Yesterday marked the First Sunday in Lent, and I was honored to be the lead presenter of an Adult Education Series at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hinsdale, Illinois. Titled, ‘The Beloved Community: Christian Conversations on Race,’ LSTC Intern, Vicar Marcus Lohrmann, invited me to talk on the theme of ‘Womanist Perspectives on an Ever-Reforming Church’ and I was very excited by the opportunity. I offered some reflections that were followed by very engaging conversation among the members and pastoral staff at Redeemer. I stayed for the second morning worship service and heard an exceedingly engaging sermon by the Senior Pastor, Reverend Katie Hines-Shah. We share Reverend Hines-Shah’s sermon during Women’s History Month to celebrate the ministerial leadership of a woman pastor who lifts her voice, sermonizing upon each of the lectionary readings in an extraordinary way – demonstrating her Lutheran voice, and proudly reforming one at that. Please read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I heard a story once about a professor on book tour trying to get congregations to understand the true meaning of Revelation – specifically the concept of the New Jerusalem.
As she went from church to seminary to synod gathering she would ask people to describe the New Jerusalem as depicted in Revelation. Her audiences would respond with popular images of heaven – pearly gates, clouds, angels and the like. They would reference Revelation itself – all tears would be wiped away, the gates would never be closed, no temple for Jesus would be in its midst. After a time she would ask them to describe how their hometown would change with Jesus’ second coming.
Some would describe an end to crime, or a fair justice system, or housing and food for all. Everyone could think of something until one fateful adult forum in an affluent suburb.
The adult forum was at a suburban church in a good school district where crime levels were low and quality of living was high. People were polite. Folks seemed to get along just fine. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that they were mostly white, mostly wealthy, and mostly voted the same way (or at least didn’t talk about it.)
When the professor asked her question in that forum, she was shocked when someone responded, “Nothing would change. Our town is perfect.” Which, of course, isn’t true.
Not even Eden was perfect. Not even before the fall.
In today’s first reading from Genesis we heard the familiar story: that of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.
We skip some verses, but I think you can fill them in with your Sunday School memory. How Adam and Eve were literally made for each other. How all the plants and animals are at their disposal. How they are “naked and unashamed.” It doesn’t get better than this.
We fill in more details from popular imagination. Eden is a second-heaven. A leafy, green, perfection where it is always summer but never humid. Where lion and lamb, wolf and kid, and even dogs and cats live in harmony. Where the peaches and asparagus and strawberries are always at their peak. As are the apples…
And there’s the rub.
Because even in this perfect garden, even in this paradise, even in the greatest hometown ever there is a snake…
Did you see that? In the midst of the garden there is a snake – the very personification of evil. And what does the snake do? How does the snake entrap Adam and Eve? How does evil lay hold and mar paradise?
And these aren’t just any lies. The snake’s lies are beautiful lies. Lies about knowledge. Lies about power. Lies about privilege. As the Devil’s lies always are. (Just look at our Gospel reading.) The Devil’s lies suggest that paradise is just within our grasp, but it isn’t the truth. Not in Eden.
And not in our hometowns either.
Don’t be fooled by the beautiful lies. We would like to believe that here as in Lake Woebegone, “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Our hometown officials would like us to believe this too – because believing this is good for home values, it’s good for school ratings, it’s good for our community’s reputation. But there’s this one problem – believing the lie isn’t good for the people.
It’s only a matter of time before we start wondering why our lives don’t measure up to the perfect hometown’s standards. It might seem like you are the one who can’t keep the weight off. Or the only one who isn’t getting a promotion. Or the only one whose kids aren’t going to a good college. Or the only one who has cancer. These feelings can be so guilt-inducing that we turn to alcohol or drugs; we fall into depression; we seek relationships outside of our marital bonds. We are so afraid to look behind the shiny façade of the beautiful lies.
Behind shiny façade there are hard truths. There are hard questions we might ask about how this lie of perfection is maintained.
We live with the illusion of the normalcy of a two-parent family. Do we ever think of the cost? Our town librarian told me that single parents head only 3% of this village’s homes. This is unusual based on national norms. But in this hometown he cost of living and social stigma tend to push other kinds of families out.
We live with the illusion of healthy kids in our local schools. Do we ever wonder how that comes to pass? I have heard the experience of families here in our area. I have heard of districts trying to force children with mental illness or depression to drop out, lest they mar the school’s good reputation.
We live with the illusion that we have no major crime in these suburbs. But is this true? I know stories of arrests and incidents that somehow don’t make the police blotter in the local papers.
We live in communities where most people are mostly white, mostly wealthy, and mostly vote the same way (or at least don’t talk about it.) Do we wonder why?
Maybe we should.
If anyone can do it, it is Christians. And if there is any time to do it; it is Lent.
Jesus shows the way.
If ever anyone was perfect it was he God’s very self come do to live among us. Jesus had every right to claim power and privilege. In fact we might even think that would have been the best way for God to enter the world. And yet Jesus does not do this. Instead Jesus empties himself, he humbles himself, he enters into our particular suffering.
In other words – Jesus does not go to Eden. Jesus goes to the wilderness.
Maybe we should too.
For all the hardship, there is a clarity in the wilderness. You don’t have to dig through the foliage to see the snakes. They are right there; out in the open. The ancient disciplines of Lent – fasting, almsgiving, prayer – are ways of getting rid of the trappings of paradise and discovering the truth. We might also try modern disciplines – study, service, listening to those who differ from us. If it makes us feel uncomfortable, we might be getting close to something important. I am told the tempter’s way is always easy.
Through these acts we discover something true, and maybe even more beautiful than the tempter’s lies.
The truth is God always stands with the marginalized and oppressed. The truth is God meets us not in power and privilege but in weakness. This is good news for our hometowns. Beyond the shiny façade, when we get to what’s real, God is there with is. The truth is God overcomes our fears God enters our struggles bringing us new life, resurrection life, through the power of the cross.
Thanks be to God,
The Rev. Katie Hines-Shah holds degrees from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (Classical Languages) and the University of Chicago (Masters of Divinity) where she received the Elsa Marty Entering Ministry Fellowship, and completed her Lutheran studies at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkley, CA. In addition to being the senior pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hinsdale, IL (since 2011) Rev. Hines-Shah also serves on the boards of HCS Family Services in Hinsdale and the Bishop Anderson House at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and was also recently elected dean of the Near West Conference of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA.