Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
(Click above link for the Scripture texts upon which this sermon is based)
A friend of mine who lives in Chicago was on the El recently—
–traveling from up north down to the heart of the financial district.
The subway car was filled with the usual cross section of riders:
students and household workers,
old women and teenage boys.
Across from my friend, on the subway car, was a bench with two seats.
On one of them sat a “Wall Street type”,
wearing the usual business “uniform”—
–crisp suit, starched shirt, neatly knotted tie,
camel hair overcoat and immaculate wing tip shoes.
At one stop, a homeless guy entered the car—
–ratty sweatshirt and jeans and tennis shoes covered with duct tape,
holding a cup of coffee he was sipping silently.
The homeless guy headed straight for the empty seat next to Wall Street guy.
As the train made its way—stop after stop—the rocking soon lulled
the homeless guy to sleep, with a slight “lean” into the Wall Street guy.
Soon, the coffee cup slipped from the slumbering hand under the sweatshirt
and splashed to the floor, onto the duct-tape shoes…and, of course,
Well, Wall Street Guy, he just went off like a rocket:
“Get the hell off me!” he screamed.
You can’t just do this!
Pay attention for God’s sake! You bum!
You don’t just go spilling everywhere!
Stop it—it’s got to STOP!
“…It’s got to stop…” He lost it.
That’s what caught my attention, hearing this story.
We might want to think we’re not that callous, but really,
We all get to the end of our rope, don’t we?
That’s what we all want to say, sooner or later.
Things get bad,
then they get worse,
then they don’t stop…and we’re left feeling so anxious—
–just wondering when the next shoe is going to drop.
What’s the next thing—maybe as small as spilled coffee—
–that makes it ALL seem too much to bear?
Just look at the paper or read the news.
The housing market. Health Care.
Even with a rebound in the economy, scores looking for a living wage.
I don’t need to tell you that, right now, there is more NEED out there,
and fewer resources, it seems, to meet those needs.
But you don’t have to look that far:
our own hectic, crazy, overworked, stressed out lives are enough.
Our own health scares. Our own painful family situations.
We’ve all either been at the end of our rope, or scared to death of getting there…
The temptation of Jesus plays out differently in the Gospel of Mark
than it does in the other Gospels.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not mention specific temptations—
–nothing about stones into bread,
or leaping off the pinnacle of the temple.
In Mark, only this: “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.”
Jesus was DRIVEN out.
We are DRIVEN by lots of forces, too.
We are “driven to despair,”
we are driven to desperation, sometimes.
We are driven by denial, or anxiety, or resigned apathy….
Everybody has something that DRIVES them to wilderness places, I would argue.
But what do we make of this short, brief temptation story in Mark?
The late John Updike once gave a lecture [i]
at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New York City,
he was speaking about the “religious themes” in his own fiction.
There was a question and answer period afterward, and he was asked:
“Mr. Updike, what is your favorite Gospel?”
Without hesitation, Updike responded: “Well, Luke. Luke tells the best stories.”
And then he thought for a minute…and he added:
“Yes, Luke is my favorite;
but I TRUST the Gospel of Mark the most. It was the earliest Gospel”—
and then Updike added this intriguing comment:
“…and it’s the Gospel LEAST prone to wishful thinking.”
In Mark, Jesus was DRIVEN…
…We are constantly DRIVEN by our wishful thinking for a different life,
or our FEAR of a different life—all at the same time.
What do we make of a Jesus, who, unlike other accounts in those other gospels
where Jesus is tempted with food, or with glory, or with power,
What do we make of a Jesus who is simply tempted with a different life,
Brook and I were at our annual PTA auction this weekend,
and it was trivia night. We were stunningly AVERAGE at trivia night.
One of the rounds was a “finish that lyric” contest,
where we had to come up with words to songs
from Bon Jovi to Barenaked Ladies.
That was strange, because I was thinking about the Barenaked Ladies song
“If I had a Million Dollars” this week while pondering this text,
a sort of contemporary dream of escape:
If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a house,
furniture for the house like a chesterfield and an ottoman
a K car or a Reliant
a tree fort with a tiny fridge containing pre-wrapped sausages,
a fake fur coat (because a real one would be too cruel),
an exotic pet (like an emu or a llama),
a limousine to drive to the store
Kraft dinners and fancy ketchup,
a fake green dress,
some art (a Picasso or Garfunkel),
a monkey, and your love…
It’s a fun song.
It taps into our WISHFUL THINKING fantasies:
What WOULD you do with a million dollars?
If I had a million dollars would…I buy something,
or change something,
or make something be different…
What would I do with a million dollars!
But then I sit down to add it all up…all I needed, all I have to do…
…and even a million dollars isn’t enough
which tells me there is NO END to my wants…to my fantasies..
