On Vaccines and the Cross…

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Last week I got my first vaccine shot.  Although I am relatively young and healthy, our commonwealth updated the 1B category to include clergy.  So, when my email came to setup an appointment, I was giddy with excitement.  A flurry of joyful texts went out to friends, I had a permanent smile for the day, and there might have been some dancing.  The day of the vaccine was not much different.  Long lines usually bother me, but I have never smiled so much while just waiting.  Had we not still been in a pandemic, I might have hugged every volunteer and staffer who processed me through the various stages.  And though I have had hundreds of shots in my lifetime, I have never so eagerly proffered my arm for a shot. 

But it was not until I got in my car that I lost it.  Tears burst out of me as the emotions from a year of pandemic spilled out.  Not until that moment did I realize how much I had been holding in – trying to be strong for my family, my church, and even myself.  I still have over a month to go before I get my second shot and work my way through the waiting period, but that one little prick of a needle was the first real sign of hope for me.  I may finally get to see my family, after a year and a half of their absence.  I may finally be able to offer hospitality in my home to others without a sense of panic about safety.  I may finally feel a sense of freedom that has been absent for so long and whose value I never fully appreciated.  The tears that were streaming were the release of a year’s worth of weight on my shoulders.

Of course, even with the overwhelming joy of that day, I know our work is still not yet done.  But somehow the gift of that vaccine shifted the weight of that continued work.  Now my mask-wearing and social distancing is not so much out of fear or self-preservation.  Now my mask-wearing and social distancing can be a witness of Christ’s love for others.  From the beginning, I have said our safe practices were an act of loving our neighbor as ourselves and respecting the dignity of every human being.  But now those acts will not just be an added bonus to self-protection – they will be an act of agency, of choosing to care for others when the selfish thing to do might be to value newly regained freedom over all else. 

As we prepare for Holy Week, I am aware of the symbol we will be turning toward next week.  We will be walking toward the cross until the day of resurrection on Easter.  We will watch, and pray, and sing, and grieve as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ witnesses the ultimate form of sacrificial love.  In this season of COVID, the cross is our invitation to love like Jesus taught us.  I look forward to making that walk with you this year in new and profound ways.

Sermon – Jeremiah 31.31-34, L5, YB, March 21, 2021

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I do not know about you, but I entered Lent this year already done.  We talked about this reality five weeks ago, back on Ash Wednesday, when I told you that it was okay if you did not give up something this Lent – because we have already given up so much in the last year.  We have already fasted what feels like twenty Lents during this pandemic.  And then this week happened.  We started out with the words of the Vatican, declaring that although our LGBTQ brothers and sisters were still to be loved and welcomed in Church, their “sinfulness” would not be blessed within the covenant of marriage by the Roman Catholic Church.  I cannot tell you the pain and suffering those words created this week for so many who live in faithful, loving relationships and marriages.  Then, just a few days ago, a man in Atlanta murdered people of Asian descent, sparking off conversations about the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans since this pandemic began.  Our own Sacred Ground circle, the group studying the institution of racism in our country – not just towards blacks, but towards indigenous Americans, Latinos, and Asians – just finished its ten weeks of work; and yet within the same week we are talking about racism yet again.  And then this week, as administered vaccines slowly rise in James City County, I see people becoming lax about masking and social distancing, some folks in public spaces barely covering their faces.  Even the test positivity rate – the one whose decrease has allowed us to enact regathering plans – is creeping slowly toward the numbers that will shut us back down again. 

That is why I found myself gravitating to Jeremiah this week.  Part of the attraction is the good news of the text, but a larger part of my attraction is empathizing with the Israelites.  Jeremiah writes in a time of desperation for the people of God. The Babylonians have razed the temple and carried King Zedekiah off in chains.  Effectively, the Babylonians have “destroyed the twin symbols of God’s covenantal fidelity.”[i]  Sometimes we talk about the exile so much that I think we forget the heart-wrenching experience of exile.  Being taken from homes and forced to live in a foreign land is certainly awful enough.  But the things that were taken – the land of promise, the temple for God’s dwelling, the king offered for comfort to God’s people – are all taken, leaving not just lives in ruin, but faith in question. 

