Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

(Psalm 51)
February 18, 2015
a sermon for the people of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
in Marysville, WA

And so Lent begins…

For thousands of years, God’s people have been smearing ashes on their foreheads  or pouring them into their hair as a sign of repentance and admission of guilt or deliverance into sin.  The earliest mention, I believe, is in the book of Job chapter 42. Job says, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  Job has spent a lot of time in suffering and railing against God for the terrible things that has happened in his life and for his own understanding that God has abandoned him.  But by the time we get to chapter 42, Job has found a little clarity about his own situation and he says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”  In other words, Job thought he knew God, but now that he has really seen God, Job understands just how good and gracious our God is and in contrast, just how broken he is.

And so I wonder, what does this act mean to us today?  How does the rending of garments (tearing your clothes) and dirtying your face please God?  Spoilers:  It doesn’t.

We begin the church year in Advent, and we breathlessly await the coming of the Christchild.  He arrives, and we joyfully celebrate Christmas.  Then, in the season of Epiphany, we look at all the ways in which God reveals Godself to us particularly through the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  And just as we are beginning to get it…really get the message that God is in and through and all around us…  Bam!  Screeching halt.  Lent begins. 

And I wonder if by the time we finish the season of Epiphany, if we like Job, finally SEE God revealed to us in our own lives “with our own eye”, as it were, through the person of Jesus and by seeing God we really get it…just how broken we are and how separated we have become from God and from our neighbor.  And so we need to stop and pour ashes on our own selves.  Not to please God, but to remind ourselves that we are in deep need.  That we cannot save ourselves.  That we are largely the architects of our own “crap/stuff”, that we are our own worst enemies and that we need help to get out of the situations and relationships and brokenness we’ve gotten ourselves into.

So, Ash Wednesday is the opportunity to think about the power of sin in our lives, to recognize that we can’t defeat it on our own, and that we need liberation or rescue from outside ourselves.  We need God.  We need a savior.  And those ashes are a visible reminder of that for us.  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

The psalm for today, Psalm 51, has long been a favorite of mine.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God…”  And it is frequently found in liturgy as hymn or as confession.  But probably precisely because it is so prevalent in the ligurgy, it was a very long time before I realized that this psalm is King David’s response to the shocking sin he has committed:  David upon the rooftop sees Bathsheba bathing (remember this story?), and he is so sure that he can have whatever or whomever he desires that he takes his neighbor’s wife and THEN tries to cover up that sin by murdering Uriah, his neighbor. 

So maybe you haven’t done something quite like David, or maybe you have, but let’s be really honest, there are certain events in everyone’s life that brings forth alienation from creation.  There are things that you do and things that I do that wound, destroy, and separate.  We wound one another, we destroy relationships, and we separate ourselves from community.

And somehow, even though we know it to be the wrong thing, we cannot help ourselves.  We just can’t seem to stop doing these things to one another…or to ourselves.  And so, in this new season of Lent, we cry with David, “Have mercy on me, O God!...Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”  

Hear the good news:  God does.  In God’s infinite mercy, we are washed and made clean.  We are claimed in baptism.  We are called to life in the gospel.  And we are beloved.

So the season of Lent ought to be a time of reconciliation.  A time when we reunite ourselves as broken sinners with the deep desire God has for us to be whole and clean. 

It is a time for taking up a new vision of who you are, how you act, how you choose to be in the world, and how you stand alongside your neighbor.  Lent becomes a time not for berating ourselves for how wretched, sinful, and terrible we are, but it is a time for gaining a whole new perspective about ourselves in relation to God’s good creation and for understanding our place in it.  It’s a time for seeking understanding and compassion for our neighbors and for ourselves wherever there was none before.

So, beloved, I ask you, how are we going to be reconciled to one another, to ourselves, and to God this season?  How are you being called?

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus gives us all sorts of direction for how we might go about some of this.  He lays out some guidelines for spiritual practices and disciplines about giving, prayer, fasting, and hoarding.  This is really good and certainly worth reflecting on regularly.  But since we read this text every single year for Ash Wednesday, I am wondering if perhaps I could entertain another idea for this year. 

The spiritual discipline to which I feel myself called this season is one suggested by a classmate and friend of mine.  She has proposed a “Negativity Fast”.  Those of you in 12 step communities will recognize this as Step #10.  The idea is that we refrain from negative thoughts, speech, and “self-talk” for the season of Lent.  And at the end of the day, reflect a little on the places you were negative or destructive or harmful or sarcastic or self-loathing…journal about them…think about how those places may have wounded someone and about how it wounded you.  How it separated you from the understanding that God calls you “good” and “beloved”.  And then, make your apologies to your neighbor if necessary, but also, make your apologies to God and to you.   I plan to engage in this spiritual practice this Lent.  And I invite you to join me. 

How would a little reshaping of your own narration, that little voice in your head, change the way you see yourself, your neighbor, your world?  How could that help reorient us toward God?  Could that help God create clean heart in you?  in me? 

God does have mercy on us in God’s steadfast love.  God does not cast us away from God’s presence.  God’s Holy Spirit is ever upon us. 

