Monday, March 28, 2011

Lent 3A. 27 March 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 3rd Sunday in Lent.


          When I was a boy, during the summers, my father directed Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at a dinner theatre at historic Hanover Tavern, just outside of Richmond.  Our family often travelled there on the weekends—driving there for a Friday or Saturday performance, spending the night, and then driving home either Saturday or Sunday. 


          We drove down with that wonderful sense of expectancy.  Wanting to see how the production was going, and happy to visit with the kind and funny people who were part of it.  This was a wonder-filled time in my childhood.  Many of my most treasured memories come from those years.  The drive home was filled with interesting conversation, but as drives home often are, you want to make your time away last.  You don't just want to rush home.


          We came home on Interstate 64, and frequently it seemed like an attractive idea to stop on Afton mountain.  In 1948, on Afton mountain, they built a Howard Johnson's restaurant, and gas station, and a couple hotels, because it was the juncture of the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway.[1]   At one time, it had been a very heavily travelled tourist site, but by the mid-1980s it was just a neat little wayside. 


          We used to stop at the Howard Johnson's for a little break.  My parents would have coffee, and I liked to get their peppermint-stick ice cream.  It was my favorite—mint ice cream with little shards of peppermint candy in it.


          About a year ago, I found myself coming home from some diocese-related meeting, and I was on that well-worn route from Richmond back to the Valley.  I was thinking nostalgically about those family trips.  I was just passing Charlottesville, and became aware that I was low on gas.  I remembered Afton mountain, and Howard Johnson's and the gas station, and decided to honor the old tradition.  I wouldn't get ice cream, but I'd stop and get gas and look around.


          I did not know that the restaurant had been abandoned in 1998.  The gas station was closed.  The hotel had burned. 


          I did not spend much time there, or shed any tears.  But there were pangs of sadness.  The building looked like buildings do when they've been abandoned.  The grass hadn't been cut.  The two shrubs on either side of the front steps had overgrown.  Weeds had grown up through the cracks in the sidewalk and the asphalt in the parking lot.


          It's an odd thing being around a place that was once "a place"—especially if you remember what it used to look like. 



          I remember hearing recently that nostalgia is the enemy of hope.  Maybe that's true.  Maybe nostalgia bogs us down.  I also remember hearing that nostalgia is looking back with too much emotion.  We saturate our memories with too much significance, and that damages our ability to think kindly of the present, or the future.  Maybe there is something to that.  But walking around the place that was once "the place," can be a very rich spiritual experience.   


          I would imagine that wandering around parts of the Holy Land would be very nostalgic.  I have not yet been to Israel.  From what I have heard it can be a life-changing experience—to see the places we read about in the Bible.  To dip your toes in the Sea of Galilee. 


          If I ever get there, I would want to see what any other Christian would want to see.  But there are one or two places that interest me that perhaps might not interest everyone.  I would want to visit the old city of Shechem.


          If you remember Joseph in the Old Testament—the one who dreamed the dreams and was the Pharaoh's right hand man—the favored son of Jacob.  Well, he is buried near Shechem.  Shechem was a city-state—a large, impressive city located strategically in the pass between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal—meaning that you cannot pass through those mountains without passing through Shechem.  It had a major military fortress, and it had a temple—"one of the largest pre-Roman temples ever discovered in Palestine."[2]


          After Moses died, his assistant Joshua, led the people across the Jordan.  If you read the story, Joshua ordered the Levitical priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan.  The Ark was the travelling container for the stone tablets Moses had inscribed with the Torah.  It was said to contain the very presence and glory of God himself. 


          When the priests set foot in the Jordan, the waters "piled up" so that the Hebrew people walked through the Jordan, just like they had walked through the Red Sea.  People don't remember that story, but it's in the Bible.  The priests carried the Ark into the river, and the river stopped.  And while the Ark was in the river bed—at "Parade Rest" (to use the military term) the people walked from one side of the river to the land of Canaan. (Joshua 3)  There was also a temple in the city of Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant came to rest.


