Below is my sermon from this past Sunday at St. Luke’s East Greenwich. We are using track two, and the lessons can be found here. I preached this sermon without notes, but there is a video recording of it. As always your feedback and comments are encouraged and welcome.
Below is a copy and recording of my sermon from The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord (August 6, 2017), preached at St. Luke’s East Greenwich. You can find the lessons here. As always your comments and reflections are welcome.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration, one of my favorite feasts in the life of the Church.
This feast we celebrate today is so important to me because it is all about two things that are the core of my faith and my personhood – identity and integrity.
On this the feast of the Transfiguration something is revealed to us about the identity and integrity of Jesus, and of ourselves. And I truly believe that if we open ourselves fully to what is celebrated on this day,
we might just find not only God, but ourselves transfigured.
Today’s Gospel passage finds us on the mountain.
Just as in real estate, location is everything in Scripture.
Mountaintops are known, and symbolic of, places where God is revealed.
So when we hear: “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray,” that is a clue to us that something incredibly important is about to happen.
God is about to reveal God’s self in some miraculous way.
In this Gospel passage, in this mountaintop moment, God is making sure that the core of the disciples – Peter and John and James – have no doubt about the fullness of Jesus’ identity. In the verses leading up to todays’ passage from Luke, there are a series of stories and events that attempt to communicate to the disciples the divine nature of Jesus. Time and time again the disciples just do not get it. They keep trying to force Jesus into their idea of who the messiah should be and how the messiah should act.
As an aside, it needs to be noted that throughout Luke’s Gospel, the female disciples absolutely get it, but the gender division of Luke’s narrative is another sermon for another time.
As we approach this mountain top encounter there are three key elements that speak to the identity and integrity of Jesus.
First, Jesus takes these three disciples up the mountain to pray.
Now this might be an obvious statement,
but I am going to go ahead and say it anyway; for Jesus prayer is incredibly important.
Repeatedly throughout Luke’s narrative we witness how Jesus is empowered by prayer.
Through prayer Jesus opens himself to receive the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Through prayer Jesus chooses the apostles.
Through prayer Jesus is able to maintain his integrity through abuse.
Through prayer Jesus is strengthened to confront the oppressive structures of the empire.
And it is through prayer
that the disciples would be able to do all these things and more, if they could simply get out of their own way and truly accept the presence of God in their lives.
At this point in the Gospel, the disciples do not have this prayer thing down. It will be another two chapters until they ask Jesus to teach them to pray.
Even though they still have not received their formal training in prayer, God still uses the empowering nature of prayer to be a time when the disciples – and all of us – are able to come into proximity with the Divine.
It is in the setting of prayer that the true identity of Jesus is revealed.
The second key element of this transfiguration event is the appearance of two prophets.
In this prayerful moment, when Jesus is transformed and his clothes become dazzling white he does not appear alone. The appearance of Moses and Elijah is an indicator that the mission of God, in the person of Jesus, is a continuation of the work that God had already begun in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
This makes clear that the Jewish identity of the disciples, and what later generations will call Christian identity, do connect. This is a sign that for us as Christians, that the words spoken through the prophets have been realized in the person of Jesus. That is why of all the prophets, it is Moses and Elijah who appear.
Moses is the reminder of the past.
Moses was the person empowered by God, to lead God’s chosen people out of bondage and slavery into freedom.
Elijah, in Jewish thought, in connected to the end times.
Elijah is the one who will one day turn people’s hearts back to the covenant.
Jesus’ transfiguration is placed between those who represent the beginning and the end. The conversation the three of them have makes clear the fullness of Jesus’ mission: that Jesus is ended to Jerusalem to accomplish his mission.
Just a few verses beyond today’s Gospel passage, Luke will tell the reader that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus will begin that long journey to the cross.
Thus by standing next to Moses it is made clear to us that that just as Moses was the one who led the people Israel out of bondage and slavery in Egypt, Jesus will be the one to lead all of humanity out of the bondage and slavery of sin.
And by standing next to Elijah, the one who will bring people back to the covenant that God made with the ancestors, Jesus will be the one to usher us back to the very presences of God in the end of time.
Now if all that was not enough for this revelation of the glory of God, there is one final moment that makes Jesus’ divine nature explicitly clear:
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
For the second time we read God claiming Jesus as God’s Son.
