Preaching Christ Crucified: A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2021

This past week, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and beginning to plan for our Holy Week and Easter services. We had a. productive meeting of interested people on Wednesday that generated lots of creative ideas as we imagined together how we might adapt our worship to the realities of social distancing and live-streaming. On Friday, I had a conversation with clergy friends from other denominations who were also asking those same questions and developing solutions based on their own worship styles and traditions. 

As part of that planning, I took a look at the lectionary for the coming weeks. It’s surprising to me that after all these years of preaching, I still need to remind myself of where the lectionary is going. Oh, I know the big ones of course, and some of the ways the lectionary parcels out gospel texts in some parts of the year. For example, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the Gospel of John makes an appearance in Lent in all three years of the lectionary cycle, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you what those texts are from year to year.

Today, and for the remainder of the Sundays in Lent leading up to Palm Sunday, we are in John’s gospel. Today’s reading is not an obvious one for Lent. It’s John’s version of the cleansing of the temple, and in this context it is as confusing as it is problematic. Confusing, because we will hear or refer to Mark’s version of the cleansing of the temple in a few weeks, which in that gospel occurs in Holy Week, immediately following the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, puts the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. 

It’s an important event in either case and it’s one that’s easily and often misinterpreted. We can see some of that already here in John’s version, where the complex diversity of first-century Palestinian Judaism is reduced to a single entity “the Jews” as will happen throughout the gospel, and especially in John’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. The temple was a political as well as religious institution, one of the central nodes in how Roman imperial power was distributed locally. 

Second Temple Judaism, as it’s often called, retained the focus on the temple and on temple sacrifice. Pious Jews were obligated to visit the temple for major festivals and to offer certain sacrifices. That’s why the animals were there. It was much easier to purchase sheep or cattle there than to bring them from home. And the moneychangers were there because the temple had special currency, that didn’t bear the image of the emperor, so one would have to exchange for that currency before purchasing or making financial offerings.

Jesus’ actions here are often deployed in contemporary debates about the appropriate role of Christians in the public sphere. They are cited when Christians protest in the streets or make symbolic actions against institutions that are perceived to be oppressive. They are often even used to defend violent actions taken in the name of Christ.

Instead of trying to explicate the complexities of this story and of Jesus’ interactions with the temple establishment (remember, according to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent much of his time in the last week of his life teaching and debating in the temple), I would like to shift our focus elsewhere. 

One way of thinking about our lectionary readings this Lent is to see them as an exploration of the meaning of the cross, both in the New Testament and for us as 21stcentury followers of Jesus. Last week, we heard Jesus saying “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” In the next two weeks, we will hear two key passages from John’s gospel where the meaning of the cross takes central stage. On Palm Sunday, as we read Mark’s version of the passion narrative, we will confront his austere, enigmatic interpretation of the cross, with its themes of abandonment, weakness, and despair. Today, in the reading from I Corinthians, we hear elements of Paul’s understanding of the cross’s meaning, and his words speak powerfully to us and may help us reflect on the cleansing of the temple as well.

In his letters to the church at Corinth, Paul is engaged in an effort to defend his ministry against detractors and to articulate clearly and forcefully his understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ, the cross, and Christian community against opponents who seem to be trying to undermine everything for which he has worked.

He sounds his central theme in the verses from the beginning of I Corinthians we heard: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul here is alluding to a central paradox of the Christian faith, the paradox of the cross. In this horrific death by torture, a vivid demonstration of Roman power and ruthlessness, we see Jesus crushed and killed. There could be no starker display of his human weakness. Yet for Paul, on the cross we see the power and wisdom of God. 

Elsewhere, in II Corinthians when Paul is talking about his own personal physical weakness and infirmity, he says that in response to his prayer, Christ said to him, “power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, the cross is a demonstration of Christ’s power, of God’s power. Yet, that power, an allusion to the vindication of Christ through the resurrection, that power never erases the fact of the cross. The cross still stands, Jesus’ suffering remains. 

