Customizable Temptation – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


One of the great joys of living in 21st century America is that we live in a world that is increasingly customizable. For roughly the last half century, advertisers have been helping us move from the “one size fits all” world that came out of the industrial revolution to a world where anyone can have it “your way, right away.”  Believe it or not, it has been 43 years since Burger King introduced “Have it your way” as their slogan.  According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, there were 1,024 ways to order a Whopper in the early 1960s, but now you can get it any one of 221,184 different ways![1]  In 2014, there were at least 80,000 different ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.[2]  Think about that.  It wasn’t that long ago that your choices were black, cream, and/or sugar.  Domino’s Pizza advertises that their menu allows you to choose from any of 34 million possible pizza combinations!  34 Million!  Madison Avenue has long since figured out that the best way to get us to buy their widget is to make sure their widget can meet our specific and varied tastes no matter what our whim might be at any given moment.

Before I say what I’m going to say next, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that all marketers are evil. What I am willing to suggest is that the art and science of marketing has at its root the Tempter who has been working on humanity since the very beginning.  The contemporary shift toward a fully customizable world is built upon a foundation of customizable temptation.   That is to say, the Tempter has been using various approaches to tempt human beings toward sin since the very beginning.  I can say that with some confidence seeing as we just heard the story of that first temptation in our Old Testament lesson this morning.  Our lesson opens with God giving Adam the only rule of the Garden.  “You may eat freely of every tree, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for on that day you eat of it you shall die.”

With the first rule comes the first opportunity for temptation, and the Tempter had his first goal: get Adam to eat from that tree.  The Tempter was hard at work long before the conversation between the serpent and Eve.  We can tell this is true because the serpent finds the first couple standing close to the forbidden tree.  Like telling a child not to eat a piece of candy, the only thing Adam and Even seem to be able to think about is that tree.  What beautiful fruit it has.  What would it be like to know the difference between good and evil?  Why would God hold this back from us? The Tempter had these questions swirling around in their minds as the serpent made his next move: twisting the words of God. “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”

She might not yet know the difference between good and evil, but Eve knows that the Tempter is wrong.  He gives Eve her first opportunity to stretch her discernment wings.  She corrects the serpent, and boy did that feel good.  He presses further, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”  That’s what that feeling was?  To be like God is to feel the power of correction and reproof?  The Tempter had found the right combination, and Adam and Eve ate.  His customizable approach to temptation had produced its first fruit.

Generation after generation, the Tempter continued to seek out ways to tempt God’s children away from right relationship.  For Noah, it was wine.  For Abraham and Sarah, it was impatience.  For Moses, it was frustration.  For David, it was lust.  For Solomon it was idolatry.  For Samson it was pride.  Again and again, the Tempter found the perfect way to turn the attention of Israel away from God, until finally, God had had enough, and he sent his Son to restore all of humanity to right relationship.

The Tempter did not give up with the birth of Jesus, of course.  In fact, just like in that moment when God first said, “you may not eat,” the Tempter saw his big chance come at the baptism of Jesus when the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  God knew what was to happen next.  God was familiar with the Tempter’s work and knew that he would immediately begin to sow the seeds of sin, so without any hesitation, the Spirit took Jesus out into the wilderness to allow the Devil to try his best, and try he did.

“If you are the Son of God…”  The Tempter was in for a challenge with Jesus, and so he went dirty right from the start – pushing Jesus to question the identity that had just been spoken so clearly in his baptism.  “Are you really the Son of God?  Because if you are, then you shouldn’t have to be out here starving to death in the desert.  God’s Son should be treated better than that.  In fact, you have all the power you need to make bread from these stones.”  Jesus is not swayed by the Devil’s tactics, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“If you are the Son of God…” The Tempter tries a different approach.  Still calling into question Jesus’ primary identity, now he turns his focus to just how strong that relationship really is.  “If you’re so dependent on God, why don’t you take it a step further?  You trust God to feed you.  Do you trust God to keep you safe?  Prove it by throwing yourself down.  God has promised in scripture that ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’  By jumping, you’ll simply be demonstrating your total confidence in your Father’s promise.”[3]  Jesus again stands firm.  He won’t allow the Tempter to twist God’s words: quoting instead a passage from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

After two failed attempts, the Tempter changes tact one more time.   Rather than trying to get Jesus to question his identity, the Devil goes after his patience.  It will take years and an agonizing death on the cross for Jesus to be given all authority on heaven and earth.  Why wait?  “For the low, low price of worshipping me,” the Tempter offers, “all that you can see will be yours.  All the kingdoms, riches, and power on earth will be yours.”  Here again, Jesus withstands a third uniquely customized temptation.

