STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 28, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Palm Sunday
Call to Worship
L: Jerusalem, at last! We join the crowd streaming to the mountain. We watch Jesus approach on a lowly donkey. We hear the crowds cry “Hosanna!”
P: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
L: There is a joyful song in the air: the people cheer and the palms wave. But the adulation of the crowd is shallow.
P: Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna to the blessed of God. Son of David, save us now.
L: The crowd grows—the people want to be part of something important.
P: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
L: Let us pray.
All: God of all times, we have followed Jesus into the crowded city. We too want to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Reveal to us what true glory, leadership and obedience look like under your reign. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
Hymn: All Glory Laud and Honour
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Lord Jesus, you are present, you are real, you are truth, you are life. We worship you.
Today we join our hearts with the disciples, the crowd and even the stones to shout your
You are King.
You are Messiah.
You are the one who brings peace.
We lay ourselves at your feet.
We glorify you, for you are God.
We confess that we do not always see you these ways.
As our King, we do not obey you.
As our Messiah, we do not turn to you for salvation, but in our pride we seek continuously to save ourselves.
As the one who brings us peace, we do not embrace the offer of reconciliation. We run from God, unable to confess our sin. We feel justified in our broken relationships with others. We are fragmented, filling many roles. We even avoid ourselves, preferring to see and be the masks we wear.
Hosanna. Save us now.
As we begin our worship, we give thanks for every person that is joining in and pray your blessings on one another.
In our worship of you, may you be exalted. May you be honoured. May you be glorified. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Isaiah 49: 4, 8 & 5
“I’ve worked for nothing.
I’ve nothing to show for a life of hard work.
Nevertheless, I have devoted myself to God’s work.
I’ll let him pronounce his verdict.”
God says, “When the time’s ripe, I answer you.
When victory’s due, I help you”.
What an honor for me in God’s eyes,
that God should be my strength!
Prayer for Illumination:
Holy God, we spend our lives chasing after the wind. Speak to us your Word so that we may
be grounded in Christ and faithful to your will. Amen.
1 Samuel 16: 4 – 7
Ecclesiastes 1: 1 – 4
Luke 19: 29 – 40
Message: Unchallenged Sin: Vanity
What do you think of when you hear the word “vanity”? If you’re like most people, the first word that comes to mind is conceit. Vain people are those who are obsessed with their looks. But vanity takes many forms. During Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds greeted him with shouts of “hosanna” and declared him to be the messiah, the Pharisees were indignant. They called out to Jesus demanding that he get the crowd under control and shut them up. Jesus responded, “If they kept quiet, the stones would do it for them, shouting praise” (Luke 19: 40). In other words, worship was going to happen on this day, and it would be futile to try to stop it. If the people did not worship him, inanimate objects would rise up to shout his praise. Any attempts, even by Jesus himself, to end the celebration would be in vain.
Like most individuals, it’s not that the Church doesn’t recognize or speak of vanity, but like many sins, we’ve reduced vanity to a lightweight, moral shortcoming. Vain people are conceited, and that’s bad. The Church discourages people from thinking about our appearance too much or over-spending on outward status symbols. We may go as far as to think vanity is an attack on modesty, but then, modesty isn’t a value that’s high on the Church’s list these days, either. But vanity is much more than that. It isn’t that the Church doesn’t speak against vanity, it’s just that we don’t see it or name it for what it is.
As with most sins, vanity takes various forms. Some of us are vain in the traditional sense of the word. A woman confessed to her priest, “I’m guilty of the sin of vanity.” The priest asked, “Why do you think that?” The woman explained, “Whenever I glimpse myself in a mirror, I think about how beautiful I am”. The priest said, “Don’t worry, that’s not a sin, it’s a mistake.” Emphasis is put on youth and beauty. Ironically, the older I get, the more my vanity comes to the fore. When we’re young we take our looks and strength for granted. Part of the aging process is coming to terms with the loss of our physicality, which can also include our grey matter. We who once thought ourselves clever are watching reruns of TV shows we can’t remember. The upside is: we get to enjoy them 3 or 4 times.
