For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Lent

A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.

broken-heartI fell in love for the first time when I was 22 years old. I’d had plenty of dates, little crushes and infatuations, romances that lasted awhile here and there, but I’d never fallen in love.

I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.

They don’t call it heartache for nothing.

I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.

We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.

We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.

Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.

broken heart 2We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.

Broken breadThe broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.

Amen.

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6:00 a.m. — Groan in response to alarm. Curse  decision to offer ashes at local coffee shop at 7:00 a.m. Check Facebook from phone in bed.

6:05 a.m. — Six year old comes to snuggle. Grumble again at early morning coffee shop idea. Leave warm bed and stumble to shower.

6:45 a.m. — Arrive at church. Gather ashes, prayer cards, bible. Try to read Joel 2 to center myself for the day. Apply ashes to my own forehead, mumbling under my breath about dust. Check mirror to make sure my ashes look right. Make handmade sign that says “Free Ashes.” Throw it away. Make a new sign that says “Ashes to Go.” I still don’t like it, but can’t think of anything better.

7:00 a.m. — Arrive at coffee shop. Introduce myself to barrista, who is expecting me. Order caffeine. More grumbling. Regret the decision to do this public ashing. Feel foolish. Convinced no one will come. Certain I will sit alone and awkward with a smudgy forehead all morning. Take a picture and post to Facebook reminding people to come.

Posted to Facebook: "Here at the coffee shop with ashes and prayers. Stop by, won't you?"

Posted to Facebook: “Here at the coffee shop with ashes and prayers. Stop by, won’t you?”

7:10 a.m. — Two people arrive separately, seeking ashes. They have awakened early and left home in the dark to make this time for holiness. When I offer them the prayer card and mark the ashy cross on their foreheads, we all well with tears. I decide that even if no one else comes, this was worth it.

8:00 a.m. — Wonder if those two folks will be the only ones I see all day. Regret and grumbling and foolish feelings creep back in. Decide ashes-to-go is a dumb fad I will never do again. Justify my doubts with Jesus’ instructions about fasting in private. Feel self-righteous thinking that sacramental moments belong in the context of worship, not in five-minute coffee shop encounters. Read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin for my Lenten preparation.

8:30 a.m. — Two older men occupy the table next to me. One tries to start a conversation, and mishears me, thinking I said, “answers” instead of “ashes.” He tells me he doesn’t have any questions. I clarify, and he reminisces about receiving ashes as a Catholic school boy. I offer him the opportunity again, but he declines. Still, it restores my sense of purpose.

8:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. — Eight more people come, in ones and twos, seeking prayer and ashes. Some are from my church or our Disciples partner, some people I know from the community. All are nervous, just like me, but I act cool. Every time, our eyes fill with tears as I impose the ashes on their forehead with these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Return to God with all your heart, for God is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” When the moment ends, they seem overwhelmed by the experience, and scurry away quickly. I conclude that the ashes are so powerful they do not need a full hour of worship to support them. A few moments in the coffee shop does just fine.

9:30 a.m. — My Disciples clergy colleague arrives to start her shift. I am disappointed that she is 30 minutes early, because I do not want to share, much less leave. I offer her ashes as well, and we visit awhile. We change the sign to “Ashes for Anyone.”

10:15 a.m. — Play Transformers on the coffee shop floor with a four-year-old, while his mother claims a moment of silent prayer with my colleague.

10:20 a.m. — Prepare to leave, when a couple arrives that I am due to marry on Saturday. At our final premarital conversation the night before, I urged them to find ways to pray together. I stay to place the ashes on their foreheads, thinking of the promises they will make, to love one another until they are dust.

10:30 a.m. — Return to the office.  The Altar Guild is busily transforming from Epiphany white to Lenten purple. Set up for the evening service–copying liturgy, writing a welcome, digging out bowls for ashes, setting out communion ware.

Setting up for evening worship.

Setting up for evening worship.

