This is another in the occasional series I post of sermons by my friend, the Rev. Bruce Coggin. Bruce is a retired priest of the diocese who does heroic service taking care of two congregations whose buildings are still in the control of our former bishop, a circumstance which has caused them to be very creative about worship space and ministry. This past Sunday, however, Bruce preached at all four services at Trinity, Fort Worth. Two of his own grown children and their spouses and children were in the congregation, an added joy to the day.
And the photo? That's the absolutely shameless Mexican Plum abloom right now in my garden. Bruce and I were admiring it just yesterday.
preached at Trinity Church, Fort Worth
Lent I, 2011
Does that surprise you? Well, I promise you, this is really a happy moment for me, a chance to be back with this family I get to see so rarely, since I'm still back and forth between Wichita Falls and Hillsboro most of the time. So I am particularly grateful to Fr. Wright for inviting me to preach today--and doubly so because it's the first Sunday of Lent, a great Sunday for preachers. And before we're through, I hope you'll have some reason to think of Lent as . . . well . . . a surprisingly enjoyable time.
Of course, it’s a challenge to preach to this house, especially today. I look out and see two of my children and their families, and I can see no fewer than four other priests among you; so the pressure’s pretty considerable. Aside from that, it’s the first Sunday of Lent, and how many first Sunday of Lent sermons have you listened to by now? I mean, you know all about Lent, don’t you? It’s that time of the year when our mother the church asks us to consider—pray about, read about, hear about, do about—all that in our lives which leads us to be less than God created us to be, to fail of our mission to glorify God by serving others and letting the divine light of Christ shine through us. You know what I’m talking about. We call it sin, and depending on our level of psychological sophistication, we can explore that pretty dispassionately—but we all know it’s real. I’m talking about the ways we behave, the things we do that get us off track, that “separate us from God,” the stuff we do out of foolishness or weakness or ignorance or even when we knowingly and willingly cooperate with that which we call evil—another reality we can discuss intellectually but which we all know is real.
So the church is wise to turn our attention to all that, and she offers us a whole batch of traditional tools for doing it: we give something up, take something on, come to church without fail, read the Bible, go to a class, pray the Stations of the Cross, and especially we try to feel really sorry about all the stuff we’ve been doing all the rest of the year we know we shouldn’t. It’s all supposed to be a kind of spiritual calisthenics to pump up our will power to resist the devil and all his pomps, to make us able to resist temptation. And all that’s good, and I commend it to you, and I hope God blesses your every act of spiritual discipline to you this Lent and every Lent. But, y’know? The degree of seriousness with which people take all that, I find, varies. Years ago in a little parish somewhere else in this diocese, I asked the senior warden what he’d given up for Lent, and he came back with, “Oysters.” Mercy. I used to give up cuff links with stones in them. Oh, the agony!
But though I am for all that, the fact is that the religious practices with which we at least ostensibly honor God each Lent can, if we’re not careful, turn into a distraction, a way to avoid taking a hard look at some of the more intractable problems within us that lead us to fail of our mission, to be less than God created us to be, to sin. I mean, look: my experience is that no matter how rigorous a Lent I keep, I’m still putty in the tempter’s hands most of the time. Lifting spiritual weights doesn’t seem to give me great spiritual abs. My suspicion is that there’s a lot more going on in me, in us, than just learning not to go to the picture show on Sundays or stay up late smokin’ cigarettes and playing cards or chasing after wine, wimmin, and song. I mean, look at the Bible lessons today, especially the Old Testament and the gospel lesson. Those are two of the greatest temptation stories ever told, and there’s nothing chintzy about the temptations there, nothing tawdry about getting another bath tub and buying some of those little pills. It’s serious stuff, high dollar temptation with everything at risk.
