Monday, February 22, 2010

Lent 1C. 21 February 2010.


          I need to start this morning with a little bit of a confession.  I am not all that comfortable with the story of Jesus' temptations.  Next year, when the first Sunday in Lent comes around, if any of you would like to preach for me, I would be very grateful. 


          You might say to me that we all have aspects of our life and work that we would rather avoid.  Man up.  Don't complain about it.  But see it's not really that I'm complaining.  I just want to be honest with you. 


          The reason I'm not comfortable is because we all have categories in our minds for thinking about these kinds of things.  When I say "sin" you might hear something very specific.  You probably don't think "seeking...our own will instead of the will of God," which is the Catechism's definition (BCP 848).  You might think "chocolate cake," "ice cream," which are not really sinful.  Eating them is not really sinful, either.  What you think about is the item that, for you, represents an inability, or perhaps I should say, a weakness for saying "no."


          I'm going to say a few words and I want you to just mentally note the first things that come into your mind.  Temptation.  Testing.  Sin.  Vice.  Weakness. 


          These words are like large suitcases that we have packed with very specific meanings over the course of our lives.  If we were to open up our suitcases in front of each other, we might discover some of the same things.  But we would likely discover that we all have items that are unique to us that come from our own experience.


          And see, that's why I'm uncomfortable talking with you this morning.  Because we all have our own weaknesses.  And I do not wish to speak too broadly about such things. 


          When the devil comes to Jesus to test him, he zeros in on Jesus' particular weaknesses.  Now, I should back away from that to say that part of my lack of comfort with this text is the notion that Jesus had weaknesses.  You could say that Jesus proves that he didn't have any weaknesses, but to say that is really to say that Jesus was never really tempted. 


          The devil comes to him after he has been fasting for a long time and says to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."  Now there are two temptations in play here.  The first is the question of Jesus' identity.  If you are the Son of God…do this.  And the second is the use of Jesus' son-ship to do something that will satisfy his hunger, and end his fast. 


          It's a very tricky temptation, because there is nothing wrong with Jesus' ending his fast.  Luke makes very clear that the temptations come to Jesus after the forty days of fasting, so we can imagine that he's going to get something to eat soon.  But there's a sticker in this temptation.  The implication is that if Jesus can feed himself miraculously, then why doesn't he feed all the hungry people in the world miraculously.  If you are the Son of God…why not? 


          In fact, this is a really good temptation because it asks Jesus to change life for all humanity for the better.  Why doesn't God do this?  Why does God create our bodies so that we need food, and then make it so scarce that many people die of starvation?  Would a loving God let that happen? 


          And then that opens up the whole question of theodicy—why does a loving God allow bad things to happen.  We're right back to that one.  Earthquake in Haiti.  Tsunami in Asia.  Hurricane in New Orleans.  How could God let it happen? 


          "If you are the Son of God…fix it, Jesus."  But what happens if he fixes it?  Then the kingdom of God will be reduced to just fixing the physical problems, and nothing more.  Bellies will be full of food, but souls will still be lonely and empty of spiritual nourishment.  Jesus says, "It is written, one does not live by bread alone."  Food is only one aspect of nourishment.


          The devil led Jesus up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said, "If you will worship me, it's all yours."  Now, to really get into this one, we've got to remember the Roman empire.  When Luke writes "all the kingdoms of the world," he is saying that devil showed him the Roman empire with its crippling taxation, and its oppressive military and said, "Look Jesus, worship me and all these people will be free."


          It is a shortcut to political dominance; it would instantly bring about a better life for Jewish people, and all people, really.  And Jesus says no.  Why?  Well, he quotes the Sh'ma, which is the creedal statement of his people: "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him."  But the reason for his refusal is much more than that.  The temptation is to give a half answer to a bigger problem.  The temptation is for temporary political power, but the kingdom of God that Jesus has been sent to inaugurate is an eternal power that is political only in the sense that many people will believe.  The kingdom of God has no borders and police—it is an everlasting kingdom in heaven and earth.


          Next the devil takes Jesus up to the Temple in Jerusalem.  This is the big one.  The last two temptations have not weakened Jesus, but now it's Jerusalem, and the Temple.  The Temple, remember, is literally the house of God.  It is where God's presence was.  And it's Jerusalem, which is where Jesus will live out his Passion and Resurrection.  They are standing on the pinnacle of the Temple.  And again the conditional statement:  "If you are the Son of God…throw yourself down from here." 


