Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 28, 2013: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Hosea 1:2-10  +  Psalm 85  +  Colossians 2:6-15  +  Luke 11:1-13

Preaching last week on God’s wrath, I named a couple of ways that most of us dodge the discomfort of dealing with divine anger — by defending ourselves as mostly good, or by declaring that most of us (though not all) are good.  My assertion was that both of these dodges keep us from recognizing the power of anger in the work of love.

Hosea

Icon of the Prophet Hosea

Well, I have to confess to you, my sisters and brothers, that I’ve been trying to dodge all week long as I prepared for this week’s installment of the “School for Prophets.”  All summer long we’ve been reading and studying the oft-neglected prophetic books from Hebrew scripture, the books that form the backbone of Jewish and Christian ethical reflection on the world, and in their call for personal righteousness and political reform we have heard a good word for our day. But today we move into two weeks with the prophet Hosea, and his language and imagery are so difficult to read, much less to preach on, that I really wanted to dodge the bullet and go back to preaching on the gospels.

This week the gospel of Luke presents Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer.  While the spirituality of that prayer is certainly radical in its call for simplicity, forgiveness of debts, and reliance on God; the language is so familiar that it barely registers with us anymore as anything other than a word formula to be recited from memory.

The language of Hosea, on the other hand, is shocking.  So shocking that, in the end, after looking at about five different translations, I ended up softening the language of the text we heard Bob read a few minutes ago out of fear that we’d lose half the room after the first two verses.

The actual, commonly accepted, translation of these verses begins,

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2, NRSV)

You can see why I might be tempted to just focus on the Lord’s Prayer.

This ends up being, really, the dominant motif of the prophet Hosea, that Israel has prostituted itself out to foreign nations and other gods.  That Israel has broken the covenant between itself and Yahweh by placing its trust in other powers to give and sustain life.  And as I tried to think about how to preach the prophet Hosea with integrity, the real temptation (other than to simply not preach Hosea) was to excuse the prophet’s misogyny and explain away the rhetoric of violence against women that follows the verses we read this morning.  I wanted to mount a biblical “It Gets Better” campaign by skipping ahead to the brief, rare verses in Hosea that promise reconciliation with God and a new future for the people of Israel.

But to do that, to read these verses out loud in the sanctuary and let the words “whoredom” and “prostitute” ring off the walls of the church, and then skip ahead to some other passage in order to escape the ugliness and cruelty of those words is another kind of dodge that, in the end, does not produce faith but instead sows doubt — doubt that these scriptures are actually trustworthy after all, doubt that we can read and wrestle with difficult texts and come out the other side stronger for having done so.

In her groundbreaking book, “Texts of Terror: Literary – Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives,” biblical scholar Phyllis Trible explores the problem of violence in scripture, particularly the all-too-common violence against women found in scripture.  She names the dodges we too often take in our approach to the problem of violence like this:

From the start, certain theological positions constitute pitfalls.  They center in Christian chauvinism.  First, to account for these stories as relics of a distant, primitive, and inferior past is invalid.  Resoundingly, the evidence of history refutes all claims to the superiority of a Christian era.

Trible already catches me, red-handed, in the act of trying to dodge the problem of the prophet Hosea by explaining his use of misogynistic language like “whoredom” and “prostitute” as if those words are somehow a relic of the past that I would need to explain to you in the context of biblical history; as if they aren’t thrown at women (and men) everyday as insults and forms of social control; as if prostitution isn’t a global industry that creates wealth for men at deep and devastating cost to women.  No, we can’t escape the problem of the prophet Hosea by pretending as if his rhetorical violence is a relic of a biblical past, when we know that it is an all-too-common fact of the present as well.

prostitution11

Trible continues,

Second, to contrast an Old Testament God of wrath with a New Testament God of love is fallacious.  The God of Israel is the God of Jesus, and in both testaments resides tension between divine wrath and divine love.

