Jesus weeps for Jerusalem and for: A Homily for Evening Prayer on Palm Sunday

The Gospel is Luke 19:41-48.

 

So many of us are weeping right now. We weep for lost jobs and income, for relationships that are strained because of social distancing and isolation. We weep for missing the usual rhythms of the spring—March Madness, high school and college seniors going through the rituals that lead to graduation. We weep for a world we sense we may have lost, for those who are suffering and have died. We weep because we cannot observe Holy Week in all the familiar and powerful ways and because the joy of Easter will be tempered by empty churches, no gatherings of friends and family.

Our gospel reading, from the gospel of Luke, is one of those vignettes from the last week of Jesus’ life that we rarely notice, or might not even know. It’s a story told only by Luke and it’s place immediately after the Triumphal Entry—or perhaps “Entry” is not the right word for it. Because in Luke’s telling, the scene we recall on Palm Sunday takes place outside the city, on the path down from the Mt of Olives. It’s after that that Jesus stops, looks over the city and begins to weep.

Jesus weeps for its coming destruction. We can imagine Luke, writing perhaps a generation after Jerusalem’s destruction, still mourning the temple’s destruction and the exile of many of the city’s inhabitants, we can imagine Luke wishing there had been some way to avoid that violence and tragedy, and having Jesus weep in advance for all of the carnage and loss.

We saw Jesus weeping in last week’s gospel as well—the story of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus wept at the death of his friend and as he experienced his own deep grief and the deep grief of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters. Perhaps he was also weeping for what he might have done and didn’t. Had he come earlier, as Martha reminded him, Lazarus would likely not have died.

Holy Week is a powerful, emotionally wracking week in the lives of Christians who follow the daily rituals. There’s the high of the Palm Sunday procession followed immediately and abruptly, with the reading of the Passion Narrative. We enter into Jesus’ final days. We accompany him to the temple as he teaches and debates with other religious leaders. And finally we come to Maundy Thursday—the Last Supper, his betrayal, and arrest, his trial and crucifixion, his death and burial.

Our church’s rituals help us enter into these events. We aren’t simply imitating them or remembering them, through our liturgy, we become participants in the great mystery of our faith, Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But those events and those rituals will take on new, very likely different meaning this year, as we experience them not as a community gathered physically, but very often on our own, as individuals or as families. Perhaps many of us will not even take time to notice them, or to participate as we might in other years.

Perhaps for you, as I am sensing it will be for me, the emotional weight of being separated from the gathered body of Christ will be simply too great for me to attempt any pale imitation of the great liturgies of our church—especially the Great Vigil of Easter.

Like Jesus, and perhaps like many of you, I am weeping this week, weeping for Jerusalem, for the church, for the world. I am weeping for the world we have lost and the great suffering that is taking place. I am weeping because I will not be able to enter into the liturgies of Holy Week in the way I have done in previous years, that I will not be present with other Christians as we wash each others’ feet, remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, and celebrate his resurrection with the Lighting of the New Fire, the exsultet, and everything else that makes the Great Vigil of Easter the highpoint of the liturgical year.

I am weeping, but I am not alone, for Jesus weeps, too. He weeps for all of us, for our church, and for the world. He weeps for the dead and the dying, the lonely and the fearful, and for all those who are putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others.

This is our Holy Week this year, this is the way of the cross we are walking. But even as we walk with heavy hearts and feet trembling with fear, we are walking this way with Jesus—and the cross is not the end of the story, nor is the tomb the final act. Christ is raised from the dead. His victory over death is a victory over all the forces of death and evil that we face. We may be alone, but he is with us, fighting for us, and through his death and resurrection, he has already claimed victory. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tombs and Resurrection: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2020

This is the now the third Sunday that we have gathered virtually instead of physically, and even as we are growing accustomed to life in time of pandemic, the difficulties presented by our isolation, by “safer at home,” the disruptions to our lives, world, and economy are only now becoming real to us. Some of us have lost our jobs. Many of us are trying to juggle childcare, home-schooling, and our own work schedule. We worry about our loved ones and our futures. And the virus itself is coming closer, touching our community now for the first time as we learn of friends, relatives, or acquaintances who have tested positive, are hospitalized, or even have died.

Full of fear, worried about today and tomorrow, wondering whether life will look at all the same on the other side, if we ever make it to the other side of the pandemic, we gather to worship, to listen to words of comfort from scripture, to pray for ourselves and for the world.

