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More or Less Church

Joanna Depue "DJ/Deacon J" writes original songs and liturgies, does daily Farm office work and records Barbara's eMos on The Geranium Farm. A singer and dog trainer she utilizes healing touch in her private massage practice. PLEASE share YOUR original ideas for worship, special liturgies, prayers, songs, sermons and noteworthy blogs right here.
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Saturday, February 16, 2013

From Sermons That Work: Sin, Like Ashes In Our Eyes

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
The ashes are gone – washed off our foreheads – but their darkness still stains our thoughts and spirits as we begin Lent once again. Tiny grains of ash, like the darkness of sin, may have fallen in our eyes or down our faces. Annoyed, we may have rubbed our eyes or brushed our cheeks. Maybe the ash was wet – a big stain on our heads, right between our eyes. How can we get it off, without looking insincere, before we get in our cars and go to work out in the real world where most people don’t even know it’s Ash Wednesday, where most people no longer remember the word “Lent” or what it means?

Sin is like that most days, a bit of an annoyance, a speck in our eyes that must be rubbed away. For heaven’s sake, we don’t want to talk about it – it’s annoying – oh my, that word again. Being reminded that sin still exists in each one of us can be just plain annoying, not earth-shattering, nothing really to worry about, it’s just there hovering around the edges, picking at us, especially during Lent.

We have 40 long days to think about it, though. Forty long days when we’re reminded to repent and be saved. Our hymns are melancholy. In many churches, they hide a banner with the word “Alleluia” on it until Easter Day.

Is that what Lent is all about? A surface look at it, a few memories from Sunday school in our youth, a desire to get it over with and get back to the real world, might make it so. But look at our readings today. If we really pay attention to what we’re hearing, there is a whole lot more light than darkness – a whole lot more graciousness poured on us by our God, than punishment. Yes, we’re reminded about the temptations of sin, but we’re offered the unstopping gift of forgiveness and a chance to model Jesus. Lent can help us go deep into ourselves.

Moses’ story today is full of light. God has given the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. All they have to do is show gratitude through their offerings. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is an image of peace and beauty. The people acknowledged their rescue from the Egyptians by the God who heard their cries of affliction.

Today’s psalm says, “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.” This is another image that should remind us that God continues to hear our cries, even when they’re moaned from the depths of our sinfulness. At the beginning of Lent, we’re reminded that we are not alone. God not only has not abandoned us, God is “so bound to us in love” the psalm says, that even when we are focused only on ourselves to the point of sin, God is with us, ready to bring us back to the light. God is ready to brush the ash from our faces.
Paul says the same thing to the Romans. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” That is not only the word of faith, but the capital W “Word” of God. “You will be saved,” he says, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Is there any better news than that?
Paul does put in front of us, however, one type of sin we may need to think about during Lent – because after all, this good news of salvation is reliant on the fact that we actually want to repent and return to the Lord. Paul drops in a very salient fact: There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. This speaks to us of God’s inclusion of all people – no exceptions. We might need to examine ourselves to determine how much we really want to include all others.

Is that part of the ash that has fallen in our eyes? We might need help getting that out. We might need to read over and over again Jesus’ words all through the gospels that call us to love even our enemies. “Our enemies?” we might want to ask. It’s hard enough to love our own families sometimes.
But if that ash is left in our eye, it could fester and make us blind – blind to our responsibility to share God’s love with everyone. This is a good time to remember that for the Jews, “love” doesn’t mean the Valentine’s-Day-card emotional kind of love. Love, when Jesus talks about it, also means “loyalty.” We don’t have to agree with everyone to love them. We don’t have to have emotional love for the person or group doing evil. “Loyalty” means we acknowledge that these too are children of God and need our prayers. They need us to want them to see the light, not for us to judge them as worthy only for hell.

Even Jesus didn’t send his tempter immediately to hell in our gospel story. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus only responds to the temptations by reminding his tempter that God alone is worthy of our worship and service? There was no argument, no discussion: God alone is our refuge and our stronghold in times of trial.

