The Lure of Splendor

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Cliff Notes of Being Human

Some stories never happened but are always happening. Like the Matthew and Luke stories of the 40 day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. If everything in Christian scripture should become lost, except for the narratives of the wilderness temptation, we would still have the story to glean what it means, and does not mean, to be human.

The narratives of Jesus in the wilderness are a kind of Cliff Notes on the ways mortal life gets twisted. They condense the challenges of the Christ and of all of us. The Devil is a Trickster, the Liar, twisting the good out of shape.

Is it about power? Or is it about splendor?

As many times as I have read and preached about them, the word ‘splendor’ has seemed incidental to the temptation of power. Or so I thought until this morning.

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 . . . .”

Gospel according to Matthew 4:8-9 NRSV

The genius of scripture is that it brings fresh things to light that speak to new socio-reliigious-political circumstances. Perhaps it is the dark and darkening sky of 2020 that drew my eye to the ‘splendor’ of the kingdoms (nations) as more than incidental. The Greek word is ‘doxa’ (glory, splendor). Perhaps power is not an end in itself, but a means to the end of self-glorification. There could be no greater splendor than owning/controlling all the nations of this world. Yet the Gospel writers knew what we easily forget, until the illusion of power vanishes into nothing. “Glory is like a circle in the water/ which never ceaseth to enlarge itself/ till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.” — William Shakespeare, Henry VI.

The Lure of Splendor

The effort to be splendid or glorious arises from the human condition, but isn’t it a fair guess that the search for splendor by means of power is not the temptation of migrants in detention camps, or starving children and parents, or patients suffering a pandemic? They find within and among themselves whatever shreds of hope and self-regard remain. The third wilderness temptation visits the abundant who are tempted to get to the very high mountaintop of personal power and splendor.

It is no accident that ‘splendor’ caught my attention the First Sunday of Lent following the news of the coronavirus, the threat if a global pandemic, the president’s attempts at minimization or denial, the plunge of the stock market, and the apparent preoccupation of the world’s most powerful man with his own splendor. No person or kingdom is divine, no matter how hard we imagine. Deep down, something in us knows.

“All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will bow 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

Gospel of Matthew 4:9-11 NRSV

Prayer for Public Officials

Walter Rauschenbusch’s “Prayer for Public Officials” is preserved by Prayers of the Social Awakening, published in 1909.

We give the thanks that by the free institutions our country the tyrannous instincts of the strong may be curbed to the patient service to the commonwealth.

Strengthen the sense of duty in our political life. Grant that the servants of the state will feel ever more deeply that any diversion of their public powers for private ends is a betrayal of their country. Purge our cities and states and nation of the deep causes of corruption which have so often made sin profitable and uprightness hard. Bring to an end the stale days of party cunning.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, “For Public Officers,” Prayers of the Social Awakening, 1909.
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020.

“Sojourners” republishes piece today

Thanks to Sojourners for republishing a piece that first appeared here. Click I wish we were all that Crazy” to read the piece on Jim Wallis’ blog, “God’s Politics.”

If you missed it, it was a reflection on the late Bishop James Pike and the late William Stringfellow, the lawyer and lay theologian who defended the Bishop at the Episcopal Church’s heresy trial.

I wish we were all that crazy

Bishop James A. Pike (February 14, 1913 - September 1969)

Bishop James A. Pike (February 14, 1913 - September 1969)

It was a crazy week.I should rather say…I was a little crazy last week…in the sense that Bishop James Pike was a little crazy the night he walked down the hotel corridor in the altogether to knock on his friend William Stringfellow’s door at 4:00 in the morning.

According to the story, as told by Bill Stringfellow, the knock on his door awakened him from a sound sleep.

He opened the door to see the Bishop stark naked with a book in his hand. “Bill, you have to hear this! This is amazing!” The Bishop was oblivious to his nakedness. He plopped down in a chair and proceeded to tell his lawyer and his friend what he thought he had just discovered about Jesus in the wilderness. When he had shared the information, we wandered back down the hallway to his own room with his nose stuck in the book.

James Pike had become obsessed with Jesus in the wilderness. So absorbed in the Gospel accounts that he ate, drank, and slept them. His naked self was in those stories. Something about the wilderness temptations of Jesus consumed his total attention.

James Pike died sometime later in the Judean wilderness where the Gospels say Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights. The date of his death is known only as the month of September in the year 1969, about the same time that I met Bill Stringfellow.

Why do I tell this story now? I was a little like the Bishop last week with the story of Barabbas. I get like that sometimes. I’ve remembered to pull my pants on to take the dogs for a walk, but in every other way, I can identify with the completeness of James Pike’s attention to the biblical story. I’m a little ”nuts” – with apologies to everyone who knows better than to use that kind of pejorative language to describe a state of mental illness.

I write this today not to arrive at your door in the altogether to tell you what I think I’ve discovered about Barabbas. I write quite simply because I miss the likes of Bishop Pike and Bill Stringfellow. I feel the need to honor the sacred memory of two very strange saints, one of them (the Bishop) tried for heresy and the other (Bill) who defended him in the church courts. I’m grateful for the courage and idiosyncrasies that left the more conventional, less curious church bureaucrats and the House of Bishops mystified. Bill Stringfellow’s own words of tribute to his friend Jim speak, in hindsight, not only of the Bishop but of the Stringfellow himself. May the both rest in peace.

William Stringfellow (April 26, 1928 – March 2, 1985), lay theologian, lawyer, author, social critic, alien in a strange land.

“The death to self in Christ was neither doctrinal abstraction nor theological jargon for James Pike. He died in such a way before his death in Judea. He died to authority, celebrity, the opinions of others, publicity, status, dependence upon Mama, indulgences in alcohol and tobacco, family and children, marriage and marriages, promiscuity, scholarly ambition, the lawyer’s profession, political opportunity, Olympian discourses, forensic agility, controversy, denigration, injustice, religion, the need to justify himself.By the time Bishop Pike reached the wilderness in Judea, he had died in Christ. What, then, happened there was not so much a death as a birth.”

I wish we were all that crazy.

To learn more about Bishop Pike, click HERE. For William Stringfellow, click HERE.