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The gospel according to Nike

In the these two weeks, I will have gone all over the state of Arizona, on the never-ending Begging Tour of 2013 (theme: “Don’t let college students be homeless!”)
Sunday, I was in Prescott, where I’ve been before, many times. St Luke’s is a lovely parish, gorgeous campus, right by the airport. This prompted my board president to offer to buzz the church in his plane, and drop brochures from 5,000 feet. (“It would be different!”)

Here’s what I said.

Note: some of this was partially inspired by what Nouwen wrote on the use of power, but I went in a different direction, and spun it very differently– at least differently from the way I’ve heard Nouwen’s on Christian Leadership interpreted.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 17, 2013
Lent 1, Year C
Luke 4:1-13

Nike is very good at marketing. These ads that Nike makes, they are iconic. Usually a close up on the athete’s face with their voice playing in the background, talking about their triumph over adversity, and their achievement of some great sports goal. And it works because Nike is good at picking the best athletes of their day: people like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Mark McGuire. We get to watch these ads and think about how perfect and magical these people are, and thus, how probably Nike products helped make them that way, so we should probably buy Nike things. These are really effective ads.

Or they are, right up until the athlete in question gets caught doing something that they shouldn’t, and the ad becomes really uncomfortable to watch. Like Lance Armstrong–whose Nike ad had him talking about how the only ‘thing’ he was on was his bike! And lots of hard work! And that’s why he was the best! Til of course, it turned out that he was on a heck of a lot more than that.

Or, this week, when Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner, who was arrested for murder after shooting his girlfriend. His Nike VoiceOver included him saying “I’m a bullet in a loaded gun.” Whoops.

The thing that make these ads so powerful is the same thing that makes them so problematic–each of them constructs a single arc out of the superstar athlete’s life. They struggle, they overcome, they win, and all through lots of determination and will (and really super-expensive running shoes), but it’s all them. It’s all Lance Armstrong, and it’s all Michael Jordan, or it’s all Tiger Woods. There’s no mention of anyone else coaching, or any teammates, or a random caddy. It’s all about them.

What an extraordinary amount of power for one person to have.

No wonder they keep falling short of what we expect them to be.

Power is a difficult thing for us humans to deal with– those of us who have a little and those of us who have a lot. And all of us have some power. You get up in the morning, you decide to get out of bed– that’s power. You decide what to eat for breakfast, or not to eat breakfast at all– power again. Anytime you make a decision, you’re exercising some amount of power. Now, sometimes, the spectrum of the decision is wider than at other times; when I leave here this afternoon, and I decide where to eat lunch, I will decide between local restaurants, and not decide to fly to California. My power does not extend that far. But for some, it does.

And power is complicated, because these decisions we make come with consequences. They ripple out, Iike throwing a rock into a pond, in ways big and small. So the power we wield is never just affecting us; it always affects the people around us too.

And that’s what makes power difficult and oh so tempting. You can use the power you have to just make your life easier, better, less complicated. If you’re a world-famous cyclist, yes, you can take performance enhancing drugs and win all the races, and avoid the shame of losing. But that decision, each decision will affect more people than just yourself, all the coaches, the other competitors, the people who looked up to you, the charities. When Lance Armstrong fell, it nearly killed his cancer charity too. And see, we forget all that, when we get tempted by the dark side of power. All we see are the benefits to ourselves.

That’s what the devil is on about when he’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness. The devil shows up as Jesus is fasting out in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, which is biblespeak for “he was out there a good long while”. So poor Jesus is in quite a state by the time the devil shows up.

In succession, the devil gives Jesus three very tempting opportunities to use his considerable power. First, he asks him to magic up some food for himself. Failing that, he wants Jesus to worship the devil and thus get all the glory and authority over all the nations for himself. When that doesn’t work, he suggests that Jesus throw himself off of the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and make God send his angels to catch him.

Jesus doesn’t give in to any of these. But what’s notable about these temptations of the devil is that they’re all about the use of power. They’re all about choice.

Jesus will do miracles multiplying bread– this is something he has no objection to doing, but he won’t do it here, even though he’s hungry, because it’s for himself alone. It’s using his power to fulfill his own needs alone.

He’s clearly fine with crowds listening to him preach and coming to him for healing and waving palms for him, that’s something we see from him later on– but again, he won’t accept glory and honor here, because it would be for himself alone.

And we will even see him walk on water later, rather than climb into the boat with the disciples. But here, he doesn’t elect to jump off the temple, because it would be choosing to use who he was, all his power, for its own sake.

In each case, when the devil asks Jesus to make a choice to use the power he has for himself, Jesus says no. Jesus chooses to use his power differently, radically differently. He could have, but he didn’t.

At every point in his life, Jesus chose to use his power not for himself, but he chose to use his power for others. And in fact, right after he leaves the wilderness, Jesus heads to Nazareth and announces just how he intends to lead his life. “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives, to declare the day of the Lord’s favor.”

For the rest of his life, Jesus would use all the power he had only, ONLY, in the service of others, and not for his own needs alone.

And so God calls us. Because we all have power too. And we are all called to use it– did you notice that at no point during that Scriptural shouting match in the desert did Jesus just say to Satan “well, I just can’t do that.” We all have power, to some degree. The question is, how will we use it?

What choices will we make? Will we make choices guided primarily by our own needs, by what serves us best, unconcerned about what the consequences are for others? But from the Garden of Eden on, making choices based on selfishness has never ended well.

Or will we follow Jesus’s example, and use our power to serve others, and build them up? Will we be mindful of how the choice we make today ripples out and affects those who surround us and those who come after us?

God has enabled each one of us with gifts and talents and then God has empowered us with the power to choose. We can choose what we do with what we have been so freely given.
Will we be tempted to live for ourselves alone, even when we know the destruction that ultimately causes?

Or will we follow in the path of Jesus, and try to use what we have, every choice we make, to the glory of God and for the good of God’s creation?

This power is ours. The choice is ours. God gives it to us. The only question is, what will we do with it?

Amen.

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

One response »

  1. Do you think this idea is what Obama was expressing when he said, ‘You didn’t build that’ during his campaign? How true it becomes with disparity in income for those who are caring for the elderly, or teaching too many children in a class, or the tired dad whose manager is asking him to choose between working late to finish a report or help coach his daughter’s Little League team?

    Reply

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