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Sunday, February 18, 2024

When Jesus Met Satan


                                     The Temptation of Christ, by Simon Bening

When Jesus Met Satan
St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Millsboro, DE
Lent I - February 18, 2024


“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan ; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1:9-15

So, as tempting as it is to talk about Noah’s Ark, and as easy as it is to be seduced into talking about The Flood and the Baptism of Jesus, well, it’s the first Sunday in Lent. I won’t be with you again until the fourth Sunday in Lent, and so, let’s just dive right in, shall we?


Let’s talk about Satan. And, wild beasts. And, angels. Yes, let’s roll up our sleeves and do that.


I want to talk about Satan because I’m really tired of him taking the fall, as it were, for our shortcomings. And, yes, I’m just going to say it: Sin. Yup, you are hearing a sermon on sin preached from an Episcopal pulpit from a progressive woman priest.

So, buckle up, friends. Satan, wild beasts, angels and sins. Looks like the preacher is fired up. Except, this isn’t going to be a hellfire and brimstone sermon. (Is Tommy Ray frowning? He told me once he loved a good hellfire and brimstone sermon, but, he also told me that while he wasn’t used to my style of preaching, I didn’t do too bad. I’ll take that.)


I want to talk about the Christian version of “When Harry Met Sally.” Let’s just title this sermon, “When Jesus Met Satan”.  By now I hope we know a little something about Jesus. So how ‘bout we get to know this Satan a little better, shall we?

Names for the Satan are numerous: Besides Lucifer, he may be referred to as the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Baphomet, Lord of the Flies, the Antichrist, Father of Lies, Moloch or simply - as the SNL Church Lady says, “Saaa-tannn”.

The word “devil” derives from the Greek diabolos, meaning “adversary.”  In Judaism, “Satan” as a noun, means “adversary” but it is also a verb and generally refers to a difficulty or temptation to overcome rather than a literal being. In Buddhism, Mara is the demon that tempted Buddha away from his path of enlightenment. Much like Jesus of Christianity resisted the Devil, Buddha also resisted temptation and defeated Mara.


Turns out, all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Satan is known as the fallen angel of God. His name in Hebrew is Lucifer which means “The Shining One.” The Latin translation for Lucifer is “The Morning Star,” or the planet Venus. In Greek, he is known as “Phosphorus” which means  “light bringer” and “Eosphorus,” meaning "dawn-bringer".

In one of the Midrash stories in Judaism, Lucifer’s original job was to present humans with the opportunity to choose between good and evil. In other myths, Lucifer acts as a prosecuting attorney in the heavenly Court. In that role, he brings up all the wicked, evil, selfish choices of human beings before God for the human to be judged.


But there is a myth that Lucifer was kicked out of heaven because he wanted equality with God. Now, in some versions of the myth, Lucifer’s plan is that no one would have the ability to sin against God, so that not one soul would be lost, and all would be able to return sinless to the presence of Heavenly Father without the need for a Savior. Sounds pretty cool, right?

Ah, but as recompense for his plan, Lucifer demanded that the power and the glory which God  possessed be transferred to him, effectively making him "God." God, of course, saw right through the plan and rejected it. Lucifer was furious and rallied other angels to his side and started a war in heaven. The result of which, of course, is that Lucifer lost and became “the Fallen Angel” and thus became more commonly known as Satan, God’s adversary.


In today’s Gospel, after Jesus is baptized, the Spirit immediately sends him out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. This is, of course, a mini version of Moses and the Israelites, having been freed from bondage in Egypt, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before returning to Canaan, The Promised Land, Paradise, flowing with milk and honey.

It is there, in the wilderness, that Jesus meets the ancient foe, the adversary of God, Lucifer, the angel who fell from the brightness of the morning star to the darkness of the depths of the abyss; one of the sons of God who tempts Jesus just as others were tested.

Buddha was tempted by the demon Mara who challenged him to prove his enlightenment. Buddha touched the earth and called upon the earth to testify for him.

Muhammad was tempted by the demons of Satan with suicidal thoughts to throw himself off the cliff of a mountain, but the angel Gabriel appeared before him to reassure him that he was one of God’s prophets.

When Jesus met Satan, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism. There he remains and fasts for 40 days and 40 nights. During that time Satan tempts Jesus three times: to turn stones into bread, throw himself from a temple, and submit to Satan in exchange for power.

