I have a dirty secret. I suppose since you are here that you too have one. We share a dirty secret. And today we are ready to go public. We are ready to let the truth emerge, we are ready to walk from here with the mark of our origins plain for everyone to see, we are ready to admit our involvement with the strangers who share our dirt.
For some reason today all over the world people come in their droves to make the truth plain in a smudge of dirty ash on the brow. No one says we must, but so many of us do. And though we probably wonder why we do, or wonder what Lent means to us, or wonder even why we bother with God at all, our bodies seem to know better and they bring us here to celebrate the truth of our creation. We are creatures made from dust and dirt. Men and women of the soil. Children of earth. It is not only our feet which are clay, it is our whole self, every bit we hold in common with each other and with every other creature God has made.
We are an uppity people who like to think we have better origins. But while we might have a greater destiny we cannot turn away from the God who gave birth to us from the dirt and dust of this earth.
Lent is all about the question of roots. Who am I? Who am I really? When the paraphernalia are stripped away, when the rubbish is gone, when the pretence is put away, who am I? Who are we? When we are down to dust and dirt who do we find ourselves to be?
We ask this question every year because every year we forget. Every year we abandon our God-given home in the earth for a skyscraper of our making, built from our fantasies on a foundation of shifting sand. Lent brings us down to earth.
That in itself would be a blessing. To be once again ourselves. Comfortable with what we are. But Lent always looks to Easter. Easter can never happen in our secure dirt-free lives. Easter only happens to the people of dust who follow Jesus, the man of dust. Who go with him every year into the desert to ask with him the question of what we are and what we are to become.
So what we do today, we do for our own sake, and we do for his. So that he will not be alone on the way. So that he will not be forgotten. So that on Easter morning when he rises again from the womb of earth he will find a people who, because they know themselves, know him.
February 25th, 1998
I stand before you this day to tell you that Jesus got it wrong. Either that or we did. Here he is again this morning, speaking to the victims: to those who are hated, who are cursed, who are maltreated; victims of violence, victims of theft and plunder. It seems like he forgot to speak to us: we who hate, who curse, who maltreat; we who wage war and thrive on the spoils of peace. What are we to do while the victim is turning the other cheek or giving us the shirt off her back? Does Jesus think we’ll be so impressed we’ll change our ways? I don’t know. I do not know. I only know the headlines.
All week, the front page: Olympics; Iraq (and Lewinsky pressed between the two). There’s an image in my mind that won’t go away. It’s of the Greek goddess of victory – one of the many statues who stood and guarded the original Olympus. She stands there, winged, hefting a spear, ready with Zeus and all to defend the Olympic truce. The truce which allowed all the warring factions to lay away their arms and come to honour their gods and compete in stadium and gymnasium.
It’s that image of truce that scares me, because as our own games draw to a close, doesn’t it feel that war with Iraq is inevitable? Doesn’t it feel that it has already begun? When the Pentagon is discussing its war plans in the press and predicting “only” 1500 deaths (not to mention the other casualties)? As Nike—Victory’s Greek name—prepares to lay down her spear are we about to take up our own?
Nike wasn’t the only defender of the Olympic truce—more important I’m sure were the armies of Sparta ready to punish truce-breakers. There’s a truth there: truce is never real peace. Truce is always part of war. Just as the games were part of war, providing just enough cohesion for wars to continue without destroying the whole. And providing a warlike model of human excellence: the victor, the winner, the proud. It was strictly no admission to victims: no foreigners, no slaves, no women. And, then as now, such shame to go home defeated.
If the bombs fall on Iraq it will be because someone sends them and because many more stand by in support or in merely silent opposition. If 1500 die who will they be? They will be foreigners, poor people, women and children: they will be victims all. It will be the foot soldiers on both sides. Who will be untouched? Bill Clinton on one side and Saddam Hussein on the other? The Generals on both?
So what does Jesus say about that? I don’t know. All his talk seems to be for the victims. And I don’t want to hear that message too clearly in case I become one. It’s almost as though Jesus never imagined he would have followers who weren’t victims; as though he couldn’t foresee a time when his disciples were the haters, the slappers of faces, the strippers of comfort, the plunderers of livelihood … the wagers of war.
But here we are. The Olympic victors had their goddess Nike to enforce order and the appearance of peace and we have ours. But the Christians have a different God who it seems enforces nothing. Their God doesn’t judge but pardons, does not condemn but gives without thought of recompense. Their God is compassionate—suffers with those who suffer. Their God knows life from the victim’s angle—they say he made the universe but it seems he couldn’t even save his own life.
So thank the gods we are different, we who follow victory and pursue the laurels of war. Thank Nike that we are the bombers and not the bombed.
February 19th, 1998