3/10/2019


Deborah Fortel

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

March 10, 2019

Who Are We? Really? 

Luke 4: 1-13

The First Sunday of Lent

Introduction to the Scripture

Just a week ago, we celebrated Transfiguration Sunday.  The gospel reading for that day took us with Jesus and three disciples to a mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appeared mysteriously, and there a voice from heaven naming Jesus Beloved Son of God. Melanie Hardison helped us see that the disciples didn’t get to stay on the mountaintop, that place of beauty and of awe. Instead, they had to return with Jesus to the work that Jesus and they were called to do. Now Lent has begun and the selected scripture reading for today takes us back through earlier sections of Luke to today’s text. It’s like going back in a Netflix film to remind ourselves of what we missed. You push the arrow on the bottom of the remote, the action stops briefly, and then scene by scene goes past on the bottom of the screen. So perhaps we stop a little too soon at Luke 4:16 and Jesus’ senior sermon, then go back a bit too far, and we’re watching John baptizing Jesus and again, hearing a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Now we’re ready to move forward just a bit to today’s Gospel reading.

Luke 4:1-13

We have moved from the glory of the Transfiguration to glory of a different sort at the baptism of Jesus.  And now this: no more mountaintop and blue skies and a mysterious appearance of two of Israel’s greatest heroes; no more tree-sheltered banks of the Jordan or a voice from heaven. Now we get wilderness: baking sun in a hot sky and dust, rocks, gravel, more rocks, more dust, more gravel. It’s apparently endless, and apparently empty of life. It’s a place where hunger can become so overwhelming that even a stone can begin to look like a loaf of bread. Jesus was alone, Luke says, except for the voice of temptation. This was his season of questioning, affirming, questioning again and reaffirming his identity. Temptation came as a challenge to him: IF you are who you think you are, prove it. Prove it, the voice of temptation suggests, by choosing your convenience, your hunger, your power, and your privilege without thought for the cost to yourself or anyone else. And we know that if those choices had been offered to us, it would have been very different. But Jesus knew that abusing his power for his own convenience and pleasure would not prove his identity, but destroy it and betray his integrity as well.  He understood that choices have consequences, even if no one else ever knows about those choices.           

Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, Luke says, forty days of hunger and testing. Through it all, through every challenge to be less than he was, Jesus chose consistently for his integrity and his deepest, truest identity. He refused to grab what he wanted, whether it was what would have been the first fast food ever, (bread from a stone) or power to control others through political autocracy (all the realms of he world in his control) or the privileges of invulnerability (throwing self from the heights and expecting God to save him.) Jesus was sustained by trust in the Holy One and by his deep grounding in faith and scripture so that his responses to temptation came absolutely naturally to memory and to speech, each a quotation from Deuteronomy’s story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness: “One does not live by bread alone.” “Worship God and serve only God.” “Do not put God to the test.”

Finally, the forty days ended, his identity was confirmed, and his integrity was intact. Then the temptations ended, until, Luke says ominously, “a more opportune time.” That “more opportune time,” however, does not seem to be about more temptation for Jesus, but for his followers: for Judas, who betrayed him, and for Peter, who denied knowing him, and for all of us who find our own ways to put dents in our integrity and rips in our identity as disciples.

What was true for Jesus’ disciples and is true for us has always been true for humankind. The parallels to Jesus’ time in the wilderness are especially clear in the story of the Exodus. The ancient Israelites journeyed from life as enslaved people in Egypt to new lives in the land of promise. They, too, were hungry and tempted all through those wilderness years, and often, they succumbed to temptation. Even after they arrived safely in the land of the promise and made new homes and new lives there, they experienced many more “opportune times” of testing their integrity and identity.

About ten days ago Michael Cohen testified publicly to the House of Representatives. He admitted to doing multiple illegal and shameful things. Whether you assume he was telling the truth about all of it, or only some of it, he is a pitiable example of what happens to people who let themselves be pulled in to illegal, unethical, immoral behavior. His testimony was about a remarkably long series of choices to take the easy way, to cheat and lie, choosing privilege and wealth for a few over justice for many, treating most people as if they didn’t matter. Dazzled by wealth and privilege and power, he became someone he almost certainly never intended to be. He seems to have acted as if integrity were only for fools.

We, too, know the reality of times that test our sense of who we really are and what we really stand for. Maybe we simply follow our hunger for something, and our yearning for something else. Perhaps we’re afraid of change and refuse to let go of the precious past. Sometimes stability and predictability and safety matter more to us than responding to the necessity of justice for everyone. Temptation often comes from inside us.

Temptation is also built into the world we live in. There are so many easy ways to do a little less, or to be a little lax, or to just be a hot mess. Yielding to temptation can have long-lasting consequences. We have forgotten, here in the U.S., as William Barber has reminded us, that the United States was founded on an ideal of freedom. Systemic racism is still behind far too many customs and laws. As recently as the mid-1970’s it was legally required for homeowners to refuse to sell a house in a so-called White neighborhood to a person of color. It was called “redlining” and banks demanded that mortgages adhere to those laws. Whole neighborhoods were redlined to keep Black people and White people segregated from each other. There were a few people, like Carl and Anne Braden, who were strong enough and justice-minded enough to refuse to abide by those discriminatory laws. But were punished with harshly.  And they made a difference. To this day, the West End of Louisville still suffers the consequences of those old unjust laws because power and privilege mattered (and still matter) way too much to way to many White people.

Temptation isn’t a simplistic matter of conventional morality and rigid do’s and don’ts. Temptation is often embedded in systems of discrimination and injustice that are so familiar to many of us that we hardly notice them. Temptation comes as an invitation to self-indulgent behavior, for all of us, or most of us, or at least for the ones who can pay for that self-indulgence. The news media report such stories until we are numb to them: cheating on income tax returns, lying on loan applications, visiting a so-called massage parlor staffed by trafficked and possibly abused women.

            Perhaps most of us need to be grateful that we haven’t had access to those gross violations of integrity, but we know that temptations to compromise our values and our identity still challenge us. Sometimes we succumb. Sometimes we resist, thanks to our own inner integrity and the commitments we have made, thanks to courageous people like the Braden’s who show us a better way, and thanks, above all to the movements of grace in our lives.

Near the end of the day in which Michael Cohen revealed so many painful realities about himself, he still seemed to want to persuade himself that there is some goodness left in him. I trust that there is, and I believe as well that there is the potential for more decency to be restored in him as he continues to take responsibility for what he has done. It’s the way God’s grace works in and with us.

In response to Cohen’s testimony, Committee Chair Elijah Cummings said, “We are better than this.” His words were and are a reminder to Michael Cohen and to all of us:  “we are better than this.” With the greatest dignity and compassion Representative Cummings points us back to our identity and our integrity as a nation and as individuals. Surely we are better than this painful season in our life as a country. And surely, whenever and however we are in places of temptation, let us remember that we can be better, we can choose more faithfully, more compassionately, and learn more completely what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus.