Matthew 4: 1-11

Lent 1A Grateful Series

March 1, 2020

Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth Winslea

As a youth and young adult the beginning of this season was always marked with a question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Generally the answer that followed was chocolate, or for the more independent of thought the answer sometimes was potato chips or french fries.

For centuries the practice of giving something up in Lent was tied to the spiritual practice of sacrifice and resisting temptation. Giving something up and facing the temptations that come during the forty days of Lent (six weeks minus Sundays) was a concrete way of people living out the story that we heard read today from Matthew - of Jesus’s time in the wilderness.

And while I appreciate that there have been countless people who have benefitted from some form of self-determined fasting, I wonder if somehow this tradition is not quite what we need today.

Amidst this story of a man facing temptation in the wilderness, what we see is someone, rather than being tempted by the sweetness of an easy life, is someone who is actually being challenged by the Adversary again and again to forget his identity. Jesus was tempted to make bread out of stone, but by Jesus’s response we can hear that it is not so much Jesus’s hunger that is being tested as it is his hunger for power.

Each time the Adversary comes before him Jesus is being offered the opportunity to separate himself from God and establish his worth through his own abilities. And each time Jesus responds by telling his Adversary that he will not tempt or scorn his God,

but rather keeps God in God’s place and himself in relationship to God.

What we have then is a story about the temptation we experience as humans to forget our Ultimate Source, our identity in God, the grounding from which we hold onto our sense of meaning and purpose in this life. The temptation we have to lose perspective on this life and give in to the very real fears and anxieties that chase us down.

In her book, Grateful, Diana Butler Bass quotes data that describe how Americans in 2015 were feeling more angry, discontented and unsatisfied than in any other time.[1] We reported feeling less optimistic, more anxious, more distrustful. Our public expression showed surges of anger, fear, division and intolerance.

This is not news to us. We have been living this reality, quite intensely for some time now. And we have all felt and lived the burden of this truth. What it means to feel under threat every time we turn on the news, when we think about our careers, when we ponder children and grandchildren’s future.

How often are you tempted to succumb to hopelessness? or fear of an unknown or rather undefined source? or perhaps feel anxiety stirred up by fear-mongering in our news media? I think it’s safe to say that each of us has had to face these cultural demons as personal ones on more than one occasion.

I am not talking about clinical anxiety or depression. Those are Adversaries of a different sort. And ones to take very seriously and handle very lovingly.

But rather I speak of the daily erosion of goodwill, hope and vitality that comes from falling prey to the temptations of our culture.  Our greatest temptations these days do not lie in the arena of chocolate and fries, but something far larger and looming.

Something that feels far more threatening and real in its omnipresence. Something that can far more significantly knock us off our course and make lose track of our identity.

We are daily fighting the temptation to give in to a culture that would have us bowed to its insistence on cynicism, fear and despair. And forget that we are children of the good news.

Really, we’re living Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights, every day and every night. We don’t need any Lenten practice to help us work on facing temptation.  ***

Now also in her book, in addition to the data about our dis-ease with life, Bass quotes a study that revealed in 2014 that almost 80% of Americans reported feeling deep gratitude at least once a week.[2] And she admits that this data confuses her when it is held in comparison to the data described earlier.

Thus, her book Grateful is an effort to look directly in the eye the need we have for gratitude and the way we might tend it better so that it has a deeper, more sustaining effect in our personal and our communal lives.

She writes, “Gratefulness is not a magic fix, but it just might be the bright star directing us to a new and better place.”[3]

And so this year, you are invited to attend to gratitude as your Lenten practice. Join your church community as we take the lead from Bass and really examine what role gratitude has played for us, and how we might develop a more robust practice.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes to remind the people of that community that our calling is to be grateful in all things.

Not for all things but in all things.

How might our practices of gratitude draw us back toward a center that grounds us in our full identity. Yes, as humans who struggle every day to keep afloat, but also as humans who are called and claimed by God as God’s dearest, beloved children.

How might gratitude be the strong solace we need when the woes of this life threaten to swamp our tiny life boats?

How might gratitude become a true and steady companion that helps us look with resolve at the ways of this world that would have us say yes to the temptation of cynicism and despair.

Let us take up the Lenten practice of fasting in a new way. Together let us go forward in the practice of gratitude. However that might take shape for us and for each of us.

Knowing that not only does being grateful help us face the temptation of anxiety and fear and despair, but that in turning from those wildernesses we can know some small measure of drawing closer to the heartbeat of God.

And that seems like a Lenten practice well-worth the effort.

Amen.

This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on March 1, 2020, at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.


[1]  Diana Butler Bass, Grateful, HarperOne, © 2018, xvii.

[2]  Bass, xiv

[3]  Diana Butler Bass, Grateful, xxiv.