Temptations and More

sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent        (Mark1:9-15; Genesis9:8-17)
We can start by whittling away at this Gospel reading.

We already heard vv9-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord festival in early January. A couple weeks later, we heard vv14 & 15 with the start of Jesus’ ministry and calling the first disciples. So of this Gospel reading, the only part we hadn’t heard recently was vv12 & 13. Somebody must have decided to stretch today’s story by adding on those other pieces, thinking we needed more context and content, or that you’d claim you hadn’t gotten your money’s worth at a Sunday service with only two verses of Gospel reading.

Now, the lectionary always has a story of the temptation of Jesus on the 1st Sunday in this season. At least in part that’s because our 40 days of Lent are somehow supposed to parallel the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. In years when we hear from Matthew or Luke, there’s actual content to the temptation story. Instead of Mark’s two verses, their versions go on for around a dozen verses, and also include plot and dialogue and action.

In Mark, we’re left with something like four characters with a single verb each. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn, since they have implications for you, too.

We might as well start with the Spirit, since she’s the big motivating factor in the reading. Verse 12 says, “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” Now our translation says this Spirit had descended “like a dove on him” at his baptism, but it would be better to say the Spirit is taking up residence in him. That’s not just because it’d be weird to picture Jesus walking around with a bird on his head, but more because this is what spirits do in the Gospel: they inhabit and claim you, taking over your life. Quite literally, they possess you. We’ve heard that of unclean spirits in recent weeks, but this is the clean spirit, the Holy Spirit, and those others unholy spirits.

That all makes it even more interesting that the Holy Spirit did the same thing to Jesus that he does to unclean spirits: it drove him out or cast him out. Mostly this is a word used for what Jesus did to demons, including three times in the first chapter alone. This is one of the differences that makes Mark’s version of this story so lively. In Matthew and Luke, it blandly says the Spirit led Jesus. Here in Greek, the Spirit literally “threw him out,” ekballei, like “ball” and ek like exit.

Now we can’t say exactly why we needed such a tough word of the Spirit expelling Jesus, with such oomph either away from society or out toward temptation. But it is a strong reminder for us of God’s work. If you imagined that the Spirit is only a gentle guide to lead you quietly, this says she’s a much more demanding and powerful force.

The only other time the Holy Spirit comes up in the Gospel is in giving you the words you need. Just as Jesus won’t allow you to be occupied by the negative spirits, so this holy protector and advocate comes strongly to your defense. And she seizes hold of you to operate in you for God’s good purposes. So that’s the first of our four characters and their single verbs.

Since we’re talking about the holy versus the unholy, or God’s good work and what tries to interrupt that, let’s proceed to Satan. Verse 13 begins, Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” Like the Spirit, Satan isn’t really a major character in the rest of Mark’s Gospel. In fact, the only other time Satan is identified is when Jesus rebuked him, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” But in that case, Jesus was talking to his closest disciple Peter, because Peter wanted to convince Jesus away from his mission, that he didn’t need to die on the cross. Satan is also symbolized as a bird that tries to pluck the seed of God’s Word away from us, so that our faith can’t cling to God’s promise, to grow in trust.

The word “tempted” is also rarely used in Mark’s Gospel. Each of three times is about Jesus being tested by the Pharisees, to try to get him to stumble in his teaching or to do a miracle. It’s worth noting that Jesus doing miracles on demand would be giving in to temptation. That’s because faith is about trust, and if Jesus is constantly on trial and proving himself there’s no room for trust. Just picture if you tested your loved ones every day, saying, “if you love me, prove it.” It would wreck the relationship.

Beyond that, we probably each have our own understandings of Satan or temptation, of what you recognize as evil or try to avoid for whatever reason. In Matthew and Luke, Satan tried to tempt Jesus in three different ways, which Martin Luther grouped into the headings of “the devil, the world, and your sinful self.” The sinful self are those internal, personal appetites or lusts. Maybe for you it’s candy or alcohol. Or related to sex or your looks or possessions. These may not be inherently bad, but get warped by our desires. The category of the world is pride, trying to prove yourself as better, wanting power or prestige over others.

