“When the devil finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.”  Luke 4:13

jesus temptationToday is the first Sunday in Lent, the day that we traditionally hear the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness.  Luke’s account mirrors that of Matthew: both stories feature the devil offering Jesus food, power, and protection, and both stories detail Jesus’ Scriptural refutation of the devil’s wiles.  There is, however, a significant difference between the two accounts.  While Matthew’s version concludes with angels waiting on Jesus, Luke’s version ends with an ominous prediction that the devil would return at an opportune time.  At the end of Matthew’s account, we get the sense that the devil has been defeated and that Jesus is clearly going to come out on top at the end of the story.  In Luke’s account, the devil is not a vanquished foe limping from the field of battle; he is a cunning strategist engaged in a tactical retreat.  This detail makes the story of Jesus’ temptation much more frightening; it leaves us wondering when the devil is going to make his next move.  The opportune time finally presents itself in Luke 22:3, when “Satan enters into Judas called Iscariot.”

People tend to reject the notion of Satan.  I think this is partially due to popular imagery.  Thanks to Dante and others, “Satan” connotes images of a horned figure with a goatee, cloven feet, and a tail who is the master of numerous demonic minions.  But “Satan” is actually a more generic title for one who is the “adversary,” the one who opposes, tempts, and challenges us in our journey through life.  In this sense, Satan can represent a whole variety of forces in our lives, including our pride, our hypocrisy, and our failure to care for those less fortunate than ourselves.  We are not called to deal with a particular satanic being, we are called to deal with all of those things in our lives that draw us away from God.  In many ways, this can be even more intimidating than the devilish character popular in books and movies.  Instead of looking for a specific foe, we are faced with the uncertain reality of destructive forces that constantly seek opportunities to draw us away from a relationship with God and other people.  Just as Satan is ominously lurking in the shadows in Luke’s gospel, these forces are constantly tempting us away from a life of grace.

The good news is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has dealt with the power of evil in this world.  Not only that, God equips us to deal with Satan and with those things that draw us away from the love of God on a daily basis.  Just as Jesus confronted Satan with the aid of prayer, Scripture, and discipline, we can deal with these adversarial forces through perseverance in prayer, the study of Scripture, and intentionality in our spiritual routines.  As our deacon pointed out in her sermon this morning, Lent is our opportune time to deal with the power of Satan.  Lent is the time that we remind ourselves that God has equipped each one of us to embrace God’s love and share it with others.  We are called to use Lent as an opportunity to examine those places in our lives that are susceptible to the forces of sin and death, deny their power, and renew our trust in God’s grace and love.


When I was growing up, I was an enormous fan of M*A*S*H (although I only got to know the show through reruns).  250px-M*A*S*H_TV_title_screenFor those of you who don’t remember the program, M*A*S*H was a sitcom about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or M*A*S*H (get it?) in the Korean War.  The show featured a team of wisecracking surgeons, gruff but loveable commanding officers, sassy nurses, and quirky enlisted men as they attempted to save lives close to the front lines in Korea.  Of all the historical inaccuracies in the program (and there were plenty; after all, the show was on for about four times as long as the war lasted), the most striking was that this mobile hospital did not seem particularly mobile.  I can only remember one episode in which the unit had to “bug out,” and it took an inordinate number of hijinks to get the job done.  Of course, the show probably would have been tedious if the fictional M*A*S*H unit had to move as frequently as its real-life counterparts, but I wonder if there was a deeper reason for the fact that the hospital tended to remain in one place.  Was it perhaps because people generally tend to be apprehensive about transition and change?

Our spiritual ancestors were well acquainted with transition and change, because like the denizens of the 4077, they lived in tents.  The patriarchs were nomadic herdsmen who had no place to call their own.  The people of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years after their exodus from Egypt, to the point that there is a feast prescribed in the Old Testament meant to remind the people of their history of living in temporary dwelling-places.  I think that many of us like to imagine that we have arrived wherever we are.  We like to think that our current situation is permanent, that it will only change if we decide we want to move on.  But our Jewish ancestors show us that we often don’t have much choice when it comes to change.  Change and transition are a part of who we are; we are tent-dwelling people.  And since tents get broken down and erected on a regular basis, we need to make sure that the fabric has no holes, that the tent poles are sturdy, and that the rain fly has been properly waterproofed so that it will protect us from storms.

