Easter 5, Year A, 2014

A few years ago This American Life producer Nancy Updike’s stepfather was dying. He had hospice care and Ms. Updike was incredibly impressed by the competence of the hospice nurses because she herself felt so helpless and anxious and at loose ends in the face of his death. So, she ended up producing a half hour segment of This American Life that followed hospice nurses at Kaplan Family Hospice House in Massachusetts.

Hospice care workers are a rare breed of human being. So many of us do all we can to fight death, or to ignore death while all day long every day, hospice nurses and doctors help people prepare to die. They face what the rest of us are afraid to face, and they face it with dignity and respect. They become a bridge for patients and their families between this world and the next. They understand the complex physical, emotional and spiritual process of death. At one point on the program a nurse, Patti told the following story:

“Yeah. Or [the patient is] comatose and the loved ones keeps saying, he’s waiting for his brother to get here on Saturday. They’re coming from Florida on Saturday. And I’m, inside, rolling my eyes thinking it’s Tuesday. He’s going to die on Wednesday or Thursday. He’s not going to be here on Saturday for when his brother arrives from Florida. And then the brother arrives at Logan, shows up at the Kaplan House at 12:30, and the patient dies at 1:00. And they say to me, I told you. He just needed Billy to come from Florida. And it’s like, what?”

Patti and other nurses like her know that death is not just physical. Sometimes a patient needs to see someone; sometimes they need a priest to do last rites or to hear a last confession. But even hospice nurses, the closest thing we have to death experts in our culture, can’t know for certain what happens after death. None of us can really, though they sure are marketing the heck out of the movie Heaven is for Real, aren’t they! Scripture does give us some clues about our life after death, but even the New Testament’s messages are muddied. In Paul’s letters he seems to have the understanding that all humans will be raised in a resurrection at the same time. In other parts of the New Testament, heaven is spoken of as a place where we will unite with God.

Even Jesus did not have an easy relationship with death. When his friend Lazarus dies, he weeps. When he faces his own death in the garden of Gethsemane, he prays for release. And so the words we read today from the Gospel of John are not a flippant response to his disciples’ worries, but are rooted in Jesus’ experience of being both human and divine. He knows the grief and fear of death, but he also knows that God has plans for us beyond our deaths. In this passage, his disciples aren’t so worried about their own deaths. They are worried about what they are going to do without Jesus. Our passage is part of a long speech that is called Jesus’ farewell discourse. When I was almost college aged, my dad started peppering me with advice, “Carpe Diem! Don’t pick the sick puppy! Don’t merge with anyone you don’t want to become!” He knew he couldn’t follow me to University of Richmond, but he really wanted me to take the values of our family with me to college. In the same way, Jesus is giving his disciples a framework that they can use after his death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus is reassuring them and giving them marching orders. And while Jesus’ main point is not to describe the afterlife to his disciples, his words do tell us a great deal about God’s plan for human beings after our deaths. Jesus tells the disciples his death is necessary. He has to leave the disciples in order to prepare a place for them. In John, rather than resurrection language, Jesus imagines heaven as a metaphorical place—a place with plenty of room for everyone. And blessed Thomas, ever practical, wants to know how the heck they are going to find that place? If Jesus is gone, does he plan to leave them a map? Detailed instructions? Thomas stands in for us. We want more details! More information! How do we get to heaven? Jesus then reassures Thomas that Thomas has all he needs. Thomas doesn’t need a map, because he is already in relationship with the one who prepares the dwelling places and leads us to the dwelling places.

This verse—I am the way and the truth and the life is often used as exclusionary—If Jesus is the way, then there is no other way, but Jesus isn’t addressing other religions here. Jesus is addressing Thomas’ specific concerns. Thomas doesn’t need anything but Jesus, and even if Jesus leaves, Thomas is going to be okay, because Jesus will be working on Thomas’ behalf. This exchange between Jesus and Thomas is a gift to us.

