The Trinity is about Us!

Click HERE to listen to Devon Anderson’s Trinity Sunday Sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, MN. If you think sermons are boring… and you’re willing to consider the thought that sometimes humor is the closest thing to faith, tune in!

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Sermon – In the Desert

Devon AndersonFirst Sunday in Lent – February 14, 2016
The Rev. Devon Anderson, Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Excelsior, MN

The season always begins with the story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. The Gospel tells us that no sooner is Jesus baptized in the River Jordan than he is led away into the desert. Led away from the crowds, with his hair still damp, with the words of God still ringing in his ears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ forty days in the desert is a time unlike any other in his life. It is a time in between his anointing by God and the start of his ministry. Before he could start the work he had been given to do, a few things needed to be sorted out. In the words of Frederick Buechner “Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.”

It is only after the forty days are up, only after Jesus is good and parched, good and exhausted, good and depleted that the devil shows up. The devil wasn’t stupid. He allowed Jesus some time wear down, time to exhaust his own resources. Maybe then, the devil thought, Jesus might be open to accepting a little help.

Years ago I spent some time in a desert like the one Jesus struggled in for 40 days. It was during a summer study course at St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem. Part of that program included a week in the Sinai desert exploring sacred sites and camping. As we crossed the border into Egypt, our Bedouin guides met us. Strapped to the top of each of their jeeps were the week “supplies” – a few dusty sleeping bags, some kerosene burners, gallon containers of water, and a small cage of live chickens, one that would be, each night for dinner, killed, plucked, gutted, and roasted. We loaded the jeeps and were off. In no time at all we were deep in the Sinai desert driving over sand and more sand, having left the one-lane highway and all civilization almost immediately.

After several days exploring and camping, we came to a mountainside, and our guides told us that the time had come when we would go our separate ways for awhile. We were to walk no more than 5-10 minutes in any direction by ourselves and spend an hour and a half in silence. At this point, the strident introvert in me leapt for joy – this was going to be awesome. Finally, what I had come for – some uninterrupted, focused, time to breathe and be with God.

I walked out into the craggy desert, found myself a shady rock to sit on and began to pray. I noticed at once was how silent it was. Obviously there were no planes overhead, or cars driving by with their stereo bass level turned up. My classmates had all but disappeared. There was also no wind, or birds or voices. It was so deafening quiet that I thought I could even hear the blood rushing through my body like a hum.

The second thing I noticed was the flies. How could I not? Here I was trying to commune with Jesus, all the while this annoying insect insisted on circling my head,

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buzzing my ears, and trying with all its might to fly up my nose. The Gospel narratives never mention flies, but after my experience I am convinced they were Jesus’ fourth temptation. “You think you’re so holy? You think you’re the Son of Man? Try this little bugger on for size!”

The third and most important thing I noticed was how quickly I became lonely. Once I found a comfortable place to sit, I cleared my mind, sang all the songs I knew, drank water, fixed my hat, prayed all the prayers I could remember, I listened, I said more prayers, I listened. And after awhile the time was up. I stood up, stretched, and began to make my descent from the craggy rock upon which I had had quite a nice meditation.
But on the way down, I happened to glance at my watch and, good God, only 25 minutes had gone by. What was I going to do now??? How would I fill the next 65 minutes? I began to feel nervous.

Those of you who have spent time in a desert know: there is something about them that have the power to suck out your self-confidence. They are so big, so quiet and empty that one in comparison feels inconsequential and perishable. I was shocked and ashamed by how I had so quickly come to the end of what I could do myself to fill the space and quiet. I had run out of things to say and think and do, and all that remained was kind of an empty, low-grade panic. I did slog it out, and gratefully returned to our camp, live chickens and my annoying classmates never looking so good.

In hindsight, that experience was a bit of an epiphany. For I realized for the first time how I had, up to that point, done my best to avoid coming in contact with that empty, carved out space inside me. I had confused quiet and silence. I had avoided, at all costs, an awareness of where what I can do for myself ends and where my dependence upon God’s grace begins.

There Jesus was, in a desert not that far from the Sinai peninsula. He had just come from his glorious baptism, surrounded by crowds, affirmed and crowned by God – only to be led into a long, lonely time in the desert. During that time, God makes no appearance – there are no voices, descending doves, no reassurance. Only silence and that carved out empty space inside. Over forty days, Jesus gets to the bottom of his own reserves. It is precisely into this empty, hollowed-out place that the devil makes his appearance.

