The EU has designation schemes that allow products to be placed on its protected food-name register. Goods like cheese, wine, chocolate, honey and several others are eligible for this register if they meet certain standards.
One of the designation schemes is the Protected Geographical Indication, usually abbreviated as PGI. To get a product protected under PGI, it must be produced, processed or prepared in the geographical area the producer wants to associate it with, and the product's reputation must be the result of characteristics or qualities of that geographical area. Roquefort cheese is PGI-designated because it meets those requirements; so no blue cheese produced outside of the Aveyron region of France can legally be labeled Roquefort.
But there's more than legality involved. There is also quality.
People say they can taste a difference between genuine Roquefort and other blue cheeses. And matters of taste are not limited to French foodstuffs. There's a difference between say, a good California wine and a good New York wine, between maple syrup from Ohio and from Vermont, between potatoes from Idaho and those from Maine. Same for "Vidalia Onions" and "California Raisins." All of them may be good products, but many people say they can detect a difference, and protecting the unique characteristics of foods from a specific area is worth the effort.
So I am wondering that if the location in which a food or drink is produced can influence its taste, might location ever have a bearing on the depth of our spiritual life? Or, does how we locate ourselves in relation to Jesus affect the depth and quality of life- our lives, or others?
We find a clue about this in the gospel reading from Mark for today.
Mark tells us that immediately after baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. In that wilderness Jesus was both tempted by Satan and ministered to by angels. Three of the four gospels tell of Jesus being in the wilderness for 40 days, with Matthew and Luke giving more detail. Mark just tells us that it happened, and then gives us a sense of its significance to Jesus' life and work.
The focus of three gospels on Jesus' time in the wilderness suggests that that location was not only significant, but that this experience shaped Jesus’ subsequent ministry. So, for example, when Matthew tells us that Satan offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping evil, Jesus ordered Satan away and declared, using words from Scripture, that only God should be worshiped and served (Matthew 4:8-10).
Only God should be worshiped and served: this is what shaped everything about Jesus. As followers of Jesus it should shape everything about us.
As followers of Jesus, we are here in worship on this first Sunday in Lent following a horrific week in our nation.
When Florida gunman Nikolas Cruz opened fire with an AR-15 assault rifle killing 17 students in Parkland, Florida, it became the 18th school shooting of 2018.
Like some of you I watched the news that day and in the following days. I learned a lot. I learned the semi-automatic weapon used by Cruz to randomly murder high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last Wednesday had been banned until the ban was allowed to expire in 2004 under pressure from the gun industry.
I learned the same weapon is the most popular rifle in America, and that hundreds of companies manufacture them and their accessories: connected with that, I learned the gun industry has grown from an annual profit of 19.1 billion dollars in 2008 to a whopping 51.3 billion dollars in 2016. I also learned there are more guns than people in America.
But perhaps more than anything else I learned as I watched the news, listened to reporters, politicians, and pundits discuss this newest tragedy, that like so many issues, we cannot talk about anything connected to the gun industry without polarization. Sadly, I learned how many politicians drive this polarization for their own political ends: election or re-election.
I heard many comments made by politicians on both “sides” of the “gun debate” (whatever that is). The one comment that struck me most was made by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy who said:
“This epidemic of mass slaughter, this scourge of school shooting after school shooting only happens here not because of coincidence, not because of bad luck, but as a consequence of our inaction. We are responsible for a level of mass atrocity that happens in this country with zero parallel anywhere else.”
I thought a lot about this remark as it relates to us- to people of faith beginning a Lenten journey. I thought of it not as a political issue, but as a faith issue; a human issue.
There is no better time for us to each examine the consequences of both our actions and our inactions; and the impact our choices make on ourselves and others than following the events of this week.
The issue is not singular: it is not about gun violence. It is about human violence; about all violence, and the violence we inflict upon one another when we refuse to talk, to engage in honest dialog about things that matter.
It was no accident that following Jesus' experience in the wilderness, he began a ministry that changed the world.
One thing that we can notice as we read in the gospels about Jesus' ministry is that while Jesus never took another 40-day retreat, he frequently withdrew from the crowds and often even from the disciples to pray, and he usually sought out a deserted place to do this. One colleague suggested perhaps this was a way to stay connected with his wilderness experience.