No matter how many times we ask for a map—when am I going to die? What will it be like? Will I feel pain? Will there be white light? Will I see my family?–we won’t get answers. Those answers are only knowable after our death. What the New Testament does tell us is that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to live and die for us so we may share in God’s eternal life. And all we need to get there is Jesus, and Jesus has already done the work necessary to get us there. When Jesus reassures his disciples that they will be okay, that he has them covered, we get to eavesdrop and be comforted. As we heard last week, the Gospel of John is also the Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, a shepherd who chases after every last one of his sheep, who makes sure everyone is tucked safely into the sheepfold. Jesus’ promise to his disciples is his promise to us—he is the way and the truth and the life for us, too. We are his sheep. We are his disciples. While we may face our own deaths with fear or dread, we can also know that even in the midst of our anxiety, Jesus is preparing a place for each of us. We are safe within the sheepfold of his love. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Lent 1, Year A, 2014

When you were a small child throwing a fit did your mother ever point to a well-behaving child and say, “Look how nicely Johnny is behaving?  Why don’t you behave more like Johnny?”  Poor you!  Unfavorably compared to someone who wasn’t even your flesh and blood! You probably carried on with your fit, thoroughly unimpressed with Johnny.  We do this all the time—unfavorably comparing our bosses to other bosses, spouses to other spouses, our selves to other men and women.

We pull Jesus into this, too.  We read the temptation story and think, “Ah, man, I should be better at resisting temptation. Why can’t I just be more like him?”  We read Jesus’ time in the desert as a kind of morality play.

But the temptation story is not one of Jesus’ parables.  It is not a morality play.  The story of Jesus’ temptation is an epic battle between good and evil.  The temptation story is not a sweet PBS Saturday morning cartoon intended to teach our children morals.  The temptation story is The Lord of the Rings, Rocky, Star Wars.

Jesus is on an epic quest to save humanity.  Humanity is enslaved.  Not by each other, but by death and by sin.  No matter what humans have done, they have not been able to get out of the grip of these evil powers.  Death vanquished every human.  And sin wrapped its claws around people, too.  Sin ruined people’s lives, isolating them from each other and from God.  Jesus is going to go into the world and save humanity from both sin and death, but first he has to get ready.

Jesus has been baptized and is about to enter into his public ministry.  But before he makes any speeches, before he meets his first disciple, he needs to get ready.  In any epic battle movie worth its salt, you get a training montage.  Hermione leads the Hogwarts students in drills Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Yoda trains Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  Mr. Miyagi teaches Danny “wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid.  All these “heroes “needed time to prepare.

In Jesus’ case, it is the Spirit who leads him into the desert.  The Spirit doesn’t stick around and shadow box with Jesus or make Jesus run laps.  The Spirit disappears and leaves Jesus alone.  For what Jesus needs to get him through his ministry isn’t physical strength, but spiritual strength.  Fighting the powers of sin and death will take every ounce of integrity and steadiness that Jesus has.  After forty days of prayer and fasting, the Devil, also described as the tempter, shows up.  Now the Devil isn’t particularly hostile here, in fact, he’s almost friendly.  After all, the Devil just wants what is good for Jesus, right?  If Jesus is really the Son of God, he should enjoy the perks!

First the Devil tempts Jesus to turn some stones into bread.  After all, Jesus has been fasting for weeks!  And if he is God, he surely has the power to make himself some food.  But Jesus roots down into Scripture and reminds the Devil that the only food he needs for his mission is the word of God.

The Devil gets really tricky with his next temptation—since Jesus used scripture to deny the Devil the first time, the Devil throws Scripture back at Jesus.  He tempts Jesus to leap off a tall building, telling him that Scripture says angels will protect him.  But Jesus resists the temptation to take a foolish risk and again roots himself in Scripture.

Finally, the Devil tries to make a bargain with Jesus.  He offers him power and wealth and land and all Jesus needs to do is worship him.  But again, Jesus finds within himself the discipline and Scripture he needs to resist.  The Devil flees, defeated.

