Date: 14 February 2016 – Lent 1
Text: Luke 4:1-13
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS
Priest and author Thomas Kempis wrote, “We usually know what we can do, but temptation reveals just who we are.”
Clarence Jordan was a scholar, preacher and farmer, someone with two doctorates, one in Agriculture and one in Greek, you may have heard of him, he penned The Cotton Patch Gospels, a unique translation of the New Testament, putting the original Greek into the southern vernacular . Jordan also founded Koinonia Farm, an interracial Christian community. When next by businesses boycotted the Koinonia’s products like cotton, pecans, and peanuts, Jordan decided he needed to raise funds to keep the mission alive, so he accepted preaching engagements where local churches offered donations. On one such occasion Clarence Jordan was getting a red-carpet tour of a church. With pride the minister pointed to the rich, imported pews and luxurious decorations. As they stepped outside, darkness was falling, and a spotlight shone on a huge cross atop the steeple. “That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars (in the 1950’s!),” the minister said with a satisfied smile. “You got cheated,” said Jordan. “Times were when Christians could get them for free.”
We all know what we can do as a Christian community, as disciples of Christ. We can welcome others as sisters and brothers into this unique and eternal bond of family. Yet the temptation remains, to regard one another as better than or less than ourselves, to see others as our betters or others as inferiors, always guaging where the other belongs on some continuum of worthiness. Why do we do this? What is behind it?
Jesus was not muddled in his message, he ate and drank with outcasts, one of the reasons we are called to “eat this loaf and drink this cup.” Jesus refused to be treated as anything other than an outcast himself, telling his followers not to give him titles, washing others’ feet, allowing a distressed mother to teach him a lesson in inclusivity. For all of the status in being recognized by Kings, rich rulers and Pontius Pilate himself Jesus preached an egalitarian message:
The disciples came forward to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at you right hand and one at your left, in your glory”…Jesus replied, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Mark 10)
Jesus was not the only spiritual guru of his time and place. There were many, many others who were claiming to be a Messiah, God’s chosen one, and each had a following. N.T. (Tom) Wright, Bishop and Jesus scholar writes, “There had been royal movements in his (Jesus) time, not only the well-known house of Herod but also lesser known figures whom we meet in the historian Josephus. Characters like Simon (not of the Bible) and Anthronges gathered followers and were hailed as kings, only to be cut down by Roman or Herodian troops. There were would-be prophets who promised their followers signs from heaven, great miracles to show God’s saving power. They too didn’t last long.”
What separated Jesus from all these other “Messiahs” was the way he talked about faithfulness, living out one’s passion and beliefs. Wright says, “Jesus is indeed to become the world’s true lord, but the path to that status, and the mode of when it arrives, is humble service, not a devilish seeking after status and power…Jesus’ status as God’s son commits him, not to showy prestige, but to the strange path of humility, service and finally death…At the heart of our resistance to temptation is love and loyalty to the God who has already called us beloved children in Christ, and who holds out before us the calling to follow him in the path which leads to the true glory. In that glory lies the true happiness, the true fullfilment…”
I want to pick up on that theme of true happiness and true fulfillment. Ann Bradley has begun a wonderful Lenten study on food and the Bible. One contrast that Jesus and other prophets make is between food that satisfies and food that leaves us hungry. When we take as our life’s work to succeed by the world’s terms, to have, to be something or someone, to climb the slippery ladder of success and be judged and judge others as worthy or not we are left with a deeply unsatisfied feeling. It is never enough, it is always lonely, and it leaves us wanting more. Jesus’ faithfulness, the idea that we serve, that we regard others as sisters and brothers, that we are a family, not competitors or King and Queens, slaves and serfs, is deeply satisfying. I can tell you at death, when we breathe our last breath, what we remember about our lives are the connections, the service, the way we were family. The titles, the status, the successes, these pass away, the memories are always of connection.
If you have ever seen the movie Being There you will know what I mean when I say throughout my life I have felt like Chance Gardener, the mentally challenged servant who is suddenly thrust into a loud, fast-paced world when his rich master dies. You see because Chance is white, male, about my age, and is dressed as his rich benefactor provided he is afforded deep respect, privilege, even power. Even though Chance the Gardener is spouting the only wisdom he knows, planting gardens, all around him hear powerful and helpful remedies to their challenges. The African-American maid, who dressed and cleaned Chance, watches all of this unfold on TV and can’t believe her eyes. But in once sense she knows; race, gender, class, always matter to us because we live in the world of temptation and sin.
Jesus came into the world to preach and live against that basic temptation. He called on his followers to resist this urge and live differently. And he gave us at least two tools to help inoculate us against these sins of power and privilege: the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion. In Baptism Jesus teaches us that we are loved by grace, not works, that our status comes by accepting that God loves everyone, not just the few, and that we need not shove and scrape our way to the top but rather embrace our sisters and brothers in a family formed of water and new life. Likewise in Communion Jesus teaches us that whom we eat with is more important than what we eat. The conventional wisdom of the time, that certain classes of people ate together, that “others” fought for the scraps from the table, that gender dictated that women did not talk to men at the table, were completely undermined by Jesus who welcomed those from the streets to the banquet (Luke 14) and talked to Mary and Martha in their family home, around their family table.
I know the temptation to use titles and status remains strong. Personally I don’t like terms like “Rev” or wearing different garments in worship or being told by congregants “you are in charge”, like this is a corporation and I am the CEO. Argh! But I do know that the church is not a pure place and we live in the world with the language of the same. I have to find ways to express the egalitarian nature of our Christian family but I find this most effective by what I do, not what I say. And so I encourage you to do likewise, throughout this season of Lent be counter-cultural, be subversive, and look at others with a servant’s love. Try to resist the temptation to think, “am I good enough for them, are they good enough for me?”
The Sacraments, the Gospels, our deep faith, all of these tell us that God’s love for us and for others is enough, more than enough. You do not belong to the world. You belong to God. That is all we need to know. Amen.