I suspect each of us goes through our own wilderness experiences where we grapple with our own quests for power or recognition.
I’d like to take that familiar story we heard today of Jesus in the wilderness, struggling with the temptations to feed only himself, to seek great power and amazing fame, and insert a different character into it.
For Jesus, this time in the wilderness was a time of discerning who he would be when he emerged on the public scene.
It was a time of clarifying who he was, what really mattered to him.
It was a time when the lure of power and fame must have been incredibly strong.
I suspect each of us goes through our own wilderness experiences
where we grapple with our own quests for power or recognition,
where we balance the good we can accomplish with power and fame against the prices we pay to achieve those things – or
where we balance the goodness of our principles against the temptations that come with wealth and power.
The character I would like to insert into this story of Jesus does not come out of a religious context – unless you consider football our national religion. And it sort of is, after all.
And this character’s motivation does not seem to come out of a faith experience but more out of common sense. But that’s not a bad starting place either.
The character is Chris Borland.
Those of you who follow football will know him as a star linebacker for the UW Badger football team from 2009 to 2013, a Big Ten defensive player of the year, an All-American athlete, a third round draft choice for the San Francisco 49ers pro football team.
In his rookie season in the pros, he racked up all sorts of rookie honors, including leading his team in tackles during the 2014 season with 108 of them.
Chris Borland surely was on track for great wealth that could turn lots of stones into bread. He already had great fame and that was only increasing. And with that wealth and fame came power.
Those of you who already know Chris Borland’s story can guess where this is headed. And I don’t want to turn him into Jesus. Chris Borland’s first motivation was self-preservation. That was not what was in store for Jesus.
Still, I want to offer both Jesus and Chris Borland as people who offer a provocative challenge to us as we think about our place in the world, in our jobs, in our communities.
One of the things that made Chris Borland notable during his years at UW was not only his amazing football abilities, but also the way he used his power on the team and his fame in the community for things other than his own glory.
Mike Taylor, his Badger teammate, said of Borland during their time at UW: “He doesn’t put people down. If there’s a joke, he’ll laugh, but if it’s too harsh, he’d be the one to say, ‘Hey, that’s not funny, you shouldn’t say that.’ And guys would listen or shut up and say they were sorry. That’s who he was.”
In the fall semester of his senior year alone, Borland put in 125 hours at local hospitals and schools, according to Kayla Gross, who organized volunteer work for Badgers athletes. “It will probably go down in history as the most volunteer hours ever” by an athlete at the school, she told ESPN: The Magazine.
Keep those two examples in mind as I come back later to how we might consider power and fame in our lives.
The heart of Chris Borland’s story is his decision to give up wealth and fame as he made the dramatic decision last year to leave pro football. He had come to understand the physical dangers that concussions posed for himself and his teammates.
Borland was only medically diagnosed with two concussions in his football career, but he estimates he actually had about 30 concussions since high school. It is only in the last few years that the medical protocol for concussions in football had become stricter. But he recognized the symptoms and like so many players, just kept on going, masking what was happening.
In March of 2015, Borland announced that he was leaving football out of concern over the potential for head trauma. He was hailed as a hero by some, as a weakling contributing to the softening of an exciting sport by others.
There were immediate financial consequences. Borland had received a $617,000 signing bonus when he was drafted by the 49ers. He had to return $463,000 of that. He gave up at least $2.35 million in salary – probably more in the future given how well he was playing.
At age 24, Borland had left a lucrative career. He had faced the temptations of wealth and power and fame and walked away. In part, it was a matter of self-preservation – and as I said, that was not part of Jesus’ story.
But it was also a call to conscience for football as a sport and for fans like me who find an intense football game to be a wonderful escape on a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon or a Monday or a Thursday evening in the fall.
This is where this story gets uncomfortable for me – and maybe for you.
In that in-depth article ESPN: The Magazine did on Chris Borland, the writers noted that “It’s not just that Borland won’t play football anymore. He’s reluctant to even watch it, he now says, so disturbed is he by its inherent violence, the extreme measures that are required to stay on the field at the highest levels and the physical destruction he has witnessed to people he loves and admires — especially to their brains.”
