As a child, I was fascinated with ash. My parents had a home with a fireplace, one of those incredibly inefficient brick boxes built into the wall that doesn’t so much generate heat as it sucks the air that the furnace has heated out of the house. And I loved sitting before it. I loved watching paper and then kindling and then wood turn into ash. Sometimes, depending on the intensity of the flames and their heat, the ash would resemble what it had been before the fire came, so that the blackened remnants of a log or, magically, a piece of paper would sit in the fireplace. Sometimes the paper would even have text or an image still visible upon its darkened surface.
It was almost unchanged.
Except what I knew was that the paper was changed, and that it was changed irrevocably.
Once or twice I tried to pick up one of these charred notes or drawings, to hold it in my hands and read it the way that I could’ve done before the fire. But the instant that my hand arrived, the paper turned into dust, black and grey dust that permeated my fingers, so that my hands suddenly told the story of soot, and I had to be careful not to touch the carpet or my clothes or the curtains, lest I spread that story everywhere.
Over the course of a winter, the fireplace would fill up with ash, with the legacy of fire. And so my father would empty it out, spooning the ash with an old and beaten shovel into a bucket. My father was a composter – he remains a composter, even today in his 92nd year. Long before the city began delivering green bins to our homes, my father had an enclosure made of salvaged wood in the corner of our yard into which went banana peels and carrot shavings and forgotten bowls of cereal. Across the wet of the Pacific Northwest winter, the compost would be strangely warm in the cold. And then, early in the spring, my father would dig up the garden bed and pour in the compost. On top of the compost, around it, he would pour in the buckets of ash. And then he would return the soil to the top and the ash and the compost would rest in the darkness.
The sun would return and my mother would plant the seeds. And out of the compost and the ash would come new life.
Around the same time that I was gazing into the fireplace, I was also going to school. And there I learned about the food chain: about the stack of things that eat other things. So, plankton or worms or grass are eaten my small animals which are eaten by larger animals which are eaten by still larger animals which are eaten by human beings (or, as the textbooks called human beings back in the 70’s and 80’s, man). At the top of the diagram, at the top of this buffet provided by nature, stands the human being, proud and free.
Except that what the ash and the garden told me was that the food chain was a fiction, that humanity’s independence from the food chain was a fiction.
There is a moment, just after a person dies, when you stand beside their bedside and someone says: it’s almost they are sleeping. And in a way, that is true: sometimes there is peace on a dead person’s face that you seen for months or years. But in another way, it isn’t true at all: even if you don’t check that person’s pulse or listen for their breathing, you know that they have gone, that they has stepped out of their body, irrevocably.
On this occasion, on Ash Wednesday, we remind one another that we are going to die, that the day when our bodies lay still and empty is coming for us all. On that day, we will step down from the top of the food chain. Notwithstanding the best efforts of the most expensive morticians in the world – no matter how much formaldehyde is poured into our now still veins, no matter how thick the walls of the coffin in which we are laid may be – we will return to the earth.
Like the first humans in scripture, like the ones we call Adam and Eve, we were created by God out of the earth. In a very real, very literal sense, our bodies are crafted out of everything we have ever eaten and all the air that we have ever breathed and all of the sun that has ever landed on our skin. And at the end of our lives, we will return everything. Everything that we have borrowed from God. And it will turn into something new, into new life.
On Sundays, when we say the creed together, we proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the body. Those are awesome words. What do they mean? Part of what we are saying is that we have caught a glimpse of a mystery. Through our experience and through our tradition, we have caught a glimpse of the promise that, when our bodies lie still, our life somehow continue. In death, as the Prayer Book proclaims in the funeral service, life is changed, not ended.
Today I am wondering if, when we speak of the resurrection of the body, we are also speaking of an everyday mystery, of the beautiful promise that, when we need our bodies no longer, our bodies will feed life and become life and participate in life. The elements in our bodies were thousands of things and creatures before they were us. And after we let them go, they shall be thousands of things and creatures again.
At the end of our sojourn on this earth, our bodies shall be like the paper in the hearth after the fire. Maybe some of our story will even be visible on our faces. But we, we will be gone. And when the hands reach down to lift us up, we will be already turning back into dust from which we came.
Do you have a favourite smell? An odour that just delights you when it makes it to your nose?
I have several smells that I really like. I love the smell that the earth makes when rain falls upon it on a hot day, the smell of warmth and fecundity: that smell makes me think of being ten and the wild freedom of summer vacation. I love the rich, fermented smell of olives sitting in a dish: that smell makes me think of the days when Phoebe and I were first married and we stocked our pantry at a nearby delicatessen. I love the smell of used bookstores. Does that smell even have a name? The smell of musty old words. That smell makes me think of curiosity and discovery and imagination. I even like some smells that aren’t all that pleasant in and of themselves because of what they evoke. There is a certain brand of cat litter, for instance, that smells just like the basement of my childhood friend. That smell makes me think of the many happy afternoons that I spent at his house after school.
What about a least favourite smell? A smell that you just can’t stand?
I don’t like the smell of ammonia: that was the smell of my great grandmother’s nursing home, the smell of its angry staff and its terrifyingly clean floors. I don’t like the smell of smoky rooms, even if nobody is smoking in them right now: the history of a thousand and one of cigarettes is just soaked into the walls; those rooms smell the way that a wheezy cough sounds. I don’t like the iron smell of blood: it holds the echoes of wipe outs on bikes and skinned knees and accidents with carving knives.
All of these smells, the ones that I have named and, perhaps, the ones that you have thought of – and forgive me if this is obvious, but I think we need to name this out loud before we go any further – are powerful not just for what they trigger in our noses but for what they trigger in our memories. Smell, maybe more than anything else, is a gateway to the past. As Vladimir Nabokov writes, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.”
The readings that the lectionary (i.e., the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next) gives us this morning are as full of smell as anything that scripture has to offer, they are an olfactory delight. Here is Isaiah telling us of the sea: the smell of which proclaims the story of salt and life and danger. Here is the Psalm telling us of joyously bringing in the sheaves: the bundles of cereal plants on the workers’ backs, the air so thick with the smell of pollen that you can almost reach out and hold it in your hand. Here is Paul telling us of rubbish, of the almost overpowering smell of forgotten clothes and yesterday’s food.
And here in the Gospel, here is John telling us of a room filled with the smell of perfume.
The perfume in question is nard or, sometimes, spikenard. It was imported into the Ancient Near East from India, Nepal, or China, likely travelling along one of the routes that we know by the name The Silk Road. Nard, being an import in the years before FedEx was open for business, was staggeringly expensive. The 300 denarii at which Judas Iscariot appraises Mary’s jar of nard is about how much a typical worker would have made in a year. If you mentally translate 300 denarii as 45 or 50 thousand dollars, you’re probably in the ballpark.
Nard had a remarkable variety of uses in Jesus’ day. Sometimes it was an ingredient in perfumes, sometimes it functioned as incense in religious rituals, sometimes it was even used in the flavoring of food – you might encounter its smell coming from a frying pan. And sometimes – as we witness in the curious and awesome scene that John recounts today – it was used in the preparation of corpses for burial. Except that, today, in this room, Jesus’ body isn’t a corpse.
Jesus comes to the table, perhaps sitting on the floor, perhaps reclining against a low table (there are some scholars who figure that, in the Ancient Near East) people ate while almost laying almost horizontally, their elbows on the table and their feet pointing away. And Mary comes to him.
She takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and, in a staggering act of service and intimacy and discipleship and vulnerability, she anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair.
And the house is filled – filled –with the fragrance of the perfume.
What does that room smell like? Some folks who have smelled nard describe it as having a sweet, spicy, and musky smell, as having the smell of the earth.Others speak of mustiness, of the smell of leather.
As the room fills up with this smell, the smell of a glorious old cellar filled with fermentation and moisture and beautiful decay, what memories come to the people who sit around the table? What memories come to Jesus?
