Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent - March 10 2019

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year C
March 10, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

The Rev. Dr. Trawin Malone reflected on today’s reading in the Lenten study guide on Living Well through Lent 2019: Practicing Forgiveness with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind – that’s the one we’ve been handing out for you to take home and work your way through….

He asked, Do we, when we are in dispute or when we are hurt, stay in connection and try to forgive or seek forgiveness, or do we cut off the relationship?  “I wonder,” he wrote, “if Jesus had this in mind as he went to the desert to be tempted by the deceiver. The deceiver says to Jesus, “Stay connected to me; don’t trust yourself.” Jesus responds to each temptation from the foundation of his core values – the Word of God.  Jesus refuses to be deceived. … he stays connected: to God, to himself, to the other.”  I repeat: he stays connected.

The devil placed these temptations in front of Jesus – to use his power for himself alone, in changing stones into bread.  To claim the right of possession to all things in the world – a right he already had, of course, if we remember that all creation belongs to God – but for himself, turning his back on the Father.  To claim the prestige that angels would hold him up, so all would know how important he was.

Dr. Malone poses a question for our consideration: “How does the temptation to protect our power, possession, and prestige keep us from forgiving ourselves and others?”

Jesus said no to power – to using the tools at his disposal for himself.

Jesus said no to possessions – to claiming property and the right to dispose of it as he saw fit.

Jesus said no to prestige – to being the center of attention and adulation and praise.

Our desire to run the world and to dictate the terms of relationships, to declare who is “in” and who is “out”, to decide what parts of our history we will remember or honor or forget or dismiss, to expect that our needs will take precedence over the needs of others stand smack dab in the way of reconciliation, of wholeness, and of peace.

And the question is: if we are trying to protect our power, our possessions, and our prestige, where is there room for forgiveness?

Whether we are talking about family or friends, or our community or our country, it’s all the same: we should be asking ourselves what are we protecting, and why are we protecting it, and how does that protection prevent us from moving toward forgiveness – and is that really how we want to be?

Or do we want to be like Jesus, to seek the healing of the world?

If you were paying attention to the Epistle that went out the week before last, you might have seen an item that Bp Jennifer is sponsoring a book study using Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  Dr Douglas begins with the story of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who said he was afraid for his life in the face of this 16-year old Black teen, who was carrying a can of soda and a packet of skittles.  This man had been warned by the 911 operator to wait for the police to arrive and to remain in his car and not approach the individual, but he did both, and this child of God was dead as a result.

To my surprise, Dr Douglas finds the root of stand-your-ground among the founders of our country – men like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin – and among religious leaders like Jonathan Edwards.  She weaves an compelling narrative that goes something like this:  During the Protestant reformation, splinter Christian groups including the Pilgrims and the Puritans left England to establish God’s new world in the new world.  They rejected the accretions brought by the Normans 600 years earlier to the old Anglo-Saxon culture; they rejected Catholicism; and they rejected church hierarchy in favor of an intentional religious community built on “freedom and property.”

They regarded the new world as the new Jerusalem - a “city on a hill”  – and if you’re old enough, you’ll remember President Reagan used that term to refer to America’s role in the global sphere.  These religious refugees from England considered it was time to leave the Egypt represented by the rest of Europe, and other places besides, move to American, and offer salvation and democracy to all right-thinking peoples.

Thomas Jefferson was so enamored of the Anglo-Saxon ideal that he advocated for the teaching of the language in the schools.  Furthermore his suggestion for the national seal of the new country included imagery of Israelites on the one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon kings Horst and Hengist on the other.

Honestly, I don’t know if I am convinced, but Dr Douglas builds on these two ideas – the idealized superiority of both Anglo-Saxonism and of new world Christianity – as the precursors of white supremacy, anti-immigrant feeling, and, not surprisingly, another idea as well – that being white is the best thing, while being black or other color is the worst. 

And when we dig deeply into our history, this really should not surprise – we have a long history of making sure that people of color are excluded and rejected and their needs are ignored.  From slavery, to forced servitude, to the school-to-prison pipeline, to unequal treatment in the courts, to victim-blaming, … the list goes on and on, in the ways our culture and our institutions favor some over others, on the basis of race.  Even today.

This is why people march in the streets when another black person – often a child – is killed in a police action.  This is why people say black lives matter: it’s not that other lives don’t; it’s that too often it seems as if black lives don’t, native lives don’t, immigrant lives don’t.  We need to be reminded that their lives DO matter and act accordingly.

Dr Douglas also quotes President Teddy Roosevelt, who apparently was somewhat obsessed with immigration from southern Europe, that the only way to ensure that “lower races” – that is, immigrants and people of color – could be prevented from overrunning the country, was for white people to have lots and lots of babies.  Roosevelt wrote “that the ‘man or woman who deliberately avoids marriage’ and chooses not to have children, is a ‘criminal against the race, and should be an object of contemptuous abhorrence by all healthy people.’”[1]  He also said, “’the first duty of womanhood’ is to have children ‘numerous enough so that the race shall increase and not decrease.’”[2]

I don’t know about you, but several of my heroes are falling off their pedestals as I read this book.

Now, what has any of this to do with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness?

White America’s power, possessions, and prestige are all implicated in the shameful history described by Dr Douglas.  That shining city on a hill has a dark side, and light must be shone. 

If we truly mean to be followers of the Gospel, it is we who must recognize how our country has failed its citizens of color, as well as the poor and immigrants among us, and to consider well the extent to which we are more concerned about our power, possessions, and prestige – the things that Jesus rejected – than the humanity and life of the other.  Do we seek healing for those our society and culture have injured or injure even now?  Or do we seek self-protection and turn our backs on our neighbors? 

Which will it be?


[1] Brown, Kelly Douglas. Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God . Orbis Books. Kindle Edition. Kindle 602, cited in a 1902 letter to Marie Van Horst on “race suicide.” http://www.progressingamerica.blogspot.come/2013/06/theodore-rooseelts-19 [sic - the link does not work]

[2] Brown, Kindle 602, Theodore Roosevelt speech to the National Congress of Mothers, March 13, 1906.

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