Marked by Ashes: Poetry for Lent by Walter Brueggeman

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day …
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Temptation and Identity: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 2019

I know that many of you are relatively new to the Episcopal Church. I know that many, most of you didn’t attend Ash Wednesday services this past week, so you may be uncertain of what the Season of Lent is—what it means and why we observe it. Perhaps the best explanation of Lent can be found in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday and specifically, the Invitation to a Holy Lent. It’s found on p. 264 of the BCP, and I’m going to read it right now:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading andmeditating on God’s holy Word.

 

Our worship takes a much more somber and penitential tone in Lent. We traditionally begin our services on the First Sunday in Lent with the Great Litany. For the next five Sundays, we will begin with the Penitential Order in Rite I. While there is a solid reason for the Confession of Sin’s usual place in our liturgy, after the reading of Scripture and the Proclamation of Gospel. There, the confession is part of our response to what we’ve heard from scripture and preparation for the Liturgy of the Table, the Eucharist.

But placing the penitential order, including the confession, at the beginning of the service emphasizes the transition from daily life in the world to our worship of God. It acknowledges our identity, our sins and underscores the distance between us and God, a distance overcome in Jesus Christ.

There are other differences in our worship during Lent. I encourage to note them and reflect on how they might help us in this season of penitence and spiritual discipline. And I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities at Grace and the resources we’ve made available to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ in these weeks.

Our gospel reading on this first Sunday in Lent, as many of us begin to think about this season of repentance and forgiveness, is Luke’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The connection with Lent is obvious—the 40 days of Lent are modeled on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. He fasted as well. But the temptations seem just a bit out of place. It may prompt us to see in our temptation to break our fast, to eat the chocolate we said we would give up for Lent, a parallel to the confrontation between Jesus and Satan.

I doubt it. One of the interesting changes Luke makes to Mark’s story of the wilderness temptations is that Mark says, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, while Luke says that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. That’s in keeping with Luke’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit. It also links this story to Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit came down on Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is one of those overarching themes of Luke’s gospel and of Acts. And here we see Luke’s mention of it twice. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit, as he had been filled at his baptism, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Unlike Mark’s construction of this scene, Luke wants to emphasize that this cosmic battle waged between Jesus and Satan, is at bottom a battle between unequal combatants—Jesus is not alone. He is the Son of God, filled with the Holy Spirit.

But still, Luke doesn’t tip his hand. In fact, he suggests to the reader that Jesus is the weak one—emphasizing by repetition that Jesus fasted for 40 days, that he was famished. In that physical condition, and who knows what his mental or spiritual condition might have been, Jesus is confronted by Satan: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Hungry as he was, having not eaten anything for forty days, Satan may have been putting into words what Jesus was already thinking. For anyone who fasts, the temptation to break that fast is always present to a greater or lesser degree. It takes enormous willpower to resist and for Jesus, the Son of God, to resist the miraculous power to intervene and make a meal for himself from nothing, or from a stone—well for us mere mortals, it’s quite something to imagine.

But the temptation that Satan presented Jesus was deeper: “If you are the Son of God”—Just  a bit earlier, at his baptism, Luke tells us that Jesus heard the voice saying to him, “You are my Son, my beloved.” There are implicit questions in that statement, questions explored by nearly two millennia of Christian reflection on the nature of Christ.

Did Jesus already know his identity as the Son of God before hearing that voice? Was it confirmation of something he already knew? Did he become the Son of God at the baptism? Now, I am not going to explore those questions or why they may be important, but given the text, they are legitimate questions to ask.

From the perspective of Luke’s narrative, Jesus hears this voice, this statement of his identity, then led by the Holy Spirit goes into the wilderness where he fasts for 40 days. The very next thing he hears is Satan tempting him, “If you are the Son of God…”

Each of three temptations is about Jesus’ identity. Is he the Son of God? What sort of Son of God is he, or will he be? In the biblical tradition, the Psalms for example, the king is often referred to as a son of God, God’s representative on earth, with power on earth. In the second temptation, Satan says, “all authority has been given over to me.” In a sense, Satan’s questions of Jesus are questions about what sort of Son of God he might be, what kind of Messiah he will be. Jesus passes the test, and Satan departs from him until an opportune time.