          In time, the Philistines would come and make war with the Israelites.  After one skirmish, they captured the Ark, and for seven months the Philistines had so many health problems that they returned it to the Israelites.  (1 Sam 5)  From there the Ark was given to Eleazar the son of Abinadab, and he kept watch over the Ark for twenty years at Kiriath-jearim, which is about eight miles northwest of Jerusalem.


          When King David was anointed, it is said that he was very shrewd.  He took the Ark from Kiriath-jearim, and brought it to Jerusalem with great fanfare.  David literally danced naked before the people, as a sign of his total abandon and joy at the presence of the Ark in Jerusalem. 

          Jerusalem, under King David, was to become the seat of all political and religious power.  And is to this day.  The Ark rested in Jerusalem in a tent, until Solomon built the Temple.  And that temple is "The Temple"—the one that would be destroyed during the Babylonian exile, and then rebuilt by King Herod. 


          But what about Shechem?  What about Shiloh and Mt. Gerizim?  What about those ancient cities where the Hebrew people had worshiped and had been the center of political and religious power?


          Well, there are people who continued to worship there according to that tradition.  They considered themselves the true descendents of Moses and the Exodus story—the people who, before the Babylonian exile, before David, before the Judges, before any of it, were the true Israelites. 


          They didn't call themselves Jews, because they were not of the House of Judah.  There were of the tribes of Joseph, Levi, Ephraim, and Manasseh, and they called themselves the Keepers of the Law—or the Keepers of the Torah—which in Hebrew is "Shamerim."  And the word Shamerim became Samaritan.


          Samaritans and Jews are different groups.  When the political and religious power moved to Jerusalem, it stayed there.  But the Samaritans remained in their land, and remained true to their Torah, despite the fact that the Jews were many more in number and would not recognize them or their heritage. 


          To walk around Shechem and Shiloh, and the ancient cities of Canaan would be to walk around Samaria, and see the ruins of the temple in Shechem and Mt. Gerizim, and to see where it all began—to mourn the division between our Israelite ancestors. 


           Jesus himself would walk around those ancient cities.  The city of Shechem is also known as Sychar, and on the eastern side of it there is a well that belonged to Jacob and had been given to Joseph.  So you see, this well, and the whole city, was the place that was once "the place." 


          Jesus and his disciples had been on the road, and Jesus decides to go over to the well, while the disciples go on into Shechem to find food.  Jesus is sitting by the well, and a woman of Samaritan descent comes to draw water.


          This is a clash of cultures and backgrounds.  Jesus is of the House and lineage of David, who is of the House of Judah.  Jesus is a Jew.  The woman is probably—just by nature of the ancient map of tribes—she is probably of the House of Manasseh.  They would have known each other's background without any conversation.  In fact, they would have had to, because Jews and Samaritans did not talk with each other.  And even if they had, men and women did not talk with each other—certainly not while they are alone.


          This is a scandalous sort of meeting.  A Jew and Samaritan.  A man and woman, alone.  It took some guts for the woman to approach the well.

Jesus asks for a drink. 

          But that's not all he is asking.  He is asking her to draw water with her own dipping spoon, and then give Jesus the water in that spoon.  That action not only breaks the taboos of Jewish/Samaritan relations, it implies a level of intimacy that would be considered tantamount to sharing a bed. 


          The conversation that follows is also scandalous.  Jesus tells her to bring her husband.  She says she has no husband.  Jesus says, That's right you've had five husbands.  I do not believe he is being critical of her.  In that culture, women were passed around.  Men could dismiss a wife, and leave her completely defenseless.  The woman's five husbands is not a condemnation of sexual impropriety—this woman has had to take those men just to eat and have a place to live. 


          I think what Jesus is saying is "You've had five husbands—you've had a hard life.  And the man you are with right now—number six?—he might not keep you either.  Woman, you have had it rough."


          The woman said, "Sir, we are from different backgrounds.  Samaritans worship on Mt. Gerizim, because that's where Joshua brought us—that's "the place" for us.  But you Jews—ever since David—you Jews say this is no longer "the place."  Jerusalem is "the place" God should be worshiped."   And Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me…the hour is coming when it's not going to matter whether it's here or there.  The hour is coming when this conversation, this place, this moment, this very second will be considered worship.  It'll no longer be `us and them.'  It'll all be `us' and God."