11:30 a.m. — Do work unrelated to Ash Wednesday. Feel like I’m missing out. Grateful for texts from the coffee shop reporting on visitors.

12:30 p.m. — Return to the coffee shop, 30 minutes early, for lunch. Enjoy a relaxed, unhurried, joyful conversation about church and ministry with two colleagues. No one else comes seeking ashes, but we linger for over an hour.

2:12 p.m. — Return to the office again. Check Facebook and return a few calls. Notice that my ashes look as fresh as they did this morning. Make a lame attempt to accomplish things on my to-do list. Decide to finish Barbara Brown Taylor instead.

4:15 p.m. — Go to three stores to find a loaf of bread for evening communion. A sketchy guy is selling Blow Pops to raise money for “the kids at church.” He sees my forehead and calls out, “You may have given up sweets for Lent, but you didn’t give up giving, did you?” Contemplate what wearing my faith on my forehead demands as a response–not just to him, but to everyone who sees me today.

4:55 p.m. — Pick up my son at after school care, and find out he needs to bring Valentine cookies for a party tomorrow. Go home and fix him PB&J for dinner.

5:05 p.m. — My best friend since childhood, also a pastor, calls to share a holy moment from her Ash Wednesday visits in the hospital. We exchange stories about the power of the ashes, and lose our chance for dinner before evening services. No regrets.

6:03 p.m. —  Arrive back at church. Manage the hustle and bustle of a joint worship service with merged choirs, unfamiliar rituals, sound checks, elder questions and all the other quirky details. Wonder, as always, if we will manage to pull things off smoothly.

6:59 p.m. — Realize we have no ushers. Grab a church member and ask them to organize some people to collect the offering.

7:00 p.m. — Service begins,  on time. It’s a miracle.

7:18 p.m. — As the people come to receive the ashes, the exhaustion catches up to me, and I am overcome with emotion.  I can barely contain the tears as I make the blackened crosses on their foreheads. I choke on “to dust you shall return,” for the older woman who might not be here next year, the soldier about to be deployed, the three-month-old sister of my Transformer playmate. I can barely get out the words of repentance and mercy to the man in a world full of trouble, the rebellious teen, the saint of the church.

7:46 p.m. — Look out over the congregation and choir during the sermon, and think how ridiculous we look with our heads smeared with ashes. Reminds me of some crazy underground cult. Is this really the face to show the world in the local coffeehouse? Apparently it is.

7:56 p.m. — Worry the service is going too long. Realize there is nothing I can do.

8:03 p.m. — Break the bread at the table. Taste the sweetness, and no longer feel hungry.

8:21 p.m. — Recruit sound guy/elder to count offering money.

8:34 p.m. — Sound guy/elder/money counter realizes he never got his ashes because he was in the back room. Fetch the bowl from my office, the same bowl I poured before sunrise. We stand alone in the office. I mark the ashes upon his forehead, and my eyes fill with tears. So do his.

8:36 p.m. — Everyone is ready to go, but the guest preacher’s keys are missing. Search commences.

9:01 p.m. –Lost keys finally found, we all depart. Nearby grocery is now closed, but I still need Valentine’s cookies for my son’s party.

The quest for something like this.

The quest for something like this.

9:07 p.m. — Stop at Walgreens for cookies. Store is packed with people shopping for last-minute Valentine gifts. There are no Valentine’s cookies. Grumble. Settle for Oreos. Decide it’s lame, but I’m too tired to drive across town to Kroger.

9:28 p.m. — Realize Dollar General is open and on the way, and decide to try again. There are Valentine’s cookies just inside the door. Waiting in line to pay, the clerk asks, “What’s with the smudgy cross? I’ve been seeing people with it all day.” I tell her it’s Ash Wednesday, and she knows what that means. The other clerk asks, “Do you have to go to church to get those?” I respond by telling him that I was giving them out at the coffeehouse this morning, for people just like them who had to work. I regret that I do not have ashes in my car to offer them.

