Sermon: Sunday, March 5, 2017: First Sunday in Lent

Texts: Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7  +  Ps. 32  +  Rom. 5:12-19  +  Matt. 4:1-11

Let’s begin with a little bit of an explanation for how today’s worship service and sermon are like and unlike that to which you’ve grown accustomed. With Ash Wednesday this past week, we’ve now entered the season of Lent, the season in which the church has traditionally both prepared people to receive the sacrament of baptism and accompanied people through a period of intentional repentance and return to the faith. The name we give to the process of preparation for baptism and lifelong faith formation is catechesis, which literally means something like “instruction by word of mouth,” which points to the way our faith has been transmitted, person to person, over the centuries.

So, in considering how we might use this Lent to honor the church’s traditional observance of the season and to build on the local traditions we’ve been nurturing here at St. Luke’s, we’ve decided that for these five Sundays we will shorten our periods of speech and lengthen our periods of silence in order to strengthen our attention span for the sound of our own soul’s questions; we have selected music that can be sung without use of a hymnal and, for the most part (once you’ve picked up the simple tune and lyrics) with nothing in your hands; and we will be preaching shorter sermons directed towards teaching doctrine, followed by a period in which the entire assembly will be invited to reflect on a question in silence or by offering a brief thought or observation. You’ll get a chance to practice that in just a few minutes, so let’s begin.

This morning I want to talk about the doctrine of sin, which always seems to me to be one of the simplest yet most freighted topics in the church and among people — whether they are Christian or not. It is the thing with which people who make no claim to Christian faith assume those of us who do are obsessed. It is a source of great pain and shame for people who have been taught to believe that something about their very being is disordered. PHELPS-1-obit-master675It is the bucket into which every oppressed community has been dumped at one time or another: women, Black people, queer and gender non-conforming people, even peace activists practicing non-violent civil disobedience. In other words, sin is a theological concept that too often gets used by people in a majority to stigmatize and punish people in a minority.

However, the fact that a tool or a concept has often been misused does not make it inherently wrong or useless. Jesus himself had to address this dynamic many times during his ministry. From Matthew’s gospel we remember this awkward metaphor,

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matt. 7:3-5)

It’s not as simple as saying we cannot, or should not, comment on another person’s conduct or another name another person’s sin, but the emphasis is clearly on attending to our own self-examination.

This is where I think the topic of sin is simplest. However uncomfortable we may be with how the concept of sin has been used or misused, most of us can acknowledge that we ourselves are sinners, in both the personal and the collective sense. If we examine our conduct over the course of even an hour, we can sense how we have hurt ourselves or others by our thoughts, words, and deeds; by things we have done, and things we have left undone.

Two nude lovers with apple

The temptation to sin is the focus of the story we hear this morning of Jesus wandering in the wilderness for forty days and nights, which is why some version of it is traditionally read on the first Sunday of Lent. The strong connection between the ideas of sin, temptation, and desire have often confused us, I think. We have grown too suspicious of desire as the sign of sin, when desire itself is quite natural. We are created to desire food, to desire love, to desire touch, to desire community.

The sin in the devil’s temptations is not connected to desire itself, but the nature of Jesus’ own baptismal vocation. In the waters of the Jordan, Jesus was revealed as God’s own Beloved, come to announce salvation and give himself away for the sake of the whole world. In his wilderness temptations Jesus is faced with a more personally enriching use of his life: feed himself, preserve himself, join the powers of the world as it is rather than calling them to become what they were meant to be.

This is one definition of sin: our participation in or collusion with the powers and forces that draw us away from the fullness of our humanity. The violence we do to ourselves and others when we forget that each of us bears the image and likeness of God. In baptism, each of you has been named children of God, good and loved by God. In baptism, each of you has been joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus, freeing you to give your life away in the present age so that all of creation can experience the life, love, and liberation that is its God-given birthright.

How has sin obscured the image of God revealed in your baptism?

How has sin tempted you away from your own baptismal vocation?

These are real questions you are invited to reflect upon now. You might choose to sit with them in silence, or to write down some thoughts on your bulletin or in that journal you keep in your bag. As you listen to the sound of your own soul’s voice, you might decide to share a word or a brief thought aloud. We welcome that. If that happens, I encourage us to hear what is offered not as an idea to be challenged, but as an offering to be appreciated. And it may be that we will simply share a few minutes of silence, in which we leave space for the Holy Spirit to continue its work in us.


How has sin obscured the image of God revealed in your baptism?

How has sin tempted you away from your own baptismal vocation?


