Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 1, 2014: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 1:6-14  +  Psalm 68:1-10,32-35  +  1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11  +  John 17:1-11

Happy Anniversary, St. Luke’s!

On this very day, June 1, 1900 St. Luke’s was established as a congregation of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, one of the many predecessor bodies that over time merged into what is now the ELCA.

The church history prepared for St. Luke’s centennial celebrations back in 2000 tells the story this way:

“The history of St. Luke’s Church began on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1898, when a Sunday School conducted by St. Peter’s Church held its first session in a vacant store located at the corner of Diversey and Washtenaw Avenues [which today is where the JFK crosses over Diversey, just north of Brentano School]. Lars Undem and J. Paulsen were in charge.

In November, 1899, M. Edmund Haberland, a student at the Chicago Lutheran Seminary in Lakeview (located on the spot where Wrigley Field now stands), was called to develop a church in the area. He was still a student of the seminary and had only a limited about of time to devote to his work. But by persistent perseverance the work gradually grew and the confidence of the community was gained.

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1899 the first Christmas service was held… In March, 1900 the mission moved into an empty store room near the corner of Rockwell and Diversey Avenues [over by what is now the Green Exchange]. The first session in this new location was held April 1, 1900, and the last session January 6, 1901 when the congregation moved into the new chapel.”

Charter members of St. Luke's, #1-11

Charter members of St. Luke’s, #1-11

The church’s founding charter was signed by Pastor Haberland and his wife, Verna; Louis and Sara Mueller; Andrew and Hannah Gusterine; August and Caroline Johnson; Wilhelmina and Andrew Lindblad; and Lars Undem — one of the adult Sunday School teachers from St. Peter’s that had kicked the whole thing off. That’s five couples and a single guy who, with the help of the wider church, went from a Sunday School class in a store front to the three-story church building that stands behind this sanctuary in just a couple of years. It’s amazing to think what just a handful of people were able to do together by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I wonder what those early days were like.  We know so little about these charter members.  They’d been connected to another congregation, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. They’d been active in an adult program of Christian Education together. Their pastor was a young man still in seminary. What made them want to start a new church together?

We can only guess, but there are clues scattered throughout the parish register.  The neighborhood was full of congregations like Norwegian Lutheran Church (the Minnekirken) that still stands on the square, and other congregations that worshipped in Swedish or German.  But this community founded itself as St. Luke’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today the word “English” in this neighborhood might sound exclusionary, but in 1900 it signaled an openness to the children of immigrants from different parts of the world who spoke different languages and ate different foods, who had different traditions and customs. St. Luke’s picked a name that said, no matter which country your family originally came from, you are welcome here. This guess is supported by the names in the parish register: German names, like Haberland and Mueller; Scandinavian names, like Lindblad and Undem; Scotch-English names like Johnson.

Parish Record, St. Luke's English Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 1900.

Parish Record, St. Luke’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 1900.

Apparently this openness to the diversity of the neighborhood was attractive to others, who quickly began to join the parish.  The congregation grew from eleven to twenty in the first year, adding 31 people overall in the first year and a half. But not everyone stuck around. Early on, at least four members decided to go back to St. Peter’s, including Lars, the only single guy on the charter. We might speculate about why that was, but who can say for certain. It’s hard to be the one person in a small group who’s different from everyone else. The bachelor in a group of couples. The parents in a room full of childless young adults. Don’t be fooled, it’s hard work building community across lines of difference.

There are about ten others whom the records indicate were “excluded by Council” within the first two years.  Some of the entries say, “excluded by Council by request,” and others do not. Again, who can say what this means for sure, it might indicate that people who signed up early drifted away without giving anyone a reason, leaving it to the Council to decide that they were no longer interested. Or, it may be that there were disagreements about the direction the congregation was taking that resulted in a more active act of exclusion by the lay leaders. Who knows?

There were certainly enough reasons for people to be coming and going. Folks who’d grown up in stable big steeple churches were in for something different, coming to a storefront on Diversey for Sunday School, devotions and prayer. A young pastor, not even fully trained, might have drawn younger families into the church, but alienated people who had decades of life experience on him and his wife. Then there was the challenge of generating the will and raising the funds to move not once, but twice, from Washtenaw to Rockwell and then finally to Francisco. Building a church, creating a community, takes a lot of hard work. Not everyone was up for it.

