Sermon: Sunday, February 17, 2013: First Sunday of Lent

Texts:  Deuteronomy 26: 1-11  +  Psalm 91:1-2,9-16  +  Romans 10:8b-13  +  Luke 4:1-13

Good morning students, and welcome to your Lenten study hall.  My name is Erik Christensen and I will be your instructor for the next five weeks as we explore the ministry of Jesus in preparation for the great Three Days leading up to the festival of Easter.  The required reading for this class is the gospel of Luke, though there are select passages from the gospel of John that are recommended as well.  You can find these texts in most any bookstore, or in the bibles in the pew-back in front of you.  You can also find them online and in a variety of translations for both print and eReader formats.  There are no quizzes or papers in this class.  There will be one final, administered with water, and you will all pass.  Although there is no such thing as extra credit, you will earn brownie points if you can name the theological doctrine by which we all pass this course on the strength of another’s merits.

There really is a part of me that would still love to teach college or grad school.  Mostly so I could use that tone of voice (“Good morning students…”).  Looking for a season of the church year best suited to the living out of my professorial fantasies, Lent was the obvious choice.  Throughout its long and storied history, the season of Lent has been used as a time for the education and formation of people preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  As the church moved out of the first century and into a period of persecution, many found it difficult to remain true to the promises they’d made at the time of their baptisms — promises that we ourselves have made, or that were made on our behalf by parents and sponsors when we were children.  Christians facing political persecution in the form of imprisonment or even death would sometimes turn their back on the community of the baptized.  Lent was a time when those who had left the church could return, using these forty days as a period of repentance for sin and renewal in faith.

In the modern era, we recall and observe both meanings of this ancient season:

baptized_we_live_coverThis is a time of preparation for baptism. In fact, this year we are celebrating with Jessica Castro and her children Jessie, Angel and Lilly their decision to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  In preparation for that event, Jessica Palys and I are meeting with the family for an hour each week before worship and studying together, using Dan Erlander’s short, wonderful, illustrated text “Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life.”  

And this is a time for each of us who are already baptized to be reflecting on the ways that we may have capitulated to the pressures of the world that tempt us to turn away from the promises made at baptism. Individually and collectively we use this season of Lent to repent for the ways we have broken or betrayed the solidarity with all God’s people that is the gift of baptism, and we renew our faith and our promises to be co-workers with all of creation in God’s in-breaking reign.

The stories we hear this morning, on this first Sunday of Lent, fit the theme of identity and temptation quite perfectly.  We are, perhaps, most familiar with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness — first with bread, then with political power, and finally with the promise of divinity, even immortality.

These temptations come at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and they remind me of the three renunciations we make at the beginning of the baptismal rite before we are washed in these waters and initiated into the mission and ministry of Christ.  We ask,

  • Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
  • Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

To each of these questions the candidate responds, “I renounce them,” mirroring Jesus’ own renunciation of Satan’s tempting offers.

Last month I spent the better part of a week down in Atlanta, Georgia.  I was there by invitation from the Worship staff from the Churchwide offices of the ELCA to be part of a team of clergy who worked together on crafting new language for contemporary Christian worship.  In that process one of my assignments was actually to find new words for these ancient baptismal renunciations.

south_park_satanRecognizing that many of us are unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, with the use of the name “Satan” — surrounded by depictions of a red-fleshed bully wielding a pitchfork on South Park or various horror movie renditions of “the Devil,” I had to try and find new words that more accurately reflected ancient views of what we are called to renounce in our baptism.

In the gospel of Luke, the devil tempts Jesus with offers that expand in their scope. The first temptation is bread.  We may not think too much of bread, but if that’s true, then it’s probably a sign that we have enough of it, or enough money to never have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  Of the world’s 6.7 billion people, almost 1 billion go hungry each day — that’s about 14% of the world’s community that prays “give us this day our daily bread” with an urgency we may simply never understand.

For these people, a person who could have made bread out of rocks would have been a magician — but a person who became bread for the whole world would have been a savior.

