Sermon: Good Friday – “Thief”

Christ and the Good Thief (c. 1566) by Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) (c. 1490-1576)

According to legend, his name is Dismas.  He and his family lived in the barren land between Israel and Egypt and at a very young age he contracted leprosy.  One day, a man and a woman with a baby boy were fleeing Israel and passed through that region.  They were tired and hungry and in need of shelter and it was Dismas’ mother who took them in.  She fed them and even provided water to bathe the baby.  After the bath, Dismas also took a bath in the same water and by doing so, was cured of his leprosy.

Another legend, taking place in that same barren land between Egypt and Israel tells of how a mother and father with their young baby were fleeing Israel and encountered two thieves, Dismas and Gestas.  At first, they both were determined to rob the family, but something turned in Dismas’ heart and he instead bribed Gestas not to rob them.

Either or possibly even both these events (or none of the above) had an effect on Dismas, but not enough of an effect for him to change his ways, so in the end, he and Gestas found themselves crucified on a hill outside of Jerusalem alongside a man whom many believed to be the Messiah, Jesus.  Perhaps it was because of one of those earlier encounters with Jesus that caused Dismas’ heart to turn once more toward Jesus.  Perhaps something in him, since he was a boy, had also been longing for a Messiah, whatever the case, at that moment, like so many others before him, Dismas understood that this Jesus was the only one who could save him, so he asked Jesus to remember him: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”

At the time, to be remembered was the best most could hope for.  They had not heard about the Kingdom of God.  They did not understand the resurrection.  The only way to experience eternal life was to be remembered by others following your death, but who was going to remember a thief.  No one.  A thief was no more worth remembering than yesterday’s garbage.  Yet this thief with his death imminent, wanted just one person to remember him: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”  But Jesus is not in the business of simply remembering people.  Jesus redeems, atones, and makes all things new.  Jesus gives eternal life to those who call on him, even if the time is 11:59 p.m., so Jesus said to Dismas, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen commented, Dismas “was a thief to the end and he even stole heaven!”

St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Hebrews, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Jesus’ throne on this earth was his cross, therefore, like Dismas, let us come boldly before that throne, but instead of asking Jesus to remember us, let us ask him to grant us entry into his paradise that we might have eternal life with him.  Whether you are a saint or sinner, if you believe and call on him, he will not deny you entry.

Sermon: Maundy Thursday – “Two Gardens”

Kristus i Getsemane (1873) by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834–1890)

Tonight is the night of the foot washing and the institution of the Holy Eucharist.  It is also the night of the Garden of Gethsemane.  When we think of this garden, it should remind us of another: “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.  And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:8-9)  But we know how that all worked out: a snake, a lie, a piece of fruit, followed by exile.  God “drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24)

Tonight, following the foot washing and breaking of bread, Jesus taught and prayed for his disciples and for us, and then afterward, “When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.” (John 18:1)

The Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane: I’m not suggesting that the two are one and the same, but we are connected to them both.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen also demonstrated that link when we wrote, “As Adam lost the heritage of union with God in a garden, so now Our Blessed Lord ushered in its restoration in a garden. Eden and Gethsemane were the two gardens around which revolved the fate of humanity.” (Source)  

In that first garden, we became burdened by the sin of Adam and Eve’s rebellion and in that second garden, Jesus took that burden upon himself.  In that first garden, we were sent into exile, an angel with a flaming sword preventing our reentry into Paradise, but in that second garden, Jesus accepted the cup of God’s wrath on our behalf and by doing so, the angels rejoice at our return. (cf. Luke 15:10)  In that first garden, there was no atonement for our sin yet in the second garden, there was, Jesus, and he submitted to the Father’s will.