This is also a move we Christians too often make, to the detriment of our own faith and at the expense of our Jewish sisters and brothers as well.  There is a subtle anti-Judaism that creeps into Christian language when we contrast what we call the Old Testament, which is Hebrew scripture, with the New Testament, as if Christians really only need the later, not the former.  As if the Jesus we meet in the second testament, and the authors who are presenting him, are not quoting frequently and directly from the first testament.

We must learn to say plainly that it simply is not true that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.  God acts again and again in Hebrew scripture, moved by love, to create, save and restore God’s people and God’s creation.  Likewise, the New Testament is filled with language — in the gospels, in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere — that affirms the power of anger in the work of love.  So, no, we cannot dismiss Hosea’s angry, violent language toward his wife and children as “typical” of Hebrew scripture.  If it is typical, it is of something far more universal and encompassing than any one religious tradition.

If we cannot pretend that the issue of violence against women is limited to the ancient past, and we cannot dismiss these verses as diminished Old Testament precursors to a new-and-improved Christian Testament, then how are we to read these passages?  How are we to read the bible as a whole?

Phyllis Trible makes this suggestion:

Offsetting these pitfalls are guides for telling and hearing the tales.  To perceive the Bible as a mirror is one such sign.  If art imitates life, scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror.  Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings.

Honesty and integrity demand that we not gloss over the violence of Hosea’s rhetoric.  We can neither read his message to the nation of Israel, “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord,” as a relic of the past, nor can we gloss over it and pretend it is not a feature of our own present-day society.

Instead, let’s do this.  Let’s affirm that the women and children, both female and male, used in prostitution are entirely human, equally created in the image of God, deserving of love and compassion,  and worthy of respect.  Let’s not pretend that prostitution is something that only happens to people we don’t know, or is engaged in by people we don’t know.  Given how prevalent it is in our own city, that is simply too unlikely to be true.

What that means in very practical terms is this: in this house, in this church, you are always welcome.  This does not stop being true if you have been prostituted.  This does not stop being true if you are currently engaged in prostitution.  Those are facts that cannot define a person.  Our deepest reality is that we are, each of us, created in the image of a loving God who unrelentingly searches us out so that we can be healed and restored to right relationship with God and with one another.

So I think one of the gifts that can be wrangled out of these explosive verses from Hosea is this: they force us to say words we’ve been taught not to say in polite company.  They hold a mirror up to our society, and they demand that we be clear that the good news of God’s justice-making love is intended for everyone, and by putting us on the record they also insist that we act in ways that make this affirmation true.  I know that, this past Christmas, our social justice committee hosted a holiday shopping party at which all the items being sold supported the work of a Christian ministry advocating for an end to human sex-trafficking.  I’ve been encouraged to see that the Evangelical church in particular has been active in working to shed light on this problem, and to support women and children who are able to leave prostitution and build new futures for themselves and their families.

There is another fact, however, that faces us in the mirror that scripture holds up to us in the words of the prophet Hosea.  I’ve struggled with how to say this, and I’m not entirely sure I’m going to get it right, so I just want to ask for your patience with me as I try to say something I see in these scriptures in the best way I know how, entirely aware that I likely won’t get this right.

As horribly intimate as Hosea is with his imagery — a wife used in prostitution, three children who he names “Jezreel” as a sign of punishment, “Lo-ruhamah” meaning “No Pity,” and “Lo-Ammi” meaning “Not My People” — he is trying to communicate something to the entire nation about their conduct as a people.  He uses his own marriage to a wife who has been prostituted to describe the state of affairs in the relationship between God and Israel, and to his way of thinking God is like a faithful spouse who endures humiliation after humiliation at the hands of a faithless partner.  I’m stripping the genders away from the metaphor, which I understand is a problem since the symbol is so rooted in patriarchy and power, but I’m trying, very imperfectly, to get at what I think Hosea was trying to get at, very imperfectly; and that is that when we talk about politics in church, we’re not talking about some impersonal set of ideas or laws or trade practices — we’re talking about ways of structuring our life together as a community that have deep and profound impact on all of us, as individuals and families, as neighborhoods and nations.

