What follows is the text of the sermon I preached on February 18, 2018 at Edgebrook Community Church in Chicago, IL.
I venture to say that most preachers, if given a crystal ball and a chance to pick the days on which they were to preach, would select very carefully which days would be the “easiest” for them, the ones without controversy, without heartbreak, without tragedy. If you knew in advance what the world would throw at your Congregation, most preachers would strive to preach on what for lack of a better term we could call “quiet” weeks. Alas, I was not granted such a crystal ball, and so I find myself standing before you on this Sunday in the wake of another horror, another tragedy, and I am impelled to speak on it.
However, it is important, before doing so, to speak of who we are, what we as a community are here to do, and most particularly, what this time in the liturgical year signifies for us as a congregation, and more broadly as the people of Christ.
A lot of quips were made on Wednesday about the convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s day, including by me. It is a bit amusing, for certain values of “amusing” that a day dedicated in our culture to the celebration of a sort of indulgent form of romantic love — with chocolate, wine, flowers, and fancy dinners — converged with the beginning of the great fast of the Christian tradition. In the morning, when it was still possible to laugh, I posted to Facebook: “Welcome to your 40 days of fasting and self-denial. Here, have some chocolate.” And culturally speaking, Ash Wednesday was almost totally ignored in the flood of feel good valentine’s day stories. But as a Christian, even as I looked over those stories, I was aware of the fact that for me Ash Wednesday had to predominate. And so later on in the day I wrote: “Remember, you can’t spell “Valentine without Lent.”
Other Christian friends of mine would post memes about how Saint Valentine was actually beaten and beheaded for the gospel so, you know, happy Valentine’s day! This is the equivalent of the memes I sometimes see around Christmas time pointing out that Saint Nicholas was known as much for punching heretics as he was for distributing gifts to children. It’s a good and worthwhile thing to deconstruct our cultural myths surrounding these holidays, and to remind ourselves of the degree to which Christian figures and symbols are so often culturally appropriated and misused for secular purposes. Catch me the Sunday after March 17th to hear all of my thoughts on Saint Patrick.
Yet there is an innate contradiction between the way we culturally celebrate the idea of Romantic Love on February 14th, and the reality that Ash Wednesday calls us to contemplate. As the ashes are imposed upon us and the celebrant intones “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Romantic love is in a very real sense gnostic. Our modern conception of it is rooted in medieval traditions of courtly love, in which romantic desire was intended to be sublimated to higher pursuits like poetry, and where physical beauty was celebrated, but only as something not to be touched. Young courtiers would woo (usually) married women, but not with the intent of seducing them (in theory), but rather with the intent of simply celebrating their beauty through art.
Ash Wednesday, by contrast, calls on us to remember our total physicality, to remember that we are flesh, blood, and bone. That we are, in a real sense, dust. Dirt. That to be human is to come from humus — the ground. And that is where we are destined. Our beauty will fade, which the medieval courtiers chose not to reflect upon. Our bodies will fail us, and ultimately we will die. And we have constructed an entire culture around the desire to forget that fact. We idolize — in the real sense of idolatry — youth, physical prowess (just look at the Olympic), physical beauty, really everything physical except that which is the most salient fact of all about our physicality, that we are made of meat.
There is a science fiction story by Terry Bisson that reflects on this fact. It is simply a dialogue between two aliens who are considering whether to make first contact with humanity. They are taken up short, however, when they realize that we’re made of meat.
"There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."
"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"
"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."
"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."
"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."
"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
Once they realize the truth of the matter though, they opt to move on without making contact with us. After all, they reflect. Who wants to meet meat.
The story is funny because we don’t usually think of ourselves as meat. But we are in fact meat. All the way through. The first time that I taught this story in one of my classes, in order to get them to reflect on the reality of our own mortality as well as the sheer wonder of the fact that in Jesus Christ God became human, God became meat, for our sakes, one of my students shouted at me “Stop calling us meat!”
But meat we are, and meat we shall be. And what today’s Gospel story serves to remind us is that God did indeed become meat for us. Jesus Christ was God in flesh, God con carne, God in meat form. And that God became meat for us and for our salvation. And so while Valentine’s day tries to get us to forget that at the end of the day we are dust, we are matter, we are meat. The lesson of Ash Wednesday — and the entirety of Lent — pulls us in the opposite direction.