Several chapters earlier, at Jesus’ Baptism, we read that God speaks from heaven and says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
during the Transfiguration of our Lord,
God once again speaks, and this time, tells us that Jesus is God’s Beloved.
And God does not just speak to the disciples confirming Jesus’ identity,
God commands the disciples – and each one of us – to Listen to Jesus!
No longer can there be any doubt.
This teacher, this rabbi they have been following is the divine Son of God. This teacher will not only lead us out of temporal slavery, but he will break down the door of hell redeem every soul for all of eternity and usher us into that heavenly city – the New Jerusalem.
In this moment, we receive a vision to carry with us down the mountain.
In the Transfiguration, we get a glimpse of the unimaginable reality of God’s grace, glory, and love for all of humanity.
But what happens when the appearance and revelation of God – ends?
What happens when we come off the mountain?
When Jesus, Peter, John, and James come down the mountain they met a man whose only son was possessed by a demon.
The man says to Jesus, “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
Jesus chastises those around him,
rebukes the demon,
and the boy is healed.
As soon as Peter, John, and James come off the mountain they find transfiguration in every day life.
That healing encounter is where identity and integrity meet in the realities of the Transfiguration.
On the mountaintop Jesus’ identity is revealed. Once they are down in the valley the disciples witness the fullness of Jesus’ integrity. They see the honest and true reality that the mission of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is to restore all of the created order to the way God intended creation to be from the very beginning:
In the imagine of God
By witnessing the intersection of Jesus’ identity and integrity we are forced to see Jesus differently – to understand Jesus differently.
This teacher the disciples have been following around is not going to be some great and powerful military leader –
releasing the people of God from oppression through violence and destruction.
This transfigured Christ is going to humbly heal humanity and redeem us all
While we glimpse the glory of God in the transfiguration moment on the mountaintop, we will not fully see the glory of God until we stand at the foot of the Cross.
And if we are going to understand Jesus in this new way, we must also understand our relationship with Jesus and our call as disciples in new ways.
We are called to remove from ourselves all the darkness the world has placed upon us, so that our light might shine forth. We are no longer are to understand our ministries and callings through our own desires, but instead take on the meekness and humility of Christ.
We must, through prayer, open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit that we may be empowered to truly and completely listen to the commands of Jesus.
Now there is one more piece about coming down from the mountain that allows us to fully take on this new reality of our discipleship.
Think back for a moment to our Old Testament lesson from Exodus.
After coming down from Mount Sinai
After having an incredibly intimate encounter with God,
that according to other parts of scripture should have killed Moses
Moses’s face was shining.
After encountering the holy, Moses was visibly changed.
Now I could preach two more sermons just on this passage from Exodus, I’m not going to, but I could.
However there is one thing I do not want to miss today.
This transformation was so startling that Moses started wearing a veil to not scare those in his community. But every time Moses went and spoke to God, Moses would remove his veil.
That for us is the final key to understanding our identity and integrity as followers of Jesus.
We may from time to time, find ourselves placing veils over our faces to not scare those around us, to not cause trouble, or for any other reason.
But when we come to this place,
When we come to hear the word of God
When we come to see God face to face
When we come to hold God in the palms of our hands in the Sacrament of the Eucharist
We no longer have any reason to fear or hide our faces.
We can remove every mask,
We can remove absolutely everything that we put up to hide the light that shines from our faces.
If we are to truly be disciples then we must live into the fullness of our identity with all integrity in front of God, and one another.
On this feast of the Transfiguration may we give thanks for the divine revelation of God on all the mountaintops past, present, and yet to come.
May we come to know something more of the identity and integrity of God.
But most importantly may God reveal to us something of our own identity and integrity that we too might be transfigured.
This past Sunday (16 July) I preached my first sermon at my curacy parish, St. Luke’s East Greenwich. We are using track two, and for the summer, the preacher gets to choose if we use the Old Testament Lesson or the New Testament Epistle. For this week, I chose to go with the passage from Isaiah. The lesson from Isaiah and the rest of the scriptural texts for the week can be found here. For this sermon I decided to go back to preaching without a manuscript or notes. It has been a while since I’ve done this on a Sunday, and I think it turned out pretty well (a few spots I wasn’t totally happy with, but that’s the way it goes with this sort of thing).
So here it is, the video of my first sermon as Curate of St. Luke’s. Take a look and let me know what you think. As always comments welcome.
One of the joys of being a newly ordained curate, is that everything is new. Today was one of those days I got to do something really new; not just something new at St. Luke’s.
