Sermon: Wednesday, February 14, 2018: Ash Wednesday

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Ash Wednesday of 2018. Audio of this sermon can be found here.

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Almost exactly two years ago on an Ash Wednesday like today, I made the walk from my former parish to the home of a young couple in our community who’d just given birth to their first child. It had been a tumultuous year for them, as this young mother’s own father had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer midway through the pregnancy. At a time when life is already measured in weeks and trimesters, she and her family were marking the passage of time along two fragile timelines — the number of days until their child would be born and the number of days until their father would die.

51WdThjOnNL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The cancer moved quickly, and the grandfather left this world weeks before the grandchild entered it. She was brought home from the hospital on Ash Wednesday,  so I made my customary visit with the family carrying two familiar things: a book of blessings by the Irish poet, priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue, and a small ceramic saucer filled with black ashes.

O’Donohue’s blessing for when a child comes into the world is one of my favorites, and I love to share it with families in those early days when the miracle of life is still keenly felt, before a sense of routine ordinariness has set back in. It goes like this:

As I enter my new family, may they be delighted / at how their kindness comes into blossom. / Unknown to me and them, may I be exactly the one / to restore in their forlorn places new vitality and promise. / May the hearts of others hear again the music / in the lost echoes of their neglected wonder.

If my destiny is sheltered, may the grace of this privilege / reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places. / If my destiny is bleak, may I find in myself / a secret stillness and tranquility beneath the turmoil.

May my eyes never lose sight of why I have come here, / that I never be claimed by the falsity of fear or eat the bread of bitterness. / In everything I do, think, feel, and say, / may I allow the light of the world I am leaving / to shine through and carry me home.

Ash-Wednesday-Cross-450x450After reciting the blessing over this newborn child I asked about the ashes, wondering how they would respond to this sign of our inescapable mortality only two days into their daughter’s life. “Do you want her to receive the ashes?” I asked. “Yes,” they nodded. “It seems right.” So we prayed together, asking God to use these ashes to remind us of our mortality, not so that we might live our lives terrified of death, but so that we would be encouraged to wring every drop of joy out of the gifts of the lives that God has given us. “Anna,” I said, “our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” and “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” I made the sign of the cross on her tiny forehead with dark ashes in the place where soon after she was washed with water and anointed with oil.

Death and life are always this close together, whether we can bear to acknowledge it or not. I hear Ash Wednesday’s dusty reminder very differently this year than I have in years past, as I know many of you do as well. When we are young, or healthy, or very busy, these words may jolt us in a very different way than when we are old, or sick, or moving slowly enough to observe what time does to a tree or a tulip over the course of a year. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”


My parents’ wedding blessing for me and Kerry, rendered beautifully in watercolor by the Rev. Megan Clausen.

On the day of our wedding, my parents offered Kerry and I a blessing of their own organized around four hard-won truths from their marriage: 1.) Life is full of wonder and miracles, 2.) life is often hard, 3.) relationships are messy and complicated, and 4.) life is short and precious. For our first anniversary I asked Megan Clausen, a recent graduate of this institution who came here from the same congregation in Des Moines, Iowa in which I also grew up, to set their words over one of her beautiful watercolors. The result hangs in our living room to remind us of that blessing every day, so that I cannot read the words “Life is short and precious” without also seeing the brilliant oranges flowing next to the rainy grays and the starry blues she painted.

Whether it’s “remember that you are dust …” or “life is short and precious,” the message is the same. You are alive and that is a gift. Live like you know it. Spend your days and weeks giving birth to the life you long to live. Spend your seasons building the world God calls us to inhabit. Spend your lives like they mean something, because they do. Because you are someone’s beloved child, you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14), you are chosen, a royal priesthood, a holy community, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9).

