Sermon Archives

Sunday, March 10, 2019
First Sunday in Lent
The Reverend Dr. Walter Brownridge
Resisting the Powers

May I speak in the name of our ever living, ever loving, ever leading God. Amen.

John Shea is a former Roman Catholic priest and writer, educator, and storyteller par excellence. And he tells this story of being invited to serve on a Board of a Catholic hospital, particularly a hospital that now had become part of a Catholic healthcare corporation or group. And it's not Detroit or Cleveland, two places I know, but probably Chicago or maybe St. Louis where he tells this story. I'm not talking about St. John's Ascension or anything like that.

And when he was on this Board, the reality of Catholic healthcare hit full force, and if you don't know the situation, I'll explain briefly. That for years they relied upon the free and very cheap labor of nuns, who were also nurses. They didn't have to pay them very much. They took a vow of poverty anyway, right?

But now the reality of economics was coming into play, and they had to, of course, pay people who had families and needed their own healthcare and benefits. Many of these institutions were struggling to stay afloat. And so this particular corporation, they did what all corporations do, they consult an expert. In this case, the CEO brought in a whiz-kid consultant, someone who actually probably had the right intentions. They went to business school, got an MBA, but they had somewhat of a conscious and so they wanted to focus on non-profit management, to help those that did good to still do well.

And so in this meeting, it was a strategic planning meeting, and this whiz-kid was introducing some new things that he thought would help save this Catholic healthcare corporation. And of course it all had to do with efficiencies, of being able to deliver the "product" in a way that was efficient, that saves money, and worked. Of course, the reality of it was, there were some people coming out of other professions that said, "Yeah, this makes sense." And others who come out of the healthcare and caring profession said, "But this may seem to, we're gonna lose something. We're gonna not be able to care for our people as well." And it became a stalemate, a quagmire of debate within it.

And then there was one voice that Shea recalls. The only nun on the Board. And the fact that she had a PhD was not relevant to this situation, but she was no one's fool. And she said, "I have three questions that I think we need to answer before we try to proceed. Question one, who are we? Question two, who's are we? And question three, to whom are we connected?"

You see for this nun, she understood that any organization, any entity, any in fact individual person cannot go forward in a way that is constructive and healthy, and certainly God-like without answering these questions that relate to our identity. Beloved, Lent is the same process.

You can talk about strategies. Father Drew and I can talk to you and Father Ron about how to pray and new techniques and strategies to pray, and to look at yourself. We can tell you what you might want to take on, if you maybe want to give up something, maybe what we might think you may want to cut out of your life, but at it's core, Lent is this great opportunity to self-examine, to explore where God wants you to go. And to do that it's about your identity. Who are you? Who's are you? And to whom are you connected?

That is our reality. And I'll save the suspense, if I were to answer that for you in a way that I think is accurate, who are you? You are a creature of God. Who's are you? You belong to that same God, who loves you, loves you completely without questions, loves everyone, no exceptions. And to whom are you connected? You are connected to all of God's creation, to nature, to the things that God has made, and to the things that even human beings have created. You are connected to all of that, but most particularly you are connected to other human beings. And not just the ones you know and are connected by kith and kin, the ones you like, but you are connected to all of humanity. That is the Gospel truth.

And Lent is our opportunity to explore the meaning of those answers and those questions. Lent is an opportunity for us to be, like the Gospel said, to be led by the Spirit of God into our own wilderness, where we are yes, stripped of our distractions, stripped of whatever is in fact attractive for us. It is an opportunity for us to focus on God, to focus on our relationship with God, and to focus on our relationships to each other.

For Jesus, it is indeed the same thing. For Jesus in fact, it is the template of how we need to respond. Remember now, Jesus in this Gospel, he has gone out into the wilderness it says, after his baptism, after his initiation, after his commissioning, after his "ordination." In Luke's Gospel, in fact, not like Mark it says, "A Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness." Matthew and Luke say, "The Spirit led," a bit more gently but the same thing. Led Jesus into this wilderness where he would be stripped of everything that would sustain him. For him to ponder the meaning of his initiation, ponder the meaning of what the rest of his life would be like.

And the three great temptations that Satan presents to Jesus are thus. First, it is about physical and personal comfort, need and desire even. He says, "You can have bread. You have the power, take the stones, turn it into bread." I like to call it bread in circus, it's because Satan seems to think that this is all about a magic trick. Turning stone into bread would be something that would help Jesus. But Jesus replies, "True bread, true nourishment, true life comes from living by the Spirit."

Secondly, Satan lays out the reality of what Henry Kissinger would have called realpolitik. Kingdoms, powers, and principalities that were ruling the world, dividing the world, aimed at each other in a way, and if you will some kind of balance of power, Satan says, "I have control over these," and that's no surprise to those who know the Bible. "But I'll give them to you if you worship me."

"True worship," Jesus says, "true worship is about following the one God." And this God is not about power grabs, not about domination, not about the vision. The real God is about ruling with reconciliation with justice, freedom, and peace. Words in fact we use in one of our prayers of the people. When you go to write too and we get back to that after this season of Lent.