9:34 p.m. — Arrive home. Kick off shoes, change clothes. Head to the bathroom to wash my face. Stare in the mirror at the ashes one more time, and repeat to myself, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Return to the Lord with all your heart, for the Lord is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” Wash my face in warm water, cleaning off the ashes, the day’s grime, layers of makeup. Remember the cleansing waters of baptism, and make an invisible cross with water on my forehead, where the ashes used to be. Smile, and watch my eyes fill with tears again.

9:53 p.m. — Fix dinner, eat, watch TV.  Exhausted, but unwilling to let go of the day.

10:59 p.m. —  Decide to write this diary. I want to remind myself why it’s worth it to wake up before sunrise again next year. I want to tell myself to go sit in the coffee shop again. I want to remember to carry ashes in my car all day, to offer to sketchy guys selling Blow Pops and late night store clerks. I want to remember I am foolish dust, and God loves me.

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.

Advent StarI was born under an Advent star, the season of deep purple contemplation. The words of the prophets that we read in this season have always resonated deep in my soul.

In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

My spiritual personality is suited to the season of my birth. Like Advent, my spirit dwells more in the realm of possibility and promise than in the here and now. I pray in a state of anticipation, connecting to the God of the Prophets who promises justice, righteousness and peace. My spiritual gifts in ministry involve imagination, vision and leadership—helping people come together for a journey to an unknown place.

I wonder if the season of my birth is what gives me this Advent heart.

Zodiac

 

Many millions of people for many thousands of years have believed in the Zodiac, claiming that the alignment of the stars at your birth portends your character and your future. Could the same thing be true for those of us steeped in Christian tradition? Is the season of our birth like a Zodiac sign for our spiritual self?

Imagine what traits and gifts each sign might inherit.

Find your birth season on the liturgical calendar. (The short green section of Ordinary Time is also known as the season of Epiphany, especially in Protestant traditions, and I have used that designation here.)

Find your birth season on the liturgical calendar. (The short green section of Ordinary Time is also known as the season of Epiphany, especially in Protestant traditions. The large summer of Ordinary Time is also known as the season of Pentecost.  I have used those designations here.)

Advent: Those born in Advent come into this world with a deep longing that they carry with them throughout their whole lives. Their relationship with God is not about fulfilling that longing, which is a beloved companion, but about knowing that God shares their yearning for a better world.
Favorite Hymns: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; For the Healing of the Nations; God of Grace and God of Glory
Favorite Scriptures: All the prophets, major and minor

Christmas: This is the shortest season, and those born in these twelve short days are always about incarnation. They are connected to the earth and the world, and see God’s mystery and beauty in ordinary, unexpected places. They are creators and builders, organizers and caregivers.
Favorite Hymns: For the Beauty of the Earth, O Little Town of Bethlehem
Favorite Scriptures: Creation stories

Epiphany: Epiphany’s child is born with a sense of wonder and delight that follows them throughout their lives. They see God’s manifestation everywhere, and radiate with a bright passion for the presence of God in our midst. Their relationship with God is filled with a sense of mystery and discovery, always finding God’s new appearances in their midst.
Favorite Hymns: Arise! Your Light Has Come; Be Thou My Vision
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus’ teaching and ministry

Lent: Those born in Lent have a lifelong passion for God’s grace and redemption. They are not gloomy and guilt-ridden, but they have a profound grasp of the pain of sin and suffering. Consequently, they have boundless grace for sinners and endless compassion for any soul who suffers.
Favorite Hymns: Just as I am, Amazing Grace
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus healing and forgiving sins

Easter: Easter people possess enormous zest for life. They are survivors who can overcome any challenge, and embrace change and newness with great energy and excitement. They excel at make-overs, turnarounds and renewals, confident of God’s power to change anything for the good.
Favorite Hymns: God’s Eye is on the Sparrow;  In the Garden; There is a Balm in Gilead
Favorite Scriptures: Stories of conversion, resurrection and transformation (Lazarus, Damascus Road, Jesus casting out demons)

Pentecost is a long season, united always by the attention to the Holy Spirit. However, there may be wide differences between those born closest to Pentecost and those born later in Ordinary Time.

