I’m sure you folks are aware of the murders that took place this week in New Zealand (describe briefly what we know so far). As I was listening to responses, one notably stuck out not simply to me, but to many around the world. This was it. It came from a New Zealand senator: “I am utterly opposed to any form of violence within our community, and I totally condemn the actions of the gunman,” Anning said. “However, whilst this kind of violent vigilantism can never be justified, what it highlights is the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand of the increasing Muslim presence.” The senator claimed “left-wing politicians and media” would blame gun laws and nationalist views, but “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Let me read this to you again.
I don’t know whether this senator has any belief in any god, or whether he is atheist who believes in a materialistic universe where individuals construct and reconstruct meaning and purpose as they see fit with their own goals or agendas. But our Scriptures have something quite explicit to say to such a response perfect love, God come to us in Jesus Christ, casts out fear. This doesn’t mean that you will not feel fear, that you will not experience being made uncomfortable, that you will not be challenged, or confused, or worried about your present or future; about how your culture, your country, your city, your schools, your customs and traditions are changing. Perfect love doesn’t get rid of events, or how you feel about events, or even the consequences of events. Rather the perfect love who is Jesus Christ come into the world, who fundamentally changes the world when he reconciles us to God, he gives us the true capacity to respond not out of those fears we experience about so many things, so many changes to our lives, our customs, our cultures, but out of thanks for all that we have been leant by God to be stewards over.
Our readings this morning really drive at the fact that Jesus Christ delivers us from evil and death and so we’re asked to live differently, to live and act out of hope, joy and love. And yet, we’re asked for something more. And we’re asked for something more precisely because while we’re still waiting for Jesus’s return when we’re all finally gathered to God, there will indeed be things that scare us, that challenge us, that can cause us to suffer, physically, mentally and emotionally; there are things we are asked to give up, to sacrifice, to let go of. And foremost amongst the things we are asked to let go of, are responses of violence where there isn’t immediate and evident physical threat to our lives.
Listen to what God says to Abram when Abram is afraid. You see, Abram has a problem. Bearing children was essential for the Israelites because this is how they survived and sustained their families, worked their land, fed their families, were able to find food and shelter and protection. But Abram and Sarai couldn’t conceive as it appeared that Sarai (who will become Sarah) was barren. Today this would be very sad, but also not about a matter of survival that it would have been then. Abram with great fear says, my heir cannot be the slave boy, Ishmael, whom I made with Hagar. I must have a child with my wife Sarai. For the rightful heir cannot be a slave, an imperfect heir. And God answers Abram as we know. And from barren Sarah, comes the true heir Isaac. And Isaac of course, as we know, will go on to beget another generation who then begets another. And God says to Abram, see those stars up there, your ancestors, from Isaac, will be more numerous than them. Now here’s the important part. Remember that Abram here was dealing with a really concrete issue of fear: heritage, survival, provision for family, and he’ll have to deal with land and even an order from God to sacrifice his only son who of course Abram thought was to be the one promised to him.
It’s really important that we stop here because in this story, God is telling us a story not just about Abram and Sarai and their fear; he is telling us a much bigger story about his relationship to all of us in our fears. For you see, in this story, we’re actually hearing a repeat of the Fall in the Garden, and of God’s keeping his promise to us on the Cross to reconcile us to him. How so? In the story, Abram represents more than just himself. He represents all human beings in their natural fear about survival and a next generation, but he also represents the first Adam when he reproduces Ishmael with Hagar. Abram could not join with Sarai his proper wife, to produce offspring that could rightfully inherit Abram’s land. Like Adam and Eve, Sarai tells him to go into the forbidden fruit, Hagar, who is not his wife, with whom he is not one flesh, and like Adam, the result is fruit/offspring/Ismael who could not be the inheritor of Abram’s family line and land. Ishmael then represents all of fallen humanity who cannot, by themselves, be in relationship with God, like Ishmael, slaves to sin. And yet still children who were made and belong to God, and so people for whom God will provide just as he does for Ishmael and for Hagar.
But just think about how frightening this is for a moment. Think of the complexity we have going on here: massive fear about survival, fear about being overtaken by enemies, fear of the unknown, fear of people of different cultures and tribes … this is all real stuff that Abram is dealing with and guess what? It’s the same stuff we’re struggling with today.
This is why it’s so important that we see the story about God, within this story about Abram. So here we have Abram, saying, God what on earth, I’ve gone into Hagar because Sarai wanted me to produce a child. But this child, he is a slave. Now let’s move this story into God’s perspective. God gives to Adam and Eve, to Abram and Sarai everything they could possibly need with one stipulation, don’t seek more than I have gifted you with. Sure enough, Adam and Eve do, and Abram and Sarai do. So God says, okay, you have determined that’s how you want to live, I’ll let you live out those consequences. And what are those consequences? Being enslaved to sin we created for ourselves that snowballs in so many ways in every relationship we get into, and in our treatment of other people.
And what does Abram say to God, as will be repeated over and over by generations of Israelites: my God my God why have you forsaken me, please help me, I cannot do this anymore, I am terrified, my enemies are all around me, my body is wasting, my mind is falling apart, my relationships are crumbling, I’m lost, our whole culture is being destroyed, there is violence all around me, even within my own mind, who will take my place, who will follow you from my bloodlines as you promised. And God answers Abram: "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own child shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And the Scriptures say, “that Abram believed and followed where God led him.” Here, we move to God’s promise, to the Cross, because we can cheat and know that Abram and barren Sarai will indeed bear a child they name Isaac. Again God tells us about himself here. In his faithfulness to God, and so through God, Abram represents God the Father, in being born of a barren woman, Sarai, Sarai who represents the Virgin Mary, baby Isaac is grace, the gift of God, and he of course represents to us Jesus: the pure gift of God. What two human beings through the natural sexual act could not produce – children, born from below, who could live in the Kingdom of God, children reconciled to God – God provided in Jesus’s Virgin birth, his life, his death and his resurrection.
The key here is to understand that our one Scripture passage from Genesis has laid out the one story of God, told from two perspectives. The first perspective we encounter is of course this basic story about survival and offspring to ensure this. This is a story that each one of us sitting in this room shares: how will we pay the bills, what happens if I get sick, what if my spouse is sick and I lose him or her or they change so much, I feel as if I have lost everything; how will my children or grandchildren do in life, will they be okay, this world is changing, no religion, wrong religion, no longer the culture I grew up in; I don’t know about this, I am afraid. And yet the story of Abram and Sarai in their own pedestrian life, in their calling before God, in their faithfulness and righteousness and in their doubt; these bits and pieces of life, just like the bits and pieces of my life and yours, is taken up into the greater story of God who has fulfilled his promise to us in Jesus Christ. No story we have, nothing about who we are – our worst and our best – has not already been taken up by God in Christ through his Holy Spirit. Not one fear we have, not one moment of suffering, or loss or anguish or worry, or agonizing, debilitating despair, has not been met and taken up in God, we see all our stories across the Scriptures and how these are taken up into God, being gathered to him.
This goes for the fears we have about other people; about their distinctions from us, about their customs, languages, religions, or ways. And the issues we have cannot be resolved with simplistic responses because they’re complex. Many people are afraid of things like Sharia law being enacted or enabled in Western countries which would allow for some disciplinary measures that are considered illegal in Western law. I am afraid of this, for example. And yet, to react out of my fear would be to forego the freedom won for me in Jesus Christ that presses me and insists, in fact, that I love my neighbor and even my enemy. That I take the time to get to know my Muslim neighbors, that I don’t cut them off, that I don’t judge, especially out of my fearful ignorance, that I ensure that as they, like Abram, went out from their lands, that I not become territorial about the land God has leant me and my family to steward. In the aftermath of such a heinous act of cowardice, driven by a lack of faith, hope and love, for the gift of grace and life we have received TO SHARE WITH OTHERS, let us ask where we as Christians are in our own lives. How are we sharing our faith and our hope; how are we sharing God’s love with others? Let me end with this written my friend and former colleague, Paul Hand:
The Christian soldier is not the murderer but the martyr. The martyr is fearless to die and has no fear that would lead them to kill. They know that Christ is Risen trampling down death, and that no power of this world can kill a flesh that has already been crucified with Him. However, as St. John Climacus said, the man who doesn't fear God is scared by his own shadow. Those who fear shadows, who think everything is a conspiracy, turn to guns to save them, destroying lives and souls, including their own. May all who fear God be protected from the vain fears of the world. To anyone who celebrates these acts on behalf of my skin color: I know you're out there and I hope I'm as unattractive to you as the "shadows" you fear. I would rather suffer with them than celebrate with you. God grant us love, strength, and mercy. AMEN.