But today, in the midst of the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation, Jeremiah says God will make a new covenant.  God knows the people cannot stop breaking the old covenant, and so God promises to “forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”  Instead of making the people responsible for the maintenance of the covenant, God goes a step further and writes the law in their hearts, embodies God’s way within the people.  The words of Jeremiah in the section called “the Book of Comfort,”[ii] and this new covenant by God, show a God whose abundance knows no limits.  God offers this new covenant to a people who surely do not deserve another covenant.  God has offered prophets and sages, has called the people to repentance, has threatened and cajoled, and yet still the people cannot keep the basic tenants of the covenant established in those ten commandments.  But instead of abandoning the people to exile, God offers reconciliation and restoration yet again.  And because God knows we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, God basically says, “Here.  Let me help you.  Let me write these laws in your hearts so that you do not have to achieve your way into favor with me, but you will simply live faithfully, living the covenant with your bodies and minds.”  And when even that does not seem to work, God sends God’s only son.  God never gives up on us or our relationship with God.  Even all these years after Christ’s resurrection, God is still finding new ways to make our covenant work.  

That is where I find hope this week.  Despite how broken we may feel because of this pandemic, despite how our nation seems incapable of harming one another due to the color of our skin, despite the ways we seek to limit God’s love and abundance, God is relentless with God’s lovingkindness.  In Jeremiah’s text, when the Israelites have hit rock bottom, God turns not to vengeance or even a notion of just desserts.  God picks up the covenant of love, not relying on our hard work to be faithful, but declaring how God will simply put God’s law within us, will write God’s law of love on our hearts, will be our God and we will be God’s people.  In essence, nothing we can do will drive God from us.  And that, my friends, is good news indeed.  God sees us in all our fullness – light and shadow alike – and loves us anyway.  In this continued time of strain and strife, in this long night of COVID, God gives us good news.  As one scholar affirms, “God will bring newness out of destruction.  God will bring hope where there is no hope.  God will bring life out of death.  God will make a way where there is no way.”[iii]  Thanks be to God!


[i] Richard Floyd, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 122.

[ii] Jon L. Berquist, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 123.

[iii] Floyd, 124.

On Being Tended in the Wilderness…

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This Sunday our church will regather in our building for the second time during this pandemic.  We will be masked, socially distanced, and observing all kinds of safety regulations.  In many ways it will not be the same.  The crowd will be much smaller than normal, we will not be able to hug or slide into a seat next to a dear friend (or soon-to-be friend).  We will not be able to sing, or kneel at the altar, or linger for conversation and coffee. 

But we will be back in a space so sacred that simply sitting in the chairs will bring a flood of memories and emotions.  We will be with people who have suffered through a long, hard year, just like us, and who are just as overwhelmed with gratitude as we are.  We will engage all the senses in worship:  hearing the word and music, seeing familiar and new sights, touching chairs we have not sat in for months, smelling the spring air floating across the room, and tasting the distinctive taste of a communion wafer. 

Five weeks ago, when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of Lent, I am not sure we fully understood Jesus’ experience.  We certainly have a whole new appreciation for the literal experience of wilderness – the deprivation, separation, and desperation.  But I am not sure we have ever fully understood what it means to be tended by angels and to reenter society.  For me, I always thought of Jesus having gone through an ordeal, but essentially leaving the wilderness the same, albeit a bit stronger, person.  But having just marked the one-year anniversary of this pandemic, I am now keenly aware that no one who enters the wilderness ever exits the wilderness the same person. 

Similarly, though I am thrilled to see some of my people on Sunday, and I am honored to offer angelic-like care after a year of suffering, I know that when we finally exit this pandemic, we will be changed community.  We will be a community with an increased capacity for empathy and justice.  We will be community who is not just open to experimentation and creativity, but who demands the kind of nimbleness that will always keep us open to the movement of the Spirit.  We will be a community who is less married to our buildings and more married to creating sacred spaces wherever we find them – online, in homes, in the community just outside our property.  We will be a community who knows all the goodness we have found inside this church community does not belong inside our community, but outside in the world with those who need it.  As we gather in this hybrid time, we are not returning to who we were.  We are pausing in the wilderness to be tended by the angels.  And then, slowly but surely, we will walk unknown paths together, a stronger, nimbler, more faithful community.   