This great love is the fuel that feeds the fire of Isaiah’s holy anger at the world’s injustice, not guilt or shame, but love set loose in public to name the harms that follow from all our chasing after things that rust and decay. Our world, which so quickly assigns human qualities to commodities while treating people like objects to be bought and sold, is diabolical in its efforts to get us to willingly spend the most basic currency we have — our lives — investing in the very things that tear us apart. Then the moment comes (and it comes more than once) when you realize that the things you’ve been chasing aren’t really life at all, and the moments you have left are precious and few. You come face to face with your regret and wish you had spent your days differently.

In that moment, as in every moment, God is waiting for us. It is not too late. “Then you shall call, and God will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Isa. 58:9) Here I am.

Beloved community, we have arrived once again at this day which comes to us with the same regularity that brings new life to the tree, fresh flowers from the bulb. This is the start of the season that ends with our resurrection. It is not too late, it is never too late, to treasure each day of your life, to invest yourselves in the people and places that matter, to bless the world and our God who made it with the lives you have been given. It is never too late to live like you are really alive, which somehow is easier to do when you remember that you too are dust, and to dust you shall return.


Sermon: Wednesday, March 1, 2017: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2,12-17  +  Ps. 51:1-17  +  2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10  +  Matt. 6:1-6,16-21

One thing I miss about our former church building is the presence of the different 12-step groups that met in the Lesher Lounge across the hall from my office on various nights throughout the week. Over the years we’d hosted a number of A.A. and N.A. groups and I’d gotten to know their members, who would drop by my office to talk, share news from their lives, and occasionally to ask me if I could preside at the funerals of members who’d died.


Week after week these people gathered to recount the core tenets of their faith (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable / We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”), to listen to one another’s testimonies, to offer the kind of grace only another addict can give, to remind each other to “keep showing up,” and to fight for their lives. Because that’s what is at stake when you become aware of your addictions, your very life.

Do you have that sense when you come to worship, that you are here fighting for your very life?

I do.

When I look around at the world and see how badly it tries to warp the image of God, so clearly imprinted upon each of us; how it lies to us and badgers us and coerces us into giving up our self-esteem, our dignity, our love toward one another, our compassion — everything that makes us human. When I see people working themselves to death to prove to their neighbors and fellow citizens that they are worthy of acceptance and belonging. consumerismWhen I see people spending their time and their money on projects and purchases that are supposed to demonstrate, once and for all, that they made it, that they got out, that they succeeded. I see the power of death corrupting us from the inside out, worming its way into our hearts and souls and lying to us over and over again until we are willing hand over our birthright: the knowledge that, in God’s eyes, we are all good, and whole, and loved.

The alcoholic doesn’t give up drinking, the addict doesn’t give up drugs, to prove that they have willpower. They do it because they know their life is on the line and they want to live, or at least they want to want to live. So why do we “give something up” for Lent? Is it to prove the strength of our will? Is it a kind of offering to God, something we love given up to demonstrate an even deeper love? Maybe, and if so, okay. But with each passing year I hear more and more people saying, “I don’t give anything up for Lent,” and I understand why. Because if giving something up is just one more optional discipline in our already over-burdened lives, why would we bother? Most of us are going to need a deeper motivation than tradition to structure our behavior.

Let me suggest a different motivation.

You already know that our planet is in peril, that the Earth we are leaving to our children is compromised in ways that will take generations to heal. You already know that humanity is divided between the rich and the poor, that nearly half the world’s population lives on less than $3 a day. You already know that the nations are at war, that we are all experiencing the impact of a global refugee crisis. You already know that our nation is bitterly divided along partisan lines, and that our city is bleeding out from the ongoing epidemic of gun violence. You already know that this neighborhood is on the front lines of a class war that has pitted the working poor and working class against wave after wave of gentrifiers with affordable housing as the battleground. Those are the causes we most frequently name when we offer up our prayers to God — because we are conscious and we are compassionate, because we care about our neighbors and the planet we all share.