It’s a message that’s often overlooked and ignored by Christian triumphalism. We internalize and spiritualize the cross to rid it of its revolutionary message. We ignore the pain and suffering of the cross to focus on the joy of resurrection. When Christianity becomes enmeshed in power politics, in empire, nationalism, and white supremacy, the symbol of the cross often becomes a weapon wielded against the weak, the stranger and the alien, unbelievers, adherents of other religions.

One of our great challenges as Christians in this historical moment is to preach Christ crucified, folly and stumbling block, or literally, scandal. Our challenge is to see and to proclaim the cross as power made perfect in weakness, not to wield it as a weapon against others. In this day, when much of Christianity seems to have become another means by which people assert their own individual rights in a zero-sum game that results in the infringement of the rights of others, preaching Christ crucified, taking up our crosses, is a truly revolutionary message and way of being in the world. The Tuesday night group reading Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree are discovering a new way of thinking about the cross as it is shaped by the African American experience in the United States. I hope all of us in this season of Lent will meditate on Christ crucified and reflect on how the cross might reshape our lives in Christ’s image.

Wild Beasts and Waiting Angels: A Homily for Lent 1, 2021

Last Epiphany

February 14, 2021

What a difference a week can make! Last week we heard the story of the Transfiguration; we commemorated Christ’s glory on the mountaintop. This week we are in a very different place, not on top of a mountain, but in the wilderness, with Jesus, not celebrating, but wandering, not affirmed but being tested. But we are also with that recurring theme of the voice from heaven saying “You are my son, my beloved.” It’s the third time we’ve heard that voice and that statement over the last few weeks. Yet each time, because of the way the lectionary is divided and because of the way Mark tells the story, it seems to mean very different things. 

When we first heard it on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the reading ended with the voice:  “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Last week, the voice said, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.” And immediately after that, all was back to normal. Jesus looked like an ordinary person, the figures of Moses and Elijah had vanished, and the cloud was gone.

In today’s reading, we hear the voice at Jesus’ baptism. Then Mark follows it with:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out 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.

In these few words Mark conveys the urgency, immediacy, and violence of the story he wants to tell. There was no time for Jesus to reflect on what the voice might have meant, or to celebrate and reflect on his baptism. Although he was filled with the Holy Spirit, it was that same spirit that drove him into the wilderness. Here, Mark uses the same verb he will use repeatedly to describe Jesus driving out demons or unclean spirits, and also driving the moneychangers out of the temple. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness by choice; he was driven there. 

The reference to 40 days in the wilderness calls to mind the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. It was a time of struggle and hardship but it was also the period when God gave them the Torah, the law, at Mt. Sinai, and a time during which God provisioned them with food, giving them manna. It is also why we talk about Lent lasting forty days, analogizing this season of the church year to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; why, of course, that we read this particular gospel story on the first Sunday in Lent. 

In this instance, “tempting” might not be the best translation. The Greek word also means testing and in that sense, at least for Mark, it may be that this time was not about the sorts of temptations with which we are familiar and which are recorded in Matthew and Luke, but rather that it was a time when Jesus identity was tested—was he truly the Son of God, the beloved as the voice from heaven declared? 

I was reading a commentary on this passage a couple of days ago that referred to Jesus’ fasting and it suddenly struck me that Mark makes no reference to that in these few verses. What we are told instead is that he was tested or tempted by Satan, that he was “with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”

It’s that image that intrigues and fascinates me. I wonder if it fascinates you as well. What sort of scene does this conjure up for you? Jesus, surrounded by wild animals. Is it the image of the peaceable kingdom, describerd in Isaiah 11:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

Or is a different image, perhaps the one Mark is alluding to, of Daniel in the lion’s den, the prophet endangered by wild beasts and predators?

And the angels waiting on him—another rich, intriguing image of heavenly beings supporting, caring for Jesus as the prophet Elijah experienced during his own 40 days in the wilderness when he was near death from starvation. Surely Mark is alluding to that story because Elijah plays such an important role in the gospel, as we saw last week. 

But there’s something else Mark has in mind because the verb translated as “waiting” is another verb we’ve seen before in our reading of the gospel. It’s the word for serving or ministering, as Peter’s mother-in-law will do in just a few verses after Jesus raises her from her sickbed, she serves them, and as Mark describes the women watching the crucifixion from afar, they ministered to him on the journey from Galilee.

