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Category Archives: Scripture

Get to the Heart of the Matter!

(a sermon for October 29, 2017, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on  Matthew 22:34-40)

One thing I’ve long found very interesting about the church as a whole is that for all our sincere talk of Christian unity and the fact that we’re still “all God’s children” despite whatever denomination or faith tradition we come from, nonetheless we really do have our share of differences; especially as to how things are done!

Take the sacraments, for example: whereas in our particular tradition communion (generally speaking at least!) is shared by the passing a plate of bread cubes from one to the other in the church pew, there are other churches that frown on such a practice, insisting that those receiving communion actually get up from their seats and approach the altar of God!  And baptism: there are those within the denominational spectrum who would question the very validity of our ever baptizing an infant, saying that to confess Christ as Lord and Savior is wholly a personal decision that can only be made when one is of age (of course, in our tradition, we entrust the child’s parents, family and church to nurture their faith until they are ready to confirm that faith as a young adult and I’d say that’s at least as valid as an adult baptism… but I digress!); and let’s not even talk about whether “sprinkling” or “dunking” is the proper way to go!

In the ways we do worship (is it better to be formal or casual, “high church” or “low church,” to sing traditional hymns or praise songs, to preach from a lofty pulpit, or to stand “on the level” with the congregation?); in the interpretation of scripture and its authority for the church and world; the methods by which we govern ourselves as a congregation; even in the process of how clergy-types like me are to be called and authorized for ministry: trust me,  in all these things and more there are as many ideas in the church as to how these matters are properly handled as there are congregations!

Sometimes the differences have to do with theology or denominational polity; often it will focus on where a church perceives itself to be in the world; or maybe sometimes it’s something much simpler than that.  I remember in a former congregation I was once asked why it was that at the end of each week’s worship service I always gave the benediction from the back of the church; after all, this woman explained, in a tone that suggested no small measure of concern, at that moment you’re offering a blessing to your church and yet the whole congregation has its back to you!  Was there, she asked, some deeper spiritual meaning to this?  Was this what they taught you in seminary, or is this a UCC thing?  Well, I got to thinking about it and I realized that for me there wasn’t any real deep-seeded theological impartment as to doing the benediction that way; it was simply that where I was standing was closer to the door (!); and much easier to get to where to where I needed to be to shake hands with people after church!

Not exactly the stuff of major church schisms, I know (!); but it points up the fact that in the church, there are always going to be differences of opinion, and approach and belief; and moreover there always have been.  Almost from its very inception, church history is filled with instances of debate, conflict and division, all having to do with how the will and Word of God is to be followed and administered!  To wit, this week marks the 500th anniversary of how in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg in protest of what he considered the indulgences of the Roman Catholic Church; the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which not only changed the face of religion and all of western civilization, but also in no small way, is a reason why and how we’re here worshipping in this place today!   You see, as much as we try to avoid it, these kind of differences and the conflicts that ensue because of them, are inevitable; but that’s not always a bad thing!  The difference of whether it ends up a bad or good, divisive or even unifying thing comes in how we “get to the heart of the matter” as regards these questions, and what we discover about faith in the midst of them!

And, as in all things, our example for how this best happens is Jesus.

For you see, even Jesus… that’s right, even Jesus (!) found himself in the midst of such conflict.  The gospels record several instances when Jesus was faced by “concerned religious leaders” (that is, the scribes and Pharisees) who could not, would not accept his teachings about God and the kingdom, and recognized that what Jesus was saying was threatening to them and their own power.  So now, they were doing everything they could to discredit Jesus amongst the people, catch him in uttering some sort of punishable heresy, or both.  Our text for this morning is of one such instance; actually, as Matthew tells the story, it’s the final attempt on the part of the Pharisees to trip Jesus up with a seemingly simple question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Now, the easy answer to this question, the non-confrontational answer to this question, and according to Pharisaic law the legally acceptable answer to this question would have been for Jesus to say, “Every commandment of the Law is great, because all of the Law comes from God.” But that wasn’t the answer the Pharisees were looking for; what they were hoping was that Jesus might randomly pick one from the 613 commandments in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Law (which, by the way, if you’re counting, amounts to 248 “thou shalts” and 365 “thou shalt nots,” one for every day of the year); because if Jesus did that, if Jesus picked just one commandment from all of those, then he’d certainly be guilty of denying or negating countless other commandments, and then the Pharisees could charge him not only as a law-breaker, but a blasphemer as well!  As far as these religious “uprights” were concerned, this was a no-win situation and now they had Jesus right where they wanted him.

