The Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
March 24, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I first sat down with these lessons, I wasn’t all that inspired by Paul’s fear-provoking message to the Corinthians, nor was I thrilled about the idea of unpacking Jesus’s statement “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” I have a feeling that many Episcopal parishes will hear sermons about Moses and the burning bush today. But we are in the season of Lent, so we may as well suffer through some of this difficult biblical material together.
It’s no surprise that this epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians is used during Lent. In the early church, Lent was a time of preparation for those desiring to be baptized, and the scholars who compiled the new lectionary have brought back in the baptismal focus in the lessons used during Lent. In this passage, Paul spoke to the church at Corinth, a church with all sorts of division and strife going on. Some of its members were falling back into paganism, the church was at risk of splitting into three groups loyal to three different leaders, and bad moral decisions among the members were causing big problems. In other words, the church at Corinth was a hot mess. As they were Jewish Christians, Paul starts with a story about their Jewish ancestors. He told them that despite being “baptized into Moses” – despite being passing through the sea and under the cloud, despite eating the spiritual food and drink that God provided them, they were still struck down in the wilderness. These Jewish Christians viewed this “baptism into Moses” – their Jewish ancestry – as a birthright. A privilege. “Since God brought us out of the desert, he should provide for us,” they thought. And yet, God wasn’t pleased with them, and they were struck down.
Paul then gives the Corinthians a list of things not to do lest they get struck down like their ancestors did. Don’t indulge in sexual immorality, don’t put Christ to the test, don’t complain. Don’t worship idols like your ancestors did. For if you do, you’ll share in a similar fate as they did. The key to all of this is in verse twelve: “If you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations, and maybe even some of you believe in that the Bible teaches a doctrine called “eternal security,” or “once saved, always saved.” The idea is that since there is nothing a sinner can do to earn salvation, there is nothing a saved person can do to lose it. The moment a person “accepts Jesus,” they claim, her salvation is secured, and she faces no risk of ever losing it. Back in my Southern Baptist days, I remember thinking at times, “I’m saved. Nothing I do can separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ. It’s all about grace, not about works.” These are all true statements, but back in those days, I had a tendency to take them to their logical conclusion and view my own salvation as a birthright. A privilege. Because I was “saved,” I felt immune to bad things happening to me as God would protect me. I suppose I felt spiritually invincible.
But God’s grace isn’t a license to sit around and eat bonbons all day. Paul’s warns us today, “If you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.” The Church today is full of human beings who fall into the same patterns, both individually and as a group, as our ancestors at Corinth. The Hebrews thought their birthright – their Jewish ancestry – would shield them from God’s punishment, and we, too, sometimes think that our baptisms shield us from God’s punishment. Paul reminds to watch out lest we fall.
In Luke chapter 13, Jesus is given two historical scenarios when horrible things happened, and he’s asked whether those horrible things happen to them because the people involved were worse sinners than others. Were these two groups of people being punished for their sins? Jesus answers both scenarios in exactly the same way, and in both cases, he ignores the details, and gives a precise and clear answer. He says, “No, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Jesus isn’t saying that unless you stop all the bad things you’re doing, you’ll go to hell. He wouldn’t have told the Church at Corinth, “If you would only stop indulging in sexual immorality, and putting Christ to the test, and complaining, you’d be spared from destruction.” I’m not going to give you a formula – a list of sins to avoid so that you can avoid hell. Repentance is not about stopping cussing and telling white lies at work, it’s about changing your perspective about what is real. It’s about choosing to believe that the values and priorities of God’s kingdom are more important than those of our culture. Repentance is choosing to be open to seeing how God is at work in the world rather than being overly focused on our own desires. Repentance is knowing that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, but that despite our unworthiness, he is the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Repentance is knowing that when bad things happen to people, it’s not because they sinned too much. God’s favor doesn’t work like that. There is no such thing as karma in God’s economy of salvation. Frankly, if God doled out judgment and curses according to our sinfulness, you and I would be in dire straits.
