Tearing Down or Building Up?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 6, 2022

All licensing is on file at the First Church office

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

One of the accounts I follow on Instagram is Bostonhomeinspectors.  The person who runs it posts photos of the things he sees when doing home inspections.  Sometimes the pictures of something old that still works… an ancient doorbell – pull on it and a wire pulls on a bell inside the house…. but more often, the pictures are startling – the dryer vent fan that exhausts onto a window screen, covering it with lint – and sometimes they’re downright dangerous – the leaking pipe dribbling down onto a junction box…. the deck supports that don’t actually touch the ground.

I’ve come to the conclusion that building a strong and safe building is about more than looks – those decks look ok, at least from a distance – but in fact they’re not the least bit safe.  And I’m convinced that house inspections are a really good idea. 

We’ve begun the Lenten season, the time set aside for us to do our own “house inspection”…. to look more intentionally about what we’re doing, how we’re living, what we’re making important, what we’ve put at the center of our world.

What does our house need to have?  Our Lenten prayer hymn will remind us  that the house we’re aiming to build will be one gathered by love, built to be safe for all.  It will be a place which practices forgiveness, where we can dream, and hope.  And above all, it will be a house where all are welcome.

One of the quotes for today is from Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone With the Wind.  GWTW  is an astoundingly clueless book about how noble white people were willing to give up everything, including their lives, to protect their way of life – a way of life that was self-indulgent, profligate, and build on the buying, selling, and working to death of Black people.  

Land, Margaret Mitchell writes, is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything.  Not only is she wrong in saying that, land is not the only thing in her make-believe world that matters.  For the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, land is not what’s important; land is the means to her end – which is to have what she wants when she wants it.  Being good, in her world, doesn’t matter.  Being kind, being just, showing mercy – none of those things matter.  Land matters, winning matters, getting her own way matters.  If you remember the story, at the end, Scarlett has lost everything – husband, child… 

Maybe the most striking thing about the story, read in this day and not when it came out, is how little anyone seems to understand about right and wrong, how unexamined their lives are.  

The life that is never examined is a life which all too easily can go astray.  And that’s why we have Lent, a time to examine our lives.

So, are there places where maybe instead of ramps or strong steps, we have stumbling blocks?  Are there places where maybe instead of an open door, we have one that only works from the inside out?   Have we allowed our understanding of the world to grow in this past year, or are we still holding on to the assumptions and expectations of an era gone by?

When I was a young girl, my family lived in Pennsylvania – and each summer we packed up and came up to my grandfather’s cottage on Martha’s Vineyard for a month.  If we left anything important at home, we either had to go without or my parents would have to spend money to buy something that they’d already purchased… and we didn’t really have enough money to spend it that way.

My mother started the packing process about 4 weeks before we left.  Our spare bedroom slowly filled with piles of summer clothes, sweatshirts, light jackets, socks…. towels, sheets, the right kind of soap and shampoo, and even cooking essentials.  And of course, it all had to fit in our suitcases and trunks.  Limited space meant she simply could not pack every single thing we owned…. some things would be left behind.  And every once in a while, if the process was skimped, something would get left behind, and we’d have to re-examine what we were doing.  I learned early that packing was not a process to be undertaken lightly, that it wasn’t to be rushed.

Likewise, Lent isn’t a process to be rushed.  I know how much simpler it feels if you can just make a list and check things off, but if we rush through the process of Lent, we’re like to find we’ve just given our spiritual homes a lick and a promise.  We’ll discover that we’ve overlooked some part of our lives that really needed to be examined.

If I had said, last month, our world was filled with overwhelming problems, you would have agreed.  And I think we’d all pretty much had it with all the bad around us…. we just wanted it all to end.  Instead, we cannot close our eyes to the ways in which our world has just gotten worse.  Yes, sure we can put our masks aside in many places where we had to wear them just a little time ago.  And we’re safer going out in crowds than we were last month.  But last month there was no war in the world; this month there is.

This month there is war, and moreover, war which bring to our minds echoes of other wars; those echoes ratchet up our own fear.  We stare with horror at the tv stories of people fleeing Ukraine; or the photos of buildings going up in flames.  Our hearts break…   We want to do something to help, we wish we could make it all better…  Now this coming week, we’ll publish a list of places which are organizing help – with local connections, from our denomination, and other groups – and today we have sunflowers – the national flower of the Ukraine – in our worship space.  Some of us wear blue and yellow colors, some of us have posted those colors on Facebook pages and other places.  

Some of those things might seem insignificant, but none of them are.  Every step we take matters because we are not alone.  As we stand up for Ukraine, we join a great throng all over the world.

It is for this work of solidarity that Lent prepares us.  This year, the work and the preparation for the work will go along together.  This is no year for quiet withdrawal from the world for the next six weeks, but it is a time for us to search our hearts, and in the searching, prepare for the joy of Easter.

Let us get ready!


© 2022, Virginia H. Child