In this world, there are many questions, choices, and options, but the most important question we are asked is which of these two gardens we will choose.  Will we constantly fight against that angel’s flaming sword, seeking to enter a paradise of our creation by the fulfillment of our own will and desires, or will we, like Jesus, come to the other and kneel before the Father and seek his will and desires?  My buddy, Stephen King simplifies the issue, he writes, “There’s really no question.  It always comes down to just two choices. Get busy living, or get busy dying.” (Different Seasons, p.129)  

Enter the Garden with Jesus and get busy living.

Let us pray: “Father… not my will, but yours, be done.”  Amen.

Sermon: Wednesday in Holy Week – “Cognitive Dissonance”

Judas by Edward Okuń

Psychology Today defines cognitive dissonance as “the state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other. The clashing cognitions may include ideas, beliefs, or the knowledge that one has behaved in a certain way.” (Source)  So, you believe A to be true but then through study or enlightenment, you come to believe the exact opposite, Z, to be true.  However, you’ve invested so much time and energy into A that regardless of how much you believe Z to be true, you won’t give in, so you now have this tension/guilt between the two or maybe a deep sense of confusion.  That said it seems I tell you this story during Holy Week at least every other year.  It involves Bishop Jack Nicholls, the Bishop of Sheffield, who once asked a sixth-grade girl where she thought Jesus was between Good Friday and Easter. 

As a church, we understand the answer to be related to the Harrowing of Hell.  The Harrowing of Hell is understood from two passages of scripture: 1) Ephesians 4:7-9 — “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.  Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’ (When it says, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” and 2)  1 Peter 4:6 — “For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as people, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.”  Combined, we understand the Harrowing of Hell as Jesus descending into hell and proclaiming the Good News to those who had died before his first coming giving them the option to also accept him as Lord and Savior.  Those who do are allowed to rise in glory.  The iconography shows Jesus pulling people up out of the depths.

When Bishop Nicholls asked the child what Jesus was doing between his death and resurrection, the answer he was looking for was likely associated with this Harrowing of Hell, but instead of answering the question in general terms, the little girl answered it in very specific terms.  After she had thought a little, she replied, “I think he was in deepest hell looking for his friend Judas.”

For me, this is where the cognitive dissonance kicks in.  We are told, “Satan entered Judas, the one called Iscariot.” (Luke 22:3)  In speaking to the Father about the twelve and referring to Judas, Jesus says, “I guarded them, and not one of them perished except the son of destruction.” (John 17:12)  He was a thief, traitor, betrayer, and more.  Yes, he did try and return the silver, but by then it was too late.  So, could the little girl have been right?  Would Jesus have gone looking for his “friend” Judas?  Answer: No!  Absolutely not!  Let him burn.  Answer: Yes!  “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)  God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4)  Jesus said, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the other ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)

Dante placed Judas in the lowest level of hell and I think that is where he belongs, but… I also want Jesus to go looking for him and maybe even find him.  Why?  Because I want Jesus to come looking for and find me.  

Cognitive dissonance.

Sermon: Palm Sunday RCL C – “Darkness”

Gaudenzio Ferrari (1475–1546), Stories of The Life and Passion of Christ (1513),
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Varallo Sesia (VC), Italy.

The Gospels are not time-stamped so it is somewhat difficult to calculate the length of Jesus’ public ministry, but given the clues and festivals mentioned, it is estimated to have been three to three and a half years.  With that understanding, we can say that the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness and the temptation he experienced there took place about three years prior to the events we are reading today.

At the end of those forty days we are told, “When the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”  Following this, Scripture tells us, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.”  The public ministry begins.

Throughout that ministry, we know that there were many encounters with religious leaders, demons that he exorcised, teachings, feedings, miracles, and more.  For three years Jesus poured out his life for the sake of the mission, fighting every battle that came along, so when he arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was crucified—knowing full well what was about to happen—not only was he exhausted, he was also highly stressed.  He sweated drops of blood.  Hematidrosis.  An exceptionally rare medical condition brought on by stress and anxiety that causes a person to sweat blood.  Because of its rarity, the doctors aren’t entirely certain as to what brings it on, but it is postulated that it is related to the fight and/or flight response: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  And then they came to arrest him, Jesus said, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”

“But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”  The word ‘power’ (exousia) in that sentence can be translated in several different ways: power, right, liberty, strength, jurisdiction, authority.

