I always think of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis when I read the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent, particularly this year when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation as told by the Gospel writer Luke. In the book, C.S. Lewis pens a couple dozen imaginative letters from Screwtape, a Senior Tempter in the devil’s bureaucracy, to his nephew Wormwood, who is in charge of tempting one particular man. The letters present an incisive look at the moral and spiritual life through the lens of that which might lead such a life astray. The book is wildly creative and written so well that sometimes you find yourself agreeing with Screwtape and then realize you got suckered in by the temptation. This book is just so good.
Sermon for Sunday, February 18, 2018 || Lent 1B || Mark 1:9-15
The Gospel of Mark differs from the other accounts of the gospel by telling a sparer story. Mark provides less detail, less dialogue, and less delay in his sixteen chapter account. Everything in Mark happen immediately after everything else. Each scene rushes headlong into the next without a chance for us readers to catch our breath. This Sunday’s lesson is no exception. If you were expecting the story of Jesus’ temptation today, you got it; at least, you got the ten words Mark devotes to that particular story. This is an example of Mark’s style: his gospel often gets right to the point, no frills. If Mark’s gospel were a car, it would have been the first car I ever owned: a 1992 Mazda Protege with a manual transmission, roll down windows, and only two cup holders. But hey, I loved that car.
Sermon for Sunday, December 13, 2015 || Advent 3C || Luke 3:7-18
I think the Gospel lesson I just read sounds harsher than it really is. Notice the last line: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” Either this means that the “good news” came in these other exhortations spoken off camera, or everything that John says is to be considered “good news.” I think it’s the latter. Of course, good news doesn’t usually begin by calling people a “brood of vipers.” John the Baptist is not exactly a people person; after all, he’s spent a lot of time by himself in the wilderness. He’s definitely a loner, unlike his cousin Jesus who comes on stage in a few verses and who surrounds himself pretty quickly with a group of friends. But even though John’s social skills may have suffered from his solitude, he’s astute enough to know the crowds expect a spectacle. And he gives them one right off the bat by calling them a “brood of vipers.”
In Matthew’s account of this story the name “brood of vipers” specifically targets the Jewish leadership, but here in Luke’s account, John broadens this designation to include everyone in the crowds (which includes us, by the way). My favorite modern translation of the Bible renders this verse with a little less fervor and a little more silliness: instead of “You brood of vipers” it’s “You children of snakes!” Not quite as punchy.
But I don’t think John is naming the crowds “children of snakes” simply to give them the spectacle they desire. Rather, he’s pre-empting an argument they might make after he instructs them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” This pre-empting continues when he says, “Do not even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ ” In other words, your heritage does not make you bear good fruit nor give you a free pass. The crowds may be “children of Abraham,” but they are also children of snakes. And be assured that everyone in the crowd would hear a hissing of the memory of Adam and Eve’s temptation in the garden when John names them a snake’s descendants and talks about the fruit of the tree.
Thus, in just these opening lines of John’s exhortations, he sets up the duality inherent in all of us. We are none of us entirely good or entirely bad. We are children of Abraham (that is, children of God’s promise) and we are children of snakes (that is, children schooled by separation, temptation, and distrust). I bet each of you has had, at one time or another, these two natures war within you. In real life this war is much less comical than the angels and devils sitting on the shoulders of old Looney Toons characters.
Most often, the war plays out between what is right and what is easy. You can have a reasonable discussion in the wake of a disagreement or you can punch below the belt with slurs and hurtful epithets. You can stand up for those in need or you can ignore their plight. You can tell the truth or you can lie. Everyday, we face choices like these. And everyday, the whispered power of God contends with the hiss of the snake. Every time we listen to the snake, we end up just a bit more alone and isolated than we were before, which makes us so much easier to pick off. Every time we listen to God, we resonate with the song of love and faith and freedom – we sing and dance and exult and fall down weeping in gratitude for God’s gift of grace.
But if that’s the case, if the whispered power of God is so attractive, then why do we give into temptation as often as we do? The simple answer is this. Giving into temptation involves doing absolutely nothing because doing absolutely nothing leads to complacency, and complacency is the root of so much of the world’s despair. That’s why John warns the crowds not to get too comfortable in their heritage as Abraham’s descendants. And that’s why he gives them something to do: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Food and clothing: if these were dispersed fairly throughout the world, a lot of problems would be solved. It was true in John’s day. It remains true in ours. The world has enough, but this “enough” is divided poorly. And we don’t work to change this reality because the one thing the world has too much of is complacency.
