Baptismal Living, part 4: Finding Rest in God

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 9), 2020.

“The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his Baptism,” taught Michael Ramsey, the late Archbishop of Canterbury. Responding to our baptism through all of life becomes disposition we have towards all of life, a fundamental attitude toward the world. The life of a Christian, in other words, means having a baptismal disposition, a baptismal attitude. Our baptism is not like the clothes we wear on Sunday when we head to our local parish church. We are not baptized people only on Sundays so we can hear a sermon and receive Holy Communion. Baptism, rather, is the garments of grace we wear seven days a week, not only on Sundays but Mondays through Saturdays as well as we go about our largely quiet and domestic lives—garments of baptismal grace we wear day in and day out, week in and week out, all the days, weeks, months, years, and decades of our life. The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of all this.

It was through responding to the fact of his own baptism that led Saint Paul to preach and teach. His journeys took him around the known world, planting Christian parishes everywhere he went. And what he planted were communities centered around baptism. And he taught them, as he teaches us, that through baptism, we are the Body of Christ, members one of another through Christ. The only way to grapple with this, and indeed the only way to live with the fact of baptism is, as Paul teaches us, to set our minds not on things of the flesh but to set our minds on the things of the Spirit and thereby live according to the Spirit. Setting our minds on the things of the Spirit and living according to the Spirit leads to life and peace. It allows us, in the words of Our Lord, to find rest for our souls. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” As an early Father of the Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote as a prayer to God in his book The Confessions, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in You.”

We might ask, why are we restless? What is the source of restlessness that Jesus, through the grace of baptism, desires to give us? Our Lord taught on this immediately after his baptism in the River Jordan by the hands of Saint John the Baptist. Our restlessness is rooted in temptations we face of the devil. Everyone faces them, and they seem part and parcel of the baptismal life itself.

He taught there are three kinds of temptations inherent in the baptismal life. The temptation Our Lord faced to command the stones become bread represents for us that temptation to seek security from things other than Our Lord. But we cannot find real security, Jesus teaches, anywhere but from “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

In addition to the temptation to security, there is the temptation to control. Our Lord was tempted this way on the pinnacle of the temple, to throw Himself down and control the angels to save Him. But we cannot control God—and likewise, we cannot control the world, or other people—and this is through Our Lord’s teaching “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” We are members of a Body other than our own: members of God’s Body, and He is always in control.

And then with the temptations to security and control, there is the temptation to need approval. Our Lord was tempted to need approval on the high mountain seeing all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, being giving these if He would fall down and worship the devil. Tempted to worship and serve approval, He said rather, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.” The Christian life, lived according to Our Lord, is often a life greatly disapproved by wider society, for disapproving society nailed Jesus to the Cross. When we worship and serve God, no matter what discord may be around us, God approves of what we are doing, and God gives us all the protection we need.

And so it is the need for security, control, and approval sought from sources other than Jesus leads to restlessness. Leads to anxiety. Leads to acting out against others with anger—without Christ, when our sense of security, control and need for approval are threatened we lash out, whether vocally or silently, against other people. This is the war Paul speaks of between the law of sin and the law of God. Being a baptized person means learning by His grace, how to come to Jesus and rest in Jesus. It means abandonment of ourselves to Him and His divine providence, His loving Hands, and His heavenly power.

On ‘Neither Shall You Touch’

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday in Lent, 2020.

We have now truly entered into the great season of Lent, after passing through the first four days of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Saturday, four days that are often called the “porch of Lent.” The analogy is apt: if we visit a friend out of town and upon arriving they meet us on the porch and because say it is a sunny summer afternoon you and your friend first hang out on the porch and spend time catching up, you have in a real sense arrived at your friend’s house in a meaningful way; and yet, much more emerges in your experience of the house after you finish on the porch and enter inside. The door to Our Father’s house has been opened by Christ on His Cross and we have responded to His invitation to cross the threshold and enter in.

