Saying “No” to the Divider

A Sermon by Matt Boulter

St. Richard’s Episcopal Church

February 21, 2010

Lent I C

In the great 19th century German legend Faust, we meet the scholarly Dr. Faust in his study, struggling to figure something out, to discover some great scientific breakthrough. And then all of the sudden, a sinister and mysterious being called Mephistopheles appears out of nowhere in his study. Now, in the previous scene of the story Mephistopheles – a kind of Satanic or demonic figure – is seen in heaven dialoging with God, engaging God in a wager that he, Mephistopheles, can tempt God’s favorite human, Dr. Faust, and cause Dr. Faust to enter into a pact with himself, thereby betraying God.

And so here Mephistopheles is, in Dr. Faust’s study, and sure enough, Dr. Faust gives in: he agrees, by actually signing a contract with a few drops of his own blood. The terms of the contract? Faust will serve Mephistopheles for all eternity in hell, if Mephistopheles will just give him everything he wants before he dies.

Now, I won’t ruin the story for you by telling you how it turns out, but suffice to say that something similar is going in today’s Gospel lesson from the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, but with one key difference: the great tempter in our story today is not named “Mephistopheles;” he is named simply “The Devil.”

Now at first glance that might not seem too terribly important to you, but then you might notice that this character is explicitly named in this little story not once, not twice, but three times. It’s as if he is named three times, once for each of the three temptations which confront the famished Jesus … Jesus who is full of the power of the Spirit (having just been baptized in chapter 3) and who has just been led into the desert by that same spirit for the explicit purpose of being tempted.

Now what’s going on in these three temptations? Well, I think that by mentioning “the devil” 3 times, Luke is actually giving us a big hint, for the word “devil” in Greek has a very simple meaning: it means “the one who divides;” “the divider.” Who or what is the devil? Well, there’s a lot about the devil I’m not too sure about, but this I know: the devil is one who divides the things and the people that God has put together, and that, my friends, is a huge clue as to the nature of these temptations here in this desert in Luke chapter 4.

What is Jesus tempted with here? Three things: bread, power, and health. Now, let me ask you question: are these 3 things – bread, power, and health – are these bad things? No! They are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time.  During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus: the short answer is that we are not so much saying “no” as “not yet.” God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

See, all of these things being offered  to Jesus by Satan … in each case, the “carrot” being dangled before Jesus was something which was already his by God’s promise.

When the Divider offers bread to the famished Jesus, imagine what was running through Jesus’ mind. “Hmmm … what would a kingdom based on feeding miracles look like? A ministry of providing bread out of nothing could blaze a trail right to the king’s throne, with throngs of followers supporting me. Then I could finally restore the fortunes of Israel and God’s people.” See, Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut to the Kingdom. But Jesus said “no.” By faith & the HS – the very same resources you & I have, by the way – Jesus determined not to grasp his kingship, but to wait for it as a gift.

The very same thing is going on in the 2nd & 3rd temptations: in each case the Devil is tempting Jesus to choose: “you can choose God, or you can choose the bread. You can choose God, or you can choose the chocolate. You can choose God, or you can choose the power of the king’s throne.”

But, you see, in every case, this is a false dichotomy, b/c what Jesus understood is what St. Paul tells us: that God has promised us all good things; that he holds nothing back from those who love him; that if we trust him, we will live in the promised land flowing with milk and honey, and we will receive the most lavish inheritance you can imagine. This is why Paul, in today’s Epistle lesson from Romans 10 has the audacity to say that “the Lord bestows his riches on all who call on him.” (RSV; NRSV has “… is generous to all who call on him.”) Paul has the audacity to say that God gives us riches. What is that!? Is it a warm feeling in your heart? No: it is all good things; it is your inheritance in Christ from the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. It is life in the new heavens and the new earth.

This is does not mean that Christians are not called to suffer. On the contrary suffering is the prerequisite to all of this. Death must come before resurrection life. What happens to Jesus here in the wilderness is just a foretaste of his cross experience. We are called to follow Jesus into the wilderness, and we are called to follow him to the cross.

But, still Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

In the book A Severe Mercy, the story includes 18 real-life letters which CS Lewis wrote to the author after the author had lost his wife to cancer. The story – it’s an autobiography of faith, if you will – is really about the struggles and temptations of romantic love. And in one of these letters CS Lewis is trying to comfort and encourage this widower who has lost the love of his life and who is suffering from a loss of romantic and sexual love and affection. And CS Lewis quotes some ancient poem and one of the lines is this: “Worship the Morning Star, and then take your earthly love thrown in.”

See, that is really what is going on in Lent. It is not an “either / or.” “Worship God, and take everything else thrown in.” “Seek first the Kingdom, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, and all of these things will be added unto you.” The false dichotomies are just that: false. We don’t have to choose. By saying no to chocolate I am not really saying no to chocolate. I am saying “not now” to chocolate. And by saying “not now” to chocolate, I am saying “yes” to God, and I am waiting on his good gifts. I am “seeking the morning star and taking all earthly delights thrown in.”

I am refusing the false dichotomies and the short cuts of the Divider. I am saying “yes” to God, and saying “yes” to God’s gifts. I am saying “God, I want you now, and I really like chocolate and beer and all that good stuff, but I am willing to wait for it in your time, and in your way.” (And you know what? Chocolate tastes so much better when it comes as a gift and not something grasped. And it’s the same way with sex, with power, with health, and with everything else God has made.)

Don’t choose between God and God’s good gifts. Say “yes” to both, and wait for the gifts in God’s good time.

What we are really saying “no” to in Lent, is “no” to the Divider. That’s what Adam failed to do in the Garden, And it’s what the New Adam succeeded in doing in the desert.

What God has joined together, let no one divide.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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Questioning our Worship (II): Why ruin my weekend?

This article is part 2 of a 10 part series written for my church newsletter. Go here for the intro, and here for Part I.

“How was your weekend?”
 
Every Monday morning, as the parents of St. Richard’s pre-schoolers file into the narthex for Monday chapel, this is the question du jur. Usually the answers contain summaries of Saturday outings, perhaps a child’s birthday party, maybe a sick family member, or a date with the spouse. Occasionally, though, someone will mention church: “Church was really great; our pastor preached a really good sermon!”
 
Now, I of all people rejoice when folks approve of their pastors’ sermons. And I don’t want to make too “loud” of a point here, but I am often tempted to respond, “Wow, that’s great! But … I asked about your weekend.”

 

Surely such an odd response would produce blank stares of consternation. And yet, the underlying point is valid, even if unsettling: we don’t go to church on the weekend! We go to church on Sunday, the first day of the week.

 

About 10 years ago I started asking my nephew (around 5 years old at the time), “Why do we go to church on Sunday?” The programmed response (taught to him by me!) came back, “Because that’s the day Jesus rose from the dead!”

 

And so it is. In chapter 20 of St. John’s Gospel, the risen Christ makes three appearances to his discouraged and confused followers, and each time, the writer is at pains to stress that the risen Lord comes to his people on the first day of the week. (See verses 1, 19, and 26 of John 20.) In precisely the same way, and for the same reason, the earliest church we know of – the apostolic church of the Book of Acts – gathered to break bread together not on the “weekend” but on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

 

There are some powerful implications here upon which to meditate, especially during this season of Lent. First, as Christians we enter in to joyful worship and rest before we work. This is to show that all of our work, indeed all of our lives, should and can be permeated by rest and worship and joy.

 

Second, as theologians down through the ages have pointed out, the first day of the week is also the eighth day of the week. (It is significant here that circumcision in the old covenant took place on the eighth day, which is one reason many baptismal fonts are octagonal in shape.) That is, the first day of the week, Sunday, is the day of new creation. Now that Jesus has risen from the dead, there is a new creation in which we live and work and love. God has triumphed! This is his world. As reigning Lord, he is bringing his purposes to fruition in his own time. Hence, we worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead, conquering all our enemies and dysfunctions and sins and fears.

 

For me, this so often means that I must “rest by faith” or “feast by faith.” Which is to say that Sunday worship, setting apart this one day of the week for this “royal waste of time” (to borrow a phrase from theologian Marva Dawn), is actually a kind of discipline (both for me individually and for my family). Even when I am all burdened with stress or anxiety, I am called – especially on Sunday – to “let go” and to rest in God, knowing that it is his job (and not mine) to make everything right. Indeed, knowing that I am not God is a great relief, and this fact makes it possible truly to rest! 

 

Now, for a over-scheduled person in our hypermodern world, this is a very strange mindset, is it not? Indeed, it is. Maybe that’s why the New Testament describes us as “strangers and aliens.” Perhaps that is why St. Paul exhorts us to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” into radically different ways of thinking and living.

 

And as our frenetic, volatile, violent, unsustainable culture teeters along the precipice of its own decline, God’s faithful people are quietly and compellingly modeling a better way to live. A way of rest and peace. A way of faith and festive joy. A way which begins not on the weekend, but on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week. 

By going to church on Sunday, we are not “ruining our weekend.” We are, in fact, saving the world.

 

 

 

 

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Ordination to the Priesthood

God willing

The Right Reverend Dena Harrison

Suffragan Bishop of Texas

will ordain

Matthew Rutherford Boulter

to the Sacred Order of Presbyters

in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 7:00pm

Saint Richard’s Episcopal Church

1420 E. Palm Valley Blvd., Round Rock, Texas

 

Your prayers are requested Your presence is desired

Clergy White Stoles

 

Reception following in Saint Richard’s Narthex

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Lent: Language, Faith & Fiction

How is the life of faith to be imagined?

What kind of life is able to resist the diabolical?

How can what we encounter be a vehicle for the holy?

How does faith inform what it is to write fiction?

What is the relationship / interdependence of human freedom, human language and human imagination?

These and many other questions will be meditated upon this year in My Lenten reading: Rowan Williams’ Dostoevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction.

Many folks over the decades have fancied Dostoevsky as some kind of agnostic, but Rowan is stressing that his intention is rather to imagine the conditions in which faith is possible and coherent in this world of radical failure, suffering, and desolation.

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Bishop Wright on Virtue

Followers of Bishop NT Wright (among whom I count myself, since he was a primary reason I left the PCA to become an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Texas) will know that his third (and final?) book in the series which began with Simply Christian which was then followed up with Surprised by Hope is called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, and is, among other things, the good bishop’s treatment of the Christian tradition of virtue.

This is good news, since (in my opinion) one of the most urgent tasks for the church in terms of its current vocation in our nihilistic culture of consumeristic emotivism is training the people in virtue, closely related to what the ancient church called paideia.

For a briefer taste of what Bishop Tom is up to here, check out this video lecture, given at Fuller Seminary a few months ago.

Here are some of my notes on this lecture:

For Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) which is our telos as human beings, is not something that “just happens” naturally. In fact, it is something which must be intentionally chosen, and then repeatedly put into practice, such that they eventually become “second nature.”

Nothing in this is inconsistent with how God graciously saves us and sanctifies us. As Reformed theology has always insisted, sanctification is synergistic.

NTW’s three proposals:

1. Rehabilitate virtue within Christian discourse, as opposed to Enlightenment and Romantic thought.

2. “Rethinking Aristotle into a Christian Key.” The eschatological vision of “new heaven & new earth” allows us to reframe Aristotle’s theory in a new and creative way, which other virtue thinkers have yet to grasp. Reframes “ethics” (as opposed to rules or consequence calculations, that is, deontology and utlitarianism / consequentialism) within the a theology of stewardship of creation. Substitute NH&NE (“new heavens & new earth”) & resurrection for eudaimonia.

a. The telos is the NH&NE, inauged by Jesus, and completed in the future.

b. This telos is achieved thru the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus.

c. Christian living in the present consists in anticipating the NE&NE through the Spirit-led practice of the acquiring of the theological virtues of faith, hope & love wh transcend & strengthen the cardinal virtues. These sustain our present existence which already reflect God’s healing & victory & glory of the future world. A true anticipation.

3. This challenges the church in such a way to sustain the mission to which it is called.

Pelonias in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”

Nobody knows the language of virtue as their mother tongue, but we do glimpse that country from afar from time to time, we pick up hints about how its language works, what patterns of brain & body are needed. The more we practice that language, the more easily familiar it will be.

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Bishop Doyle on the Ministry of the Priesthood

This is just the latest reason I am so proud and grateful to be a (potential) priest in the Diocese of Texas, under the leadership of our pater familias, Andy Doyle.

I hope you will take time to read this (all of it), especially if you are skeptical (as are many of my good friends) of the spiritual vibrancy of this church of mine.

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Adjusting to a Presence, not a Seminar

Aidan Kavanagh on the continuity between God’s gracious and revelatory act in the liturgy and his gracious and revelatory acts in the old covenant as well as the person and work of Jesus (from his On Liturgical Theology):

It was a Presence, not faith, which drew Moses to the burning bush, and what happened there was a revelation, not seminar. It was a Presence, not faith, which drew the disciples to Jesus, and what happened then was not an educational program but his revelation to them of himself as the long-promised Anointed One, the redeeming because reconciling Messiah-Christos. Their lives, like that of Moses, were changed radically by that encounter with a Presence which upended all their ordinary expectations. Their descendants in faith have been adjusting to that change ever since, drawn into assembly by that same Presence, finding there always the same troublesome upset of change in their lives of faith to which they must adjust still. Here is where their lives are regularly being constituted and reconstituted under grace. Which is why lex supplicandi legem statuat credendi.

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