February 18, 2018 The First Sunday in Lent


Genesis 9:8–17, Psalm 25:1–9, 1 Peter 3:18–22, Mark 1:9–15

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Amen.

When I first heard of the school shooting in Parklane, Florida on Ash Wednesday, I felt two things simultaneously: sickly depression and helplessness. The first reaction is natural, I think, particularly since the terrorism at Parklane is the eighteenth school shooting in this country since 2018 began. Who wouldn’t be depressed over the death of seventeen more people, most of them high school students–children whose lives and futures have been snuffed out by a senseless act of violence? The second reaction is more disturbing to me, however, because it betrays a larger problem: resignation. I feel resigned and helpless because I know, intuitively, that nothing will change. The violent deaths of our children in school shootings has become the new normal for our society. We have become numb to the shock and mostly just shrug our shoulders because nothing ever gets done. In the immediate aftermath of such terrorist acts, we can reliably count on our politicians to send their thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims and the survivors, but nothing more—no serious discussion about how to stop such tragedies and keep our children safe; no serious consideration about what kind of firearm should legitimately be owned and by whom; no serious questioning about the culpability of deep-pocketed lobbying groups in each new tragedy; no serious legislative action to address what, to my mind at least, is becoming a serious national crisis. And with each non-action, frankly, sending one’s thoughts and prayers becomes a hollow act, void of any kind of meaning that makes a lick of sense or that brings any comfort or relief. Who cares about thoughts and prayers when our children are dying around us?

Now, I’m not here to take a political stand or to make a political pitch. That is not my job; and besides, I think the positions of both sides in the political argument are bankrupt, as is much in our divided and partisan society and government these days, because neither argument leads us to a place of safety for our children in their schools. Besides, I’m frankly at a loss as to what to do or how to proceed in this debate. All I know is that I (and I suspect many of you) am tired of the pious platitudes that follow such violence and desire, no demand, action. To this point, it is my job to speak.

I said on Ash Wednesday that ours is a public faith—a faith in which all areas of our lives are to be lived in the light of Christ and are to reflect the light of God’s love in the world. As such, ours is to be an active faith, not content merely with private thoughts and prayers in times of great tragedy, but reaching out in love to relieve suffering in the immediate sense of consoling those who mourn and caring for the survivors, to be sure, but also in the longer-term sense of addressing and resolving the conditions that lead to such tragedies over and over again. Without such active faith our thoughts and prayers function much in the way Jesus describes the prayer lives and fasting and almsgiving practices of the religious elites of his day: pious platitudes that do nothing but show the world how religious one is; and without such active faith, we devolve into hopelessness and despair. That is not who we are as followers of Christ, nor does that reflect God’s vision for the world, a vision with which we are to shine in the world.

What is this vision? Well first, our texts for this morning make very clear that the God we worship is a God of life. The text from Genesis is the conclusion of one of the flood stories in the Hebrew scriptures. Prior to the great flood, the scripture is clear that God, the creator of heaven and earth, was pleased with the creation and pronounced it good. After the great flood, God decides that created life is still good and worthy, though flawed, and to celebrate this vision of life, God makes a covenant with Noah and “every living creature of all flesh” promising that “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And as a sign of the covenant, God gives the rainbow so that whenever one looks on the rainbow, one can remember this covenant that God made and take comfort that God, the creator of heaven and earth, is a God of life. As followers of this God called to an active faith in the world, we are to be people who seek and promote life in all we say, think, or do. To seek life means that we will not feel helpless or hopeless amid tragedy; rather, we are people who actively engage in ways that bring life out of death and that seek, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to “turn our weapons into plowshares,” and in which we seek to become, in the words of Jesus, “peacemakers” in the world. To do anything less is to betray the God of life whom we serve.

Now, with all that being said, let me also say that while the end game seems clear, the way to the end is not always so clear. During Lent, we reflect on what it means to be baptized people of God (baptism is the main theme for the texts this morning). It is true that as baptized people of God, we make promises to live lives of active faith in the world. Among other things, we promise to “persevere in resisting evil” and when we fall into sin promise to “repent and return to the Lord.” We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” These are actions of love that promote life. But the reality is that the way of life is not always that clear. “What Mark lifts up briefly in today’s gospel is that no one is exempt from the trials and tribulations of life. Life will wear you out and will not always offer you good things. Life will get the best of us sometimes. Scripture reminds us the enemy comes to kill, steal, and destroy. I am continually reminded that for every spiritual blessing or high we experience, our flesh or carnal nature desires to experience much of the same.” (Jonathan Hemphill, “February 18, 2018, First Sunday in Lent: From a Preacher,” in Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 89.) That is to say, at times, we simply may not want to act as we are bidden and as we promise to in our baptism vows; at times we give in to our helplessness, hopelessness, and despair thinking that nothing we do matters anyway because nothing ever changes; at times, all we want to give are our thoughts and prayers when violent tragedy strikes yet again.

Jesus lived this reality as well. After the high of his baptism in which he was declared “beloved” by God and in which the Spirit came upon him, Jesus retreats into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. “It is almost as if [Jesus’] baptism was for show and now Satan wants to see who Jesus really is. He basically says there’s nobody here, no more pomp and circumstance, no spectators around: put away the act now; it’s just you and me.” (Ibid.) It’s one thing to act piously in public, but how does one act privately? I imagine that in the temptation of Jesus, he was likely tempted to inaction as we are—no need for a show; nothing ever changes anyway, so why even try? But the text tells us that Jesus was in the presence of angels who waited on him and who, doubtlessly, also protected him; and in the end, Jesus emerges from the temptation to inaction into bold action on God’s behalf. “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.’” In the power of his baptism, Jesus moved boldly and actively in the world, loving God and loving neighbor—reflecting life in all he said and did. No helplessness, hopelessness, or despair here; just a bold witness to the God of life.

In the wake of the violence of Parklane, Florida, we do not, as people of God, have the option of inaction—of helplessness, hopelessness, or despair. We may not agree on the way forward, but we can agree that the death of our children all around us has become unacceptable; and as it happened in Parklane, Florida, so it could happen in North Platte, Nebraska, or Hershey, or Sutherland, or Brady, or Arnold, or Stapleton. As the baptized people of God, we are called to action, reflecting the God of life in the world. After Parklane, what are you going to do? Amen.

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