Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today we start our annual journey into the wilderness of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. We fast and pray for forty days in his example of his desert wanderings and temptation. This is our season of ashes and covered crosses, of abstaining from alleluias and chocolate and baptisms and booze. This is a somber time when we accept the Christian tradition’s invitation to serious reflection and repentance, to mind-body-spirit preparation for death and life that we will experience in Holy Week. The Lenten preparation, this deep soul work of putting reflection into practice day after day, is especially important to deepening our faith and connection to the heart of the gospel, to the life and death of Jesus because, unlike the story of gospels, which leads one chapter to the next, from Gethsemane to the empty garden tomb, our lives, our journeys of suffering and death and resurrection, aren’t linear. Our liturgical observance captures a bit of this winding road. Throughout lent, throughout the season of repentance, of reckoning with our limits and mortality and failure, each Sunday is still a celebration of Easter, still our resurrection feast each week. And of course, we all know the days of reckoning with our limits and mortality, of hitting bottom and coming to deep repentance, don’t just happen during the appropriate season of lent, and we acknowledge this  in the church, too, when we repent and grieve and reflect together all year round.

Days of hurt and loneliness, those terrible Good Fridays, come when we least expect them. Days of emptiness and uncertainty, Holy Saturdays, pop up in our lives. But those Easters! The Easters come, too, don’t they? Sometimes they’re small, like the same old narcissus coming up in the yard again this year. And sometimes the Easters are glorious, life-changing: reconciliations and births and prison releases and remissions and falling in love. Not only is there no rhythm to them, but the Good Fridays and the Holy Saturdays and the Easter Sundays will sneak up on us all at the same time.

Like when you’re holding the newest baby in your family, and even though he’s been gone for years, you see your dad. His eyes have skipped generations and shown up on this little girl’s face, and you are so full of gladness for her and missing him terribly at the same time so that you can’t breathe? Or the feeling when you’re in the rubble of an ended relationship, figuring out what the new normal looks like, and one day realize with bittersweet satisfaction that your own solitary company is very good company. Or all those triumphs and setbacks of the journey of recovery, that slow healing of all tangled up pain and victory and knowing, practicing, that the key is in holding it all much more loosely than you want to.

We gather today and enter together into this season of honoring these good and hard things, life’s frightening and vulnerable things, of repenting, of doing our inner work with God. We do this so that we can be strengthened and grounded, more able to recognize that in the ordinary and extraordinary jumbled moments of death and resurrection, God is present with us. God is at work, and calling us to God’s work. We enter into the suffering and the death and in the resurrection with Christ himself.
Our experiences of death and the resurrection are always all together. And God knows this about us. God made these lives of jumbled up death and resurrection. The ashes are for us, not for God. We’re the ones who need the reminder. The Gospel reading makes clear that Jesus isn’t asking us to disfigure ourselves in prayer. God doesn’t need us here, kneeling and marked with the grave. Psalm 134 says it so tenderly: “God knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust.” But we need to remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We need to remember that on our own we are small, we are frail and failing.

This reminder, this mark of our dustiness, is something for us to pat ourselves on the back for, be proud of having been in church today. And it’s not so that we go about feeling terrible for ourselves. It’s not a sign of pride, but it’s also not meant to get us stuck in shame. Because remember? The Easters are all tangled up in the Lents and the Good Fridays.

When we know that resurrection life and death are always tied together, our practice of remembering our death, remembering our failures in repentance, can be, more than anything, a practice of trust. By taking this step of remembering we are dust, we are calling on God’s mercy with confidence, the psalmist says, in God’s steadfast love. We can take on the daunting work of the fast, entrusting our treasure and our hearts to God, because God is our understanding creator, our loving parent. We can bravely accept Isaiah’s call to loose the bonds of injustice because we know that the task of breaking yokes of oppression happens only with the guidance and strength of God’s Spirit, our constant companion. We can venture into the unspeakably vulnerable territory of speaking our sin and shortcomings because love divine is waiting for us in the wilderness, and that love divine wants us to be free, healed, and whole.

We don’t face our sin and stare down our death for the sake of sin and death. Sure, the ashes represent this, but they also point us to so much more. The poet Jan Richardson nudges us to thinking differently about our ashes. In an Ash Wednesday poem, she asks her readers, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”

“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The psalmist knew. When we remember we are dust, when we repent of our wrongdoing and turn to God to make us whole, God will teach us wisdom, restore us to joy, and make us living declarations of praise, of love and mercy.

“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The prophet knew. When we remember we are dust, when we let go our ambitious grasping to make space for neighbors in need, God will satisfy all our needs and rebuild us, and our light shall rise in the darkness.