As you read through the entire fourteen chapters of Hosea you discover that what he’s really angry about is the way that Israel has misplaced their trust in the very powers that have previously enslaved them.  He writes, “they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria,” (Hos. 7:11b) and goes on to say,

You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.  Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed. (Hos. 10:13-14)

Hosea accuses Israel of being faithless, of abandoning their covenant with God, of seeking power and pleasure from the hands of the very people and places that have always been the source of their oppression.  He indicts them of placing their trust in their military, of using war as a method for getting what they want at the expense of others.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit too familiar?  Don’t we sense that sometimes our own culture, our own society, keeps turning again and again to powers that we know are broken, systems that we know are hurting us, but which we have decided are “too big to fail.”  Can we imagine that as these systems rob us of our homes and our jobs, as these forces commit us to war after war so that we can maintain control over resources that rightly belong to all God’s people, that God’s wrath — which is God’s anger directed toward the work of love — might be kindled?

The image that Hosea reaches for, the symbol he uses to try and help Israel understand that talking about politics in church is actually talking about the very things that affect us in our homes on a day to day basis, is a symbol of domestic violence.  He uses language that demeans and denigrates his wife and his children, and he goes on to describe the ways they will be punished for their faithlessness that would, and should, get him arrested if he tried them today.

I am not excusing that, but I am trying to understand the message he is trying to deliver as he speaks in such graphic terms on behalf of God to the nation of Israel.  Here is my best attempt to boil that message down to something that does not harm or objectify women and children:

Oh my people, when will you learn that the personal is political and the political is personal?  When will you understand that your chasing after dreams and illusions of pleasure and privilege always come at the expense of someone else, the expense of the very land we rely upon for life?  When will you start living as if the promises we made to one another in baptism mean something to you, and not just to me?  When will you finally treat me, and one another, with the love I have always given to you?

Hosea uses the language of marriage and infidelity, I think, because it is some of the most powerful language we have available to us.  If you have ever had to talk with your lover, your partner, your spouse about infidelity, then you know how scary and painful and explosive those conversations can be.  Hosea draws on those emotions, and our almost universal experience with those emotions, to try and help us understand on a visceral level what is at stake in our relationship with God, not just at home in our private religious lives, but out in the world, in public, in our collective lives.

In many ways, he fails.  His inability to really even see the violence he perpetrates against his wife and children as he tries to make his point to the nation of Israel is a reminder to us all that we must guard against self-righteousness.  Still, I’m glad that our tradition has kept Hosea in the Bible.  His personal failures teach us something about the frailty of our own best efforts, while still demanding that we all be honest about our collective failures before God.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 30, 2013: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14  +  Psalm 77:1-2,11-20  +  Galatians 5:1,13-25  +  Luke 9:51-62

mandela

Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa 1994-1999. Freedom Fighter.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on the news, watching and waiting for any changes in the condition of the man President Obama has compared to George Washington, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, as you know, became president of South Africa in 1994 after decades of struggling against the system of racial segregation known as apartheid.  In his youth, Mandela was a lawyer involved in anti-colonial politics.  He directly opposed the National Party that came into power in 1948, first non-violently, and later by leading bombing campaigns against military targets.  He was captured, convicted of sabotage, and sentenced to life imprisonment, part of which was carried out on Robben Island, a prison compound off the coast of Cape Town.

Mandela served eighteen of his twenty-seven years of imprisonment on Robben Island, and the stories from that place are a part of his living legend: how he befriended the prison guards, reaching for their humanity in an inhumane place; how he gifted his captors with plants he grew on the windowsill of his tiny prison cell.  I was in high school when the government of South Africa finally bowed to demands for his release, as he had grown to become an international symbol for the anti-apartheid movement.  That was 1990.  Four years later he’d gone from prison inmate to president of the newly reconstituted South Africa, an office he held from 1994 to 1999.

When I visited South Africa as a seminarian in the summer of 2000, Mandela’s presidency had just concluded, and the country was nervously making the transition from his leadership to that of his successor, President Thabo Mbeki.  It was difficult to move from the iconic leadership of the man who had confronted the violent powers of the institutionalized racism of the Afrikaners’ National Party, and had lived to tell the tale, to his successor.  There was a great deal of fear that the non-violent transfer of power from the National Party to the African National Congress, Mandela’s party, would finally break down and that the country would be plunged into violent conflict and civil war.

That was almost fifteen years ago, and South Africa has made the transition from one leader to the next more than once now, each time confirming Mandela’s vision for a peaceful, multicultural nation.

After leading the nation through decades of the anti-apartheid movement, then as its elected president for five years, in 1999 Nelson Mandela stepped down from public office, ready for a quiet family life.  At the age of 80 he married his third wife, Graça Machel, also a political activist, from Mozambique.  For the next few years he continued to be an active presence in South Africa’s political and cultural life.  Then, in 2004, he announced that he was “retiring from retirement,” receding more fully from the public eye, though always in the national consciousness.

Tahrir Square, April 8, 2011.

Tahrir Square, April 8, 2011.

I asked Judith Kotzé, the South African LGBTI activist who was with us at the beginning of this month to share news and build support for IAM — Inclusive and Affirming Ministries — how South Africa was faring now that Mandela and Tutu, and other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, were growing old and struggling publicly with their health.  She said to me, “we are, of course, grateful for their leadership.  They were symbols of the anti-apartheid movement.  They brought the world’s attention to South Africa.  But that was twenty years ago.  Today we don’t need another Mandela, or another Tutu.  We need networks of activists.  We need the entire nation to push toward the vision they gave us.”

We’ve been traveling with the prophet Elijah through the book of First Kings for the last month, from his initial confrontations with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, to his exile in the wilderness east of the River Jordan where he fed and healed the widow of Zarephath and her son.  We remember how he condemned the power of the state when Naboth’s vineyard was illegally seized, and declared a coming day of judgment when the mighty would be brought low, and Israel would return to the Lord, its God.  Last week we reflected on how lonely this work was, how silent God could be, how again and again those touched by God are sent back into the fray, when all they want is to be allowed to retreat from the struggle.

Finally, this morning we see Elijah retiring from his public ministry.  He, alone among the prophets, does not die but is lifted into heaven by God whose power manifests in the appearance of a fiery chariot.  Elijah is ready to make this journey, and even seems to prefer that he be allowed to take it alone, but his protégé and successor, Elisha, is determined to accompany him.  Along the way from Gilgal to Bethel to the Jordan, Elijah and Elisha are joined by fifty others from a group we’ve not heard of before, called “the company of prophets.”

This company of prophets is one of the first signs we see that Elijah’s ministry has been about more than a dramatic public confrontation between power and the prophet.  It has been about stirring the public’s imagination and creating a space in which people could begin to imagine themselves as members and leaders moving toward God’s vision for the world as it was meant to be.

In his book, Prophesy and Society in Ancient Israel, scholar Robert Wilson writes,

“Although there is no direct evidence on this point, members of [the company of prophets] were presumably individuals who had resisted the political and religious policies of the Ephraimite kings and who had therefore been forced out of the political and religious establishments.  After having prophetic experiences these individuals joined the group, which was under the leadership of Elisha.  In the group they found mutual support and were encouraged to use prophesy to bring about change in the social order.”

Reading between the lines of scripture the picture that emerges is that, far from his imagining, Elijah has not been alone in his struggle against empire.  Inspired, perhaps, by his public witness, a community of prophets, a society of resisters, a network of activists has emerged who are already practicing the tools of prophesy, the art of truth-telling, to make change in the world around them.

This company of prophets, led by Elisha, accompany Elijah to the place of his ascension and there Elisha makes his request.  “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  Throughout his ministry, Elijah has performed miracles that confirmed his message.  He created abundance where there was scarcity.  He called down fire on his enemies, and commanded the waters to part before him.  His message to the powers and principalities could not be ignored, when he was so obviously filled with power from another source.  Elisha asks for that power, the power to lead with credibility and authority.

