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"Willful Naivete" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 10, 2019

posted Mar 12, 2019, 11:40 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Netflix and Hulu and the like opened up for me a world of TV shows I never otherwise would have seen.  I’m particularly drawn to British shows. When the world of American politics distresses me, I turn on my British shows and pretend I’m living in London watching channel 4.

A while back I binged one called “Little Britain” which features two comedians doing sketches about life in Britain - Key and Peele across the pond.  One recurring sketch involved Daffyd, who lived in the Welsh mining village of Glen-duey-brievy. Daffyd, dressed in tight-fitting spandex stretched over his prodigious belly and the shortest short shorts imaginable, always complained of the hardship of being “the only gay in the village.”  (After Jay and I watched these episodes, we started joking that we were the only gays in our village.)

In one scene, while sitting at the bar where his best friend worked, Daffyd said, “I wish there were more things for gay people to do around here; it's so lonely being the only gay in the village.”  The bartender suggested checking the local paper and she paged through the sections of the calendar: “lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, ah, the gay section.” And then she pointed out a gay night at a bar in Upper Van Wee.  “That’s too far away,” Daffyd complained. “Its ½ a mile!” “But the stony path is too dangerous.” “What about the bus?” “I can’t ride a bus - I’m a gay.” Exasperated, she reads through the other things going on in the village: gay men’s choir, gay camping group, gay book club, gay Nation of Islam.  Daffyd shook his head, a bit wistful as he said, “Not much going on is there.”

In another scene, Daffyd goes to the hairdresser.  The receptionist tells him his usual stylist isn’t available but the new one is; “and,” she whispers, “I think he’s a gay.”  “I don’t think so,” says Daffyd. Out comes Ifan, swishing up in the most cliché way, saying, “I’m Ifan, but all my friends call me ‘Fanny.’”  Daffyd continues to deny Ifan could be a gay. Even when Ifan’s boyfriend comes in and they kiss, Daffyd says to the receptionist, “must be his brother.”

Daffyd, in these scenes, lived up to his name daff, a fool.  He remained resolutely naive even in the face of evidence, wedded to a narrative of himself as the only gay in the village, refusing to see the reality all around him.

Daffyd’s naivete reminded me of James Baldwin’s story of his own visit to a village, his essay, “Stranger in the Village.”  He described staying in a remote Swiss village of 600, the first black person any of the villagers ever saw. But even though the villagers had never met a black person before, the came with all the tropes of racism, viewing Baldwin as both the fascinating exotic and the feared other.  The villagers asked him to ski because they couldn’t imagine a black person skiing. But, when wood went missing in the village, they reflexively assumed he stole it because they could easy imagine that. Finding the same dynamic of racism in America and Europe, Baldwin traced the way a sense of white superiority poisons relationships.  This sense is kept hidden and denied.  Baldwin explains, “Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors.”

Baldwin named all of this willful naivete; the intentional naivete, the willed ignorance, that allows people to participate in systems of oppression without acknowledging their own complicity.

Willful naivete can play out in many ways.   I heard it recently in the story of a lesbian couple who talked with their straight Methodist pastor about his views on same-sex marriage.  Preparing for their wedding, outside of the Methodist Church, they still wanted to know what he thought. They asked a few weeks before the divisive meeting in St. Louis, one which threatens to fracture the Methodist Church over questions of human sexuality.  Sitting with them, he said, “I never really thought about it.” Willful naivete.

But I don’t want to forget Daffyd’s own willful naivete about being the only gay in the village either.  For our naivete can run in several directions: from naivete about the world around us, naivete about our own complicity, to naivete about our own situation, a foolishness about the world.  I know I’ve found myself being willfully naive, from issues of race and gender and class, certainly; but also, just in human relationships. Sometimes I find that I care about someone so much that I just can’t bear to acknowledge that they will die; I try to maintain a naivete about what a diagnosis of metastatic cancer really means.   I struggled with this with Dor Rohlfing this fall. She wanted to talk about planning her funeral and I wanted to remain naive about her impending death.

Have you found yourself clinging to a willful naivete?  Had those moments when you said later, “how did I not see this?”

Our gospel lesson this morning doesn’t talk about naivete; and yet, the temptation to a willful naivete shapes the whole story.

Think with me about the setting.  This story in the gospel comes just after John the Baptist baptized Jesus.  When Jesus emerged from the water, he heard a voice from heaven saying, “this is my beloved.”  The baptism confirmed all the gifts Jesus possessed, assured him of his relationship with God, and came as pure blessing.  “This is my beloved.”

