First Sunday of Lent

With the tragic school shooting this past Ash Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL adding another 14 students and 3 adults to the ever growing list of victims of where gun violence and mental illness collide, we find ourselves staring down a bottomless gaping hole of rage, heartbreak, darkness, and despair. We have all watched helpless and horrified as this dark pattern sadly repeats itself, and we are deeply disheartened and exhausted. How is it this great nation we call home has fallen like a giant millstone into a cesspool of selfishness and apathy, mistrust and alienation, godlessness and inhumanity? How much longer must this go on? Is there any relief to be had at all? Maybe there’s a way we can pick up and leave it all behind. Maybe we can find a place untouched by selfishness and apathy, mistrust and alienation, godlessness and inhumanity? Maybe some monastery somewhere. They seem to be among the last safe places on the planet.

And it dawns on us that the only way to escape this awful mess is by barreling through and fixing it ourselves, or else we are doomed to wallow in it. The sad reality is that we created this mess, maybe not you and me personally, but humankind through many centuries and many generations. Ethnic cleansing and xenophobia, slavery and poverty, war and radical fundamentalism, substance abuse and abortion are the sad predictable byproducts of selfishness and apathy, mistrust and alienation, godlessness and inhumanity. And running away from our own sinful nature is not an option.

It’s an awful wake-up call right as we begin this holy season. Typically Lent is the time of gradually releasing the tight grip of self-importance and selfishness on our hearts, on the things we possess, and the things that possess us, and gradually shining God’s light in those dark and dusty places of our lives where the likes of spiritual mold and mildew and fungus and vermin thrive. When we come home to God’s mercy, our hearts and minds are lifted by the awesome truth that awaits us beyond Good Friday. And in no time we are delighting for a season in the consoling glow of Easter. Instead, our peace is shattered on day one by an event so evil it sends us reeling. What typically would be a methodical and unhurried journey of self-discovery and self-discipline has instead shamed us into a despairing acknowledgment of our brokenness. And like any realization of our own faults, it is much easier to swallow when we make the discovery on our own. But things being what they are, what now? Where do we go from here?

The account of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert in the gospel of Mark is the shortest and most concise of the gospels. And this version offers us a specific focus. We hear that Jesus was driven by the Spirit of God into the desert where he was tempted by Satan. Now the desert is an image of the world, and Jesus jumps right in and takes on himself our very human experience, to be among the wild beasts and angels. This voluntary embrace of the totality of our human experience by the Son of God shows us that God truly desires to know us and be known by us. Jesus chose to embrace our very flawed human condition. I believe God had other options. But I am glad God didn’t run away.

In the understanding of ancient Israel, a covenant is a most extraordinary and intimate relationship between two persons. And when God is one of those persons, the stakes are even greater. By calling humanity to a covenant relationship God is telling us that we are his chosen people precisely because God chose us himself. It is not anything we have earned. And God does not take back his word. According to the scripture scholar Walter Bruggemann, God promised Noah that he will never destroy creation, though he might have just cause on account of our sins. “Now that doesn’t mean that our own sinfulness will not bring down chaos upon ourselves and the world. We seem increasingly more inclined to do that each day. But the covenant, the promise of God to Noah, is that he will never destroy creation, and that there is no connection whatsoever between the evil human beings do and God’s power and prerogative to punish.”[1]

In his first letter, Peter writes as much. “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.”[2] In his final act of supreme self-sacrifice, Jesus did not ever hint that he embraced his cross against his will, or that he ever resented humanity for causing his death because of our sins. God wants to remind us that he chose us for himself, through no merit of our own. Even more striking is that God is patient with us, and that God takes delight in us as his children. Even in his suffering, Jesus desires only one thing … to lead us to God.The best familiar image with which I can compare God’s love is that of a mother or father for their own child. The love of parents is not anything their child has to earn. They love their child willingly and deeply by their own free choice. And at least in those early years, it is not that difficult for parents to claim that there is nothing their child could ever do that would force them to withdraw their love. Now when the child grows older, mom and dad might feel differently depending on how their relationship matures. We can understand how a parent might lose patience with a child who is uncooperative, ungrateful, or defiant. It might even be extremely difficult to love such a child, but excellent parents will not give up too soon or too easily. Consequently, this relationship between parents and child mirrors God’s covenant relationship with the human race. God’s love for us is undeserved, unconditional, boundless, and eternal.

One of my brothers was exceptionally challenging for my parents when he was in his late teens. It would be unfair if I said none of us were. But unlike the rest of us, this one brother got caught up in all sorts of trouble. On several occasions, my siblings and I would lament and bemoan my parents’ continued support for him, especially financially, in hopes he would actually turn his life around. But they were right. Their uncompromising love for my brother was a better image of God’s love for humanity than mine. God doesn’t keep score. If we think he does, it’s probably because we do.

In Psalm 25 we sang, “Teach me your ways, O Lord.” We know the sincerity and depth of God’s compassion for his people, having freely chosen to favor us, and despite our sins and the punishment we deserve, will never ever take back his love. We want to know and understand and love as only God does. And if we actually learn God’s ways, God can surely heal our brokenness and fix what ails us. And we would rid humanity and all the world of all selfishness and apathy, mistrust and alienation, godlessness and inhumanity. God embraced our very real human experience. By calling us to covenant, God invites us to welcome and embrace his very own divine life.

Rolo B Castillo © 2018

[1] Mary M. McGlone. Celebration, a Comprehensive Pastoral Resource. February 2018. “First Sunday of Lent, Commentary—Teach Me Your Ways.” Kansas City MO. p24.

[2] 1 Peter 3: 18