A Sermon preach on the First Sunday of Lent
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Paterson, New Jersey
March 5, 2017

It’s been 17 years since I preached from this pulpit. It was the Last Sunday in Epiphany in the year 2000. We stood on a mountain top and recalled our time together. It wasn’t always easy.  Building our congregation was like climbing Mt. Everest; with all of our diversity and energy, sometimes there was not enough oxygen for everyone to breathe. Building St. Paul’s CDC was like climbing a mountain range; every time we thought we had reached the peak, we realized it was just a plateau.

However, with God’s encouragement, we were determined. Together, we built one of the most diverse congregations in the Episcopal Church – Black, White, Hispanic and Asian; native-born and newcomers from many lands; young, old and in-between; urban and suburban; lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual and transgendered; married and single; rich, poor and middle class; seeker, sojourner, and cradle Episcopalians.

Over the course of our time together, we had some extraordinary mountain top experiences like:

  • Opening the doors between our men’s parish hall shelter and the church
  • Inviting our shelter guests to worship with the congregation
  • Constructing a permanent shelter facility in our undercroft
  • Walking the stations of the cross from the perspective of new immigrants in our community.
  • Making a public witness during the Heresy Trial over gay ordination
    Dedicating 180 Carroll Street, the first of our affordable housing efforts
  • The CityServe Ensemble performances of song and dance
    The Night the Bell fell through the baptistry
    The World AIDS Day Vigil led by our Sisters on the Streets
  • Gathering on the Ash Wednesday after Lawrence Meyers was killed
    Watching the Hale-Bopp Comet pass over our parking lot on Maundy Thursday
  • The Easter morning visit by Bacardi and the Good Friday interruption by Yvonne after her shoes were stolen while she was sleeping
  • The Pentecost Service when we baptized 12 babies and welcomed 30 newcomers with a Dixieland jazz band and the gospel proclaimed in 15 languages
  • The Epiphany pageants and Youth Sundays
    The fiestas, dinner dances, Mardi Gras, Holiday Express Christmas parties, and Super Saturdays
  • The Martin Luther King Day Celebrations
    The 175th Anniversary
    And the list could go on and on…
  • On those mountain tops, we saw the glory of God. But like the Bible tells us, you can’t stay on the mountain forever. Seventeen years ago today, we came down from the mountain together and went our separate ways.

Over the past nearly two decades, a lot has transpired in my life, your lives, and the life of this city and this 200-year old parish. There have been many changes in the Episcopal Church, our nation, and our world. As much as we enjoy the golden age of memory, we can’t live in the past, recalling what we thought were better days. Nor can we live in the future – simply hoping and dreaming for a better tomorrow. We have to live in the wilderness of the present with all of its opportunity, challenge and temptation.

Wilderness and temptation are realities of human existence. Thus, the wilderness-temptation story always stands as a toll booth on our Lenten highway to Easter. Each year, we have to stop and pay homage to it so that this parable about the way of the world vs. the way of God can shed light and truth for our journey.

The first temptation – turning stone into bread – is about fast food, the temptation of convenience. Provide a hungry world with a full dinner pail and the masses will follow you anywhere. Jesus rejected it. He believed that our needs (both physical and spiritual) must be met by God’s way, not our own cheap, selfish and often-unethical ways.

Our Lord also realized that he was called to fill a hunger for justice and human dignity. You know as well I do that it’s easier to hand out loaves of bread, bags of groceries, warm meals, and shallow promises than to actually address the systemic issues of hunger, nutrition and poverty.

Jesus teaches us that there simply are no meaningful shortcuts to substantive change. As President Trump admitted in this past week’s address to Congress, health care reform is far more complicated than he had realized. I pray that he and his advisors will quickly realize this to be true about most public policy, including immigration reform.

The second temptation – worshipping Satan in exchange for rule over all the kingdoms of the world – is about unrestrained power and tremendous wealth that has a tendency to corrupt. Jesus knew that he could not win over the world for God through absolute control.