If you’ve ever wondered why we confess “things done and things left undone,” now you know. Things left undone make us slip into complacency and from complacency into despair. The whispered power of God invites us to get up like the paralyzed man at the pool, take our mats, and walk; to say with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”; to leave our nets like the fishermen and follow Jesus. But too often the hiss of the snake lulls us back to sleep. Every time we hit the snooze button on life, the duality of nature skews further toward the snake, towards complacency.
So why does John call people a “brood of vipers?” Why does he dunk them under the cold water of the River Jordan? To shake them out of their complacency. To remind them that God is and always will be moving in their lives, urging them to serve and love with active passion and fervor. It’s no wonder then that we prayed what we did in today’s collect. Did you notice the power you invoked a few minutes ago? “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
Are you ready for this? I’m not sure I am. There’s still way too much child of snake in me to desire the wind of the Holy Spirit to stir me up and push me to God knows where. But it’s too late now. The prayer has been prayed. And now it’s up to us to partner with God to see how God’s power will be revealed. Perhaps, you will find this power in new courage to face a difficult circumstance or in new patience amidst uncertainty. Perhaps you will find this power in advocating sensible gun control on this third anniversary of the shooting in Newtown. Or in welcoming a stranger to our community, maybe a refugee family fleeing terror.
However the whispered power of God manifests in your life, know that it is and always will be stronger than the hiss of the snake. The inertial force of complacency is powerful too, but it is no match for the Creator-of-All-that-Is. Remember, it might seem like we’re just sitting still, but in reality we’re spinning at about 800 miles per hour around the earth’s axis. And if that’s not fast enough for you, we’re also moving at about 67,000 miles per hour around the sun. And that’s not even thinking about what our galaxy is doing in space. Talk about being stirred up.
The power we invoked during our collect this morning keeps this universe moving. And it keeps us moving, always ready to harness our birthright as children of the promise and to participate in God’s mission here on earth. During Advent, we don’t wait for the Lord in complacency. No. During Advent, we don’t wait. We prepare.
Art: Detail from “Baptism of the People” by Andrea Del Sarto (1515)
Wednesday 4:45am. My six-month-old daughter is screaming and has been for the last hour and a half. I’ve been doing what the method we’re using says to do: go into the nursery every five minutes and say the same script. Don’t pick her up. Just assure her you’re there: “It’s time for sleeping baby girl. Mommy and Daddy are right outside. We love you very much.” Then leave, start a new five-minute timer, and hope she settles down. Over the last six weeks or so, most nights have been pretty good. The twins are waking about once per night, but going back to sleep after a bit of nursing. We’ve been getting used to this wonderful new routine.
But Wednesday something is different. My daughter will not settle down. She just keeps screaming. With each five-minute check, my patience wears just a little thinner, which is bad because you’re supposed to be calm when you go in and say the script. During each five-minute interval, I sit at the top of the stairs, watch the timer, grind my teeth, and resist the urge to start banging my head against the banister.
By about the ninth or tenth interval, I am downstairs pacing the living room. And a new voice has joined the cacophony upstairs, a voice inside me telling me to let loose my frustration. “Stomp around. Punch the couch cushions. Kick over the laundry basket. It’ll help.” So I punch the couch cushions for a bit, swearing under my breath. And you know what? It doesn’t help at all. It just gets me more worked up. The only way to help my daughter calm down is to be calm myself, and punching couch cushions is not exactly the ideal definition of serenity.
So the questions I have are these: why do I perpetuate this pattern every time one of my babies has a bad night? Why do I give in to this irate voice time and again? And a final question, one which the voice does not want me to ask: where do you come from? When I’m calm enough to ask this last question, I see with sudden clarity my interior landscape. The demonic forces, of which the irate voice is ambassador, are marshaling to attack. They control a small, but strategically significant piece of my inner territory, and they want more. They want me to give in to anger and pride and the desire to isolate myself. Isolation, you see, makes me an easier target. And anger and pride are to these demonic forces like the marbling in a rib-eye steak. One look at their territory tells me why they want more. They’ve spoiled it: polluted the rivers, clear-cut the forests, and trampled the grass until all that’s left is mud sticking to their boots.
On the other side of the battlefield, the territory of God’s kingdom stretches to the horizon: Vast tracts of land waiting to be tilled and cultivated; fruit trees in blossom; rivers overflowing their banks with fresh, living water. But as my eyes scan this interior landscape, I’m horrified to discover no heavenly forces marshaling to defend God’s side of the battlefield. There are no walls to keep the invaders out, no minefield, no anti-infantry firepower of any kind. Surely the demonic hordes clamoring behind their pickets will overrun and despoil this good land.
