Many of you know that I had planned to fly into Nairobi on January 2. I managed to change our plane reservations at the last minute to avoid Kenya, flying into Uganda instead. But, still, we were close to the senseless violence and murder there. I read and continue to read of the horror occurring in Kenya now: the innocent people: men, women and children, who have been murdered in the riots and tribal violence in the country. People being burned alive in churches; people being pulled from cars and killed if they are from the wrong tribe.
We drove from Uganda into Rwanda on our third day. A few miles after we crossed the border, our driver pointed out a memorial to the genocide there. A few miles later, he pointed out another. As I watched young Rwandans walking toward the Ugandan border, I wondered if their parents had fled the country along this road. We had the day before passed a now vacant refugee camp for those fleeing violence in Congo. I was horrified when I learned about the favorite ploy of the Congolese: they entered a village and cut off both hands of those they thought opposed them. As I considered this tactic, it seemed to me worse than killing someone. It left the person helpless, dependent on others for everything in life. No only did it take the mutilated person away from production, it took the person who had to care for the victim away from productive work. I could not imagine a more horrific tactic of war. I later learned that the Congolese had learned this from the Belgian colonists.
Horrors are not limited to Africa. We can remember the killing fields of Cambodia after Pol Pot came to power; the brutality of Stalinist Russia; the Holocaust; ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the tortures, rapes, murders and disappearances in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile. In our own country, we have seen slavery and the wholesale relocation and genocide of Native Americans.
U2’s song Sunday, Bloody Sunday marks their horror at the murder of Irish men, women and children in 1972 by British troops. While some said that the song idealized the IRA, Bono and the band has repeatedly said that it is not a rebel song. In fact, Bono had strong words for Irish Americans who idealized the IRA and their violence in Northern Ireland. Since the song’s introduction, it has morphed into a hymn against violence anywhere. The band played the song in war-torn Sarajevo, and then in Australia they played the song after the Bali bombings saying “this is now your song, too.”
The song reflects our horror at the violence caused by difference. At one concert, Bono pointed out his headband which carried the words “coexist” with the “c” in the shape of a Muslim crescent, the “x” as a Star of David and the “t” as a cross. It is easy, though, to point our fingers at others; to express horror at the actions of others. Sometimes even when the actions are those of our own government: supporting vicious dictators like Somoza in Nicaragua, right wing militaries in El Salvador, we can still feel self-righteous because we are pointing our fingers at others.
John Calvin, the Reformation theologian whose thought forms the basis of our Presbyterianism, looked into the human heart and saw the totality of evil and blackness there. He believed in the total depravity of humanity: our total helplessness before evil. He looked to the text we read this morning, the text we often refer to as telling the story of the fall of humanity, as the basis for our depravity. Because Adam and Eve sinned, we are helpless before Satan and sin. There is simply nothing we can do to help ourselves. We are trapped. Wet are utterly corrupted by sin.
There is a modern tendency to think of Calvin’s theology as “quaint” particularly with regard to total depravity. We clothe sin with other more acceptable names. We talk about self-esteem and blame lack of self-esteem for some things. We talk about addictions. We talk about psychological reasons for our behavior. We minimize our own behavior. It’s not really cheating on our taxes, on our spouses. It’s just a little lie. But, if we are honest with ourselves, if we look with clarity into our own hearts, we can see the depth of our sin. We are self-centered. We care about ourselves, our family, our friends. We think ourselves better than others. We worry; we do not trust God. We want to be in control; we do not trust God. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we know that we are utterly helpless before sin. We are trapped.
And yet, there is hope. I don’t know why the lectionary doesn’t include the whole story of Adam and Eve in the garden. The text leaves off with them making clothes for themselves to hide their nakedness. In the next scene, God finds them, hiding from him and the awful story of their misdeeds spills out. God, like a mother finding cookie crumbs on the floor from the forbidden cookies, knows immediately what has happened. Adam and Eve, like little children immediately blame someone else. And God punishes their disobedience, sending them from the Garden of Eden. Now, that’s where the story generally stops, but there is more. Just before God sends them from the Garden of Eden, God makes clothes from animal skins for them. For me, that is one of the most amazing things in the Bible. I picture God sitting down on the ground, cross-legged, with animal skins on God’s lap, sewing clothes for Adam and Eve. It is such a touching demonstration of God’s love. Even when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and God had to punish them, God still loved them and showed God’s love by making clothes to protect them, to keep them warm.
God continued to show God’s love for humanity. God sent Jesus to live among us, to share God’s love with us, to remind us how God wants us to live with each other. We are sinners and yet God continues to love us. It is through God’s grace that we are able to rise above our sinfulness. God’s endless grace.
Lent is an important, though neglected season for most Protestant Christians. When I was growing up, it was a season for Catholics who gave up meat for the six and a half weeks of Lent. I thought it strange. Had I had an adult vocabulary, I would have said “quaint.” More and more Protestants are reclaiming this season. We are beginning to understand that without an understanding of the depth and breadth of our own sinful natures, we cannot fully appreciate the gift of God’s grace and love and our salvation through Jesus Christ. You see, if we believe that we are basically good people, then we deserve God’s love. It is only through understanding our undeserving that we can be overwhelmed by God’s grace.
It is only through God’s grace and love that we can escape the bonds of sin. In our sinfulness, we are like addicts. Like those who begin AA or related programs, we must first admit our helplessness before our addiction, our sin. Then we can begin to see how God’s grace and love works through us and through others.
The band U2 and its members are psalmists and prophets, I believe. Their work echoes the laments of the psalms: their cries at injustice, their cries of “how long?” echo the cries of the psalmist. They are also prophets: they point to the injustices of our world; to the hypocrisy of the religious who look to their comfort first. U2 and Bono have opened the eyes of the leaders of the world to the plight of Africa: to the hunger and illness there. They have opened the eyes of ordinary people to God’s love and grace. They have chosen to open their lives and struggles to follow Christ to the eyes of the world. They have chosen to struggle honestly with where God is, with their questions, with their faith and with their lives and to show us how they attempt to live as authentic Christians. May we, in this season of Lent, take seriously our own lives as authentic Christians, through God’s love and grace. Amen.