Sunday, February 17, A Curly-Headed Blonde

I’ve told this story a number of times in a number of situations but given today’s gospel, given the painting in your bulletin this morning, it seems particularly appropriate so I’m gonna tell it again and ask those of you who have heard it already to pay attention anyway. I served my internship on Long Island, New York, in an odd little town, at a nice little church. The reason I wear my Clerical collar as often as I do is due to the Supervising Pastor who insisted on its wearing because, as he told me, “you should know what it feels like to wear it everyday and everywhere before you decide whether or not you wear it in your own ministry.”

My Supervisor was a very good administrator, an excellent visitor of the sick and home-bound, a good boss and a terrific internship supervisor.

He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great preacher.

He knew it, everyone in the church knew it, it was something that he worked on, taking extra classes and entering into study groups, but he was not someone who had the kind of mind that plumbed the depths of the scriptures in order to find the relevant verse for the people in the pews that week. Great at very many things, truly gifted, but that was not one of them.

And it should be understood that Long Island is NOT Northern California. These were people who were constantly surprised that the houses that they had bought when they were first married were now worth seven hundred thousand dollars.

Very working class, old school Catholic and truly observant Jewish was the atmosphere; with scores of families walking home after services on Saturdays, with a great sense of gratitude and awe at their sudden and unexpected wealth. They were even a little suspicious, as if the other shoe was bound to drop, you know, the way that NOBODY was in California before the crash?

They have an odd reverence for the clergy which is certainly a remnant of the Catholic culture out there, all of the Catholic Churches are specifically Roman Catholic Churches, they are serious.

Well, they are sort of serious.

This is the land of sacramental seriousness. I actually had Catholics admit to me that they would show up at Mass about thirty five minutes late in order to step through the rear doors of the sanctuary, get into the line for communion, receive the Body and the Blood of Christ with the rest of those gathered, and then exit from the line and from the sanctuary and go about their merry way.

They came for “the important part” and got what they had come for, and then they were gone.

Sacramental seriousness, but not faith seriousness.

When you visited people in the parish some would clasp your hand and kiss it. Some would insist on making a show of providing for you a lunch or some kind of snack that they created themselves, that they labored over, as an offering.

Solid, Catholic, Working-class people living in uncomfortable affluence of property; none of them had any extra money, they just had a house that had quadrupled in value. They worshiped in a Lutheran church for a variety of reasons, but as I have always liked to say, “if your scratched a Lutheran on long Island, you found a catholic underneath.”

On Stewardship Sunday, many years gone now. My supervisor delivered what was quite possibly his best sermon of the entire time I was there. Okay, no beating around the bush, this was his very best sermon. It had nuance and flair, it was like Caitlyn waking up and suddenly being able to play the cello, it was that good. I wished that I had written it, that was how good it was.

He wove a story about living in a dream. We close our eyes and see what the possibilities are if we dedicate ourselves to living our values, to living the Gospel truth, to giving of ourselves as if our neighbor was as loved as we ourselves were.

What could be done if we turned our spare hours to something more edifying than watching America’s Next Top Model or NCIS? If we stopped looking past the latino population and saw them as neighbors instead of “the help” how could we change their world and in so doing, change ours?

As an aside, I think that the folks out there were much less conscious of their Latino population than we are here. I asked if the church had any kind of contact with the the Latino population since the congregation looked at least as white as this one. He told me, and I think that he and the rest of them actually believed this at the time, that there really weren’t that many Latinos in the population.

We took a drive to visit the funeral home nearby and I counted the fourteen Latinos I saw along the way, including those who served us our food or who worked at the carwash or any of the other support positions that surrounded all of the Anglos on Long Island and told him of my count. He was stunned. He hadn’t even seen them, they were just a part of the wallpaper.

The funeral home was less than a mile from the church.

Back to the sermon. Pastors know how much you make. We do, not specifically, but we have access, the same as anyone, to demographic information and we know how much a population makes. My supervisor looked into what the aggregate income of his flock might be and continued to spin out visions and dreams of what the world might be like if the people in the flock were to give a full tithe of the money that they made, what would the resources of the church be?

If they gave ten percent we’d have such and such a sum of money, enough to provide a hot meal to every hungry person in their town and the two neighboring towns. After that they could fund a clothes closet which could expand their annual coat drive for a disadvantaged neighborhood in the City to something that could provide warm clothing to every school child in their town, and the two neighboring towns.

Then they could live and worship within their sanctuary in the comfort of living their values and being the Gospel community that they so desired to be in the knowledge that they still had twice as much money in the budget as they did now. Twice as much left over, after doing a load of good.

He let that sit for a minute and then went on. What could they accomplish if everyone in the congregation gave seven percent, after all, ten is a lot to ask, some people might struggle with that and so he laid out some entirely different ministries that the church could be engaged in. The food bank, the low income housing. Then he let them know how much was leftover, which was, of course, more than their annual budget.

Five percent was discussed. Then four, then three.

When they finally got down to two, well, he figured that they’d have to tighten their budget since that was just about where they were, maybe a little less than their current level of giving. They gave as a congregation somewhere around 2 and a quarter percent of their income and with that, they got to do exactly what they were doing then, little extra room for dreaming, little extra room for doing more good in a way that required money.

