naboth refused. He asked again, this time presumably in a more kingly voice. Naboth refused. Ahab asked again, with a hint of threat on his tongue. Naboth refused. And Ahab went whimpering to bed. Not so, Jezebel, who simply took Naboth aside, and cut off his head. Refusal can either cost you a king's friendship, or your head, or both.
John of Patmos did something to put himself out on the rocky prison isle, a first century Papillon, as he wrote his Revelation, our last Bible book. Refusing to worship Caesar? Names jeeringly attached to Rome--beast, satan, whore? Resistance to the more established synagogue?
What if I were to shout to you this morning that this church had received a magnificent bequest, a precious gift left us by an ancestor? Further, were I to announce that this one gift was worth more than all our buildings and all our current endowment and all our church program put together? Would you not dance, sing, soar?
You inherit a tradition of principled refusal, a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, a precious gift. A tradition of principled refusal.
Several summers ago an older woman was robbed at gunpoint in her own home. The newspaper, perhaps accurately, has quoted her in full as regards her view of this crime: "We are raising a generation of hooligans."
Pummeled still, even in old age, even in closeted retirement, the violent spirit of the age pounds at her, lacing her with blows left and right. Yet she resists! You may recognize her, now.
This was Rosa Parks. A younger Mrs. Parks found herself, seated midway back in a Montgomery bus, on December 1, 1955, pummeled again by the hand of aggression, the Strong Man of this world. For some reason, she refused to move. Bus stopped. Police came. Crowd gathered. Anger, shouting. The Montgomery bus boycott began. A tradition of principled resistance--this is your native land, your mother tongue, your home territory.
The prophets of old knew this. They spoke about God's unbending holiness. They spoke about God's own refusal to set a divine seal on any present moment, any present setup, any present arrangement of power. They spoke about human suffering, about how God sees, hears, knows, remembers, and intervenes for the suffering. They spoke about God's justice, critical of every established power. They refused. Here it is: "Prophetic speech is an act of relentless hope that refuses to despair, that refuses to believe that the world is closed off in patterns of exploitation and oppression." (Brueggeman).
My son had only one request for a gift one year. He showed me a catalogue that pictured a little grill, for cooking meat, “ A lean, mean fat reducing machine, guaranteed to reduce each average hamburger by 3 oz of fat--$59.95” Then I noticed the sponsor of this culinary instrument—George Foreman. And I inflicted a story on my son, as parents do.
In 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches of the century pitted Mohammed Ali against the world champion, George Forman. Kinshasha, Zaire. November 2. Ali predicted: "The most spectacular wonder human eyes have ever witnessed." 60,000 cheering fans, shouting, "Ali Bu Mal Ye", which antiseptically translated means, "Go get him".
Scenes: Forman charging, rounds 1-6. Forman 25, young, strong, powerful. Recently defeated both Frazier and Norton. Ali: 32, guile fitness and will. After 5 rounds, Forman arm weary and bewildered. 3rd Round, Ali leans to crowd: "He don't hurt me much". 5th round, Forman tantalized by the stationary target, angry, frustrated. Angelo Dundee had loosened the ropes! Ali, later: "The bull is stronger but the matador is smarter". Then, 8th round: "Ali is leaning back against the ropes, inviting the champion's hardest blows suddenly in the next instant he springs forward and brought Forman down. Down the strong man went, the first time ever he had been knocked out.
The historic Christian church in this country has been on the ropes for a generation, 30 years of blows to the midsection. God's spirit is not in a mode of lightening triumph, for those who would still maintain a real connection between deep personal faith and active social involvement. But the eighth round is still coming…
Those who may need to resist and refuse today are part of the spiritual rope strategy, the wearying of the Strong Man, the resistance of evil, the binding of evil. It's not pleasant. Hurt, setbacks, delay, confusion. But there is an eighth round coming! There is an eighth round coming!
How hungry the church is today to perceive this truth. God is at work, in part, to encourage and give stamina to those on the ropes, using Ali's rope a dope strategy, binding the Strong Man.
A tradition of principled resistance.
I can imagine an objection or two.
Well taken, is your perhaps silent objection thus far: some refusal is Godly, but some is not. Too often those who resist or refuse are simply petulant, immature, arrogant, slothful, idiotic, selfish. Agreed…But we speak here not of forms of hypocrisy, so many they are. Rather, we speak of principled resistance, which shows its character by enduring body blows, by leaning against the rope and aching.
Or, maybe you doubt that refusal takes a part of small stage play. Perhaps only the civil disobedience of Ghandi or the peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King or the risky French Resistance of Albert Camus stand out, great historic refusals, great moments of common endurance. But you would be wrong, I suggest, to think so. Most resistance is hidden, unheralded, unknown, unrewarded. Most principled refusal is known only to the one sagging against the ropes, the one catching the body blows. Most real principled resistance is very ordinary.
Tithing is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world's understanding of success and refusal to accept the implication that all that we have is ours alone. Worship is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world's time clock, where all time is meant for work or play. Marriage and loyal friendship are primarily forms of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world's low estimate of intimacy, refusal to accept the unholy as good. Choosing carefully is primarily a form of spiritual resistance: "We live in a society that primarily starves our soul...we have to really resist the culture to care for the soul...but...if we choose with care our professions and ways we spend our time and our homes in which we live, if we take care of our families and don't see them as problems, and if we nurture our relationships and friendships and marriages then the soul probably will not show its complaints so badly." (Moore)
You are a part of a tradition of principled resistance.
In 350, Philip of Macedon wanted to unite Greece, which he did except for Sparta. He did everything he could. Finally he sent them a note: If you do not submit at once I will invade your country. If I invade I will pillage and burn everything in sight. If I march into Laconia, I will level your great city to the ground. The Spartans sent back this one word reply; "if". (laconic).
You may not need this word today. You may want to remember it, though, especially if you are young. For one day, one day, you may want to use some of your spiritual bequest, your prophetic endowment. You may need to draw on the tradition of principled refusal.
Good news has it that along the ropes, and upon the cross, Jesus has bound up the Strong Evil, subverting by being subject to, and so empowered us to resist.
A year before he was executed by the Nazis, languishing in a small prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn:
"By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
and confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.”