What is important about the devil’s temptations is the theme that ties them together. How the devil tempts Jesus, in three different ways, is with the provocation that Jesus deserves better than what God is giving him. That he, Jesus, has the power to provide for himself what he needs. That he doesn’t, ultimately, need God. Listen to the devil’s taunts: “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Feed yourself. “See the kingdoms of the world. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Make your own power, authority. Fashion your own worth. “Throw yourself down from the temple.” Protect yourself. With each taunt the devil dares Jesus to prove who he is by acting with the ultimate power of a god instead of a man. And with each taunt, Jesus resists, replies with an emphatic “no.” “I will not assume to provide what only God can give.”

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Lent is a time unlike any other set aside for us to wrestle with the very same temptations set before Jesus. We are all vulnerable to the viral illusion that we can, ultimately, provide for ourselves. We are vulnerable to the idea that if we make enough money and invest wisely, we will be able to feed ourselves – provide all the sustenance and nourishment we will ever need. That we can, through our sheer determination, obtain what we need to fill ourselves in every way, buy what we need to make ourselves whole. We are vulnerable to the temptation that if we advance and distinguish ourselves in our professions, speak articulately, exhibit learnedness and intellectual capacity that we can win for ourselves authority and respect. That it is entirely up to us to create our own value and worthiness. We are vulnerable to the idea that if we buy the right car or car seat, install a home security system, live in the nice neighborhoods, put our kids in the right schools, if we keep our cholesterol down and choose the best health plan and doctors that we have the power to inoculate ourselves from the sadness and pain that are part of being human.

In her book, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith, Nora Gallagher equates these temptations to fantasies, illusions that suck out our vitality, that keep us from discovering God’s rich reality. “To come to terms with illusion,” she writes, “is one of the great jobs of our lives: to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is dead and what is alive, what is a narcotic and what is food. It is dangerous, wrenching, and unavoidable. The seductive call of the Sirens was so compelling Odysseus lashed himself to his mast. In the desert, Jesus fought for his life. What is asked of Jesus is what is asked of us: that we give up illusion – its false promises and its addicting inertia – and come to our senses. That we, as Vaclav Havel would say, ‘live within the truth.’”

The devil’s agenda is to convince us that we can go it alone, that God is to us a pleasurable elective – something interesting and provocative to ponder, a presence that offers solicit in time of need. But Lent challenges us, right off the bat, to question ourselves. It is, after all, the season that derives its name from the old English word, lenten, meaning “spring.” It is not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime of the soul. Forty days to cleanse our system of the illusion that we are in control, that what we ultimately need – to nourish our souls, prove our inherent worth, guard our lives — we can provide for ourselves. Forty days to open our eyes to the one holy and gracious God, by whose mercy alone we live and move and have our being. AMEN.

 

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In Defense of Darkness

INTRODUCTION: Every few years a sermon knocks my socks off. This unusual sermon by The Rev. Devon Anderson was heard last Sunday at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota. The text is Luke 3:1-6. Disclaimer: the sources for the sermon are listed at the end; the text itself does not include footnotes and does not always include quotation marks.

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A few weeks ago I was in Baltimore at a church meeting held at the Maritime Institute of Technology’s conference center. The institute teaches how to pilot everything from a tugboat to the biggest of seafaring barge. During our meeting my friend Ernesto discovered that the Maritime Institute boasts two “full mission, ship handling” simulators. With a bit of sweet talk, he finagled a tour.

The simulators are housed inside huge 80X30 feet curved projection screens (kind of like an iMax theater). Inside is constructed an actual bridge – the literal steering wheel, radar, and control panels that any barge of that magnitude would have. We stepped onto the bridge in darkness. But after our guide punched some buttons and threw a few switches, the lights came on and we were – in an instant – ship captains, navigating an industrial barge through Baltimore harbor. Ernesto and I took turns serving as captain and first mate.

