You can listen to the whole song referenced in the sermon here.
Every Sunday in Lent, I’m tackling one of the five values of our church that we decided upon on our all-church retreat last month. Today, it’s the value that came in first when we voted: “sacrament.” We’re a sacramental congregation that roots its life in baptism and communion. I think we go further than that, though. You see, sacrament, to me, in the truest sense, is when the holy manifests itself in things that we can see and touch and taste and feel. A hug can be sacramental, and so can a conversation. So can a story.
In the stories of Jesus, we hear our story. And this Gospel story is no different. Let me explain by way of a relatively new song released just this year.
The following is not from personal experience — it’s the lyrics to a song I’ve been jamming to lately that reminded me a lot of the Gospel text for today. It’s a confessional song by the band AJR, and it goes like this:
“Remember when we all got drunk?
I ended up with two broke thumbs
Oh my God, I felt so dumb — lucky me
I wrote a song that no one knows
I played a show and no one showed
Oh my God, I felt so alone, lucky me…
Remember when she broke my heart
Waitin’ for the waiter to return my card?
Right as I let down my guard — lucky me…”
The whole thing goes like that: almost heart-wrenching confessions of things that have happened in a person’s life to make them feel less than, small, ashamed. Bad days.
But despite how it sounds, you see, it’s not a sad song. The chorus concludes: “100 bad days made 100 good stories / 100 good stories make me interesting at parties / No I ain’t scared of you / No I ain’t scared of you no more!”
I don’t know who the songwriter means by “you” in that lyric. Maybe it was the girl that broke his heart, maybe his own shame, or maybe someone or something else.
But thanks to this Gospel reading, I’ve been thinking a lot about the devil when I hear it.
“100 bad days made 100 good stories / 100 good stories make me interesting at parties / No I ain’t scared of you / No I ain’t scared of you no more!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the devil and a lot about shame and how the two work together to make us quiet and scared.
Now, there’s no doubt that we in modernity have our doubts about the existence of a literal devil. You might, too. Some days I do; it depends. I’ve certainly heard enough stories as a pastor to make me at least question any unbelief I might have. The rest of my hanging on to the idea, of course, is made up of my experience paired with something I learned in seminary.
If you’ve been here before, you’ve likely heard me say it before. The name “Satan” — ha satan in Hebrew — means “the accuser.” Ha satan is the creature in the book of Job who subjects Job to all kinds of torture to make him doubt that God is really with him. I’m pretty sure evil still does the same to us today: accuses and weighs us down with shame, telling us that we are not lovable, and that we are defined by the worst moments in our lives. That our bad days don’t make good stories — that they make us bad people instead. Satan is none other than the voice in your head that might say “You think you’re just as good and holy as all these people sitting around you? I know better. You’re not who you say you are.”
Whether or not you believe in a literal Satan, you know about that voice. Often, it’s a voice that finds you when you’re all alone and everything is quiet. That’s when it gets to you. It’s even worse if you’re hungry or tired.
Today, after forty days in the quiet wilderness, hungry, alone, and tired, Jesus meets that voice, too.
The first word the devil says to Jesus is operative: if.
“IF you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
“What do you think you are, Jesus? Holy? Powerful? Feed yourself, then, if you are who you say you are.”
The next temptation is to power. “Tired of preaching all this ‘love your enemies’ stuff, Jesus? Tired of being a poor and homeless wandering teacher? You’re not the Son of God, come on. You could be actually powerful.”
And finally, the last one: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the temple in the middle of Jerusalem. Everyone will see and believe in you. I’m just trying to help you out here. Otherwise, no one will believe in you. You’re just going to end up another dead Jew in the Roman Empire. You know that, right Jesus? So if you are who you say you are, prove it. But you’re not.”
You know how the story goes. Jesus turns to Holy Scripture every time, rebuffing the devil and winning the day.
Unfortunately, we are not Jesus. “Of course Jesus actually is the Son of God,” you might think. “But me? You have no idea. I’m not holy.”
