I Give Up…

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Lent.

Mark 1:8-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

***

I give up. 

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard that phrase in the last year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said it, either. 

Another lockdown? I give up. More at-home schooling? I give up. Trying to plan any kind of in-person event? I give up. Arguing about masks? I give up. Trying to even remember what day of the week it is? I give up.

I have a friend who is particularly vehement about her dislike of virtual school. Her social media posts on the topic will have you rolling; in hilarious detail, she shows what it’s like to try to wrangle two kids with limited attention spans into one more online class or “fun” learning project. The pictures that accompany her posts usually show kids with paint on them, or craft supplies strewn all over the house, or the cat sitting on the computer. 

“I give up,” she jokes, even though she hasn’t, not really, not once. Because honestly, we can’t. We don’t have a choice. 

I’ve heard the jokey, exasperated, so-over-it tone when my friends tell me they’re ready to give up. But I’ve also heard the pain, the exhaustion, the resolution from a few. They’re ready to be done. And not in a jokey way. 

This pandemic has been hell—and I do not use the term lightly—it has been hell on mental health. I’ve had more than one friend consider giving up, in the most serious sense of the phrase. 

If that’s where you are today, please, let me or someone else you know and trust know. We’re not ready to give up on you, I promise.

There has been too much giving up already this year, and yet here we are again, in the season of Lent. The season where even the barely churched know that you’re supposed to give something up.

And y’all, I can’t. Not this year.

I mean, did Lent ever even really end last year?

That’s the question my clergy colleagues and I kept asking each other as we planned for this new season, Lent of 2021. I know we had Easter last year. There’s video proof, if I had the heart to go watch it. But it didn’t really feel like Easter. It feels like Lent never ended. 

When we began Lent last year, things were normal. We were eating out and planning parties and singing hymns, going to school, going to work. Perhaps some of us had chosen something to give up for Lent of 2020, or a new spiritual practice to take on. Perhaps we were going to give up chocolate, social media, or gossip. Perhaps we were going to journal, or volunteer weekly, or read the Bible more regularly.

And then the world fell apart. 

We gave up more than we could have ever imagined, and we took on almost more than we could bear.

We gave up so much this past year, and we took on so much more. We had to give up gathering, singing, praying, and eating together in person. Having easy conversations with people at the office or at the store.  Celebrating birthdays and weddings and graduations and proms. Visiting loved ones. We had to give up our own sense of daily safety and security. And we have taken on layer upon layer of anxiety and uncertainty. We have taken up the practice of masking, hand washing, carefully planning our outings. We have taken up following the numbers, seeing the death toll rise, waiting on the phone for hours to get a vaccine appointment. Some of us have taken on the work of grief, of missing the coworkers and neighbors and relatives and childhood friends we never got to say good-bye to. 

We have given up and taken on enough. 

This is not a normal Lent. It can’t be. Most Lents the job of the season is to invite us to imagine a world of scarcity, of shadows, of wilderness, of want. This year there is no need to imagine it. This year we are living it in full color. 

When I was a kid, I was taught to give up something I loved for Lent, because it would teach me the suffering of Christ. Forgive me, but spending a month and a half without chocolate (it was, almost always, chocolate) never gave me an inch of understanding the depth of Christ’s sacrifice. Mostly it made me cranky, self-righteous, and obsessed with my own piety. 

Friends, this is not the year to give up anything that brings you joy. This is not the year to give up anything that helps you cope. This is not the year to add a single ounce of hardship to the weights already hanging around our necks. 

The point of Lent is not to suffer. Suffering may bring us great blessings; it may show us God’s face; it may reveal to us our own strength; but it is not something to take on lightly, like the season’s latest fashion. Christ did not say he came to bring suffering, but life, and life abundant. 

At first I was bewildered on how to preach the temptation of Christ this year. But then I saw that we were in Mark, and Mark barely notices it. Two small verses are all we get: after his baptism, Christ is immediately driven out into the wilderness. He is there forty days, tempted by Satan; he is with the wild beasts; and the angels wait on him.

Mark does not bother to record what the temptations are, or anything about how Christ handled it. The wilderness is a waystop, a place to wait and gather strength, because the real work is not with Satan, but with the people. 

Jesus leaves the wilderness as quickly as Mark threw him into it, to go to Gallillee and proclaim the good news, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Believe in the good news. The kingdom of God is nearer than you think. 