They quoted Borland saying: “It’s like a spectacle of violence, for entertainment, and you’re the actors in it. You’re complicit in that: You put on the uniform.”
There’s a moment when he is back home in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, with his coach from high school days now asking him to consider coaching the teenaged linebackers there, to teach them how to tackle safely.
“I wouldn’t want to be charged with the task of making violence safer. I think that’s a really difficult thing to do,” he told the coach who had helped shape him into a star athlete.
So Borland, even in giving up one kind of power and fame, found new temptations in his new role as the anti-hero of football.
Borland turned down a request to promote the Will Smith movie, Concussion, and has rejected numerous endorsements. “I don’t want to monetize head injury in football,” he told ESPN.
The public nature of his decision has been really uncomfortable for him.
Shortly after he retired, Borland was invited to attend the National Summit on Sports Concussion in Los Angeles. Once he accepted, the organizers used his name (“Chris Borland, former NFL player”) to promote the event. Borland told them to stop. He didn’t want to be seen as endorsing the idea that football can be made safe.
And he does not want to be preaching to others about whether kids should play football or fans should watch it.
He said: “I don’t want to tell a 16-year-old who’s passionate about playing football to stop, or his parents who are passionate to stop. But I don’t know if I’ll have my kids play either. I don’t think it’s black-and-white quite yet… I took the stance personally to not do it; I walked the walk. But it’s not my place to tell anyone else what to do.”
I appreciate his refusal to judge others.
Yet I find Chris Borland’s story a useful prod for me to think about the challenges I face with things like seeking money and power and fame, much as I find the story of Jesus in the wilderness helpful for the same reason.
It’s not like anyone is about to offer me a $600,000 signing bonus – although that would be an interesting addition to the pastoral search process.
It’s not like ESPN is likely to ask me if a reporter can accompany through my week of sermon preparation. There’s not quite the same video possibilities in that as there is in a football training camp.
But there are points in my life – and I imagine there have been and will be points in all of our lives – when we have to make decisions about money and power and fame, even if not on quite so grand a scale.
What the story of Jesus offers us is the idea that we don’t simply make bread for ourselves.
A bit later in the Gospel according to Luke, we’ll hear about how Jesus took a few loaves of bread and managed to feed a whole crowd.
We’ll read about him breaking bread at dinner with religious leaders and tax collectors and prostitutes, finally breaking bread with his closest followers on the night before he was executed and then breaking bread again after his resurrection – and his followers recognizing him in that breaking of bread. “
Bread was never just for himself.
Neither was power.
Jesus rejected making a deal with the devil to achieve great power. His power came from the integrity with which he lived his life and then he used that power that came from God’s Spirit within to inspire others to bring good news to the poor and release to prisoners and freedom to the oppressed. It takes power to do those things, but power used wisely.
So, too, with fame. We know that as word of Jesus’ teachings and actions spread throughout Galilee and then all of Israel, his fame increased. He used that fame as a platform to spread the good news that God’s realm was in the midst of the people if only they would live according to the vision that God held out to them. His fame was not for himself. It was for others.
We cannot simply ignore the utility of money or power or fame in our world. Remember how as a UW athlete, Chris Borland used his power with his teammates and his fame to serve the community. But we always must be questioning how we use them or how the people to whom we attach our hopes use them.
That’s an opportunity we have in this season of Lent. It’s one of the reasons I think Lent always starts with this story of Jesus in the wilderness.
It challenges to think about the role that wealth and power and fame play in our lives, to think about how we can step back from using them simply for ourselves but use them in ways that reflect the message of Jesus.
The choir (will sing) sang in our anthem today a reminder that like Jesus, we need to pause from the frenzy of daily life now and then and re-prioritize how we live. Listen to these lyrics in the context of the story of Chris Borland, but even more importantly, in the context of the story of Jesus:
Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead,
Find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed:
Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see
All the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.
That’s simply an extension of another hymn we sometimes sing around here. Let’s join together in Hymn #188, “Give Me a Clean Heart” and sing it through two times.