Savior Sings the Blues


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We need to know that others have felt bad, suffered and come through it–with a new song to sing. What song is your suffering composing? Where do you get the strength to go on?

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
   and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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Introduction

Calvary’s theme this Lent is “A Way other than Our Own” which is also the title of our Lenten daily devotional[1] and will be studied in covenant groups. Lent is the Christian version of Ramadan: both religious festivals include fasting, helping the poor, self-discipline and worshiping the God of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah.[2] As an exercise in self-discipline, I urge you to read the opening verses of Matthew 4 on your own. I say this because we will not be reading from the standard translation of the Bible today.

Cotton Patch Gospel

Clarence Jordan’s translation of Matthew was so popular in the 1970s it was adapted for the stage. In this scriptural paraphrase, the Jesus story is reset in rural Georgia. That’s where I from, too, just like Jesus! Rev. Jordan calls his version The Cotton Patch Gospel. To bring it to life today, please welcome Dave Barnes as Jesus, and in her most demanding role to date, Anne Grawemeyer as the Devil, assisted by Michael Conley and our own heavenly Choir.  In this version, Satan appears in three guises: a media mogul, a malicious wheeler-dealer, but first, as a formidable head waiter. “And now,” as they say, “for something completely different.”[3] Please welcome The Cotton Patch Players, and listen for God’s word.

Matthew 4:1-11, The Cotton Patch Gospel Version [4] [5]

Matthew: Jesus was led by the Spirit into the country to be given a test. This test started with a forty day fast for Jesus, forty days—no food. So you can well imagine that Jesus was extremely hungry.
Satan One (a formidable head-waiter type): So pleased to meet you. May I make a suggestion? If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made into grits!
Jesus: Man does not live by grits alone, but on every word that drips from the lips of God.
Heavenly Choir: Hallelujah!

Matthew: Again, Jesus was taken to Atlanta, out onto the steeple of First [Presbyterian] Church.
Satan Two (wheeler-dealer): Hey Jesus! I got a five-hundred dollar bet going that says you really are the Son of God. The Bible says you got angels seeing to it you don’t even stump your toe.  (regarding the congregation below) C’mon now while everyone’s looking. Jump on down there and prove it. Let the angels save you. Hurry up!  Oh for goodness sake, somebody push him. (“Devil” music stops abruptly.)
Jesus: So this is easy. I just jump down and…—uh, wait a minute! I just remembered. The Bible also says, “You shall not test the Lord your God!”
Heavenly Choir: Hallelujah!

Matthew: Still, a third time, Jesus was taken to an impressive looking board room where a woman in a power suit had presented him with a globe of the world.
Satan Three (a media mogul): Now, Mr. Jesus, I doubt that you are aware of the powers over the media we possess here. But, what I want to make clear to you today is that if we do endorse your, uh… cause… we could have practically every member of the free world ready to support you.
Jesus (incredulously): I know you. You show up in different places, but it’s still you. No! No, I will not let anybody run my “cause” but God. (pause) Scram, Satan!
Heavenly Choir: Hallelujah!

Jesus: I passed! I passed!
Matthew: And with that, the Devil left him,  Then angels appeared with a sack of chili cheese dogs for him.

(The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.)

 Misery Loves Company

Many of you probably know the Geico commercial[6] that features three raccoons who are foraging through trash cans in a suburban neighborhood under cover of night. While eating garbage, one raccoon says to the others:

“Whoa, this is awful. Try it. You’ve got to try it, it’s terrible. It’s like mango chutney and burnt hair. Just try it.” [And, since they are friends, the other raccoons try it while the announcer’s voice says] when you taste something bad, you want someone else to try it. That’s just what you do.

That’s just what we do.

