Sermon notes: Giving up, taking on

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

SERMON NOTES, ASH WEDNESDAY (2013, Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

The party’s over. It’s time to hang up the beads. Today we embark on the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter.

The time span reflects the period that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, preparing for his ministry, facing and resisting temptation. The purpose of Lent may be found in the collect for the day: We ask God to give us new and contrite hearts, to help us to acknowledge our sins, to receive forgiveness for them.

That’s something we should do every day, of course. But Lent gives us a focus and a framework for accomplishing it.

This is a period of preparation for us, as followers of Christ, for the world made holier by the light of the Resurrection. In the early Church, Lent was the time when new converts were prepared to receive baptism, learning about the doctrines of the faith and what is required of believers. Through the centuries, this season has been a time to focus on prayer and penitence, on doing without and doing for others.

How do we keep a holy Lent?

When I was a child in a High Church household, it was all very straightforward. I gave up sweets, which I loved – I mourned whenever Valentine’s Day arrived after Ash Wednesday – and my favorite television show. I put money – the pennies, nickels, and dimes which still had some value then – in my mite box, to help poor children. I tried to do my chores more cheerfully, and without being reminded. I said my prayers. On Fridays, I ate fish sticks.

In later years, it got more complicated.

There were years when I gave up chocolate. There were years when I treated Lent as a sanctified diet aid. There were years when I did nothing at all to observe the season.

In all of that I had plenty of company. There’s a tendency among some modern American Christians to observe Ash Wednesday as a sacred New Year’s, to focus on personal self-improvement instead of the spiritual: to give up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks because giving up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks is good for us physically.

It is a sacrifice to give up things we enjoy, whatever they are, but sometimes we don’t look beyond a few obvious suspects. It might be more useful to examine some of the other things in our lives, and consider the importance they hold for us. Sometimes we may find that those things have become little gods for us, and that we are worshipping at other altars.

It’s a good thing to exercise; it’s not so good to obsess about it and run roughshod over family life. It’s a good thing to connect with friends; it’s not so good to spend whole evenings on Facebook, or to check the Twitter feed every few minutes. It’s fun to play video games, but not to the point that they make us cranky and obsessive. It’s fun to play Words with Friends, but this Lent I’m going to play just a couple of times each day, instead of grabbing the phone every time my day slows down.

At least as important as giving something up is to take something on. We can check the daily meditation from “Forward Day by Day” every morning, or be conscientious about reading Morning and Evening Prayer. We can walk a labyrinth, or join a Bible study. We can work to increase our giving of time, talent and treasure, both at church and in the community. We can take on something new, as well as give up something familiar.

There’s another important point to keep in mind, and that’s the one that Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading from Matthew: Don’t make a big deal about it. At a restaurant with friends, don’t announce, “Oh, I’ve given that up for Lent” when the wine list or the dessert menu comes around. It’s human nature to want to get credit for our sacrifices, but, as Jesus notes, the announcement itself then becomes our reward. Just smile and quietly decline. Even if you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms, don’t say anything. Keep them guessing.

Practicing our chosen Lenten disciplines is a form of spiritual exercise, and the point of the exercise is to bring us closer to God. The ways in which we observe a holy Lent have changed over the centuries, but not the reasons that we do it. Like the earliest Christians, our aim is preparation to lead new lives in Christ Jesus.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: On the mountaintop

Transfiguration_David_wikiSERMON NOTES, LAST EPIPHANY (YEAR C; 2/10/13; Preached at Church of the Good Shepherd/St. Louis)

This Sunday brings us to the end of a time in the Church year when we are constantly reminded of the miraculous. It starts with God’s messenger telling Mary that she would bear God’s son; then segues to the Nativity, proclaimed by angels and attended by wondering shepherds; and moves from there to the Epiphany, when wise men followed a star to find a King.

Today the season of Epiphany ends at a high point, as we hear of the ultimate mountaintop experience. Jesus and three chosen disciples, Peter, James, and John, climbed into the high places, saw Jesus transfigured and conversing with Moses and Elijah, and listened, slack-jawed, as God’s voice spoke from the clouds: “This is my Son, my Chosen: Hear him!”

From this peak, we head downhill into the long slog of Lent, where it’s all ashes and sackcloth, temptation and repentance, suffering to go, and Christ’s death on an executioner’s cross. No wonder the disciples wanted to build huts and stay in the heights a little longer.

The New Testament is filled with moments of wonder that transform their witnesses, at least for a time: divine healings, flashes of divine insight, the conversions of whole crowds to the truth of the gospel message. It can give us the impression that Jesus and his companions lived and breathed the miraculous 24/7/365.

We want that, too. We want to go up on the mountaintop and hear God’s voice. We want to have the experience that will set us apart, remove all doubts, give us enlightenment and understanding. We yearn for the transcendent and the extraordinary.

There are Christian denominations that seem to set that kind of occurrence as an expectation, that demand to know the time and day when a prospective member had a born-again experience. When did you meet Jesus? At what hour did you accept him as your Lord and Savior? What is your born-again date?

Those who haven’t had such an experience but still have profound Christian beliefs sometimes feel shame that Jesus hasn’t seen fit to visit them personally. Sometimes they worry that their faith might not be quite up to snuff.

What, I wonder, did the other disciples think, the ones who were also chosen by the Lord to be among his closest companions, but who were left behind when Jesus summoned Peter, John, and James to hike up the mountain with him. Did they feel left out? Did they feel second-best?