We may even remember that it is the fifth Sunday in Lent. If you’re like me, most of the Lenten disciplines you began in February have fallen by the wayside as they seemed like meaningless gestures next to everything we have had to give up-the easy sociability of friends gathering, a restaurant meal, Sunday worship, the Blessed Sacrament.

Yet it is Lent, the 5th Sunday in Lent, and although the Lent of COVID-19 will continue for many weeks, liturgically we are drawing near to Holy Week, near to the cross and the tomb, nearer to Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection

As if a foretaste of the great joy of Easter, deferred though it may be this year, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And for us in our place, behind closed doors, isolated from the world and from physical connection with our fellow humans, it speaks to us.

The poignancy of Mary and Martha’s fear and grief touches us even as the apparent callousness of Jesus’ response to them offends. They send word to him that their brother, Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, is sick. Instead of changing his plans and going to be with them immediately, Jesus tarries for two days, a long enough delay that Lazarus is dead and buried by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany.

Then come the recriminations. We understand Mary’s anger and frustration—Lord, if you had been here he would not have died. But instead of sitting with her in her grief, Jesus turns this moment into an object lesson about his identity. “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in m will never die.”

Words, words. Sometimes in John’s gospel, even the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most profound words that Jesus says can come to seem less than connected with our lives. He says so many things, so many times he says the same things in slightly different ways, or uses the same words or images again and again. The words may begin to wash over us, or worse, we may simply tune them out because they don’t speak to, or for, us.

After the words, actions. The group goes to the tomb. Suddenly, words matter; suddenly the reality of it all hits home. Jesus tells them to roll the stone away. Martha reminds him that Lazarus has been dead four days; that the stench will be overwhelming. And now we are in the presence, the overwhelming power of death. Even if we’ve never come near a dead body, or opened a tomb, we can imagine what’s going. We’ve seen enough movies, we’ve watched enough TV to know what is happening, what has happened.

Yet the stone is rolled away. And Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” He comes out, a dead man walking, and Jesus tells them to unbind the graveclothes from him. And we get the punchline. “Many of the Jews believed in him”

A story of miraculous power, of resurrection and life. A story of faith, Mary’s, and Martha’s, and the bystanders who came to faith. A story of love—of two sisters for their brother, and the love of Jesus for his friends. A story of death, and grief, and deep, deep feeling. All those adjectives used of Jesus here: “Jesus greatly disturbed and moved in spirit” Jesus began to weep, and again, repeating that Jesus was “greatly disturbed” All of these powerful emotions given to Jesus the Son of God at a time of the deepest distress of his friends.

Like Lazarus, we are in tombs, tombs of isolation, despair, anxiety, and fear. We don’t know how long this will last. We don’t know whether the pandemic will touch us more deeply and closely. We can’t see beyond the next few days or next few weeks.

But we are not alone. The one who is resurrection and life calls to us, “Lazarus, come out!” He calls to us to come out of our tombs of anxiety and despair. The risen Christ is with us here and now. He has conquered death and gives us life.

I pray that in this time of loneliness and fear, when we are separated from our friends and family, separated from the gathered body of Christ, that we listen for the voice of Jesus. It is a voice that calms our fears and gives us hope. It is a voices that offers us strength and life. And may we look forward to the day when, emerging from the tombs of isolation, we are freed from the bindings that restrict us by the loving hands of our fellow believers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus’ Healing Touch: A Sermon for 4 Lent, 2020

My sermon from 2017 is here

My sermon from 2014 is here

A blind man sitting by the side of a dusty road. It’s likely something that he did every day, sitting there, presumably begging, although we’re not told that in the text. Born blind, he had struggled with that challenge all his life.

Jesus and his disciples were passing by. We may assume that the blind man wasn’t alone, that there were others congregating with him, as beggars, panhandlers do, in places they hope have lots of foot traffic. And like Jesus, when we see them, we very likely pass by as well.

But the disciples took notice. Not of the man’s suffering or need; their theological curiosity was piqued. Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

Were the disciples bored? Were they hoping their question would inspire Jesus to offer a lengthy discourse on the nature of sin, suffering, and divine justice?   Or did this question come from a genuine place of concern on their part? If so, why the blind man? What was about him that drew their attention?