Perhaps he remembers his childhood, that time that sits at the fringes of his recollection. Back when his father and his mother told the story of the Magi who came to visit him when he was an infant and the strange gifts that they brought including the jar of myrrh, perhaps a more bitter perfume than nard, but similar in many ways. There are common notes in the scent of each, and both are used in preparing the bodies dead. Ever since Jesus’ birth, people have been preparing for his death.
Perhaps Jesus remembers the party that began his ministry, the wedding feast at Cana at which his Mom challenged him to step out of his shell and into his calling. Does the nard smell at all like wine or the sweat or the people on the dance floor or the electric sensuality of new love, like the young, just-married couple at the centre of the festivities who can barely keep their hands off of one another?
Perhaps Jesus remembers the many meals that he has shared, the bread that he has broken with everyone, everyone who wants to eat with him. Meals with the wealthiest tax collectors and priests, most of whom bathe regularly and smell fantastic. And meals with the poorest of street people and lepers and prostitutes, most of whom rarely bathe and have an almost paralyzing cone or body odour surrounding them, the biting smell of dirt and urine and old skin.
Perhaps Jesus remembers the thousand and one acts of service that he and his friends have done together, the thousand and one people whom they have touched – not figuratively touched, but literally held in their hands. (Remember the deaf man whom Jesus heals by putting his fingers right into his ears.) The smell of flesh, the smell of being alive.
Perhaps Jesus remembers the smells that perfumes such as nard are used to cover up. Remember that Jesus lives in a time before sewers and consistent protocols for disposing of dead bodies: unlike most of us in this room, he is no stranger to the smell of putrefaction, to an odour that one contemporary pathologist refers to as overwhelming and vile.And remember that this story takes place in John immediately after the raising of Lazarus, so the stink of death is fresh in his nose.
And perhaps (Is this a paradox? Let’s run with it and see.) Jesus remembers what is soon to come. In some way the thick smell of nard that fills the room triggers in his memory a picture of what is to come for him. He imagines that day, startling soon, when Nicodemus will bring the spices and he and Joseph of Arimathea will prepare Jesus’ crucified body for burial, as they will get it ready for the tomb.
As the nard fills the room, as Mary pours it upon his feet and washes it with her hair, what this mustiness of this scent calls into the memories of Jesus and his friends is the story of life itself. The remembrance of birth and death and everything in between, the remembrance of meals and friends and strangers and confusion and grief and discovery and love. The smell of nard brings the remembrance of the glorious, hard, wonderful, joyful, messiness of being alive.
When I entered this question into Google (what did we do before the internet?), I found a sermon by a preacher who used to be a sommelier, a wine expert, someone who relied on his nose for his living. He is the source of this description. thereligiousleft.org/2012/04/scent-of-god.html
In the book in which the story is written down, the lead character is given the name “Moses.” That’s because stories are easiest to tell – and easiest for you and for me to hear – when the hero has a name. If you are going to tell a story about someone going on a journey into a wilderness and towards a promised land, your listeners will probably follow that story and connect with it best if you decide on a name for the one who journeys. So, “Moses” it is.
But the storyteller could just as well have chosen the name Paul or Maya or Whit or Jessica or Becky or Charles. That’s because, like all great stories, like all archetypal stories, like all stories drawn from the great ocean of myth (think of the stories of Luke Skywalker or Frodo or Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen or Pippi Longstocking or Alice in Wonderland) the story of Moses is a universal story. If the story of Moses is about anything, it is a story about you.
This morning, then, let’s tell this story together a second time. Except this time around, instead of the lead character being named “Moses,” the hero’s name will be your name.
Are you ready to begin?
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time, you were caring for animals that belonged to a loved one. And you took them for a walk. Somehow, the walk lasted longer and covered more distance than you expected, so that your walk not only took you and the animals into wilderness, it took you still further, up a mountain, to a place that really doesn’t have a name.
In the text printed in our leaflets this morning, we hear that this mountaintop place is called “beyond the wilderness.” When the King James Translators tell this story, they make the wonderful and strange decision to call this place “the back side of the desert.” When the Celts speaks about this place, they call it a thin place, somewhere in which the great song of God is ready to burst through the surface of things. When Shel Silverstein speaks about this place, he calls it “where the sidewalk ends.”
Regardless of which name we give it, the reality is the same: you have found your way to a place in which the people the rules that normally govern your life not in full effect. The people who enforce the rules are on some kind of cosmic coffee break. As a consequence, this place is a place of danger. It is a place of possibility.
The first thing that tips you off that you are beyond the wilderness is the silence. No birds, no wind, no voices. Even the animals who are with you are silent. The only sound is that of the blood rushing through your own body, the air filling and leaving your lungs.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
The second thing that lets you know that you are beyond the wilderness is the bush. You first spot it in your peripheral vision. Small and wild, rooted by itself in the hillside, its rough leaves reaching out to the sun. The bush is burning with a raging fire. And yet it is not consumed. When you are not beyond the wilderness, this is the sort of thing that surprises you. But here on the mountaintop, somehow nothing is all that unexpected. You turn aside to look at the bush and the fire and you say:
You step off of the path, then, off of the road that leads you back from where you came, not leaving so much as a string or a trail of bread crumbs to lead you home. And you walk towards the bush, towards the heat.
It is from within the fire that a voice calls out to you. It calls your name. The animals do not react to it. For them, as near as you can figure, the absolute silence continues. You wonder: if another human being were here, would she hear your name called from bush? Would she hear nothing? Or would she hear her own name?
The voice in the bush calls your name. And so you say:
Here I am.
Come no closer. Says the voice in the silence. Take off your shoes. For you are standing on holy ground.
You kick off your shoes. And there you stand. In the dust. In your bare feet. Before the bush and the fire. And then the voice again:
I am God. The God of your mother and your father, the God of your ancestors.
Some old instinct makes you cover your eyes, your hands suddenly before your face as though to ward off an impact, as though to shield you from an impossibly bright light.
I have seen your people’s pain. I have heard your people’s cry. I know your people’s hurt. And so I have come. Come to bring freedom.
There is joy and reassurance and love in these words. Even as you stand on the mountaintop covering your eyes, you are reminded of being someplace wonderfully safe. Perhaps you remember a time when you were a child, held in the arms of one who loved you absolutely. You can’t say for how long you stand in the safety and the silence and the dust. Perhaps it is for forty days and forty nights that you the fire that leaves the bush unharmed.
Part of you wants to stay here forever.
But then the voice that has called your name goes on:
Now go. Go that you may lead my people to freedom.
Is it because you don’t want to leave that you argue? Or is it because of something else: because of an old fear that God could never have a purpose for someone like you, that God could never call someone like you, that perhaps God could never even love someone like you?
Who am I? You ask. Who am I to lead? Who am I to shine? Who am I say “yes” to you?
And the voice within the fire says:
I will be with you.
And you know that is enough. You know that it is enough. But still you argue.
When I come to your people and say, “The God of our ancestors has sent me,” and they ask, “What is God’s name?” what shall I say to them?
And so God answers:
That is my name forever.
And so, you go. Back to the path, back to the animals, back through the wilderness, back to civilization, back to the place where God has given you responsibility. You walk back, the fire receding behind you, the silence receding behind you, the noise returning.
When you face the people whom you are called to lead into freedom, when you begin to tell them the good news, a handful of them respond with joy. But many don’t. Some respond with indifference. Others respond with hostility. And many others respond with a worn-down cynicism: what you have to share is too good to be true.
Maybe you are about to give up hope then. But then you notice. That all of them – all of them – are saying the name of God. They have been saying it since the day that their lives began. They will say it on the last day of their lives. You have been saying it too, with every breath:
And so with the confidence that God is with you, that God is will everyone, you begin to lead.
Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit… Amen.
