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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on us: A Sermon for Proper 25B, 2018

 This is a week that has been filled with meetings—with downtown leaders, with the Outreach Committee, the Creating More Just Community group, the taskforce working on issues around the redevelopment of our block, with ecumenical colleagues across the state, with grieving family members, families preparing for baptisms, and couples about to be married. I was so busy that I barely had a chance to take in the excitement of Grace’s participation in the downtown trick-or-treating on Wednesday, when thousands were welcomed to Grace and heard the spooky playing of our own Mark Brampton Smith. I did get to see the photos and videos that Pat posted to our facebook page and show all of the fun and excitement that was taking place.

Accompanying all of that, all week, has been the sound of the bells, as the technicians completed their work in time for this afternoon’s evensong and bells rededication. Many of us are looking ahead to events here at Grace, making plans for the coming months, talking about new opportunities for ministry and mission, or opportunities for deepening relationships among members in the congregation. The excitement is palpable all over Grace and in the soundwaves above and beyond Grace.

This week has also been a week of hatred and violence, with bombs sent in the mail, the killings of African-Americans in Kentucky, and then yesterday the shocking murders of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Whatever excitement and joy we may feel here at Grace as we gather this morning to celebrate a baptism and as we celebrate our newly refurbished bells is tempered by the grief, sadness, and anger we feel at the deep divisions in our nation, at the violence and hatred that surrounds us and threatens so many. Continue reading

The Third Time wasn’t the Charm: A Sermon for Proper 24B, 2018

We’re drawing near to the end of our reading of the Gospel of Mark this year. The past weeks, we have been accompanying Jesus and his disciples as they walk toward Jerusalem. They are now in Judea, the province where Jerusalem is located. As they near Jerusalem, the dangers and possibilities that await them come to dominate the narrative. It’s as if they can see the temple mount on the horizon as they walk.

We don’t know what the disciples were expecting. From Mark’s depiction of them, it seems likely that they thought they had signed up for a divine mission; that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and confronted Rome, God would intervene in history and restore the Kingdom of David and the Kingdom of God. Continue reading

Difficult conversations on our journey with Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2018

One of the things about my job that is both wonderful and at times frustrating is that among many other things, I get paid to talk to people. And while some of those conversations can be uncomfortable and difficult, many of them are opportunities to get to know people, to hear about their spiritual journeys, to learn about their struggles, their hopes and passions, and sit with them in the midst of their pain and suffering.

This week, I’ve met with a number of interesting people, among them a college student who wanted to talk to me about his senior thesis (that’s something I haven’t done in almost ten years); a young Roman Catholic woman who is searching for a new church home. There were also several homeless or nearly homeless people There were also conversations with people curious about the proposed development project on our block. Continue reading

Transfiguration and Discipleship: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2018

As most of you know, last week I was on a silent retreat at the monastery of the Society for St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. For four days, I worshiped, prayed, and ate with the brothers and other retreatants, most of whose names I never learned because of the silence that was observed most of the time. It takes me a while to adapt to that setting but the routine of the daily office that begins with Morning Prayer at 6:00 am and ends with Compline at 8:30 pm helps me adjust to a different pace and rhythm of life, and to refocus my energy and attention on God.

On Thursday evening, as I sat in the Romanesque style chapel waiting for the beginning of Evening Prayer, the beauty of the space, the thoughts of the monks chanting, and the incense that was billowing up into the rafters made me realize what a unique place it was, and how fortunate I was to be able to spend almost a week of my time there. I thought to myself, “It is good that I am here.” For a moment, I wondered what it might be like to worship there everyday, either as a monk or as one of those few laypeople who come to almost every service. Beautiful spaces, beautiful worship that engages all of the senses can help us experience the divine and deepen our relationship with God. Such worship restores, transforms, and revives us. Continue reading

A discipleship of rest: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year A, 2017