For the first time I led a committal service at a cemetery. I had never met the family before. They are not parishioners of my parish. This was one of those times that the local funeral home called looking for help, and I was tagged to jump in.
The night before the committal I was feeling pretty laid back about it. I even scoffed when a friend, and clergy colleague, referred to my big day, thinking it was really no big deal: “It’s a page and a half, how big a deal could it be.” I’m glad he warned me otherwise. I’m thankful I was wrong.
I took my friend’s words to heart, and spent a period of time prior to the committal in prayer at home – the benefit of the cemetery being down the hill from my house. I felt calm, relaxed, and ready for whatever I was about to walk into. I arrived at the cemetery, and was greeted but the funeral director. An amazing and delightful woman whom I had met very briefly just a few days before. Her calming and warm presence, with just the right amount of humor, was exactly what I needed to calm the butterflies in my stomach.
As I got in her car to drive to through the cemetery to the place of burial our conversation came to an end, and I began to pray. I could see the cremains and American flag resting on the backseat of her car. We arrived. She insisted on helping me out of the car, which I was thankful for as cassock, surplice, and tippet were a lot to manage. How embarrassing it would have been if I tripped on my vestments getting out of the car – I mean, no one wants to be that curate.
We walked up the little hill to the family plot. For the first time I was able to see the whole family gathered. His daughter and his step-children. His grandchildren. His brother. His name was already on the tombstone, shared with his wife who died five years ago. As the service men their to conduct military honors (without the guns) marched into place, I could feel the Spirit swirling amongst us. We were indeed standing on holy ground.
Trying not to be drowned out by the noise of the highway, or the birds singing away, I began the anthem, “Everyone the Father gives to me will come to me; I will never turn away anyone who believes in me . . .” My focus was at an all time high. I was struck by the power of those words. I mustered the pastoral strength and authority bestowed upon me in an attempt to not let my voice shake: To be calm and steady in my words.
I reach out and grabbed a handful of earth. I poured it, in the shape of a cross, on the cremains. “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother Stewart . . .” I was holding holy ground, I was pouring holy ground, my hand was covered in holy ground.
As I turned the page in my prayer book I watched as the earth fall from my hands onto the page and roll into the center of the book. It was the first time I’ve gotten my prayer book dirty.
After we finished the prayers for the committal, taps was played, the flag was presented, I spent time with the family. First the step-son, then the daughter, then the brother. People always say you remember your first. I will never forgot Stewart’s brother. He came up to me, “Thank you so much Father for being here. I am his brother,” and with tears in his eyes and a cracking voice he continued, “I am going to be okay.” Before I could say a word he walked away.
After sometime standing in the family plot, Stewart’s family made their way to the cars. The funeral director and I stayed behind.
When everything was finished my new friend, the funeral director, drove me back to the car handed me a couple of envelopes and drove away. I took off my vestments, got into the car, and noticed that there was still earth on my hands. I opened my prayer book to page 501 and took a moment to take it all in. To gaze upon the earth on my hand and in my prayer book. I began to wonder about how many more times I will get my prayer book dirty in cemeteries like this. I began to wonder about all the names I will place into the prayers. I began to wonder about all the holy ground I will stand upon.
As I drove away I was filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to be in that place with those people on this day filled with joy and sadness – as the step-son described it. Gratitude for the vocation God has laid upon me that allows me to serve the world in this particular way.
I am sure I will having plenty of opportunities to get my prayer book dirty over these next fifty year (God willing), but I will always remember – and give thanks for – this first time I got my prayer book dirty.
Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord; And let light perpetual shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Below is the sermon I preached yesterday (25 June 2017) at The Church of the Redeemer. It was a powerful day at the Redeemer as we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the laying and blessing of the corner stone, and it was also my last Sunday at the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here, we used track 2. You can listen to the recording over on the parish website, or click on the link below.
DRIVE FAST AND TAKE CHANCES
One of my favorite memories of my late Aunt Kim was the way she used to send us forth from her house after a visit. Now, some people might be inclined to say “Be safe,” “drive carefully,” or “call me when you get home,” but not Kim. As we descended the steps from their front porch, she would stand with my uncle and cousins waving goodbye. And just as we were about to enter the car she would yell, “drive fast and take chances.”
I have always found great joy an amusement in this saying. But over the last two months, I have begun to think a bit differently about it. It seems to me this is more than just a quirky dismissal from my godmother, but rather a charge for discipleship.