Every year during Lent, the lectionary reading provides us with the foundational stories of Faith: the story of God’s promise to Abraham and to what having faith in God’s promise meant for the very first Christian communities. I want to suggest to you that the readings from Genesis and Philippians tell us that having faith goes beyond how we commonly understand the term today, as say, mere believing in something, someone, or even God as an abstract deity. Rather, today’s bible readings prompt us to see that faith means following in the way of the cross, to take the path of Jesus in our own, literal, material bodies. The Lenten season provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be cross-bearers in today’s world.
Beginning with today’s Genesis reading, we’re presented what looks like a rich, pastoral scene. We can easily imagine Abraham taking a nice leisurely walk at dusk, pensively gazing up at the stars. Suddenly and with a start, he hears the assuring voice of Yahweh, and all seems well with the world. Abraham then turns and strolls back home to Sarai, eager to share with her God’s message of hope. “Our offspring shall be as many as the stars in the sky,” he tells his wife. I often think to myself, wouldn’t it be nice if I could hear the word of God so clearly.
But to read the passage in this manner, to read the foundational story of faith in this way, is to sanitize it, to rob it of its message of hope. In what seems like our never ending attempt to clean up the Bible, to make it appropriate for Sunday School, I think we tend to glide over the rougher bits. We know Abraham is credited as the father of faith, but let’s look at Abraham’s actual life to see if faith is really, so easy.
First, we recall call that this is the third time that God has given his promise to Abraham. One would hope that one time was enough. In the preceding chapter, we’ll told about a devastating famine that was so terrible that Abraham had to pawn Sarai into Pharaoh’s harem – and let’s not have any illusions about what an Ancient Near East harem was. We’re also told that Abraham bickered with his relative Lot and the land had to be divided so as to forestall a civil war of sorts. As the story continues, Lot and his tribe are captured. Abraham is then forced to gather his army and after a slaughter, eventually frees Lot. And a few chapters after today’s reading, Sarai, in an act of desperation to preserve the family lineage, convinces Abraham to father a son from her slave girl, which only foments more strife.
The story of Abraham makes it plain that living by faith doesn’t really assuage fear or doubt (Source). God appears to Abraham, withdraws, appears, only to withdraw yet again. We begin to see that faith or belief in this case is less about believing in an abstract deity or holding to some mental idea, and more about learning to trust, hear, and follow Yahweh’s call amidst our deepest failures.
From Abraham we travel to the time of Paul, around 40 or 50 AD, a few years before the first Gospels were written. Today’s reading brings us to the Roman military city of Philippi. Now, we’re not quite drawn into the Epistles in the same way are with the familiar stories of Genesis: Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah. But in Paul’s letters we continue to see the drama of salvation history played out before us yet again.
So let’s step back into this Roman world and into the minds’ of the Philippian community to understand just what it is Paul is trying to say.
Philippi was originally established a veteran colony, with its citizens enjoying the rights and privileges of Rome itself – no small thing in the ancient world. The Philippian community would have taken great pride in their lineage and military heritage. In the ancient world, citizenship defined one’s ethics, defined one’s behavior in the world. Clearly, this far different from how we understand citizenship in modern times, which is marked by a passport.
It’s important that we don’t underestimate the role that Rome plays in Paul’s letters. For in the ancient world, Rome stood for the rule of might over right. The fact that the Roman powers had conquered the world and subjugated the peoples, including the Jews, clearly meant that Rome was simply fated to rule the world, at least from Rome’s perspective. Most importantly, it was Rome that crucified the Messiah.
We know that at the time of writing his letter, Paul is under military arrest and likely facing execution, and not for religious reasons. In the book of Acts we’re told that Paul was accused of high treason. He was charged with professing another Caesar, one who happened to be named, Jesus Christ. Paul’s Philippian friends were also facing hardships, blowback it seems, from abandoning Roman gods for a Jewish god.
We also know that in Paul’s day the fastest growing religion in the Empire was the religion of Caesar (N.T. Wright). So, for instance, various Roman emperors commonly claimed the mantle, “Son of God.” Other well known “Christian” words that we take for granted we’re actually common Roman terms. For example, “Gospel” was a familiar word, with Roman acolytes proclaiming the ‘good news of Caesar.’ The “savior” of the world was Caesar who brought “salvation” to the peoples. And, most importantly in light of today’s Epistle, any Roman citizen worth his or her salt, would place their “pistis” – what the New Testament translates as “faith” – in their “Kurious” or “Lord,” the emperor.
In the ancient world, pisits / faith meant more than mere believing in something or someone. The Greek word carries the sense of that which gives confidence, that which one can place their trust or allegiance in, or that which confirms, ‘yes, this is the story for which I will stake my life.’ In fact, for the everyday Roman citizen, pistis / faith would have evoked political allusions, as the term was frequently used in military legends (Morgan). A much more helpful translation of pistis, then, is fidelity.
With this understanding of faith / fidelity in mind, we can begin to see the numerous contrast Paul draws between having fidelity in Rome – what the Philippians would have understood – or fidelity in the way of the cross – what Paul was calling them to become: cross-bearers.
When Paul tells his Philippian friends that their “citizenship is in heaven,” he is aiming to realign their current allegiance and moral outlook (Oakes). He is not, by the way, giving them a “pie in the sky” theology.
So, rather than placing fidelity in the emperor, newly baptized Christians are to place their fidelity in the crucified enemy of the state.
Rather than lording over inferiors, cross-bearers are to ‘let the mind’ of Jesus be in them, to live the life of a suffering servant (2.5). No easy task for a proud Roman.
Rather than seeking the upward mobility of Roman privilege, cross-bearers are called to share in Christ’s downward sufferings, “to become like him in his death,” (3.10) as Paul says, and therefore to share in his glory.
Rather than feeling pride in their great city of Philippi, cross-bearers are to claim the citizenship of heaven, suffering for the sake of love, giving oneself for another.
This contrast between placing fidelity in Rome or the way of the cross couldn’t be greater for Paul. As an analogy, you might recall the old folk song made famous by Pete Seeger in 1967, “Which side are you on?”
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there;
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair
Roman citizenship and all the privileges thereof, or the citizenship of heaven. Victory achieved through war, leaving a trail of crucified bodies behind, or victory achieved by the crucified body of Christ. We can easily imagine Paul saying, “You’ll either be a cross-bearer, or a thug for J.H. Caesar.”
Imagine how startling this message would have been for a typical Roman citizen. Messiah’s are not born in stables, they are born in kingly glory. Messiahs do not spend their time with the dregs of society, lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes; they spend their time courting important persons: senators, business leaders, and generals. Above all else, Messiahs are not crucified; Messiahs crucify.
Fidelity Not Belief
We might then contrast Abraham’s ragtag faith and Paul’s fidelity with how faith is commonly understood today. As the great literary critic Terry Eagleton observes, many of us still hold to the Yeti view of belief in God. That is, do you believe in a certain type of mysterious creature, or type of Supreme Being, or don’t you? Now, it’s wonderful to speculate on Yetis and Sasquatches, but this is not how Abraham or Paul understood faith. One important reason being that believing in God in biblical times was really no big deal.
Biblical faith is not about abstract or cerebral ideas floating around in our heads. Faith-as-fidelity for Abraham and Paul, is “performative rather than propositional” (Eagleton). It is that for which we give our very bodies for the sole purpose, as Paul says in today’s reading, that we “may conformed to the body” of Christ’s suffering glory (3.21).
Why is the examination of the word “faith” / fidelity important? Because I often wonder if mere belief in God is enough. We’re not likely to be executed by Romans, but when the time comes for us to bear our cross, in whatever form, will a set of abstract propositions bouncing around in our heads be enough? Don’t we need something more, something embodied?
Here in the Pacific Northwest we often hear the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I even admit to having used the phrase from time to time when talking with my atheist friends. Now, we understand what people are really saying, “oh, I’m not like those crazy Christians I see on TV with the big hair, makeup, and southern accents.” But it needs to be pointed out to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd: “yes, but you’re also corporeal, you also have a body” (Source).
