It is the end of another church committee meeting and the old man tells everyone that he'll lock up, just like he always does. He gathers one last stray coffee mug, rinses it out and leaves it in the sink for tomorrow. He turns off the lights, resets the thermostat, gathers up his papers and materials and steps out of the church door. He locks it and then feels for the keys to his car. They aren't there. He searches all his pockets, looks at the ground, and then reopens the church. He searches everywhere. He looks at where he sat, checks the counters and the cabinets, looks in the fridge, the bathroom, anywhere he'd been. Then a thought strikes him. Has he left his keys in the car again? His wife never lets him forget those 2 times--only 2--when he forgot to take the keys in with him. "I'll bet that's what I did," he thinks. So he goes back outside, locks the church and walks over to the parking lot. It's empty! "Oh my God," he thinks, "I not only left them in the ignition; somebody's stolen my car! My wife's going to kill me!"
He pulls out his phone and dials 911. He gives them the description of his car, the half of the tag number that he's sure of and the church bumper sticker that's on the car. The 911 operator says she'll put out the word on his car and send an officer to take his statement. He hangs up and then looks at his phone. After a few minutes, he gets up the courage to call his wife. "Boy, I hope she's in a good mood," he's thinking. She picks up and immediately he starts apologizing. "I know you told me not to leave the keys in the car. I guess I was thinking about the meeting too much. My hands were full of materials. I must have left the keys in the ignition again and someone…" She cuts him off.
"No, you didn't leave the keys in the car. I dropped you off at church, remember? I told you I'd be shopping, remember? I said I'd be back to pick you up afterward. And I will…as soon as I convince this police officer that I didn't steal your car!"
What you think influences what you do. If someone tells you the new guy at work was only hired 'cause he's your boss' nephew, you treat him differently. If the other kids tell you the old man in the brown house at the end of the block hates kids, you avoid him. If you hear a report that the traffic on the way to the airport is gonna be murder tomorrow, you get up earlier so you won't miss your flight. If people keep telling you that religion is a bunch of nonsense that only stupid people believe and it has idiotic rules that make people hate and kill one another and that it's the cause of most of the evil in the world, you're probably not going to visit churches to meet religious people, or read scholarly books on religion and history to see if that's true. Instead, every time you see an article that reinforces your way of thinking, you go "Tsk! Those religious people are terrible!" And then you go on to read about drug cartels killing each other, and big firms betting against the financial instruments they created so as to make huge profits while their customers lose their homes, and about a bitter custody battle which ends in murder, and about kids cyberbullying a girl until she commits suicide, and about how your internet search engine is selling your personal data to your employer and your medical insurance provider, and about how a super-PAC is spending millions of dollars on commercials that lie about some politician, and about human sex trafficking, and about forced abortions in China, and about adulterated baby formula, and you don't ask, "Well, how did religion cause that?"
The fact is that people don't think clearly about religion, not even its opponents. Karl Marx said religion is the opium of the people, that it anesthetizes them to their exploitation by the rich. If he'd paid attention to the Lutheran education his father provided him he might have realized that sin exists quite apart from religion and that if you depose God then it is the nature of people to abhor that power vacuum and put something else in his place. They make something else the center of their life, their vessel of ultimate value, like the State or a political ideology. The countries that implemented Marx's atheistic "workers' paradise" went on to kill hundreds of millions more people in 1 century than were killed in 20 centuries of Christianity. And that's defining Christianity broadly, so as to include all the people who called themselves Christian while simultaneously disobeying Christ's command to love your enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to treat everyone, no matter how lowly, as if he were Christ.
We can't ignore the people who harm others in the name of God, though. They exist and they not only do harm to human beings but to the cause of the Kingdom of God. Why do they act as they do? Sin, of course. But also because they have a distorted view of God.
Some believe bizarre or unbiblical ideas about God. For others, their problem is that they have the emphasis wrong. They think that God is mainly concerned about rules, judgment and punishment, like an abusive parent or bad boss. They think he is quick to take offense, he holds grudges and he is hard to please. To them he is a God who upholds order over all else including people. Often these people are really just projecting their image onto God, rather than looking at how God really is and trying to conform to it. Which makes you wonder how they reconcile certain passages of Scripture to their warped view of God.
Case in point: the Westboro Baptist church, the small group of Fred Phelps' family members who hold protest at the funerals of soldiers as well as other places that will get them publicity. They have latched onto the 7 verses in the Bible that specifically mention homosexuality and make that God's chief beef with humanity. They think all Americans (except themselves) are going to hell for either not prosecuting this one sin, or for simply being tolerant of a society that does not denounce it. Ronald Reagan, Mr. Rogers, you name him or her, are all condemned for not being anti-gay enough. So you'd think that their protests were staged in order to get people to repent. No. By their theology, it's too late. They think gays in particular have no ability to repent. So the only reason I can see for them to disrupt the lives of others is to get themselves sued and win on first amendment grounds. That and to gloat.
So they have elevated 7 verses over the 50 or so that condemn lying, gossiping, slandering and other sins of the tongue, over the greater than 150 verses on murder, over the more than 300 about idolatry, and over the 300 that talk about our duty to the poor. That's grossly unbalanced. And what's worse, it's biblically unbalanced. They ignore Jesus' own words that the only unforgivable sin is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, which most commentators interpret as resisting the Spirit's work in saving and sanctifying the person. In other words, the only unforgivable sin is not letting God forgive you and transform you into his image. They ignore God's explicit statement in Ezekiel that he doesn't desire the death of anyone but desires that all may be saved. Basically, they lie about God, saying he is merciless and unforgiving.
The first command that Jesus utters when he begins his ministry is to repent and believe the Gospel. The word used in the New Testament for "repent" means literally "rethink." Reconsider what you think you know. Change your mind about the essential things in life. And if you truly come to trust in the good news of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not only how you think but also how you live will change.
In the past, the season of Lent, of repentance has overemphasized the emotions of regret and shame and sorrow. These may indeed accompany at drastic rethinking of your life and your relationship with God. But sometimes the sorrow is not for what we have done to God or those made in his image, but for ourselves for being caught or exposed or just for feeling miserable. If that sorrow does not extend to those we've harmed it is not true repentance. Some high-profile people have realized that if they make sad faces and say they are sorry if someone was offended by their words or actions (notice the passive voice), they may be able to win back the public's affections. That's like the abuser who, after beating his victim, says he's sorry but look what you made him do! True repentance is seen in the end of the movie "Schindler's List" where he is about to escape the Allies (because officially he's a Nazi) and realizes that, despite saving hundreds of Jews, had he sold his ring, his suit, his car, he could have used the money for more bribes to the Nazis and saved more. For the first time, Schindler is aware of how selfish his lifestyle was and how he could have changed it to rescue more human beings. True repentance is seen when Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, who had extracted a high fee from his fellow Jews as well as their taxes, is so moved by Jesus coming to visit him that he gives half of his possession to the poor and repays those he's cheated 4 times what he took.
It takes a radical change of mind to initiate a radical change of one's lifestyle. Jesus came to make us rethink what we thought we knew about God, humanity, creation, ethics, victory, death and more. That's what we'll be discussing each Wednesday and Sunday during Lent.
But for now, start rethinking the attitudes, thoughts, words and actions that have faded into the background of your life, that have become the standard operating procedures of your existence and seriously reconsider the state of your relationship with God and with other people. Rethink so that you may redirect your feet onto the path along which our Lord bids us to take up our crosses and follow him.