As we reflected on Ash Wednesday upon the story of Jonah, I suggested that an apt characterization of Jonah was that he was a hot mess. He is a hot mess because he knows God’s will and yet is constantly resisting it; he is a hot mess because he knows God’s loving-kindness yet constantly overlooks it; he is a hot mess because despite constant evidence shown him that God’s power and glory reaches beyond time and space, such as should throw one into a sense of profound awe and selflessness, Jonah thinks primarily about himself, selfish and self-centered—not God-centered. And it was in interpreting the story of Jonah in these terms that I suggested that all of us are closer to being like Jonah—closer, that is, to being a hot mess—than we might care to admit. Brothers and sisters, admitting it, however, is to cross the threshold of the door opened to us by the Cross. And rather than praise the well-composed entryway or the beautiful living room of this house, the proper response as we enter into this great Lent is the response not of the Pharisee but of the Tax Collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, nothing qualified with caveats or comparisons to anyone else: the simple words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” which became through slight modification what the Church grew to call the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”), is the prayer of Lent, is the prayer of creature toward Creator.

The world around us confronts us not only with the beauty, truth, and goodness of God, but also with temptation after temptation. Temptations to all the capital sins: temptation to pride, envy, gluttony, covetousness, lust, sloth, and anger: these capital sins being the pattern that underlies all specific acts of sin. Adam and Eve were tempted by serpent, that is to say, the Devil taking the form of a serpent. And like Jonah, there is a clear sense overall in the narrative of the Adam and Eve’s sin with the fruit of the forbidden tree of both being well aware of God’s power yet reverting to self-centeredness. That is the basic lesson to be convicted by—we are more like Jonah, Adam and Eve than we care to admit. But there is another aspect I want us to consider.

That aspect comes when we notice a detail in the Genesis narrative that is easy to miss. The detail is what Eve adds in her dialogue with the serpent to the words first commanded by God to Adam. Eve tells the serpent that God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden,”—and then the addition, “neither shall you touch it.” God never said those specific words to Adam; He never said, “neither shall you touch.” Now, I think it is implied in what God told Adam: He told Adam he is not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and in order to eat of its fruit, one must touch the fruit and then bring it to one’s mouth. Eve adds this detail, and I think this demonstrates that she, like Blessed Mary, has been pondering God’s word, taking it to heart: not merely following an order like a robot but being a thinking human being, which is a great credit to her. She is stronger than Adam, which is why the Devil attacked her and not the man.

Eve’s fleshing out of God’s teaching brings to light truth that is useful to us as Christians facing temptation upon temptation: to notice something, to be aware of something, is not a sin. It’s the touching of it, the grabbing of it, that is the sin. Feelings, thoughts, emotions that come through our mind and heart, these are never sins. But when we touch them—that is to say, act upon them, follow through on the fleeting thought, feeling, or emotion either in word or deed—that is where the sin occurs. Eve noticing that the tree was good for good, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise—that’s not the sin. Noticing that another person is physically beautiful and attractive, for example, or that a material object would be nice to have and possess, these are not sins. “Touching them”—that is to say, committing adultery with that person (whether actually or as Our Lord teaches, even in our heart and imagination)—that is the sin. Or recognizing that new car or computer or jewelry or house would be nice to have, that is not a sin; touching these things, whether by actually stealing them or by improperly and unwisely spending money upon them that should have gone to something else—that is the sin.

Brothers and sisters, Our Lord knows that we will be faced by these temptations: the temptations to touch and grab hold of passing thoughts, feelings, and emotions that, if acted upon, are sins. And so He in His infinite love for us gives us the example of what to do: and again the method is simple—flee to Him. Bring Him to mind. And bringing Him to mind can also be through bringing to mind scripture as He did before the Devil. And this is why, in Lent as well as through the whole year, the Church exhorts us to regular and daily meditation upon the scriptures: that we will be equipped to confront temptations by our ability to flee to Christ as revealed in the scriptures. Because when we do so, the Church teaches that as they did for Christ, angels will come to us and minister unto us.

Homily: “On Temptations in Lent”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The First Sunday in Lent, 2019.

I ended my sermon for Ash Wednesday with these words: “We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentance.” The Church has entered Lent in dust and ashes, not as a sign intended to make us unnecessarily sorrowful or weak; not to force us to focus inordinately on our mortality—rather as a sign of our creatureliness in the face of a Creator Who is both tremendous and mysterious in His power—wholly other from us yet walking, talking, and dwelling among us—His nature being that of boundless love Who guides all things with His hands and causes the dawn to know its place and gave the clouds their garments, Who possesses us that we will be agents of His boundless love, and proclaim through our words and deeds God’s heavenly peace—that frees the captives and ennobles the poor and downtrodden—a heavenly peace that shines from the glorious cross and which transforms ordinary reality into sacramental reality—a universal message for all people that is captured in the simple yet radiant image of Mother and Son: because God chose to reveal Himself to the world in the arms of Mary.

This and so much more makes for the overwhelming way God manifests His glory. And the Church has taught, because it was revealed by God directly, that her members need to be overwhelmed by the mysterious tremendousness of God—not once, or twice, but constantly, all the time, even every day, and multiple times a day if possible. Because being overwhelmed by God is what called holy fear, and time and time again we find in the Scriptures the teaching that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And therefore it is the beginning also of repentance, and it is necessary for a holy Lent.

A good way to think about Lent—not the only way but a good way—is that it is like the walking down from the mountain that Peter, James, and John did with Jesus after the Transfiguration. It did not take them forty days to reach the bottom; maybe it took them forty minutes. But even as an analogy, why is this period of time a good way to think about Lent? It is because their shadows had been revealed in crisp detail, because that is what happens when we are close to the Light. Too often we think we have to struggle to find our shadows, digging tirelessly through our mind, our memories, to uncover our hidden sins—the Transfiguration story sets things properly: put ourselves close to Jesus, close to His Word, as close as we can to the Cross—and then in humility, abandon ourselves at His feet, that through our surrender, we listen. God will reveal to us our sins as we are able to bear the load of them upon our shoulders. God will handle that: our job is to sit at His feet like Mary Magdalene and listen.

It is a very curious thing that despite what must have been an astonishing experience beyond words—Jesus brighter than the sun with Moses and Elijah on His right and left—the Evangelists do not give us any details of the reactions of Peter, James, and John after the experience. It is another instance of what I have called “holy silence” by the evangelists where we would think detail would be abundant. How did these three disciples process this experience? We get an important clue from Saint Mark, and we see it when James and John ask to be on Christ’s right and left in His glory—ask, that is, to be just like Moses and Elijah were. It seems like a desirable place to be, and it is an understandable, and frankly admirable, thing to request of Jesus—and Jesus, far from admonishing them, simply says that such a request is not for Him to grant, but the Father. And perhaps Peter and John, after the Coming of the Holy Ghost later, winsomely chuckled about their request, admirable as it was for the time: because after all who ended up being on Christ’s right and left but the two robbers crucified with Jesus.

In an understandable way, nonetheless James and John (and we might presume Peter as well) did succumb to a temptation—such as Jesus was faced with in the wilderness when the Devil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory . . . If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” It is the temptation to prideful ambition with a dash of Envy thrown in, based fundamentally on a very human need for approval. And Jesus, in answering the Devil’s temptation, gives us the remedy whenever we might face such temptation to authority and power: the Scripture “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” We are to allow ourselves to be prostrate at the foot of the Cross as our service to God, and wait for Him to speak with us and tell us what to do. God in His Providence has all things in His hand, including a plan for us, and it is in His interest to make known to us His plan for our lives: our job is to come to Him in humility, surrender, and openness so that we can listen and learn how God approves of us, loves us, cares for us.