Some of you might be familiar with Graham Greene’s deeply religious and grace-filled novel, The End of the Affair. Green’s book tells the story of Sarah and the extreme guilt she feels after committing adultery. After falling in love with another man and betraying her husband, Sarah’s guilt runs so deep that it extends down to the very core of her body. One day, after a long walk, she stumbles into a Catholic church and begins to finally notice the statues of saints, Mary, and of course Jesus, lining the church walls. She wonders to herself why all this emphasis on the material body in Christianity? Why the blood stained statues? ‘If I were to invent a religion,’ she says, “it would be that the body was never born again, that it rotted with last year’s vermin.” I want to believe in something “vague,” something “cosmic” she thinks. I just want to float into a spiritual ether one day and be rid of this guilt ridden body.
But as she continues to reflect on the all the bodies around her, she experiences a conversion, she begins to see that “we can love with our minds, but can we love only with our minds?”
“Love extends itself all the time,” says Greene, “so that we can even love with our senseless [finger] nails: we love even with our clothes, so that a sleeve can feel a sleeve” (110). This is an observation that St. Paul would have wholeheartedly endorsed, as he was sitting in his jail awaiting execution.
We are not spiritual beings floating 3 feet above the ground, but beings who are to take up the path of Christ in our own bodies, bodies that are falling, bodies that have been broken, bodies that will one day, as Paul says, be joined with Christ’s body. As Nadia Boltz Weber once said to the “spiritual but not religious crowd:” “Christianity isn’t spiritual, it’s material. You can’t even get started without a loaf of bread some wine and a river.”
It’s also important to point out that Paul or indeed any of the biblical writers are not interested in bodily suffering for suffering’s sake alone. What we are called to do is to enter into the suffering of the world, to help bear its burdens through the grace of the Spirit.
More than ever, we need to be a people who can face the world’s nightmares head on. Sadly, such nightmares are not hard to find: the Flint water crisis, ISIS, the Zika virus, extremist groups, an economic system that puts profits before people, and on it goes.
If only our vocation as Christians was as easy as mere belief, as believing in God the same way we might the Yeti or Sasquatch. To quote Terry Eagleton once more, he provocatively ads that “the New Testament is the brutal destroyer of human illusion [and easygoing optimism]. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.”
As we make our way to the cosmic events of Holy Week, my prayer is that we will continue to be a community of cross-bearers. As those who not only gaze at Christ’s work of redemption on the cross from a safe distance, or from some 2,000 years later, but who respond to the summons and grace to participate in the reconciliation of all things, here and now, and in our own bodies, to the glory of the God the Father. Amen.
When I was 20 years old, I decided to take a year away from university and move from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Calgary, Alberta, where I hoped to find work as a stagehand. I arranged to rent a room in a house, I sent my resume to every theatre company in the phone book, and I said goodbye to my friends. Stepping away from school was a hard decision. And it was a decision about which my folks weren’t especially enthusiastic: they felt pretty strongly that I should earn my undergraduate degree before going off on any adventures.
But somehow, that journey away from school and towards another city was something that I felt that I had to do. I wasn’t a Christian back then, so talking about a calling or the pull of the Holy Spirit would have struck me as foreign and maybe even ridiculous. But something – someone? – was calling me. It was saying: Go.
And so I packed everything that I needed into the back of my 1983 Toyota Tercel: my CD collection, a box full of books, a suitcase full of clothes, my Amiga 500 (that’s a computer – state of the art, 1989), a couple of posters, a pillow and a rolled-up foam mattress. And then I drove away from my parents home and into the mountains. Into the wilderness.
Vancouver and Calgary are about 12 hours apart. Some of those 12 hours takes a young man in an old car through towns, but much of the path is uninhabited and wild. This is something that folks from densely populated countries – for instance, pretty much anywhere in Europe – struggle to understand. Tell a person from Germany or France that, starting a couple of hours East of Vancouver there is nothing but forest, and she will generally assume that what you mean by “nothing” is that there is a small town every five minutes separated by some trees and a bunch of farmland, just like at home. But, starting two hours East of Vancouver, there is nothing, genuinely nothing but forest. Sometimes you are counting in hours between towns.
The mountain roads climbed and fell as I went East, and the wind was often cold at the summits, even though it was late summer. For a while, I could listen to the radio, but as the mountains increased in height and frequency, the radio stations decreased in power and in number. Pretty soon I was down to a choice between twangy country music and one of those preachers who sounds strangely furious while talking about how much God loves you.
And then, I rounded a pass and the radio was suddenly, entirely:
White noise. In that uninvited silence, loneliness rushed into the car like cold water. The full, desolate reality of leaving home was upon me. I had never before ached with such intensity for my childhood home, for my parents, for the places and people that I knew and I loved. I suppose that I had legally been an adult for a year or two, depending on which milestone you choose. But, in my memory, that day in the Tercel with the enormity of the radio’s silence and the wilderness all around feels like the end of my childhood.
It felt like the end.
One of the enduring themes in scripture is that of wilderness. And one of the enduring questions of scripture is whether our time in the wilderness is awful or wonderful, whether it is limiting or freeing, whether it is the best of times or the worst of times. And as near as I can figure, the answer that scripture gives to those questions is, “Yes.”
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is recounted in all three synoptic Gospels – so Matthew, Mark, and the Gospel that we hear today, Luke. It takes place near the beginning of all three books; it’s very nearly the first thing that happens in Mark. I’d like to wonder with you about the Son of God in the wilderness this morning. And I’d like to think about what Jesus’ time in that wild place might mean for you and for me.
We may roll our eyes at those plastic wristbands that read, “WWJD?”: What would Jesus Do? But actually, WWJD? is one of the core questions of discipleship. For those of us who have said “yes” to following Jesus, for those of us who, imperfect though we may be, are doing our best to imitate Christ, meditating on the question of how Jesus responds to life – including life in the wilderness – matters.
The first thing I’d like to pay attention to is where Jesus’ trip into the wilderness occurs within the wider story of Jesus’ life. Matthew, Mark, and Luke alike tell us that Jesus ends up in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. (There are a lot of great things about the lectionary, about the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next. But one of its downsides is that we don’t necessarily read scripture in order. Last week, for instance, we heard about the Transfiguration of Jesus rather than his baptism.)
What the synoptic Gospels tell us that the wilderness, this place of searching, of lostness: Jesus comes to it immediately after stepping into the Jordan, immediately after being in John’s arms, immediately after the Spirit descends on him and a voice from the heavens says You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. What this story tells us, in other words, is that following Christ doesn’t mean skipping suffering or getting everything that you want – the Prosperity Gospel is heresy, it a gross distortion of Jesus’ teachings. What this parable tells us is that, even as we experience loss and grief and loneliness, God is with is.
Second, the thing that takes Jesus into the wilderness, that leads him there, is the Holy Spirit. So, yes, the wilderness is a place of danger and disorientation. But it isn’t a place that Jesus ends up in by accident when his GPS malfunctions. It is a place to which he is called. As alone as he may feel, as much as he may wish for a map that is going to lead him home, somewhere the wilderness is where he needs to be, where he is supposed to be.
I suspect that many you – all of you, if you have lived any life – have had the experience of looking back on a wilderness experience – the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, the breaking of your heart, the dying of a friend, a time of deep loneliness or deep disappointment, the examples keep on coming – and you have surprised yourself by remembering that experience and saying, “thanks.” In a way that you can’t quite name, that time of lostness drew you nearer to God and yourself, it made you a little freer, more who you are supposed to be. That doesn’t mean that you are glad that the wilderness time happened. It does mean that, somehow, your time in the wilderness was necessary. Somehow you were called to it.
Third, notice the wilderness is a place of temptation. There is something, or someone, waiting there. The tempter, the one whom scripture calls the devil, is there. The one who waits is our shadow side. He invites us to wander off the path and do what? Stay in the wilderness forever? Or return while denying its lessons? Or make it into a place of selfishness? Each of the temptations that the devil offers is one of comfort and power and status. They are a temptation to Jesus to use his gifts selfishly, something that he never does. If you are hungry, make bread. If you are a King, then rule the world. If you are the Son of God, then defy death.