This story gets sin just right, doesn’t it?  Sin isn’t a bully, at first.  Sin sidles up to us and seduces us.  Have you all been following the story Kevin Roose published in New York Magazine?  He has just published a book called Young Money.  He got to know eight young Wall Street brokers, followed them around and explored their world.  On one occasion he snuck into a secret society event and saw all kinds of crazy skits in which the richest men in the world mocked the 99%. At one point he started filming and was thrown out once they realized he was a journalist.  He didn’t get beat up.  The people who kicked him out got extremely friendly and tried to bribe him into not telling the story.  What a great metaphor!  Sin tells us we deserve it, that it won’t really hurt anyone.  Sin lures us in until it has us firmly in its grasp.

Sin is tricky and insidious and offers us things that appear good.  For Jesus to really minister to the people of the world, he had to go through that experience.  He had to know what it was like, how hard it is, to resist temptation.  Jesus had to learn who he was as a savior.  Was he going to use his power to physically strike down evil?  Did he need to become big and strong and throw his authority around?  No, his authority was rooted in total obedience to his Father.  Jesus would show his power by his humility, by compassion, by wisdom.  His power would be rooted in his deep understanding of Scripture in light of his loving relationship with his Father.

Jesus uses that deep knowledge of Scripture and connection to his Father when he recruits his disciples, preaches to his followers, heals the sick, casts out demons—in short, in every part of his ministry.  Jesus takes this experience all the way to the cross.

Jesus’ ultimate battle with sin and death doesn’t involve him sword fighting the Devil or heroically flying a spaceship into the heart of an alien spacecraft.  Jesus’ final battle has him face our sin and rejection and walk right toward us.  Jesus continues to walk towards us until we kill him.  And then he rises and keeps walking toward us.

In the movie Blood Diamond, a father has lost his son, who has been kidnapped and turned into a child soldier.  When he finally finds his child, the child is pointing a gun at the father’s companion.  The father recognizes the boy and starts to speak with him.  He walks toward him, calls the boy by name and tells him about his mother who loves him and the wild dogs who wait for him.  He describes his home, the place where he belongs, all the while walking towards this boy and his raised gun and then the father says,

 I know they made you do bad things. You are not a bad boy.  I am your father, who loves you.  And you will come home with me and be my son again.

The boy drops the gun and the two embrace.

For generations our sin and the power of death kept us separated from our God.  But God knew we were more than our sin.  He knew that sin enslaved us, keeping our true selves locked away.  And so he sent Jesus, who battled for us.  While it appeared for three days that sin and death won, on that third day Jesus rose from the dead and claimed us for his own.  His was the final word, the final victory.  Death and sin are still present, but they no longer hold dominion over us.  They cannot keep us from God.

A mere five days ago, I preached to you about Lenten practices and how they draw us closer to God.  But the really important message for you to hear is this:  Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  Not your worst sin, not the worst sin someone does to you, not the death of a loved one, not your death.  You can start and break 100 Lenten practices and that will not make God love you less or lessen the power of his victory.

God wins the battle, full stop.



Lent 2, Year C, 2013

In the 2011-2012 school year, 29 students and recent students of Harper High School in Chicago were shot.  Eight of those students died.  The producers of the NPR program This American Life were deeply curious about what life is like in a school that lies in such a violent community.  They sent three reporters to spend five months interviewing students, parents, teachers, and staff.

What they found surprised them.  The violence was gang related, but not drug related.  The neighborhood around Harper is made up of a dozen small, loosely organized gangs based on blocks and neighborhoods.  A child is automatically a part of a gang, just by living on a particular block .  To avoid gang activity, the only option is for the child to never leave his home after school.  Gun violence occurs because of perceived slights, romantic relationships gone bad, revenge, and for no reason at all.  This violence affects every child at Harper High School.  Every one of the members of its football team, for instance, have been shot at some point in their adolescence.

Harper high school has an incredibly dedicated principal, teachers, and school psychologists.  However, the adults who emerge as having the closest relationships with students are the two social workers assigned to the school.

