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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Lent 1 – Year A

The folks from the Westboro Baptist Church have been in the news quite a bit lately. Did you hear about their court case about a week ago? They made it all the way to the Supreme Court and won their case. If you’ve never heard of the Westboro Baptist Church let me tell you a little about them. They are located in Topeka, Kansas. They only have about 100 members and in spite of their name they are not recognized by any Baptist organization in the world. Their membership is essentially made up of the family members of their pastor – Fred Phelps. I recently read that most of the adults in the church have a college degree or higher and several of them are lawyers. They even have a very successful law firm from which they derive the income they need to travel the country and proclaim God’s wrath upon the nation. In general they are shrewd, well educated and, from my point of view, completely crazy.
You may remember they were in Richmond last March picketing the Holocaust Museum. In general they like to proclaim God’s judgment and punishment against gays, Jews, and Catholics. They have been in the news quite a bit for picketing the funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They see the killing of these American soldiers as God’s punishment for the sin of our nation. Whenever and wherever they picket they say the most awful, hateful, hurtful things that I wouldn’t begin to repeat here. But a little more than a week ago the U.S. Supreme Court, correctly I believe, upheld their right to picket funerals and say these appalling things. They may be hateful and crazy, but God bless our country, even their speech is protected by the 1st Amendment.
There is an old story about Peter Cartwright the 19th century evangelist who helped start the second great awakening. Often called America’s most colorful country preacher, he once began a sermon by saying: “There’s no such thing as a perfect woman. Anyone who has ever known a perfect woman, please stand up!” No one did, so he continued, “And there’s no such thing as a perfect man. Anyone who has known a perfect man, you stand up!” Cartwright was taken by surprise when a man stood up. “You mean to tell me, brother, that you’ve known an absolutely perfect man?”
“Well, I didn’t exactly know him,” he replied, “But I’ve heard a lot about him. He was my wife’s first husband!”
Today is the first Sunday in that 40-day season we call Lent. As the season that precedes Easter and the proclamation of the empty tomb, Lent is supposed to be the time when we look carefully at our own lives. It is a time for introspection, a time to face and admit our own sins, our own imperfections, and then to repent of them so that we will be prepared to welcome the resurrected Christ on Easter Sunday.
Now the Phelps family of Westboro Baptist proclaims that our God is an angry God, a vengeful God, a God who wants to punish his sinful creation. Their God zaps people for the things they do wrong and if something terrible happens to you, well then, you may well deserve it because of a sin you committed. The Phelps’ are angry and so righteous in their anger that they believe it is permissible to say almost anything, no matter how hurtful their speech may be.
But I don’t believe in a vengeful God, I believe in a loving God. I don’t believe God wants to punish us for our sins, I believe God wants to redeem us from sin. Do we deserve to be punished for some of the things we do? Absolutely, but I do not think punishment is God’s ultimate interest.
What is sin? Sin is anything that separates us from God, from one another and from our best selves. Sin is choosing something other than the way God would have us live our lives and that choice brings about this separation. In our lesson from Genesis, sin comes into the world when Adam and Eve choose to disobey God. That disobedience brings about separation – it breaks relationships. The perfect relationship humans were created to have with God is destroyed, their harmonious relationship with one another is destroyed, and even their relationship with the earth is destroyed. To acknowledge the presence of sin in the world is to acknowledge that the world is a broken place, it is not the way it should be, we are not the way we should be, everything is fractured. What God wants for us and for all of creation is a healing of what has been broken, a return to wholeness, an overcoming of all that separates us.
For Christians, Jesus is the living example of what human life should be. His was a life lived without separation, a life of unbroken relationship with God and the people around him. That is what we mean when we say Jesus was the perfect man who lived a sinless life. He faced all the temptations that we face and yet he did not succumb to them. He was completely connected to God and therefore everything he did, even to the point of his death on the cross, was intended to heal all that is broken about ourselves and the world.
What then does God want from you and me? First, God wants us to acknowledge our brokenness, our sin. He wants us to look at it clearly, to be honest about the ways we continue to fracture our relationships with one another, with ourselves and with the world. Our anger, our selfishness, our greed, our addictions, our indifference to the poor, the way we ignore the cries of the oppressed, our continued pollution of the planet – these are just some of the ways in which we sin, in which we further the brokenness of all things and our separation from God. Lent is that time when we are asked to look seriously at these things, when we are called to be honest about our sin and then to repent.
Second, what does God want from you and me? It isn’t our punishment; it isn’t to see us suffer for our sins. Sin brings about its own suffering whether we know it or not. No, what God wants from us is that we should learn, that we should grow, that we should change. To repent means to literally turn around and go in the other direction. God doesn’t want to punish us, God wants us to turn away from this brokenness and turn toward him. And that other direction, that other path is the way of Jesus. What God wants from us is that we should spend our lives imitating the man who was given to us as the ideal human being. That is what we mean when we say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We are to be imitators of Christ, as Paul says. We are to be repairers of the breach, as Isaiah says.
The Phelps family of Westboro Baptist thinks that God wants to punish. I think that God wants to heal. That is what love does – love heals. Sure, we will never be the perfect woman or the perfect man but we can be more faithful disciples. Disciples committed to the way of Jesus. Disciples committed to carrying on God’s healing work in the world. Amen.

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