Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Sermon: Lent 1: Experiencing Wilderness

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13

Lenten Sermon Series:  Experiencing Lent
Experiencing Wilderness

On Wednesday, our congregation marked the entry into a new liturgical season.  As we received a smudge of ash on our hands or foreheads, we remembered our mortality and that one day we will return to God.  As we prayed and meditated, we thought about those parts of our lives we wish to release, repent, or turn over to God.  In this service, we, as a church, become somber.  In 40 days, we will once again rejoice with the Good News of Resurrection, but there is a season to move through first – the season of Lent.

There are two types of people in this world – we say that about a lot of things but this one seems to hold true.  There are those who read ahead to see what happens at the end of a novel, or read the spoilers to see what will happen in a movie or on their favorite TV series before it airs, and those who don’t.  Often during this season we want to rush ahead to the end – it’s hard not to when we know what happens.  However, I encourage us to resist that temptation, to  not look too far ahead to the joy of Easter morning, and instead dwell in Lent for this season.  It will make the experience of the end that much more exciting.

During Lent, Pastor Ted and I are preaching a series entitled “Experiencing Lent”.  The premise is that in order to fully experience the joy of Easter morning, we must also experience the process of Lent.  On Wednesday, we experienced what it means to have clean hearts.  Today we will reflect on the experience of being in the wilderness.  Over the next 5 Sundays, we will experience fearlessness, second chances, forgiveness, extravagant worship, hope, death (on Good Friday), and, on Easter Sunday, everlasting life.  As the season shifts from ordinary time into a special time, we are invited to examine our Lenten practices.  As some scholars have written, “Lent is…not giving up something, but rather taking upon ourselves the intention and receptivity to God’s grace so that we may fully participate in the mystery of God-with-us.”  I invite you to participate as we experience this holy season.

Today we begin the season in the wilderness, with Jesus and Satan.  What we gain from this encounter is that the wilderness is a place not only for testing, but also a place of learning and growth, a place to ask deep questions and make decisions about priorities in our lives, and the place where we can see that we must fully rely on God.  As the children of God, and as Christians, the wilderness is not new territory for us. We read in Deuteronomy that the Israelites wandered in the desert generations before Jesus found himself there.  It’s what we do with the experience that shapes who we are when we exit.  I imagine the term “wilderness” conjures up a different image for each of us.   The term in the Greek is ἔρημος – eremos.  Looking in the Greek lexicon provides several different images of what this word means.  It is seen as being in a state of isolation, desolate, deserted.  An uninhabited region or locality, desert, grassland, or wilderness. (Danker; Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature.)  Mostly, it refers to uninhabitated land outside towns and villages.  Being in the wilderness does not necessarily mean you are without what you need to meet your basic needs.  In the desert, mountains, and forests, there is plenty for basic provision, and plenty to sustain us.

The wilderness, those times when we feel isolated, desolate, lost, or without direction, can be one of the places where we find opportunity for learning and growth.  In 1993 or 1994, about a year before his death, baseball great Mickey Mantle was interviewed by Larry King.  In this interview, Mantle opened up about his struggles with alcoholism and the regrets he had about how he had lived his life.  He shared his experience at the Betty Ford Clinic – a time when he acknowledged his drinking problem, listened to others who shared issues with addiction, and spent a large amount of time reflecting on his life.  The only contact he was allowed with the outside world was 2 telephone calls on Saturday, and 2 hours of television on Sunday.  For him, this was a wilderness experience – a time out to explore his soul and redirect his life.  The pastor who shared this story says that she believes it was his time in the wilderness that best prepared him to deal with his liver failure the following year, and to face his death with courage and grace (Lessons from the Wilderness: Second Baptist Lenten Devotional February 7th 2008, Post Presbyterian Church Feb. 10, 2008).  Where is your wilderness?  Where are you being called to examine the uncultivated parts of your soul, to embrace growth and learning?  What are you learning from this experience?  In the wilderness, we learn about ourselves, but also about God – who God is and what God does.  When Jesus was in the wilderness, we learned that the son of God was not about political power.  Each of the temptations he faced – to create enough food to feed nations, to rule over a vast kingdom, and to worship something other than God would have granted him political rule and power.  But, that’s not who Jesus was.  He learned that he was strong enough to stay true to God.  This time in the wilderness for Jesus was a time of testing his values and seeing what was truly important in his ministry and his life.

