The Common Good
February 2008

A Season of Repentance

by Laurel A. Dykstra | February 2008

Christians tell the same story over and over even though we know how it ends. We dread the execution even as we anticipate the resurrection.

Christians tell the same story over and over even though we know how it ends. We dread the execution even as we anticipate the resurrection. The wisdom of our tradition asserts that our path is not a line but a circle—or a spiral. As we turn from Epi­ph­any to Lent we leave the joy and wonder of the incarnation, moving from revelation and recognition to the hard work of repentance.

Forgetting that we were created for joy, many of us wrongly equate repentance with renouncing pleasure. We act as if our greatest sins were watching too much TV or eating too many chocolates. By “giving them up for Lent,” we continue to participate in the culture of consumption and individualism with a program of self-improvement.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Hes­chel wrote, “Repentance is an ab­solute, spiritual decision made in truthfulness. Its motivations are remorse for the past and responsibility for the future.” Could this be so for us?

On the surface, it might not look so different. We might still put down the chocolate bar and turn off the television, but we might also talk about our cultural addiction to spectacle, or forced child labor in the chocolate industry. Lent might look different if together we supported and created alternative media. And, rather than trading our sodas for bottled water, we stood with indigenous women defending their sacred waters.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com

February 3

See and Listen

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

As in previous weeks, the writer of Matthew uses the stories of the Hebrew Bible to tell the good news of Jesus and the community around him. In Exodus, Moses goes up to “the mountain of God” to receive the law (Exodus 24:13-18); in Matthew, Jesus also goes up a high mountain (Matthew 17:1). Each story includes Moses, God on a mountain, companions, an overshadowing cloud, and a shining face (in Exodus, the shining face appears in chapter 34). The differences show how Matthew is using Exodus to describe Jesus—like Moses but greater. By bringing Moses and Elijah on stage, Matthew personifies Jesus’ endorsement by the law and the prophets. When God speaks from heaven, the words echo those spoken earlier at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”—but with the command, “listen to him!”

My first night at Guadalupe House, a Catholic Worker “transition house” where I spent nearly 10 years, I sat at the wobbly-legged table amid a circle of men’s faces, black and brown and white, and looked at the peeling linoleum, tattered sheer yellow curtains, broken couches, and roach-filled corners. I had never seen a place so ugly. After a week of hospitality, laughter, community, and connection, I sat in the same seat and caught myself thinking, “What a kind and homey room this is.” Transfigured.

So I wonder: In Matthew’s story of the mountain, was it Jesus who changed or was it that John, James, and Peter could now see the face of God shining in the man they knew? Did the thin air and the elevated perspective contribute to their clarity of vision? When they came down from the mountaintop, did they take their new capacity to see into the low places and crowded city streets? Can we? And when we see the face of God shining through those who are familiar to us, do we truly, deeply listen to them?

February 10

Tempted to Power

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Angels, the devil, bread, death, the tree of knowledge, the garden, wilderness, transgression, Satan, serpent, sin, Spirit. It’s good we have a lifetime of Lents to wrestle with all that is said in these scriptures, all that is said about them, and all that is said by placing them together.

Only the most determinedly evasive can comment on these readings and avoid talking about sin, but how we talk about sin is crucial. Many North American Christians have lost sight of the fact that in much of scripture and the history of the church, sin is not an individual problem but concerns families, households, communities, cities, and nations. Because we are often insulated from the consequences of our actions, we can imagine that real sin happens elsewhere: Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia. Thus we fail to name and repent of the sins of our class, city, race, gender, or country: racism, impoverishment, slavery, sexism, homophobia, and war-making.

In a gospel passage rife with Exodus imagery, Jesus is led from the waters of baptism into the wilderness, a place of hunger, testing, and struggle. From the stones on the ground to a “very high mountain,” his temptation to power is illustrated graphically. In my country, city, and neighborhood—the most impoverished in Canada—good Christians, people who truly care about poverty, racism, and homelessness, face similar temptations.

“One does not live by bread alone,” but we imagine that soup kitchens and food banks distributing bruised fruit and air-filled loaves can substitute for God’s word of justice, and our obligation to act for and with the hungry.

We are seduced by spectacle and illusion. Here in Vancouver we invite the world to our beautiful city to attend conferences and make films; in 2010 we will host the Winter Olympics. Yet we refuse to see the most marginally housed made homeless by profiteers, poor Aboriginal women missing and murdered, fragile ecosystems and common lands devastated, women and children imported and sold.

We are tempted to align ourselves with the powerful, put a faith spin on a profit agenda, “partner with business,” and accept charity solutions to human rights issues. We focus on visible poverty because it makes us uncomfortable but fail to call for systemic change.

February 17

Step into the Wind

Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

The call to new life as children of God is central to the gospel of John. Nicodemus—pious and faithful Pharisee, leader of the Jews, teacher of Israel—comes to Jesus by night and is told he must be born from above.

Nicodemus has much to teach First World Christians and people of privilege. His repeated question—“How can this be?”—echoes other wonderful birth stories. In one sense Nicodemus doesn’t get it—“Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)—but what he clearly gets is that new birth requires new growing up. For those of us who have grown up allied with power, who have benefited from structures as they are, giving up the old life means loss. We, like Nicodemus, have much to lose. Like Abraham, we are called to leave everything we know, everything that gives us security, status, and comfort.

Nicodemus protests and Jesus answers, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). Nicodemus, step into the wind.

Nicodemus understands but he cannot bring himself to do it. He will not declare himself and gradually fades out of the conversation. He appears twice again in John, each time offering safe liberal niceties in place of true allegiance.

In deliberate contrast to Nico­demus, a man of high standing, is the Samaritan woman in next week’s gospel. Jesus approaches her, a colonized woman, and she engages with him tenaciously.

February 24

Living Water

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

The Israelites in the wilderness say to Moses, “Give us water to drink” (Exodus 17:2). At Jacob's well, Jesus echoes them, asking a Samaritan woman to share her water (John 4:7).

Beside the well, a setting that in the Bible suggests marriage, we hear Jesus’ longest biblical conversation. He debates theology and relationship with a woman whose political and social outsider status is emphasized repeatedly. Her gender, fidelity, purity, and ethnicity are all wrong, yet Jesus tells her he is the Messiah, offers her “living water” (John 4:10). The woman leaves her water jar, just as the disciples in the synoptic gospels leave their nets, and evangelizes her whole town.

Water is the central symbol in the Exodus and gospel readings, but today real water, the very stuff of life, is desecrated. The Christian Council of Ghana tells us, “The right to water is a fundamental, God-given right to all people that dwell on this earth,” but according to a United Nations report on water, one-third of the world’s population lives in water-stressed conditions. Thousands of children die each day because their water is polluted, and in many countries women and girls spend hours every day carrying water for their families. All over the world poor communities’ access to water is threatened by privatization, corporations are buying up public lands to export the water, and wealthy communities are bombarded with advertising telling them that bottled water is safer than our public water supplies.

The Samaritan woman and her water jar remind me of another story of powerful saving action by women who are racialized, colonized, and sexualized. Led by Anishinawbe grandmothers, aboriginal women on the Mother Earth Water Walk are carrying a copper bucket of water around the perimeter of the Great Lakes to raise awareness of the sacred nature of water and the threat of pollution and privatization. Theirs, too, is a story of living water.
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