As on Palm Sunday, when the crowd’s worship was even out of the control Jesus, vanity can refer to futility. To be vain is to be ineffective. Harry, Dan, and Stu, dreamed of becoming rich. One day, after hearing of the long-lost treasure of the dread pirate, Wesley, they set out on a treasure hunt. Eventually, they found a cave and ventured in. Sure enough, at the deepest part of the cave, they found a large sepulchre surrounded by vast treasures. As they filled their bags, the door of the sepulchre burst open and an ancient, eery coffin floated out. From it came a rotting hand stabbing the air with a dagger. The men shrieked, grabbed their treasure, and ran from the cave. Years passed and the men enjoyed their wealth to the fullest. One day, Harry was staring out of his mansion window and noticed the coffin, with the dreadful hand still stabbing the air, floating toward his home. Harry shouted for the doors to be locked and grabbed his prized elephant gun. His efforts were in vain. Nothing stopped the coffin. It attacked Harry, and the life faded from his eyes. Dan heard about Harry’s death, so he hired guards for protection. Soon enough, Dan saw the coffin coming for him and sounded the alarm. The guards locked the doors and opened fire on the coffin, but it didn’t stop! Seeing the vanity of their efforts, the guards fled and soon Dan too was dead. Stu hearing of the deaths of his two friends, built a barricade and planted landmines. But his attempts were also in vain. The coffin plowed through the wall, floated over the landmines, busted down Stu’s door and headed towards him. Stu, fled to his bathroom. Soon he heard the swish of the dagger. The door came crashing in. In a final attempt to save his life, Stu opened the medicine cabinet and threw a package of Halls lozenges. The coffin stopped.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, probably King Solomon, did a review of his life accomplishments. Everything felt like vanity; nothing proved worthwhile – not his work, his education, his pleasures, his real estate, his land development, his power, his wealth or his entertainments. He concluded that the earth keeps spinning, nothing changes, nothing is new, and we all die. Beyond futility, life was vain in the sense of empty or meaningless, and it left him in a state of despair.
Vanity becomes evident when the things we rely on prove false. Our savings are wiped out by a recession. Our vision of how life should unfold, doesn’t work out. People who don’t smoke, still die. Instead of living happily ever after, we fall out of love and into reality. Our latest vanity may be around the safety and efficacy of the long awaited CoVid 19 vaccinations. Experts tells us, don’t stop wearing that mask yet, the variants may be stronger than we think.
Speaking of masks. All vanity involves the wearing of masks, not physical ones but spiritual ones. As with cloth masks, we wear spiritual masks to protect ourselves. Masks allow us to present the “me I want to be” to the world, instead of the “real me”, the me I am in Christ. Our masks become so much a part of us that often we can’t tell our false self from our true self, or as Paul would say, “our old Adam nature, from our new Adam nature.” Richard Rohr in his book Immortal Diamond speaks of the characteristics of the false self. The false self is an identity we create. It is bogus, fake and phoney. It’s inherently needy and fragile. It lives from the outside, in. It is individualistic and self-protective. The false self is stuck, trapped and addicted to being what it is. When it grows dissatisfied, as it always does, it reinvents itself, but the reinvention is just another mask, another form of our false self. It is a superficial change, not a deep inner transformation. It is also temporal, rather than eternal, it will die. It must die in order for what is real to be brought to life. Yet, it’s our vanity that keeps that new life from happening because our vain, false self does everything it can to avoid change and stay “alive”. Vanity goes to the heart of the gospel. Vanity prevents us from “going into the ground and dying” (John 12: 24); it is the old wineskin that can’t stretch to contain new wine (Matthew 9:17); it is the inflexible, angry heart of stone that abhors change and needs a transplant (Ezekiel 36: 26). Vanity is all the illusions that prevent us from “being born from above” (John 3: 3) and becoming our true “child-of God” self in Christ.
