It turns out that a spirituality of subtraction can be empowering. When we hit the pause button in our lives, we realize that we have gotten attached to some things that are not appropriate, not life-giving, not interesting to us, not helpful to others. And so it helps to sit down and go through all of that. 

The earliest followers of Jesus went to the desert because they wanted to get away from all of that, they wanted clarity about who they were, before God. They wanted to take off their masks, and spend time with their Father who heard them in secret. This may be clear, but let us all confess that this is not easy. 

The Old Testament lesson for the first Sunday in Lent (told in Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:1-7) is about a man, a woman, and a snake. Many have dismissed the story long ago, because we read it literally and wonder now if there really was a snake or a garden. But in dismissing the story we miss the core truth that the rabbis wanted us to learn: The temptation is for us to be "like God,” to put ourselves in the place of God, to make idols of ourselves, to imagine that we have no limits. The desire to be God is the primal temptation.

For Christians, this is compounded with the idea of a "messiah complex,” which creeps into the lives of men and women, especially educated, accomplished people, people like you; a messiah complex which reinforces the belief that you can do it all. That can be a powerful temptation for us.
Most of us are far better at addition than subtraction.
So what does it mean to give that up? The first of the twelve steps is clear: Our lives had become unmanageable. And the second: We came to believe in a higher power. We cannot do it all. The temptations of Jesus are to do it all: Turn stones into bread, throw himself from the temple, preside over all the kingdoms of the world. Henri Nouwen identifies these as the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. And then he asks: Can we, like Jesus, lay them down?

A spirituality of subtraction. To lay down these temptations is to confess that there is One God, as our Jewish friends say, and we are not God; it is to trust more deeply in the One who is the creator, remembering that we are the creature. It is confess our sin, acknowledge our brokenness, admit our powerlessness and identify our limitations. It is to make a list of everything we are doing and ask ourselves, "Why am I doing this?" It is to confront our finitude and our mortality. We are dust and ashes. 

Most of us, or at least many of us, are not motivated to change our lives until there is a crisis. It may be working for us, the desire to do it all. It may be working for us, the economy of consumption. We may be superman or superwoman. It may be working for us, the way things are going right now. If this is true, then this sermon, these scripture passages, Lent itself may just be so much background noise. 

But if it is not, there is a long and deep tradition of wisdom that gives us another way. It is all about simplicity and subtraction.

The physician Paul Farmer, a native of Brooksville, Florida, and a graduate of Duke, reflecting on the practice of medicine among the desperately poor in Haiti, called this “the long defeat,” borrowing from Tolkien. When Jesus says no to the offerings of the Tempter, he casts his lot with us. He does not cling to privilege but empties himself (reread Philippians 2). Before the cross is victory it is self-denial, letting go. The mystics called this purgation.

And so we begin 40 days of spring cleaning, the great purge. It is about loving what is worthy of our devotion and letting go of all that is not. It is about a radical trust and dependence on the God who meets us in the dry and disorienting places, the desert places along our path. It is about a higher power who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, whose grace is amazing.

Augustine said it well: "God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

I conclude with a prayer from my teacher and advisor at Duke, Tom Langford, Dean of the Divinity School and later Provost of the University.

“O God, your intention to give exceeds our readiness to receive. Your boundless love is restricted by our small vessels. Your generosity far exceeds our responding reception. Your richness is restrained by our poverty of expectation. Your expansiveness is channeled through our small hearts.  Enlarge our capacity. Increase our receptivity. Open us to your full life. Make us more able to receive your generous grace. Amen.”

Rev. Kent Carter
Bishop, Florida Conference, United Methodist Church

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A Caved-In Birdcage

I have always been a fan of the wisdom and wit of Paul Harvey, one of the great American radio broadcasters, who died in 2009. One Easter season, a number of years ago, he related a story told by the renowned preacher, Rev. S. D. Gordon, to his congregation.

“An unkempt, unwashed little lad of 10 years old was coming up the alley swing the old caved-in birdcage with several tiny birds shivering in the floor or it. The compassionate Dr. Gordon asked the boy where he got the birds. The little fella said that he trapped them. Dr. Gordon asked what he was going to do with them. The boy said he was going to play with them and have fun with them.

“The preacher then said, ‘Sooner or later you’ll get tired of them. Then what are you going to do with them?’ The lad said in response, ‘I’ll have some cats at home. They like birds. I’ll feed them to my cats.’

“Dr. Gordon said, ‘Son, how much do you want for the birds?’ The boy, surprised, hesitated and said ‘Mister, you don’t want these birds. They’re just plain old field birds. They can’t even sing.’

“The preacher said, ‘Just tell me: how much do you want for them?’ The grubby little lad thought about it. He squinted up one eye. He calculated and hesitated and then said ‘two dollars?’ To his surprise, Dr. Gordon reached into his pocket and handed the boy two one-dollar bills.

“The preacher took the cage. The boy, in a wink, hurried up the alley with his new- found treasure. In a sheltered crevice between the two buildings, Dr. Gordon opened the door to the cage and tapping on its rusty exterior, he encouraged the little birds, one at a time, to find their way out through the narrow door and fly away.”

During the time that Rev. Gordon was sharing this story to his congregation from the pulpit, alongside him was an empty battered birdcage—the one that his story accounted for.
Next, the preacher went on to tell what seemed, at first, to be a different story. In the second story, once upon a time Jesus and the Devil were also engaged in a negotiation. Satan boasted that he had baited a trap in Eden’s Garden, and caught himself a world of people. 

“What are you going to do with all those people in your cage?” Jesus wanted to know. The Devil said, “I’m going to play with ‘em, tease ‘em, make them marry and divorce, and make them fight and kill one another. I’m going to teach them to throw bombs at one another. Why, I’m going to have lots of fun with them!”

Jesus then said, “You can’t have fun with them forever. When you get tired of playing, what are you going to do with them?” Satan said “Kill them! They’re no good anyway! Kill them!”

Then Jesus asked, “How much do you want for them?” Satan said, “You can’t be serious! If I sell them to you, they’ll just spit on you. They’ll hate you. They’ll hit you, and beat you. They’ll hammer nails into you. They are no good!”

Jesus looked right at Satan. He asked “How much?” once again. Satan responded, “All of your tears and all of your blood—that’s the price.”

Jesus took mankind’s cage. He paid the price and opened the door!

“God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21. “But God demonstrates His own Love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8.

Beloved, think and reflect on these things.

In His Love & Service,
Pastor Merritt
Christ Is Risen
During a time when picketing was very popular, a cartoon appeared showing some young people carrying signs perfectly blank, empty signs. A friend, laughing with me, asked, “What would you write on the signs?” And I responded, “I would write on those empty placards, CHRIST IS RISEN.”

This proclamation isn’t just an event that we celebrate on Easter Sunday. It is our Christian battle cry! 

Peter Gomes put it this way: “Easter is not a morning for artful arguments, subtle distinctions, the stuff of seminars. Not a bit; it does not creep up on us on little cat feet like the fog. Easter is confrontational; you are hit in the face by it. Confrontation of the highest order. Nature itself is overwhelmed, nature is contradicted, for an earthquake is not a gentle dawn and Christian faith begins not with a whimper or an argument but with a bang. It is God’s intention to get our attention, and he does”.

This reminds me of the story that was told in the Book of John 20. “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple.”

The little company of women who were last at the cross came first to the tomb. But they were not the first. Life was there first; hope broke out of the tomb before they came. Two days before they had known the gloomiest day of their lives; today they know the happiest, for Easter is the happiest day of all the world.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. 

Rev. Dr. Walter, E. Monroe, Jr.  
District Superintendent, South Central District