Thirdly, Satan lays out what? In some ways he challenges Jesus own authority and says, "Whoa, maybe you're not the Son of God. If you're really the Son of God, what are your credentials?" He puts Jesus to the test by in fact quoting Scripture, the Scripture we heard read today in the Psalm 91. He says, "They shall bear you in their hands lest you bash your foot against the stone." Jump off this. Jump off this parapet. Jump off this cliff. If you're the Son of God, nothing will happen to you. You'll float like a feather to the ground.

Jesus replies, "Oh Satan, you just don't get it. My credentials are not credentials that I need to give to you. You wouldn't even understand or comprehend my true nature, the true sign of my divinity. In fact, you don't even understand the true sign of my humanity." And in that context, Jesus is saying, "Look, all humanity must follow the first commandment, the great one. To love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind, and then the second is to love your neighbor as yourself." I can shorten it even more, it means that you need to imitate God by loving like God and not worrying about signs and credentials.

This is how Jesus, as they say, has resisted Satan. This is how Jesus has resisted the powers and principalities that have betrayed humanity from the fall. What am I talking about? Powers and principalities. These are in some ways the structures of humanity that humanity has used to organize ourselves, sometimes beneficially. These are strategies and methodologies that help us get along, help us function. It can be democracy. It can be capitalism. It can be for some socialism. It can be humanitarianism. It can be anything that is in fact a human creation that helps us organize ourselves, and they can be beneficial.

The problem is, when those strategies push out or betray our true identity. When they forget that they are subject to God, and think that they are in fact God, that they rule us in a way that gets us whether we are clergy, lay people, whether we are in the healthcare profession and law, or in business, teaching. That the nature and survival of our institutions, our professions are more important than who we are, than who's we are, and to whom we are connected. That is what Lent is about, to get us to return to our true selves, our best selves. The selves that God wants us to show and be.

I like to think that one way of understanding this is through stories and literature. Now I did a little bit of research that they tell me they don't teach much about Thomas Stearns Eliot, the poet, very much anymore in schools. That's T.S. Eliot for some. This St. Louisian, who goes off to Harvard and then goes to England to study at Oxford, and stays there and becomes a British subject, was a beautiful poet. A complicated man, he probably fell out of fashion because we discovered that he held ideas about women and Jews and others that were not that enlightened, but as one of my professors, my church history professor said, "Even a cracked and flawed vessel can still carry the nectar of God." And I think in Eliot's words, his poetry, whether it's "The Waste Land", which is a quite confusing poem, or "The Four Quartets," a very beautiful and leads you somewhere, he can help us with our faith, at least for some of us.

But I most appreciate his poem, "Ash Wednesday," of course, and it is Lent. This is a poem he wrote in 1930, two years after he was baptized into the Church of England and confirmed. And as Eliot, if you've read his work know, he had this great imagery, which would be identified with what they call the high church Anglo-Catholic party in the Church of England and Anglicanism worldwide. The poem begins with this understanding of Ash Wednesday, of Lent. It begins with the words because.

"Because I do not hope to turn again. Because I do not hope to turn, desiring this man's gift and that man's scope. I no longer strive to strive towards such things." And then he goes on talking about what he truly mourns and what he has given up for something greater. For the pressures he probably felt in his life as the upper-middle class son of a wealthy family in St. Louis to a bright student who even goes on to Oxford and perhaps maybe to an academic career if he wanted, but he chose something even deeper that he could only express through his poetry. And even though his life was difficult in some ways, and his relationships were fraught, he understood the deepest meanings of life is to choose the spiritual, yes even the metaphysical, over the material world.

"Ash Wednesday" is a poem that you may best understand if you enjoy reading Dante, and particularly Dante's Divine Comedy. Where the key is to understand life is about what seems to be hidden but is in fact truly real. And Eliot ends the poem with the words that we most identify with the rosary, the prayer that we lift up seeking our Lady Mary's intercession. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Eliot understood that the reality, reality we say on Ash Wednesday, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. That the hour of our death is the only thing we need to really do in this life, to prepare, to reconcile ourselves with that, and then live with the fullness that God calls us.

This understanding of death is what I want to leave you with with another story. Another writer, a young woman, Jewish, living in Europe at the time of Nazi occupation. She was hidden by a Gentile family for two or three years, sadly eventually betrayed and caught, and sent with her family to a concentration camp, where everyone including her, except for her father, were killed. I'm of course talking about Anne Frank. And in her diary, she wrote on July 15, 1944, and even though now the Allies had invaded Europe, it would be too late for Anne.

But she wrote this to her friend Kitty, talking about what she truly believes in, and what she felt was the hope of the world. "It is utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, of suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness. I hear the approaching thunder that one day will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions and yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better. That this cruelty too will end. That peace and tranquility will return once more. In the mean time, I must hold onto my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I'll be able to realize them. I still choose to believe in ideals."

Those words, those words of Anne Frank, of choosing to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, is our challenge in a world that is broken and fractured. That we need to live by something more than what the world offers. That the strategies and attempts that may help us in some ways, if we allow them to rule our lives, will lead to destruction as well. We need to believe, believe in ideals of hope. Yes, of peace and freedom, justice and tranquility. We need to pray as Eliot said. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. I pray that we may go and do likewise. Amen.