So, what types of vanity impact your life and how? Vanity is futility. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Ineffectiveness may be a sign that we’re relying on our own strength, rather than on God “for whom all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). It is our ego that tricks us into self-reliance, giving us worldly success in place of Christ’s eternal victory.
Like Solomon, vanity causes us to “buy into” the empty, transitory things “the world” claims are real and will bring fulfillment. (To distinguish “the world” from God’s creation, Rohr uses the term “the system”, in it’s place.) Solomon never says his list of accomplishments are bad or sinful, only that they are illusory. All he had and had done didn’t satisfy the emptiness within him – in fact, they made it worse. Emptiness or angst may be a sign that we are chasing after lesser things than God has planned for us; outward things we think will make us impressive or happy, but do not. The outward things we think will give us value, do not. We can’t do our own will and God’s as well. We cannot chase after the self-image and outward life we desire and serve the risen Christ. However, there’s also a gift hidden in this type of vanity. When we reach the point of discomfort or depression due to despair or a loss of meaning, it may send us on a spiritual journey seeking the things that do make life meaningful. Perhaps we will learn that a life of attaining and achieving is hollow; our meaning is found in our acts of service. We may learn that it is not the admiration and loves of others that gives us value, but our ability to love. And we may learn that we’re not our accumulations or accomplishments are not who we are, they are not “me”. Our identity is found in Christ. We are of value because we are children of God.
Vanity causes us to put our trust in the passing things of this world, instead of in the saving grace of Christ. While a certain amount of trust in people and institutions is needed to get by in life, we also recognize that those things will, eventually, in one way or another, let us down. The “system” doesn’t come with guarantees. To trust in this world is to trust in something that is inconsistent and mutable. The “system” is deeply shadowed. It is a “death culture” designed to pull us down. To trust in Christ is to trust in a person who is unchanging in love and forgiveness and to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, a system that is transcendent, life-giving and eternal.
Vanity is a form of conceit. Conceit leads us to think too much of ourselves, too often and too highly. Vanity is the self- admiration of the masks we wear, the worship of our false selves. It helps us cling, to the “me” that dodges the light of Christ, through which the Holy Spirit calls us to repent and gives birth to our new, real self. Instead, we make a Star of our superficial, idealized self and we can’t let it go. It is equally vain to admire the masks of others; the outward things people build their sense of self upon. Whether it is self-admiration or envy, vanity is a form of idolatry. In the passage we read today from 1 Samuel 16, King Saul had disobeyed God, out of fear for his role and status as king. His vanity led him to make a sacrifice, hoping to buy God’s favour. Saul chose to put God and God’s will aside and do what he thought best for himself – he became his own god. So, God tells the prophet Samuel it is time to anoint a new king and directs him to go to the house of Jesse. Samuel sees Jesse’s eldest son, Eliab, a fine-looking, strapping young man and assumes this is God’s chosen one. But God stops him saying, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16: 7). Samuel goes through all of Jesse’s sons until he lands on David. The scripture is quite clear that David is also a fine specimen of a masculinity. So, why take him over Eliab? God was looking for “a man after God’s own heart”. What is meant by this? Someone who would love and trust in God. David wasn’t a fully mature, spiritual man. His moral failings were many. One of the things we have been taught to fear, and for which our vain, false self strives, is to never stumble, fail or fall. The false self is humiliated when others see it’s underbelly. But we do not climb up to become our true self; we fall into who we really are, by grace “it is not our own doing, so no one can boast” (Ephesians 2: 8). We become our true self through crucifixion. David knew himself to be loved by a powerful, trustworthy, merciful God who looks on the heart. God knew that David would be true to him. Rather than being caught up in our own masks or those of others – whether they be looks, status, wealth or education – our true self looks on the heart.