Drive fast is not about recklessness, it is about urgency. It is about knowing that you have to get to your destination with a sense of intense determination. It is a call to move with haste and not delay from the journey that has been set before you.
Take chances, then, is not about getting ourselves into foolish situations, it is about letting go of fear so that you can make bold proclamations in word and deed. It is about standing up for truth and justice. It is a willingness to be counter-cultural for the sake of what is meet and right.
As I look at our lessons today – at Jeremiah, Romans, and Matthew
As I think about the historic occasion we celebrate in our parish life – the 100th anniversary of the laying and blessing of the corner stone.
As I think about my final Sunday here with all of you.
I cannot help but think that at the center of it all is that phrase: Drive fast and take chances.
In the book of Jeremiah, we encounter a prophet in the midst of turmoil: a prophet who is lamenting his prophetic mission. God has placed upon Jeremiah the task of proclaiming to the people of Jerusalem that their city will be destroyed. Jeremiah expresses deep grief and anger for this call, and that is exactly what we hear this morning.
Now these words from Jeremiah are not the words of some mental breakdown, or existential crisis. These are words of his tradition. They are an expression that finds its place rooted in the psalms. Jeremiah has been influenced by the tradition, he has been immersed in it, and therefore cries out in that familiar language. So he offers his lament.
You can almost feel Jeremiah’s anguish at the beginning of today’s lesson:
O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
Lord you have lured me in, it is as if Jeremiah is saying. There is something almost seductive in the way the Lord calls Jeremiah.
And because of that call, Jeremiah has become the laughing stock of his community. Proclaiming that message, proclaiming that the great city of Jerusalem will be destroyed is certainly not winning Jeremiah any popularity contests. But Jeremiah has no choice. He does not take on the mantle of prophet because it seems like a glamorous way of life. He does it because he cannot not prophesy.
If Jeremiah refuses to speak then a burning fire is kindled inside of him – a fire so hot that he cannot hold it – a fire so hot that it will incinerate all his bones.
And because of this in the midst of his anger and grief, in the midst of his pain and anguish, he cannot help but trust in God. Jeremiah trusts that God will indeed protect him, protect him like a dread warrior, and therefore has no choice but to worship God and go on prophesying. For Jeremiah there is great urgency and intensity in his prophetic witness.
What if we allowed ourselves to channel that same prophetic intensity?
What if we allowed ourselves to be so overcome by the word God has placed on our hearts, by the vocations that God has laid before us that if we did not act upon them, if we do not proclaim them, then an intense fire would be kindled in each of us – a fire so intense that we could not bear to keep it in?
What would Hope Street look like if we lived with that same prophetic intensity as Jeremiah?
If despite any anger or grief, any pain or anguish we went on glorifying God?
Singing to the Lord
Praising the Lord
Proclaiming the words that have been revealed to us.
Living fully into our identity.
But what is this word . . . what is this identity that God has laid upon us.
The Word is Jesus.
The identity is:
Paul in his letter to the Romans is unequivocal about what that identity means:
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Being the Baptized means living in a completely new way. Baptism is not just some rite of passage, or familial obligation. When we are baptized our very being changes – we are united with Christ in a particular and intimate way. When we are lifted out of the waters of baptism we share in the death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are empowered with a new identity and if we fully embrace that identity it will have implications for every aspect of our lives.
As baptized people we are called to share in the life and ministry of Jesus. That means it is our responsibility to teach, to preach, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked. It is our responsibility to build relationships in our community through such ventures as the East Side Community Alliance. It is our responsibility to support the work of Camp Street Ministry. It is our responsibility to continue working to break down the systematic oppression of racism that plagues our neighborhood.
Being the baptized is a great responsibility. But through the gift of the Holy Spirit we have been empowered to take risks: to make bold proclamations in word and deed. For Jesus is clear, that we will do greater things if we truly believe.
Baptism places before us a road of discipleship that ultimately leads to the cross. But through the grace, mercy, and loving-kindness of God we can trust that God will protect and care for us. We can trust that this life is not a burden, but a journey to the most glorious way of living imaginable.
So be not afraid.
Let go of the anger and grief, the pain and anguish for we are alive in Christ.
But let’s be real. There is plenty to fear on the Christian journey.
