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The Right Rev. Robert G. Tharp The Right Rev. Robert G. Tharp

The late Right Rev. Robert Gould Tharp was second bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

Episcopal Church, USA


Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent

Philippians 3:17--4:1; Luke 13:31-35

March 04, 2001

Today in Christian churches is the first Sunday in Lent. It means that four days ago we saw the beginning of the forty days of fasting and prayer that leads to Easter in the western liturgical calendar. On Ash Wednesday, many of us received on our foreheads the cross of ashes with the words from Genesis said as they were applied: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return." It is a solemn time of remembering our mortality and through the cross the eternal promise of eternal life.

What is Lent and what is it about? It is the time which we have been given the opportunity to explore, experience, and evolve in our own lives what it means to live in Christ.

Alexander Schmemann, a German theologian suggests: "For even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at baptism. Therefore, Easter is our return every year to our own baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return, the slow and sustained effort to perform at the end our own passage into the new life in Christ."

Each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection. As Paul so eloquently writes, "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so we, too, might walk in newness of life.

What are some of the signs of walking in newness of life? Let me share with you the three E's of Lent.

The first "E" is Exploration. We remember that after the baptism of Jesus comes the maturing experience of the wilderness. Hardly does Jesus have time to dry off from the Jordan River water when he is driven-some even say hurled-into the wasteland to live with wild beasts where evil spirits are free to roam and the prince of darkness lays satanic traps. Jesus has come to grips with just what his vocation is. As usual, the devil starts out slowly and tempts Jesus with one of humanity's basic needs-food. "You must be hungry; take these stones and turn them into bread." Jesus quickly says, "One does not live by bread alone."

The second temptation is to worship the devil. The promise is that all of the world will be his if he will just do that. Authority, power, and glory-acting as if the world is his to do with as he will-satan wants to hand it over. Jesus responds, "Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him." Just think what humble ways are ahead for Jesus instead of kingly power.

Then he was placed on the pinnacle of the temple and tempted to throw himself down and miraculously live. The devil even quotes scripture, but Jesus responds, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." Like Jesus, we need to explore what it means to be the son or daughter of God. That gift which is given in our baptism to be the child of God by adoption cannot be lightly considered.

Are we aware of the daily temptations in our own life?

The second "E" is Experience. Walking in the way calls us into the very experiences of life, which will instruct us so that we may teach others and call them into this life with us. This means learning how to love. The word is near you on your lips and in your heart. Jesus came to fulfill the law which is at the heart of the Hebrew religion. In fulfilling it, he remarked that the first commandment was to love God; the second was to love our neighbor. In a sense, he called upon those who would follow the way to experience God's unconditional love and to love one another unconditionally-a lesson indeed which is hard to learn.

Tony Morrison, in her book Paradise, creates a scene in church which occurs after one minister has been teaching the reverse picture of love.

Misner walked away from the pulpit to the rear wall of the church where he stretched, reaching up until he was able to unhook the cross that hung there. He carried it then past the empty choir stall, past the organ where Kate sat, the chair where Pulliam was, on to the podium and held it before him for all to see, if only they would.

See-the execution of this one, solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace. Fastened to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See his wooly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine gone pewter in the hot, dry wind. And, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening--always sudden in that climate--swallowing him and the other death row-felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with the false night sky.

The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from back stage to the spotlight. From muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives, this execution made it possible to respect feeling, not in fear of oneself and one another which was what love was-unmotivated respect, all of which testified not to a peevish lord who was his own love but to one who enabled human love not for his own glory. Never. God loved the way humans loved one another, loved the way humans loved themselves, loved the genius on the cross, who managed to do both and die knowing it.

But Richard Misner could not speak calmly of these things. So he stood there and let the minutes tick by as he held the crossed oak in his hands, urging it to say what he could not-"But not only is God interested in you, he is you." Would they see? Would they?

Do we see and know Jesus as the incarnate being who took our flesh and blood and lived among men and women and now lives among us in his body the church?

