Mark 1:9-15 Beginning of Lent

For today’s reading go to
Leafy green vegetables are a mainstay of good nutrition, or at least so my mother believed.  When it came to planning a meal she kept her eye on the food chart; thinking, as she did, that good health depended on a well-balanced diet.  I recall many a night when I sat alone at the dinner table, the lights off, the dishes done, the rest of the family gone on to play checkers or hammer out their homework.  For my part, I could either choke down the mound of cold spinach on my plate or sit there until bed time.  I evoke that image as a way of saying that the spiritual life must also be well balanced, and for most people the season of Lent equals the spinach.

Lent repels us for good reason.  No one likes to look at their sins, and Lent asks us to do just that.  Think of Lent as the season of the three L’s: look, list, leave.  Look at yourself and how you are living.  List the sins you find.  Leave them behind.  It sounds simple, but it depends on whether we have a right understanding of sin or not.  What is sin?  At the deepest level, below the specific behaviors, what do all sins have in common?  In other words, what shall we look for?  I believe the answer will surprise you.

On the superficial level of behavior, some sins show up like a worm hole in a rosy apple: blatant sins, such as murder, robbery, or any form of violence.  Others we may be able to hide, such as adultery or certain addictions.  Others may pass off as normal behavior, such as gossip or snobbery.  In every case, the underlying sin is found in our failure to realize our oneness with the whole human race.  If we really got it, that you and I are related as the hand is to the eye – that I am related to the whole of humanity, as the cells of my body are one with each other – if we really got that, then how could we sin?  How could the hand willingly poke the eye?  Think of a sin that you would willingly do, as one cell to another in the same body – one organ to another.  You cannot.  Even our judgmental thoughts would cease.

Now that definition of sin does not sit well with us – that we sin whenever we fail to realize our oneness with the whole of humanity.  On that basis we scarcely ever stop sinning.  And since we all wish to be free of sin, that definition simply disheartens us.  Could that be God’s intention?  Hardly.  So what is going on here?

To answer this, I want to pass along Rowan Williams’s thoughts on the meaning of original sin.  Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and these thoughts come from his book, Resurrection.  He extends the definition of sin to include all those instances where we reject each other, exclude each other, judge, scorn or condemn each other.  Yet before we do any of these things, Williams writes, “We are born into a world where there is already a history of oppression and victimization: our moral and spiritual growth does not occur in a vacuum.  And so, before we can be conscious of it, the system of oppressor-victim relations absorbs us.  It is this ‘already’ which theology… refers to as original sin – the sense of a primordial ‘diminution’ from which we all suffer before ever we are capable of understanding or choice.” [p. 24]

In short, we are born into a world of separation, into a world of violence, so that none of us escapes a sense that we are unworthy of love.  Some of us feel it acutely; but no one escapes the sharp, wounding reprimand of a parent, teacher, pastor or friend.  Some of us carry the additional diminishment of physical beatings, or – God-forbid – intentional child abuse.  Tragically, we take it for truth.  We do not say it to ourselves in so many words, but our underlying belief says, I am unworthy.  I cannot allow myself to be loved, really loved, because I have learned to believe that I am not lovable.  And so we cannot open ourselves, wholeheartedly and without reserve, to receive love.

Do you see what Williams is getting at?  Before we reached an age where we were capable of committing sin, the culture of sin had formed us.  We grew up into the false belief that we could thrive at another’s expense – the false belief that violence can be done to one without hurting another; in fact, all others.  When the Prayer Book speaks of the sin of the world (not sins, plural), it means this culture: a world, as Williams says, of oppressor-victim relations, where no one really gets it that we are one with  each other.  We live in a ricochet system, where hurts run a crazy course like metal bullets in a steel room.  One human being, so we believe, refused to participate in that system, where today’s victim becomes tomorrow’s oppressor.  Jesus never did.

How did he avoid it?  He must have had his share of taunts on the playground.  What kept him from hurling back a cruel retort?  We know how the scribes and pharisees belittled him.  How could he not reply in kind?  We already know.  Jesus realized that under the surface of our differences, and in spite of our animosities, we are all one.  In order to hurt another, you must first feel separate from that person.  That is the sine qua non of all sin and all judgment: first we must separate ourselves from the one we wish to hurt or judge.  Jesus could never feel the least degree of separation, even from his tormentors, and so he never judged and he never hurt.  In fact, he said point blank, “I judge no one.”

When we say that Jesus came to save us, we mean exactly this.  He came to show us – demonstrate to us – that we can create a world without victims or oppressors – a world without judgment.  It is a process, of course! Jesus got it started, and with the power of the Holy Spirit we can follow.  It will mean a gradual shifting of people, such as ourselves, into the ranks of the victims – people who, like Jesus, refuse to hit back, who refuse to judge others, who refuse to separate themselves from the human race.  Our sins, by humbling us, help us to make that shift if only we will let them.  Finally, on the day when the last oppressor has shifted over, in that instant the ranks of the victims will empty.

[Let me add an aside here.  When Williams speaks of being a victim he does not mean that we should not protect ourselves.  We must stand up for ourselves in the face of oppression, but never turn that around and become an oppressor.]

Is this pie-in-the-sky?  Perhaps not if we take on the three L’s of Lent with passion.  If I can look and actually acknowledge, specifically and in detail, the instances where I have diminished others; if I can list those instances and admit honestly that I bore the responsibility, so that I can leave them behind, then how can I feel superior to others?  On what basis could I separate myself from the wholeness of humanity?  I cannot, and as a consequence, I will find it difficult to judge another, difficult to oppress another.  The three L’s simply cut down the pedestal on which I stand to judge.

That is the context in which we might think about Lent.  Perhaps not everyone has the spiritual  appetite to eat what Lent has to offer.  If the three L’s simply feel too nauseating, we can stop.  Wait.  In time our faith will strengthen, and when it does the lenten L’s can help us join the human race.  For those who can eat the spinach, so to speak, Lent can become year-round nourishment.

I want to close with a word about that nourishment.  As soon as I cease to judge, I cease to be judged; for me, as the Gospel promises, the day of judgment has passed.  Now, as if I were a morning glory in the rising sun, I can open myself to being loved; I can love in return.  Recall the story in the Gospel of Luke of the notorious sinner that washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.  Simon the Pharisee looked at her with contempt.  Jesus seeing this, said to Simon, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  Simon saw himself as superior to the woman, separate from her, and so he could judge her.  The woman, aware of her sins, judged no one, and as a consequence she was not judged.  She could let Jesus enfold her in his love and love him in return.  This is a parable about year-round nourishment at work – about learning to love the spinach.


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