On March 11th, the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center held a breakfast event to promote the worldwide White Ribbon Campaign. Beginning 25 years ago in Quebec, the Campaign is organized by men working to put an end to violence by men against women. The Newburyport Clergy Association signed up for a table.
The Center’s event featured a talk by Dr. Malcolm Astley, a bereaved dad and retired school principal from Lexington, Mass. Three years ago his eighteen-year-old daughter Lauren died at the violent hands of her former boyfriend. From the heart of his grief Dr. Astley spoke about the joy and the grief young men and women suffer as they learn to love one another: as they learn to enter into and exit from relationships with each other. Falling in love is a part of life, and so is breaking up. Both are part of a lifelong process of growing up. Because of the cultural expectation of emotional toughness placed especially on men, Dr. Astley believes it’s hard for us to cope with the sadness of a breakup, especially when we’re in our teens and early twenties.
“It is terribly painful to have someone break up with you — it is one of the worst pains in life,” he said. “It’s time for us all to acknowledge that and stop being silent about it. It’s not about losing your value or your self-respect so that you let the pain turn to anger and forget about what is important, and allow yourself to snap.”
The grief is strong and physical. Dr. Astley suggests that men, especially young men, not try to avoid or deny the pain of their breakups. Instead, we can learn to recognize our grief in those moments for what it is. We can learn to live with it. We can come through our time of loss with renewed respect for the partners we used to love, and for ourselves. We can survive pain with dignity.
We learn that in sports. We play together. Together we learn to recognize powerful physical sensations like straining muscles, pounding hearts, and shortness of breath, and we learn when we can go on and when we must slow down. We learn to care for each other and ourselves. We learn that we’ll survive—our hearts will stop pounding and our muscles will recover, and we’ll become just a little more resilient.
Running a cross-country footrace is tough. It causes a pounding heart and shortness of breath. Losing the race is worse: it adds sadness. So does a breakup. We support each other when we lose races. We gather each other up and carry on. Why can’t we learn to do the same when we lose relationships? Why can’t we help each other as we develop emotional resilience the same way we develop physical resilience?
We can do this. We can respect our former loves. We can see hope beyond our losses. As disciples gathered at the foot of the cross we see the glory that overcomes death. Just as we hope for Jesus’s resurrection, we can hope for life beyond our grief and losses, and we can accompany each other as we live through them.
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” - Hebrews 12:1-2
There is a thread that runs through our readings today – thirst for connection with God and the quenching gift of grace. These readings bear meditating with – entering into in a time of prayer – finding the character we relate to most and joining the story to experience it from the inside – so I commend it to your prayers over the coming week.
This morning though I want to focus in on one aspect of the story and speak a bit about that. This year as I read this story again I was struck by the fact that this woman who meets Jesus at the well is profoundly affected by the experience of being deeply known by him. After their conversation about water which is rich with many layers of meaning, Jesus goes deeper by telling the woman to go call her husband. Her response is that she has no husband, and he counters that he knows she has had 5 husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. If you have heard sermons or read many biblical commentaries on this passage, chances are you gotten the message that Jesus spoke these words to unmask the sin of this woman’s life, and many preachers and commentators have used that as license to put her character on trial. But If we really look at the passage and listen closely we will see that this is a misinterpretation. Writing about this passage, Episcopal Bishop Mary Glasspool points out this misinterpretation has resulted a popular portrait of this woman of Samaria as a sinner. Bishop Glasspool goes on:
“But there is nothing in the text to indicate this being the case. Most obviously, Jesus does not judge her – any moral judgments are imported into the text by interpreters. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than moral laxity. She may, for example, be involved in the Jewish custom of levirate marriage – the custom that demands that the next available male in a family take the place of a brother who has died – by marrying his widow. And the last male in the family line could have refused to marry her. Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history have intrigued many commentators – but do not seem to concern Jesus in the least. This part of the conversation between the woman and Jesus about her life’s situation is a moment of confrontation with truth. Jesus reveals himself as someone who sees deeply into the very essence, the heart of people. And the woman, recognizing this as the case, declares Jesus to be a prophet.”
