Sunday, February 17, 2013

Always a Narnian

Preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria VA, on the First Sunday of Lent, 2013


Among other things, Christians are a story-telling people. Stories connect us to something bigger than our individual lives. Stories shape they way we think, the way we feel, even the way we communicate. Even here, in this church, stories are being told without words, told through the mediums of stained glass, stone, and wood. Take a moment to look around you, and notice the abundance of signs and symbols. If you’re visiting today, or you’re new to the community, ask an usher for a copy of ‘Outward and Visible Signs“, a book explaining the ‘stories’ of all these symbols at Grace Church. In the stained glass, stories are told of the saints of old. The story of the wonder-working passion of Jesus is told through the carvings hanging on the wall, the Stations of the Cross. Throughout this entire building, stories like these are silently yet powerfully told just by virtue of these signs and symbols surrounding us as we worship, pray, and feast in this building.

Even this pulpit tells a story. 5 carvings of influential Christians encircle the foot of this pulpit, Christians whose lives inspire us in our own journey of faith. One of these carvings was a master storyteller himself. Clive Staples Lewis, C.S Lewis, is memorialized in a beautiful carving right at the tip of my left foot. This was a man who gave his entire life to the art of storytelling. A professor of Medieval Studies at Cambridge, he was committed to retaining and retelling the ancient myths and legends that humans used to make sense of the world in the past. This was a man who understood the absolute significance of telling stories, of using words to give shape to the human identity, of how people often tell someone else’s story in order to make sense of their own stories. And the world ought to take notice and be impressed that C.S. Lewis, this master storyteller, was so convinced of the truth and power of the Christian story that he returned to the Church of his birth after years of wandering through life as an avowed atheist.

And it is in the midst of one of Lewis’ stories, The Silver Chair of the Chronicles of Narnia, that a passage so profound and moving comes to those who would dare to journey with Eustace, Jill and the ever-so-surly marsh-wiggle, Puddleglum. In this story, Puddleglum is captured, along with Eustace and Jill, by an evil-witch who is doing everything she can to convince him that the world above, the world of Aslan the Narnian King, simply isn’t real. And this is his most moving response to her arguments: “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.”

In the face of death, in the face of a competing story, in the face of the possibility that his life’s story may be superceded by the evil witch’s, Puddleglum remains utterly convinced of his story…utterly convinced of its power to give shape, meaning, purpose, and hope to his life. And all this coming from a marsh-wiggle, notoriously surly and pessimistic creatures. And I realize that preaching through the lens of a children’s fantasy may seem a bit trite, but there’s something about Puddleglum’s speech that rings true as we enter this Lenten season. As I was reminded of this moving speech, and I pondered the Scriptural lessons for today, I couldn’t shake the question, “Am I really convinced of the Christian story?” Because it simply doesn’t make sense to enter a season of self-denial, or penance, of willingly journeying with Jesus towards the cross of Good Friday if I’m not convinced of the Christian story.

Our lesson from Deuteronomy bears witness to a people convinced of their communal story. And, we certainly catch of a glimpse of a people commanded to deny themselves, and to sacrifice in honor of the LORD: “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” The Israelites suffered much during their journey through the wilderness, and yet they were still called to sacrifice and make offerings to the LORD even when they enter the Promised Land, the land that God has given to them.

The lesson seems entirely appropriate for Lent, given that it illustrates a people who are called to sacrifice in honor of the Lord their God. Like the Israelites of old, we bring our lives before God in response to God’s grace and in the hope that we will enter the Promised Land of Eastertide. But there’s something deeper going on in this text. Something more than just obedient, mechanical sacrifice: “When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The sacrifice and offering of the first fruits of the land only makes sense in the context of the story that has gone before…the story that provides the context in which the sacrifice and offerings become meaningful. Without this story, without the wandering Aramean, without the captivity in Egypt, without the Exodus and the wandering in the desert, sacrificing the first fruits of the land wouldn’t be meaningful. The sacrifice simply wouldn’t matter.

And, I would like to think that it’s the story that gave the people of Israel the strength to journey onward through the desert and into the Promised Land. The strength to give the first, and best, fruits of the land…fruits that certainly must have been so appealing after spending an eternity in the parched and arid desert. But they were convinced of this story. They lived it. They breathed it. And so, when they had to sacrifice in faithfulness to their story and in honor of the LORD, the true author of their story, it was not so much a sacrifice of penance but a sacrifice of thanks and praise.

And, I would like to think that Jesus was making a sacrifice of thanks and praise as he resisted all the temptations the devil threw at him. Here, we have another story so appropriately suited for Lent. Our Lord withdrew and, led by the Spirit, endureed forty days of temptation. He ate nothing at all and by the end of it is famished. Weakened by the desert’s heat. Weakened by fasting. Weakened by resisting the temptations thrown his way.

And yet, in his weakness, he resists. How? How does our Lord find the strength to resist when the temptations are so attractive? Jesus, the incarnate God, possesses the power to make bread from stones, to soothe his empty stomach, and yet he chooses hunger. He indeed is the Lord of all, and yet he refuses the devil’s offer of immediate power at the cost of worshipping him. He is the beloved of the Father and yet he refuses to betray the Father’s trust and abuse his status as God’s beloved. All of these things he refuses, and willingly embraces the desolation of the desert. Why?

Because of the story, and the truth of God found therein. Like the Israelites who entered into the Promised Land, Jesus is one whose story is caught up in Israel’s story. And so, though he has the power to not just banish the devil but to vanquish him right then and there, Jesus decided to fall back onto the strength of the tradition, the strength of the written words of the Law, the strength of the story: “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

With one wave of his finger, Jesus could have obliterated the devil, but instead he resisted him with the power of the story. Jesus’ life and spirituality is so formed by the stories, narratives, and writing of his Jewish heritage that in the midst of temptation, when assaulted by the devil, Jesus didn’t miss a beat. The Law became the very words of life for him, the words that kept him alive in the face of death incarnate. Jesus was convinced not just of his own power to resist temptation and his own power to vanquish evil, but he was so convinced of Israel’s story, of God’s truth, that he relied on those words and those words alone to resist the devil during his own personal Lenten journey.

Jesus’ time of fasting and weakness wasn’t done to show how spiritually superior he was, or the extent to which he could push his body. He went into the desert to pray, to meditate, to prepare for his life of sacrifice. And in the midst of that preparation he faced the greatest temptations from the devil. But his belief that the writings and stories of the people of God were utterly true allowed him to return to his conviction that faithfulness to God in the face of temptation is something worth sacrificing for. His sacrifice and fasting wasn’t meaningless.

And so here we are, on the first Sunday of Lent, beginning our Lenten journeys. And many, if not all, of us have taken up a discipline that we might present ourselves holy and living sacrifices before God. But in this space, this moment, ask yourself the question, “Am I really convinced of the Christian story?” May your answer lead you into the greater depths of the story of redemption , and may your heart be kindled by the flame of conviction as you embrace these 40 days of fasting.

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