Prophet Daniel & the Leather Oxfords – a sermon.

In May, I was in NYC for my brother’s graduation from college, and while I was there, I wanted to find the right kind of walking shoe for the summer. I started looking through shoe stores in SoHo for the slip-on tennis shoe I had in mind, but by the time I walked into the second store on Broadway, I had given up my crush on ked-look-alikes and moved on to a leather oxford with a bit of a heel. Where did that desire come from? I’d never spent a moment looking at them online before my trip, or in any stores once I’d arrived; I hadn’t even noticed that there were any pairs that style in stores, but suddenly, I was overcome with this burning desire for oxfords. I moved from store to store, in pursuit of the perfect pair.

Many of you are aware I’d been taken in by the ubiquitous advertising of the fashion world—leather oxfords with a small heel are all the rage for spring. After a few days of walking around in New York City, seeing the shoes on women on the street, on billboards on buildings and in the subway, and on manequins in store windows, the image had lodged itself in my head, and I had no idea it was weaseling itself in there until I had a sudden and unquenchable thirst for these classic leather shoes.

In today’s Scripture lesson (Daniel 1:8-15), Daniel just isn’t refusing Babylonian biscuits and gravy, or turning down a grass-fed filet. By “not defiling himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies,” Daniel is standing up to the lie that Babylon is trying to pass off on him. Daniel knows the truth—life is found in no one else, there is no other god or person or philosophy or lifestyle on earth that gives the kind of life that following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does.

Actually, our language has done us a great favor— “Babylon” continues to be a label used to describe those things in our world that are corrupt and evil. We are called to be Daniel here, today, in 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina. We are called to reject Babylon, to purpose in our hearts to not defile ourselves with the portion of the king’s delicacies. We are called instead to eat fruits and vegetables, those things which will truly build us up, give us the energy we need in order to live good, joyful lives, attuned to God and to each other.

Just like Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as the Tempter offers Jesus bread, and the ruling of kingdoms, and the service of angels, there’s nothing inherently evil about bread or being a world leader or about angels’ help. There’s nothing wrong with wearing beautiful clothes, or watching television, or enjoying grass-fed filet mignon.

How many more malicious desires and ideas take root in our minds and hearts when we’re not looking? Television like the Real Housewives might be one—have you ever noticed what happens to you after you watch shows like that? I’ve found that I’m usually crankier, more tired, and most discontented with my life than I was before I sat down on the couch, even though my purpose in sitting down to some mindless TV was to relax. I’m less-relaxed, less-calm, less-rejuvenated when I finish Millionaire Matchmaker or Scandal. These shows lull me into new expectations about how exciting and shiny and sexy my life should be; my little bungalow with its husband, and garden, and German Shepherd in South Carolina suddenly looks very, very dull—and it happens without me realizing it.   I snap at my husband and I roll my eyes at vacuuming; surely the Real Housewives don’t have to deal with dog hair or with ironing.

How about Don Draper? We are desensitized to advertising all over and around our lives. Just like suddenly developing an urge for those oxfords, it’s a given matter of course that the ads on the edges of our pages while we surf the web are related to the shopping sites we visited earlier in the day, and the emails we receive in our inboxes are tailored to appeal to our particular weaknesses and consumer habits.

It is a lie to believe that what we ingest doesn’t matter. Our culture is becoming very aware of the importance of the sorts of things we eat, but by the same token, our culture tries to tell us that what we watch and read and talk about and worry about and focus on doesn’t matter, it doesn’t shape us nearly as much as the food we put in our mouths. This is the lie of Babylon that Daniel identified and purposed in his heart to resist.

We’re being lulled to sleep, thinking that what really matters is whether we are eating ethical shrimp or fair-trade zucchini. Though ethical food and fair-trade practices are vitally important to our lives as Christians and citizens of this created world, we ought to spend at least as much time considering the kinds of influences we allow in our own lives and in the lives of our families. Are we ingesting the kinds of television shows, music, radio programs, novels, movies, and conversations that help us to stay awake, or do the lull us to sleep?

