A sermon for the first Sunday of Lent

When we talk about character, we mean that particular individual set of qualities that make people who they are. Their basic identity, in other words.

Character matters.

What you know about someone’s character can tell you something about how that person might behave in a situation they’ve never encountered before, a situation that’s unprecedented – that’s the word an investigator used in the movie Sully to describe the emergency the pilot faced when a bird strike took out both his plane’s engines shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia.

208 second later, Sully put the plane down on the Hudson River, without any loss of life.

Later, when the investigator commented on the unprecedented nature of this crisis, Sully was surprisingly cool about it.

“Everything is unprecedented until it happens for the first time,” he said.[1]

Those of us who watched the movie together here Friday evening learned something about Sully’s character from the way he handled that emergency.

We learned that he was unflappable under unbelievable pressure, that through skill and experience he had a sense of how to pilot his aircraft almost by instinct, and that he cared deeply about the people whose lives were in his hands – all very good qualities to see in a person you have to depend on in any unprecedented situation involving your airplane.

Character matters.

We learned something about Sully’s character by watching him in action. But how do you judge the character of someone you’re just getting to know?

I was thinking about that question last week, and I came across an article that suggested a few simple tests of character.[2] Some were sort of obvious, and some not. I thought they were good suggestions.

Number one on the list was: How they treat service people. Meaning not just whether they leave a nice tip, but whether they’re compassionate, whether they’re kind to everyone they meet, even people who don’t seem important.

Number two: Their reaction when someone hates them. Do they have a strong enough sense of who they are to not be bothered by what other people think?

Now this article was really more about friendship and dating than about faith, but I was thinking that Jesus could have passed these first two tests.

But the third test – well, maybe not.

Character test number three is, where they put the shopping cart when they’re finished with it. Do they give it the extra 30 seconds or whatever it takes to push the cart back to the designated area, or do they just leave it in the way, where someone else will have to deal with it?

That’s not the whole list, but I think you get the idea from these three.

In today’s Gospel, we get a different kind of three-point character test. We get three ways to know the character of the Son of God.

So let’s step back for a minute, and put this episode in perspective. The story comes right after Jesus is baptized at the Jordan River, and right before we see him begin his public ministry by calling some disciples and starting to teach and heal.

At his baptism, he hears a voice from heaven that says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and the next thing that happens is the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to be tested.[3]

The word that’s used here in the original can mean tested or tempted, and I do think it’s helpful to think of these as tests that show the character of Jesus, his basic identity.

There are three of these tests:

One: Will he use power for his own comfort, to satisfy his own hunger? We know that later in his life, he will provide bread enough to feed 5,000 hungry people. But here he turns down the devil’s suggestion that he turn stones into bread to feed himself. This is a man who is for others, not for himself.

Two: Will he test God’s faithfulness by throwing himself down from the highest point of the temple, just to see God’s saving power in action? Or will he simply hold that trust without forcing any proof?

Three: Will he let power be an end in itself? Will he sell himself out for earthy power?

His response to these three tests that show Jesus’ identity, his basic character. And in each case he demonstrates that he’s not someone who uses power to his own advantage. He’s a person whose fundamental orientation and commitment is faithfulness to his mission.

So Jesus had his time of testing – his 40 days in the wilderness – and it called on him to demonstrate his character, his true identity.

These 40 days of Lent are our time of testing.

This is a wilderness time for us in the sense that our Lenten disciplines call on us to put away the usual distractions and concentrate on what really matters in our lives. It’s an opportunity to take a good look at our own basic identity, and ask ourselves if there are ways we’ve failed to live up to it.

We start with those words of love to Jesus at his baptism, which are to us as well: We, too, are God’s beloved. That is the first source of our identity.

We talked about how we are loved by God at the first session of our Lent study group, which is based on what we call the five marks of love, or five marks of mission.

These five marks were articulated by an international gathering of representatives of Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church, as a summary of what our lives as Christians should be all about.

It’s not a checklist of things we have to do in order to qualify as Christians. It’s a list reflects the Baptismal promises found in our Book of Common Prayer,[4] a list that could serve as a sort of character test. These are the things people should see as indicators of our character if we are truly alive in Christ.

This is how God’s love expresses itself – in us and through us – when we live the promises of our baptism.

These “five marks” demonstrate what kind of people we really are. We are people who are committed:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation, and
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth[5]

The five points can be summarized as: Tell, teach, tend, transform, treasure.

It’s quite a list, and I’ll be honest, my first reaction was that no one person alone could do all those things. But as I thought more about it, I decided that statement is both true – and not true.

The whole project of Christianity isn’t something we do as individuals, is something we are – in community, as the Body of Christ. St. Paul was right when he said we have different gifts – “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.”[6] As a community, we bring those gifts together into something greater than any of us could be our own.

And yet in small ways, I think that even as individuals, we can – and must – tell, teach, tend, transform, and treasure. Because these are the things that show who we are, and what we’re made of.

People should be able to see what we believe by the way we live.

They should see the way we give ourselves to the service of others – not necessarily through formal “service projects,” but even just by the way we respond to people around us – even just by things as seemingly insignificant as how we treat service people.

When we talk politics, people should be able to tell that we’re Christians because the things we care the most about are the things Jesus himself cared about.

They should see that we’re careful stewards of this good earth.

They should know we are Christians because they see it in the way we live. And if that’s true – if they do, then we have passed our test of character.

Tell, teach, tend, transform, treasure: This is who we are. This is the identity we are always working toward – and we do keep working at it, because character isn’t something that’s formed at birth, it’s something we continue to develop with the grace of God throughout our lives.

To quote a line in one of the prayers in the “five marks” program that could be our prayer for all of Lent – and really, for our entire lives:

“We ask, O God, for the grace to be our best selves.”[7]

More and more every day.

Amen.

[1] “Sully: Quotes,” http://m.imdb.com/title/tt3263904/quotes. Accessed March 4, 2017.

[2] “5 Simple Characteristics That Will Help You Determine If a Person Is Worth Your Time,” http://elitedaily.com/life/5-simple-characteristics-will-help-determine-person-worth-time/. Accessed March 5, 2017.

[3] Matthew 3:17 NRSV

[4] BCP, p. 304.

[5] “Marks of Mission,” http://anglicancommunion.org/identity/marks-of-mission.aspx. Accessed March 4, 2017.

[6] 1 Corinthians 12:4 NRSV

[7] Five Marks of Love: Living Life Marked as Christ’s Own Facilitators Guide, 2016, p. 24.