The final, most insidious is the temptation to forsake God’s promise, to turn away from Jesus, to claim this way of suffering love is wrong. This is not doubt; doubt is trying to believe. No, this is despair, claiming you might as well stay in bed on Sunday because this doesn’t matter and there’s nothing special to be gained here. Or it is making your own categories of holiness to exclude others, of making God in your own image. Or maybe the opposite, of excluding a God who would love people like you. These are broad headings of how what we want gets corrupted and leads us away from God’s will for our lives, for our neighbors, and for the world.

For us, we know it’s a struggle we are constantly failing, which is why we need a forceful Holy Spirit, and also lots of forgiveness and grace. For Jesus, all it said was he was “tempted by Satan.” With that, we’ve managed to say a lot about just a couple words from Mark.

So let’s move on to the next cadre of characters: the wild beasts. This, again, is worth noticing as a detail specific to Mark. The wilderness isn’t just a venue for some sort of sudden death spiritual elimination round as Jesus and Satan duked it out. No, Mark says it was also a camping trip. Jesus was in communion with the other creatures.

I heard this talked about recently as if the wild animals were the next scariest thing after Satan. I don’t agree that that’s what’s going on here. It doesn’t say Jesus was fleeing from the wild beasts, but that he was with them. Neither do I expect this is a peaceable kingdom story quite yet, of the wolf and the lamb living together, hanging out with a harmless snake. It’s not a cartoon image. But it is important to notice that these creatures are part of the relationship with Jesus. They’re not left out.

Like in our 1st reading, with that beautiful ending of the flood. We could say so much about it. We picture Noah as the main character, but God is absolutely insistent that this blessing, this new covenant is for all creation. In fact, no less than five times God reiterates the promise, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth…between me and you and every living creature…all flesh.” Maybe it’s redundant not because the animals needed to hear it but because we humans need the reminder of the covenant, and that it’s about God’s work here on this earth. Jesus was with the wild beasts; they aren’t separated from what he’s up to.

It isn’t an individual gift for you, but is establishing blessing for all creation. Perhaps as you gather to be served the blood of the covenant here in the Lord’s Supper, you can also remember this. You share in this broad communion.

That brings us to the last characters in the temptation story. It says, “the angels waited on him.” Just as with the others, it is surprising for angels to show up here. Angels are normally messengers, delivering God’s word. Here they are instead serving food. You might notice that means Jesus isn’t fasting for the 40 days in this version. It’s also the same word of what Peter’s mother-in-law was able to do after Jesus healed her; she was able to go back to making snacks. The word in Greek is a familiar one: the angels were deacons. It was the typical word for serving food.

That also makes us think more of this table where we are gathered into God’s covenant. Where we commune, are united in the promise. Where we’re left to trust in Jesus’ presence with us, though it seems dubious or ridiculous, so unmiraculous. (Plain bread?!) Where we get to step out of our typical roles and practice serving each other.

There at the end of the temptation story, Jesus goes back into his mission and ministry, to regular life. Mark managed to set that stage in only two verses. For our part, we’ve really expanded on it.

So here’s a briefer recap: You arrived here, compelled by the Spirit to come. You are filled with and empowered by—or, even more strongly, possessed by—the Holy Spirit. Second, here you honestly face your own temptations. Third, it’s about understanding your vast community of neighbors on earth, and, fourth, for practicing hospitality and peace and caring. Finally, you are thrown back into daily life in the world to continue that work of serving and strengthening, of resisting evil and joining good.

Hymn: Lord Jesus, Think on Me (ELW #599)

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Ashes and New Life

sermon for Ash Wednesday        (from Matthew 6 & Joel 2)

I like Ash Wednesday. Maybe like you, I find it moving, though—also perhaps like you—I don’t really understand it.

