Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Lent.
Lately it seems like any time there is something they don’t like, the more vocal Christian fundamentalists in this country have said that God in his wrath will strike this country a devastating blow. The hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast and the tornadoes that ravaged the mid-west last summer were examples of God’s punishing America for lifestyle choices and the failure to accept the word of these same fundamentalists as the sole truth. Some Christian fundamentalists have even claimed that God would send tornadoes or other natural disasters to strike towns and localities because the people who lived there failed to accept the political agenda of the same Christian fundamentalists. What I find interesting and perhaps even ludicrous is that many fundamentalists claimed that the floods that devastated the Midwest during the summer of 1993 were further example’s of God’s wrath and anger for the failure of the people to follow their, the fundamentalists, political agenda.
I say that these claims are ludicrous because, while they claim such devastation is Biblical in nature, the Old Testament reading for today plainly tells us that God will never again cover the earth in a flood. Something is wrong with this picture when a preacher claims that God uses a flood as a sign of His wrath while God Himself tells us that the rainbow is a sign of the covenant that God made with Noah that He would never flood the earth again.
Did not God, when Jesus was baptized, send the dove as a sign of his blessing? Was not the dove the same sign that the world would be a place mankind could once again live in? How can this God be a god of destruction and hatred?
Where do these fundamentalists get their information? Exactly which god are these fundamentalists speaking about? What kind of god would strike out in vengeful wrath and at the same time say he would never flood the earth again? What kind of god would wreck havoc and disaster across this country and then send his son as a symbol of his love? And what type of minister would preach hatred, division, exclusiveness, and greed when Our Lord and Savior preached forgiveness, freedom, inclusiveness, and gave hope to the downtrodden and oppressed.
I have come to the conclusion that many of these fundamentalists who say that they talk to God and know what God wants are nothing but false prophets, interested only in getting people to follow them down the road to ruin. Now is the time for each one of us to realize that many of these so-called preachers do not preach the word of God nor do they embody the message of the Gospel. Theirs is a message of self-indulgence, self-interest and greed. They are more interested in the furtherance of their own deeds than they are the message that Christ brought to us some two thousand years ago. Now is the time that we should speak out and bring to the forefront the Gospel message of Christ.
These are times when our own fears and insecurities are the things which drive and lead us. It is our fears and insecurities that lead us to listen to preachers who promise us riches will come if we follow their faith. It is our fears and securities that lead us to listen to preachers who put the blame for the troubles of this country on others because they have the wrong lifestyle, the wrong economic status, the wrong skin color, the wrong religious beliefs.
We have allowed ourselves to live in a world of fear. Note Adam and Eve’s response to the knowledge that they had sinned; it was fear; fear that they had offended God. In their fear, they hid from God. And in our sin, we try to find ways of reclaiming God that do not necessarily involve God.
How does this all fit into this time, this season of Lent? Thomas Merton wrote,
“The purpose of Lent is not expiation, to satisfy the divine justice, but above all a preparation to rejoice in God’s love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of God’s mercy – a gift which we receive in so far as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.
Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. IF we are terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await God’s mercy, or approach God trustfully in prayer. Our peace, our joy in Lent is a guarantee of grace. (1)
It is important that we remember this first part of the covenant that God made with Noah. God’s covenant with mankind, through Noah, was that until the ends of the earth there would be seasons for planting and harvest, day and night. Even though mankind had rebelled against him and caused him great anguish, God promised to Noah that the rhythms of the earth necessary to sustain life would always be maintained.
God’s covenant with Noah was a sign of a fresh start, a new beginning. With the new beginning following the Flood, God gave power over the earth to Noah and his descendants. It was a power that could easily be misused and many times has been. The floods that struck the Midwest in 1993 and the damage that was done in New Orleans are more a sign of our own stupidity and greed in trying to control the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers rather than a sign from God or a punishment. The people of this planet have long held the power to destroy this world, without the help of God. But the same powers and abilities that can lead to death and destruction are also the powers and abilities that can foster good and peace throughout the world.
This covenant was made with the knowledge that God knew that the conditions of mankind had not changed; that the evil that was present before the flood still existed in the hearts of some. The covenant also came with a warning. God warned mankind not to shed the blood of any person. And if someone did shed blood, there would be a reckoning. It has long been assumed that before the Flood, people were responsible only for themselves; now, God holds the community responsible for punishing wrongdoing.
