What good news have you heard or shared recently? It may just be a small piece of news, and in the face of larger or pressing media coverage, it may not seem like much.
Some of us have been able to get appointments and receive COVID vaccines, and there are more doses on the way, even though it may not be as fast as we want. In fact, more than one in every ten Americans have received a first dose. That’s good news.
In the natural world, snowy owls have been spotted by birdwatchers in Central Park for the first time in 130 years. In the midst of the weather crisis in Texas and its crippling human effects, volunteers still made the effort to rescue five thousand sea turtles from freezing to death in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s good news.
In June the city of Denver launched a pilot project to respond to non-criminal calls with social workers and paramedics, working in tandem with uniformed police officers. Over a period of six months the program had nearly 750 calls. A third of them dealt with people who were homeless or had substance abuse issues, along with many mental health concerns. Not one of them resulted in an arrest or jail time. That’s good news.
It’s the First Sunday in Lent, and Jesus is preaching good news.
We probably think of Lent as a time of deprivation and restriction and penitence. It can be all those things; those themes are certainly part of this season of preparation. But the penitential aspects of Lent are in service of something bigger, something better than judgement alone.
In fact the very name for the season comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for “spring”: “lencten” the lengthening of the days. Spring is coming, and that is certainly good news for us.
So the penitential aspects of Lent are in service of something bigger, something better than judgement alone They are in service of God’s good news, which we hear being announced in the launch of Jesus’ public ministry.
The good news that Jesus is preaching is that the Kingdom of God has come near. That’s a first-century Jewish short-hand way of saying that God’s long-promised victory over evil, God’s rescue of his people, and his sovereignty over all human power structures was finally now beginning. And Jesus was saying that God’s program of salvation was coming in and through him.
Jesus’ message and ministry were not something brand-new, completely out of the blue. Instead, they were connected back to what God had always intended for creation and people, a message that was held in trust and tended by the Israelites, but now was coming to fruition in a way that no one had ever really imagined possible. That God would come among us in both humility and authority, in the limitations of a human person but with access to the power of divine creativity was not what anyone expected, and yet it was exactly what we needed.
Those who heard Jesus’ message and saw his ability to heal; to confront and drive out demonic forces; to challenge the religious authorities who were more ready to hang onto their positions and interpretations of religious practice than they were to hear God speaking in their midst; those who took in Jesus’ meaning bore witness to God’s good news in their midst. Jesus’ words and actions were the lead-up to the new life and New Creation that was inaugurated on Easter Day.
The story from Genesis about Noah after the flood (our first reading) is also a story about a renewed creation after destruction and devastation. God was creating order out of chaos, just as he did at the very beginning, and the promise of God’s care and constancy for humanity and the created world was assigned a visual symbol – the rainbow in the clouds. That’s good news.
We have been living through a very long year of disruption and chaos and - at least for some in our communities and country - devastation. There’s a meme that’s been going around Facebook. Like any slogan, there is some truth to it, even if it’s incomplete. It says: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat”, meaning that some of our boats have been more able to withstand the storm than others.
Those whose “boats” were small, or leaky, or not well-equipped to begin with have been often been far more adversely affected. If you started this pandemic with certain health conditions, or financial instability, or you or a family member worked in a job or industry that did not allow you to work remotely, or if you were a person of color, you have had a much greater possibility of having your “boat” get swamped with the water of misfortune and calamity.
We have seen all of this if our eyes and ears and hearts have been open. But where is there any good news in these inequities? That’s where Lent comes in.
In Lent we ask God to show us where our sins and failures and shortcomings are. We do this so we can repent of these sins, and ask God to forgive us, and heal us, and keep us from repeating them. And if they are habitual sins, then we know all too well that our repentance and God’s forgiveness is not a “one and done.” We have to be persistent and vigilant.
And as Christians we are not only concerned with our own personal salvation, but with the condition of the world – with our brother and sister human beings and with the created order, the natural world.
So Lent is also a time for us to tell the truth about our communities and society, to be honest about who is hurting, how they are hurting and in what way, and to understand the causes of the pain and damage. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it several years ago: “There comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
You may remember that Archbishop Tutu was one of the architects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as that country’s system of racial apartheid was coming to an end. He knew that if the people who had been harmed and those having done the harm were not able to come together and speak honestly about what had been done and what had been suffered and what their fear was, then no peace and no justice or reconciliation would be possible in South Africa.
“There comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
The story about the pilot project in Denver is an example of this. The city decided to “go upstream” and see why there was a high arrest rate for people with mental illness; and the arrests weren’t solving their problems. Having a different kind of emergency response team handled the crisis and got people more of the real help they needed.
We each can “go upstream” and try to understand where the failures and shortcomings in our society’s problems are – especially the ones that seem so entrenched and baked-in. We might have to go pretty far upstream. We might have to follow our curiosity, keep asking why, not get dissuaded because our questions disturb others who don’t want to be bothered.
Of course, we can’t work on everything, but we can at least choose one thing, something we feel strongly about. While we do the work of going upstream, of asking why, of learning root causes of problems and inequities, of talking with those who are most affected by them, we do so as Christians, as bearers of Jesus’ good news.
We can bring the light and love of Christ to shine on thorny issues, we can listen to those who have been most affected and harmed, we can ask for the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit to help us move further towards solutions that will be good news for all God’s people.
The good news of the Gospel, the good news that Jesus preached and embodied is for God’s world and all the people God made with loving care and intention. God’s good news is that the wholeness and salvation of New Creation began on Easter day and continues into eternity.
Our part in it is to share the work God’s love, forgiveness, and re-creation; and then share that good news story.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, give us eyes to see, ears to hears, minds to think, hands to work, and hearts to love generously; and in your wisdom hold us and heal us and all your people. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2021