          The woman said, "Sir, I know that the Messiah is coming and he will tell us these things."  And Jesus said, "You're looking at him."  The woman ran back into the ancient city of Shechem, and she told her friends, "You're not going to believe this.  I just met a Jewish man at the well, who not only speaks with me, but knows my life and background, and still wants to talk with me.  I think he might be the Messiah."


          And the Samaritans who knew the woman came out to meet Jesus, and they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed with them for two days, and after that two days, they told the woman, "It is not because of what you said that we believe.  We have heard him ourselves, and we know that this is not just the Messiah—this is the Savior of the world."


          Just a little compassion for a woman who had had a hard life.  Just a little drink of water.  Just a little conversation.  There was nothing "little" about it.      



If your heart was moved by this sermon, then let the Word become flesh.  Please give with generosity to those in need, and to those churches where the Gospel is faithfully preached.


Episcopal Relief and Development Fund

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.

[2] Anderson, pg. 143

Thursday, March 24, 2011

There are two sounds

that I hear with some regularity.  Well, more than two!  But just two that really move me, when I listen to them.  There is the sound of people singing a hymn.  For some reason, I am rarely moved by singing with a congregation, but if I allow myself the guilty pleasure of just listening, there is something about it.  And perhaps this is part of my Church of the Brethren background, but a hymn being sung to a piano accompaniment, just tips me over.

The other sound that, again, is not quite so compelling if I join it, is the sound of people confessing their sins in the General Confession--at Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, or the Holy Eucharist.  

"Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen."

To think of the Church at prayer, laying down all unfaithfulness, and hoping with reason to hope, that God will hear and absolve and renew....  It unzips all my seams.

Tomorrow the Church recalls the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The angel comes.  Mary assents.  God says again, "Let there be light."  A whole new creation.  A whole new song.  "The light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world."

If someone were to open up the piano right now and play a few verses of "All people that on earth do dwell," you might have to mop up the floor, because I'd dissolve completely.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lent 2A. 20 March 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select the 2nd Sunday in Lent.

I don't know if any of you have noticed this, but men and women have very different ways of communicating. We use the same language, but there are many little clues of tone and behavior that indicate a conversation between men as opposed to between women, or between a man and a woman. Men together tend to speak in short sentences—just what is necessary. They tend to show humor in little ways, to show that they're okay. They tend to speak with general authority on matters of common importance. The emotions considered appropriate are happy, neutral, and angry.

Women tend to have a much broader range of appropriate emotions, and—depending on the trust in the relationship—they tend to be okay with admitting to them, or even showing them.

Men and women tend to express a general attraction to each other. Men smile a little more when talking with women, than with men. Women tend to move a bit more, and laugh just a bit, when talking to a man. All of these things are patterns of behavior that indicate that life continues—we are here, things are normal.

Unless men know each other very, very well, we don't really like to admit to weaknesses. I suppose it's part of our primal nature as hunters and gatherers. We don't like to admit that we don't know something—especially if it's in a field we already know a bit about. So there is often a very interesting sort of dance that men do when a man wants to know what another man knows.

Quite often, the curious man will display his knowledge about a subject—just to get the obvious stuff they both already know out of the way—so that the more knowledgeable guy will be able to gauge the other's mastery, and he will then pick up where the curious man's knowledge ends. Respectful, mature men will not exploit the other man's weakness, because we know that the roles may easily be reversed. Today's student can be tomorrow's teacher.

Nicodemus coming to Jesus is a very big deal. He was a Pharisee, meaning that he was a devout Jew. Pharisees were the good, upstanding people of Palestine. They tried to live at peace with the Roman occupation, while continuing to adhere to the Torah. They were not a corrupt or perverse group of people. They would have been good neighbors. If you and I had lived in that society, we would likely have been Pharisees.