Mark is telling us important things about Jesus in these few verses and telling us important things about the larger story he has in mind. As we read through Mark this year, I am more and more drawn to that larger story, to the cosmic significance of Jesus’ coming, the cosmic battle between the powers and principalities of this world, of evil, and the work God is doing in Jesus. We see echoes of that cosmic battle here in the presence of wild beasts, symbols of chaos, and the angels waiting on and serving Jesus. We saw evidence of that cosmic struggle in Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens were torn open, the voice from heaven speaking, suggesting that the barriers between heaven and earth had been torn apart, that something new was breaking in. 

That’s Mark’s story. Is it our story as well? Where do we fit in it? We may find such language of wild beasts, Satan, and angels a bit strange or off-putting, fanciful, relics of an earlier age. But isn’t it true that in our world today, we see unexplained, powerful evil wreaking havoc? The evil we experience may seem to have very human causes—the failure of a power grid in Texas the result of greed and malfeasance, the ravages of a pandemic, an insurrection stoked by social media, by lies and conspiracy theories. What wild beasts do you see? What wild beasts threaten and make you afraid?

 After Jesus’ encounter with Satan and the wild beasts, after his forty days in the wilderness, after the arrest of the one who had baptized him, Jesus began his public ministry. He came to Galilee and proclaimed the good news of God’s reign: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”

 Can we, even as we are surrounded by wild beasts, hear that good news? Can we repent, or change our mind to focus not on the threats that face us, but on the good news of God’s coming among us? Can God’s grace, the angels who wait upon us, give us the perspective to see the good, and the strength to persevere. 

In this Lent of fear, anger, and despair, the spiritual disciplines we need to cultivate may not be those of self-denial and fasting. Rather, might we called to different spiritual disciplines, of faith, hope, and courage, of discernment of the evil that surrounds us, and the risk of truth-telling? May this Lent be a holy one, in which we grow more deeply in faith, and when we recognize and acknowledge the angels that wait upon us.  s

Transfigured lives, transfigured Lent: A Homily for Last Epiphany, 2021

Last Epiphany

February 14, 2021

This past week I’ve been working on our parochial report, the annual report we make to the diocese and to denominational offices concerning membership, attendance, baptisms, funerals, and our financial activity for the year. This information provides the basis for our annual diocesan assessment as well as serving as a benchmark for growth or decline, or relative health of the congregation. The instrument has seen significant changes over the past years in response to ongoing conversations about how best to assess congregational vitality. Questions concerning outreach programs like food pantries and homeless shelters have been added. This year has seen even more radical changes, as we were asked to calculate average Sunday attendance for January and February of 2020, there were questions about virtual services, and a narrative section that asks to reflect on the challenges and opportunities posed by the pandemic.

All of this has encouraged me to reflect on our and my experiences over the last 11 months. My other main task for these last few weeks has been to think about Ash Wednesday, Lent, and look ahead to Holy Week. All of that reflection has played into my homilies as well, as one of my persistent questions while preparing them is how to help all of us listen and reflect on scripture and our current experience, which is so dominated by events on the national stage, and our experience of pandemic.

At the same time, I increasingly feel a disjuncture between the rhythms of the liturgical year and our lives in pandemic. Our usual observances of Easter, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany have been muted—quite literally so because of our inability to raise our voices in song. As we enter our second pandemic Lent, I suspect that the internal spiritual resources available to us for the observation of a Holy Lent are rather depleted. Moreover, the emotional and spiritual effects of gathering together for celebrations are unavailable to us. As others have pointed out, it sometimes feels as if we’ve been in Lent for almost a year…

Which brings us to this point in the lectionary and liturgical year: the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent is only a few days away and whatever we are doing to celebrate the changing season, our celebrations lack the excitement and excess of other years—there is no Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for example. Our gospel reading today is, as it is every year on this Sunday the story of the Transfiguration, that eerie, otherworldly encounter of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop.

It’s a profound story, rich in biblical imagery and symbolism, closely tied to the rest of Mark’s gospel with its resonances to the story of Jesus’ baptism that we heard on the first Sunday of this season after Epiphany, and to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But as should be obvious after hearing the reading from II Kings, it also draws on earlier stories and traditions, with the presence of Moses and Elijah, the whole prophetic tradition, and the many stories of theophanies, or appearances of the divine, on mountain tops beginning with Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai.

