Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Today we start Lent, each year we spend 40 days with an extra emphasis on how we can repent of sin and turn back around to God. We might be used to a fasting from something like sweets, or adding in prayer time or service. We spend 40 days considering the way of the cross of Jesus and taking his sacrifice seriously. Traditionally today we would also be marked with a cross of ashes and remember our mortality.
But 2020 has not been a traditional year and 2021 isn’t starting that way, either. Doing everything like we always have is just plain not possible right now. I already mentioned why I am not encouraging people to put ashes on themselves, it seems to lend a little too much in the realm of despair to ask someone living alone to contemplate that mortality all alone, in this year where too many people have actually died alone because of this awful virus, in a year where the mental health of many is already fragile.
But 2020 has also opened our eyes, I think for everyone, to a new level, of another deep-seated sickness in our nation. From the way many started turning on anyone vaguely Asian to blame them for the virus, to the way communities of color, Black and Brown and Native peoples especially have been disproportionally getting sick and dying from the virus, to the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer, to the vaccine being distributed more to white and wealthy communities than to communities of color: and then the revealing moment when white nationalist, extremist groups wreaked havoc in our nation’s capitol. There are extreme moments of seeing it that are just the tips of icebergs, while to a great extent the culture of white supremacy is so much a part of the fabric of our nation that we mostly do not question it.
So for Lent 2021 God is inspiring me to make an additional invitation to us as a congregation. To take this time to return to God, and repent of sin, and the kind we don’t always reflect on: sin related to systems, to culture, sin we are so used to we don’t see it as sin anymore.
But first let’s back up and make sure you understand what I’m saying with culture: Culture refers to all the unwritten and unspoken rules we learn from a very young age about how things go, the invisible ways of operating we tend to take for granted. From when you eat and with whom, to when it is appropriate to make eye contact, to how you speak to others and where your priorities are and on and on, all of this makes up a culture. If you have traveled to another country and gone beyond the standard tourist experience, you may have experienced what they call “culture shock.” Cultures are easily noticeable in foreign travel but there are many levels of subculture within a nation as well. Underneath these ways are values, and sometimes these understood values are so deep in our subconscious that is difficult to even articulate them.
So then, What is a culture of white supremacy? Showing Up for Racial Justice’s website says “White supremacy culture is the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.”
We can know intellectually that that is not true, yet the culture that our country lives and breathes still reinforces elements of white supremacy culture to different degrees in different organizations, including churches. And people who are not white can also take on these values and unwittingly reinforce white supremacy, too.
Tema Okun, building off the work of many others, has compiled a list of many of the values underlying white supremacy culture, available on dismantlingracism.org and Some of them that I hope to explore over the season of Lent are: perfectionism, defensiveness, a right to comfort, a belief there is only one right way, individualism, power hoarding, and fear of open conflict.
Take for example, individualism. From my limited experience in travel and from what I have studied, this country we live in is probably the most extreme in believing in the individual’s rights over the collective well-being. We value individual competition, besting each other, more than cooperation. This feeds into the mindset of separating groups racially as some better than others. Yet our lives are intertwined in complicated ways and working together really is more in line with what God wants for us.
And when we ready the Scriptures for today, it isn’t about individual repentance. Joel specifically is talking about a whole nation repenting as one. He even lists out: elders, children, infants, brides and grooms- every age group, every gender. The whole society must move together and that is not a strange concept for them, but Joel does make sure to underline EVERYBODY should join the holy meeting to repent together before God.
And when we read the gospel, it is unfortunate that the word you for singular you and plural you is the same in English, because almost always, the you is plural in the original language, but we tend to hear you, as one person, me. For example vs 19- stop, ALL OF YOU, Jesus is saying, collecting treasure for ALL OF YOUR OWN benefit on earth.. but instead ALL OF YOU, collect treasure for ALL OF YOURSELVES in heaven…
Yet our individualistic mindset almost always leads us to read these words as individuals instead of a collective. To try to be just a little bit holier than the next person to get more heavenly treasure. The competition sneaks in. Even if it’s just there subconsciously that’s how we tend to perceive it.
Do you get what I’m saying?
So the antidotes for this strong individualism are to create webs of accountability with our peers and not just in hierarchies, to practice thinking of others’ wellbeing and not just my own. In a church it might be to practice working in teams and developing shared goals.
So, not to think of what MY heavenly treasure will be, but what OUR heavenly treasure will be. Because I’m pretty sure it will work that way. I’m pretty sure the main heavenly currency will be love. And if we are thinking about that our whole lives, how to build up treasures of love for everyone to enjoy, how much better for, everyone?
So if we start to think about some of these things, just how ingrained in many of us they are, we might start to despair. But return to Joel. It seems the whole nation at that point was not only called to repent, the whole nation desperately NEEDED to repent.
But even though the whole society seems to have been desperately off-track, the prophet still said, we can return to the Lord our God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive. Even now, God called them, even after everything it’s not too late.
That is the promise for us still today- if we do even little steps toward turning back to God, God’s love and forgiveness make up the great breach and empower us to go that much further. We are always resting in the promise of God’s everlasting love and we don’t do it alone. God’s love is powerful, God’s love is transformative, we can be changed by that great love.
So no this is not a season to just beat ourselves up to feel a rush of guilt, it is a season to consider what steps we might be able to take towards real change. Trying to adjust our values, to live differently, to better love God and our neighbor. And isn’t that the true treasure in heaven, for the real, transforming love of God to work through us?
May it be so, Amen