But Nicodemus is not just a Pharisee. He is a ruler of the Jews, which means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin—the highest ruling council of the Jews. The men on the Sanhedrin where rabbis, teachers of the Torah, who were the guardians of the Hebrew Faith.

Like important men of today, I am sure that there were aspects of Nicodemus' dress and behavior that indicated his position.

When the night fell, I am sure that Nicodemus did not just think to himself, "Well, Jesus is across town…I'll just pop over and we'll talk." By this time, Jesus had disciples. He had changed water into wine. And that was par for the course for a prophet/miracle worker. In first century Palestine, prophets were common. No need to get worked up about another one coming down the pike.

But then Jesus made a whip of cords and went into the Temple courtyard where the animals for sacrifice were being sold, and where money changers were short changing their customers, and he drove them out—and that got the attention of the Sanhedrin. You can preach; you can have followers; you can even do a little miracle here and there. But if you start messing with the Temple…

You and I cannot imagine the importance of the Temple. It is where God lived. I don't mean like we tell children about church, "This is God's house." I mean, God lived in the Holy of Holies. The sacred place where the Ark of the Covenant was reserved, and where only the Sadducees, the Temple priests, could enter.

The Temple was the place where God and humanity intersected. Synagogues were like churches. A synagogue was a local meeting place. The Temple was the place of power.

All the social, political, and religious power emanated from God's actual presence in the Temple. We have nothing like it today.

The Sanhedrin is as high as you can climb. You can't climb up to being a Temple priest, because you had to be born one, but you could become a Pharisee, a rabbi, and you could move up. You had to shake the right hands, give the right money, talk the right talk. And you had to prove yourself over the course of years and years to be righteous, holy, and learned. You understand what I'm saying. These guys were solid. If the ship is going down, these guys were going down with it.

We don't know exactly whether Nicodemus came out of his own personal curiosity, or if he may have been deputed to visit Jesus. This might have been a little diplomatic visit after the whip of cords and the Temple incident. The Sanhedrin had been watching Jesus, and perhaps called a little meeting to calmly discuss the possibility that perhaps this Jesus fellow was for real. Perhaps it was decided that Nicodemus could go—by night—so that no one would know. Wouldn't want any other copy-cats out there making a ruckus in the Temple and thinking that they would get a special visit from the Sanhedrin. We can't have the Sanhedrin negotiating with terrorists—much less messiah- wanna be-s.

Or was it Nicodemus's own curiosity that brought him? Did he come by night because he didn't want the rest of the Sanhedrin to know that he was visiting Jesus? We don't know—we may never know. It is almost always preached that Nicodemus came of his own curiosity. That he is afraid of his stature as a leader of the Jews being threatened.

Or that night is symbolic of his own personal darkness. Sermons on this text often treat Nicodemus as a simpleton—but I don't think that's right.

When he comes to Jesus he calls him "Rabbi," which indicates a high level of respect. Nicodemus is also a Rabbi. This is a meeting of two teachers. Two men. Two men who are considered very devout, respectable men. I do not think we can safely assume that Nicodemus is coming as a disciple—or even as a potential disciple.

This is a meeting of two respectable and respectful men.

Nicodemus begins by making a statement, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." That is a very serious admission for a member of the Sanhedrin to make. "We know that you are a teacher who has come from God." Wow. And for proof, the signs… "No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."

Nicodemus has made a statement. Jesus now makes a counter-statement: "Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

Now, let's take a look at these two statements. Nicodemus says, "No one can do." Jesus says, "No one can see." Big difference. Nicodemus seems to be trying to figure out how genuine Jesus is. You could read his statement as a form of flattery. It's an opening gambit—trying to set Jesus up, trying to get him to boast a little bit about what he's done.

If he takes the bate, then Nicodemus can go back to the Sanhedrin and say, "Well, boys…we were right. It's just a little side-show."

But Jesus has not responded like your average back-woods prophet. He's responded like a rabbi—with a challenge. He is not intimidated by the social and religious stature of his guest. He accepts the rabbinical challenge, and meets his gambit, with a counter gambit. "You say, no one can do…I say, no one can see. This isn't about the signs—this is about what the signs point to. And to see that, you need to be born from above."

