I’m Not Ready for Lent

            I’m not ready for Lent to start again.  It just seems like Lent 2020 never really ended, and we’ve lived in a perpetual state of discipline and self-denial since March of last year.  Aside from a couple of Sundays in Lent, our routine of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, from February 25 and 26 of 2020, are the last normal thing we did as a congregation.  Just down the hall from me, on the bulletin board near Moore Hall, hangs a collage of photographs from the Brotherhood of St. Andrew’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper.  Those pictures feel like a lifetime ago, maybe two.  Yet, here we are, almost a full year later, ready to start it all over again.  I’m just not ready for Lent.

            I’m particularly not ready for ashes on my forehead to remind me of my own mortality.  These ashes feel a lot more like ashes to ashes, dust to dust from the burial office than they do the remnants of some non-existent Palm Sunday celebration from last year.  With more than four hundred eighty-eight thousand Americans dead due to the Coronavirus, I don’t need the reminder.  This morning I woke up to text messages with an urgent prayer request for a young man with special needs who was being admitted to the hospital with COVID pneumonia.  I don’t need the reminder. Having buried or delayed burial for nearly a dozen of our people over the last year, I don’t need the reminder.  I am very keenly aware that death is all around thank you very much.

            There has been a gift in the never-ending Lent of 2020, however.  Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I have spent hours upon hours digging into the Book of Common Prayer, looking for ways to offer the worship of the Church to those who are staying safe at home.  It has been a gift to read the Prayer Book with a fresh set of eyes, to see where it invites innovation, where it welcomes experimentation, and what, when you distill it all down, is really important.  It happened again for me in thinking about this Ash Wednesday.  I kept getting fixated on this ashes to ashes idea, when it was pointed out to me that the prayer that Mother Becca will say over the ashes asks God that they might be a sign not only of our mortality, but also of penitence.

            Penitence, the act of feeling sorrow or regret for having done wrong.  These ashes are intended to remind us of our sinfulness as well.  To be honest, we probably don’t need that either.  In the last year, we’ve seen friendships and families torn apart by political discord.  We’ve heard our nation called to finally come to terms with its history of white supremacy.  We’ve watched as the world’s economy has been brought to its knees by rolling Coronavirus shut-downs due to our inability to simply do what is best for our neighbors.  We have seen, in stark terms, the wages of sin, and our need, both as individuals and as a collective, for repentance.

            In the Christian context, penitence doesn’t stop at feeling sorrow or regret.  In Christ, we are assured that our sins are forgiven.  We just heard that reaffirmed in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…” These ashes, then, are not just a sign of our mortality and penitence, but of God’s forgiveness as well.  They remind us that God hates nothing God has made.  In fact, God loves all of creation, even you and me.

            I may not be ready for Lent to come again, but I sure am eager to be reminded of God’s love and forgiveness.  Whether you can get here for ashes or not, whether you smudge some soot from the fireplace or ashes from your grill on your forehead, whether you look in the mirror for signs of last year’s ashen cross, my prayer is that this Ash Wednesday and all of Lent 2021, are a reminder to you of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love and an opportunity for you to offer that same forgiveness and love to your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, and friends.  Almighty God, you hate nothing you have made, and we shouldn’t either, give us a spirit of forgiveness and love this Lent, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

holy Lent high points

In case you didn’t notice the Great Litany at the start of today’s service, I’m here to remind you that Lent is upon us.  On Wednesday, almost one hundred seventy-five of us gathered across three services to take part in the Ash Wednesday call to repentance.  With ashes upon our brows, we confessed our sins, recalled our mortality, and gave thanks to God for the gift of eternal life.  In her sermon, Mother Becca invited us into a season of fasting, not in a self-help kind of way, but for the sake of the Kingdom of God and the redemption of the world by the loosening of the yoke of oppression.  It is interesting how, when one hears a sermon three times over, different things stick out.  On my first hearing, I was very much in tune with her use of the yoke metaphor.  At noon, I was wondering about my own fast and what I am called to do to loose the bonds of injustice.  By six pm, as the day grew long, I was caught short by the reality that Lent lasts 40 days.

