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As you have gathered by now, we have entered the Holy season of Lent, a special time set aside by the Church for repentance, penitence and forgiveness.
So I want to ask your forgiveness up front about this sermon. Forgive me: I want to ask you a loaded question:
When you think of the word “Christian,” what words come to mind?
You could call me a professional Christian, so I have something of a vested interested in how we are thought of.
But, alas, I must admit that first words that come to my mind when I hear the word “Christian” are not always positive.
Some of the words that come to me about the word “Christian” are “narrow,” “judgmental,” “self-righteous” and “dogmatic.”
Perhaps some of you might have similar reactions to the word Christian?
I thought so.
I often meet people, including in this church, who say they don’t want to be known as Christians, and often it is these negative connotations that are the reason.
You might say they love Christ, but Christianity, not so much.
I bring this up on the First Sunday of Lent as a way of acknowledging that in this season of penitence, we have a great deal to be penitent about as a church.
This Lent, let’s start our repentance with the Church asking for forgiveness.
This repentance needs to start in from our pulpits. And let that begin here with me.
For this to be meaningful, our penitence should include substantive actions that change the negative images that Christianity evokes.
One of my priest friends, Lynell Walker, preached a sermon last Sunday that grabbed my attention on this point. I want to read you this paragraph from her sermon:
“What would it be like if when you heard the word ‘Christians’ you came up with: Oh, I know them. They are a people utterly committed to forgiveness. They are about making this earth reflect God’s generosity. They see to it that grace rains on the just and the unjust. They are even in fervent prayer for those who mean us harm.”
Yet we know it doesn’t quite look that way.The long history of Christianity is filled with inquisitions, Crusades, and the persecution of Jews, Muslims, and fellow Christians.
Christians have used the Bible to justify slavery and all manner of prejudice and abuse.
Sadly, persecutions and prejudices are not behind us, but are still with us. I am especially mindful that in Uganda the government recently approved a law that makes it a criminal offense to be gay or lesbian, punishable by long prison terms, and a crime to hide someone who is gay or lesbian, punishable by long prison terms.
Before we dismiss this as the backwardness of a developing nation, we need to know that it is American Christians who have been the driving force behind this law in Uganda.
I am also mindful that it is Christians, who in the name of religious freedom, have pushed for a law in Arizona that would make it OK to discriminate against gay people.
People of all political stripes, left and right, urged its veto, and I am thankful that the governor of Arizona did so.
What should especially concern us about these trends is that in the name of Christ, there are Christians who want to break the connections we have with each other as human beings by being able to discriminate against people they don’t like.
That should not be what Christianity is about.
And, forgive me, there is one more recent example, though subtle. Russians invading the Crimea is not only about geopolitics, it also has a religious undertow.
David Brooks wrote a fascinating column last week in the New York Times pointing out that Vladimir Putin ordered his regional governors to read books that assert the messianic role of the Russian Orthodox Church in restoring a Greater Russia.
Annexing Ukraine is viewed as part of that mission. Politics and religion are definitely mixed up in the new Russia.
I want to be very careful on this topic. I am not an expert, though let me mention that Lori and I spent a brief time in the Soviet Union as journalists.
We definitely learned that Russia is a complicated and contradictory culture.
As I say, I want to be careful on this topic, and the pulpit is not a good place for a lecture on geopolitics.
And I especially share the concern of many about mixing politics with religion, but let’s also note that politics has been mixed up with religion for a very long time.
So I let me suggest that in this penitential season, Christianity itself needs to repent of the political sins we have committed in the name of Christ.
I believe at the root of much of what is wrong with Christianity, and really all religions, is the quest for institutional power.
The gospel lesson we hear today is a huge antidote – and warning to the institutions of religion.
In the story, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, is led away from the refreshing waters of the River Jordan and into the desolation of the desert where he has this frightening vision of the Devil.
I know that as modern people we have a hard time with the concept of Satan or the Devil.
What the gospel writers are getting at is that evil is not just an abstract idea, but is a tangible force in the world.
And so Jesus is confronted by the force of evil, and he is tested by the greatest temptation of all: Power.
Jesus is dared to use power to turn stone into bread; to use power to stay unharmed if he falls from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem;
And then comes the biggest test of all: he is tempted to take power to rule every kingdom.
He can fix everything if he will take power, but to take power, he must stay in the clouds above us, and ultimately rob us of our freedom to be human.
The end will justify the means, or so the devil argues.
But Jesus rejects all of it.
Instead, he chooses to be here, with us, in the griminess of the world.
He chooses to be with us especially in those moments when we feel the most powerless.
He chooses to be with the refugees, not the oligarchs. He their confronts power and shows it to be empty.
Jesus defines both his humanity and his divinity by being with us in the Valley of Lent.
This rejection of power also invites us to make a finer distinction about how we view our involvement in the world, and our involvement politics.
Are we involved in the world to bring justice to the oppressed, relief to the captives, and peace to the nations?
Or do we seek power for our own comfort and for the comfort of our institutions?
As the gospel story will unfold this Lent, Jesus does one more thing: He invites us to walk out of the valley, as difficult as that walk might be.
He invites us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation; agents of love and kindness; agents of generosity and grace.
We are invited to be peacemakers.
The question for us is how we will walk the walk? How will we be known as Christians?
“Oh, I know them. They are a people utterly committed to forgiveness. They are about making this earth reflect God’s generosity. They see to it that grace rains on the just and the unjust. They are even in fervent prayer for those who mean us harm.”
May it be so. Amen.