Our attention is quite naturally drawn to the supernatural elements, to the special effects. We want to know what happened, if it happened, what Jesus looked like, all of that. Those of us of a more skeptical bent might be inclined to disregard the whole thing, mark it up to the fanciful imaginings of a first-century peasant.

To do so is to underestimate the gospel writer’s genius and the message he wants to convey to his readers. There are a number of ways that this story echoes and builds on the account of Jesus’ baptism. There’s the obvious connection—the voice from heaven, speaking now to the disciples, not to Jesus, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

Though not explicitly stated, as at the baptism where we are told that the heavens are torn open, we see a fracture in the barrier dividing heaven and earth. Now it’s not a dove but heavenly messengers, prophets themselves, who come down and walk with Jesus. 

And this story looks ahead to the crucifixion; the final, climactic confession that Jesus is the Son of God, made now not by a voice from heaven, but from the executioner, the centurion. And then too, barriers will be torn apart, the curtain in the temple being torn in two. 

This is a story that confirms Jesus’ identity and mission both for us and for his disciples. But even in that confirmation, it undercuts traditional messianic expectations. For while the presence of Moses and Elijah might lead us to conclude, as it seems to have done for Peter, that Jesus fits into those hopes of a restoration of Israel’s royal power, its conclusion suggests that something quite different is happening.

First, as in so many other places in Mark, just as people, or demons, or unclean spirits seem to identify Jesus as the Messiah, or Holy One, or Son of God, Jesus rebukes them and silences them, telling them not to tell anyone about this until after his resurrection from the dead. So instead of ending on a note of triumph and power, the story ends by foreshadowing what is to come—Jesus’ rejection by the political and religious establishment, by his disciples, left to die alone on the cross, a victim of the forces arrayed against God’s reign of love and justice.

There are a couple of details in Peter’s response to the transfiguration that should speak to us. First, he calls Jesus “rabbi” a term of authority within 1st-century Judaism. It’s a term of respect and honor, but it is also evidence that he hasn’t quite got the point. Just before this story, Peter made his great confession that Jesus was the Messiah—now he seems to suggest that he is merely a human teacher within a religious institution. The second is the reference to “booths” an allusion to the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness and to the festival of sukkoth, but also an allusion to a certain kind of messianic expectation—of the restoration of Israel. 

Peter’s expectations and understanding of Jesus is shaped by his hopes, his political interests, and his religious background. He is overwhelmed by spectacle, by Jesus’ miraculous transfiguration and the mysterious appearance of Moses and Elijah. 

And there is where we come in. We too are tempted by miracle, by spectacle. We love the celebration, the emotional uplift, getting caught up in the effervescence of large gatherings filled with music. We get caught up in it, and it seems to be enough to carry us forward to assure us in our faith.

Mark is here to remind us that Jesus is about something quite different than all of that—not the spectacle, but the suffering. Jesus is here about the suffering of the sick and possessed, the downtrodden. Jesus is here because he is God’s beloved child, as are we. His journey leads to the cross where he will die alone, an anguished cry on his lips. But the story doesn’t end there.

In our experience of the last year when so much of our lives have seemed cramped and ordinary, when familiar pastimes have given way to solitude and the pleasures of spectacle and celebration are just distant memories, we yearn for something deeper, more powerful. We yearn for the emotional strength that comes from gathering with others and from the familiar rituals of our faith. 

As we look ahead to the season of Lent in the midst of our continuing struggles, may we seek Jesus in the ordinary places of our lives and in the dark and grieving corners of our souls. May we find him beckoning to us, reaching out his arms to us from the cross. May we open ourselves to him, as he comes to us, not meeting our expectations and desires, but creating new ones, experiencing his love in new ways, and sharing that love with the world in which we live. 

Marked by Ashes: Poetry for Lent by Walter Brueggeman

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day …
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Ash Wednesday Crosses, ashy, oily, woody: A homily for Ash Wednesday, 2020

I have had many memorable Ash Wednesdays. There was the first year I officiated at an Ash Wednesday service as a layperson. There was 2011, the year of the Act 10 protests, when the final vote occurred during our evening liturgy and we could hear the demonstrations as we knelt for the Litany of Penitence.