In today’s passage what we find is an all too human Jesus, impelled to John in order to be baptized. In Mark’s telling of the story we get few flourishes, unlike in Mathew and Luke. Jesus comes to be baptized, and rising out of the water has an experience of the Holy Spirit and hears a voice telling him that he is the Son of God. It’s striking that all of this is, in a way, subjective. Jesus sees and hears these things, but they are not, in a sense public declarations of Jesus messianic role. Unlike the other gospels, where an actual dove appears, and where a voice speaks to the crowed telling them that Jesus is the Son of God, here the only one who receives this message is Jesus, and it is he, not the crowd, who is addressed by the voice. This is not the moment of Jesus’ public ministry. Rather, this is the moment of Jesus own self-identification as the messiah.
And so he does what one might expect in the wake of such a revelation — he flees into the desert. Whether to get away from the reality of the revelation, or to reflect upon its meaning, or to seek some higher wisdom, the story does not report. Rather we are just told that the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. The Greek word which we translate here at Spirit is pneuma, which is the same root from which we get words like “pneumatic.” It can indicate both the concept of “breath” and the concept of “wind.” In Hebrew the word “ruach” serves the same function, indicating wind and breath as well as Spirit. So in a real sense we can say that Jesus is blown into the desert by the wind of God, and there we learn three things in Mark’s telling: He’s tempted by Satan, he’s “with the wild beasts,” and he is attended by angels. Given how little Mark gives us to work with, all three of these are evocative without actually being substantive. They give us food for our imaginations, but nothing by way of detail. We do not get the classic scene of Satan bringing Jesus to a mountain top and offering him all the kingdoms of the world if he will bow down before Satan. We’re only told that there was a temptation.
But then there is the idea that he was “among the wild beasts.” Often when we think of the fleshly aspects of our humanity, the non-spiritual, non-intellectual aspects of our existence — which is to say things like indulgence in food, indulgence in sex, indulgence in luxury of any kind — it is referred to as “beastial,” that which makes us more like animals. So one way to parse this is that Jesus comes to grip with the reality of his humanity — the fact that he is both God’s son and that he is made of meat. And yet in the end, he is “attended by angels,” which is to say, having rejected Satan’s temptations (whatever they were), and come to grips with his messianic identity as the all too human Son of God, Jesus is given comfort by the messengers of God.
However, the story continues, and crucially, it concludes on Jesus embrace of his ministry and his proclamation of the Gospel: The Kingdom of God has come near. The time is at hand. Turn around and here the good news!
The Sunday after a school shooting is a strange time to be talking about good news, of any sort. It would seem that the reality of the bad news that we have been grappling with since Wednesday should overwhelm the good news to which Jesus calls us to attend. How can we celebrate the Kingdom which has come near to us when it seems so far away? How can we lift up our voices in praise of God in the face of such radical evil? There is no easy answer to that question. But here are some things that I do know.
First, there is a sense in which this school shooting is a tragedy, but not in the way most people think. I am always wary when I hear the word tragedy used to describe these kinds of events. It suggests the idea that we are helpless before it, that we could have done nothing to prevent it. That it is the mere capriciousness of fate that put those children in the way of a maniac’s bullet. There is a way of telling this story in which it is a tragedy of that kind, and like the classical Greek tragedies, any attempts to avoid the preordained outcome only serve to hasten its arrival. Like Oedipus’s father seeking to evade the prophecy that he will be killed by his son, only to have his very acts lead to that very outcome. In this telling of the story we are passive in the face of an unavoidable destiny, and so all we can do is allow history to take its course and sweep us along with it. This, sadly, or rather infuriatingly, seems to be the path taken by many of our political leaders in the past few days.
But there is another sense in which it is a genuine tragedy, which is in that to the degree that it was inevitable, it was so because of our own hubris, our own pride, and our own belief as a nation that we are in some sense special, unique, exceptional. It is precisely our own elevated sense of self-importance as a nation that leads us inevitably into this cul de sac again, and again, and again. We refuse to believe that we have anything to learn from other nations. We refuse to believe that we have anything as a nation to repent of. We refuse to forthrightly face our own history and its present effects and make amends because far, far too many of us, including our political leaders, believe we do not have to. It is this hubris that is what makes the repeated reality of these shootings genuinely tragic. The tragedy, however, is not simply that something terrible has happened to innocent children. The tragedy is not that it was inevitable. The tragedy was that it was eminently preventable but that we in our pride and self-concern refused to do anything.
