Sermon for First Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Lectionary Year C: Luke 4:1-13
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
You and your church suck.
You don’t care for each other.
You don’t do anything good for the community.
Those were the accusing words lobbed at me 12 years ago in my former parish in Quincy. They were from a man who had visited the congregation for a few Sundays in a row, but then didn’t come back. A short time after his final visit with us, I happened to see him at Panera Bread, I asked how he was, I told him I missed him, and that’s how he replied to me.
As always happens, criticism cuts deep. 99 people can say wonderful things, but the criticism of 1 person is what’s remembered. Did we suck? Did we not care for one another? Were we not doing enough for the community?
That week, with these words weighing heavily on my minds, I shared them with a colleague. He knew me and the ministry in Quincy. He knew we had gone door knocking in our neighborhood, that I had hosted a bible study at Panera Bread, that we hosted a Chinese Neighborhood Association in our Building, and that we were serious about Chinese outreach ministry.
Here’s what he said:
O no … those are words from the devil. Those are lies. Don’t believe those lies.
In today’s gospel, on this first Sunday in Lent, we join Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness tempted by the devil. The temptation Jesus faced, was the temptation to believe what the devil said about him.
Note: the devil was sneaky. The devil didn’t do a frontal attack on the identity of Jesus. “If you are the Son of God …” said the devil. “Prove it!” Some scholars believe that these words could also be translated: “Since you are the Son of God.” “If you are/since you are the Son of God … Prove it!”
The devil, in asking Jesus to prove his identity, is cunning. He’s not barging in the front door, instead he’s trying to sneak in the back door. He was trying to get Jesus to take on other identities, other seemingly less significant identities: defensive …undisciplined … unfocused … in an attempt to steal him away from his central identity as the Son of God.
And, it should be noted, the devil’s craftiness included quoting scripture! Sir Walter Scott writes: “A sort of creeping comes over my skin when I hear the devil quote Scripture.” Preacher Martin Otto Zimmann writes: This is indeed a hair-raising moment for us as well, because all of us have the capacity to quote scripture to fit our own agendas. Whenever we use scripture in an argument, are we not also giving into the temptation to think we have God figured out?” (Quotes from Sundays and Seasons)
But Jesus refused to take on any identity the devil had for him. His identity was found in God. Because Jesus refused to play on the devil’s terms, refused to accept anything that the devil said about him, the power of God was revealed in Jesus Christ – the power of faithfulness, steadfastness, and deliverance.
On March 10th every year, today, the church commemorates Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery and helped 300 others escape slavery until slavery was abolished. She later became a spy for the Union Army. She was a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and that she was called by God to work for liberation.
She wrote of her call story:
“Long ago, when the Lord told me to go free my people, I said, “No, Lord! I can’t go. Don’t ask me.” But He came another time, and I said again, “Lord, go away. Get some better-educated person. Get a person with more culture than I have.” But He came back a third time, and spoke to me just as He did to Moses. He said, “Harriet, I want you.” And I knew then I must do what He bid me to do.” (Quote from “More Days for Praise” by Gail Ramshaw).
We can see, that initially, when God called Harriet Tubman, she continued to believe in the identities thrust upon her. She believed the lies others said those identities meant for her.
That she was only a slave … and as a slave she must be obedient to her master. That she was a woman …that women didn’t have the authority to preach and teach. That she wasn’t the most educated … the real work theology, preaching, and ministry was not for her, but was for others.
If Harriet Tubman had continued to believe those lies told about her, then she would not have helped 300 people escape the clutches of slavery. If she had believed the lies told about her, then no one would know who she was today. But because she refused to believe the lies of the devil, and instead received the truth of God, God used her in faith for amazing things.
Friends in Christ, today in faith, as individuals, and as a congregation, we are called to refuse the lies we speak to each other, and the identities we hurl at each other.
Lies spoken to us, lies spoken by us, and among us:
You don’t deserve happiness …
you don’t deserve love …
that person is a waste/nuisance/bother …
you can’t be forgiven, those people can’t be redeemed …
the grace of God is for others but not for you …
Friends, those are all lies from the pit of hell, lies told in many and various manifestations.
We reject those lies, we must reject those lies, because of power they have to shut down the work of God in us and through us. We reject those lies, like Harriet Tubman, like Jesus in the wilderness, because our liberating God of life wants to use us, wants to use each of us and this congregation, to bring life and healing into the world. Turning from lies, standing in the truth, we open ourselves in powerful ways to partner with God in God’s liberating and redeeming work.
In rejecting the lies, maybe we can take the approach of Martin Luther. When he felt provoked by the devil in these ways, when he felt tempted to believe that he and his ministry were worthless, he said to the devil: “You’re right. You’re absolutely. I am a sinner. I am worthless. But, Jesus proclaims me forgiven. So, if you have a problem with me, take it up with Jesus.”
On Ash Wednesday, we received the identity that we are dust. We confessed the ways we have sinned, the ways we have failed to love one another and those around us.
In our confession, in the recognition that we are dust, we did not, however, take on identities such as unlovable, unforgivable, unredeemable. In faith, we reject identities that speak lies that we are outside of God’s grace, that we don’t belong to the communion of saints.
Today, on March 10 every year, the church also commemorates Sojourner Truth. She was born into slavery in 1797. After she escaped from slavery, she traveled extensively as an abolitionist and speaking for women’s rights.
Born with the name Isabella Baumfree, she writes about how she received the names we now know her by:
“When I left the house of bondage I left everything behind. I wasn’t going to keep nothing of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land showing the people their sins and bein’ a sign unto them. I told the Lord I wanted two names ‘cause everybody else had two, and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.” (Quote from “More Days for Praise” by Gail Ramshaw).
Friends, on our Lenten sojourn, on our Lenten journey, we travel to the truth. We travel to the baptismal waters in which the truth is proclaimed and our identities given: Washed, forgiven, redeemed. These names proclaim the truth of God’s love. These names proclaim the truth of our identities as children of God.
Today, rejecting the lies, and receiving the truth, we are sent in the power of those names. We are sent, not to spread lies today, we are sent today to speak the truth. To speak the truth of Jesus Christ who remained confident, focused, and disciplined in his identity as the Son of God and the savior of the world.
We are called today, to speak the truth of the love of Jesus Christ. With our words, and with our actions, in all that we do, we are to proclaim to one another, here in this place, here to one another, here in this neighborhood, here in this city, each other’s worth and value as fellow washed, forgiven, and redeemed saints in the kingdom of God.
Standing with Jesus, with Harriet Tubman, with Sojourner Truth, in the truth of God’s liberating love, who knows the amazing work that God is preparing in you and through you? Who knows the powerful ways God is preparing to use us as a congregation, to bring liberation and life to our neighbors?
And so, friends, as you go forth today, don’t speak lies to one another, or about one another, don’t receive the lies spoken about you or to you. Reject the devil’s work in your hearts and in this place. In faith, alive with Christ who faithfully and totally rejected temptation, be confident, focused, and disciplined, in witnessing to the hope, salvation, liberation, justice, and mercy that God continually and forever speaks in Jesus Christ.
Indeed may it be so.