“I am a Baptist preacher from the South and I try to give diverse sermons. But sometimes my roots come flying out and today is one of those days,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater.
“I am talking about Satan,” she said.
The Massey Memorial Organ thundered with ominous music.
“I need to talk about Satan because I was a victim of his power,” she said.
More ominous chords from the organ.
“I knew I was letting things get to me,” she said. “When we face hard times and get worn down and our patience is burned out and we are drained of hope, we react like everything is a big thing and our family looks at us and says, ‘Who are you?’ That’s when you know you are in his grasp.”
Long, thunderous, ominous chords from the organ.
Sparks said she desperately needed a sign to show her how to loosen Satan’s grasp and she went looking for it in the East Village in Manhattan. She found a literal sign that she said has become her mantra and it sits on her desk. It reads, “Not Today Satan,” and she held it up for the congregation to see.
“I bought it for me, but I realized that the message is for all of us — we all find ourselves in Satan’s grasp,” Sparks said.
Her sermon title was “Not Today Satan,” and the theme was temptation. The Scripture readings were 1 Peter 5:8, Genesis 3:1-1, 1 Corinthians 10:13 and Philippians 4:8.
The Greek word for the devil used in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is “diabolos,” which means “back biter” or “false accuser,” one who tries to bring you down. One of Satan’s most powerful vehicles is “right here,” Sparks said, pointing to her heart.
“Our inner demons, what psychologist Carl Jung called our shadow selves, are the places this sneaky dude or dudette plays on our weak spots,” she said.
1 Peter 5:8 reads: “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” Sparks was on a safari in the Serengeti and watched a lion stalk a wildebeest. The lion waited, watched and had the patience to find the weakest wildebeest before it pounced.
“Satan does the same through shame, fear and self doubt,” she said. “He blasts us with a corrosive voice that says ‘You are not good enough’ or ‘You are not loveable.’ ”
This was the voice that spoke to Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent was watching and waiting, Sparks said, and it slithered over to Eve and told her that she would not die if she ate from the tree in the center of the garden, but would know as much as God does.
“We have been eating that fruit ever since, and the voice of the serpent is still in our ears,” Sparks said. “We need a sign, ‘Not Today Satan,’ to escape the voices.”
In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
We are still human, Sparks said, and in hard times we are weak.
“But I have a quick, easy, three-point plan to defeat Satan,” she said. “My sign reads ‘Not Today Satan, POW!’ ”
The “P” is for pivot, to pivot away from Satan. Sparks began to study boxing and she had hoped to develop a great left hook, but her trainer said that it was not about the punches, but about the footwork. “Whoever controls the space, controls the fight,” he told her.
“Satan knows our weak spots, so we must pivot out of the way and walk away,” Sparks said. “We walk away from overwhelming news headlines or Facebook. We pivot out of the line of fire.”
The “O” stands for occupy the light.
“We sometimes forget what it is like to walk in the light because we have walked in Satan’s shadow for so long,” she said.
Sparks goes to the Astor Place Kmart in Manhattan to “rescue” plants. Kmart has a plant nursery in the basement with no natural light and a clear glass wall that looks out onto the No. 6 subway line.
“I rescue them so they can die in peace at my house,” she said. “Have you ever looked at the little plastic tab with a picture of what the plant should look like if it had the right light and air? We are the same; when we pivot out of Satan’s shadow, we blossom into the perfect human that God intended.”
She told the congregation to remember Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The “W” in POW stands for “whack the devil upside the head.” Sparks said when Jesus told the devil to “get thee behind me” at the end of the temptation in the desert, it was his version of “Not Today Satan.”
She quoted a short poem: “The devil whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ Today I whispered in the devil’s ear, ‘I am the storm.’ ”
There is work to be done in the world, she told the congregation. We have brothers and sisters who are in harm’s way, who are wondering how to feed their kids, who are scared to walk down the street because of the color of their skin, who can’t or won’t go to a doctor because they can’t afford it, who work three or four jobs to make ends meet, who are afraid they cannot stay in this land.
We have a duty to step up, Sparks said.
“Remember that hymn, ‘I’m gonna live so God can use me, any time, Lord, anywhere.’ We have to pivot and stand in the light,” she said. “We have to say, ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today.’ ”
And the people said with her, “Amen.”
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. The Rev. Virginia Carr read the Scripture. Mother Virginia is the priest-in-charge of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Westfield and the “peculiar vicar” of the Episcopal Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Chautauqua. “Peculiar” is the ecclesiastical term for a worship space that is only open part of the year. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir in singing “If We Ever Need the Lord Before,” by Thomas A. Dorsey. The Jane Robb Shaw Hirsh Endowment and the Edmond E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund provide support for this week’s services.