Never stop a mentally ill person from buying a gun,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never stop a broken soul from pulling a trigger,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never pass legislation,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never stop the next school shooting,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are an easy cliché,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are sometimes hard to say,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are difficult for survivors to hear,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are like all prayers: words.
May our prayers be more than words. May they be words brought to life by the Holy Spirit.
Forgive us of the sins of indifference. Let us not be overwhelmed by the pain. Instead, empower us to act to bind the broken, heal the hurting, preach peace, vanquish violence, and embody the Good News of Jesus Christ. May we move beyond comforting thoughts and our comfort zones to confront the principalities and powers of this world so that the deaths we see will not be the permanent reality we are currently forced to embrace.
May you speak the language of silence today, May you hear the sounds between words, May you embrace the quiet hours of the night, May you seek empty stillness before sunsets, May your faith in listening be stronger than your desire to speak, May the rhythm of our breathing reflect the hopeful phrasing of our words. May the silence nourish your soul and feed forgiveness.
Every year, the first Sunday of Lent centers on one story: the temptation of Jesus, by the devil, over forty days in the desert immediately following his baptism. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that retell this head-to-head story. Mark and John don’t include it at all. For some reason, they left it on the cutting room floor. Of the two versions, my favorite is Matthew’s. Matthew gives us greater detail, dialogue, and imagery. I have always had an affinity for the Matthew passage. When I was in seminary, I was assigned this text. But instead of preaching it from the traditional perspective, the way most churches and preachers do it every year, I was given the more challenging task of retelling the story from the devil’s perspective. How would this story look and sound if you told it from the other character’s eyes? That exercise made me a better preacher and is one reason I look forward to the first Sunday of Lent every year.
The main thing I learned about the devil (specifically Matthew’s perspective on the devil) in preparing that original sermon was this: if the devil was going to tempt Jesus or us, he wasn’t going to be anything like the caricatures of evil or Satan we’ve become accustomed to seeing; images that were invented in the Middle Ages and became popular in renaissance art. You know the ones I’m talking about, the pointed horns, the red leathery skin, the pitchfork, the wispy tail. Whoever heard of a red devil anyway? This was back in the dark ages, before Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the greatest minds in history, discovered all devils were blue.
To be genuinely tempting, the devil would need to be quite ordinary, a little charming, unassuming, friendly, a little witty, someone you’d like to go to dinner with, maybe that neighbor with the big TV who’ll invite you over to watch the NCAA tournament, someone with whom you can relax. That’s who the devil is. The devil is cool, calm, and collected. You never see the devil coming, and when the devil asks you to make a moral choice or by the time temptation is placed before you, it doesn’t seem like temptation. It will seem like the right, normal, even natural thing to do. After all, this is your friend, that guy, your buddy; why would your regular next-door neighbor friend with all the same interests, kids in the same school, and a nice two-car garage lead you astray? The devil couldn’t look like one of us, could he? Could the devil be a mirror image of us? The devil is a narcissist whose greatest desire is to be loved and adored, but ultimately, he wants to fit in: seem typical, like us, and even ordinary. The devil seeks to seem normal; blending in and appearing average is his grand goal. Who is afraid of the average? Average flies under the radar. The average is undetected. This is what makes the devil so diabolical. The devil is in the details.
What are the details of Jesus’ temptations? You just heard them: turn stones into bread, throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship me to gain all the power in the world. The specifics may be different, but the temptations are essentially the same: when it comes down to it, the only person you can depend on is yourself. You can’t rely on God, others, your faith, or anything other than yourself.
Remember what I said about the devil fitting in and looking like us, even being the mirror image of ourselves? We are our own worst enemies. Ladies and gentlemen, we have met the enemy, which is us. Each of these three temptations is the same. You don’t need God. You only need you. When you get to the heart of the matter, is that not the essence of every temptation we face as human beings? We can do it ourselves. Why trust God? Why listen to God? Why have faith in anything beyond ourselves? Why not take matters into our hands? After all, we have no idea what the future may hold, and we’re hungry now! The scriptures say the angels will catch us now, put God to the test now! We want to control our destiny now! Give into the devil’s offers of power and control now! Jesus can fill his stomach.
Jesus knows the scriptures say what they say. He knows he can rule the world. But here’s the dirty little secret about Christianity: self-reliance may be the American way, but it’s not the Christian way. The secret to passing these temptations, Jesus teaches us, is that even though we can, and doesn’t mean that we should. Even though we can turn stone into bread, test God’s promises in scripture, or take the devil up on his offer to run our affairs, it doesn’t mean we should. Even though we can do many things, it doesn’t mean we should.
