The end of Lent

PaschaFIreRicardo77WikiIt’s almost here, the final darkness before the coming of the light, the brightness of the morning when the empty tomb was discovered. This evening, the new fire will be kindled, and bells will ring out in gladness.

That means that it’s almost two months since we decided on our Lenten disciplines, what to take on and what to give up. It’s time to consider how well I’ve done with mine.

There have been some successes in the first category. You’re reading the most public one. The Grace Prayer Network has been successfully revived, and in the originally intended form: Three former contributors besides me have returned, and a new one has been added. (If you’re interested, I invite you to contribute GPN meditations as well. Now that we’re going again, we want to continue, and having a variety of voices keeps things interesting.)

Giving up is harder for me; fighting ingrained habits takes more effort. It’s a small thing, and just one of several, but I’ve tried, for instance, to stop getting annoyed with other drivers, those who cut in front of me or poke along in the left lane. Getting angry over such small things hurts only me; let it go. That’s been a partial success, at least. Patience.

Now comes the greater challenge, keeping those small flames going and growing, and continuing all the disciplines I’ve begun. This isn’t like temporarily giving up chocolate or wine, and then plunging back into old habits (cheers!) on Easter Day. This involves a change in the way I live. It requires the discipline to continue to sit down and find thoughts and words worth sharing, even when the numberless distractions of modern life attack. It requires the calm to put aside annoyances and focus on what’s important.

Keeping the fires fed can be difficult at times, but the light and warmth will be worth it. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

 

 

The Collect for the Day

Today’s  meditation marks the welcome return of contributor Susan Leach to GPN.JesusWithBook

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly
wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to
love what you command and desire what you promise; that,
among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts
may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

– Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the Book of Common Prayer

Because I might be best described as a casual Christian, I am frequently surprised by the sheer transcendency of the readings served up each day in the Lectionary. As I began preparing to write this day’s meditation, the Collect for the day made my heart beat faster and I abandoned my plan to try to encapsulate all of the lessons. The Psalms, especially Psalm 51, and the Lessons old and new were all familiar and well-loved and I have written about them many times in years past. I don’t recall, though, ever being quite so fixated upon the Collect; so perhaps the time has come.

Calling out to God that “you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners” and asking that he “Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise” could scarcely be better-stated to restore order to our chaotic planet. The words “swift and varied changes of the world” seem rather mild until examples begin running through the mind. Trying to imagine any latest and greatest improvement being sufficient for more than a moment is futile, and so asking that “our hearts may surely be fixed where true joys are to be found” has seldom if ever been more appropriate.

If it is your custom to look up and consider the readings in preparation for Sundays that is a good thing; there is so much more to consider than you can immediately absorb. If not, listen for the wisdom in our insightful Collects and allow the words space in your thoughts. They can open the way to a better understanding of the Lessons and perhaps a better path to travel as you leave Sunday worship.

Thanks be to God.

– Susan Leach

Refreshment

LaetareJerusalemAdvent has Gaudete Sunday, marked by a rose candle amidst the traditional violet tapers in the Advent wreath. Lent has Laetare Sunday, now rarely observed in this country, but worth remembering.

During the long centuries when the rules for observing Lent were both strict and and strictly observed, Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of the season, offered Western Christians a chance to come up for air. The name comes from the incipit, or first line, of the introit for the day, “Laetare Jerusalem,” “Rejoice, Jerusalem,” from Isaiah 66:10. It’s the closest thing anyone’s going to get to an alleluia in the course of almost six weeks.

Also known as “Refreshment Sunday,” for the tonic it provided to those who were feeling weary on the road to the Paschal feast, it had serious perks. In England and Scotland, special delights called simnel cakes – very unpenitential delicacies indeed, with marzipan frosting – were allowed on Laetare Sunday, the first legal sweets anyone had enjoyed since Ash Wednesday, and the last until the Day of Resurrection. It was also the only day during Lent when a marriage could be celebrated.

The color for the day is rose, a lightening of the season’s penitential purple. Some parishes (usually wealthy enough to afford a set of vestments that are used only twice a year, often Anglo-Catholic in liturgical and theological outlook) change out the violet hangings and vestments for the day, just to underline the temporary change in tone.