This is Christ’s work: stitching the gap between wilderness and kingdom so that every last one of us would know that we are found, and safe, and beloved. Christ is not hung up on the wilderness. He never mentions it again. He is laser-focused on the kingdom of God, where all will be made new. 

After all, Christ did not enter the wilderness just to be tired and hungry, but to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God.

I said this is not the year to give up what brings you joy, and I meant it. The last thing we need in this pandemic is caffeine-deprived, disconnected, cranky people. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth giving up. 

Each week during Lent, we’re going to look at what hurts us, hurts our relationship with others and with God. We’re going to look at what it would take to give up those things, so that we might be knit ever-tighter to the heart of God, and find ourselves living a bit more each day in the light of God’s kingdom. 

I was inspired by the words of Rev. Stacey Midge this week, a friend and colleague in this presbytery. In her usual determined, defiant, and compassionate way, she wrote, 

“Personally, I am giving up nothing this Lent. I am refusing to urge myself further into penitent space, or to spend extra time pondering my mortality, because God knows I’ve been doing plenty of that for the last year, and I’m sure there will continue to be plenty of it without any intention on my part. Instead I am seizing every possible instance of joy when it comes. I am taking every opportunity to celebrate, even though my celebrations will not take their usual shape. I am seeking every tiny sign of life in this barren landscape. 

That is the only discipline I can bear this year. That is the only discipline I need this year.”

Lent is a good place for us to linger for awhile. It is a soft place, where the lights are dimmed and all we need to do is follow, follow Christ, along the path we’ve walked so many times before. 

But keep a weather eye on the horizon, my loves. Easter is there, glimmering bright. 

And Christ will not give up until we see it. 

Amen. 

In Praise of the Thread

Holy God,
when I am holding on by a thread,
buffeted by gale winds,
anxious and overwhelmed,
teach me to praise the thread.
Show me the thread is your gift,
a connection of love and hope,
delicate as your tender mercy,
strong as your unquenchable grace.
In the thread, may I know
I am still with you.

And once I have learned to praise,
teach me to weave in and out
with the people you surround me with
until all the disparate threads
that connect us to you
twine together into cords of your love,
ropes to rescue us,
nets to hold us safe.
Threads of connection,
to weave the fabric of a new world.

But for now, while I hang here,
all I ask is that you help me
learn to praise the thread.

Amen.

For Goodness’ Sake

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

***

The original gist of my sermon for this Sunday was this: “people are good, because God made them that way.”

And then… this week happened. And that message became a lot harder to preach. 

Have people seemed good to you this week? Because I’ve had my doubts. 

As I watched the TV in horror on Wednesday while a mob of entitled extremists breached our nation’s capitol, I found myself repeating a single mantra like a security blanket: this isn’t who we are. This isn’t who we are. This isn’t who I thought we were.

It’s a mantra that was taken up by politicians of all stripes in their response to the attacks. This isn’t who America is. This isn’t how we do things. This violence, this arrogance, this mob rule by intimidation—this isn’t us. 

And yet, on Wednesday, it was. 

It was a group of American citizens who smashed in windows and looted property from our capitol building this week. And they believed what they were doing was right; was patriotic; was necessary; was good. Many of them were spurred by the words of the Holy Scriptures I just read. Some of them carried banners with the name of our savior, our Jesus, flown right next to the hateful flag of the Confederacy. 

I wish this weren’t us. But it is. It has been for a long, long time.

And I want, so, so, so badly to condemn. 

I could, you know. I’m angry, and I’m heartsick, and I have rants inside me waiting to come out. But I’ve deleted them from this sermon, because I’m not here to speak my words. I’m here to speak God’s words, as far as my human ability will allow.

And those words are much, much harder. Because as much as I want to toss fire and brimstone from this pulpit, today’s lectionary passages are drenched in the waters of grace. 

God creates the world, and calls it good. Delights in it. Christ models for us what happens in baptism, when we are named and claimed as God’s own beloved. 

It is hard to reconcile, the news of this past week with the truth that the world is good. Hard to see any goodness at all in what has transpired—not just the attack on the capitol, but the conversations that have followed. The finger pointing, the conspiracy theories, the ended friendships, the broken relationships, the fissure that runs right through 244 years of American history, between ideals of liberty, and realities of oppression. 

Especially when every voice claims they are doing the right thing, the good thing, even the holy thing.