It’s not a coincidence that we read Daniel wanted to eat vegetables—celery and kale do not make you want to take a nap. They keep you alert. Babylon wants to make you fall asleep; to not realize what is happening to you until it’s too late. We are the proverbial lobsters or frogs in the pot on the stovetop. Just a little bit of discontentment sneaks in to start with, we repeat the same annoying story about our spouse or best friend, and after a few times, we start to believe it. The water starts to warm up, and we start to believe the lie that others’ lives are naturally more glamorous and peaceful than ours. Soon, the water is boiling and we’re cooked—we didn’t even notice it.

This is what happened to Walter White in Breaking Bad—a timid high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer without having smoked a day in his life. He eased up next to evil under the guise of providing for his family by starting to cook and sell very pure, very cheap meth. A few seasons later, he’s a drug kingpin in the Southwest.

My friends, we live in Babylon. We are strangers in a strange land. We are offered all sorts of shiny delicacies by the king every day. As we notice all the moments that shove tempting, sleep-inducing food beneath your nostrils, let us remember Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

A version of this sermon was preached at Downtown Church in Columbia, SC, on July 20th, 2014.

What’s Worth Having – First Sunday of Lent – the Church of St. Michael and St. George

A sermon from the Rev. Jordan Hylden

What’s Worth Having                                          Luke 4:1-13

I’m tempted to say that temptation isn’t what it used to be.  Recently, I came across a column in the New York Times[1] that compared the period drama Downton Abbey with the very much here-and-now HBO series Girls.  Much of the drama of Downton, the column observed, comes from the way in which the characters chafe against the duties and restrictions of their roles, in a world where there’s a very specific place for everything and everyone.  Can the daughter run off with the chauffeur?  Can the servants move up in the world?  Will middle-class cousin Matthew ever really be one of them?  Can you follow your heart, even when duty and role says you mustn’t?  Wouldn’t following your heart be somehow not properly English?  And so on, and so forth.

Of course we know that, eventually, the old world of Lord Grantham will give way to the modern world that you and I live in, as portrayed so well by Lena Dunham’s series Girls.  The show depicts a group of twenty-something women in today’s New York City, all of them trying to find love and happiness in one form or another, and all of them floundering rather sadly.  Apparently, though I admittedly haven’t watched it, the show is a sort of anti-Sex in the City, with all of the freedom but none of the glamour.  The girls live at the end of the social process that the world of Downton started, and by now there’s just no drama to be had about resisting temptation, about the clash between duty and desire—the girls are pretty much free to do what they want, to follow their hearts and desires without having to worry about class boundaries or religion or social norms getting in the way.  In almost every respect, they’re freer than the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, and in many respects we’d probably judge that to be a good thing.  The problem is that none of their free choices seem to have much meaning, carry much weight, make any lasting difference, or lead to real happiness. As the Times critic puts it, “What begins on Downton as a new liberty to follow your heart, to dare love that others find unwise, has culminated in Girls in romantic pursuits that are dully mercenary and often unwise.”

Girls depicts a world—our world—in which we can have anything we want, but there’s nothing to show us what’s worth wanting. “I don’t know what the next year of my life is going to be like at all,” says Marnie, a smart, pretty, rather lost twentysomething on “Girls.” “I don’t know what the next week of my life is going to be like. I don’t even know what I want. Sometimes I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘This is how you should spend your days, and this is how the rest of your life should look.”’[2]

The struggle against temptation, you see, only makes sense if there’s something better out there that’s worth the struggle, if there’s something worth waiting for that’s better than the things you can have right now.  If you can’t imagine something worth struggling for, then you’ll probably settle for the things you’ve already got.  But if you really can’t imagine anything worth struggling for, then you’re certain to wind up as lost as one of those very free, very sad girls in New York.  It really doesn’t matter if you’re free to have it all.  What really matters is knowing what’s worth having.

In our Gospel text from Luke today, one of the things to notice is that none of what Jesus is tempted with seems very wrong at first glance.  Jesus had been in the wilderness for forty days without food, and we’re told he was absolutely famished.  The devil prompts him to whip up some Wonderbread, and what could be wrong with that?  Especially for a starving man, isn’t that worth having?  And the devil’s offer of power over all the kingdoms of the world—well, what could be wrong with setting things straight once and for all?  Putting an end to all of the injustices of Caesar, restoring Israel’s freedom, bringing about peace and justice and harmony—isn’t that everyone’s dream?  Isn’t that worth having?  And then there’s the last one, which sounds like trusting God to save him from death.  What could be wrong with that?  We know from last week’s Gospel text that Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, and that he had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen to him when he got there.  If Jesus had only lived longer, just think what he could have accomplished—what a pity to die so young, so tragically, with so much promise and his whole life ahead of him.  Never married.  Only just started in his career.  Friends and family left behind.  Isn’t that worth having most of all—life itself?

