Stones to Bread and Other Temptations

Passage: Matthew 4:1-11
Date: February 18, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Well, Lent is upon us again, and we find ourselves starting out on a path that always begins with wilderness and temptation. If we know the stories of our ancestors we know that wilderness and temptation take us back to times that are almost prehistoric, to a story of wandering in the wilderness not for forty days but for forty years, when a people who were not yet Israel were tempted to abandon their journey to the promised land, and to follow easier gods who looked a lot like a calf made of gold.

Lent is upon us and the wonderful people on the Worship Committee took me up on the suggestion that our theme for this Lenten season be “sticks and stones.” The theme lends itself to interesting artistic expression and a wide possibility for preaching. Today’s story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness from Matthew’s gospel includes the imagery of stones, as the devil tempts Jesus to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread.

It’s understandable that Jesus was hungry after fasting for forty days in the wilderness. The bigger picture of hunger was as real in Jesus’ day as it is in our world today. A person could go hungry, or die of hunger or malnutrition, for a variety of reasons. If the late rains didn’t come in January or February, that meant a low yield for the crops. People who were more physically vulnerable – children and women – were more negatively affected by having less food than they needed. And if people left the ancient social safety net of the village or family and made their way to the city where they had no connections, they became beggars for even morsels of bread. Studies show that men who left home for the city survived, on average, 18 months after leaving home; women who did the same survived six months.(conversation with Richard Rohrbaugh, 2/15/18)

Hunger was real, and we know from the gospel stories that Jesus cared about people’s well-being and wholeness, that he cared about people getting their daily bread. So if you are a compassionate person and you see hungry people, and if someone with power offers you an easy way to feed those people, what do you do? If you’re been living in the wilderness for a few weeks and you’re desperately hungry and maybe not in a position to make the best of choices, what do you do? If you’re Jesus, and the person making the offer is the devil, you say no.

To the hungry person, this might seem like a stupid or mean choice to make. I like to think that Jesus realized that an easy yes would have really complicated consequences, like giving up power, like giving in to someone who does not have the good of the people as a priority, like turning your back on God. Jesus’ response is rooted in humility and faith – he is humble enough not to grab easy power, and faithful enough to trust that God will provide what is needed.

I will admit this story bothers me a bit, because it makes clear that hard situations are usually not best resolved by easy answers. It reminds me a bit of the story of the starfish. A man is walking along a beach where thousands of starfish have washed ashore. One by one he throws them back into the sea. Another person sees him doing this, and asks why he bothers, since he can’t save all the starfish, so his actions don’t really matter. The man replies, “It matters to this one” and throws another starfish back into the water.

I applaud the man’s efforts, but I also really want part of this story to be someone looking into why all the starfish are washing up on shore. I love the fact that we donate food to Northeast Emergency Food Program and Mainspring, and cook for Grace Meals, but I also want to have a deep conversation about why people are hungry and what we can do about it.

And this week, when on Ash Wednesday another shooting happened at another school in our country, I want to have a deep conversation about why this keeps happening and what we can do to stop it.

Our thoughts and our prayers are a good place to begin, and for any of us who have ever grieved, it is comforting to know that someone is offering support and sympathy and asking God to help. But let’s not be tempted by the idea that our thoughts and prayers are all we need to offer. I think that the issue of mass shootings is complex, and there is not a simple answer. It’s not a matter of turning stones to bread.

I eavesdropped on a friend’s Facebook conversation, and I appreciated the nuance of response. This friend of a friend is a school teacher and talked about one of her students, a loner who may have had an undiagnosed mental illness, as well as some kind of social pathology, a student who acted out again and again until he was expelled and lost. This student had threatened others and attacked a teacher. If this student had had access to guns, who knows what would have happened.

Mass shootings do not happen anywhere else in the entire developed world like they do in the United States. I think the issue of mass shootings here is complex and nuanced and terrifying. It is a tangled skein of so many different threads – 
of an irrational adherence to the Second Amendment; 
of too-easy access to automatic, rapid fire, dozens-of-bullets-per-minute weapons; 
of social isolation; 
of a culture that shares images of horrific violence at the drop of a hat; 
of rage; 
of the inability to have reasoned conversation with each other about this; 
of our failure to adhere to an ethic of love and nonviolence.

