Sunday, March 9, 2014

Texts: Genesis 2-3; Matthew 4:1-11

If you could be a superhero, what superpower would you want?

Invisibility? Superhuman strength? Mind control? Would you rather be given the ability to fly or change form? Most likely you would make your superpower choice based on which power you think would give you the greatest advantage over other people. I mean—that’s the point of having superpowers. Of course you would use your powers solely for good. But your powers wouldn’t be worth anything if they didn’t somehow give you the upper hand, right?

Long before Marvel Comics introduced modern Superheroes, people dreamed of ways to gain advantage over others. In a world of winners and losers, a pecking order, hierarchy, domination, violence, unfair distribution of resources, oppression. . . we want some kind of edge. We want to have power over others—or at least to prevent others from having power over us. And we certainly expect our God to have power over all.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is no sooner baptized and declared beloved child of God than he is tempted to take control of all the systems of civilization, as if being the beloved child of God might not be enough. So while Jesus is wandering in the wilderness, discerning what to do with all his belovedness, the devil, so the story goes, entices Jesus with the ability to turn stones into bread, an act perhaps symbolizing power to control that agrarian-based economy. Next the devil promises Jesus the ability to jump from the Temple without injury, representing a power over the religious power structure. Ultimately, Satan offers Jesus authority over all the kingdoms of the world, which would mean pervasive political power. But control over the intertwined economic, religious, and political systems is exactly what the Roman Empire maintained. Matthew’s Gospel story of temptation is not, you see, extolling Jesus for scrupulously avoiding temptations of the flesh, as the church has often obsessively defined those fleshy sins. Matthew, remember, is systematically developing a portrait of Jesus as the anti-king who refuses to be coopted by the empire, who refuses to rely on their methods to bring change because in doing so he would become them. Matthew’s Jesus is countering Rome, the Super Power of his day, not with force or fear—but with simple refusal to cooperate, by rejecting economic, religious and political domination as the ultimate power. He will not use violence to overturn a violent overlord. He will not resort to a power grab that would simply replace one domination system with another. How tempting are the means by which the current power gained dominance. But Jesus’s power is not over others. Jesus’s power is for others.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The very beginning. And let’s first attend to an important detail in the Genesis creation story, which I’ll preface by guessing that in many churches today the Hebrew Bible and Gospel lections produced sermons about resisting the devil’s lure to do bad things. Some preachers no doubt enumerated particular sins that are easy for them to target and that will help most in their congregations feel that, thank the Lord, someone is holding the line on sin. Some will use the Adam and Eve story to keep women in their place because men, according to scripture, are to rule over them.

Not so. The first man and woman were created as “partners” to become “one flesh” (Gen. 2: 18, 24). The story says it’s only after a deviation from God’s plan that the man is said to rule over the woman. Male domination, patriarchy that continues today, simply proves that we’re not in paradise. We were created for equality, so inequality reveals how far we are from God’s ideal.

Furthermore, if Jesus is truly the ultimate revealer of God, then God is not a God of power and might.

I know you’re thinking, “What good is a god who can’t or won’t do the magic stuff? What good is a god like that?” But maybe there’s a more powerful power than coercion, manipulation, and domination—a power of love, creativity, self-giving, and transformation. Yes, you grew up singing: “All hail the power of Jesus’ name. Let angels prostrate fall. Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all.” But Jesus rejected all of that. He did not, according to this story, seek or accept superhuman powers or prestige. Yes, we assumed that the definition of deity was a super human being with super powers. We may have thought that God’s job description was to intervene in our lives by disrupting the laws of science and exercising magical powers to do our bidding. And some Bible stories portray the God of Abraham as a figure who can zap people into obedience, who can overrule the rulers of this earth (like the Egyptian pharaoh), a god who’s not above commissioning conquering armies to invade territory needed by God’s people. But let’s remember who’s telling these stories and why oppressed people experienced God in this way.

The central story of the Christian faith says that Jesus did not call on God to extricate him from the cross but instead prayed that his executioners be forgiven. This same Jesus did not teach his followers amazing tricks but instead taught them to be peacemakers and then to make more disciples who would overcome evil with goodness, hate with love.