…and there is NO quenching my thirst when it comes to
taking my life NOW and
turning it into a WISH for tomorrow.
A life built on WISHES is so TEMPTING.
But, a life built on wishes is an ANXIOUS life,
because it is always waiting for one more shoe to drop—
that shoe that will FINALLY end it all.
That magic lottery ticket.
Thinking of Jesus’ wilderness to temptation and our WISHING…
…I can’t say for sure what Jesus faced
those forty days and forty nights,
but I bet it was something very close to what you and I face today:
–The temptation to believe that God is NOT enough.
“The Kingdom of God has come near.” Jesus arrived on the scene proclaiming.
And our tempting, wishing, driven-to-despair world most often responds:
We often don’t ACT as if God is enough. That THIS is enough.
That we have ENOUGH, right now, to be God’s PEOPLE.
WE don’t LIVE that way…when we are driven to temptation to believe that
…there isn’t enough GRACE to face the living of this day;
…there isn’t enough GENEROSITY to face this challenge;
…there isn’t enough HOPE to keep on going…
when shoe after shoe keeps dropping.
It is so TEMPTING…to live as if GOD can’t possibly be enough.
I was reading this story about Stanley Hauerwas,
who is a popular theologian.
Hauerwas is widely known for his Mennonite principles,
advocating a sort of pacifism and community ethics.
So I was reading once about Hauerwas, and he was
sharing stories of growing up with his father,
who he describes as “a frontiersman.”
He herded cows, lived a rugged and outdoors sort of life.[ii]
As Hauerwas put it: “Living with a gun was…as natural to [my father]
as living with an automobile is for me.”
His dad expressed his love in the way of the frontier:
not with any OUTWARD signs of affection,
but by ensuring his family’s survival,
giving them more opportunities than he had had.
This meant Hauerwas got to go to college,
where he studied philosophy and theology
and entered a world quite different than his father’s.
Then Hauerwas went off to divinity school.
And the bridge between his world, and his dad’s, continued to widen.
Whenever he called home,
his father would talk about a gun that he was making—
“…everything from boring the barrel and setting the sight,
to hand-carving the stock.
I thought that was fine, since it certainly had nothing to do with me.”
One summer, Hauerwas made his customary trip home.
No sooner was he through the front door
than did his father thrust that completed rifle into his son’s hands.
He was giving it to him, as a gift!
“It was indeed a beautiful piece of craftsmanship,” Hauerwas said.
“And I immediately allowed as such, but I was not content to stop there.
Flushed with theories about the importance of truthfulness
and wishing for a world DIFFERENT than I was living,
I said [to my dad]:
‘Of course, you realize that it will not be long before we as a society
are going to have to take all these things away from you people.”
At the time, he thought his WISHES for justice and peace were righteous.
And it was just so tempting…to speak this truth, he thought, to his dad.
Only later did Hauerwas realize that the moment was—in his words—
“one of the lowest points of my ‘moral development.’”
“For what my father was saying, of course, was how much he cared about me.
But all I could see was a gun…”
Sometimes we are so tempted by the JUST world we think WE need to create,
that we don’t have room for GRACE…
…and we just can’t believe that God is enough.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
THIS temptation, just as surely as all temptation,
THIS temptation CAN be overcome…
A few years ago,
a lawsuit that had been in the New York state court system
for a decade was settled.
The lawsuit alleged that thousands of people were illegally denied food stamps,
and as compensation, nearly 9,500 households began receiving
credits to their electronic benefit cards.
The payback was not quite like “having a million dollars”—
–the largest reimbursements were around $5,000,
and most averaged far less.
And all of the credits could only be used for food.
Still, to many who had given up on, or who had forgotten what they were expecting,
this money in their accounts was a rare moment of bounty
at an otherwise dismal economic moment.
This was at the heart of the economic downturn, in 2008.
Monica Ryan learned of her good fortune
when she went to her local bodega to buy bread and milk.
She was just picking up the necessities because she was conscious of
having less than $5 in her account.
But the clerk swiped her card, and it appeared that she had hundreds left.
In shock, she called, and confirmed that $888 was now in her account.
Barbara Harris, who usually gets by on an allotment of $144 per month,
began crying when she described finally receiving $444.
“I just went out and finally got a ham” she said, “and cooked it with
cloves, apple juice, and raisins.
I had all the neighbors in to share—it was very sweet.”
Luis Rosario, who lives in the Bronx with his mother, received $2,333.
He said he would use the money to make a Thanksgiving meal
of roast pork and turkey for his sister, daughters, and grandchildren.
And, he said, he would also take care of Christmas too.
“We usually go to my sister in New Jersey, but she was laid off,”
Mr. Rosario said, “so this year, we are going to take care of everyone.”