Misery loves company. Actually, misery requires the company of a witness, so that the misery can be seen and heard—and eventually processed. Sharing the load makes it easier to bear. Perhaps the message of this sermon is summed up in the classic church bulletin blooper:  Don’t let your worries kill you, let the church help.[7]

Worries, misery, burdens, griefs — whatever your circumstances, you can bear anything with enough help from your support system. How do I know this? Because God chose to experience human misery by through the body of Jesus Christ. I am talking about surviving the daily grind[8]  that often feels like pushing rocks uphill. With some help from your friends you can make it through, for with God all things are possible, no matter your circumstance. Today I hope we’ll learn some of what Lent is about: self-discipline, justice and the courage to say no.

Arrival: The Story of Your Life

“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”

Let me add some specifics. What if you knew that your only child, a daughter whom you love beyond words, would contract a rare and incurable disease and, by the age of twelve, you would have to hold her hand as she lost her hair and her life. If you knew this before conceiving this child, would you still choose to the path that brings this child into your life?

That’s the plot for the movie Arrival.[9] Amy Adams plays a mother named Louise, and yes, it has some very cool aliens in it, too, the Heptapods, but Arrival is so not about aliens. It’s about love and loss, the depths of language and what might happen were the world’s nations to choose, someday, to cooperate. Arrival has become my Lenten prayer. And did I mention it has cool aliens, individuals from a heavenly place, who propose a new way of being. (Sounds like Jesus….) The humans in Arrival are tempted to destroy the aliens because, well, have you been keeping up with the news? We are a paranoid and fearful species, quick to label what we do not understand as evil.

The devil made me do it.

Today, Jesus meets up with the very devil, the Aramaic word for “devil” would’ve implied “a slanderer” or one who is the source of gnawing ridicule.[10] Turning to today’s scripture, the Aramaic[11] word for temptation in today’s lesson would mean to test and to prove one’s self. Perhaps we could consider this story Jesus’ proving ground, his personal retreat to get ready for public ministry.  Since no one was there with Jesus, and there was no reporter on hand to cover these events, this story cannot be a historical account. No, it’s better than that and truer than any history could ever be. This lesson is all about the universal inner struggle we share, the struggles we endure, and the demons we must face down.

Focus on Matthew 4:5-7, Jesus Sings the Blues

My favorite queer theologian, Marcella Althaus-Reid,[12] writes beautifully of Jesus in the wilderness.  She describes the type-scene of the desert as “the location where many people who did not fit in with society were to be found.”[13] Jesus, she writes, “is an isolated man who is hungry, unemployed… He has no money to buy [bread], neither has he a family who will provide for him)…” Focusing on Matthew 4:5-7, Althaus-Reid argues that Jesus is experiencing “suicidal thoughts.”[14]

As in the Hitchcock classic of 1940, Rebecca, where Mrs. Danvers played by the deliciously evil Judith Anderson goads Joan Fontaine to “Go ahead. Jump. Jump, and it will all be over.”[15] So does the devil gnaw at Jesus, just as our demons gnaw at us. Althaus-Reid continues: “This [Jesus] is a man who is wondering if anyone in the entire universe would care if he threw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, [Was this a] religious protest [?] …Were the temple authorities, traditions and regulations driving him mad?”[16]

What’s eating you? What burdens are your carrying? There’s a lot of mean-n-crazy floating around today.

Want to hear something really awful? (No really, it’s terrible. You’ve got to hear this.) The World Health Organization figures that someone, somewhere in the world, commits suicide every 40 seconds. 75% of these suicides occur in locations of war and poverty. That’s why it’s important that we understand the realities of poverty just as our Muslim sisters and brothers honor poverty during Ramadan. There’s no better time than Lent to volunteer with one of Calvary’s poverty-fighting ministries. There’s no better antidote to depression than helping someone who needs your help.

The only way around is through.