We also set priorities when we are in the wilderness places of our lives.  Often when there is a serious illness, job loss, or other negative life change, we feel lost and isolated.  So we begin to think about what is really important to us.  Sometimes, this prioritizing happens for positive reasons – we may purposely enter into the wilderness for a time of reflection and regrouping, as did Jesus when he went to a deserted place to pray.  Lent is an invitation to explore the wilderness – to find a time and space to think about our priorities in whole lives – spiritual, emotional, physical.  Often, to find our priorities, we need look no further than our calendars and checkbooks – where do we spend our time and money?  What does the voice of God crying out to us in the wilderness tell us to do differently?  I read a story this week, that speaks to just that :

There was a businessman who took a vacation to a small fishing village on the coast of Mexico.  One day, as he was standing at the pier, he noticed a small fishing boat pull up to the dock.  The fisherman got out, and unloaded his catch – several large yellow fin tuna.  Complementing the fisherman on his catch, the business man asked how long it took to catch them.  “Only a little while” was the answer.

“Why didn’t you stay out and catch more fish if it only took a little while?” the business man asked.

“Because I have enough to support my family’s needs.”

The business man inquired what the fisherman did with the rest of his time.  The fisherman answered, “I sleep in late, play a little with my children, take a siesta with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine with my friends and play guitar.  I have a wonderful, full, rich and busy life.”

The businessman thought about this for a minute or so.  “I have an MBA from Harvard and would love to help you out.  You should spend more time fishing and sell those fish.  Then you can buy a bigger boat and hire fishermen to work it.  With the money you make from that, you can buy more boats and eventually have a whole fleet working for you.  Cut out the middle man and sell directly to the processor, and eventually you can own your own cannery.  You would control the whole product – catching, processing, and distribution.  You would need to leave the village, and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually to New York to control your empire.”

“How long will this all take?”

The MBA answered excitedly, “Oh, 15 or 20 years, if it all goes according to plan”.

“Then what?

The MBA laughed and said, “Here’s the best part!  When the time is right, you announce your initial public offering, and sell your company stock to the public and become incredibly rich – you would make millions!”

“Millions?  Then what?”

“Well, then you would retire, and move to a small fishing village in Mexico.  You could sleep in late, fish a little, play with your grandchildren, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings to sip wine and play guitar with your friends.” (  Accessed Feb. 12, 2013)

What’s the priority?  The temptation is there, but what is your priority?  Where is your life headed?  These are excellent questions to ask if you are in the wilderness.  We ask deep questions of ourselves in times of desolation, and we ask deep questions of God.  “Why” seems to be one of them.  And that’s where we remember that God does not create the circumstances of our lives that send us there.  God does not say “Hmmmm… let’s see how you’ll respond to this life event”.  Often our priorities perpetuate life events that lead us to the wilderness.  When we get there, we find that God is often right there with us.  When we are in the wilderness, when we find ourselves in a placed of learning and growth, of asking deep questions, we often find that it is in those places we recognize our utter dependence on God.

The Israelites know a little something about utter dependence on God.  In the reading from Deuteronomy today, they share their history of being in the wilderness.  Israel’s story is our story.  When the Israelites make their offerings – the first and best of what they have produced (which is another sermon for another day, but one well worth hearing) – when they make their offerings, they remember their story.  “‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us,7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This is the Apostle’s Creed –  a recitation of who they are and where they have been.  The ancestors wandered in the wilderness, their forefather was jobless, and homeless – Jacob – son of Isaac, son of Abraham.  He wandered into Egypt, the people grew great, and then they were enslaved.  God provided Moses and led them out of Egypt, and they entered the wilderness, where they wandered for 40 years before entering the promised land.  This is our story, too this is our history.  While in the wilderness, they were not abandoned, nor was God absent.  The wilderness is where God provided manna so they would not starve.  It is where God provided guidance, and the law.  It is where a leader depended on God, and led the people to the promised land, though he did not reach it himself.