For starters there’s even the simple question of whether or not you’re supposed to keep wearing the ashes after worship. I mean, Jesus warns about practicing our piety before others on the street corners. That would seem to say that if you’re headed to the store after worship or back to work, then maybe you shouldn’t be a show-off with your ashy forehead, acting dismal and disfigured and unwashed. But on the other hand, clearly we must be putting it on, wearing that black stain for a definite reason, right? So if we’re immediately wiping it off, then why bother being marked in the first place?

That’s even more difficult to answer when we realize the external isn’t what we’re focusing on, but the internal. The prophet Joel said that it isn’t our clothing we tear to lament, but rend our hearts. Not so much our appearance but our attitude, “with weeping and with mourning” he says.

That goes with the confession of sins, which raises more conflicting questions, since this strong repentance can seem like we’re dwelling on our faults. It can seem depressing, or maybe even masochistic. In our society, you don’t admit any weakness or shortcoming. We’re trained to put on a strong face and act as if everything is okay and be tough enough to pull ourselves up as individuals. When my sister was doing job interviews, there was always a question “what’s your biggest fault?” She joked about responding with back-handed self-congratulatory compliments, “I’m a perfectionist” or “I spend too much time at work.”

And yet, counter-culturally, we gather here confessing our actual sins, owning up to what we’ve done wrong, acknowledging brokenness. So is this just about being pessimists or losers? Are we trying to feel ashamed, to rub in a sense of unworthiness or guilt?

Probably it is better labeled as sincerity that peels back our masks and false pretensions, that won’t permit our claims to self-righteousness, to labeling ourselves as alright and calling others the problem. It may be a healthier way of seeing the world and interacting with others not to claim a place of privilege as so wholly self-sufficient, but to recognize our need, that we require assistance from others. Then we’ll see how it is met as a gift, as the sharing of community, whether in church or as a creature on earth.

And if we’re following Jesus’ instructions and guidance, to live lives of concern for others, to be generous and caring, then we need that re-orientation, that motivation. We’d have to acknowledge we could always do better at it, and that it is indeed worth trying.

That’s a positive explanation, a good way of talking about what we do in confession. Even more so, the word of forgiveness, of an entirely fresh start where you are not liable for the wrongs you’ve committed, is just about the most stunning word you can receive. More miraculous is that it comes not because you’ve earned it through restitution or retribution but only because God declares it, speaks that word to you.

Yet that positive, gracious side again doesn’t quite seem to fit with your smudge of ashes. If confession of sins is not to be depressing or dismal or disappointed, can we say something similar about that black cross that will be a stain on your forehead? Can it possibly be good news? As Tim and I are besmirching you, young and old alike, we’ll proclaim that reminder, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s the dark heart of my struggles with this day. It feels mostly morbid, like an insistence on or fascination with death. I love you so much that it’s heart-wrenching to say to the youngest of you, and is miserably sad in other, older instances.

But we should admit remarkable miracle even in those words. It isn’t only about finitude, the too-sudden endings of death. Certainly it has nothing to do with you being worthless; after all, you are God’s good creation. And that God formed you from the dust is worth considering, in part since our food is from the soil and cultivated land is what gives us culture. We are indeed humans formed from the humus, we are earthlings, part of this vast system of relationships God established.

Still more, that you are dust is so much more than an earthling. The elements of your body were formed in the fusion of stars that have exploded, gone supernova, over the 13.8 billion years of this universe. You are stardust, and you yourself are the fruition that would not be possible without that vast history. That’s a stunning reminder.

The other side of it may feel somewhat less romantic, that you also return to dust. And yet it is a truth that our death sustains future life. Our excrement is tomorrow’s fertility. Our waste is recycled and becomes a recreation of God in fresh beginnings. As dead dinosaurs facilitate your lifestyle with fossil fuels, you’ll also find your way into God-knows-what kind of future. Perhaps that’s symbolized as last year’s Palm Sunday celebration returns today, the ashes of our past becoming a blessing for this moment.

But that also points toward something more. This isn’t only about death being an opportunity for other life or about the conservation of matter or ongoing usefulness of what had seemed exhausted and dead. As the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton said, “It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.”* See, this day and the ashes also tie in with Jesus. Maybe that should be obvious, since we’re gathered in church. Yet those marks on your forehead make us need to ponder what we believe and why.

