Setting the Table for Grace (1): Amid Glittering Distractions
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
We are right to be concerned that every year the season of Lent begins in the wilderness. Harsh, uncompromising desert, where death is but a step away through exposure, dehydration, starvation, poisonous snakes and . . . . Satan. But if Jesus walked the way that led there, then maybe we should pay attention and figure out why. A reading from Matthew in the fourth chapter, at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church. [Matthew 4:1-11]
Lent for me is a rhapsody in blue.
You know the dazzling Gershwin piece (if only as the music accompanying the safety video on United Airlines!). Starting with a signature wailing clarinet glissando, it’s a masterpiece that flaunted conventions of the day and celebrated invention: a collision of blues-y wistfulness and unabashed bravado. I studied a piano version of it in college, and chose to perform it for my senior recital. Long before I’d mastered the music, I’d picked out the dress I would wear —dramatic, off-the-shoulders and of course blue. Rhapsody in blue. The piece was daring and probably above my skill level. But I had listened to it on a record a thousand times, and had apparently adopted the Harold Hill “think” method of instruction. I could do this! But no I couldn’t. My piano instructor made me practice it slow—ly with a metronome. Section, by section; sometimes measure by measure. Figuring out the fingering and taking fast sections the speed of a dirge. Practicing the syncopated rhythms again and again and again. I rebelled. No! This is supposed to be jazz, free and flashy, not methodical and strict. Gershwin himself performed it before he’d written the piano part down and told the conductor just to wait for his nod before bringing back in the orchestra. In my mind, I had concluded that accuracy and technique could take a backseat to my own improvisational brilliance.
Lent is a rhapsody in blue. This Christian walk will take your breath away with its heady joys and transcendent perspective. It will thrill you by connecting you to the soul of the universe and engaging your heart with the melodies of love and compassion. It is daring and it matters.
. . . and it’s probably above our skill level. Loving one another, let alone our enemies, is hard. Forgiving people who have hurt us is difficult, especially when you know you’re right and they are wrong. Putting the good of others ahead of our own is practically impossible. Showing kindness and mercy doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Lent is our teacher, calling us practice, to work on bite-sized chunks of faith over and over and over again, and to make time and space in our daily lives for this discipline.
What keeps us from actually doing this is not primarily evil. Yes, we may be tempted at times to cross the line; stretch the truth; bend and even break ourselves against a rule—and I’m not minimizing the challenge these temptations pose. But a far greater threat to living as followers of Jesus are the glittering distractions that capture our attention and take our eyes off the prize.
In Jesus’ own wilderness experience, Satan tempted him with things that were not in and of themselves evil: changing a stone into bread; calling for divine protection from personal injury; ruling the kingdoms of the world. In fact, Jesus went on to do all these things. He changed water into wine. He fed thousands with a few loaves of bread. He healed the sick and lifted up people who life had broken. His followers worshiped him (still do in fact) as ruler of the universe, over all earth’s kingdoms.
Jesus resisted the Devil’s offers because to have chosen any of them would have distracted him from his true calling. He might have at commanded the attention of a multitude glad to give their allegiance to someone who could provide material things and safety from all danger. To compromise his primary loyalty to God —even for a good cause (ruling the kingdoms of the world with justice and wisdom and righteousness) —would have been a giant swerve from the path to which he had been called. And Jesus didn’t come to do these things. He had another mission. By God and by grace he resisted the lure of short-term successes and immediate gratification in favor of the unfolding plan to defeat the world’s death and destruction with light and life. He didn’t settle for less, not then and
not ever. With singular focus he circled back out of the wilderness into his life with God and other people. . . .
That’s where he beckons us. Come, follow me. In Lent we come face to face with the reality that this piece is hard and will come to us only by way of discipline. That word “discipline?” —It’s from the same root as “disciple.” To be Jesus’ disciple means to practice what he taught and how he lived, until we get it right.
The year of Rhapsody in Blue was coming to an end. My senior recital was six weeks’ away. On a Sunday afternoon I got a call that my dad had had a heart attack. Two speeding tickets later, my sister and I arrived at the hospital, and learned he would recover. It’s funny how suddenly things get clarified sometimes. I laid into the piece as never before, and though my dad wasn’t able to attend the performance, felt his presence as my fingers flew over the keys. Rhapsody in Blue: orderly pattern and utter freedom, wistfulness and joy and something else. It wasn’t mastery—I fell far short of perfection—-but there was grace. . . . the power behind and underneath all my practice that would bring forth the music no matter what.
Friends, the season of Lent is a kairos moment—a special time offering untold opportunity to engage discipleship as never before. This morning I invite us all to recommit ourselves to our calling: to love God with our whole heart, strength, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For some of us that may mean letting go of something that draws our attention away from that focus. Personally, I’m resolving to fast from social media every Friday during Lent. I’m going to put down my iPhone and tablet and interact with live people. A minister friend in another town gives up sarcasm for Lent. Every year. Some people may find it more meaningful to try a new practice—praying or reading the Bible or making particular effort to attend worship, taking on a new ministry, volunteering, serving. The goal is to refocus and rebalance lives that are too easily skewed; too easily distracted. In the silence that follows, write it down on the purple slips of paper inside your bulletin. You can place your intention in the offering plates when they are passed, or bring it when you come forward for communion, and lay it at the foot of the cross.
Welcome to Lent. May God grant us grace to go the distance. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. There will be music: soul-stirring, life-giving hallelujahs at an empty tomb. Amen.
Charge and Blessing
The charge this morning comes from someone for whom distractions can mean literal life or death. I have trained all my life not to be distracted by distractions… ..says Nik Wallenda, acrobat and high wire artist, known for working without a net. Friends, go out from here in peace, to love and serve with daring and discipline. But unlike Wallenda, know that when you fall, you will be caught in the arms of God—and may God’s love, Christ’s example, and the Spirit’s presence accompany you today and always. AMEN.