Now, when faced with temptation, Jesus defends himself against it not by rhetorical brilliance or by karate moves. He defends himself by quoting scripture. Absolutely everything that he says is taken directly from Deuteronomy. I wonder. I wonder if one of the things that is story is telling us is that, when we go into the wilderness, we already have what we need to survive. We think that we are going to have to discover some miracle, some secret weapon dropped out of the sky on a parachute like in the Hunger Games. But actually, we are already ready. We already have our faith in God, we already have our rock and our redeemer. What if that really is everything that we need.
Last of all (and this, assuredly, is not the last theme that there is to uncover – it is just the last element that I will name this morning), notice that the time that Jesus spends in the wilderness is very nearly too long. 40 days may be a mystical number in the Jewish tradition – assuredly it is an echo of the 40 years that Moses and the rest of Jesus’ ancestors spend in their own wilderness. But it is also something plainer than that. 40 days is near the limit of how long a human being can live without food. When a group of political prisoners go on a hunger strike, it is around day 45 that the first of them begins to die.
I want to underline this element because, when we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, the duration of our time there can feel unbearably long, longer than anyone could hope to manage: This grief has gone on too long, this illness has gone on too long, this time of unemployment has gone on too long. I want to hold up the example of Jesus at the very limits of where a human being can go, not as a way of saying that the wilderness is no big deal – God save us from Hallmark theology in which we proclaim that “Jesus did it, so you can too” – but as a way of saying that, even in our most lost moments, we may turn to Jesus with confidence and say, “Lord, you know what I’m going through. You know what this is like.”
Once I actually arrived in Calgary, my homesickness, my sense of lostness subsided – there was a new city to encounter, new people to meet, a new job to start. All of this newness allowed me to turn my attention to something other than loss. In Calgary, I suppose, there was a kind of resurrection.
In that car in the mountains, however, with its suddenly silent radio, Calgary was still an abstraction. My mind’s eye had nothing to rest upon other than the home which I had, inexplicably, foolishly, volunteered to abandon. In that moment, I came as close as I ever have to giving up. I though about turning around, about driving home. But I did not. Something called me on.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
What an extraordinary sentence. What an unreal thing for one person to say to another. We could probably spend the rest of the day unpacking that sentence. We could write a book together about what it might mean, about its implications. In the interests of time, however, I’m not going to do that. Rather, I’d like to wonder with you about three of the words in that sentence, three words that are particularly “popping” for me this evening. Those three words are:
First, Dust. When you listen to scientists who have studied and explored the mysteries of creation really deeply, it is amazing how much they sound like theologians. When the folks who are studying the very beginnings of our universe, the first seconds after the Big Bang, for instance, are asked what existed before the universe began, they tell us the very same thing that Saint Augustine told us some 1600 years ago:
There was no “before.” When the universe began, so did time.
Similarly, those who study the elements that make up our bodies often sound a lot like poets or musicians or the authors of the Bible. A few weeks ago, during the first night of our film series, Reel Theology, we watched the Chilean documentary, Nostalgia for the Light. In it, we heard from one astronomer about how the carbon in our bones, in our hands, is identical to the carbon that is found in the most distant of stars.
That astronomer was saying the same thing as Joni Mitchell. Remember her song Woodstock? In it, she sings, “We are stardust / Billion year old carbon.” We are made of the same stuff as the universe, we are integral to the universe, we came from dust and we shall go back to it. The astronomer was saying the same thing as the author of Genesis 3:19 when he or she writes, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” When the Book of Common Prayer quotes Genesis, it adds but one word:
Two, Remember. Phoebe and I used to live in a house that was built in 1910. We loved its many esoteric and whimsical elements, the many things about it that real estate agents call “character”: the boarded up old coal chute in the back, the double hung windows, the glorious mid-century gas stove. One of the house’s character elements was a small nook immediately to your left when you walked in the house. Whether it was intended as a cloakroom or a mudroom, I don’t know, but that’s what we used it for: our shoes and coats waited there. When you stood in the nook there you could look through an archway and see the stairs that took you to the second floor. The archway was covered in drywall.
One day, Phoebe and I had a contractor at the house. And he looked at the archway and explained that, way back when the house was first built, the archway would not have been covered with drywall (of course not, drywall wasn’t invented until partway through the last century) and nor would it have been covered with anything else – not with plaster, not with tile, not with wallpaper. It would just have been a wood post with a loose pin hinge at the top and the bottom, allowing the post’s removal.
The post was removable, the contractor explained, in order to allow a coffin to make the turn and go upstairs.
The design of the house was predicated on the assumption that people died at home, on the assumption that dying and death were integral to life, that these things were part of the rhythm of life.
What a change in a century. I was in my thirties when I first saw a dead body, a fact that I suspect would stagger our ancestors. By and large, today, we hide away death, we work really hard to forget. We send people to special facilities in order to die (although the hospice movement is doing its best to change that, to allow people to die at home.) And we deny the time of dying. I read an interview with a hospice chaplain recently in which he pointed out – and this is one of those things that is completely obvious when you hear it said out loud but that, somehow, had never occurred to me before – that when people post photos of the loved ones at a funeral reception, they virtually never post photos of the beloved’s last weeks or days. They virtually never post photos from the wheelchair or the hospice bed. It is as thought that time did not exist.
We live in a time of willful, deliberate forgetting. But Ash Wednesday says: Remember.
Three, You. Ash Wednesday is about you. It isn’t about someone else. It’s about you
Dust is about you. Remembering is about you. Notwithstanding our radical efforts to stave off death (if you have spent any time at all in a hospital, you will almost assuredly have witnessed heroic and invasive measures applied to a dying person – another practice that would likely have flabbergasted our ancestors). And notwithstanding our post-mortem efforts to stave off decay (think of embalming and the cryogenic freezing of corpses and concrete-lined coffins) you and I can say with absolute certainty that dust is our future, that death is our future. Today, we are naming not just the reality of death as an abstraction. We are naming the reality of our own deaths.
Maybe that is horrifying. And maybe it is beautiful.
High school biology class taught us that human beings are the top of the food chain. And that is half right. The other half is that we are part of the food chain, that we will feed other creatures, that we will make other life possible. Sooner or later, we will help something else to grow. Sooner or later (well, way later) the carbon in our bones will return to the stars. Wouldn’t that be wondrous? To be part of a star, to be sending forth light?
Maybe the integration of our bone’s carbon into future stars of what we mean when, in the Creed, we speak of the resurrection of the body. Now, don’t misunderstand me: I believe in heaven, I believe that you and I keep on participating in life after our deaths, that we keep on participating in love, that we keep on participating in God. I believe that death is not the end. And I also believe that there is a kind of miracle in the reality that everything that you and I are made of will soon enough be part of someone or something else.
That is a kind of immortality.
When we speak of the Resurrection of the Body, in the Creed, many of us make the sign of the Cross. Today is the one day of the church year on which that cross is visible to others, on which it is painted in ash on our foreheads. Today is the day when the cross is visible on you.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
By the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the shadows of the cross spread like cold ash across the wilderness landscape…..and yet, at this same time……desert wildflowers are in bloom. At this same time, the floor of the desert becomes, for one brief moment carpeted with the color of a thousand different blooms. Where it seemed there was nothing, now shows that there was always something. Indian Paint Brush, Desert Lily, Sand Bells, African Daisies, Sand Verbena and scores more. What seemed barren and colorless…..harsh and challenging….now proclaims renewal of life with a mighty show. Perhaps it is fitting that at the height of what we might perceive as the most fatiguing part of our Lenten journey across the desert……. becomes the most forgiving time in the desert wilderness. And although it is not a field of poppies to run through, and we feel the harsh rocks of the world below the colorful cover of the landscape ……. we witness and experience a sign of hope along the way. The desert flowers remind us of our trust and hope in God’s constancy and presence and keep us keeping on.