Elijah’s response to the eager young prophet is instructive.  How often do we see leaders, whether it’s in business, or politics, or even the church, who try to select their successors.  It is tempting, when a person has invested all of themselves into a lifelong project, to want to ensure that it will live on past the leader’s departure.  How many companies, or movements, or congregations have suffered when a leader’s desire to select their successor saddles the community with the wrong person at the wrong time?

Elijah does not promise Elisha anything, because Elijah knows that his own ministry has been powered by his relationship to God.  Elijah has argued with and complained to, but ultimately been faithful to the God who gave him power to meet the demands of the ministry to which he was called.  Elijah knows that, in the end, it is God who will select his successor.

So he tells Elisha, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”

Here’s how I hear Elijah’s reply: if you have the vision, you will have the power.  “If you see me as I am being taken from you…”  If you can see that I was always about something greater than me, then you will still see me even when I myself am not here.

Elisha and the company of prophets had seen, and did know, that Elijah’s work had always been about more than Elijah.  It had been about bringing the people of Israel back into right relationship with their God and with one another.  It was a ministry that began during a drought, a sign that the king was not caring for the window, the orphan and the stranger, but which brought the rain.  Over and against imperial power that sought its own interests at everyone else’s expense, Elijah’s ministry had been marked by costly truth-telling for the sake of the common good.  Elisha, too, was marked as one ready to lead the twelve tribes of Israel; one who shares the vision for the world as God made it to be.

Ascensions: Elijah & Jesus

Ascensions: Elijah (top) & Jesus (bottom)

The story of a wonder-working prophet ascending into heaven, and leaving behind a community of followers ready to continue his ministry should sound familiar to any of us who have been Christian long enough to celebrate the festivals of Easter and Pentecost at least once.  The gospel of Luke draws heavily on the story of Elijah in its presentation of Jesus.  The people even wonder if Jesus is, in fact, Elijah returning for them.

They can wonder this, in part, because rather than dying, Elijah is taken up into heaven to be with God.  This ending is powerful not because of the prestige it confers on Elijah, but because it defies resolution.  Elijah is not dead, but ascended, which means that he might return at any moment.  Indeed, the way Christians order the Hebrew scriptures, the last book of the Old Testament is Malachi, from which we read, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Mal. 4:5).  To this day, our Jewish brothers and sisters leave a place at the Passover table for Elijah, who may yet come knocking at the door during the festival of liberation from the slavery of Egypt.

Likewise, we who are Christian, see in the stories of Elijah and Jesus a vision for God’s work in the world that is greater than any one person, a message that is bigger than the messenger.  From Jesus’ own defiance against the slavery of the grave, we draw power and conviction that God’s work in this hurting, broken world is not done yet either.  We have ordered the books of the New Testament so that they also end with the promise that God’s visionary Word will come again, as the book of Revelation ends with these words, “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

And, of course, we say these words each time with gather for a meal at this table, as we recite the mystery of faith: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.”  And, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.”

These words, spoken over and over, aren’t magic spells that turn bread into sacrament, they aren’t ingredients in a liturgical recipe.  They are pledges of allegiance to a new world order, the one we saw breaking in through Elijah, through Elisha and the company of prophets; through Jesus and the company of the apostles; through our brothers Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  These words, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” are acts of sedition, drawing us into a struggle for the future of the world.

Nelson Mandela was not released from 27 years of imprisonment so that he could enjoy his retirement.  Nelson Mandela was set free in order to lead the people of South Africa, and the entire world, into a greater freedom.  For freedom he was set free!

And so are you.  So are you, my dear brothers and sisters, who by baptism have been initiated into the company of prophets, the community that looks at Elijah, and Jesus, and sees the message in the messenger.  Who see the vision.  Who are called prophets of the Most High.

You have not been set free from lives of bondage to racism, or classism, or sexism, or nationalism, or heterosexism, or militarism, or consumerism, or capitalism simply in order that you might enjoy a more peaceful life.  In Christ, you have been set free from all these powers, powers that try to tell you who you are, powers that try to reduce you to one aspect of your identity, in order to liberate the world from these same lying, death-dealing powers.

