Preached on February 22, 2015 (Lent 1B), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.
The New Yorker magazine is famous for its cartoons, and as you may know, they tend to run in themes—dog and cat cartoons, lawyer cartoons, and my favorite: psychoanalyst and therapist cartoons. (My profession is very easy to make fun of.) One of my favorite therapist cartoons has no caption. It is just a simple image. A married couple is walking through a door, and their cheering wedding guests are still throwing confetti over them. The couple is exultant, thrilled, overjoyed. Today is their wedding day! But the door they walk through is the door of a stuffy therapist’s office, with the bald and bearded therapist waiting in a chair by an empty couch, pen poised at his lips, notepad resting on his crossed legs.
I’ve been that guy.
I am that guy.
I sometimes look at this cartoon of happy newlyweds walking right into therapy and, while I do get the joke, I also think, “Yeah, I wish.” I wish more people would pay attention to issues and potential problems when times are good. It’s healthy to stay alert to such things. Get conscious now, and you’ll be glad you did. It’s easier to fix things when you catch them early.
Here’s another way to say it: couples would do well to keep a holy Lent, a season in which they relate to each other with more consciousness, more vulnerability, more empathy.
After all, if a holy Lent works for individuals, why not couples? And if couples benefit from a season of intentional work on their bond, then why not the whole community, taking on some practice or pattern of behavior together, as a group? It does us all good to walk through the exit door that takes us out of our busy lives, and into a quieter place where unsettling, even upsetting things can come up, but we learn how to follow a healthier path.
You’ve heard this before. It’s Lent 101. It begins when your friend tells you she’s giving up caffeine, and you think of cutting out ice cream. It’d be great to lose ten pounds by Easter, right? There’s no better time to do a cleansing diet, or stop drinking, or adopt a new dinner-at-the-table ritual with your spouse. I confess I like this way to begin thinking about Lent. (I’m a fan of New Year’s resolutions.) By all means, experiment with eliminating or reducing something in your life that diminishes you, diminishes your health, or diminishes the health of the world of living things that surrounds you.
For that is what it meant to give up meat in Lent, in pre-industrial agrarian communities: it meant healthier life for the animals and humans of the village. It’s good to rest the livestock in the early spring, when they are giving birth to lambs and calves. It allows the herd to develop and grow, and meanwhile, the simpler diet is healthier for the humans. It makes good sense that a small percentage of folks in this community practice a meat fast year-round: if it’s good for February and March, they reason, then make it permanent, and practice kindness and justice with our animal companions as a matter of course.
Whatever we choose to do or not do with this season, we know that most faith traditions include seasons of fasting and abstinence as important stops on the spiritual path, following the simple reasoning that if it’s always Easter, it’s never Easter. Chocolate tastes better when you haven’t had it for a while.
But Lent is bigger than this, bigger than an individual quitting a bad habit, or a couple building communication skills. Lent is a time of formation for new arrivals to the Christian community—the fancy word is “neophytes”—newbies who anticipate their baptism at Easter, and want to learn our ways and work through their own conflicting thoughts and feelings as they prepare to be inducted into this band of Christ-followers. Forty days: like Jesus in the wilderness, like Noah marking time on the vast sea, like the generation of Israelites that needed forty years to find out who they really were, forty days should about do it. Step back from snacking between meals, adopt a new practice of prayer, and best yet, do a service project to improve the health and dignity of your neighbor in need: this is Lent 101.
But it still falls short. It falls short of who Jesus was, what he was doing in that wilderness, and most importantly, what he said when he emerged from the wild and confronted his people with what he called “good news.”
It’s hard for our ears to hear the revolutionary political context of his words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says these words in Galilee just after the arrest of John the Baptizer—Galilee, or ‘gelil,’ a word that means ‘district,’ that is, the district beyond the Jordan. But gelil wasn’t just a description of the area, like the words ‘county’ or ‘diocese.’ It meant a troublesome, politically dangerous place, like a kind of ‘red-light’ district, the district where insurrectionists—what we might be tempted to call terrorist cells—hid and prepared for their next rebellion. Jesus returned to his group of political agitators. He knew if there wasn’t a price on his head, there soon would be, just like the notorious John, soon to be a martyr in prison.
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news"—this is a political message, something akin to a rallying cry. It is a message of radical hope to people on the edge, people oppressed by the taxation system of the empire, people shut out of the food and meal rituals that determine who’s clean and who’s unclean, people who live near the Temple, that physical representation of the unjust intercourse of Roman occupation forces and corrupt religious authorities.
This is a political message, and Jesus was a political figure. And a divisive one at that. In Luke, his mother sings a song of triumph over political oppression and economic injustice, and like her Magnificat, we hear in his political manifesto that the “Kingdom of God” has already come near, that is, the revolution of God’s beloved poor has already begun. The mighty are being cast down from their thrones even now.
These are the confident words of happy warriors, insurrectionists who are certain that they will prevail—that they are prevailing—over the forces of oppression and degradation.
This is about so much more than kicking your chocolate habit.
We here at St. Paul’s have a tradition of taking Lent seriously: putting away the vibrant colors and sounds and words of the festive seasons, following the guidelines and rubrics with special attention, stepping into a six-week cone of silence and stillness. This is good and healthy, and right for us to do.
But it’s not much more meaningful than a trip to a resort or a spa, unless we appreciate that what we are turning from—what we are repenting from—is nothing less than the system of oppression and degradation that benefits us at the expense of our neighbors. Every daily choice we make—what to eat and wear; how to spend our time; whether to walk or drive—every choice carries an ethical implication in this interconnected world.
“Repent and believe,” Jesus says, and our temptation is to spiritualize those words, to allow Lent to be only about my own spiritual health and development. But Jesus the Agitator knows that our spiritual health depends on our willingness to be political agitators for our neighbors. There is no separation. Our own Anglo-Catholic brother Kenneth Leech says it this way:
“Yet out of [Christ’s] death emerges a new community, born from the experience of the cross, the ultimate challenge to worldly power … It is only from that tree of shame that Jesus claims to be Lord … Throughout history the cross stands as a symbol of protest and of revolt … revolt against all systems and ideologies, all regimes and institutions, which continue to push individuals and groups beyond the pale, outside the gate.”
This season—and every season—we follow Jesus the Agitator beyond the safety of our usual habits, beyond the security of our usual ignorance, beyond the comfort of our unconsciousness and apathy, and outside the gate, where the Reign of God has already begun to lift up the poor and topple the thrones and powers.
We are a little bit like that happy couple leaving their own party and stumbling into a solemn therapist’s office. What dreadful and challenging things will we find out about ourselves, our way of life, our easy assumptions and beliefs? It’s a little disturbing even to think about it.
But we gather here at this Table with our Lord and Agitator, whose throne is an instrument of political execution. We follow this happy warrior into a season that, as harsh and challenging as it can (and will) be, brings Good News to the poor, and joins us to God’s rainbow-covenant of justice and peace for the whole earth.
Kenneth Leech, “We Preach Christ Crucified: The Proclamationof the Cross in a Dark Age”
1 Peter 3:18-22