In the Garden of Eden, you recall, God gave Adam and Eve absolutely everything they needed, a perfect world—daily communion with God, no sickness, no death, all the world at their feet—so naturally they responded with a “Yes but.” And sensing an opportunity, along comes the old slithergadee and sidles up to Eve and gives her a line about the apples (the knowledge of good and evil), how she could whomp up an apple tart with those that would knock her husband’s socks off! (Did ya notice, by the way, he’s her husband? I don’t remember them getting married.) And, of course, she’s a pushover, as is he for the tart. In the textbooks on moral theology, there are whole chapters about the various moral steps between first temptation and the willing entry into the occasion for sin. Not with Eve. Nossiree. She’s right in there—just like most of us, certainly me. Temptation to action, theory to practice, one straight shot. Oh, I know that story’s true, because it’s mine—and if you’re anything like me, and I think you are, it’s yours too.
Not so in the gospel story. This critical moment in the story of Jesus comes right after his baptism. When I was rector of Cleburne some years back, it dawned on me that when we baptized somebody on Sunday morning, I could count on lunch at the Country Club, because that’s where we went straight from the font. Not Jesus. When he was baptized, he headed out into the desert, the metaphorical equivalent of that little room down inside you where nobody but you and God can go, where you can’t lie because you know you’re lying. He goes out to face temptation, the chance to fail of his mission from God, the chance to do less, to be less. And this time the old slithergadee doesn’t even come in disguise. Jesus knows him. And the opportunities he offers Jesus aren’t any thirty-nine cent stuff but rather real possibilities, ways Jesus could have taken to do, to be something other than God created him to do, to be, the incarnation of divinity.
First, the devil suggests a cheap stunt, to do trick religion, sensation religion, show-biz religion. And Jesus could have done that. Lord knows, trick religion works. People eat it up, and it can make you a whole bucket of money, get you a nice place out in the country near Azle and a private plane and a landing strip! What I mean. We know plenty about that today, but Jesus rejected it out of hand. Next we’re up on the temple and talking about jumping off to see if God means what he says, to which Jesus points out the folly of playing gotcha with God. Finally the devil plays his last card, his grossest offer of all: all this gorgeous stuff, the world and all its joys, they are mine, and I will give them to you if you’ll just play on my team! And Jesus says the equivalent of, “Buzz off, Buster, ya bother me!”
Now, do you think it took Jesus all those forty days of fasting to get his will power all reared back and pumped up and flexed to meet the devil’s challenge? Do you think it took a great act of moral fortitude for him to send Satan packing? I don’t. I mean, I don’t think he had to think twice. I think he finessed all the devil’s cunning, not by what we’d call second nature, but by his first nature. I mean, for Pete’s sake, his nature was, is, one with God’s nature, so all the tinsel the devil offered him looked downright tacky, and he recognized it at once. “You’re offering me what? Fuhgeddaboutit!”
Seems to me there’s something a lot bigger going on that Jesus Just Saying No to the tempter. I think he’s checking himself, seeing if he’s still on track, seeing if the various options to doing and being what God created him to do and be can pull him off his mission, off track, out of line. And when he makes himself vulnerable—forty days and nights without food, and I’ll do anything you ask, believe me!—he finds out that the so-called temptations are hardly worth thinking about. I don’t think it was will power at all. I think it was just his sense of himself as God’s servant.
Well, that’s how Jesus handled temptation. But how does it work for you, for me, for us? How do you conceive of temptation in your own case? What do you think is going on? I know that a lot of people—including me when I was growing up—have a notion of God sitting somewhere before a vast screen with a dot, a pip, for each and every one of us, watching to see somehow that we all get “tested,” to run something tempting and (usually) salacious in front of us just to see if we’ll trip up and break a rule. I know people think that way, because they tell me they do. But isn’t it pretty unappealing? Lord, when I was a kid growing up I loved to go spend the summers with my Coggin grandparents in Brownwood. And since we didn’t have no teevee, we sat in the evenings out on the front porch and talked about everything under the sun. My father’s brother, Uncle Shorty, was not particularly pious, but I remember when I said something about things in the Bible that didn’t make a lot of sense, didn’t add up, he cackled, “God just put that in there to fool ya!” Well, don’t know about you, but the notion of God somehow laying land mines for us, little traps for us to fall into along the way, just doesn’t add up for me. Can’t conceive of that. God is either always loving and caring or he’s always whimsical and sneaky, but he’s not both. I think we’ve got to find a better way to think about what we call temptation.