I’ve been doing something in our Sunday services these past few weeks that professors of preaching and liturgical scholars tell preachers not to do. The rule is, always preach the gospel. Well, rules are meant to be broken and there are very good reasons for breaking them. Those of you who have been around here a while know that I usually do preach on the appointed gospel text although some of you will remember many times when I’ve done otherwise. For example, three years ago, when we last had these lectionary readings, I spent most of the summer focusing on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Curiously, I’ve never had anyone ask me for more of that. Continue reading

Being disciples, staying with Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

We are in the season after the Epiphany. It varies in length depending on when the date of Easter, (and hence Ash Wednesday) falls. This year is relatively lengthy as Easter falls on April 16. The word epiphany comes from the Greek and roughly means manifestation, revealing, or showing. Usually it is connected with an appearance or manifestation, presence if you will, of the divine. In the Christian context, the feast of the Epiphany is the celebration of the magi coming to worship the newborn Christ at Bethlehem, although in ancient and Eastern Christianity, the Epiphany also connects with Jesus’ baptism, which is in part why we commemorated his baptism last Sunday, and with other miracles, like the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and as the gospel of John says, “revealed his glory.”

This season is a time when we celebrate and reflect all of the ways God is present in the world, in the glory and goodness of creation, but especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And although this is the year in the lectionary cycle when we read the Gospel of Matthew, on this Sunday, as in every year on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we read from the Gospel of John. That makes sense in a way, because the themes of John connect very well with the themes of Epiphany, and nowhere is that more true than in this first chapter—the first 18 verses of which we heard on Christmas Day.

In today’s reading, we get John’s interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as the story of the call of the first disciples. Coincidentally, this past week I was reading two books that I purchased as possible subjects for Lenten study this year. Both of them began with a discussion of this encounter between Jesus, Andrew, and the other disciple as a way of getting at the meaning of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

You may recall the story of Jesus calling the first disciples from the synoptic gospels, especially Mark. Jesus is walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee. He sees Peter and Andrew, James and John repairing the nets on their fathers’ fishing boats. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” The four get up, leave the nets, the boats, and their fathers behind, and follow Jesus.

There’s a completely different dynamic here in John’s gospel. In the first place, Andrew and the other disciple (We never learn his name, by the way) are already disciples, but of John the Baptist. John and his followers come across Jesus in their wanderings, and John points Jesus out to them, saying, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world!” The next day, the same thing happens, and two of his disciples, follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they respond oddly, by asking “Where are you staying?” To that question, Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

“Where are you staying?” What kind of question is that? What might the disciples learn about Jesus by staying with him for the day? To understand what’s going on we need to put this question, and the event itself, in the context of John’s gospel. Staying… to use the traditional language of the Authorized Version, to abide… is one of those themes that is repeated throughout the gospel. In fact, we heard the theme sounded already in John’s testimony about Jesus. When he reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, he says that “it remained on him.” In today’s gospel the words is used at least four times in quick succession. Much later in the gospel, in the lengthy farewell discourse that John puts in Jesus’ mouth at the Last Supper, he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

These two questions, “What are you looking for?” and “Where are you staying?” get at the heart of what the Gospel of John understands by discipleship and the nature of faith. More than that, these two questions, and the understanding of discipleship they open up, invite us to a new understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in our present day.

Discipleship is a word we use a great deal in the church but is easily misunderstood or distorted. Indeed, to the extent that it is a grounding metaphor for the Christian life, it can be as misleading as it is helpful. For one thing, we often think that faith, our Christian life, is primarily concerned with knowing a certain set of ideas, or holding a certain set of beliefs. But note that Jesus did not ask Andrew and the other disciple, “What do you know or want to know?”, or “What do you believe? He asked them, “What are you looking for?” Or perhaps, “What do you want?”

Posed in those terms, Jesus’ question gets at the very core of our being, our deepest desires and hopes, who we are and what we want to be. It’s a question of identity

And the question Andrew poses to Jesus in response, while seemingly unrelated to Jesus’ question, is very much of the same nature. “Where are you staying?”

Andrew’s question is an expression not of a desire to receive a set of instructions, or learn a set of doctrines. Andrew wants to be with Jesus. He wants to stay with Jesus so that he can experience the relationship that Jesus offers him. By abiding with Jesus, by staying with Jesus, Andrew will begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus talks about throughout the gospel.

Thus for John, discipleship is about relationship, not right doctrine or the transmission of a body of knowledge. Discipleship is about being in community with Jesus, and with others who seek to follow Jesus. And there can be nothing more important than that, being in community in these uncertain and frightening times.

We have been experiencing a great number of shocks to our worldview over the last months. Many of us are confronting the fact that we are living in a very different nation than the one we thought we were living in. Institutions that used to function and create stability seem to be out of whack—like the news media. Old alliances are collapsing and being reshaped. We are afraid of what might happen to our healthcare and our planet. Many of us wonder whether we will lose basic rights that we hold dear or for which we or our parents or grandparents struggled mightily. Christianity itself seems to be on the brink of collapse in the US, and with so many conservative Christian leaders preaching a message of hate, we may not even want to be called Christian anymore.

In all of this disruption and disorientation, negotiating a path forward is perilous. We’re not quite sure what to do, how to act, how to be in the world. Here’s where this gospel reading offers a model. Relationship—abiding with Jesus. In the first place, we are called to open our hearts and our lives to deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and through that relationship begin to experience and to live in the presence of God’s love for us. To open our hearts to Christ’s love is to begin to know the love of the God who became one of us and loved us and the world so much that he gave his life for the world.

And as we open ourselves to Christ’s love, experience Christ’s love, abide in Christ’s love, we also will begin to open ourselves to those around us, to others who experience that love of Christ and abide in that love.

All of this is quite abstract and you may think it has little to do with our daily lives. But I wonder. In the midst of all that we have to do, do we take time to be with Jesus? Do we take time to be fully present to our loved ones? Do we really know our fellow members of the Body of Christ in this place? What might it be like for us to nurture deeper relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ in the coming months? What might it be like for us to take the time to get to know one another better, to listen to each others’ stories, to their hopes and fears? By nurturing those relationships, with Christ and with each other, not only would we be strengthened for the journey but the world around would catch a glimpse of the possibilities of new life in Christ’s love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcoming Children, Welcoming Jesus: A Sermon for Proper 20, Year B

Last Sunday, as I was locking up the building, I heard some voices down at the end of the hall in the education wing. I went to investigate.  It was the middle school /youth class meeting. I joined them for a few minutes. They were talking about the service, my sermon and the bible readings. One of the kids had a good question for me. They wondered why I usually preach on the gospel and don’t talk about the other texts. It’s an easy answer. Our job as preachers is to preach the gospel. I don’t always do that, of course. Last summer, for example, I preached a number of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans, and earlier this summer, I preached on the texts from the Hebrew Bible, as we were reading the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David. But for the most part, I do preach on the gospel reading for the day.

That being said, there are Sundays when the lectionary readings present particular problems. They may be confusing or troubling. They may even be offensive. Continue reading

How to Save Your Life: A Sermon for Proper 19, Year B

I have a routine  as I prepare sermons week to week. I try to read the texts as early as possible. If I get a good nap on Sunday afternoon, I’ll look at them in the late afternoon or evening. The gospel reading will echo in my mind all week, as I continue to mull it over. There are a couple of websites I visit to read commentaries and reflections. I look back at sermons I’ve previously preached on the text. I think about what’s going in the world, the city, and in our congregation. I’m always looking for a new idea, a new perspective that will give me a new way of thinking about the text, as well as a way for you to enter into the text as well, and to explore how that text might inform your own life. Continue reading

Lose your life, save your life, follow Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2015

I have been profoundly affected by the image I saw a couple of weeks ago of ISIS fighters about to execute 21 Coptic Christians. The scene was horrific in its staging; the victims on their knees, behind each one of them his executioner, with a sword at the throat. I have struggled to make sense of this and other horrific acts of religious violence over the last weeks and months, struggled to understand the interplay of religion and politics, the effects of twelve years of the global war on terror, struggled to make sense of the inhumanity of human beings. Continue reading