The second temptation is political power.  The devils tells Jesus, “to you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.”  There’s some sly humor in Luke’s gospel at this point, I think.  The devil is asserting that politics are the devil’s playground, and who among us hasn’t thought the same at some point in our lives, or even in the last week? In a world of back-room deals, the devil is offering Jesus the sweetest deal of them all.  But Jesus renounces the devil’s claim over politics, and in doing so I think he ennobles the political work of the church, our calling to use all the tools available to us to shape the world so that it more fully reflects God’s peace, mercy, justice and love.  In a world where politics too quickly becomes a synonym for division, the baptized people of God recall Paul’s words to the Romans, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

In a world in which political leaders living nations away controlled the lives of millions of people, a person who ruled the nations would have been a hero — but a person who prioritized people over power would have been a savior.

The final temptation is cosmic in scope.  The devil tempts Jesus with the promise of divine protection.  He says, “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘God will command the angels concerning you, to protect you.’”  It is the promise of eternal life.  If you are the child of God, then nothing can hurt you, nothing can kill you.  That is the devil’s tempting lie.  But Jesus will be the one who shows us the breadth and the depth of God’s solidarity with all the suffering world.  A love so deep that it will not pass over death, but will enter it just as fully as each of us someday must.

In a world dominated by death, a person who escaped death would have been a legend — but a person who embraced death so that each of us could live more fully, less fearfully, would have been a savior.

So we, when we are baptized, follow in the footsteps of our savior, renouncing the devil’s empty offers in favor of a new life lived in solidarity with all the world’s people: the hungry, the oppressed, the weak and the dying.

As I looked for new words to communicate these ancient ideas, I tried to think about the range of situations in which people are baptized and how I would speak to each.  In one case, I imagined a worship service where those being baptized were old enough to answer for themselves, but still young enough that the traditional language would be far beyond their daily vocabulary.  I tried to find words that children could say with honesty and integrity.  This is what I came up with, and as we close this first lesson in our Lenten study hall I’m going to ask you to respond to these questions — if you feel comfortable doing so — with the words “I say no to them.”  As we finish, I’ll ask you to join me in reciting the Apostle’s Creed — remembering those words by which we were each baptized.  To make that easier, how about we each open our hymnals to page 229 in the front.

Friends, as you get ready to be baptized, I’m going to ask you to say no to the things that hurt you and to say yes to God.  Some of our words will be short and simple, and some will be long and complicated, but all will tell the story of God’s love for you and for the whole world.

Do you say no to hate, no to violence, no to greed and no to everything else that is the opposite of God’s peace, mercy, justice and love?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to rules, no to habits, no to traditions, no to prejudices that go against God’s hopes and dreams for the world?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to the things you do but shouldn’t, no to the temptation to do nothing when action is needed, no to everything that pulls you away from God?

Response: I say no to them.

Saying no to sin, and all that hurts us and God’s creation, I ask you now to say yes to God with the words used by Christians at their baptisms since the very earliest days of the Church.

Do you believe in God the Father?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.




Sermon: Sunday, January 29, 2012: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts:  Deuteronomy 18:15-20  •   Psalm 111  •   1 Corinthians 8:1-13  •   Mark 1:21-28

Toilet-PaperI have climbed up into the pulpit this morning to preach on a topic that is near and dear to many of us, and that subject is toilet paper and the church. This is an indelicate conversation, so I will try and keep it light. You may find yourself inclined to giggle, or perhaps even laugh out loud. I encourage you to do so. It will most likely be a long time before I preach about toilets again, so you should try and make the most of it.