Sermon: Sunday, February 22, 2015: First Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 9:8-17  +  Psalm 25:1-10  +  1 Peter 3:18-22  +  Mark 1:9-15

allthelight-209x300I’m leading a discussion of “All the Light We Cannot See” this afternoon for the book club Kerry and I belong to.  The novel, by Anthony Doerr, was a finalist for the National Book Award in the fiction category last year and was on the top of a bunch of “Best of” lists. It tells the story of two young people whose lives are connected in ways they cannot fully know during the Second World War: Werner Pfennig, a brilliant young orphan from Germany and Marie-Laure, a blind girl from Paris forced to navigate a world she has never known when she and her father are forced to flee the city as the Germans invade France.

One of the things I appreciate about the novel is the complexity and humanity that the author affords his characters. We come to love Werner, a self-taught engineer, as he cares for his sister in the orphanage before we see him recruited into a Nazi youth program for exceptional children. We know that he is an intelligent and compassionate human being before we see him slowly conformed to a culture of violence and death. When he arrives at what is essentially boot camp he is told by the bunk master,

You will become like a waterfall, a volley of bullets — you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause. You will forgo comforts; you will live by duty alone. You will eat country and breathe nation.

I was struck by the sacramentality of that passage. “You will become like a waterfall … You will eat country and breathe nation.” It was as if Werner was being baptized into a national ideology of merciless strength and unquestioning obedience.

After he’s been at the camp for a while he and his best friend, Frederick, are forced to take part in the torture of a prisoner of war by water-boarding. As he stands in line with the bucket of water he is expected to toss at their victim, Werner is aware of his deep desire to flee the situation but “when his turn arrives, [he] throws the water like all the others.” When it comes time for his friend Frederick to do the same, he pours the water out on the ground and refuses to take his part in the game of violence. As a consequence he is repeatedly targeted by the other boys who begin to bully him with increasing severity.

The readiness with which the German people were able to accept horrific violence against their own countrymen, and to participate in it, has been explored over and over again in literature and drama. Nazi Germany has become an archetype of socialized violence so large that it sometimes seems to obscure the ongoing inurement to violence with which we all struggle. At one point in the novel a gem appraiser marvels at the rare treasures pouring into the Third Reich, although “where the police confiscated these treasures and from whom, he does not ask.” We, of course, know that these treasures are being stolen from the Jewish families being evicted from their homes and sent to concentration camps.

The gemologist is too easy to hate, but what about me? What treasures flow too easily into my and Kerry’s home at the expense of people whose names we will never know? Who pays the price for our food to be so inexpensive, our gasoline to be so abundant, and our clothing to be so cheap? Have we been conditioned to look the other way so often that we no longer even know when we’re doing it?

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t bother with stories about Jesus’ birth or childhood. Instead it launches immediately into a scene of people from the city of Jerusalem and all across the Judean countryside leaving the world they’ve known and coming to John to repent and be baptized. For the gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus begins with his baptism into a movement that was calling people away from their participation in a culture of state-sponsored violence, away from the occupation by empire, in remembrance of their identity as people saved by the God who led them out of slavery and into the wilderness.

As soon as Jesus is baptized the Spirit drives him further into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan.  Mark’s gospel doesn’t describe the scene with the detail found in Matthew and Luke, but it does name Satan as the agent of temptation.

hymnalI’m going to ask you to open the hymnal in the back of your pew to page 232 where you’ll find a rite titled “Welcome to Baptism.”  As you scan these pages they should look familiar to you, since it is a form of the rite we’ve been using this morning as we welcome our friend Ryan into a period of preparation for his baptism later this spring at Eastertide.

Now flip back a couple of pages to page 229, about midway through the actual rite of Holy Baptism, which should also look familiar since just last week we used it as we welcomed Alexander Burch into the household of faith through his baptism. There, at the top of the page, you’ll find a section of the rite of baptism that’s known as “the renunciations.” Three times we ask those being presented for baptism to renounce the world in which we live and the patterns of being that separate us from God and one another. The renunciations begin by describing the choice between the world as it is and the world as God would have it be in the most cosmic of terms, as a choice between God and the devil as the church asks, “do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”

For some, that question barely makes sense. For all the ambivalence we may have about the images of God on which we were raised, we’ve been given even less to work with when it comes to the devil. Red face paint and plastic pitchforks at Halloween. Scarlet cherubs sitting on Fred Flintstone’s shoulder tempting him toward what is wrong. Fire wielding demons on the CW. Are any of these what we mean when we speak of Satan?

Rather than conceive of Satan as some mysterious evil tempting us away from the straight and narrow path, I’d like to encourage us to think of Satan as almost the opposite. As the voice that keep us in line, going along to get along, holding our own bucket of water as we approach the prisoner whose life is being poured out before us. Satan as the voice that prompts you to change the channel when the news is just too uncomfortable to bear. Satan as the lie that numbs us to the everyday violence of life by shaking its head and lamenting, “that’s just how it is.”