The Tempter left, but not for long.  Again and again during his lifetime, Jesus came face to face with Temptation, and he resisted it each and every time.  This is because the Devil isn’t the only one who knows the power of customization.  As we prayed in our Collect for Today, God knows the weaknesses of each of us, and stands ready to help us stand firm.  Again and again in our lives, we will find ourselves in the Tempter’s snare.  Like Adam and Eve, we won’t always be successful at avoiding his wiles.  We will forget to turn to God for help.  We will allow our fears to be used against us, our pride to make us foolish, or our envy to bring us down.  But the Good News is that God is always ready to overcome our temptations and forgive our sins.  The Devil is tricky, and uses any means necessary to drag us into sin, but God is all the more crafty: knowing the weakness of each of us, God has a fully customized plan so that every one of us might find God mighty to save.  Save us from the time of trial, dear Lord, and deliver us from evil.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whopper

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/04/starbucks_n_4890735.html

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1973

Life is all about choices

There is an inherent flaw in the version of Christianity that is focused entirely on grace.  Well, there are probably multiple inherent flaws in it, but the one I am thinking of this morning comes out of Sunday’s Old Testament lesson in which Moses is clear that even for God’s chosen people, those whom God had rescued from slavery in Egypt and to whom God had promised a land of prosperity through their ancestor Abraham, life was still about choices.

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Despite the hard line often taken by strongly reformed traditions on whichever sin they’ve decided God cares more about than anything else, in a theological worldview that is only concerned with the grace of God, there is actually little, if any, room for consequences.  The same sort of theology that created sola gratis underlies Your Best Life Now.  It assumes that because one has been washed clean in the blood, there is no room for sin, even though everybody knows that can’t possibly be true.

Moses lays before the Hebrews a choice between life and death, blessing and curses, and God continues to do the same for each of us; especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.  As committed disciples, the assumption shouldn’t be that we can “sin boldly” or “go on sinning” as people have been trying to argue from the very beginning (see James, the Letter of and Romans, the Letter to), but instead that we are called to live by an even higher standard.  Our lives are testimony of the Gospel of Christ, and when we make bad choices, we bring curses upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.  Alternatively, when we choose love: of neighbor, of creation, of enemy, we bring blessing upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.

Grace forgives us our sins, but it doesn’t excuse our bad behavior.  As Lent rapidly approaches, it might behoove us to give some thought to how our lives reflect the Gospel of love.  The benefit of grace is that we have one more opportunity, in a long life of opportunities, to repent of our misdeeds, to acknowledge the times we have chosen curses over blessings, and to once again choose blessing and life.

Facebook is for Murderers

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If we are really honest with ourselves, every disciple of Jesus subscribes to a smorgasbord theology of holy Scripture.   That is, we pick and choose what we like, and leave behind that which we don’t.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, accuse the other of this all the time.  The right says that the left chooses to ignore Scripture’s moral code.  The left says the right forgets about the love stuff.  The truth of the matter is that both are true.  None of us is perfect, and so all of us fall short of the ideal of living out God’s will in every facet of our lives.  This is playing out with blatant obviousness when one reads Jesus’ difficult words in Sunday’s third installment of the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Compare these words with what you see on your social media news feed and it quickly becomes clear that there has been a whole lot of murdering by anger and insult of late.  This is not me be all judgey either.  This is something of a confession of my own behavior, even as I see many of my sisters and brothers doing the same thing.  There is something all together too safe and too easy about hurling insults on social media.  Yet, if we were taking Jesus’ words seriously, we would take pause.