          The devil has noticed that Jesus sidestepped the last two temptations with the words "It is written," so to heighten the temptation a little bit, he uses that phrase.  "It is written, `He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.' And [in another place] `On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" 


          The temptation is "to make an entrance," to get notoriety for being a miracle worker.  As a friend of mine likes to say, "It's all well and good to be a Temple jumper, but the Temple has to get higher and higher."  People are only impressed for so long.  I remember some time ago hearing someone say, "You can always bluff for ten minutes, but after that, you better know something."


          And Jesus responds, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test."  No Temple jumping.  He is not a one trick horse. 


          And there you have it.  Three temptations.  And I'm sure that there were a lot more than three, but these are symbolic.  Three temptations that symbolize what were probably many little temptations along similar lines throughout Jesus' life.  Because we all know that no one gets just three, and no one gets even one day away from a temptation of some kind or another.


          And they all come down, really, to just one temptation.  The temptation to choose less.  Don't take the path of discipline—take the easy way.  Don't do the work—copy off of someone else.  Don't discipline yourself—do what ever you want, let others do what you don't want to do.  Don't watch your language, don't mind your manners, don't be nice to other people—make yourself happy, others will have to adjust. It's the easy road, right?  Just do what you want to do, and so what? 



          Have you ever heard of the sin of sloth?  Sloth is no so much a sin as it is a state of sin.  Sloth means, "I don't care." 


          Children starving.  I don't care.  Earthquake in Haiti.  I don't care.  Would you ever say that?  No.  But try this on:  You've been waiting in a line of cars to get out of the parking lot, and a slight break the traffic would allow you to shoot out and cut someone off.  It's a little dangerous, but you've been waiting a long time.  You see the opportunity—it might be a little risky, the other driver might have to jump to put on his brakes, but, I've been waiting a long time and I don't care. 


          It's the night of the party.  She's been planning this for weeks and weeks, but you know who is going to be there and it doesn't sound like  much fun.  What could you say?  "I know I promised I would be there, but you know, life is life, and I've had a little bit of a headache…"  But the real voice in your head is saying:  I don't care.


          Do you hear how ugly those words sound?  I don't care.  They don't sound like profanity, but they are profane.  And each of the temptations of Jesus are temptations to stop caring, to take the easy way.


          And each time he resists he shows us that resisting is not simply saying "I do care."  In fact, it's more than that.  What he says is, "I care so much that I will not be limited to just caring about this one thing."



          Jesus teaches us something about resisting temptation.  To resist as Jesus resists is to say: I will care, and I will care about much more than just what is before me.  I will not be limited to this.  It will not define my relationship to the world.  I care too much to care just a little bit.  I will care with my whole being.  I will care with everything I have been given.


          So I will love with the love of God.  I will serve with heart of God.  I will care beyond the obvious needs, I will care for the brokenness in the person who has lost their spouse or their child.  I will care for the orphan and the sick, and the elderly.  I will care with the resources and the time that I have been given by God to use. 


          Maybe that is the real reason why I am so uncomfortable with this text.  At first I really thought it was because I don't like the temptations.  But now I see, that what is even more uncomfortable is Jesus' response to them.  It is a response that goes so far beyond the simplistic answers of food, power, and privilege.  The response of Jesus goes right down to the aching need of every human being, which is the need for compassion and love. 


          We know how to give it in little doses here and there.  But we do not yet know how to give it as Jesus gave it. 



          So, I'm going to give you some homework.  I don't ask you to do much.  I've even trimmed a few minutes off the sermon, just to sweeten the deal.  Go home today and think over your life right now.  I'm going to do this, too.  Don't be too hard on yourself, but ask yourself these questions:  "Is there someone I have not cared for very much?  And, "Can I care for them more than I have?"


          And when you've identified that person, pray for them.  Take them out for lunch, or whatever.  Learn how better to care for them. 


          And if the person you identify is yourself, be open to that.  Do not rush to dismiss it.  Think about what caring more for yourself would look like, and do not be too critical of those thoughts.   Sometimes it is our inability to care for ourselves that leads us to care less for others. 


          But don't worry.  There is time to change.  Take a day to think about it.  Or maybe a week.  Or maybe…forty days.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842




Monday, February 15, 2010

Last Epiphany C. 14 February 2010.


          For the last six weeks we have been celebrating Epiphany, which is understood as the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ.  Each Sunday we have read accounts of the glory of Jesus.  We have seen him as a miracle worker, as an embodiment of prophecy, as a man with clarity of purpose. 