Early Pentecost: Those born closest to the day of Pentecost show the fire and flair of the Spirit in all things. They are dramatic souls who prize a burning passion for God above all else in their faith life.  They are often talkative and extroverted, with a contagious energy that draws others in to see the Spirit at work.
Favorite Hymn: Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee; I Love to Tell the Story; How Great Thou Art
Favorite Scriptures: Any dramatic miracles (Pentecost, crossing the Red Sea, battle of Jericho)

Mid-Pentecost: People born in the middle of the Pentecost season are concerned about the presence of the Spirit in everyday life. They are pragmatic in their spirituality, and view their faith as a lifelong journey, taken one day at a time. They value unity, community and connectedness above all else, and they can point out the Spirit’s presence in the ordinary life of the church.
Favorite Hymns: The Church’s One Foundation; Blest Be the Tie That Binds; Great is Thy Faithfulness
Favorite Scriptures: Epistles

Late Pentecost: Those born in late Pentecost see the Spirit’s presence in the whole journey of  history from creation to redemption to culmination in “thy kingdom come.” They emphasize the eternity of God and the promise of life after death. They see themselves as just one generation in a long line of God’s faithful, taking spiritual strength from those who have gone before and those who will come after them.
Favorite Hymn: Forward through Ages; O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Favorite Scriptures: Apocalyptic Literature, Heroes of the Bible

This is my imagination. What’s yours? Does this connect to your spiritual life? Are you drawn to one of those types, and does it match the season of your birth? What would you add? What’s your sign?

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

The apostle Paul writes with some dizzying logic sometimes, doesn’t he? He calls those of us who follow Christ “ambassadors of reconciliation,” but then he goes on to leave a trail of irreconcilable contradictions about how we reconcilers are seen in the world. “We are treated with honor and dishonor, verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as fake and real, unknown and well known, as dying, but look, we are alive. We were punished but not killed, going through pain but always happy, poor but making many rich, as having nothing but owning everything.” Contradictions upon contradictions. This list is more like a seesaw or a tennis match than my vision of what it means to be an “ambassador of reconciliation.”

Reconciliation, in my mind, means making things go together smoothly, even though they might naturally conflict. The dictionary agrees with me that to reconcile is to “make two apparently conflicting things compatible or consistent with one another.” Paul doesn’t seem to reconcile any of those things—he just holds them up and says, “We’re both! Dying and alive, honored and dishonored, fake and real, known and unknown. We’re both!”

This holding together of tensions, this being “both-and,” is very much what I think we are supposed to remember every year on Ash Wednesday.

Butterflyfish is a bluegrass band writing faith-inspired children’s music, led by my friend Elizabeth Myer-Boulton and her husband Matt, who is the new president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Matthew has written a song that I think speaks to this “both-and” tension. It’s basically a little parable, and it’s called “Great and Small.” The words go like this:

Deep down here inside my pocket there’s a little piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m feeling out of shape, or
To keep my fears at bay
It says you are great

Deep down in my other pocket there’s another piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m getting into shape, or
When I’m walking tall
It says you are small.

‘Cause you are great and small, you are tiny and tall
Remember through it all, you are great and small.

Isn’t it true? Don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed great? When we are frightened or discouraged or rejected or vulnerable or powerless, we need to be reminded of the power we have as one person to change the world in love. We are great. And don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed so very small? When we are self-centered or narrow-minded, ego-driven or unrelenting, unforgiving or ungracious, we need to be reminded that in the vast universe and the long arc of history, we are small.

Some people think that the season of Lent and the ashes of Ash Wednesday are all about reminding us that we are small. After all, we are about to put ashes and dust on our foreheads, and repeat the phrase, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For some, remembering we are dust is about remembering all the ways we’ve acted like dirt, and try again to act like the spirit of God. While repentance is a good thing, and confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiving grace is an important part of remembering that we are small, these dusty ashes upon your foreheads are not about calling you a dirtbag. They are about reminding you that you are a human being, created by God from the dust the earth. In Genesis 2, God created human beings by scooping up the rich, dark soil, adamah in Hebrew, and (whoosh) blowing life into it. You are of the earth. You are made of the stuff of this world. Like everything else in this world, you will live and you will die this one precious life, in this one fragile body, and then that lifeless body will return again to dust. Among all other creatures and lives, surrounded by all the dirt of the earth, each one of us is one tiny speck in the vast universe. We are so very small.

Photo by Inger Ekrem, Riksförbundet Svensk Trädgård.

But that’s not all. Whenever we remember we are dust, whenever we remember that we are adamah, made of clay, we also have to remember what else we are made of. What other ingredient, apart from the earth, comprises humanity at the dawn of creation? (Whoosh) The breath of God. You are dirt and to dirt you shall return, but you are also the breath of God, and to God you shall return. Inside of you dwells the spark of the Almighty God, the power of God’s spirit animates your life. You are filled with the power to love, to give, to serve, to rejoice, to overcome, to hope, to be transformed. Even more, you can transform the world around you by your work and your love, your witness and your welcome, your peace-making and your graciousness. The eternal breath of God breathes in you. You are great.

Every Ash Wednesday, we remember what it is to be human, to be made from dust and the breath of God. The opposing contradictions of great and small, known and unknown, clarity and mystery, life and death—they all are reconciled in each and every human life. We are indeed ambassadors of reconciliation. When our lives reflect our true nature, we are simultaneously reflecting the transient beauty of the world and the eternal beauty of God.

Great and small. Dust of the earth and the very breath of God. You are both, insists Paul. You are both, says the author of Genesis. That’s what it means to be human—to be both great and small, and equal measure of dust and divinity.

As we enter this Lenten journey toward Easter, we are invited to remember who we are. Where in your life do you need to remember you are small? How is God reassuring you that you are not God, that the world does not rest upon your shoulders, that all this will come to an end and you are not in control? Where in your life do you need to embrace your greatness? How is God calling you to do big things in the name of love, to transform the world with grace and hope right where you are?

We have for you tonight, in addition to the ashes for your forehead, and a taste of the bread of life and cup of salvation at the table, a couple of pieces of paper for your pocket. Can you guess what they say? One for each pocket. You are great. You are small. I invite you to carry them with you as the season progresses, as a reminder that in you, in your oh-so-human-life, lies their reconciliation. The great and the small, the dust and the divinity, in you—an ambassador of reconciliation. Thanks be to God.

This sermon was originally offered at the joint Ash Wednesday service with my congregation and the local Disciples of Christ church in town, February 22, 2012. You can download the song “Great and Small” at Butterflyfish’s website, www.butterflyfishband.com.

Highlighted Passage: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 4:1-11

“Call a fast… call a fast… call a fast…”

Over the last few months, these words have come as a whisper to me in quiet moments of prayer and harried hours. They have been a summons and an invitation, a demand and a relief.

I recognized their source in scripture immediately, from the traditional Ash Wednesday reading in the book of Joel:

Return to me with all your heart… blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.

After busy and exciting 150th anniversary year, culminating in a climactic Foundations capital campaign in the Epiphany season, our church has been changing, acting, growing, giving, sacrificing, leading, learning, doing, working and serving God at an almost frenetic pace. It’s time to call a fast.