If God uses power to heal people with cancer and prevent destructive earthquake, why doesn’t God intervene every time cancer invades a human body or earthquakes threaten human communities? If God has that kind of power, why is God not consistently using it?

Maybe we have to at least consider that God’s power is quite powerful but not in the ways we expect, because our limited experience of power equates it with demonstrations of force, coercion, and domination. What if the God of grace wields power by cooperating with us, reconciling humanity, luring us forward in love? What if Jesus rejected Satan’s offers because Jesus was being true to his understanding of God’s power at work through life and love? What if we have created the God we long for: a warrior king? Christian metaphors about prayer warriors and “the battle for souls,” for instance, give us away.

Jesus knew and reflected a different god. In trying to dismantle the old powers, he trusted Love. We’re afraid to do that. This may be the most terrifying challenge you could hear this Lent: give up the God of Power. And replace that god with the God of Love.

Here’s why it matters so much. If we don’t follow Jesus in this, we ourselves will be shaped by the love of power—rather than the power of love. We’ll be so sure of our own need and our group’s need to be in control that we’ll be blind to white privilege, careless of the earth we think we own. We’ll turn every decision in our family or church into a contest of wills. It matters very much which god we serve.

When Jesus was tempted with power, he quoted three scriptures:

The tempter first offered economic power. Jesus replied: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” In other words, “Turning stones into bread trivializes both the needs of the hungry and the necessity of spiritual food. We need our daily bread AND that which nourishes the human spirit.”

The tempter next offered religious power. Jesus replied: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’”—which may mean that calling on angels to catch him leaping from the Temple turns religion into stunts and God into trained circus animal.

The tempter finally offered political power. Jesus replied: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only that God.’” God rules very differently than the Roman Emperor.

How might we be changed if we also refuse the tempting God of Power this Lent?

If we break free from the dominant perspective of domination, we might be able to imagine new strategies for improving our community—through the transformative power of love and creative option of nonviolence. As poet Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

We might be able to relinquish our need to control everyone else and instead trust in God’s love to transform our own spirits. We can live out love, not fear.

We might expose patriarchy that still exists. Since yesterday was International Women’s Day, and since Eve was surely maligned in many pulpits this morning, consider that the oppression of women is “the defining issue of our time,” according to The Half the Sky Movement. A system based on raw power rather than love creates gender inequality because the domination system places high value on physical strength and fighting power, which is generally more evident in men than women.

According to a U.N. report, “Women comprise 70 percent of the world’s poorest people and own only 1 percent of the titled land.” Further, women “suffer not only from unequal access to education and training” and disproportionate “discrimination by their employers. The majority of women earn on average about three-fourths of the pay that men receive for doing the same work, outside of the agricultural sector, in both developed and developing countries. But if greater income equality was achieved across gender lines, this could help decrease poverty through the generations. Studies have indicated that when women hold assets or gain income, the money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently their children are healthier. For every dollar a woman earns, she invests 80 cents in her family. Men, on the other hand, invest around 30 cents and are more likely to squander money on alcohol and other vices.”

If we give up the God of Power, we will not tolerate inequities of salaries, the exclusion of women from certain fields of endeavor, or the locker room culture that fosters disrespect. We will teach our sons that aggression toward women— violent actions, threatening gestures, sexual assaults, sexual trafficking, domestic violence, leering looks, and abusive language—are never ever permissible.

The Church has a special responsibility to speak about God so that maleness is not seen as normative for humanity or constitutive of divinity. The Mighty King, the Heavenly Father, and the Warrior God are not the only or best images of divine power. We also want to be especially careful about implicit values we’re teaching our children. Do we, for instance, make too much of the pretty dress one is wearing rather than asking about some activity that’s important to her or commenting on some thought she has expressed?

The prevailing culture believes the only good god is the mighty god of conquest and power. But Jesus rejected the use of force to usher in God’s kin*dom. Maybe we, too, can give up the God of Power—and rely instead on the God of love. After all, it is the God of Love we will see pictured on the cross this Good Friday, and it’s the God of Love, not Power, who will rise from the grave.

PRAYER: Gentle Spirit, Kindly One, soften us in your ways. May we stand firm with love to reject the lure of control and domination that privileges some over others. Amen.

Category Lent, Prayer, Scripture
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