We hold trust and hope in God’s covenant with us, even if we have broken our covenant with God. The Prophet Jeremiah reveals that God does not break covenants, it is we, God’s people who do. Even in the midst of the mess we make of our lives at a personal, national and international level, God is willing to be true to God’s covenant to love God’s people. And not only is God true to God’s covenant, God is willing to keep trying to reach out to us until we understand beyond a superficial level just what a covenant with God means and what God wants of us
Jeremiah reminds us that we have the capability to know God in a new and deeply personal way, and God desires us to know God so much that God is ready to make a new covenant. It isn’t like the old one…the one that was static, written in stone, carved on tablets, and on temple walls so that we could all see it and disobey it. It’s a new covenant…..this new law is not written in stone, it is written in our hearts and can be there for all to see in our daily living. The new covenant isn’t just about knowing about God and God’s laws…… it’s about knowing God.
We don’t have to interpret it….or analyze it……we are simply free to experience the joy that comes with the kind of freedom we experience when we love. A similar feeling one might feel when falling in love in a human way…….when our hearts and souls are filled with love for the other and there is a sense of perfect freedom of being totally at peace with oneself and with another who love us too.
When we experience that kind of knowing God and loving with God, we are free to be who we really are with God………it is like falling in love with God……and our joy can transcend into a kind of divine euphoria……as we put our hearts into being the best that that God could ever hope we could be. Rather than trying to intellectualize it, we are called to experience it and move into it with a new level of passion.
During Lent we work hard to reach it. We stumble through the desert trying to turn away from all that separates us to God….toward all that brings us closer to God….and in our falling and rising, our failures and our new attempts, we are to remember God’s covenant.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” says the Lord. “The least of these and the greatest will know God” No one is excluded from knowing God.
God is right there with us, writing God’s oath on the core of our being. Our steps cannot help to feel lighter…..more swift. How can we fail to notice the flowers along the way?
To know about God is a heady thing….something we intellectualize. But to know God is heady in a different way….a joyful, unfettered way. To know about God is conditional and superficial. We know all about the scriptures, the theology and the doctrine. We know about the other. We know about the people down the street. We know about the people suffering around the world, but do we really know them? Are they written on our hearts?
As if in answer to our questions, God makes a vow to us that is as filled with wonder and hope as a desert turned from desolation to flower-filled beauty…..I will remember no more their sins and forgive my people completely.
Just like the hidden possibilities that lie beneath a desert floor, God is always at work, watching, renewing, creating and loving. And when God acts, new things happen.
It’s a new kind of covenant….different than the old….not negating the old, but perhaps extending it….enhancing it…..bringing it from the outside to the inside….from the impersonal to the personal….the superficial to the heartfelt.
During this Lenten season we have heard the voice of the new covenant. A Muslim voice, a Jewish voice and others who carry God’s law written in their hearts. They are voices that seek not just to know about us, but to know us by offering their hearts to let us look inside, so that we will know them.
Herein lies the hope and herein lies the lesson we are to learn as we walk these last steps toward the foot of the cross.
We have had the time to think and now it is time to take stock as we come closer to Jerusalem. To take stock of our repeated errors…to recognize that there must be a new way to approach our situations.
Instead of reacting with our heads, we can now react with our hearts – the meeting place of the divine and the human. Surely with God’s words written in our hearts, our reactions will lead us to new solutions.
“Make me an instrument of your peace,” says the Prayer of St. Francis. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” Where there is discord between two people, we can react in the old way, forgetting the law of the ten commandments completely, as we lie, judge, and kill…..the body, the soul or both. But God’s new Covenant calls for a new kind of passion to stir and spring up, a freedom to love…..as we know we are loved….. through the power of forgiveness that streams from the Cross……and the freedom to move our love into the world propelled by the Holy Spirit…… bringing with us…….reconciliation and a desire to give rather than to take.
We consider the state of the world, rife with cultural clash and division, carrying death and destruction into our living rooms and into our communities. It is a world System that lies outside of the heart…..where self-righteousness and the need to be right, deafens ears and deadens reason. We can create a list of transgressions….between each other, between different denominations of our own church, between faith traditions, between our consuming desires and environmental destruction…the list goes on.
Walter Wink suggests that the “myth of redemptive violence” is the primary myth of the System.” According to this myth, we only succeed in bringing order out of chaos “through defeating the other.”  We take care of our enemies by eliminating them, just as the System tried to eliminate Jesus. And I am not just referring to ISIS or other extremist groups. The myth starts working on its domination of us early in life and follows close behind us throughout our lives…..through our interactions between each other, our priorities and our preferred consumption, demands and expectations – so much so that we are often simply at a loss as to how we are to avoid its powerful hold on our lives especially when it escalates from simple fulfillment of selfish desire to meanness to fear mongering and to terrorism.
Would that a new law of love be written on those hearts so that peace could find its foothold. Would that the passion that drives to misguidedness, be driven by God’s law of love in the heart.
There is no need for a clash of cultures when God’s law replaces the law of the World…in the Greek understanding…the kosmos…….the System. No need to fight for perceived right – no need for pride or mid-guided ambition, no need for judgment, suspicion and malice, no need to claim one’s own virtue and the other’s blasphemy. There is only openness. Openness to the Spirit. Openness to God’s desire for each of God’s children to bloom like a desert flower rather than self-destruct and fall, like ashes back onto the desert floor.
So as we continue on toward the desert horizon…… we understand what we have to examine. What part of the world rules us to the detriment of all around us? What is the System demanding of us…..what is holding us captive? Living under the law of the System….who…in our lives…. are the winners and who are the losers? Why do we continue to desire to dominate….to win through violence to the body, mind and spirit?
Like Jesus, we are to walk in fearless freedom from the myths of the System, refusing to buy into judgment, punishment and threat. Jesus called it when he was brought to face Pilate. “My kingdom is not from this world”  (translate System.) He foresaw his crucifixion and used it to expose the violence of the System in its need to be rid of him. Jesus teaches us that through His resurrection, we will be front row seat witnesses of the way of the System, it will expose itself for what it is….a violent affront to all that God wants for God’s Kingdom. Once we recognize the violence that the world imposes, we will recognize those parts of our lives shaped by the System which must die …….allowing newness of life to be free to live in a new way…..in the way of Jesus. “Surely,” says the Centurian, standing beneath Jesus at the moment of his death “This was the Son of God
When God speaks, do we hear God’s words? Jesus prayed, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say….. ‘Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason I come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ ”  Jesus held God’s words written on his heart… “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”
God’s words are spoken, teaches Jesus, for us…… more than for himself. ……So that we can love rather than be at war.
So that we can forgive ourselves instead of succumbing to self-hatred and guilt…….. so that we can forego envy and jealousy and love our neighbors as ourselves, being openly accepting of the other……loving our earth and all that lives in it. What would it be like to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. Is it nothing less than our God requires of us? 
What are the ways in which we need the law of love to be written on our hearts? How do we prepare ourselves to make room in our hearts for the power of the resurrection, so that we may be made new and…… our lives….our way of living and the livesof all those we know …….will be made new because of it? We know there is much to distract us and to live in such a way is not easy in a world that can be so unkind. Much of the world will want us to live by a different law but this is ours to resist.
We resist because we have come a long way and we must keep moving toward a destiny of love of peace that the world so desperately seeks. It is the covenant we made with God and God with us. To love God with all our heart and with all our soul and all our mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The words are not just to be written in our books.
Like flowers of the desert, rising out of the desolate…….they are to bring living proof of the renewal of life….and they do…..because they are written in our hearts.
End Written to the Glory of God The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+ March 22, 2015
Walter Wink: Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992,) 13 – 31, 51-59.