But then Jesus does something that none of them were expecting: he takes a complicated, loaded question and gives them a very simple and familiar answer; moreover, with something they themselves would have known since they were children: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.”  The Pharisees certainly knew this; this was from the Shema, words (from Deuteronomy) that are to be prayed by faithful Jews each and every morning and again in the evening.  First, says Jesus, you love God with heart and soul and mind!  Before anything else; before the other nine commandments and all the other laws and statutes and precepts that follow, before establishing any kind of faithful endeavor, first you must love God with heart and soul and mind!

It would have seemed to me that this confession of Jesus would have been more than enough to satisfy (or perhaps more accurately, infuriate) the Pharisees, but you see, Jesus wasn’t done yet. “And a second [commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And before the Pharisee can even begin to ask what about all the other commandments, Jesus adds one more thought: “’On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”  First you love God, you see, but then you also have to love your neighbor; and that’s everything, because we can’t really love God with our heart, soul, and mind unless and until we love our neighbor as ourselves.  As Kenneth Samuel has written, “the second greatest commandment is not just secondary to the greatest commandment.  It is essential to the greatest commandment, for we cannot love God whom we do not see and despise our neighbors who we see every day.”

In other words, when we get the heart of the matter as regards faith, it’s always going to be about LOVE: the kind of LOVE that puts God at the center of everything we do, and are and can ever hope to be; the kind of LOVE that ever and always reaches out and envelops those in need. To truly love God and to love neighbor: this is the kind of LOVE that makes us who we are; and that not only transcends and triumphs over every kind of difference we may have, it’s what provides the true purpose and the abiding principle for every part of the good work we seek to do as the church of Jesus Christ!

And for those of us 21st century Christians who might feel a little jaded and wonder if such a thing is, at best, kind of “pie in the sky” thinking, it’s helpful to take note of the fact that very soon after Jesus said all this to the scribes and Pharisees, they were gone; daring not to ask him any more questions.   Because at the end of the day, the heart of the matter is LOVE… it’s always LOVE… and how do you argue with LOVE?

Over the past few weeks we’ve talked a lot here about what it takes to live a life of adventuresome faith and to be the kind of disciples (and the kind of church!) we want to be.  We’ve spoken about how we need to be bold enough to “get out of the boat” of our own complacency and fear, so to follow Jesus where he leads; and about how very important it is, most especially in these days of divisive rhetoric and confused situations, for each and all us to “get to work” in this ministry to which we’ve been called, because there is a lot of work to be done!

And that’s why today we humbly and prayerfully ask – and also, we thank you and thank God – for your continued support of this ministry we share in Jesus’ name, and for your commitment to all that we do here at East Church: the work of Christian education and nurture for children and adults alike; the work of caring compassion and community outreach; the work of joy and hope that starts by being shared amongst kindred hearts, and then extended outward.  It’s the work of worship and fellowship and laughter and tears and peace and justice on a blessedly personal level, and it all happens right here with us and through us; and it takes our faithful stewardship, combined with God’s ever present grace, to keep it moving and growing.

But most of all, and never forget this… it also takes LOVE!

Because that’s the heart of the matter! In everything we seek to and to be disciples of Jesus Christ and as the church, we discover that there is and there remains this all-encompassing and faith-defining mandate to LOVE… to first, before anything else, to love God with heart and soul and mind, and then along with this to always love our neighbor as ourselves.  On this, says Jesus, “hangs all the law and the prophets;” and it continues to be, especially today, the pivot point of our lives as persons, as people and as the church.  It’s what makes the difference between truly carving out a life of faith and simply going through the motions; it’s the choice of enduring emptiness, on the one hand, or embracing a life of true abundance, on the other. It’s what gives us purpose, it’s what makes us real, it’s what helps us to grow; and it’s everything.

It’s LOVE, and friends, I pray that none of us will ever be so busy, so distracted, so hurt or confused, so suffering and grieving, so entangled in the minutiae of life that we lose sight of it.  Indeed, as you and I set out on the adventure of discipleship, let LOVE reign supreme: let it guide our thoughts, direct our devotion, set our pathways and help us along the journey.  Let LOVE be at the very heart of each of our lives, and at the heart of our life together at East Church; so that individually and collectively we might personify and manifest God’s love above all else.

