The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
First Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.15)
Most Sunday mornings before Morning Prayer, while Patrick and Zak are lighting the candles and opening up the church, I walk around the building, down Elm Street and up Broadway, picking up the trash from the night before. There are usually a few bottles, a can maybe, a takeout container, and always a few Styrofoam cups. Always Styrofoam. I drop the handfuls of trash in the trashcan on Broadway near the Morgan memorial, and I walk into the church to the sacristy to wash my hands.
Somehow that Sunday morning ritual has helped me become more aware of the trash that we throw away--of our cultural willingness to just toss things aside, in the bin, or on the street. In the Rectory, probably like at your house, all my trash goes in a bin with a lid. Every few days I pull the trash bag out of the bin, tie it up, and toss it in the dumpster. It’s neat, out of site, practically hermetically sealed. Then a waste disposal company comes twice a week and hauls the whole thing away. I never have to think about it again.
Our culture is addicted to throwing things away. Coffee cups, take-out containers, old printers and laptops, clothes we’ve outgrown, tools that are broken. Toss it in the bin. And because someone else hauls it away, it’s out of sight, out of mind. At least until the bill comes.
Do you know we pay almost seven thousand dollars a year to have the trash from our campus hauled away? And that’s just here, at Broadway and Elm. Think about what the hospital must spend--or Yale--or the City of New Haven! Throwing things away is big business.
It wasn’t always this way, was it? I seem to remember a time when we valued things, repaired things, held onto them for longer. And that’s still the case with objects of great value, of course. When an inexpensive, mass-produced dish breaks, I am quick to toss that out in the garbage. I can buy another. But if a fine piece of porcelain breaks, conservators will repair it carefully. And paradoxically, the greater the value of the piece, the less it’s diminished by the repair. Take, for example, the Japanese practice called kintsugi (ken SU gi), a method of repairing broken pottery using a mixture of lacquer and gold dust. By joining the pieces back together with the lacquer and gold dust, the piece is mended, but the crack is not only visible but actually enhanced. You can see the gold shining where the mend was made. The method values the nature of the piece itself and, while not obscuring the original crack, makes a repair that has its own beauty. Indeed, pieces repaired by the kintsugi method have a beauty all their own, and as the method developed, it’s possible that some collectors intentionally broke pieces just to have them repaired in this beautiful manner. The piece mended by kintsugi has special beauty because it is not merely repaired; it is transformed into something new.
When something breaks, what do we do with it? Do we keep it or toss it out? Do we mend it or throw it away? In the first lesson today we hear God’s promise to a broken creation—that story of God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants and even the animals that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood. Do you remember the story—how things got to the point that there was a flood to begin with? Earlier in Genesis we read that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” “And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.’” (Gen 6.11, 13)
This is a far cry from the creation story, when God creates and calls all of Creation good. Now that same creation grieves God’s heart. It is torn apart by violence. Evil and corruption have seized the day. And you know the story. The earth is flooded, and everything except Noah, his family, and the animals they save on the ark is destroyed. God makes a new start—a new beginning—with a new earth, to be inhabited only by these righteous eight persons and all their accompanying animals saved on the ark.
And immediately that new beginning is compromised.
The next thing we read in Genesis is about a breakdown in relationships in Noah’s family--an affair of sorts--more violence, and Noah curses his grandson in despair and anger. A wholly renewed creation, and humanity manages to mess things up within the first generation. Does that sound familiar? It should—it’s the story of the fall, of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, of Cain and the murder of Abel.
Not even a flood can wipe away the sinfulness of humanity. Throwing it all away doesn’t work. So what are we to do? Where is our hope?
What hope is there for us?
Our hope is in God, who, after the story of the flood promises that “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen 9.11a) God sets the rainbow in the sky as a reminder of this covenant, this promise.
Our hope is in God in Christ, Christ Jesus who dies and rises, who doesn’t merely come on the scene to fix things but rather conquers sin and death.