Luke is telling us something important about how temptation works.  I doubt any of you are going to go home tonight and be seriously tempted to rob a bank or club a baby seal, or something positively awful like that.  Temptation seldom works that way.  It’s usually much more subtle—temptation usually means being tempted to let good things keep us from better things, to let smaller pleasures keep us from what really matters in life, from what brings true and lasting happiness.  You probably won’t be tempted to abandon your spouse and kids.  But you might be tempted to so dedicate yourself to your work, and to providing for your family, that you find they’ve started to become strangers living in your own home.  You probably won’t be tempted to sexually abuse someone, God forbid.  But you might be tempted to allow sex to get in the way of any real and lasting relationship.  You probably won’t be tempted by anything that you know is deeply wrong, or cruel, or hateful.  No, if you’re really tempted by something, you’re tempted because you think it’s good.  The things that tempt us the most are precisely the things that we think will make us happy.  What makes them temptations, is that they won’t.

So how do we know the difference?  How can we tell what leads to real happiness, and what only leads to a shadow of the real thing?  How do we learn what’s worth having, in a world where we can have anything we want?

In our passage, Jesus had a choice to make.  He could have been a very different kind of Messiah, one who filled his belly with good things, basked in the adoration of the crowds, taken the power to have his way in the world, and avoided an early and humiliating execution.  He could have, but he wasn’t.  So in order to listen for the voice of God amidst the clamoring din of all of the other voices of the world, to find the narrow and difficult path of true happiness amidst the maze of wrong turns and dead ends, Jesus went out to the wilderness to fast and to pray.  In the wilderness, he heard his Father’s voice.

Lent for us is meant to be a time in the wilderness, of setting aside the things that distract us from hearing God’s voice and keep us from following it.  We give up things in Lent not to show God how pious we are, but to show ourselves what’s been keeping us from what really matters in life, and most of all from God.  It’s to show ourselves how we’ve been thrashing around in the shallows, instead of plunging into the vast ocean of God’s love.

Jesus heard the voice of his Father in the wilderness, and found that the path that led to his Father in heaven was none other than the way of the cross.  On this path he found that true happiness lay in loving his Father in heaven with all of his heart and mind and strength, and his neighbors as himself, even if it cost him everything.  Jesus went to Jerusalem to give his life away in faith and love, only to find it again on the far side of Good Friday.  Jesus showed us the path to happiness that lasts, to a full life of love so indestructible that not even betrayal and death can kill it.

This season of Lent, go to the wilderness.  Set aside everything that keeps you from hearing the voice of Jesus, and from following in his footsteps.  Spend time in prayer.  Read the Scriptures and listen for God’s word.  Pray that God will show you the things in your life that are keeping you from what really counts, and that he’ll set you again on the path that leads to what’s really worth having.  Amen.

[1] Giridharadas, Anand.  “Freedom Has Its Limits,” New York Times, 8 February 2013.

[2] Cited in Giridharadas, “Freedom Has Its Limits.”

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – David & Bathesheba – the Church of St. Michael & St. George

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 12 (Year B)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but if you ask Siri about something with more depth than how to get to Jilly’s Cupcake Bar, she get cagey.  For example, if you ask her whether there is a God, she will often tell you, “I eschew theological disquisition.”  Siri knows her limits.  As an electronic assistant, she has many talents—I can ask her where to get ice cream, and she’ll show me a map of 15 options close to me, organized by the positivity of their online ratings.  She can pull up and call my husband’s cell phone number with just a two-word cue.

However, she realizes that answering life’s big questions is beyond the scope of her ability.  Siri won’t get anywhere near the issue of a greater power in our universe.  She’s not curious to inch her way toward a metaphysical cliff; she’s actively pushing us back from letting her near the edge.  Siri is not interested in being tempted.