And he looked around, at the current sanctuary, at the new gymnasium cum worship center where they held their, for want of a better name, contemporary worship that they had just completed a few years earlier. He pointed out the things that they were already doing and said, that they were already living within the reality of their giving. What would it be like if they let themselves dream?

Terrific sermon.

The very next Wednesday at the bible Study, one of those Lutheran/Catholic people, devoted to the church and to their pastor, made the following comment.

“I just wanted to thank Pastor for the wonderful sermon this past Sunday. It is so nice to hear a good stewardship sermon that lets us know that we don’t actually have to give ten percent, that we can give two and still be a good church!”, I think my jaw landed with a resounding thud on the table but nobody noticed, thankfully. It was then that I learned a very important thing about ministry. What you intend to preach is not always what people hear. Best sermon of the year; completely missed the point.

Take a look at the picture that you have in the bulletins this morning. It is a painting by Titian, a fifteenth century Italian Painter, and I’ve lightened it up a bit so you could see it as Titian painted a fair number of dark paintings.

It is a painting of Jesus and a young boy. The boy has blonde curls and is fair of countenance as they might have said in the fifteenth century. They appear to be in conversation about something or other. When I asked you to think of what the title might be, what did you come up with? Some of the people I’ve asked have mentioned “let the little children come unto me” or something like that. After all, the picture is serene and calm, no strife, Jesus seems to be having a simple conversation with the young lad, he’s got the nimbus of the glory of God shining behind his head, and all seems right with the world.

Now read with me a couple of verses from today’s Gospel.  “The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ” and now look at the painting again.

What is in the young boy’s hands?

The painting is called The Temptation of Christ. In it Titian shatters the notion that when the devil comes, he will be ugly, scaly, red horns, tail, pitchfork, the smell of brimstone will be upon him. Look at the painting, the boy looks like he smells of lilies and hyacinths.

When we think of temptation it is easy to think of the windows in Amsterdam where the prostitutes display their wares in search of clients and their money. Temptation is lurid and obvious, it is the hundred dollar bill fluttering from the pocket of the unaware stranger, it is the luscious layer cake when you are on a diet, it is the lovely co-worker when your spouse is out of town.

But temptation is almost never that obvious. Temptation comes in the form of the sweet child with blonde curls. Temptation is the sweet song of the insurance policy that whispers that safety and security are worth trading a little bit of your dreams for how the kingdom of God might look.

Temptation is the comfort of being safe and warm because of the labor of others without actually seeing them in your community so that you can actually render them invisible to your eyes.

Temptation is often veiled as skepticism, prejudice and any of the “isms” that plague our society, e as racism, ageism, sexism, the treating of someone differently because they look, sound, or even just “seem” different, temptation tells us to react without thinking, without seeing through the eyes of Christ, after all, that might be hard, and the point of living is for things to get easier.

Temptation tells you that your time is more precious than your community; after all, we like having dinner with friends, but there’s all that logistics of finding a date that everyone can get together and designing a menu that everyone can eat and besides, Desperate Housewives is on that day and I can’t miss it!

Temptation is not the prostitute in the window, she’s easy enough to avoid. Temptation is the curly-headed young boy, comely and fair, with sweet words and soothing tones, telling you always that you are the center of the world, the most important person in any situation, it is you pleasure, your future, your safety, your property that are important. Temptation is the very easy lure of thinking that it is all about you.

That is what is going on this morning in Luke. The character of the Devil is tempting Jesus, to, what? What is it that the Devil is tempting Jesus to do?

Think only of Himself, to prove His majesty and Glory by acting as the Son of God should act. Use the power that you have to solve your problems, he says. Hungry? take this stone and turn it to bread, says the Devil, under his breath he whispers, “pay no attention to those other hungry people over there.”

Feeling a little restrained by only being able to see through those tiny human eyes? I will give you the breadth and scope of all of creation if only you will, hey, I’m over here, hey, stop looking at those people over there, if only you will take up your position as Son of God and stop all of this nonsense about coming in flesh.

Not getting the recognition you deserve? Let me help you shed this mortal coil and take upon yourself the station you were born to. Never mind the lessons, the ministries, the teaching that you were doing, let me help you prove yourself the Son of God and we can turn this world upside down.

Think about yourself, save yourself, says the devil.

Sweet words; no diabolic, brim-stoned presence.

Temptation is the voice that whispers that you can, that you must do it all yourself. Temptation whispers that other people should not be your concern, let them take care of themselves, you have to take care of yourself.

Our blessing is that we have the example of Christ to lead us. We have the strength left to us by Christ to listen more to the Holy Spirit to than the whispers of temptation, to hear the voice that calls us to see more than ourselves, to hear more than our own wants and needs, to see all men and women as brothers and sisters.

That is what temptation tries to draw us away from, the knowledge that we are stronger and better together, in brotherhood than we are alone. Temptation tries to isolate us and make us think we can do it all, have it all, see it all and be lauded for it all, all by ourselves because all by ourselves we are much easier to knock down, much easier to defeat and lead astray.

The devil gave up after forty days. We have the temptation the entirety of our lives, but we have the same strength that Jesus did. We know the mission of God, we feel the love of Christ for us and for the whole world, we know that we can always find a refuge from selfishness, ours and the selfishness of others, in the grace of God.

It is a strength beyond the devil, beyond the world, beyond the power of Madison Avenue or Wall Street. It is the power of the Body of Christ to live with and for each other, and to transform the whole world into a place of peace, a place of hope.

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