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: Sunday, November 2, 2014: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Revelation 7:9-17  +  Psalm 34:1-10, 22  +  1 John 3:1-3  +  Matthew 5:1-12

I keep icons in my office of the saints that inspire me. I have one of RLHENHenri Nouwen, the Dutch priest who wrote beautifully about the connection between spirituality and social justice and who lived in community with adults with developmental delays. I have one of RLSTBSteve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who said “Black is beautiful” and who reminded all of us who live with oppression on a daily basis that the first step to liberation is to “begin to look upon yourself as a human being.” I have one of RLHRMHarvey Milk, the gay activist and San Francisco politician who didn’t enter the public arena until after he’d turned forty, and who paved the way for wider social acceptance of LGBTQ people long before anything like the modern movement existed by speaking into the enforced silence of the closet and insisting that “you gotta give them hope.”

These particular icons were painted by robertRobert Lentz, a Franciscan friar who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, a northern neighborhood in the Washington, D.C. metro area who studied traditional Byzantine iconography in a Greek Orthodox monastery, but whose own passion is depicting the ordinary and unacknowledged saints whose lives are not always recognized as holy. In his collection of saints there are images of RLCCZCesar Chavez and RLDRDDorothy Day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mother Jones, Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi. None of these people have ever been “canonized,” or recognized RLECSRLMOJas saints, by the Roman Catholic church to which Lentz belongs, not all of them are even Christians, but taken together they help me imagine the “great multitude that no one could RLABERLMOGcount, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” described in the passage we heard read from Revelation this morning (7:9).

I also keep photographs in my office of Kerry, and my parents and sister, and close friends who have accompanied me through life. These are my personal saints on my private altar, my reminder that all life is holy and that my life is holy too. I’m sure you do the same, whether they be school photos stuck to your refrigerator with magnets, framed portraits hung on your walls, old prints organized into albums, or pictures taken with your phone and posted to Facebook. It’s almost instinctive how we surround ourselves with images of the people, past and present, who remind us of who we are and who we want to become.Christmas, 2009 014

In a world before smartphones and Polaroids, before even photography, the most accessible way to preserve an image of a person wasn’t with a camera but with words. Families passed favorite stories, paradigmatic tales, of one another down through the generations as they gathered around tables for sumptuous meals, or as they worked side by side in the fields. Just as with photographs, we could see our family resemblance to one another in the attitudes and actions taken by our ancestors in similar situations.

It’s interesting to think about the Beatitudes as photographs of a kind, word pictures crafted so succinctly that you could memorize them like a poem and carry them with you the way I used to keep senior pictures taken in high school in my wallet to keep faraway friends near to me, the way we whip out our phones to share pictures of our children, or nieces and nephews, or students.

To the crowds of people who’d followed him, hoping for a word of teaching that would put his acts of healing and liberation into a form they could carry with them wherever they went, Jesus said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

What pictures come to your mind when you hear the names of those Jesus calls blessed?

Is there a face from your past or present that represents “the poor in spirit”?

Who in your life is the one who mourns?

Do you have a picture in your mind of “the meek”?

Do you keep company with “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”?

Do you have a story to tell about the person in your life who has shown mercy?

Do you know anyone who is “pure of heart”?

Is there a name or a face that defines for you what it means to be a peacemaker?

Can you identify with those who are persecuted for their attempts to live a righteous life?

Do you have a story from your own life when your commitment to a life of discipleship has evoked harsh words and condemnation?

We surround ourselves with these images from our past and our present, names and faces of people who have lived by faith in the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, of a resurrected life, where the blessings of God would be shared equitably among all people. They sit not only on our desks, but next to us in these pews, all around us in this neighborhood. We have welcomed them into our congregation at the font, as we did this past year with Deacon Adams and Isaiah Swanson. We have given thanks for the witness of their lives at the time of their death, as we have this past year with Ramon Nieves, Lila Voss, Louise Ambuel, Andy Miller, Ernesto Garcia, and now our brother ST_LUKES_PORTRAIT_Select-0144Eugene Walawski. We have shared dinner with them, family style, around tables blessed by homemade food. We have met them at the Logan Square monument to cry out for peace, to mourn the murder of a homeless man, to march for affordable housing. We have danced with them on the Boulevard under late summer skies, and we will celebrate with them once again on that final day when we all gather before the throne worshipping God and giving thanks for the blessings of this life, “singing, Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:12)

Brothers and sisters, we are all saints of God, we are all wearing the white robes of our baptism, we are all inheritors of God’s vision where the people of God are a blessing to those who are poor in body or spirit, those who are meek or who mourn; where the promises made at this font to work for justice and peace throughout the world are honored together so that the peacemakers and the activists and the persecuted and the outcasts are never alone, but always surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses of saints and martyrs of every time and place and also by us, here and now.

We, who are still in the middle of the great ordeal, have been given to each other as a blessing. Look at each other. Memorize the faces you see here. Learn to look upon the face of your neighbor as though you were seeing their image through the light of these votives, as though each person you encountered was among God’s elect. Carry these faces with you wherever you go, knowing that God’s face is revealed among us.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)