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Lent 1B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Tens of thousands were left in the dark and cold across Texas this week. Pipes burst and drinking water became scarce in places after winter cold swept across much of the state. One Texas mayor told residents of his small town in a since-deleted Facebook post, “Only the strong will survive and the weak will [perish].” “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” People should “step up and come up with a game plan” for acquiring power or heat, he said. “I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!” The mayor has since resigned. (Dominick Mastrangelo, The Hill, 02/17/21.)

Elsewhere in the state, a Houston furniture store owner known as “Mattress Mack,” saw his fellow Texans cold and hungry, with little shelter from the winter storm and so, just as he did during Hurricane Harvey and other storms, Mr. McIngvale, 70, opened his doors, and let the people in. Thousands came for help. Mr. McIngvale and his wife started the furniture store on Houston’s North Freeway about 30 years ago with a $5,000 investment. He said he was inspired by his Catholic faith. “When my people are dying and freezing, I am going to take care of them,” he said. “That comes before profit every time.”

Which of these two, the small-town mayor, or the furniture store owner was neighbor to those who were suffering? The contrast in choices between these two men offer us a valuable lesson about covenant life. The modern ideal is individualism, self-interest, and self-centeredness. When the going gets tough the tough get going. We glory in the philosophy that says, “I will do what I want to do, when and how I want to do it, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” But the moment our hearts are converted, such life must come to an end.

Christians are called to live in covenant relationship with God and with each other. We traced the sign of this covenant on our foreheads this week with ashes. “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify you Father in heaven” (ELW p. 231). The appointed readings each week this Lent explore the meaning of covenant life for us. Today our lessons present us with baptism and a rainbow. This Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge and deep into the human heart.

The ancient Priestly writer of Genesis 6:11 says God’s reason for flooding the earth in Noah’s time was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It was to wash away the violence upon the earth that God allowed waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land. “In anger and regret, God made the rains to fall, and the waters to rise, and the waves to beat. The water rose and obliterated every living thing. Only one family was preserved, one family and their small collection of creatures. Noah’s family was preserved on the ark” (William Willimon, Vol. 34, No 1, year B).

In the Noah story, God did what we expect in all the super-hero movies we love to watch. God used violence to root out violence. Yet, unlike all those movies our story doesn’t end there. Remarkably, God saw that God’s attempt to solve the problem of violence by violence didn’t work. So, God began a new plan and called the son of Terah. “Enter Abraham. The redemption of the world would not come by the eradication of evil people, but through the propagation of a faithful family. By faith Abraham would father a son and spend the rest of his life searching for a city whose builder and maker is God.” (Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, p. 183) (But that’s next week.)

When God saw the flood could not cure the virus of hatred and sin in us, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise and a reminder, not for us, but for God. The rainbow means that God put down his bow and arrow. God laid down his weapon. God has put an end to all hostilities between us, and with all creature, although we had no power to demand it, or any right to expect it.

Noah and God made a covenant (Genesis 9) that is binding on us today. Rainbows are beautiful. They are also a sign of the covenant. We are partners in it with all creation in God’s mission is to put an end to violence and to care for the world and all its creatures. ‘God chose to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer.’ (Paul Nancarrow). Now you and I are God’s plan.

The Holy Spirit plays kind’a rough with Jesus in our gospel today. There was no time for celebration or to pose for pictures. After baptism in the river Jordan, the Spirit of God “drove” him, compelled him, forced him, into the desolation of a wild and unsafe place, without food or shelter in the wilderness to live among wild beasts and to contest with Satan. I wonder, is it possible, that Jesus didn’t want to go? Did he resist? Scripture says, the Spirit drove him, anyway. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:12-13)

We do not get to choose, do we, what tragedy, or illness, or betrayal, or freak snowstorm will befall us. One moment God declares Jesus his beloved Son, the very next he is expelled into the wilderness. Jesus is no superhero. He is a human being in flesh and blood. Jesus struggled in the wilderness. He hurt. He hungered. He wept, thirsted, wrestled, and suffered. Did anyone read the fine print on this baptismal covenant thing before we took the plunge?
Yet maybe we need to know that Jesus wrestled with real demons and real dangers during those forty days of temptation and endured, because we know we could never survive such a dangerous place. With a companion who knows the way, though, we will. Jesus has come and lived among us, full of grace and truth. He lives with us here, where the Holy Spirit, Satan, the wild beasts, and the angels reside together.