Sermon – John 3.14-21, Numbers 21.4-9, L4, YB, March 14, 2021

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Our scripture lessons today offer two contrasts:  a story from the Hebrew Scriptures which might be unfamiliar to you or at least may seem wildly strange, and a story from John’s gospel that is so familiar, you can probably quote a portion of the text if I simply tell you the citation, “John 3.16.”  What is strange about this combination is the unknown, uncomfortable story is a window into the overly familiar, commonplace story.  If we have any hope of understanding either of them, we need to dive into both.

At the point where we join the story from Numbers, God has been infinitely patient with God’s people.  Some might argue too patient.  God has saved God’s people time and again, wresting them from brutal slavery, miraculously helping them flee through the Sea of Reeds, helping sweeten bitter drinking water when they murmured, granting them manna when they complained of being hungry, giving them water out of a rock when they grumbled about being thirsty, offering them birds to eat when they whined of manna-fatigue.  Grace and patience abound with God.  Until this day.  The Israelites throw yet another fit, and God snaps.  This time, God sends poisonous serpents among the people, and many of them die.  When the people beg for help to Moses, God instructs Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole; if people gaze upon the serpent, they will live.  For a God who asks the people have no idols or gods before God, a serpent on a pole is, quite frankly, just weird.

Meanwhile, we have a super familiar text from John.  “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son.”  We love this verse because the verse reminds of our abundant, loving, graceful God.  Of course, we sometimes gloss over the rest of the troublesome parts of this text.  The rest talks about how Jesus saves the world – as long as the world believes.  Here is where the questions start to pile up for us.  Do we really believe that some people are condemned?  Is God’s love conditional?  What happens if we doubt?  Does that count as not believing?  Can eternal life be given and taken away based on the seesaw of my behavior?  The trouble is if we focus on God’s grace, we can make salvation seem arbitrary, with no essential place for human response.  But if we focus on human faith, we may be in danger of making salvation a human accomplishment, restricting God’s initiative universally.[i]  The only thing that seems to be clear is that God gives us a choice.  When we commit evil deeds, when we deny God through our behavior, when we linger in the darkness, we are making a choice.  And the text tells us today that the consequence of that choice is condemnation.

The answer to so much in these texts seems to lie in verse fourteen of John.  Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  As scholar Debie Thomas writes, “In the Old Testament story, God requires the Israelites to look up.  To gaze without flinching at the monstrous thing their sin has conjured.  It’s the thing they have wrought, the thing they fear most, the thing that will surely kill them if God in God’s mercy doesn’t intervene and transform the instrument of pain and death into an instrument of healing and life.  In order to be saved, the people have to confront the serpent — they have to look hard at what harms, poisons, breaks, and kills them.”[ii]  The same seems to happen with Jesus on a cross.  Thomas goes on to say, “In the cross, we are forced to see what our refusal to love, our indifference to suffering, our craving for violence, our resistance to change, our hatred of difference, our addiction to judgment, and our fear of the Other must wreak.  When the Son of Man is lifted up, we see with chilling and desperate clarity our need for a God who will take our most horrific instruments of death, and transform them, at great cost, for the purposes of resurrection.”[iii]

The truth is, I am not sure either of these texts answer some of our basic questions, especially around those of belief.  But tying them together today, we do find an invitation – to change our gaze away from the judgment of others, the wondering about who is in and out, the questions about God’s retribution, and gaze on the cross – the body that reminds us of the goodness of God in spite of our sinfulness, that reminds us of God’s grace in spite of our lack of deserving, that reminds us of God’s unconditional love despite our inability to keep failing.  Our invitation is to take seriously the words of that old hymn, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.”  As we continue on the path of Lent toward the cross, today’s texts remind us of where we are going and why.  Our invitation is to look up at the horrible, wonderful truth of what Jesus does in the cross, and stand in the light of his glory and grace.  Amen.


[i] Joseph D. Small, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 118.

[ii] Debie Thomas, “Looking Up,” March 7, 2021, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2944-looking-up, on March 12, 2021. 

[iii] Thomas.

