We hear a lot about self-care these days. People are over-committed in a world that has become too fast and too busy. What does self-care look like for Jesus? It’s different than what we might first expect. At least part of it seems like a retreat. Jesus is sent into the desert seemingly without any food or camping gear, where he is tempted by The Tempter for forty days. And according to Melinda Quivik, the purpose of this desert retreat isn’t about proving how tough Jesus is. Instead the time in the dessert gives Jesus an opportunity to reveal to himself and to us, who he is. It’s more a gospel revealing Jesus’ self-identity, as opposed to a spiritual checklist getting ready for Lent.
The interaction between Jesus and the devil gives us an opportunity to see Jesus say “No!” Jesus says “No!” to all three temptations. In saying no, Jesus is separating the will of God, from the static that interferes with the divine will. I would like to explore the third temptation in greater detail.
Here we find perhaps the greatest temptation, namely the temptation of power. The Tempter challenges Jesus to bow down to him and in exchange receive the dominion over the earth. Jesus rebukes him, quoting scripture, “Worship God. Serve only God.” Here Jesus isn’t suggesting that we simply pray a little more or that we be a little kinder, although these are fine things. But rather Jesus is getting down to the heart of Christian faith, knowing who God is. Knowing who Jesus is. Jesus is the Child of God who rejects all forms of idolatry. Jesus doesn’t use his divinity to leverage power, but rather to serve others.
Jesus’ self-sacrifice goes against the very fibre of modern society. Often we are told that if we truly want to change the world, then individually we should amass as much power as we can. I want to consider one trope that has become especially tempting: the philanthropic billionaire. On the one hand it is good that people with that much money want to share it with others. Sharing out of our abundance is a good thing. On the other hand, it is the temptation that the philanthropic billionaire is the best model for changing the world.
The thinking goes, if only we had a billion dollars or several billion dollars, then we could solve the problems of our times. Take for example the lack of clean drinking water for Indigenous communities in Northern Canada. Rather than seeking collective solutions through government and other broad-base solutions, the temptation is to dream we alone could solve these problems given the chance. If we were a Bill Gates, then we could end homelessness, hunger, and poverty, with access to limitless resources.
Another version of this is the technocratic dream that often goes together with the philanthropic billionaire trope. The technocratic dream is placing all our faith in some future technology that will address all the other problems we’ve created through technology. Take for example the climate crisis, the idea that we just need Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk to invent our way out of the climate crisis. Again to be sure we need investment in green technologies and new science and technology to help us. But our salvation will never come through a technological solution itself. One reason placing our trust in philanthropic billionaires and entrepreneurs fails us is that experience shows they tend to consume many more resources, rather than conserving them. Many have not only private jets, yachts, multiple mansions, but some are even investing in space tourism. The hope is that one day other billionaires might be able to start a colony on another planet, perhaps Mars, so the rich can escape if climate change makes the Earth uninhabitable. The point here isn’t that billionaires and tech entrepreneurs are bad people. Any one of us would be faced with the same ethical dilemmas if we suddenly were granted this much power. And if any of us are so blessed in life that we are 1 out of 7 people in the world who create the next portal for electronic communication, may we be blessed with equal measures of humility. As Jesus responds to the Tempter in the gospel reading, immeasurable power is not something to which we should aspire.
What does life-giving discipleship look like?
If the dream of the philanthropic billionaire and technocrat will not set us free, to whom do we turn? The Gospel of Matthew points us towards one who does not put himself forward as all-powerful. Jesus’ reply to the Tempter’s offer of power is, “Worship God. Serve only God.” This statement tells us a lot about Jesus. He doesn’t see himself as a kind of philanthropic billionaire Messiah. Jesus doesn’t feel the need to get big and powerful in order to be who he is called to be in the world. Rather Jesus imagines his role as one of humility and serving others. Jesus’ divinity is revealed not in sitting atop a throne, with fine robes and jewels, or by occupying a position of power, but by self-emptying. Jesus recognizes that even as the Son of God, his calling is one of serving others.