Nicodemus, it's your move. Nicodemus spots the absurdity, and challenges the analogy, "How can you be born again, if you've already been born?" Jesus responds, "Not born again…born from above. Born of the Spirit of God. Are you a teacher of the nation of Jews, and yet you don't understand this? What do you think the Torah is really about? Religion is not about the signs. It's about the fullness of God's presence with his people."

"Case in point…do you remember in the story of the Exodus when the people were being attacked by these fiery snakes. They would slither up and bite them, and the people were dying? Do you remember what Moses did? He put a fashioned the image of a snake on a stick, and the people saw that image and they were healed? They needed some sign that death was not the last thing—that God cared for us even in death.

"Well, Nicodemus, I will also be lifted up. And whoever has eyes to see, and faith in me, they will have eternal life. I have not been sent into the world to condemn people for their lack of faithfulness. God so loved the world that he sent me to take away the fear of death, and to give people hope for a better life now, and a better life to come. If you are born from above, you will see this."

Nicodemus fades into the background. There is no account of him responding with further statements or questions. No account of him rising from the interview and going home. No account of any special report to the Sanhedrin.

But. We will meet Nicodemus again. Do you know where? We will meet him when Jesus is lifted up…on the Cross. Let me just read it straight from the Bible. John 19: 38-40 (Pew Bible 882)

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

Had Nicodemus been born from above? Are his presence there, and the burial spices an indication of his conversion? I don't know. It would make the story much more sentimental—perhaps even maudlin—to write that in, but it's not in the Bible like that. And frankly, I'm glad it's not.

There is something much more powerful about seeing Nicodemus at the Cross with his lavish gift and not knowing the full story. I would prefer to think that he watched Jesus carefully—perhaps even trying to dissuade the Sanhedrin from their efforts to have Jesus killed. He may have supported Jesus in private—though still not completely sure, and still completely unable to leave his power and position behind. Again, if the ship is going down, he is going to be on it.

Did he watch Jesus be crucified? And while he watched—if he did—is that when things fell into place? "Moses lifted a serpent…so must the Son of Man." I don't know.

But there he is, at the Cross, with the spices. A hundred pounds of spices. More spices that were necessary. Just like Jesus turned water into far more wine than necessary.

Maybe the spices were his sign to Jesus that, at the very last, he could see.


In this lesson, we learned that the abundance of generosity is a sign that points to the presence of God: water into wine, Jesus's own self-offering, the lavish burial spices Nicodemus gave to Jesus.

If your heart was moved by this sermon, then let the Word become flesh. Please give with generosity to those in need, and to those churches where the Gospel is faithfully preached.

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.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Lent 1A. 13 March 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 1st Sunday in Lent.


          It has been windy lately.  In mid-February, at some point I found myself enjoying one of the rarest gifts—an afternoon nap.  It was my day off.  I had taken a long run in the morning, and had a nice lunch, and Karin allowed me to go put my head down.  It was a very windy day, and as I tried to go to sleep, I couldn't help being disturbed by the sound of the wind, and the dried leaves that clicked and clacked against the house.


          There is something about being alone and listening to the wind—something that makes you reflective, bordering on anxious. …something about the power of the wind to chase thoughts through your head.  I found myself unable to sleep, because I had just been reading ahead in the lectionary, and remembering that the first Sunday of Lent we read of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness.


          It was supposed to be a day off, and a nap time at that.  But I remembered that the words wind and Spirit are the same thing in Hebrew: ruah.  Wind, breath, spirit.  When God breathed into Adam the "breath of life," God conveyed his Spirit.  When Jesus breathes on the disciples, in the same way, he conveys his Spirit.  In John 3:8, Jesus says, "The wind blows where it chooses, you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."


          I considered that possibly the Spirit of God wished me to visit Jesus in the wilderness, where the Spirit had led him.  Matthew says, "led," or "led up."  You might remember Mark writes, "drove."  I like both ideas—that Jesus was driven, or compelled.  But I also like the more gentle idea of being led there. 


          Let's go with "led" today.  Let's go with the notion that Jesus rose from the Jordan, toweled himself off, greeted some folks—maybe even shared some food.  And then the wind blew.  A gentle breeze.  A whisper.  A breath.  If words were put it, perhaps those words would be: "I am your Father.  You must now get up and walk with me in the wilderness."  


          Jesus was in the wilderness for a long time.  Matthew says forty days and forty nights—but you know, that's just an old expression for a long time.  And while he was in the wilderness he fasted.  Matthew's church would have nodded their heads.  Abraham heard the Spirit of God in the wilderness.  Moses received his call in the wilderness.  Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights before he received the Torah.  Yes, yes…we know the story.  There must be a drawing aside—there must be a retreat before there can be an advance. 


          Much as it seems that we should pass directly from the Rite of Passage to the new life—there is always a time of reorientation, a time of Spirit led wilderness.  The eighteen-year-old graduates from high school, and even if college is on the horizon, summer is filled with questions.  Trophies on the shelf begin to look a little less bright.  The summer job is boring; the boss is an idiot.  The wind starts to blow. Who am I, really?     Confirmation class was a long time ago.  Is Christianity just kids' stuff?  Was I raised to live in the actual world—or were all those lessons and manners just the sort of stuff parents tell you to keep you in line? 


          College is like that, too.  You get out of college, and after the glow of graduation has faded—even if your next move is all planned out—there is a period where the wind blows.  Twenty-three looks very different from eighteen.  At eighteen you know nothing, and think you know everything.  At twenty-three, you know nothing, and you know it.  And the safety-nets are slowly starting to come down.  You're under the big top now.  Center ring.  Adulthood.


          Marriage is like this, too, but very different because you both go through it together.  My understanding is that retirement is a lot like the others.  I did that for how many years?  And now I don't do that anymore.  Who am I, really?  The wind blows.


          Are the questions the temptations?  I don't think so.  Did you notice that the forty days and nights came before the temptations? 


          The wilderness is an odd place like that—the wind may seem harsh at times, but real pain of it is the way that it takes those cherished beliefs we have about ourselves, and blows them so far away that we wonder what might be next.  We wrote down all the things that we knew we knew about ourselves, and the wind picked up that scrap of paper, and blew it in spirals to an irretrievable place.  We must pick up the pencil again and start over.  That's what the Spirit can do when the wind blows. 


          "Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."  Are you as uncomfortable with that sentence as I am?    I can handle the Spirit leading him into the wilderness—but "to be tempted by the devil" really bothers me.  If it were left to me, I would say that the Spirit led him into the wilderness, and the devil intruded at the end.  Matthew wants us to believe that the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.


          Why did this need to happen?  Couldn't Jesus just have his retreat time?—reorient himself to his baptismal role as the Messiah, the Son of God?  Oh, but see, I'm forgetting Moses again.  Remember Matthew's Jesus is fulfilling Moses and prophets. 


          Moses fasted and prayed on Sinai.  He received the Law; he gave the Law, and then we had the disobedience of the Israelites.  Manna from heaven—stones into bread.  Testing God by crying for miracles—pinnacle of the Temple.  Promised land—kingdoms of the world.  The temptations of Jesus are similar to the temptations of the Israelites, who gave in.  Jesus does not give in.  Jesus is faithful.  Jesus redeems that story cycle of Moses—he fulfills.  In all of his responses to the devil, when Jesus says "It is written," well, it's written in the Law of Moses.


          I can understand Matthew wanting Jesus to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, if we read that as the Spirit working out the redemption and fulfillment of the Hebrew people's story.  That I understand. 


          But I'm still not sure I can handle the general idea of the Spirit leading Jesus to be tempted.  In the first place, we believe that the Father, Son, and Spirit are One.  We believe that they work together in perfect unity and harmony.  So help me understand this.  If the Spirit wishes Jesus to be tempted, why does Jesus later teach us to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven…lead us not into temptation.."?


          Are we to understand from the life and teaching of Jesus, that the Spirit of God does indeed lead us into temptation, but that we should pray against that happening?  What does this mean?