Sermon – Luke 23.18-26, People of the Cross, March 3, 2021

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This sermon was preached at New Zion Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of the Upper James City County Lenten Ecumenical worship series. The series was entitled, “People of the Cross,” a journey with the characters of the Stations of the Cross.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of this pandemic, we have begun to fall into some dangerous patterns.  The more time we safely spend in isolation from others, the more the notion sneaks into our psyche that we do not need others – that we are solitary actors in the world.  The more safety measures become recommendations as opposed to mandates, we begin to think we have power over our destiny – freedom to wear a mask or not, freedom to spend time with people when we want, freedom to take a vaccine or not.  The more time we spend not gathering in our worship spaces, away from our communities of faith, the more distant we can begin to feel from God, slowly no longer watching those digital offerings or joining those Zooms because we are just tired of everything.

Sometimes I wonder if Simon of Cyrene was a man who thought of himself in similar ways.  Now, we have to remember where we are in Jesus’ story.  Jesus has already been betrayed by Judas, arrested in Gethsemane, been shuffled around by religious and secular authorities, undergone trial with Pilate, been sentenced to death, and is heading toward Calvary with a cross.  This is the point in Jesus’ story where we meet Simon of Cyrene.  We know very little about Simon.  He is only mentioned in the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and even in those gospels, his story is told in just a verse.  Matthew says, “As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry [Jesus’] cross.”  Mark says, “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry [Jesus’] cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.”  And finally, Luke, who we heard tonight, says, “As they led [Jesus] away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.” 

That is all we have.  One verse from each synoptic gospel.  We learn a few things though.  Simon was not from Jerusalem – he was coming in from the country.  Simone of Cyrene was a father of at least two sons.  And we know he did not volunteer for the job of helping Jesus.  He did not have compassion, see a man struggling, and offer to help.  He did not see the incorruption of the state and fight back or bravely step in to mitigate the injustice.  All we know is he was compelled or seized and put to work.  And Luke adds that he carried the cross behind Jesus.  The rest of the story we just do not know.

But here is what we do know.  We know the times where we have collided with Jesus, sometimes against our will or even our knowing.  The phone call from the needy friend when you just need some alone time.  The homeless person, who seems slightly unstable, who you know is going to ask you for something, even if they just start with conversation.  That person being bullied on the playground or in the board room, that if you stand up for them, the bullies may turn their evil on you.  The pastor who asks you to take leadership on a new ministry when you are already feeling overwhelmed.       

Author and Dominican brother, Timothy Radcliffe, reminds us that we Americans have a strange relationship with “the ideal of a self-sufficient person who does not need anyone else.   We should stand on our own feet.   It is humiliating to need others, especially strangers.”[i]  That very kind of thinking is what has led us to where we are in this pandemic – where my behavior, my choices, my agency to mask, socially distance, and vaccinate are my own, made in a bubble of self-sufficiency.  But in the heart of Simon of Cyrene’s experience with Jesus, we see how our own American ideals crumble.  We are not wholly autonomous peoples of self-sufficiency and self-actualization.  We are people who need each other.  Jesus shows us in this strange, forced encounter with Simon that vulnerability is not a burden to be scorned, but the place where holiness is encountered – where we see God.

Of course, Jesus taught us this lesson before.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told his followers that when they see a stranger, the least of these, and see they are hungry and give them food, they are thirsty and give them something to drink, when they welcomed a stranger, they clothed the naked, and took care of the sick, and visited the prisoner, they did these things to Jesus.  We know our wearing of masks is not for our own protection, but for the protection of others.  We know in our keeping distant from our loved ones, including from our beloved churches, we are protecting others.  When we get vaccines, we do not take them for ourselves, but for the power of herd immunization to stop the ravaging of our whole country. 

Julian of Norwich, the Middle Ages mystic, once wrote, “If I look at myself alone, I am nothing.  But when I think of myself and all my fellow-Christians joined together in love, I have hope.  For in this joining lies the life of all who shall be saved.”[ii]  Simon of Cyrene may not have wanted to be a part of Jesus’ story.  We may not want to be a part of the work of saving one another, this community, the commonwealth, or even this country.  And yet, here we are, a pandemic having stripped us of all notions of our self-sufficiency and self-actualization, being forced to look at each other in vulnerability and mutual dependence. 