But perhaps my most memorable Ash Wednesday only became that in retrospect. A few years ago, I put ashes on the forehead of a dying parishioner. It was the first time she was in church after beginning chemotherapy earlier that year, and I recognized her only because she was accompanied by her daughter whose face was familiar to me. A few weeks later, she would die and I would officiate at her funeral and burial.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those words, these ashes are a sign of our mortality, a reminder to us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that our bodies will return to the earth.

Those words weigh heavily on my soul when I say them to myself each year, and their weight accumulates on me as I say them to you. I suspect they weigh heavily on you as well, as they challenge all of us to reflect on our mortality, to admit to ourselves who we are—dust and ashes, and that we will once more be dust and ashes, that all of our efforts to the contrary, all of our attempts to hold death at bay will come to nothing.

But contemplation of our nature, our provenance and end, is not an end in itself. We do this ritual, we make this strange gesture, we wear this smudge on our forehead to remind us of who we are and to remind us also of who God is. For it is God who made us out of the dust of the earth. It is God who has given us life and all that we have. Yet like our fear and desperate attempts to ignore our mortality, to fight the finality of death, so too do we often find ourselves running away from or ignoring God. We construct defenses; we try to hide. We put in place of God all manner of idols that we worship and pursue: financial success or security, fame, power; bright, shiny possessions; or the thrill of new experiences.

Cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads, the admonition “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” lay bare the emptiness of all those pursuits. They break down the barriers, strip our defenses, leave us kneeling before God our maker and redeemer.

Our empty selves, our vain hopes, brought to nothing by those words, leaving us with broken and contrite hearts. It is then that we can encounter God, stripped of our defenses, and open ourselves to deeper relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

We carry the ashy cross on our foreheads for a few hours, a day if we’re careful. But we’re just as likely to brush it off intentionally as soon as we leave church, or perhaps unintentionally, when it vanishes as we take off our winter hats or caps.

There’s a cross marked on us that is permanent, indelible, that can’t be brushed or washed off. It’s made with the same gestures, my thumb making the sign of the cross on foreheads, but with oil of chrism instead of ashes. And I say something quite different as well.

Instead of, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the words I say on Ash Wednesday, after baptizing someone, I dip my thumb in oil of chrism, and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized, saying while I do it, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

We bear that cross all of our lives, even if it is invisible. It is the mark of our belonging to Christ, the mark of our faith. And just as the cross of ash reminds us of our mortality, the cross marked in oil is a sign of who we truly are and of our ultimate destiny. We are beloved children of God.

We can forget that identity; as the cross is invisible, it can be forgotten under the weight of our sin and our doubts. But it may be that just as our foreheads are marked with ashes, the ash works as an abrasive, removing all of the accretions, so that our baptismal crosses are visible to ourselves and to the world. We are Christ’s own forever.

Of course, the Season of Lent has us think about another cross, the cross that looms ahead at the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. It’s a journey on which we are invited to accompany Jesus, to walk with him as his disciples and followers. When Jesus explained to his disciples what it meant to follow him, he said, “If you would be my disciples, take up your cross and follow me.”

We are carrying crosses today; these smudges of ash on our forehead. We carry that other cross on our forehead as well, the sign that we are Christ’s own forever. Lent encourages us to embrace another cross, the cross of discipleship, growing into our identities as followers of Jesus. As we walk this way of Lent, may we find it a time when we confront our mortality, claim our identity as children of God, and grow more deeply Christ-like as we accompany him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Temptation and Identity: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 2019

I know that many of you are relatively new to the Episcopal Church. I know that many, most of you didn’t attend Ash Wednesday services this past week, so you may be uncertain of what the Season of Lent is—what it means and why we observe it. Perhaps the best explanation of Lent can be found in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday and specifically, the Invitation to a Holy Lent. It’s found on p. 264 of the BCP, and I’m going to read it right now:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading andmeditating on God’s holy Word.