In 16th century England, it was the custom to attend the “mother church,” the cathedral or principal church in a parish, on Laetare Sunday; Lent IV thus gained the additional title of “Mothering Sunday.” Servants were allowed to go home to visit their own mothers, lightening their personal sacrifice but making Lent a little more real for their employers. In recent years in Britain, Mothering Sunday has become largely conflated with the imported American holiday of Mother’s Day, to considerable confusion.

Although our view of Lent has shifted over the years from a focus on giving up to an emphasis on taking on, Refreshment Sunday is still worth observing. The world seems darker these days, with perils at hand in almost every corner of the world; as Christians, we are reminded that Christ’s greatest sufferings are still in store. Laetare gives us a chance to breathe, to relax in our observance, and to remember that the Lamb’s high feast is coming soon.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

It would be worth wearing pink on Lent IV just for the simnel cake. Here’s a recipe from the BBC.

 

 

Sermon notes: Cleansing the Temple

ChristCleansingTempleCranachSERMON NOTES, LENT 3, YEAR B (Preached at St. Luke’s/Manchester, March 8, 2015) John 2:13-22

If you have ever labored under the misconception that Jesus was just a very holy, very nice guy, then today’s gospel reading is for you.

A thorough reading of the gospels reveals to us just how multifaceted Jesus was. There is the teacher, dispensing wisdom, and making people think with his parables and sayings. There is the miracle-worker, healing the lame and making the blind see.

There is the prophet, proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God. Occasionally, we even get to see the very human Cranky Jesus cursing a fig tree, or getting snarky with a Gentile woman who wants his help.

In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus taking on the roles of judge and enforcer, going on the warpath in the Temple, upsetting the tables of the moneychangers, to say nothing of the status quo, and scandalizing the (easily scandalized) priestly class. It’s not a side of his character that we frequently see, but it’s an important one.

A version of this episode appears in all four gospels, but with some important differences. The three Synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all put the cleansing of the Temple into what we know as Holy Week, after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In those accounts, it’s one of the last things Jesus does as a free man. It’s also one of the immediate causes of his arrest, trial, and execution.

The gospel of John, which draws on a different early tradition, places it near the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. In fact, it comes right after the wedding at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine, performing his initial public miracle.

Both put it right before the Passover, but at different times. John’s narrative shows Jesus’s public ministry taking place over the course of three years, with multiple trips to Jerusalem. In the Synoptics, it’s all compressed into a single year, with his time in Jerusalem coming only at the end.

The animal sellers and money changers were performing an important and officially sanctioned function. All the rules for what they’re described as doing are set forth in the book of Leviticus, the work of an early bureaucracy that was focused on centering all worship at the temple. Sacrifices were made by the priests on behalf of the people, for the forgiveness of sins, or for thanksgiving and celebration. These rules are major additions to the Ten Commandments, as we heard them read in the first lesson this morning, but it is in human – and, especially, bureaucratic – nature to expand on and further embroider existing regulations.

Since the animals were being sacrificed to God, they had to be absolutely perfect, with no blemishes. You couldn’t just bring in a dove off the streets and offer it for sacrifice, or lead in a lamb from your farm. It had to be certified and sold by an approved merchant, rather as our Cardinals team regalia has to be approved by Major League Baseball.

In the same way, the moneychangers made the use of coinage acceptable in the sacred precincts of the Temple. A Roman or other coin, bearing the image of an emperor or foreign god, was unclean for sacrificial purposes; it had to be traded in for a coin that had no pagan taint. The bankers at the Temple exchanged pure money for the impure.

Of course, everyone involved in this business did well while doing good. The Temple authorities got a cut of everything that went on there. The priests ate most of the sacrifices of grain and animal offerings. The money changers made a tidy profit, as did the animal sellers. Given human nature, it’s likely that there was some quiet price-fixing going on, and not in the consumer’s favor.

It all took place in the Temple’s outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, and it must have been a mess. There were the animal sellers, with their cattle, sheep and doves, all bellowing, baa-ing and cooing. There were the money-changers at their tables. There were even souvenirs for sale to those Jews who traveled from around the Mediterranean world in order to worship at the Temple.

We can be sure that there was plenty of huckstering going on, with all those wares and services being loudly advertised. We can be equally sure that it was not a scene to lift one’s thoughts to the beauty of holiness.