At first glance, we say, “Of course, Jesus rejected this offer to make a pact with the devil.” However, if we consider the deals we’ve cut for influence or money, the trade-offs we’ve made for advancement, the compromises we’ve agreed upon for the sake of keeping the peace – then it’s not so simple.

But Jesus insists there is another way. It is not by serving two masters – God and Caesar; it is by trusting God and loving God’s creation with integrity and compassion in both good and times. This third way relies on God to promote us and make our boundaries broad and wide.

The temptation of power and wealth is at the heart of American politics today, and we who follow Christ need to get clear and determined about walking Jesus’s third way. We can’t hide from the harsh reality that is facing us; rather, we have to engage the powers and principalities that are conspiring to dismantle American democracy.. That is the task before us, and we must overcome the temptation to run away from it.

The third temptation – jumping off the highest pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and be saved – is about magic and instant acclaim – coercion, conversion and fame through pyrotechnics. It’s the gimmicks, entertainment, and promised miracles of some politics, religion and advertising. It’s the essence of reality television. One minute you’re nobody, and the next minute (or at the end of a season), you have instant fame. While reality t.v. is fairly harmless, the temptation for instant fame, popularity and power, also has reared its ugly head in the public square, as politicians and pundits use fear to win voter confidence while keeping people in their place. Fear mongering encourages us to distrust strangers, scapegoat neighbors, and even act against our own best interest.

Many (if not most of all of us) fall prey to this temptation in our daily lives. If we can’t get our way, we force the situation with an action that gives the other no choice. We demean ourselves to get someone else to say something nice about us and build up our weak egos. We play to the fear and insecurity of the other. We threaten to walk away in order to get others to call us back.

Jesus said no to all of that silliness. He insisted that we should not force the hand of God by putting the Holy One to the test. And if we say we see the face of God in our neighbors, then it follows that we should not force the hand of our neighbor by putting him or her to the test. Rather, Jesus calls us to love our neighbors (nearby and far away), which means standing with them and standing for them when they are facing discrimination, scapegoating and oppression.

In the end, all of the temptations Jesus faced and we face involve taking the easy way out, a form of spiritual laziness and political complicity. Jesus didn’t resist temptation by just saying “no.” Jesus resisted the temptations of convenience, absolute power, and manipulation by digging deep into the roots of his faith, his spiritual ancestors, and his sacred story.

The fact that Jesus was baptized and immediately found himself tempted by the devil is an ever-present reminder that following Jesus is not easy work. It’s hard to be faithful. It’s hard to be a part of the “Jesus Movement.” But, as this text reminds us every year, we are called resist the temptation to look for simple solutions to complex problems, to seek easy answers to complicated questions, or to get our way through fear, shame and manipulation. Rather, we – you and I, each and every one of us, individually and collectively – are called, commissioned and empowered to do the hard work of justice and mercy that will guide us through the wilderness of our time.

Shortly after the presidential election, my former church, Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, hosted an interfaith clergy gathering to talk about the role of the faith community and faith leaders in this new political climate. The guest speaker, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, suggested that we might have to become prophetic like Nathan was to King David, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to Hitler and the Third Reich, Martin Luther King was to President Lyndon Johnson, or Desmond Tutu was to the Apartheid government of South Africa. Someone asked what that might look like. Rabbi Rudin responded that it might mean taking courageous action if the line is crossed. One person at the table asked what is the line that can’t be crossed. Rabbi Rudin responded that each of us will have to discern for ourselves what lines that can’t be crossed and what action must be taken. That’s what it means to follow Jesus’ third way.

Friends, I know that this church has experienced some tough time and difficult challenges in recent years. But your mission to proclaim God’s justice, love and mercy for all creation; to live out the good news of God’s kingdom for all people, and to be a healing sign that the things which divide us from each other may be overcome in the oneness of God, is needed now more than ever before.

I’m here today to remind you of your high calling and to encourage you to come together in the name of Christ and begin your third century with renewed dedication and determination to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. May this be your Lenten task.