The two historical scenarios that Jesus hears about – the untimely deaths of the Galileans and the people crushed by the tower at Siloam – remind us that it is not wise to put off repentance. The time to change our perspective about the nature of reality is now. Jesus underscores this urgency in the parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree. The man’s fig tree had been planted for three years, but despite his having tended to it appropriately, it bore no fruit. Three years should have been plenty of time! His gardener responds by asking the man to be extravagant – perhaps even wasteful – by giving him another year with the fig tree, despite its lack of results. He proposes digging around it and fertilizing it with manure. St. Gregory the Great, in one of his homilies on Jesus’ parables, says that the manure in this story represents our sin. He said, “So the tree is fertilized when we awaken our conscience with the memory of our own perverse doings.” In other words, sin is……manure, but when sin is turned to repentance, it is spiritual fertilizer.
Lent is the time to fertilize our souls for the upcoming harvest. It’s a time to forsake our idols and recognize that we cannot earn God’s favor, no matter how hard we try. It’s a time to be careful that when we think we’re standing, we should watch lest we fall. Lent is a time when we dig deep into the spiritual disciplines of the Church and gradually, day after day, with God’s help, train ourselves to be attentive to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom around us. During Lent, our Lord bids us to return to our baptismal roots and allow our repentance to fertilize our souls as we prepare for the great harvest at Easter.
 The quote is from St. Gregory the Great, homily 31, and the exegetical outcome is from a private Facebook post by Mimi Dupree on 3/25/2019.
The First Sunday in Lent
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
March 10, 2019
When I was in high school, I was active in the youth group at a Southern Baptist church in Texas. The Baptists are big into memorizing Scripture, which I still think is a generally helpful exercise. However, I was taught the one of the main reasons one should memorize passages from the Bible was to have something on hand, or at top of mind, when you’re tempted. In other words, recalling the biblical passage you’ve memorized was supposed to be some sort of magic bullet that would slay the devil right in his tracks and make the temptation go away.
Likewise, I’ve heard many-a-sermon on the first Sunday in Lent that goes something like this: Jesus was tempted in the desert and was able to resist temptation. Let’s all be like Jesus was and use these three helpful methods to resist temptation during Lent.
The problem with this approach is that it completely misses the mark about what this passage is all about. It’s not a magic formula of how we can resist temptation on our own. It’s instead pointing us to the One who suffered, resisted temptation, and ultimately died for us. This passage isn’t about you and me resisting temptation at all, it’s about who Jesus is, and what it means for him to be the Son of God.
When we think of temptation in our own lives, we often think of the temptation to eat chocolate or to engage in some sort of unhealthy sexual behavior. Jesus’s temptations after being in the wilderness for 40 days are quite different.
First, the devil tempts Jesus to turn a stone into a loaf of bread. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing in and of itself, but the devil is playing on Jesus’s weakness – he’s famished after having no food for forty days. He’s tempting Jesus to use his power for instant gratification. This temptation, along with the third one, begins with the devil saying, “If you are the Son of God.” The word “if” in Greek in the first and third temptations isn’t a hypothetical, nor is it a kind of short-hand for “whether,” but more like “since” or “given that.” “Given that you are the Son of God.” The devil isn’t questioning Jesus’s identity or trying to make him doubt that he’s the Son of God, he’s trying to get him to use his power in a way that isn’t in line with his actual mission as the Son of God. Instant gratification results in a reward, but the reward is temporary and smaller than the ultimate prize. Winning the ultimate prize requires patience and endurance, but all of that is well worth the wait. The devil offered Jesus instant glory without the suffering of the cross.