Could the covenant of Holy baptism show us what it truly means to be a child of God and how to open our eyes to a whole new way of living? The gospel of Jesus put a decisive end to all scape-goating on the cross. An eye for an eye makes everyone blind. There can be no peace without justice, no joy which cannot be shared by all; no light found in the dark dreams of our hearts; and no true prosperity that is wrung from the sweat of other human beings.

Suddenly we realize, the wilderness we so feared is filled, not only with wild beasts but also with ministering angels. Yes, there are scary things in the wilderness, but we are not alone. With water and a rainbow God shows us how to be the Body of Christ—the People of God. We stand together with God who is with us in our suffering. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is ever near. And Jesus, himself, walks with us and promises, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Finding ourselves in the presence of the Savior, even while still in the wilderness, we rejoice.

Ash Wednesday

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

People muted their cell phones and pocketed their earbuds in the fall 2005 to sit in a packed theater in monkish silence for the premier of Philip Gröning’s three-hour documentary, Into Great Silence.

The movie has almost no dialogue. Into Great Silence follows the life of monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery hidden away in the French Alps, where they have kept their monastic rule since 1084 when they were founded by St. Bruno. For almost a thousand years, the Carthusian monastics at Grande Chartreuse have searched for God in solitude, practicing “the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart, which, they say, allows God to enter by all paths.”

Gröning originally proposed his idea for the film to the monks in 1984.  The monks said they some wanted time to think about it. 16 years later they invited him to come shoot the movie. Gröning lived at the monastery for a total of six months in 2002 and 2003. He filmed and recorded on his own, using no artificial light. The movie has no spoken commentary or added sound effects. It consists of images and sounds that depict the rhythm of monastic life with occasional selections from Holy Scripture.

The monk’s lives are an experiment.  They live according to God’s declaration in Isaiah: “Listen to me in silence” (41:1) and inspired by Jesus, who “rose long before daybreak and went out alone into the wilderness to pray” (Mark 1:35). They order their lives around radical availability to the present moment, like the child Samuel awake in the night listening for Eli’s call (1 Samuel 3). (Rose Marie Berger, Sojourners)

The world insists that we are what we do and achieve, but silent contemplation invites us to practice under-doing and under-achieving and reminds us of the simple grace and humility of being human.

In these days when, often, we are exhausted, or enraged at the news of the day, or afraid of the social, political, and ecological forces we do not understand, and feel powerless to control; as we work to tighten our grip, put on a smile, and squeeze one more spoonful of sweetness and energy by sheer force of will to greet the new day–if that’s how you feel –then it might be time to let go. Let your hope and strength and wisdom be renewed by God.

This Lent could we let the Holy Spirit show us again how to be human beings, rather than human-doings? If you’re still searching for something to do this Lent, let me suggest you give up words.   Specifically, prayers with words. Instead, listen, like the Carthusian monks do with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.

Can you set aside a minute, three minutes, or five minutes in your daily routine and just let yourself be?  Let yourself go silent in order for the still, small, life-giving Spirit to speak.

19th Century British pastor Alexander Maclaren called it sitting silent before God.  Warmed by the light of God’s grace we pray that our fisted minds and hands may be opened to the compassion and understanding that is truly required to solve difficult problems. That treasure comes from God.

The spiritual disciplines of the Lenten season – prayer, fasting, giving, prayer – these are not designed to leach you of your time and energy. They are meant to help reorient your life in God, and God’s promises. They are meant to refresh and restore you. They are meant to help you breathe again.

Jesus said, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Store up treasure in heaven by releasing grace and love into the world that comes from God. You don’t need to keep going at the pandemic and all the troubles of the world by your own power and strength but let go. Let go of the blizzard of thoughts, and feelings. Let go of your words for God to meet you again, in silence. Amen.