Meanwhile, the blind man is just sitting there by the side of the road, undoubtedly hearing the question and the response. It’s pretty belittling, don’t you think? Unknown passers-by, asking whether your blindness was a result of your or your parents’ sin. They’re not interested in you, not interested in your difficult life. They could care less.

And at first, you’re sitting there, overhearing the callous conversation, and the teacher seems no more interested in you than any of his disciples are but at least he puts the blame for your blindness not on your or your parents’ sin.

“He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Is that any word of reassurance? But then, and again, you don’t know what’s going on because you’re blind and there’s no one to narrate the action, you feel these hands smearing your eyes with mud.

What’s going on? How can someone invade your personal space like that and mess with your face, your eyes? But he hears this unfamiliar voice telling him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and perhaps only because he wants to get rid of the mud on his face, he obeys. As he does it and as he returns, he is able to see.

Now there’s lots more to this story. It goes on for 41 verses with many characters, plot developments, and debate. If you would like to know my take on this story from previous years, I direct you to my blog, where sermons from past years are posted.

Instead, I want us to focus on the blind man, and on Jesus. We are like that blind man. We are in the middle of a situation none of us could have imagined and for which none of us have prepared. We can’t see into the future; we can’t really even see tomorrow. We are helpless, alone, isolated. We are overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. And we are impotent. We can’t control our environment. I went out for a walk yesterday and while I was vigilant in practicing social distancing, many bikers and joggers on the bike path were not.

And there are those voices, like the disciples, in our heads and in our media, asking questions about the pandemic, seeking to lay blame, on our government, on China, or perhaps even blaming ourselves or God.

In our isolation, in our fear, in our blindness, Jesus comes to us, touches us and gives us sight. He gives us hope, courage, and strength. Jesus is the light of the world. He is our light. Shining in the darkness of these difficult days, Jesus offers us healing and hope. His touch comes to us, breaking the barrier of social distance and isolation to open our eyes and fill our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God’s love poured into our hearts: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2020

My beloved friends in Christ, I come before you in these strange circumstances, as we face danger like none we have ever known before, in the midst of overwhelming fear, anxiety, and growing isolation. Even as we struggle to make sense of all of this, struggle to figure out what to do, struggle to survive, we also see signs of God’s grace and mercy. I am so very grateful for your prayers for me, our staff and lay leadership as we work to respond to this situation. I am grateful for the volunteers who offered to help with the phone tree that was implemented yesterday, to provide us with yet another means of communication. I’m grateful for Vikki and the food pantry volunteers who continued that vital ministry in these difficult circumstances. I’m grateful for others who have reached out with words of encouragement and offers of help.

These are trying times, made especially so because our human instinct to come together, to gather in the face of crisis, is made impossible by the need for social distancing. The comfort and strength we gain by meeting together is lost to us. That is one reason I decided to offer online worship this morning; as a way to gather, if only via the internet, to hear familiar words and say familiar prayers, to gain strength and to receive grace from the Eucharist, even if we can experience it only visually and spiritually.

When we gather, our fellowship seems easily to nurture community. We greet each other, share polite conversation, shake hands while passing the peace, talk during coffee hour. But ours is primarily a Sunday congregation; most of us have other relationships with friends, family, and coworkers that sustain us and support us. We don’t often pay close attention, tend, or nurture any of those relationships. Proximity makes such relationships relatively easy to maintain. Now we are in a different situation. Our physical separation means that we must find new ways to build and nurture relationships. We must be more attentive, intentional. It is my hope that our experience in the coming days and weeks will create new and deeper connections that will continue when we are once again able to gather together physically.

I was moved by the power and relevance of Paul’s words in today’s reading from Romans: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” May we gain strength for the days to come from these words and may we all experience the hope that comes from the love that God pours into our hearts.”

 

Today’s gospel reading offers insight into our situation. The story of the Samaritan woman is a familiar and beloved story. It’s a story full of symbolism and like so many stories in John’s gospel, it gains deeper significance and meaning when we read it in light of the rest of the Gospel. So for example, we could contrast Nicodemus, last week’s gospel reading, with this story. Nicodemus was a Jew, a Pharisee, the consummate insider. He came to Jesus by night. The Samaritan woman was the consummate outsider, both in her own community and in relation to the Jewish community. Yet her encounter with Jesus took place in the blazing midday sun. Is this an allusion to chapter 1: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome (grasp) it”?