I’m sure this never happens to you, but instantly, my imagination went off on a wild goose chase. I began to think about the ways in which I have marked time and waited for things in the past.  One favorite way that we’ve used with our girls is the paper chain.  When we’re just so excited about a future event that we can’t even stand it, we pull out the calendar and count how many days until the event.  Once we know how long it is until Christmas, Spring Break, or a visit from Uncle Nate, and since each child needs their own paper chain, we’ll cut twice that number of paper strips, staple them in intertwining loops, and voila, a countdown mechanism.  Every morning, another ring comes off until the big day arrives.

Last week, we heard the story of Moses entering into the cloud of fire atop Mount Sinai.  The lesson ended by telling us that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  I wonder if he made a paper chain?  Or, since paper wasn’t really a thing yet, did he weave together strips of papyrus or mark off the days on a stone tablet of some kind?  When Jesus was sent out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Devil, I wonder if he knew how long he’d be out there?  Matthew tells us that Jesus fasted for forty days, so I’m guessing he didn’t bring a whole lot out to the desert with him.  Certainly, he didn’t have a stapler, but perhaps he marked his days on the rock he used as a pillow.  I don’t know, the imagination is a funny thing.

The Season of Lent makes paper chain making challenging.  In our tradition, the forty days of Lent actually take forty-six days to get through.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending with the lighting of the Great Fire at the Easter Vigil, the season itself lasts forty-six days, but the fast is only forty.  Sundays are a free day, a mini-Easter, a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, even as we await the fullness of that celebration on Easter Day.  The six Sundays are in Lent, not of it, so you can maybe cheat and have dessert on Sunday, but you shouldn’t pull a rung of the paper chain unless you want Easter to fall on Monday of Holy Week.

The Lenten fast lasts forty days in line with Moses on Mount Sinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Noah’s rain storm, and of course, the Gospel lesson for every first Sunday in Lent, Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  In Judaism, the number forty marked periods of transition and preparation.  As inheritors of that tradition, Christians define Lent as a forty-day period of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus.  This morning, on our first cheat day, 10% of the way through the season of Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on how we might live in preparation for the joy of Easter Day.  In the Ash Wednesday invitation to a holy Lent, we were invited to self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Jesus’s fast was heavy on self-denial, but if we look closely at the story from Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Jesus hit all the holy Lent high points.  Remember that immediately before being led into the wilderness, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.  As he came out of the water, the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  The Gospels don’t tell us much of what happened to Jesus before this moment.  We don’t really know how confident Jesus was in his calling as the Messiah leading up to his baptism.  I can’t help but wonder if Jesus really needed to hear those words from heaven.  Maybe his forty days in the wilderness was an extended opportunity for self-reflection.  These forty days were for Jesus, and can be for us, a chance to spend some time listening carefully for God’s call upon our lives and to repent, to turn our attention away from self and toward the mission of God to restore all things to right relationship.  In order to engage in a time of intentional self-reflection, many people will choose to give up one or more of the distractions of our world like social media, television, gossip magazines, or video games.  With more space for silence, we have a greater chance of hearing God’s still small voice.

As I said, Jesus was heavy on prayer, fasting, and self-denial during his own personal Lent.  Matthew goes so far as to tell us that by the time his forty day fast from food was over, Jesus was famished, which is where the Devil saw his chance.  It was through Jesus’ stomach that the Tempter first tried to get Jesus to overstep his bounds.  It was because of his forty days of fasting and self-reflection, however, that Jesus was able to be clear about his call.  God hadn’t yet called him to perform such a miracle.  It wasn’t his time.  I find that fasting is where the Devil can get me as well.  Being hangry is no good for anyone, but the act of intentionally going without can be an opportunity to be reminded that everything we have comes from God. Going without for a while is a wonderful opportunity to be thankful for what one has.

Finally, this lesson from Matthew reminds us of the power of the Holy Scriptures.  Jesus didn’t have an iPhone to kill time on in the desert.  Instead, he probably spent his days going through the stories from the Hebrew Bible that he knew so well.  Stories that his mother had taught him since his youth; stories that he had studied intently as a rabbinical student; stories that had become written on his heart, so that, even when the Tempter tried to use the Bible against him, Jesus was ready to respond.  As you maybe set aside one of life’s many distractions in order to make space for God, I invite you to pick up your own Bible and to read and meditate on God’s great love story contained therein.

