Sunday, March 1, 2020

First Sunday in Lent

"Highs and Lows"

Rev. Dr. Scott Landis

Romans 5:12-19 & Matthew 4:1-11

When my kids were young, we had a nightly ritual that we practiced along with our prayers at bedtime each evening without fail. We called it “Highs and Lows.” Each one of us had to come up with at least one “high” and one “low” that we experienced that day. The “highs” were easy: “I met a new friend, Jimmy gave me a cupcake, I got an A in spelling.” The “lows” were often resisted – as if “lows” were somehow bad and shouldn’t happen to us – or we didn’t want to admit that they were occurring. “Johnny kicked me in the shins, someone stole my favorite pen, I got a D in spelling.”

I would often tell the kids that our “lows” were just as important as the “highs” – that we can learn from them and they somehow make the “highs” seem so much better. Of course, they thought I was crazy. “Who wants any “lows? We want more ‘highs!’”

I thought a lot about that this week as I revisited this story in the life of Jesus. If you were present last week, you heard a beautiful message recounting a tremendous high that Jesus experienced as he, along with three of his disciples, went up a tall mountain and was transfigured before them. As Matthew records, “His face shown like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.” Just like when he was baptized, God spoke once again, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!

Well, Peter, James and John had some pretty impressive “highs” for their ritual that night!

But in the very next verse Matthew continues, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In other words, Jesus goes from a tremendous high to a life-crushing low.

Yet, he deals with his “dark night of the soul” in an incredibly self-aware manner. Reciting scripture to the devil he responds to each “Temptation”

Provide for yourself
Let’s see if God provides
Let ME provide for you
God is the only true provider
My faith means I don’t have to test God
Nope! Not gonna happen. Get away from me

It’s much more elaborate than that, and we could spend hours parsing each one of these individual temptations, but what is really going on here? In a nutshell, Jesus is saying to the devil – AND to us – God has got this! He trusted the God who called him beloved – the voice of the one present at his baptism. The voice of the one who was with him on the mountain. The same God who was there during those tremendous “highs” is the one whose abiding presence was right there – with him in time of trouble – during the “lows.” And when he acknowledged that, as Matthew concludes this story, in the place of the devil, angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs. In other words, God’s Spirit was right there – and God wanted nothing more than to take care of Jesus – to provide PRECISELY what he needed. [Pause]

Now, you may not put a lot of stock in angels and devils and cosmic battles in the wilderness as Matthew describes in his gospel, but I wonder if that really misses the point. I wonder if this powerful story – taken literally or not – doesn’t have much more to do with the way we relate to God in our own, everyday lives. Perhaps Jesus was attempting to demonstrate an incredibly important lesson regarding how we go about our lives in both our highs and our lows.

Just like my kids proclaimed – we want more “highs.” Highs are fun. It’s great when everything is going just like we want or just like we have planned. That’s how the first few days of our life began here on Maui – that is until I had to spend day 4 in the dreaded Department of Motor Vehicles. Suffice it to say – it was NOT a high.

How do we respond in such situations? When things run amok or go in a very different direction than we had in mind? Do we rely upon God or do we try and go it alone, under our own strength, with our own power? I won’t tell you how I responded at the DMV after waiting over 2 hours only to be sent away because I didn’t have the necessary document to register my vehicle. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t my finest moment.

All kidding aside – let’s focus on here – and now – Keawala’i United Church of Christ on March 1, 2020. Last week as Ellen shared her heart, she gave us all a tremendous gift of pastoral care – reminding us of the importance of this ohana – how it has survived for over 185 years and will continue to do so long after we are gone. But she did not shy away from the reality of this present moment – a moment she described as a “monumental shift” and one that for some may feel like a huge “low.” The love that she and you have for Kahu Alika was palpable in that moment – and is as it should be. He loved you with his whole heart. Pastors don’t know how to live any other way. And, I realize, his transition to retirement will be very difficult for many to accept. It’s the down side of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in relationships of mutual love.

What makes it all the more difficult for you and for him is that we abide by a covenant in the UCC which insists that pastor and parishioners are to separate for a period so that the congregation can move on and prepare for your next Kahu. That’s the work that I have been called to do. It will not be easy, but trust me – God has got this. In fact, I believe, God is already preparing the one who is eventually to come and be your settled pastor. I just hope God takes his good old time doing so because I love it here. But that’s God’s business.

So, this may feel like a “low” – a devastating “low,” but I promise to do everything I can to support each one of you as we walk this road together. However, this will not be of my own doing. Let’s take a page from Jesus’ playbook. What did he do in his “low?” He certainly did not rely on the expertise of an interim pastor. No! He placed his total reliance on God – he depended fully on the one he knew was with him in his “highs” and “lows.”

Randy and I, along with Will and Grace are thrilled to be with you as we walk this phase of our lives together. I can hardly believe God has called us to this wonderful slice of paradise to begin a whole new phase of my ministry. We will both make mistakes as we do this – nobody is perfect. Try as I might, I am sure I will murder the Hawaiian language in ways that may offend folks mercilessly even as I try my best to wend my way through the liturgy. And I am sure I will say some things that may make your heart stop – well, only temporarily. Remember, I am from California. But hear this loud and clear, I already love you and we have felt nothing but that same love in return. Your aloha to us has been overwhelming. I cannot stop smiling. Or as the familiar song goes, “How can I keep from singing?” [Pause]

Today we begin the season of Lent. Lent is a time of personal reflection. A time of preparation. A time to be still, sober, and to become increasingly self-aware of the presence of God in our lives. Lent invites us to walk into the darkness (our lows) and simply “BE” with them for a while. As Ellen reminded us last week – to NOT be afraid, because God is there. God has got this. Eventually we will learn from the situation in which we find ourselves and we will look back in amazement and understanding as transition moves into transformation. Hope will be restored and renewed vision for the future will emerge.

When the kids and I would finish our “highs” and “lows” we always added one more element to the nightly ritual. We always ended with the question, “What are you most looking forward to tomorrow?” [Pause] Maybe we ought to keep that in mind during this holy season of transition. After all – even though we must walk through Lent - we are Easter people.

Mahalo ke Akua

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