I’ll be honest, I’m having a hard time sharing this one. As a preacher, I feel so vulnerable the week following a shooting. I don’t think there is a “right” thing to say. I try to tread carefully and that may or may not be the right thing to do, either. I don’t want to stir up a debate, but I also don’t want anyone to think that I’m afraid to speak hard truths, either. I want to pray for the victims of this shooting, but I also know that, like so many others have said, thoughts and prayers are just not enough anymore.
Ugh. It’s so hard. I spoke a truth that I think my people needed to hear and could take with them and apply to their lives. Hopefully that was enough. I pray that God will continue to work out the details and I will be obedient in my preaching. Because it’s not easy!
So here is my sermon. Lent 1, Jesus in the wilderness, the weekend after a shooting in our country.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
February 18, 2018
I never used to talk about evil before.
Truth be told, I kind of doubted its existence. It is not that I thought bad things did not happen, but I always attributed them to being human and living in an imperfect world. Part of me thought fire and brimstone pastors talked about evil as a scare tactic and people used evil to excuse their bad behavior.
But I think, even more than that, I did not want to believe that there was someone working against God. I did not want to believe that there was something in this world that was more powerful than God’s love. I did not want to believe that, as human beings, we were being pulled towards evil.
I still don’t.
But I have gotten into this heartbreaking habit of ascending to the pulpit and struggling to find adequate words to speak following a mass shooting in our country. Unimaginable losses keep happening and they are not the result of tragic accidents or natural disasters. They are very much human – and very much evil.
This morning is the first Sunday of Lent, which is a 40-day season leading up to Easter. This time frame evokes the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, the story we heard in this morning’s scripture reading from the gospel of Mark. After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Spirit drove him out to the wilderness.
[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
I preach on this story every year on the first Sunday of Lent. And I think part of me has always glossed over the Satan part and focused on the wilderness part. I much prefer the narrative of the angels waiting on Jesus than the one of him being with the wild beasts.
But I think, more and more, in today’s culture, in the church and especially in light of what happened this week in Florida, we need to start talking about evil. Because it is real; it is part of our narrative. And it is hurting us in unspeakable ways.
Jesus, himself, was not immune from the evil that exists in the world. He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness for 40 days; this was an evil that was trying to work against God, an evil that was trying to be more powerful than God’s love, an evil that Jesus was being pulled towards.
We face this kind of evil in our lives today.
A community in Florida was devastated by this kind of evil on Wednesday.
The question, of course, is, what do we do about it? How do we move from the wild beasts that surround us to the angels who await us?
People have wrestled with this question all week. And I hate to disappoint anyone who was hoping I would say something prophetic this morning, I do not have an answer to it, either. The issue of gun violence is very complicated and polarizing in our country right now. I do not know what the solution is and I certainly am not going to stir up a debate this morning.
But I do know this: The Church has, within its capacity, the ability to change people’s lives. And I believe that, if we truly want to make a difference in our country and in the world – if we want to resist the evil that is pulling us and the people around us away from God – we need to start right here in our own community.
We can make a difference in the lives of people who are being pulled towards evil.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness reminds us that, every day, we, too, are being pulled towards an evil trying to work against God, trying to be more powerful than God’s love. And I believe, as a church, we have pull people away from that evil; we have to remind people of what it means to stand in the glory of God’s grace and be a tangible expression of the power of God’s love.
I know the issues at play here, particularly the ones surrounding gun control, are much more complex than this, but those are not issues I can necessarily fix from the pulpit. But what I can do from the pulpit is remind us all – myself included – that we, as a church, have the capacity to change someone’s life. We can be the Body of Christ to someone who desperately needs support. We can show people what it means to love and to be loved. We can teach our children the difference between right and wrong. As hard as someone might be pulled away from us towards evil, we can pull them back towards grace even harder. We can shine light into someone’s world when it is dark. We can show outward and tangible signs of God’s love, a love that is real, a love that always wins and a love that reminds us that resurrection is possible.
You never know what someone might be going through, whether they are a child, a youth or an adult. You never know when they might be on the brink of making a decision that could devastate their lives and the lives of others. So we have to live our lives as a bold witness to God’s love so that others can experience that love. We have to be the church, believing that we could be the difference someone needs; that we are meeting people in their times of desperate need and that we are bringing them out of the wilderness.
A few weeks ago, the children of our Church School made valentines for people in the community whom members of our church identified as someone who could use a pick me up. They send almost 50 cards. On Tuesday morning, we received a note in the office that said:
Thank you for the Valentine card.
I hope all veterans get one.
It meant a lot to me.
My late wife was a Sunday School teacher there,
before we were married sixty eight years ago.
Again, thanks a lot.
Fred Quint (age 91)
This is what it means to be the church; to teach our children how to show compassion and to reach out to someone and meet them in their time of need, let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they are loved, they are cherished and they are not alone.
It starts with us, right here in our community. We can make a difference.
By now most of you have heard that Earl Goff has entered hospice and is being cared for at home. As a longtime member of the choir, Earl attended Thursday night choir rehearsals faithfully for the past 60+ years. So this past Thursday, the choir brought their rehearsal to him. About 20 of us piled into the Goff’s living room and, together with Earl’s family, we sang. We sang old classics and new favorites. We sang loudly when the spirit moved and quietly when Earl needed a rest. We used the music of Amazing Grace, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, I Love to Tell The Story, Hear I Am, Lord and many more to touch us in our sadness. We sang the Navy hymn and Earl beamed with pride. We took turns crying. Earl sang along when he could. We joined hands, like we do at the end of worship every week, closed with prayer and then the Goffs brought out cake and ice cream (I joked with Bruce last night that you can’t have church without fellowship after!).
This is what it means to be the church; to show up and love people, as hard as we can. And we do this because we know that it can and will make a difference.
It starts with us, right here in our community. We can make a difference.
I am taking an online course through the Center for Progressive Renewal right now called, Preaching Lent and in the opening webinar this week, Brian McLaren, who is a pastor and author in the emerging church movement, said that, as preachers, we need to intentionally define Lent this year. Lent is not about penance, but about purpose; the purpose of being a disciple.
What is the purpose of being a disciple of Jesus Christ?
I would argue that, right now, in this generation, the purpose is great. The world needs to hear the Good News of God’s love. People need to be pulled away from evil and guided out of the wilderness. They need to see God’s light illuminating a dark world. They need to be reminded that there are angels waiting for them.
As a church, we have been called for such a time as this.
As we enter into this Lenten season, I encourage you to think about the ways that you can resist evil in this world. Ask yourself, how can you make a difference in someone’s life? How can you meet someone in the desert? What is something tangible – even if it something small – you can do to express God’s love? In this church? In the community? For your family and your friends?
I really do believe we can change the world.
Blessings on your Lenten season. May it be filled with purpose, discipleship and a love that overcomes evil. And may you change someone’s life.
Thanks be to God!