I look again. Why aren’t the hordes charging? Why hasn’t the attack begun? And then I realize the horde has no leadership. No one down on the battlefield is in command. Demonic forces are experts, I’m sure, at disobeying orders, but you have to receive an order to disobey, and the horde hasn’t received one. They just stand there, calling out challenges and cruel taunts – to no one apparently, as the other side is empty.
But then, as I continue to survey this inner battlefield, two things dawn on me. First, their challenges and cruel taunts do have a target: Me. And second, they do have a commander. Me again. They won’t charge into God’s territory until I cede it to them. They will do all in their power to trick or persuade me to do so, but until I give in, they’re stuck in their own little cancerous kingdom.
Then a third thing dawns on me. My daughter is finally asleep again and the sun is rising outside. The sun rises over my interior landscape as well, and I look closer at God’s territory. It seemed so empty when I was focusing on the hordes clamoring for martial action, when all my attention was drawn by the demonic forces trying to force-feed me anger and pride. But now that I’m focusing on God’s territory I see the emptiness was just an illusion; a reverse mirage, so to speak.* God’s territory isn’t empty. It’s full of God’s love and grace: so full, in fact, that my normal narrowness of vision misses the fullness completely.
The season of Lent, which we began the same day as my daughter’s early morning wakefulness, offers us the invitation to expand our normal narrowness so that God has even more interior space to fill. We accomplish this expansion, paradoxically, by doing its opposite – by fasting. A fast is a series of intentional choices not to partake of something that has power over us. Most often we think of fasting as having to do with food, but that’s only if food has power over you (and it does over many Americans). But each of us has those things – the correct term is “idols” – to which we cede God’s territory within us. Whatever your particular idol is, that’s the thing from which you should be fasting. Right now mine is my anger at my own frustration when my babies don’t sleep when they’re supposed to.
I found the phrase “anger at my own frustration” in the Litany of Penitence, which we pray on Ash Wednesday. The Litany gave me the language I needed to put my idol into words. If you have trouble discerning what your idols are, take a look at the Litany. You can find it on page 267 of the Book of Common Prayer. I invite you, during this season of Lent, to take an honest look at your interior landscape, see what demonic forces are marshaling at the edge of God’s territory, and then choose each day to fast from whatever the horde is persuading you to do – or not do.
Fasting is our way of telling those demonic hordes that there won’t be a battle today so you might as well go home. The more we (their commanders) fail to issue the attack order, the less interested those forces get in standing sentry at the battle lines. They get bored. They retreat, not because they have been beaten, but because the internal violence they so revel in never occurs. As they retreat, God’s territory nips at their heals; replants the trampled, muddy ground with fresh orchards; and reclaims the land as God’s own. And the little cancerous kingdom diminishes.
I commit this Lent to fast from the anger my own frustration causes me. I hope you will join me in your own fast, whatever it may be. Don’t listen to the voices urging conquest. Instead, allow God’s territory to grow rampant across your inner selves. And then be part of the same rampant growth of God’s territory out in the world.
*I’m pretty sure I got this idea from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which I just read again, but I can’t find where it is in the book.
Sermon for Sunday, March 9, 2014 || Lent 1A || Matthew 4:1-11
If you asked a certain subset of people to describe in one word how they relate to you, what might that word be? Your child might say, “Daddy” or “Mommy.” Your wife might say, “Husband.” Your husband might say, “Wife.” Your boss might say, “Employee.” But there’s one description that tends to override all the others, especially here in the United States. That description is the one given you by the Marketing Department. That description is “Consumer.”
We consume about a quarter of the world’s energy, and yet we make up only one twentieth of the world’s population. Several of our most popular ways to die involve over-consumption of food or drink or drugs. I mean, have you seen how they deliver French fries at the restaurant Five Guys? They fill a cup with a fairly generous, but not outrageous, serving and then dump three or four more scoops into your bag! Who could possibly eat all those fries?
In our society, we fill ourselves up with fast food and fast cars, all the while buying stuff that we tell ourselves we need, but we really don’t. We fill ourselves up with anxiety over making sure our lives and livelihoods are secure, all the while ignoring the vast majority of people who will never have security. And we fill ourselves up with the sensational, yet banal, details of the lives of the rich and famous, all the while daydreaming about what we would do if the paparazzi followed us into a restaurant.
We fill ourselves up by hoarding stuff, by worrying about our security, by coveting fame. We fill ourselves up until there’s no room left within us for anything that we ourselves didn’t squash in there, until there’s no room left within us for God.
In the Gospel reading this morning, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness immediately following his baptism. After more than a month in the wilderness, Jesus meets the devil. And the devil can’t pass up such a juicy opportunity for temptation.