Crystal and Anita have an official caseload of 55 students, but many more come to their office to find a safe place to talk.  Their tiny office is often so filled with students, there is no place for anyone to sit.  You can hear the concern in their voices as they ask a student about his trouble sleeping after he accidentally shot his own brother.  You have the image of these women as hens gathering these children to themselves like chicks, using their limited resources to act as peacemakers, counselors, mothers.  They will do nearly anything to protect these kids.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, gathering in his chicks.  Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is looking for him.  Herod Anitpas was the Roman tetrarch of Judea–the territory where Jesus was most active.  Herod was the agent of Roman rule and culture, in opposition of Jewish rule and culture.   Jesus loathed Herod.  In describing himself as a hen, Jesus sets himself in opposition to Herod.  Herod is the fox that comes after God’s people and Jesus is the hen who protects God’s people.  Herod is leading the Jews away from God’s word and vision for them, while Jesus will walk straight into his death at Jerusalem for God’s people.

Crystal and Anita, the social workers at Harper High School, are trying to protect their students from the prevailing culture, too.  Roman culture said that the Emperor and his power should be at the center of everyone’s worship.  The culture of the neighborhood in which Harper High School sits says that power through violence is the central truth to which everyone should adjust.  Crystal and Anita are trying desperately to change the points of view of individual students, so that the culture at large will change.

Jesus, of course, is also drawing people to himself and trying to change a prevailing culture.  He wants desperately for God’s people to return to God and live lives of justice and peace.  He talks and talks and talks about what God’s kingdom is like.  He gathers followers one by one, and encourages them to transform their lives.

Back to Harper High.  A day or two before the big homecoming game and dance, a former student is shot.  As the student lies in the hospital, the staff at Harper High frantically try to find out what possible reactions might be and whether or not they should cancel the game and dance for security purposes.  The last thing they want is a shooting on their property.  The principal, Leonetta Sanders, attempts to recruit teachers, staff, and their spouses to act as extra security for the game.  Anita, one of the social workers has spent all day talking with students about what staff might expect.  Students have warned her that there is a very real danger of violence at each event.  Anita, mother of two small children, has made the difficult decision to go home so she will be safe.  At first she tells this to the reporter calmly, but soon she breaks down in tears of guilt.  She wants so badly to protect her students from their own terrible decisions, but she has reached a line she cannot cross.  Ordinarily, she is not fearful like this—she walks through the neighborhoods around Harper, talking with students, walking to their houses, meeting with parents.  But on this day, with a credible threat of shootings, she decides the risk is not worth it.

Who can blame her!  How many of us would even enter the neighborhood around Harper High, much less enter it every day, over and over again, tackling the issue of gun violence every day?  The teachers and staff at Harper have incredible moral courage, but even the most courageous person has limits, and for Anita those limits are making sure her children have a mother who is alive and well to care for them.

Jesus did not share these limits.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus seems completely aware that the inevitable outcome of his ministry is his death.  Jesus identifies himself in the line of prophets who die in Jerusalem, but unlike other prophets who have died after speaking God’s truth to God’s people, Jesus’ death will prove redemptive.

No matter how hard they try, Crystal and Anita are unlikely to create such a cultural change that the neighborhoods around Harper High become safe again.  The barriers of poverty and culture are incredibly strong.  Crystal and Anita may help get shepherd a few children safely through, and will undoubtedly help hundreds more along the way feel loved, but change of that scale is incredibly difficult.

We humans are a stubborn, stubborn bunch.  Over and over again we make choices that are bad for us.  Whether it is picking up guns in the streets of Chicago or driving after a couple glasses of wine on highway 29; worshiping a Roman Emperor or worshiping a paycheck; we court our own self destruction every day.  God knows this about us.  He tried helping us in so many ways—giving us time in the desert, leading us to a promised land, giving us judges, kings, and then prophets.  But no matter how charismatic our leader or wise our prophet, we always fell back into idol worship and injustice.

So God sends us Jesus, his very self.  And Jesus has to be more than a prophet.  He has to be more than a social worker.  We need more than encouragement.  We need more than love.  We need a miracle.