When we are in the wilderness, what sustains us?  What gives us the strength to take one more step, to make one more move, to do one more thing?  How do we move forward to the other side?  I look for angels.  There were angels there with Jesus – messenger from God to remind him that he was not alone in this place.  My prayer is that we all have someone in our lives who can help us see God accompanying us when we can’t see it for ourselves.  We depend on God, we dig deep, and our spiritual life is often stretched and grows.  It is often in our times of weakness and need that we see God actively at work, when we seek the one who sustains us, and we find that one.  Depending fully on God looks different to each of us.  We depend on God to hear our cries, to hear our prayers.  We depend on God to hold us up.  If  we are there for reasons we did not choose, Christ is there too, experiencing our fear, heartache, and fear right along with us.  When we are lost because we have made bad choices, it is our dependence on God’s redemption in Jesus Christ that carries us through, saves us, and leads us out of the wilderness and into new life.

The question of how God leads you out, is important.  The King James version of the Bible says more than 450 times “it came to pass.”  If you are in the wilderness, this is good news.  It will come to pass that God leads you to the other side. The good news of our Christian faith is that the wilderness is not the final destination, and even when we are there, we have hope in our God, who we rely on, that we will indeed leave it.  I was having a conversation with a friend this week who is getting ready to celebrate a significant milestone in her life.  She has given me permission to share part of our conversation.  My friend is getting ready to celebrate the anniversary of her sobriety.  As we were thinking about the significance of this, she shared with me that the anniversary is not the end of the journey to her healing and wholeness – it is a lifelong journey.  There have been wilderness moments, and there may continue to be, but with support she is able to move through those times.  The journey does not end with a birthday cake and candles, as we mark anniversaries.  It ends with death – the journey of sobriety is one of a lifetime.  As I pondered that, I compared it to our Christian journey.  God accompanies us on the entirety of our journey – from birth to death.  There will be times when we feel lost in the wilderness, but those times are not the end.  Instead, they are an opportunity for us to reflect, grow, prioritize, find hope and walk with Jesus out of the wilderness and into the promised land.  Even in desolate territory, the good news is that the wilderness is never the end, and hope is alive.

I invite you to experience the wilderness a little bit in this Lenten season.  Grow quiet, find a place where you can be alone, and ask yourself some hard questions – where is God calling me to learn and grow?  What priorities in my life need to be adjusted?  Am I fully depending on God, or am I just depending on myself?  If this feels scary, know that you are not alone.  Jesus too entered the wilderness.  Christ understands the wilderness places of our lives because he has been there.  Perhaps it is our turn to better understand it too – and by better understanding this experience, may we have a better understanding of his journey to the cross, and the joy of Easter morning.  Don’t flip ahead to the end of the story, but experience the richness of the pages as it unfolds.


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The Devil Went Down to GA: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:1-11

Lenten Series: Encountering Jesus

#1: A Wilderness Encounter

             I noticed something really strange when I was in Target a week ago.  Perhaps it is because this is the latest we have begun Lent in almost 20 years, perhaps it is because of what has become known as the “holiday creep”, but there was an aisle that caught my attention as just being really strange.  At one end, there was a sparse display of leftover Valentine’s Day detritus – the unpurchased chocolates and plush toys and cards, bedraggled and tossed on the shelf, with their bright red stickers proclaiming that if you wanted a deal on chocolate samplers, this was it.  At the other end was a display of vibrant, pastel colored Easter candy.  The packages were untouched, fresh and crisp out of the boxes.  The bags depicted chicks and bunnies and eggs and just cried out that spring is here, come and get it!  And in the middle of this aisle, between the endcaps was a long expanse of empty shelves waiting to be filled.  My initial reaction was “Easter candy before Lent even begins?  Really!?” Although, between you and me, I was really more upset that the overlap of the two displays will just make it harder to find my favorite St. Patrick’s Day Hershey Kisses.  But, passing the aisle again, after recovering from my pretend indignation at the pre-Lenten Easter candy (which does strike me as just wrong), I paid attention to the empty space in the middle.  That space that waits for something else to fill it.  And my thought turned towards Lent, and the expanse of the wilderness where we will be for the next 40 days, waiting for something else to fill us as we wait to rejoice in the Resurrection.