In other words,
Lucifer is taking on his original job to present Jesus with the opportunity to choose between good and evil, to tempt Him and, in so doing, to test the decision of God to gift humans with free will - the power of choice - our own autonomy - our own moral agency.

When Jesus met Satan, not only were humans given a clear sign of our liberation in Christ, but God’s decision to give us the gift of free will in The Garden was justified.

When Jesus met Satan, God’s decision was reaffirmed when God chose to place a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of the covenant God made with Noah “and every living creature of all flesh” never to destroy the earth or the human race ever again.

When Jesus met Satan, God’s decision to send Jesus for our salvation was validated.

When Jesus met Satan, we were deemed worthy of salvation.

Our baptism reaffirms the freedom God has given us to choose between good and evil, wrong and right. That’s not to say that we don’t make wrong choices. We do. All too often. And, when we do, we call that sin. But, that’s not the end of the story.

When Jesus met Satan, the end of the story was changed - or, perhaps, completed - so a new chapter can begin.

Because of Jesus we have, as our prayerbook says, “the means of grace and the hope of glory” if we but follow His way, obey his commandments and observe his teaching.

Here’s the thing: It really doesn’t matter what you call the forces of Evil in this world - Satan, the Devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer. What matters is that you understand these things: We all have within us enormous potential for good. We also have within us enormous potential for bad. When we choose the good, we call that being righteous with God. When we choose the bad, we call that Sin. Sin is what separates us from God  - and often, from each other.

Our Catechism in the BCP defines it this way: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” The key here is that we don’t get to say what sin is for other people. Sin is a matter between God and each person. And, each person, when they truly repent of their sins, can seek out a good and faithful priest and make a good confession and be assured of God’s absolution and pardon for their sins. When sin affects others negatively or harmfully, then sin is a matter for the community, and sometimes, for the courts.


But what is evil? It is said that sin is the root of all evil. Some say love of money is the root of all evil. The sages hold that the seven deadly sins - Lust, envy, anger, greed, gluttony, sloth and pride - but, especially pride, is the root of all evil.

I think what Lucifer teaches us is that evil happens when we try to be like God, when we want the power and authority of God by some sort of scheme or negotiated plan. Evil happens we set ourselves up to be the one who decides who lives and who dies and why; who gets food and shelter and clothing, the basics of life - based on some human construct of worth or need.

Evil happens when we set ourselves up as the prosecuting attorney before the Heavenly Court, charging people with crimes WE think they’ve committed because of their race or gender, their age or social status, their country of origin, sexual orientation or religion, or because we disagree with the decisions they make for themselves and their lives.

That, my friends, is evil.

Annie Lamott says that you can be reasonably certain that you have created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.

Yes, there are evil forces, temptations, seductions, that can lead us astray. Call those forces of evil what you will, but when Jesus met Satan we learned that we cannot - not for one Red hot New York minute - blame our bad choices on Satan. We have been given the gift of free will. It is our choice, not Satan’s fault, that leads us away from God. We must take responsibility. We must hold ourselves accountable.

Yet, even when we do, we are assured of the second gift God has given us in Christ Jesus and that is the gift of GRACE. Grace to repent - to turn around, to walk away, to start anew. Grace to seek and ask for forgiveness. Grace to seek amendment of life and to “go and sin no more.” And, grace is always available to us. As my friend, Jerry, the UMC preacher from Tennessee says, “Grace is like grits. You don’t gotta order it. By God, it just comes.”

When Jesus met Satan in the wilderness, after Satan left defeated, we are told that “the angels waited on him”. So, too, will be our reward, when we resist the power to pull us from the path of righteousness and “seek first the Kingdom of God.” Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

"To The Left" - Ash Wednesday


“To the Left.”
A Sermon for Ash Wednesday - February 14, 2024
St. Mark's Episcopal Church - Millsboro, DE

There’s a wonderful book I’ve been reading (and recommend highly) called, The Amen Effect, by Rabbi Sharon Brous. In the early pages of the book, Rabbi Sharon describes a pas­sage from the Mish­nah about an annu­al pil­grim­age that took place when the tem­ple in Jerusalem still stood.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews “ascend­ed to the Tem­ple Mount, entered the court­yard, turned to the right, and then cir­cled and exit­ed to the left, except for one to whom something had happened.”

That person, who “entered and circled to the left,” would be asked why. “They would reply: ‘I am a mourner,’ and they were blessed,” the Mishnah text continued.