After all, what’s that verse of scripture, the one we hear at just about every wedding, the one that Paul wrote to that squabbling, divided church at Corinth?  “For faith, hope and love abides, these three; but the greatest of these is… LOVE.”

LOVE!

So may it be… and thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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And When You Pray: The Threefold Benediction

(a sermon for August 27, 2017, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on 1 Chronicles 29:10-13 and Matthew 6:9-13)

And so now, after all these weeks, finally we come to the final petition of our Lord’s Prayer, and what a word it is:  “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever… Amen.”

Amen, indeed! I mean, from a literary standpoint alone, this is the grand finale of a remarkable work, is it not; it’s the pinnacle of everything that’s been said and prayed up until this point, each phrase and petition having built upon the one before so that now there’s nothing left for us to offer up except this ultimate expression of our praise and thanksgiving unto God: to proclaim with whole hearts and loud voices that thine is the kingdom, and thine is the power, and thine is the glory forever and ever, Amen!

You know what I’m saying; it’s there in just about every musical setting you’ve ever heard of this prayer, most especially in the beautiful version by Albert Mallotte that we’ve heard sung and played here on a couple of occasions this summer; and I don’t know about you, but even on those numerous occasions that we speak this Lord’s Prayer together in worship, there’s nonetheless this same crescendo that peaks the moment we come to the final verse!  It’s a true benediction and powerful way to end this prayer of our Savior, and not only am I grateful, as we’ve said so often through this sermon series, that this is the prayer that Jesus himself gave to his disciples and to us, but also that Jesus – Jesus himself (!) – also chose to conclude this prayer he gave us in just this way!

Except…

…that maybe he didn’t.

I’m sure you’ve probably noticed by now that this particular part of the Lord’s Prayer is not included in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching of it.  Luke doesn’t refer to it at all, and Matthew’s gospel relegates it to a mere footnote, claiming that “other ancient authorities, in some form” included these words about the kingdom, the power and the glory; but frankly, most biblical scholars argue that that’s not even the case!  The likely truth is that this final petition to the Lord’s Prayer was something added on by the early Christian Church (probably sometime around the fourth or fifth century) as a way of making it more liturgical in form; that is, to “complete” the Lord’s Prayer as an all-encompassing affirmation of faith by adding what is referred to in “church language” as a doxology, which in the Greek literally means to give a “word of glory and honor.”  Obviously, the addition caught on because we’ve been saying the Lord’s Prayer that way ever since; although if you’ve ever repeated this prayer with a group of Roman Catholic worshippers, you’ll know that they end their unison prayer at “deliver us from evil,” owing to the fact that addition or no addition, as far as we know from the gospels Jesus most likely did not say those particular words in teaching his disciples how to pray!

Now, does this mean that the Lord’s Prayer, or at least the way we’ve been praying the Lord’s Prayer, has somehow become nullified by our mistaken translation?  Absolutely not!   To begin with, adding those words about “the kingdom, power and glory” at the end of Jesus’ prayer does bring an appropriate (and dare I say, triumphant) conclusion to these series of petitions that, one after the other,  speak not only of the presence and power of the divine but also to our relationship, yours and mine, with the divine.  Moreover, there’s a symmetry to how that last verse relates to everything before:  we start out the Lord’s Prayer by praying that God’s, our Father’s, name be hallowed and requesting that his kingdom come, that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven; and we finish with the unequivocal affirmation that “thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”  It’s a true doxology, a threefold benediction that serves to remind us, even as we pray, that everything we are and have and can ever hope to be is solely by virtue of the power and glory of God!

So it does seem a fitting addition to our prayer; and besides… though Jesus might not have spoken the words in that specific context, he most certainly knew them to be true; in fact, as a teacher himself, Jesus likely spoke of that moment we read about in our Old Testament reading this morning, in which King David, toward the end of his life and about to pass on the task of building the temple to his son Solomon, gathers the people and prays unto God, “Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom O LORD, and you are exalted as head over all… and now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.”  That those words are familiar to our ears is by no accident at all; to quote one commentator, “It is fitting… that a portion of David’s kingdom prayer should be attached to the Son of David’s kingdom prayer.”