Second, and relatedly, I know that these crimes are preventable. Far too often in the wake of these attacks we hear that “nothing could have been done to prevent this.” And of course, again lacking a crystal ball, I cannot say for certain whether stricter gun laws would have prevented this particular crime. But I can tell you with moral certainty that stricter gun laws would prevent many crimes. That there is common sense gun legislation that could have made it much, much harder for this young man, who was not even old enough to legally buy alcohol, who was barely old enough to join the military, to obtain a weapon capable of massacring 17 people, most of whom were children in cold blood, in a school.
When we hear rhetoric about the impossibility of preventing shootings of this kind, we should be outraged at the passivity and defeatism it represents. As though the lives of our children, of our friends and neighbors are precious enough for us to at least try! I’m reminded of the line from an episode of the Simpsons where a parent complains of the difficulty of disciplining his unruly son — “We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas.” This line perfectly encapsulates the attitude of our political leaders. Having tried nothing and found it to have been ineffective, they’ve concluded that these kinds of killings are simply something we must accept.
But I do not accept it, be cause it is unacceptable. It was unacceptable when it happened in Columbine, 19 years ago. It was unacceptable when it happened in Newtown, six years ago. It was unacceptable when it happened, at a concert rather than a school, in Las Vegas mere months ago, and it is unacceptable now. I don’t need to go into the details of the kinds of legislation that may be able to make a difference in preventing future shootings. That information is widely available and I encourage each of you to go and research it thoroughly. What I do know is that these crimes are preventable, and as a Christian community, we have an obligation to strive to work to prevent any such crime happening in the future.
Third, I know that there is a deep idolatry that lies at the heart of the American obsession with guns. I mean this in a strictly religious sense. We have displaced our faith in the God of Jesus Christ and sought security in Moloch, the destroyer. We have placed our faith in a God who does not full with life, but who brings only death, who calls for human sacrifice, and to whom we repeatedly offer up our children. Until we truly repent and turn away from this idolatry of gun worship, we will be incapable of seeking the kingdom which Christ preaches in our reading for today. Yet as a culture, we have once again appropriated Christian language and put it to the service of our own cultural obsession. In this case though, instead of glomming onto a Christian saint and using him to sell flowers and chocolate, we have taken the name of Jesus Christ himself, and laid that name over the idolatrous worship of the God of guns, the God of death.
This was vividly illustrated in last years TV adaptation of the book American Gods, in a scene in which Jesus, among a group of Mexican immigrants crossing the Rio Grande, is killed by a militia firing bullets with biblical slogans engraved on them. We mistake the gods of death and destruction, guns and bullets with the God of Christianity. But “mistake” is the wrong word. We do it intentionally, because the Gospel is a much harder path to follow than one that congratulates us as a nation for our own worst excesses. And so, we offer sacrifices to the God of guns. We offer our children.
However, Fourth, I also know this: The gods of death and destruction do not have the last word. Rather, in Jesus Christ we know that the Kingdom is in fact near. We know that death is overcome in the flood of new life. That we are in fact made for a destiny beyond the tawdry idolatries of Valentine’s day and the cult of guns. We know that the last word in the Christian lexicon is hope. And that our hope is not that we might escape our flesh, that we my transcends matter, that we might leave our bodies for a heavenly realm. Rather, our hope is that we may dwell within God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, in the flesh, not merely in the spirit, and that every bodily aspect of our lives can be and will be redeemed in the Kingdom that has come near to us. Near enough to us that we can almost see it, if we squint, and if we know where to look, and if we look, not to the violent and the defeated for signs of the kingdom, but to those who imagine a different world, a peaceful world, a world in which the violence to which we are subject has been overcome and love has come to reign among us.
And I know that we are currently wandering in the wilderness. That we are in the season where repentance is at the forefront of our consciousness. Along the way we may be tempted by Satan — tempted by indulgence, tempted by power, tempted by despair. But as we wander in the wilderness of Lenten reflection, we should remember in faith that our destiny is in the hands of one who desires not to sacrifice our children on behalf of a God of violence and warfare, but in the hands of a God who chose rather to sacrifice himself on our behalf. That this God intercedes for us in Jesus Christ, and that in Jesus Christ this God overcomes even the greatest of evils, even the most despicable of crimes. And let us remember in our lenten reflection that our history is not, ultimately, a tragedy, but rather a comedy — a divine comedy, in which the final act is the promise that we will dwell with God and in God’s kingdom forever.