St John’s Episcopal Church
Lent 4A, 3/26/2017
Zephaniah 3:14-20, John 9:1-41
Shout and rejoice, oh people of God!
Does that seem strange for you in Lent? To be told to shout, to rejoice, to exult with all our hearts?
Lent has traditionally been a dour season, a time to go without. We wear simpler wheat colored robes, sometimes we go without hangings at all, our carvings are veiled, often we use fewer hymns, we put away celebration language, we emphasize confession and self examination. When I was a child we had fish on Fridays and we all gave up some treat for our fast, mine was usually chocolate. This is the pattern for Lent that most of us grew up with, or if we came into the church later in life, that we have become accustomed to. It is just the way things are.
While I was doing my spiritual reading this week I came across an article written by a woman who has a very different Lent than I did as a child. She was raised Roman Catholic, but unlike the other children in her church she was extremely poor. The child of a single mother who worked two or sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. She told of sitting in Sunday school while all the children were encouraged to list their luxuries and chose something to give up for Lent.
Their ideas and possibilities were endless, there were X-Boxes, play stations, chocolate, sodas, going to the mall with friends, even their cell phones.
She found herself lost and confused because she couldn’t come up with anything to give up, luxury wasn’t something that existed in her life where often she went to bed hungry and cold. Finally her teacher said, you have a TV don’t you, why don’t you give up TV? In her house that was a little 15” unit with rabbit ears that got two channels and that she watched alone in the evenings while her mother worked her second job. Good Catholic that she was she did as she was told. She sat alone in her dark, chilly, one room apartment with that tiny TV off and she cried with loneliness. She realized only years later how wrong that Lent was.
Zephaniah’s vision of rescue by God is, like the entire Bible, undeniably communal. God rescues God’s people all together as a group. In the story of God’s love affair with humanity one thing comes through time and again. We rise or we fall as a people, not as individuals.
Zephaniah knew what the answer was to Cain’s question to God about his brother Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Yes. Says Zephaniah. Rejoice, you are your brother’s keeper.
That we are responsible for what happens to our brothers and sisters is not a particularly popular message today. I suspect it never has been. We make much of individual sin because it is small, easy to grasp and feels like something we can change without really changing anything. But we carry the weight of communal sin. We are called to reform our corporate life, not just our individual lives. I suspect that is much, much harder. God rescues us together. God invented the idea that we don’t leave anyone behind.
In our reading from Zephaniah today the people are called to rejoice, to sing and exult over the work of God. Over a God who would come among them as a lover, who would rejoice over us and draw us near. But most importantly who will gather the lame, the outcast, who will transform the shame of the broken and liberate the oppressed. While we focus on whether or not we as individuals are good people and remain comfortable in our bubbles God goes out looking for little girls sitting alone in the dark with empty bellies.
Lent, like the Kingdom should look very different for different parts of our world.
Lent, like the Kingdom is about upsetting the established order.
The world says: it is what it is, it has always been this way, it will always be this way. The world shrugs.
The Kingdom of God says: the way it has been is an abomination.
A child, hungry in the dark is an abomination. A man in his castle with grain stored for years and years is also an abomination. The Kingdom of God says let the one rejoice for her belly will be filled; while the other is sent away empty.
When we confess we confess corporately we say we because sin is greater than any one person. Because often the ways in which we as a people look away from suffering and do nothing because it does not affect us are our greatest sin. The sins that brought about the downfall of God’s people over and over were their corporate unwillingness to live in God’s way.
Again and again they fell pray to the world’s logic and they settled into the comfortable system of rich and poor, powerful and weak. Because that is the way it has always been, and that is the way it will always be.
It is fairly easy for me to stand before God, or even you all and admit that I’m a bit of a control freak, a neat freak, that I can be super judgmental about other drivers, that I totally covet some beautiful handbags. Personal, private sins. What is much harder to admit is that I am where I am, most of us are where we are, because our world is built on radical inequality. Because we have been bestowed certain privileges we have not earned, and that I’m really rather afraid of what dismantling our unfair world might look like. That’s the hardest bit.
It is so much easier to be the disciples today, to ask God who sinned. It is much harder to hear: this is because of your hard hearts. God’s plan all along was to save us; but we fight that plan at every step because it does not sound like good news to far too many of us. God’s kingdom sounds like bad news for the 1%. It is bad news for bank executives, and health insurance CEOs. It is bad news for presidents and congress-people who want to keep their power.
It even sounds like bad news to those of us slightly less powerful, wealthy folks who secretly, in our heart of hearts want to be the executive, the CEO, the political power someday. Because the Kingdom of God that Zephaniah declares does away with all that. God’s salvation saves us from ourselves.
The Kingdom that Jesus proclaims sounds like bad news to those of us who can already “see,” and unbelievably good news to those who cannot.
Rejoice, and exult with all your heart, o daughter Jerusalem!
Lent is a time for those who have more to taste a bit of having less. Not as penance, as practice for a world where no one has too much, and no one has too little.
We are our sister’s keepers.
We are our brother’s keepers.
God is calling us to start something new and radical, with God’s help.