          If you fast-forward to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells the disciples to stay awake with him, and he says, "Pray that you may not come to into the time of trial, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."  (Matt 26:41) The words "time of trial" can also be translated simply as temptation.


          I don't know what to do with this. 


          Classical Christian theology tells me that God does not tempt.  Temptation is a work of the devil— the adversary of all that is good and beautiful and righteous.  God is holy.  God urges, suggests, commands, persuades, but God does not tempt—or wish to lead us where we may be tempted.  Yet, Jesus teaches us to pray, "Lead us not…"  I can't wrap my mind around it, because it so fundamentally threatens the way I think about God. 


          I can handle the idea that the devil tempts.  For a long time I thought it was just the devil who tempted, but then I realized that I was giving the devil far too much credit.  I don't need the devil to tempt me—I can tempt myself.  I know the path.  I know my weaknesses.  You know yours.  St. Benedict wrote "We must be on our guard…against evil desires, for death lies close by the gate of pleasure."  But God leading us there...?


          If we don't pray, shall we find God opening a second bottle of wine?  (Pause.)  In the close conversation, where no one can hear, is God forming the words that will cast a long shadowy lie that might just bring a man's reputation to nothing?  (Pause.)   Or perhaps God leads us into temptation by the very nature of his silence.


          Mark Twain wrote: "..among other common lies, we have the silent lie, -- the deception which one conveys by simply keeping still and concealing the truth. Many obstinate truth-mongers indulge in this dissipation, imagining that if they speak no lie, they lie not at all. For example, it was not possible for a humane and rational person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet the old abolitionists got small help from anyone, no matter how persistently and fervently they argued, pleaded and prayed against the cursed institution. They could not break the universal stillness that reigned from the pulpit and the press; a stillness that goes all the way down to the bottom of society, a cold clammy stillness, maintained by the silent assertion that there wasn't anything going on in which a humane and intelligent people ought to be interested."


          Stillness, no wind.  We're back to the wind again, and the silence that surrounds this question. The Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted.  And later he would teach us to pray to the Father, "Lead us not into temptation." 


          I wish I had an answer for you.  It seems God may have an occasional willingness to lead us into situations where we are offered the quick fix or the full answer.  And we are left alone, in a way, and asked to chose. 


          I remember hearing a lecture about three areas of the brain: the neo-cortex, the mammalian, and the reptilian areas.  The neo-cortex is the largest, and it's the place where we are the most creative, reflective, insightful.  Our most considered, mature thoughts come from the neo-cortex. 


          The mammalian area is where we handle emotions.  It is smaller.  And the smallest—and interestingly enough—least mature part of the brain is the reptilian area.  The reptilian area, like the word reptile suggests, is not reflective at all.  Anything sets it off.  It's the temper, the fight or flight response.  It's the part of the brain that says, "I need that; I want that; I have to have that."


          We're supposed to function mostly in the neo-cortex, where we aren't as quickly tempted.  We're supposed to take in information, consider it with some input from the mammalian/feeling side, and then come to a reasoned decision.  But the reptilian side is snapping for flies like a frog, and wants to shortcut the decision making process.  The neo-cortex is reading the ingredients—the reptilian is wolfing down the burger.


          Is this Jesus's way of admitting that even he really was almost ready to take the short cut?  To back out.  To not chose the life ahead—with Jerusalem always at the end of the road..?  Maybe he got close enough to be genuinely worried about how we might choose.  Hence, that haunting petition in the Lords' Prayer.  I say "haunting," because it's phrased negatively—"Lead us not into temptation" rather than, "Give us the strength to be faithful." 


          I'm sure you've heard the story about the child who comes to his grandfather, angry about something someone had done to him.  The grandfather said: "I have struggled with these feelings many times. It is as if there are two wolves inside me: one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so. But the other wolf is full of anger. The littlest temptation will set him into a fit of temper. He fights with everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, both of them try to dominate my spirit." The boy looked into his grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins?" The grandfather replied, "The one I feed." 




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.