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had been to the Temple. This wasn’t the first time he’d made his way through the holy hucksters who hawked their wares. But this was the first time he reacted so passionately to what he witnessed.

Except for Mark, the Synoptics give the incident a set of fairly cursory paragraphs. Luke puts it this way: “Then he went to the Temple and began driving out the traders, with these words: ‘Scripture says, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” but you have made it a den of thieves.'”

Compare that to the level of detail we’ve just heard from John. Jesus went to the Temple, saw – and heard, and smelled – the market, and saw red. He made a whip out of cords and drove out the dealers and their herds. He overturned the moneychangers’ tables and set their stacks of coins bouncing and spinning across the pavement. He ordered the pigeon-mongers to take their cages full of birds and leave.

Jesus was like a one-man riot squad. The salesmen must have been stunned by his actions, because there’s no record that they resisted.

The Temple authorities weren’t so easily cowed. They ordered Jesus to justify himself.

He answered with a response that must have seemed absurd on its face: “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up again.”

Literal-minded men, they assumed that he was talking about Herod’s Temple, which, as they pointed out, had been under construction for 46 years. But Jesus was talking about his own body. Jesus was talking about his own eventual death and resurrection.

So what does this mean?

First, Jesus is making a clear connection between himself and God, very early in this gospel. The message is that he himself is God’s dwelling place.

Second, as we see time after time in the gospels, Jesus was an observant Jew. He had come to the Temple in preparation for the Passover, after all. He did not, however, have a lot of patience with human regulations and additions to the law. Jesus had a common-sense gift for cutting through to the basics. That’s true whether he’s healing someone on the Sabbath, or reminding us that God’s House is there for worship, and not for the benefit of those who make their livings from it.

What does this mean for us today?

As Jesus makes clear, he was the Temple, God’s dwelling-place on Earth. After his resurrection and ascension, however, the Church became the Body of Christ. As the Temple had to be made pure and returned to its purpose, so, too must we, the people who are the Church, look carefully at ourselves.

Have we, like the Temple authorities, become too rigid and self-involved? Has the process become more important than the purpose?

Do we follow the first and great commandment, and love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds, or have we invented little gods of our own design that we follow in God’s place?

Do we really think about Christ’s second great commandment, and love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we think about what that means, or do we just give lip service to the Golden Rule while doing pretty much what pleases us?

Do we reach out to those in need – the hungry, the oppressed, the sick – and strive to help them? Or do we just read along on the prayers in church and figure that should cover it?

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably aware that you fall short in at least some of these basics. The fact is that we all fall short, each in our own way.

Fortunately, this is an excellent time to consider what we have done and left undone. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity, the liturgical space, to think about what God really wants from us and how to do a better job of living up to that standard.

On the second Sunday in Lent, we still have time to cleanse our hearts, to put ourselves on a better, straighter path, to make ourselves ready before the joy of resurrection and Easter Day.

Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Happy Lent!

LentenFare_editedOn my cookery book shelf I’ve got a book of recipes for Lent and Fridays, dating from the 1950s. It’s more than a recipe book; it details Lenten customs and traditions, and the writer makes the point that until very recently most people didn’t have much choice of food in Lent. Not for them the astonishing abundance of food we take for granted all year round; before refrigeration and air transport, you had to eat whatever you could find locally, and at the tail end of winter there wasn’t a lot.

It makes me wonder whether this at least partly explains the mantle of communal gloom which seems to have descended on the Christian world during Lent in times past: theatres closed, opera banned, and when a nineteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury held a (no doubt very decorous) party during Lent there was a public outcry. Lent was expected to be dismal. A lot of people still see it as a time for giving things up rather than taking them up, a time to feel guilty if you’re still eating chocolate (and oh, do I agree with the last contributor to GPN!) or enjoying a glass of wine.

But aren’t we supposed to suffer with Jesus in the wilderness, after all? Well, a carefully undertaken fast (and I’m sure Jesus knew exactly how to do it) can bring great lightness and clarity after the first few uncomfortable days, and it was in those forty days in the desert that Jesus confronted and accepted his vocation and sent Satan packing. Most of us can’t go off into solitude for forty days to wait upon God, but we can decide to spend these days in paying as much attention to God as we can, to ask in the silence of our hearts what he wants of us, what it is in our lives he wants to heal, what it is that he wants to give us power to do for him and for our brothers and sisters, and all the ways he wants us to grow in his service.

Lent should surely be a time of growth, not of grim determination to stick it out until Easter, an inward growing into new life just as the natural world is opening up into new life and greenness as it turns towards the sun. Happy Lent!

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

‘Is not this the fast that I have chosen?’

Today’s meditation is by St. Peter’s parishioner Roberta Hmiel.

Various_chocolate_types, "Various chocolate types" by Taken byfir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.auCanon 20D + Canon 17-40mm f/4 L - Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Various_chocolate_types.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Various_chocolate_types.jpg, taken by Taken byfir0002 | flagstaffotos.com. WikicommonsI’ve always thought we were missing something important during Lent. I mean, everybody gave up chocolate, unless they bragged about giving up sweets altogether. And that seemed to be it. Nothing else. Lent was just a fad diet. Why was it always about food? I always thought there should be more to it.

Practitioners of every religion that ever existed have used fasting and meditation – forms of deprivation – to come closer to their God. This makes sense to me. Deprive yourself of sensory input (food, chatter, texture, and above all, shiny things), and you remove a layer of earthly things standing between you and God.

Of course, in modern America, this is difficult. Employers are not receptive to the idea that their employees are going walkabout and will be back after Easter. Friends and family are unlikely to understand if you shut off your phone. So right away, we are forced to give up on the idea of a perfect Lent.

But, as Billy Joel once said, I believe that there’s a time for meditation in cathedrals of our own.

And that’s where we imperfect humans can start. I say this partly because it’s easy for me. In the world of Marthas and Marys, I am definitely a Mary. I am incapable of bustling; I sit and think. But a little sitting and thinking can be good for all of us. The next time you’re about to play an online game or surf the net, try taking a few quiet minutes first.

Think about opportunities to say or do something nice. Think about how it feels to be somebody else: What have they been through that makes them think or act as they do? (You may not dismiss them in one word, e.g., “nuts” or “mean.”) Think about things you wish you hadn’t said or done, and how you’d handle that situation next time.

Better yet, think of all your blessings: All the wonderful things in your life that have pretty much just dropped on you, the good friends who fell into your life, the fact of having been born into peace and plenty (relatively speaking), the incredible good fortune of an education, a brain to appreciate all the beauty and love around you. Think about the fact that you did nothing to get these – although you do have to work to keep them.

Who could avoid being humbled by that?

This is what I’ve always thought Lent should be. People tell me, no, we should be doing something special for Lent. We’re supposed to do this sort of thing all the time anyway. But I say it doesn’t get much more special than this.

So go ahead and eat chocolate. I think God would be okay with that.

– Roberta Hmiel

 

A holy Lent, revisited

ash_2What does it mean to keep a holy Lent?

When I was a little girl, the principle focus was on giving up something (inevitably, in my case, sweets), and putting the money I would have spent on it into my mite box, to help poor children in other lands. When the season of penitence was ended, we brought our offerings up to the altar, building a rather imposing wall from them. In our household, prayer was a given, supervised at meals and at bedtime by my mother.

As I grew older, my practice varied. There were years when I did nothing to observe Lent, and years in which I misused it as an opportunity for non-spiritual self-improvement. There were years in which I was overly obsessed with it, and years in which I was balanced in my Lenten practices. For several years in my teens, I took the gospel for the day too literally, and declined ashing. Four years ago, wrung out by chemotherapy and engaged in a healthy prayer life, I just kept doing what I’d been doing for the last months before Ash Wednesday. There was nothing more that I could add or subtract.

For the most part, however, I now strive to take things on, rather than give them up, to live in an intentional manner and to maintain it as best I can when Lent gives way to Easter joy.

This Lent finds me in a thoughtful place. The Grace Prayer Network has been essentially dormant for a while, fallout from my second cancer and other changes to my life. I’ve had some disappointments that didn’t seem suitable for sharing publicly. The original cancer returned last fall, now promoted to Stage 4. On a very mundane level, the treatments and medications consume energy, and sometimes my good intentions collapse into inertia.

Working on GPN, though, helps me to sort through things in a meaningful and spiritual way. This Lent, I’ll strive to return to that, using some of the time I’ve spent on pursuits like social media and word games for the purpose. It won’t be daily, but it will be reasonably frequent. I invite you to join me in the journey. I welcome contributions to the site, and your own thoughts on the meaning of Lent.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

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

Sermon notes: Temptation

SERMON NOTES – LENT I (Year A; preached at 10:30 a.m. March 13, 2011, St. Peter’s/Ladue)

Welcome to the season of Lent, the forty days and forty nights in which we are to prepare ourselves – not only for the events of Holy Week and Easter, but for our lives as Christians.

In Lent, many people give up things, like favorite foods or pastimes.  Others take things on, in various forms of service or aid to others, and in trying to live a more spiritual life.

Ideally, our Lenten practices do not stand by themselves – as in, “I’m giving up my daily Starbucks Venti Half-Caf Double Espresso Java Chip Frappucino for Lent. Pass the chocolate truffles” – but as a whole.

Whatever we take on, we can be sure that we will face temptations – to cheat, to give up, to brag on ourselves, and to focus on our wants rather than our true needs.

Today’s lectionary is all about temptation, particularly the story of Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness. It’s a compact section of Matthew’s gospel that contains a world of import and meaning.

The Devil presents Jesus with three propositions that flatter, attract, and test. Each begins with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God…” Each time, the tempter is trying to get Jesus to prove that he is who he says he is – that he is, as we heard at his baptism in the passage just before this one, God’s beloved Son, in whom God is well pleased – by demonstrating it in a way that would definitely not make God pleased.

First, the Devil focuses on the sheer basic physical stuff: You must be hungry after fasting for forty days. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread. If you’re the Son of God, you don’t have to play by the rules. It will do what you tell it! Eat hearty!

Jesus moves the focus back to the spiritual, and quotes Scripture to make his point: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke differ on the order of the other two temptations. Matthew next has the Devil work on spiritual pride, taking Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place in the world, and invite him to jump off, quoting a little Scripture of his own: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, because it’s written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “They will bear you up, so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone.”

Talk about an attention-getter. But Jesus replies, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Finally, the Devil offers Jesus something to which his followers will soon assume he’s entitled, but which he will not claim: Worldly power. The tempter takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain, where he can see powerful kingdoms spread out. If you are the Son of God, fall down and worship me, and I’ll give you all of this.

And Jesus dismisses him: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Having swung and struck out three times, Matthew’s Devil returns to the dugout. Luke’s, in contrast, withdraws to bide his time, awaiting another opportunity – and when you’re dealing with a human being, even one who is also divine, there’s always going to be another opportunity.

Tempting us is usually pathetically easy. If it’s not simple hunger or thirst on a fast day, it’s a craving for something specific: the more we think about the fact that we have specifically and nobly given up that daily Venti Half-Caf Double Espresso Java Chip Frappucino from Starbucks, the more we want it. The more we want it, the more likely we are to break down and order it – just this once. Hey, there’s still lots of Lent to go.

Some of us are prone to intellectual and spiritual pride. There’s a reason the Devil takes Jesus to the top of the Temple: as C.S. Lewis’s master tempter Screwtape notes, some of Hell’s best work is done in church.

Human beings want and need to think of ourselves as at once a part of the group and as special and set apart from it. But if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves up to our eyeballs in sins that range from the major – God likes us best! We’ve got truth locked up right here! – to the minor but depressingly common: the nasty, petty politics and gossip that sometimes seem to afflict church organizations more than anyone else.

Then there’s worldly power. Few of us have power to abuse others on the order of, say, a Colonel Qaddafi, but most of us regularly find ourselves in a position to mistreat someone else: a child, a colleague, a clerk in a store, or some one who comes to us looking for help. Sometimes it’s just so satisfying to balk someone in a small way, or to administer a major smackdown. But we need to think about whom we’re worshipping in the process of gaining that satisfaction.

Each of these varieties of temptation is constantly with us, crossing our paths, whispering to us, forcing choices. Few of our temptations will be as spectacular as those with which Jesus deals – but, like the Devil urging Jesus to prove his identity, they will be tailored to us, and to our own weaknesses.

During this Lent – during this life – we will never manage to resist every temptation that comes our way. Most of us can do a better job of recognizing and resisting them.

Perhaps if that becomes our focus, the rest will fall into place.

Gracious Lord, who fasted forty days and forty nights, help us to follow your example in our own lives, now and always. Amen.