And so we learn, in the story about Noah, that God chooses us—that God covenants with us—and like those Japanese pots he doesn’t throw us out but puts us back together when he breaks. We learn in the Markan gospel that Jesus isn’t some magical Teflon figure impervious to temptation; he is really tempted just as we are—perhaps more than we are—and yet is victorious. Satan, like a prosecuting attorney, just wants to reveal the truth—that Jesus conquers evil, sin, and death—that even the wild beasts come to a place of peacefulness, not violence, in his reign. And we learn in 1st Peter that our baptism saves us, incorporates us into the reign of Christ, into that victory of Christ over sin and death. We, too, have hope of forgiveness, of freedom from our sins, of freedom from the control of evil and violence, because in our baptism we are made a part of Christ’s own victory.
God has made a covenant with us. He has chosen us.
And this is good news. This is gospel.
When Jesus comes near, the kingdom of God is at hand. Suddenly the world can be different. Our relationships can be different. Jesus says in the passage we read today, “Repent, and believe in the good news.” That word “Repent” we can often think of as feeling sorry for something, apologizing. But it really means change. The Greek is metanoia, which means to change our minds.
You may be wondering this week as we are reminded by yet another school shooting of the deep evil in the world. You may wonder why God doesn’t wash it all away and start over. You may wonder if we can change. If things can be different. You wouldn’t be wrong to ask that question.
A few years ago I preached at a nearby church; as best I can remember, the gospel had something to do with repentance, much like today. And after mass a woman came up to me, very earnestly, and asked, “Father, do you think that people really can change? That they really can be different? Or do we just keep doing the same old things over and over again?” Her question took me aback, and I stammered that of course I believed that we can change. But I’ve really thought about her question over the years. And I wish I could say to her what I will say to you now: Yes, I believe that people can change, through the grace of God, through the transforming death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that we can change--that people, systems, institutions and nations can be changed, because I’ve seen it happen. Here are some examples.
Every Saturday evening an AA group meets in the parish hall. It’s a big group, maybe sixty or seventy people. Late in the evening, when the group lets out, folks exit through the west hallway into the drive by Bank of America. It’s Saturday night, so many of them hang around together, talking, laughing, smoking, sharing stories, before heading off for ice cream or pizza or wherever else their Saturday evening takes them. When the group first started meeting here, a couple of parishioners mentioned to me with some concern that they’d noticed a group of drunken young people partying in the driveway by the kitchen on Saturday evening! I was glad to clear things up; what they’d actually seen was just a bunch of young, funloving, sober folk, partying it up in the drive. Through the grace of God, and through the support of one another, these beloved people of God have found, at least for today, sobriety. They’ve broken free of the grip of addiction and reclaimed their lives. Their joy shines through the cracks, mended with sponsors and meetings and changed behaviors, a wholly new and beautiful life from the shards of an old one.
We meet moments of healing and grace all the time. Jesus heals the man possessed by a demon. Another person gets the psychiatric help he needs to live a life of dignity and purpose. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. A woman suffering from cancer undergoes a course of chemotherapy and enjoys a longer life with her family. Jesus looks upon the rich young ruler and loves him. And a man with a home and family volunteering in the Soup Kitchen hears for the first time the life stories of another man who sleeps on the streets of New Haven and recognizes their shared humanity.
These are dramatic moments. Moments when lives are changed. Not repaired, but transformed into something new. The old is still there--but something new is born in the putting back together. A new life, something whole, something transformed.
Trying to wipe away the sinfulness of humanity doesn’t work. The flood didn’t work. Handpicking the best people didn’t work. They turned around and did it all again. And so as the story goes God hung up his bow in the sky and kept reaching out, even to the sinful, fallen descendants of Adam and Eve, even the folks that disembarked the ark and started the process of death and decay all over again.
The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel.
Let’s repent. Change the way we are thinking. Believe that there is hope, good news, in Jesus Christ.
And rather than throwing all that out, God came to be among it. To be among us. To show us how much God loves us so that, in that moment of realizing that great love, we may be transformed. Made into something new. So that even when there are cracks, the light that shines from them shows the very glory of God.