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Lent comes to us wrapped in this story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a story full of baptism and blessing, temptation, the voice of God, the arrest of the man who baptized him and the announcement of the good news. So, in other words, Lent is complicated. The practice is far more elaborate than giving up chocolate or wearing black a lot, it is specifically spiritual work meant to engage in us reflection on our own hearts and souls. So, rather than just arbitrarily giving something up, the real struggle is to sacrifice for something and to grow a little in the process.
There is an old morality story about a grandfather teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is rage, envy, greed, arrogance, lies, resentment, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, generosity, truth and compassion. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
This is a familiar story to many of us, and it is also what Lent is about. It is about the paths we choose, the things we consume, not just the things we ingest, the wolf that we feed. Lent is meant to be a time of repentance, though we have abused that word almost out of all helpfulness, and like so many rituals and guidelines of religious practice we have made the laws the point instead of allowing them to help shape us. And so in the so-called “progressive” church we often either dismiss Lent altogether – too Catholic – or we engage with it at arms length, giving up a token something half-heartedly. And we miss, I’m afraid, a chance to engage in something that might really be life-changing, transformative, even, dare I say it, spiritually enriching.
Giving something up is not the point, nor is Lent about the romanticization of suffering – anyone who tries to romanticize such things has never suffered. Rather it is about discovering how we can heal and renew and grow despite our sufferings, even despite our sins. You will hear the word “sin” a lot during the liturgy and hymns of Lent, but I think that I’d better be very clear about what that means, for many of us have been beat over our heads with the word sin and yet still find ourselves needing a good theology of sin. Sin, from the Greek word, hamartia, is an archery term meaning to miss the mark. During Lent we speak of sin because this is a time of reflection, a time for us to look at ourselves and wonder where have we missed the mark. This, of course, means we have to know what the mark is that we have missed. And this works best when we do such work for ourselves rather than only use our honed sin-seeking skills to point out to someone else where they have missed the mark. That’s called judgment…and it’s one of those marks we’re not supposed to miss.
In 590 CE, Pope Gregory I unveiled a list of the so-called “Seven Deadly Sins” – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Today one could make an argument that these are the celebrated values of the United States, rather than a list of things to be avoided. Anymore, this list comes across as an oversimplified, legalistic “no” list, that lends itself too easily to being used as a weapon against others rather than a tool for self-reflection and improvement. And because we have isolated sins to only the personal realm, this list also has no comment for the many ways that we sin corporately, in the systems we create and the choices we make collectively.
So this Lent instead of speaking only individually, let’s look to one of the saints of the 20th Century – Mahatma Gandhi – and a move from individual sin to the idea of the sins we share together. On October 22, 1925, Gandhi published a list he called the “Seven Social Sins” in his weekly newspaper Young India. It is a more complex idea about sin, which it does not confine to single actions, but characterizes as actions done a certain way. Pride, on Pope Gregory’s list, may be sinful if it makes us arrogant and rude, but it may be quite virtuous when, for instance, it creates a weekend that helps marginalized people feel better about who they are. Gandhi’s list has seven entries, and my plan for Lent is to cover one a week, with two combined on a particular week because there’s only 6 weeks of Lent. The list of social sins is:
Politics without Principle
Wealth Without Work
Pleasure Without Conscience
Knowledge without Character
Commerce without Morality
Science without Humanity
Worship without Sacrifice
Today, after the week that has just transpired, we cover politics without principle. Now, we all know that there’s not a politician out there who won’t claim principles. But principles are like character…not shown with words but by deeds. I can almost hear right now the politicians say, but I have principles! I believe in God, guns and guts – those are principles. No, those are ideologies, and an ideology can be held by a thousand people or one person. It’s still an ideology. Principles are something broader, something more determined by “us” rather than “me.” Webster’s defines it as a “fundamental truth”, or something that serves as a foundation or a basis for a chain of reasoning, i.e. an ideology. When someone claims “God, guns and guts” as an ideology, there is a principle, or principles, behind it. Maybe those principles are that some people matter more than others, or “to the victor goes the spoils”, or might makes right. Whatever the case, they form the basis for being able to say, “God, guns and guts” and we have to ask ourselves, because I actually have a lot of faith in two of those three, what lies at the roots? For the solid principle, at least the way I see it, begins with this – either all of us count or none of us do.
Politics not guided by solid principles but instead driven the next election, or partisan victory, or personal image, are politics that aren’t helpful, ultimately, to anyone. But it also matters what principles are at play. Teamwork, loyalty and even profitability can be great principles or horrible principles, depending on context. First, as foundational to all of our principles, something must be laid. For us, as Christians, it is this – we are all created in the image of God, each of us loved and valued by the Creator. If that is your foundational principle, then it must shape teamwork with questions about who is on the team? It must impact loyalty with assertions that respect is always a two-way street. And it must direct our models of profitability with the simple reinforcement that profits cannot come at the expense of people.
This past week has brought many examples of our failing foundations, and I’m not talking about anything on that list of seven deadly sins. No, I mean the most crucial sin of all – forgetting that we are all created in the image of God and that God’s amazing grace is for all of us . Last week that was brought home to me in many different ways. I imposed ashes on the forehead of Betsy Edwards, in an ICU bed with a ventilator snaked down her throat, speaking these words – you are dust and to dust you shall return – as if I had to remind her that we are mortal. I placed those same ashes on the forehead of Richard Ward, and said those same words, telling him of the fragility of life as he mourns his youngest son. I listened to the reports coming back from Dallas, where one of the clients of the New Sanctuary Movement saw her husband, 8 months in detention already, deported back to Mexico with no goodbye, no word of where he will be dropped off, no communication with his three children –and all as she wonders if her undocumented life is next. And we all bore witness to another chapter in this continued sinful story of our nation’s idolatry of guns that is so strong we appear willing to sacrifice our children to it. Where is the principle of people? Yes, we need immigration laws, and the politics that develop them. We may even need to deport people, but we cannot lose sight that there are human beings involved in our ideological struggles and that no human being is illegal. We may be long past the point of no return on guns in our society, but there must be room made at assert that your supposed “right” to own whatever kind of gun you want cannot trump my right to reasonable safety, or the rights of our children to be as safe as possible in their own schools.
And then there are schools. For last week also brought a very difficult vote at our Capitol, in a grand display of politics that continue to talk around problems and politicians that continue to forget who it is that they are supposed to be representing. The principles matter. And politics without them become just another game of winners and losers, with power and privilege ruling the day once more. And that dynamic might be many things, but standing in the shadow of a Savior who had all the power and gave it away, it sure ain’t Christian.
The sin that I can most readily address is my own. Lent helps us to see that in ourselves, for self-justification and denial are mighty forces that often stand as adversaries to the kin-dom. So I make time to look inside, in part so I can see where it is that I am missing the mark, and, in part, so I can more readily identify the places in our world where we are missing the mark. As I’m sure the participants of last Lent’s White Privilege class will attest, once you open your eyes it is difficult not to see…once you hear the heartaches of an undocumented mother worried for her children, you cannot hear news stories the same way. Once you take the time to learn beyond the latest headlines, it is hard to trust the simple answer any longer. And once you experience complexity, then the action of scapegoating is no longer as satisfying as it once was. We should all run from Lent, you know? It is hard work to be introspective and to consider complexity and nuance, to sacrifice for our principles. While it may be true, as Socrates once wrote, that the unexamined life is not worth living, the examined life takes heart and courage and strength. So, if your guiding principle is that God loves us all – every, single other – then the world needs your voice right now. Take heart, friends – “The time is fulfilled, and the kin-dom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And then act on it.