Following the forty days, the devil left Jesus “until an opportune time”.  That opportune time arrived on the night of Jesus’ arrest when he was experiencing the greatest anxiety.  That hour and the hours to come were handed over to the power of darkness… to the jurisdiction / authority of darkness.  This handing over to the darkness was not because Jesus had been defeated, instead, it occurred so that Jesus might be glorified.  The darkness believed it had finally conquered God, but in being given authority for a short while, it was defeated.

What you and I experience of the darkness of this life is nothing more than the death throes of death itself.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

As we walk with Jesus during this Holy Week, darkness may seem to have conquered, but do not be afraid, it is only the hour before sunrise.

Sermon: Lent 5 RCL B – “Fragrance of Christ”

The Magdalen Anointing Christ’s Feet c.1720-30

My Granma had a pie-making business.  I believe it started off with just a few pies each day, but at the peak of her pie-making career, she would make up to 40 pies each morning.  She would make the crusts the night before, then get up around 2:00 a.m. to work on the fillings.  When everything was done, she had these pie trays that looked like a stack of coins and she would load them up and carry them out to the car for delivery to the various restaurants.

One morning, when all was loaded and she was driving in for deliveries, she felt something brush up against the back of her leg.  She knew that there were a number of feral cats in the neighborhood and thought it was probably one that had snuck in the car while she was loading the pies, so she just nudged it with her foot and it went under the seat.  When she got to the first restaurant to drop off the pies, she went looking for the freeloading cat.  It wasn’t a cat.  It was a skunk.

We all know that, even on a good day, a skunk smells like a skunk, so the only reason I can figure that she didn’t smell the skunk in the car was that all those pies smelled so much better.  The only reason that skunk didn’t spray my Granma when she pushed him up under the seat was that he knew better than to mess with Nellie Toles when she was delivering her pies.

Some smells are very subtle, like identifying the different fruits and flowers in a glass of wine, but others, like a skunk, are overwhelming.  They hit you like a wall.  We read today in our Gospel, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”  A more accurate translation identifies the nard as Spikenard.  The perfume comes from boiling the roots of a plant that grows in the Himalayas that has a “woody, spicy, and musty” scent (Source) and a pound of Spikenard perfume would have been enough to fill a coke can.

In order to pour the perfume, either the wax seal keeping it from being spilled or the neck of the bottle, most likely made of alabaster, would have been broken, and when Mary poured out the entire content of the bottle it would have been like hitting that wall, overwhelming.   When it was poured out it is all that you would have been able to smell.  John tells us, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

There are many different messages in this one incident.  We can talk about Judas’ response, we can talk about Mary and the extravagance of what she did (the perfume would have cost a year’s wages), or we could talk about Mary letting her hair down, something a woman during that time would have only done in the bedroom or…etc.  There are many lessons here, but Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa in his book, Come, Creator Spirit, spoke of the significance of the alabaster jar and how it symbolizes Jesus.  He writes: “The alabaster jar needs to be broken! When the woman broke the jar, says St. John, ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ The broken jar was a symbol of Christ’s humanity: pure as he was, he was truly ‘a vessel of alabaster’ to be broken in his death on the cross so that the Holy Spirit within him could be poured out, to fill the whole Church and the whole world with the Spirit’s fragrance.”

In one way or another, the fragile alabaster jar had to be broken in order to release the fragrance, just as Jesus had to be broken on the cross to release the Spirit of God; and just as the fragrance of the Spikenard filled the house, the Spirit of God has filled God’s people and his Church.  

