Temptation and desire

This is a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

Paul wrote to Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”… well, there’s plenty I could say about that, isn’t there?

Don’t worry.  This part of the letter is intended primarily as instructions for those who are leaders of the church.  Paul’s concern here is people who are acting as teachers and leaders in the church, and receiving material support for doing so, not out of right motives but because they want the money.  In the part of the letter just before the bit we heard this morning, Paul talked about the bad outcomes from this kind of leadership; envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, wrangling among those who are depraved, imagining that godliness is a means for gain.

Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?  If the only interest I had in you, as a community, was how much money I could get from you, our relationship would be one of exploitation rather than one of love.  I hope that at least some of the time I manage to make it one of love.

But what interested me about the reading, actually, was the way that Paul talks about temptation; and that’s something that we all have to deal with in the Christian life.  He says that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation…”

It makes succumbing to temptation sound so easy and natural, doesn’t it?  It’s falling.  Just like anything falls when it’s dropped, because of gravity, the idea of “falling” into temptation makes it sound like, well, you know, there was all this money and it just pulled me into its orbit and I was a bit helpless to resist it, because, you know, it was there.

And if you think about temptation like that, then really we’re just at the mercy of whatever big temptations might suck us in, because they have that irresistible pull on us, and we don’t have the ability to move away.

But I don’t think it’s really like that – and I don’t think Paul did, either; I’ll say more about that in a second – so maybe it’s worth digging a little deeper than this language of temptation as “falling” and see if we can come up with any ideas that might actually empower us against our temptations.

You see, I don’t think temptation starts with the pile of money or the sexy person or the chocolate or whatever it is that tempts us.

Listen again to what Paul said:  “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation” – we’ve noted that –  “and” he says, “are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.”

Senseless and harmful desires.

Isn’t that where temptation really starts?  With desire?  Isn’t it my desire to feel that I have some control over my circumstances, or to have nice things, or even to be able to be generous, that makes the temptation of money so easy to fall into?  That is, it’s not the money itself that’s the problem, but what the money means to me; what difference I think it will make to my life.

When I do marriage preparation with couples, one of the things we spend quite a bit of time on is their attitudes to money, and how they want to manage finances.  Not because there are right and wrong answers, but because not having a shared approach to money is one of the biggest causes of conflict in marriage.  And without fail, what comes out in those discussions is that money means different things to the two people.  For example, for one person money will mean freedom, and he or she will resent too much constraint on spending and enjoyment.  But for the other person, money will mean security, and he or she will be anxious about too much spending.  Well, you can see where that’s heading, can’t you?  Cue endless arguments.  But it’s not really the money (or lack of it) that’s driving the arguments; it’s the desires that the money can fulfil, and how those desires are at odds.

And I suspect a lot of temptations are like that.  We have all of these desires – often we’re not really even conscious of them – driving us, and then when something comes along that we think can fulfil those desires, we’re pulled along by it as if we’re falling.  But it’s really our desire that set us up for that in the first place.

Now let me be clear.  I’m not saying that all desire is bad, and that the Christian life is all about suppressing desire.  We’re made to have desires – we are made in the image of a God who has desires – and I think for most of us, the attempt to ignore or suppress our desires mostly leaves us in a very unhealthy place.  More than that, I think desire is a good thing; I think our longings, desires and loves can even be holy things that point us towards God.

After all, if desire is all bad, we couldn’t really have the Song of Songs as part of the Bible, could we?  That book is all about holy desire, and the fact that we have Scriptures like that suggests that we should take our desires seriously as clues to knowing God more deeply, and living for God more faithfully.

So we have desires, they’re a normal and healthy part of us, they can be an important part of our spirituality…. but.  But they can also be “senseless and harmful,” in Paul’s words, and that’s when they set us up for a fall.  So when the tempting thing comes along, we do fall headlong into it.

So where does that leave us?  I’d suggest that it points out to us that our desires deserve to be taken seriously.  Reflecting on our own experiences of encouragement and fulfilment, as well as frustration and disappointment, can give us clues to what’s going on beneath the surface for us, what deeper needs and desires are driving our choices.  And when we recognise those, we can put in place strategies and plans to act out of those desires in ways which are healthy and appropriate, which, instead of seeing us fall headlong into temptation, see us able to sail by unaffected, since we don’t have unrecognised desires driving us off course.

We pray, each time we say the Lord’s prayer, that He would “save us from the time of trial” – or in the old words, “lead us not into temptation.”  And of course it’s good to pray that, but it’s also good to do what we can to responsibly save ourselves from unnecessary trials, by making sure that we are as little susceptible to them as possible.  Our reading from Timothy this morning has given us some pointers on how we might do that, and in doing so, “take hold of the life that really is life.”


Fullness of life

This is a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 79:1-9.

The psalmist said, “We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us.”