We are told by Saint Luke that the Devil addressed Jesus as “the Son of God.” Biblical scholars tell us that the term “Son of God,” despite how it rings in our ears, did not ring in the ears of the early Church the same way—it would have meant not the Second Person of the Trinity but rather the official representative of the historic faith of Israel—the significance of which might be startling: the Devil probably did not know quite who Jesus was. He addressed Our Lord by saying, “If you are the Son of God” something like “If you are a Prophet like Moses and Elijah and Isaiah.” Jesus, therefore, chose to go into the wilderness so that He could use the experience to teach more effectively His disciples the key aspects of overcoming the primary temptations in mature Christian life: the temptation to need security (the first temptation: magic for food in the stones turned to bread), to need approval (the second temptation: adulation by all), and to need control (the third temptation: commanding the angels to save Him from His fall).

In our lives, we face these temptations in every day ways, and in serious Christian life, they are heightened: the need for security, the need for approval, the need for control. But it is by meditating only on God’s holy words in Scripture that we can overcome these temptations. Because when we meditate on God’s holy words, we find Jesus. And when we find Jesus, we again realize that His boundless light is closer to us than our own breath.

Homily: “On Temptation”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017. The key moment in the episode in the Garden of Eden where Eve (and I think Adam as well) were with the serpent has do to with choice. What will Eve, speaking for Adam, choose? She starts out as God would have them be, repeating more or less perfectly the command God had given them: “You may freely eat of the every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Notice that God could have not created this tree in the first place. He could have put it somewhere else entirely. But God chose not to. So let us see that in the nature of reality, in the very order of creation, and in such order whereby humans are actively listening to Him—for we can and should understand Adam and Eve as being called by God and in all situations save one obedient to Him—God in the nature of creation has knowingly placed objects that tempt us. He intentionally puts things in our lives that He knows full well the sign to “keep out” can be a trigger to “go towards.” And think of all that tempts us. Yes, food, financial wealth, showy clothes, cars and houses—these are included of course. Celebrity, fame, attention—these are temptations. But being in control is also a temptation. Thinking we can lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps is a temptation. Or thinking other people can do that. Indifference to poverty is a temptation. Actually indifference itself is a temptation, for all things are interrelated as has been shown in several disciplines of science. And there is the temptation to deny that we are hurt when we actually are wounded. I do not mean physically wounded or hurt such as when we are sick or our body is not working correctly, but rather emotionally and psychologically hurt and wounded from a person taking advantage of us. I am talking about an instance of being verbally abused, of being psychologically abused; being humiliated, laughed at, deeply embarrassed, exploited for some one else’s gain. And on and on, including the truly evil situations such as rape and molestation. From the most tragic such as those to the comparatively less tragic but still incapacitating instances such as being humiliated—we are tempted at some point to acknowledge the wound, but not to acknowledge it fully. We get partway into the process of healing and then it starts to feel too difficult to continue to confront at its roots, so we are tempted to just say, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” We begin to “just live with it” before it has brought fully to the light of day. By living it with, I mean, trying to forget it. Brothers and sisters, our Lord Jesus Christ actively chose to confront the Devil in the wilderness so that we would always have confidence to do the same with our temptations. Christ declared war, sought out Satan, and laid a trap for him. Jesus, being God, and now fully knowing of His divinity—recall that the confrontation with the Devil in the wilderness happens just after Jesus emerged from the River Jordan hearing His Father and feeling the Holy Spirit anoint Him—fully knowing His divinity, He fought the Devil on our behalf. By His will, he choose a full-frontal attack in a cosmic campaign against temptation. Christ has won the battle for us, in the wilderness. And because He won, He is our weapon, His are our arms, He is our power. However wounded we are when we confront our temptations—which can only be approached, understood, and healed in prayer—we must always win because Christ has already won. We too must live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. We too must not tempt the Lord our God. And we too must worship the Lord our God and only Him shall we serve.  God knows we will be tempted, and will never stop being tempted. He wants us to know in our hearts and in our lives that the victory is already won—so that when we confront the depths of our wounds, we know our loving God wants nothing else but to give us the joy of His saving help again and sustain us with His bountiful spirit. Amen. The cover image “Temptations of Christ” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.