You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Although we often think we don’t know very much about Jesus’ childhood, on reflection we may know more than we think. We don’t know where he went to school – I suppose we assume he was home-schooled. But we do know from Saint Luke that he was a bright child, and a good reader. The evangelist tells us as much when he reports that the twelve-year-old Jesus lingered in Jerusalem to kibbitz with the rabbis. So, he was a bright kid.
There are two other traits that the child Jesus may have been possessed of that I find myself wondering about. I wonder about these traits in Jesus because I also wonder about them in the kids who are our students at St. James School. We know, after all, that being a bright kid is not enough to accomplish one’s goals in life. Native intelligence might be important but it is far from everything that makes for a promising child who grows up to be a successful adult. In fact, we know that measures of native intelligence – like IQ tests – are not reliable predictors of success and happiness in life. Did Jesus have a high IQ? I suppose we are meant to imagine that it was off the charts, but I hardly think it matters.
Here in Philadelphia, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania has been suggesting that these two other traits are better predictors, among children, of success and happiness in life than measures of supposedly native intelligence. Angela Duckworth’s studies at Penn point to the importance of two traits: self-control and what she calls “grit”. Grit she defines as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.”
Now, it’s hard to say whether or not Jesus came by these two traits as a child, but I think it is worth allowing for the possibility that he did. By the time Saint Luke picks up Jesus’ story, he has reached the same point that Matthew reaches in the reading we heard today: the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the desert. Jesus is all grown up now, but we discover – reading of his temptation in the desert - that he is possessed of self-control.
Self-control is the great virtue of Lent. Give something up or take something on – it’s self control you are after. Resist temptation – whether it’s the illusions of the devil or the allures of chocolate – it’s all about self-control. Just getting to church is, in many ways, a project of self-control in a world that beckons you to spend your time and money a hundred other ways on Sunday morning. And in Lent, we suggest you come to church even more often – more self-control. Look at the habits of religious people: poverty, chastity, obedience – these all require self-control one way or another. Saint Paul said that of faith, hope, and love, love was the greatest. But I’ll bet you he’d have had no objection to saying that where religion is concerned, self-control trumps them all! So self-control is not only the great virtue of Lent; it may not be too much to say that it is the great virtue of the church, from which so many other virtues flow.
And Lent is supposed to begin with a call to self-control from the pulpit. God knows we could all use it – no one more than me. And by all means, I hope this Lent will be a time of deepening, strengthening, rewarding self-control for me and for you. I have no doubt that God intends for us to develop the habits of self-control for our own good, our success, and our happiness.
But if we look at Jesus and see only a Master of Self-Control, then we are missing something important. And the Gospels encourage us not to get carried away with this image of Jesus (think of him over-turning the tables in the Temple, or turning water into wine at Cana, or yelling at Peter to get a hold of himself (Get thee behind me, Satan!)). Jesus is not just the imperturbable Master of Self-Control. Because Jesus did not come into the world to build up a kingdom of self-control; he came into the world to save us from sin and death, and to usher in the kingdom of heaven. This work of salvation and kingdom- building requires something more than self-control. It requires grit: the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.
Frankly, it’s no great statement to proclaim that the Son of God is a Master of Self-Control; nor is it any great shakes to say that the king of kings and lord of lords has a tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. No kidding. But Lent is not a season for Jesus; it’s a season for us to learn from Jesus. And if all we were to learn from Jesus this Lent were a few exercises in self-control, that would be OK, but it would be only half of what we might learn. For Jesus did not go into the desert as a project in self-improvement. Jesus went into the desert to steel himself for the sustained and long-term goal of saving the likes of you and me, and everyone who hears him when he calls, and to begin the sustained and long-term work of building up the kingdom of heaven.
And during Lent, we are invited to examine our selves to see what traits we might bring to the table to join him in this work. Jesus asks us to join him in the work of salvation, because our salvation requires our participation – it will not be forced on us. And he asks us to join him in the work of building up the kingdom of heaven because, by his providence, he deigns that the kingdom should be built in part by human hands.