At some point our tour guide started to mess with us. “Hmmm…,” he said, “it looks like it’s about to rain.” A few buttons, a few switches, and the sky began to darken, as virtual raindrops misted the windows. “Hmmmm…,” he said again, “I think we’re heading for a bit of a hurricane,” and all of a sudden we were in the open sea gazing back at the Maryland coastline, as the waves swelled, and the barge dipped and rocked deeper and deeper. “Oh no,” said our host, clearly enjoying himself in the face of our growing panic, “it looks like the hurricane knocked out power in Baltimore.” As he said it, the control panel, too, flashed and went cold as the sound of the engines cut out. In an instant everything went black. I mean, really black. Out of the darkness came the voice of our guide, “Hmmm…what are you going to do now?” We drove the barge around in the dark for a while – which was terrifying — as the hurricane subsided. Eventually the click click click of buttons and switches cleared the night sky, and from the darkness emerged a million sparkling stars. “When everything goes dark,” our guide told us, “a good pilot slows down and watches for what can help him.”

Hmmm….I’ve been thinking about that virtual darkness out on the virtual sea these past weeks. Advent always happens in the darkest of days, as our little place on the planet moves further and further away from the sun. This time of year, we know a lot about darkness. Our Advent scriptures reflect that. So much of what we read in Advent is about darkness and our thirst for light. “The Lord is my light and my salvation…(Ps 27:1)” writes the psalmist, “the fountain of life in whose light we see light (Ps 36.9). “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Is 9:2). And even today John the Baptist calls the people out into the cold, dark, desert night so they are ready for the light that will save them all. In so many of our Advent stories, the message is the same: the light of the world has come to put an end to darkness, to be a lamp in the hands of those who believe. Like myself, I know so many people whose lives depend on that promise – when we can’t see where we are going; when the bottom drops out; when our prayers go unanswered and we’re marooned in the kind of darkness that makes us afraid to move – we cling to the promise that if we can just keep our minds focused on the light of the world then sooner or later God will send us some bright angels to lead us out.

And yet – deep in our holy scriptures there lives an equal and opposite truth that almost never comes up in church: that God dwells in deep darkness. God comes to the people in dark clouds, dark nights, dark dreams and dark strangers in ways that sometimes scare them half to death but almost always for their good, or at least, for their transformation. God does some of God’s best work in the dark.

We have been conditioned to view darkness as a negative, symbolizing what’s sinister, or dismal, or tragic or wrong. It was a really dark film. We’re in a really dark place right now. He’s gone to the dark side. No one ever asks God for more darkness, please. Please God, come to me in a dark cloud. Give me a dark vision. Please eclipse the sun and throw life as I know it into complete shadow. Put out my lights so I can see what I need to see. Then, send me a dark angel on the worst night of my life, please.

And no one asks for darkness in the Bible, either, but it happens. Once you start noticing how many things happen at night in the Bible, the list grows fast. God comes to Abraham in the dark, instructing a series of desired sacrifices then sealing the covenant with the people Israel forever. God comes to Jacob in the dark not once, but twice – the first in a dream at the foot of a heavenly ladder, and the second on a riverbank where an angel wrestles him all night long. The exodus from Egypt happens at night; God parts the Red Sea at night; manna falls from the sky in the wilderness at night – and that’s just the beginning.

The cloud and the glory always seem to go together – not just in the Hebrew Scriptures, but in our Gospels, too. Ask Jesus’ disciples Peter, James, and John who entered another cloud on another mountain where they too were overshadowed by the glorious, terrifying darkness of God. Ask Saul the ferocious who was blinded on the road so he could be led by the hand to a hard bed in a rented room, where he finally became soft enough to welcome a dark angel named Ananias. Ask Mary how her life – and the life of the whole world – changed when the savior of the world was born in that scary, darkest hour just before dawn. Ask Mary Magdalene who, in her insurmountable grief, discovers the risen Christ. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” the discovery of resurrection begins.

It’s not a popular truth, but there it is: God dwells in deep darkness. When we cannot see – when we are not sure where we are going and all our old landmarks have vanished inside the storm – then plenty of us can believe we are lost and forgotten. But what I am asking you to consider is an additional theology – that when we find ourselves in darkness, we may be the exact opposite of lost and forgotten. Based on the witness of those who have gone before, we know that darkness is where God most often restores us when our lives have broken apart. It is the cloud of unknowing where nothing we thought we knew about God can prepare us to meet the God who is. It is in darkness where new life, no matter how shattered, is born.