I hate to break it to you, but I’m not either. My shame list is just as long as yours, maybe longer. This is why I need confession. This is why I need the dusty road of Lent. Because just like that AJR song, confession and acceptance are the antidote to shame. “Tell the truth and shame the devil,” or so they say. To be able to tell the truth such that you can say to your past and the devil himself: “I ain’t scared of you no more.”
That’s how 100 bad days could possibly make 100 good stories, and 100 good stories make you interesting at parties.
Other confessions are in that song other than the ones I read, and many others fit, both heartbreaking and scandalous. It is an acknowledgment that we all have these things. Of course, I know: we all have plenty of stories we don’t tell at parties, or maybe to anyone, even when we don’t feel shame about them anymore. I get that.
The Church and many other holy places, like therapy or conversations with close friends, can help us begin to tell those stories to ourselves and others, make more sense of them, and heal.What I mean to say is that in these holy stories and these holy rituals and holy days, we can, if we know how to look, find our own stories redeemed.
We are, first and foremost, a sacramental congregation. These holy rituals and holy stories are our stories, not because of what we remember about them, but because of what we experience in our own lives. We all know that voice. And we all know the relief of confession — of finally telling someone your story after years of silence. We also know the relief of being heard and loved exactly as we are.
If we know the voice of Satan, the accuser, we also know the voice of God: the one that rings loud and clear when we are feeling most at home, most ourselves. Catholic theologian James Allison compares being in the presence of God to being in the presence of someone you’re certain adores you. You’re relaxed, you’re more funny, you’re more yourself. You’re at peace, resting in the gaze of someone of someone who loves you. That kind of love transforms us.
That’s the kind of love we meet at the table every single Sunday: of a God who shows up for us and transforms us. A God we can be certain adores us, warts and all.
It’s true: none of us is perfect, none of us is capable of rendering ourselves lovable. None of us is the Son of God, able to shoo away the shameful and shaming voices so quickly. We all know the voice of the accuser.
But here, we learn to hear the voice of God, too. The voice that tells you that you were created good. The one that tells you that you were created in God’s own image. The one that tells you that God loves you, and there’s nothing that you can do or have done or will do that will change that. Being loved will not save you from being accountable if you have hurt someone, but it can save you from being defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done. It can save you from shame and give you hope for a future in which you are good and you do good.
There’s this rumor going around that Lutherans don’t believe in works. That’s not true. We just believe that some other folks have it backwards. What we don’t believe is that we must work to earn God’s love. We don’t do better so that God will love us.
We are inspired do better because God loves us. When we humans are certain that we are loved, secure, healthy, and happy, we naturally become better.
Otherwise you’ve got a lot of people telling lies when they say that their spouse makes them a better person. Teachers and coaches, too, have known this for years: show a student or an athlete that they are already good and capable and smart, and they might just begin to act accordingly.
Love is a game changer.
It is the love of God that we find in the sacraments that transforms our 100 bad days into 100 good stories. And as we learned from AJR, 100 good stories make you interesting at parties. Or, at the very least, the love of God transforms those 100 bad days into 100 stories that don’t make us hide in shame anymore.
So tell the devil, the accuser with the shame-thrower: “I ain’t scared of you / No I ain’t scared of you no more.” Even if you remain a little afraid and a little ashamed, at least know that you don’t have to be.
Come to the table, invited by the one that sees everything you don’t want seen — your entire past, your most shameful moments, your bad days, and your Internet search history, everything that you would rather keep hidden — the same one loves you just as fiercely as ever.
We all need that kind of friend and advocate. Maybe that’s why the Gospel of John settles on a word for the Holy Spirit that means all kinds of things like that: friend, advocate, counselor.
This is sacrament: when love becomes tangible. When we experience God’s love not through some mental or spiritual out-of-body experience, but when we sense God’s love though things we can see, touch, and feel — water, bread, wine, words, and each other. When we understand and are understood, when we love and are loved, by God and by one another. That is what it means to be a sacramental congregation. But you knew that already. Because that is who we are.
Also worth noting: we are pretty interesting at parties. Amen.