 

Our worship takes a much more somber and penitential tone in Lent. We traditionally begin our services on the First Sunday in Lent with the Great Litany. For the next five Sundays, we will begin with the Penitential Order in Rite I. While there is a solid reason for the Confession of Sin’s usual place in our liturgy, after the reading of Scripture and the Proclamation of Gospel. There, the confession is part of our response to what we’ve heard from scripture and preparation for the Liturgy of the Table, the Eucharist.

But placing the penitential order, including the confession, at the beginning of the service emphasizes the transition from daily life in the world to our worship of God. It acknowledges our identity, our sins and underscores the distance between us and God, a distance overcome in Jesus Christ.

There are other differences in our worship during Lent. I encourage to note them and reflect on how they might help us in this season of penitence and spiritual discipline. And I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities at Grace and the resources we’ve made available to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ in these weeks.

Our gospel reading on this first Sunday in Lent, as many of us begin to think about this season of repentance and forgiveness, is Luke’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The connection with Lent is obvious—the 40 days of Lent are modeled on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. He fasted as well. But the temptations seem just a bit out of place. It may prompt us to see in our temptation to break our fast, to eat the chocolate we said we would give up for Lent, a parallel to the confrontation between Jesus and Satan.

I doubt it. One of the interesting changes Luke makes to Mark’s story of the wilderness temptations is that Mark says, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, while Luke says that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. That’s in keeping with Luke’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit. It also links this story to Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit came down on Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is one of those overarching themes of Luke’s gospel and of Acts. And here we see Luke’s mention of it twice. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit, as he had been filled at his baptism, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Unlike Mark’s construction of this scene, Luke wants to emphasize that this cosmic battle waged between Jesus and Satan, is at bottom a battle between unequal combatants—Jesus is not alone. He is the Son of God, filled with the Holy Spirit.

But still, Luke doesn’t tip his hand. In fact, he suggests to the reader that Jesus is the weak one—emphasizing by repetition that Jesus fasted for 40 days, that he was famished. In that physical condition, and who knows what his mental or spiritual condition might have been, Jesus is confronted by Satan: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Hungry as he was, having not eaten anything for forty days, Satan may have been putting into words what Jesus was already thinking. For anyone who fasts, the temptation to break that fast is always present to a greater or lesser degree. It takes enormous willpower to resist and for Jesus, the Son of God, to resist the miraculous power to intervene and make a meal for himself from nothing, or from a stone—well for us mere mortals, it’s quite something to imagine.

But the temptation that Satan presented Jesus was deeper: “If you are the Son of God”—Just  a bit earlier, at his baptism, Luke tells us that Jesus heard the voice saying to him, “You are my Son, my beloved.” There are implicit questions in that statement, questions explored by nearly two millennia of Christian reflection on the nature of Christ.

Did Jesus already know his identity as the Son of God before hearing that voice? Was it confirmation of something he already knew? Did he become the Son of God at the baptism? Now, I am not going to explore those questions or why they may be important, but given the text, they are legitimate questions to ask.

From the perspective of Luke’s narrative, Jesus hears this voice, this statement of his identity, then led by the Holy Spirit goes into the wilderness where he fasts for 40 days. The very next thing he hears is Satan tempting him, “If you are the Son of God…”

Each of three temptations is about Jesus’ identity. Is he the Son of God? What sort of Son of God is he, or will he be? In the biblical tradition, the Psalms for example, the king is often referred to as a son of God, God’s representative on earth, with power on earth. In the second temptation, Satan says, “all authority has been given over to me.” In a sense, Satan’s questions of Jesus are questions about what sort of Son of God he might be, what kind of Messiah he will be. Jesus passes the test, and Satan departs from him until an opportune time.

Miraculous bread, all the nations of the world, the pinnacle of the temple—these were the tests put to Jesus by Satan. We might well wonder whether they are also tests put to us as individuals and as the body of Jesus Christ in the 21stcentury.

But at the same time, the deeper question of identity is one that also confronts us. Like Jesus we have been baptized, and in our baptism we gain our identity as children of God, marked as Christ’s own forever. What temptations draw us away from that identity? What temptations distract us from our knowledge and identity as God’s beloved children? May this season of Lent be a time, where we too, filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, may claim our identity as God’s beloved children and experience the love and grace of God revealed to us in Christ and expressed most fully on the cross.