Lent 1, 2019: A homily on temptation
And he became like us – exactly like us, tempted just as we are tempted – yet he did not sin. This is what the writer of the Book of Hebrews tells us. This Jesus Christ, born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, came into the world and lived among us; became one of us; was tempted just as we are. This is the truth of God’s relationship with us that you and I proclaim in our adoption into his family at baptism, in our weekly confession, thanks, and praise during our Eucharistic service, and in our daily devotions.
As I have been saying throughout Epiphany, this one whom we know to be our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, the thing that is special about him, is precisely how ordinary, how pedestrian, was his life; and yet simultaneously, that precisely his ordinary, pedestrian, day-to-day, week to week, month to month, and year to year faithfulness, is the substance, the content, the manifestation of love, the fulfillment of human life as God intended it, this very human life, filled with trials, temptations and ultimately death, is the very fountain of life. The fountain of water out of an inanimate rock, out of desert, dry bones, and death; the fountain of water that enfleshes once again our dry bones, that restores, by his own blood, the life that flows through our own blood. This very human Lord, we proclaim, comes into the world, suffers and struggles as one of us, lives, is tempted and dies as one of us; and yet this one named Jesus Christ is God, God who came into the world, the Son sent into the world, to change our fate; to change the end we’d chosen for ourselves that we hear about through Adam and Eve.
The first Adam was tempted and chose his own way, believed that he could make of his life and his desires, a better life than the one that he’d been given by his creator. He was not alone of course, who is ever alone when tempted. Those who are tempted are tempted precisely because they live in relationship with others and seeing what others are, what they have, what they don’t have, what they have become or can become, their own distinctions from us – their power, wealth, their success, their looks, their prestige or place or honor, their youth, their capacities, their intellect, their health, their power, their families, their lack of families – their own distinctions from us are no longer goods that God has created, but things that drive us to envy, jealousy, frustration, or maybe lust, maybe despair or disgust, or a sense of self-righteousness built on anxiety and insecurity.
The Second Adam, the one whom we call our Lord God, Jesus Christ, this one, boy was he tempted just as we are. We of course hear about this story of temptation when the Holy Spirit takes him out into the desert, just as he did with Job, just as he’s likely done with many of us, just as he’s done with the entire Church, the whole people of Israel, ‘blown’ all of us have been, out into a figurative desert where we are tempted to cave into those places where we are weak and vulnerable.
Just imagine yourself being Jesus for a moment. Imagine, knowing that you have been sent by the Father, that you are one with the Father. Surely you should be able to bring your own suffering, your own weakness and vulnerability, your own lack of power and control, the fact that people don’t recognize you as God, surely as the Son of God, you ought to be able to bring all these sufferings to an end. Wouldn’t that be an incredible temptation by which Satan could grab you? Thrust yourself off this here tower, turn these stones into bread, worship me, Satan, turn yourself away from your God and hey, then I’ll give you real power, I’ll give you control, I’ll give you wealth, I’ll other people into your hand to do whatever you want them to do. Isn’t this exactly what you desire, Jesus? And what about you Job, Leigh, Irene, Paul, Tyler, Mavis, Shirley … what do you all desire, just, turn yourselves to those things you most desire in your heart, I will bring them about and you will have everything you ever wanted.
We of course know how Jesus responds: We do not live in accordance with the reality God made for us, the world he made for us, if we put everything we are, if we set our hearts and minds, on achieving the things of this world, power, wealth, health, control over our lives, our friends our families, our society and culture. Silly Satan, how blind do you think we are? Does not the light of God that shone on the face of Moses on the Mountain in the desert, who came down that very same mountain with laws for you to live, illumine for you, give you light to see that you are to worship and love God only. Surely you must know the Law, dear Satan, that human beings do not live by bread alone, the figurative bread of this world that feeds your body but not your soul.
Jesus is indeed tempted just as we are. Make no mistake, Jesus had the same hunger we do, had the same need for love that we do (think of what he says in the midst of his worst moments, ‘Father why have you forsaken me),’ he had the same desire to enact his will (‘take this cup from me,’ no, in truth, I have another mission, so I will take and drink this cup and go to the Cross), indeed, in relationship he too had fear, anxiety, a sense of conflict about his desire for basic survival, his desire for love, his desire to love others – his Father, and his neighbor (you and I), these relationships were not neat and tidy, they were complex, nuanced, and filled with people he was supposed to draw to him who instead spit on him, reviled him, turned their backs on him. So surely he must have been tempted to turn away from them, and in so doing, turning away from God who sent him into the world for our sakes.