And so Jesus’s ministry is not just his miracles and cures, not just his words of rebuke and hope.  Jesus ministry is also Jerusalem, because without Jerusalem there could be no death and without Jesus’ death there would be no resurrection.  Jesus did not come to simply help us manage our sin and brokenness.  He came not only to comfort us like a mother hen.  He came destroy the hold sin and brokenness have over us.  He came to open the door for all of us, those in the pews here in Ivy, and those in the hallways of Harper High School.  He came to create the beginning of a future in which there will be no more violence, no more tears, only love.  We wait, we long for that future to unfold.  And while we wait, we join Crystal, Anita and Principal Sanders in extending our wings to the world around us, offering a vision of hope and peace and of a God who loves us, even to death.


Good Friday, Year A, 2008

We are a bloodthirsty people.

When I say we, I don’t mean us here at Emmanuel, or even us as Americans, I mean the big “us”, humanity.  For whatever reason, when under the right kind of pressure, and the right circumstances we will kill another person with the same ease with which we might bat an annoying fly out of our eyes.

Last week we killed a few dozen people in Tibet.  The month before that we killed 1000 people in Kenya.  Since the beginning of the war, we’ve killed 3,988 American soldiers and anywhere between 82,000 and 650,000 Iraqi civilians, depending on who is counting.  Since 2003, we’ve killed between 98,000 and 181,000 Sudanese in Darful alone.   In the last fifteen years we killed 937,000 people in Rwanda and 3,800,000 in the Kinshasha Congo.

And that’s just a sampling of political conflict from the last twenty years!  Those figures don’t encompass the 180,000 people who were murdered last year in countries that keep records of that sort of thing.  If you’re interested, the United States has the sixth highest murder rate, behind India, Russia, Columbia, South Africa and Mexico.  Yay us? Only one person got murdered in Iceland, if you’re thinking about moving somewhere a little saner.

We don’t do too well with political figures we admire either.  We killed Benazier Bhutto this year.  We killed Indira Gandhi in the 80s. We killed both Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Junior and Abraham Lincoln.  We tried to kill the last Pope, too.  We’ve killed quite a few up and coming politicians in Iraq and I’d list them, but they are just too many to name.

We also kill people who speak the truth to us.  We killed Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist, and Daniel Pearl, the American one.  We killed Kenji Nagai, the Japanese journalist covering the uprising in Burma.  We killed Alisher Saipov in Uzbekistan and 64 journalists in 2007—half of them in Iraq.

Frankly, Jesus did not stand a chance.  A truth-telling, religious and political upstart who claimed he was God?  Yeah, that was going to end well.

Throughout most of history, Jesus’ death has been understood as the will of God—as an act of atonement so humanity’s relationship with God could be restored.  And maybe that is true.  But it might also be true that we have come to that understanding because Jesus’ death being God’s will is a much more soothing sentiment than Jesus’ death being the result of our uncontrollable, murderous impulses.

In two days, we’ll get to experience God’s redemption of the murder of his Son, but for now we’re left with our own culpability.

We’re left staring at ourselves in the mirror wondering what we would have done.  Would we have tried to fight the powers that be, calm down the crowds and take the many moments of opportunity that presented themselves in order to attempt to free Jesus from his captors?

Would we have sat idly by, watching, but congratulating ourselves that at least we know this execution is distasteful?

Would we have shaken our fists and called out for his blood?

Would we have become terrified and run away?

The odds are we would have had one of those reactions. The women who loved Jesus sat silent vigil.  The men who loved him hid themselves out of fear of being caught.  Pilate, when given the option to follow his conscience and not execute Jesus, did what was easier. The crowd as individuals might have been reasonable people, but when massed together they became a vulgar, violent mob.

In a way, the death of Jesus is terribly ironic. After all, it is just because of our selfish, murderous, detached, lazy, hypocritical natures that we need a savior in the first place.  When God was gracious enough to give us that savior, what do we do?  We kill him.  Of course.

So, where does this leave us?  Are we soulless, moral-less people who are a danger to everyone around us?  Of course not.