Dust, Ashes, and God’s steadfast love: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2019

I have been surrounded by death the last few months. There was the death of my mother before Christmas, and two funerals at Grace in recent weeks. Yesterday morning, I visited someone in hospice care and we talked about death as I prayed and read Psalms with her. After that visit, I came to the church and burnt the dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday and prepared the ashes that I will use to mark the sign of the cross on our foreheads and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is now my tenth Ash Wednesday at Grace and I’m increasingly conscious of those people whose foreheads I daubed with ash and said, “Remember that you are dust…” and who in the years since, I’ve said while committing their remains to their final resting place, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Of all the intimate and powerful acts I perform as a priest, there may be none so intimate or powerful as what I do today, for as I say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…” I am saying it as much to myself as to you.

In our culture, we do almost everything we can to avoid talking about, thinking about, or being near, death. We don’t even use the word—someone has passed, they don’t die. We go to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking old, spending billions on cosmetic surgery to look young. We are so averse to speaking about death that we’ve invented a word, “cremains” so we don’t have to confront the reality of ashes.

But then we come hear and have our foreheads smudged with ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

To face our mortality with honesty and admitting our vulnerability is no easy thing. But it is an important first step in the work we need to do. Lent is a season of repentance and spiritual discipline. But to ask God’s forgiveness, to receive God’s forgiveness requires that we first admit who we are, acknowledge our sin and brokenness, open our selves and our hearts to God’s redemptive and forgiving grace.

We see that in Psalm 51, which we will recite together later. It’s a psalm of repentance but as the psalmist acknowledges his sinfulness and prays to God for forgiveness, there’s a moment when the tone changes:

Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

 

It is only through such confession, and honesty about oneself, that one can fully experience the joy of God’s forgiveness.

There’s another image that haunts me each Ash Wednesday, a verse from the Joel reading, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” My attention was first drawn to it years ago by Tom Davis, a priest who has himself now entered the larger life, as we were preparing for services at St. James, Greenville.

The image of priests weeping between the vestibule and altar, or as we might say, between the sacristy and the altar haunts me because it evokes a moment of intense repentance and it goes against the priestly decorum we display and that is expected of us. In the larger passage, the prophet Joel is talking about an imminent catastrophe, a natural disaster, a plague of locusts that has come upon the land and destroyed the crops. Interestingly, he does not attribute this natural disaster to punishment for the evil of the people. He offers no explanation for the coming destruction.

But he does offer hope: “Return to the Lord…”

The prophet continues:

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

As we confront our mortality this day, as we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as we confess our sins, and acknowledge our brokenness, as we weep between the vestibule and the altar, may our broken bodies and spirits be filled with the joy of God’s forgiveness, and know the immeasurable power of God’s loving grace.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Poem for Lent: Affliction by George Herbert

Affliction

by George Herbert

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart;
As wat’ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face:
Nothing performs the task of life:
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life: dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief:
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, Thee.

Can we see Jesus? Do we see Jesus? A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2018

We are at a turning point. Lent is drawing to a close; those of you who have been following Lent Madness are watching as the tension builds and the saintly competition comes to an end. If you’ve given up something for the season, you are probably counting the days to Easter and the end of your fast. Here in the office at Grace, we are preparing for Holy Week as you can tell from the notices in the service bulletin.

As we were reciting and chanting the verses from Psalm 51 this morning, I was reminded that we had said this same psalm on Ash Wednesday, after the imposition of the ashes. Then, I and you were hoping for a Holy Lent, a time when we might deepen our relationship with God in Christ, experience repentance and forgiveness of our sins and grow spiritually. Now, as Lent draws to a close, those verses remind me of all the ways my actions and discipline in Lent have fallen short of what I had hoped for, another missed opportunity. I am grateful again, and continuously, for God’s mercy and grace. Continue reading

Poetry for Ash Wednesday: “Lent” by George Herbert

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is composed of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to your Mother, what you would allow
To every Corporation.

*  *  *

It ‘s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
In both let ‘s do our best.

Who goes in the way which Christ has gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
Who travels the by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.