          If you take an overview of the church's seasons, you might say that Christmas is the birth of the Son of God, and Epiphany is an introduction to who he is.  Therefore, Lent becomes a season of deep listening, which is perhaps why we end Epiphany with the Transfiguration story.  It is on the holy mountain that we hear again the voice of the Father, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him." 


          And so we begin a deeper listening—a deeper engagement with Jesus in Lent.  Lent is meant to draw us closer to Christ.  It is one of the ironies that attendance tends to dip a little bit in Lent.  I hope you won't let that happen.  As Bishop Shannon said at Diocesan Council, "Christians should never have to decide whether or not to go to Church on Sunday."  We should be here. 


          I shouldn't have to defend Lent, but Lent is so misunderstood that it isn't even funny.  Lent stands in the corner at coffee hour looking at his shoes.  No one goes over to talk to Lent.  They love Easter.  Boy, they just line up to talk with Easter. 

          They're not so sure about Epiphany, Christmas is all cuddly.  Pentecost is so sweet and so kind, but Lent stands over in the corner, sipping black coffee—no sugar, thank you!  Well, he is Lent, after all.


          But listen, Lent is a wonderful season—you owe it to yourself to go talk with him.  He will teach you about Jesus.  And he won't just tell you nice things that you want to hear, but that's okay.  If you only wanted to be friends with people who like what you like, you'd miss out on a lot of good stuff. 


          So in order to get us ready for Lent, Epiphany leaves us with the story of the Transfiguration.  And since it is Epiphany's job to teach us about the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, there is no story more dramatic than the Transfiguration. 


          It's just a small group, Jesus with Peter, James, and John.  They have gone up the mountain to pray.  It's little retreat time.  Time to be quiet; time to be with God; time to put away the anxieties of ministry.  And while they are on the mountain, the disciples begin to feel a little drowsy. 


          If you've read the rest of Luke's gospel you know that the disciples will feel drowsy again in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night Jesus is betrayed.  Do you remember that story?  They've had the Passover meal, and Jesus has asked them to stay awake and pray that they may not come to temptation.  These two stories are a lot alike. 


          But in the story of the Transfiguration, we see Jesus's face and clothes have changed to a brilliant white and Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah.  Moses of course represents the continuity of Jesus with the story of the Israelites.  Elijah was understood to be the herald of the Messiah, and since it was believed that the Messiah's coming represents the end of time, so also was Elijah's appearance thought to represent the end of time.


          So here you have three cosmic figures.  Moses representing the old.  Elijah representing new, or the end.  And Jesus representing both. 


          Luke writes that the three men "appeared in glory and were speaking of [Jesus'] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem."  The word, departure, is a translation of the word exodos, which in this context we take to mean Jesus' death, resurrection and ascesion into heaven—all of which take place in Jerusalem.


          In other words, Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah about how his life is going to play out.  I would love to know more about what they said.  I would love to know if this was the place the Father had given for Jesus to share any anxiety he might have had.  Luke gives us no indication of the tone of the conversation, but this is surely a meeting of the most influential men in the story of God. 


          It is interesting how Peter, James, and John are not privy to their conversation.  They are allowed to see, but not overhear.  Peter, of course, misunderstands what is going on.  He sees the abundance of glory, and the favor of God, and he suggests making booths. 

          The havest festival of Tabernacles is a tradition whereby Jewish families—still to this day, where they can—make little booths and live in them for a week.  It recalls the living conditions during the Exodus.  The festival is celebrated at harvest—a time of abundance.  So Peter is thinking—abundance of God's favor—let's build tabernacles—that would please God. 


          And it's at this point that a great cloud comes in and Peter, James, and John are terrified, as God's voice comes from heaven, "This is my Son, listen to him."  In other words, "You don't understand…what you have seen is not for you…listen to my son."


          After the voice speaks, everything returns to normal and Jesus is alone.  The whole encounter can come across as a cruel joke.  If you and I are represented by poor, bumbling Peter, it's as if we are allowed the briefest glimpse, but as soon as we reach for a camera, it's gone.


          That is why I think the Transfiguration is hard for us to approach, because it seems as if we are not meant to see it, let alone talk with it, and let it tell us more.  I want to know what Peter wanted to know.  What did they say?  What were the specifics?  How are Moses and Elijah?  What prompted this display of glory and abundance?  What could we have done to experience the same thing?




          But the story is like a delicate flower: touch the bloom, and it's gone for ever.  I can't help but feel a little left out, can you?  It's like God sort of pushes us to the side.  The cloud comes in as if to say, "I've already let you see too much."