But we are capable of such things.  Each of us.  We carry with us the potential for hate, for violence, for betrayal, for deadly inaction.   Thankfully, through the grace of God and events that will unfold over the next two days, we are not stuck in this mire.  Thankfully, we are also capable of forgiveness, grace, understanding, and reconciliation.  We are never stuck where we are–God is always shaping us to be more whole

In light of various events in the last week and a half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the remarks Bobby Kennedy made when he found out Martin Luther King had been shot.  At one point he said,

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
 falls drop by drop upon the heart,
 until, in our own despair,
 against our will,
 comes wisdom
 through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

He went on to say,

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

“To make gentle the life of this world.”  What a beautiful expression and what difficult work.  However, difficult, it is our work.  For our work is to follow Christ, the rabble rouser and the peacemaker, wherever that may lead us.

All Saints’ Day, Year C, 2007

Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints day, perhaps the most bittersweet day of the church calendar.  Today we honor and pray for those we love who have died in the last year and we contemplate the long line of saints who have gone before us, those who will go after us, and of course, we contemplate our own mortality.

In the very early years of Christianity, the Church would honor the death of every martyr for the faith.  Unfortunately, because Christians were persecuted so thoroughly, soon it became impractical to honor each person martyred and a yearly celebration of the martyrs’ deaths was incorporated into the Church calendar.  Over time, the day of celebration morphed into a commemoration of all the saints.  For a long time, saints were defined as people who were heroically virtuous, but Protestants now celebrate All Saints day as a way to remember all persons who have gone before us in the faith.  The change came as the theology of justification changed-Protestants believe that we do not work to earn our salvation, but that Christ justifies all believers. 

This year, for us at Emmanuel, All Saints Day is particularly poignant, since one of our own saints, Bill Colmery, died unexpectedly of heart failure on Monday morning.  We read his name on the list of the departed, and it seems shockingly wrong for us to see his name there.  Bill was a devoted husband and father, a faithful member of this parish, and a consistent fixture at the Bread Fund, our food bank program.  He was far too young to die, and yet here we are, a mere six days later, celebrating his life along with the lives of the great prophets, apostles and martyrs of the church. 

All Saints day is a reminder that death is not very far from us, that we will all experience death. This is a sobering thought, but ultimately All Saints day is reminds us that death is not the end of the story.

None of us knows exactly what happens when we die, but one fundamental part of Christian belief is that Jesus’ death and resurrection radically changed humanity’s relationship with death.  Rather than just dying, Jesus’ death and resurrection invites us into an eternal relationship with God.  This relationship is not bound by the constraints of time or death. 

So, if we who are alive are in fellowship with God and those who have died before us are in relationship with God, then at some level, we are still in relationship with those who have died ahead of us.

We just celebrated Halloween this week, and many a ghost decked the porches of my more creative and industrious neighbors. We as a culture are fascinated with the dead. We love ghosts, haunted houses, psychics who speak with the dead, but for Christians, none of this is necessary.  We have a connection with our dead loved ones that is far deeper and more real and more profound than any parlor trick.

In every Eucharistic prayer you will hear a reference to the communion of all the Saints.  When we take communion-when we share in the body and blood of Christ-we become physically connected to the communion of all the saints-those kneeling next to us, those praying on another continent and those who are already experiencing the fullness of God in heaven.

We do not know exactly how this communion works.  We do not know at which level those persons who have died are cognizant of those of us still alive.  References to life after death in the Bible describe heaven alternately as a city, as a mansion with many rooms, and always refer to the saints praising God.  We know there is no grief in heaven.  We also know that heaven will have many features of the Kingdom of God that we read in our Gospel lesson today.  The hungry will be filled, the grief stricken will be comforted, and the poor will finally find their place.  We know our relationships won’t be entirely the same-Jesus straightened out the guy who wondered which husband a widow of several men would get to marry-there is not marriage in heaven.  But some kind of relationship will exist, though I imagine it will be centered on God in a way we cannot even imagine.

Our prayer book includes prayers for the dead and Catholics have long prayed to the saints, so maybe there is more of a relationship between the two parts of the communion than we might think.  As a child, I used to ask God to say hi to my grandfather when I said my prayers at night.  For a long time I was embarrassed by this, but upon reflection, I might have been on to something!