I like to think of temptation as an opportunity to test the system, a signal that there’s something wrong, static in the transmission, something out of alignment that makes the machine rattle and buck and veer in ways that eventually add up to a clear signal that I need to wake up and smell the rubber burning. A wheel out of alignment not only makes the ride rough; it’ll ruin your tire. When I notice my behavior going way out of the ordinary, especially if I like it, I’ve learned to run a test pattern and see what’s going on inside me.
I don’t always do very well. Ordinarily, the tempter has to do little more than wink, and I’m snagged. And I don’t reckon I’ll ever get there, as it were, but I do think I’m learning as time goes on. One sin I’ve had a lot of trouble with all my life is anger. Now, I don’t think anger is really a sin. It’s an emotion, just surges up from our innards any time we’re scared and perceive our sovereign will challenged. Anger’s not a sin, but the ways we react to anger can be profoundly sinful. And for a great deal of my life, I liked it. I mean, ever since I was really little, I liked it. It made me feel powerful (which was a delusion), it made me think I was in control (another delusion), it made me think I was winning against whatever, whomever crossed me (yet another delusion). I lived right into it, worked myself up into a real good dudgeon, got all puffed up. My Grandmother Yeager used to laugh and tell me I looked like a pouter pigeon! Well, after about half a century of that, somehow, God knows how, it dawned on me how really dumb that was and, somewhat later, how really profoundly sinful. It’s not over. I still have a hair trigger anger gun, and there are times I live right on into it, sometimes for days at a time. And finally when I’ve made myself downright sick, I figure out that I’m acting like Hell and creating a lot of Hell for myself and lots of other people. And then, finally, I have learned to stop and check my alignment. I ask myself, “What’s the matter with you? What are you not seeing? What gift is in front of you that you’re missing? What cheap something has got your eye off the ball? Look at the hurt you’re doing yourself and others. What on earth do you think you’re doing? Who on earth do you think you are?” And sometimes I get clarity, not through an act of will but through . . . well, the way I pray. I fail a lot, but over time I think God’s making some progress with me.
I look at temptation and giving in to temptation not so much as a pop quiz from a whimsical schoolmaster divinity but rather as clear evidence that somehow God the Holy Spirit is sending me danger signals, not so I’ll pump my pitiful will up to resist some bad but rather so I’ll get my head and heart back on straight, remember who I am and why I’m here and what God hopes for me, expects from me, promises me, has given me. You see, I believe our salvation, our destiny in God, does not depend on us, is an absolute gift from God. We look at Jesus and through his transfigured face we see God and, like John says, we either turn to it or away from it; and once we’ve turned to it, repented, then the splendor of God shines through Jesus and into us and through us, and God the Holy Spirit, like some kind of tractor beam, just draws us in like a trout on a Minnesota wiggler. When I am tempted and am cooperating with the tempter—a metaphor for fooling with stuff that might be titillating or gratifying or otherwise rewarding for a moment but that in the long run is utterly contrary to my calling to live in and from God’s always loving, always caring, always self-sacrificing nature—when I am in that mode, the Holy Spirit never fails to send those signals, delightful at first perhaps but afterward excruciating. I’ve come to see temptation not so much as a test of my will but of my alignment. My will, shoot, I know all too well about that weak member. But when I recognize temptation, I know the correction has already begun—and I’m grateful for that.
So Happy Lent! This is the season in which we remember poignantly that we have an eternal calling, a divine destiny to which God called us before the foundations of the earth were laid. And we use Lent to call ourselves back to taw, to check our alignment, to remember that we are caught up in the divine love that means to draw us to the light of Christ in Jesus, into the beam of the Holy Spirit’s love that will eventually bring us all into God’s splendor where we’ll spend eternity. Lord, with all that given to us in full measure, what could the devil offer that would be even vaguely “tempting”? I mean, when we’re seeing straight and praying straight, we can look at just about anything that wants to take us off course and say, lightheartedly like Jesus did, “What? That stuff? You’ve got to be kidding! What would I do with that mess when I’ve got God?”