That’s the greatest trick the devil is always trying to pull; he makes what you think you ought to do sound reasonable, regular, logical, and the right thing to do. But, of course, you’re hungry, so why not feed yourself? He even cherry-picks scripture to make his point. Of course, the Bible says God will send his angels; it’s right there in the Bible, so why not put God to the test and show the world that the Bible is the true word of God. Throw yourself from the temple, and his angels will lift you; it will testify to the veracity of God’s word. Of course, you have the right to rule the world; you’re Jesus Christ; what could be wrong with that, worship me, and you’d still be in charge and calling the shots. He makes it all sound normal, natural, logical, and even scripturally sound. That’s how you know you’re being tempted when the wrong thing feels like the righteous, holy, Biblical, and normal thing to do.
The real temptations aren’t drinking, gambling, or looking at porn online. No, the essence of temptation has always been buying into the devil’s big lie that we can do everything ourselves; we don’t need God (or each other) in our lives. Have we bought into that lie? Do we believe the devil is telling the truth? Do we believe his lies that we can depend on our self-sufficiency? I can’t answer that question for us (or you). Only you know whom you’re listening to and whom you believe. Do you trust the man from Nazareth or this person asking you to make what sounds like a perfectly reasonable choice but compromises your morality on every possible level?
The devil wants us to sing a variation of his favorite song: “My Way/Your Way.”
You are the light of the world. That is a beautiful compliment. It’s the kind of thing you might expect to read when you open a get-well card. If someone had bought a card for me with that printed inside, I would have felt happy, moved emotionally, and encouraged.
Now imagine someone told you those words, face to face. That changes the entire dynamic. It’s one thing to read a sentiment; it’s another thing to hear the terms for the thought (or idea) to go from a dimensional idea to a three-dimensional reality. In short, it’s nice to hear a compliment, for someone to make a little gesture of thanks, or say a few words of appreciation. A person going the extra mile and showing that bit of grace is sometimes all it takes to change the course of your day. Who knows, if your day changes, your life might as well.
It’s extra nice when Jesus pays you a compliment. Sure, it would be great to go to the mailbox and get a thank you note from Jesus but imagine Jesus telling you in person, “You are the light of the world.” What if that someone giving you a face-to-face compliment is Jesus? What would that do to your day? How would that alter the rest of your life?
Given the state of the world and how dark things feel at the moment, being told you’re the light of anything by anyone is good to hear. These people, like us, aren’t used to getting compliments or encouragement. We feel lucky if no one rear-ends us on the way to Food Lion, or we don’t get into shouting matches with our family and friends over dumb little arguments. Compliments seem out of date and quaint, reserved for birthdays and other holidays, not something we’d do regularly or daily. We take each other and our families for granted, usually operating on the assumption that the people we live with and love know we love them and appreciate them; why do we need to tell them? Jesus is asking us to reconsider that mindset. People need to hear good things, especially when the world feels like it’s going to hell in a handbasket.
I’m sure this took Jesus’ audience by surprise. “I didn’t know I was a light!” I can hear them saying to Jesus. “I’m the light of the world!” Can you imagine hearing that affirmation for the first time? These crowds gathered on the hillside for the sermon of the mount didn’t come from a culture where they encountered a great deal of positive news about themselves or others. They lived in dark times; as occupied people, most couldn’t read the inspiring words of prophets like Isaiah, and if they could, they didn’t think they applied to them. Here Jesus says, you are the light, as an individual, are something good, light!
What does light do? What am I called to do as light? Light makes the world a safer, brighter, happier, warmer place. That’s what light does. You are called to do and be those things. Light changes everything. Nothing can hide from the light. Light makes the intangible tangible, the unsafe safe, the cold warm, the sad happy. It is there, everywhere, and all around. Light cannot be contained.
That’s you! You are more than you ever knew or thought you could be. You are the light. Part of being the light is giving your light away. Light is always available for sharing with people in darkness. Once you have the light, you are always available to share it without losing any of the original light that makes you, you!
You’d be surprised (well, maybe not) how many people are living in darkness. We forget how many people need, want, and are seeking the light of Christ, the light of the world, and to know that they also are the light of the world.
Light is much like empathy. The world needs it to survive. The church needs it. We can’t function without it. If you’ve ever lived in a world without electricity, you know that your entire rhythm of life is more challenging and brutal. Our world has a light deficit as much as an empathy shortage. We’ve grown comfortable living with this shortage, rationing of light, joy, and empathy in a world of darkness. We don’t have to live this way. You are the light of the world. Darkness is not the default setting for our lives and relationships. Light and all it brings, compassion and empathy are part and parcel of our souls whether we realize it or not. Jesus identifies this within us. Are we going to take the compliment from Jesus, pass it on to someone who needs to hear it, and share the blessing Jesus has given us with someone else?
This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.
I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.
Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.
The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.