But those concerns also remain, for some of us, pretty abstract. They are the problems we know we are supposed to care about, the issues we post about on social media. They are the sorts of problems that we suppose can be fixed by having the right opinions, without requiring any true sacrifice on our part. They are the sorts of problems we can worry about, even work on, without examining our own lives too closely — without asking questions that might demand hard answers from ourselves.

ash-wednesday-2Ash Wednesday asks us to remember our mortality: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” To know that we are not dying someday, we are already well on our way. Death is not far off for any of us, whether it comes next week or forty years from now. Our time is short, and the gift of life we have received was not meant to be wasted chasing after the false gods that promise solutions to problems they themselves have created.

Lent is for you. In the same way that Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years in their quest to become free people, Lent is that forty day pilgrimage in which each of us is called to rigorous self-examination, to make an honest inventory of the ways we are tempted to give up on each other and ourselves, and to figure out why. Why are we so susceptible to the lure of advertising? What in our past made us feel so deficient that only the right clothes or the right neighborhood could fill that void? Why are we so willing to sacrifice our friendships and our marriages to the demands of our jobs? When did we learn that our worth was determined by our work? Why do we binge-watch hour after hour of fantasies about other people’s lives? Why are we consumed with jealousy about other people’s families? Why are we so obsessed with how much or how little we eat? What are the patterns and habits you find yourself trapped inside, and what would you have to give up if you wanted to be truly free?

Paulo Freire asks the question this way,

“What if we discover that our present way of life is irreconcilable with our vocation to become fully human?”

This is what God wants for you — that you turn and remember that you are already fully human, and that you not waste another hour of your one, precious life trying to earn something you’ve already been given as a free gift. You belong here on this earth, among the company of humanity, safe wherever you go, loved for who you are. Anything that says otherwise is a lie you need to give up — not just for Lent, but for life.

Here is what I’ve been saying about our community to those who ask me what our ministry is about: we are about creating powerful change in the lives of people so that, together, we can create powerful change in the world around us. My suspicion is that we are much more comfortable with the second half of that equation — naming and laboring for a changed world. The thing is, in order for our witness to have any credibility, we must attend to the first half of the equation as well. We cannot claim God’s love for the world if we cannot claim God’s love for ourselves. We cannot proclaim God’s liberation for the oppressed if we cannot accept God’s desire to set us free. We cannot credibly convey God’s grace to others if we cannot receive God’s grace ourselves.

So, if you are still struggling to figure out what to give up for Lent this year, try this as a starting point — try giving up the idea that there is someone more deserving of God’s grace, God’s freedom, and God’s love than you. Then, if you can figure out what it is in your life that keeps that idea alive, give that up as well. Become a ruthless investigator of your own soul and fight for it, as if you were fighting for your very life, because you are — and we are all here fighting alongside you.

Keep coming back.


Sermon: Wednesday, February 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2,12-17  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

mars_2445397bGeorge Hatcher is a man in his mid-thirties who works as a NASA engineer in Florida. He is married with a two-year old, and ever since he was a young child he has wanted to live on Mars. He may just get his wish.

Earlier this week it was announced that George was one of a hundred finalists out of an initial pool of over two hundred thousand being considered to establish a permanent human colony on Mars.  The project isn’t being sponsored by NASA, but by Mars One, a Dutch, not-for-profit foundation interested in inspiring a new generation to continue exploring the vast expanses of creation that exist beyond our atmosphere.

I became aware of George’s story because he is an alumnus of the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI), the same summer program of theological exploration to which this congregation sent Lynda Deacon about five years ago. Almost twenty years ago George was a rising high school senior, spending a month with young scholars from around the country on the campus of Emory University exploring the connection between their faith and the pressing issues of the day. Today he identifies as Baha’i, part of a global religious movement with roots in 19th century Persia that emphasizes the unity of God, religion and humanity.

