Saturday, February 9, 2008

Temptation and Sin

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The readings remind us of the fall of humanity and the temptation of Christ. We have all heard the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. We have all heard of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. And most of us know that we are supposed to do something for Lent. Either give something up, or take on some kind of spiritual practice for 40 days as we try to clean up our acts. And this is all noteworthy and wise. But after preaching the same thing on the First Sunday of Lent for 25 years, I am wondering if there is something more I need to be saying.

I wrote a good sermon on Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, but it seems to be the “same old-same old”. There is something else I would like to challenge you to. You can ignore this sermon and just say, “That’s just the Episcopalian talking!” But I would like to challenge you to step outside of being a Lutheran, or Methodist or Episcopalian or Roman Catholic or whatever for just a few moments this morning.

I told those who attended the Ash Wednesday service that I had taken on a discipline for Lent of reading James Carroll’s book Constantine’s Sword, a hard look of a Roman Catholic at his Church’s theological stand on Jews which led to the Holocaust. It is a difficult book to read because it takes Christian theology to task for the antipathy toward the Jews that culminated in an outrage against all humanity. And because most denominations trace their theologies back through Western Christianity, it is a legacy that mainline American Protestantism must share. It makes me squirm and at times feel embarrassed for the ways that my theology—my way of expressing faith, has been used by others to debase other human beings simply because they do not express their faith the way I do.

Because we are faced with the themes of sin and temptation on this first Sunday of Lent, I think that it is appropriate to look at the ways we declare our faith in Christ which diminish the faith of others. It is a sin that many of us unwittingly fall into. I do it all the time when I make comparisons between Lutherans and Episcopalians and so do you. Most of the time we do it in good humor and that is fine—but there is often a sense of superiority underlying it all. It isn’t worthy of the God that Jesus taught us to love and if left unchecked, left without some personal critique it can lead to the same kind of hatred that ended in holocaust.

Now I am treading close to the bone here. And I want to say that I do not have all the answers. I am just saying that it is time in our Christian faith to look hard at past ways of declaring our faith and own up to areas where the Church, and those in the church have obscured temptation and sin with theological jargon. It went on in the First Century; it may have gone on in what has come down to us in various translations of scripture, or the interpretation of that scripture. It certainly got imbedded in the way that we have expressed our faith. We have excluded others as a way to control our society. We have used faith as a reason to murder and if we pay attention to the growing rhetoric of the extreme religious right, they are demonizing Muslims with the same effect that demonizing those of Eastern Orthodoxy in the 11th century which allowed for the sack of Constantinople. We are beginning to hear calls for extermination of all of Islam because of the terrorist actions of some.

Any religion can be manipulated by the unscrupulous. Christianity at times has been misused and abused by those with other motives than the mission of Christ. But in each instance, there have been those who have been willing to remind us who remain in relationship with the God who loves us more than life, that there are certain principles that we must adhere to if we are going to be true to our Creator.

That is the meaning of the scene of the temptation that we have in Matthew’s gospel today. Jesus is not tempted by Satan just to fall down and worship evil. He is tempted to do GOOD—“make these stones into bread”, Satan commands. Just think, if Jesus could feed 5,000 with 5 loaves, what he could have done with the bread made from the stones of the wilderness! We are often tempted with doing good for our own sakes rather good for the sake of others. If Jesus had fed all the hungry in Palestine, would that have helped the people understand God’s love for them? The reason that Jesus came was to teach us of the Father not just provide food.

All too often I hear critique of the Church because we don’t do enough for the poor from both sides of the aisle. And I am often one who is making that critique. But at the same time, what is the purpose of the Church? Is it to be a social agency? To a certain extent, yes. We are called to serve others in the name of God.

The second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is to security. “Throw yourself down and you will be saved” Satan commands.