So whereas many have focused on what they have assumed as her questionable character, the passage actually calls us to focus on Jesus ability to encounter people and know them deeply. But Jesus does not stop there. As they continue to talk, they go deeper. He speaks to her about the coming future when the animosity between their two peoples – Jews and Samaritans – will be overcome and they will worship God together in spirit and truth. Hearing this, the faith that lives deep within this woman comes to the surface and bubbles out of her like living water – “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” To which Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” And so, this woman becomes the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals his full identity as the Christ.
This time around reading this Gospel I am struck by how this back and forth between Jesus and this woman at the well seems to be such a dance. It begins with a request for water and ends in Jesus speaking out loud for the first time to another person his identity as the Messiah. And I am captivated by the idea that as with Nicodemus before her, this woman has played a part in Jesus process of claiming his full identity within the human family. And this affirms the humanity of Jesus for me. It says to me that just like me, Jesus, our human brother, knows himself most fully through his relationships with other people.
For her part, the woman is transformed. The disciples reappear and the conversation between her and Jesus ends, and she leaves her jar – symbolic of the fact that she is no longer thirsty because living water has bubbled up within her in her interaction with Jesus– and she heads back to her city where she immediately begins telling people about what happened to her at the well. She makes no grand speech; rather she simply tells others about the experience of being known deeply by Jesus – “: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!He could not be the Messiah, could he?” And if we read carefully we will realize that this is the subtle punch line of the story – for while the disciples of Jesus, who have been walking the road with him for a while now are concerning themselves with giving their rabbi enough to eat, the Samaritan woman has run off to do the work of bringing others to Jesus so that they may experience being deeply known by him also. The work he points to as he says to the disciples, Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.
The passage closes as a crowd follows the woman back to the well, and soon Jews and Samaritans are mingling over the waters of the well of their common ancestor, where they drink deeply together of the living water flowing from Jesus.
For me this year, the take away of this passage is that being deeply known by God in Jesus is a transforming experience that we are not meant to keep to ourselves. This Gospel illustrates that to be an evangelist all one has to do is offer an invitation to others that is based in the truth of how your own life has been transformed by knowing Jesus. It does not take fancy words, but rather authentic words. A simple “come and see” can be powerfully attractive when there is fire in the eyes of the one that utters it. And it is the funny thing about this faith of ours, which is at the heart about knowing God, and being known by God – that, this faith of ours only grows stronger when we give it away to others. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Come and see my friends, and bring others. In memory of Her and in Christ’s name. Amen+
Nicodemus was a very well respected member of the leadership of the Jewish people. By the standards of the world – Nicodemus had it all. Even so, the young rabbi Jesus, whom many of his fellow Pharisees despised, held some sort of strange attraction for Nicodemus. He could not even explain it to himself, but deep down he sensed that Jesus was offering something that he needed.
He knew that Jesus was highly provocative in his words and actions. For instance he healed the sick on the Sabbath, which the Pharisees strict reading of the Torah viewed as a violation of the commandment to do no work on the Sabbath. And Jesus spoke about God in the most intimate of terms, as one would of a best friend, rather than with the deference that any devout Pharisee would show for the holy name.
Even still, Nicodemus could not get Jesus out of his mind. Finally he decided to go and talk to Jesus. He told himself that the only reason he was going was to warn Jesus – to help the younger man stay out of trouble. Perhaps Jesus would listen to a well respected Pharisee. But in going, Nicodemus took the prudent precautions – he went alone, without telling anyone else he was going, and he went under the cover of darkness. He did not want to risk all that he had worked so hard for – he did not want to put his reputation on the line.