Just after he rose from the waters, came a time of temptation.  Luke said the Spirit led Jesus into the desert where the devil tempted him for forty days.  It wouldn’t be wrong to think of Job, caught between God and the devil. Certainly Jesus found himself that way, caught between the spirit and the devil, between the blessing at baptism and the temptation in the wilderness.  Forty days to wonder about his blessing. Forty nights to dream of how he might live it out.

Usually when we think of temptation, we imagine doing things we know will be bad for us.  Temptation Cake - google it - and you’ll not be surprised to see a decadent chocolate layer cake, 10,000 calories of deliciousness.  And temptations come in many forms beyond food. But usually, when we think of them, we mean something which clearly isn’t good for us.

But we make a mistake if we read that understanding of temptation into this story of Jesus in the desert.  In two of the three temptations, the devil said, “If you are the Son of God…” Each of these temptations drilled down on what it would mean for Jesus to be the beloved of God, testing to see how Jesus made sense of his blessing.

The temptations didn’t get Jesus to do something clearly bad; rather, each of the temptations distorted what he was meant to do.  And that’s the insidious nature of temptation, the almost good nature of them, the close but not right quality, the way the lie behind a temptation sounds as if it could be true.  Truly, temptations come as the invitation to be willfully naive.

Think with me about the three distortions the devil used to tempt Jesus.  First, food. (I get this temptation.) The devil posed a simple question, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  At one level, tempting because of his fasting in the wilderness. But even more, tempting because Jesus knew the poverty all around him.  If he could turn one stone into bread, he could turn a hundred, a thousand, feed a village, feed the world. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Too often we think of sin in terms of doing the wrong thing, a bad behavior - one of the seven deadly sins.  But I think this story of Jesus’ temptation gets closer to the heart of how we actually experience sin, the temptation that almost sounds right, the lie that seems true.

Jesus said no.  While later miracle stories would tell of him turning 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough food to feed a multitude, at this point the time wasn’t right.  This has always interested me: Jesus said no to turning stone into bread but later would do something similar. And it tells me that this temptation wasn’t about doing something bad, but about doing something good at the wrong time.  This wasn’t the time to turn stones to bread. Have you ever run into trouble in your life by doing a good thing at absolutely the wrong time?

This dynamic gets repeated when the devil offers Jesus power.  The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promised to make them his if Jesus would worship him. The temptation offered Jesus something almost good: the power to enact the justice he so longed to bring into the world.  Everywhere Jesus looked, the Romans oppressed people. But in a moment, he could liberate everyone. How do you say no to freeing people? How do you say no to something so good?

But Jesus knew you can’t do good by the wrong methods. We can’t short-cut our way to goodness. And so Jesus refused to be naive about the devil’s methods.

Lastly, the devil dared Jesus to test God’s blessing.  “Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”’”  The devil quoted chapter and verse!

Even more than the first two temptations, this one strikes to the heart of the gospel.  Because, of course, Jesus would go to Jerusalem, proclaim his faith in God, and be killed.  Was it all just a test of God? But this temptation also stands out because it shows the way scripture can be used to make something sound good and true.  We see people affected by this in our country, wrapping up hatred in chapter and verse and calling it divine. And too many play along with willful naivete.


The devil kept tempting Jesus with things that seemed almost right, almost good.  I suspect most of us don’t do things that are overtly bad. But we do end up believing the distortions, embracing something that could be good, doing something that sounds as if it’s okay.


The story of Jesus in the desert lays bare the way evil can work in our lives.  Evil distorts, lies, attracts with the almost-good choice. So this Lent I’d ask, “when do we hear lies that sound true?”


Following the text, seeing temptation as the allure of the almost-good thing to do, suggests that what evil needs to succeed is our naivete.  Which I realize even more by paying attention to Jesus in this text; he saw through all the distorted good presented by the devil, saw clearly the time and the method and the meaning.  He refused to be naive.


What would it mean for us to act like Jesus, refuse to be naive?  What would change in our lives if we stopped being willfully naive about race and class and gender?  What would change if we stopped being naive about our situation and relationships?


The devil offered Jesus easy roads to goodness - a quick meal, quick power, quick proof of his relationship with God.  But Jesus saw how each of these distortions only made a lie sound as if it could be true.


Daffyd, the character from Little Britain, went to incredible lengths to maintain his naive claim to being the only gay in the village.  While he seemed foolish, James Baldwin pointed to the other side of naivete, the naivete that reinforces injustice in its blindness to reality.  However naivete works in our lives, I think this Lent can be a season of 40 days to live like Jesus, giving up our willful naivete, facing down the lies we tell ourselves that sound true, and learning to say no to all the almost-good things which might tempt us.


Amen and Amen.

Source: Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2, essays on Luke 4:1-13