Three weeks ago, I was in Nashville visiting my daughter and son-in-law. While I was there, they hosted a game night—a few of their friends came by and we played games—like Clue, remember that one? Colonel Mustard murdered Miss Scarlet with a knife in the Billiard Room. I came sooo close to winning at Clue, I tell you!
When the first couple arrived, my son-in-law asked if they wanted something to drink. The female half of the couple said, “Well, yes, but no alcohol. We gave up alcohol for Lent.” Again, this was three weeks ago. You hate to correct someone, a stranger to me at least, first thing when they walk in the door, but it was so in your face. I said, “Well, you’re in luck! It’s not Lent yet.” And she answered back, “Yes it is.” And I said, “No, Ash Wednesday is next week. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.” And she said, “No, I am sure Ash Wednesday was this week.” And then my daughter chimed in. She said, “My Mom’s a pastor. She knows.” Isn’t it great, when you can be the definitive word on something? I may not have won at any of the other games we played, but at least I won THAT argument. So if you learn nothing else from today’s sermon, at least know this. Lent commenced a week and a half ago, on Ash Wednesday, March 6th. It stretches through the rest of March and into most of April, ending on Maundy Thursday, April 18th. Then comes Good Friday, and then on Sunday, Easter.
I probably don’t have to tell you if you have been a Christian for a long time, but I will anyway. Lent is a time in the Christian church calendar when believers practice their faith in the tradition of good Buddhist monks. They take up meditation and prayer, frugal living, and fasting.
If you were here last week, you know that I barely mentioned Lent, though. I intended to get into that this week, but our gospel passage has gotten in the way of my good intentions. Why in God’s name do our lectionary writers have us reading Luke 13? If you were listening as I read, you know—it has nothing at all to do with prayer or fasting, or repentance. It’s about Jesus’ heated discussion with the Pharisees. On a first read through, it even seems that it is Jesus who has started this little skirmish. The Pharisees are warning Jesus to get out of town because Herod Antipas is out to get him. They are only looking out for Jesus’ welfare, or so it would seem. Why doesn’t Jesus thank the Pharisees? “Gee, thanks for letting me know, guys. I owe you one.” It’s because he knows their motive. Jesus has threatened their position. Jesus is teaching scripture, “Isn’t that what the Pharisees are supposed to do?” And Jesus is healing people. “Why can’t the Pharisees do that?” So, the Pharisees want him gone. The easiest way to be rid of Jesus is to simply convince him to leave Galilee. But Jesus will have none of it. He launches into a prediction of his last days, when he will go to Jerusalem to be killed. HE knows, far more than the Pharisees know, because he really IS, a man of God. He knows that he’s safe as long as he stays outside Jerusalem’s walls.
This passage has everything to do, then, with challenging the powers that be. Those powers are the Pharisees and Herod Antipas, the Roman tetrarch over Galilee. Jesus refers to Herod Antipas as a fox. And you can be sure the Pharisees are going to find a way to share that with Herod Antipas. The Pharisees are actually in cahoots with him. Clearly this passage has nothing at all to do with introspection and fasting and everything to do with standing up to authority figures who don’t tell the truth and who may not have one’s best interests at heart. That’s what Jesus is doing.
Is this scripture reading misplaced in our lectionary calendar, then? Surely this is a better passage to study at a time other than Lent, in the Christian Lectionary cycle? Some time in the middle of the summer, maybe, when we are in ordinary time? That’s what I had been thinking.
On my way home from church last Sunday, though, I caught an NPR interview. Joan Chittester was discussing Lent.
Joan is a Catholic nun who has gained a following as a religious thinker and writer. Sister Chittester listed prayer, fasting and penitence, as Lenten practices but she ended with this, “and engaging in social justice.” At first, I thought she meant that engaging in social justice is the least important Lenten activity. I was wrong, though, because then she went on to talk about the scandal in the Roman Catholic church. You know the priests who have either committed sexual abuse, or are involved in its cover up. I realized then, that for Joan, working for social justice is maybe THE most important of all the practices she listed. She mentioned it last, because it goes without saying. We ALWAYS practice and work for social justice. During the interview Joan Chittester even mentioned holy anger. That may seem like an odd pairing of words, but it’s not. Anger is a God given emotion, and when it is directed rightly—toward the accomplishment of social justice, it can be a powerful fuel to induce change for the good.
