Not Going it Alone

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached February 27, 2010 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11: "Then you ... shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house."
Luke 4:1-13: "for forty days he was tempted by the devil"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

In 1965, the Beatles released a movie called "Help!" One of our songs today is the theme song for that movie. Help! spent three weeks at the top of the pop charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. Feel free to sing along!

Help, I need somebody
Help, not just anybody,
Help, you know I need someone, Help.

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody's help in any way.
But now these days are gone,
I'm not so self assured,
Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors.

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won't you please, please help me?

I think I may have missed my calling. I often wonder if my true calling had been to become a hermit. About ten or eleven years ago, I lived in Atlanta. I had bought a little two bedroom house in an up-and-coming neighborhood. I was working the night shift at CNN. I had two dogs and three cats - five children, just like my mom and dad did. I lived in one of the most exciting cities, with great restaurants and a bustling nightlife, and, I had no desire to really leave the house.

Thankfully, back then, there existed something called "Webvan." This was an Internet-based grocery shopping service. You went online and shopped for your groceries - selected what you wanted and put in your order. The next day, a van showed up at your door, a nice man - or woman - unloaded your groceries, ran your debit card through their amazing hand-held machine and they were off.

I often fantasized about quitting CNN and getting a telecommuting job. That way, I'd never have to leave the house. I'd have a job and groceries - what else did I need? There was one flaw in my plan, however. Georgia has a law against delivering alcohol to private residences, so the one thing Webvan could not deliver to me was beer. So, my plan to become a hermit was destroyed because no matter what, I'd still have to make a beer run now and then.

During this time, I was also, intentionally - not going to church. I was in seminary at the time and figured I got a daily dose of God - so who needed a church community? There was also a deeper reason. After being involved in church for many years, I had come to understand just how messy community can get, and frankly I was tired of it. I was tired of the little power struggles between groups within the church. I was tired of people forming their little cliques and refusing to welcome others they didn't already know. I was tired of the complaining, the backbiting, the gossip, and the pettiness that can come along with any type of community. Being a hermit seemed like a slice of heaven. The only ones who complained in my house were the animals when I was late feeding them.

The ancient Israelites knew a thing or two about messy community. Their entire history is rife with stories about how they tried to work together not just for one another but to please God as well. They always failed. They always gave in to some manner of temptation. While wandering in the desert they built a golden calf to worship. They whined about being hungry and even the miracle of manna from heaven didn't stop them from once again forgetting about God's care for them as they pursued other gods.

Given the messiness of their community, I can imagine there were probably more than a few Israelites who would have preferred to be a hermits - calling on an ancient "Camel-van" to deliver their groceries and finding a job where they didn't have to deal with such maddening people. I'm sure they were certain they could go it alone and be just fine. They didn't need any help connecting with God.

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways,
My independence seems to vanish in the haze.
But every now and then I feel so insecure,
I know that I just need you like I've never done before.

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won't you please, please help me?

The reading from Deuteronomy today was a reminder to the ancient Hebrews to give thanks to God for all the blessings they had received despite their bellyaching. They are instructed to perform a ritual of thanksgiving - to bring their first fruits to the priest and remember how God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

It may seem like an individual act of sacrifice - bringing your best to God's house - but it is a deeply communal act - because the Israelites are instructed to remember their story. The scriptures command them to think back through all the times they have spent in community - the times when it was good and the times when it was bad. Without those experiences in community, there would be no present, and there would be no future. One person wandering in the wilderness would never have made it to the promised land. It was only as a community - the messy, maddening, frustrating community - that the Israelites made it to their home. Likewise, it's only in community that the Israelites would progress and survive into the future. The same is true of our community. Without our shared past there would not be this present moment , and if we fail to move forward as a community - shaping our sacred story together, there will be no real, meaningful, future for us.

After the sacrifice and ritual of remembrance, the ancient Hebrews are instructed to throw a party - and not alone, or even with just their own people. They are told to celebrate "with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you." That means community doesn't just include those closest to us - but includes everyone - friend and foe alike. The world is our ultimate community - and we're all invited to God's party.

Breathe deeply.

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody's help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I'm not so self assured,
Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors.

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won't you please, please help me, help me, help me, Oooo.

During the late 1970s music phenomenon called "New Wave" a band called Squeeze came onto the scene. This English band was fronted by Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook - a modern day Lennon and McCartney. They had several hits including this one called "Tempted." Even though the song never cracked the top 40 in 1980s, the song is still one of the group's most popular. Sing along if you know it.

I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a flannel for my face
Pajamas, a hairbrush, new shoes and a case.
I said to my reflection, Let's get out of this place.
Passed the church and the steeple, the laundry on the hill
Billboards and the buildings,
Memories of it still keep calling and calling
But forget it all I know I will

Tempted by the fruit of another
Tempted but the truth is discovered
What's been going on now that you have gone
There's no other
Tempted by the fruit of another
Tempted but the truth is discovered

In our reading from the Jesus story we find ourselves out in the wilderness with Jesus. In Luke's account, Jesus has already read scripture in the temple as a little boy, had his ministry predicted by John the Baptist, was baptized by John, and given God's stamp of approval for his ministry. So far, Jesus has been riding pretty high. In fact, Luke even mentions that he's "full of the Holy Spirit" at this point, and who wouldn't be after all those Spirit filled events?

This is often the case even in our own lives. It seems that the moment we're riding the highest in our life, something happens that brings us right back down to earth. Things are great and then, BAM!, we're picking ourselves up off the ground wondering what in the heck happened. I imagined Jesus felt this way. He's full of the Holy Spirit - beginning an amazing ministry - one that would change the world. Whoa! That's a lot to ask of anyone. I imagine Jesus had his doubts, wondering if he was up to the job. I imagine, too, he was tempted to take advantage of his position.