We may not choose this reality, this time, this country in all its sinfulness, but this is where God has placed us.  But just like Simon of Cyrene, even in those times when we are forced into encounters with the holy One, our lives can be changed.  Several scholars have argued that Simon of Cyrene, in this forced encounter, in being forced to carry a stranger’s cross, becomes a disciple of that same stranger.  Pastor Patrick J. Willson argues, “Simon follows Jesus carrying the cross, thus becoming an icon of Christian discipleship. Luke’s vision is not that of an imitatio Christi; only Jesus is crucified. Simon follows the way Jesus has walked bearing the weight of the cross.  Jesus going before him makes discipleship possible.”[iii]

That is our invitation through Simon of Cyrene.  Simon’s story – his one moment with Jesus, his one verse in the entire canon of scripture – offers a powerful invitation to, even in this moment, take our cross of discipleship and follow Jesus.  We do not have to go with an eager spirit.  We may not even go willingly.  But the promise of going is radical transformation:  transformation from a people whose primary concern is for self to a people who know we will encounter Jesus when we finally realize that only when we look at ourselves as joined with fellow-Christians in love can we look to the world in hope.  Jesus humbled himself, making himself vulnerable enough to walk to Calvary and die on a cross for us.  Our invitation is to walk humbly behind and allow the weight of the cross to transform us into people of love and hope.  Amen.


[i] Timothy Radcliffe, Stations of the Cross (Collegeville:  Liturgical Press, 2014), 30.

[ii] Julian of Norwich, Stations of the Cross:  A Devotion Using The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich (Norwich:  The Friends of Julian of Norwich, 1998), 13.

[iii] Patrick J. Willson, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Pt. 1, Additional Essays (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 4.

On Finding Blessings among the Curses…

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Photo credit: Troy Mendez

Last week, a seminary classmate sent an email to a group of six of us who had travelled to Myanmar on a mission trip while in seminary.  The trip was a powerful, multiple week trip – for us as individuals, for us as a team (one of our members passed away a couple of years after seminary), and, when we returned, for our relationships with the Burmese students at the seminary.  The experience of that trip forever changed the dynamics between us – there are inside jokes that lead to ribbing; we know each other in ways that only fellow travelers can, leading to belly-laughs and understanding sighs too deep for words; and our connection to the Anglican Church in Myanmar and our spiritual experiences there created a brotherhood and sisterhood that is difficult to articulate. 

So, when the toughly-won democracy crumbled a few weeks ago in Myanmar, we all watched in horror.  The call to gather from my classmate was certainly an opportunity for us to catch up, but more importantly for us to pray – to pray for our Burmese classmates, the brothers and sisters in Christ we met there, and the countless people who simply want to live their lives free of the brutality of a military junta.  Over the course of this year, I have complained more times than I can count about the amount of time I spent on Zoom.  But as the six of us gathered virtually from around the country to tell stories, to laugh, to mourn, and to pray, I confess to you, I have never been more grateful for a technological tool.  Even in that virtual space, we were able to find the rhythm of a group established fourteen years ago, and slow down enough to put the needs of Myanmar above our own.

As we work to vaccinate our country and as churches begin to regather again, I find myself once again grateful for the ways God has made a way in the wilderness.  And although I will be thrilled to see people in person again, I am glad we will still have technological advances available to us – to facilitate community, care, and compassion.  Not once in the years since we left seminary has our mission team managed to get together in person.  But with technology, we were able to create a virtual space of real connection between us, and, perhaps more importantly, a place where God could move among us and beyond us.  I would never wish this pandemic on any of us, but I remain astounded at the way God has used the gifts God has given us to facilitate the spreading of the Good News. 

One year into this pandemic, I give thanks for the ways in which technology has facilitated fellowship, formation, worship, and pastoral care.  I wonder what graces this pandemic has gifted you over this last year.  What ways has necessity inspired blessedness?  As you reflect this week, I invite you to join me in offering gratitude for God’s grace in the midst of a very dark year. 

Please continue to keep Myanmar in your prayers as they struggle for the restoration of democracy, for the safety of innocent people being brutalized and disappeared, and for the encouragement and protection to keep fighting for justice.

On Glimpses of Togetherness…

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Photo credit: Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; reuse with permission only

This evening, we are gathering with our local ecumenical brothers and sisters in worship.  These Lenten gatherings happen every year, usually preceded by a simple supper before worshiping together.  One of the eight churches hosts and a preacher from another church offers the sermon.  The freewill offering supports a local nonprofit.  The evenings allow us to see the broader movement of Christ in our community, remind ourselves of the wideness of God’s mercy, and inspire a sense of community and fellowship.

Of course, in the midst of a pandemic, things look a little different.  Instead of seeing each other’s worship spaces, we are getting to see each other’s virtual worship spaces (Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, etc.).  Instead of seeing faces over a meal, we are feasting strictly on the Word of God.  In some ways, we could see the gatherings as “less than,” lacking all the things we love about community.  But for me, it has been a tremendous blessing to see how we are all in this together – all finding our own ways through technology, all seeking to be closer to Christ in the midst of this chaotic time.  Tonight, I am “preaching,” though technically, I prerecorded my sermon last week.  Our time of recording – with just three of us in the room, and two others on Zoom – was a tender invitation into the space where their community has been making it work for months. 

If you do not have plans tonight, or for the next several Wednesdays through Holy Week, consider yourself invited to virtual worship with the Upper James City County Ministerium.  On a basic level, it will give you a chance to pray, worship, and hear a good word each Wednesday.  On a deeper level, it may help you get out of your comfort zone with an unfamiliar style of worship or a theologically different perspective on scripture.  But on an even deeper level, it will remind you of how widely we are all connected during this strange, seemingly disconnected time.  It is my hope that you experience a glimpse into the magnitude of how the Holy Spirit is doing some incredible work during this time that can often feel absent of God.  You are invited to come and see a different perspective!

On Being Apart While Together…

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As a priest, especially a priest in a pandemic, you do not always know how the things you plan are going to go.  Most of the liturgical things we do are about 90 degrees off from what we “normally” do, and we just keep hoping they capture the spirit of the original liturgies.  I am blessed to serve an awesome congregation whose DNA is wired to be creative, playful, and experimental, so I always feel like we are in this together.  But I still find myself holding my breath a bit each time we try something unusual.

Ash Wednesday was no different.  We did our due diligence, made ample opportunity for parishioners and neighbors to get ashes for home use, and we figured out how to synchronize our ashes through livestreaming.  What I did not anticipate was what it would feel like to put ashes on my own head.  Even when I was a solo clergy person, I always had a parishioner put ashes on me after I put ashes on them.  But putting ashes on my own head felt very solitary – suddenly I was very aware of how separated we all are from one another – and how lonely that sometimes feels.

I pondered that reality for a few days before I remembered something else from Ash Wednesday.  We decided in the pandemic to still offer Ashes to Go – a drive through experience at our location.  As we distributed containers of ash, we gave people three options – “ash” themselves as we pray with them, take the ashes home and say a set of prayers we gave them, or take them home and watch our livestream and “ash” with us.  One family drove through and I gave the mom the three options.  She decided I should go ahead and pray as she put ashes on the foreheads of her two preschool children.  As I watched her work – this mom whose story I could all too easily imagine – the stress of parenting for almost a year in a pandemic, making hard decisions about childcare, juggling work, children, and family, trying to precariously hold it together.  Here she was, taking on the work of the spiritual nourishment of her kids too. 

And that is when I realized the truth.  We are very separated, often alone, and sometimes lonely in this pandemic.  But we are all feeling those things together.  When we gather online together, we are together in our apart-ness.  When we swing by the property for drive-through experiences, we are acknowledging our togetherness in our apart-ness.  When things remind us of our apart-ness, we are collectively reminded together.  It is a beautiful, awful dichotomy, only made better by the fact that we are, in fact, together in this.  This Lent, I invite you to pause to look around, and observe the small, sometimes tiny, reminders that we are in this together.  Even in our apart-ness, we are with each other in Spirit.  And the Spirit is enough to hold us together while apart until we can be physically together some day.

Sermon – Mark 6:1-6, 16-21, Isaiah 58:1-12, AW, YB, February 17, 2021

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I have always thought the Ash Wednesday liturgy offers a strange contrast.  We engage in the very visible sign of having ashes spread across our foreheads.  And yet, our gospel lesson this day speaks very clearly of not showing your piety publicly.  But this year, the contrast of Ash Wednesday feels even more pointed.  Typically on this day, we talk about giving things up for Lent, fasting, and entering into a season of contemplation about not just our mortality, but the sinfulness that separates us from God.  But we have spent the last eleven months fasting – fasting from social gatherings, fasting from touch and uncovered faces, even fasting from receiving the sacred meal.  And for a large portion of those months, we have been in deep contemplation about the exponentially rising death all around us, the brokenness of our common life, the sin of oppression and racism.  The last thing I want to hear from the church today is how I need to give up more.