Richardson’s poem goes on to say,

let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not by false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust.

Today, let us be marked by repentance, a repentance full of trust and hope. Yes, come and be marked by death, but a death that’s always, always pointing to resurrection. Let us be marked by what God can do with the dust.

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God made known in generosity and courage

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Harriman, TN
15th February
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38–48

Epiphany is that season of the liturgical year when we crane our necks and peel our eyes for all the ways that God is showing up around us. We are invited to see the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, to wonder at the proclamation of God’s glory written on creation, and today, we are asked to consider how God could show up in the way we treat one another.

Now, I know a lot about good behavior. I grew up in North Georgia, just a couple of hours from here, and was raised to have good manners and be a good girl, a nice young lady. In my little Georgia city, when we were about 12 years old or so, those of us from certain families found ourselves stuffed into our Sunday best and shuttled off to the gym of the United Methodist Church for afternoons of what they called “Junior Cotillion.” Do you all have this in Harriman? Did some of you poor souls undergo the same trial as children? It was excruciating! I can think of twenty things I would have rather done on a Saturday afternoon. And while we were beginning to like the idea of liking boys, to our horror, when we got up close, the girls realized that by and large, they didn’t know what they were doing any more than we did. They were all a head shorter than us and had terrible sweaty palms. And while the abilities to do a basic waltz, write a thank you note, and know my dinner utensils have served me well, being a nice girl has not.

Here’s the thing about being a nice girl, about niceness in general. Nice is too often a poor replacement for loving. Nice is too often silent in the face of injustice. Nice is so accommodating that it begins to fear any confrontation. Nice keeps to itself. Nice cannot discern when, for the love of God and neighbor, we can no longer afford to be nice, and our love needs to be fierce and creative and courageous, rippling out from us to impact the world.

Today’s scriptures are about so much more than nice. This gospel passage is God’s invitation to a holiness that is huge, a move toward making ourselves and our world whole. In Leviticus, the law tells us not to hate anyone in our heart, but then situates this inner love is in our culture, society, and economy. This is a love far beyond nice. God’s love and justice are about setting our relationships and community right, and God is calling us now to gather courage and participate in this work. The Old Testament reading offers us first a vision of proactive love, courage, and generosity. The Gospel reading gives us a way to think about responsive love and courage in the face of oppression or hurt.

Stay with me this morning. This is hard and demanding and runs counter to most of the values of United States culture in our time. But it is also more creative and fun and satisfying and joyful than any other vision of ethics I’ve seen.

So first we have this call to proactively care for the vulnerable.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”

Do you remember Ruth? Hers is the story behind this commandment. She was a widow and a foreigner in need, who went out gleaning in the fields, taking the bits of grain and produce left behind from the harvesters. Her story is a story of hope because Boaz, her late husband’s relative, kept this law of Israel and recognized that what was seconds to him could be more than enough for someone in need.

Leviticus is reminding us that there something more important than maximizing the profit margin. God’s telling us that our fields and our harvest are not really ours. We don’t possess any of this. Let the anxiety of owning nothing wash over you. Feel the precariousness of all we think we have sit for just a moment, and then notice if there is an inkling of relief along with the nervousness.  We are called to build in a margin, a gap between what we need and what we could take.

This generosity takes foresight and thoughtfulness. It sees that the laborer, the one living check to check, needs their wage sooner than later. This generosity takes the disabled person into consideration, seeking to make the community accessible.

And so we see that love, the creative, courageous love that God is inviting us to practice, moves from the state of our hearts outward and back again. We tend to our inner circle of a loving heart, then move from there to just work in the world. Then we come back to home base, think about what we have seen, what we have been doing. We meditate, consider, cultivate deeper thoughtfulness and compassion.

The laws go on to say, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” and this brings us to the Gospel reading.

We know from Jesus’ teachings on the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is rarely someone easy for us to love as ourself. Neighbor ends up being all kinds of people we’d rather not deal with. And here, Jesus is talking about how to respond to acts of aggression and violence in the context of Roman occupation. The way that we face unjust leaders and laws, the way that we respond in the face of vitriol is the response to a neighbor. More than ever, separated by partisan politics and the cloak of facebook comments, we need the reminder that we are connected, that our responses to one another aren’t just a bomb we get to set and walk away from, that the conclusive mic drop doesn’t exist.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

These instructions deserve a look at their cultural and historical context. First, turning the other cheek. Most people are right handed. A blow to your right cheek from a right handed assailant isn’t a punch in the face. This is a backhand slap of humiliation. If I’m hit like this, to turn the other cheek doesn’t mean that I’m being a doormat—saying, “Ok, hit me twice.” It means I’ve turned to look them in the eye. If they hit you again on the other cheek it will be after seeing your face, your humanity, and to hit you on the left side, your assailant would have to hit you as an equal.