Once again this week we hear some pretty startling words from Jesus:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . . and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Despite what we might think at first glance, Jesus is not against family. But Jesus is making a profoundly clear statement as to where our loyalty should lie.
We are to love God above all else. We are to serve God about all else.
We are to follow God above all else.
And sometimes that is going to lead to conflict. Sometimes that is going to mean we will have to reject expectations from our families and friends. It is not an uncommon story to hear family ties and ties of friendship being strained and broken because one person answered the call to follow Jesus.
In the midst of this warning, Jesus also offers words of comfort. Jesus knows exactly what he is asking us to do. Those who sacrifice for the sake of Christ will ultimately be rewarded – those who lose their life will find it. Those who give everything up to answer the call of Jesus will find the path to glorious and abundant life.
By virtue of our relationship with God we are the beloved of God and thus will be cared for by God: So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Knowing the risks. Knowing the cost. Jesus still asks us to follow. Jesus still invites us to claim our identity as disciples, as Christians, as the Baptized.
It is that invitation that allows us to proclaim with boldness, to shout from the housetops that which was whispered to us, to declare in the light that which was spoken in the dark.
It is that invitation that allows us to drive fast and take chances.
And that my friends, is exactly what the Church of the Redeemer has been doing for the last 100 years.
100 years ago, the people of the Redeemer understood the urgency of the being followers of Jesus. They listened to the call from their Bishop. They prayed together. And they decided to get up and go. To leave the place they had known and come to a new neighborhood. 100 years ago the people of the Redeemer proclaimed with boldness that they were not afraid to take risks for the sake of spreading the Gospel. And ever sense then, this community has been striving to fulfill that call – to live fully into the identity as disciples of Jesus.
It was with a sense of determination that this place – was set apart to be a temple of the Most High God. To be a place that would continually offer prayers and praise to the Most Holy Name of God. From the very beginning of the Church of the Redeemer at 655 Hope Street that life of prayer has been carried out with integrity and dedication to our Anglican tradition and heritage.
This is a place that has been profoundly blessed by the grace of God. This place has been filled with the Holy Spirit in ways that surpass almost every other that I have experienced. But most importantly this is a place – this is a community – that is unabashed in sharing that grace with those whom we have been called to serve.
This place has been a refuge for the broken and hurting. This place has been a haven for those society places at the margins. In this place there is truly a place at the table for each and every person who dares to enter the doors. That is the legacy that was built upon the cornerstone 100 years ago.
Today as we mark this important anniversary we have the responsibility to continue to build upon the foundation, which previous generations have laid. We must continue this legacy for the next 100 years, and we do that by laying new foundations. Foundations that further embed this community within the fabric of our wider neighborhood.
Foundations laid at Camp Street.
Foundations laid at the East Side Community Alliance.
Foundations laid with the emerging choir program.
Foundations that will serve as a tangible witness to the reconciling love of God that has inspired this community for the last century.
As members of the Baptized gathered here on Hope Street a great trust and responsibility has been laid upon us. So act with urgency to proclaim with boldness the love of God in your words and deeds. Let go of fear so that you might be able to take risks to spread the Gospel and follow Jesus on the road of discipleship.
Dear friends of the Church of the Redeemer. It has been my joy and privilege to be among you for these last few years. You have enriched and blessed my life in ways you will never know. So today I say to you that quirky dismissal my godmother said to me: drive fast and take chance.
Below is my sermon from Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday), preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here. The recording can be listened to below. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Below is my sermon from Spy Wednesday (Wednesday in Holy Week), preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here. The recording can be listed to below. For this sermon, unlike most of the sermons I’ve preached lately, I went back to my practice of no manuscript and no notes. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
Below is my sermon from the First Sunday in Lent, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here. The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website. For this sermon, unlike most of the sermons I’ve preached lately, I went back to my practice of no manuscript and no notes. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
Below is my sermon from the First Sunday in Lent, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here. The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website. The manuscript is also included below. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
This being the First Sunday in Lent, it seems a fitting time to make my confession to all of you. I love binge-watching TV: sitting for hours, zoning out the rest of the world, getting immersed in a show, and savoring those moments of escape from reality.
At the moment one of my favorite shows to binge-watch is the Fox comedy series Lucifer.
In the show, Lucifer, the original fallen angel, has become dissatisfied with life in Hell so he retires to Los Angeles where he becomes a famous nightclub owner. Eventually Lucifer teams up with a female detective and becomes a consultant for the LA Police Department. Throughout the show, Lucifer has this mysterious way of finding out peoples deepest, darkest secrets.