Would we let wise men (or women) inside our church or churches today? I’ve been considering this question over the past few days. Matthew’s gospel is the only account we have of these mysterious visitors from the east, often assumed to be Zoroastrian astrologers, who arrived in Nazareth sometime after the birth of Jesus. Christians don’t know that there were three kings, magi, dudes on camels, or whatever we want to call them. A “Subcommittee for the Determination of the Number of Wise Men” was formed at the United Methodist General Conference held in Nicaea in 372 CE. They duly reported back to the next General Conference (held in Damascus) in 376 CE that three gifts indicated one gift per person. As such, paragraph MMDLII of the 380 CE Book of Discipline would suggest that for all time and any subsequent United Methodist Christmas pageants and Epiphany sermons, three wise men, was the accurate, appropriate, and orthodox number. Twelve people may have shown up in Nazareth, eight men and four women carrying three gifts purchased under an agreed ten-dollar limit, but because the text said three, our Book of Discipline and we United Methodists settled on three men from out of town, representing ill-defined and mystical eastern religious practices, who wanted to show some respect to a wholly Wesleyan baby Jesus.
That’s how we got here. My question is this: would we do it today? Imagine we’re in church, doing our thing, singing “We Three Kings” and “Joy to The Word” sometime over the next few weeks. Things are rocking and rolling along. It’s a spirit-filled New Year’s Day service. The pastor preached about turning the page and making a new start with God or some other generic New Year’s Day nonsense. No sooner than the congregation has rattled off number 880 in the United Methodist Hymnal, the Nicene Creed, by heart, and you’re ready to start your community prayer concerns and celebrations, everybody notices some strangers have walked in the door.
It’s cold outside, just below freezing, and these three guys are wearing neither coats nor shoes. They are bald and clad in maroon, saffron, and orange robes. You hear some Captain Obvious observe using their outside voice, “I think they’re from out of town.” The gentle whiff of incense follows them as they process down the church’s center aisle. What do you do? Does the usher who works the door, the one with the concealed carry permit, draw his gun? Does the mom in the back row pull out her phone and dial 911? Who are these strange men, and what do they want? Do they want anything? Are they a threat? Yes, brother and sisters, what would we United Methodists do if into our neat and tidy Epiphany services, as we sang “We Three Kings,” Tibetan Buddhist monks, Theravada Buddhist monks from Myanmar, or Jain monks from India walked into our services unannounced and asked to pay reverence to our God, the Christ child, the anointed one of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem?
How are we at letting others with different faith traditions and have no intention or desire to convert to Christianity, but respect our faith enough to be respectful to us and our God, share our joy? Do we have the common decency to say, “thank you?” Or, will we find ourselves wanting to say, “Can I tell you about my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?” Here’s the thing: they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t know about Jesus. They’ve traveled a long way to show Jesus homage. We could learn a thing or two from the Wise Persons and the different traditions they represent in our day and time. If other people are willing to go out of their way to show Christianity respect, we need to be more respectful of others and their faith traditions. The visitors from the east offered gifts (both tangible and spiritual), went home, and lived the rest of their lives according to their beliefs. Awareness and appreciation for someone else’s faith does not diminish our own. As Ted Lasso says, “be curious, not judgmental.” If we learn anything from Matthew’s story of the wise men, remember that. Allow the strangely dressed foreigners from other traditions to respect Christ, then show them the same respect. Invite them in. We’ll all be better for it.
We don’t have to invent or infer Jesus’ actions. There’s no need to guess or ask, “What would Jesus do?” We know. Read the gospels. The New Testament offers specific examples of Jesus’ behavior, beliefs, and deeds. For example, there is little mystery as to Jesus’ attitudes toward the poor, elderly, or the sick. If one wants to follow Jesus, read and contextualize his words for our day and time.
In this week’s gospel passage we see several different areas that are regularly emphasized in Jesus’ life and ministry.
Jesus teaches in the synagogue. Contextually, this means he’s in the church or a worship experience. Jesus goes to synagogue, participates, leads, and is active in worship. Presence is important. Sharing in Psalms, scripture, and community matter. Jesus is modeling best practice. He doesn’t find God on the Sea of Galilee. He goes to a worship space. We can learn something from Jesus. He’s our role model.
The woman he heals is also in the common worship space. We’re not told (as we are in other instances) that she’s there to be healed. She’s simply present (despite her pain and infirmity) in the worshiping community. It’s important to draw near to God. The healing is an outgrowth of the worship.
All time is holy. Jesus is attacked for healing the woman on the sabbath. Humanity’s concept of linear time is opposed to the divine idea of circular time (kairos vs. chronos time). We forget that God works in the moment. All time is Gods. Jesus reminds the synagogue staff: human need (i.e. people in pain) outweighs any rules we think we are trying to enforce on God’s behalf.
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