If someone is suing you for your coat, that means that they are pressing you in court for resources you don’t have. You don’t sue someone for clothing, you sue them for money, for payment to right the wrong. Jesus is condemning the exploitation of taking someone to court when all they have is the clothes on their back. To give not only the coat but the cloak is to strip yourself naked, right there in the court. You are saying, “See me! See that I’m a human like you! See what your injustice is doing, stripping me of everything!”

Under the rule of the Roman Empire, a soldier could force a subject to carry his gear for one mile. It didn’t matter what you were doing, going about your day. If a soldier wanted your help, he could command it, no questions ask. You can imagine that this experience would range from an aggravating inconvenience to a humiliation that drains the last of your time and strength when you’re just trying to hold things together. But imagine, won’t you, the soldier who’s conscripted you to walk his gear. He stops and says, “Ok, that’s your mile.” But you don’t stop. You grimace under the weight of the work and keep trudging along. “Wait a second! Stop! That’s your mile!” Now he’s jogging to keep up with you. Maybe other travelers on the way have stopped to watch, surprised and laughing. By continuing on, you are confronting the soldier and the unjust practices. You have forced him think twice about his behavior and the harmful system without moving toward violence or detraction in your confrontation.

I recently heard a story about Martin Luther King Jr., when he was marching in peaceful protest alongside the community in Chicago. This was during the same time that he was hit with a brick. As they were marching, they passed one of many angry counter-protestors, a white man there to harass the marchers, screaming profanity at them. Dr. King looked at him and said, “You’re too smart and too good looking to be filled with so much hate.” The Civil Rights protestors saw that the hatred and racism was eroding the souls of white antagonists who were so bent on racial segregation and oppression. Calling for a more just world meant calling out the humanity even of the most hateful and harmful people.

And this is how we go, in the path of a Christ who drove the moneychangers out of the temple, but put his whip not to the human beings, but to the tools of oppression. We follow his footsteps, with our eyes on the grace and goodness of the Father, accepting the invitation of the Holy Spirit to deeply notice ourselves and one another, the invitation to move beyond nice, to take the sacred risk of generosity, love, and courage.

I want to leave us this morning with a few questions.

What is your field and harvest?

Are you stripping it bare, keeping the plenty and resources all for yourself?

Who is the neighbor who could be nourished by your abundance?

How are you experiencing that backhanded slap?

Where do you see the abuse of empire at work in your community?

Who is looking you in the eye, inviting you to see their humanness?

Whose eye must you look into, to commit that brave act of vulnerability and asking that your humanness be seen?

May the God who created us, lived among us, and breathes in us now, be made known through our treatment of one another, glorified in our generosity and courage. Amen.

Children of the Resurrection

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Sermon — All Saints’ Sunday (and baby S’s baptism!)
Haggai 1:15 – 2:9; P
salm 145; Luke 20:27 – 38
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville
6 November 2016

Dearest saints,

Today we enact the work of the creed that we say together each week, that“we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead…”

Today, on this Sunday after All Saint’s Day, we gather for Eucharist, worship, prayer, baptism of young saints, and the remembrance of those saints who have died—as the gospel reading calls them so beautifully, the children of God and children of resurrection.

Today we bear witness to the baptism of these young ones, stand with them as they receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, as we receive the grace of their new life and vitality in the community—also children of God and children of resurrection.

Do you hear? This is amazing—a day of God shaking things up, as the prophet said. We have death and new life and everything in between, caught up into our morning worship. This is a day of our hearts being split right open, broken in the best possible way, so that the Holy Spirit might illuminate what really matters.

Today we are in what the Celtic mystics called a thin place, where the distance between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is somehow a little bit smaller.

I recently learned about a community of people who know and practice the mysterious thin places of life and death in a particularly beautiful and horrible way, the residents of Otsuchi, a small coastal village in northern Japan. When the 2011 tsunami hit Japan, this coastal community was devastated. Over 400 people are still missing, presumed dead. Can you even imagine? Not one single household was untouched. Knowing that life and death are just a hairs width apart, the people of Otsuchi attend to the thin place through the Wind Telephone. What is the wind telephone? you ask. Well, the wind telephone is a strange outdoor art installation—an antique phone booth in a garden. After the death of his cousin, not long before the tsunami hit, Itaru Sasaki placed this old phone booth in his garden. on a windy hill overlooking the ocean. As he grieved the loss of his cousin, Itaru wanted a quiet, special place to speak with his dead loved one. He would go into this phone booth as a prayerful space, and speak to his cousin about life, about missing him. After the tsunami, though, Itaru was not the sole mourner in the village—his entire community was overwhelmed by grief, by sudden, unexplainable death.