Or perhaps another allusion to chapter 1. After John the Baptist identifies Jesus to his own disciples, pointing to him and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” Andrew and another one follow Jesus. When Jesus notices them, he asks, “What are you looking for?

They respond, “Where are you staying?”

To which Jesus responds, “Come and see.”

In this story, after her encounter with Jesus, the woman runs back to town and tells the people, “Come and see.” She is the first to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the first to share the good news of Jesus with others, the first evangelist.

But there’s more to the story than that. And it’s hard not to read our own situation into the Samaritan woman’s experience.

Social distancing, a concept that was unknown to us two weeks ago is now on our minds constantly. But even if we didn’t call it that, social isolation and ostracism has been common throughout human history. Indeed, the Samaritan woman herself experienced social isolation. She came to the well in the middle of the day, at the hottest time of the day, alone, because she was marginalized by her community. Tasks like these were most often communal ones in premodern, rural cultures. Women who had to do the same thing did it together, so women would come together to the well, chatting, gossiping as they did. It was a time of fellowship. But this woman, because of her status came to the well by herself.

But when she arrived, she discovered someone else was there. And when he asked her for water, she practiced social distancing on him, reminding him of religious and cultural convention that prohibited their conversation, and prohibited him from drinking water from a jug that she had touched. Contamination, you see.

As their conversation deepened, they broached the cause of the division between Samaritan and Jew. Samaritans had built a temple to worship God on Mt. Gerizim, while Jews believed the only temple where valid worship could occur was Jerusalem. As they continued to chat, Jesus said:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

I am saying this in an empty nave, a place where people have worshiped for more than 160 years each Sunday. It is a place that we cherish; a place we gather to hear the Word of God proclaimed, and where bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is a place we love; it is a place where we encounter God, where we are the body of Christ. But today and for the foreseeable future, we will not be able to gather here for worship and fellowship. Our relationships with God and each other will be nourished not by hugs, or by bread and wine, but by all of the ways we connect thanks to modern technology—the telephone, social media. Even as we often criticize such technology for distracting us or for loosening the ties that bind us to our faith or our communities, now, we are going to have to rely on that technology and learn new ways of connecting.

Worship in spirit and in truth. It’s almost as if we are given a way forward. Jesus is reminding us that the building doesn’t matter all that much. He’s reminding us that in spite of the fact that Christianity is an embodied religion, that we worship a God made flesh, who lived among us, a God whose body suffered like ours do, a God who died like we do, but was raised again, worship and relationship happen in other ways, too.

May we find ways to nurture and deepen our relationships with each other and with God, and may we find ways to share God’s love in these difficult days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We beseech Thee to hear us, Good Lord: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 2020

 

“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and
flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine,
Good Lord, deliver us.”

English-speaking Christians have prayed or chanted these words for almost 500 years. Often, they have been chanted in public procession, beginning at their first use back in 1543. The Great Litany is the first piece of the liturgy officially published in English and it was first used before Henry VIII embarked on one of his failed attempts to defeat the French. Since then, it has been prayed in times of plague and war. We use it here at Grace on the first Sunday in Lent both to mark the changed liturgical season and to emphasize human sins and shortcomings, and our need to repent, to ask God for forgiveness, and to receive God’s mercy and grace.

In many years, the language and imagery of the Great Litany seems not really to speak from or about our experience and our world. Words like “flesh and the devil” or petitions to “beat down Satan under our feet” remind us of the vast cultural distance that separates us from the people of the sixteenth century.

This year, our experience of the Great Litany may be different. Prayers that our political leaders would do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth seem eerily on point and all of us are praying that we be delivered from plague and pestilence.

Ancient words made new and meaningful again. As we worry about immediate threats like the spread of coronavirus, about the health of the economy, about the direction of our country, and about the growing threats of global climate crisis, it’s increasingly clear that human existence is fragile, that the world we have known and in which we many of us have thrived may be in the process of becoming quite different, with threats on all sides, not just to our comfortable lives and living standards, but to human life itself.

Ancient words, ancient stories. We heard two stories that have deep power in our culture. From the gospel of Matthew, the story of Jesus’ encounter with Satan. It occurred immediately after his baptism, immediately after the voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And it’s as if this scene is set up to challenge that statement, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that God is well-pleased with him.

