For those who confuse Lent with a season of silence and not doing certain things, Mark’s gospel argues back with iconoclastic fury. Just as the events of this week have done for our community—thousands without power; some with fallen trees through their roofs; and, some without roofs, walls, or anything other than the clothes on their backs and each other.
The heavens are “torn apart”; the Spirit descends “like a dove” that “immediately drives out” Jesus to the Wilderness. Wow. Don’t picture that lovely scene with the gentle white dove alighting on Noah’s forearm with an olive branch. Picture Hitchcock’s “The Birds” giving Jesus furious and brutal chase.
At the same time, we should also let go of our images of “the wild animals” as a danger, and listen again to God’s promise to Noah: “I am establishing my covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and every creature on the earth.” I never noticed this before. The animals weren’t just there for local color. The wilderness is an opportunity for us to become fully human in the context of a proportionate understanding of our humanity as part of God’s beloved creation. “It isn’t that we are insignificant specks of dust, we are precious and beloved specks of dust.” (Become Human: Core Teachings of Jesus, Brian C. Taylor, 52)
Indeed, one of the greatest temptations during Lent is to turn our penitential thoughts into being all about us. The first time I traveled abroad and watched a newscast on television, I was struck by the orientation of the world map as the scene’s backdrop, which featured the broadcasting country at the center. Think of Lent as a map of life and the absurdity of our photo at the center. It is there, of course, but one of the important lessons of Lent is that our photos are part of a collage that includes snapshots not just of other people, but other creatures. My sins may be destructive to me, but that destruction does not even take into account how my sins have injured others.
God told Noah “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” The question is “How well do we remember the covenant?”
“People get ready; there’s a train to Jordan picking up passengers coast to coast. Faith is the key! Open the doors and board then. There’s hope for all among those loved the most.” (Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions)
Although baptism happens in the river, baptismal life begins in the Wilderness where our illusions of self-sufficiency evaporate and our helplessness opens us up to God’s grace. What should also evaporate is any idea that we live to ourselves. Although the psalmist says that God has made us a little lower than the angels, anyone who has ever worked with animals or been privileged to have one as a companion knows that being a little lower than the angels does not necessarily mean we are a little higher than the animals. The animals may actually be the angels.
When we can leave behind the baggage of our notion that being “a little lower than the angels” is an entitlement rather than an obligation, then we can begin to marshal our gifts and recommit for the common good. “This is not about self-abasement or victimhood. It is about knowing that we are no better or worse than anyone else, and never in a position to judge others.” (Taylor, p. 53)
“There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner whom would hurt all mankind just to save his own. Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner, cause there’s no hiding place from the Kingdom’s throne.”
Jesus told the lawyer, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might and your neighbor as yourself.” And the lawyer—always parsing—asked “Who is my neighbor?”
We can add to the story of the “Good Samaritan” that follows the stories of “God covenanting with Noah and all the animals” as well as “Jesus in the Wilderness with all the animals.” In the first creation story in Genesis chapter three there are unusual words used for “male” and “female”. The usual words we would expect to see are “ish” and “isha.” But here, we have “zakar” and “niqveh” which mean “to remember” and “to discern.” The only other time throughout scripture that these same words are used to describe males and females is with regard to identifying sacrificial animals.
There is something going on here. Something that goes beyond the trite notion that our cats or dogs are “like children” to us, though indeed they are. This is about God’s great love for all of creation and the significance of a wilderness journey that has the potential to re-set the balance of power in all creation beneath the yoke of God’s love for all that God created.
It is no coincidence that on Wednesday we were marked with the ashes of remembrance, the dust of our creation, and today we enter the Wilderness for a time of discernment—not only as single individuals seeking a renewal of a right spirit within, but as a species along with other species. We are also marked as creatures for an offering, just as the “zakar” and “niqveh” animals were marked for offering.
The spirit drives us toward the Wilderness for a time of trial in order to purify our offering to God. But, unlike the sacrificial animals, we can choose not to go, to stay behind at the Jordan where the heavens are torn open with God declaring God’s love for us. It is always more tempting to stay in that spot of delight than to move out of it and into the Wilderness. But the two should not be separated.
Wednesday’s ashes lead us to wilderness soil. What we hope will grow here among the ashes and soil is fearless clarity about things done and left undone, our fears, our hopes and dreams, and our sorrows and losses. “Here we are either tempted to believe that we are more than or less than the dust of God’s creation or we are tempted to not trust God’s willingness to get his hands dirty in the dust of who we are.” (Michael K. Marsh)
So, in true Markan fashion, here we go SUDDENLY, IMMEDIATELY into the Wilderness, entering by our own free will as offerings to God. But even though we choose whether to enter this season, we should remember that if we choose to enter, we have no control over how we will come out of it.
Coming out on the other side of Lent forgiven, whole, and useful may depend on the degree to which we understand our names of “rememberer” and “discerner” not only as tasks but as a posture, an offering to God for God’s purposes and Glory—which is our highest and best use, even as beloved specks of dust.
Dr. Cynthia Park
First Sunday in Lent, Year B
February 22, 2015