Not about me

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 4:1-15.

Power is a very tricky thing.  It’s neither good nor bad, it just is; part of how the universe works, like gravity or the speed of light.  Part of the architecture of existence.

But we get ourselves into all manner of trouble with it, partly because having power means we’re able to make choices… and we don’t always make good ones.  And partly because – unlike watching something fall due to gravity – power isn’t always obvious in the way it plays out, and so we get ourselves confused or even deceived about what is really going on in the way power is used.

My absolute favourite personal example of this was when I was going through the series of interviews which happen when the diocese is deciding whether or not to ordain someone.  One of the questions I was asked was, what difference would it make to me, to be ordained?  And what difference did I think it would make to other people, the people amongst whom I ministered, for me to be ordained?

My answer was that being an ordained person – wearing the clerical collar, having the title “Reverend,” embodying in some sense the authority of the church – meant that you had more power than if you were just a private person.  That people responded to you differently and that you had the potential, if careless, to do far more damage than if you were just speaking as yourself.  That you had more responsibility and needed to take more care.

The panel interviewing me found this a surprising answer; one of them, a priest, told me that he very often felt very powerless, rather than powerful.

I had difficulty keeping a straight face.  Here we were, in an interview which might well decide my entire future, and the outcome of the six years I had just invested in study; this man’s recommendation might make the difference between me being ordained and trying to work out what my “plan B” was going to be.  And he was telling me he felt powerless.

Something was out of kilter in that conversation, and I don’t think it was my answer to the question!

Today’s gospel reading is all about power too.  Who has it, and how it should be used.  “If you are the Son of God…” “If you will worship me…” are flung at the man in the desert, testing; just how much power do you have, Jesus?  And what are you going to do with it?

Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, described Jesus as setting us an example of “the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.”  And that was – and is – the truth of what power is for.  Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.  Scripture is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.

Jesus gave us this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved.  And it is the failure to meet this standard; any instance in which we see that people are being neglected, held in contempt, or hated, that we are able to recognize what the gospel describes here as “the devil.”  This is how the early church understood the real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities and nations.

But we see that even here, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus set himself to stand for a different set of values.  Values which reject personal satisfaction which comes at the expense of human flourishing.  Which reject prestige as an end in itself.  Which reject entitlement in favour of service.

If you could sum up all of Jesus’ responses to the temptations in one line, it might be, “It’s not about me.”  The key to Jesus’ approach is that there’s something more important, for him.  A bigger vision to hold on to.

And here’s where it gets interesting for us.  None of us are likely to be offered all the kingdoms of the world (although I do have those fantasies!)  But all of us, every day, have choices to make.  Moments when we have to choose between pleasing ourselves, and taking on Jesus’ “it’s not about me” approach; you might even call it his spirituality.

We might not think of ourselves as very powerful, but every time we take an action, offer an opinion, form a recommendation or make a decision, we are exercising our power.  We can do those things in formal ways, but more often we do them informally; in our social relationships with others.  And each time we do any of those things, we make choices about whether to prioritise our own selves, our desires and pleasures, or a bigger picture.

Christ embodies for us an example of someone completely committed to a bigger picture; he calls us forward into that hope for liberation, compassion and love which God presents anew in each moment.  We gather intentionally as a human community that has committed itself to be the manifestation of Christ’s spirit in the world.  That is our entire reason for being.  It’s why we’re here.

So – because it is Lent, the season for hard questions – here are two questions that I have, considering all of that.  The first is, in our progress towards being that community of justice and care, where do we get stuck?

I don’t have complete answers.  I’d love to hear what you think about it.  I did notice, when I read over the parish profile I was given before I came, how often it stressed the importance of “strong leadership,” and I wondered whether perhaps that had been something where people had felt a lack.  I wonder what “strong leadership” means to you, and what you’d like to see from the vicar – and to a lesser extent, from me – in that regard.  We could have some very fruitful conversations about that.

And my second question is, do we have clear, specific goals?  Do we think of this as being a community which can set goals and accomplish them?  Or do we think of it as a group of mostly like-minded people who enjoy gathering socially and worshipping in a familiar style?  Because while there’s nothing wrong with gathering socially and worshipping in a familiar style, that is not, in and of itself, of service to the bigger picture that Jesus was on about.  It is not an example of his “it’s not about me” approach to life.  We need to be more than that, if we’re going to really be the church as it’s meant to be.  Dare I suggest, we need to claim our power, to become conscious of it, and strategic in using it; not to let our blindness to our own power destroy our creativity and vitality.

There is an old prayer which asks God for the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people.  Perhaps that might not be a bad prayer for us, this Lent; as long as we are prepared to consider that our church might be such an unexpected place, and we might be the unexpected people!

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