The Ella Brown Room is filled with crosses. And there are crosses in the glass case in the hall outside the chapel. Each is treasured enough to be shared and each carries a story that partly defines the one who lives with it… and defines a particular perception of what it means to walk with Christ……what it means to be a Christian. We brought our crosses for all to see and in the doing so, we had to ponder if we should…..as we gently took them off our own walls or shelves and carefully brought them to another sacred place for about 40 days. During the period of those 40 days, they represent to the world our faithfulness and our obedience to God and our trust in God’s promise to love us unconditionally, a covenant made to us through our forefather Abraham and brought to fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They bring us to a poiint of our walk through Lent in a way that is difficult to explain to the uninitiated….. ……the mainstream secular culture of our times. They bring us a reminder of our own burdens to be carried…..our personal crosses made far too heavy to hang on a wall, almost too heavy to bear. At this time of Lent we come to the moment where our work becomes harder and more profound as we are called to lift our own cross and carry it just as did Jesus. It is the time for our own heavy lifting….of our self-denial and our self-disclosure. And in the carrying, we come to a time when we decide what part of us must die and what part of ourselves will will rise from the ashes left behind.
After all is said and done, when the time comes for us to look back at the 40 days of Lent and how we spent them, it would be good to know that we have done the best we could with this important work. We can begin by asking ourselves “What does it mean to me to be a Christian?” Did my vow to give up chocolate, or wine, or some other desired fruit that tempts, inform an answer? Did my decision to take on a particularly challenging task inform an answer? If so, then indeed we enjoy some measure of success. However, it might be helpful to take time to be sure we have the right task and thus, the right answer. There, God. I gave up chocolate for Lent and didn’t enjoy one single nibble. There, God. Am I not the better person for it? Am I not a good Christian?
As we ask the question, we ask it in relation to the times in which we live. We are surrounded by deep sin…war and cruelty….neglect ….abuse to the highest degree…here in Portland and all over the world. When we compare ourselves to these extremes, we come off looking pretty good. At least to us. We don’t murder or create mayhem, so how could God possibly think of us as sinful? The price of giving up chocolate seems appropriate to the degree of our perceived sins. Yet, the reverse also often seems true….. we are prone to cast ourselves into a pit of guilt over the slightest perception of personal sin. The way we raised our voice, the way we felt slighted, the way we judged, silently and aloud…..we add them up and feel hopelessly lost in our sins and feel defeated by them…..feel a sense of failure.
Yet……as Paul reminds us…… through the grace of God, our sins are already forgiven. And Cornel West reminded us, too, in his speech we heard on Wednesday evening….we are to “fail better!” We only fail when we try…..and the harder we try, the more opportunity we have to fail, and we are to be unafraid of our own failure……we are to fail better in our work toward true discipleship. God is far less interested in totaling up our failures and more interested in our desire to be more than we thought we could be……. Faithful and trusting in God’s love and forgiveness. Like Abraham, we stumble on our doubts, like rocks stumbled over in the desert, but…..as Christians…… we are to stumble on in faith, obedient to God’s call to us. It is with faith and with trust in God’s faithfulness to us that we will come to sacred understanding of who we are and where we are called to go.
And as we make our way, we other questions occur to us…… “What does it mean to be faithful?” “What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?” How do I define myself as a Christian? How am I defined by others? How am I defined by God?
If God were to rename you today, how would you be named….how would you be defined? In what newly defined direction would that name lead?
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness asking himself similar questions. The answers came clearer for him through his faithful obedience to God and he began to understand the direction he was to take and where it would take him…..to great suffering and rejection and ultimately to death and to resurrection. So clear was he in his direction that he wanted to let his disciples know so that they could set their own. However, the direction he was describing did not ring true for those listening. Peter tried to set him right, rebuking him for how Jesus was describing his destiny. The others there were probably equally perplexed by Jesus’ words. If Jesus was the Messiah, then surely his direction would gather power, money, privilege and prestige…..would oust the Romans, would give presence to the underdogs and triumph to the working poor, Isn’t that what Messiah’s do? What’s all this about a cross? Death….resurrection. Did we really hear that?
Peter is listening to Jesus from his own pre-conception of what a Messiah should be and what a Messiah should be out to accomplish. Jesus’ words were so outrageous, that he simply didn’t acknowledge them. And in his haste to bring things back into perspective on human terms rather than those of the divine……Peter missed the most important part of the story…..the story of the cross. It was the cross which was at the heart of everything. It was the cross that would turn the world upside down, and not the sword. It would be the humility and obedience offered on the cross that would ultimately triumph…… not judgment and punishment of others. It would be ultimate faithfulness to God, above all else that would define Jesus’ life.
Just as Jesus called his disciples then to understand his direction, and thus define their own……as modern day disciples, we too, are called to examine our preconceptions about how our lives should be defined.
God asked the same of Abram and Sarai and they were given new names by God…….. Abraham and Sarah. It doesn’t seem like much, we think. Just because their names have changed, how does that change them? But, they have been redefined by God and they are blessed by God for a particular destiny, even as…. in their older years….. they have been asked to do what seems impossible. In faith, they take on the new definition of themselves and do what God has asked them to do with trust and with faith.
In return, God makes a covenant with them….a covenant of hope for the future and future generations. It is a covenant that is connected to the continuation of creation, and it is through this covenant that all God’s people have been given the gift of hope and all God’s people are to define themselves through the lens of this covenant. The Covenant between Abraham and God echoes down through the ages to David to Jesus and to the disciples of Jesus….the faithful people of God. In our Magnificat we sing of “The great promise God has made to our forefathers, Abraham and his children forever.”  That’s us.
And, just as Abraham and Sarah set out across the great unknown, now it’s our turn to show the measure of our faith as Christians. Our turn to be redefined by God. Like Abraham and Sarah, we know it is hard and that we don’t always measure up in the way God would like. Yet, the promise of hope in God’s covenant with us doesn’t depend on the degree of our faithfulness toward God. God will continue to be faithful to us regardless of our disregard.
Lent affords us time to contemplate our circumstances, time to sort through some important aspects of who we are…….our wounds and the wounds we have inflicted on others. We reflect on our shortcomings and seek to redefine them so that they become our strengths. Our thoughtlessness to become thoughtfulness, our neglect to become awareness, our inaction: action, our unkindness: kindness, our selfishness: unselfishness, our judgment to become loving acceptance.
It is how we have been defining ourselves and what we need to redefine…..who we really are and who it is that God wants so desperately for us to understand about ourselves and who we could become.
It’s far harder work than giving up chocolate……it’s the hard work of Lent…..repentance. It is the measure of our faith in the way of the cross.
There is no freeway through the wilderness we are to traverse during Lent, only a long, sometimes very lonely path. Taking time for self-reflection, realigning our priorities, redefining our identities,…….., we walk with measured steps, lest we slip on a stray rock on the way.
If we fall, we get up and continue on, because that is the only way we will begin to understand how we are defined by God. As God’s people we each need to ask ourselves what God’s covenant means to us and how does it inform our faithfulness to God and our trust in God? What is it we need to do……..or not to do in order to become even more intimately involved with God and God’s promise to us.
In this Second Week of Lent, we continue to make our way to the cross, carrying our own toward the glory of Easter Day. The meaning of the cross will be meaningless for us if we don’t work to define ourselves as a reflection of God’s love and faithfulness toward us and if we don’t carry our own.
We are following in the way of Abraham and heirs of a covenant that has no end and which has been fulfilled in a real and human way through Jesus Christ. And this is the faithful strength that defines us as Christians as we make our way in joyful obedience to Jesus Christ.
As Christians, we are well informed about our relationship to God and to Jesus Christ. At our baptism we were redefined as “reborn…..and we are received into the household of God to share in Christ’s eternal priesthood.” 
We have “graciously been accepted as living members of God’s Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.”  And so, as faithful Christian disciples, we do the work in preparation for our opportunity to experience the death of one definition of ourselves so that we can rise into a new definition of all that seems impossible to accomplish and yet is possible.
As darkness falls over the dry desert wilderness, the nature of the cross we are to carry will be revealed to us, and we know full well, it will be much heavier than the crosses we brought to hang on a wall. It may become almost too heavy to bear, but we carry it joyfully, all the way to the place where we can lay ourselves down at the foot of the cross and leave the burden of all our sins to die there. Then and, only then, ….. with the love which knows no bounds……the love that forgives all sins…….He will raise us up……..and we will…. ……. with God’s help …….. be made new.
