March Sermons 2020
March 1, 2020
“Survivor,” the mother of all reality shows, started its 20-year anniversary season a few weeks ago. To celebrate what will actually be its 40th season, since there are two episodes every year, the show brought back 20 winners from prior seasons to compete for the one-million-dollar prize. For 39 days the contestants, in ever decreasing numbers, will be on Upolu Island in Samoa. During their time on the island, contestants will put into action the iconic three word slogan of this groundbreaking reality show as they try to Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast one another.
At the end of each episode there is a ceremony in which one unlucky contestant is voted off the island by the rest in an anonymous vote, and their candle is snuffed out. The phrase, “voted off the island,” has now become part of our lexicon to refer to any number of situations when someone is dismissed from a group or a competition—be it a dance competition, talent show, or a singing contest like “American Idol”; and the list goes on.
Terri and I used to watch the show in its early years. It’s amazing how easy it is to get drawn into the drama, the forming of alliances, the betrayals—and also to start choosing favorites that you pull for to win. What’s also amazing is how easy it is to forget that these survivor contestants are not actually stranded alone on some remote tropical island with no resources, as Tom Hanks was in the movie, Castaway, which ironically came out in 2000, the same year “Survivor” debuted. Coincidence? We’ll never know, but the plight of Tom Hanks’s character, Chuck Noland, was clearly much closer to what Jesus faced during his forty days in the wilderness. The “Survivor” contestants and Tom Hanks were, of course, never really alone or in any real danger. They were surrounded by cameras, food trucks, medical facilities, and helicopters ready to whisk them away to a hospital if necessary.
About the only thing similar to “Survivor” and Jesus in the wilderness is the time period. “Survivor” contestants are on the island for 39 days, while Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. While “Survivor” is called a reality show, that’s a huge misnomer, as the only thing real about it is that it casts real people—meaning that they are not actors. The rest of the show is about as real as Gilligan’s Island. If we want to find a truly epic tale of survival, of courage, and resisting the temptations of a timeless and a very real evil presence who has been around since creation, we need to turn off our TVs, open our Bibles, and step into the Judean wilderness and witness the duel between Jesus and the Devil.
As witnesses, let us pay special attention to the setting and to the timing of Satan’s approach. The setting was a desolate wilderness—no camera crews, no food trucks, or medical facilities. While for Jesus, it was an actual wilderness, for us it might be a metaphorical or symbolic wilderness, representing perhaps a difficult time in our lives—loss of a job or a friend or relative, a serious illness. Notice too who it was that chose this setting for Jesus to be tempted and tested. It certainly wasn’t Jesus, and it also wasn’t Satan. Instead, we read that, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
What was it that happened after Jesus was led into temptation to face Satan? By the end of His ordeal we are told that Jesus was delivered from evil. If this sounds familiar, it should, as it comes from the most well-known prayer in the world that we say here every Sunday: “Lead us not into temptation”—but if you do, “deliver us from evil.” It’s from the Lord’s Prayer. The one Jesus gave to His disciples. There’s a good chance that His own experience in the wilderness led to that part of the prayer, reassuring us that, should we ever find ourselves in a bad situation, a wilderness or a desert, real or metaphorical, that He will deliver us from evil.
Then Jesus goes about demonstrating exactly what we must do in order to be delivered from evil—and that is to turn to the Word of God—both God’s written word as revealed in Scripture and His living word as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Then we must position both God and God’s word above everything else in our lives. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Just put God first. It is simple; simple, that is, to “say.” It’s the practicing of it that separates true disciples from Christian wannabes—those who want Christ, without the Cross, who want salvation without sacrifice, and who want eternal life without living this life as a true disciple. This is why we often refer to ourselves as practicing Christians, as opposed to, say, nominal Christians.
With that in mind, let’s return now to Jesus and the devil’s first temptation—the only one, by the way, we’ll be talking about today, lest this sermon ends up being longer than His time in the wilderness. Really, what a reasonable temptation that first one is: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” What’s so wrong about this temptation? After all, it’s not as if the devil is asking Jesus for a favor. He’s also not threatening Jesus or even trying to buy Him off. Jesus hasn’t eaten for 40 days, so why not turn a few stones into some nourishment? After all, hints the devil, didn’t your dad send manna from Heaven to feed the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness? You know how the saying goes, Jesus. “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” Am I right, or am I right? “Wrong!” says Jesus. “What you’re suggesting is but a variation of the original sin in the garden. You should know; you were the one dangling the fruit before Adam and Eve!” It’s the world’s oldest temptation. Don’t wait on God. Don’t obey God. Don’t trust God to meet your needs. Take things into your own hands. So we see Jesus turning things around with the answer to temptation and to the tempter.