This gives us encouragement when we think about our own place as the body of Christ. We are reminded that our faithfulness is also grounded in serving others. Faith itself is less about powerful leadership than responding to a call. There is humility in being church and this is something unique for us to share in the wider community. While people may not be overly churchy in the Pacific Northwest, people take notice when we are there for one another and for others in the community.
If Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the desert represents a kind of Lenten self-care, of discovering more intimately who he is, and what he is called to do, let us consider our own self-care this Lenten season.
First, sharing is caring. Just as Jesus shares himself with the world, so too we share with others out of the abundance God has given us. I think about sharing pancakes just last week on Shrove Tuesday. There is the gracious hospitality of preparing a meal for others, including neighbours at St. Luke’s across the street who joined us. Food brings people together. This reflects the sharing of a meal a bit later around the table.
I think about the kids who joined us first for hiding the Alleluia banner and then outside for burning the palms. There was excitement seeing last year’s palm fronds go up in flames. Knowing they are participating in making the ashes we used for Ash Wednesday.
The following Day on Ash Wednesday, some of us gathered for Ashes to Go over the lunch hour on the UVic campus. Unlike the kids who helped burn the ashes the night before, many students did not necessarily understand the why we were offering ashes. Since Christian symbols and stories can no longer be assumed to be familiar with many folks, we are always in search of ways of telling the story in ways that resonate with folks. This year we tried framing the ashes with language more students would understand. We called them, “Ashes for Dismantling Structural Injustice.” On Ash Wednesday traditionally we focus on Confession and Forgiveness, which is about confessing the structural sin or injustice from which we cannot free ourselves. Thinking again about the climate crisis, we all use resources to heat our homes, for transportation, for internet, etc. Even hard-core survivalists going off the grid are going to run into these tensions one way or another whether they like it or not. Even a hand-hewn log cabin is using trees, so it’s not about striving for purity, as opposed to confessing we are all caught in these webs and seeking greater harmony with creation. In addition to receiving ashes, we invited people to share intentions for dismantling structural injustice by writing them on a sticky note and placing them on a large board.
We were set up across from across the library and the overall reception was good. We definitely benefited from students showing up and participating in imposing ashes. Once there is a critical mass of people around our station, others students felt comfortable to check out what we were doing. Some students share an intention, others received ashes, while others were happy to engage in conversation.
Later at Wine Before Supper, a weekly ecumenical worship event we host at the Interfaith Chapel, some students were downright giddy invited to impose ashes on one another. As opposed to being a sad experience, many who participate were filled with joy and a sense of connection and humility.
In terms of Lenten self-care, I also think about Tuesday morning prayer which gathers on Tuesday, 8:30 AM in the prayer corner in the sanctuary. It is a time for sharing prayer concerns with people both within and outside the church. A way in which we can check in and have a better overview of which people might need help.
And then there is our evening Lenten series that begins this Thursday, 7 PM, in the sanctuary. We will be gathering using more of the Marty Haugen Lenten resource you have in your hands today. This will be an informal gathering with guitar-based music, and a discussion with those gathered around the gospel reading for the coming Sunday. One benefit is the focus over Lenten series. It’s for a limited time, so not a long-term commitment.
What are other ways in which we can serve one another? Ways in which we can be kind to ourselves? Recently I read the following meme which was shared by Elle Dowd, a Lutheran seminarian and leader in Chicago, which read something to the effect: in place of trolling, let’s embrace uplifting posts. What are ways we can lift one another up? Maybe someone needs some help with childcare, someone needs help with light housekeeping, someone needs a ride to an appointment, someone needs to hear their perspective listened to given our political climate, someone feels lonely and just needs someone to say hi.
In this way, instead of Lent feeling like something heavy, we can lighten one another’s loads. Maybe this includes doing something nice for ourselves. Going for a coffee at a favourite café, going for a ride on our motorcycle, going for a walk and enjoying the cherry blossoms, or whatever sparks joy for you.
Wrapping Up Wrapping up, the Gospel of Matthew, reveals to us a divine form of self-care that anchors us in the identity of Jesus. An identity that is rooted in humility and service to others. Steering us away from temptations of power, God invites us into a faithful living that builds community, grounded in love and grace. I invite you to think about one Lenten discipline you will embrace that builds up both you and a neighbour. Amen.