The odd puzzle in this part, the ongoing question it seems to raise is the triangle of our relationships with death and with Jesus. You return to the earth, but your future is not just in having your atoms recycled. In faith, we trust that your death is not the end, that our wrongs or sins or spiritless separation of death do not have the final word. Jesus is the final Word. We’re people who confess in the creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But then why bother to be reminded today about death? Why dwell on that, if that’s not where our hope lies or our remains remain?

In our funeral services, the graveside committal says, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Then right after that we pray to God, “Strengthen us in our weakness, calm our troubled spirits, and dispel our doubts and fears. In Christ’s rising from the dead, you conquered death and opened the gates to everlasting life.”

Just as when in a cemetery we are saying those temporary but still-too-long farewells to loved ones, encounters with death and mortality remain hard and sad. It’s still a problem. It’s not right and not okay, even if it’s not really final. We always need hope renewed and calm for our troubled spirits, not just at a graveside or deathbed, but even in the midst of a bleak, cold winter night.

So the cross on your head: is that a visible reminder that you’ve been claimed by Christ? That God is with you not just for afterlife, but even now in your dirtiness and difficult decisions? Is it the mark of death that can only be cleaned and washed away in the waters of baptism, where you were marked with an invisible cross for eternal life? Is that black smudge in the shape of Jesus’ cross not marking your death so much as that in his death he defeated death, that in him death dies?

What’s this all about, and why is it important for you, not only now but in these weeks until Easter, and long beyond?

Hymn: Ashes and New Life

Ashes and New Life

* In Lent Sourcebook I, pg18

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My Neighbor Mark

      a newsletter article

My neighbor died last week. I’ve confessed occasionally that—in spite of Jesus admonishing us to love our neighbors—I’m not a very good neighbor. I don’t interact much with those who live next to me. Mark had been an exception.

He grew up in that house. He had a philosophy master’s degree and played jazz saxophone and had taught for a while. After his schizophrenia got bad, he moved back into his parents’ house and continued to live there until last week. The house was yellowed from his cigarettes and the smoke shut inside; he never opened windows. Either the heat was on or the air conditioning. With the help of the police, on Friday we discovered that he’d died there.

Life was pretty small for Mark. Because of tremors from medications, and paranoia, and obsessive/compulsive tendencies, he hardly got out. Trips to Woodmans. Phone calls from his psychiatrist. Otherwise the shape of his life was NPR, Turner Classic Movies, and the Milwaukee Bucks. He shared rhubarb and jokes and sardines and music books and weed-killing advice and movie suggestions. I used to pet his Boston terrier, Sammy, who helped fertilize my flower garden.

After Sammy died, Mark was especially grateful for chances to pet our dog, Doug. From time to time, I got to be helpful to Mark by changing the oil in his lawn mower, staining the trim on his windows, cleaning out his basement, or helping him buy and install a new CD player.

Mostly Mark wanted to talk theology. He fretted over the sins of his earlier life, and also fretted that he still enjoyed the memory of those indiscretions and so wasn’t repentant enough. He longed to die, but also worried that killing himself would exclude him from God’s love. It might be argued that Mark took all this too seriously, either because of the time on his hands or because of the illness in his head. It probably could be better argued that he gave theological questions their just weight, as matters of life and death. Or, in the terms of a good Lutheran theologian, as matters of death and life, the end of our old selves and rising to new beginnings.

Mark seems to have had a heart attack while asleep. It was before he had to move into a nursing home, so his estate will go to charity, just as he had carefully planned in his will and often described longingly. Again, I’d say Mark was more charitable to his neighbors than I frequently am. He was also, by any account, more loving than the God he seemed to believe in—the strict one of his Catholic upbringing, the angry one from the Billy Graham magazines and Chuck Swindoll books he insisted on reading.