I heard Joan on the radio last Sunday. Then on Tuesday, I met with the Charlottesville Coalition for Gun Violence Prevention. As you know, or maybe you don’t, I am committed to ending the horrific gun violence in this country. Our coalition is composed of committed people, both lay and ordained and several other feeder groups, the League of Women Voters, Moms Demand Action, and the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice. Our very first meeting was in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook.
We have spoken with our national legislators in DC, and every year we speak with our legislators in Richmond. We hand out brochures and pamphlets, we hold educational and consciousness raising events. Last year we worked with the March for our Lives high school students to host a town hall meeting in Charlottesville—the discussion topic? Gun Violence in our schools.
Anyway, there is a man in our Coalition, Bob McAdams, who is a long-time dedicated activist. He writes letters to people in high places; he demonstrates; last year, he spoke before the General Assembly about gun violence prevention.
During our meeting on Tuesday, Bob told us how he became an activist. I thought his story was compelling enough to repeat here. It was when he was younger, with a wife and three small children. He and his family moved to York County, Pennsylvania where Bob had taken a job. Bob said, “I remember standing in the hallway of my new home and looking at our [still] packed bags by the door.” That’s when he heard the startling news about the partial meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island.
Bob’s new home was within a 20 mile radius of the disaster. He said, “For many of us in central Pennsylvania, Three Mile Island started a process of learning about nuclear power, teaching others, challenging officials and protesting publicly.” He and his family did not ultimately move, but the networking, the researching, the petitioning skills his new community developed after the three-mile island crisis would prove invaluable. A year later, someone noticed some curious activity. Less than a mile away from where Bob lived, that someone saw trucks, and men in suits congregated on a tract of flat, empty land. Turns out, a hazardous waste landfill had been planned for that site. It had been planned by the state in virtual secrecy. Horror of horrors, Bob’s community’s water needs were supplied by well water. Whoa!
Some initial phone calls did not offer any reason to be hopeful. The permit for the landfill had already been issued. “Too late?” No, no, no, no no. Bob’s community knew what to do. They had had their dress rehearsal. Eventually, says Bob, “Our furor forced the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources to convene an informal meeting with the residents."
That meeting was held in a high school auditorium. It was filled to capacity. The overflow crowd stood in the school’s hallways and in the cafeteria and listened in on the PA system. The residents gave the Secretary pertinent NEW information about well water and leeching and the dangerous toxins in landfills. The meeting was inconclusive, but my goodness did it get lots of news coverage. Three years later? The highest court in Pennsylvania heard the community’s case. And guess what? The community won.
What Bob has learned is, (and this is a quote from our meeting earlier this week) “If you aren’t vigilant, someone is going to be picking your pocket or poisoning your well,” figuratively AND literally. We don’t want to hear that in a church. We want to believe that everyone is honest and good, and has the best of intentions, and as long as we are too, that’s all that matters. Sadly, that is just not so. So we remain vigilant, even during Lent. Maybe especially during Lent. And here I’ll just mention Martin Luther King Jr. He protested the unjust segregation laws in Birmingham during Lent. He went to jail on Good Friday, 1963, and he was still in jail on Easter Sunday. It was from that Birmingham jail that Martin wrote his powerful, literary masterpiece, Letter from Birmingham Jail. Lent is not a time to get distracted from Christ’s mission. Lent can even give us inspiration.
As Jesus knew, as Martin Luther King knew, we also know, we have to stay awake at all times.
Speaking of being awake. Bob is a committed Lutheran, but we’ll forgive him for that. While the debacle over the landfill was in full swing, Bob’s Lutheran church, which bordered the proposed landfill, held an all night prayer vigil. That was in preparation for the informal meeting with the Secretary of Pennsylvania’s DER. Bob took the 2:30 am shift at the vigil.
So, he’s at the church sitting in a pew. It’s sometime around 2:30 a.m. Bob’s head is bowed in prayer when he receives a vision. It’s a vision of two open hands, outstretched toward him. The words come to him: “Ask and receive.” That’s followed by yet another vision. Two people are standing together. The one has his arm around the shoulders of the other. Again, words come to him: “My burden is light.”
We who are Christians know what that was all about, right? Christ had come to Bob in the early morning darkness. Christ himself had told Bob that he and his community were not alone in their important work.
Friends, whether we are in prayer, or on a picket line; whether we are fasting, or writing a letter to people who are misusing their authority, whenever we are doing Christ’s work, we have the opportunity to meet Christ. And isn’t that what Lent is all about, after all? Amen