In an interview for YTI’s alumni newsletter released before this week’s announcement, George spoke about his desire to travel to Mars, particularly in light of the fact that the mission is planned as a one-way trip with no return to Earth.  He said,

Regardless of whether I’m selected to go, making it to the second round of the application process has been more philosophically beneficial that I could ever have imagined. Every deep breath of free oxygen I draw in, every meal I enjoy, every step I take in Earth gravity, every sunset I witness, every moment I spend with my family and friends is more special, more profound, more real than ever before. When you live your life with the knowledge that your years on Earth might be fewer in number than you previously thought, when you know the actual date you might wave goodbye to everything you love, it’s almost like knowing the hour of your death. It fundamentally changes you. For me, it’s already for the better. I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.

“I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.”

If I could reduce the meaning of tonight’s gathering to one sentence, that would be a contender. In contrast to the almost forced gloom with which some associate Ash Wednesday, what I hear in the ancient reminder, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is an encouragement to live, like George, with a sense of your own mortality so that each breath, each meal, each step, each sunset, each moment might be lived to the fullest. So that we all might come to really love the lives we’ve been given to the fullest, rather than squander them in anxiety and despair.

All this talk of love may strike some as too light for an evening focused on our mortality and need for repentance. As for me, I hear Jesus instructing his followers,

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your  Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16)

There is a way of marking the season of Lent that focuses on generating a mood of self-denial for self-denial’s sake, that turns the forty day fast into a kind of spiritual marathon in which one can demonstrate to one’s self (and anyone who asks) a measure of Christian fortitude through the denial of pleasure — whether that be the traditional forsworn vices of coffee, or alcohol, or chocolate; or the more modern swearing off of television or social media. Without presuming to know every reason a person might choose to give up any of those activities, I’ll just say that I worry they miss the point.

The emphases on almsgiving, prayer and fasting outlined in Matthew’s gospel are not intended to create spiritual tests for us to pass, or to generate mild forms of suffering to help us empathize with the deeper suffering of Christ on the cross. These disciplines, as I understand them, are an invitation for us to notice all that diminishes our experience of the great gift of life that comes to us as an unmerited gift by the God who is revealed in Jesus as the voice of truth unmasking the interlocking set of lies that hold us captive to a vision of life that is literally killing us all.

If I fast during the season of Lent, as Muslims do during the season of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, it is not so that I will experience the suffering of hunger pangs, but so that I will be moved to consider the hunger that is experienced in and out of season by the world’s poor; so that I will be moved to deeper prayer; so that I will take the money I might have spent on food and reallocate it toward acts of mercy, justice and advocacy for those who are hungry every day of the year. My fasting brings me to consciousness of the painful brokenness of the world, my prayer moves me to action as my almsgiving, my offerings, create the change I long to see.

These disciplines are a form of repentance, which is not merely a manufactured emotion worn in public for all to see for forty days. It is an amended life, that turns away from the world and its death-dealing values to reclaim solidarity with all of God’s creation. It is the response to the prophet Joel’s call for us to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” (Joel 2:13)

All of which is good practice for the life of baptism, for which the season of Lent has historically served as a time of preparation. As we move through these forty days toward the festival of the resurrection at Easter, we are moving into a deeper awareness of the call we each receive in our baptism to repent; to notice, name and turn away from all the death-dealing powers of this world, so that we can more fully embrace the gift of the life God has given to each of us, and to the whole world.

What is it that generates distress in your life?  What lie does the world whisper in your ear that keeps you up at night?  Is it that you aren’t young enough? Old enough? Is it that you are too large or too small? That you don’t have enough money, enough education, enough experience, enough friends, enough time?

Dear ones, those voices lie. You are God’s own beloved but we are living in a world drowning in lies.

God has a different flood in store for you, a different deluge in which to wash you. There are waters that unite you to the rest of life on this planet, and beyond. Consider this night what you need to confess, what you need to remove from your life, what you need to eliminate from the menu of ideas and goods and habits the world keeps trying to force feed you. Consecrate this night a holy fast, a simplification of life, so that you might come to the great feast of Easter awaiting us all and be able to affirm a love of life deeper than you’ve ever imagined before.