There are 42 more days in Lent and 36 more days of it.  I pray that, rather than just biding our time until the celebration of Easter, this holy season might be for each of us an opportunity to be still, to listen, and to grow deeper in our relationships with God.  Amen.

He stretched out his arms – a sermon

You may not know it, but there is some rhyme and reason to the liturgical choices we make around here.  At 10 o’clock, the service music is carefully selected to match the mood of the season.  Now that we’ve survived the Great Litany, for the next four weeks, both services begin with the Penitential Order which is meant to draw our minds to the truth that we should only approach the altar of God having taken stock of our lives, recognizing our sins, and repenting of our unrighteousness.  At 8am, we have switched back to Eucharistic Prayer I, which deals more directly with the reality that sin – the corporate sin of the world and the sinfulness of each individual – ultimately brought Jesus to the cross, and that in the Eucharist, we are recreating not just his Last Supper with the disciples, but remembering the fullness of the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and yes, Easter Day as well.

The Rite II Eucharistic Prayers are a bit more challenging. None of them carry the clearly penitential tone of Rite I.  However, Prayer A does seem to be the prayer best suited for the season.  In it, as we recount the story of salvation history, there is this peculiar line in which we say that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  As the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death unfold, it doesn’t always seem like this is an accurate reading of the situation.  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Judas offer him for 30 silver coins?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees offer him to maintain the status quo?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Herod offer him out of fear; did Pilate offer him to appease the crowd and raise his stock within the Roman Empire; or, as the prayer seems to suggest, did God the Father require the Son to die to appease some sort unrelenting anger?  While each of these could be perfectly reasonable explanations for what happened in those dreadful hours, it would seem that our Gospel lesson for today is expressly concerned with making us understand that Jesus’ death was his own choice and for the benefit of the whole world.

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain top.  It had been about a week since Peter finally confessed Jesus as the Messiah, when he, along with James and John were made privy to the full revelation of Jesus’ divinity.  There, with Moses and Elijah at his side, and the voice of God booming from above, Jesus was fully empowered for the final stage of his ministry. Not long after this encounter, Luke tells us that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.  The last act of Jesus ministry was about to unfold.  Somewhat surprisingly, Luke then proceeds to spend 10 whole chapters, roughly 42% of his Gospel, sharing all kinds of experiences that happened along the way to the cross.  Jesus exorcised demons, healed the sick, preached the Good News, taught in the Synagogues, and even sent out 70 others to do the same.

Here, at not even the mid-point in that ten-chapter journey, in which Jesus is very intentional about his work and ministry, and just as he has taught that many who think they are in God’s good graces will find themselves on the outside, some Pharisees, the insiders’ insiders, came to warn Jesus that Herod was out to kill him.  This isn’t Herod the Great who had tried to use the Wise Men as spies in order to kill Jesus shortly after his birth.  This is Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, who had married the ex-wife of his brother, who got drunk at his birthday party and ended up having John the Baptist beheaded at his step-daughter’s request.  Herod Antipas shared one fourth of his father’s territory with his brothers.  As the most competent heir, Herod lived in constant fear of revolution.  It was that fear that made him both dislike John the Baptist and yet fear the will of the people too much to want to have him killed.  It was that same fear that made him worry about the increasing power that Jesus of Nazareth had over the crowds.  One who could perform miracles, heal the sick, exorcise demons, and command such a following was one who was clearly a threat to the power and privilege that he had born into.

Luke doesn’t tell us why Herod wanted to kill Jesus at this point, and given that these words of warning come from the Pharisees, Luke’s favorite antagonists in his Gospel, we don’t even know if the warning is real.  Still, the response Jesus gives tells us that he is in no way worried about what the powers-that-be, religious or political, might want to do to him.  “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus says, as if calling the puppet governor of the Roman Empire a fox was something people could do in the first century.  But Jesus has no fear.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is totally in control of the situation.  “Go and tell that fox that I’m doing what I’ve been sent here to do.  I’m not going to hide in fear.  No threat is going to keep me from the mission that God has for me.  Today and tomorrow, I’ll be busy healing the sick and casting out demons.  On the third day,” an obvious reference to his death and resurrection, “I’ll finish my work.”