Recall again the reading from Haggai, a prophet who spoke of hope and future to the people of Judah straggling home after being exiled under a brutal conqueror. The Lord said through the prophet to the people: “take courage!” But how could they even begin to take courage in the face of such a tragedy?

The people of Otsuchi began to take courage in a small and beautiful way. People from the village began to show up in Itaru’s garden, stepping into the phone booth to speak to their lost loves. In a beautiful recording of these phone calls, some of the speakers express ordinary care for their loved ones, asking “are you warm enough? do you have food?” Others dial the old rotary, turning numbers of phones that were washed away with their houses and homeowners. Some pick up the phone and listen in silence and tears. And in the private simple space of a phone booth in a garden, people are connected in a grace that defies our logic and control. This is the communion of saints.

Today we gather here as children of God, children of the resurrection, children of grace. We humans are notoriously poor at receiving this grace, which is why we have to make habits of prayer and asking for one another’s forgiveness, why we need to come to the Eucharist week after week, and will be encouraged to remember our baptisms later this morning. Whether in the sacraments or in our relationships, there is a vulnerability about giving and receiving grace, and my goodness we don’t like vulnerability.

In our gospel reading today, as Jesus was talking with the Saducees, we see the human struggle against vulnerability confronted with the challenging, mind-bending grace of God.

The Saducees were members of a Jewish sect in the time of Jesus. They didn’t believe in a spiritual realm or the resurrection of the dead. When they bring this question to Jesus, about marriage in heaven, they’re nit-picking. They are just looking to trick and trap the rabbi with a false question. They’re asking about a resurrection they don’t even believe in. How annoying is that? They foreclose on the possibility of any meaningful encounter with resurrection by focusing on the quotidian. They come to the conversation as an opportunity to show how right and clever they are.

Jesus starts by responding to the question in the terms it was offered—“no, in the age to come marriage isn’t like that…” And then—I can imagine him shaking his head, frustrated and sad, “You know what, you’re worrying about the wrong thing… In God, all are alive. They are children of the resurrection—how did you get hung up on these unimportant details!” He changes the question.

How many times have we shown up like the Sadducees? We spend so much time deflecting from grace we don’t understand, because it’s more comfortable to be certain. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves bickering with a partner just to be right? Who hasn’t defended a political party or an organization, even when we might not fully agree with its positions, to be justified to our neighbors? We don’t want our hearts split open! But when we come to life on the defensive, guarding our soft underbellies from attack, we might miss out on grace.

The resurrection relationships Jesus describes to them are a kind of belonging, a community, that is an expansive, inclusive grace. The fellowship of God’s people stretches the limits of our imaginations and challenges our assumptions about who is in, who is out. It challenges our assumptions about who gets to receive the grace of Jesus Christ that only comes to us, beautiful and faulty, through one sharing life with another.

On All Saints, though, we push our imaginations to remember that the communion of saints goes beyond what we can understand about the limits of life and death. Those of us who said goodbye to our everyday saints this year, or in years past, know that the experience of loss, suffering, and death pushes on the limits of our understanding, because in the mysterious ways of God, we stay connected to those who have gone. In the resurrection, we receive the grace of connection to one another that goes beyond death. With our prayers made of pictures, stories, and memory, we call our loved departed saints children of the resurrection, and we have communion with them today.

Today we also baptize young saints. Baptism is all about being a child of the resurrection, being profoundly alive in Christ. It is a sacrament of community belonging, a belonging that cannot be earned through the work and wisdom of age, but is given without merit. And as we bless these little ones and are blessed by them, they offer a reminder of our call to be resurrection people—for our own sake and theirs.

But listen, I don’t want to romanticize this shaking up of heaven and earth or pitch a vision of community and sainthood that’s all happy harps and halos. it’s all well and good to love the poetry of the prophet, but the lived reality looks a lot more like the frustrating conversation we read in the gospel. Even with resurrection hope, the death of beloved saints is deeply painful and confusing. Even with new life in Christ, these little saints are baptized into a community of struggle and a life full of questions.

That is precisely why this is the grace that means something.  God invites us into a grace that is gritty enough for planning funeral visitations and flower arrangements and closing accounts. This is a grace for the moment when we think the next contraction or the next home study will be the one to break us. It is a vulnerable grace that will not be tidied up, a grace that refuses to toe a party line, create parameters for membership, or be defined, sold, controlled, doled out only to the deserving.

No. In this expansive resurrection grace, this astounding community and holy belonging, we remember, celebrate, and claim our place, all of us, as children of God, children of the resurrection.

Amen.

grapefruit and peppermint