I think that is why I love the text from Isaiah this year so much.  God offers a mirror to God’s people.  On first glance, God’s people are certainly doing the things that are expected – in fact, the “things” that are often of Lent.  They are fasting and lying in sackcloth and ashes.  They are doing the work of penitence.  But the acts are not the problem – the motivation of the acts are the problem.  They are doing acts of contrition as sort of an exchange:  fasting so that God will give them favor; Sure, their behavior may end in the oppression of others, but they are doing the manual action called for in this moment. 

But God is having nothing of hollow spiritual practices.  If those practices are not leading to the loosening of the bonds of injustice, or the undoing of the thongs of the yoke, or the freeing of the oppressed, they are meaningless.  If the people of God are not sharing their bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into their homes, covering the naked, and caring for their own kin, then fasting is little more than act in futility, an action done without reflection, intention, or love of neighbor. 

So what do the words of Isaiah have to do with living in month eleven of a pandemic?  I am going to say something that might be a little controversial, but here you go:  the church is not asking you to fast this Lent.  Now, in a few moments, I am going to say these very words, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, …by…fasting, and self-denial…”  But you have already fasted for a whole year.  You have already been in a season of self-denial.  The ashes you will impose on your head later are not a reminder that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  You know that reality all too well now.  Instead, we are going to take a cue from Isaiah tonight.  You have already done the manual acts of Lent.  Now your invitation is the “so that” part of the action.  Our work this Lent is to reflect upon what has been a most difficult year and to ponder together what this past year of fasting is inviting us into.  How has this season of fasting, this season of struggle, this season of brutality transformed our sense of purpose and identity – a people focused on God’s work loosening the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, and sharing our bread?  How has the sobering nature of death, grittily rubbed onto our foreheads tonight, changing our resolve to lean into God, lean into this Christian community, lean into the work of sharing God’s love with those who do not know that love?

The rest of the invitation I will read in a moment says this, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer…and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  You have done the rituals of fasting and self-denial long enough.  As we look forward to these next forty days together, our work is to spend time with God, scripture, and one another and answer the question, “So what?”  What are we going to do now?  What are we going to claim and what are we going to let go?  How is the grit of ash this year not the sensation of defeat, but of invitation.  I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  Amen.

On Keeping Rituals Anyway…

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Photo credit: https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/03/06/ash-wednesday-2019-wearing-ashes-marks-beginning-lent/3064920002/

Today is Ash Wednesday.  It is the day we gather to kick off the beginning of Lent.  The main marker of this day are the ashes rubbed on our foreheads in the shape of a cross.  This ritual action is so powerful that churches typically offer multiple services in their buildings and they hang out in train stations, street corners, or parking lots so that people can grab their ashes on the go. 

But this year Ash Wednesday is happening in a surreal setting.  Reminding us we are dust and to dust we shall return seems a little superfluous when death is all around us from this pandemic.  Beginning a season of fasting seems like overkill when we have been doing nothing but fasting for eleven months – fasting from a way of life we once knew.  Asking us to give us something for Lent seems tone deaf when we have been giving up things for almost a year.  And with large communities having lost power for several days, churches still on lock down, and best practices prohibiting us from actually touching ashes to others’ foreheads, the whole idea of this day seems like too much.

So why are we even bothering with Ash Wednesday this year?  A couple of reasons.  One of the base reasons is we need to keep the rituals of life to help us feel some semblance of normalcy – some reminder of the things that have been meaning-giving in our lives.  Two, we need reminders that God is present in the midst of all this mayhem.  Some of us have never felt God’s absence, some of us have felt the abandonment of God in this time, and some of us have just felt so depleted that God feels distant – not absent, but also not vividly present. 

I don’t know how you are holding up this Ash Wednesday.  I don’t know where you are on your journey with God these days.  But what I do know is that the church is here to walk with you, comfort you, and create space for wherever you are on the journey – whether driving through,  watching online, or catching up by email, phone, or text.  We are in this together.