It isn’t that Jesus was ignorant to the fact that his life and ministry would lead to his death.  He was quite aware that those who upset the way things have always been have always been mistreated, abused, and ultimately killed, whether it is in Jerusalem, Rome, Dallas, or Memphis.  It is just that Jesus knows that no matter how ready the Pharisees might be to get Jesus out of their hair or how anxious Herod might be about Jesus’ increasing popularity, this ministry is working on God’s time and to God’s good and perfect end – the gathering all of the faithful under God’s gracious and loving wings.  No matter how much Herod might believe that Jesus was out for political power and no matter how much Jesus’ own disciples might wish for that too, what God had planned to do through the life and ministry of Jesus wasn’t to recreate the power structures of this world, but to replace them with structures of compassion, grace, and love.  Jesus is in full control of his message, his medium, and the timing such that in the end, even when it looks like any number of other powers and principalities had brought him to the cross, we can say with full confidence that it was Jesus who stretched out his own arms upon the cross, offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

It is increasingly difficult in this world of the 24-hour news cycle to remember who is really in control of things.  Fear mongers make millions of dollars a day selling advertising on news channels that would have us believe any number of lies and half-truths.  We are enticed to buy this makeup, drink this beer, drive this car, and use this phone to be happy and healthy.  We are tricked into believing that our value is based only on what others can get from us.  It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise.  Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the threat of Herod reminds us, however, that outside powers have been trying to rule by fear for thousands of years.  Jesus tells us that these perceived threats, even to our very way of living and our own lives, are hollow compared to the power of God and God’s dream to restore all of creation to right relationship.  Jesus will spend six more chapters walking toward Jerusalem and certain death.  Along the way, he will restore all kinds of people into community by offering them wholeness and peace.  Even now, Jesus is here offering us the peace that passes all understanding, peace that is more powerful than any fear the world can create. Our Lenten journey reminds us that Jesus stretched out his own arms of love upon the cross, no one else made him do it, so that everyone, even you and me, might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  Amen.

What is your Reward?


Every school day at 6:30 AM, I trudge up the stairs to make sure Eliza and Lainey are starting to wake up.  Yesterday, I had more of a lilt in my step as I came through the bedroom door smiling and saying, “Happy Pancake Day!”  They were a bit confused by my excitement, and weren’t quite sure what to make of Pancake Day.  We chatted for a moment about Shrove Tuesday and the practice, at least in the Episcopal Church, of eating pancakes before the beginning of Lent.  I realized in the course of that conversation that I’ve probably eaten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for each of the last 36 years.  While our girls have been doing it since birth, for them, these habits are still rather new, and in a lot of ways, foreign.

I had a similar experience about two weeks ago when I invited Vonda, our Parish Administrator, to join me for the burning of the palms.  Vonda didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and so, much of what we do around here – from albs, cinctures, stoles, and chasubles, to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Easter Triduum – are brand new to her.  We talked a bit about the ways in which the liturgical actions of Palm Sunday help us remember Jesus’ last week, from marching up 12th Avenue waving palm fronds shouting “Hosanna!” to hearing the Passion and crying out “Crucify him!”  I shared with her how we save those palms each year to be burned and ground into ashes that, on Ash Wednesday, get smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and a symbol of our penitence – an outward and visible sign of our need for forgiveness and God’s deep desire to forgive.

It is easy, especially for me as a clergy person, to get so used to these symbols and events that I forget what they are really meant to be about.  I can get so caught up in the details of a printer that is acting up, palms that need to be burned, and new fronds that need to be ordered, that the whole season of Lent can turn into one long to-do list.  Before I know it, a season that is meant to be set aside for the intentional work of holiness can just become another season of busy work.  I imagine that clergy aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this condition.  Cultural LentÔ, with its 2 for six-dollar fast food fish sandwiches and giving-up-chocolate, can become so routine that it loses all of its depth of meaning.

I think this might be what Jesus was on to when he admonished his disciples to beware of practicing their personal piety before others.  To Jesus’ mind, the regular practices of the faithful had become so monotonous as to have lost all real meaning.  Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, the three-legged stool of spirituality for the faithful Jew had become, for some, nothing more than a chance to show off.  Going to the Synagogue was, for some, merely a chance to get their ticket punched, to go through the motions required by the law, and then to go back out into the world as if nothing had really changed.  “When you approach the throne of God just so others will see you, being seen is all the reward you will get,” Jesus says, “But, if you approach the throne of God with humility, penitence, and the desire to be changed, then God, who sees in secret, will reward you with a depth of relationship that is beyond even your wildest imagination.”

