What Are You Giving Up?

Genesis 9:8-17     1 Peter 3:18-22     Mark 1:9-15
If you had a time machine, where would you go? Who would you hope to meet? What event would you want to see for yourself?

My answer changes depending on when and where I am asked – which is probably true for most of us – but I think today I might like to hear Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech first hand. I might like to see what it was like to have so many people in our nation mobilized under the idea that our human dignity is at stake.

I say that because I think that we often forget that the only reason we have a “Black History” month is because we have had years and years of white history. Sure, people of color have been included in our history, but their significance and role has never been acknowledged to its full extent. Likewise, we also forget that the Civil Rights movement was not just for people of color to have rights, but for all of us to recognize our basic humanity in one another.

But maybe – in light of our readings – it’s more than that. Maybe it’s about recognizing the divinity in one another, in fact in all of creation.

After the flood, God spoke to Noah about God’s relationship with all of creation. Essentially God agrees that genocide (creationocide?) is not something to do again. God sets God’s bow – the rainbow, God’s weapon of mass destruction – in the clouds as a reminder not to use it anymore.

We can only assume that God’s expectations for us in this covenant remain the same as they were before – that we will be stewards of the earth. But this time there is something different about God’s relationship with creation. None of it, from the smallest insect to the greatest beasts of land and sea, will be managed by threat from God. All of it will be managed by grace and mercy and inclusivity and love. That doesn’t mean that there are no consequences. It simply means that God will not destroy what God has made, because God gave up God’s bow.

This may sound inconsequential to you. This is the One who spoke the universe into being. Setting aside a bow doesn’t really limit God, right? Well, no. But that’s not the point.

The point, according to Wil Gafney – the Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas – is that God is radically and unequivocally placing a love for “all y’all” at the base of God’s relationship with humanity – and indeed, all of creation.

Certainly, we will see this relationship expressed through a particular people, but (in her words) “The covenant between God and all flesh is between God and every girl, woman, boy, man, and intersex person, every lesbian, gay man, bisexual and transgender person, every atheist, agnostic and religious person, every Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan and pagan person, every person of ability and perceived limitations, every person of any nationality, ethnicity or racial construction or category, and even includes those who defy and explode categories. For the religious reader, particularly … liberation seeking readers, this radical inclusivity is part of what makes the religious texts of ancient Israel scripture for so many peoples beyond their culture, religion and borders.”

Essentially, what she is reminding us is that God’s love is on God’s terms – not on ours. And in that same way of thinking – God’s love is on God’s terms – we are told that the waters of the flood prefigured our baptism.

Now, I have to say that is a slippery slope. I can remember after Katrina when a certain public figure referred to the flooding of the ninth ward as “flushing a toilet.” It happens in every tragedy. Someone wanting to feel good about themselves will demonize the poor or justify their own position in order to feel superior.

I will say that I heard less of that in the flood of 2016, but that’s because it was only in the national news cycle for about 30 days. Yet here we are in 2018, still cleaning up. Of course, we are assisting a pretty broad region. Most of the homes of the people we are helping were already in need of help before the flood. Our worksite partner, Rebuilding Together Acadiana, already serves those who are handicapped and elderly and without insurance, and they were the ones hardest hit by the storm.

I wish that I could say that this flood had a cleansing impact to the land, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that it has had a cleansing impact on the hearts and minds of over 180 individuals from 14 congregations in 10 different states! A story about love and mercy following a flood has gone out with each person, and in some small way the Kingdom of God has been present in this place and in their lives.

And so, we wear our blue Presbyterian Disaster Assistance T-shirts today because we also want to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near! That is the central claim of Jesus throughout the Gospel of Mark, but it is preceded by one particular command that puts us in the right place to experience it – repent.

Funny thing is, this is the same word that kicks off Advent. Funnier still (at least to me), is that I can hardly think of this word without thinking of two things. The first is the expectation that repentance means feeling bad for not being faithful enough to God, or even worse – for not being religious enough. The second is Indiana Jones.

If you don’t know the scene, I’ll spoil it. He’s after the Holy Grail, and he’s in a tomb filled with booby traps. Each trap has a clue, and one is about being penitent. Just as he begins to mumble about what penitence means, he ducks down subserviently and is barely missed by a giant blade – which he cleverly disables and no longer needs to be “penitent”.
Thing is, neither of these are right. Repentance, or penitence, is not about feeling bad or being subservient. Neither is it about figuring out the problem of personal limitation and going beyond on your own merits. It’s about centering your mind and your heart on God and letting your actions flow from that place.

This is not an easy thing to do, and while I think that it is something that should be part of our everyday lives of faith, I think it is good and right to have a time of year that expects it of us. It may be that centering your heart and mind on the reality of God and the concept of a love that liberates and renews your spirit may require you to let go of some things.

Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters do it as a matter of practice. That’s not a bad thing, but what God truly wants is that we recognize the patterns of behavior, the beliefs and values, the expectations we place on others, and the things that become centers of value and meaning – and we truly let go, not just for a season but for good – of those things that keep us from living as a part of God’s Kingdom.

This may leave you feeling a bit like you are shoved out into the wilderness – “thrown” is actually a more literal translation here: Jesus was “thrown out into the wilderness” by the Holy Spirit – where there is both temptation and blessing.

The beautiful thing is that you are not alone. You are not alone in your anger or your grief over the violence that grips our world. You are not alone in your fear over the increasing frequency of mass shootings in our nation. You are not alone in feeling that the killing of innocent and vulnerable creatures is nothing short of evil. And as we reorient our lives around the love of God, there is no better time to consider the presence of evil in the world.

According to Caroline Lewis, Associate Professor of Luther Seminary, “We miscalculate evil all of the time. From our personal missteps -- “truly, it cannot be that bad” -- to our communal, national, and global oversights that lull us into thinking our resistance, our response does not make a difference.”

And that’s what it all comes down to, my friends. For in the words of Dr. King, “[A person] who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as [a person] who helps to perpetrate it. [A person] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

And so, the opportunity of Lent – the opportunity of repentance – is to ask ourselves what we are participating in and how we plan to respond to the love and mercy of God. For the Kingdom has come near! It may be that we are called to lay down arms, or whatever distracts us from seeing God in one another, in order to see those, we turn away from. It may be that we need to recruit those who the world rejects. It may be that we need to throw our bodies in front of children by targeting those who are so full of self-loathing that they have forgotten their own humanity and reminding them that they, too, are beloved by God.
There are yet conversations to be had about what makes for a just, peaceful and free society, but in the mean time we have a part to play. And our part is not an act to perform in this place, it is a role to fill when we leave. For ours is to repent and proclaim: The kingdom of Heaven has come near!

What will you give up in order to proclaim this present reality? I can’t say. But I can tell you that there are people in this world that would receive our friendship like the heavens opening if we would be willing to seek them out. For we are a community that expects God to bring order out of chaos – and in that we are never disappointed.

For this is the God we follow – the one who is able to overcome sin and suffering and even death – as we move toward the cross and the redemption it brings. Amen.

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