You see, at the end of the day (or the end of the prayer, as it were), what we pray in this amazing series of petitions that Jesus gave to us is that it’s God’s kingdom, God’s power, and God’s glory that prevails over everything… everything in our lives, now and eternally.  Our God is the Creator of heaven and earth, who has breathed the very breath of life into each one of us; whose presence and power is felt in every passing moment of our lives, whose very strength is felt in each and every joy and sorrow and challenge that we face.  Our God is the one who nourishes us with daily bread, who offers us forgiveness of sin along with the grace that we might forgive others in kind, who leads us along the surest of pathways that deliver us from evil. Our God is the one who decries all kinds of evil in the world by proclaiming a gospel of love and justice and peace, sending forth his own Son as the example and expiation, and then calling you and I to proclaim that same Word by our very lives.  Our God is the one who intends for his truth to be made real in and through every one of us here; so that truth – God’s truth, the truth of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ – might finally begin to penetrate the walls of division and hatred that are the ongoing construct of a sad and misguided culture.  Our God is the God who wishes that in all things – whether that applies to the ways we approach one another around the breakfast table or how we stand on the streets of Charlottesville or Boston –  that in all things we might live as true reflections of God’s kingdom, his power, his glory and yes, most especially, his love.

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”

Perhaps Jesus didn’t speak those words in exactly the context we like to think he did; but we do know that it’s exactly what he meant, and what he means for you and for me as we are sent out into this world to walk the walk of discipleship in these days of sad, confused and conflicting situations.

As you might imagine, and perhaps like a lot of you, I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past couple of weeks reflecting on the faith implications of everything that’s been happening in the world and in our own country; specifically, how we as the church ought to be responding to the kind of destructive hate that’s been so much on display as of late.  I mean, I think it’s obvious that we in the church need to be loud and clear in naming “the evils we deplore,” denouncing all manner of racism, violence and bigotry as being not only un-Christian, but un-American as well.  Moreover, though I must confess that I was more than a little skeptical as to what good it could do, I stand in great admiration of my brothers and sisters of faith (especially my clergy colleagues) who linked arms in Charlottesville and Boston and stared down the Neo-Nazi’s and White Supremacists, witnessing to love and justice quite literally there on the front lines of conflict.

But that said, what I’ve been wondering about is the rest of us?  How do we respond?  How about those of us who sit in these pews every Sunday morning and who need to spend the week ahead at our jobs, or running errands, going to doctor’s appointments, running kids (or grandkids!) to school on time and all the rest of the “stuff” of life: what are we to do about those who would so easily and deliberately dismiss the law of loving one’s neighbor as themselves.  Honestly, friends, these days, all it’s taken is ten minutes watching the news to make one feel helpless about the state of the world!

But then in my reading over vacation I came across a piece from the Christian Century, actually written a couple of years ago by Samuel Wells, regarding the great 20th century theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, as you may recall, was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis; the result of speaking out against the Third Reich and having been implicated in a plot to kill Hitler.  Ultimately though, writes Wells, it was not Bonhoeffer’s politics that got him put in jail; it was Jesus!  It was Bonhoeffer’s confession that Jesus was over and above any and all of the powers and principalities of this world; that it was and is God’s incarnation in Christ that makes us the Church and what moves us surely and steadily toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Wells writes that “Bonhoeffer knew that when the church stops talking about Jesus, it has nothing to say.”  It’s truly the difference between death and resurrection; and it’s what not only renews the Church in every generation, it’s what empowers us to stare down the face of every new evil that arises in this world… for thine is the Kingdom, and thine is the power, and thine is the glory forever!

You’ve heard me say it before from this pulpit: that the first and best thing you and I can do in these times is for us to truly be the Church of Jesus Christ; and that begins, I believe, with making God in Christ the centerpiece of everything in life.  And no, it’s not always, if ever, an easy thing to have one’s faith take priority over that which is safer, or more expedient, or more profitable in a worldly sense.  In fact, it’s almost certainly going to involve some risk; but it is, truly, the way, the truth and the life that Jesus spoke about, and not only will it change us for the better, it will change the world as well.

So, friends… “and when you pray,” how will you pray?  Will you let the words of Jesus simply roll off your tongue in the same manner as you have countless times before?  Or will you let the phrases and petitions that we’ve been given be the means by which let our Lord have leadership of your life?

What’s interesting is that beyond the King James Version of the Bible, this final part of the Lord’s Prayer isn’t included in most modern translations of scripture for the reasons we mentioned earlier.  It does, however, appear in The Message (which, given that it’s technically a paraphrase of scripture rather than a translation, gives it a little leeway in interpretation).  But this is one “rendition” of the Lord’s Prayer that, while decidedly untraditional, kind of says it all from beginning to end, and seems as good a way to conclude this sermon series as any I can think of:

“Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—
as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

And so, beloved, may it truly be, “Yes, Yes, Yes,” forever and ever…

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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And When You Pray: The Times of Temptation

(a sermon for August 6, 2017, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on 1 Corinthians 10:1-17 and Matthew 6:9-13)

Well, not counting my time away, now we’re six weeks into this sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, and I have to tell you: speaking both as a preacher and as a hearer of God’s Word, I have been amazed by just how many big questions we’ve had to address as we’ve gone along!

I mean, from the very existence and nature of God (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…”) and his unending grace and providence (“…thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”), to the gift of both sustenance (“…our daily bread”) and forgiveness (“…forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”),  this seemingly little prayer that Jesus gave to his disciples not only touches upon many of the central issues of our Christian theology but also encompasses just about everything we hold dear about our faith; and friends, that’s a lot!  In fact, it can all be a bit overwhelming; and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that even in preparing these messages I’d find that for every one of these big questions I’d hoped I was answering for the sermon and for myself, I’d discover that there was another question to take its place (and trust me, that’s not something you want to happen late on a Saturday night!).

Honestly, sometimes it’s enough to make your head swim (!); but then, that’s sort of the nature of a life of faith.  What’s the expression about the unexamined life not being worth living?  Well, I’d suggest to you this morning that the unexamined faith is, well… impossible!  We reach out our hearts to God, knowing that God’s Spirit will intercede for us “with sighs too deep for words;” (Romans 8:26) but then we are left to prayerfully discern what the nature of that intercession and its meaning for our lives might be!   We seek to live, as the old confessional puts it, “a godly, righteous and sober life to the glory of God’s Holy name,” but then we have to wrestle with what that actually means in today’s world.  And we know that ought to be in accordance with biblical truth, however that happens to apply and based on what we’ve come to understand about scripture, and absolutely it needs to adhere to the teachings and the example of Jesus Christ.  But then in trying to do that we make a very interesting discovery: that it’s not so much what we don’t understand about scripture or about Jesus that raises up the bigger questions for us; it’s what we do understand about our Christian faith that gives us pause, leaves us confused, and sometimes, absolutely scares us!

You see what I mean?  Big questions, one right after another…

I tell you all this today because now we’ve come to the next to last petition of this “Prayer of Our Savior” that arguably raises as many questions for us as it answers:  “…and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Now, on the face of it, this is pretty straightforward language that represents a necessary shift in this prayer to a tone of stark realism.  Mickey Anders writes that this has to happen in the Lord’s Prayer, because ultimately “life is about more than lofty language about God’s kingdom, God’s will, daily bread and even forgiveness.  There is [also] the reality of temptation and evil, call it what you will… [and] we face the temptation to evil every day.”

Now, I love that quote; but I still have to ask, what does all this mean?  I mean, ordinarily when we talk about temptation we’re apt to be speaking about the need to avoid those worldly enticements that are bad for us and which keep us apart from God; ranging from the temptation toward eating too many sweets to being unfaithful in one’s relationships.  It’s all about ethics and morality, self-care and righteousness before the Lord; and while that’s most certainly a part of it, this prayer to God to “lead us not into temptation” really does seem to go much deeper than this.

And while we’re on the subject, are we really praying that God not “lead” us into temptation?  Why would the Lord who loves us beyond limit and who wishes us to be in a relationship with him ever be leading us into temptation to begin with?  If God is good, then why would God ever deign to tempt us to do evil, especially as we’re praying that he deliver us from said evil?   And here’s another question:  is it even possible to forever be led away from temptation?  That’s a question that’s at the heart of our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians, in which Paul – lifting up the example of generations of the faithful who had come before – says to these new Christians, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind,” or to quote one very apt paraphrase, “If you think you are beyond the reach of temptation, be careful,” because nothing that comes your way is any different than what others have had to face!  Bottom line is that none of us are totally beyond the reach of temptation; quoting Mark Adams here, “All of us are tempted. The monk who lives behind cloistered walls wrestles with it just as much as the salesman out on the road.”

So… if temptation is an inevitable reality that all of us have to deal with; and if we understand that God’s would never be responsible for leading us into that place and probably cannot completely remove us from it; then what are we asking when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation?”

Questions…. Oy veh, the questions!

