Lent 1 2015 — February 22, 2015
There are a lot of people that find the God and the faith of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures highly offensive. Many of the same people view this particular time of year, Lent?how should I say it?as the sadistic sadomasochist pinnacle of the 50 Shades of Being Christian.
Lent can be seen as one of the most gruesome spiritual periods in the church of Jesus Christ. We don?t see many guests during Lent. The folks wanting to experience church just wait out the 40 days and join us again on Easter Sunday. They, like many of you, aren?t even moved to do the Holy Week services because it is just too dreadful participating in the celebration of Jesus as a dead man walking.
Christianity has in the last half of its existence had a tendency toward the glorification of dying for divine reasons?you know, for God being on our side. We have experienced in the last half of Christianity?s existence the development and the societal acceptance of doctrines of just war?suggesting that Jesus and God agree with us that we can be justified in the presence of the divine for war.
It was not difficult really to get to a just war doctrine when we bother to meaningfully examine what we call are our Holy, Divinely Inspired, Inerrant Scriptures. Please hear my well intentioned sarcasm. I do not believe that our Bible is holy, divinely inspired except in parts, and it is certainly not inerrant. I hope to get to what it is, later.
Holy violence, the making of violence and war and death something to be nearly worshipped, was painstakingly brought to my attention in vivid detail in a visit to the Vatican Museums several years ago, and by visiting many of Europe?s most celebrated holy sites. I have often prided myself in being able to look at nearly anything and not be bothered. I did my six months as an Emergency Room chaplain in a major metro area and thought, even then, that I had seen a lot of the worst that people can do to human bodies. But, then I started going to places like the Vatican, where for two hours in our walk to see the Sistine Chapel, I had to stop looking at the walls, which are covered from floor to ceiling?no spaces between the artwork painted on all the surfaces?with more gruesome pictures of cruelty to humankind, animals, and the planet than I could stomach. In that center of Christianity, the whole of those works are lifted up as meaningful expressions of violence in honor of God and Jesus, who was killed because God needed His Son to be sacrificed.
You surely wondered with me this morning why the worldwide lectionary of Scriptures included the story of Noah and the Ark on the first Sunday of Lent. It is because the committee wanted to say that at certain times in history, God seems to have changed directions, to have significantly changed God?s mind about how God was going to handle a bunch of sinful and lost human beings.
In this morning?s Noah story, you know it deep down inside of you, God was so angry and frustrated with the way the world was working that God decided to wipe out everything except a small group that would be saved to resettle the earth. So, the story goes, it rained for forty days and forty nights, killing all living flesh on the earth, save those humans and animals packed into an ark?eerily foreshadowing the eventual forty years the Jews would spend in the wilderness, and the forty days that Jesus would spend being tempted.
The temptation that Christians have followed is to literalize this and other stories. The temptation has been to teach this story of God realizing that God had overstepped by killing a whole world of living creatures and, in the horror of that realization, promising to never do it again, at least, not in that way.
I remember one day as a child reading that story and sharing with my mother how wonderful it was that God would never flood the earth again and that is the reason that we have rainbows. I was flooded with relief. This is a true story. Even in telling you this story, I can still feel the visceral relief of knowing what God would not ever do again. ?You?re right,? my mother said, ?but the next time,? and her face was red, ?God will destroy the world with fire!?
Thanks, mom, I feel so much better. Not.
The story of Noah?s Ark is ancient to be sure. It is claimed, this story, by many cultures and is certainly older than Judaism. The Jews picked it up and added their own rainbow motif to the story. But, it is a story that teaches no matter if God promises to not do it again?it is a story that teaches children, and reinforces the thought in adults, that God is very angry, very thoughtful about doing genocide, and sort of reminds us of the cycle of violence that abusive men participate in. Ask any woman who has been or is being abused at home, and she will tell you that she is promised with the greatest sincerity that the abuse will never happen again, and yet it always does. Abusive men will say, like did God in the story, ?Well this isn?t really what I had in mind, this was a mistake, I?ve learned my lesson and trust me, it won?t happen again.?
It is so cute, the story (without the surrounding content), that it makes for great children?s toys. But, the children?s toy scenario lies. We should not lie to children. They catch on. No children?s play set of Noah includes the multitudes of people and animals destroyed and floating dead in the waters surrounding the Ark?these images are too graphic and pointed in in conveying the reality that God is willing to destroy lives to set things right. Is God of this nature? I don?t believe so, but the story continues to teach that only by the greatest of restraint can God keep from wiping us out of existence. Fundamentalist faiths love this story, because stark and absolute trembling fear of God fits like glove with the other great faith distortion that Jesus only lived so that he could be killed to satiate God?s need for a personal, bloody sacrifice. In one story God has to have a rainbow to remind God of God?s promises to not kill us outright. In the other narrative, God has his only begotten son sitting right beside him with bloody scabs to remind God that he paid with his personal sacrifice so that the rest of us could be saved.