He leans in closely.
Stares them directly in the eyes, and in his smoothest voice he asks;
“What do you desire?”
While this motif is frequently used in the show to get criminals to confess their crimes, or informants to give up information, I find it to be a deeply theological question. In fact, the question, “What do you desire?” is the primary question we wrestle with in our lessons today.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” This opening verse to the third chapter of Genesis introduces us to a new character – the serpent. The serpent is a wild animal, not a demon or the devil, who can speak to humans, and has understanding of divine things. The serpent bridges the boundaries between animals, humans, and God and effectively elicits the desire to break the boundary between human and God. In the exchange between the serpent and Eve we witness the unfolding of the human desire to be like God. The serpent, through this conversation, intentionally manipulates this desire and offers humanity an invitation to question the commands of God.
The serpent encourages Eve, “no you will not die if you eat this fruit, you will see.”
You will be able to stand in God’s place and determine what is good and evil.
You will be able to make decisions that, until this point, have been left for God alone to make.
You will be able to make decisions based on your desires.
When Adam and Eve give in to their desires to have their eyes opened, to gain more knowledge, to have power like that of God’s, there is a break in the relationship with God and humanity. The innate desire of humanity to desire God above all else becomes obscured by temptation. In this way, both the serpent and God are right in their declarations of consequences from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Indeed the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, but that new vision leads to sin, their expulsion from paradise, and ultimately it leads to death. From the very beginning of creation we see the human capacity to give way to temptation and choose something other than God.
This struggle is one for all of humanity: from that moment in the garden until this very day. No one escapes the dangers of wrestling with temptation. Not even Jesus.
This morning’s Gospel passage focuses on Jesus facing the very same temptations that all of humanity struggles with. It focuses on Jesus encountering Satan in the wilderness. But who exactly is this Satan character Jesus encounters?
Commentators have noted that Satan in this passage, is the same as the Hebrew Satan found in other parts of scripture particularly in the opening chapters of Job. This is actually a very important distinction. The Satan we encounter in Job, the Satan we encounter here in Matthew, is not the same Satan that has captured our contemporary culture’s imagination. It is not the character with horns, a pointed tail, and a pitchfork. It is not the mythical beast associated with the Book of Revelation that torments and tortures sinner for all eternity.
It is Haśśatan.
Haśśatan, translated the Satan, is an agent of God. In the Book of Job we learn that the job of Haśśatan is to test humanity on God’s behalf – to see who will stay faithful to God and who will fall to temptation. If the Satan that Jesus encounters in the wilderness is in fact this same Satan we encounter in Job that means Jesus is being tested to see if he will truly stay faithful to God or become trapped by the weight of temptation. This testing is an important aspect of where this story falls in Matthew’s narrative.
This morning’s passage is the final part of a section in Matthew sometimes referred to as The Commissioning of the Messiah:
First, the coming of the Messiah has ben heralded by John the Baptist.
Second, Jesus has been Baptized and proclaimed the Beloved of God.
Now, before Jesus begins his public ministry he must be tested.
Can Jesus stay faithful to his call – to his identity – as the Divine Son of God?
Can Jesus be tempted in every way as we are – sharing fully in what it means to be human – and not sin?
Prior to the completion of his commissioning, Jesus shows us exactly how we are to respond to temptation. Jesus shows us that as children of God – as beloved of God – as baptized persons it is our job to stay faithful to the call God has given each and everyone of us.
In the first temptation, after Jesus has fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, Satan tempts Jesus with food, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to becomes loaves of bread.”
In this response Jesus faithfully remembers that he is totally dependent upon God.
In the second temptation, Jesus is transported to the top of the mountain where Satan tempts him to test God – to see if God will really protect him. Satan even quotes scripture to try to trap Jesus.
Again Jesus refuses.
Jesus’ answer points to the reality that honoring God excludes every kind of manipulation, including putting God to the test.
In the final temptation, Jesus is yet again taken to the top of a very high mountain and is offered the power to rule over the entire world in exchange for worshiping Satan.
One final time, Jesus refuses.
In this Jesus’ commissioning is complete. Jesus has proven his undivided loyalty to God.
The very same things that Jesus is tempted by tempt us as well: food, protection, power. But beyond each of these individual categories the underlying temptation is to treat God as less than God. To take on power that belongs to God alone. To make ourselves like God. To have our eyes opened that we might decide what is good and evil based on our own personal desires.
