Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
February 10, 2008
First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
“Lead us not into temptation,” we pray every Sunday. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And yet, the world we live in is not like the candy-free checkout at the grocery store. Every day provides new temptations. I once saw a great New Yorker cartoon: it was the “Seven Deadly Sins Shopping Mall.” The 7 deadly sins, you may remember, are Sloth, Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, and Envy. In the cartoon, there’s this strip mall with a La-Z Boy recliner outlet, a beauty spa, a gun store, a bar with an all-you-can-eat buffet, an off-track betting parlor, an adult bookstore, and a fashion boutique called something like “I Want What She’s Wearing.” The sad thing is, it’s not so different from what we actually find in the average shopping mall. Everywhere we turn someone offers us a new self-indulgence or opportunity to learn a new vice.
The 7 deadly sins are not strictly biblical, and are not so much sins as the deep urges that lead us to sin, but they’re helpful tools, I think, if we want to know ourselves (and our temptations) better. Knowing one’s demons is the first step in not yielding to them, and in getting God to help cast them out. The 7 deadly sins were first named by St. John Cassian, a French monk from the 4th century, and they were adopted as a teaching tool of the church by Pope Gregory the Great some 200 years later. Of course, today, the world tends to scoff at old-fashioned religious ideas like sin and temptation. I read that back in 1993, MTV did a special on the Seven Deadly Sins where they interviewed various celebrities who all pretty much agreed that none of the sins were really serious and that the list was "dumb.” Even mainline Christians like us don’t give sin or repentance too much attention anymore. We prefer to focus on more positive things.
And yet, we can see how some of those deadly sins can actually kill. Gluttony and sloth have led to a national epidemic of obesity, and alcohol and drug abuse. Envy and greed are basic sales tools used by marketing firms and by lending institutions that tempt people to accrue dangerously high debt. Pride, also known as vanity, leads people to risk death and disfigurement in cosmetic surgery or steroid abuse. Lust can lead to sexually transmitted diseases that can cause sterility and death. Anger can lead to domestic violence at home and to war overseas. And yet, we faithful religious people often forget that we have this standing offer from God to “deliver us from evil.” We rarely seem to turn to God when we have a real problem, or to listen in prayer for guidance.
Like Adam and Eve, I think we are reluctant to confess and reveal our naked souls to our Creator. Remember how, after Adam and Eve made those ridiculous fig-leaf clothes, they went to hide in the bushes? Genesis 3:8 says, “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” Like Adam and Eve, when we sin and embarrass ourselves, I think we are very likely to hide from God, to make excuses, or deny our mistakes. Or we go to various self-help “experts” in the world for advice instead of turning to God for help.
But what does our faith have to say about relying on the knowledge of “this world” to guide us or keep us safe? Remember the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden? It’s the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – what harm is there in knowing good from evil? Seems like the whole point of the Bible, in a way, to teach us the difference. Isn’t that why we have a Sunday School? But sometimes, in this information age, it becomes clear we can get too much of a good thing – how many channels do we need anyway? Other generations got by with only the family Bible – I read recently that The New York Times provides as much in one week as most 18th century people read in a lifetime.
But, still, it’s not the knowledge itself that harms us. The real danger is when we begin to believe we know as much as God, because then we think we can do without religion. Remember what the serpent said to the woman? “Not to worry, Eve, a little knowledge won’t kill you. God just wants to keep you in the dark. Eat, and you will be just like God and know all the answers.” The real danger is when we start playing God, and our advances in science take off before anyone takes time to consult a moral compass for direction. The real danger is when we doubt God’s wisdom when we don’t like the way something is unfolding in our lives. The real danger is when we start refusing to yield our own ideas and opinions to God’s will. The real danger is when we start to rely strictly on ourselves and fail to seek God’s guidance. We in the United Church of Christ like to say “God is still speaking,” but if that’s true, we need to learn to listen in prayer.
How exactly do we do that? How can we distinguish between our own noisy inner chatter, real demons of self-doubt or temptation, and the true and wise voice of the living God? That’s not an easy question to answer, and yet it’s at the heart of our current vision-setting process. We are coming together in these visioning sessions to pray and to listen, and to try to name together the will of God for our church at this moment, 250 years into our history. But how can we tell the difference between our own opinions and ideas inspired by the Holy Spirit? It’s not too unlike the struggle Jesus had with Satan in the wilderness, as he had to discern whether what he was hearing were truly temptations or opportunities. It’s not usually easy to tell the difference, even for the Son of God. For example, if Jesus could turn stones into bread, wouldn’t that feed thousands upon thousands of hungry people? Somehow Jesus knew it was the voice of the devil he was hearing, but for ordinary Christians like us, spiritual discernment is a lot harder.