I wonder how those early dozens would have heard the passage we read from First Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). Obviously we have to be careful not to equate every suffering and struggle of our own with a sharing in Christ’s sufferings.  Just because something is difficult does not mean it is a holy undertaking.  Christ’s sufferings are the ones he willingly chose to take on so that the world as it is might be transformed into the world as God intended it to be. So, to the extent that the matriarchs and patriarchs of St. Luke’s understood that their struggle to create a place for people of all nationalities to gather around the means of grace, the table and the font and the Word of God, so that they could be strengthened in their faith and equipped to participate in God’s mission to restore the whole creation, their struggle might be remembered as a sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

As they faced hard decisions together about whether their little adult forum could be something more, about whether or not this young seminarian had what it took to lead and care for them, about whether or not they could raise the money to build a chapel, about what language they would use in worship — their parents’ or their neighbors’, I wonder how they might have heard these words from the gospel of John, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).

So many questions in front of them with no proof that any of their decisions would be the right ones, only faith that the God who had brought their families to these shores from many different places was the same God who spoke through Jesus to the disciples saying, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Although, those words probably weren’t much comfort to the original disciples. Recall that their original question to Jesus had been, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Those disciples had already been together a long time, they’d journeyed with Jesus through the course of his earthly ministry. They’d seen him heal the sick and cast out demons. They’d seen him confront the powers and principalities of this world. They’d seen him killed, but they’d also seen him raised from the dead. They’d seen all they needed to see to be convinced that God was in Jesus, and Jesus was in God, and that Jesus was with them, so they dared to hope that Jesus would do for them what they had been hoping for all along — that Jesus would finally restore things to they way they used to be, that he would restore the kingdom of Israel to its glory days.

That is the temptation we face on Anniversary Sunday, especially this year, isn’t it?

We too have seen God at work in this place. We too have stayed steady in our ministry to the sick, to those battling the demons of addiction and depression. We too have watched as the power of the Holy Spirit breathed new life into our dry bones, raising this church from a condition everyone around us expected would lead to death. We’ve seen all we need to see to be convinced that God is with us, and God is for us. So, as we gather this morning, this season, this moment in the life of our community after Easter, after the resurrection, we — like the original disciples — are drawn to ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore” things to the way they used to be, they way we remember them, or have chosen to remember them.

And Jesus, full of the power and glory of the resurrection, does not tell them what they want to hear. He says, “it is not for you to know the times or periods that [God] has set … but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:7-8).  You will give your testimony to the power of God at work among you, and in the world, and you will carry this story out with you to all the ends of the earth. Out. Forward. Not back.

And with those final words, Jesus ascends into heaven leaving the disciples wondering how, in fact, they were going to do any of that. Two men in white robes, maybe angels, maybe messengers, maybe just two baptized people dressed in the garments of their faith, finally shook them out of their wondering and asked, “why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly — and mysteriously — as he left” (Acts 1:11, The Message)

Not knowing what else to do, “Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James … together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:13-14) went home to Jerusalem and got together and prayed. That was the first act of the Acts of the Apostles who went on to build the church. They got together and prayed.

Which, come to think about it was the first act of the founders of St. Luke’s, they got together at Washtenaw and Diversey and they prayed.  Then they moved to a new site, and they prayed and worshipped some more.  Then they moved to yet another new site, and they prayed and worshipped some more. And then, sounding an awful lot like the early church, they gave what they had for the sake of this new community they were building, and soon they had a place to gather with their neighbors, people from many lands with many languages.

Peter writes, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert … and after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory through Jesus Christ, will fulfill, restore, strengthen and establish you. To God be the power forever and ever! Amen” (1 Pet. 5:8,10-11).

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 7, 2013: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 5:27-32  +  Psalm 150  +  Revelation 1:4-8  +  John 20:19-31

The preacher has some choices to make during the season of Easter, a season of 50 days, seven Sundays and then the festival of Pentecost.  You’ll have noticed that our readings are a little different than usual.  Instead of the first reading coming from Hebrew scripture, we’ve read a portion from the book of Acts, which is really an abbreviation for the book’s full name: the Acts of the Apostles.  The second reading came from the infrequently read book of Revelation; and the Gospel reading came from the Gospel of John, which doesn’t get a year to itself in our three-year cycle of readings, but instead gets read in every year during the high holidays and festival seasons.