His answer must always be our answer whenever we’re tempted not to trust God and to take one of those short-cuts which often end up being an express elevator—going down! Only one thing is needful, and that’s God. Everything else, including our physical beings will one day be lost. Only God remains. If we cling to God, always trusting and putting Him first and at the center of our lives, we will inherit the promised kingdom. But of we distort our priorities, we risk losing God and belonging to the ancient tempter who’s been around since creation. His favorite meal is and always has been . . . “Soul food!” While that may have been a play on words I simply couldn’t resist, there’s also a darker and more frightening truth lurking behind it. A truth revealed by Peter in his first Epistle, Chapter 5, where he warns us to, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
Chilling words, at least to me. And yet, words that we ignore at our peril. I say this because Christian history has taught us that the devil’s favorite hunting grounds are to be found among nominal believers; those who enter the world each day clothed with a false sense of security. I earlier referred to them as “wannabe Christians,” wanting all the blessings and benefits without the burdens of actually living their faith on a daily basis. From Satan’s perspective such persons might just as well enter the world each day with a huge target painted on their backs—their false sense of security making them easy prey for what led to the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. The season of Lent provides for us a good example of what I’m speaking: Just before Lent, Wannabe Christians will find some way to let everyone within earshot know exactly what they are giving up for 40 days—typically something like chocolate, ice cream, candy, or a food or an activity, most of which, as I said on Ash Wednesday—billions of people in the world can only dream about ever having or tasting—let alone “giving up!”
Like the Pharisees of old that Jesus often used as negative examples for their very public praying and giving, today’s wannabe Christians are all about show and very short on substance, failing to grasp that in God’s eyes just being in church most Sundays doesn’t make a person a true and practicing Christian anymore than just being in a garage makes one a car. While you and I and the wannabe friends, family, and co-workers may have trouble stripping away the façade to reveal the non-practicing Christians beneath the surface, God has no such problem, because, as we say most every Sunday at the beginning of the Mass, to God, “All hearts are open, all desires known, and from God no secrets are hid.” A final observation about wannabe Christians is that they spend a lot of time focusing and telling others about how God is so loving, forgiving, and understanding. While these three attributes of God are certainly true, we would do well not to forget another very important aspect of God’s makeup. We find it in Exodus, Chapter 20. While it should sound familiar, it’s something that wannabe Christians would as soon forget: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. For I the Lord am a jealous God.” Just so we’re clear on this, biblically defined, our idol is anything—jobs, families, time, treasure—anything which comes between us and God--our devotion to God and our relationship with God.
Now I don’t stand here this morning pretending to know where anyone else stands today in God’s eyes on the measuring rod of Wannabe Christian to committed Christian—including myself. As I see it, my purpose, my calling as your Priest is to give you information and interpretation concerning God’s word as revealed in scripture in order to assist you in navigating a course through this life that well lead you to the life hereafter in God’s Kingdom. Lent provides to each of us a time for taking a spiritual inventory of our lives in Christ and to make any necessary changes.
If my comments or observations about Wannabe Christians caused anyone any discomfort, the good news is that there is still time to turn things around, meaning to repent. On the other hand, if you felt no uneasiness and were being honest with yourself—then keep up the good work and be on the lookout for friends or family who may be flirting with those wannabe characteristics and do your best gently and lovingly to get them back on the disciples’ road.
Of course, if this all sounds like just too much—too much pressure, too much sacrifice, and too much interference with the enjoyment of life, there is a way to escape all that pressure. A way to ensure that Satan will leave you alone as you navigate through this reality show called life. It comes from 20th Century pastor and author, the late A. J. Tozer:
“This thing called the Christian life is not for the faint of heart, my friend. My point here is that if we want to escape the struggle, we have but to draw back and embrace the currently accepted low-key Christian life as the normal one. That’s all Satan wants: That will ground our power and rend us harmless to the kingdom of darkness. Compromise will take the pressure off. Satan will not bother a person who has quit fighting. But the cost of quitting will be a life of peaceful stagnation. We children of eternity just cannot afford such a thing!”