Another counter-circler might answer “Because I have been ostracized,” and also would be blessed, although the content of the blessing is debated.

The ancient Rabbis hoped that the blessing would open the heart of the one who had been ostracized so that they might find their way to repentance and forgiveness and the fabric of the community would be repaired.


Rabbi Brous says that the word "Amen," comes from the Hebrew word emu­nah, mean­ing “to believe” or “to affirm.” The word amen serves as an acknowl­edge­ment of the oth­er. Yes, I believe you, I see you. Amen.

Ash Wednesday, for me, is the day when Christians enter the Temple to the left. Some of us are in mourning, yes, but others have been ostracized; still others may not be formally ostracized but there is a separation, a rift, in a relationship.

Some of us are not so much mourning but rather are simply sad - sad about the state of affairs in our families, our neighborhoods, our church, our state, our country, or the world. Others of us know that something is wrong with us. Why are we snapping and grumpy all the time? Why have I become so critical and criticize everthing?


Am I using my busyness as a sort of defense - a barrier or boundary - to keep myself, protect myself from the need to engage with others when I just don’t have the energy - or the desire? Because maybe they WILL see me? And then, what will I do?

Are we really that tired and exhausted all the time, or has the sadness we can’t really name become a form of depression? Some of us are scared and anxious because we know our bodies - and perhaps our minds - are not what they once were.

Ash Wednesday, as the beginning of Lent, marks us as the ones entering the world from the Left. We’re the ones with a big black smudge of ashes on our foreheads, announcing to the world that we understand that we are not going to live forever, that our time on this earth is finite and limited, and that we are struggling to come to turns with those facts.

The smudge of Ash Wednesday declares that while everyone else is walking to the right, we are taking this time to intentionally walking to the left. Counter-circular. Counter-clockwise. Against time. Reclaiming our time to take the time - 40 days’ worth of time - to repent, to turn around and take steps in another direction and consider our lives in faith from a different perspective.

We have forty days to reconsider our relationships with others and the ways in which we might take the risk of repairing that which is wounded or sore and tender and needs healing.

We have time - this time, this Lenten Season - in the words of that great hymn, to “ponder anew what the Almighty can do” if we but open our hearts and our souls and our minds and confess our imperfections, acknowledge our limitations, and concede our shortcomings.

This is also the time to look into the eyes of the people who are walking to the right - those who seem to do it right, to have it right and all together, at least enough to bless us if they stop to ask why we are mourning or fasting, or marking Lent.

Lent heightens our awareness that appearances can, indeed, be deceiving, and when someone who is walking on the right looks at you, walking on the left, it may well be because they recognize something in you that they know is in them, too. Some who are walking on the right have not yet had the courage to walk on the left, to admit that they are not perfect, that they, too, need healing and a blessing.

Lent is a time to exchange our Alleluias for an Amen.  To say to each other, “Yes, I believe you. Yes, I see you. Yes, I recognize your pain, your struggle with questions, your quest for answers.”

As I mark your foreheads with the ashes of the Hosannahs and Alleluias in the palms of yesterday, let us whisper to each other, “Amen”.

Let us say silently to each other, with our eyes which are an amplification of the soul, “I see you. I see you are a beloved child of God. I see you are hurting in some way. I bless you. Please bless me.”

Scripture tells us that we were created out of the dust of the earth, that we are mortal, and only God is immortal. We know that life is a fragile gift and our time here is limited, so how can we make it better? Make ourselves better people? Become the person God had in mind when we were conceived and created?  

On this particular Ash Wednesday, the 14th of February, while the rest of the world walks to the right and celebrates Romantic Love, let us smudge our foreheads with the stuff of our mortality, walk to the left and celebrate the Love of the Eternal.

Let us confess and say right out loud the words of our faith, that we believe we are dust and to dust we shall return.

And let the church whisper to each other, “Amen”.


Ash Wednesday - Sr. Bucky

 Good Ash Wednesday morning, good people of Lent. It's the first of 40 days of the Lenten Season. Like a fine wine, this season needs to age and then aerate before it is fully appreciated.

It's amazing to me how many of us are still stuck in 6th Grade Sunday School when we were taught to "give up something" for Lent - a small sacrifice to reflect the Great sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

I can still hear Sr. Bucky's high, thin, post-menopausal voice shrilling, "Surely you can give up yer bubble gum or penny candy for 40 DAYS and 40 NIGHTS after JESUS, himself (make a fast sign of the cross after a quick bow of the head) Suffered in AGONY on the cross for YOUR SINS."