The renunciations that follow suggest as much, taking the choice between God and the devil out of the cosmological and into more intimate and recognizable language. “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?” and “Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”  Our baptisms are not a public commitment to stay the course. We don’t promise not to veer off the path. We aren’t endorsing the status quo. Rather, in baptism we join the crowds that left Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, who could not accommodate themselves to the violence of empire going at that time by the name “Rome,” who lamented of their participation in its ongoing dehumanization of life, theirs and their neighbor’s, who wanted to return to the God of the wilderness, the God of liberation from slavery. They were ready to revolt from the world as it is, not endorse it. And this is how Jesus’ own ministry began as well.

Ryan, we’re so happy that you’ve chosen to be baptized and we look forward to preparing with you for that day when you will make these renunciations in public, for all the world to see, and by so doing you will join the ranks of the saints and martyrs over every time and place who have seen with open eyes the cruelty of the world and have claimed their citizenship not on this earth but in a divine commonwealth of radical equality where all are welcome and there is always enough.

On the day of your baptism you will not speak these renunciations alone, you will be surrounded and supported by the members of this congregation who will speak for the whole church as we affirm our baptisms with you. Your witness will strengthen ours, and vice versa, because baptism is not something we undertake alone, but together, strengthening and encouraging each other as our eyes are opened to all the ways the world is killing us and embracing the alternative life God is offering, a life we see clearly in Jesus who pours out his life in a public testimony to the God of peace and justice and love. Together we will become like a waterfall, each life a drop in the torrent of time, carving a new path forward through the wilderness where we will feast on the reign of God and breathe the new life made possible by the Holy Spirit.



Sermon: Sunday, March 9, 2014: First Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7  +  Psalm 32  +  Romans 5:12-19  +  Matthew 4:1-11

Serpents in the garden and devils in the wilderness.  No matter which year or which gospel, the first Sunday in Lent always feeds us stories of temptation and confrontation between Jesus and that figure who has been named “the devil,” about whom there is much confusion — which, I assume, suits the devil quite well.

The devil is a staple figure in more conservative expressions of our Christian faith, in ways that often embarrass or anger more progressive Christians.  We’ve seen the devil’s name used to cover up a multitude of human sins, as anyone who looks different, prays different, lives different, or loves different gets lumped in with the devil. Satan, to too many, is just another name we use for anyone or anything unfamiliar or agitating. In the classic case of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction, we who deplore this kind of scapegoating distance ourselves from anything that reminds us of it, making “the devil” a laughable stereotype of backward religion and denying our own daily struggles with temptation.

4424c060ada007cc036f1210.LC.S. Lewis, the Christian author and apologist remembered perhaps best for his Chronicles of Narnia, described this dynamic well in his satirical novel The Screwtape Letters.  First published during World War II in 1942, The Screwtape Letters takes the form of a series of letters from an elder devil, Screwtape, to his younger nephew, Wormwood.  They are both bureaucrats in Satan’s service, and Screwtape is advising his nephew in the devilish arts, how to win souls away from God.

In his preface to the book, Lewis states,

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

Lewis calls the phenomenon I have observed in too many conservative Christian communities, whose “excessive and unhealthy interest” with the devil gives Satan too much power and credit, a kind of magical thinking and hails these sorts of people as “magicians” whose distraction with the devil borders on devotion.

But Lewis has a name for people like me, and maybe communities like ours, as well. People and parties committed to objective reality, cold hard facts, and psycho-social explanations for every variety of human experience he calls “materialists” — not in the sense of “materialism,” the word we use for an unhealthy love of consumer goods, but in the sense of a slavish devotion to what can be seen and known and studied and mastered: the material world. Our condescension toward anything we do not believe or understand makes us susceptible to all kinds of attacks that we never see coming, even while we are in their grip.

About a third of the way into the book, Screwtape addresses this issue in one of his letters to his nephew.

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in [God] … If once we can produce our perfect work — the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” — then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”

It is with all these misgivings and misunderstandings about the devil that we approach the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Jesus in the wilderness, on the First Sunday in Lent.