             We begin our Lenten reading today with a very familiar passage – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  This encounter is the lectionary reading for the first Sunday in Lent each year, from one of the Synoptic gospels.  This year we hear the story as Matthew tells it.  Much like that wide, empty, barren space of the store shelves, Jesus is in the barren, dry desert.  But this is where the parallels end.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is baptized and immediately fasts for 40 days and 40 nights.  For those hearing Matthew’s gospel, as well as for us today, there is deep meaning in the phrase “40 days and 40 nights”.  In those words we hear the echoes of the Old Testament, the echoes of the scriptures with which Jesus and his followers would have been intimately familiar.  Noah and his family waited in the ark for God to deliver the earth from evil for 40 days and 40 nights.  We most frequently see the numbers used in reference to Moses fasting on Mt. Sinai in the presence of the Lord as he wrote the 10 commandments. Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights as he fled to Mt. Sinai and encountered God.  This number is rooted in Israel’s struggle to practice faithfulness in the wilderness both day and night.[1]   So it should not seem out of place that Jesus enters the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights to fast and pray and draw closer to God.  What is important to note, is that he does this before he is tempted, before he is tested.  The fast is not the test of his faith, the fast is not the bar by which he is measured, and it is not the bar by which we are measured. 

 Lent is 40 days and nights –  a time for us to draw nearer to God. It is a time for us to pray and fast in meaningful ways.  A time for us to be in the wilderness with Jesus.  So often the conversation is “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The answers are often either things we can give up easily in our everyday world– chocolate, soda, candy, alcohol or things that mirror our New Year’s resolutions or will make us better for the sake of making us better – “I’m going to exercise more.  I’m going to give up TV.”  I have heard or done many of these myself, and did not find any of them spiritually fulfilling.  I remember the year I was in college and decided to give up caffeine for Lent.  It was a complete and total disaster.  Not only was I sleepy, but I was cranky too.  That may have been the year I learned in one of my classes that caffeine is more addictive than some illegal drugs, and harder to quit than smoking.  My roommate at the said she was never so glad to see Sunday come as at the end of that first week, and bought us large sodas to celebrate our survival.  There was nothing at all holy about the experience; I did not turn to God in prayer instead of grabbing a Diet Coke, instead I fixated on what I could not have.  At the end of the first 20 days I decided that Jesus would be Ok if I tried something else.  Have any of you had a similar experience with Lent?  We are spending our Lenten season looking at encounters with Jesus in the New Testament.  How are those who encountered Jesus face to face changed by the experience?  How are we changed by their experiences?  How can we encounter Jesus in a different way this Lenten season and be changed ourselves?

  Today’s encounter is between Jesus and someone the text calls “the Tempter”.  You may know him by other names – the Devil.  Satan.  The Evil One.  We don’t talk a lot about him in the Reformed tradition.  Some have even said that Presbyterians don’t believe in the devil, and yet, there he is, right in front of us in scripture.  Who or what exactly was Jesus about to encounter in the wilderness?  Shirley Guthrie, Jr. was one of my theology professors when I was in seminary, and I was blessed to be in the last class that he taught before his death.  He had this way of making theology equally accessible to those who liked the nuances and deep thoughts, and to those who liked the broad strokes.  He wrote one of his best known books for Sunday School classes and church groups to use to study Reformed Theology together, and it was to that book I turned to figure out what to tell all of you today about the devil and evil.  I gave deep consideration to singing the song “The Devil went down to GA,” but decided to spare us all that bit of fun.  Instead, I refer to Christian Doctrine and what Dr. Guthrie says about the devil and evil in the world. 

There are 2 ways we as reformed Christians can think about the devil and interpret what we read about him in scripture.  The first, a literal interpretation, will actually offer some comfort to those of you who say Presbyterians do not believe in the devil.  We know that the devil is present in scripture – we read about him in our Old Testament reading this morning, and again in the New Testament.  But, as Christians, we do not believe in the devil.  We believe in Jesus.  In the entirety of Christianity, there is not a single Christian Creed that states that we place our faith in Satan.  Worship of evil is idolatry. We have faith in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  We believe against evil, and against the power of darkness.  As Christians, if we take a literal interpretation, we must insure that our interest in the devil does not overtake our interest in God.  That the realities of darkness and evil do not become more powerful to us than the reality and power of God to overcome them.  This is one of the reasons why it just does not come up that much – kind of like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books – we don’t give the devil power by talking about him.  Instead we acknowledge the power that God has over our lives, and our faith in the God that overcomes evil.