Jesus did not seem to be surprised to see Nicodemus that night. In fact it seemed almost as if Jesus had been expecting him. Nicodemus started out with some amiable words in order to show Jesus that he was not his enemy, but rather an admirer. He told him that he respected his teachings, and was about to go on when Jesus cut him off and headed this one to one conversation in a totally different direction. He began talking about every person’s need to be born from above. Nicodemus was a bit taken aback. This was not going as he had planned, and Nicodemus was not quite sure what Jesus was getting at. When he protested Jesus looked him in the eyes and without the least bit of deference asked him:
“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?… If I have told you about earthly things and yet you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:10&12)
Then he went on to elaborate about a few of those heavenly things, one of which is very familiar:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
We aren’t told anything about how Nicodemus and Jesus ended their midnight meeting, but I imagine Nicodemus leaving with a puzzled look on his face. I imagine that on the one hand he was insulted by the way Jesus questioned his Pharisaic knowledge and authority. On the other hand, I imagine he was more intrigued and troubled by Jesus than ever before. Although he did not clearly understand what Jesus meant by being born from above, there was something that rang true in those words.
One current day scholar writes this about what Nicodemus can show us about ourselves:
“Nicodemus, darting under the streetlamps and silhouetted in the moonlight, is every one of us living in the ambiguity of wanting to come to Jesus, but not wanting to give up those ‘cherished’ but deadening parts of our lives that feel threatened by the ‘second birth’ Jesus offers.” (H. King Oehmig, “Synthesis CE, 3/3/96)
Like Nicodemus, something in Jesus resonates deeply with something in us. We intuitively recognize the stuff of God in him and we want to be close to the stuff of God. Yet at the same time, we know that being close to God, living in God’s realm means letting ourselves be changed internally. And we know this happens over time – little by little, layer by layer, like an onion. Or another image is that of spiritual gestation – we develop and grow and become more and more who we are and this is the spiritual process of being born from above. And how this happens and comes to be in each of our lives, is, as Jesus points out as unpredictable as the path of the wind.
And if this is true of us as individuals it is also true of us as communities of faith. Yesterday our vestry was part of a collaborative summit that took in member of the Lower Merrimack Valley Episcopal Churches and the Merrimack Valley Hub – a mission arm of the diocese that we will be hearing more about. The day was dedicated to how we can be church together in new ways, rooted deeply in our stories of faith and in strong relationships built on a sense of God’s calling. It was a day full of hope and energy and creativity. And, at least for me, it was a day full of feeling a bit uncomfortable. What I was sensing is that God is asking us to step out in new ways together, and that stepping out in new ways will likely require letting go of some old ways. One such example is our Collaborative Easter Vigil. This year we are holding the vigil in Haverhill, and we will not hold one here. I have to say that I love the way we have developed doing the Easter Vigil here, and I will miss that dearly this year. And I am willing to let it go because I think God is calling us to collaborate for a larger purpose – the purpose of weaving us into a larger pattern of witness for Jesus in the Lower Merrimack Valley. So I find myself in the shoes of Nicodemus – wondering what this being born from above is really all about and what it will cost us, but being drawn to it nonetheless!
And so I look again to Nicodemus. Though this passage from John’s Gospel leaves us wondering how Nicodemus one to one with Jesus that night affected him, if we read further in John and watch for his name, we find some clues. In chapter 7, we meet Nicodemus again. This time it is in broad daylight. The Pharisees are questioning the Temple Guard about why they have not arrested Jesus for stirring up the people with his teachings. Nicodemus stands in the midst of this discussion and asks, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” It is a bold move by the shadow dancer. He would have been much safer to keep quiet. He is not exactly taking Jesus side, but he is speaking openly against any who would seek to silence Jesus.