In just a minute, Mother Becca will invite us, on behalf of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  She will ask us all to take on intentional practices of self-examination, self-denial, and prayer.  As a symbol of our accepting that invitation, an ashen cross will be marked upon our foreheads, not so that everyone can see that we got our Ash Wednesday merit badges, but so that, when you see yourself in the mirror later today, you might remember that the season of Lent is meant to change you.  The practices you take on this season, those done in public and those done in secret, are meant to bring you into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship with God who, Lent also reminds us, sent God the Son into the world, who taught and lived a life of love, compassion, and grace, who was betrayed by one of his closest friends, condemned to death in a sham trial, crucified on a trash heap, died an excruciating death, and was hastily buried in shame on the eve of the sabbath.

The work of a holy Lent is not easy work, but it is of great reward to those who engage it with integrity.  Whether this is your first or your ninety-first Ash Wednesday, I hope you will heed the invitation and spend these next forty days engaging in the practices of holiness and preparing yourself, your body and soul, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the indwelling of the Kingdom of God, and for the resurrection life to which God invites us all.  May your Father who sees in secret reward you richly with grace and mercy this Lent.  Amen.

A Lenten Epiphany

As you are probably aware, the season of Lent is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) that lead up to Easter Day and the Feast of the Resurrection.  It is a season of penitence and fasting, in which we are invited to bring to mind our sinfulness, repent of our wrong-headedness and stiff-necks, and seek God’s forgiveness.  Because Easter is a movable feast, falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, Lent begins at different times each year.  This means that the number of Sundays after the Epiphany can vary.  What is unexpected, however, is when smack-dab in the middle of Lent, we get what feels like a Sunday in Epiphanytide.

Such is the case this Sunday with the foreshadowing that John uses in the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple.  The lessons appointed for the Sundays after the Epiphany tell the of the ongoing revelation of God to humanity through Jesus Christ.  We hear of the Magi, who recognize Jesus as the King of the Jews thanks to the appearance of a star in the heavens.  In the Baptism story, Jesus is revealed to be God’s beloved Son.  Nathaniel recognizes Jesus as the King of Israel.  The season always concludes with the Transfiguration of Christ, wherein Peter, James, and John are made privy to Jesus’ full revelation as the Christ of God.

In Sunday’s lesson, then, the Third Sunday in Lent becomes another opportunity for who Jesus really is to be revealed to the disciples.  After the Jewish leaders demand some credentials after his turning the Temple system on its ear, Jesus tells them what the sign will be.  “Tear down this temple, and I will build it back in three days.”  John concludes the story by noting that “after [Jesus] was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”


Note the disciples (left) looking like “This is not going to end well.”

It is a slow play, to be sure, two, more likely even three years, in the making.  Over the course of his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is continually pulling back the curtain, slowly, as his disciples and crowds are able, unveiling more and more fully who he really is and what he came to do.  It is helpful, I think, here in the season of Lent, to take a moment to reflect on what this time of preparation reveals to us about Jesus.  From the Ash Wednesday invitation to a holy Lent all the way through Holy Saturday’s holy waiting, the lead-up to Jesus’ Passion and death are constantly unveiling God’s grace and mercy to us.

Driven Out

Mark is notoriously skimpy on the details.  It is part of what makes us pretty sure that Mark’s Gospel was the first.  The story was still so fresh. It was still being told, word of mouth, passing down from those who lived it to the following generation.  The world was still very early in the transition away from scrolls and to the codex.  Most folks would remain illiterate for another 1,500 years.  Important things were passed down by story, and not by text.  Yet, Mark decided the key details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection needed to be saved.  And so, he put pen to parchment.  The story he told wasn’t meant to be the full story, it was but the “beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Yet, there are occasions when, for reasons unbeknownst to us, Mark includes a detail or chooses a specific word, that makes us wonder.