Miraculous bread, all the nations of the world, the pinnacle of the temple—these were the tests put to Jesus by Satan. We might well wonder whether they are also tests put to us as individuals and as the body of Jesus Christ in the 21stcentury.

But at the same time, the deeper question of identity is one that also confronts us. Like Jesus we have been baptized, and in our baptism we gain our identity as children of God, marked as Christ’s own forever. What temptations draw us away from that identity? What temptations distract us from our knowledge and identity as God’s beloved children? May this season of Lent be a time, where we too, filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, may claim our identity as God’s beloved children and experience the love and grace of God revealed to us in Christ and expressed most fully on the cross.

Dust, Ashes, and God’s steadfast love: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2019

I have been surrounded by death the last few months. There was the death of my mother before Christmas, and two funerals at Grace in recent weeks. Yesterday morning, I visited someone in hospice care and we talked about death as I prayed and read Psalms with her. After that visit, I came to the church and burnt the dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday and prepared the ashes that I will use to mark the sign of the cross on our foreheads and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is now my tenth Ash Wednesday at Grace and I’m increasingly conscious of those people whose foreheads I daubed with ash and said, “Remember that you are dust…” and who in the years since, I’ve said while committing their remains to their final resting place, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Of all the intimate and powerful acts I perform as a priest, there may be none so intimate or powerful as what I do today, for as I say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…” I am saying it as much to myself as to you.

In our culture, we do almost everything we can to avoid talking about, thinking about, or being near, death. We don’t even use the word—someone has passed, they don’t die. We go to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking old, spending billions on cosmetic surgery to look young. We are so averse to speaking about death that we’ve invented a word, “cremains” so we don’t have to confront the reality of ashes.

But then we come hear and have our foreheads smudged with ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

To face our mortality with honesty and admitting our vulnerability is no easy thing. But it is an important first step in the work we need to do. Lent is a season of repentance and spiritual discipline. But to ask God’s forgiveness, to receive God’s forgiveness requires that we first admit who we are, acknowledge our sin and brokenness, open our selves and our hearts to God’s redemptive and forgiving grace.

We see that in Psalm 51, which we will recite together later. It’s a psalm of repentance but as the psalmist acknowledges his sinfulness and prays to God for forgiveness, there’s a moment when the tone changes:

Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

 

It is only through such confession, and honesty about oneself, that one can fully experience the joy of God’s forgiveness.

There’s another image that haunts me each Ash Wednesday, a verse from the Joel reading, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” My attention was first drawn to it years ago by Tom Davis, a priest who has himself now entered the larger life, as we were preparing for services at St. James, Greenville.

The image of priests weeping between the vestibule and altar, or as we might say, between the sacristy and the altar haunts me because it evokes a moment of intense repentance and it goes against the priestly decorum we display and that is expected of us. In the larger passage, the prophet Joel is talking about an imminent catastrophe, a natural disaster, a plague of locusts that has come upon the land and destroyed the crops. Interestingly, he does not attribute this natural disaster to punishment for the evil of the people. He offers no explanation for the coming destruction.

But he does offer hope: “Return to the Lord…”

The prophet continues:

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

As we confront our mortality this day, as we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as we confess our sins, and acknowledge our brokenness, as we weep between the vestibule and the altar, may our broken bodies and spirits be filled with the joy of God’s forgiveness, and know the immeasurable power of God’s loving grace.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Poem for Lent: Affliction by George Herbert

Affliction

by George Herbert

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart;
As wat’ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face:
Nothing performs the task of life:
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life: dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief:
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, Thee.

Can we see Jesus? Do we see Jesus? A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2018

We are at a turning point. Lent is drawing to a close; those of you who have been following Lent Madness are watching as the tension builds and the saintly competition comes to an end. If you’ve given up something for the season, you are probably counting the days to Easter and the end of your fast. Here in the office at Grace, we are preparing for Holy Week as you can tell from the notices in the service bulletin.

As we were reciting and chanting the verses from Psalm 51 this morning, I was reminded that we had said this same psalm on Ash Wednesday, after the imposition of the ashes. Then, I and you were hoping for a Holy Lent, a time when we might deepen our relationship with God in Christ, experience repentance and forgiveness of our sins and grow spiritually. Now, as Lent draws to a close, those verses remind me of all the ways my actions and discipline in Lent have fallen short of what I had hoped for, another missed opportunity. I am grateful again, and continuously, for God’s mercy and grace. Continue reading

Poetry for Ash Wednesday: “Lent” by George Herbert

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is composed of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to your Mother, what you would allow
To every Corporation.