I don’t know if that’s been your experience much, but I know that for me, this echoes something that’s been a real part of my experience.  I grew up during the beginnings of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.  For my generation, perceptions of the church have been fundamentally coloured by those events, and by the appalling behaviour of various church leaders in covering up and perpetuating patterns of abuse.

I’ve lost friends over it.  People who couldn’t understand or cope with my commitment to an institution they saw as intrinsically damaging.  And for many others, the label of “priest” goes so tightly hand-in-hand with “abuse apologist” that I cannot speak on any topic – no matter how unrelated – without that perception of clergy as controlling, authoritarian and more interested in protecting the institution than caring for people, shaping how people react to me.

Why do I raise this now?  When you look around and notice that my generation is conspicuously absent from church, I think it would be a mistake to think that this is not a factor.  It’s not the only factor, of course; cultural change, different patterns of social life, suspicion of institutions and authority more generally, have all played their part; but make no mistake, many people simply can’t get past the damage that was done to so many, and the apparent indifference of the rest of us to that damage.

How can we still put our money in the plate when our bishops are corrupt?  They ask.  How can we still be here when there hasn’t been enough real change?

Derided by those around us is right.  And the sting is even worse because they’re not deriding us for something they’ve invented; the abuse crisis, and the church’s utter failure to respond well to it, is real.  To some extent, the church deserves the bad name in the street that it’s currently wearing, and we, as participants in it, need to each work out for ourselves what we do with that.

But while we have some work to do on integrity and authenticity as a church community, there’s probably another task that we have to do, as well.  For a very long time – certainly well into the living memory of this community – the church was assumed to be a social force for good.  It had an assured place in the life of society, and it didn’t have to argue for its existence or its voice in the marketplace of ideas.  It didn’t have to do a lot of soul-searching about its own identity or value, but was able to take those for granted.

That’s not true any more.  The challenges we face – internal and external – mean we have to think about what this church gig is really all about, and why we bother.  In the face of the derision of those who see us as irrelevant at best and damaging at worst, we need an answer that makes sense to us, and that might even be substantial enough to make others stop and think when they hear it.

A crisis is, as they say, a terrible thing to waste.  We have an opportunity here to think about these things in a way which might strengthen us for the decades to come.

So when push comes to shove, when we’re no longer such a powerful social institution, but have become marginalised, dismissed as irrelevant, viewed with suspicion, and so forth, why are we still here?

Why do you come to church?  Why do I come?  What’s the point of gathering around word and table together rather than having a lazy sleep in and perhaps some social time?  Could you put it into words?

The author of today’s psalm, who suffered such mocking, ended up looking to the glory of God’s name as the only answer worth holding on to, the only answer which might be bigger than the difficult circumstances that the Israelite community found themselves suffering.

We might make a similar connection; we might say that the glory of God is abandoned when the church gets it wrong, but that we keep coming back hoping that here, we can get in touch which something which is much bigger than our wrongs.

But let’s be clear.  The glory of God isn’t found in – or served by – the grandeur of our buildings, the size of our bank accounts, the beauty of our artistic treasures or the number of people under our influence.  Those things might be means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves, and it’s when we forget that, that we abandon the glory of God and instead worship a paltry substitute.

So where, then, can we look for the glory of God?  St. Irenaeus famously said that “The glory of God is a human person fully alive,” and that’s a comment I’ve come back to, time and time again.  Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  I suspect he meant much the same thing as Irenaeus meant about being “fully alive.”  Alive to the fullness of our potential, our ability to love, to experience hope and joy and all the rest of it.  Alive as we were meant to be; as we were created to be.

So why, then, gather around word and table together?  Because we find something here that helps us to be fully alive.  If we’re not offering that, then there truly is no point.  We might as well have that sleep in.  But if the words we read, the teaching we hear, and our encounters with God in the sacraments help us each to be just that little bit more fully alive, then they’re achieving their purpose.  Then we have a point to our existence as a church.  And then we can say – to the people whom the church has broken, the people who care for them, and the people appalled by all that has happened – that we are also broken, but we come back here because we seek something which might speak to that brokenness in a life-giving way.

It’s not an easy way through the hurt and damage of the last decades.  But it is, at least, an honest way.

I think it sets before us two things to ask ourselves, as we evaluate all that we do.  How does each thing we do, have the potential to be life-giving?  Are we using it in life-giving ways, or do we need to refresh our approach?  And what are the things we do or say – or even think – which are life-draining rather than life-giving, and how do we change those things so that we can more fully reflect the true glory of God?

To do good

This is a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28.

Last time I was here, you may remember that we looked at Jeremiah, and his idea – repeated over and over in his book – that when it came to God, the Israelites had ignored the real deal and gone after a cheap counterfeit version instead.

And I want to pick up that train of thought today, because in today’s reading from Jeremiah I think we see one of the most significant consequences of that acceptance of a shallow pretence at a living faith.  Jeremiah gives God’s words about his people and says, “My people are foolish, they do not know me… They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

These two ideas are intrinsically linked; knowing God and knowing how to do good, for Jeremiah, are two sides of the same coin.