The choice, of course, is always ours. But we must choose wisely, for when the curtain falls on this reality show called Life, the consequences are eternal.
February 26, 2020
“ . . . the day of the Lord is coming; it is near; a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
As I hope you all know by now, I strive to never bring politics into the pulpit; and, have no fear, I’m not going to start today as we begin our journey through Lent. Having said that, and this being a presidential election year, I couldn’t help but wonder just how these gloom and doom words from the prophet Joel must have felt painfully real to Republicans on November 4, 2008, when Barak Obama was elected as President of these United States, and how the same words impacted Democrats eight years later on November 9, 2016, when Donald Trump claimed victory.
Of course, come November 3rd or 4th of this year, Joel’s words will again become reality for one of our two major parties. His gloomy prophesies aren’t confined to elections, but might easily describe the feelings of those affected by other disasters on a global, a national, or a personal level: For example, a few years ago I recall someone quoting not Joel, but a childhood nursery rhyme to describe what came to be known as the “Great Recession”:
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.”
The point I want to make, as we begin today our journey through Lent, is that be it on a national, global, or strictly personal level, as the late Gilda Radner used to say on Satturday Night Live, as her character Rosanne Rosannadanna, “It’s always something!”
Something always seems to be broken that cannot be fixed by our efforts alone. During Lent we name and, as individuals and a community of faith, we embrace our own stories of brokenness and of humanity’s fall from God’s grace, following Adam and Eve’s original sin and then expulsion from Eden. While it is both easy and tempting to want to distance ourselves from that mythical story of a man, a woman, a serpent, and God, it would be wrong and dangerous for us to do so.
The ashes which tonight will be traced upon our foreheads become in a sense sacramental in that they serve as outward and visible signs which remind each of us of our eternal and close connection to the world’s first couple, of our unworthiness, and the repentance that we all must embrace throughout our lives. Why? Because as individuals, each of us has failed to measure up to God’s expectations of us.
Before we are too quick to try to defend ourselves, I don’t mean all the time. Sometimes we do live up to those expectations, and God is well pleased. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves and with God who of course knows everything about us anyway, most of the time we all do fall short of His expectations. Why? First because living life every day as a Christian has never been easy since the days following the Resurrection when our faith was founded. Second because in the world we wake up to these days, Christianity has become marginalized to the extent that it is increasingly difficult to be a practicing Christian during our waking hours. Each year the season of Lent provides us all with a period of time for us to really examine our lives as 21st century disciples and--to be honest—with ourselves and God about how we measure up, using it as kind of a yearly litmus test for the final exam, aka judgment, we will all one day face. This yearly period of self-examination, repentance, and making a commitment to be more serious and intentional about our faith is not about giving up candy, a favorite pastime, or something else that billions of human beings in the world can only dream about. Thankfully, Lent in our Episcopal church is also not about wearing hair shirts, flogging ourselves with cords, or constantly bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness to all within earshot.
What Lent does call us to do, however, is to acknowledge that when, not if, we fall short of God’s expectations for us, when we wake up one day to discover our lives are in pieces, that instead of giving up and feeling sorry for ourselves, we instead admit and acknowledge that God and God alone is the only one who can put us back together again. Not only that, but put us back together in such a way that the end result will be a person who will break into far fewer pieces the next time it happens, realizing that there will definitely be more next times until the day we draw our final breath. It’s an inevitable by-product of God’s great gamble of granting us free will at creation. It didn’t work out so well for Adam and Eve. Their example, to varying degrees, is repeated around the world every day. God knows that, like Humpty Dumpty, humankind will never stop falling and breaking; but when we do, what God expects of us is that we will repent and return to the Lord, as we promise in our Baptismal Covenant. God has never held us to an unattainable standard of perfection; and God knows and expects us to occasionally stumble and fall, to disappoint Him, and to fall short of expectations. God also knows that the result of some of our falls from grace may leave us like poor Humpty—broken into many small pieces. Unlike those king’s horses and men who couldn’t get the job done, our God, like a loving parent, picks us up, puts us back together again, dusts off our newly repaired selves, and sets us back to complete our journey on the only road leading to salvation. Until, of course, we stumble again, and the process begins anew—because our God never gives up on us! When I was much younger, I spent eight miserable, but ultimately rewarding weeks at Ft. Ord in Northern California going through Army Boot Camp. Sometimes I think of Lent as a kind of Christian Boot Camp; if, that is, we approach it with the right attitude. Another term for boot camp is basic training, and every year Lent gives to each of us a chance to get in touch with the basics of our faith. The season of Lent ends 46 days from today on Easter Sunday. If you’re wondering about the math, remember that the five Sundays in Lent and Palm Sunday do not count, as every Sunday is considered to be a Mass of the Resurrection and is not included in Lent.
