A Sermon on Power
First Lent in Jamaica, NY
Good morning! I feel honored to be here with you all this morning, to be allowed to preach from your pulpit, Fr. Leys. A big "Thank You" to Joy for inviting me as a guest preacher, and to all the women who made this weekend's first annual women's symposium such a blessing and success!
Now, as some of you ladies heard Pastor Paulette allude to yesterday, I too am aware of a bit of a cultural difference in preaching styles. It's a wonderful challenge to be before you all, whose ears are trained to receive 30+ minute sermons! Where I am from and where I am currently serving, the preacher has about 12minutes to get their message out before you start hearing people in the pews getting restless and tune out. So I find it freeing to be here with you all, but please forgive me if this message feels short to you.
(Lord be with you . . . Let us pray, Gracious and loving God we pray for you Spirit to pour out upon your people gathered here today, that they may hear and receive Your word. So that they may get out of this message what you would have them receive. Holy Spirit, I pray for your peace and passion to flow through me so I may proclaim your Word to Your people. Amen.)
Today I want to talk with you about POWER!
Here on the 1st Sunday in Lent, we have well known, powerful, vivid, scripture readings full of imagery. In Genesis, we have Adam and serpent in the abundant garden. In Matthew, we have Jesus and Satan in the arid desert. For our Epistle, we have Paul in prison writing to the Romans with some dense theology, which actually pulls the Genesis and Matthew passages together quite well. I'll flesh that out later on.
Often on this first Sunday in Lent, preachers focus on "temptation" and "sin"--and yes we will talk about that a little bit--but the main word of the day, and what I have seen to be an underlying current of the women's symposium, is: POWER.
More specifically the power to choose our future. Yes, our history is our strength, and as the Body of Christ, Scripture is our history, and therefore Scripture is where we find our strength! And in today's lectionary we find much strength in the power of Christ!
Turn to our Genesis reading in your Bible or bulletin. In Genesis, we are reminded of the power we have are given in free will. As God's created and God's beloved children, we are given great power. And with great power comes great responsibility. We are not puppets pulled by strings forced to do what some great puppet master wants us to do. No! God has given us the gift of free will; the gift and power of choice.
God put Adam and Eve in the garden--a place of beautiful innocence and abundance--and God told them they could do and eat whatever they wanted except this one thing, except the infamous tree of the knowledge of good and evil. See they were given free will to choose to whether to obey God, or not. From the beginning, Creation was given the power to choose, from the very get-go God gave Adam and Eve, and all of humankind - because remember Adam and Eve aren't necessarily two specific people from history who lived in specific time. And they aren't the ones who "messed it up for all of us." Adam and Eve are you and me. Adam and Eve are a type which represents humanity.
And in them, humanity was given a choice... You know what that choice was?? "I set before you life and death, choose life!"
I set before you -life--an abundant garden full of anything and everything you could ever need or want; and I set before you death--that one tree of the knowledge of good and evil. See God is awesome, and blunt sometimes, which I appreciate. God was about as direct as He could be. I set before you life (all of this as life), yet also death, and I'm going to tell you what is death. It's that one tree right in the middle of the garden, called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat (or even touch!) that tree, you will be choosing death. And to top it off, here's a hint to help you with your choice . . . choose life!
And yet, aaannnd yet, we humans like our drama. We are good at taking a simple straight forward situation and adding a whole level of complexity to it. Especially us women! We like to over analyze our lives (he said, well she said, but he did and what does that really mean?!)
We are all given this gift and responsibility of the power to choose. To choose how we act. To choose how we respond to one another.
Church, if you hear nothing else from me this morning, hear that you always, always!, have a choice. You get to choose who you are going to be. This may sound like the "American dream" but really it's the Human dream. To be fully yourself in Christ. To own your actions and reactions. To live to honestly and with integrity in your own skin, your own body. Even if you're in one of the toughest situations, you have control and power over your own body, your own mind, and you can choose how you behave, how you live your life. But I digress . . .
"I set before you life and death; Choose life!"
And yet we often misuse our power of free will. We are just like Adam and Eve, disobeying God in a simple moment of temptation or desire. Adam and Eve desired to be wise like God. They were attracted to that power of knowledge, the power in wisdom. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with knowledge or wisdom. And yes, the serpent was there deceiving them . . . But I don't want to get into the whole "the devil made me do it!" bit, because that's dangerous territory and weak theology. We are the ones responsible for our own behavior and actions.