Later on in Arrival—and this is not a spoiler—Louise declares, “Despite knowing the [pain of this life’s journey and where it leads, I [choose to] embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.”[17] She decides to accept the sour along with the sweet, the yin along with the yang, the joy along with the grief — is the only way through, the yin with the yang, because this life is not a buffet where we get to pass by the suffering.  Poet David Whyte puts it this way:

“I want to know if you are wiling
to live, day by day, with the consequence[s] of love
and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.”[18] [19]

At the Communion Table

Compassion is all that Lent demands. Compassion means we all suffer together. When you suffer, I suffer. When I suffer, you suffer. The Christian bonus is this: Jesus suffers with us. Knowing that he would be sabotaged because of his political and religious opinions, Jesus still called together his friends, even the ones who would fail him, and—of all things they could’ve done—he chose to love them, and share a meal, and sing.[20]

Sung at the Piano
I feel like going on,
I feel like going on,
Though trails mount on ev’ry hand,
I feel like going on.[21]

[1] Walter Brueggemann, with Richard Floyd, editor, A Way Other than our Own. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

[2] Thanks to my friend Ahmed (Mail Access, 2261 Market) for engaging me in a conversation comparing our faiths.

[3] With deference to Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)

[4] Cotton Patch Gospel: The Greatest Story Ever Retold (stage version) based on “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John” by Rev. Clarence Jordan, Koininia Community, Americus, Georgia USA. This script is adapted from the 1981 musical theater version by Tom Key, Harry Chapin and Russell Treyz.[4] CAST LIST: Matthew: Victor Floyd; Satan 1,2,3: Anne Grawemeyer; Jesus: David Barnes.

[5] Matthew 4:1-11, NRSV Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

[6] Accessed online at <https://www.ispot.tv/ad/AW_9/geico-raccoons-cmon-try-it-its-what-you-do> (March 2, 2017)

[7] They’re some doozies. <http://www.skrause.org/humor/church.shtml>

[8] Mainly because I have huge reservations about substitutional atonement, and, truth be told, I do not preach it or understand why anyone would. In substitutional atonement, God would be described best as a terrible parent who sent his only son to suffer and die because people are miserable failures. I espouse the theology of “original blessing” over permeating sin, but that’s another sermon.

[9] Pastoral Opinion: Oscars. Arrival was the most profound movie of 2016, even more than Moonlight which was groundbreaking, more than Hidden Figures which should’ve won the Oscar, more than La La Land which was much-needed beauty, and much more than Manchester-by-the-Sea which was stupidly hopeless.

[10] Rocco Errico & George Lamsa, Aramaic Light on the Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Teachings of Jesus from the Aramaic and Unchanged Near Eastern Customs, Noohra Foundation Publications, 2000.  (In this sermon, Aramaic references rely on this source—and Calvary’s Aramaic scholar Arlene Jech.)

[11] Paradoxically, Jesus did not speak the Koine Greek in which the New Testament is written. Instead, he spoke ancient Aramaic, a language rich in metaphor and spiritual layers. My thanks to Calvary deacon Arlene Jech who keeps me well-fed with pearls of Aramaic wisdom.

[12] For more information on Marcella Althaus-Reid, see Kit Cherry’s 2017 article at <http://qspirit.net/marcella-althaus-reid-queer-theology/> (March 5, 2017)   In 2009, I received the Marcella Althaus-Reid Queer Theology Award from my seminary, Pacific School of Religion (PSR)/Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies (CLGS)/Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California.

[13] Marcella Althaus-Reid in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. Guest, Goss, West, Bohache (London: SCM Press, 2007), Chapter on Mark, p. 320. Here, Althaus-Reid is referring to Matthew 4 while interpreting Mark’s version of the same story.

[14] Ibid.

[15] <http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0004131/quotes>

[16] Ibid.

[17] Emily Rome, “How Arrival Turned Linguistics Into One of the Most Gripping Dramas of the Year” Gizmodo, accessed online at <http://io9.gizmodo.com/how-arrival-turned-linguistics-into-one-of-the-most-gri-1789009881> (March 2, 2017)

[18] My thanks to Calvary’s development director, Robin Morjikian, for sharing this poem with the staff.

[19] “Self Portrait” by David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems, Revised. Many Rivers Press, 2012.

[20] Matthew 26:26-30:  While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’ When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

[21] by Edwins Hawkins

 

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