In our Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B, we have one of those words that makes the exegete scratch her head and wonder.  It is easily missed in a story that jumps over months of time in just a few sentences.  From our third encounter with Jesus’ baptism by John since the liturgical year started to Jesus being tempted in the wilderness to John’s arrest and Jesus’ first sermon, these six verses certainly get the story moving forward.  As preachers know, however, Mark’s pace can be deceiving, and this rush through the wilderness is no exception.  After God the Father declares Jesus to be the beloved Son, Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit “immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

In digging into the word “drove,” I noted that Matthew and Luke, who are thought to have had Mark in hand when they wrote their own Gospels, didn’t keep Mark’s emphatic word, choosing two more passive verbs that are both translated into English as “was led.”  Further, the word Mark chose is the word repeatedly used to describe what happened when Jesus “cast out” demons.  In Mark’s understanding, the period of testing in the wilderness (more on that word later this week), wasn’t something Jesus was politely led by the hand out into, but rather he was compelled, even propelled, away from the comfortable words of the Father into a time in which his faith in God and himself would be severely tested.

I can think of times in my own life when there was a clear distinction between God leading me somewhere and God driving me in a certain direction.  Maybe you have too.  I’m sure at different times in his earthly ministry, even Jesus needed more of a push in a particularly challenging direction.  As we approach the season of Lent and take extra time to listen for God in our lives, what do you think?  Is God’s call in your life today more of a gentle leading or do you feel driven?

Keeping the Feast means Keeping the Fast

As Lent begins, there are a few subtle changes to the regular pattern of our liturgy that are required and thereby signal for us the changing season.  The Opening Acclamation, optional in Rite I, but required in Rite II, moves from the familiar, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” to the more penitential “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.”  Many congregations will move from the Gloria or a hymn of praise to the Kyrie or Trisagion, though this is not required in the rubrics.  The Alleluias that many congregations cheat into the Dismissal will get a brief reprieve, but again, they really shouldn’t have been their in Epiphany to begin with.  The clearest liturgical sign that Lent is upon us comes at the Fraction, where the usual anthem, optional in both Rites I and II, drops the Alleluias that are rubrically kosher the rest of the year.

We go from:

Alleluia.  Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore, let us keep the feast.  Alleluia.

To simply:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore, let us keep the feast.

In our Gospel lesson for Lent 1, we hear the story of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  This is, somewhat obviously, the underlying motivation for a forty day fast in the Season of Lent.  We follow the model of our Savior in taking time to keep the fast in order that we might properly keep the feast that is Eastertide.


As I’ve noted previously on this blog and elsewhere, I’ve struggled for many years with the giving something up for Lent cultural phenomenon.  When Arby’s is hocking fish sandwiches in early spring, the idea of Lent being a season of self-denial loses something for me, but the more I think about the correlation between our liturgical fast and the fast of our Lord in the wilderness, the more I think I might work to give something up this Lent after all.  Just as there is no resurrection without death: no Easter without Good Friday, so too there is no real feast without a fast.  There is no mountain unless one knows the valley; no exuberance unless one knows the doldrums.  As we prepare to keep the great feast, let us prepare ourselves by keeping the fast.

Led into Temptation – a sermon

My Lent 1C sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it below.

Have you ever wondered why when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he included a line that says “lead us not into temptation”?  I have.  I’ve always thought that was a really strange thing to ask of God.  Why would God lead us into temptation?  Isn’t God all about saving us from the time of trial?  Isn’t God’s dream that we might be restored to right relationship with him and with all of creation?  Why on earth would it be so important for Jesus that we pray “lead us not into temptation?”  It was important because it is exactly what happened to Jesus.  He knew how hard it was when you have been led into temptation, knew how easy it’d be for us to find temptation all by ourselves, and so, in his short example of what prayer should look like, he included the all-important line “lead us not into temptation.”

Still, in my experience it isn’t God actively leading me into temptation, but rather in being led toward God, I find myself running headlong into temptation.  See, the Devil isn’t worried about lukewarm Christians who show up at church on the occasional Sunday morning, throw a five in the offering plate and consider themselves covered for a week or three.  Instead, he spends his time worrying about those who are actively seeking the will of God for their lives and for the world.  Maybe that’s why we hear this lesson each Lent 1.  Many of us have taken on practices of discipleship; have given up distractions that keep us from focusing on God; or have committed anew to following God into the world to share the Good News of his forgiveness and love.  The season of Lent invites us to a closer relationship with God which in turn, invites the Devil to forty days of trying to lead us into temptation.