In the second temptation, the devil tempts Jesus by offering him all the kingdoms of the world if he will only worship him. The word “if” here is hypothetical. If Jesus will only worship the devil, he’ll give him authority over the kingdoms of this world, and their glory. The devil actually had the authority to do this, but again, the gratification would have been temporary. Jesus knew how things would shake out at the end – that ultimately, he would rule over the kingdoms of the world at the last day. But it wasn’t his time yet. The devil offered Jesus instant glory without the suffering of the cross.
The devil then tempts Jesus a third time by taking him to the roof of the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where Jesus’ ministry culminates in his passion and resurrection appearances, and where the church will begin. Now the devil returns to “if” in the first sense: given that you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here and show me and all of Jerusalem what you got. Provoke God’s action in your own interest at the Temple -- as the Psalms themselves intimate that you are God’s own precious concern. Jesus, however, is not interested in being Son of God in a way that vindicates him here and now in the presence of the Temple and of Jerusalem itself. Like the first two temptations, the devil offered Jesus instant glory without the suffering of the cross.
This passage isn’t a magic formula for you and me on how to resist temptation, it’s about who Jesus is.
The collect for the First Sunday in Lent helps frame this text in a very helpful way: “Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save.”
You and I are indeed assaulted by manifold temptations. God knows our temptations, and He knows that we cannot possibly resist temptation in the way that Jesus did. But in spite of our unworthiness, God offers us his unconditional grace in his Son Jesus Christ, the only One who has ever been able to resist temptation.
The Devil and you and I all know that Jesus is the Son of God. But what kind of Son of God is he? According to Luke’s account of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, this one is unlike Adam (and therefore unlike us). The powers of evil will have no sway over this one, in whom God’s saving purpose is made plain. Our Lord resisted the temptation to avoid the horrible death on that tree that he knew awaited him and choose instant gratification instead. As Paul said,
being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
When you are tempted during Lent, and tempted you will be, repent and return to the Lord…the Lord who by the mighty power of God resisted temptation as only God can do…the Lord who then died a horrible death for your sake despite your unworthiness. Repent and return to the Lord. For he knows our temptations and infirmities. As we repent and return to the Lord, let each of us find him mighty to save. Amen.
 This theme is from. Same Old Song podcast, Mockingbird ministries. https://www.mbird.com/podcasts/
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Kindle edition, location 1696..
 Working Preacher.
 BCP collect for the First Sunday in Lent.
 Feasting 1743.
 Philippians 2:8-11
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
March 3, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I tell someone that I need to work on a sermon, I often hear this in reply: “Just pull out an old sermon. No one will ever know.” Of course, I respond, “Sermons are tailored to a specific time and context as well as a specific audience. Repeating a sermon doesn’t work too well.” Also we have a three-year lectionary, so only certain feasts have identical Scripture readings every year. The Last Sunday after the Epiphany focuses on the Transfiguration of Christ, and while the lessons differ from year to year, the story is essentially the same. With the impending snow storm yesterday, I have to admit, I was a bit tempted.
So I opened my sermon from last year from the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. It was February 11th, three weeks after Fr. Patrick left to go to his new assignment in Wisconsin. I talked about the raw emotion that Peter, James and John must have felt when they went up the mountain and they saw Jesus transfigured before them in dazzling white. I described a few mountain-top experiences I’d had in my life, and made this passing comment, and I quote, “I’m not an emotional guy – crying isn’t something that I do very often.”
I literally laughed out loud and how utterly false that statement is. As any of the acolytes who can see my face during everything that goes on up here would tell you… I can hardly get through the Eucharistic Prayer without fighting to hold in a tear! But last year, I clearly felt that I could say that I rarely cry with integrity.
What has changed in a year’s time?
This time last year, I felt a lot of anxiety. Both the Vestry and I were uncertain of whether the bishop would allow a priest who had only been ordained a little over a year to lead the oldest parish in the diocese, a parish that hasn’t been able to make its full assessment payments to the diocese in years. Was I even cut out for this work? Let’s just say that I had more than one sleepless night. As the months went by, I think I began to realize that it was doing neither me nor you any good to be anxious about things we can’t control. Maybe I realized that I should practice what I preach when I say “Trust in the Lord.”