We have the power, you have the power, you have the God given power to choose life! To choose to follow Christ, listen to the Holy Spirit, and obey God in your life.
With great power comes great responsibility. Church, we do not live in a bubble, or under a rock. Our actions and our lives impact one another. We can use our power to sow seeds of negativity and condemnation, or we can use our power to sow seeds of positivity and exhortation. Please do not underestimate the ripple effect, or butterfly effect of even the smallest deed. You know, we rarely ever truly know the way in which we impact one another's lives. It's often not for years down the road that we come to find something we said or did changed another's life so significantly. Something that just rolled off our tongue, that we may not even remember ever saying. Or something we did because it was our "normal habit" or maybe just spur of the moment, and yet that small act caused a great ripple effect in another's life.
With great power comes great responsibility.
Now let's switch gears and look at today's Gospel, turn to Matthew 4:1-11 in your Bible or bulletin. So in Genesis we are reminded of God's given gift of the power in free will, the power to choose, and we are reminded that as humans we often misuse our power (which can sounds kind of grim). But we find great hope in today's Gospel.
In Matthew we have the very familiar story of Jesus being tempted by Satan. Jesus was just baptized by John and then immediately sent out by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. Ah, the wilderness, something I imagine we are all very familiar with. Especially during Lent, a season of penitence and wilderness, a season where we walk through the wilderness and we invite Jesus to walk with us, to guide us and provide us with the strength we need to get to the promise land.
So Satan comes to Jesus in this arid, barren land after Jesus has been fasting for forty days and nights. Forty days and nights!! Could you imagine? We as church folk can barely do anything without revolving around food, potlucks, prayer breakfast, or at least some little snack. As Episcopalians/Anglicans we only have two days, two liturgical days that we are expected or encouraged to fast--Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Even then, I remember in Seminary our Dean wanted to emphasize fasting. But it was a Sun-up to Sun-down fast. We would all meet at the Deanery early in the morning and have a big substantial breakfast. And then subgroups of us would meet after sundown to prepare a solid dinner.
But anyway, SO Jesus in His full humanity is hanging on by a thread, when low and behold Satan shows up again. See, the devil is smart and sneaky. He shows up at just the most opportune times. He comes and offers Jesus bread, sustenance, presumably and superficially life.
Please note here, that when the Scripture reads that the devil said, "If you are the Son of God . . . " the devil really isn't challenging Jesus' identity. The Greek word that has been translated into "if" can also just as easily be translated into "since". Satan isn't saying, "IF you're the Son of God" and questioning Jesus' authority and identity. No. Both Jesus and Satan know full well who Jesus is and what Jesus is going to do. Instead, Satan is saying, "well since you are the Son of God, and are famished, feed yourself!"
Satan is challenging Jesus' use of his power. Testing to see whether Jesus in his full humanity will misuse his power--as we humans tend to do.
But Jesus does not fall for the devils deception. Jesus does not give in to his hunger and human selfishness. Instead Jesus responds with the Word of God. "It is written!" There is power in speaking God's word out loud.
Think about, when you have people around you dragging you down with complaining or their negativity, remember that you have the power to sow a seed of positivity and speak the Word of God to them. Follow Jesus' example and say, "It is written!" "It is written that I am a beloved child of God." "It is written that I have the power of Christ living in me, and I will do amazing things with my life. I don't need your negativity dragging me down. And I am NOT going to let your negativity trump my creativity in life!"
We have the power of Christ in our lives. We have the power to overcome temptation. We have the power to use our passions and gifts for good and to make a difference in the world.
You know, temptation . . . I challenge you this Lent to look at temptation in a different way. Look at moments of temptation to be times of opportunity. A moment of temptation is just another opportunity to choose--an opportunity to hold fast to the power we find in Christ and to choose life, to choose God, to choose to NOT be dooped by the devil and to rather stay firm in faith in Christ and grow in relationship with God.
Now going back to our Gospel from Matthew, Satan gives Jesus two more opportunities to prove His power; two more opportunities to claim victory over sin and death.
