First Sunday of Lent

In 1789 Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy that “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” I’m sure you and I can think of a few other things that are certain in this world without diminishing the wisdom of Mr. Franklin. For starters, if we can be certain of death and taxes, I propose we can be certain of their opposites, life and the people who levy, collect, and appropriate taxes. Well, I’m thinking the opposite of taxes is a free lunch, but we all know there is no such thing. Now usually death and life are not up to us. And their certainty do not ultimately depend on us. But taxes on the other hand will always require human agency. And with Benjamin Franklin’s words in proper context, the levying, collecting, and appropriation of taxes will endure for as long as the Constitution endures. His words, not mine. Blame him. And Jesus also famously said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” So he’s not against it in principle. Then he says, “Give to God what belongs to God.” He is then suggesting God collects taxes, but clearly in an altogether different way. God has ways of getting what is due to him, which is more than any power the Constitution can give.

So what else in this world is certain? In the Two Towers by JRR Tolkien, Sam reflects, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” So if Sam is right, we can be certain of good in the world. And I think we can also be certain of its opposite, that there is evil in this world. Now unlike with taxes, the certainty of good and evil do not require human agency. But we always prefer to add our two cents. Jesus did tell us that a good tree will bear good fruit and a bad tree will bear bad fruit. And he wasn’t actually talking about trees and fruits, but rather about people and their actions. So people and their actions can be good or evil. And unlike trees and fruits, there is no hard and fast rule that limits good actions to good people and evil actions to evil people. People are often a blend of the two, so their actions will be as well.

Does your brain hurt yet? On this First Sunday of Lent, we read about Noah and the ark, a nice bible story we like to tell children as we downplay all the chaos and death and destruction boiling underneath. Ultimately the reason for the great flood we read 3 chapters before was God regretting he ever created humanity, and his heart was grieved because of “how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil.” God created humanity to reflect his goodness, having created us in God’s image and likeness. But human beings had other plans. So God had to intervene.

Fast forward to today’s passage. God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, promising God would not send another flood to devastate the earth. But humanity is given an important role. It isn’t spelled out. Likely it involved avoiding wickedness and evil, which is how God came to regret creating human beings. So now I wonder. How bad could it have been? Consider all the wickedness and evil today. Has God ever again regretted creating human beings? Now we have guns and Twitter and the internet. Ever wonder how often God regrets giving that option up when he did?

The story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert shows us that clothed in a nature like ours, Jesus resisted temptation and sent the devil packing, although the devil would not be so easily routed. He would come back many times. So we too have power to do as much. We know the wide range of wickedness and evil we are capable of. We need only a moment to list our own weaknesses and faults. But surrendering to temptation, ignoring the covenant that God made with us in baptism, and doing what is wicked and evil are not our only options. We are immensely capable of so much better.

We possess the grace of God’s presence continuously in and around us. We have the gifts of his Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord. We are made members of the church, the body of Christ. We are living stones built into God’s holy temple. Thus we have the love and support of a community of faith that knows and shares our struggle. Now it is truly unfortunate that some among us are either oblivious of this truth or have been turned away by fellow Christians, mistaken and uninformed, who do not know what it means to be Christian.

This season of Lent, we can accept the challenge to be the church we claim to be. The test is not just for when we are ourselves in need. Just as significantly it’s for when we become aware of our neighbor’s need. The pandemic has left many of us feeling isolated and fearful, abandoned and adrift. But what we feel is not up to us. Instead how we act in spite of what we feel is something we get to decide. We can choose to be and live and act as God’s own daughters and sons, called to covenant relationship, entrusted with the very Spirit of God, formed into a great family of believers. We can send the devil packing too and resist the temptation to selfishness and pride and greed. We can rise above our unfounded fears, our prejudices, and our resentments and give God reason to not ever again regret having created human beings. We can choose to avoid wickedness and evil like those who lived in the time of Noah and all those other times when we pushed God to the brink of frustration with our stubbornness and our narrow-mindedness and our self-righteousness and our resentment.

Now all this was a roundabout way of pointing out yet one more thing in this world of which we can be certain. Benjamin Franklin is certain of death and taxes. JRR Tolkien is certain of good, and we can conclude also evil. And the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is certain of change. Change is always happening, something about a man never stepping in the same river twice because it’s never the same river and he’s never the same man. Every time Lent comes around we have started out with good intentions and lofty goals. But time and again we just returned to old habits because we were tired and cranky, and it was just easier not to put up a fight.

God created humanity, God created you and me to reflect his goodness. Yet we have predictably gone for what comes easy and not necessarily what was best, traveling the broad path, entering the wide gate that leads to destruction. Still God hasn’t given up inviting fickle humanity to ditch our disastrous and selfish tendencies and decisively take the road less traveled and rise to that level of awesome and perfection we were created for. So I invite you to make a better effort this Lent. Change is going to happen, but it can be a change we choose for the better, a change we can accomplish if only we were convinced it’s our best option. Sure, the same old, same old is an option as well. And God is merciful. And whatever is worse than Twitter has yet to be invented.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021