Let me say upfront that this is not me trying to say that, for example, all atheists are immoral or anything like that.  It is quite possible to not believe in God and have a sound and robust ethical system.  We’re talking about “doing good” on a different level than what we might consider to be fairly basic moral reasoning.

But before I delve into that too deeply, let me point out that we can find the same argument made in the New Testament as well.  In the first chapter of Romans, Paul makes a fairly sophisticated argument, but what it boils down to in its essence is that rejecting the knowledge of God leads to… well, here are his words: “Though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking… to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.  Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

Goodness me, did he miss anything?  Well, Paul’s rather fond of a rhetorical flourish.

He makes his point, though; leaving the knowledge of God will inevitably, in his view, result in losing the ability to do good.

So if we’re not talking about basic moral reasoning, which we know isn’t an exclusively Christian preserve, then in what sense is “doing good” dependent on “knowing God”?

I’d suggest that “doing good” here means something deeper than keeping to the rules of an ethical code (however you define your ethical code).  It means aligning your whole self with God; recognising that God is, ultimately the author and giver of all good things, seeking to live our lives in such a way that they become an extension of the will of God in the world.

This points us towards the purpose of our gathering for worship; we come together so that we may know God better, and knowing God better, may more closely pattern our lives on God’s life.  Worship isn’t just something we do, it’s supposed to be something that changes us; that sees us leave here having been nudged just that little bit closer to God than when we came.

Ultimately, our worship is supposed to be the foundational act from which all of the things which have been broken or gone wrong can be repaired; because it’s the opportunity to reorient all of those broken or disordered things back towards the creator who made everything, and said that it was good.

And this is what I meant when I said that Jeremiah was talking about “doing good” on a deeper level than we often mean it.  I think Jeremiah, and Paul, and many great thinkers after them, have realised that the Christian life is not meant to just be one in which, as long as we don’t break the rules, we can pursue our own agenda.  It’s meant to be one in which we learn to let God’s agenda be our agenda.

In preparing this sermon, I looked at some Jewish writings on these ideas (I find that sometimes the Rabbis point out aspects of the Hebrew scriptures which Christian commentators typically overlook).  And the author I was reading had an absolutely lovely line to describe how he understood this.  He said that, “The man who worships is a king,” and what he meant by that, is that every person who truly aligns his or her life to that of God, becomes a conduit, if you like, for the reign of God on earth; and as such becomes a living expression of that reign.

This is, I think, something of the same idea that some Christian authors have had when they talk about mission, not as something that we send missionaries to do, but as our human participation in everything that God does.

This is why, for example, we pray after communion, “Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice…” What we’re saying is, here, Father; see my hands, my feet, my mind, my heart.  You know my strengths and my weaknesses.  I give them all to you, to do the things that you would have me do.   To be your hands, your feet, your mind, and your heart; in action in the world and in caring for all those around me.

That’s what worship is intended to be; when everything we do, say or think reflects our intention to be living expressions of God’s will at work in the world, that’s real worship.  In a sense, the church service is just the warm up, the place where we come to learn and be reminded and resourced for the real thing, out there in the rest of our lives.

So what I’m saying – what I think Jeremiah is saying – is that when you know God, the real God and not the pretend God that you make up or accept because it’s easier, then you are able, by God’s grace, to let your life reflect the priorities, the cares, and the love of God.  And so you are able, by that measure, “to do good.”  But if you buy into the false God, the shallow God, or the easy version of God, then you end up pursuing your own priorities, cares and passions; and that doesn’t usually end in a very good place.

That might not sound like a very optimistic assessment of human beings and our potential, since it seems to be saying that on our own, we’re inevitably going to get it wrong.  But I do think there’s some hope there for us as well, because it’s saying that all we have to do is get our primary, fundamental thing right – our relationship with God – and the rest will naturally flow from that.  If you really know God, the rest will follow.

So the question it leaves me with is, what do we need, to know God better?  And how will we make space for that in our life together here?

An irreverent musing

I was reading a little bit on Jewish mysticism today (there is much wisdom there, even for a Christian, although it takes work to integrate it into another worldview).  And as I was reading on the idea that there is no place empty of God, I came across the line that “no single blade of grass is without an angel who strikes it and orders it to grow to its full height.”*

Is it impious that my reaction to this, was to wonder whether I could wander out to the backyard and tell the angels at work on the nettles to knock it off?

Am I supposed to transcend my judgmental approach to gardening and see the good even in nettles?  (I’m told it has remarkable medicinal properties, although I haven’t cared to find out first-hand).

Or am I supposed to read grass metaphorically and ponder that all flesh is like grass, and wonder what this might say about the role of a guardian angel?

I suspect this attempt to engage with ancient wisdom is only showing me that I am no mystic!



*From Zevi Hirsch Eichenstein’s book, Turn Aside From Evil and Do Good: An Introduction and a Way to the Tree of Life.