We can also look at the devil symbolically if you are not one who is comfortable with the literal interpretation.  In speaking symbolically we acknowledge that there is evil and chaos in this world that is not of God, nor was it created by God.  One advantage to looking at evil not personified as “the devil” is that we can see it in a more broad light.  Rather than thinking about someone “possessed” by a demon, which though we read about it in the New Testament, few of us will say we have seen for ourselves, we talk about other kinds of possession.  We know what it means for someone to be possessed by power, greed, lust, prejudice or hatred.  Those are all evil, and of the Evil One.  And again, what we must remember is that we proclaim the power of God over these forces – the power of God is stronger than any force that attempts to corrupt God’s good creation.

The bottom line, whether you see evil as the Devil personified or as more general forces at work in the world is this, straight from Dr. Guthrie’s pen, “Evil is the lie that leads us to the futile, self-destructive attempt to live without and against God, when the truth is that we can be truly human only as we trust and obey God…Evil is the Big Lie that is so destructive that and terrible just because it convinces us that the truth about God, God’s world, and life is not the truth.”[2]

So…Jesus goes into the wilderness to face the devil.  He goes to face the one who is going to try to tempt him into believing the Big Lie that Jesus was more powerful than God, that Jesus could be God, all by himself, and that when God said we were to place our faith in God alone, God was lying.  Jesus was going to go face the one who was going to try to tempt him to throw off what he knew to be true and encourage him to grasp onto the power offered by this world.  To grab to the sustenance offered by physical comforts, false hope, and political gain.  Matthew hints that Jesus knew this was coming, and I wonder why Jesus thought this was a good idea.  Would you be willing to sign up for this trip – go and fast for 40 days and nights, become your most vulnerable, and then face the toughest challenge of your life thus far?  Maybe we’ll offer that as a Lenten opportunity next year and see who signs up – I’m not sure how many takers we will have…especially if one of the side trips is a conversation with the Devil. 

But Jesus does it.  He resists the temptation of the devil.  The word “devil” is drawn from the greek words “dia” and “ballo” which together mean “to throw over or across.” Used more broadly, the word means, “one who attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, or slanders.”  The devil is here to mislead Jesus about what it means to be the son of God.  His hope is that in his encounter with Jesus, he will change Jesus for the worse and throw him across to the side of evil.[3]  Jesus is famished, the text says.  Hungrier than we can imagine.  He has not eaten for 40 days, and the Devil whispers to him – “since you are who you say you are  turn these stones into bread”.  The devil wants Jesus to use his powers for himself to satisfy his own physical needs, and not rely on God to care for him.  Jesus does not fall for it, instead quoting the scripture that he knows so well – “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  He knows that God will satisfy his needs, and that he was not sent to earth to put himself first.  And thus, he thwarts temptation the first time.

The second time, the devil takes him to the pinnacle of the temple – -the highest point in the city and says to Jesus, “jump”.  Since you are the son of God, make yourself secure from injury and death.  Save yourself.  Since Jesus used scripture last time to thwart the devil, the devil uses it this time.  However, he takes it out of context, and Jesus again rebukes him.  He will not misuse his power for his own safety and security.

For the third temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the mountain.  The modern day comparison would be taking Jesus to the top of the Empire State building or Rockefeller Center in New York.  All that you can see – -all the buildings, all the businesses, all the people, all the money and trade, and power – it will all be yours (even the UN, which you can see) if you worship me and not God.  I’ve been to the top of both of those buildings.  At Rockefeller center, you can stand on the roof with the TV antennas and see for miles.  It is a dizzying and dazzling experience.  To be told that you would be given power over all of what is below, well, I can’t even imagine.  And yet, Jesus does not even hesitate – “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”  Jesus will not misuse his power to gain fortune and political rule.  He has come to bring in a different kind of kingdom.

And then just like that, the devil is gone.  Jesus has relied on God to see him through these temptations and has overcome them.  The angels have come to attend him – I hope they brought a good meal and a change of clothes – and the encounter is over.  The story moves forward and Jesus begins his ministry.

This Lenten season we are exploring the theme of “encounters with Jesus.”  Through the rest of Lent, Ted is preaching about individuals from the Gospel of John who encountered Jesus and were forever changed by those experiences. I’m not sure we can say the same was true for either of the characters in our story today.  However, today we can imagine how the encounter between Jesus and the devil may change us instead.