From Genesis, a foundational, perhaps the foundational story of Western Christianity, and with it all of western culture. The story of the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden. It’s a story we think we know. The reading from Romans 5 shapes our interpretative lens: “As sin came into the world through one man, and through sin came death…” The lectionary and our previous assumptions teach us that this is the story of original sin, the fall, an explanation of why there is evil in the world, why humans die, and why we have to work hard to achieve anything.

While that’s the story we know, it’s not the story that appears in Genesis 3. In the first place, the words “sin” nor “Satan” or the devil do not appear in the text. It’s the story of a woman, a man, and a serpent, who we’re told “was more crafty than any other of the wild animals that the Lord God had made.”

The inclusion of the verses from chapter 2 helps us understand the authors’ perspective on human beings and on creation. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden, the Hebrew literally reads, “to serve it and to guard it.” Human beings were created to be in partnership with the garden, to protect it and preserve it. It’s a very different notion than that which appears in Genesis 1, when God commands the humans to have dominion, lordship, over all the animals and plants. We see here a sense of human beings cooperating with creation, given responsibility to protect it. One more point—there’s no sense here that before the fall, humans were intended to live in idleness, rather, they were placed in the garden for an end and a purpose. Created in the image and likeness of God, God intended them to flourish and to aid in the flourishing of creation.

But something happened. They met a talking serpent who gave them a different way to think about themselves and God. The serpent questioned what God had told them and promised them that by eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would become like God.

Everything the serpent tells them is true, if somewhat one-sided. They did not die after eating of the fruit of the tree and they did gain knowledge. And the fruit was desirable. Eve ate because the fruit was beautiful, good to eat, and would make one wise—all of these are appropriate reasons for her decision. And, I would add, of the two humans, at least the woman showed some agency: “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

What were the consequences? They gained knowledge; most immediately, of their nakedness. They were ashamed. So whatever intimacy the two beings, “bone of bone and flesh of flesh” had had was suddenly gone—they needed protection from each other. And they needed protection from God. Their nakedness and exposure broke the pair’s intimacy with each other; it also broke their intimacy with God. Instead of becoming like God, they becoming frightfully aware of their difference from God. They wanted to escape from God but God wasn’t done with them. God sought them out in their hiding place, and when God located them, God showed continuing care for them by sewing clothes for them from animal skins. Any punishment would come later.

It’s a story of disobedience and rebellion against God. God created the humans for a purpose, for relationship with God and to participate with God in the care of God’s creation. Rejecting that purpose, they chose to aspire to be like God and so spurned their true nature, having been created in the image and likeness of God. It’s the story of humanity; it’s our story. Like Eve and Adam, we grasp for the beauty and knowledge we can see; and in grasping for what we want, we turn away from God and deface the image of God in us. The knowledge we gain is knowledge of our own fallen humanity, knowledge of our shame and embarrassment.

The man and the woman in Eden grasped to become something other than who they were and who they were created to be. In the gospel reading, we see Satan testing Jesus to see what sort of “Son of God” he would be. Would he be one who gave people what they wanted—bread for their stomachs? Would he be one who would take all that he could, who would rule the world with power like the Roman emperors? In the end, Jesus chose a different model and would follow a different path, one that would end in a humiliating, tortured execution. In the end, Jesus accepted his identity as God’s beloved son, and loving the whole world, he offered himself for us.

The story of the man and the woman in Eden is a story about humanity, about our nature. We are curious, we desire wisdom and new, exciting experiences. We want our freedom and we want to challenge the limits of our identities and nature. And in so doing, we come up against our own limitations and discover, if we are discerning, our nakedness before God.

The story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is in some ways a very similar story. He is presented with everything any human being could want, wealth, power, popularity. But Jesus chooses to follow his call, accept his identity. In so doing, he shows us the possibility of human existence, and in the end, by his death and resurrection, offers us the possibility of being remade, truly in God’s image.

The purpose of Lent is not for us to beat ourselves with our shortcomings, to bewail our sins and weakness. The purpose of Lent is for us to discover and confess who we are—that we are broken human beings, broken by our self-indulgences, our sins, our disobedience, to admit that we are naked before God. When we do that, we make room in our lives for God’s grace and mercy, and we allow ourselves to begin to be recreated more fully in God’s image, more fully human. May this Lent be such a time for us, a time of self-discovery, repentance, and being recreated. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday Crosses, ashy, oily, woody: A homily for Ash Wednesday, 2020

I have had many memorable Ash Wednesdays. There was the first year I officiated at an Ash Wednesday service as a layperson. There was 2011, the year of the Act 10 protests, when the final vote occurred during our evening liturgy and we could hear the demonstrations as we knelt for the Litany of Penitence.

