Well, we’re a week and a half in – how’s Lent going for you? Did you resolve to give something up this year?
My own Lenten resolution this time around was to take something on, in hopes that the discipline will develop into a habit that continues past the 40-days-plus-Sundays and become a part of my life. I knew at the outset that I would need to be gentle with myself for failure to follow through consistently, and indeed results are mixed thus far, but not a complete failure.
Here’s the resolution: pray in every encounter. Pause, for a least a moment, to ask God’s blessing on the sender of the email, the face behind the Facebook post, the voice on the phone line; the other bodies sweating at those exercise machines, the other drivers on the road, the other shovelers of snow, or the irritating non-shovelers, or the even more irritating ones who pile their snow on my sidewalk; the cashiers and shoppers, the humans behind the junk mail, the authors of articles and the human need represented in their subject matter. Even, though this is a particular challenge, the people espousing the ideas that it’s my job to contend against.
I freely admit that I can go for hours forgetting to do this, but then I get reminded and I add a prayer of confession, a prayer for – not strength exactly, but resolve, recommitment, and help to move forward. Lately in my life I have not cultivated a strong prayer practice, so this Lenten discipline has provided a valuable attentiveness tune-up – attentiveness both to what’s going on around me, and to God who is a part of every moment. Attentiveness to the connections among us all, for I do believe, with my whole heart, that every single one of us matters to God, who knows each of us intimately and yearns for our well-being, each one.
We’re just a week and a half in on Lenten journey, 2010; my experiment is in the early stages. And of course the journey of faith doesn’t end with Lent. Our Gospel lesson this morning comes on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem but foreshadows the death that he already knows is waiting; he receives a warning, but is undeterred. Despite the threats, Jesus is focused on his ministry – preaching about the reign of God, casting out demons and performing cures to demonstrate God’s gracious rule, yet calling his listeners to account: God wants you to participate in what God is doing, but there are choices to make. Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem is a plaintive call for repentance that comes with an acknowledgment of what the people’s failure to repent will cost him. “Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
What a tender image! Come, children of God, gather close so that I can embrace you, protect you, hold you in my presence! But notice – in order to come close to Jesus, we have to come close to one another as well. That mother hen can’t keep her chicks under her wings if they are fighting, shunning, or running away from each other.
I was struck by last week’s adult ed program, when Ken Jones talked about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of the ways that nation set about recovering from the horrors of apartheid without resorting to wholesale revenge; where victims and survivors of violence and other abuses were allowed to tell their stories, and perpetrators could account for their actions and seek amnesty. Particularly intriguing is the African concept of ubuntu, as described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. If the world had more ubuntu, we would not have war. We would not have this huge gap between the rich and the poor. You are rich so that you can make up what is lacking for others. You are powerful so that you can help the weak, just as a mother or father helps their children. This is God’s dream.
“Ubuntu embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.
“When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave concrete application to the realization that resentment, anger, hatred, are forces as destructive to those who harbor them as to those against whom they aimed, and completely destructive of community well-being. Seeking both truth and reconciliation, they witnessed the ability of victims to forgive their torturers-and of former torturers to transform their lives. Bishop Tutu calls it the greatest evidence of God’s power and love. Ubuntu: Listening, being attentive to one another, we begin to see the world from one another’s perspectives. The oppressed regain their human dignity in telling their stories and being heard; the oppressor’s humanity is restored by the power of forgiveness, with the awareness that all are part of the same human family regardless of circumstance. We all nurture the image of God in ourselves, and look for the image of God in the other.
South Africa under apartheid is an extreme example of evil I daresay – few of us have endured the state-sanctioned murder of our children, to name but one abuse, nor have we pulled the trigger – and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a remarkable witness. But we have our own less dramatic challenges to the recognition of our common humanity -insensitivity, mocking or cursing political opponents, using more than my share of the world’s resources, failure to see how my actions affect the whole, to name just a few that I must personally acknowledge. And here’s the thesis I want to advance this morning, a message in the somber tones of Lent as we make our own way to Jerusalem, but not only for Lent: in exchanges of wrongdoing, whether we are the victim or the perpetrator, if we would be gathered into Christ we need to repent. If we’re making our way through life relatively conflict-free, we need to repent. If we’re rather oblivious to it all, we need to repent. If we’re single-mindedly intense, we need to repent. By the power of Jesus, the human face of God, contemplating his own death and crying instead over the death of Jerusalem, we need to repent.
Now when I say we need to repent, my emphasis is not on figuring out everything we’ve done wrong, feeling rotten about it, apologizing and vowing to do better – although we could do worse than that. There’s a place for the searching and fearless moral inventory, and without it we might be carrying baggage that impedes our journey with Jesus; recognizing what’s weighing us down and letting that go will not diminish us, but will help to make us whole. Not a bad idea to get introspective and self-critical sometimes. But that’s not the whole story, not even the primary plot. Where some of us are more weighed down by self-righteousness and unwarranted self-satisfaction, in others the problem is self-hatred, and there are ways in which those are bound up together.
No, when I insist that we all need to repent regardless of how few or many sins we can count or ignore, the emphasis is on the word in Hebrew, shuv, which means ‘to turn,’ and in Greek, metanoia, which means ‘to change one’s mind.’ As Frederick Buechner puts it, “To repent is to come to your senses… True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying ‘Wow!'” And friends, the future we look to in Christ is ubuntu: the future is in recognizing, honoring, celebrating our common humanity – that is to say, the image of God in one another – along with the other children gathered in Jesus’ caring embrace. Seeking the good even of those who would discount or harm us, knowing that our well-being is bound up together. Repentance means assuming our own share of the truth and reconciliation enterprise, both knowing our own belovedness and opening doors for the most cramped spirits to rediscover theirs as well. It’s not about guilt, it’s about restoring right relationship. And until we’re right with our sisters and brothers – that would be every other human being, folks – we cannot be wholly right with God.
Lent may be a time for sober reflection, but it doesn’t have to be somber. Turning to Christ, building community under his sheltering wings, isn’t always easy – but it is a re-orientation toward life, and joy. If you’re giving something up for Lent, do that so that you have more room in your life to take on what is satisfying and productive.