It is St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians who writes: “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?  For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)

You may not notice it so much in the congregation, but on the days we have incense, when you’re in the front and those glorious clouds of smoke are wrapped around you, the scent permeates everything: your clothes, hair, your skin, you breathe it in, and it becomes a part of you.  In the same way, the fragrance of Christ is to become a part of us, permeating our entire being, so that it can radiate from us, but for that to happen, like Jesus, we too must be broken open through the sacrifice of ourselves.  In that breaking, the fragrance of Christ will be revealed and recognizable through our witness to the Gospel, our generosity, kindness, love, compassion, selflessness, and more.

Ask yourself: what is the fragrance of my life?  Is it without scent because you’ve resisted the call of Christ, is it the smell of your own passions and desires and therefore the smell of decay, or is the fragrance of your life the fragrance of Christ as he reveals himself to others through you?  Jesus said, “This is my body, which is broken for you” and in being broken, his life-giving fragrance poured out into the world.  

As his disciples, allow yourselves to be broken, so that this fragrance may continue to fill the house of this world.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, help us to spread Your fragrance everywhere we go. Flood our souls with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly that all our lives may only be a radiance of Yours. Shine through us and be so in us that every soul we come in contact with may feel Your presence in our souls. Loving Savior, let them look up and see no longer us but only You!  Amen

Sermon: John Donne

by Isaac Oliver

The Very Reverend John Donne whom we celebrate today died on March 31, 1631.  His early career saw him as an aspiring government official and womanizer, but it would seem that somewhere along the way, he discovered God.  Later, at the bidding of King James I, Donne would enter Holy Orders, being ordained a priest in 1615 and rising to Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  His first biographer, Isaac Walton, said that “he had been a Saul… in his irregular youth [and had] become a Paul, and preach[ed] salvation to his beloved brethren.”   He was truly one of the great poets and preachers of his time.  Of all his writings, it is Meditation #17 which is most familiar.  It begins with him hearing the church bell toll, announcing the death of another:

“PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.”

Donne twists the story, and in an almost humorous way proposes that the bell that is ringing, and unbeknownst to him, just might be for him, suggesting that a dead person does not know that they are, in fact, dead.  He continues:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

When any of us die, we are all diminished, because even though we are many we are one body.  So the tolling bell really is for us all.  We’ve all died a little in the death of another.  He continues:

“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.”

Using the analogy of a book, we each make a chapter, and the absence of anyone’s chapter makes for an incomplete book.  And it is God who is the author of it all.  When we die, we are not lost, just written anew.  He concludes by telling us that when we hear the bell toll, we should be reminded of our own death and in being reminded, turn toward God, that He might see us through it all and into his heavenly kingdom.

Whether intentional or not, the meditation is in a sense autobiographical.  Through his life and the troubles he experienced and witnessed, Donne understood the greater calling, the service of God, and how we are all called to take heed to our own lives in relation to our God.

Sermon: Lent 3 RCL C – “Colon or Period?”

In about 512 B.C., as Darius I of Persia led his armies north of the Black Sea, the Scythians sent him a message comprised of a mouse, a frog, a bird, and five arrows. Darius summoned his captains. “Our victory is assured,” he announced. “These arrows signify that the Scythians will lay down their arms; the mouse means the land of the Scythians will be surrendered to us; the frog means that their rivers and lakes will also be ours; and the Scythian army will fly like a bird from our forces.” But an adviser to Darius provided a different interpretation: “The Scythians mean by these things that unless you turn into mice and burrow for safety in the ground or into frogs and hide in the waters or into birds and fly away, you will all be slain by the Scythian archers.” Darius took counsel and made a hasty retreat!

