A Conventional Temptation, an Unconventional Lord
by Timothy J. Mooney
Temptation. Few of us are tempted, let alone have the ability, to turn stones into bread, rule the world, or throw ourselves off spires assured of a soft landing. Our temptations are less grand than Jesus faced, but certainly they would harm our souls, if we gave in to them.
But today I don’t want to talk about the typical temptations that have probably popped into your minds. But since those temptations have popped into your mind, they will continue to tempt you unless they are addressed. So for a moment, bring to mind what usually tempts you. You know what these things are. They are not new to you. Just admitting them, confessing them, is a good spiritual practice. We often don’t want to acknowledge the things that tempt us, either because we don’t like to admit that we are tempted, or we don’t want to give those temptations any foothold in our minds. However, it’s best to be honest. So take a minute to bring to mind those things that typically tempt you, and ask God for help with them.
Good. Now set those temptations aside. Unfortunately, they will be patiently waiting for you after this service is over. But today I want to focus on a different kind of temptation. One that probably doesn’t feel like a temptation at all.
That temptation is simply: to stay the same. To stay the same; to remain in what is familiar; to remain within the walls of the box of who we see ourselves to be, of what we think of the world, of how we feel about things. Another way to put it is: we are tempted to remain in character. To keep playing the role the world has given us, or the role we’ve found or crafted for ourselves, or the role that’s worked well so far in maneuvering our way through life. Please, don’t get me wrong. Your character is fine. But would we not all admit, that we have character flaws, we have ways of being in the world that keep producing the same old results, and some of those results we’d like to be rid of? Do we not find ourselves facing the same old conflicts, problems, or situations? Why don’t those things change? Perhaps it’s because we are tempted to stay the same. We are tempted not to do anything out of character. None of us wants to be neurotic, but the definition of neurosis is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Have you and I been tempted to stay the same?
I wish it was a Leap Year. February 29th is the one day out of 1,461 days where we are allowed and encouraged to do something out of character. I don’t say this frivolously. Do something that causes you to step outside of yourself for a while in order to really see yourself and to perhaps learn something, perhaps to grow, to become someone more.
In seminary I had two memorable experiences of doing something out of character. The first was unintentional. I took an improvisational class and was assigned a role in Thurber’s Carnival, a reader’s theatre production. I was cast as a 1950’s businessman, dictating letters to my secretary, who sent them to a client who absolutely misinterpreted everything I had written and it just kept getting worse. So, for every letter I dictated, I was supposed to become more and more irate. In the middle of a rehearsal the professor stopped me.
“Tim, may I imitate you for a moment?” He got up and read my lines. He sounded just like me. “What do you think?” he asked.
“I’m not very angry,” I had to admit, but I told him, “I don’t really get angry.” I even remember telling a friend in college a few years earlier, with some measure, I might add, of holier-than-thou-piety: “I don’t get angry.” You see, I had become a mature Christian.
“So,” the professor said, “you don’t get angry.”
“Not really, no,” I said.
“Yes you do, you just don’t want to admit it. You’re too much of a Christian.”
Too much of a Christian? Too much of a Christian! Can you ever be too much of a Christian?! And as his words sunk in I felt this burning heat rise up in me, this desire to, what was it, yes, to yell at him, to scream at him, to tell him where to take his scrawny little… Oh!!!! So that’s what that is! Anger!
That temptation is simply: to stay the same. To stay the same; to remain in what is familiar; to remain within the walls of the box of who we see ourselves to be, of what we think of the world, of how we feel about things.
On opening night, I can’t tell you how absolutely magical, cathartic, and healing it was for me to throw an apoplectic, raging, spewing, angry tirade in front of my fellow ministers-to-be. Afterwards my friends said, “We’ve never seen that side of you!” I hadn’t seen it either. But that experience taught me I did have anger, but I had shoved it down deep, because I assumed that real Christians didn’t get angry. The experience helped me deal with my anger. In fact it help me open up all of my emotions, and it helped me listen to people who are angry at others, at the world, at themselves, at God.
The other experience of stepping out of character had to do with another class. To graduate, I needed a certain number of hours in another area of study. I was about to choose this one class, when a friend said, “Why don’t you take something outside your comfort zone? Seminary is a place to be stretched. Come on, take something that you have no interest in, think is unimportant, or you’re scared of. You might learn something.” Learn something? At seminary? Okay.
I took a class on Social Justice. Now you must understand, I came from a very conservative tradition where the only thing that really mattered was getting saved, developing a close relationship with Jesus, growth in my own holiness, sharing the gospel with others, and enjoying my heavenly reward after my death. Isn’t that what faith was about?
The professor cussed in class. The professor criticized theologies, spiritualties, and traditions that refused to see the social justice dimension of the prophets and of Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God. I had to read stuff about environmental degradation that most directly affects poor people, the shadow side of unregulated capitalism, the harm done to indigenous people by western missionaries in the name of God, and our continued complicity in the unjust treatment of people of color. I didn’t want to hear it! And I couldn’t stop reading. Where had I been? Where had my tradition been? Why hadn’t anyone told me about this? Because they had grown comfortable in their little box. Now I was being converted. I am still being converted. One of the defining phrases of the Presbyterian Church USA is, the church reformed, always reforming. What am I, what are you, what are we, doing about the “always reforming” part? What are you cultivating that is new, that stretches your boundaries? What are you learning to let go of that no longer works? What mask or old skin do you need to shed? Where are you taking a leap of faith?
The Apostle Peter was so sure of himself. Denying Jesus three times softened him a bit, but he was still the rock. He believed what he believed. Then he had this dream. It asked him to step outside his beliefs, his way of being a Christian. It was out of character for him to kill and eat the unclean foods in his dream. But upon reflection Peter realized that love for Gentiles, for the whole world, was not out of character for God. What was unclean, suddenly became clean. And he changed the world. Our faith is a direct result of Peter not giving in to the temptation to remain the same.
In 2008 I went to Ireland for a week. My biggest fear? Driving on the wrong side of the road, with a stick shift. I was going to kill someone, if not myself! But I quickly learned that some things we think to be sacrosanct, holy cows, deeply held beliefs, are just things we’ve grown accustomed to. And, with a little time, what feels foreign, wrong even, can feel quite natural. By the third day I didn’t have to think about driving at all. I had changed.
I don’t know what it will be for you. But do something out of character. Do something that will stretch you, shake things up, make the world a better place for others. It’s not a Leap Year. But it’s never out of season, to take a leap of faith. I don’t ask you to do this frivolously. My guess is you may already have an inkling of what this leap might entail. Like Peter’s dream, repeated three times, you may have something that’s been repeatedly bothering you, or you’ve noticed a growing desire in you that won’t go away. A desire for something different, to be different, to see different, to act different. Where is God nudging you to get out of the rut? Where is God nudging Central? If we don’t change, we die, physically and spiritually. You who are young, are too young to die; and you who are older, are not too old to try something new. Or is it too tempting to stay the same? Amen.