Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 6:3-10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Psalm 51

Two of my friends from seminary got married, and they now serve together at a couple of Episcopal churches down in McComb and Magnolia, MS. They have a little girl who’s almost five, and like most preacher’s kids, including my own, she spends a lot of time at church. A lot. These kids go to church armed with notebooks for drawing and books to read and the occasional Hotwheels car or Webkinz cat – anything to help pass the hours they spend sitting in church listening to their parents preach.

So my friends’ daughter was two years old and was at church…again…for Ash Wednesday. She went up with everyone else to receive her ashes – and what a sobering thing it is to smudge ashes across a child’s forehead and tell her, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return – she went up with everyone else to receive her ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And in that particularly quiet and prayerful and somber moment, the whole church heard her exclaim, “Hooray! I love my ashes!”

How unlike most people who, once the ashen cross is drawn upon their foreheads, whisper a humble “amen” and bear on their faces a most sober expression, full of feeling sorry for whatever things they have done or left undone that might be called sins. It’s true, of course, that we all do things intentionally and unintentionally that hurt ourselves or others, and it is appropriate to reflect on those things from time to time and choose, if we are able, to make amends, to make things right. Every faith tradition has a season or an annual observance during which believers reflect on their sins and through prayer and action return to a right relationship with God and with others.

For us, for the Church, that season is Lent, forty days of prayer and action aimed at making things right. At the end of these forty days is Easter, when we believe God made things right by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, the resurrection made such amends that now nothing separates us from the love of God – not even death. For much of the church’s history, the season of Lent has been a sort of wilderness time, a challenging season of exploring the ways in which we have allowed things to get between us and God. Our Ash Wednesday liturgy is full of words like wrong-doing and sinfulness and mistakes and fault. It’s pretty serious stuff. Hooray?…I love my ashes…???

But there are also words like forgiveness and reconciliation and mercy and grace. In the wilderness of Lent we are invited to leave behind all those things that have gotten between us and God. Create in me a clean heart, O God, we will soon read together from Psalm 51. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me.

A clean heart. A right Spirit. How do we do that? We could start by rubbing these ashes off, right? If we’re trying make clean all those things that get between us and God, why would we smear our foreheads with soot? God’s heart and Spirit are clean, aren’t they? I mean, you never hear anyone saying to God, “Um, you’ve got a little something there, on your forehead, just there, looks like dirt…”

But then again... From the very beginning, when in the biblical story of creation God kneels down in the rich, dark soil and lovingly forms and shapes by hand a human figure and breathes the breath of life into it and calls it adamah, which is Hebrew for “dust”…adamah, Adam… From the very beginning God, the maker of heaven and earth, has had dirt and dust and ashes and soot not only on the forehead but under the nails and between the toes. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and into the Christian testament, the story of God and adamah, God and dust, God and us, has been a story of being in relationship – not the long distance kind, but the sandbox kind, where we’re down in the dirt together forming and shaping our lives. Do you love your ashes yet?

Ash Wednesday is about remembering who we are – we are people made of dust and the breath of God, we are people made in the image of God, whose greatest love is getting down in the dirt and making something wonderful out of it. That’s why the prophet Isaiah tells us that making things right between us and God is not as much about how we pray as it is about how we live in this wonderful, dusty old world. Remove the chains of oppression, God says through Isaiah tonight. Work for justice and freedom. Share your food with the hungry. Open your homes to the poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your sisters and brothers, which is to say, all people.

As we journey through the season of Lent – as we journey through all the seasons of our lives – we are called not to wipe the dust off but rather to follow God’s example, to let mercy make a mess of things in a world that prefers those who are spotless. In everything we do, Paul writes, in everything we do we are to be working for God, getting dirt under our nails as we build real relationships with others in the sandbox and in doing so build a real relationship with God.

Remember that we are dust, we will hear as ashes are traced across the place where the sign of our baptism, our new creation, is…Remember that we are dust, adamah, and so, this Lent, to dust let us return – to the way God made us to be, let us return. Hooray! God loves our ashes! God loves our dust, loves us for all of who we are, smudges and all. Amen.