Actually, part of the problem here has to do with translation.  The Greek word that’s used here for “temptation” is “peirasmus,” and this is a word that just as appropriately can be translated as “enticement or temptation,” or (and listen to this!) “a test or trial.”  That’s how in a number of biblical translations, including our own NRSV, this verse in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer can be read, “And do not bring us to the time of trial.”   This might seem like a subtle change, but for me it brings this prayer from seeking refuge from a place of hopeless repetition of inevitable mistakes to… a way of enduring and triumphing over the trials and tribulations of life; in particular the life of faith. For me, you see, what we’re praying for is a way to confront the struggle we all have with this thing we refer to as temptation, but which is in fact the effort that it takes to face up to the reality of evil and live that “godly, righteous and sober life” in a fallen world: “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (we’ll get to that second part in just a minute…)

So… here’s yet another question: what is the nature of temptation; what is the time of trial we you and I will so often have to face?  Actually, to answer this I always come back to a verse from Romans – and by the way, friends, if there’s any verse in Holy Scripture that seems tailor made to make one’s head spin, this is it – “…for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (14:23)

Let me just repeat that just one more time so it can sink in:  “…for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

Now, understand that Paul is saying this in the context of admonishing the Roman Christians to not be a stumbling black to those whose practice of the faith might differ from their own (specifically, what is permissible to eat under the canon of law).  In other words, this is a stern message not to let one’s faith become a means of arrogance because if your actions and attitudes aren’t wholly attuned to your faith then it’s no longer faith but sin.

Opens up a whole bunch more questions, doesn’t it?  What that means is that even our most well-intentioned behaviors, as good and even  as “religious” as they might well be, end up not proceeding from faith at all if they are not rooted in our “own conviction before God.” (v. 22) Worship, outreach, mission, stewardship, the things we do for the church, the things we do for the world, the things we do for each other, to say nothing of our own personal piety; the applications to such a truth as this are literally endless!  I remember back in seminary, when we had to “exegete” this particular passage in our systematic theology class, our heads pretty much exploded (!); and if that’s your reaction when you go home today and start thinking about all this, I’m truly sorry; although, if it ends up in some spiritual self-evaluation, then so much the better!

But I also have to tell you that this very difficult assertion from Paul ends up connection with this every Sunday prayer I pray that my God “lead[s] me not into temptation.”  If, in fact, there is so much that apart from my faith is sinful behavior, then I need God, in Jesus Christ, to save me from it; to lead me beyond the barren and empty temptations of the world so that everything that God has given me and has empowered me to do and to be in this life can work to deepen the relationship I have with God, and to strengthen me to be more fully a disciple of Jesus Christ in my walk through these days of, to say the very least, confused situations.  I need my Lord to save me from this time of trial; understanding I can avoid it, but I can triumph over it.  It won’t be easy, for the evil in this world is real and relentless, but I won’t be alone in the effort either.

That’s where the second half of this petition comes in:  “…but deliver us from evil,” or, as our gospel reading puts it, “…rescue us from the evil one.”  Now whether one takes the view that the “evil one” depicted here is quite literally the figure of Satan, or rather a representation of the whole curse of a sinful humanity from back in the time of Genesis (now there’s a big question for another day!), the meaning is nonetheless the same: there is ever and always going to be the temptation before us to succumb to the evils of this world.  And lest we forget the story of Adam and Eve, evil can come in very attractive and enticing packages; even sometimes in what looks all the world like goodness and light.  We need to be delivered from that kind of evil; and that only comes in walking arm and arm, heart in heart with God himself!

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  A hard prayer this is; but a necessary one.  And, might I add, nothing new for any of God’s people past or present.  Remember that passage from 1 Corinthians?  “Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual rock tha followed them, and the rock was Christ.”  And it was not always easy; the way was very often filled with temptation, and very often they failed in the midst of trial, to the point, Paul says, “that God was not pleased with most of them.”

But they persisted on the journey, seeking to live unto their faith in the Lrod their God… generation after generation, from age to age, through countless challenges and in the midst of a thousand or more big questions;  and today they are part of a communion of saints of which you and I are part and which we celebrate at this table set before us; indeed, “there is one bread, [and] we who are many are one body.”

Let us today allow this holy meal, and those with whom we share it, be our inspiration as we walk the walk of faithful discipleship in Christ’s name, having been lead beyond the times of temptation… and delivered from all evil.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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