“See that rock over there,” says the tempter. “I bet you could turn that rock into bread and fill yourself up.”
“See the ground way below,” says the tempter. “I bet you could jump and be secure in the arms of angels who would never let you hurt even your foot.”
“See the kingdoms spread all over the world,” says the tempter. “I bet you’d be the most famous ruler of those kingdoms who ever lived if you first swore fealty to me.”
These three attempts at temptation make up the industry standard. Worrying about getting stuff, getting security, and getting fame – they’ve worked for centuries, thinks the devil. Surely, they will work on this Jesus fellow. Not to mention, Jesus has been out in this wilderness for forty days. I’ve got him right where I want him, thinks the devil. Surely, the industry standard temptations about stuff, security, and fame will work on a guy who has been living out in the elements alone with no food for forty days!
Of course, the industry standard temptations fail. Jesus isn’t worried about getting stuff or being secure or finding fame. Why not? Well, the devil has misinterpreted Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Rather than being a benefit to the devil in the tempter’s scheme, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness help not the tempter, but Jesus himself.
You see, Jesus wasn’t just killing time during those forty days. He wasn’t twiddling his thumbs waiting for the devil to turn up. Jesus was fasting.
A fast is a way to make a space, to open up a hole within ourselves. A fast is an active and difficult denial of something that has influence over us (traditionally food, though fasts certainly are not limited to that area). When we fast, we forego the things that we usually use to fill us up, the things that we mistakenly depend on to keep us going. And when we cease to fill ourselves up with all the junk of the world and all the anxiety about our own security and all our envy of the famous – when we cease to fill ourselves up with these things, we make room within ourselves for God.
Fasting intentionally opens up a hole for God to fill. When we clear away the rubbish that has piled up in our interior selves, we make a space for God to come in and dwell. And the more interior square footage we devote to God, the better we will be able to listen and respond to God’s movement in our lives.
This is just how Jesus fends off the devil in the wilderness. After forty days of fasting, he’s not empty, but full – full of God. Notice that each time the tempter goes on offense, Jesus dredges up from within himself words of scripture that speak to the believer’s relationship with God.
“Bread alone can’t sustain you,” Jesus says. “But every word that God speaks gives sustenance to creation.”
“I’m not going to jump off the temple,” Jesus says. “I don’t need to test God to trust God.”
“I’m not going to bow down to you,” Jesus says. “I serve God, and only God instills in me the desire to worship.”
Jesus combats the industry standard temptations of stuff, security, and fame. He beats off the tempter by filling himself up with God. And he fills himself up with God by emptying himself through fasting. During our own forty days this Lent, how will we make spaces within us for God? How can we clear away the rubbish so that God can move in and walk around? We can make a start by choosing to fast.
If you tend to fill yourself up with stuff you don’t really need, then promise not to buy anything beyond basic necessity and you may find basic necessity is more than enough. If you tend to fill yourself up with worry about the security of your livelihood, then stop and pray when you find anxiety setting in and you may find new sources of blessing. If you tend to fill yourself up with desire to live as the rich and famous do, then skip the grocery aisle magazine racks and you may find enough fame within your own close circle.
As you deny yourself the things that normally fill you up, actively invite God to enter the newly cleared space. Choose to fast. Clear away the rubbish, hollow out your insides, and give God a place to fill.
(Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2012 || Lent 1B || Mark 1:9-15)
Every year on the First Sunday of Lent, we hear the story from the Gospel that tells about Jesus’ time in the wilderness. We hear this story on this particular Sunday because Jesus’ forty days off by himself, fasting in the arid austerity of the desert, are a model for our own forty-day Lenten journey. Last year, we heard Matthew’s telling of this tale – an eleven-verse treatment, complete with the devil’s three-pronged attack on a famished Jesus. The year before that, we heard Luke’s version, a full thirteen verses that recount the same story as Matthew does. Now, if Matthew and Luke spend on average a dozen verses on this story, then you might be wondering whether you nodded off during the Gospel reading from Mark a few moments ago and missed something. Where was the dialogue between the seductive devil and the stalwart Jesus? Where were the temptations: the bread from the rock, the leap from the temple, the view from the mountain? The answer is that I didn’t read them because they aren’t there. And I can assure you that you didn’t have time to nod off, no matter how sleepy you are.
Never one to spend his words frivolously, Mark gives us a grand total of two verses on Jesus’ time in the wilderness. “And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s all Mark has to say on the subject. So, to keep you all from feeling gypped by a two-verse Gospel reading, the framers of our lectionary tacked on a few verses before and a few verses after Jesus’ time in the wilderness. And I’m so glad they did.