I first came to realize that temptation seems to grow the closer we get to God while I was in the discernment process before heading off to seminary.  Thanks to a great Bishop, I was able to do discernment in Central Pennsylvania, where I grew up, instead of having to start all over in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, where I moved after college.  Once a month, Cassie and I would make our way from Grove City to Lancaster where I attended the Diocesan School of Christian Studies on Saturday and meet with my discernment committee on Sunday.  I can’t remember if it was our first or second trip east, but it was October, and western Pennsylvania was getting crushed by an early snow storm.  We borrowed Cassie’s dad’s four-wheel drive truck and the five hour trip took something like eight hours as we crawled along the snow-covered Turnpike, stopping at every rest stop to knock off an inch of ice and snow that had accumulated on the headlights, making it almost impossible to see.  I don’t know how many times I was tempted to call it quits, but we kept going.  We made it, obviously, and we did so again in November, December, January, February, AND MARCH.  Every month for six straight months, we drove through snow and wind and the temptation to just call it quits.

It was after the sixth snowstorm that I finally came to realize how temptation lurks when God is at work.  It didn’t take Jesus nearly that long to figure it out.  Immediately after his amazing baptismal experience: where the heavens tore open, the Spirit descended upon him, and the voice of his Father said, “you are my beloved”; he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and for forty days he was tempted by the devil again and again and again.  Luke gives us three examples of what the ongoing temptations looked like.  The contents of those temptations seem miraculous and Son of God-y, but the crux of Jesus’ temptation is the same as what the devil uses on you and me: he calls into question our trust of God.  “If you really are the Son of God, then turn these stones into bread.”  “If you really are God’s beloved, he will protect you.” Do you really trust God to love you that much?

As we continue our forty day journey through Lent, temptation will be nipping at our heels, constantly goading us with questions of God’s love for us.  The Deceiver is always ready to make you doubt God’s dream for you.  He never fails to cause hesitation on the pathway to the Kingdom of God.  I’m not arrogant enough to think that the devil made a snowstorm happen for six months in a row to keep me from being a priest, but I can guarantee he used the freakish winter weather to his advantage.  “If you really are a beloved child of God, then he won’t mind if you quit this discerning for the priesthood foolishness, turn around, and go home.”

Maybe you’ve decided to take on a few extra minutes of prayer during the season of Lent.  I promise that your life will seem busier in these next forty days than ever before.  Be prepared to hear the Deceiver at work in your heart.  “If you really are a beloved child of God, he’ll forgive you for not saying your prayers today.  You’ve just been so busy, relax, it’ll be fine.”  Maybe you’re trying to read your Bible more.  The words of Scripture will never seem more convoluted than during this time of special intention.  Be ready to hear the Deceiver at work in your mind.  “If you really are a beloved child of God, don’t worry about meditating on the Bible, it’s just an old book of stories anyway.  Just curl up with a good Tom Clancy novel instead.”  Perhaps you’ve decided to give something up this year: maybe its chocolate, wine, potato chips, or road rage.  Be prepared for whatever it is you’ve given up to be in front of your face constantly for the next 36 days.  Every event you attend this Lent will be at the end of a long line of traffic and all they’ll serve are chocolate covered potato chips and red wine.  Be ready for the Deceiver to be at work in the pit of your stomach.  “If you really are a beloved child of God, he won’t mind if you indulge just this once.  Certainly he’ll forgive your trespasses again this time.”

Temptation is sure to follow any attempt we make to get closer to God, so how are we to overcome it?  Jesus was Jesus, and I most certainly am not.  Rather than standing here and saying “just be like Jesus,” I thought it might be more helpful to look at how Jesus is able to resist his forty days of temptation.  First, Luke tells us that Jesus was filled up with the Holy Spirit.   Like each of us, Jesus received the gift of the Spirit in baptism, and the Spirit continued to work in his life, calling his human will to seek the Father, reminding him of God’s never failing love, and comforting him in those moments when it all seemed overwhelming.  The Spirit does the same for each of us: celebrating our accomplishments, reminding us of God’s grace, and holding us close when we fall into sin.  Even for Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh; resisting temptation required a healthy dose of help from the Spirit.  Second, Jesus relied on his knowledge of the Scriptures.  Jesus knows his Bible, and as such, he knows God’s will for him and for all creation.  Even when the deceiver tried to use the Bible against him, Jesus was able to discern good interpretation from false teaching.  Having the strength to resist temptation means knowing what is in God’s will for this world and what is not, and that requires coming to know the story of God in the Scriptures.