But of course we know how the story goes. God sent his Son into the world to change it fundamentally. To make it so that all the partial, ignorant, fearful, and sometimes aborent ends we construct for ourselves and others – things we couldn’t fathom at the outset of our conjuring them – he sent his Son so that our broken ways of doing things wouldn’t dictate our fate, our end, our final place and so our very meaning here and now. Jesus came into the world as Isaiah tells us, the suffering servant, the one foretold by every word of Scripture, the God who would come into the world to rescue us from ourselves. The God who would bring us out of Egypt, our own figurative Egypts, where we have trapped ourselves, and been trapped in slavery to sin, to ourselves and our own broken ways, trapped in slavery unable to turn ourselves to our God. God came into the world and led us through his blood, red as it flowed, through the red sea into freedom. The thing is, that desert the Israelites went into, that Jesus went into, it is our world; it is our culture, our country, our city. It is our families, our relationships, our own personal circumstances: simultaneously barren if we allow ourselves to set our minds on ordering our lives solely to the things of this world; and yet filled with the hope of Christ who entered into temptation, into the desert, who there in that desert provided water in the desert for the Israelites, who in our own lives provides the river of life through his own blood when he gave himself up for us on the cross. For in this way, he opened the way for us to cross our own figurative deserts; to let go of the things that tempt us away from him; to step out into this desert of ours – this time where we are waiting for him to come again, to step out and into our lives living them based in hope, based in the love that God first shared with us, knowing that we are not being left on our own to figure it out, but that we have given a home in his house, his kingdom, his life eternal. AMEN.
Last week I talked about God’s commandment to us to love our enemies. One of the things that I said was that if we fail to love our enemies, it’s quite likely that we will end up using them as an excuse to hide the things we find shameful about ourselves: our insecurities, our frustrations, fears, anxieties … the kind of stuff that can become a sort of low simmering anger, that often manifests as irritability, cynicism … that can sometimes even burst into near temper tantrums of rage. It’s much easier to imagine that ‘it’s all our enemy’s fault that we are the way we are,’ than to do the very hard and often painful work of examining our own lives and potentially having to spend significant time and effort redirecting our habitual ways of responding to things. What would compel us to engage in the hard work that is growth? And what does it mean to ‘grow’ anyway?
I’m not sure about you, but I do know that for me, and apparently (having read a lot of the literature), growth is about coming to flourish – that is to live into the person you were created to be. As for what would compel me to grow? That’s an easy one: safety, security, being loved, having purpose, mattering to someone. Here’s the thing – as most of us know – if we rely on transient, ever changing things or people (people who come and go, people who might for one reason or another leave our lives) for safety, security, being loved, and having purpose, at the end of the day, we’re not going to have a solid foundation for the seed we are, for our roots to spread, for our leaves to blossom, for us to weather the inevitable storms life throws at us. Why? Because things and people are, well finite, limited, they hurt us, they leave, they move, they get sick, they die. And as important as these relationships are – and they are exceptionally important for us – they are not the bedrock, the foundation, the cornerstone of our very lives. Your best friend, or your spouse – they might be an essential part of your life, of how you think of yourself (a best friend, a life long friend, a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a mentor, an aunt or uncle), but these people did not bring you into existence, they do not define you completely, and they cannot be with you from cradle to grave, more inward to you than your very own self is to you.
What we all are seeking – however we might pursue it or speak of it – is an unbroken endurance of embrace: of physical, mental and emotional protection, of meaning and purpose, of being desirable and desired, of being desired for who we are even when we find ourselves twisted and broken and fragile in our own particular snaggled ways. Here’s the catch though. You often hear – usually in backlash to the sort of judgmentalism and exclusion that has too often been part of everyone’s experience – that we must love people, ‘just as they are.’