Not because we’ve lost our way, or been pursuing the wrong things, or because we have lapsed into sin and indulgence. Not because God demands that we deprive ourselves in order to prove our love to God. It’s time to call a fast because we have been faithful, and we are tired. We have followed the vision God put before us, and we have experienced great things and amazing transformation. It’s time to call a fast so that we remember our success is not due to our own efforts, but to God’s grace. We know that there is more work to be done, more sacrifices to be made, more change and growth to undertake. But it’s time to remember that we are God’s, that this church is God’s, and that it’s not all about us. It’s time to call a fast.

Fasting traditionally refers to going without food. Catholics fast from meat on Fridays during Lent. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan. Jews fast from sunup to sundown on Yom Kippur. Many Christians “give up” something for Lent—usually an indulgence, like chocolate or beer or sweets or fast food. But fasting does not need to be limited to food. I have several friends this year who are fasting from Facebook, and a church member who shared via Facebook that she is fasting from elevators.

This kind of a fast has its place—it is a nice reminder of the holiness of Lent, it can correct bad habits and indulgences, it is a daily practice of giving something up for God. But I think the fast we need, the fast my heart yearns for, is deeper and more significant than putting down a favorite luxury only to pick it up again after Easter. I am hungry for God. I am lonely for the luxury of spending time with the Holy One. Ignoring my craving for chocolate will not satisfy my craving for connection with God. Making more room in the waistline of my clothes will not necessarily make more room in my life for God.

Joel says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” I need grace and mercy. I need to slow my own anger, and return my love to abundant proportions. I have not relented from punishing myself and others. I have not shown grace to them or to myself. It is time to fast from busyness, from judgment, from complaining, from worry, from harried hours, from control. It is time to spend time with the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.

Fasting is making room for God. We say “no” to the things that bind us to ourselves and this world, so that we can make room to say “yes” to God. It’s time to call a fast.

Watch this beautiful, moving version of the story of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the wilderness. Think about the ways Jesus says “no.” (Hint: It’s not just to the Tempter). Notice the ways Jesus says “yes” as well—the way time alone with God is joy as well as struggle.

“For my thirtieth birthday,” it begins, “I gave myself some time away from it all.” Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. “And now,” he says at the end, “I’m back.”

My friends, for the coming 40 days of Lent, I’m joining the prophet Joel in calling a fast. I want time in the wilderness with Jesus. Will you join me? Will you wrestle with saying “no” to a stronger, more competent and productive you, in order to make room for the strength of God to carry you? Will you slow down, let go, give up, forego in order that you might be blessed by the birds, moved by the moon, enamored of the spring flowers? Will you show your weakness, let go of your busyness, give up some control, that you might come to know the ministrations of angels? “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Come, let us enter the fast together.

This year the Catholic church is hosting our town’s ecumenical Lenten services. This particular group of 5-7 churches collaborates on many projects, and we know each other well. It’s a collection of brand-name Protestants of similar stripes, and one Catholic parish that blends right in. For these services, various clergy take turns offering the sermon, and the host congregation prepares and leads the liturgy. Since the Catholic priest is overburdened with two parishes, the deacon has been in charge.

Last week, the deacon was unexpectedly unable to attend. At our clergy meeting the day before, he asked a colleague to fill in, but he couldn’t do it. Without a thought, I opened my mouth to volunteer, and the deacon said yes, again without a thought. How hard could it be, right? All I had to do was lead the service he had prepared.

It wasn’t until I stepped into the front of that beautiful Catholic church, in charge, that I realized what I had done. I, in my female body, was running a service in a Catholic church—introducing the male preacher, announcing, praying, pardoning, benedicting. I was acting as substitute host, as though I owned the place. Knowing both priest and deacon, they are quite open-minded and neither would be troubled by this, nor were the members of the various churches gathered. But on the wall was a picture of Pope Benedict, and I swear he was scowling at me the whole time.

I must confess it was exhilarating. I felt like I was really getting away with something naughty. I looked right back at Benedict and stuck out my tongue.

Ok, I didn’t really do that. But just standing up there in leadership felt like the same thing.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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