Here’s how it worked for me on Friday, as I was struggling to write this sermon. I needed a good example to share with you about answered prayer, and how we can listen to God and yield to the Spirit’s guidance. So I thought – hey, why don’t I take my own advice? So I closed my eyes to pray. But I just couldn’t shut up this nagging voice in my head saying, “Check your e-mail.” I assumed it was the voice of temptation, because if you’re a computer user, you know what a black hole of distraction the internet can be. So I tried again to pray. Still, all I could hear in my mind was, “Check your e-mail.” Finally, I decided it was easier to yield to temptation than to fight it, so I opened up my hotmail. And there was this e-mail from an old friend that told about one man’s struggle to listen to God. So I thought I’d better share it with you, since it’s my first e-mail answer to prayer.
My friend’s e-mail message was a story about a young man who had a hard time believing that God really still speaks to people today. So when he was driving home late one night after Bible study, he decided to pray, “God...If you still speak to people, speak to me. I will listen and do my best to obey.” So what happens is he has this weird thought to stop and buy a gallon of milk. He does, and keeps on driving. (Now if the voice had told him to buy a six-pack of beer, drink the whole thing at once, and continue driving, we have to hope that, like Jesus in the wilderness, he would have figured out that voice he was hearing was NOT coming from heaven.) But anyway, heading home with the milk, he feels guided to turn onto a certain street and stop at a certain house. Against his better judgment he goes to the door with the milk, and finds inside a crying child in the arms of a poor young couple – who had been praying at that moment for God to help them find the money to buy their next groceries. He knew then that God still answers prayers.
Now that story is probably not factual – it’s probably just another urban legend that well-meaning people forward all around the internet. But it is a true story, in that it did come to me when I prayed for guidance on what to tell you in this sermon, when I needed a story to help us learn to tell the difference between the voice of the Tempter and the voice of God when we pray. It’s hard to trust God to guide us. Jesus followed God’s will all the way to the cross, even though people of good common sense would have warned him to stay away from Jerusalem. For us, following in Christ’s way is really much easier than we think – we just need to stop and listen to the Holy Spirit’s quiet but still-speaking voice – and to yield our lives to God’s will for us.
I want to close with another story – one that I know is true, because I saw the change that yielding to God’s will made for a close friend of mine. She is an ordained minister too – we were in seminary together. All her life, she had been overweight, but not hugely obese – like 190 pounds, when her doctor said she shouldn’t weigh more than 150. Like so many of us, she’d tried all kinds of diets, and had gained and lost the same 20 pounds a few times, but hadn’t ever been able to lose all the weight. As she was getting older, the weight was causing some health problems, and her doctor started to insist she do something about it.
Back at church, she complained to a parishioner about the way her doctor was picking on her and to her very great surprise, the other woman offered to sit down and pray with her about the problem. Before she knew it, she was going with the woman to her local Overeaters Anonymous meeting, which had adapted the 12 spiritual steps of AA to meet the challenges of food addicts. Over nearly a year of working with a sponsor, doing daily prayer and meditation, and going to those meetings – which my friend liked to call Nazi OA, because of how strict they were about following their disciplines – my friend lost nearly 50 pounds. She was thin and healthy for the first time in her life. Her doctor was amazed, because he was used to nagging patients who never did change.
My friend said the secret to her success was not mastery of herself, not some heroic resisting of the temptation to gluttony. Before she could begin to change, she had to trust God to love her just as she was, with her heart and desires naked and exposed and vulnerable. She had to confront demons of self-doubt and anger that she had previously refused to look at, much less allow God to exorcise. She said her healing couldn’t begin until she was willing to yield her own will to God’s will for her – instead of letting her own desires guide her choices. She said the hardest thing to do was to trust God with her real problems, and to lay them bare before others who could actually help.
Like my friend, like Jesus – we can trust God to guide us in the way we need to go. We only need to remember to stop and ask for directions, to listen, and to yield.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.
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