No, Bucky wasn't her name. It was Sr. Mary Joseph Something-Or-Another. We called her Sr. Bucky behind her back because she had really awful bucked and splayed teeth.

I know, I know. We were horrid children. Horrid. I know that because Sr. Bucky told us that at least three times a day. After a while, you know, you just figure, what the heck. No matter how good I am, she'll always and only think I'm horrid.

SooOOooo . . . to her face it was, "Yes, sister," and "No, sister," and "Please, sister," and "Thank you, sister," but after school, far, far away from earshot of her or any of the other nuns, it was "Ugh! Sr. Bucky."

Then there came the day when one of the fathers of one of the kids in the church school who was a dentist "fixed" Sr. Bucky's teeth. Well, he yanked them all out and gave her dentures. I have to think there was another remedy to the poor dear's orthodontic challenge, but that was probably the cheapest and easiest and so it was what was done.

She was so proud of those dentures. Seriously. And, you know, it did dramatically change her appearance. But, not her disposition. She was still a horrid human being. So, we continued to call her Sr. Bucky. And, for her part, she continued to call us horrid children.

So, my memories of Ash Wednesday and Lent as a child are that we were served a double portion of the guilt trips and images of the suffering and agony of Jesus. I think the word "SUFFERING" was written on the BlackBoard and stayed there throughout the entire 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, lest we forget.

It was replaced the Monday after Easter with colorful butterflies who perched themselves on the words, "HE IS RISEN!". Or, "ALLELUIA!" Or "REJOICE!". It varied from year to year, depending on that particular nun's mood.

How we ever made it through without losing our minds and breaking the Sixth Commandment I'll never fully understand.

Later on, after Vatican II as I recall, some clergy tried to make up for the sins of the fathers (as it were) and try a new tack. "Take something ON for Lent," was the new Lenten slogan. We were to try something new. A new way to pray or meditate. A new course of study. Learn a new language.

You know, something that was rollicking good fun. Which missed the point just as badly as giving up candy for Lent. I have come to know that Ash Wednesday is really a joyful day.

Yes, way. Okay, it's not like the joy of Christmas, and it's nowhere near the joy of Easter. There is a maturity to the joy of Ash Wednesday. Sort of the difference between appreciating a glass of Boone's Farm Wine at $1.99 per bottle and a glass of 2010 Domaine Armand Rousseau, Chambertin Grand Cru at $75,000 per bottle.

It begins with understanding that famous statement from Carl Sagan, "“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff”.

Once you get your head wrapped around that, you begin to appreciate that the smudge of ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a process to connect you more securely with the origins of your life.

It is to understand that we are connected in ways too deep for human understanding that we are part of a Great Mystery that includes stars and comets, planets and asteroids, sun and moon, ocean and stream, mountains and valleys.

It's about understanding what Bill Nye (the Science Guy) used to say, "We are a speck on a speck, orbiting a speck, in the corner of a speck, in the middle of nowhere."

That puts us all in our place, including Sr. Bucky who, poor tortured soul, didn't get to understand or appreciate that until after she, herself, returned 'dust to dust, ashes to ashes'. Which is why she treated us like dirt.

She had no idea that when Joni Mitchell sang the words to Woodstock, she was not being a hippie radical, she was singing the joyful truth:

We are stardust, we are golden / We are billion-year-old carbon
And we've got to get ourselves / Back to the garden

So, friends, Rejoice! It's Ash Wednesday! We're all gonna die. So, take this time to really live. As de Chardin said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

Your Lenten task is not to become spiritual. You already are. Your task, this Lent, is to become the BEST human being you can be before you return to the spiritual plane from which you came.

Let's get on with it, shall we? Don't give something up. Don't take something on. Be more of the image God intended when you were conceived and created.

Gratitude is a good place to begin. Find one thing to be thankful for today and then watch how your heart begins to open. I don't know how it works. It's a mystery to me. I just know that it does.

I am convinced that if you cracked open the middle of the middle of this planet, the sound that would emerge is millions of billions and trillions of voices saying in millions and billions and trillions of languages and tongues, "THANK YOU".

But, all those languages would merge together and the sound you would hear is not specific words but laughter. Deep, raucous, joyful laughter.

And that, my friends, is your Lenten assignment if you choose to take it: To listen for the joy in the center of the universe.

I hope something good happens to you today.

Bom dia!