Sunday, April 28, 4:00 – 6:00 pm
“Faith in Community”
You are invited to a community interfaith dinner for youth and their families! Come participate in a sharing of faith traditions. There will be a Q&A session with youth from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. After the Q&A, stay for a potluck dinner that will include small-group, interfaith discussions about the value and role of faith communities in our lives.
Teens Ages 11-18 and their Families Welcome!
Bring a Dish to Share! (Vegetarian only)
$$$ FREE $$$
RSVP to Carolyn Dempsey at email@example.com
Jesus answered [the devil], “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Luke 4:12
I read a beautiful essay this week in which the writer, James Marcus, describes the last months of his father’s life.[i] I don’t know if it’s my profession that draws me to memoirs about death and dying or if it’s just that I’m weird. But it was powerful reading during this week when we take our first tentative steps down the Lenten road toward Jesus’ death.
James’ father Aaron was a hematologist, someone who specializes in the study of blood. Here’s how James describes his father’s focus on his work:
[My father] was a physician and a scientist, who had spent decades pursuing the secrets of blood: how it flows, pools, clots, conducts intracellular conversations with itself. Too frail for what had been a daily commute into Manhattan, he was still running his laboratory in absentia…He wanted to find a new treatment for stroke…[he] wanted to win the Nobel Prize and wear his tuxedo to accept the check from the King of Sweden.
Given his life’s work, it’s a cruel irony that Dr. Marcus was eventually brought down by a subdural hematoma – bleeding in the brain. It didn’t kill him right away, but for months he experienced hallucinations. He said a man in a brown suit had shown up demanding proof of his identity. He insisted that his beloved Uncle Eddie had visited. Uncle Eddie had died 50 years ago.
Dr. Marcus learned before his death that he was to be awarded an incredible honor – the Wallace H. Coulter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology. He had worked for many years with no recognition at all, slogging through a variety of research projects that did not lead where he had hoped. So it was a proud, though bittersweet, accomplishment to receive such a prestigious award. One of the last coherent things he said lying in his hospital bed were the whispered fragments of the acceptance speech he had hoped to deliver. For about an hour he spoke in fits and starts, occasionally falling asleep and then waking up to continue the lecture. It didn’t make much sense, but it was as if he really believed he was speaking to an audience. He died in his sleep two months before the awards ceremony.
This essay touched my heart in many ways, but I was especially reminded of how much each of us wants to know that our life matters, that the world is somehow changed for the better because we have been here. And how often the way we feel that we matter is connected to a particular identity that we hold. Dr. Aaron Marcus was a scientist, and that identity shaped how he viewed his own significance. It made a difference in how he lived, and it made a difference in how he died.
For some of you that sense of purpose comes from your profession too – in what you do and how you do it. Most of us also see our identity and purpose as rooted in relationships. For the people who are dearest to us, family members and friends, we hope that we can leave a mark on their lives in the way that they have marked ours.
And when we inevitably face those life and death struggles, it is our deepest identities that anchor us.
I see this happening in Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Here we see quite viscerally what it means to be the Son of God, both human and divine. I am usually drawn to the evidence of Jesus’ divine nature in this story. I love that even though he hasn’t eaten in forty days, he can still go toe-to-toe with the devil. He withstands each and every one of the temptations that the devil offers up, and he usually does it by quoting some scripture: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”…”It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “…”It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Jesus the Divine One can handle himself in a fight with evil.
But this time I realized just how much this story points to Jesus’ human nature. The devil has designed the temptations to appeal to those longings that most humans hold deeply. If Jesus is only divine, then it’s not even a fair fight. But because Jesus is also human, these temptations are real for him. He must struggle against giving into them.
The first temptation appeals to hunger. The devil urges Jesus to turn stones into bread, and I can’t imagine how good that would sound after forty days of eating nothing. We all have our hungers, not just for food, but for anything that will fill us when we are feeling empty. You know what that is for you.
The second temptation speaks to the human desire for power and recognition. The devil says to Jesus: “You worship me, and I’ll give you authority over all the kingdoms of the world.” I’m not sure what made the devil believe that he had that kind of authority over the world, but the devil sure is looking to leverage it. We may not want to rule the world, but we all want to have a certain kind of power and influence in our own lives. We do not want to be controlled by someone else. Most of the “isms” that divide humanity arise from a corruption of power that seeks to coerce and control others.
The third temptation is the promise of safety. The devil promises that if Jesus jumps off the top of the temple, he will be OK. The devil even quotes the psalm we read together a few minutes ago, reminding Jesus that God promises the protection of angels. This one might be the most human temptation of all. We do not want to be vulnerable. When we are in a risky situation, when we’re not sure whether or not to take a leap of faith, we want to know that we will be safe. And we can’t always know that.
A full stomach. Unlimited power. Guaranteed safety. It’s a pretty enticing set of promises for the very human Jesus. But he knows they are false promises.
The devil keeps saying “If you are the Son of God” as if both he and Jesus aren’t completely aware that Jesus is the Son of God. That’s the identity that allows Jesus to remain steadfast in the face of these temptations. The devil can keep whispering in his ear, but the voice of God got there first – in Jesus’ baptism, when God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
There will always be voices that try to undermine our sense of who we are. Sometimes those voices will be inside us, when we are filled with self-doubt or when we compare our lives with the lives of others and feel we come up short. At other times those voices will come from the outside, when we encounter people who seek to diminish us and make us feel insignificant.
