Sermon preached February 21, 2010
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
This may be difficult for you to imagine, but this story is true. Years ago, when I was in college, I had a number of people tell me I looked like the actor John Ritter. This was when he was on the television show Three’s Company – a show about a single man who ends up sharing an apartment with two single women so they can all save on the rent. Suzanne Sommers played one of the roommates. It was not high art, but being thought to look like John Ritter wasn’t so bad. Back then, if someone asked who I might like to play my life if a movie were made, I could have gladly said, “John Ritter.”
Times change. If I were more honest with myself and were asked “Who should play you if a movie were made about you life?” I should probably answer someone like Danny Devito or Stanley Tucci. Times do change.
Have you ever in some moment of reverie thought about what a movie about your life might be like? Have you ever wondered who you would like to play the starring role? Have you ever wondered what it might be like to make movies for a living? Have you ever imagined your life being very different from the life you have? I am guessing that we all have done that, and it is fun to imagine such things.
But I also wonder if we are not tempted to do more than pretend our lives were very different. Are we tempted, sometimes, and do we give into the temptation, sometimes, to hide from ourselves, to hide from God’s call and invitation in our lives right here, right now? Are we tempted to imagine that God really can’t do much with the lives we have, with the person we are? Are we tempted by the fruit of another – another life, another identity?
The temptation story of Jesus can be read as a story of temptation to be other. Jesus has had a powerful experience of the Spirit at his baptism, and feels led by this same Spirit into the wilderness. Jesus is discerning the meaning of these powerful Spirit experiences. How is it possible that he, a simple person whose mother is Mary and whose father is not a learned scholar nor religious leader but a laborer, how is it possible that God’s Spirit should be calling him so powerfully? What will this call mean for his life? How can he live it out with integrity and authenticity in the context of who he is?
The temptations to be other come. If only he were some kind of magician wowing the crowds with turning stones into bread. But he knows that is he is to live out this call of God in his life he needs to use whatever Spirit power he has not to wow the crowds with magic, but to heal and feed. If only he became a part of the ruling elite, think of the possibilities for getting his message out. Think of the good he could do. But his call is not to rule, but to change the rules, to share a picture of what God’s dream for the world is. “What would the world be like if God’s dream for it were fully realized?” the hungry would be fed, the outcasts would be welcomed, the brokenhearted would be cared for, peacefulness and peace would characterize lives and relationships. If only he could get everyone’s attention with spectacular feats, demonstrating that he is so special to God that the normal rules don’t apply, think of the disciples who would line up. But his call is to invite people through the wisdom of his teaching and the quality of his compassion. Jesus is tempted by the fruit of another, and he resists.
We are tempted, sometimes, to think in our own “if only” terms. Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me, “Why were you not Zusya?” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, 2) That old story is an indication of the prevalence of the temptation humans experience to wish they were other, to live in “if only” terms. If only I were born in a different time and place, if only I were taller-richer-smarter-more successful, if only I had made different decisions way back when - - - then my life would be better, then God could really do spectacular things through me. God calls us all, right here, right now as we are, to be the best we can be, to share God’s love with our lives as only we can.
Are there things in our lives that need to change sometimes? Of course. But that change process always begins where we are with who we are. Knowing about change in our lives also involves recognizing what cannot be changed. We cannot change where we were born, when we were born, and to whom we were born. We cannot change past actions, our own, or those things which are a part of our history – both happy and hurtful. All we can do with the past is grow in our understanding of it and weave and reweave it into our present. That is important work, and an important part of growing, but we cannot change that past and those things which have brought us to this place in life. And that’s o.k. because it is in this place in life that God calls us. It is as we are that God invites us to be God’s Spirit people in the world. Each of us has a call to share love and bread and healing and wisdom with the world, and only we can share it in our own way.
And all these lessons about our individual lives apply to our shared life as First United Methodist Church. We are tempted to wish, sometimes, we were other, but need to remember that God calls us right here, right now, with who we are, with our history and all, to be the best First UMC we can be, touching the world with God’s love, standing up in the world for God’s justice, bringing hope and healing as only we can. We may wish we lived in a different time when church life wasn’t quite as complicated as it is today, when Sunday morning church was the only thing happening on Sunday mornings. But we are called to minister in the name of Jesus Christ in this day and time. There are times when we may wish forty years ago we had hired a different architect so that our building does not have some of the shortcomings it has. Some day we, as a congregation may even decide that our facility has become more of a roadblock to ministry than a means to ministry. Right now, this is where we are and we are called to use this gift of a place to the best of our ability – to do things like house parental visits and music lessons, day care and health groups, to offer space to AA, to give the Hmong a place to gather at their new year, to be the site of blood drives and food drives and dental clinics, to be front porch for our community; to be a place where a congregation gathers and grows and sends itself into the world to transform it.
History is not destiny, but it is a resource for our ministry. The Israelites recognized that. Every year they were to rehearse their history. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us… the Lord saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt…” Our history has shaped our values as a congregation. A few weeks ago I offered a picture of what disciples of Jesus Christ here at First UMC look like, or what our values say they look like. Disciples of Jesus Christ here at First UMC are welcoming and inclusive – we work to keep barriers from getting in the way of community here – barriers of age, race, background, orientation. Disciples of Jesus Christ here are committed to growth – we see life as a journey. Disciples of Jesus Christ here want to bring out the best in each other, affirm our gifts. Disciples of Jesus Christ here ask questions – we want a faith that appeals to head, heart and hands, one that is open to mystery and complexity. Disciples of Jesus Christ here really want to make a difference in the world. Our history has brought us to these values and we will change our life together best as we claim these values. And we do want to change. One part of our history that I recently discovered is that for quite some time, we have tended to worship on Sunday about a third of our membership. I would like to see us do better there. But we begin where we are. God calls us as we are in this place and time to be a certain community of faith that only we can be because only we have our history and our people. That is not to diminish God’s call to other congregations, because a part of who we are is a congregation that welcomes working with others. It is simply to affirm our call to be the best First UMC we can be.
The theme for Lent this year is “from darkness to light.” Darkness is a place where our identity is hidden away. The light of God’s love helps us see who we are, affirm who we are, even when we recognize need for change, and invites us to be lights to the world. May we be so. Amen.