Further, this pattern will hold throughout the season of Lent.  Each week for the next two months we’ll be reading from Acts, Revelation and the Gospel of John.  In Acts we’ll be following the story of the explosive growth of the church following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  From Revelation we get a message of hope and life to the struggling churches of the first century written in a kind of code that is one part poetry to one part dream.  And in John’s gospel we will hear how Jesus came to those he loved and led following his resurrection to prepare them for the power of the Holy Spirit, with flashbacks to moments from his ministry in life that pointed ahead to his expectation that it would be us, the Church, that would continue his work.

If we had an extra hour each Sunday, I could preach on all three stories, and I know some of you think I’d love to give that a try, but I promise you I won’t.  So, I’ve made a decision to focus on one set of these readings throughout the fifty days of Easter, the story of the Church’s earliest days, the Acts of the Apostles.

Clearly this morning’s story has dropped us in the middle of some intense action.

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in his name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” (Acts 5:27-28)

Here’s what you need to know:

The book of Acts begins with Jesus alive among the disciples after his resurrection, and the promise that God will send the Holy Spirit.  The disciples stick together in Jerusalem, waiting for that moment, and select Matthias to replace Judas in their inner circle of twelve.  Then, in a familiar story that we’ll return to at the end of this fifty day season, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples at the festival of Pentecost and Peter preaches his first great sermon, at the end of which the scripture says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)  And if that pattern sounds familiar to you, it should.  It is the pattern of worship, and this is the birth of the Church.

The disciples’ worship leads directly to action, which is the source of the trouble we read about in this morning’s portion.  In those early days of the church there was a fire burning in the hearts of the people such that it says,

They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:45-47)

hands-reaching-outSo one day, as they were headed to the Temple for more of this intense communal fellowship, worship, prayer and praise, Peter and John come across a man who had been lame since birth, whose lot in life was to lay just outside the doors of the temple and beg for offerings from the people coming in and out of the Temple. You know who I’m talking about, the people we pass on the way to and from church, or the office, or the gym.  The ones crippled by disability, or war wounds, or mental illness, or addiction.  Going from soup kitchen to pantry. Living off the handouts of others.  This man sees Peter and John coming to worship and asks them for money, but they have none since all that they had was now being held in common by the community of believers, so they offer that instead.  Peter tells the man,

“Look at us.  I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.  And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the [door of the Temple begging]. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3:6-10)

Recognizing that the healing this man truly needed was not a life of ongoing dependence, but instead of unconditional welcome, Peter and John heal him by raising him up and bringing him inside the walls of the Temple — no longer unclean, inconvenient, embarrassing, or irritating.  Now one of them, a member, an equal, a brother.

And Peter, who had three times denied Jesus on the night of his betrayal now just can’t stop preaching.  With everyone looking at him in awe and wonder following the healing of the man born lame, Peter says,

“[People] of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? … the faith that is through Jesus has given this man this perfect health in the presence of you all.” (Acts 3:12,16)

And this is what gets Peter arrested (the first time).  The powers that be thought that by killing Jesus on a cross, by making a public example of him, that they would silence the power of God being unleashed in the world, a power set loose for the sake of healing and reconciliation.  But, filled with God’s spirit, the church picked up right where Jesus had left off, and the power that had been contained in one man was now multiplying — loaves and fishes.  By the time Peter was thrown in prison, the community of the Church had already grown to five thousand people.

When they bring him to stand trial the next day, they ask him by whose authority and power he has worked this miracle, the same question so often directed at Jesus, and in reply Peter says,

“If we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by him this man is standing before you well.” (Acts 4:9-10)

And scripture says that the priests were astonished because these were “uneducated, common men.”  As though only they, in their long robes, could act as God’s agents in the world.  But, no, here were ordinary people, moved by the power and the presence of Christ to do extraordinary things.  Here were ordinary people, no longer content to see other ordinary people begging for food at the doors of the church, the end of the off ramp, the alley behind the store, inviting them to stand up, to come inside, to be a part of this new fellowship of people who shared everything in common and who were increasing in faith and in numbers day by day.

The Temple authorities want to know by whose authority these things are being done and Peter says,

“we are doing them in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, who you killed, and whom God raised.”

And this is where things must have felt crazy to those in authority, this is why I love this story and chose to preach it over all the other options, because they thought they’d taken care of their Jesus problem.  But now there seemed to be a little Jesus in everyone who had known him, and even in those who — like us — had only come to know him through the stories and actions of his disciples.  They’d hung him on a cross and buried him in the ground, but there was more Jesus in the world now than ever before, so they tell Peter and John to stop teaching and preaching and healing.  To stop using that name: Jesus!