There are real benefits to this kind of faith, though they may not appeal to those for whom God can only be light (and in whom there is no darkness at all). The first benefit is that we have to slow way, way down when we find ourselves in the dark. When the kids were little we took them to visit Crystal Cave in western Wisconsin, right off I-94. It’s campy as all get-out, but it’s been around as a tourist attraction for a long time, first discovered in 1881. Just like any cave or mine tour, visitors must walk down flight after flight of industrial stairs, down, down, down – 70 feet in this case — into the damp, drippy earth. At some point the guide flips off the lights so everyone can get a feel for how dark the dark can be – like, can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Anyone that’s been on one of these tours knows – the minute those lights go out, everyone freezes. There’s just no running around in dark like that. All the things we pride ourselves on in the light outside – our speed, our agility, our ability to talk fast and get things done – they don’t help us one single bit in that kind of darkness. Darkness forces us to slow down and use senses we don’t use when our eyes are working in the light of day. Darkness like that sharpens our senses, hones our awareness, makes us hyper-sensitive to God’s light touch.

Another benefit of faith in darkness is teaches that none of our outside navigational tools can, in the end, really help us. Just like when the power went out in the virtual Baltimore harbor – when we hit real darkness, external things we depend upon in the light of our normal lives to keep us safe and secure, no longer work. If it’s not already inside us, then it’s of limited use to us in the dark places. Once we enter darkness we find out what our primary resources are: love, hope, vulnerability, openness, and what insistent, sacred whisper we can learn to trust when we’re navigating by faith and not by sight. We learn in that place to trust more supremely what only God can do for us, over what we think we can do for ourselves.

And finally, inside darkness with everything slooooowed waaaay doooowwn, depending on what’s inside ourselves to feel our way forward, the good news is that God has room and time and enough of our attention to bring forth new life – an entirely new thing that didn’t exist before dark descended. One of my favorite paintings of all time is from Van Gogh’s olive tree series, housed in the permanent collection of the Minnesota Institute of Arts. A light, lavender punctuates the painting in rows between trees and in the background mountain scape. Apparently Van Gogh considered the lavender a color of “consolation” (his word) in that he felt the color was not its own entity, but created by the stormy confrontation of darkness weakened by light. The new creation only possible because of darkness.

I know my defense of darkness will never, ultimately, sell. Endarkenment is never going to appeal to anyone the way enlightenment does. But for those who are already sitting in the dark, and for those of us who know that at some point we’ll be there, too, to consider the possibility that God dwells there with us is Gospel Good News indeed. And, in the end, I do know this: the thing about the cloud of unknowing, which even the saints take on trust is that it’s not there to get through like a test or a fever. It is God’s home. It is the place where God dwells. To be invited in is a great honor, and to stay awhile? Better yet. When sitting in darkness, we never feel that it’s a great honor – it’s the last place any of us want to be. But I do know this: that for those who make it out the other side, while they may not have a lot of words to describe where they have been, and they’ll tell us they never would have chosen it in a million years – they do have a great story to tell and more than not it’s a story that includes redemption and healing, regeneration and a new wisdom. They might just tell us that now that it has happened they would never give it back. AMEN.

Sources:

The brilliant idea and direct quotes about God doing God’s best work in the dark are excerpted from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark (2014), an excellent read that I highly recommend.

The Maritime Institute of Technology’s website (click HERE) has interesting information about its simulator-based training programs.

Van Gogh’s approach to the cover lavender is commented upon by Goethe in the book Goethe’s Way of Science by David Seamon: “…this reciprocity between darkness and light points to the ur-phenomenon of color: Color is the resolution of the tension between darkness and light. Thus darkness weakened by light leads to the darker colors of blue, indigo, and violet, while light dimmed by darkness creates the lighter colors of yellow, organize, and red. Unlike Newton, who theorized that colors are entities that have merely arisen out of light (as, for example, through refraction in a prism), Goethe came to believe that colors are new formations that develop through the dialectical action between darkness and light. Darkness is not a total, passive absence of light as Newton had suggested, but, rather, an active presence, opposing itself to light and interacting with it. Theory of Color presents a way to demonstrate firsthand this dialectical relationship and color as its result.”