While I very much doubt that the current brokenness in our country and in the world will be put back together in the next 46 days, my hope is that all of us who call St. Luke’s our spiritual home will actively embrace these next 46 days in order to strengthen our spiritual lives and our connections to Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Come Easter morning, my prayer is that these lessons, learned during Lent, will be carried by us out of the tomb and into the world. In his letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul tells them that their formation takes place “through great endurance, in affliction, hardships, calamities, tumults, labor, and hunger.” If we’re being honest, such things rarely touch our lives in 21st century America, but are a daily reality for billions of fellow human beings around the world. I think it would behoove us well to remember this grim truth whenever we find ourselves worrying and stressing over politics, the state of our economy, our grocery store running out of a sale item, and so on, realizing that our stresses are way down the list compared to brothers and sisters in our world who daily face the stress of just surviving until the sun sets.
When we do find ourselves in one of those infrequent worst of times, we need never to lose heart and instead look to the Bible which reveals countless examples of those who discovered that it is often in the trials and tribulations of life that one’s faith in God is formed, tested, and strengthened to survive the long haul and reach the finish line.
Lent is a season that begins with ashes and ends with the glory of an empty tomb and a Risen Lord. A miracle like no other that calls each of us to rise up, to beat our breasts and proclaim to the world, “We are broken; but behold, we live!” We know there is something precious alive within each of us, and we long to become whole and uncover it.
Lent is the season which every year calls each of us to let that longing be known to God. The only sure way to do this is to surrender the lie that we are able to fix ourselves and to surrender ourselves completely to God who has patiently been waiting for the invitation to be placed at the center of our lives; to forgive; to re-form us into the likeness and the image He desires for us.
So it is that there is a Spirit in and among us—moving us quietly and gently throughout our lives, seeking to do for us what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not do for Humpty Dumpty—to put us together again!
March 22, 2020
In the deep South there lived a man who greatly admired General Robert E. Lee, one of the heroes of the Confederacy. There was a large statue of General Lee near the man’s home, astride his beloved horse, Traveler. Wanting his young son also to grow up admiring the great general, the man would regularly go on walks with the boy; and as they drew near the statue, he would squeeze the young lad’s hand and tell him to say good morning to General Lee. He would then smile, proudly, as his son would look up and say, “Good morning, General Lee.” One day, however, following the morning ritual, the boy looked up at his father and asked, “Daddy, what’s the name of the man sitting on General Lee?”
Just as there are many forms of blindness—physical, spiritual, cultural—so too there are many ways of having one’s eyes opened—from the rare miracle when Jesus heals a physical blindness to the sudden realization that you and someone close to you have been seeing the same reality from two entirely different perspectives, which itself is certainly a form of blindness. And yet, even when our eyes are finally opened, it takes time and it takes experience before we are able to move from a physical sight to a spiritual sight from God in the abstract to a God that is personal, a God of the heart. Quite often the only kind of experience that will lead us to that kind of transformation is a journey, call it a detour, into a place we would never choose to go, and yet a place where every human being since Adam and Eve has been at some point in their lives. We hear of this place in today’s 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
While every human being who has ever walked this earth has spent at least some time walking through that valley, today we find ourselves living in one of those rare times when, as a nation, we find ourselves in that valley together, driven there by Coronavirus. An equal opportunity virus which draws no distinction between Christians, Jews, Muslims, or atheists, COVID-19, as it’s also called, could care less if one is black, white, or brown; rich or poor; gay or straight; democrat or republican. If you are a living, breathing human being, you are at risk today.
A sportswriter once asked golfing legend Sam Snead, how best to handle the dreaded rough of that long and untended grass next to the fairways which plagues golfers. Snead’s answer: “Don’t get in it.” Today, while most Americans do not like being told what we can or can’t do, the hard truth is that the lockdowns, the social distancing, and the sheltering-in-place which are now our daily realities, are all necessary to keep us from getting in the rough that is this potentially fatal virus. For our brothers and sisters for whom these measures came too late, we can only pray for them and for their loved ones. But for the rest of us, let us not forget and let us take heart because the Bible and human experience have both revealed that those very places we try so hard to avoid, those places we all fear--the wilderness and those valleys over which hovers the shadow of death--are the very places where we often meet God; the places where God not only walks beside us, as Psalm 23 assures us, but also the places where God reveals Himself to us and where God always leads us to the other side with a stronger faith and with a new vision with which to see the world.
Notice here two things about this well-known 23rd Psalm. First, and I would say most importantly, the psalm assures us that we will get through those dark valleys and that we are not alone. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou are with me.” But notice, if you will, just how we get through those valleys in our lives. We don’t jog; we don’t run; and we definitely do not sprint through such times. No, as individuals, as a nation—we must all walk through those dark valleys. Why? Because there are important lessons to be taken from such experiences. Lessons that we are much less likely to learn when we are living in the normal world, basking in sunshine, no restrictions, plenty of items on the shelves, free to socialize with others; and all is right with the world. God may not have led us into such dark places, but two things are certain. God will always be with us as we walk together through such dark times in our lives; and God will probably make sure that the Exit sign is not visible until we have learned some valuable truths during our walk with Him.
As we all prepare to leave soon the story of the blind man’s walk out of his lifetime of darkness and go back to our new reality, a world darkened by coronavirus, let us first take note of a kind of grammatical progression in this story that, I believe, might help all of us in our current journey through the shadow that now surrounds us.
As the drams unfolds, notice if you will, in verse 11, he first reefers to Jesus as, “the man who spread mud on his eyes.” By verse 17, however, Jesus becomes “a prophet,” and finally, in verse 38, he refers to Jesus as “Lord,” and worships Him. Then notice how the author of our 23rd Psalm reveals a similar progression or transformation in how he sees God, because it’s very instructive for us. The first three verses reveal God in the abstract, couched in the third person. “The Lord is my shepherd; He leads me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.” But then, in verse four we find a dramatic switch to a much more personal God: “I will fear no evil for thou [or you] are with me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil.” What causes this sudden change in pronouns? The key is found in the first line of the middle verse: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” It seems clear that either during or after a dark and difficult time in the life of our Psalm writer, God went from being a distant, abstract, impersonal figure to becoming a close, intimate, and personal savior. This new relationship, this closeness was formed in that dark valley. Perhaps a time of physical pain, spiritual blindness—maybe both. Time when he actually felt God’s presence entering his life, anointing him with comfort and mercy.
History and the Bible both reveal to us that divine visitations seem to come most often during those down times in our lives, those seasons of sorrow, those days of discouragement and despair. Like poor Job, it’s rarely when things are going well and we are sailing through life that we are more open to and aware of God’s presence. No, if we’re being honest, looking back on our life, it’s most often from the “ash heap” that we experience the nearness of God.
As someone sagely observed, probably during WWI or WWII, “You’ll find very few atheists in foxholes.” Why is this so, we may wonder? That it so often takes some tragedy or crisis to bring God closer: a pandemic, a serious illness, a war? Possibly because when all is well in our lives, it’s much easier to keep God at a safe distance, allowing Him to shepherd our lives from afar. Many today who probably consider themselves to be practicing Christians are quite adept at doing just that. Until, that is, their lives reach that pivotal fourth verse of the 23rd Psalm; and they suddenly find themselves in a dark place where a distant God will just not do and where a myriad of false gods beckon seductively from the shadows promising an easy way out. There is no quick or easy way out, dear friends, but as individuals, as a church, as a country, with God walking alongside of us, we will emerge from this valley over which COVID-19 is now casting its dark shadow, and we will emerge stronger in our faith. We will emerge into the sunlight of a new, changed world saying with conviction and with a renewed faith,
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life . . . and I will
dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.
I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.