Jesus’ witness through these temptations offers us the perfect image of our humanity. Jesus shows us what is possible if we only trust in God with the fullness and entirety of our beings.
This is the struggle we are forced to wrestle with in this Lenten season. Our Lenten penitence engages the dark places in our lives – the places where we choose to see through the lens of our desires instead of choosing to see through the eyes of God – that we might come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. It is not about guilt. It is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us all. Lent is the most brutally realistic liturgical season of the year – it is a time when we tell truth about ourselves, our brokenness, our mortality, and nevertheless trust in God’s redemptive love. This is exactly what Paul is trying to draw our attention to.
In this section of Romans, Paul gives a powerful reflection of the magnitude of sin and death, and on the even greater abundance of God’s grace in Christ. Paul writes, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” It does not matter how many times we choose to be like Adam, God’s saving grace through Jesus redeems us all. Through the saving act of love on the cross, God takes all of our sinfulness, all of our brokenness, even our morality and transforms them into righteous and everlasting life with God. Paul is reminding us that through the abundance of God’s grace we have the ability to no longer choose ourselves but to live as servants of God and inheritors of eternal life.
This is the completion of the journey that began with Adam and Eve eating a piece of fruit. From the moment of that initial division between God and humanity, God has desired for us to return to our full and right relationship with God. It is a return that is made possible in the person of Jesus, but will not be completed until the Kingdom of God has been fully realized, until we enter the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem; until we return to the garden.
As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage again, we ask God to strength us that we might not fall into sin nor be overcome by adversity. We ask God to transform our desires so that they might be God’s desires. We ask God to be with us in our prayers and in our fasts that we might experience once again the grace and joy of seeing the face of God. May our journey never end, may our hearts never be satisfied, until we are fully restored in God’s image.
Below is my sermon from the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here. The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website. The manuscript is also included below. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
Nearly three years ago, I found myself sitting in the common room at Yale Divinity School for Admitted Students Day. The day’s formal activities began with remarks from the YDS Dean and President. I have, I’ll admit, forgotten most of what Dean Sterling had to say on that April morning, but there is one thing that has stayed with me. I remember hearing about the school motto: Faith and Intellect
At our very best we live each day in the balance of Faith and Intellect. We study with world-renowned scholars. We take seriously our call to common worship. Even our architecture is governed by Faith and Intellect. As you stand at the foot of our quad and look out on that lovey Jeffersonian architecture your eye is drawn to a grand marble staircase that leads to the doors of Marquand Chapel. And lest we loose sight of the balance of Faith and Intellect, directly below those large white doors of the chapel is the main entrance to the library. In our schedule, in our community life, in our architecture we are Faith and Intellect.
This is YDS at its very best.
Now if you’ve spent any time in any institution – school, church, or otherwise – you’ll understand what I mean when I say: very best is often very far from reality.
There is tension in faith and intellect. There is a struggle for priority. Chapel gets skipped for a little extra study time. Parish internships take priority over paper writing. There is an instinct to use the power of the mind to rationalize, justify, even minimize any question of faith. I don’t understand, I don’t agree with, I don’t like what the Church has believed for centuries; what Jesus teaches in the Gospels so let me problematize it, let me ignore it, let me explain it away. Let me use human knowledge to make sense of God.
So when I read today’s epistle, having lived in this tension for nearly three years, I can’t help but get a knot in my stomach.
Paul writes: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I love being at YDS. The formation in Faith and Intellect I have received there has been instrumental in forming me into the person of faith I am today, and God willing, the priest I will be in the future. But I cannot help but wonder, what if Faith and Intellect misses the point.
In writing to the community in Corinth, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to think more clearly about what it means to be the Church. He is writing to a community that is struggling, and focused on internal fighting. They are weighed down by misdirected priorities, and cannot agree on whom the head of the Church is. The Church in Corinth lacks unity.
Just as Paul reminds the Corinthians, we too are reminded that the foundations of our lives are not to be determined by our preferred political or religious leaders – the foundation of our life is Jesus Christ. No matter where we fall in the debates that preoccupy our lives we are to be unified because we all share one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. We are all built upon that foundation which is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul is urging the Corinthians to live with a particular sense of intentionality that stems from their foundation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul is urging them to be mindful of their unity and the importance of living as a community of faith. When a community lives into this foundation, the wisdom of God – that which is seen as foolishness to the world – can be found. This is where Faith and Intellect come into tension for Paul and the Corinthians.