In the garden we get the story of a serpent and a tree, or a wyrm in the woods, and the perversion of knowledge into shame. The stories from Genesis are so rich with symbolism and inexhaustible meaning that we’ll be returning to them for most of this coming summer. There are many ways to make sense of this story, and one of them is that in the garden God marks the boundaries that distinguish between humanity and God.

adam-and-eve-in-the-garden-of-eden-giclee-print-c12267346“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16-17).  Fruit, or food, is equated with knowledge — both being necessary for life.  God affirms humanity’s need to be sustained, not only by food but also by intellectual engagement with the world. We are meaning-making creatures, who long to understand our experience.  Perhaps alone among God’s creatures, we reflect upon the meaning of our own existence. And that, God does not prohibit. But God issues a strong warning about our desire to claim mastery over what is good and what is evil. Those categories of thought lead almost inevitably to forms of judgment that are reserved to God alone, and once humanity sets out to know and to name good and evil all kinds of insidious harm occurs. We see this illustrated in the story as the woman and man eat the forbidden fruit and know themselves in a new way, in their nakedness, which they immediately move to cover.

This isn’t the only way to interpret this story, but if we do read in this way we are led to reflect not only on the origins of human suffering, but on our own individual and communal suffering as well. In what ways does our strong desire to be able to label people and circumstances “good” or “evil” lead us into relationships that leave us vulnerable to shame, and anger, and violence? Can you think of a time when you followed the voice inside your head, or your gut, or your heart that seemed so sure it knew the truth about another person’s life — only to discover that you were tragically wrong? If so, then you know what it’s like to be tempted by wormwood, the serpent in the garden, an all-too-real experience that makes the question of the “reality” of the devil practically irrelevant.

Following his baptism, the event at which Jesus saw the Spirit of God descend and rest on him and heard God’s voice name him as God’s own Beloved, Jesus is led out into the wilderness where he was also tempted by the devil.  This time, instead of fruit from a tree, the devil acknowledges Jesus’ hunger, the result of his fasting. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answers, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:3-4)  Food and knowledge are once equated with each other, but unlike the man and woman in the garden, Jesus does not take the bait to rely on his own knowledge, but on the wisdom of God.

Can you remember a time in your life when poverty, or isolation, or deprivation took you to a place where you were ready to give up on all that you know to be true? When you were ready to trade in your trust that God will provide with a lower faith in the reliability of the world’s wisdom, in which there is only so much bread to go around and you should feel entitled to get yours before it’s all gone?  If so, then you’ve met the devil.

Next Jesus is taken to the holy city and set on top of the temple, where the devil goads him to demonstrate his divinity by throwing himself from the heights and forcing God to rush in and save him from his own death.  Here the devil betrays a woeful lack of knowledge about how and where God chooses to work in the world. Rather than choosing a handful of people to love, and sparing them from death and suffering, God chooses to to love all of creation and to join us in the fullness of our experience, including and especially death.

Have you ever found yourself at the crossroads of a difficult decision, trying to talk yourself out of a necessary task by reassuring yourself that God would never want you to suffer so much?  If so, then you’ve met the devil.

Christ's_temptation_(Monreale)Finally, Jesus is taken up to a very high mountain and shown all the nations of the world.  Satan, that liar, makes a ridiculous offer, that Jesus will be given the world if only he will bend the knee and worship him.  This is the very baldest of lies, because we know that the devil is offering something that is not his in the first place. But, it’s not so ridiculous a scenario, as the world is always trying to convince us that realists, pragmatists, materialists even, need to be prepared to deal with the cold hard fact that the world is a tough place, with no room for the ethics of love, forgiveness, justice and compassion that God in Christ Jesus is offering.

Have you ever found yourself in a position of authority, where you had the responsibility of making significant decisions that would affect the lives of many others, perhaps your entire family, or your workplace, or the neighborhood, or the world?  Have you heard within yourself the inner struggle between the voice that calls you to do what is right, and the voice that calls you to do what is expected? If so, then you’ve met the devil.

Jesus, unsurprisingly, sidesteps all of the devil’s lures and sends him scuttling off.  We are not always as sure in our responses. Perhaps that is why we fear talk of the devil to some degree, because we suspect we’ve lost a match or two to his wiles.

C.S. Lewis dedicated The Screwtape Letters to his good friend J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If you’ve read those books, then you know that evil is personified in horrible and almost majestic terms.  In his epigraph to The Screwtape Letters Lewis shares two quotes that seem to suggest a more modest approach to dealing with the devil.  He first quotes Luther, who said, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Then Luther’s opponent, Thomas More, who also said, “The devil … the prowde spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.”

That, I think, is the very best way to deal with the devil.  Not to dwell obsessively on him like the magicians, or to deny him like the materialists, but ultimately to put him in his place, like the apostle Paul who declared with full confidence to the Romans,

“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19)

In other words, the biggest lie of all is that it is somehow we who are locked in combat with the devil and all the powers of death, when in reality it is God who has already decided the outcome of that conflict. God is for us, and for all the world, and against that unshakeable fact all the devil’s lures and lies are powerless. So we will jeer and flout and mock the devil, who has already lost the war.