After years of prophetic leadership that saw an end to apartheid, Nelson Mandela stepped back so that others, many others, could continue to work of freedom, truth-telling and reconciliation in South Africa.  After a prophetic ministry that brought King Ahab and Jezebel low, that brought waters back to parched lands, Elijah withdrew so that others, a company of prophets, could lead Israel back to God.  After a public ministry so encompassing of God’s politics that it led to a cross, a tomb, and a resurrection, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that we, together, the church, might become God’s advocates for God’s emerging reign of peace with justice, of a world of plenty shared equitably with all, of love for everyone forever.

We are called to be prophets of this reality. Whether we are working to relieve hunger, marching for LGBTQ equality and civil rights, working for passage of common sense immigration reform, organizing to ensure all citizens continue to enjoy equal voting rights.  Whatever our vocation, whatever our cause, we are called to set our minds on freedom, this morning and every morning. Come, Lord Jesus!

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 17, 2013: First Sunday of Lent

Texts:  Deuteronomy 26: 1-11  +  Psalm 91:1-2,9-16  +  Romans 10:8b-13  +  Luke 4:1-13

Good morning students, and welcome to your Lenten study hall.  My name is Erik Christensen and I will be your instructor for the next five weeks as we explore the ministry of Jesus in preparation for the great Three Days leading up to the festival of Easter.  The required reading for this class is the gospel of Luke, though there are select passages from the gospel of John that are recommended as well.  You can find these texts in most any bookstore, or in the bibles in the pew-back in front of you.  You can also find them online and in a variety of translations for both print and eReader formats.  There are no quizzes or papers in this class.  There will be one final, administered with water, and you will all pass.  Although there is no such thing as extra credit, you will earn brownie points if you can name the theological doctrine by which we all pass this course on the strength of another’s merits.

There really is a part of me that would still love to teach college or grad school.  Mostly so I could use that tone of voice (“Good morning students…”).  Looking for a season of the church year best suited to the living out of my professorial fantasies, Lent was the obvious choice.  Throughout its long and storied history, the season of Lent has been used as a time for the education and formation of people preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  As the church moved out of the first century and into a period of persecution, many found it difficult to remain true to the promises they’d made at the time of their baptisms — promises that we ourselves have made, or that were made on our behalf by parents and sponsors when we were children.  Christians facing political persecution in the form of imprisonment or even death would sometimes turn their back on the community of the baptized.  Lent was a time when those who had left the church could return, using these forty days as a period of repentance for sin and renewal in faith.

In the modern era, we recall and observe both meanings of this ancient season:

baptized_we_live_coverThis is a time of preparation for baptism. In fact, this year we are celebrating with Jessica Castro and her children Jessie, Angel and Lilly their decision to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  In preparation for that event, Jessica Palys and I are meeting with the family for an hour each week before worship and studying together, using Dan Erlander’s short, wonderful, illustrated text “Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life.”  

And this is a time for each of us who are already baptized to be reflecting on the ways that we may have capitulated to the pressures of the world that tempt us to turn away from the promises made at baptism. Individually and collectively we use this season of Lent to repent for the ways we have broken or betrayed the solidarity with all God’s people that is the gift of baptism, and we renew our faith and our promises to be co-workers with all of creation in God’s in-breaking reign.

The stories we hear this morning, on this first Sunday of Lent, fit the theme of identity and temptation quite perfectly.  We are, perhaps, most familiar with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness — first with bread, then with political power, and finally with the promise of divinity, even immortality.

These temptations come at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and they remind me of the three renunciations we make at the beginning of the baptismal rite before we are washed in these waters and initiated into the mission and ministry of Christ.  We ask,

  • Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
  • Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

To each of these questions the candidate responds, “I renounce them,” mirroring Jesus’ own renunciation of Satan’s tempting offers.