Artwork: Cross of ashes unknown; "Creation", by Linda Trinkle

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Last Sunday after the Epiphany B

Today, two towns, two small parishes, two services of Holy Eucharist, two times to preach this sermon, Second Kings, two king cakes served after church.  I'm not usually a king cake fan, but had a piece at each church just to be polite.  I had a conversion experience in Crystal Springs, where the king cake was filled with some kind of vanilla creme-ish filling.  You can keep the beads and the baby, but I'm taking the cake! 

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Chariots of fire, heavenly whirlwinds, consuming flames, raging storms, dazzling light and glory, luminous God-filled clouds... This morning’s scriptures radiate awe as one staggering epiphany after another unveils such divinity as we can scarcely comprehend.  Like poor Peter on that high mountain apart, we do not know what to say...

And yet the lectionary invites preachers to try to say something at least once a year, sometimes more.  The transfiguration dazzles us every year on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last Sunday before our own faces are transfigured by penitence and ashes and the start of the season of Lent.  Together with the disciples we climb the mountain for one last glimpse of glory; together we follow Jesus back down and begin the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the finest preachers in the Episcopal church, acknowledges that we’ve been trying to make sense of this story ever since someone finally found the words to tell it.  As with all experiences that don’t fit our categories, she writes, “we keep handling it until we wear it down to where it feels safe to us...until we can say something intelligent about it,” like “why so-and-so was there, why such-and-such said this or that.”  

We’re fascinated by stories like Elijah’s chariot ride and Jesus’ transfiguration, by burning bushes and ladders of angels and annunciations - stories barely contained by the words that tell them.  Perhaps we are enthralled in part because bushes seem to just be bushes these days, because dreams and visions are rare, because fireballs in the sky are either meteors or falling space debris.  Still, something in us longs to encounter God face to face, to be dazzled, to gaze upon glory.  And so we pray, we go on pilgrimage, we light candles, we meditate, we climb mountains, we study the stories that tell us how it has happened before in hopes that we, too, will meet God.

In the middle of their story, face to face with God, the awe-struck and dumb-struck disciples did not know what to do or say, and so Jesus decided it was best that they not speak of it at all until after the resurrection, another experience that wouldn’t fit any of their categories, a story that words could barely contain - indeed, in Mark’s gospel, the resurrection story is not told at all.  Its first witnesses do not know what to say, for they are terrified...  

Here we are, then, making our annual ascent to the place where the most staggering of all epiphanies unveiled divinity beyond description, at least beyond Peter’s ability to describe it.  Here we are, hoping to say something intelligent about so-and-so and such-and-such and what it all means for us today.  Here we are, in the midst of story at once so familiar and unfamiliar that perhaps Jesus should come again and urge us to keep silence.  But the lectionary urges us to speak...

We began the season of Epiphany by starlight, as a single star in the night sky burned brighter than all the rest, leading three wise ones to the house where Mary, Joseph, and the boy Jesus lived.  And every Sunday since, we have seen him grow and the light grow with him, illuminating a messiah no one expected to see - a vulnerable baby, a young man dripping wet in the Jordan, a wandering rabbi with dusty feet, a human like any other who has ever felt sorrow, anger, hunger, anxiety, or weariness. 

Today we end the season of Epiphany with the most brilliant light yet, shining not down upon Jesus from the heavens but rather, it seems, from within him.  This is transfiguration, this shining from within, when Jesus is revealed to be the Christ, God’s beloved Son, when those who climb the mountain with him are dazzled by the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

I’m not sure, though, that Peter and James and John saw transfiguration - I don’t think they had a word or category for that, any more than they would have the category of resurrection.  On that holy mountain, blinded less by the light than by their own expectations of what the messiah should be, they saw transformation.  They saw Jesus transformed, changed from a humble (if miracle-working) carpenter-rabbi who had just six days earlier spoken of his impending suffering and death into a mighty savior accompanied by Moses, the law, and Elijah, the prophet.  Here was the power, here was the glory they had been waiting for Jesus to unveil.  No more dust, no more vulnerability, no more talk of suffering and death.  Some scholars say Peter wanted to build those three dwellings because he wanted to preserve a moment he feared would be fleeting; I suspect, though, that he never imagined it would end.  Jesus had finally changed, had finally been transformed into the only category for messiah that Peter had, and now the real work of saving God’s people would begin.