What does God see when he looks on your heart? Does he see someone making insincere sacrifices and building resentments? Someone addicted to their preferred way of thinking who leaves no room for the transformation of the Spirit? Someone striving after things that are illusory or clinging to things that are passing? Or perhaps he sees a spirit crushed by pointlessness. Or maybe he sees a life that is full but a heart that is empty. In speaking to God, St. Augustus said, “Late I have loved you, Beauty so very ancient and so ever new. You were within, but I was without.” Put another way, it is not God who is absent, it is we who are absent from ourselves. When we put our energy into ineffective, superficial, outward symbols of success or live from a vain, empty, shallow image of who we want to be, we are absent from our true self. Everything is outside ourselves – except God. Have you vacated the space where you are meant to live? If so, it is time to “give up all world’s except the one to which you belong”. To put away childish, vain things. To come into the light where your true self will be revealed and discover what it truly means to be a child of God, united with Christ in a death and resurrection like his. When we do, we discover that our lives and our worship are not in vain.
Silent Prayer and Reflection
God, we bring money to you today. We behave as if it is ours, but we know it is yours.
Whatever we are or have or do fades away. Only the saving work of Christ and your kingdom
will remain. Use this money now so we may glimpse your kingdom on Earth. Amen.
Hymn: In Christ Alone
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Creator of the universe, Redeemer of all creation,
We thank you for making a good world, filled with order, balance and beauty.
We thank you for making each one of us. For imagining us before we were conceived. For loving us. For seeing us as we are and for affirming us. We thank you that you deemed us worthy of salvation and sent your Son to die for us.
We thank you for calling us to belong to you.
We are grateful that you guide us by your will, call us to serve, give us strength. You are always for us and we can trust in you. We thank you for giving us your Spirit, who works to transform.
We thank you for this Palm Sunday morning. We cannot shout your name or sing your praises, but we can worship you with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. May our worship not end with the benediction.
You know that the world, the system is filled with ugly realities.
We trust that you are at work in all situations, restoring and renewing all things.
Send your redeeming power to touch our lives and your world once more.
On this day, we find the courage of Jesus inspiring. Make us courageous so that we may worship you publically and serve you fully. We pray for others who need such courage. Bestow your gift upon us as we face life’s challenges.
Wherever people share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, encourage them. May their words not be in vain.
Wherever people reach out in your name to ease the suffering of another, give them hope.
Wherever people worship you, remind them that they worship a living God. Give them joy.
Wherever people remove their masks opening themselves to a death like Christ’s, give them new life.
Wherever people are oppressed by poverty, sickness or grief, ease their pain and restore them to wholeness.
Wherever people challenge the system, encourage them with your Spirit. May their efforts not be in vain.
Wherever people are burdened by the weight of hostility, greed or jealousy, restore their integrity.
Wherever people are persecuted because of race or creed, let your truth and justice prevail.
Wherever the earth cries out because people consume too much and ignore the danger signs,
Wherever care for the ground and water, for endangered climate and endangered species defies human carelessness, let your love for creation move the hearts of your people.
Wherever people face illness or grief; wherever they suffer in mind and spirit; wherever they face eternal death send your Spirit to bring health, comfort, wholeness and life.
Hear our prayers for those we love. We think particularly of…
We pray for your church in every place, whether it be fragile or strong, tired or energized. Inspire us with your Holy Spirit to offer ourselves in gratitude for the gift of Jesus Christ, serving creatively and courageously in his name. Revive your Church, O Lord.
Hear us as we pray to you in silence for those situations close to our hearts.
In your grace and love, restore all things.
Now we pray as Jesus taught us:
The Lord’s prayer.
God Sends us Out
God sends us out to celebrate Christ
We will not be silent.
We go from here to be faithful to Christ,
May our commitment to him not be in vain.
May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.
Hymn: Thank You Jesus for the Blood