The Greek philosopher Hereclitus said “you could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”  That same phrase has also been translated as, “No person ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and they are not the same person.”  Lent is like that.  It happens every year.  Every year there is Ash Wednesday and the reading of the temptation of Jesus and Holy Week and Easter.  We know the stories.  We know them well.  Sometimes we think it is all the same.  We give up the same things and have the same results.  Yet, Lent is always different.  For we are not the same people we were last year.  We have had experiences with Jesus that have changed us.  They have changed how our faith is shaped, and how we practice it.  We may have been tempted by the devil and succumbed, or resisted.  Where Jesus was close last year, he may feel distant now.  Our lives are not exactly the same now as they were then.  The river is in the same place, but the water, and those who enter it are different.  Jesus may have been different after his encounter with the devil.  He had been tested, he had been tempted, and he had drawn on his faith and knowledge that God is more powerful than anything else that the devil could offer to him.  I wonder if when Jesus was living out the events of Holy Week he remembered this encounter and drew strength from it?  If he recalled that God is stronger than the worst evil present in the whole world?

During Lent we again enter the river and face death.  We face the darkness of our sins, and how we have wronged one another.  We examine what separates us from God and try to find ways to draw nearer.  Through Lent we affirm the power of God over evil.  That affirmation, that belief is one of the hopes that carries us through the wilderness to the cross and through to Easter Sunday.  The year I failed to give up caffeine I did not draw any more closer to God than if I gave up anything else superfluous in my life.  I felt more pious, but I had, in fact, given into the temptations of self-reliance and self-congratulation.  As a result of my own experiences that year, I no longer ask anyone about their Lenten practices.  I pray instead that during Lent, each of us encounters Christ in our own way that is meaningful and draws us closer to God.  My hope is that when we encounter Christ in the wilderness of this time, that our encounter deepens our faith and changes us so that we are never the same.

When we see Christ in the wilderness we see who he is as the son of God and what kind of ministry he will bring.  It is not one that is self-serving or power-seeking.  It is a ministry that  is grounded in the belief that God is stronger than all else we will encounter in this world.  Jesus is not here to serve himself, but to serve others.  In his encounter with the devil, we do not know if he is changed, or if the devil is changes, but we know that we must leave as changed people.  As we continue our 40 days and 40 night journey, may we continue to encounter Jesus and be changed by him along the way.  In the name of the Father, son and Holy Spirit.  Amen 

[1] Feasting on the word, exegetical perspective 47

[2] Guthire, doctrine, 179-182

[3] Feasting, exegetical, 47

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Ash Wednesday Meditation

If you were unable to be with us in worship tonight, here is my meditaion.

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.”  These are the words you will hear when you come forward to receive the ashes later, if you wish.  It is a strange practice, this marking ourselves once a year – one that identifies us as sinners to those who see us between the sanctuary and our beds tonight, but a sign that we ourselves we cannot see.  It is a very visible mark that we came to church today and repented and worshipped.  It is a sign that we are a people who have entered into the time of preparation called Lent.

           Yet, our gospel reading seems to indicate that we should be doing just the opposite.   Once, there were palm branches that were waved in a sanctuary on a Sunday and heard the congregation cry out “Hosannah, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Those palms were burned to create the ash we use tonight.  They are mixed with oil and then placed in the sign of the cross on our foreheads.  Yet we hear Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew cautioning against such public displays of piety.  Perhaps we should be using only the oil?  So often we think of the smudge we receive as a sign of our holiness, of what we are giving up, or how we are fasting during this holy season.  Ash Wednesday is a night to begin to think about that – to begin to think about what we will read and hear and think about in the coming weeks – the death of Jesus Christ.  For some, the ashes are a sign of the commitment they have made to give something up or take something on during these 40 days and 40 nights.

           But that is not really what we come here tonight to do.  We come here tonight to admit that we are human, and as humans we have sinned against God and one another.  We come and confess those sins and remember that at the end of this Lenten journey is when the death of Christ redeemed us from them.  So we are marked not as pious, but as sinners.  We are marked as ones who have fallen short of the glory of God.

           Also in the ashes in the reminder of our own mortality.  The reminder that we were created from dust – God made Adam from the dust of the earth and Eve from him.  And it is the dust to which we will all one day return.  In the ashes that smudge our faces is the reminder that we are finite creatures, and all of us will one day return to God.  Yet, as people of God, as Christians, we know that this is not an abysmal fate, but rather the hope we have in what is yet to come – the hope we celebrate in the Resurrection that we now anticipate.

