“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Mark 1: 12
Last Wednesday my day began with mixing the gray dust from burnt palms with a bit of olive oil to make a paste to be used to mark the sign of the cross on foreheads while saying: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” For me, and I suspect for many pastors, Ash Wednesday is one of the hardest days of the year for we look into the eyes of beloved ones and say you will die. When I came to my husband, telling him to remember that he is dust, and doing this on Valentine’s day was especially difficult. So, upon hearing the news about the horrific shooting at the High School in Parkland, Florida, I said a quick prayer and decided I would feel later. When I got home, I saw the picture on Facebook of a Parkland mother whose forehead bore the sign of the cross – and not just a little smudge of dust, but a big cross – in her arms she held a weeping woman, standing behind her a father texts, perhaps reaching his child, perhaps not, then I wept. You? The next morning Pastor Skyle and I received this email: “One death was too much. Now 22 more children are dead. The time for action is now. We must stop this insanity. Please, please as our religious leaders, help us to do something.”
Doing something is more than weeping, more than thoughts and prayers and more than aligning ourselves with one political view or another. Doing something begins with knowing who we are, what temptations we face and that trusting that the kingdom of God is here and now. In her poem, On the Mystery of the Incarnation, Denise Levertov wrote: “It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.”
“Who am I?” one of our saints asked me on Wednesday. I replied, “A baptized child of God.” It wasn’t the answer she was looking for, but it was the one that matters the most. In our Gospel today as Jesus comes up out of the water of the Jordan, the heavens tear apart, the Spirit descends like a dove and a voice declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The same Spirit gives us, God’s daughters and sons, new birth, cleanses us from sin and raise us to eternal life. We are beloved. In baptism we are marked on our brows with the cross of Christ forever. In the ashes and dust of last Wednesday when we faced the worst our kind can do the cross cracked the mind’s shell and entered the heart. We were baptized for this moment.
Which inevitability leads us into temptation. As it did Jesus. His hair is still damp from the river when the Spirit DRIVES him into the wilderness. Instead of a baptism party with the relatives, he’s tempted by Satan. While the Gospels of Matthew and Luke give us a play by play of these forty days, Mark offers no details. Know however, temptation always takes one of two forms. The first is to be less than we are and in being so rendering ourselves helpless. Being less is not humility, it is fear. It’s ending with thoughts and prayers instead of beginning with them. It’s giving up and blaming others. It’s failing to trust and remember God’s promise that we are beloved. The second form of temptation is to be more than we are. It assumes the role of God, deciding who is worthy and who is not. It’s all law and no mercy. It’s about who is right and who is wrong without humility. It self-righteously blames the other for everything wrong and fails to assume any responsibility. When these two aspects of temptation are placed side by side we get caught in either/or decisions which no matter how forcefully proclaimed or righteously argued always fall short. Thoughts and prayers become little more than superficial rituals that excuse everyone from any real change and blames everything on God.
Our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton offers a different way, a both/and way. On Friday she wrote: “As we live into these first days and weeks of Lent, we do so riveted by the news of another tragic mass shooting, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Ash Wednesday. My heart, like yours, is filled with anguish; my spirit, like yours, laments.” She goes on, “We pray for the inconsolable loved ones and for the shooter and his family, for those terrorized by what took place and those who are unmoved. We acknowledge our own failings and ask God to guide us in finding new ways to turn the tide together on both the availability of assault weapons and the lack of mental health care.”
Here at St. John’s we are uniquely positioned to find these new ways. Because we are not an either/or community, but a both/and one. Both conservative and liberal, both Democrat and Republican, both gay and straight, both rich and poor, both young and old and everyone in between. And while there are times when being a both/and church is challenging, mostly it’s been a blessing for it turns us from ourselves, back to the Gospel, back to the font, to the table, back to God.
First the Gospel. Did you notice that Mark wrote that in those forty days in the wilderness, Jesus was with both the wild beasts and the angels? Odd, isn’t it? Luke and Matthew do not mention wild beasts at all – only angels. But here in Mark we have beasts which confront and angels who comfort, both together. Next, the font. Who are we? Baptized children of God – we’re given that identity without deserving or earning it, forever. Lately almost every time I see one of our teenagers, she’s brought another friend to church. It might be because her Dad told her if her girlfriend is sleeping over she is also going to Church, but mostly I think it’s because she wants to share a place where she experiences unconditional love. And back to the table, for wherever we are in our journey of faith, in bread and wine we’re given the very body and blood of Jesus. In worship we return to the Lord who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Bishop Eaton goes on and wisely writes: “But we know that those things alone won’t solve this epidemic. All of us, including the church, must take a close look at ourselves.” Then she asks, “How are we cultivating a culture of violence, hatred, anger and fear, and how can we participate in building a counter-culture where people can experience God’s intended peace and life abundant for all?”
Our Bishop’s question is very challenging. The culture of violence, hate, anger and fear has deep roots in our society. It goes back to the genocide of Native Americans whose right to land and waters we still refuse to acknowledge. It includes another genocide of Africans who were torn from their homes, thousands dying in the hulls of slave ships and sold into slavery and whose right to equal treatment under the law is still compromised. And it involves the undermining of our democracy as our public leaders are all too often beholden to those who have brought access and privilege. Big difficult issues. But there are also smaller difficult ones right here at home. Last September, Joshua Mitchell, age 21 and then after Christmas Jayson Ortiz-Cameroon, age14, were killed. Both are dead because of a combination of stupidity, drugs and easy access to guns. They were killed where our children play and our youth hang out. What happened? How did they get lost? How did we?
Bishop Eaton concludes, “Lent is a time for lamentation, dwelling with our sorrow, and facing the painful reality of death. We take each step certain that God weeps with us, walks with us in our deepest sufferings, and in the end makes the ultimate sacrifice for us – through death on a cross. This is our strength for the journey.”
It is also the strength empowers us to do something. If you want to be part of a group that puts thoughts and prayers into action, write that on the back of our yellow communication card. Remember to include your name and contact information on the front. Now listen again to the Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen
Denise Levertov, On the Mystery of the Incarnation, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/ Denise_Levertov_Incarnation.shtml
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA Bishop Responds to Florida High School Shooting, http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7910