The Corinthians lived in a time and place where eloquence stood in a place of great honor. The eloquent were deemed the wise of society, and their rhetoric was their gift. Corinthian wisdom was grounded in human intellect, while Paul’s wisdom was grounded in the Cross. This human intellect and this faith in the cross of Christ cannot be balanced together. How can we make sense of God who honors the death of a condemned criminal of the Roman State by using it as a means to bestow redemption and eternal life on humanity? Instead of balance there is tension.
If we can, even if only for a little while, put our human inclination towards intellect aside, we might be able to glimpse the wisdom of God. We might be able to see more fully the reality of the Cross. For in God’s wisdom – in the Cross – God’s love is found.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not the only place where human intellect and reason must take a back seat to God’s wisdom. Both our lesson from Leviticus and our Gospel reading from Matthew draw our attention to God’s wisdom as opposed to our natural human instincts.
Leviticus is one of those Biblical Books we do not read from very often on Sundays. In fact, Leviticus only appears twice in the lectionary cycle and on both occasions we read the same passage. The words we heard today are the only words we hear from this book, which leads me to think that there must be something important for us to hear in this passage.
This passage is part of what is known as the Holiness Code – a list of laws that tell the Israelites how they are to live and act in the world – a way of being that honors their relationship with God. What we hear today is in many ways the summation and culmination of the entirety of Israelite theology.
In everything they do, Israelites are reminded of their relationship with God. More importantly they are reminded that as a result of that relationship, how they behave is an indictor of how they understand God to act in the world:
When you reap the harvest of your land . . . I am the Lord.
You shall not steal . . . I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin . . . I am the Lord.
In all that they do, they are to remember that they are to be in the world the way God is in the world. For “you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” This declaration of their holiness – by virtue of their willingness to live as God’s people in the world – distinguishes them from the rest of the world. In their likeness to God they are set apart as otherness to humanity. In being faithful witnesses to God they defy what human intellect begs them to do.
As Moses speaks to all the congregations of the people of Israel, Moses also speaks to us, and it is not just Moses who calls us to model our lives on God. For Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Here is Matthew Jesus sets up parameters that turn societal norms upside down.
“Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you.” Jesus takes a system that is set up to make sure retribution is equitable and tells the people of God to give up their right to retaliation.
I can imagine these words causing significant anger in those who heard them. They are living in a world of political unrest; a world where they are being oppressed by the Roman authorities. Instead of fighting back, Jesus calls on them to leave vengeance to God. Jesus was not calling them; Jesus is not calling us, to give into evil. By resisting the urge for retaliation, by keeping away from ourselves that self-destructive bitterness, we join Jesus is breaking down the very system that allows oppression to exist. These words are meant to shock the imagination and instill a more profound insight into God’s intention for the world.
Jesus’ commands do not stop there – Jesus calls us to go further. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Just as was true with the first set of commands, this command is not aimed at the goal of self-protection. This is not to be a plea to God to change the enemy’s mind; it is an invocation for God to transform our own lives. That the scales might fall from our eyes so that we can see everyone – even those we despise the most, even those who persecute and oppress us – the way God sees them: As beloved children.
We are called to risk everything for the opportunity to love our neighbors – those we like, those we cannot stand, those who wish us harm. We are called to risk everything for the opportunity to love our neighbors so that we might understand love more profoundly than human intellect can even imagine. This is what it means to be perfect. It is not some call to live by contemporary standards of perfection; it is a call to see the world as God sees it. To believe all people, no matter how evil the acts they commit are, are beloved children of God. It is to see the world from the foot of the Cross.
The parallels we see in Leviticus and Matthew today point to the reality that all people who choose to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – are called to live by a standard deemed foolish to the wisdom of the world.
There is nothing wrong with striving for faith and intellect – as long as we do not use our intellect to create a faith suitable for our desires instead of Gods. In those moments where we find ourselves experiencing the tension between our faith and our intellect – between what our human nature compels us to do and what God begs us to do – we must take the bold, counter-cultural, abnormal stance of faith. From that place we can use our gifts and intellects to build with care upon the foundation of Jesus. We do all this, not with the hopes of explaining away all the difficult things Jesus calls us to do, but with the hope that we might reach the foot of the Cross and finally know what true love is.