In the second temptation, or opportunity, since Jesus responded to Satan with Scripture the first time, Satan ups the ante or ups his game and throws misused Scripture back at Jesus. But Jesus replies, "Again, it is written, Do not put the Lord your God to the test."!
We see this escalation in the temptations, right? Not only the physical escalation in location--from desert, to pinnacle, to high mountain top--but also escalation or ascending nature in the requests/temptations--from bread, to angels, to all the kingdoms of the world. We see this right?
Finally, for the third temptation/opportunity Jesus replies to Satan's absurd request with, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written . . . " Sometimes when we are feeling tempted, we just need to say out loud, "Away with you, Satan. In Jesus' name!"The point I'm trying to emphasize is that there is real power in God's word. There is real and true power in speaking God's word in our lives.
Let's move on . . .
As for our Epistle from Romans, Paul ties it all together for us in a nice little dense theological knot. Paul helps us travel from the abundant garden to the arid desert; from Man's disobedience to Christ's perfect obedience; from our misuse of power to the mighty power found in Jesus Christ who conquered death and restores us to life!
This passage from Romans is excellent for the first Sunday in Lent, as we just came out of the beautiful liturgy from Ash Wednesday. As Episcopalians and Anglicans we articulate our theology through our liturgy. Our liturgy speaks our theology.
I believe you all had a service of ashes this past week, right? How many of you attended the Ash Wednesday service or at least know what I'm talking about?
Okay, good. Remember that in the service, we start with recognizing and remembering our own mortality--"remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (That's kind of morbid, if you think about it. Fr. Leys, I'm not sure if you felt this way. But I found it a little disturbing to distribute ashes to young children or babies. To tell them they are dust and will return to dust, when they have so much life ahead of them. But then, this is where our theology is spoken through our liturgy.) Next, through our liturgy, we are raised up by the power in Christ with the Eucharist. We journeyed to our Lord's holy table and received the promise of everlasting life. This is the same journey that we have taken today from Genesis to Matthew, and now in Romans. The journey from death to life, from the temporal to eternal, from the powerless to the powerful in Christ.
Paul says, "Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act (Jesus) of righteousness leads to justification and life for all."
And how much more is that grace, that righteousness? The power in Jesus one act covers not only one transgression, or the first transgression, but ALL, all the sins and transgressions of all time--past, present and future!
As we struggle through Lent, wandering through the wilderness, may we come back each Sunday and find hope, restoration, and POWER in the Eucharist; in receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
In Christ we have our history. In Christ we get our strength. In Christ we receive power.
As Paul claims, we have been given the abundant free gift of grace. And it is our choice what we do with that grace. Grace is free, but not cheap. Grace is powerful, and we can use that power for good or for evil. We can use that power to oppress and degrade one another, or to lift up each other and build up the kingdom of God!
Unfortunately we have the history of wrongly using power to oppress the alleged "other"--to oppress by race, by ethnicity, by gender, by orientation, and by even age. But church, I tell you today, it is time that our voices are heard! Now, is the time to stand up as the Body of Christ and say what wrongs still occur today are unjust!
As a nation we have come a long way, but we still have a ways to go for fully equality. Ladies, do you know, that currently--even in our church--women are paid 17% less than a man, in the same job position with the same experience and qualifications!
Church, today is a new day! A new day in which Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death! A day in which we find salvation and sanctification, life and love, and peace and power in Jesus!
I'm going to close with this one image, from the theologian Achtemeier who once wrote, "Where one begins determines where one will end." He describes being in a large airport. Or better yet imagine you are at Penn Station, or any subway station. There are many trains that come and go. But it is crucial which train you chose because that will determine whether or not you get to your destination. If one chooses poorly they can end up in a completely different place than expected. Achtemeier claims this is true for human being's life as well, "only here the choices are not nearly so numerous as in an airport [or train station]."
In life we have just one question, which gives us two choices: follow Adam's decision, or follow Christ's decision. One leads to sin and death, the other leads to life and grace. This Lent, remember that you have the power in Christ to choose.
Let us pray,
Gracious, mighty, and powerful God, be with us, your people throughout this Lenten season. Help us see those sneaky temptations as opportunities--opportunities in which we have the Power of Christ within us to choose Your way God. The power to choose to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to walk with Christ, and to grow deeper in relationship with you Lord God.
This we pray in Jesus' name.