Those are the moments when we are the most vulnerable to temptation – when we feel that we do not matter. When we believe that we are not enough. That’s when we’re most likely to choose what will hurt ourselves or others.
In those moments of temptation we can hold fast to one unshakeable identity: We are children of God. I am a child of God. You are a child of God. And that means that you are enough and you do matter and you don’t need anything more to prove your worth.
God has made us to be both human and holy, and God is indeed our shelter and shadow, our refuge and stronghold. Of that we can be sure.
There is something in every one of you that waits [and] listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself…You are the only you that has ever lived…and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
You are the only you that has ever lived. You are a child of God. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
Thank you to Professor Karoline Lewis for pointing me to this address in her “Dear Working Preacher” column this week: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5294
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” Matthew 6:1
W.H. Auden is one of my favorite poets. I learned recently that he had a secret life.[i] Since his death in 1973, stories have emerged of his private generosity, generosity that was unknown even to those who knew him best.
A friend of Auden’s once needed a medical operation he could not afford. Auden invited this friend to dinner but never mentioned the operation. As his friend was leaving, Auden gave him a notebook containing the manuscript of one of Auden’s books. The friend was able to sell the manuscript to the University of Texas and pay for the operation.
After World War II Auden arranged to pay for the school and college expenses of two war orphans. He continued that practice year after year, until his death at age 66.
My favorite story might be the one about an older woman who was a member of the church to which Auden belonged. He learned that she was having night terrors, and so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Auden did not want these stories to be known. For whatever reason, he went out of his way to keep them hidden.
I have no idea what Auden would say about today’s gospel, but I suspect he would like it. The gospel cautions us against a purely performative expression of our faith: One translation says: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Or – as another translation puts it: “When you do good deeds, don’t try to show off.” (CEV)
Don’t give generously to earn praise from others. Don’t pray on the street corners to draw a crowd or fast with melodramatic sighing about how hungry you are. In other words, don’t make it about you.
I’ve long thought this was a strange gospel to hear on a day when we smudge a big ashen cross on our foreheads and go back out into the world. That cross is hard to miss. It invites some attention – and some questions. At the very least it makes people wonder if we’re terrible at face-washing.
But this gospel is not just about today, Ash Wednesday. It’s about how we approach daily life as a follower of Jesus, how we balance the call to share our faith with the challenge to be humble in how we do it.
Jesus isn’t saying don’t share your faith. Quite the opposite. He names three specific ways that we canshare our faith. He simply encourages us to be clear about why and how we do these things.
Sometimes it’s hard to trust our own motives, but don’t let that keep you from trying or renewing a spiritual practice during the Lenten season that we enter tonight. Whatever you decide to try, perhaps the best way to reflect on that practice is to ask: “Is this practice pointing toward me, or is it pointing toward God?”
Let’s consider the three categories that Jesus mentions – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
Almsgiving. You might choose to put a little bit of money in an envelope each day during Lent and then after Easter contribute it to a cause that does what God calls us to do – care for those who are suffering in some way (people who are hungry, prisoners, folks struggling with addiction, refugees, victims of sexual violence, hospice patients). The possibilities are many, but we all have some need that is close to our hearts. Telling other people about that donation to make yourself look good obviously isn’t the point. But telling other people that your donation comes from your understanding of faith is a way to bear witness to God’s generosity – and to invite others to share in that generosity too.
God has given us life – both life now and life eternal. And, as we remember tonight, this present life has an expiration date. So why wouldn’t we share what we have? There’s no point in clinging to our possessions while the moths and the thieves circle around us.
Prayer. We probably have less trouble with Jesus’ caution regarding prayer. Most of us aren’t rushing to the street corner to wave our arms and shout prayers at the people passing by. But when a friend or family member or co-worker shares something that has them worried, what if we said, “In my faith tradition we often pray for each other and the heavy loads that we’re carrying. If it would be OK with you, I’d be glad to pray about what you’re going through.” Now that might actually seem scarier than praying on the street corner, but I bet we’d be surprised at the ways it would deepen our relationships – with God and with each other.
Fasting. This one doesn’t have to be about food, although it can be. It can also be about anything that distracts us from following Jesus. Video games. Social media. Netflix. Our fantasy football team. How might we fast from some of those distractions? It doesn’t have to mean giving it up entirely and forever. We could during the forty days of Lent choose to step away one day a week or for a designated window of time each day. And then what would we do with the time that opens up when we fast from these activities?
Once again, Jesus warns us about creating a public spectacle. The goal is not to make everyone within a ten-mile radius aware of our sacrifice. The idea is to open up some new space to reconnect with ourselves, with the people in our lives, and with God.
All of the cautions Jesus offers are about humility – not false humility, not holding back the gifts and abilities God has given us – but the humility of knowing we cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. And has already done that.
On Ash Wednesday we receive the sign of the cross to remind us of our need for God. It reminds us of the sin for which we need forgiveness. It reminds us of our mortality, echoed in the words that are both true and jarring: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is also a reminder of our hope. The cross is the place of our salvation. Whatever we do, in public or in secret, we do because our God has faced down death for us. Faced down death and won.
The cross of ashes will eventually wash away. But the love of God never washes away. God’s mercy is eternal. God’s love is everlasting. It follows us as closely as our next breath – from our first breath to our last. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]Edward Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014 issue. Electronic version: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/03/20/secret-auden/