steeples in the sky

by Ellen Sims
Text: Luke 4:1-12

At this point in our presidential campaign season comes a story of Jesus resisting the temptations of privilege and power. Unlike our Republican and Democratic candidates, Jesus was offered all earth’s kingdoms without ever having to memorize talking points, debate umpteen other candidates, or appear on SNL or the Tonight Show. The Gospel story says that , if the devil is to be believed, Jesus could have simply made a deal with the devil and ruled the world. But the writer of Luke’s Gospel wants you to know that Jesus instead chose a vocation of self-giving, not self-promotion. His was a life of uplifting others rather than amassing his own power.

Probably none of you aspires to become President. At least not this year. But we all have to negotiate our uses of power. Reflect first on where your power lies. When are you powerful? Whether or not we acknowledge it, you and I wield a certain power through, for instance, our words, our sexuality, our relationships and connections, our money, our physical strength, our abilities, our integrity and reputation, our compassion, our faith. How are YOU powerful?

And where are you weak? Where is your spiritual, mental, emotional Achilles heel? We sometimes are decidedly weak in particular situations and contexts. And sometimes there are labels applied to us that disempower us, that make others regard us as less than, as Other. Sometimes, though not always, the simplistic categories of race and gender and class, for instance, tell us who is in the more powerful position.

What is clear in the Gospel accounts is that in any power dynamic, Jesus was working to empower the disempowered. Jesus wanted the weak to gain strength and confidence. He wanted the powerful to learn meekness.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that sometimes the powerful feign weakness. Maybe they really believe they are the aggrieved and threatened when they rail against political correctness. Some in privileged positions assert that their rights are being threatened simply because someone else is gaining their rightful rights. Some privileged people deny they have privileges. And the idea of white privilege seems an especially difficult concept for many. I think if we are sincere about reducing racism, we have to get educated about systemic racism; we have to understand the challenging idea that we are caught up in systemic racism even if we ourselves do not bear ill will toward people of another race. We need to listen to people who look different from us. Which means I’m not the best person to explain what race prejudice feels like and how it functions. What I can recommend to white folks like me is that you read and listen to your African American friends. And HAVE African American friends. And participate in interracial dialogue groups like those offered at Spring Hill College periodically.

If you are a person of color, don’t feel it’s your responsibility to educate folks like me, especially if you’ve tried to do so in the past and have been burned doing so. But if you do want to share from your experiences of racism, it’s okay with me, and I hope with others, to call us out on our stuff. And thank you for being patient with us.

In general, in trying to understand power distribution, I try to imagine where Jesus would side.

For instance, I imagined Jesus working on the side of marriage equality this past year. I did not hear Jesus in the voice of Judge Roy Moore complaining that gay and lesbian couples demanding the right to marry were threatening the rights of heterosexual couples. It was clearly the gay couples who lacked the power and Judge Moore who was not willing to share it.

I also saw Jesus this past year in the Black Lives Matters movement to expose discriminatory practices by law enforcement. Sadly, one of the young leaders in that movement committed suicide this past week on the steps of the Ohio state capitol. MarShawn McCarrel, just 23, explained in his suicide note that “My demons (demonic depression? demonic racists?) won today. I’m sorry.” Many in the movement report serious depression and anxiety resulting from their work for justice. Jesus made it look pretty easy to do battle with the devil. It’s not so easy.

On this Racial Justice Sunday, I hope folks who share my complexion will—without wallowing in white guilt or defensively denying the inequities and injustices of ongoing racism—be open to recognizing white privilege. If this is a concept you don’t understand, you might find these resources from the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty and Law Center helpful.

Of course, just because a person is in a less powerful position doesn’t automatically make that person right about political/ethical/cultural/religious issues. And there are many variables of power. I’m not suggesting that we calculate someone’s power points to determine how likely it is that Jesus would have taken their side. Let’s also be clear that Jesus loved those with whom he disagreed. But the Jesus Way, it seems to me, does require that we at least listen carefully to those who have the least . . . power, money, privilege.