But it is what Nicodemus does in chapter 19 that is most amazing. Jesus has been crucified, and his body is hanging lifeless on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, asks for permission to take his body down for burial. But he does not do this alone. We are told:
“Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighting a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial customs of the Jews.” (John 19: 39-40)
My mother always taught me, “Actions speak louder than words.” The disciples, who were closest to Jesus and had walked with him in the daylight, were scattered in shadows of fear and sorrow. But these two men, Joseph and Nicodemus, came out of the shadows, risking everything, to lay Jesus to rest in the proper way, thus showing him the deepest respect and devotion.
That is the last we hear of Nicodemus. These final actions of his seem to say that though he started out in a tentative way, he came to a place of faith in Jesus who did not just tell him that God so loved the world, but lived that truth out. And God worked through that coming to faith to give the world a paradoxical sign: The man Nicodemus, who seemed to have everything, risked it all for the love of the man Jesus who seemed to have nothing. Among those who looked on where those who recognized that truth, and so gave us the story Of Nicodemus in John’s gospel. May it be an inspiration to us as we continue on with our own faithful journeys of being carried on the Spirit’s winds of change. In Christ’s name. Amen+
Thanks for participating in the project for exploring new ways of worshiping God together.
I promised a while ago to prepare some materials to help us discern how well our attempts at new ways of worship are working out. This is my draft. Please feel free to comment on this by writing to me email@example.com, or by using the comment form on this page.
Asking open-ended questions
The idea is this: we’ll ask ourselves open-ended questions about our worship experiences, rather than giving ourselves a set of rules – a checklist – against which to score them. The idea is to reflect on each worship experience in the light of the open-ended questions.
Obviously, it’s helpful if one of the questions we use is this:
Q. In what inward and outward ways are our practices of worship, prayer, and service consistent with St. Paul’s Church Statement of Call?
As a reminder, our statement of call is this:
St. Paul’s is a Christian community where people are met and accepted without judgment for who they are and are adopted into a loving and caring family. Our faith provides a framework within which we explore, honor and celebrate the presence of God in daily experiences, especially in the crises, conflicts and transitions of life, and are thereby equipped to live fully in an increasingly complex and changing world.
We believe we are called to center our life in Jesus Christ through a regular discipline of Eucharistic worship, scripture study and prayer.
We believe our faith leads us to fulfill our mission, which is to share ourselves and our resources with each other, our community and the world.
We believe we are called to discover and affirm our spiritual gifts and be responsible and committed ministers of these gifts in the name of Jesus Christ.
What open-ended questions should we use?
These are my suggestions for open-ended questions we might use as we reflect upon and evaluate each experience.
Q: In what inward and outward ways are our practices of worship, prayer, and service consistent with St. Paul’s Church Statement of Call?
Q: In our life together in worship, prayer, and mission, do we support each other in seeking and following Jesus Christ? In what ways do we “do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?” (Micah 6:8)
Q: How do we seek to engage each person’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength in the love of God?
Q: Are we open to being changed, outwardly and inwardly, by the gifts of the Spirit that each person brings to our church community?
Q: Do we openly and consciously celebrate our unity in faith and practice with Christ’s church through the ages and around the world? Do we remember that since the day of Pentecost the followers of the risen Jesus have “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers?” (Acts 2:42)
These are one person’s idea of helpful open-ended questions to ask ourselves as we work to seek and serve the face of Christ in all people.
Next, I’ll demonstrate how these questions might be applied in a couple of real situation.
Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
As you know, the church believes and teaches this mysterious truth: Jesus is entirely human and entirely divine. He is no magician, and he doesn’t have, nor does he need, a Hollywood-style special effects crew working to dazzle his audience. He did use show-business techniques in some parts of his life and ministry: We all know that he taught his Sermon on the Mount (which begins in the very next chapter of Matthew after this one) from up on a hillside, so people could see and hear him.
But that’s not what’s going on in today’s reading.
When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Then he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
When we see Jesus as being fully human, we understand that this passage tells about a complex and challenging time in his human life. We hear that he’s led by the Holy Spirit, dripping wet from his baptism by John in the Jordan, into the dusty hot wilderness.