I was having coffee with Lynda Deacon yesterday, and I found myself holding forth with a rant that went something like this,

“I am so sick of hearing about toilet paper! I don’t ever need to hear another conversation about the state of our bathrooms. As long as I’ve been here, people have been complaining to me about the embarrassing state of our bathrooms. Lots of people use our bathrooms. Lots of homeless and hungry people use our bathrooms. People take baths in our sinks. People steal our toilet paper. What am I supposed to do about that? Honestly, if money is so tight that people are choosing between buying food and buying toilet paper, I hope they’re buying the food. I can’t get mad at someone for doing what they have to do to make sure they can clean up after themselves! What can I say? I am no toilet expert. The Bible doesn’t have lots of practical advice to offer about toilets, so your idea is as good as mine.”

If you’re not already aware, the subject of toilet paper and the church comes up a lot at St. Luke’s. So, let’s go over the logistics. St. Luke’s has four restrooms. The two largest and most public of our bathrooms are on the ground floor of the parish hall, at the bottom of the stairs. These bathrooms are gendered – the men’s room containing two standing urinals and two private toilet seats, the women’s room containing three private toilet seats. There are also two unisex, single-occupant bathrooms on the second floor of the parish hall – one just outside the church office, and the other just off the formal lounge and the yoga studio. None of our bathrooms can be accessed without negotiating at least one flight of stairs, and none of them are set up to accommodate people with mobility impairments of any kind. Just saying.

In the introduction to her 2008 New York Times bestseller, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, author Rose George shares a story about bathrooms that can, perhaps, help us break the seal on this taboo topic. She writes,

I need the bathroom. I assume there is one, though I’m at a spartan restaurant in the Ivory Coast, in a small town filled with refugees from next-door Liberia, where water comes in buckets and you can buy towels secondhand. The waiter, a young Liberian man, only nods when I ask. He takes me off into the darkness to a one-room building, switches on the light, and leaves. There’s a white tiled floor, while tiled walls and that’s it. No toilet, no hole, no clue. I go outside to find him again and ask if he’s sent me to the right place. He smiles with sarcasm. Refugees don’t have much fun but he’s having some now. “Do it on the floor. What do you expect? This isn’t America!” I feel foolish. I say I’m happy to use the bushes, it’s not that I’m fussy. But he’s already gone, laughing into the darkness.

I need the bathroom. I leave the reading room of the British Library in central London and find a “ladies” a few yards away. If I prefer, there’s another one on the far side of the same floor, and more on the other five floors. By 6pm, after thousands of people have entered and exited the library and the toilets, the stalls are still clean. The doors still lock. There is warm water in the clean sinks. I do what I have to do, then flush the toilet and forget it, immediately, because I can, and because all my life I have done no differently.

This is why the Liberian waiter laughed at me. He thought that I thought a toilet was my right, when he knew it was a privilege.

I’m talking about toilets this morning, and I’m not talking about toilets this morning; and that, in fact, is how a lot of toilet talk is done. Talking about toilets is rarely ever just talking about toilets. It’s talk about sanitation, cleanliness, health, poverty, gender, class, sexuality and disease. Our taboos surrounding toilets often serve to keep us from talking about all sorts of taboo subjects, and asking questions like:

  • Why do our downstairs bathrooms smell so bad? (Answer: because there are many people using our bathrooms throughout the week who have little or no access to showers, so they shower in our sinks and change clothes in our toilet stalls)
  • Why do we wait to wait to use the bathrooms in our homes if we can’t use one of the upstairs bathrooms? (Answer: because none of us wants to be in a smelly, dirty bathroom if we have a choice)

Those are the easy questions. The tougher ones come next, questions like:

  • Which of the following do our bathrooms more closely resemble: private, residential bathrooms or public transit rest stops – and what does that suggest?
  • If St. Luke’s bathrooms are not for you, who are they for? What’s the first answer that comes to mind? Be honest.

Then, of course, there’s the final – perhaps the most obvious – question: why am I talking about this?

In the passage from Mark’s gospel we read this morning, Jesus has just come back from the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan, and from the lakeshore, where he called his first disciples. Now he has arrived at the synagogue on the Sabbath where he teaches with authority. What he’s teaching we don’t know, we’re simply told that it’s markedly different from what the scribes have to say.