Why did Jesus reject power—at least the power the devil was offering? Would it really have been so wrong for a hungry man in the wilderness to yield to that first temptation and turn stone into bread? Maybe the answer lies a few chapters later when Luke tells the story of Jesus turning five loaves of bread and 2 fishes into a meal that fed 5000. That miracle story may illustrate the way power should be used in service to others. In the next temptation, the devil promises Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus will worship him. Jesus, however, resists the second temptation of domination. The devil makes a third test of Jesus’s allegiance—atop the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus refuses to participate in a display of religious power and idolatry, the devil leaves at last. Those who know the story of Jesus’s final entry into Jerusalem realize that Jesus will eventually return to Jerusalem and be crucified. It turns out that Jerusalem will not be the place where Jesus is saved from death. Jerusalem is where he will be lifted up–not to the top of the Temple–but onto a cross atop the hill of Golgotha. And no one will come to his rescue. Power, it seems from the tests of Jesus, is not to be used for self-glory, maybe not even for self-preservation. The Holy Spirit worked through Jesus’s life for others.

Today’s story identifies two spirits at work. The Holy Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness—and an unholy spirit tested him there. Discernment is the process of sorting out what voices are of God and what voices are not. Discernment is the spiritual equivalent of tuning the radio to the right station to hear one voice clearly and eliminate the distracting static. Both spirits—holy and unholy—operate through attraction, allurement, not force. God lures us forward in Love. Another spirit lures us toward Power and Privilege.

Remember what has happened just before this story? Jesus was baptized (Luke 3), and at that time the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven named him “Beloved Son” who pleased God. The very thing that can empower us to go out and give our lives for the good of others—this sense of calling and specialness—can tempt us into self-indulgence and addict us to others’ approval and insulate us from the perspective and plight of others. In the next chapter (Luke 4) we read today that the devil will flatter Jesus. How easily it would have been to mistake the devil’s flattery for the voice that named Jesus “beloved son.” Do you hear how “Beloved Son in whom I’m well pleased” resembles “Son of God to whom I give all authority”? Both Love and Flattery sound similar. Both draw us in. God’s voice emphasizes God’s Love; the devil’s words stress his Power.

John Haught, in his book God after Darwin, bases his understanding about how God acts in this world on evolutionary science and theology. Haught’s idea is that God is not the cosmic puppeteer who pulls our strings and intervenes in human events. Instead, God operates solely as a force or energy or movement or spirit luring us toward love, beckoning us into a not-fully-determined future, inviting or prompting creation into greater life and connection. But today’s Gospel reading suggests there are also negative energies. And Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer includes this plea from Jesus: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (Luke 11:4). Jesus found God’s loving voice winsome and winning. Jesus was able to resist the lure of self-advancement and power.

Privilege and power are dangerous. Because once we have power, we see it as intrinsic and rightful. Jesus, once named Beloved Son, could have then given in to the unholy spirit’s allurement, could have convinced himself that he deserved power and privilege. Instead, the Beloved Son made his pecking order the inverse of the world’s. So he put children first. He prioritized others who ordinarily would have been overlooked or shouted down or stepped on.

This week three feminist icons—strong, trailblazing, brilliant, not-afraid-to-speak-the-truth women who fought against male privilege to reach the pinnacles of power in their respective fields—demonstrated that unacknowledged privilege can prevent even the most generous from sharing power with others. Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem and Meryl Streep were “placed . . . on the pinnacle of the temples” our culture has erected. I hope I’m not being too harsh here, but this week, it seems to me, they may have succumbed to the temptations of power and privilege.This week Madeleine Albright, in supporting Hillary Clinton for president, insulted some women with this line: “Remember, hell has a special place for women who don’t support other women.” –as if being a true feminist requires women to make decisions based solely on the gender criterion. This week Gloria Steinem also insulted some women in an uncharacteristically un-feminist suggestion that millennial women supporting Bernie Sanders were doing so because “the boys are with Bernie.” I believe they both have since apologized.

This week actress Meryl Streep also drew criticism for defending her all-white film festival jury in Germany because “we’re all Africans, really”—seeming to minimize the importance of diversity at a festival noted for its social and political influence and in an art and industry that arguably has greater influence in society than any other art and industry.

Madeleine, you diplomatic leader of government; Gloria, you courageous leader of a social movement; Meryl, you stellar leader of the arts, Sisters, how difficult it must be to have your every word measured. But beware of the power you exert from your pinnacles.

Most of the time you and I probably think we have little power. Who really pays attention to our words? But even if our power is not presidential, we nevertheless bear a great responsibility for using it well. And sharing it selflessly with others.

O God, may we find your voice attractive and your ways winsome. May we exert whatever power we have to serve others.

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