Finally, the third "E"-Evolution. Fortunately, for all of us there has been given the time to evolve into the new life in Christ which we receive at our baptism. That evolution is the maturing process. Lent is such a time. Hindu literature contains a metaphor about persons reaching a mature state of inner ripeness that signals a profound shift in life like growing up. The metaphor is expressed in the following way:

When the young plant is just sprouting out of the seed or is still weak and tender, it requires seclusion and the protection of a strong, thorny fence to keep off cattle that might otherwise eat it or trample upon it and destroy it. But the same shoot, when it develops into a large tree, dispenses with such protection and itself affords shade, sustenance, and protection to animals and humans alike without detriment to itself.

We have sprouted, been protected, and then evolved into the mature Christian who can represent Christ in his church, bear witness to him wherever we may be, and according to the gifts given us, carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world, and take our place in the life, worship, and governments of the church.

There is a caveat and it comes in the final words of the gospel for today. When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. A reminder not to let our guard down. We do not know if Jesus was further tempted in his ministry. Many say he was, and one author has written that the last temptation was the cross.

We believe that Christ for us is also the great high priest. He is such not because he is the Son of God and Son of Man, but because we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. But we have one, who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. We do not live without sin, but we do have an advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ the Righteous, and he is the perfect offering for our sins and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray. Almighty God whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by satan, come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations. And as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save. Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God, now and forever. Amen.

"Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. I have often told you of them and now I tell you even with tears that their end is destruction. Their god is their belly and their glory is in their shame. Their minds are set on earthly things but our citizenship is in heaven. And it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my Beloved."

Luke 13:31-35

"At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, 'Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.' Jesus said to them, 'Go and tell that fox for me, "Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem." Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it, how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing. See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

Here ends our reading.

"Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me and observe those who live according to the example you have in us."

When I was growing up, Grandma and Grandpa said to me, "Dionhoe (my Caddo name), Dionhoe, it is very important that the very first thing you do in the morning, before you do anything else, is sing a song." I said, "Grandma, Grandpa, why is it important for me to sing a song first thing in the morning?" They said, "Because we told you so. That's why."

So began my early education with Grandma and Grandpa saying, "You do this because we told you so."

Grandma and Grandpa were very aware of the balance of creation. In today's world as we study the development of the human brain, we discover that there is a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere. The left is the order. Everything in its place. Everything proper. Everything where it belongs. The right hemisphere, the creative side, is creative to the point of being chaotic, and so we need the balance as we grow, for we need some creativity to our order. We also need some order to our creativity.

Grandma and Grandpa were extremely aware of the balance, and so in a very left-brain way they would say to me, "You do this because we told you so. That is the order of creation." Then they would balance it out by saying to me, "Dionhoe, this is why you have to sing a song first thing in the morning." They said, "All day long, everywhere you go, everything you do, there your shadow is as well. So if you walk, your shadow walks, and if you run, your shadow runs, and if you jump, your shadow jumps. Dionhoe," they said, "you never allow your shadow to do what it wants and you never do what your shadow wants. Instead, it just follows you around all day long doing everything you do. Then you go to sleep at night, and when you go to sleep at night, your shadow is free to travel wherever your shadow wishes. And all night long your shadow is traveling in many places meeting a variety of interesting people, and in the morning when you wake up, your shadow is far away, and it does not want to come home. However, if you sing a song, your shadow will hear the song. And when your shadow hears the song, your shadow has no choice. Your shadow has to come home, for your shadow is bound to you, tied to you with a song. This is why you sing a song first thing in the morning, so that you might sing your shadow home, so that you can begin the day as a complete person." And so from that day to this day, as soon as I wake up, as soon as I open my eyes, I sing a song.

So Grandma and Grandpa told me in a very balanced way how it was I needed to start my day. They said, "You do this because we told you so," and then they balanced it with a story. Both need to be developed equally in order for us to stay balanced and to grow to our fullest potential.

One more thing that happened when I was growing up: I was raised by Grandma and Grandpa, and I noticed that Grandma and Grandpa would wake up early in the morning, and so I challenged myself to wake up earlier than they did. And I never could. I would wake up and open my eyes and Grandma and Grandpa--they were already awake. I knew they were awake. I didn't even have to get out of bed, for you see, I would hear them singing. And so they told me in a very left-brain way, "This is the order of things," and then they balanced it with a story, and then they pulled the circle together by being my example. They set an example to me of how they did it. And then they said, "You go and do likewise." Their responsibility as elders was to be the example for those younger. Today, our responsibility as elders is to be the example for those who are younger.

