Sermons

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.”

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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.

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Sermons

Sermon: Monday, December 24, 2012: Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

 

Our worlds begin and end when a child is born.

314585_10200222683877889_1546527754_nIt seems dangerous to say anything about the end of the world after the Mayan apocalypse, scheduled for last Friday, failed to produce anything too spectacular.  I saw an editorial comic on Saturday that read, “Same job. Same friends. Same everything. Um… this afterlife really sucks.  Stupid Mayans!”  That about summed it up as far as I was concerned.  Lots of hype, but no real change.

Do you suppose that’s the reason doomsday predictions get so much attention?  That, deep down, people are longing for the world to end, or at least to change?

These days the predictions seem to spring up every other year or so.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the end of the world in 1975, then again in 1984.  Back in the 70’s, Pat Robertson predicted the world would end in 1982.  In the early 1990’s, Louis Farrakhan saw the first Gulf War as the beginning of a final war of ArmageddonHarold Camping has raked in millions of dollars over the years with doomsday predictions falling three times in 1994, then again in 1995, and yet again twice last year in 2011.  There were plenty of predictions of chaos and destruction in the year 1999, with everyone from Nostradamus to the Nuwaubian Nation weighing in — though pop/funk musician Prince seemed sure it was all going to be a big party.  

Looking ahead, there are already people who’ve gone on record saying that 2013 will be the year of Christ’s return. But most Christians will do that one better and say that today, this very night, God’s future breaks into the present once again as God takes on flesh in Jesus Christ, and that because of this eternal birth, the world as we know it has come to an end.

As much as Hollywood may prefer a fiery, explosive apocalypse, the rest of the world understands that there is no better sign or symbol for the end of one way of life and the beginning of a new one than the arrival of a baby.  Gone are the days of sleeping through the night, or spontaneous late nights with friends, or disposable income.  Everything is re-evaluated with reference to this new reality.  There is a baby in the house.

The birth we celebrate this night is the arrival of the baby of Bethlehem, who will be given many titles throughout his life.  

“He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace…” (Isaiah 9:6b-7a)

The prophet Isaiah imagined a child who would come and signal an end to the world as he’d known it, a world defined by wars and conquests and occupations.  A world defined by violence.  The child Isaiah imagined would bring an end to war and usher in a new age of peace.

As we sit among children and grandchildren this Christmas Eve, we are all too aware of how fragile life is and how dangerous the world around us can be.  We are shocked by the increasingly frequent violence that has invaded our homes, schools and neighborhoods.  We grieve with those whose Christmases this year will be defined by their losses and we pray that this world, this one we’ve too quickly grown accustomed to, would end.

Some have proposed that our world will only become safer when each of us is as armed as the most dangerous among us.  That is not a new solution.  In times of fear, people have always been tempted to look for their security in the power of arms, armor and armies.  We look to kings and presidents and generals for assurances that we will be safe, that we will be saved.

The Christmas story gives us just the opposite.  During a time no less dangerous than our own, when families were torn apart by the violence of war and torn down by the economics of empire, God ended the world as we’d known it by setting aside power and wrapping God’s own self in flesh, to live a life like ours.  At a time when emperors and kings held all the power and called all the shots, God chose to be born into the world among the poor, far from home, surrounded by strangers.

Tonight each one of us is invited to see by the glow of our tiny candles that the world is not the same.  The future is not defined by the past.  The end of the world doesn’t take place all at once, but in each new moment as God takes on flesh in you, in me, in our church, throughout our neighborhoods, across the world.  In the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, and in each new life that enters this world, God chooses creation instead of destruction as God’s preferred method of ending the world as we’ve known it.

My prayer for each of us is that we might leave this sanctuary tonight, filled with the light and the life of this new world; that we would approach the new creation outside these doors with all the love we normally reserve for a newborn child.  Touch its wintery woods, smell its snowy air, pay attention to its firsts, encourage its faltering steps toward motion, snap photos of its growth, surround it with our love and protect it from all harm.

Our worlds begin and end when a child is born. 

Tonight the world is born again. 

O come, let us adore it.

Merry Christmas, and Amen.

 

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