I think we have the Biblical and theological freedom to continue our relationships with our loved ones through prayer.  Sometimes as we grieve, we realize there are things we have not said to the deceased that might help if said prayerfully.  Alternately, we may experience a specific joy we’d like to share with a loved one.  While we may feel silly, and there is certainly no proof  that our communications reach our loved ones’ ears, I don’t think there is anything harmful or unchristian about speaking to our friends and family who have gone before us. 

Let me be clear-we make a baptismal vow not to mess around with the spiritual world-so I do not advocate séances, psychics, ouija boards and the like.  The church is not in the business of raising the dead.  Well, Jesus was, and the occasional apostle, but it’s generally wise for the rest of us not to mess around with all of that.

But when we prayerfully communicate with members of the Communion of Saints, we are not trying to raise them from the dead.  We are acknowledging that they have gone before us to a place we are soon to follow and that the bonds between us have not been entirely broken by death.

Acknowledging that we are part of a larger communion of saints than the communion that is currently alive is not a morbid Halloween exercise, but a celebration of the eternal life Christ has given us through his death and resurrection.  Today, as we celebrate the Eucharist together, just imagine who might be kneeling with you, joining with you as you become one in communion with Christ.

Ash Wednesday, Year B, 2006

From our Psalm today:  “He redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness”

Today we gather to observe Ash Wednesday.  We gather to remember our mortality, to repent of our sins, and to prepare ourselves for Lent.  This service is a painful one-full of images of our brokenness and our sin, but it is not a service that is without hope. 

Ash Wednesday and Lent provide the space for us to contemplate the darker areas of our lives.  We spend so much of our time fulfilling responsibilities that need to be filled, we tend not to have a lot of time to think and pray about the larger issues that may haunt us-grief over a loved ones’ death or the end of a relationship, fear about our own deaths, concern about our separation from God.  Unlike the sometimes forced cheerfulness of Christmas or Easter, Lent gives us permission to be more contemplative, less happy. 

For me, Lent is a time to remember my mother’s death.  She died six years ago this week.  Each Lent that has followed has felt a little different.  The first Lent I was still too stunned to feel much of anything.  The second Lent I was angry and felt piercing sadness. By the third Lent, I had found some level of peace and resignation.  In preparation for this Ash Wednesday, this Lent, I have been thinking about these words we will use in a few minutes:  Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. 

At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we are but flesh.  My mother was dead two days before anyone found her, and the image of her abandoned, lifeless body has stayed with me as an image of the organic finality of death.  The last few years, we have been overwhelmed by images of death:  the victims of the Tsumani, of the war in Iraq, of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  The image of an unclaimed body is a lonely one, and thousands of bodies remain unclaimed, unidentified from these disasters.  What are we, in the end, but dust?  A pile of molecules tentatively held together by water and energy.  Or are we?

The words “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” contain more than this barren image of death. Humans do not only end as dust, we began as dust as well. 

Remember you are dust. . . evokes the image of the Creator God breathing into dust to create human life.  When we say Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. . .we remind ourselves that the very ground of our being both created us and will be with us when we die.  We are reminded that our deaths are not a mere organic event, but are a transition-all within the scope of God’s loving care.  There is no place we can run to escape the love of God. Even our deaths do not separate us from Him. 

My mother was not really alone at the time of her death, and none of us will be, either.  We are not alone in our grief, in our depression, in our anger, even in our loneliness.  The same God who breathed life into the first man, and tenderly created the first woman, made each of us, and we rest in his loving hands throughout our entire lives.  Death is not powerful enough to separate us from our Creator and Redeemer.  Nothing is. 

This Lent, we are invited to draw near to this God who created us with such care and affection.  We repent of our sins and give up small pleasures during Lent, not because God wants to judge us, but because God wants us to draw near to him, to need him in a way we don’t often allow ourselves. 

God wants to breathe life into you just as he breathed life into Adam. 

 He redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;