Salvation is what it is all about, isn’t it? And yet I daresay that none of us feel too secure. It is why we are here week after week. It is why I call on the sick and the infirm, to remind them that they are safe in God’s care. It is what I tell you each week—you are saved by a loving God. And yet… and yet…. We still need to hear that we are saved. Why? Is it because we have too little faith to believe that God really wants us? Is our own self-image so poor that we cannot believe the promises of God? No, it is because we are being tempted by those who would have us put our security in the cars we buy, the insurance we get, the stocks or bonds we invest in, or the real estate we pay for. They are tangible. We can touch those things.

We have a hard time trusting in a God we cannot see or touch to be there when we need. Jesus was not willing to trust in what he could see. He could only trust in the God he knew in his soul and called “Daddy”—Abba. And we have only that God to trust in too. We cannot depend even in all the pronouncements of Church, or preachers, or pundits. We have only the relationship we have in God that can tell us what is right and what is of God. And if Jim Carroll’s book is right, we cannot even believe in the Church to guarantee our salvation. And that’s what makes the Christian journey so terrifying.
Ultimately we have to answer for ourselves before God. We have to be willing to step out in faith—we have to be willing to try to understand the difficult issues of Christianity ourselves, not just be content with what others tell us. We must be willing to enter into that personal relationship with God ourselves through prayer, reading of scripture and make up our own minds.

The specter of holocaust hangs about us all. It was not just a Nazi thing. The pogroms of Middle Europe and Russia, the Inquisition in Italy and Spain, the execution of Jews in medieval England taints all of our histories. And it is not just against Jews. It is anyone who is different. Today we would exclude gay folk. In recent history it was African-American folk. And in some places in upstate NY it is “downstate folk.” It is because we cannot feel secure if there are those who aren’t like us. And Jesus tells us our security is in God alone.

The third temptation of Jesus is to power. “I will give you power over all these nations,” Satan chides Jesus. And Jesus tells him to leave. It is the temptation to have power that is so hideous. To be able to be above, to be superior to—that is the greatest of sins. Jesus sweeps that temptation. He sees it for what it is. How few of us can see this temptation for what it is—the invitation to power is always to be at the mercy of the powerless.

Whenever the Church chooses to side with power, we have to be wary of this sin. Every time in the history of Western Christianity when the church and state have merged it has been to the detriment of the Christian message. Whether it has been forced conversions or the co-opting of the message of a poor itinerant rabbi to serve the wealthy, or the bending of Christian theology to serve the state, Christianity has failed to save. It is no wonder that people are fleeing the Church today. Politics and religion are too much alike. They no longer hold each other in tension to maintain balance.

On this first Sunday of Lent, I would challenge you to take your relationship with God seriously. I would challenge you to look hard at the faith you hold and see if there are things in it that keep you from knowing God better. I would challenge you to ask the God you love how we can better express what it means to be Christian without the need to exclude or feel superior too. And over the next 4 weeks of Coffee Hour Adult Education may we discuss this Church we love—not just our parish, or our denomination—but Christianity as a whole. It is time to embrace our faith and tell Satan to flee. AMEN


Sally said...

Powerful stuff- thank for posting!
I love that picture.

imngrace said...

Thanks for this wisdom. I just had another difficult phone call with my mom who continues to condemn those who don't believe like she does--including me and my son. Your words helped to put some things in perspective for me. Peace+

Muthah+ said...

imng, if you are so inclined, you can reach me at revlagough at aol dot com

marissa said...

I just wanted to shoot you a "Hello". Im not sure how well you remember me but you made a huge inpact on my life. I heard you were back in the area. I was talking to a woman at work yesterday morning who was telling me that she went to the Lutheran church in Sidney and it clicked in my head that that was where my mother had told me you were at. I had thought about dropping in some Sunday morning but I usually work Sundays. I do miss your sermons!- never thought you would hear someone say that did you. I wanted to send you a hello. My email address is if you ever. Much love!
Marissa "Missy" Cuthbertson