Another thing that’s changed over past year is that I’ve generally gotten to know you and you’ve gotten to know me. Between weddings and funerals, baptisms confirmation classes, and time spent in coffee hour, text messages and phone calls, hospital visits and drinks at the bar and lunches in downtown Kansas City over my bank lunch hour – we’ve generally gotten to know one another. So, in a sense, it may be that I’m just more willing to admit to you that I cry now that I’m comfortable with you.
One more giant change that happened overnight was the liturgical workload. I mean, I knew what the service schedule of this parish looked like on paper last year, but it didn’t hit me until a few weeks ago when I had to turn in my annual report to the bishop. In 2017 – year before last – I celebrated 39 Masses and preached 29 sermons. In 2018, I celebrated 132 Masses and preached 111 sermons. Preaching a sermon, particularly on a Sunday, generally means spending several hours with a Bible and perhaps study materials each week. And celebrating that many Masses meant that had consumed our Lord sacramentally more frequently and regularly than ever before.
Serving as your priest over the past year has resulted in some mandatory time on the mountaintop.
But as anyone who watches the news knows all too well, forced mountaintop experiences aren’t always tied to positive outcomes. There are many church leaders – bishops, priests, deacons, Protestant ministers, lay leaders – who spend a lot of time with Jesus in all of his dazzling brightness on the top of the spiritual mountain, but then come back down to the valley and do awful, horrible things.
The truth of the matter is this: in order to be able to spend lots of time on the mountaintop in Jesus’s transfigured presence without self-destructing, one must be grounded in the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith. People don’t generally live on mountaintops – Peter’s suggestion to build dwelling places on that mountain must have sounded awfully silly. We climb mountains, we spend a bit of time there, but we come back down and spend the vast majority of our lives in the valley.
It is no accident that the Church has us read this text just before Lent begins. We are about to enter a specific and intentionally valley – the desert with Jesus as he is tempted in every way, and ultimately prepare for the sorrow and suffering that is to come on Good Friday. During Lent, we focus not only on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but spiritual disciplines in general. The more and more time we spend with the Lord in everyday, habitual spiritual practices like praying Morning and Evening Prayer, receiving Holy Communion regularly, perhaps even digging deep into the recesses of our souls and making a private confession – the more time we spend with the Lord and in community with one another, the more we long for the spiritual mountaintop experiences, and the more likely it is we can withstand being in Jesus’s dazzling white transfigured presence without self-destructing. The more we practice the basic spiritual disciplines, the more aware we are of the Lord’s presence in and around us. And then, without even realizing it, we slowly find ourselves being more attuned to the Holy Spirit’s movement around us, and we’re more equipped to join with Her in bringing reconciliation and healing and wholeness to a lost and broken world.
The past year here at St. Mary’s has been one of the best years of my life. For the reasons I’ve mentioned, and probably many reasons I can’t even name, I feel comfortable admitting to you and to myself that I’m a cry-er. As we enter into this new phase in our relationship with one another, I also need to admit something else to you: I sometimes struggle with the daily spiritual disciplines I ask you to engage in. When I ask you, “How is Lent going for you?”, beyond giving me a hopefully authentic response, I am asking you to ask me the very same question. Frankly, I need the accountability, and sometimes you need to see a bit more authenticity from me.
As we enter into Lent, and as we enter into this new relationship with one another as priest and congregation, let us re-commit ourselves to following Jesus Christ together. Let us recommit ourselves to daily putting our baptism – to daily dying to self and being raised to newness of life. Let us recommit ourselves to intentionally developing good spiritual habits in the grittiness of everyday life, and let us recommit ourselves to keep coming back to this place with this church family to receive God’s unconditional grace and love in the bread and the wine – to receive the strength we need to say yes to the Lord when we feel alone in the valley. Amen.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!