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Steadfastness: A Lenten Reflection

by the Rev. Donald A. Wells

While I don’t remember all of the details of Jon Stewart being interviewed by Stephen Colbert, one part of that interview has stuck in my mind. That exchange seems an appropriate beginning for a Lenten Reflection. The issue of religion and family came up and Colbert noted that Stewart was Jewish and his wife was Roman Catholic and wondered if that were a problem in raising their son. Stewart replied to the effect ‘Not at all! We are of one mind. We are raising him to be guilty’. The audience laughed heartedly. It was a well-worn stereotype.

But we in the Protestant tradition perhaps should not laugh quite so hard. We certainly have our share of guilt and we bring it all out especially in the Lenten Season. A good deal of our liturgical materials and many of our hymns foster feelings of great guilt. Our sins crucified Jesus, so it goes. What a burden to carry! The theory is that our guilt, with us from the very first breath we drew, will lead to repentance and repentance will lead to new resolve.

I fear that this doctrine of ‘original sin’ will ever be with us, although various segments of the Christian Movement, down to this day, understand sin and evil differently including the Celtic Christian tradition along with great many people on the more progressive side of theological discourse. Indeed, there is a need to name our sinfulness especially around our complicity in both  personal and institutional racism; our prejudices toward people  of other religions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds; the tragic effects of patriarchy, both past and present; to name a few.  I do not have my head in the sand in regard to these and other issues that we need to seriously address.

But, I would suggest, there is a different take on all of this. It says that we have been loved and blessed by God from our very creation. God saw that God’s creation was good and that includes us. The bad choices we make need to be acknowledged, but we have never been separated from God as some would have us believe. The task of the Church, then, is to encourage us to live more fully into our creation as children of God; to help us on the journey. Christ’s death to placate an angry God is not what is needed. There are other theories of the atonement that we can address at another time. Suffice it to say for now is that we are already God’s beloved children and don’t need the extra long faces and the inner ‘sackcloth and ashes’ attitude we often adopt in Lent; an attitude that drains our emotional energies and diverts us from meaningful discipleship.

Renown biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his ‘Forward’ to the latest issue of Journal for Preachers (Vol. XLIII, No. 2, Lent 2020), helps us in this regard. He writes:

One might think, from popular culture and some church practices, that Lent is a season in which we may variously feel sad, guilty, or deprived. But of course Lent is none of that. Lent is a season when we face the matter of being more seriously and more fully disciples of Jesus.

He takes his cue from the Gospel of Luke (9:51) where Jesus is seen as setting ‘his face to go to Jerusalem’ and then notes that the older KJV uses a stronger word: ‘steadfastly’. ‘He steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem’. The beginning of that journey is really where we should mark the start of our own Lenten journey. Brueggmann suggests that had Jesus remained in Galilee preaching and teaching he would have been a nice but a really unimportant rabbi. But the decision to go to Jerusalem was the game changer. Brueggemann again:

His decision to go to Jerusalem means that he would assert and act out the contradiction that his good news posed for the political-religious establishment. Discipleship is a life of following him on the path of contradiction and contestation.

Now we have a far better focus for Lent. We need to travel with Jesus into the Jerusalem’s of our world where callous disregard for the poor, the marginalizes and the dispossessed holds sway; where those in power abuse that power for selfish ends; where God’s egalitarian kingdom is scoffed at as being unrealistic; and on and on. The examples in our day are clear: children in cages, the poor vilified, people of other faith traditions and cultures mocked, military might makes right, divisive and hurtful language prevails and where ‘white supremacy’is the unspoken theme of the day for many.

In this Lenten season let our hymns, prayers, conversations, voices and votes come to the fore with new resolve as we live out our lives as disciples. Let us encourage one another, calling forth the deep goodness that is within each of us from creation, moving us away from the deadening and disempowering focus on guilt, so that we might follow him ‘steadfastly’ toward Jerusalem.