"Small, strange intrusions" by Mia Benjamin

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
— Luke 4:1-2

Mia is an Emmaus fellow serving at Grace Episcopal Church in Medford. She lives in our intentional community in Allston. She preached this sermon on February 14, 2016 for the first Sunday in Lent.

“I haven’t been to church in a long time,” two men admitted to me sheepishly on Wednesday. One of them, an older gentleman on his way to drop off his dry cleaning, said it had been thirty years. The other, slouched in his nursing home chair, looked above his head and joked about the ceiling tiles falling in on him. “That’s okay,” I said, and I reached up and reached down to smudge dark ash across two grateful foreheads. “This was meant to be,” said the man with his dry cleaning. “Amen,” said the other.

For two hours this past Wednesday I stood on the sidewalk with Cindy, offering ashes to stranger after stranger. We were struck by a startling observation. It was often the most reluctant folks, the ones most determined not to make eye contact or the ones most asleep on two feet, who, surprised out of their stupor, consented to receive. One woman, pretending not to hear my question, kept walking three or four steps past our sign before halting in her tracks and turning to answer me. “Actually…yes. Yes, I would.” Another changed her mind entirely and came back, right as we were leaving.

Most of the time, I think of interrupting strangers as the height of rudeness. After all, isn’t that what the devil is doing in today’s Gospel from Luke? Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, enters into the desert to fast and pray in solitude for forty days, when the devil inconsiderately intrudes. “Hey Jesus, you’re looking hungry, I dare you to turn this stone into bread.” “Hey Jesus, look at all this power, I dare you to take it.” “Hey Jesus, if you’re so loved and cared for, I dare you to jump from here.” When I see the devil as the great distractor, Jesus is the stoic meditator I long to become. In this imagining, Jesus deftly dismisses annoying pop-ads, easily turning from temptation to refocus on his disciplined prayers. Jesus optimizing his 40-day spiritual productivity, refusing to let Satan get in the way.

How many times have I approached Lent that way, with renewed determination not to get distracted by my vices? Forty days of super-focused self-improvement where I try as hard as I can to be like Jesus, resisting temptations of chocolate, gossip, Facebook. And year after year, every single one of those forty days feels like a test of will. Why can’t I be as strong as Jesus?

Then I stood on the sidewalk for two hours in the cold bothering people. Then I heard Noah’s sermon at the Ash Wednesday evening service, where he invited us into a Lent of Waking Up, and of noticing where we’ve fallen asleep in our lives. In that imagining, Lent is the interruption itself. Lent is that weird woman in a cassock on the street asking us uncomfortable questions, right when we’d really rather concentrate on getting things done. Rather than a focused time of doing things right for once, Lent returns to its roots as a departure from the bustling urban centers of our lives, a retreat into the wild desert outskirts, where we surrender all control.

The author of Luke writes, “After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” If we examine this passage again, Jesus is having a full-blown conversation with the devil, this personification of all the worst parts of our human nature. Jesus doesn’t ignore the devil. Jesus answers him.  

What if the work of Jesus’s 40-day journey wasn’t about the fasting and the praying? What if Jesus deliberately enters the wilderness to seek out the devil, to confront the darkest and most desperate parts of his own humanity? This need for food, this desire for power, this all-consuming yearning to be loved and saved and protected by God. What if Satan’s tests represent the essential struggles of Jesus’s identity and mission, the ones he really needs to figure out before plunging into his ministry? After all, soon Jesus will conjure loaves of bread for the hungry. He will be asked to prove and claim his own authority. And he will journey to Jerusalem to lay down his life. Perhaps these questions tell us more about Jesus than they do about ourselves. Maybe the devil has different questions for us, if only we would indulge in a bit of distraction.

What if Lent not about getting better at ignoring temptation but about confronting the nature of temptation itself? Not about practicing dismissing our inner demons, but about finding out what happens when we turn and face the devil? What questions does he have for you?

This Lent, I’m embarking on a journey of self-examination to discover how my life can better reflect my values and faith. The first step on that journey is to notice the barriers I’ve built between myself, God, and others that allow me to ignore unsavory questions I don't have answers for quite yet. This new challenge, this practice of Growing a Rule of Life,* is in part the discipline of making the conversation with my inner darkness explicit. What's behind the tiny little choices I make every day, that in turn make up my life?

It can be pretty scary to interrupt other people, especially when you don't know anything about their lives. But I've found it can be scarier to interrupt myself, especially since it makes me realize how little I know about my own. 

So this Lent I invite you to interrupt yourselves, and yes, to interrupt each other. Question the questions and dare to pray not for the will to swat them away, but for the will to find your answers. I invite you to question the systems and the structures in your life and in our society that protect us from being distracted by our weakness, our humanity, and the nakedness of our sin. It’s time to seek out the conversations you and I and all of us have been avoiding.

Most people we offered ashes to said no. That’s okay. But just like those two men left pondering the way church somehow intruded itself into their lives once again, I like to think that each person at least stopped to wonder at the question and all those small, strange intrusions in our lives that could become conversations if we let them.

*Mia is participating in "Growing a Rule of Life" curriculum developed out of the practices and teachings of the Brothers of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge and in West Newbury, Massachusetts (www.ssje.org ). They are a community of men living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ together through the ancient monastic traditions of prayer, worship, study and service, living under a common Rule of Life. The course she'll be facilitating at Grace Episcopal Church in Medford on Sundays at 4:00pm is designed to bring useful elements of monastic spirituality into our everyday lives. The course was co-authored and produced by the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at the Virginia Theological Seminary.