Last month I spent the better part of a week down in Atlanta, Georgia.  I was there by invitation from the Worship staff from the Churchwide offices of the ELCA to be part of a team of clergy who worked together on crafting new language for contemporary Christian worship.  In that process one of my assignments was actually to find new words for these ancient baptismal renunciations.

south_park_satanRecognizing that many of us are unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, with the use of the name “Satan” — surrounded by depictions of a red-fleshed bully wielding a pitchfork on South Park or various horror movie renditions of “the Devil,” I had to try and find new words that more accurately reflected ancient views of what we are called to renounce in our baptism.

In the gospel of Luke, the devil tempts Jesus with offers that expand in their scope. The first temptation is bread.  We may not think too much of bread, but if that’s true, then it’s probably a sign that we have enough of it, or enough money to never have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  Of the world’s 6.7 billion people, almost 1 billion go hungry each day — that’s about 14% of the world’s community that prays “give us this day our daily bread” with an urgency we may simply never understand.

For these people, a person who could have made bread out of rocks would have been a magician — but a person who became bread for the whole world would have been a savior.

The second temptation is political power.  The devils tells Jesus, “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.”  There’s some sly humor in Luke’s gospel at this point, I think.  The devil is asserting that politics are the devil’s playground, and who among us hasn’t thought the same at some point in our lives, or even in the last week? In a world of back-room deals, the devil is offering Jesus the sweetest deal of them all.  But Jesus renounces the devil’s claim over politics, and in doing so I think he ennobles the political work of the church, our calling to use all the tools available to us to shape the world so that it more fully reflects God’s peace, mercy, justice and love.  In a world where politics too quickly becomes a synonym for division, the baptized people of God recall Paul’s words to the Romans, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

In a world in which political leaders living nations away controlled the lives of millions of people, a person who ruled the nations would have been a hero — but a person who prioritized people over power would have been a savior.

The final temptation is cosmic in scope.  The devil tempts Jesus with the promise of divine protection.  He says, “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘God will command the angels concerning you, to protect you.’”  It is the promise of eternal life.  If you are the child of God, then nothing can hurt you, nothing can kill you.  That is the devil’s tempting lie.  But Jesus will be the one who shows us the breadth and the depth of God’s solidarity with all the suffering world.  A love so deep that it will not pass over death, but will enter it just as fully as each of us someday must.

In a world dominated by death, a person who escaped death would have been a legend — but a person who embraced death so that each of us could live more fully, less fearfully, would have been a savior.

So we, when we are baptized, follow in the footsteps of our savior, renouncing the devil’s empty offers in favor of a new life lived in solidarity with all the world’s people: the hungry, the oppressed, the weak and the dying.

As I looked for new words to communicate these ancient ideas, I tried to think about the range of situations in which people are baptized and how I would speak to each.  In one case, I imagined a worship service where those being baptized were old enough to answer for themselves, but still young enough that the traditional language would be far beyond their daily vocabulary.  I tried to find words that children could say with honesty and integrity.  This is what I came up with, and as we close this first lesson in our Lenten study hall I’m going to ask you to respond to these questions — if you feel comfortable doing so — with the words “I say no to them.”  As we finish, I’ll ask you to join me in reciting the Apostle’s Creed — remembering those words by which we were each baptized.  To make that easier, how about we each open our hymnals to page 229 in the front.

Friends, as you get ready to be baptized, I’m going to ask you to say no to the things that hurt you and to say yes to God.  Some of our words will be short and simple, and some will be long and complicated, but all will tell the story of God’s love for you and for the whole world.

Do you say no to hate, no to violence, no to greed and no to everything else that is the opposite of God’s peace, mercy, justice and love?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to rules, no to habits, no to traditions, no to prejudices that go against God’s hopes and dreams for the world?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to the things you do but shouldn’t, no to the temptation to do nothing when action is needed, no to everything that pulls you away from God?

Response: I say no to them.

Saying no to sin, and all that hurts us and God’s creation, I ask you now to say yes to God with the words used by Christians at their baptisms since the very earliest days of the Church.

Do you believe in God the Father?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.

Amen.

 

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