And what did the Three Amigos get out of the experience? Were they transformed for life? The record is silent on James and John, but we all know how Peter reacted when it came to the crunch: He denied Jesus three times, in fear for his own life.

I believe that one size does not fit all, and that God tailors our experiences of faith to fit us as individuals. Some people may really need a lightning bolt to get their attention, like Paul or Martin Luther. Some may need to stick their fingers into the nail holes, like Thomas. Some need to experience the miraculous, like the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well.

But others are converted by a simple hearing and explanation of the Word, like the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip met on the road to Gaza. For others, the word and Christian witness work for years until they finally surrender, give up, and let God in.

That would include C.S. Lewis, who upon his acceptance of Christ called himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”. Some simply absorb the Christian faith until it is an inextricable part of them, and quietly recognize its truth. That’s true of a lot of people I know. I imagine that it’s true of a lot of people you know, too.

Spectacular conversions are not given to everyone. Not everyone needs an extrovert experience. Sometimes slow and steady really does win the race. Whether it’s a voice booming from the clouds that compels us to listen or a small nagging voice that doesn’t quit until we stop and hear what it has to say, God gives each of us what we require.

However we come to faith is not really the point, though. The point is what we do with that faith once we have it.

We know that the path of faith doesn’t always run smoothly, and that temptations sometimes seem to increase once we’ve made a commitment to Christ. We don’t need to go further than the daily news to find examples of fallen Christians. All too often, the headlines are filled with the tales of noted evangelists and conservative politicians who have failed spectacularly to stave off temptation, or who have, indeed, actually sought it out.

How, then, are we to live as Christians? What are we supposed to do with our faith once we have it?

We have the answer, of course, right in the New Testament: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, welcome the stranger at your door. Love God and your neighbor. Pray without ceasing. Don’t squabble with the rest of the Church about things that really aren’t that important.

If we truly accept Christ, we must live our lives according to his words and teachings, to the very best of our abilities.

Even the most spectacular of mountaintop experiences can last for only a few moments. It’s what we do with what we’ve been given there that matters in the long run.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Controversy, or not

Over the weekend I went to hear a set of lectures given by a man who is both an academic, teaching courses on the New Testament at a major university in the Southeast, and the author of a number of popular tomes on religion.

I didn’t learn much that I didn’t know already – well, for one thing, his introduction to the New Testament was a textbook for my seminary course on same, and he covered much of the same ground in person – but he was an engaging speaker, and the sessions were enjoyable. I’m glad I went. I even got the book autographed.

I was struck, though, by his obvious expectation that he would be considered controversial, both for his (repeated) declaration that he is an agnostic, and for writing and saying things that most of the people in his audience – in a liberal Episcopal church, in a reasonably major city – already knew: there are discrepancies in the gospels, the evangelists had their own agendas, there are forgeries (a more definite and explicit word than “pseudographia”) in the New Testament: Well, yeah. Tell us more.

Sometimes we go into a situation with an expectation of how we’ll be received. Sometimes it’s exciting to imagine ourselves as Daniels, striding boldly into dens filled with sharp-fanged and peckish lions. It can be a little deflating to find that the lions are actually house cats bent on getting their heads scritched, their backs stroked, and, perhaps, a chance to enjoy a nice kitty treat.

There are no doubt many places in this country where his message truly would be controversial. Still, it behooves us to leave behind our expectations when we go into a new situation. If we brace ourselves for just one reaction, we may miss out on other, happier possibilities.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The One True Religion

We have friends who are Jehovah’s Witnesses; they’re a delightful family who commend their faith by their lives. The father, Tom, is a senior and very knowledgeable elder, one of my husband’s major informants when he was working on an academic study of JW history.

As part of his research, my husband suggested he should do a Bible study with Tom, making it clear it was strictly for academic purposes, to get an insider’s view of how the Witnesses approach scripture. Somehow I got roped in, too.

Unfortunately Tom really enjoyed these sessions,  and I think began to hope that we were going to be converted. They went on and on, and they were not interesting – the correct answers were already supplied, as Jehovah’s Organization knows exactly what the Bible means and doesn’t want you to get it wrong.

But the end came quite suddenly one day when Tom got on to the subject of the Trinity and what nonsense it was, and I finally had to abandon my research-assistant persona and argue for my beliefs. It didn’t blow my husband’s research sky-high, or even do any lasting damage to our friendship, but Tom hasn’t forgotten it. A couple of weeks ago when he visited us he told me cheerfully that I’d regret my belief in God as Trinity when Armageddon came.

Now this has turned into my challenge for Lent. What do you do when you have to deal with people who just know that they’re right and you’re wrong? I’m very tempted to tell Tom, as nicely as I can, that though I respect his faith I believe that his interpretation of the Bible is based on entirely false premises.

But there’s not much point in doing that, except for my own satisfaction, because it will mean nothing to him; he believes he’s one of the only group which has The Truth, and all the rest of us – Christians, Jews, Buddhists, you name it – are all trapped in False Religion and deeply disapproved of by Jehovah.

Of course it isn’t just JWs. There are plenty of other religious groups who are equally sure that they’re right and so everyone else is necessarily wrong (and probably headed for a very nasty fate). Unlike them, I don’t think that the God who went to such lengths to save us from the consequences of our sin is that picky.

Can I learn to look, as God does, past the narrow views and rigid assumptions of some of the people who cross my path and see and love the image of their Creator in them? That should give me plenty of work to do this Lent, and beyond.

– mzw