But perhaps my most memorable Ash Wednesday only became that in retrospect. A few years ago, I put ashes on the forehead of a dying parishioner. It was the first time she was in church after beginning chemotherapy earlier that year, and I recognized her only because she was accompanied by her daughter whose face was familiar to me. A few weeks later, she would die and I would officiate at her funeral and burial.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those words, these ashes are a sign of our mortality, a reminder to us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that our bodies will return to the earth.

Those words weigh heavily on my soul when I say them to myself each year, and their weight accumulates on me as I say them to you. I suspect they weigh heavily on you as well, as they challenge all of us to reflect on our mortality, to admit to ourselves who we are—dust and ashes, and that we will once more be dust and ashes, that all of our efforts to the contrary, all of our attempts to hold death at bay will come to nothing.

But contemplation of our nature, our provenance and end, is not an end in itself. We do this ritual, we make this strange gesture, we wear this smudge on our forehead to remind us of who we are and to remind us also of who God is. For it is God who made us out of the dust of the earth. It is God who has given us life and all that we have. Yet like our fear and desperate attempts to ignore our mortality, to fight the finality of death, so too do we often find ourselves running away from or ignoring God. We construct defenses; we try to hide. We put in place of God all manner of idols that we worship and pursue: financial success or security, fame, power; bright, shiny possessions; or the thrill of new experiences.

Cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads, the admonition “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” lay bare the emptiness of all those pursuits. They break down the barriers, strip our defenses, leave us kneeling before God our maker and redeemer.

Our empty selves, our vain hopes, brought to nothing by those words, leaving us with broken and contrite hearts. It is then that we can encounter God, stripped of our defenses, and open ourselves to deeper relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

We carry the ashy cross on our foreheads for a few hours, a day if we’re careful. But we’re just as likely to brush it off intentionally as soon as we leave church, or perhaps unintentionally, when it vanishes as we take off our winter hats or caps.

There’s a cross marked on us that is permanent, indelible, that can’t be brushed or washed off. It’s made with the same gestures, my thumb making the sign of the cross on foreheads, but with oil of chrism instead of ashes. And I say something quite different as well.

Instead of, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the words I say on Ash Wednesday, after baptizing someone, I dip my thumb in oil of chrism, and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized, saying while I do it, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

We bear that cross all of our lives, even if it is invisible. It is the mark of our belonging to Christ, the mark of our faith. And just as the cross of ash reminds us of our mortality, the cross marked in oil is a sign of who we truly are and of our ultimate destiny. We are beloved children of God.

We can forget that identity; as the cross is invisible, it can be forgotten under the weight of our sin and our doubts. But it may be that just as our foreheads are marked with ashes, the ash works as an abrasive, removing all of the accretions, so that our baptismal crosses are visible to ourselves and to the world. We are Christ’s own forever.

Of course, the Season of Lent has us think about another cross, the cross that looms ahead at the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. It’s a journey on which we are invited to accompany Jesus, to walk with him as his disciples and followers. When Jesus explained to his disciples what it meant to follow him, he said, “If you would be my disciples, take up your cross and follow me.”

We are carrying crosses today; these smudges of ash on our forehead. We carry that other cross on our forehead as well, the sign that we are Christ’s own forever. Lent encourages us to embrace another cross, the cross of discipleship, growing into our identities as followers of Jesus. As we walk this way of Lent, may we find it a time when we confront our mortality, claim our identity as children of God, and grow more deeply Christ-like as we accompany him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Mountains, sacred encounters, listening: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2020

Corrie and I lived on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere for five years. Actually, it was in middle Tennessee, and it wasn’t technically a mountain but the Cumberland Plateau but it was usually referred to as the mountain, and it had sacred significance for many as it was the home of Sewanee, the University of the South, a university affiliated with the Episcopal Church with one of the church’s theological seminaries. The Cumberland Plateau rises high above the countryside of middle Tennessee and when you are one of the bluffs on a clear day, there are spectacular views of the valley below. Having grown up on the flat land of Northwestern Ohio, I couldn’t get enough of those vistas. Continue reading