People often say that all religions lead to the same place. Well, Mark and I were both talking Christianity, but not with much similarity at all. His outcome was fear and exclusion, that left out certain politicians or homosexuals or other creatures. Once, he tried giving out booklets on the Bible, fearing that a lack of conversion would damn them, and maybe him for lack of effort as well. This religion was about the individual mustering fierce certitude and how insistently they could banish doubts.

It didn’t really work for Mark, which is why we kept talking about it. He would ask what my sermons were about, never quite satisfied that my content and the core truth of the Bible is basically a repetition of “Jesus loves you.” Mark couldn’t go to a worship service, and so in some way our discussions were the most church he got, an example of Jesus coming to find us in our “mutual conversation and consolation” (in the words of Martin Luther), of community that encourages and supports each other.

Through it all, Mark remained skeptical of the good and gracious God in Christ that I was trying to preach to him, one who was more ready to love than we are to accept, whose life stretches long past our faults and brokenness. From early conversations, when I was less than a year out of seminary and these theological arguments were still at the front of my mind, to his last weeks when I’d gotten too distracted to find time to be so insistent. In the end, because I couldn’t convince Mark and couldn’t save him and have to say goodbye, all I can do is commend him—and myself—to this God of love, hoping in grace and trusting in mercy.

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Love, Knowledge, and Unclean Spirits

4th Sunday after Epiphany       1 Feb 15

Mark1:21-28 1Corinthians8:1-13
I like books. But I’m also kind of sick and twisted and particularly like theology books. It’s so disgusting that, when I get a quiet Friday off, I even read theology in my freetime. Pretty gross. That passion made a friend once call me theologically arrogant.

She meant it as a compliment, but it comes back to haunt me with this 1st Corinthians reading that says “knowledge puffs up,” saying my puffy arrogance could be destructive and counter to what builds up. It’s evidently dangerous territory. The story from Mark teases it out more horrifyingly. There the smartest guy in the room is labeled as having an “unclean spirit.”

Now, I’m going to ask you to work with this. Stories of exorcisms and demon possessions just seem weird to us. We picture horror movies, or an ancient culture disconnected from our experiences. But rather than quickly writing it off as so foreign, let’s slow down and enter the story.

In this Bible reading, one wisenheimer knows a lot about Jesus, saying, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In fact, he identifies Jesus better than anybody else has in Mark’s Gospel. Next, notice that this happens at a weekend worship service, with other worshippers who are there to learn about God and to praise God. So rather than picturing an ancient horror flick, a better parallel would be to look around at this place here today.

Which makes us need to ask: if the Holy One of God walked in right now, wouldn’t that be, like…a good thing? Isn’t that sort of the whole reason we’re here? And wouldn’t we be happy for a smarty-pants to be able to help identify the Holy One of God?

But, somehow the opposite, this man expects Jesus is destructive, and so Jesus rebukes him, actually tells him to shut up. I’d suggest the man in the story recognizes what Jesus is about and doesn’t want to be part of it. We could say that what he claims to know is in opposition to Jesus. And being against the Holy Spirit’s work means he’s working with an unclean spirit.

Further, there’s plenty still today that Jesus could want to muzzle. If Jesus is Lord of your life and of the cosmos, think of all the things he would want to get rid of or destroy, the obstructions and confusions to his mission that he’d remove. Rather than something shockingly demonic and terrifying or one bad apple, perceiving an unclean spirit this way is more insidious because we can all get trapped in the thoughts of our brains, leading us away from Jesus and his Spirit’s guidance.

So what is the work of the Holy Spirit? To return to 1st Corinthians, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” An unclean spirit is content in self-satisfaction, whereas the constructive work of love is in building community, in supporting each other, in reinforcing the weaker elements, in bridging differences, repairing divides. While knowledge too often can be just hot air, love makes an edifice, is literally edifying. I hope you’re hearing these many helpful building-block and construction images. With that, it’s worth remembering that the church is not this physical structure; the church is the connected group of us, the living stones formed around the solid foundation of Christ our cornerstone, united in efforts of refuge and sheltering, of reinforcement and support.

But we neglect this, forgetting to focus on the structure of relationships and to strive for mutual good. We make faith so individualized, or place it in heaven and ignore what happens here and now. So when the Holy One of God shows up in our midst and God-in-the-flesh comes up for a handshake as we exchange the peace, it’s a wakeup call. We have to pay attention to each other. Our lives and relationships matter. This is about love, and whatever obstructs love is wrong.

For an illustration of that I’d like to tell you about Marcus Borg. This past week, theology-type folks have been grieving the death of this popular teacher. A marquee name in the church, Marcus Borg was among the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a project intending as accurately as possible to uncover the “historical Jesus,” meaning not later reflections about him, but who was the guy who wandered around Palestine and said enough inflammatory things that he got killed. In some ways, this important and helpful project tries to hone in on what Jesus was really about, since knowing his engagement with culture helps us engage our own.

But along with keeping track of quotations of Jesus, Marcus Borg and his colleagues also wanted to revise or look again at some stuff like the resurrection, finding a metaphorical meaning “truer” than a literal, factual, traditional kind of meaning.

You’ve probably noticed that resurrection is kind of a big deal for us. So for the last couple of decades, this scholarship has caused a couple problematic or destructive side effects in the church. On one hand was a reaction from those who embraced Marcus Borg’s teaching so much that they looked down their noses at anybody who would still be silly enough to put creed or hope in an empty tomb. Supposing themselves to be more tolerant and realistic and cosmopolitan, at the same time they offend the honest faith of those right next to them. Like the Bible story’s smartest guy who had the unclean spirit, this side became a class of Christian elitists, puffed up with pride, claiming to know better, but too often distracting from the heart of what our faith is about and what Jesus tries to do among us.

The reverse side is those who have dug in their heels to ignore any new teaching at all. If the studies messed with their vision of God, then they wanted to stick to old Sunday School lessons and call it good. I’d say that’s not a great basis for understanding Jesus. Refusing to learn about each other prevents us from growing in relationships. So ignorance can be as obnoxiously obstructive as knowledge. Reactions puffed up in anger can selfishly resist or deny knowledge, like flat-earthers stubbornly sticking heads in the sand, putting on blinders to avoid seeing larger truths around them.

As Marcus Borg was pointing to Jesus and trying to identify him, those have been two negative byproducts. Between those entrenched sides, however, it’s interesting that he himself was insistent on engaging dialogue. He wrote books in conversation with traditional scholars. He accepted all questions at his lectures. He tried not to shame or exclude. In that way, even if Marcus Borg didn’t believe the same things about Jesus that I do, he still wanted us to be Jesus people, confronting injustice and supporting each other, inspired by God. Even when his opponents and his adherents both missed the boat, Marcus Borg was still trying to be a person of love.

That fits these readings today. If you’re puffed up in anger or puffed up thinking you know better, that divisive spirit works against what Jesus is about. If you are striving to learn from Jesus and grow in him, if you are connected into this community with the purposes of being inspired in love, then you’re probably on the right page. That is the Holy Spirit working in you, and among us, for the sake of God’s world.

Almost to conclude, then, here’s another dose of encouragement that captures this spirit on learning to love better from Martin Luther King. In one of his last sermons, he said: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”*

That gets close to the heart of why we gather here and what the Spirit of Jesus is up to. But we need to say one thing more. We’ve said our faith isn’t about how much you know (or don’t know). But neither is it only about how loving you are, as if you can keep track with checkmarks on a list. The intersection of the two may be in knowing how much you are loved by God. That is what matters and is the central reason we gather here.

Life can be a mess and we can mess up and our world can seem to be totally falling apart. The more we know the less we like what we learn, and no answer may seem right or satisfying. So the point of theology and the point of gathering here together is again and again to be able to know love, to trust through all of it that you are held in Jesus’ love. As much as the demonic powers of the world or of your selfish brain, as much as the distractions and obstructions threaten to block it, what you need to know is that Jesus clears that all away and has claimed you in love forever.

All that’s left after that is to figure out what that means.

Hymn: Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue (ELW #644)

* “The Drum Major Instinct,” Testament of Hope, pp265-66

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