Raise your hand if you haven’t slept very well this week. Raise your hand if you’ve watched more hours of news than you know is healthy. Raise your hand if you eventually managed to turn off your devices and sleep but still felt – still feel – a constant hum of anxiety moving through your body.
I’m right there with you. I don’t have a magic pastor blanket that I can wrap around me to keep away those fears and worries. I’ve had more than one night this week when I woke up in the middle of the night and tossed and turned. I tried praying, though the prayers mostly came out like fragments of questions that we hear in the psalms: Why, God? Why? How long, O Lord, how long will this go on? I know God hears what I’m trying to say in those jumbled prayers, but it can still take a while to fall asleep again.
Sometimes I’ll get up in those restless hours for a drink of water. Something so basic and necessary – water. Water that cleanses, water that nourishes, water that keeps us alive. It’s why we use water for baptism – because it is at once so ordinary and so vital.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is the very first story we hear about him in the gospel of Mark. There’s nothing here about Mary and Joseph. No angels. No shepherds. No wise men. Not in these opening verses. Instead, right out of the gate we meet this strange character of John the Baptist, who has tons of people flocking out to the wilderness. And for what? To confess their sins. To be baptized. To hear John talk about this more powerful person who is coming soon. It doesn’t exactly sound like Disney World, but people are coming to the wilderness from throughout the Judean countryside, including from the city of Jerusalem. What would make people leave the relative safety of the city and head out to the desert?
We learn both in scripture and in our own lives that we can’t always predict what places are safe and what places are dangerous. You think the solid structures of Jerusalem will be safe, until you realize that by the time the gospel of Mark is written down, the Romans have destroyed the Jewish temple. You think the Capital building in Washington, D.C. will be safe, well-guarded. Until an armed mob finds its ways inside and wreaks havoc in places you thought were sacred. You assume the wilderness is wild and dangerous. And it can be. But it can also be a place where something new happens. The wilderness can offer a pathway to redemption, an encounter with the living God in the waters of the river.
As promised by John, Jesus shows up out there in the wilderness. He is baptized by John in the river Jordan, and what happens next is important. Just as Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus.
The word that the author of Mark’s gospel chooses here is important. Torn apart. The gospels of Matthew and Luke say simply that the heavens opened. But the gospel of Mark describes the heavens being torn apart. Mark uses the Greek word schizo – from which we get words like schizophrenic or schism. It suggests something more unsettling, more disruptive to the way things have been before that moment. It’s not like opening a door and then closing it, which doesn’t really change things all that much. This is a rending open that says things will not return to their usual state.
What’s happening in this moment is that God does not intend to maintain some kind of careful distance between God and us. God is about crossing boundaries and borders, saying, “I have come to love you up close. And I refuse to let you stay mired in a life of sin. I’m offering you a new way to be, a new way to live, a new way to love.”
I needed that reminder this week. I needed to remember that there is a profound difference between human disruptions and God’s holy disruptions. We saw this week that human disruptions often lead to destruction – not just of property, but of lives. People killed, people traumatized, people huddled behind locked doors and calling family members to say “I love you” because they are convinced that they’re about to die. The very fabric of our democratic process threatened. I will leave it to the historians and the political scientists to provide certain kinds of analysis of what happened on Wednesday. What I can speak to is what happened theologically.
This week we saw idolatry up close. Many of the people in that mob call themselves Christian, only they’ve decided to regard politicians as their savior instead of Jesus. Make no mistake: Putting Jesus’ name on a sign does not make a person a follower of Jesus, especially if that person demeans and endangers Jewish people, black and brown people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and anyone else who doesn’t fit their self-proclaimed ideal.
We don’t have time this morning to untangle all the ways that what happened Wednesday is rooted in those hatreds, but the name for it is Christian nationalism. In simplistic terms it merges a worship of God with a worship of country, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because God never tells us to worship a country. You might recall that the very first commandment is “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”
It’s easy to look at the participants in Wednesday’s mob and say, “I would never do something so terrible.” And you probably wouldn’t. It’s also easy to look at what happened and feel helpless. What can I do about it?
We have seen so clearly this week that human disruptions are destructive and dangerous. So where, then, do God’s holy disruptions lead us? What happens when the heavens are torn open and God meets us in this mess of our own making? Where does God lead us? Not to safety, necessarily.
After his own baptism, Jesus is sent into the wilderness to be tempted and tormented by Satan for 40 days. Baptism leads to a direct confrontation with evil.
In baptism God gives us the gift of forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. Which in turn gives us freedom…
The freedom to confront the sin that we find, both within ourselves and in the world around us.
The freedom to reject some cheap version of unity and to pursue instead the hard work of addressing what divides us and why.
The freedom to stand with and for all of the people that Wednesday’s mob would rather harm or kill.
The freedom to follow Jesus over those boundaries that he is always crossing, trusting that he alone is our source of life and hope.
You may recall that in our Lutheran baptism service, right before we say the Creed together, we go through three questions one after the other that are often called the renunciations. This week seems like a good time to repeat them. We ask the person about to be baptized – or the parents, if it’s a baby:
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
The person responds: I renounce them.