In the gospels, there are several mentions of Jesus praying in deserted places. Here are a few:
+ Matthew and John both tell us that after teaching a crowd all day and then performing the miracle of feeding the 5,000, he dismissed the crowds and "went up the mountain by himself to pray" (Matthew 14:23; cf. John 6:15).
+ Mark reports that Jesus had spent a day preaching and healing people. The next morning, "while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed" (1:35).
+ Luke tells us that in preparation for choosing the 12 who would become the apostles, "he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God" (Luke 6:12).
Mostly, what Jesus gives us about prayer is his own example, which, most of the time, is to withdraw to a deserted place to do it, and there are a few things this
For one thing, it suggests that we need to be intentional about finding a time and place to pray and listen.
Jesus' practice of retreat can also help us think about the deserted places in our lives. For most of us, deserted places do not refer so much to physical locations as to parts of our lives to which we forget to invite God.
Deserted places can also refer to times during which we suddenly feel alone because of temptations or rage or discouragement following a traumatic experience such as we experienced last Wednesday. These are times to pray, and then to act.
How do we act? We worship and serve only God; we follow what Jesus taught.
What does Jesus teach us about violence, about protecting the weakest and most vulnerable, about how to live together?
I found a few examples:
You have learned that they were told, “Love your neighbor, hate your enemy.” But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” - Mt. 5
Treat others as you would like them to treat you. If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” -Luke 6
Luke 4 Jesus stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something
to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me
clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
These are only a few, but they are good ones on which to meditate and pray this Lent; and are good ones to lead us to act.
Could it have made a difference if Nikolas Cruz had been befriended earlier in life? I do not know. But I do believe being a friend could make a difference for someone who is feeling alone and falling through the cracks today.
Would different or more restrictive gun laws prevent future mass shootings? I have an opinion but I cannot say for certain; but beginning an honest conversation and learning to talk to one another without digging into our corners certainly cannot hurt.
Should there be more investment in mental health, and might that prevent such tragedy? As a pastor, I believe we definitely need to re-invest in our health care system; over the years I have seen resources erode and disappear and I know they helped save lives. I do not know if this will help end mass shootings or end the violence of our culture.
Going into these deserted places of our lives, filling them with prayer -- can change the appearance of what we are experiencing in a way that brings us more in line with Jesus’ teaching and God's will.
There's a letter written a few years back by the late Jacques Maritain, who was a Catholic philosopher, to a 17-year-old girl. We don't know who she was, but apparently she'd been raised in the church but then found herself, metaphorically at least, in a deserted place where, because of something that happened, she felt she had lost God. She was angry about it and had written to Maritain.
In writing back, Maritain told her that things would not always look to her as they did at the moment. He appealed for her to use every ounce of her intelligence and suggested some things to read. Then he added: "I am not telling you to wait, I am telling you rather to take advantage of the fact that you are completely broken and
beaten to the ground in order to set yourself to a real search for truth -- putting your childhood behind you ... I am not telling you to wait -- I am telling you to pray as best you can, blaspheming perhaps, groping and stammering. Tell [God], 'If you exist, make yourself known to me.'"
This is not a bad place in which to begin. Maybe, as Maritain suggested, we should pray as best we can, blaspheming perhaps, groping and stammering our way to God, asking God to not only make God’s self known to us, but help us know how to talk to one another, and what to do in response our violent society, tragically reflected back to us in events like Parkland, Florida.
As Jesus lived and taught, prayer is the beginning place, but it is never enough in the face of violence, injustice, or inhumanity.
I began by referring to the European Union's effort to offer protected status to various food products because of qualitative differences. Their PGI designation provides that protection.
Let’s close by remembering that our souls and our spiritual health are worth protecting, as are the souls and spiritual health of others; and as we engage in prayer and live that prayer through the actions of our lives, the people around us will experience qualitative differences too, because we follow Christ.
At any time when the forces of existence weigh upon us so that we feel we are in the wilderness, in a deserted place, we can and should pray.
But the example of Jesus shows us that prayer transforms our deserted places into opportunities to serve God in practical acts. Then, when we get to those bad spots, we are not simply getting reacquainted with God. We are also following the One who has been making the divine known to us all along back into the world, into a ministry of peace, justice, healing and non-violence. Amen.