*  *  *

It ‘s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
In both let ‘s do our best.

Who goes in the way which Christ has gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
Who travels the by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

Walking the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison, April 7, 2017

At the entrance of the Dane County Jail

This is the fourth (I think) year we’ve walked the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison. It’s a strange, uncomfortable experience in that for me, I’m walking streets I walk nearly every day as I go to and from work or grab lunch or run errands. This year, as in past years, I encountered familiar faces as I walked, among them two elected officials of county and city government.

This year, in addition to the usual distractions of city traffic and people going about their business, we had to compete with construction on Capitol Square and with the Solidarity Singers, who seemed to be a larger group than they had been in recent weeks.

To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to today’s event. For whatever reason, my spiritual focus has been elsewhere, and my energy diverted to other matters. If it hadn’t concluded at Grace, I doubt whether I would have participated.

I was surprised how quickly I was caught up in the experience. It wasn’t just the familiar stations, and the meditations that connected Jesus’ suffering with the suffering on the streets of Madison. It was also about making Christ’s suffering present on these streets, at the door of the Dane County Jail, opposite the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum, and at the steps of Grace where a homeless person died in the winter of 2014, and where so many homeless people have sought refuge over the last thirty years, and hungry people have been fed.

We do so much to protect ourselves from the knowledge and experience of human suffering on the streets of our city. The homeless and panhandlers are harassed and shoved out of sight. The inhumanity of the Dane County Jail is at its worst several stories above the room in the City County building where Madison’s Common Council and the Dane County Board of Supervisors deliberate.

To walk the way of the cross in Downtown Madison is to bear witness to the blood on our streets and in our city. It is also to see in that suffering and pain, the suffering and pain of Jesus Christ.

Today I realized that our little Stations of the Cross, walked as we’ve done it every year on the Friday before Palm Sunday, has become an essential part of my preparation for the drama of Holy Week.

 

For background on the devotion of the Stations of the Cross and how we do it here in Madison, follow this link.

A White Lent

1. Now quit your care
And anxious fear and worry;
For schemes are vain
And fretting brings no gain.
To prayer, to prayer!
Bells call and clash and hurry,
In Lent the bells do cry
‘Come buy, come buy,
Come buy with love the love most high!’

2. Lent comes in the spring,
And spring is pied with brightness;
The sweetest flowers,
Keen winds, and sun, and showers,
Their health do bring
To make Lent’s chastened whiteness;
For life to men brings light
And might, and might,
And might to those whose hearts are right.

3. To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes,
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.

4. For is not this
The fast that I have chosen? –
The prophet spoke –
To shatter every yoke,
Of wickedness
The grievous bands to loosen,
Oppression put to flight,
To fight, to fight,
To fight till every wrong’s set right.

5. For righteousness
And peace will show their faces
To those who feed
The hungry in their need,
And wrongs redress,
Who build the old waste places,
And in the darkness shine.
Divine, divine,
Divine it is when all combine!

6. Then shall your light
Break forth as doth the morning;
Your health shall spring,
The friends you make shall bring
God’s glory bright,
Your way through life adorning
And love shall be the prize.
Arise, arise,
Arise! and make a paradise!

A Lenten carol written by Percy Dearmer. I’m grateful to Thinking Anglicans for drawing my attention to it. It’s lovely because of its quite joyful evocation of the beauty of springtime. And it is powerful in shifting the focus of Lent away from personal piety toward works of justice. I’ve borrowed the text from A Clerk of Oxford

 

Hens and Foxes: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2016

 

I don’t think anyone would deny that the general mood in our nation is particularly troubling. No matter what one’s political preferences might be, most of us, left or right, feel as if the country, our state, our culture is out of our control, that big money and political operatives are running the show and care little for the lives of ordinary people. It’s not just that we can’t seem to come together to solve intractable problems; it’s that the whole system is rigged for the 1% and their money and influence make it impossible for the rest of us—we end up fighting over an ever-smaller piece of the pie while the wealthy and powerful gorge themselves. Continue reading