Perhaps Peter’s first glimpse of transfiguration happened when the bright clouds dissipated and the voice of God stopped echoing through the surrounding hills, and he and the others found themselves alone with Jesus, his clothes once again as drab and dusty as theirs, his face dark and care-worn.  As they began their silent descent, perhaps that’s when Peter began to wonder whether he had witnessed a transformation into something new or an illumination of something that had been there all along, just beyond his ability to see.

Jesus wasn’t transformed that day into anything he hadn’t been when the day had started on a dirt road at the foot of the mountain.  This was an epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus always already was - the dazzling Light of the World, the beloved Son of God, sharing with Moses and Elijah the ancient and timeless work of the salvation of God’s people.  

Of course, Jesus’ part in the work of salvation would transform him in the eyes of those few who could bear to watch.  The vulnerable messiah would be battered and bruised and killed and then...resurrected.  And, as another preacher marvels, out of that resurrection would come a new body - the church.  And so the transfiguration is not simply an opportunity to see Jesus in a new and ancient light, but also to see ourselves in the light of the Light of the World.  

The transfiguration gave the disciples - and so, it gives us - the opportunity to have a truly transformed understanding of who Jesus was, who he always was and is, on high mountaintops resplendent with glory and on city streets crowded with the sick and sinful.  It also gave the disciples - and so, us - the opportunity to be transfigured ourselves, to see the light that shines through us because we have patterned our lives after Christ, to take on the appearance that has been our God-given image all along, not something we had to be transformed into.  We are made to shine.      

But not just on mountaintops.  In fact, we are made to shine down where life happens, in the valleys, less-than-dazzling, and sometimes quite dark.  There are so very many scripture stories and Sunday sermons that speak of encountering Jesus Christ in the ordinary, everyday experiences and categories of life, in the face of so-and-so, while we are doing such-and-such.  Because we pattern our lives after Christ, who walked city streets, who spoke with strangers, who broke bread with friends, we learn to encounter him on our streets, in the faces of strangers and  friends, in the shadows that surround us down here in the valley.  We become so accustomed to seeing Jesus in the ordinary that we sometimes forget he is at the same time filled with indescribable light, radiating dazzling glory.  We need Jesus transfigured and luminous just as much as we need him dusty and tired like us.

In these last few days of Epiphany, then,  let us consider how we have been transformed by our own encounters with Christ, on the mountaintops and in the valleys of our lives.  Let us consider also, although we may scarcely understand it, though no words could ever contain or describe it, let us consider also how we are transfigured each and every day, how God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’  now shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and in the face of Christ’s new body.  Amen.  

Artwork: "Elijah and Elisha", by Michael D. O'Brien; Unknown (if you know, please let me know!)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Shekhinah, thank you...

Shekhinah, thank you for blessing this day
Shekhinah, thank you for blessing this day
Shekhinah, thank you for blessing all we do and all we say
Thank you for blessing this day

I had lunch on Saturday with a woman whose passion is gratitude.  As we ate our tomato and mozzarella sandwiches, our apples, and our heart-shaped sugar cookies covered with pink sprinkles, we talked about everything we had learned so far at the women's spirituality conference we were both attending at the Washington National Cathedral.  We talked about the families we had left back home - hers in California, and mine in Mississippi - and how we wrestled with making decisions about what is best for our children's education.  Together we walked down to the cathedral bookstore where she pointed out the chocolate gargoyles that were the perfect souvenir for eight-year-olds.

We parted ways somewhere in the devotional reading section, and it wasn't until I wandered over to the display of books set aside for our conference that I realized I had been eating and talking with one of the workshop leaders for the weekend.  M.J. Ryan's books teach that gratitude tills the ground in which happiness grows, and I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to have met her.

I am grateful, also, to have been wearing when I met her the palindrome scarf I finished just the day before.  It was only just barely cold enough to wear the scarf while we were in D.C., and much too warm to wear it now that I'm back home in Mississippi.  So our tulip tree is doing the honors, her purple petals wrapped in golden green cables.

I am grateful for our tulip tree, who bravely withstood tornado damage last spring and is blooming for all she's worth!

At one of the workshops I attended this weekend, I learned from Holly Taye Shere a beautiful Jewish prayer to Shekhinah, a feminine Hebrew word for the presence of God.  I am grateful...

Shekhinah, thank you for blessing this day
Shekhinah, thank you for blessing this day
Shekhinah, thank you for blessing where we go and where we stay
Thank you for blessing this day

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Domestic and Foreign (and Knitting) Missionary Society

Bishop Gray reminded us in his address at Annual Council that we are, in fact, by name and by calling missionary people.  The Episcopal Church is legally named the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.  We are called in baptism to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.  We have no excuses, then, he said (we laughed, and so did he, but we all knew it wasn't really a joke) - we are to go out into the world, whether we go out one mile or one thousand miles, and take part in the mission work of invitation, transformation, and reconciliation.

Not even the dire news of budget woes could dampen the missionary zeal.  Over and over we heard from women and men who have embraced the name and the call.  Uganda, Honduras, Panama, the Sudan, Congregations for Children, the plight of our public schools, racial reconciliation... All these and more have been the passions of people who not only discovered they could make a difference but who also learned that a difference could be made in themselves.

This, I believe, is the biggest challenge of mission, and one that perhaps was not emphasized enough this weekend.  Far more difficult than setting aside our time and money and energy to go out into our communities and the world is setting aside our conviction that we know what needs to be done.  We have to be willing to be changed by what we encounter when we go out, to acknowledge that we, too, are in need of saving.  Are we not reconciling the world to God?  I fear sometimes that we instead try reconciling the world (and perhaps even God) to ourselves.

We had with us two Anglican bishops from Africa, one of whom we have been asked to support as he builds a new diocese in one of the most desperate regions of the Sudan.  We prayed, we gave him gifts, we saw pictures of his community, we listened to his story.  It was but the beginning of an enduring relationship between two churches.  We pledged to be advocates for the most vulnerable in our own state of Mississippi, to engage in difficult conversations about race and power and privilege.  And yet, despite having an abundance of liturgical resources available, we sang only one song with roots in African or African-American tradition.  We sang no songs in Spanish.  Our prayers were exclusively to a male God.  

I suspect we can do much to help many people with our good intentions and our conviction of God's call to mission.  But will we really be reconciling if we are not willing to become unraveled and re-knit?  

All that said, it was refreshing to have a Council focused not on our fear of fracturing or the minute details of resolutions but rather on how, as Bishop Gray said over and again, "We are all in this together."  We are all in an economic crisis together.  We are all in a world filled with violence and inequity together.  We are all in a state that still suffers from the specter of racism together.  And we are all in this together:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation... (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18)

We are also, it seems, in this together:

Here are many (but not all - there were more than these even!) who were knitting (and perhaps unraveling and re-knitting just a bit) at Council.  There were sweaters, scarves, prayer shawls, baby blankets, and a lovely needlepoint of a Christmas scene.  And one soul, who understands and appreciates what it means to be "all in this together", asked if I would take a picture of him as well, even though he had no knitting of his own to hold.  That's my green palindrome scarf.  Who knows, though...perhaps this is a living example of the courage to be changed by what we encounter!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Green Being Easy

With all due respect, Kermit, it is easy being green.  Just hop off the lily pad and start knitting this scarf.

The pattern is Palindrome, named after a word or phrase that spells the same thing forwards and backwards.  That's not easy.  And not necessarily green.  But this is.

Palindrome is a ribbed cable pattern that produces the same pattern on the front and back of the scarf so that it's completely reversible.  If I don't think too hard about it, I can just barely understand how the ribs allow the cables to appear on both sides (normally they only appear on one side, and the other side is smooth).  It's pretty easy - K2, P2 over and over again, with the occasional cable row thrown in (and even those are just K2, P2).  

And the green!  I don't know where the lily-pad-like longing came from, but I had such an urge to knit a green scarf!  I searched high and low for the perfect green, and ended up with this Cascade 220 in green heather.  I love that the heather doesn't darken but rather brightens the green with golden hues.

by Kevin Kummer

Green is the Maker's favorite color
to judge by where I walked today.
Not one shade or texture to be sure...

the fresh pale green of new grass thrusting
up through crusty earth
the almost yellow glow of moss beneath
the feet
dark holly, polished and mature, winter's 

Green is the canvas upon which the Maker paints
a profusion of living color -

crocus, purple and white lavender
laced with deep purple lines
primroses, yellow and pink
six-petaled stars of blue trumpeting
on tall stems...