March 5, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: 1 Kings 19:8- 13; Matthew 4:1-11
There’s a story of three women who were having lunch together. One said to the other two, “I don’t know what’s happening to my memory! I go to the refrigerator to get something and when I open the door, I’ve forgotten what I wanted. I ask myself, “What Am I Doing Here?” One of the friends responds compassionately, “I know just what you mean. Sometimes I walk into a room and then go blank. I ask myself, ‘What Am I Doing Here?” The third woman swallows her mouthful and says. “Thank God I’m not in your shoes yet. Knock on wood. Who’s there?”
Regardless of our age or mental status, I think that we’ve all had those moments when we ask ourselves “What Am I Doing Here?” And the season of Lent is a time when we are invited to consider that question very specifically and at a deeper level. “What Am I Doing Here?”
Both scripture passages that Laura read today are stories that talk about events that take place in forty days. Forty is a special number in scripture. It is mentioned 146 times. The number forty generally symbolizes a period of probation; that is, a time of testing and trial to ascertain fitness or a time to achieve suitability. The number forty can also represent a human generation, since when the scriptures were written forty was generally considered a lifespan. There are some goals that are lifetime processes. In the Hebrew Bible, forty (forty days or forty years) often refers to time periods which separate “two distinct epochs. ( Rain fell for “forty days and forty nights” during the Flood. The chosen people were slaves in Egypt and after forty years in the dessert, were free people in the Promised Land.) So putting these meanings of forty together, we see that though our whole life is a time of trying to become more Christ-like, these forty days of Lent can be understood as a period where we make a special effort to deepen our relationship with the divine; a time when we identify and work to remove obstacles to intimacy with the God of our understanding so that the person that we were before Lent has changed by Easter. We can say, “That was me then. This is me now.” Or, in St. Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.”
So what do we do during this sacred time period to bring about this growth in our spirituality? In our first reading this morning we heard that Elijah traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And then, in the morning he heard the Lord ask, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He is told, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” He was invited to step out of the comfort of his cave so as to experience a more profound encounter with God. And then Elijah discovers God’s presence not in the dramatic expressions of nature, but in a simple breeze. Elijah needed not only to act, but to be attentive and patient.
We, like Elijah, generally try to live a good life and yet like him are urged to step out of our cave and stand on the mountain, to be attentive and to be patient so as to experience God’s supportive presence. What is our cave? What is our mountain?
In our second story, the newly baptized Jesus goes into the desert to spend forty days preparing for his public ministry. He goes because, as scripture tells us, he is led; not impelled, but, like us, invited. And once there he’s probably asking himself, “What am I doing here? What is my father specifically asking of me?” It is then that the devil appears to tempt Jesus. Jesus declines each temptation, because what the devil is offering, material goods, security and power, are not what Jesus needs.
Both stories are about the virtue of Simplicity. The story of Elijah and his experience with God on Mount Horeb tells how God lives in the quiet in the midst of a world that keeps getting louder and more sensational. And in the story of Jesus, he is able to overcome his temptations because he can distinguish between the earthly desires that come and go and his true needs that are everlasting.
Like for Elijah and Jesus, the discipline of simplicity can help us keep our gaze focused on the divine. Simple living or voluntary simplicity encompasses a number of different practices. It is a manner of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich, a deliberate choice to live with less in the belief that more of life will be returned to us in the process. It may include reducing one’s possessions. Simple living may be more an attitude adjustment of individuals becoming more satisfied with what they have rather than overly focused on what they want. So, voluntary simplicity might lead to the decision to limit expenditures on consumer goods and services and to cultivate non–materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with material goods in themselves. Simple living does not denigrate the physical aspects of life. It’s more about determining how much consumption is enough for me. Sometimes, our preoccupation with material goods; acquiring them, paying for them and/or protecting them can be a serious distraction to what really matters and can even cause anxiety and spiritual unrest.
Remember Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want . . .? Phillip Keller, in his book A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23, describes what happens when a sheep is cast down. It finds itself on its back, all four legs straight up in the air, and unable to get back up. The attentive shepherd will set it back on its feet, massaging life back into its limbs. The shepherd restores the sheep.
What causes the sheep to become cast down in the first place? Sometimes it’s because it wanders off into soft spots. But most often it’s simply a result of having too much wool! The sheep’s fleece becomes very long, heavily matted with mud and burrs and other debris so that it is weighed down with its own wool, rendered totally helpless and useless.
Wool in the Scriptures is an interesting symbol. No high priest was ever allowed to wear wool when he entered the Holy of Holies. It spoke of self, of pride, of personal preference and the priest believed these things would bog him down.
A few years ago Tom and I were at a sheep farm in New Zealand and watched a shepherd pick up a sheep, as big as himself, flip it over on its back and sheer it in less than two minutes; ending up with one whole pelt, legs and all. Sheep do not particularly enjoy being sheared, but it must be done and when it is over, there is a great relief. There is no longer the threat of being cast down and there is pleasure in being set free from the heavy coat. Set free to follow the shepherd once again. Something to consider when we pray the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, and want our souls restored.
A number of religious and spiritual traditions encourage simple living. Examples of individuals who chose living simply include Gautama Buddha who began the religion of Buddhism, biblical Nazirites (notably John the Baptist) Jesus who encouraged his disciples “to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.” Benedict of Nursia, who wrote the Rule of Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Leo Tolstoy, Tagore, Albert Schweitzer, and Mohandas Gandhi.
Voluntary simplicity need not be about material things at all. It may focus more on attitudes and activity in the quest for calm, balanced, integrated lives; less clutter, less artificiality, lessened impact on nature, the elevation of quality over quantity, time over money and deepened relationships over busyness.
What do you love doing but don’t do enough of? Could voluntary simplicity help free up some more time and energy? Perhaps too many commitments, projects, memberships, involvements are distracting me, taking time away from what is most important to me at this time. Maybe I have to shed my life of guilt, shame, resentments, or regrets. Maybe the need for control, worry about what others think, anxiety about the future or ambition is the wool weighing me down.
Voluntary simplicity involves both an inner and outer condition. It requires intentionality. What am I doing here? In entails sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to my life goals. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves deliberate choices about one’s life for a purpose.
What Am I Doing Here? Is my stuff and are my activities helping or hindering me?
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most people, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.”
Macrina Wiederkehr talks beautifully about Lent in her book Seasons of Your Heart. She says, “We are fragile vessels whose love often gets tired. We need to be converted over and over again. And so, the healing act of our growth continues. We empty ourselves that we may be filled. We uproot that we may proclaim. We take off our masks. We call forth gifts. We bless. We wash feet. And somewhere between the shedding of our masks and the foot-washing, we discover that it is not so much what we do that touches lives as who we are becoming.
Who are you called to become. We would do well to ask ourselves, “What Am I Doing Here?” In this forty day epoch what cave are you invited to leave? On what mountain are you called to stand?
Many of us here come from a tradition in which we were encouraged to fast during Lent. I’d like to end with an exhortation from Pope Francis. This Lent, he says,
Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so that you can listen.
During these forty days we need food for the journey. And so together, we gather at the table.