Finally, Jesus prayed.  Luke doesn’t mention this detail in his account of the Temptation, but we know that throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is in the habit of prayer.  As a devout Jew, he would have prayed at least three times daily, following the customs of his tradition.  Jesus was in tune with the will of God not only because he knew the Bible, but because he was in regular conversation with his Father.  We too should rely on prayer, being quiet and listening for God, in order to stay in tune with God’s will for our lives. Nobody said this Lenten journey was going to be easy.  By committing to a closer walk with God, you’ve led yourself straight into temptation, but through prayer, studying God’s holy word, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, you can find a way to resist the work of the devil and follow God’s dream for you, his beloved child.  Amen.

40 Days of Temptation

I’m not sure why I’ve never noticed this before, but some how, in my rush to figure out what the three temptations of Jesus might mean, I’ve failed to notice that, in fact, Jesus has been tempted constantly for 40 straight days.  Don’t believe me?  It says so, right there in Luke’s Gospel:

After his baptism, 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.

Luke gives us a sampling of what Jesus had to endure: temptations of bread, power, and safety; but what really strikes me is how 2/3rds of the sample temptations start with a question of trust.

“If you are the Son of God…”

As we begin the 40 day season of Lent, temptation will be nipping at your heels.  At least I know it will be for me.  You see, every time I find myself getting closer to God’s dream for me, I realize that the devil is hard at work tempting me to give it all up and follow my own dreams.

“If you really are a beloved child of God…”

The Deceiver is always ready to make you doubt God’s love.  He’s always there to make you question God’s dream.  He never fails to cause hesitation on the pathway to the Kingdom of God.  If you’ve decided to take on a prayer practice, be ready for your life to get busier than ever.  If you’ve given up chocolate, wine, or potato chips, be prepared to have them offered to you again and again.  If you’re seeking a closer relationship with God this Lent, be prepared to wonder if God is a target moving ever farther away.  That’s the job of the Deceiver.


Withstanding 40 days of temptation isn’t going to be easy.  There are bound to be days when you fall short of whatever ideal you’re striving for this Lent.  When that happens, be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and for goodness sake, try again.  Lent is a marathon, 40 days of temptation were almost too much for Jesus, but with God’s help, even when we fail, we won’t lose our status as a beloved child of God, no matter what the Devil says to the contrary.

Offertory Sentences

I wasn’t born under the stark regime of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, so I don’t have that nagging desire to keep odd things from it like the falsely named “Installation of a Rector” which is really called “An Office of Institution of Ministers into Parishes or Churches.”  I’m not overly fond of the latent sexism in Rite I language, though I do think that the penitential tone of Cranmer’s Eucharistic rites are worth hearing from time to time.  I do, however, have one bit of the “old Prayer Book” that I wish the church would have held on to.  The 1979 Book of Common Prayer removed my favorite offertory sentence from its suggested list.  In the 1928 Book, after this great rubric: “Then followeth the Sermon.  After which, the Priest, when there is a Communion, shall return to the Holy Table, and begin the Offertory, saying one of these Sentences following as he thinketh most convenient” comes a list of no less than 16 choices.  Second on that list, having survived since Cranmer’s first Book in 1549, comes words from Jesus recorded in Matthew 5, “Let your light so shine before [others], that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father [who] is in heaven.”

2016-02-09 13.32.51

I love that Offertory Sentence, and have used it all through Epiphany season, but as the calendar moves to Lent, it is time to pick another one, and I’m thinking about going beyond the suggestions of the Prayer Book again, this time from Deuteronomy.  In Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, we hear what sort of Offertory Sentences the Lord requires of those who are entering the Promised Land.  Ignoring the potential for a killer stewardship sermon for the time being, what we hear is the rehearsing of salvation history, and a reminder that everything we have is a gift from God.  It might be a bit long to memorize, and tough to turn into a second person directive, but these words are so very important as we enter the Season of Lent and take stock of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s dream for us.

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.

Let us with gladness bring before the Lord the first of the fruit of the everything that God has given us.