I’m glad because Mark’s rapid style progresses from scene to scene with such haste that the individual scenes cannot be isolated from one another. Indeed, I don’t think Mark intended for them ever to stand alone. Rather, taken together like the three panels of a comic strip, the three short scenes we read a few minutes ago tell the concise story of our life of faith.
Here’s the first panel: Mark draws Jesus emerging from the waters of the River Jordan. A dove alights on his outstretched arm. A text bubble points out the top of the frame and reads: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This first panel in the story of our life of faith is “relationship.” Jesus hears God’s voice calling him “Son.” And not just son, but a son whom God loves. And not just a son God loves, but a son God loves, in whom God finds delight and joy. This relationship that God has with Jesus is the same relationship that God initiates with each one of us. Each of us is a son or daughter whom God loves and in whom God delights.
I know this can be hard to accept because most of the time we feel way too messy and unkempt for God to want to know us, let alone to delight in us. Our socks have holes in them. We haven’t vacuumed in a while. We ate that pretzel we found between the couch cushions. And that’s just the surface stuff. Why would God want to have anything to do with such untidy people?
But the wonderful thing about this first panel of our story is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. We’re less than a dozen verses into Mark’s account of the Gospel. Jesus hasn’t spoken a word or accomplished anything more remarkable than traveling from Nazareth to the Jordan and coming up for air after John dunked him under the water. Before Jesus has time to win or lose God’s favor, God has already staked out a place in their relationship. Likewise, God tossed God’s lot in with us long before we let God see our untidiness. And God’s not going to cut and run just because of our state of disrepair. God’s knowledge of us, love for us, and delight in us do not depend on our worthiness. In fact, they create our worthiness. Because God is in relationship with us, we are worthy to be in relationship with God. This is the first panel of our story.
In the second panel, Mark draws Jesus walking in the desert. At first glance, he seems to be alone. But then you notice the faint outline of an angelic hand holding one of Jesus’ hands as the other fends off Satan. This second panel in the story of our life of faith is “adversity.” Immediately after God affirms God’s relationship with Jesus, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness with the wild beasts and the temptations of Satan. I always assumed that Jesus had to travel quite far to get to the wilderness, but as I thought about this sermon, I changed my mind. I doubt he went very far at all. The wilderness is all around us. We live in the wilderness. Sometimes through our actions and inactions, we contribute to expanding the wilderness. The wilderness exists anywhere that we feel isolated or afraid or tempted or lost. And let’s be honest – we are feeling at least one of those most of the time.
But the adversity, which brings on these feelings, does not make the wilderness a trial or a proving ground. God does not drop us in the desert just to test our endurance. We simply wander into the wilderness, and we get caught there because the wilderness is vast and tangled. But remember the first panel of our story. The relationship God entered into on our behalf does not end at the desert’s edge. When the people of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years after fleeing Egypt, they made a remarkable discovery. Their God was in the desert, too. The adversity of the wilderness is the second panel of our story, but the relationship of the first panel carries through.
When we discover God’s constant presence even in the midst of the wilderness, we are ready to move to the third panel. Mark draws Jesus striding through Galilee proclaiming a message to everyone who will listen and to some who won’t. A text bubble points to Jesus, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This third panel in the story of our life of faith is “proclamation.” After God has claimed a delight-filled relationship with the beloved Son, and after the Son has wandered in the wilderness, Jesus returns to Galilee with the words of the good news of God on his lips.
Our proclamation of this same good news happens whenever we act on the faith that comes from God’s delighted, loving relationship with us. Our proclamation happens when we come to know, love, and delight in all the messy and unkempt people around us. Our proclamation happens when, even in the midst of the tangled wilderness, we rely on God to show us the path to freedom.
Our life of faith moves from relationship through adversity to proclamation. But this life of faith is not linear; rather, this life is a spiral. As we grow in our faith, we delve more deeply into our side of our relationships with God. As we come ever closer to the God who is always close to us, we can endure greater adversity. And we can proclaim more continuously and more courageously the love and delight God has for all people.
As we enter this holy season of Lent, I invite you to take stock of where you are in this life of faith. Are you nurturing your relationship with God? Or are you wandering through the tangled wilderness of adversity? Or are you reveling in all the ways that you show forth God’s love? Or perhaps, you are living out a little of all three. Wherever you are in this story of the life of faith, trust that God began a relationship with you before you were worthy of one, that God is hacking away at the tangle of wilderness right alongside you, and that God is constantly speaking the words of the good news through your words and deeds into the hearts of those you meet along the way. Thanks be to God.