King David could learn something from Siri.  The writer of Second Samuel provides many clues leading up to the climax of today’s Old Testament lesson to let us know that David is inching his way out of his safe zone, tip-toeing his way toward catastrophe.  “In the spring of the year,” Second Samuel says, “the time when kings go out to battle,” dot-dot-dot “David remained at Jerusalem.”  He sent out his whole army to fight the battles of Israel, but instead of accompanying them, he stayed on the home front.  He seems to say, “I’m strong enough to resist the ladies prowling the streets.  I’m not some undisciplined fool!  The women’s husbands may be gone, but I know they’re married.  That’s no problem for me.”

Then, late one afternoon, David struts around the porch of his palace, enjoying the scenery from the highest point in the city.  The passage continues, “He saw from the roof a woman bathing”–semi-colon–“she was very beautiful.”  Of course there aren’t semi-colons in ancient Hebrew, but it seems clear that he didn’t just accidentally glance and Bathsheba’s body flicker across his field of vision; he looked carefully enough to take in her beauty.  His gaze was intentional.  It was long enough to do harm to them both.

You know what comes next.  David finds he’s not strong enough to avoid temptation.  He’s edged himself up to the cliff, staying home from the battles, walking the roof at a particular time of day, looking intently at a beautiful, but private moment.

David thought he could handle the temptation that was cropping up in his life, but he out of his depth, and he refused to admit it until he’d gone so far to cover up his sin that he’d killed Bathesheba’s husband.

In the Gospel lesson today, we hear two well-known stories about Jesus’ ministry that tell us much about who he is.  But there’s something else revelatory about Jesus wedged between these two pericopes:  “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

The people had been fed, physically and spiritually from Jesus’ hand and he had healed their sick.  They realized, as the lesson says, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”  Having witnessed the work of the Promised One, having been in Jesus’ presence, they could think of no better thing than to have him rule them—just as the prophets of old had said that he would.

Though Jesus often tells crowds who surround him that an earthly ruler who would save the Israelite people from the hand of Rome is not what the prophets had in mind, in this instance, with the people so stirred up with his popularity, he runs away.  Jesus doesn’t stay to try to explain, allowing the mistaken people and their delusions of grandeur seep into his mind and heart, he turns his back to the adoring people and goes to the place where he often retreats when the crowds and the demands of ministry press in on him.  He goes to the mountain, and he goes by himself.

Jesus knows that the power of temptation is almost undeniable.  When he sees the first hint of temptation, Jesus does not stick around in order to fight the good fight or tell himself, “Hey, I don’t need to worry that I’m going to get a big head and fall off-course, I’m God!”  Sure, there are times in his ministry when he does stick around, but more often than not, John or Matthew or one of the other Gospel writers sticks in a sentence, “He went off on his own.”  Or “He left that place.”  Here, in between two famous miracles, Jesus takes time to check himself before he wrecks himself.  Jesus removes distractions, seeking stillness and God’s presence in order to remember his purpose on earth and to remind himself how to most faithfully and effectively carry out that call.  Filling our attention with God assures us that we won’t find ourselves out of our depth.  Temptation works to make things cloudy before our eyes—causing us to forget exactly what we are meant to be and to do.  As we allow our vision to fog we lose our way and end up mired in sin.

But really, it’s easy to notice when fog starts to collect, isn’t it?  Things like what Jesus and David faced are easy to guard against in our own lives—don’t think too much of yourself, and don’t think that you don’t need accountability.  But what if the fog has been collecting for your entire adult life?  What if the path is at so slight an incline that we can completely ignore the descent?

This is one of the questions that Peggy Noonan asks in her Wall Street Journal column this week entitled, “The Dark Night Rises.”  Noonan points out the evermore thrilling—evermore graphic—development of action movies in the last few decades.  Gradually we’ve moved from villains who are meant to be cautionary, but ultimately amusing, toward characters who are evil to their core, so dark as to intrigue, in some cases.  The power of these stories, these images, and these characters desensitizes the population to violence, such that children and young people—all of us, begin to see a more violent way of life as the norm.  She cites studies that prove that violent media, when exposed to children, produced children who engaged in more violent acts, hitting and fighting with their peers.

So, I wonder, what is so ingrained into our everyday habits that we haven’t even noticed that it has slipped into the realm of temptation and sin?

I close with words of G.K. Chesterton, from his hymn, “O God of Earth and Altar,” let us pray:

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!