How deep is our sin that after the Columbine and Sandy Hook killings, we did nothing to change the status quo?

I know that men and women who care about this issue of mass shootings often work on one of the threads in that tangled skein. Some are advocating for different laws. Some are advocating for better access to mental health care. Some live out an ethic of nonviolence in ways that are nothing less than inspiring.

I think that the church has a unique voice on a different thread. When I read about the perpetrators of these crimes – in Parkland, in Orlando, in Las Vegas, in Charleston, in Sandy Hook, in Columbine, and in too many other places – a portrait emerges of a loner, of an angry young man who felt abandoned by his community and turned to violence.

We’re the church. We know this kid. And we have something to offer him. We offer him community. We offer him honesty about his behavior and grace to do better. We offer him space. We offer him a different narrative.

I don’t know if that works, to be really honest. But I do know that social isolation creates a world of hurt. The people in Jesus’ day who were most susceptible and vulnerable were those who were socially isolated. The majority of those in the U.S. who kill by mass shootings are socially isolated. Marry that with an easy access to all sorts of weapons and the tragedy becomes almost inevitable.

The church is a place of community. It is a place of welcome for those who are like us and those who are not. And if we’re welcoming only those who are like us – those who think like us, look like us, talk like us, believe like us – we’re taking the easy way out and turning stones to bread that will not satisfy us, sustain us, or give us life.

Recently a wonderful church member said to me that he wished I would tell people what to do in my sermons.(I think he’s in the minority.)That’s not usually my style, but I think I’ll take his suggestion for today.

If you are horrified or grieved or furious that last Wednesday seventeen people were killed in and around a school, then please do something.

Please do pray for God to give the grieving some measure of comfort, because the amount of comfort needed can only come from God. And please do pray for us, that we will come to our senses and do the right things that will lessen the chances of one more mass shooting. And please do pray for the shooter, not because you want to, but because Jesus tells us to. And Jesus knew something about being the victim of terrible, unjust violence.

But please don’t let praying or posting on Facebook be the only thing you do. If you feel our laws are inadequate, advocate for better laws. Bombard your elected officials with e-mails, phone calls, letters, postcards, and tweets. Join an advocacy group like Everytown for Gun Safety or Sandy Hook Promise. Use the power of your vote.

If you don’t know enough about this situation, read up on the statistics of gun violence in the United States. Become informed. Be informed about the trauma that the survivors and the families of the victims endure for the rest of their lives. It is excruciating to read their testimonies, but maybe the pain will jerk us out of complacency.

If you’re a parent with kids in school, I feel your anxiety, and I want you to talk with your children about noticing the loners and the kids who always go see the principal. Talk with them about being brave enough to talk to that kid and what happens if they do. If you’re a teacher, God bless you; I know you already care for those kids who struggle to fit in, who struggle with knowing they are loved and valued and priceless.

It’s so tempting to play it safe and easy, isn’t it? The devil knew that when he came to Jesus. He knew Jesus was so vulnerable after being alone in the wilderness for forty days, fasting, fending off wild animals, dealing with the elements, wondering what he was doing there.

I understand that we feel vulnerable – there is a lot to be afraid of. But taking the easy way out will not lead to good long-term consequences. Staying safe in our own social circles, knowing only people who are like us, shouting at the news without doing anything about it – that’s easy. It requires nothing of us but the status quo. God wants more for us than that.

In a few minutes we will baptize two of the youngest members of our community. I had the joy of visiting Charlie and Logan when they were just days old, which is the best part of my job. When we baptize them, you will be asked to promise that you will love them and teach them about Jesus; we will pray that they will know joy and peace.

We’re making a promise to them today, that by word and more importantly by deed we will show them that God is the one we follow, and no other person, no other ideal, no other force.

How deeply will of we live out our promise to these boys, to all the children who have been baptized here, to the children of our nation? How will we help them learn to say no to their own temptations? What will we do to ensure they have meaningful, love-filled lives? 

What will we do to ensure they have life?