Can?t we do better than that? Christianity is now about 2,000 years old. In the first 1,000 years of Christian faith you would not have heard a sermon about Jesus dying for our sins as a substitutionary atonement. The whole idea didn?t get created until the beginning of the second thousand years. It is not original Christian thought. In fact, the cross as a symbol did not generally hang in churches until the second thousand years. For the early half of Christianity they used symbols of wheat and bread and fish to reflect that God through Jesus Christ?s loving came to feed the world both spiritually and with real food.
Just as an aside, I?ve told a few people that I went to the movies to see the remake of the Exodus. My daughter Kali and I went to see it over Christmas and I recommend it. The author of this film portrays God as nearly a whiny, impetuous, narcissistic nine-year-old boy who has way too much power. Moses has to help this boy-god grow up.
The good part is that the movie struggles with how the God of Moses and Miriam can be so small and parochial and selfish. The movie script is not afraid of challenging us that the God of Moses acts childishly. The bad part of the movie is that it does not challenge us to see that we are the ones who project ourselves into/onto what we write and say we believe about God. Perhaps it was and is human beings who are young and small and selfish and too often parochial and we project that into our God images. When we literalize Scripture with these ancient images, we truncate our ability to grow into a faith that is full of wisdom and diversity and images of a God who is woman and man and child and of every imaginable color, as well as God not being anything that resembles us at all, but rather more simply as the Ground of All Being. (I do not pray to God as a woman or as man. I rather simply pour myself out into the creative loving presence of God?s oneness with the entire Universe and dare to seek to know what God desires with my life.)
The lectionary scripture readings were, I think, chosen to call our attention to the fact that God is always about making new covenants and promises with us. God struck a deal or created a deal with Adam and Eve, and it fell apart. God asked them to be not-curious, which I think was a design flaw that Adam and Eve had nothing to do with. This covenant with Noah and his sons is God starting a new deal, and we will see this repeated over and over again. The lectionary committee sees Jesus accepting the Spirit of God into his life and going out into the wilderness to understand his calling as the beginning of the establishment of another new covenant between God and human beings.
Perhaps most of you don?t, but I read the parts of the story that the lectionary committee does not include. They often leave out the most challenging parts, the more base moments in biblical faith history. God makes a covenant with Noah and his boys and within two verses, two?count them, two?Noah is drunk and naked and showing his private parts to his sons. Noah then condemns his son to slavery for having looked upon his father?s nakedness. It is yet another dreadful picture of how sad our lives can often be; no sooner do we make a promise to God and all reality, and we fall again. It is one of the reasons that folks in recovery from any number of substances and habits talk about how recovery is an everyday, starting-new reality, and how successful recovery means falling and starting over many, many times. It may be that the greatest gift of all those biblical stories is how women and men find that God is always willing to start over, to start again. God knows that life is difficult. No matter how many times we stumble, we fail, we fall from our stated aims, God is faithful to begin anew with us. Is God disappointed and angry with us? I don?t know, but I do know that we get that way, and I suspect that God simply loves us and is immediately beside us, ready to move forward again, and again, and again, and if we die unfinished, I suspect that God welcomes us and loves us still; for I have come to believe that if God is anything, it is merciful and full of grace.
So, here we are on the first Sunday of Lent. There is a new journey ahead of us. Jesus is stepping out to begin what you and I know as his life?s work. I don?t believe he is stepping out so that he can die on a cross. He is stepping out and moving forward because he believes in what life could be if we actually lived in the way God dreams for us to live.
Jesus begins with the words of his friend John: Repent; and then he adds his own twist?and believe in the Good News. You and I know the Bad News of our day. Last week 21 Coptic Christians beheaded?; President Obama asking congress for the power and resources to begin, or (if you will) continue another war in Iraq and Syria?. Someone asked an Egyptian diplomat last week what he hoped America would do in this latest round of Middle East atrocities: He responded quickly, ?I hope that the Americans do something new, and do nothing for a change.?
Jesus says to repent and believe the Good News. It is so much easier to believe in the bad news, isn?t it? We are just rather used to believing that if we don?t step in and bomb and strafe and seek to control a situation, we can actually believe that we are the good news.
I?m not an isolationist, but I do not believe that armed intervention does anything but destroy the lives of others, cause near irreparable harm to how people view us, and further, simply promote investment in war that creates profits from war that is hard for people to walk away from. That is more bad news. Jesus asks us to walk the way of Good News?..and seriously, who would Jesus bomb??
Friends, this Lenten season we will not find ourselves bearers of the Good News by not eating sweets, by shunning sex, or by judging others.?? The way of Jesus is far more than those things.
One of my favorite preachers, Nancy Rockwell, concludes her blog this week by saying, ?Damn the arrogant, powerful, thugs who shock us with their flagrant evil, their ugly words, their dominant wickedness.? (I don?t think she is referring to Congress but Isis?I?m not sure.) She goes on, ?Jesus calls us away from their news, and into good news, that the world is beloved and so are all of us, unclean as we are, drunk as we are the moment, fallen as we are on the shores of new beginnings. Believe in the good news,? Jesus calls.
And God looked at the world God had made. And behold it was very good. It is the good news from the beginning of time and ours to make real in our lives. Believe the good news and live it in your life.