How will you spend these forty days? Today’s Gospel finds Jesus at his baptism. The humble man from Nazareth joins the crowd at the river. John baptizes Jesus, and the heavens open. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
And immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert.
The transition seems rough. We are in chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, the very beginning. Jesus has just appeared on the scene. He is on stage for just a moment, and then he’s rushed to the wilderness, the desert, the desolate place. Jesus does not speak a word, not until he has been through the desert. He is out there for forty days (and forty nights).
We are at the beginning of a Lenten journey, forty days of fasting, of prayer, of self-examination and preparation. The number is not insignificant. Jesus’ forty days echoes Israels forty years out there in the wilderness. Theologians tell us that the time period was important. For Israel it took time to move from mindset of slavery to be ready for self-government. Out in the wilderness Moses and God’s liberated people find a new identity. They receive God’s promises, God’s law. They form a new sense of self. They will be slaves no more. They will be God’s chosen people, God’s redeemed people. They will welcome the stranger. They will not mimic the ways of their oppressors.
Jesus’ wilderness is also about identity. Mark doesn’t give us many specifics about the desert. The Gospel tells us Jesus was tempted, and waited on by angels. Jesus was with the wild beasts, that’s my favorite part. The wild beasts let you know this wasn’t a safe retreat. There was danger in the desert. We don’t know exactly what happens, but we know Jesus comes back changed, and ready to preach. Jesus comes back with a powerful word: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
The Jesuit professor Jon Sobrino of El Salvador points to this announcement of Jesus as the CENTRAL teaching of Christianity. Sobrino has been cautioned by the Vatican for this position, a fact which make Episcopalians usually want pay closer attention. Wait, the Vatican is nervous? The historic church thinks his ideas could upset them? Ok, we’re interested. Sobrino, and his sister and brother liberation theologians ask dangerously:
“What would Jesus want the church to teach?”
We’ve spent part of Feburary thinking about the “teaching of the church.” We heard at our Feb. 4 adult forum this history of the role the church had in supporting slavery and segregation. We have not always had, as a church, an easy history of following Jesus’ teaching.
Sobrino asks the church: what is the center of our faith? We often place the cross at the center of our churches, but as you read the Gospels that is not true for Jesus. Jesus placed the kingdom of God at the center of his preaching. Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” For Sobrino the cross is useful, but not central. The cross points. The cross teaches us about the kingdom.
Jesus is willing to suffer, to overcome the systems of power and death which dominate our world. Jesus goes through the trial of the desert. Jesus undergoes the questioning of his peers and persecution at the hands of the authorities. Jesus is executed as a traitor. Jesus overcomes death to point beyond the cross, beyond the grave. The kingdom is at hand. You do not have to live like this. You do not have to die like this.
Another world is possible. Another way is possible. Human beings can treat one another with love. We can base our interactions on justice. We can protect the vulnerable. The lowly can be lifted up. The sick can find healing. God so loved the world, and God so loved human beings, that God stepped in. God sent Jesus, the only Son, the beloved child, to point us in a different direction. We can live at peace with another. We can live in harmony with our planet. The kingdom of God has come near.
That message, Jesus’ message, is the message Sobrino thinks the church should preach. The theologian gets in trouble because he asks FOR WHAT? Jesus died FOR WHAT? Jesus was raised FOR WHAT? We are saved FOR WHAT? Sobrino says the center of Christian teaching is not the cross, but where the cross points: to the kingdom, the reign of God, that promised way of living, that longed for reality of justice, hope, and love.
We are a people who know the wilderness. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Orlando. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Sandy Hook. Stoneman-Douglas High School. We have been wandering for a long time.
I began the list with Columbine because that shooting happened when I was a high school sophomore. Columbine is just a few miles from my high school, in the same school district. I had elementary school classmates at Columbine that day. No one I knew died, but the day dramatically shifted my own sense of safety at school.
Since Columbine our gun laws have gotten less protective in this country. The kind of gun the perpetrator used this week, the AR-15 was illegal in 1999. Today an 18 year old can purchase one, without a waiting period, in Florida and Missouri.
This week a Missouri House committee will hold a hearing on a measure seeking to override your vestry. On March 5, 2016, the vestry unanimously passed a resolution declaring Holy Communion a “gun free zone.” We passed this resolution, and we posted signs on our doors, because the new conceal-carry law in Missouri liberally expanded the places where guns could be carried, and said churches had to actively declare guns weren’t permitted. This new proposed piece of legislation would repeal our ability to designate our church a gun free zone. Whatever happens, our signs aren’t coming down. If we have to sue the State, we will. Holy Communion will remain a gun free zone.
Our gun laws are getting looser, and mass shootings continue. We are wandering in the wilderness. We have been wandering in this wilderness my whole adult life. Young people keep getting shot in our schools and our streets. Young black men die at an alarming rate in this city, victims of the gun violence epidemic. When will we stop wandering? When will we say, “enough is enough?” When will we work to find our way out? When will we stop wandering, do our work, and chart a course home? When will we learn the lesson of this desert?
In today’s Gospel Jesus announces the kingdom of God is at hand, but first we have to turn.
Listen again to Jesus’ words: “The kingdom of God has come near: repent.” Repent. That word in English is laden with meaning. Probably because it sounds so much like “penance.” “Repent” conjures images of sackcloth, confession, kneeling. How many Hail Marys must I say? The Greek word is more conceptual. The original word, “metanoia,” which we translate “repent” meant more exactly “change your mindset.”
Contextually that translations makes more sense. The Kingdom has come near. “Change your mindset.” Jon Sobrino writes not only of the Kingdom of God, but also of the reality of our world. He calls the value system in our world, so opposed to the justice of God the “anti-Kingdom.” We seem to believe injustice has the last world. We behave like there is no hope. We live with with violence, with persecution, with poverty and with death. Change your mindset. Have courage. Make a change. Turn from the anti-kingdom to the kingdom. Repent.
The twelve-steppers among us can tell you: the first step to making a change is admitting you have a problem. I am not sure we have made our confession. I am not sure, still, even after this week, that we admit the scope of our problems as a society.
It is one thing to face your own personal sins. It is quite another to admit you have a problem as a nation. That kind of confession takes organizing. That kind of confession takes public testimony. That kind of confession will take courageous walk outs by students and teachers, who refuse to re-enter the classroom until our legislators have made them safe. Until we refuse to accept business as usual. Until we make someone who supports guns on school campuses and churches unelectable. Until that is the state of our discourse, we have not admitted we have a problem.
Gun violence has been my primary exemplar today. We could point to others. We could confess all manner of sins, public and private.
This Lent my question to you is simple: how will you use this wilderness time? How will you make sense of these days? Will you repent? Will you change your mindset? Will you pray not only for consolation, but for courage. Will you ask God not just for solace, but for strength? Will you use this wilderness time not just for wandering but to gather yourself up? Will you make your way through the desert and be formed to live differently, to live for God’s kingdom?