People of God, I’m going to ask you to make those renunciations again this morning. After each question I invite you to say “I renounce them” and, in doing so, to renew your commitment to living your baptismal promises in a world that wants you to worship many other things besides God.
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? I renounce them.
Children of God, may you know God’s presence every day, our God who tears open the heavens to be with us. May you be emboldened by the courage that comes with trusting that Christ sets us free from sin and death. May you be sent out by the Spirit to speak and act in the name of all that is holy. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” Matthew 6:1
W.H. Auden is one of my favorite poets. I learned recently that he had a secret life.[i] Since his death in 1973, stories have emerged of his private generosity, generosity that was unknown even to those who knew him best.
A friend of Auden’s once needed a medical operation he could not afford. Auden invited this friend to dinner but never mentioned the operation. As his friend was leaving, Auden gave him a notebook containing the manuscript of one of Auden’s books. The friend was able to sell the manuscript to the University of Texas and pay for the operation.
After World War II Auden arranged to pay for the school and college expenses of two war orphans. He continued that practice year after year, until his death at age 66.
My favorite story might be the one about an older woman who was a member of the church to which Auden belonged. He learned that she was having night terrors, and so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Auden did not want these stories to be known. For whatever reason, he went out of his way to keep them hidden.
I have no idea what Auden would say about today’s gospel, but I suspect he would like it. The gospel cautions us against a purely performative expression of our faith: One translation says: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Or – as another translation puts it: “When you do good deeds, don’t try to show off.” (CEV)
Don’t give generously to earn praise from others. Don’t pray on the street corners to draw a crowd or fast with melodramatic sighing about how hungry you are. In other words, don’t make it about you.
I’ve long thought this was a strange gospel to hear on a day when we smudge a big ashen cross on our foreheads and go back out into the world. That cross is hard to miss. It invites some attention – and some questions. At the very least it makes people wonder if we’re terrible at face-washing.
But this gospel is not just about today, Ash Wednesday. It’s about how we approach daily life as a follower of Jesus, how we balance the call to share our faith with the challenge to be humble in how we do it.
Jesus isn’t saying don’t share your faith. Quite the opposite. He names three specific ways that we canshare our faith. He simply encourages us to be clear about why and how we do these things.
Sometimes it’s hard to trust our own motives, but don’t let that keep you from trying or renewing a spiritual practice during the Lenten season that we enter tonight. Whatever you decide to try, perhaps the best way to reflect on that practice is to ask: “Is this practice pointing toward me, or is it pointing toward God?”
Let’s consider the three categories that Jesus mentions – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
Almsgiving. You might choose to put a little bit of money in an envelope each day during Lent and then after Easter contribute it to a cause that does what God calls us to do – care for those who are suffering in some way (people who are hungry, prisoners, folks struggling with addiction, refugees, victims of sexual violence, hospice patients). The possibilities are many, but we all have some need that is close to our hearts. Telling other people about that donation to make yourself look good obviously isn’t the point. But telling other people that your donation comes from your understanding of faith is a way to bear witness to God’s generosity – and to invite others to share in that generosity too.
God has given us life – both life now and life eternal. And, as we remember tonight, this present life has an expiration date. So why wouldn’t we share what we have? There’s no point in clinging to our possessions while the moths and the thieves circle around us.
Prayer. We probably have less trouble with Jesus’ caution regarding prayer. Most of us aren’t rushing to the street corner to wave our arms and shout prayers at the people passing by. But when a friend or family member or co-worker shares something that has them worried, what if we said, “In my faith tradition we often pray for each other and the heavy loads that we’re carrying. If it would be OK with you, I’d be glad to pray about what you’re going through.” Now that might actually seem scarier than praying on the street corner, but I bet we’d be surprised at the ways it would deepen our relationships – with God and with each other.
Fasting. This one doesn’t have to be about food, although it can be. It can also be about anything that distracts us from following Jesus. Video games. Social media. Netflix. Our fantasy football team. How might we fast from some of those distractions? It doesn’t have to mean giving it up entirely and forever. We could during the forty days of Lent choose to step away one day a week or for a designated window of time each day. And then what would we do with the time that opens up when we fast from these activities?
Once again, Jesus warns us about creating a public spectacle. The goal is not to make everyone within a ten-mile radius aware of our sacrifice. The idea is to open up some new space to reconnect with ourselves, with the people in our lives, and with God.
All of the cautions Jesus offers are about humility – not false humility, not holding back the gifts and abilities God has given us – but the humility of knowing we cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. And has already done that.
On Ash Wednesday we receive the sign of the cross to remind us of our need for God. It reminds us of the sin for which we need forgiveness. It reminds us of our mortality, echoed in the words that are both true and jarring: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is also a reminder of our hope. The cross is the place of our salvation. Whatever we do, in public or in secret, we do because our God has faced down death for us. Faced down death and won.
The cross of ashes will eventually wash away. But the love of God never washes away. God’s mercy is eternal. God’s love is everlasting. It follows us as closely as our next breath – from our first breath to our last. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]Edward Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014 issue. Electronic version: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/03/20/secret-auden/