But true love, perfect love, cannot actually do this. Only imperfect love, love that is limited, itself fragile, and pulled in multiple directions without knowing fully the purpose for which it was made – only imperfect love can love people ‘just how they are.’ In contrast, perfect love, will embrace you indeed, and move you to the place, in accordance with the purpose for which that love made you. How do you feel about this? Does this make your neck hair stand on end? Does this sound coercive? Does this sound as if your freedom is being somehow suppressed? I have heard this said many times: I must be free to do as I please; if you love me, you will let me do what I want.
I heard someone say this once. The person who said it was wriggling on the floor pinned down by three persons. “I don’t want my life, this person said,’ ‘I want to die,’ ‘if you truly loved me, you would let me kill myself.’ Those three people, though, they ignored this person’s physical pushes, their thrashing, their cries, their name calling, their rage. They ignored, not because they didn’t love the person pinned to the floor, but precisely because they did. I have seen parents yank children hard, turn around and scold them, even – yes horror – spank them, because the child was inches away from being run over by a car that they were not even aware was there. I have seen parents financially cut off and institutionalize their children who were addicted to drugs, who had eating disorders, who committed crimes.
And in all these cases, wow, have I seen shame. Massive shame, anger, rage, embarrassment, fear, and desire for rebellion. How dare you strip me of my freedom to be me. How dare you judge me. How dare you try to correct me. How dare you try to redirect me. F- you. I want my freedom. Here’s the thing, while our collective human push for freedom has taken many shapes and forms, and our individual lives may have looked like some of these cases, or perhaps in far less drastic ways, one of the things that each one of us shares, are things that – when seen through the lens of perfect love – ought to bring us shame. This, my friends, is sin. Sin takes so many forms that I cannot possibly name the ways it is manifested in our own lives, in our own reasoning, in our relationships with others, in things we do or don’t do, in ways that are unknown to us (that others can often see when we can’t).
The thing is perfect love refuses, actually, to accept us just as we are. If perfect love did that – we would be left thinking, ‘hey, it’s okay to respond in this really nasty way,’ or, ‘it’s everyone else’s fault that I’m always angry or moody, or irritable,’ or, ‘I’m going to constantly criticize this person, never give them credit because I want them to be just like me and what I want, rather than grow into who they actually are.’ If perfect love did not shine light on actions that are taken out of fear, anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, greed, sloth, gluttony, avarice, and lust, we would be left in a degenerate world where our meaning was solely about what power we could wield over ourselves and others. Don’t let North America fool you my friends. It is constructed solely out of a basic Christian ethic. Our wealth, our education, our medical systems, these all grew out of a basic Christian ethic, not out of a universal human desire to be kind and good. You and I live as we do now not because a good that has so recently been stripped of Christian ethos is inevitable. We live as we do because we grew out of a belief that we had a duty, a mission, a lifelong vocation, to share with everyone whom we encountered, the revelation of God in the very life of Jesus Christ.
Our reading today, about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ – God’s revealing his presence, his power, his creation of us, his reconciliation of us, his love for us that reshapes how we even think of the good – this is fundamentally about the truth, not A TRUTH, but THE TRUTH, being unveiled. No longer can you and I live our lives as if the truth of God in Christ has been veiled to us. We have been baptized and adopted into God’s family. We are his children through Jesus Christ. In his Holy Spirit, the love he pours out that constitutes his very being, corrects, burns away, chastens, and reforms us into the image of his Son. This is why the disciples bow down if fear: they recognize the truth. God has come, born to us a babe in a manger, God of God, light of light, to show up all those shameful ways we live, the things we think we can hide, not so we can remain in our shame, but so that we can find joy in our being moved by the Spirit, into conformance with the Son, as we stand before God our Father. Paul puts it like this: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory, the love, the power, the joy of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another … therefore since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry [of sharing the gospel, or proclaiming it in every word and deed that we undertake] we do not lose heart, most particularly when our shame is revealed.” Why? “For we have renounced,” in our baptisms, every time we say our common confession and then approach the alter to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, “we have renounced the shameful things we hide. We renounce these things so that they can’t be hiding places, so that we can’t make them into idols that allow us to practice cunning, that allow us to evade or proclaim God’s word falsely. We have renounced these shameful things so that opened to the sometimes painful burning away of this chaff of our own lives, this falsity, this presumption, this fear and anguish and anger and bitterness in our own lives, we might be opened to God’s grace, transformed into the image of his Son, and given hope of life now and eternal, in order to sustain this ministry through our own particular tough times, here and now. AMEN.
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during her childhood. She attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which she continues to do to this day.