How are we supposed to say the world is good, when we cannot even agree on what being good means? 

I was saved this week by wisdom from someone who has wrestled with believing in goodness when the world is racked by evils. Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard, in his role as chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the stories of brutality and pain inflicted on Black citizens during South Africa’s apartheid policy. And beyond just hearing stories, he saw first-hand the shattered skulls of women and children strewn across a sanctuary floor after ethnic genocide in Rwanda. Across the world, he has seen the viciousness that humans unleash on each other when we have convinced ourselves that we are the arbiter of goodness. 

His daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu, faces the same atrocities on a smaller scale. She works with women who have survived intimate violence—girls as young as 8 and women as old as 80 who carry pain as horrifying as the stories that make the news, but carry it alone and unknown. And yet, her faith persists. Together, Desmond and Mpho Tutu wrote a book called “Made for Goodness.”

“We know all too well the cruelties, hurts, and hatreds that poison life on our planet,” Archbishop Tutu said in an interview. “But my daughter and I have come together to write this book because we know that the catalogue of injuries that we can and do inflict on one another is not the whole story of humanity, not by a long measure — as I hope you will see and as you no doubt know in your heart. We are indeed made for something more. We are made for goodness.”

Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. 

We are made for goodness. But we make choices that distort that goodness; choices that render it useless to the world. What good is our goodness if we do not show it? 

Our gospel scene today begins with a crowd of folks who have come to repent. I don’t know how John got them to do that. But somehow he convinced these Galileans to look inside themselves, and see where they had superimposed their own notions of goodness over God’s true goodness. 

And by some miracle, they do. They repent. They take a deep look within, and they start to let go of all the false-goodness they’d been holding like a weapon against the world. They let the truth do its work in them. They let the Spirit do its work in them. And they go marching raw and scarred and vulnerable into the waters of grace, and let themselves be recreated into the people God meant them to be. 

I wonder if we have that courage. I wonder if we have the courage, to look inside ourselves, at our outrage, at our smugness, at our shock, at our divisions, at our secret sympathies, at our refusal to understand other points of view, at our white-knuckle grip on our own image of ourselves as good people, as not like those people, and let the waters wash it all away. 

This is the work, the challenge, and the miracle of repentance: we cannot tap into God’s goodness until we wash away the false pretense of our own goodness. 

To tap into the goodness God placed inside us is to recognize that our goodness does not lie in our skin color, our nationality, our ability to win at the polls, the number of likes on our social media posts, the number on our bathroom scale, or even—and this hurts to say—our professed religion. To tap into the goodness God has placed inside us is to live out God’s goodness—a goodness that creates worlds of justice, truth, mercy, and love. 

We have to give up believing that we are good because we are American, or Democrat, or Republican. We have to give up believing that we are good because we are clever, or sophisticated, or persuasive. We have to give up believing that we are good because we wear cross necklaces or can recite Bible verses. We have to give up believing that we are good because we use the right catch phrases and run in the right social circles. And for the actual love of our God, we have got to stop believing that we are good because we are white. 

We are good because God made us. We are good because God claimed us. And we can live out that goodness by living the life of Christ, who came without force or battle slogans, who preached words of mercy and compassion, who died not as a martyr to some self-righteous cause but so that no one else would ever have reason to think they were not fully and completely loved. 

Friends, we were made for goodness. That was the end of my original sermon, and it is still truth, even battered and tested this week. I believe with all my heart. We were made for goodness, and God has not given up on us. 

“We are fundamentally good,” Desmond Tutu says. “When you come to think of it, that’s who we are at our core. Why else do we get so outraged by wrong? When we hear of any egregious act, we are appalled. Isn’t that an incredible assertion about us? Evil and wrong are aberrations. If wrong was the norm, it wouldn’t be news. Our newscasts wouldn’t lead with the latest acts of murder or mayhem, because they would be ordinary. But murder and mayhem are not the norm. The norm is goodness.”

We were made for goodness. Made to be close to God and to each other. 

The world has seen horrors and hatred before. The waters of baptism keep flowing through it, scrubbing blood stains from carpets and sin stains from souls, offering us a new world, a new way, and new hope for tomorrow. 

Despite it all, we were made for goodness. With our courage, and by the grace of God, we can let that goodness shine. 

Amen. 

*Quotes from “Desmond Tutu, Insisting We Are ‘Made For Goodness.” NPR. March 11, 2010. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124539592