Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

God's work. Our hands.

Bookmark and Share


Falling into temptation

Apr 12, 2017

Bishop Rimbo preached this sermon during the annual Chrism Mass at Holy Trinity, Manhattan on April 12, 2017.



Dear Sisters and Brothers, I’m sure you remember every word of the sermon at last year’s Chrism Mass. I went into extensive detail about the pain and torture of physical therapy with Pyramus. I’m not going to repeat that except to say that the pain and torture continues and it’s OK, even getting better most days.


Today I want to talk about some of the realities we face as the baptized people of God and especially as rostered ministers as we gather to renew vows, receive absolution, and bless oils. And I want to do this in terms of Judas. We could use other characters from the Passion as portals to this but I think that our common tendancy to fall into temptation might offer a place for us to connect with him.


Poor Judas.


Chrism2017.003I have always had mixed feelings about him and how he apparently caved in to whatever tempted him. So, prompted by Judas, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between the version of the Lord’s Prayer I learned as a child and the version I much prefer now, the so-called contemporary version. Today I’m thinking particularly about the difference between "lead us not into temptation," which always troubled me as a kid and as an adult, because I wondered why God would do that, why would God lead us into temptation… and the vastly different "save us from the time of trial" which relates to an eschatological time of testing, I understand. That translation makes so much more sense for me, especially these days which some see as times of trial, these days right now, this Holy Week. "Save us from the time of trial" is what I need to pray. It’s what I do pray…a lot.


But it makes me think about temptation, which we honestly don’t think about too much.


Chrism2017.004I have a friend who speaks fluent Malagasy. A colleague in the Conference of Bishops. I will not attempt to say "temptation" in the Malagasy language because it remainds me of words my mother would not like to hear from my lips. I understand the term comes from two words literally meaning "to take" and "spirit". So, like Jesus, who was troubled in spirit, temptation is the taking of the spirit. Talk about a time of trial!


One could understand this taking of the spirit, this time of trial, in several ways. Temptation as something that takes one’s spirit from where it belongs. Or temptation as that which takes over one’s spirit – spirit possession. Either way, temptation and trial is always a matter of the spirit.


As I think about this life of ours within the church, and particularly this life as leaders within the church, I find myself asking: what is it that takes my spirit – that entices my spirit from where it belongs? What is it that takes over my spirit in a way that distracts me from what is true? That leads me at times to be troubled in spirit and to go in the direction Judas went, the way of treason and betrayal. We could spend the rest of the day answering that question.


But I want to bear witness to three ways this works in my life, and perhaps in yours.



One temptation in my life, one thing that "takes my spirit", is the lure of confusing my identity with my role, mixing up who I am with the ministry to which I am called, exchanging my being for my doing. I know some traditions hold that pastors undergo an ontological change at ordination. But I think that exchange of being and doing happens very easily in this work of ours. And given the way many of us are wired, this is a daily taking of the spirit. My spirit is taken from me when I begin to act as though "bishop" is who I am. It’s pretty evident when that happens because my sense of well-being is then determined by the whims of how people respond to "the bishop". Somebody’s happy with the bishop, the bishop’s happy. Somebody’s unhappy with the bishop, the bishop is unhappy and the person who is unhappy with the bishop is ––– well, let’s just leave it there. It’s rather simplistic I know, but tell me that the seductive lure of this identity confusion is unique to me – I don’t think so. It has happened too often, for you, too… Nine out of ten people walk out of worship and compliment you on the sermon.The one who complains about it is the one who gets all your energy, robbing you of your post-liturgy nap. Dozens of emails come across your screen but the one negative message especially when received late in the evening causes anger, defensiveness, loss of sleep. We want people to like us, and "us" is defined by the role we play. And so we who are leaders live in this constant state of tension around how people will react to what we do – because the spirit of who we really are has been taken from us, taken over by this false notion.


I know of no other way to respond to this than to allow myself to be plunged back into the waters of the font, where my spirit is renewed and restored, where my true identity is assured and proclaimed: Child of God. Beloved. Sealed by the Holy Spirit. Marked with the cross of Christ forever. When this is my identity, I can do the work to which I’m called with my spirit in tact.


Chrism2017.006Another temptation that takes my spirit is what one of my spiritual directors described as attachment to the outcome. He said it this way: Attaching yourself to the outcome, any outcome, will kill you. This will surely sntach your spirit.


And it’s a hard one to avoid. Let’s be honest: when we in the church start putting our hopes in successful outcomes, our spirits are easily lured into that place where we think we are the actors rather than remembering that we are but the broken but blessed vessels with which God acts.


I know this sounds like I am bad-mouthing amazing work like our Synod’s Strategic Plan. I’m not.


Yet we live in a culture that values "success" as the ultimate measure of meaning, which traps us in outcome attachment. I know of nothing that can free me from this prison of my own making other than a Lord who consistenly and persistently promises only one thing. Not a successful outcome, but God’s faithfulness, divine faithfulness that takes the shape of a cross, divine faithfulness placed into my open, outcome-empty hands in the form of bread and wine.


And when that promise of divine faithfulness lands within me again, my displaced spirit comes home. And I can engage in strategies and plans of all kinds, knowing the truth: the outcome was never mine to own. What is mine is a grace that is more than sufficient, what is mine is the assurance of a power made perfect in weakness. What is mine is an invitation to take the next faithful step.


Chrism2017.007A third spirit-dislocating temptation I experience is evidenced in the weariness I feel when I lament how our people –whether our rostered ministers, synodical deacons, or congregational members – "just don’t get it". The temptation here in this time of trial is the notion that somehow I get it, and that "getting it" is the most important criteria for relationship. Such a sentiment sets me up for "us versus them" and assumes that people who I think don’t get it are evil or at best intentionally ignorant, and that my job is to "get them on board". In this, my spirit is taken from that cradle of Christ’s love planted within me by the Holy Spirit, and placed into the slingshot of my own cynical judgment. And the result is a sense that the ministry to which I’m called seems enduringly thankless. You know what I’m talking about.


The only thing I know to help my wandering spirit return to its home of love from this wilderness of judgement is gratitude. Call it, Making Eucharist. Gratitude for the God who loves us when we get it and when we don’t, gratitude for the Holy Spirit who calls us into community not to judge but to learn and grow, gratitude for our Lord who binds "us" and "them" together into a holy "we," anointing us with the oil of gladness. Gratitude – giving thanks.


I’m convinced that all those things we typically describe as tempations are simply symptoms of a life in which your spirit or mine has been taken – taken away or taken over by attitudes, mindsets and habits we think are "normal" but in fact are signs of our captivity to sin itself.


The good news is that while spirit-taking, temptation itself, call it sin, is unavoidable, it is not and never can be the final word. This week reminds us, sisters and brothers, that at the end of the day, your spirit and mine can never be taken beyond the reach of the one whose nail scarred hands embrace us in a love that simply will not let us go. A love that will not let you go. Ever. Ever.




disaster relief
Connect and Share on Facebook

mnys is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

© 2011 MNYS. All Rights Reserved.

Web site design and development by Americaneagle.com