The three temptations are interesting in themselves. Would it have been so wrong if Jesus just turned a few stones to bread? Certainly, there’s no sin in that. What is Luke really telling us? Perhaps, that we might be tempted to want to manipulate the world to our liking. That can grow into the serious sin, for example, of not caring where our food comes from, or the environment from which it grew. Do we care enough about those who grow the food we eventually buy in our stores to make deliberate choices about where we shop?

Jesus’ second temptation might make us think about what we feel we must own. What in our lifestyles comes before our consideration of God? If we’re honest, many things can draw our eyes away from God – things that, in and of themselves, are not bad, but things, such as that annoying speck of ash that fell in our eyes, that might fester in us until we can see nothing else.

The gospel reminds us that Jesus, too, was faced with temptations. He was, after all, fully human as well as fully divine. He knows what we face. He knows the power that tries to turn our hearts from God. Our ashes remind us of the same thing, but today we hear about God’s great love for us. We’re reminded even more about the fact that we abide under the shadow of the Almighty. We, too, have been promised a land flowing with milk and honey.

There is a lot to be joyful about in Lent. After all, Paul tells us, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Focus: Deliver Us From Evil

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.Knowing the divine nature of Jesus, I’ve always felt that Christ was just toying with Satan before he told him to get lost. Up against Jesus, Satan never had a chance. He gave it his best shot… bribery, flattery, trickery … and he came up empty. In reading this week’s gospel, we may be tempted to see Satan as a pushover. And that would suit him just fine.  Luke 4: 1-13

In our gospel Jesus is just beginning his public life. He is still more or less an unknown quantity. But Satan knows Jesus well enough to send in the first team and try to take him on head to head. He’s got very different plans for us. Rather than direct confrontation, Satan lays a life-long siege to souls … undermining, eroding, chipping away. His plan is to make evil merely banal, commonplace, the norm. He is the master of the slippery slope; turning petty prejudices into hatred and hatred into holocaust.

His favorite ploy is as old as Adam and Eve. Pride is the undoing of countless souls. Once we believe we are the arbiter of good and evil, the game is lost. What feeds our appetites becomes good; what denies them becomes evil. Lately this convolution of values has been accompanied by a fig leaf of self-justification. How many times have you heard people say: “I am a spiritual person, but I just can’t buy into religion?” Like a sheep who strays from the protection of the shepherd, that soul has been marked for destruction. The first frisky steps of what is disguised as freedom leads right to the jaws of the predator.

Once pride takes over, all the rest is easy. Truth gets to be what you want it to be. Moving a decimal point on a tax return is no big deal. A little office flirtation never hurt anybody. Everybody does it. You’d be dumb not to. There’s no harm if you don’t get caught. Pretty soon Satan doesn’t even have to bother with temptation. We’re out looking for it and finding it everywhere.

So what do we learn from this gospel? First, take Satan seriously. Whether you call him the Devil, Beelzebub or just evil; whether you envision some cartoon character with horns and a tail or simply some corrupting, ethereal force; Satan lives and you are in his sights. Know, too, that while we strive to be like Jesus, we are not Jesus. We are not equipped to debate with the Devil. He is smarter than we are and has been at this a very long time. C.S. Lewis warns us: “Like a good chess player, he is always trying to maneuver you into position where you can only save your castle by losing your bishop.”

So what to do? Like Jesus, fill your life with goodness. Leave no room for evil. Give the earliest sign of temptation to God. He knows how to handle it. He will bless you for it. Like Jesus, be humble but resolute in the face of evil. Run and hide in the Lord. Make your life an active, ongoing conversation with God. Be assured that evil will come, many times in many guises. And when it does, make sure you’re not fumbling to find God’s number in some forgotten address book. Stay close to him. And he’ll be right there with you, ready to deliver us from evil.

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