According to the International Bible Society, “As of 2020, the full Bible has been translated into 704 languages. The New Testament has been translated into 1,551 languages and parts of the Bible have been translated into 1,160 additional languages.” (Source) Within the English language alone, there are over 100 complete translations: ESV, NIV, KJV, NKJV, RSV, NLT, and an E I E I O. Deciding on which translation is right for you can prove to be challenging, but what we must understand about them all is that while each is seeking to convey the truth, they are all interpretations of the original. The original Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the original New Testament was written in Greek. The correct translation of these ancient languages is difficult enough, but what makes them even more so is that neither of these original languages uses punctuation when writing (no commas, periods, question marks, etc), and the Hebrew texts did not even use vowels. Bottom line: to read the original Bible texts, you are going to have to be an amazing linguistic scholar and even then, you will not likely be able to translate the text perfectly. So we pray that the Holy Spirit has guided each person who has undertaken such a task so that what is given to us is as God intended. All that to ask you one question about our Old Testament lesson: should it be a colon or a period? I’ve highlighted for you the sentence in question.

“I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you [colon] when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

The colon right there in about the middle is what caught my interest. Is it correctly punctuated or should it be a period?

As we read, Moses saw the burning bush and went up on the mountain to behold this marvelous sight. There, the Lord told him that he has heard the cry of his people Israel and that he is sending Moses to call them out of captivity. The Lord said to Moses, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And then our sentence: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

“… this shall be the sign…” If in the sentence it is a colon, then the sign to be given is Moses bringing the people out of Egypt and worshipping on the mountain, but… if that colon is supposed to be a period, then the sign is, “I will be with you.” And everyone says, “Fr. John, you’re splitting hairs this morning,” but not really, because you see, if it is a colon, it is about what Moses will do, but if it is a period, it is all about what God will do.

We know that Moses had been a prince of Egypt, but now he is a shepherd. Not only that, he is a murderer, a runaway, and as he will soon confess that he don’t talk so good. Is that the kind of person that can free an entire nation? Not likely. We also know that in the next chapter, God will have Moses cast down his staff and it will turn into a snake. When God tells him to pick up the snake by the tail, it reverts to a staff. Then God tells Moses to place his hand inside his cloak and when he pulls it out it is covered in leprosy. When he repeats the process his hand is healed. Question: what part did Moses play in either of those two events? Other than doing what he was told: nothing. It wasn’t about what Moses could do, it was about what God could do through him: a weak sinful man.

I’m not a biblical language scholar. I got through Greek and Hebrew, but we all get lucky on occasion. That said, I believe that the verse should actually be two sentences… no colon because all that Moses said and did was to reflect what God was doing through him. God being with him was the sign. What happens later only confirms this.

It was when all the Israelites were at Meribah. They were complaining to Moses that there was no water, so the Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water.” However, instead of speaking to the rock, “Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff.” By speaking to the rock, it would have been a clear sign that God was working through Moses, but by striking the rock with his staff, Moses made it appear that it was he who had accomplished the miracle. For this, the Lord counted it against him and Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land.

The Lord told Moses to get down to Egypt land and tell old Pharoah, “Let my people go.” Moses responded, “But who am I. I’m a shepherd, a murderer, and my tongue gets tied.” God said to Moses, “Yes you are and yes it does, but I will be with you, and me being with, doing such marvelous works through you, will be a sign to everyone that I AM is with you. That the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of your forefathers, is with you.”

We see Moses as this giant of a man. A man who talks to God. A savior of Israel, the one who parts the waters, but all that Moses ever did was only accomplished because of his willingness as a weak and sinful man to allow God to work through him.

Question: what does that tell you about yourself? In his weakness, the Apostle Paul cried out to the Lord and the Lord responded, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore [Paul says] I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

My friend, St. Josemaría Escrivá says, “You realize you are weak. And so indeed you are. In spite of that — rather, Just because of that — God has chosen you. He always uses inadequate instruments, so that the ‘work’ will be seen to be his.” (The Way #475)

Gather up all your weaknesses and place them at God’s disposal then witness—not how weak you are—but how mighty He is.

Let us pray: (in honor of St. Patrick, part of an old Irish prayer that you can make your own)
As I arise today,
may the strength of God pilot me,
the power of God uphold me,
the wisdom of God guide me.
May the eye of God look before me,
the ear of God hear me,
the word of God speak for me.
May the hand of God protect me,
the way of God lie before me,
the shield of God defend me,
and the host of God save me.