End Written to the Glory of God The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+ March 1, 2015
There comes a time for stillness. A time to stop. To assess. To look around what is on the outside of us and what is on the inside. A time to focus. A time to peer into with intention.
It is a time of awareness. When we have courage enough and allow ourselves to truly act as witness to our own thoughts and actions toward ourselves and toward others. To go into a place of quiet, where there is just room enough for one’s self and God to ask a question to which the answer will always be true.
Who am I? Am I whom I perceive myself to be. Am I truly who others think I am. Just as Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus is asking us to ponder the same question.
It is not an easy one. The answer to the question cannot truly be found in easy conversation with a group of friends over dinner, no matter how long you’ve known one another. It cannot be found by reading books, or even, may I say, listening to sermons. All they can do is lead to you find your own quiet place…a place of stillness, where all can be asked, all can be heard, all can be explored and where truth is given perfect freedom. As we find ourselves bowed down by the transfiguring light of that truth, we might, if we have the strength, the courage and the will to do it…..change.
What is it we would change? We can probably think of much we would change about ourselves and the world. We all wish we could change the world in some positive direction. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we are prepared to do that, even in a small way if we have not yet created positive change in ourselves?
And so….we have a need to stop and ask ourselves, how much are we influenced by the world in which we live? How important is it for us to be seen succeeding by all the politically correct, to conform to the latest trend in order to be viewed as au courant? Why do we need to be the first and the best? If this is what the system under which we live demands, then to fly in the face of it is to bring about great disappointment in us by others, and in ourselves and we become angry, frustrated, or judgmental, blaming and bitter. Sadly, when we don’t believe, or when others don’t believe that we have measured up to the demands of the system, we are hardly in a position to create positive change in ourselves or in the world.
To give the outward appearance of creating positive change purely for the reason to be typecast as “good,” in order to satisfy the system, is probably to reach the highest form of sinful arrogance in God’s eyes.
We hear God’s remedy for such arrogance in Jesus’ words to us today. Before you can bring about any kind of change….in yourself or in the world….. go inside. Go into a place of stillness and meet God there. And not just once, but more and more until the place of stillness becomes familiar….like home. All that you find there, you know well.
You can probably picture your home now and know where all those pieces of yourself that you treasure are located. A piece of driftwood from the beach, a rock from the side of a mountain where you prayed early one morning, a feather, a lock of hair. They are where your heart is, and you know where they are.
And so it is in your place of stillness. Perhaps it is harder to locate all that you treasure there. Perhaps it is harder to acknowledge that the treasure there is real….and really a part of you…..for good or for ill. Yet, just like any other activity that is difficult at first, the more you visit it, the more familiar it becomes and the easier it will become for you to recognize that which does or doesn’t belong there.
I have a Tai Chi teacher and I tell him, I’m too busy to practice every day. He looks at me in response and I see the eyes of Christ and hear his voice in my teacher’s gentle words…..just a few moments a day will bring the change you seek. This will be one Lenten discipline I will undertake in order to bring about positive change in my life.
As Brian McClaren points out in his book, “We Make the Road By Walking,”  if you suddenly decide to run twenty miles but you haven’t even tried running round the block, no matter how good your intentions are, it isn’t going to happen. But you can do it if you practice. You can start out running a little bit each day and before you know it, you will be running twenty miles. As McClaren states, it’s not that practice makes perfect, it’s that practice makes habit.
In order to change from a way of being that we know is displeasing to God toward a way that may be less pleasing to the system but worthy of God’s pleasure and praise, we have to practice stillness, practice searching for reality and truth in that place. And we discipline ourselves, with God’s help, to go to this place more and more, until going there is habitual….. and our hearts become welcoming and hospitable toward our presence.
Beware if we don’t, Jesus tells us. Beware of your own brand of personal hypocrisy – it can, like a spiritual cancer – kill your own spirit and your capability for positive change.
Whether it be piety, good works, charitable giving, prayer or fasting, we are called to approach each with humbleness of heart, to offer these as truth from a place of stillness, from an encounter with the holy. Jesus asks all this of us, but asks us to find the motivation for our prayer and fasting, our giving and doing from a place deep within. Jesus asks us to be who we are outwardly as a result of who we are inwardly. To make an outward show of these solely for one’s own appearance is to lose a holy opportunity for change.
One might ask, if Jesus asks us to hide our piety, why is it that on this day we wear ashes out into the world? After all, it’s a wildly countercultural act, isn’t it? Or is it? Or, according to the world we live in, just how countercultural is it?
Some of us received ashes earlier in the day. Were the ashes left there on their foreheads all day long? And if so, why? And if not, why not? Here, in Portland, the system is such that we are allowed to display our piety in such a way or not. To do so, however, proclaims to the world that we are part of a radical faith tradition. We are Christians. And Jesus is urging us to go into a place of private stillness, to ask ourselves what it means to be a Christian.
There are fellow Christians all over the world, part of the body of Christ to which we belong that will receive the imposition of ashes today. They live in places where it is dangerous to identify themselves as Christians, living in fear of violence and persecution, in places like N. Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, parts of Africa and more, most recently Egypt, that is as real and terrifying as it was for the early Christians under Roman rule.
Knowing this, perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is my commitment to Jesus Christ? What does my Christian faith mean to me and how is it made manifest in the world and in the eyes of God. What is the strength of my courage and my desire to be faithful in the face of a world that demands a different order?
What do you desire more than your desire for God? What do you long to be in the eyes of the world more than in the eyes of God? What is the meaning of living for you?
As we still ourselves more and more in order to listen God’s direction, our awareness of God being at the heart of all creation….of all God’s people and thus at the heart of all we are called to be as part of ………. the easier it becomes for us to freely acknowledge God as at the heart of the holy mystery we call life…..at the heart of our coming in and our going out…..into a place of stillness…out into the world at peace.
With time and with practice, what we desire becomes more and more attuned to that which God desires for us and for God’s creation. We desire more and more to change the world, not for our own interests but for God’s.
Today, on this Ash Wednesday, we come face to face with the urgency to listen to Jesus’ words. It’s not about a quick forgiveness fix…not about momentary absolution. God wants us in for the long haul…wants us to go into the wilderness of our own heart and soul to find the path to true forgiveness so that we can become instruments of reconciliation, working to create an atmosphere of forgiveness and reconciliation in an angry world.
With time and practice we begin to understand our sins….and are able to openly identify and name them….even as God already has. We are able to ask God directly for forgiveness and pray for the strength to seek reconciliation with God and our neighbor.
Ash Wednesday brings us to the threshold of Lent …..the point at which we must choose the path we will take to make our way through the maze of our foolish and false self-perceptions. Our goal is to find a way to work in our corner of the world…., a world filled with destructive ideals, knee-jerk reaction, punishment, misplaced judgment….. to reconcile our faith journey with hope.
It is the work of Lent. With unabashed faith in God….to go into a place of stillness …seeking the strength to change…..seeking the strength to face all our iniquities…..seeking strength to hope…… for ourselves, for our daily living and for our suffering world.
Ash Wednesday is more than a reminder of our physical mortality, it is a reminder of our spiritual life. God said, “Be still and know that I am God.” It is in the place of stillness…alone with God, that we glimpse the entrance to a path that will take us through our personal Lent to a place where we can experience a particular freedom of recognizing the treasure of our own truth. Then, having found it… we can live to enjoy it…….presenting to the world through the eyes of God the good news of renewed hope and joy. And from deep within this secret place of stillness…… we are propelled into an exciting newness of spirit…not just for one day….or for 40 days…but for a lifetime.
End Written to the Glory of God The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+ February 18, 2015
 Brian D. McClaren, We Make The Road By Walking, Jericho Books, New York, NY. 2014. p137-9.