This season of Lent, let us r-turn to God, re-voice our personal narrators, so that we may find ourselves restored in the joy of the Lord and in love with one another.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Momma (Simon's), Grandmomma, and Jesus

Mark 1:29-39 
A Sermon for the People of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church 
February 8, 2015

Remember last week’s Gospel lesson?  Last week we heard about Jesus’s first public act of ministry…and it was a bold one.  He waltzed into synagogue, and began to teach (pretty brave, I have to tell you, that whole teaching in a new place thing).  While he was there, he was confronted by a demon that identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. Jesus tossed it out, and his fame began to spread throughout Galilee.
Well, this week’s lesson takes place on the very same day…Jesus has just left the synagogue and has gone to the house of Simon and Andrew the former fishermen.  Simon’s mother-in-law is sick; she’s laid up in bed with a high fever.  Now, fever today in this country is not such a big deal if you’ve got good health insurance, but in that time, a time without antibiotics or Blue Cross Blue Shield, a fever worth writing about would likely be fatal.
So Jesus enters the house and simply holds her hand---he touches her—and immediately she hops out of bed and she begins to serve them.  Maybe she made sandwiches or a nice fish stew. 
Now, a whole lot of people I’ve talked with this week have read this text with a feminist hat on, and they get pretty upset about it. “What if she didn’t want to serve?”  “When Lazarus was raised he got to lounge around the dinner table!”  Now, I have nothing against feminists, in fact, I might consider myself to be a pretty good one, but here, that particular argument misses the point.
Which is this:  Momma is sick.  Jesus holds her hand.  She is healed.  She serves.
Or, Jesus touches her.  She is restored.  She serves.
She is healed through the compassion of Christ.  And her immediate response is one of service.
My grandmomma grew up in the early part of last century, and her family, like so much of America at that time, was very very poor.  She worked hard in the fields and then in the mills, until finally, my granddaddy returned home from the 2nd World War and asked her to marry him.  He was a master carpenter and on his income, she was able to stay home and raise two boys.  What might seem like gender entrapment to many of us was actually liberating for her.  For the first time, most likely, she was able to use her gifts.   
Grandmomma’s home was always full of people.  I spent a significant chunk of my childhood there, and I remember that when it was just us, the house felt weirdly quiet and strangely empty.  Because, you see, my grandmother had a spiritual gift…the gift of radical hospitality.  And so people were drawn to her.  Drawn to her welcome.
She was a woman of deep faith.  In her own life, she had seen poverty, depression, and desperation.  She had been visited by tragic illness.  She had faced hours of loneliness and worry.  But she had also known the restorative power of communion with Christ.  She had been bound up in our Triune God in a real and powerful way.  
And so, you couldn’t leave my grandmomma’s house with an empty belly nor could you leave empty handed.  The tables she would set were overflowing with dozens of dishes that usually came straight from her garden.  And almost always, there was a plate of fried chicken.  The real deal, ya’ll. And always, there was room for one more.  Folks would leave with “a plate for tomorry” or “a little something to help you get by”.  I can’t even begin to recount the dozens of times she did without so that someone else could have what they needed.  The hours she spent tending to family and church family and neighborhood children…or to whomever presented themselves with need.  And perhaps the biggest gift, you couldn’t leave her side without the clear understanding that you were welcome with her and that you mattered to someone.  And that she knew you mattered to God.  Radical hospitality.  Bound up in the mission of God through service to others. 
Touched by Jesus.  She was restored.  And she served.

The gospel goes on… “that evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.  And he cured many…”
Remember, that in the time of Jesus, illness was a terrible thing.  If it wasn’t the kind of illness that would kill you, then it was likely the kind that would get you cast out of society.  Lepers, the blind, the lame all lived on the margins.  Cast out.  Unclean.  Surely they did something that made God really, really angry.  Surely they were so bad they were deserving of that punishment.  And since “good” folks wanted to stay on God’s “good side” they refused to interact with the “bad” ones. 
Illness meant a separation from society.  A separation from community. 
Who are our “unclean”?    Those who don’t “look like us”?  Those who speak a different language?  Those who are uneducated?  Those who qualify for, and God help them, actually accept government assistance like welfare or food stamps?  Those who are disabled?  Those who worship God differently? 
When you look around during your day to day life, who do you see cowering in the corner, cut off from community, made fun of, voiceless, powerless, and in desperate need of something…or someone?
Who?  Who is separated from community and by that separation feels cut off from God?

One of our professors, Rolf Jacobson says, “The church, the body of Christ, is in the business and mission of overcoming that separation.” 
Just like Simon’s mother-in-law, and like my grandmomma, we have been touched by Jesus.  We have been reconciled to God.  We have been drawn back into community and into communion with our Creator.  We are the church, the body of our Lord!
So as church, how do we participate in the reconciliation that has been extended to us?
I love this snippet from writer Anne Lamott:  “Again and again I tell God I need help, and God says, “Well isn’t that fabulous?  Because I need help too.  So – you go get that old woman over there some water, and I’ll figure out what we’re going to do about your stuff.” (“Traveling Mercies,” p.120)
Whoever had a need that came into contact with Jesus, he tended them.  Simple as that.  Whoever has a need that comes into contact with us, we tend them.  Simple as that.  Whether it’s an extra meal for a child to take home over the weekend, time spent helping someone learn to read, giving a neighbor a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or simply playing a board game with someone who needs to know that they are welcome with you and that they matter to someone.
Your job is not to save.  Your job is to serve.
You have been touched by Jesus.  You are freed; you are forgiven.  You have been restored to life in communion and in community.  You are beloved. Go out in glad response to a life of service.   

 p.s.  Thank you Goddaddy for reminding me about the bit from Anne Lamott.  
p.p.s  The flowers are there because I know Grandmomma would have loved them.