Grandma and Grandpa said all of creation is a mirror. Everything reflects who and what we are, especially our children. Everything is a mirror, even we adults corporately and individually reflect our culture, society, and spirituality. The mountains, deserts, oceans, all plant life, animals, everything that is is a mirror. We could put an individual on a mountaintop and the next morning that individual may come back and say they were full of fear. They were afraid of everything that came around them and the noises they heard in the night. We could put another individual on that same mountaintop and the next morning this individual might say, "That was the most pleasant night I ever spent. Everything was calm, everything serene." We could take a third individual, put them on that same mountaintop, and that individual the next morning might say, "Well, you know, it wasn't any big deal. It was all right, but I could have done it anywhere else." The same mountaintop. Three different reactions by three different people. But what the mountain was doing was reflecting their inner feelings.

Once, Grandpa and I were sitting on the side of a dirt road resting from our walking when a family--their station wagon filled to overflowing with boxes and clothes--stopped to ask directions. They were moving to our town. "Tell me, Chief," the man asked Grandpa--he called Grandpa "Chief," but Grandpa was no chief; he was the song keeper--"What are the people like in the town where we are moving?" Grandpa answered with a question, "What are the people like in the town you are leaving?" "Ohhh," said the man, "butÉ they're terrible. We couldn't leave there fast enough. They gossip and backstab and can't be trusted. They would just as soon hit you on the head as look at you." The man's list of complaints went on and on and on. When he finished, Grandpa said, "That's exactly the kind of people that live in the town where you and your family are moving." Grumbling and complaining, the new family went on down the road.

On our return walk, we were resting in the shade by the side of the road when a family stopped to ask Grandpa directions. They, too, were moving to our town. "Chief," asked the man--I wondered why everyone kept calling Grandpa chief--"What are the people like in this town?" Grandpa asked, "What were the people like in the town you're moving from?" "We really hated to leave. We didn't really want to," said the man. "Like family," added the woman, "very kind-hearted." "They were always there to lend a hand," continued the man, "never too busy." The list of compliments continued. When he finished, Grandpa smiled and said, "Sounds like our town. Those are the very people who live there. You'll love it." Delighted, they went on their way.

"Grandpa," I asked. "Why did you tell those people opposite things about our town?" I discovered later there are no opposites--that is a story for another time. "Grandson," said the old man, "I told the truth to both. Everything is a mirror and I only reflected back what I saw."

Everything is a mirror reflecting who and what we are, especially our children. If you want to know about the adults, look at the children. If you want to know about a household, look at the children. If you want to know about a community, look at the children. And if you want to know about a nation, look at the children. And when we look at our children, we see that they reflect us adults. Our responsibility is to be a positive image, a living example for our children to reflect and emulate.

And whom do we reflect and emulate? We were given an example in the life of Jesus Christ, who said, "Now you go and do likewise." John said that in the beginning the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Now we are the living words made flesh in this living creation story. God has no skin but our skin, no bones but our bones, no blood but our blood, no body but our body.

The blossoms in the spring give freely their fragrance and whoever passes by may smell the sweetness regardless of skin color, race, national origin, weight, height, length of hair, sexual preference, denomination, or species. We are the flowers in this garden, filling up with God's love until it overflows out into the highways and byways of life flowing out of you and me to whoever passes by. Our responsibility is to give our love freely and expect nothing in return. It is in our expectations that our disappointments happen. Not that we should not have standards to live by, we need standards. And we need to live them. By living them, we become them, and this is what our children reflect. Who we are and what we are. And this is what our children become.

Jesus said, "Love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: that they would give their life for their friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. This I command, 'Love one another. Love God with your entire being, with everything that you can pull together, love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.'" This means you have to love yourself. Let our children reflect love--your love, God's love. Be that positive image in today's society. "Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me and observe those who live according to the example you have in us."

WWJS--what would Jesus say? "It's your turn now. You go and do likewise."


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