It is a sentiment that would sit well with Abdelkader Louali,
who also lives in the Bronx and got a payout of $550.
With that money, Mr Louali, who lives alone,
purchased some shrimp as a treat,
and he also bought $64 in food for neighbors who were in need.
It was a special pleasure to him, said the New York Times article recounting all of this.
To finally be the one who had enough to share with others.
“I have $100 left” he said “but I’m going to give it away.
You see, my refrigerator is already full.”[iii]
Sometimes…sometimes…we are able TO KNOW—
–in places deep down that matter—that God is enough,
–and we are DRIVEN, NOT to temptation, NOT to hoarding:
in these times, we are DRIVEN to GENEROSITY.
So I asked myself this week:
What am I DRIVEN to, in the STRESS and STRAIN of life?
What about you?
Is God enough to see me through?
It is so tempting to think otherwise, sometimes…
There’s a chaplain in a facility outside of Chicago
she works with people suffering chronic illness.
One person she works with is Meg,
a 61 year old woman
who lost the use of her legs to polio in 1950,
and was now suffering a devastating relapse called post-polio syndrome.
Her symptoms were cruel: extreme fatigue, muscle weakness,
stomach and neck pain, lack of bladder control.
This was such a deep struggle, and one day, the chaplain asked her:
What, if anything, sustains you? What gives you hope?
In a stunning mixture of hope, ambivalence,
anger, and unrelenting faith, she said:
“I learn to say ‘Hallelujah’ anyway.
God, I’m going to praise you anyway
even though sometimes I wonder if I really mean it, or feel like it.
And I don’t know why I’m saying it EXCEPT
I know that you are real
and I want to be on your side
though I don’t understand any of this,
and I’m miserable and lost and confused,
and all the scriptures that I’ve ever read
don’t make any sense right now.
But God, I want to live with the paradoxes,
and I want to be faithful regardless.
So, I will say ‘Hallelujah’ anyway.”
…If God is enough—then there is ALWAYS room for HOPE—
temptation or not—as hard as it may be.
But even when we try SO hard to RESIST temptation—
–and make room for grace and generosity and hope—
–STILL, it can ALL be too much…
…and it can seem like one shoe after another
just keeps dropping on us—
–and the temptation is too strong
and we just cant see that God is enough,
and the Kingdom of God does NOT seem near AT ALL…
And in those times, it seems that the ONLY feeble prayer we can pray
is “Please God, see that there are no more shoes to DROP…”
Scott Black Johnson is pastor at 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.
Like every other church I know, Scott and 5th avenue are struggling
to meet the needs of their community.
So many needs…and seemingly tighter budgets.
So many unemployed, under-employed—and less and less hope going around.
Not long ago, it had been a particularly brutal day:
some nasty surprises,
someone calling with a gripe,
everybody coming into his office with a complaint.
Fifth avenue has a small homeless shelter that seemed on the brink of closing.
It got so hard that Scott found himself praying out loud:
“Please God, see that there are no more shoes to DROP on us…
…we can’t take anymore—if only I could wish it away!”
He actually SAID that.
And at that very moment, the chief custodian of the church knocked on his door.
“Scott,” he said, “I need to see you downstairs.”
“Not now” was the response—just deal with whatever it is, he begged.
“No…you are going to want to see this.”
And so the two made their way downstairs, to the front door,
where there stood two police officers.
And…without missing a beat,
the officers explained that they had just confiscated
700 pairs of counterfeit Timberland shoes
and they were wondering if they could give those SHOES
to the homeless shelter—for use by the residents there…[iv]
Driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, Jesus was tempted for 40 days.
He was tempted to believe that God was NOT enough.
He was tempted to believe that the is NOT enough room, in a world like ours,
for GRACE, for GENEROSITY, for HOPE.
And Jesus emerged from the wilderness of temptation…
…and said ‘Hallelujah’ anyway.
And he looked at US, TEMPTED as we are,
DRIVEN as we are, and he said in love:
“The time is fulfilled.
The Kingdom of God has come near;
Repent, and believe this good news”—
–God is enough.
God ALWAYS is enough.
[i] From a sermon preached by the Rev. Mark Ramsey at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in 2009. More can be found here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/01/30/january-27-2009-john-updike-1932-2009/2078/
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, 1981.
[iii] New York Times, “A Surprise Bounty from a Food Stamp Lawsuit,” November 26, 2008. From http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/27/nyregion/27stamps.html?_r=0 (Accessed February 21, 2015)
[iv] From a sermon by Scott Black Johnson, Mid-Winters Lectures, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, February 2, 2009. Also recounted at 30 Good Minutes, on March 7, 2010, http://www.csec.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/106-scott-black-johnston-program-5322