And Peter tells them,

“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

Jesus had told them, “you will be my witnesses,” and now the apostles begin to understand the meaning and the power of the resurrection.  That seed once planted in the earth had begun to sprout.  That tree on which had hung the salvation of the world had begun to flower.  And now there would be no holding back.  Life was rising up from the ground, healing for those who’d been left outside the doors of the church, a new community for a new world.

I love this next part of the story.  After Peter and John were released from prison they returned to the company of the believers and they shared their account of what had happened.  Immediately the community begins to pray with them, and the scriptures record the words of their prayer in a form that suggests an early Christian hymn, so I take it that they sang as they prayed.  They prayed,

“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus”  And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:29-31)

Don’t you know that’s why we’re hearing this morning, to pray for boldness?  Don’t you know that in the week since we last gathered, people in this room, people in our church, people throughout our city and across the world have been standing before the powers and principalities of the present moment and teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus, who is not dead but alive, in you and in me, for the sake of healing and reconciliation.  We are here this morning because we’ve all just come from one prison or another and we need to be fed with this Word, with this bread of life, not because we are so weak, but because we are so extraordinarily strong.  So strong, together, that we can hardly believe it.

God answers the community’s prayers for boldness by expanding their mission and ministry.

God answers prayers for boldness by expanding mission and ministry.

Though he’d been put in prison for preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name, and for healing one man born lame; now Peter and the disciples were performing more signs and wonders than the scriptures have space to individually record, so instead they just say,

And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, so that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.  The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:14-16)

So Peter is put in prison again, to try to shut him up by shutting him in, but in the night the angels come and open the prison doors (though I happen to think that Peter preached to his captors and made converts of them, because when you’re filled with the power of God’s Holy Spirit, every prison becomes a place just waiting for God’s reconciliation to take hold).  The next morning, instead of finding him in his cell, they find Peter in the public square, again, preaching Jesus (because, of course, faith is public not private — which is why Peter went to the public square, and not back to his home).  And this is where we finally join up with the passage assigned for this morning.

Knowing that he has become too popular with the people, that they cannot have him taken by force, they bring Peter before the Council for questioning, reminding him that he’d been given strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name, and Peter basically repeats what he’d already told them, that he and the community of the faithful now answer to and live their lives according to a higher authority.

People of God, we are all witnesses to what God has done.  We are all apostles with acts of our own too numerous to tell.  Baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, we are part of the great, ongoing uprising that is Christ’s insurrection — err, I mean, resurrection in, and from, and for the whole Earth.

Just outside our doors there are people begging for a little of the bread, a little of the community, a little of the life that we experience when we are together.

Why make them settle for a little?

Why not give them a lot.  A whole lot.

Why not take them by the hand in invite them to stand tall, to stand proud, to remember the dignity that is their birthright as children of God.  Why not bring them inside the temple to pray, and sing, and dance with us?

Brothers and sisters, the new life God wants for us is the new life God is creating through us.  We are here this morning to pray for boldness, because we know that God answers prayers for boldness with an ever and ever expanding mission and ministry.  We are here this morning because we know that when God’s Holy Spirit takes hold of the church, it is called to act.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, February 22, 2012: 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

IMG_0865A week ago tonight my third godchild was born. Kai Gajilan Fowler, born on Wednesday, February 15th at 6:09pm. In her short week on earth, she is already the subject of hundreds of photographs, and each one convinces me that she is the most beautiful little girl I have ever seen. I felt exactly the same last year when my godson, Gabriel Benfield, was born; and I felt the same way almost 24 years ago when my first goddaughter, Katie Russell, was born. To be honest, each time I have the privilege of baptizing a child – infant or adult – I am struck by how beautiful they are.

In the first reading appointed for Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel describes a moment of terror in the life of Israel, a day of darkness and gloom. His response is to urge the people to call an assembly and sanctify a fast. He says, “gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.” (Joel 2:16)

The infants show up again in Psalm 51, traditionally attributed to King David and associated with a moment of confession when he’d been caught in his wickedness. He writes, “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 51:5) Though this Psalm is written from the perspective of one person, when we sing it as an assembly we put King David’s words on our own lips and we are drawn into consideration of our own sinfulness.

Were we born steeped in wickedness, sinners from our mothers’ wombs?