           Lent is a time for us to get serious.  A time for us to think.  A time to make amends and to keep a fast – not a meaningless fast that we brag about and talk about to all we meet, but a fast that deepens our faith.  As we walk with Jesus closer and closer to Jerusalem, we hear the words from Isaiah calling us to a fast that God chooses – a fast that will loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, feed the hungry, and bring the poor into your house.  We do not fast to better ourselves, but to answer the call of God.  To better hear where God calls us to mend our ways and deepen our relationship with God.  In Lent we prepare our hearts to receive the joy of the good news of Easter morning.  We prepare by examining ourselves closely, and asking hard questions.  We prepare by turning loose of those things which have a stranglehold over us, and by adopting new practices that free us to better serve God.

           I invite you to go home tonight and before you wash your face look in the mirror.  Look yourself in the eye.  Ask God how you are being called to have a Holy Lent.  Give thanks that we already know how this journey ends, and that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven. The ashes will be washed off with water, just as we are washed in our baptisms.   We are indeed created from dust, and it is indeed to dust that we will return.  In between, know that you are forgiven by the work of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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It Causes Me to Tremble…Tremble…Tremble…

I have felt disoriented this Holy week – -it’s a natural part of my transition into this new role.  But that aside, Holy Week is supposed to be disorienting in a way – -to shake us up and make us really think about what happened, who was in the Upper Room that night, what it may have felt like to be in the garden, on the road, or watching the events unfold on the hillside.  Some of the favorite sermons I have written have come from the days between Palm Sunday and Easter.  We think about who we are, and why we believe what we do in a different sort of way this week.

Tonight was our Maundy Thursday and Tenebrae service.  Tonight, my mind flashed back to Ash Wednesday, almost 4o days ago. That night was one of worship and part of that service found me looking into people’s eyes  -just like tonight.  When you smear ashes on someone’s forehead, you have to look in their eyes as you remind them of our mortality.  Tonight as I offered the blood of Christ, I looked into people’s eyes as well — some damp with tears, many dry.  This service feels more intimate than many we participate in.

As we read the scriptures and extinguished the candles, one by one, that Holy Week sank in.  As the last flame was snuffed out, as the sanctuary fell silent, I found it hard to breathe, and found myself so very thankful that we are indeed an Easter people – -that while we will dwell in this space for a while, the light is not out forever.  It is hard to be the one saying the words”crucify him” (that was my reading) and hearing – -no, feeling – -the reading of the temple curtain being torn and the sky going black, and not be affected somehow.  And as the significance of the evening grows as the silence grows.  And then… from the back the hymn “Were You There?”

Were we?  No – -not really.  Yes.  And we will continue to be.  We will spend our Friday in this strange balance of everyday life and worship.  We will be disoriented and scattered, and it won’t be until we approach the tomb on Sunday that the world is right again.

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Feeding the Body

My Lenten practice is noticing the Holy moments that can sometimes be easy to overlook in the business of the everyday.  Last night, at Family Night, there were quite a few.

My favorite was watching out church family support our youth as they presented their variety show as their Montreat Fundraiser.  The children’s choirs stood up to sing 2 of the songs they had previously sung in church, and as I looked around Fellowship Hall, there was something really cool happening. Older siblings, the ones who are too old for these choirs and not old enough to be standing with the youth group, were doing the hand motions to prompt their younger siblings.  For a moment the pre-teen “I’m too cool for anything” shells dropped, as they led the hand motions from various places around Fellowship Hall, and brothers and sisters supported their younger siblings, ensuring they had a good performance.

These “hand motion leaders” were some of the same young people who also helped clear tables, brought coffee and dessert to some of our older adults, and then helped clean up in the kitchen.  As I was watching them, the thought crossed my mind – these are the people who are our future Elders and Deacons, our Youth Advisors and Committee Members.  Through something as simple as Family Night, they are learning how to be and to feed, the Body of Christ.  As one young man took dessert to one of our older adults, I wondered how the faith of that adult was formed  -was he the “hand motion leader” at a family night, did the woman sitting next to him perform in a skit at her church so she could go to Montreat?

Sometimes, family night is just family night.  Last night, it was spaghetti and a reminder that no matter how old we are, we play a role in the faith formation of the Body of Christ.