March 5, 2017 - Putting Down Deep Roots in the Desert

This reflection is an adaptation of a homily I preached in Japanese at St. Clare's Parish in Santa Clara, CA. We used the readings for the First Sunday in Lent.

At the seminary where I study, we can take electives at the sister schools nearby, so this semester I am taking a course about Zen Buddhism at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. This week we talked about faith, and I learned that there are several ways to translate faith into Japanese. In Buddhism, they often use the phrase 信心, which means a trusting heart. Christianity uses the phrase 信仰, which means to trust in what you gaze at. When Christians look up. they see God above, so to have faith is to trust in the one to whom you gaze at up above.

In the gospel passage this week, we find the story of Jesus’ temptation in chapter 4 of Matthew’s gospel. In the liturgy, we often read the Bible piece by piece and occasionally lose a sense of the whole story.  In order to grasp the true meaning of the temptation, however, I’d like to trace the whole story of the initial chapters of Matthew’s gospel. The first two chapters are the Christmas story: the story of Jesus’ birth, the wise men, etc.  When we get into the third chapter, we see the figure of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus’ baptism, as you will recall, is his response to God’s call. In this community, last year we celebrated the baptism of two of our members, so I am sure that you here present remember what a baptism rite looks like on the outside. What about on the inside? The Scripture uses the metaphorical expression that a dove came down from heaven and that a voice could be heard from a cloud. I believe that Jesus’ experience was a profound confirmation of being loved by God. It was an experience of gazing up at God above, and receiving the strength to believe in this same God.

To return to the gospel story, after Jesus’ baptism, it says, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert so that he could be tempted by the devil.” The important point here is the expression “led by the Spirit.” Jesus did not make a mistake and take the wrong road. His temptation was the continuation of the experience of his baptism, I would propose. How does that sit with you?

I can explain the connection by going back to the Zen Buddhism class. The founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, Dogen Zenji, appeared in the twelfth century. He went to China to train and then brought back what he learned in China to Japan to found the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. The main temple is Eiheiji in Fukui prefecture. I had a chance to visit when I was an exchange student in Japan. Along with 信仰and 信心, Dogen came up with another expression: 大信根. The three characters mean: large, trust, and root. I think this expression can be helpful for we Christians to understand the meaning of Jesus’ temptations.

In order to answer that question, I’d like to offer one more example. In the 15th chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus uses the metaphor of the grape vine. Those in this community who know me know that I like red wine very much. I appreciate a member of the community who comes from Sonoma and brings red wine almost every time. Last year, when my parents came to visit me, we spent the night in Sonoma and visited several wineries. On one winery tour, the tour guide, in addition to letting us taste delicious wine, explained to us a little bit about wine production. In order for the grape vine to grow well, the root must go from 15 to 20 feet down in the earth. The reason is that, at that depth, there are plenty of water and nutrients. How do the vine cultivators make the grape vine go that far down? By planting it in a place without any shade and a lot of direct sunlight. In order to live in that environment, the plant naturally sends its roots down very far in search of nutrition and sunlight.

This description of a place with a lot of direct sunlight and little shade sounds like a desert or wilderness, doesn’t it?  He we find the purpose of Jesus’ temptation in his spiritual life, I would propose. It was to deepen that initial experience of God’s love. According to the gospel story, Jesus spent forty days fasting day and night in the desert, and during that time he was very hungry. The first temptation was a choice between the food he could provide for himself, a stone turned into bread, and the food that God could provide for him, something similar to the soft, white manna that the Jewish people ate in the desert. This story calls us to reflect as well on the extent to which we rely on ourselves and the extent to which we allow ourselves to be nourished by God’s grace. As the Jewish people wandered in the desert, the manna of God appeared every morning without fail. However, the Jewish people couldn’t store or otherwise control the manna. They could only trust that it would appear the next day. Can we too be nourished and led by God in the same way?

In the second temptation, the devil invites Jesus to throw himself off of the roof of the temple. The scene of him being rescued by angels would have certainly been a good sign. In true faith, no matter how hard we try, very few things unfold this way. Instead of signs and wonders, God seems to prefer to work in subtle ways. It’s like the way that plants grow, from a seed, before you know it, into a flower, and it reminds me the cherry blossoms that have begun to bloom. Can must abandon a way of thinking that looks for signs of miracles in the world and instead become people who are sensitive to the subtle signs of God’s presence? Japanese people in particular are known for their sensitivity to nature, so perhaps this community is naturally good at this way of seeing.

The third temptation is the countries of the world and all of their riches. In this community, I don’t think we have anyone who wants to be a politician, but at times we all can desire power. Our motives might not necessarily be bad; in fact, we may want to use that power to improve our cities, our companies, and our world. However, Jesus’ power is a power rooted in service that the world does not recognize.

Well, by examining these temptations deeply, I didn’t want to scare you, just to say that at times the life of faith is difficult. However, as we enter into Lent, Jesus is not asking us to engage in meaningless practices of penance. He is asking us to listen to the still voice in our hearts to deepen our faith. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate penance, just a personal one from the heart.

I will end with the story of a friend of mine. That friend lately has been struggling with some interpersonal issues. He tried to reconcile with some people, but they wouldn’t forgive him, so he couldn’t reconcile in the end. That friend, when he prayed about the situation, heard a suggestion from God.

“Every morning when you pray, light a candle for those people [who won’t forgive you]. You don’t have to do anything more than that. Leave the rest up to me. What’s more, the light of the candle will take away your guilt and heal your wounds.”

That friend’s Lenten penance is simple, yet very meaningful, isn’t it? In the midst of these interpersonal problems that feel like a wilderness of sorts, he has found a way to be led by God.

In your own lives, in your families, friends, workplaces, or even in today’s political climate, what desert places or places of wilderness do you experience? No matter how hard you try, what situations have ended in disasters where you have given up? This Lent, can you hand over your worries to God and try a small penance? You could pray a little every day, read the Bible, help an elderly neighbor, do some volunteer work. Such a penance would not be anything elaborate, but an offering to God from the heart.

By doing this penance, your faith will send its roots even deeper and find spiritual nourishment especially in difficult times of life. When the temptation in the desert was over, Jesus called his first disciples and gave the Sermon on the Mount. Strengthened by our Lenten observance, we too hope to bring about the Kingdom of God in this world.