Second Sunday of Lent
If you’re reading this blog in preparation to preach this Sunday, then maybe you’re asking the same question I found myself asking this week: How many more of these sermons will we write? There was the Orlando sermon. And the Las Vegas sermon. The Charleston sermon and the Texas sermon. The Newtown sermon. And if you’ve been at this preaching thing long enough, there were the Virginia Tech and Columbine sermons too. And here we are again, in a sickeningly familiar cycle, wondering what to say this time in the Parkland, Florida sermon.
When Sandy Hook happened, I was serving a small church in Connecticut about 30 miles from Newtown. I happened to finish writing my sermon early that week, by 10:30 a.m. on that Friday morning before we all heard what had happened. I typed “Amen,” closed my laptop, and then I turned on the TV where I saw the horror unfolding. On Saturday I opened my computer again, staring at what I’d written. “Do you have to re-write your whole sermon?” my husband asked. “I don’t know,” was my hollow response. I remember vividly the questions that swirled in my mind. “I don’t know if I need to re-write it. Can what I was going to say still be said? Is what I was going to say still true? And if it’s not true in the wake of tragedy, was it worth saying in the first place?”
Now I’m not saying that we preachers experience the weight of such horrors any differently than everyone else. But right alongside all those folks wondering what to do, here we are wondering what to say about what to do.
The texts for today point us in one possible direction, beginning with the gospel lesson from Mark. There, Jesus sharpens his speech and clarifies his mission. He talks of not of ease, but of suffering; not of celebrity, but of infamy; not of victory, but of apparent failure and death. Peter responds, “No way, no how!” But Jesus rebukes him saying, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Here’s the word. It’s not a big leap from a mind set on human things, to a life shaped by human things—from the first flows the second. And Jesus tells Peter there’s no room for treading that slippery slope, not for Jesus’ followers then, and not for Jesus’ followers now. Because neither is it a big leap from an individual life shaped by human things, to a whole community shaped by human things. From there, it’s nothing to move from a community shaped by human things to a culture shaped by human things.
So at least one thing to do in response to the devastation in Parkland, is to discern the difference between the human things and divine things of our day. The human things are pretty easy to recognize: violence as an answer, power as a goal, diversity as a threat, money as a motivator, politics as a god. The trouble is, these human things are so intractably set in the individual, collective, and cultural mind today that they are granted almost divine authority.
So how do we distinguish truly divine things from these falsely divine ones? Again, this week’s texts offer wisdom—some clues, if you will—toward spotting truly divine things among us. In Genesis, we’re tipped off that divine things start with words like, “When Abram was 99 years old…” That is, when things seem utterly impossible and heartbreakingly improbable, be on the lookout because God’s about to do something new.
And in Mark’s gospel, right after Peter gets put in his place, Jesus says you can spot a divine thing from a mile away when you see people “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Divine things are afoot when folks lose what they thought they couldn’t live without, only to finally discover the only thing that ever mattered.
To stem the tide of violence of neighbor against neighbor, citizen against citizen, and child against child we must work to change the culture. The whole culture. Not just laws. And to do that, we must present a new narrative. A real, viable, compelling, hopeful, prophetic story filled with divine things.
We children of Abraham must learn to tell our story as one that begins with impossible words like, “When Abram was 99 years old.” Or impossible words like, “When gun violence ran rampant,” or “When another 17 people died,” or “When what divided us felt far greater than what united us,” trusting that it is precisely in such impossible and heartbreakingly improbable moments God makes promises to do something new.
And we followers of Jesus must learn to tell our story as one of laying down lives and taking up crosses; laying down judgment and taking up mercy; laying down guns and taking up ploughshares; laying down divisions and taking up friendship; laying down power and taking up weakness; laying down human things and taking up divine things.
A week after Parkland, we can settle for no less. The parents and the children and the best friends and the broken lives demand more than the thin thoughts, and flimsy truths of human things. Whatever sermons we choose to write this week must hold up after tragedy. As God’s people, we must set our minds on, and shape our lives around, and ground our communities in, and tell our stories about divine things. For truly when all seems utterly improbable, God promises to do something new.
In the midst of this moment—this heartbreaking, impossible moment—may God keep that promise through us…
Image credit: Notre Dame Center for Liturgy