This is a draft of the homily I preached today, the First Sunday of Lent.
This gospel passage (Mark 1.12-15) consists of only four sentences, but it tells two stories: Jesus’ temptation in the desert and the beginning of his public ministry. The first two sentences, the concise telling of the temptation, present a very black-and-white perspective, two extremes: the Spirit and Satan, wild beasts and angels. It’s very clear which is which, which is good and which is evil, seeming to suggest it’s always that way. If only it were. Or, is it?
I had intended to talk this weekend about my experience of visiting the desert last January as I began my sabbatical. I visited the desert near the Arizona-Mexico border with some religious sisters and the bishop of Tucson who are especially attentive to migrants, people from Central America and Mexico who cross that border tempted by hope, opportunity, security, family and friends already here. More specifically I was going to explain some temptations people confront as they cross the desert: illusions and misconceptions, mirages, false-hopes, bad advice; forces, temptations that sometimes lead them to walk in circles or in the wrong direction, to succumb to hunger, dehydration, desperation and even death.
That’s what I was going to talk about, but then Wednesday happened. And I began to experience my own temptation, maybe being guided through my own desert of uncertainty and fear.
Wednesday was the day 17 students and teachers were gunned down at their high school in Parkland, Fla. I wasn’t tempted by this tragedy immediately. To be honest, I was preoccupied with Ash Wednesday and things happening here, but even when I first the reports I was kind of blase; I’d heard that new report before. There’s a shooting at a school, a concert, a school, a church, a school, a nightclub, a school. The number of school shootings this year is being debated in some circles; the fact that such a thing is even being discussed is simply bizarre.
We all know the scenario: There’s a shooting, children or others are killed, there’s shock and the assurance of prayer and concern, flags are lowered, there’s outrage. Then, after a few days, our attention is drawn to the next big thing, the next bright, shiny object, and we move on. Until the next time it happens. As it did on Wednesday. Except, have you noticed, the window of shock and concern seems to be closing faster and faster with each new tragedy.
So I’ve been struggling with what or who is tempting me, the Spirit or another force, which leads to my temptation of uncertainty. I’m uncertain as to whether I should say something about this ongoing series of national tragedies or to just follow the usual script for the Sundays after these incidents: praying for the victims and those who grieve, praying for people afflicted with mental illness, praying that we might be guided beyond such ordeals.
Connected to the temptation to say something and not being sure of what to say is a temptation of fear. I’m torn within these temptations because I know that what I might say may not be heard as it’s intended, may not be received well, may be regarded as political and divisive by some, or inconsequential and trite by others; regarded as not my place, not in this place; too controversial, too irresponsible, too costly, too naive. Too much. Or, not enough.
And in the midst of this temptation, how can we not be haunted by the story of today’s first reading (Genesis 9.8-15)? Amid the splendor of creation, the wickedness of humanity leads to devastation and chaos. From the chaos of the flood, comes, remarkably, the assurance of a covenant, a covenant of God with you and me and every human being and every living creature. What do we make of that covenant amid the specter of this most recent act of human wickedness?
I say that I struggle with whether I’m being tempted by the Spirit or a contrary force, and yet I have to believe the Spirit is a far more dynamic force. While I’m still not sure of what to say, there is hope, maybe even confidence, that as people who share the covenant, who wander together in the desert, who strive to overcome temptation, that we will not be too hasty or too predictable or too harsh; that we will hold all of this up to the light of the gospel, that it matters that we center ourselves on Jesus, that we do take repentance seriously, that believing in the good news does matter. TL