One of the best preachers I’ve ever heard in my life is the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer. We met under very unusual circumstances, and I can honestly say that I have never been the same since. He made me laugh, he made me cry, and he gave me sentences that I will use in my sermons from here to eternity… credited, of course. But first, the story of how we met.
Dana and I had gone out with a group of friends to, I think, Ringler’s Annex in Portland, Oregon… the name of the bar is not important, but Dana was sitting next to me, and that is. Her uncle is an Episcopal priest in Sierra Madre, California, and at this table full of friends, she mentioned that fact.
The most handsome priest I’d ever seen came to our table and said, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I heard the words ‘Episcopal priest’ and I had to come over.” He was having a beer with a friend and just decided to come and introduce himself. I was glad that he did, because he was funny, polite, and memorable.
So memorable, in fact, that when I decided Bridgeport UCC and I had had enough of each other, I remembered Bill and decided that I wanted to go to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Dana, having been an Episcopalian since birth, jumped at the chance to come with me.
A few weeks later, I auditioned for Dr. John Strege, and joined one of those choirs with blow your hair back repertory, and it was one of the best singing experiences of my life (singing Bach’s “Kick My Mass in H mol” conducted by early music expert Eric Milnes was a huge highlight).
This doesn’t really have much to do with what I learned from Bill, just to say that because of the choir, I got to hear him preach A LOT. He said two things that have stuck with me, one that pertains to today, and one that just made me laugh.
The first is, “when you have a theological problem, the first thing you should do is go and drink a beer with a Lutheran.” The crowd howled, because everyone knew he was referring to the late, great Marcus Borg.
The second is, “you’ll notice that in the Bible, Lent is referred to as 40 days and 40 nights… yet, on the calendar, it is 46. That is because you do not count the Sundays. Those Sundays are islands of mercy in the darkness.”
“Islands of mercy.”
That means that in the middle of the darkness, you can celebrate all the things you have given up to remind you of this penitential season.
What did you give up this year?
I decided to give up all my old stories to make room for new ones, and today, I just can’t. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I am very newly divorced, even though it’s been almost a year… or perhaps it’s that today, it feels new all over again. Last year was heart-rending in its sincerity, because Dana and I did not do anything special, but gave each other our undying love through words.
Because I gave up my old stories, these “islands of mercy” feel even more penitential. I am sorry for “all the things I have done, and all the things I have left undone…” Perhaps the things I have left undone even more so, because I could not enforce an emotional boundary with Dana, so I moved away from her to create one that is entirely physical. I cut off any chance of redemption, any chance of grace, any chance to let the Holy Spirit move in both of our hearts. However, I have come to know deep within that it was the right move, even though I am hurting. Perhaps my Holy Spirit moment was the knowledge that love, while almost everything, isn’t. My objective is to carry her in my heart, and go out with joy.
Holding on to the temptation to work on our relationship isn’t a temptation that I needed, or perhaps it was… because I needed to feel it in order to be able to turn away… which brings me directly to the Gospel reading for today.
After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
I have said that Jesus needed to be tempered in his faith, because he needed to rise up from being a regular Joe to the preacher that moved thousands, which, in that time, was a spectacular Nielsen rating, to put it in modern terms. Nowhere in the Gospel is Jesus’ refining fire more clear.
Jesus was strong in his faith, and did not succumb to the fame and fortune the Devil had to offer. He resisted the temptation to be known as one of my preacher pals calls “Jumping Jesus, the Bouncing Savior.” I think this is partially due to Jesus’ own mettle, and, venturing into fiction, wondering if the angels would have actually caught him had he abused his God-given power. In order to become the person God wanted him to be, Jesus knew that did not include taking power for himself, because he did not want power over. Jesus wanted power with… and perhaps that is what those forty days and forty nights were about in the first place… solidifying what kind of person he was going to be… what kind of preacher… what kind of message he was going to give to people who were just as broken as we are today.
Remember that at Christmas, the angels did not announce to the Sanhedrin that the Messiah had been born. The angels announced it to the poorest people they could find… people desperately needing the hope and grace the Christ offers as mediator and advocate.
However, no one has ever said that grace was easy. This Lent, I am literally crawling toward Easter. My temptation is to sit in my grief, ruminating over and over about everything I have done wrong, all the flaws in my character, all the ways in which I created Good Friday for myself. I was tempted by all the wrong things, and, unlike Jesus, I succumbed to them. Cortisol and sin raced through my body when I got angry in a table-flipping way. Love flowed through me for someone who was not part of my covenant with both Dana and God. I stumbled over and over into a darkness I thought would never end. I very nearly committed the mortal sin of suicide, because I did not think that I was creating a permanent solution to a temporary problem. At the time, I thought I was creating a permanent solution to a permanent problem.
I do not think that suicide is a sin for other people, because everyone has their own reasons for it and I am not the one who gets to say whether it is right or wrong for them. I believe it is a sin in my own code of ethics, because when I get into my small, still place, I realize that I would be, in effect, killing the Easter that might occur if I just wait.
In this first Sunday of Lent, I realize that creating that code of ethics is why we need it. Lent’s penitential potential is to create our own saving grace, to await the resurrection that invariably happens in the middle of the mess, to quote the Rev. Dr. Susan Leo.
During Lent, we are supposed to focus on the messes we’ve made, so that when Easter finally comes, we are able to resurrect ourselves.
Some Lents are always going to be harder than others. There is no way for me to know what kind of messes you’ve created, but I know we’ve all made them. We’ve all failed to resist temptation from the devils in our own minds. We’ve all metaphysically tried to make bread out of stones in order to lift ourselves up, only to find that the loaves we thought we were getting were only stones after all.
And as we reflect on the rocks, we remember that it is not long until we are renewed once again.