I like to think of our Christian faith as a tent.  Ideally, it does not keep us in one place.  Though we would prefer to be physically and spiritually comfortable, our faith often impels to move into uncomfortable and challenging situations.  But if we have a well-nurtured faith to protect us from storms, then we have a place to provide shelter and rootedness even as we deal with the realities of transition and change.  I believe that Lent is one way we can fix our tents and prepare for the possibility of change.  Lent comes from the Old English lencthen, which refers to the fact that the season tends to coincide with the lengthening of days (at least in the Northern hemisphere).  During Lent, the days get longer, flowers begin to sprout, and the deadness of winter begins to give way to the new possibilities of spring.  It is, in other words, a season of outward change.  But Lent is also meant to prepare us for the ultimate change, which is the Resurrection.  There is a reason that we give ourselves time to prepare for the the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter.  Lent is a time when we can mend the holes in the fabric of our tent and replace the poles that have rusted out.  During Lent we try to live our spiritual lives with more focus, more discipline, and more intentionality so that when the time comes, we can be ready to allow the Resurrection to change us and to transform us in a meaningful way.



“What are you giving up for Lent?”  cadburyWhen I was growing up, this was a common question in the week or so before Ash Wednesday.  For the most part, my friends and I saw Lent as an exercise in willpower: we picked the thing that we thought we couldn’t live without and gave it up for more than a month (for me, this was generally chocolate).  I remember that the first few days would be just fine; I might have even thought that I could go for even longer than forty days without chocolate.  By Easter, however, I would be clamoring for chocolate rabbits or peanut butter cups or my absolute favorite, Cadbury Mini Eggs.  Easter became less a celebration of the Resurrection and more a commemoration of the fact that I could not eat chocolate again.  The sacrifice I had endured for forty days made those chocolate morsels all the sweeter.

This is certainly one way to look at our Lenten disciplines.  By giving up that thing we think we cannot live without, we will hopefully come to the realization that the only “thing” we truly cannot live without is God.  The problem with this approach, however, is that we either end up in the place where I always ended up on Easter (counting the minutes until I could eat chocolate again) or we see our Lenten disciplines not as an opportunity to renew our relationship with God, but as a recapitulation of our New Year’s resolutions: “During Lent, I’m going to give up chocolate, which will hopefully help me lose 10 pounds.”  I’ll admit that at one point or another, I have taken both of these approaches to Lent.

I would encourage you to look at your Lenten discipline in another way.  A discipline, after all, is not supposed to be an overwhelming or insurmountable obstacle.  A discipline is something that we engage in on a regular basis, something that challenges us and constantly pushes us in a new direction.  Athletes are disciplined about their training regiments, not because they have a static goal in mind, but so that they can challenge themselves to be the best that they can possibly be.  We should take the same approach to our Lenten disciplines: we should not have a fixed goal in mind (“I’m going to make sure I say the Lord’s Prayer at least once a day”), our disciplines should allow for the possibility of spiritual growth (“I’m going to say the Lord’s Prayer every day and see whether it changes the way I experience God”).  For this reason, I’d like to encourage you to think not in terms of a “Lenten discipline,” but in terms of a “Lenten routine,” something that you do every day to bring yourself closer to God.  Naturally, this can include giving up those things we think we cannot live without, but we must be careful not to see our Lenten routines as ends in themselves.  Our Lenten routines should not focus on what we are sacrificing during this season; our Lenten routines should focus on our spiritual growth and on increasing our awareness of God’s grace.


Note: For the next forty days or so, I will be writing brief daily devotions for Lent.  I hope that they will help you in your reflections on this season of penitence and renewal.

“Lent is early this year.”  For those of you who spend time in the Church, you’ve probably heard this statement more than a few times.  alarm clockLast year, you probably remember hearing that Lent was late.  What is striking to me is that in all of my years in the Church, no one has ever said that Lent was “on time.”  Tell your average Episcopal clergyperson (someone who probably pays pretty close attention to the liturgical calendar) the date of Ash Wednesday and the reaction you get will invariably be, “Really?  I had no idea!”  Lent always surprises us, always catches us off-guard, always leaves us unprepared for the season of penitence.  Lent never arrives when we expect it; it never arrives when we are ready: Lent comes whether we are ready or not.

I think that this is a good thing, because if we’re honest, we’re never going to be ready for the arrival of Lent.  We’re never going to have savored that last piece of chocolate or that final morsel of barbecue.  We’re never going to be prepared to take on that discipline we have adopted.  We’re never going to be ready to engage the hard work of self-examination.  And there are other, more important things for which we will never be ready without some prompting.  We tend to dwell on our past failures and sinfulness so much that we forget that God loves us unconditionally.  If we’re honest, we’re never going to be ready to accept God’s promises of renewal.  We’re never going to be ready to accept the grace offered to us by God through Jesus Christ.  We’re never going to be ready to allow the Resurrection to transform our lives, and so we must be caught off guard and taken by surprise.  God’s gracious love doesn’t wait for us to be ready; God reaches out to us even when we are completely unprepared.

And so during Lent this year, I invite you to savor being unprepared.  Be confident in the knowledge that God has reached out to you even when you weren’t expecting it.  Let this season be an opportunity for you to be transformed by the unexpected and unconditional love of God.

Dust, Ashes, and things that are actually ironic

Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 13, 2013.

Whatever happened to irony?  Our culture’s understanding of irony has eroded over the past several years.  At one time, something was only described as ironic when it was actually ironic: when there was an obvious incongruity between the expected and actual results of a sequence of events.  These days, people tend to describe situations as ironic when things simply don’t go their way.  Nothing embodies this tendency quite as well as a song written by Canadian singer Alanis Morrisette.  In 1995, Morrisette released a song called “Ironic” in which she unsurprisingly describes a variety of situations as “ironic.”  alanisAnd while some are indeed examples of irony, the vast majority of the things she mentions could be more accurately described as unfortunate or disappointing.  The chorus is a good example: “It’s like rain on your wedding day, it’s a free ride when you’ve already paid; it’s the good advice that you just didn’t take, but who would have thought?  It figures.  And isn’t it ironic?”  Well…no.  None of these situations is particularly pleasant, but not one of them is ironic.  Irony implicitly implies tension and contradiction.  Irony challenges our expectations.  So it was ironic that Richard Nixon, the famed anti-Communist, was the U.S. President who opened relations with Communist China.  It is ironic that the money Texas will use to deal with the water shortage caused by a crippling lack of rainfall will come from the Rainy Day Fund.  And it is ironic that a Canadian singer wrote a song called “Ironic” that had very few examples of irony.  You might wonder why we should care about any of this.  Why should it matter that people misuse a word?  What difference does it make?  The reality is that irony is more than just a rhetorical device; it is something that grabs our attention and insists that we look at a situation more closely.  Irony unsettles us; it makes us uncomfortable and challenges our expectations.  At its best, irony encourages us to look at the world in a new and different way.

Today is one of the most ironic days of the Church year.  A few moments ago, we heard that familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus solemnly warns his hearers to beware of practicing their piety before others.  And a few moments from now, we will come forward to receive ashes on our foreheads.  We will leave this place today with the sign of the cross on our foreheads, in perhaps the most public display of piety we engage in all year.  It’s not as though this year is an anomaly; every Ash Wednesday, we are admonished not to practice our piety before others and then we do just that.  On one hand, it might seem that the Church has made a serious liturgical mistake that no one has had the foresight to correct.  On the other hand, Jesus was speaking at a time and in a place where outrageously public displays of piety were commonplace.  Notice how Jesus phrases his warning: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  phariseesJesus is specifically referring to those religious people who heaped up empty phrases in public prayer, gave alms so that they might be praised by others, and fasted for the sake of pious appearance.  In many ways, Jesus is tapping into a long prophetic tradition; the Old Testament prophets frequently chastised their people because so many of them were publicly pious but failed to allow their faith to shape their lives by caring for the poor and needy among them.  If anything there was an excess of public piety in the time of Jesus.  This is not the case today.  For the most part, people are not pious for the sake of appearance anymore; in fact, many people are not even pious in secret.  Our busy and fragmented lives often lead us to forget that we have a responsibility to work on our relationship with God.  Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for us to be publicly reminded of our need for private piety.

In spite of this, we cannot ignore the contradiction between what we heard and what we are about to do.  The injunction against practicing one’s piety before others seems to preclude getting dirt smudged on our faces.  It is crucial for us to notice the irony in this situation.  In her attempt to live out the teachings of Jesus, the Church created a liturgy that seems to contradict one of our Lord’s teachings.  It’s terribly ironic.  Remember that irony is not just a rhetorical device; it’s meant to grab our attention and insist that we look at a situation more closely.

In the case of Ash Wednesday, the irony of having ashes smudged on our forehead even as we hear Jesus tell us to avoid similar acts of piety points us to an even deeper irony, an even more significant contradiction.  A few weeks ago, I was looking through Heavenly Rest’s archives and discovered an interesting newspaper clipping.  It was from the “Corrections” page of the Abilene Reporter News and the headline was “Reverend Gerhart alive and well.”  It seems that in an article from the previous week, the newspaper had incorrectly referred to Mrs. Gerhart as the widow of our celebrated former rector, causing consternation in the Gerhart household, surprise at Heavenly Rest, and concern in the Abilene community.  The first sentence of the article is wonderful: “The Reverend Willis P. Gerhart, retired long-time pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, is very much alive and ‘quite active at times’ for a man on the threshold of 90 years of age.”  Under the picture of Parson Gerhart (who did look very good for 89), the caption read “Willis P. Gerhart: still going strong.”  Things like this happen every once and a while and I always wonder how a person responds.  How did it feel for Parson Gerhart when he read that the Reporter News thought he had died?  More importantly, what changed in his life?  Did he feel as though he was living on borrowed time?  Did he feel as though he had more left to do?  Or did he feel that the life he had left to live was a gift?

Today, we all have the opportunity to ask ourselves these questions.  When you go up to receive the imposition of ashes, someone will push back your hair, look in to your eyes and say, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Remember that your time on earth is temporary and may very well end without warning.  Remember that you are going to die.  It’s as if all of us opened up the paper this morning and read our obituary.  ashesThis may unsettle us, it may make us uncomfortable, it may even cause us to despair.  But we are also impelled to ask how this awareness of our mortality can change our lives.  Because here is the extraordinary and ironic thing: after we are told that we are going to die, we leave this place and continue to live.  This deep irony is meant to transform us.  It’s meant to give us an opportunity to examine our lives and ask how this encounter with our mortality will change us.  Will we feel as though we are living on borrowed time?  Will we feel as though we have more left to do in our lives?  Or will we feel that the life we have to live is a gift from the God who created and redeemed us?

There is an even deeper irony to this day.  In our liturgy, we acknowledge our wretchedness, we call ourselves miserable sinners, and we affirm that we are unworthy of God’s forgiveness.  At the same time, we not only acknowledge the fact that we get to continue living even after we have ashes smudged on our foreheads, we celebrate the fact that we have the opportunity to live a new kind of life, a Resurrection life that transcends even the mortality that we acknowledge today.  And the irony is that this Resurrection life was promised to us by God through Jesus Christ while we were still sinners who had embraced the power of death.  The irony is that even though we expect God to punish us sorely for our misdeeds, God promises life to us through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Lent, therefore, is not meant to be a time when we see what we can live without or how much we can take on before we collapse.  Lent is not meant to be a time for us to focus on our unworthiness before God.  Lent is not even meant to be a time for us to be profoundly aware of our sinfulness.  Lent is an opportunity for us to see our lives as a gift from the God who created and redeemed us.  Lent is an opportunity for us to walk in newness of life, to try on this Resurrection life promised to us through Jesus Christ.  Lent is an opportunity for us to remember that in spite of the fact that we had embraced the power of Death, God sent Jesus Christ to bring us Life.  And isn’t that ironic?

The gift that changes everything

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

There are many musicals about love (they’re all about love aren’t they?), but none deals with the topic quite as well as Jerry Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof.  Fiddler is the story of a Russian Jew named Tevye as he struggles to maintain his people’s traditions in a changing world.  He struggles with poverty and with the uncertainty of living as a religious minority in czarist Russia.  But all of his challenges are encapsulated in his struggle to understand changing attitudes toward love and marriage.  In his culture, the tradition is that the father picks his daughter’s husband.  But all three of Tevye’s daughters choose not to follow tradition, but to marry for love.  Tevye’s first daughter asks for his permission to marry the man she loves, his second daughter merely asks for his blessing, and his third daughter simply makes the decision without consulting him.  Gradually, Tevye’s understanding of the world collapses around him as love begins to supersede tradition.  Towards the end of the show, Tevye begins to wonder how all of this talk about love affects him.  fiddlerIn one of the sweetest songs in musical theater, Tevye asks Golde, his wife of 25 years, “Do you love me?”  Golde’s response is typical of someone worried about forces beyond her control: “Do I what?”  She continues, “With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town; you’re upset, you’re worn out, go inside, go lie down!  Maybe it’s indigestion!”  And Tevye says, “Golde, I’m asking you a question: do you love me?”  After more exchanges like this, Golde finally asks rhetorically, “Do I love him?  For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him.  Twenty-five years my bed is his; if that’s not love, what is?”  “Then you love me!” responds the overjoyed Tevye, to which a slightly less effusive Golde responds, “I suppose I do.”  Tevye says, “And I suppose I love you too.”  The couple finishes the song by singing, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so; after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”  In spite of thinking that the question of love is silly and not worth her time, that there are more important things to worry about, Golde finally realizes that the relationship she’s had with her husband, the struggles and joys they’ve shared together can only be described as love.  Love was not just important; love existed at the very core of Golde’s marriage with Tevye.

Today we hear a similar reflection on love.  For the past several weeks, we have been working our way through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  As we all know, Paul is not particularly impressed with the way the Corinthians are living in community; they don’t seem to be working and playing well with others.  For a variety of reasons, the Corinthians simply could not get along, and most of their problems stemmed from one group in the community thinking they were superior to another. There were groups who thought they had superior knowledge or who thought they possessed superior spiritual gifts or who thought they had been baptized by a superior apostle or who were convinced that their superior economic station entitled them to eat the Lord’s supper whenever they wanted.  Paul’s response to all of these people is that the differences they perceive are unimportant, that their unity in Christ is what matters.  But part of what Paul does not do in these earlier parts of the letter is offer the Corinthians an alternative way of thinking about the community.  As far as they’re concerned, the only way to understand what one can contribute to the community is by evaluating the quality of his or her knowledge or spiritual gifts.  “Sure Paul, our unity in Christ is important, but we have an organization to run.  How are we supposed to operate if we don’t know who has the ‘right stuff’ and who should be put in charge?”  But Paul anticipates this objection.  At the end of the passage we read last week, Paul asks rhetorically, “Are all apostles?  Are all teachers?  Do all speak in tongues?  Do all interpret?”  The Corinthians were thinking, “of course not, these gifts are allotted as the Sprit chooses.”  But when Paul tells the Corinthians to strive for even greater gifts, they must have been surprised. The Corinthians thought that there were no greater gifts than prophecy or speaking in tongues.  So when Paul says, “I will show you a more excellent way,” the Corinthians must have wondered, “What could possibly be better than speaking in tongues?  What great gift is Paul going to tell us about?  More importantly, how can we get it?”

Imagine their surprise when Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.  And if have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.”  Paul lists these gifts that the Corinthians valued above all else (tongues, prophecy, knowledge) and says that they are nothing compared to the gift of love.    Love trumps every spiritual gift in the community. And when Paul talks about love, he’s not just talking about affection.  For Paul, love is something much deeper; it is giving yourself to another, even though the other person has done nothing to deserve your love.  This should sound familiar, because it is precisely what Paul affirms God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  God has given himself to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, even though we have done nothing to deserve God’s love.  Love is how we participate in and how we embody God’s grace; we give of ourselves to others with no expectation of reward.  You can see how this turned the Corinthians’ thinking on its head.  For the Corinthians, your role in the community was based on what you possessed, whether knowledge or prophecy or other spiritual gifts.  But Paul is saying that life in the Christian community is not about what you possess; life in the Christian community is about what you give away.  This is why the traditional translation of “love” in this passage is “charity”; love at its purest does not expect anything in return.  While speaking in tongues, prophecy, and knowledge were the source of all kinds of division and resentment in the Corinthian community, Paul tells us that love, the gift that surpasses all of these, is patient and endures all things. Like Golde in her conversation with Tevye, the Corinthians have only to recognize the love that has existed among them from the very beginning.  agapeThe Corinthians have only to recognize that it is their relationship with one another, their common history of joy and struggle, their shared experience of God’s redeeming love that has given life to their community, and that all of the other things they’ve worried about are mere distractions from the central reality of love.  To drive his point home, Paul concludes by saying, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”  This is an amazing statement because Paul is saying that all of the spiritual gifts the Corinthians thought made them special and mature were really childish things.  Knowledge, prophecy, and speaking in tongues are not the pinnacle of achievement; they are childish things to outgrow.  The Corinthians might have thought that love was the childish thing, that love was something that mature people didn’t pay attention to, but Paul insists that the adult way of thinking, the mature way of living in community is to give of ourselves in love.  The Corinthians had to learn that there is nothing in this world that is more important than this question of love.

At the end of Golde and Tevye’s song, they conclude that love “doesn’t change a thing.”  But if we are to take this passage from Corinthians seriously, we are led to conclude that love changes everything.  Paul tells us that all interactions within the Christian community should be based on the self-giving love that God has revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Paul tells us that everything we do in the Church should be built upon a foundation of love, that love should be our priority.  Everything that we do in the Church should be a reminder to the world that we are all loved by God, that we are all welcome in this community regardless of who we are or where we come from.  This is particularly true for those who, for whatever reason, have been driven away from the Church.  Archbishop William Temple described our mission well: the Church is the only organization in the world that exists primarily for the benefit of people who are not its members.  We might put it a different way: the Church is the only organization in the world whose primary responsibility is to reach out in love to those who are not its members.  Love should be such a priority for us that whoever comes into this place or encounters one of us outside of this place should know immediately that they are loved.  As the hymn puts it, the Church is a place created by love where the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.  If love does not exist at the heart of who we are, if we do not recognize that this place is created by love, then all that we do on Sunday mornings, the prayers, the preaching, the music, the teaching, is just noise.  We are called to show this love to the world.  Just as God expresses God’s love in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we express our love in action.  We show our love for each other when we reach out to comfort a widow who has just lost her husband.  We show our love for each other when we make sure a newcomer feels welcome.  We show our love for each other when we give of our time to organizations committed to helping those in need.  We show our love for each other when we give of our resources to make sure that this church can reach out to the most vulnerable in our community.  We show our love by creating a place for love in our hearts, by realizing that love is at the core of who we are, and by giving ourselves to one another, because if that’s not love, what is?