A sermon preached by the Rev Linda Harrison
Lent 1; Feb 18, 2018
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
NOTE: This text of the sermon I preached Sunday includes where the Spirit took hold. I have transcribed, to the best of my recollection, what I said in the moment. Asterisks set off that portion of the sermon.
Four short days ago, on Ash Wednesday, I stood here at 9:00am and preached that spiritual wholeness is a process that begins in the ashes of repentance. I preached that spiritual well-being does not keep pain from our lives, but it does equip us to weather the storms and the chaos that inevitably come in this life. I promised you that if you were feeling depleted, that if life had worn you down personally, the community was here to hold you up, to walk beside you, to pray with or for you.
And with the words “Remember O Mortal that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I marked foreheads with the sign of the cross, the sign marked at our baptism, in an acknowledgement of our mortality and reliance upon God.
Then at around 2:30pm the reports started coming in … another shooting at a school and in the end, 17 dead and so many more wounded.
“Another” … Another shooting resulting in numerous fatalities, another shooting in a school. To even describe the event as “another” sends me into that parched, deserted, wilderness place.
Talk about life wearing you down. Being confronted with mortality in this way is soul-sucking.
I am exhausted. I am beyond angry. I want to use all kinds of expletives because I cannot think of anything else to say. I want to crawl into bed and cover my head with the blankets and stay there. I want to ignore it and go numb. I want to rattle off curse words while railing at God. I want to jump on the vitriol bandwagon and point fingers and lay blame at entire swaths and segments of society.
And here we are, an entire nation, driven out into the wilderness. Families wailing, friends and schoolmates numbed in pain and disbelief, young lives cut short, people expressing they no longer feel safe going about routine daily activities.
We seem to be continually confronted with the reality that our faith is not a panacea; that being a Christian doesn’t make life easier or safer.
Frankly, in moments of this kind of continued horror and tragedy, I find it all the more difficult to be a Christian – let alone a priest – to answer the questions, “Where was your God while children were bleeding?” “Why does God allow this to happen over and over?”
Where was God while Jesus was tempted in the wilderness? Where was God while Jesus was flogged and humiliated and nailed to a cross? Where was God when Jesus cried, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Mark’s sparse recounting of the baptism of Jesus and the temptation in the wilderness doesn’t even provide a salve for our souls or give us any solutions. Jesus is baptized and called beloved by God. The heavens are rent open by the Spirit, who then immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness. Make no mistake – rending and driving in the Greek are very violent, forceful verbs. The Spirit here is not the comforter and faith is not comfortable.
And yet, Mark does tell us that Jesus was not alone in the desert. Jesus suffered temptations for forty days and yet the Divine was with Jesus, in this case named as angels who tended to him.
It’s not a lot … but it’s everything. Today, here in Lent, after this past Wednesday, it is everything. Because after the temptation and the arrest of John, the very human Jesus could still proclaim, “the time is fulfilled, the reign of God has come near”. The time is fulfilled – it has happened and continues to have consequences for this present moment; it has happened and continues to happen. The in-breaking of God’s reign continues in each moment … God is here and continues to be here, anew, with each breath and in each moment.
Here we are, in Lent, in the aftermath of another deadly shooting. In this wilderness the temptations we must resist are reactionary comments that inhibit dialogue, that perpetuate misinformation or unwarranted stereotypes.
In a sermon in August, after Charlottesville and the Nazi debacle, I shared with you some of the work of Brené Brown, specifically her challenge to call out bullshit while being civil. Civility. America’s great sin right now is our inability to be civil. The temptation we must resist is incivility toward one another.
While we shout each other down and point fingers and lay blame, nothing gets done; nothing gets fixed and our children are dying.
I am tired of seeing the vitriol on social media from both sides of the divide. I am tired of hearing and seeing memes with ugly epithets and broad statements that perpetuate false stereotypes to demean or discredit others.
We don’t listen to one another anymore – we disparage and degrade. And our children are dying.
Our inability to speak with one another is killing our children.
I am angry and I am scared. And I don’t know what to do.
One day after the shooting in Florida, a boy was arrested … right here, at the high school up the road … the high school where my daughter attended for two years.
We have to learn how to speak with, not at, each other.
I feel so overwhelmed and defeated sometimes. It is so hard to combat the incivility in the public sphere. Aside from the resisting the temptation of jumping on the vitriol bandwagon, we must resist the temptation to do nothing.
We need to resist the temptation of giving into the feeling of being so overwhelmed that we succumb to apathy and ennui.
We must resist the temptation of believing that God has forsaken us. Aside from my own personal experiences that I have shared with you other times, the biblical witness tells a different story. Through Noah, God promised all future generations of God’s gracious presence by way of the sign of the rainbow. God was with the Hebrew people during slavery in Egypt and in the forty years of wilderness wandering. The prophets assured the Israelites that God was with them even in exile. None of these events were easy, and God was a sustaining presence.
In Jesus, the assurance of God’s presence continues. Jesus did not come to save us from tribulations – to escape reality or prevent tragedy. Jesus experienced his own temptations, trials, and sorrows … and made it through. That is the promise made to us because now, God in Christ is with us.
Life has indeed thrown more at us than we can take. And so, together we find evidence of God’s grace. Together we cling to the cross with which we were marked at baptism, together we face our temptations with courageous honesty, together we cling to the assurances that we are indeed beloved of God, fiercely loved by God and accompanied by God through the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.
We become each other’s angels and reminders of God’s loving presence.
Together we find our strength and our courage to combat incivility and to be a part of the struggle in this life as agents of God’s love. We proclaim to all people the hope-filled assurance of the accompaniment of the One Who creates all things, Who caused light to shine in the darkness, and Who raises the dead to life.
With that kind of assurance, there isn’t anything we can’t accomplish or resist, together, in the love and mercy of the God who has defeated fear, hatred, and death through Jesus, the Christ, our Savior and our Sovereign.
Blessed be God forever.