Sermon for Lent 1 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“And lead us not into temptation.” We make this prayer to our heavenly Father every week, and some of us more than once every day. This makes God’s action in this morning’s Gospel very curious indeed: “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” What God does is precisely the opposite of what is asked of God in the Lord’s prayer. By the Holy Spirit God the Father leads His Son directly into temptation.

And, in some ways, our own forty day sojourn in the wilderness, our observance of Lent, is a time in which God leads us into temptation, too. If you’ve given something up—meat or chocolate or selfish thoughts or whatever—you’ve probably already been tempted by opportunities to avail yourself of that old comfort or that old habit. I know I have. If you’ve taken something on—a prayer practice or other spiritual discipline—you’ve probably already been tempted to be less than conscientious in keeping it up. The old ways are more comfortable; they’re safe. It is significant that in addition to power, the devil tempts Jesus with comfort (the comfort of a bit of bread in the midst of his fasting) and he tempts our Lord with safety (specifically, protection from falling down a cliff).

But why might God lead us into temptation? Why was Jesus led by the Holy Spirit into a time of trial rather than flight from it? Well, the simple answer is that sometimes God answers our prayers with a “no”, and that includes our perennial prayer to “lead us not into temptation.” But that doesn’t get to the larger question, the “why?” question, so here is my humble attempt at an answer.

It has been my experience that during the periods in which I’ve been most conscientious about prayer and fasting, in which my own relationship with God seems strongest, that I have been most open to temptation. It is usually the temptation which the church calls “sloth”, one of those deadly sins: laziness not in completing tasks at work, but in maintaining rigor and regularity in the very practices which has forged my relationship with my Lord, namely prayer and fasting. I find myself in pretty good company in this struggle. Ascetics and mystics from St. Anthony to Teresa of Avilla to Thomas Merton have noted the same struggle. Precisely when their prayer life seemed most effective, just when they seemed closest to God, was when the temptation to slack off a bit seemed most prevalent and most disastrous.

On one level it is because the enemy redoubles his efforts when he’s losing, when the faithful Christian has turned more profoundly from his crafts and wiles toward the loving God. The first Sunday of Lent is as good a time as any to remember that radical evil exists, and that the defeat experienced by the agents of said evil incites them to tempt the faithful with even more resolve.

But this still doesn’t explain why God led Jesus and why God leads us through the valley of the shadow of death to begin with, why God gives these tempters the chance to snare us.

The answer is paradoxical but at the same time unsurprising. God leads us into temptation because God loves us. God loves us so much that He trusts us, which is perhaps the ultimate expression of love. God trusts us enough to give us the freedom to be petulant children if we choose, to rebel if we choose, and like the prodigal son to choose once again to return and be forgiven and to be given the fatted calf of boundless mercy.

God trusted Adam and Eve enough to place the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. God loved them enough to give them the freedom to choose, to choose whether to obey or to yield to temptation. God loves and trusts us enough not to coddle us, but rather to give us the opportunity to choose to deny Him and disappoint Him. In other words, God gives us freedom to be adults. But God’s love and trust is even greater than this, for God gives the children of Eve the chance to return after countless mistakes—countless occasions in which we indulge in the same forbidden fruit as our forebears—to return and be saved, to make another go of it through fasting and prayer.

We may, of course, still ask God to “lead us not into temptation”, to deliver us from the time of trial, and God will sometimes answer with a “yes”. God knows what temptations will destroy us when we’re at a point of weakness, and we can be thankful when God spares us from the opportunity to fall back into a destructive pattern. But we can also be thankful, as hard as it may be sometimes, that God respects us enough to let us choose to rage and rebel. We can be thankful, as one prayer in the BCP puts it, for those failures and disappointments which remind us of our dependence on God alone. May this holy season of Lent, then, be for us not just a reminder of our sinfulness and our need for repentance, but also a joyous celebration of our redemption and of the freedom God gives us to accept it. Let us be thankful that the chance we have to confess Christ with our lips and to believe on Him in our hearts means something, because we’re not automota, because we’re not robots who couldn’t choose otherwise, because being an adult is hard but God trusts us to grow up. Be thankful, and with thanksgiving return to the Lord who richly pardons and brings us to new and unending life.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today, I am reminded that I am a sinner and I am going to die. And I love it! Now let me explain. I think there is a generational dynamic at work here. Please take the following not as a denunciation of one generation over another–either the dismissive phrase “okay, boomer” some of my cohort are known to use as a cudgel or the “millenials are ruining X” (X being all the things my generation’s influence on the market is purported to be ruining from chain restaurants to golf to paper napkins to the very idea of home-ownership). Anyway, there’s a lot of blame to go around, but I think in mostly equal measure.

That disclaimer out of the way, I did not grow up during a time in which children were expected to be seen and not heard. I grew up long after the decline of civil society and institutional loyalty and social and familial responsibilities being a given had already begun in earnest. These trends largely began as a reaction to what was likely an overemphasis on the collective versus the individual.

Instead, I grew up during the period in which young people were told they were special and could do anything they put their minds to and that the greatest goods were individualism and self-determination. Since I am married to somebody who works in the children’s department of the public library I have confirmed that this is still one of the primary perspectives being championed by children’s literature today.

I think we are only now starting to see that we may have over-corrected to our peril. I am not suggesting that self-esteem is bad or that people (adults as well as youngsters) shouldn’t value the gifts they have to contribute; those gifts are ultimately from God, after all. I do think, though, that this has led so many of us as a generation into unrealistic expectations about what life will be like and what we are owed and, at the same time, a pernicious assumption that we must be perfect because we naturally have it in ourselves to be perfect. We’re all special snowflakes (right?) and how this assumption plays out can have diametric but, perhaps, equally dangerous implications. Either we can be selfish monsters who rage when the world doesn’t give us what we deserve or else we can start to believe we were simply lied to and must be worthless or something because all that special “snowflakeness” didn’t pan out, and we’re underemployed and living in our parents’ basements and we choose to do the wrong thing sometimes even though we were told doing the right thing was just a matter of fiat, of willing to use the gifts we had, which we were told was enough.

This is a sort of straightjacket, this perfectionism and entitlement combining to immobilize us. And what is the way out out of it? I think step one may be the hardest, but the most necessary- “acknowledge the following proposition: ‘I am a sinner, and I’m going to die.’”

All I’ve said about generational concerns notwithstanding, I think this point is in fact universally applicable, it may just strike those who grew up under a moral-therapeutic model of human identity and value as more acute, because that model (the model of what I’ve called before from this pulpit the Stuart Smalley approach – “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and, doggone it, people like you”) makes the basic emptiness of such an approach more acute. In simpler terms, we all need to be freed from the impossible expectations of moral perfectionism and total self-sufficiency. We all need to be reminded that we are sinners and we are going to die.

This naturally lets a lot of the pressure off, but it’s about more than that. I said earlier that this is just the first step to the solution of getting us out of the straightjacket of perfectionism and entitlement. After that realization we are able to see that there is a way out of this dilemma. When we see we simply cannot measure up by virtue of our own will and efforts, we are able to call on the one who is our helper. When we say that we are sinners, that that is central to our being, not just the agglomeration of personal mistakes, but rather a flaw in our nature we cannot fix on our own by just being good, then we can finally do the one needful thing, call upon the one who doesn’t just teaches us how to be better, but whose own righteousness makes us better despite ourselves and our perennial inability to learn or remember that moral lesson. When we are told we are going to die, that we are mortal, we are given the opportunity to rely on the one whose very nature transcends our basic finitude and contingency.

So, that is what we are about this day, but I’ve been asked why we have to keep doing this. Is there not, I’ve been asked (perhaps in a slightly accusatory tone on one or two occasions), a point at which we can stop talking about sin? My answer is that I cannot speak for anybody else who may have achieved some degree of sanctification in this life greater than my own rather low level of achievement in this regard; I personally need this reminder daily, sometimes hourly, and especially on days like today, as we enter a season of more intense and intentional reliance on the one who saves us. I need it, because I so easily forget and fall back into the sort of pride that has me convince myself that I can do it on my own. To use the language of Paul and of the Reformers, I need the Law continually to convict me so that I can accept the Grace God offers through his Son.

This affirmation–“I am a sinner and I’m going to die”–then, is not gloomy, but liberating, because just the other side of that affirmation is the realization (whether for the first time or the millionth) that we are redeemed and we are promised new life. Thanks be to God!

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.