At Saint James School we have no control, obviously, over the native intelligence (if there be such a thing) that our students bring with them. And we do not worry too much, because, frankly, it is not a very reliable predictor of the happiness or success that awaits them in life. What we have some greater control over is the task of teaching our students habits of self-control, and of grit: the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long-term goals. Kids from needier backgrounds have less self-control and grit on the shelves and in the drawers, and lying around the home, so to speak, than kids from wealthier backgrounds, just as they tend to have fewer books. But just as books can be added to their shelves, so can lessons in self-control and grit. And we are trying hard to help our students accumulate greater shares of these two important traits.
But what about you and me? Maybe we have started Lent with a little exercise in self-control: giving something up for Lent. And this is fine, as far as it goes. But during these forty days, we might also want to consider that Jesus is asking us to become grittier Christians: the kind who can sustain interest in and effort toward serious long term goals, like building up the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus needs gritty disciples. He needs gritty disciples who show up week after week to worship him, who take on projects of service that require long-term commitment, and who decide that they are in it with Jesus for the long haul.
Jesus needs gritty disciples who are not easily distracted or discouraged - because there are lots of distractions around us, and it’s easy to be discouraged.
Jesus needs gritty disciples who imagine a church and a world that is better than the church we currently have, better than the world we currently inhabit.
Jesus needs gritty disciples who realize that the kingdom of heaven is built on small victories, and that pilgrimage is made one step at a time.
Very little has been accomplished in the church, or in the name of Jesus without grit, when you stop to think about it.
So as we begin this Lent, I wonder if, in addition to practicing our self-control (and I have already failed at my Lenten discipline several times in the last 24 hours), we might add some grit to what we hope to get out of the next 40 days or so. If we do so, I think we can be assured that we are following our Lord’s example.
For it was not just self-control that guided him through his life and ministry and passion. It was grit that was the look in Jesus’ eye when he set his face toward Jerusalem.
It was not just self-control that he exercised in the face of temptation in the desert: it was grit that sustained him, and that he drew upon to stand up to the devil.
It was grit that carried the heavy load of his Cross through the streets of Jerusalem all the way to Golgatha.
It was grit that strengthened him as the nails were driven into his hands and his feet.
It was with grit that he entrusted his mother to his beloved disciple.
It was grit that stirred in him the forgiveness of those who knew not what they did to him.
It was grit that moved him to welcome the repentant thief to paradise with him.
Grit for Jesus was the vision of his kingdom of peace, forgiveness, justice, and righteousness that God seeks to build among his people.
It’s true that we live in a society that struggles with self-control. And it’s true that most grit in America is now directed at other goals: like fighting wars, winning elections, or making money; or among the more virtuous, like curing disease, or making art. But Lent calls us to remember the traits that we need to accomplish what God has called us to do. You don’t need to be especially smart, or have an unusually high IQ – in fact such smarts may be of no use whatsoever. Self-control will certainly help, and it’s good to practice during this season of fasting and self-denial.
But if Jesus is asking us to emulate him in Lent, then I expect he is also asking us to find a measure of grit within ourselves: to sustain our interest in and effort toward the long-term goal of building up his kingdom.
In this day and age it has become increasingly tempting to believe that such a goal is foolishness, impractical, and unattainable. And without grit, a kingdom of peace, forgiveness, justice, and righteousness probably does seem foolish, impractical, and unattainable. Which is why God is calling us to be a gritty church, not merely a self-controlled church – a church with a strong tendency to sustain our interest in and effort toward the long-term goal of building up God’s kingdom, right here in our very midst.
God bless us these forty days of Lent. God help us to exercise self-control as we train ourselves for the work he calls us to do. And God make us gritty, I pray, to keep our hearts and minds trained on the long-term work of building up his kingdom – these forty days, and all the days of our lives.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The First Sunday in Lent
9 March 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia