5 March 2017 – First Sunday of Lent

The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the First Sunday of Lent
5 March 2017

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Wow… some heavy readings today!

I grew up steeped in an evangelical theology that was very Augustinian, and this morning’s readings recall a lot of baggage for me that I’ve worked through over the past several decades.

Anglican tradition is influenced both by Roman Christianity and Celtic Christianity, which was missionized by saints from the East… so we have both those Augustinian influences that begat Luther and Calvin in their contemplation of the corrupting influence of what Augustine termed “original sin” and we have Gregorian and other Eastern influences that simply recognize today’s story from Genesis as “the first transgression,” a choice that is indicative of a part of our nature rather than a corruption of it. (As you may guess, I fall much more distinctly on the Celtic side of our tradition.)

The beauty of seeing past where Western Christianity stops with “the fall,” is that where today’s story in Genesis leaves off, God still accompanies Adam and Eve, provides for their care, walks with them, and speaks to them. Despite their choice to turn inward to serve their own selfishness, the point of the ongoing story is God’s steadfast presence and love even when they choose their own way over God’s. It is a story that unfolds time and again throughout scripture. God creates, loves, reaches out passionately for relationship, and waits for us, pines for us, to return when we abandon God and seek after our own selfish ambitions. There are no conditions on our return. There is merely the promise of forgiveness and unconditional love from the One who waits for us with bated breath.

Our experience, however, is a much different one. Unable to comprehend a love that is so complete, so unrelenting, and so eternal, we struggle in our alienation. We cut ourselves off from God’s love and forgiveness and from those relationships in our lives that sustain us by committing acts of selfishness, by hurting others around us, abusing our power, and failing to love and to forgive. We isolate ourselves behind our own walls, built to protect us from the harshness of the world around us, but which also leave us alienated and alone. Yet it is not God’s judgement on us that makes us suffer, nor does God demand repentance before bestowing forgiveness or love on us. These are gifts that it is simply not in God’s nature to withhold. Rather, repentance is a gift that allows us the opportunity to tear down the walls we’ve built up between ourselves and God, and that allows us to accept God’s forgiveness.

Today’s Psalm, read through the lens of our western influence, reads as though God’s hand is the agent, extracting repentance through punishment and forgiving only when the debt of sin is satisfied. Read through the lens of our Celtic influence, it reads much differently: As the experience of guilt for failing to honor God’s love by being loving ourselves, we feel the weight of God’s love and forgiveness as itself a measure by which we judge ourselves unworthy and falling short. We wither, we pine, and we suffer in our guilt, letting it drive a wedge between us and God that we, ourselves, create. In seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, we find what has been there all along—God’s inexhaustible forgiveness, love, compassion, and embrace.

Again, today’s Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans reads like a classical justification of subsitutionary atonement theory—which is Augustine’s theory that God needed to sacrifice his perfect son in order to pay the debt for our sin, which was required for God to forgive us. To this notion, from the other side of our West/East parentage, Gregory the Great wrote, in one of his Easter sermons, “Fie upon the outrage!” So again, from that Celtic half of our influence we seek the steadfast forgiveness, love, and grace of our accompanying-God in Paul’s words and find that in the context of his letter to the Romans, Paul has just tricked both sides of a fractured community of Jewish Christians and Roman Christians into thinking themselves better Christians than the other side, only to show them that they are not only just as bad as the other side, but also just as blind to the forgiveness and love they are called to share and emulate as a Christian community. In Paul’s idiom from today’s reading, Adam came before the law, but all from Adam to Moses suffered—or in other words, Gentile Christians (those associated with Adam as not being under the law), and Jewish Christians (associated with those under the law given to Moses) all suffer the same condition of separating ourselves from God. All experience the alienation of cutting ourselves off from the source of our wellbeing and wholeness. And for all, again, Christ came to teach us what it means not only to love as God loves but to be loved as God loves.

The temptation remains to hole up behind our walls. The world is full of people, just like Adam and Eve in today’s story from Genesis, who continue to make the occasional choice to serve themselves and their own selfish needs. As a result, people are hurt, people are disempowered, people are oppressed, people suffer. We are hungry, we are left seeking for significance and acknowledgment, we are alienated, and we feel powerless. It is only natural to want to protect ourselves rather than remain vulnerable to a world that can so often seem cruel and indifferent.

Our gospel for today puts Jesus in the same camp with us. In the desert alone, alienated, hungry, insignificant and powerless, he is tempted to claim his divine power for his own selfish purposes—for food to sate his hunger, for affirmation and acknowledgment of his divine significance, and for power to rule over others. Refusing to claim his power for selfish ends, refusing to erect the walls of power around himself to protect himself, Jesus chooses vulnerability in the face of a harsh and alienating desert, which is ultimately transformed into an oasis of God’s grace and providence.