If the community is to be responsible for punishing the wrongdoing, then it is also the community who should be responsible for the care of the people. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to reach out to the oppressed, the downtrodden and the rejected of the earth. Yet, we look around and see that we ignore those to whom we should be ministering.
Clear statements must be made, not by politicians or public leaders, but private citizens asking where the care of those less-fortunate will come from. Can questions concerning poverty, health care, housing and jobs be answered when the drumbeat of war drowns out all other sounds? (2)
There is a collective responsibility to insure that this planet remains safe to live on; yet, we reward polluters and ignore the consequences of our own anti-environmental actions. We have allowed monies that should be going to the assistance of those in need to be slashed or eliminated; we have put the burden on those without to provide for their own well being.
This is a country that, on the outside, expresses a belief in God. This is a country that claims to have been founded on the values and traditions of Christianity. Yet, our actions speak against those values and traditions. The dignity of each individual and the respect for the well being of individuals are tossed out the window.
We have to ask ourselves what values and traditions we hold dear to our hearts. How can we claim to be a nation of peace when we espouse violence so easily? How can we speak of the freedom to dissent, publicly or privately, when the United States Congress passes laws that take away the most basic and fundamental rights, rights established in our Constitution?
Jesus treated everyone as an individual, even when society had cast him or her out; yet, we seemed to have forgotten this lesson. We are willing to treat an individual with less respect, simply because he is of the “wrong” ethnic background or because he doesn’t believe as we do. Those who speak out against the administration are called unpatriotic; even though that was one of the rights we sought for this country some two hundred and forty years ago.
Hope is no longer the motivating force in our lives; it has been replaced by anxiety and fear of the unknown. But it was hope that Jesus gave to the downtrodden, it was freedom from fear that Jesus offers to us. Instead of reacting to fear and giving up hope, perhaps we should reflect on the lessons that Jesus taught us. Instead of creating situations that create fear that take away hope, perhaps we should be working to bring hope back and take away the chance for fear to grow.
This should be a time when we should be building bridges – bridges of hope, understanding and cooperation around the world, bridges of fairness and equity, bridges of respect for the integrity of each individual, bridges of human and civil rights? These are the values that over the years that has made this nation great. Now we are isolating ourselves with massive shifts in foreign and domestic policy.
Nearly fifty years ago President Eisenhower warned us that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” (3) We should do well to consider his words.
The purpose of Lent is to prepare for the coming of the Lord. It is not a time of sacrifice, of giving up something that we will regain after Easter. Rather it is a time when we should give of ourselves. Peter reminded us that just as the Flood cleansed the world, so did our baptism cleanse us of our sins and allow us the opportunity for salvation. Now we know that Jesus, who was without sin, did not need to be baptized. But he was baptized because it gave him identity with the preparatory work of John the Baptist and it showed us that Jesus was willing to die for our sins.
It is time that we seriously consider what we are going to do during this season of Lent. We often treat Lent as a temporary thing, giving us something for forty days to show that we can sacrifice. But we can never accomplish that type of sacrifice that Jesus did for us. But, then again, we do not have to make that type of sacrifice. But we have to make some changes.
With Noah, there was a new beginning. It is a beginning that comes with a promise that we will have God with us through all times. This promise was renewed at the River Jordan when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It is a promise that we renewed with our own baptism. Now, it is time to make that new beginning.
We cannot spend the next forty days of Lent preparing for Easter morning and then on Easter Monday go back to what we were doing last week. We have to take these days as a chance to prepare for a better life that begins with the victory over sin and death represented by the empty tomb of Easter. Now is the time to open one’s heart and mind and let Jesus Christ in. For those who have accepted Christ, now is the time to become a true disciple of His and begin working for the completion of the Gospel message to bring hope to the downtrodden and freedom to the oppressed.
Thomas Merton, in “Seasons of Celebration” as noted in Sojo mail for February 10, 2005.
Portions of the following paragraphs were adapted from the e-mail “Called to be Peacemakers” written on February 27, 2003 by Mary Lu Bowen and distributed to pastors in the New York Annual Conference on March 4, 2003.
April 16, 1953