Sermon: Lent 2 RCL C – “Mind and Heart”

The Decalogue: Traditional

God spake these words, and said:
I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of
Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none
other gods but me.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the
likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth
beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow
down to them, nor worship them.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law

Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law

Honor thy father and thy mother.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law

Thou shalt do no murder.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law

Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Thou shalt not steal.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and incline our hearts to keep this law

Thou shalt not covet.
Lord have mercy upon us,
and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

Cajun Ten Commandments
– Jus be one God… and das’ all.
– Don’t pray to nuttin’ or nobody… jus’ God.
– Don’t be cussin’ at nobody, specially the good Lord.
– When it be Sunday… get yo’self to God’s House.
– Listen to yo mama an’ you daddy.
– Don’t be killin’ no people… duck an’ fish das’ okay.
– God done give you a wife, be wit’ jus’ her.
– Don’t take nuttin’ from nobody else.
– Always told da whole troot.
– Don’t go wantin’ somebody’s stuff.

In his syndicated news column, Will Rogers said, “You give us long enough to argue over something and we will bring you in proofs to show that the Ten Commandments should never be ratified.” Sounds funny, but we know it’s true because anytime someone starts talking about putting up the Ten Commandments in a monument or something, there are at least a dozen others trying to tear them all down. I don’t have a dog in that particular fight, but to be honest, they all seem like they should be pretty easy to get behind, that is, as long as you keep Jesus out of it. Once Jesus gets involved, the standard get’s raised quite a bit.

Some might like to argue: Jesus is the God of the New Testament and the Ten Commandments are from the God of the Old Testament, but not only do we know that these are not two separate gods, we also know that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

That’s why I believe it is so important that we go through the Decalogue at least once a year as we did at the beginning of the service. Not so that we can simply interpret and apply them as they read on the surface, but so that we can understand them in

light of the teachings of Jesus and so that the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, quoted by St. Paul, can be fulfilled:

I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
(Hebrews 8:10b)

It is one thing to know and be able to quote the commandments, but when they are written on our hearts, they change who we are. Jesus provided us with a few examples of what this looks like, which you are familiar with: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28) He then continues to teach about divorce, oaths, enemies, and more. He does not exhaust all the possibilities, that would be more burdensome than the Law that was already in place, so he provides a few examples of what it looks like to have this Law of God written, not only on our minds but on our hearts as well. In legal terms, it comes down to (I think!) the difference between a law and a principle. The simplest definition that I read states:

“A law externally compels you, through force, threat or punishment, to do the things someone else has deemed good or right. People follow or break rules.”

“A principle internally motivates you to do the things that seem good and right. People develop principles by living with people with principles and seeing the real benefits of such a life.” (Source)

The Ten Commandments (Ten Laws) teach us, You shall not murder, and Jesus defines the principle behind the original intent of that law: don’t even be angry with one another.

Jesus’ complaint against the religious leaders of his time: they were very concerned with the Law, but paid little or no attention to the principle, that which would govern not only a person’s exterior actions but their interior ones as well. Hence, Jesus’ complaint against them, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” (Luke 11:39) Jesus wanted them to teach both the Law and the principle so that lives and hearts could be changed, but as was noted, the Law was burdensome enough, and to add even more teaching to it would have been untenable, so instead of proposing that, Jesus provided the summary, the first part of which comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second part from Leviticus 19:18. Combined they read, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) So, with that understanding, is love a law or is love a principle? Both. As Jesus commanded it, it is a law, but it is also a principle because it is what should internally motivate us. And not only is it both, but it is God.

When you want to understand the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, in the way that Jesus would have you… look for the love. When you say, “Lord, have mercy upon us and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee”, what you are truly saying is, “Lord, love us, and help us to make love the guiding law and principle of our lives.”