Obviously this is not a perfect analogy for how our world works. Remaining vulnerable to the world around us seldom reveals an oasis of God’s grace and providence the likes that we see in the end of today’s gospel. However, it is also not the way Christ experienced the rest of his life in a world that continuously questioned him and ultimately threatened him with the excruciating death of a political insurrectionist. As in the desert, so too in the rest of his life, Christ chose to use his power not for himself, but to help others around him, to be willing to be vulnerable to love’s demands in the face of opposition and disgrace, and ultimately to have the courage to face death itself rather than give into fear and compromise love’s integrity. In each encounter in which the world closed in on him, Christ’s choice continued to be to build bridges rather than walls; to invite others to come out from behind the safety of their own walls of self-inflicted isolation and alienation, and to embrace God’s offer to live a life of love, of forgiving and forgiveness, of making a difference, of using our power to bring the abundance of God’s reign to life around us—without fear, and heedless of the consequences. And like Christ’s experience in the desert, it is in these moments of choice and vulnerability that we encounter God most poignantly in one another and in our world; in which we can see the angels around us in need of our care, and who grace us with the light of Christ in return.

I was four years old when I first told my dad I wanted to be a priest when I grew up. I remember that he told me ministers lived in glass houses and had no lives of their own. I also remember picturing the greenhouses that dotted the familiar road leading to Half Moon Bay and recall my revulsion at the thought of having to live in one of them, open to the scrutiny of every passerby as I lived out the details of my intimate life in full view of others.

The thought was enough to encourage my retreat from gladly embracing God’s call. Despite continuing to feel that call, I pushed it to the back of my mind where it remained as an easy and comfortable fallback if I couldn’t make it on my own. Throughout junior high and high school, I entertained what lucrative career I would take on when I grew up. I wanted to be a doctor, a dentist, an architect, a brain surgeon, and an electrical engineer, anything that affirmed the value my dad placed on financial success. But nothing stuck. Nothing fit as something that I would be happy doing for the rest of my life.

I stopped going to church after I was confirmed at age 11. My parents were getting divorced, the church had started preaching largely about money (it was probably stewardship season, but that didn’t connect for me at that age—a fact we should perhaps consider as we plan our stewardship season sermons), and honestly I just didn’t know where I fit into a community that I wasn’t some day going to serve as clergy. So I left.

It wasn’t until my senior year in high school, when my best friend, Dave, tricked me into going to his Episcopal youth group that I was reintroduced to God through a community of friends who exemplified Christ’s love in a way I had never experienced it. Half a year later, they invited me to attend a youth retreat called Happening, and convinced the diocesan director to allow me to sign up for the retreat despite having just graduated high school.

Having pushed God away from me as something almost shameful, I had come to experience God as remote—as the old-bearded-man-in-the-clouds, sitting on a golden throne, and judging me for not being perfect. At Happening, I experienced God through the disarming and vulnerable presence of the teens who ran the retreat. For those unfamiliar with Happening, it is a spiritual retreat for teens run completely by other teens who have attended the retreat previously. It is a peer led weekend filled with love, acceptance, discussion of real life, and talks given by teens of their own often difficult experiences of life and its intersection with faith that is sometimes awkward, sometimes unsettling, sometimes painful, and yet is also profoundly transforming. It was there, amidst my peers who led this Cursillo-like retreat, that I encountered God as a much more immanent, personal, and dangerously close companion than I had expected. Here was a God who didn’t love me in spite of who I was, but precisely because of who I was.

The experience nudged me to reexamine the calling I had pushed away so many years before. And as I began working in ministry as a volunteer later that Fall, I quickly came to realize that here was something, unlike every lucrative career I had imagined over the past seven years, that I couldn’t imagine not doing for the rest of my life. It is worth mentioning that when I staffed that same retreat a few years later it was the first time I met my wife, Jane… but I’ll save that story for another time.

This lent we are invited with Christ into the wilderness. Over these next forty days (not including our weekly oases of Sunday refreshment), we are called to spiritual reflection, discernment, discipline, and self-examination, we are called to a season of fasting that draws our hearts and minds back to the core of our faith and seeks to open us, again, to God’s love, forgiveness, providence, and calling in our own lives as we chance to come out from behind our walls and reopen ourselves to God and to those around us who sustain us and make us whole. May this be for us a season of finding our voice, repurposing our gifts toward the good of all those around us, and discovering ourselves in the midst of angels in the process.

As a season of repentance and forgiveness, may we also be reminded this Lent that God is only ever as far away as our turned backs. God isn’t on the other side of some insurmountable chasm we’ve opened up between ourselves and God. God is standing in the breech and awaiting our return with open arms.