Is what I’m about to say true?  Is it up-building?  Is it judgmental or angry or insulting?  Because if it is, I probably shouldn’t say it.  Is it something that I would say to my brother or sister’s face?  Because if it isn’t, I probably shouldn’t post it.  Maybe we should all take a breath, re-read this section of Matthew 5, and slow down a bit.  The world is already a pretty angry and hate-filled place, perhaps we shouldn’t add to it.  These words from Jesus are difficult to swallow, and I’m sure we’d all rather leave them on the buffet, but the truth of the matter is that we don’t get to choose what we want to leave behind.  The commandment to love is a call to moral impeccability.  We can’t accomplish it on our own, but through  Christ, perhaps we have a chance to stop being murders on social media. 

Thank God I’m not like those people

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If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.

Mutually Exclusive Behaviors

It has been a good long while since I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some blogging banter with my good friend Evan Garner, but he went to the Greek in his post yesterday, and that’s just an invitation for me to nerd out for a minute.  In his post, “Rather Than or Alongside?” which I encourage you to read in its entirety, Evan played with an idea posited by the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend, Professor of Homiletics and New Testament at the University of the South, that the Greek phrase that is translated in Sunday’s Gospel as “rather than” in the sentence “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” could just as easily been translated “alongside” as in, “This man [the tax collector] went down to his dome justified alongside the [Pharisee].”  The argument, for those who might care about the Greek, is that the preposition para plus the accusative case “can mean ‘rather than’ but far more often means ‘alongside.'”

With all due respect to Dr. Brosend, “can mean” and “far more often means” does not an ironclad argument make.  While I am certain that this phrase could be translated as “alongside,” I’m also certain that it should be rendered “rather than” because of two very important factors: math and context.

First, the math.  In the study of probabilities and statistics, we find the idea of mutually exclusive events.  That is to say, there are things which can not overlap; they simply cannot happen at the same time.  Take, for a very simplified example, flipping a coin.  It can land on heads or tails, but never both.  These are mutually exclusive events.

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Now we turn to context.  Luke tells us that Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to a group of people who trusted in themselves “that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  These two things are mutually exclusive.  To be righteous is to be in perfect relationship with God and neighbor.  One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous.  It is impossible.

Jesus has taught this parable in order to make the point that righteousness does not belong to those who treat others with contempt, and as long as we engage in such behavior, we remain outside of the perfect relationship that God longs for.  Sure, God could forgive the sins of the Pharisee, but it seems far more likely that God would demand some sort of repentance from him.  To be unrighteous in one’s prayers may be the most damning unrighteousness of all.

I agree with Dr. Brosend that it could be that the both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went home justified, i.e. made righteous, but math and context seem to argue that only one was made righteous.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”

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This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.

Who and What Do You See

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My first year of undergrad was spent at the University of Pittsburgh.  Pitt is located in an urban neighborhood called Oakland, and, like many densely populated areas where people travel by foot, was home to several panhandlers.  By the time Christmas rolled around, I had already figured out how to be like the rich man in Sunday’s Gospel lesson and not see the beggars who sat at the proverbial gate of campus.  They were passive annoyances, easy to pass right on by as if they never existed.

There were a few who were more engaged in their craft. One guy stood at the door in front of the Rite Aid store in such a manner that only he could open it.  Whether you were coming or going, you were at this man’s leisure to let you in or out.  He had a white Styrofoam cup in hand.  It would jingle with a few coins as he reached to open the door.  it was clear that he expected to be paid for the service he rendered, whether you asked for it or not.  He wasn’t as easy to ignore.  You saw this man, but what I saw was simply an annoyance I had to get past.  I never saw him as a human being upon which I should have compassion.

It isn’t hard to be like the rich man.  Whether our ignorance of someone is active or passive; or if we see them, judge them, and cast them aside, we are no better than the rich man, no matter how poor we might be relative to his purple robes, linen suits, fatted calves, and fine wines.  And while it suits Luke’s theological narrative to have this be about rich and poor, I don’t think it is only about that.  Our inability to see another as beloved of God happens again and again, everyday, in every aspect of life.  We see the Republican is a xenophobic rube.  We see the Democrat as a bleeding heart sap.  We see the Terence Crutcher and other big black men as “bad dudes.”  We see police officers as trigger happy symptoms of systemic racism.

Every time we fail to see another human being as beloved of God, we sin in the same way the rich man did.  As his siblings still on earth, we have a chance to repent.  We have Moses.  We have the prophets.  We even have someone who rose from the dead.  We have eyes to see. We have hearts to love.  Who and what do you see?