Let us pray: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Sermon: Lent 1 RCL C – “Temptation”

A fella and his wife were shopping a kiosk in mall when a shapely young woman in a short, form-fitting dress strolled by.  The man couldn’t help himself and followed her with his eyes.

Without looking up from the item she was examining, his wife asked, “Was it worth the trouble you’re in?”

Temptation and sin: every preachers favorite topic.

I feel quite certain that most of us have at one time or another gone out looking for trouble, but I doubt any of us go out looking for temptation.  In most cases, temptation is something that arrives on your spiritual doorstep uninvited, but the temptation is not a sin.  What you do with that temptation will determine whether or not you’ve sinned.  Man sees a pretty girl, he can a) recognize her as pretty—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that or b) let his mind loose with all kinds of desires and fall into sin.  Not all temptations are as simple as that, but in the end, most come down to that type of decision.  You can “Resist the devil [and the temptation], and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7b) or you can give in to its Siren like calling and sin.  Again, the temptation is not a sin.  It is what you do with the temptation that is the determining factor.

Another aspect of our temptations is that they are tailor made.  They suit our weaknesses and passions perfectly.  Some people like fast cars and they can’t help but be tempted to speed.  Others like to gossip and they can’t help but chat away when they’re around others.  Everything from shopping to alcohol to anger to… we don’t have time to include them all, but if you’ve shown a weakness to something in the past, then you know the devil is going to bring it your way again.  As my friend always said, the devil isn’t all that smart because he’s only got a few tricks, only trouble is we keep falling for them.  What’s a person to do?  In the words of Severus Snape (Harry Potter reference for all you muggles): “Control your emotions! Discipline your mind!”  And that really is the answer.

Our temptations are also referred to as “occasions of sin.”  If someone is a recovering alcoholic, then an occasion of sin or temptation would be for someone to unwittingly offer them an alcoholic drink.  There was no malice on the part of the person offering.  They were not some agent of the devil trying to bring the other person down, they were simply being friendly, but it has put the recovering alcoholic in an occasion of sin.  What is the person to do with the temptation?  “Control your emotions! Discipline your mind!”  The controlling of the emotions is something that occurs when the drink is offered, but the disciplining of the mind is something that takes practice over time, before the temptation is presented.  For whatever trick of the devil’s that you find yourself falling for time and time again, you have to know beforehand how you will respond or you stand a good chance of falling.  So, for the recovering alcoholic, they must mentally walk themselves through various scenarios and determine how it is they’re going to react.  “Ok.  If someone offers me a drink, I’m going to say, ‘Thank you, but I don’t drink.’”  And they have to repeat that to themselves over and over again, so that it is ingrained in their minds.  So that their minds are disciplined.  

When we talk about temptation and sin, we are talking about the battle for our souls, so this sounds like a rather dry / clinical approach, but ask yourself, “How’s my current method working out?”  Then look at the example of our Gospel lesson today: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

Jesus did not go off into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  We are told that he was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”  I don’t believe he went out there looking for trouble, but it did arrive on his spiritual doorstep.  Did he wring his hands and fret: “What do I do?  What do I do?”  Nope.  He answered the devil’s every temptation with Holy Scripture (specifically from the Book of Deuteronomy.)  He had control of his emotions and he had disciplined his mind.  He had prepared for just such an occasion of sin in advance.  Perhaps he did not know what the temptation would be, but he was not foolish to think that they wouldn’t come at all.

“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”  But you’re going to want a game plan for the resisting bit.  Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  Approach your spiritual battles in the same manner and you will be far more successful in defeating the temptations that wander up to your spiritual doorstep.

Above all your preparations, pray.  Pray for God’s strength to defeat your enemies from whatever direction they may come.  St. Paul tells us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to all. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”  That way of escape will be made clear to you through your prayer and your preparation.

One final note: if you fall into sin, learn from your mistakes, repent, confess, and get back in the fight.  You are a child of God.  You have work to do.

Let us pray: Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.

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