"Hey, if I'm the most powerful son of God around - what could I do?"

It reminds me of the movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey's character was given all of God's power. His first few acts were all self-serving - clearing traffic, giving himself a snazzy new car, making his girlfriend's breasts larger. When you have that much power there must be an overwhelming temptation to abuse it. As we see in this passage, all of the temptations that come to Jesus are temptations to use his power to serve himself.

He's tempted to turn a stone to bread - to feed just himself. He'll never go hungry with all his power. He's tempted to take over the world - to make it his own. This may sound like a great idea - Jesus taking over the world and shaping it as he sees fit - but even Jesus knows that absolute power corrupts absolutely. No one, not even Jesus, can resist the corruption that absolute power brings. He prefers to give power to people - to those who would follow him - instead of being an ultimate ruler.

Finally, he's tempted to show off - to perform tricks - like throwing himself off a pinnacle so the angels would have to catch him. Bruce Almighty might find that kind of abuse of power amusing - but Jesus understood that his power was precious and was not meant to be used to be selfish, powerful, or a showboat. He refused to be tempted.

I'm at the carpark, the airport, the baggage carousel
The people keep on grabbing, and wishing I was well
I said, "It's no occasion. It's no story I can tell."
At my bedside, empty pocket, a foot without a sock
Your body gets much closer,
I fumble for the clock, alarmed by the seduction
I wish that it would stop

Tempted by the fruit of another
Tempted but the truth is discovered
What's been going on now that you have gone
There's no other
Tempted by the fruit of another
Tempted but the truth is discovered

But, what does Jesus' temptation have to do with the importance of community, and how does it relate to our reading from the Hebrew scriptures? The two don't seem to go together at all, do they?

At the heart of Jesus' temptations was the temptation to go it alone - the temptation to feed himself, to be in power by himself, and to show off just what a special individual he was. He resisted all of these temptations. Not long after his time in the wilderness, Jesus gathered a community of disciples - a group he could share bread with, a group he could share power with, and a group that, through his teachings, would learn just how special we all are in God's eyes.

By going through these very common temptations, Jesus is showing us a path for our own lives. We must reject all temptations to be selfish, to oppress others even when we have the power to do so, and to avoid acting superior to anyone. God knows that every moment of the day we are tempted. We're tempted to cheat - on our spouse, on our taxes, on the speed limit. We're tempted to take the easy way out, to avert our eyes when we see a homeless person on the street, to turn a blind eye to suffering, or blame others for our own suffering. We're tempted to keep our daily bread for ourselves instead of sharing it. We're tempted to be arrogant, to think we have all the answers and that God loves us best. We're tempted to exercise our power over others instead of coming into community and sharing power with others.

Those temptations come daily, sometimes hourly. Every day we spend 40 days in the wilderness, trying to overcome all the temptations that can separate us from God and from community. Some days we even manage to overcome those temptations - to emerge from the wilderness into the promised land - dwelling in God's presence and in community.

In those moments, when we overcome temptation and arrive in the promised land, we can turn to Deuteronomy for what to do next - bring our first fruits to God, remember our past and how God has carried us through all of our trials and temptations - and throw a party.

But, whenever you overcome temptation, don't get too comfortable. Jesus resisted all the temptations he faced, but those temptations weren't gone forever. The scriptures say Jesus' tempter "departed from him until an opportune time." Just like the Terminator, the devil always says, "I'll be back!" So, we can't let our guard down. We can celebrate our victories, but we must remain alert - because our tempter will always find another opportunity to lead us astray.

This is why being in community is so difficult and messy. We are so often tempted to give it up, to go it alone, because often the frustrations of community seem to outweigh the benefits. But, while being on our own with God may sound great, our faith only really grows in community, where we are tested by one another, instructed by one another, and most of all, cared for by one another. This is where our past, present, and future meet God, and are blessed.

Lent is a perfect time to practice the ancient ritual outlined in Deuteronomy. Now, as a cradle Southern Baptist, the word "lent" only had two meanings. It was either something you found in your pocket, or in the dryer filter, or it meant you had "lent" someone something like a pencil or a book. But, to the church, Lent is the 40 days leading up to Easter. The word comes from the Old English "lenten" which means "spring." Writer and pastor Barbara Brown Taylor calls Lent "an invitation to a springtime for the soul. Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves."

That's why, during Lent, many people give up some sort of creature comfort like chocolate or some other favorite food or activity. But, there are other things we could give up. I invite you to think deeply on this. What would happen if you gave up grumbling, and instead "in everything" gave thanks? What would happen if you stopped seeing the worst in others and instead focused on their best points?

What would happen if you gave up your worries and anxieties and trusted God to work things out? What if you gave up a night out for yourself and instead visited someone who was sick or lonely? What would happen if you committed to giving your first fruits - the very best of your life - to God? What would happen if you committed to giving those first fruits - your gifts of time, talent, and yes, money - to the community - where you meet God in one another? What would happen if you committed to celebrating God's grace and goodness not just in this community that you know, but with the aliens - with the strangers - even those you may consider as "other"?

What would happen if you gave up any idea of going it alone and making sure that for the next 40 days you found new ways to be in community with those around you - whether they are friends, co-workers, strangers, or even enemies?

What would happen? Imagine the possibilities ...

I bought a novel, some perfume, a fortune all for you
But it's not my conscience that hates to be untrue.
I asked of my reflection, Tell me what is there to do?

Tempted by the fruit of another
Tempted but the truth is discovered
What's been going on now that you have gone
There's no other
Tempted by the fruit of another
Tempted but the truth is discovered

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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