The scribes were interpreters of the law. They were the transmitters of tradition. They passed on what they had first received. For example, they knew how many days a woman should remove herself during the time of her period, or the proper sacrifice for someone to offer to be made clean after touching a dead body. They knew what was clean and what was unclean.

Or did they?

Mark tells us that “there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” Some translations render this an “evil” spirit. I don’t think we should get hung up on whether or not the spirit was “unclean” or “evil.” It’s probably more germane to notice that we think the two things are related. We imagine that unclean things, or people, are evil things, or people. This is why we don’t want to share too much with them. Like our bathrooms.

In his essay “Learning from the Loo,” American sociologist Harvey Molotch writes,

“Whatever the setting or scale of the problem, we have in the toilet an instrument and institution that both reflects how people and societies operate and also reinforces the existing pattern. Precisely because the toilet operates somewhat in hiding, those who plan, manage, and control its use often act on their own, without a public to which they most provide detailed and explicit accounts of what they are doing. The toilet thus operates irresponsibly. Compared to other artifacts, arrangements, and patterns of usage, it thus resists change – however unjust, damaging, or inefficient things may be.”

I have to admit, I’d never considered the prophetic edge of pee and poo and public loos, but there it is. “We have in the toilet an instrument and institution that both reflects how people and societies operate and also reinforces the existing pattern.”

To speak plainly, this means that the condition of our restrooms both means something and does something. What it means is related to difference and how we view it. The accommodations we expect for ourselves as opposed to the ones we make available to others. What it does is actually maintain and reinforce those differences. The person who uses our toilet because they don’t have access to any other one isn’t invited into a meditation on class, poverty and human dignity. They are experiencing classism, power and indignity. Whether or not we mean for that to happen is really beside the point.

What’s so clever and remarkable about Mark’s gospel is that it says that Jesus taught with authority, but it doesn’t tell you what he taught. That’s not what we expect. We expect that teaching is related to conveying information, mastering content. Instead, Jesus’ teaching unmasks a conflict between two spiritual forces in the world – the spirit that has possessed the man in the synagogue and the Holy Spirit present in Jesus. It is no match. What Jesus teaches, then and now, is that every barrier is broken down when exposed to the power of God’s love. I say love, because look how it happens. Jesus does not command the unclean person to be gone, he commands the unclean spirit. He restores the man to good health, to community. The label, whether it is “evil” or “dirty,” is, well, eliminated. Flushed away. All that remains is the person whom God loves.

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul writes, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge wants to know whose job it is to keep the dirty people from taking baths in our sink. Knowledge wants to know who’s going to make sure there’s toilet paper in the stalls. Knowledge wants to know why we’re still talking about our bathrooms. By contrast, love builds up. Love spends Saturday afternoons spray painting the stalls. Love replaces the cracked mirrors and the broken commodes. Love asks for the key to the closet and makes sure there’s a fresh roll of toilet paper for our guests on Tuesdays and Thursdays, on Saturdays and Sundays.

What distinguishes Jesus’ teaching from the scribes is that Jesus is teaching for transformation, not information. It’s not about having the answer, it’s about being the answer.

St. Luke’s, it’s true, there is something about our bathroom situation that stinks… but it’s not just the pink urinal pucks. It’s true that we have a waste removal problem, but what needs elimination is our attitudes, not the people who provoke us. Because, at the end of the day, no one’s poo smells good. Not yours. Not mine. Not our neighbors’. Not our guests’. We don’t accomplish anything by ranking our relative odor. We don’t prove anything by pointing fingers. What’s needed is not information, it’s transformation.

So, what’s next? I don’t know. We’ve got an annual meeting after church, at which you’re going to elect some new council members to provide vision and leadership for our congregation. I suspect they’re about as excited as I am to spend any more time talking about toilet paper. But mission and ministry, justice and hospitality, those are things I think we’re all aching to talk about, and more than talk about. That’s the work we’re called to be about doing, even if it starts with something as mundane as our bathrooms.

Can I get an amen. Please?