Some of you are aware that I served a congregation in the eastern part of Toronto and worked primarily with the church’s outreach programs. The signature ministry then was the Out of the Cold Program, our church hosted all of the homeless persons in the east end of the city every Friday night. My role was to recruit volunteers to cook and serve the meal that night, to be present overnight as the women and men slept on the gym floor and to be available for pastoral care from 5 pm when guests started arriving until 11 pm when most of the guests were sound asleep. Fridays were a long, often sad and heartbreaking and yet strangely satisfying. I had spent a considerable portion of the week recruiting volunteers from the local church, other local churches and the broader community. Watching the volunteers, the guests and the security women and men hired by the city (all of whom were formerly street people themselves) forming a weekly community was the focal point of my week, everything I did led up to these moments.
Kim, Lucy and I lived about a 45 minute walk away, due east from the church I would walk from the Chester subway station to the Woodbine station, where we lived. I walked home at 11 pm every Friday night along the Danforth. Kim was worried, a strange new city, a big city, late at night, her husband all alone. But I knew I was safe. My practice then, and now, was to walk briskly in the cold air talking to Jesus. All of the work through the week, all that I struggled with and was challenged by, the conversations that night, what I have learned and what brought me sadness and joy, I shared with my companion Jesus. And I shared this loudly. No one came anywhere near me.
It was a practice that carried over from my childhood and youth. Every walk to school, every walk to a sports game, to a friend’s home, to an event, to watch a movie or when I was umpiring on the Commons, I would walk and talk with Jesus, out loud, sharing anything and everything. I would talk, loudly, and knew Jesus was listening and then I would hear the quiet voice of Jesus, that certain and resolute wisdom that I could either accept or reject but not ignore. Jesus never promised to take away the struggle, the challenge, only to share a pathway forward and to be with me. The wisdom was not a magic potion to make all of the heartache end, rather it was a humble, courageous and just way to do the right thing, for me, for the other, for others. But to get this wisdom I needed to walk and talk, with Jesus.
Later, I learned what I used to think all of us knew, that the just often suffered, that the unjust often did not suffer. Getting older, learning and absorbing what was going on around me I knew Jesus was not connected to Santa-God. You know, the belief in a God whom sits you on “His” knee as He asks whether you’ve been naughty or nice and then either rewards you or gives you coal in your stocking. Santa-God died in my imagination a long time ago. For a spell there was little room for Jesus to walk beside me, I was intent on figuring it all out on my own. I succumbed to the temptation to believe it was all on me, no God, no Jesus, no Spirit, just me and my wits.
But in time I came to see and hear Jesus as “me and my shadow” again and thus came this discernment process, this walk with Jesus, where I would share my heart and let Jesus share his wisdom. And I still do.
The temptation every Lent, every day, is not so much the small stuff we fuss over, do we shade the truth, do we take only what is due, do we work hard and play by the rules, but the bigger questions we try to ignore or pretend don’t exist; why do I live as I do when so many others have so little, why do I do so little with so much, and what exactly am I making of my life? And as I navigate these waters I am tempted to do it alone, to believe that while there is a pious God who sits in the clouds, a stained glass Jesus who looks like me but in purer form, a Holy Spirit that sanctions what the church likes, not what the Gospels preaches, when it comes to discernment and action, I am alone.
Lutheran scholar Karoline Lewis writes, “It seems that no resistance of temptation is successful without the presence of God. And therein lies our promise. Not necessarily that we have the power to defend and deflect temptation. Not that we are capable of taking on temptation in the wilderness, or at least, I know I am not. Not so much that baptism or ritual or piety is our guarantee that will shore up the walls to keep out that which seeks to threaten our belief, our trust, our relationship with God…We are not asked to do this out on our own, which can be one major misinterpretation of giving up things for Lent. God tears away our every attempt to say, While I appreciate your help, God, I’ve got this. I can figure it out. We don’t want help. We don’t want to ask for help. Help is a sign of insecurity, exposes weakness, but more so, when it comes to issues of faith we are tempted to believe that God is absent. God has given up. Withdrawn. Why? Well, you name it. A whole host of reasons. Need any prompts here? Our parishioners sure don’t. They are fully aware that they are not worthy of God’s love which we tend to perpetuate during Lent. They are fully aware, as are we if we are honest, of those excruciating times when God is silent.”
The point of contact is not necessarily that Jesus was tempted yet without sin. That’s not helpful. I can’t be Jesus. No, way, no how. But, I can look at Jesus’ temptation, whatever it is, whatever it turns out to be, and say, God was there. God is present. In other words, what if we focus less on listing all that tempts us, less on some pep talk that we can deny all those so-called things that seek to get us to craft our golden calves, less on giving up the so-called temptations of our lives, and focus on true denial of that which tempts us the most. That we are alone.
You may remember this story from Luke’s Gospel. He will show you a spacious second-story room, swept and ready. Prepare the meal there. When it was time, Jesus sat down, all the apostles with him, and said, You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the kingdom of God. Taking the cup, he blessed it, then said, Take this and pass it among you. As for me, I’ll not drink wine again until the kingdom of God arrives. Taking bread, he blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body, given for you. Eat it in my memory. He did the same with the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant.
In other words Jesus told his followers that when they needed him, really wanted his presence, when they were desperate for a conversation with Jesus who saves, all they needed to do was sit down, share a meal and “remember him”.
One night at the Out of the Cold in Toronto I was feeling alone, I had a big decision to make and felt I did not know what to do, where to turn. I was used to organizing the meal for these 75 guests, making sure all of the volunteers were ready, that the food was ready, that the guests had everything they needed, including mats, blankets and pillows to sleep on when the meal was over. I remember one of the volunteers from the community, a Jewish man who told me he was the son of John Wayne of Wayne and Shuster, telling me I needed to sit down and share in the meal. I was uncomfortable, I had never sat down to eat with the guests, that wasn’t right, the food and the hospitality was for them, I had my own home, my own table, my own food. But this community volunteer saw something inside me he knew needed healing, needed connection, needed wisdom. And so he asked me to be seated. And I did.
As I sat and ate, passed the bread, the meat, the pitcher of water, I felt a presence. Jesus was there. This challenge I was facing, feeling alone, things began to clarify, I sensed Jesus was present. And there at the table the wisdom I was searching for came. I knew the answer. It would not be easy but the path was now opening and I could see my way out. I was not alone.
My friends Jesus is present. Jesus is here. Jesus walks beside us, Jesus sits at the table beside us, and Jesus and his wisdom are present in those hard wilderness places. Lent is about temptation, the temptation to imagine you are alone. Listen, share and be filled. Amen.