I recall an evening almost a decade ago, sitting around a table in a pub back in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa with a friend from childhood who’d grown up in the church, but who was not raising her children as Christians. In particular, she objected to this idea that her children – who are every bit as beautiful as my three godchildren – were somehow born in sin. She said, “look at them! How can you ask me to believe that these beautiful children were born with any kind of taint at all?! They are pure. They are goodness and joy, and I want to keep them that way as long as I can. I want to protect them from all the negative messages they’ll one day internalize, starting with this one.”

That desire to deny the presence of sin in those we love the most – our infants, our children – is so understandable. They are the closest we may ever come to pure love or pure joy. They are the essence of purity, and any attempt to assign sin to them seems like the real blasphemy.

As I sat in the waiting room with my goddaughter’s two mothers and one of her grandmothers, I pulled out my favorite book of Irish blessings and read one to my friend as she finished her final hours of labor. The book is To Bless the Space Between Us, by the Irish poet and author John O’Donohue. It was a gift to me one Christmas from my own mother. I was able to read the blessing For a Mother-to-Be, but before I could read the blessing As a Child Enters the World, the doctors came in and the heavy labor began. If I could have read the blessing to Kai on her birthday, she would have heard these words,

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.

That rich Irish blessing is, perhaps, the most beautiful meditation on the sinfulness of our world that touches even the lives of our infants as they are being born. Some are born sheltered, others into bleakness. And in truth, each of us will experience shelter and bleakness in our lives, but not equally. We are born into a world of inequalities and injustices. We are born into a body of life already broken, a fabric of being already torn. None of us comes into the world whole.

I have been meeting with more visitors to St. Luke’s in the last six months than I did in the entire previous year. Many of them have children they are looking forward to having baptized. I’m looking forward to baptizing them – though not until Easter comes. These forty days that begin tonight have been used by the church over the centuries to prepare people for baptism in a process called the catechumenate. We’ll be recapturing that emphasis on baptismal preparation throughout the season of Lent on Sunday mornings as we study portions of Luther’s small catechism each week, beginning this Sunday with Luther’s teaching on the Holy Sacrament of Baptism.

As we journey these forty days to the cross, you will be encouraged to keep up the disciplines we adopt tonight – the ancient Christian traditions of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Too often, I think, we reduce these disciplines to a kind of renewal of our New Year’s Resolutions – a commitment to a kind of self-denial as a practice in empathy for the self-denial of Christ. That is fine and good, but I think the emphasis on the self misses the essence of what these disciplines are trying to shape in us.

These three disciplines are not separate options on a menu of spiritual practices, but rather pieces of a whole. During the season of Lent we are drawn to consider how, in the poet’s words, “the grace of this privilege [may] reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places.” We make the idea of that privilege concrete and real by choosing something common from our routine habits and fasting from that item throughout these forty days. In my case, I might choose coffee or dessert – but not because they are bad for me – instead because they are luxuries I take for granted. Then, as the forty days progress, each time I crave the cup of coffee or the dessert, I use that desire to remind me to stop and to pray for those whose lives do not afford the luxuries I take for granted. Finally, I give alms, I make an offering, I give the equivalent of what I would have spent on coffee or dessert (you fill in the blank here) to help create relief for those who suffer.

Do you see the difference? We’re not commending fasting, prayer and almsgiving as a self-oriented exercise in willpower. We’re inviting one another into these disciplines as a tangible exercise in compassion. What if I slip up and buy a cup of coffee, or dessert after dinner with friends? There is no failure of character here, no judgment of weakness. Instead there is simply an opportunity to be reminded, even then, of the ease with which we forget the suffering of those other children – young and old – whom God loves.

That, finally, brings us to the heart of these forty days. So often we do forget the suffering of those other children whom God loves. Not so for God. In the coming weeks we will follow behind Jesus, remembering his unwavering commitment to the poor and the suffering people of this world, a commitment that took him straight to the cross. As we purge our kitchens, as we silence our sanctuaries, as we empty out our lives; we are creating the space, the silence and the stillness in which we may be able once again to hear God’s voice calling us back to ourselves.

The time is now. Enter these forty days of Lent and return to the Lord your God. Return to yourself. In the stillness of this night, remember who you are and how deeply you are loved. As you are marked with these ashes, the sign that all life is fleeting, remember what you have been called to do with the time given to you, to “allow the light of the world [you] are leaving to shine through and carry you home.”

Amen.

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