          So what are we to do with this story?  I really don't know.  I have preached on this story I don't know how many times.  The Transfiguration comes up often, and each time I approach it, I find that it is still a challenge.  The Baptism of Jesus is the same sort of story.  In fact, both stories contain the voice of God saying, "This is my beloved Son, listen to him."  Both stories are manifestations of God's glory in Christ, yet they are both a little tricky. 


          They seem like boxes of odds and ends.  You know those boxes of things when you move that have the strangest things in them?  A pillow, a handtowel, some pens, a wooden dish, two books, an oven mit.  Who packed this box?  It doesn't matter.  It all had to go; here's a box.


          I will admit to you that I have often treated the Transfiguration like that.  You open up the box and because there are so many odds and ends, you pick up one thing and talk about it in isolation.  "Here's Peter missing the point."  So the sermon is about how we miss the point of Jesus sometimes. 




          Or you pick up Moses, and the fact that they're on a mountain, and with a little bubble gum you can stick them together and preach a sermon about Mt. Sinia, and the Exodus, and Jesus as the new Moses—the one who will lead people on a new Exodus out of the bondage of sin.


          Or, still you can pick up Elijah, who also had a vision of God on a mountain top, and you can preach about the majesty of God's glory in the eyes of faithful people.  God comes to those who seek him. 


          Or you might elect to soft pedal the actual transfiguration and talk about everything returning to normal.  That's a good sermon.  The glory of God is wonderful, but what greater glory can there be than God being one of us, and leaving behind the glory that was rightfully his to inhabit for all eternity.  God condescends  to live among us and redeem us.  That is also a good sermon to preach.


          You see box is filled with treasures, all them rich with imagery and meaning.   So why is it that none of those treasures seems enough this time?  What I am saying is that no matter how you pick them apart, the box is always going to have these things in it.  And since Luke packed the box, I want to know if there is message that links these treasures together and that can be preached as one unit.


          I looked in my commentaries.  I looked in the liner notes of my study bible.  I looked everywhere.   And I'm going to tell you what I came around to.  I am beginning to wonder if the overall point of the Transfiguration is this convergence of symbols and meanings. 

          We go up a mountain—up symbolizing a place closer to God, a place where God was understood to be for Moses and Elijah.  The glory of Jesus is reminiscent of the glory God showed to Moses and Elijah.  The voice from heaven and the misunderstandings draw us back to the Baptism and the human quest for knowing God.  The idea of the tabernacles and the presence of Moses and Elijah are both strong thematic elements of God's covenant. 


          All of it, all of it comes swirling together, seemingly like a box of odds and ends, or like a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces.  And the temptation is to try to spread them out and piece them together, but I think the point of this story is that you can't!  You can't!  It's not possible. 


          Which may be why the Transfiguration comes to an end.  Peter, James, and John encounter this mystical vision, and soon all the various meanings and symbols cry out for explanation, but God, seeing the disciples in their confusion, quickly brings everything back to normal.  And he does so by calling the disciples back to Jesus. 


          "Listen to him."  You're not going to understand what you have seen.  And to try to attempt to figure this out on your own would leave you just as lonely and frightened as you already are. 


          The gift God gives us in this Transfiguration story is the gift of not knowing what is really going on, but knowing from God's own lips, that our salvation is not predicated on what we know, but rather on whom we know.


          "This is my Son, listen to him."  Listen to him.  There are far too many ins and outs.  And even if you could fathom all that is about to happen, knowing everything that has come before, you would still be lost.  You would still be lost.


          Now, here me well, because it could sound as if I'm being anti-intellectual here.  I am not.  What I am saying is what the entire season of Epiphany is about: the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus Christ—not the manifestation of you and me, or in our understanding of God, but in the person of Jesus Christ.


          We do not worship some kind of Rubic's cube where if you twist it up and down, you eventually unlock the meaning of all things.  God does not give us a decoder ring.  God gives us a person, who is his Son, who is our Lord.  And God says: Listen to him.  Obey him.  Follow him.  Do what he does. 


          It is in the listening, the obeying, and the doing, that you will understand.  And when the complexity of life begins to swirl about in some sort of uncontrollable nightmare, do not seek to piece it altogether—as if with a little more intellect, a little more insight—you could figure it out.  Instead, listen to Jesus.  Follow him.  Do what he does.  You will not only find your way; you will find your salvation. 









If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842