We hear that he stays there forty days, and then the sentient evil one, the devil, turns up and tries to confuse him. The evil one knows exactly what’s going on, and who Jesus is. He knows very well that God claims Jesus as his son, and that God loves him and is delighted with him. He uses that knowledge to try to find a way under Jesus’s fully human skin. And Jesus, in his full humanity, resists.
That rascal starts with the basic stuff of human life, hunger and safety:
You’re God’s son. There’s no reason for you to be hungry! Eat! No, Jesus answers.
You’re God’s son. You can take any risk you want without getting hurt! Jump! Nice try. No.
Having failed twice to get under Jesus’s skin, now Satan goes for broke. He lays hold of one of the deepest causes of human brokenness: the idea that we have power over ourselves and one another: “all these nations I will give you if you will only fall down and worship me.” What a desperate and audacious claim! I will give you these nations! As if the nations were the devil’s to give!
It’s such an outlandish claim we can be fooled by it. I confess I was: the first time I read through the Gospel passage for this week, I assumed that Satan was actually had the power to make Jesus into the conquering hero of the nations of the world. Satan’s lying, but it took me a while to notice that, probably because I want the “conquering hero” lie to be true.
I first assumed that Jesus is making a genuine choice. I assumed that Jesus is renouncing the power of the world when he tells the devil to get lost. But it’s easier than that for him. He’s laughing at the devil’s ridiculous claim, like you might laugh it off if someone offered to sell you the Route One Bridge for five bucks.
Jesus can laugh it off. But what about the rest of us? That rascal the devil fools lots of us with this “conquering hero” lie. Don’t we want to be the conquering heroes of our lives? Don’t we make deals – if only I can do A perfectly, that will prove I am B.
We know we do this. We want to be conquering heroes. We let our personal need to be heroic control our lives. And so we believe the devil’s ridiculous claim.
I’ve done it, many times. I have believed this: If only I take care of my aging mother perfectly, and make sure everybody does exactly the right thing for her, she’ll be cured and become young again. If I don’t do that, I’m not a big enough hero to save her. I learned the hard way that I’m not that hero and don’t have that power. But, still, I listened to the ridiculous promise of becoming a great hero and tried to do it.
I’m not the only one who gets fooled by this temptation to heroism. A while ago I had a conversation with a woman whose troubled 22-year-old nephew did some very stupid things, was arrested and thrown into a town jail overnight, and died in his cell. This sorrowful and bereaved aunt said she had been praying for this young man. She wondered whether she prayed faithfully enough or fervently enough to save his life, and whether some fault of hers was responsible for his death.
Of course, she is entirely innocent of her self-accusation of criminal mal-praying. We can, and we do, hope that God’s presence in her heart, soul and mind will bring her comfort. We dare to believe this Gospel promise: that entire family will experience the joy of resurrection beyond their time of despair and failure. If we’re honest with ourselves, we see that they are us, and they are the whole human family, and we experience their suffering and their joy along with them.
But it’s hard to be honest with ourselves. It’s important to pay attention to how powerfully confusing the ridiculous claim can be, and how it can get under our skins especially in times of trouble. We want to be the conquering heroes of our lives and families; we want it badly enough to make all sorts of bargains to get it.
If only I study hard enough. If only I take good enough care of my relative. If only I pray just right, then I’ll be the hero.
We take this bait. But Jesus doesn’t. He doesn’t even claim any divine or supernatural power to avoid taking the bait. To each of these attempts to get under his very human skin, he responds by claiming his human identity and his Jewish identity. It is written: We don’t live by bread alone, but by God’s word. It is written: Don’t put the Lord your God to the test. It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone. The devil never even came close to prevailing.
A few minutes ago, some of us spoke the devil’s claims, and the rest of us spoke Jesus’s answers. I wonder, what was it like to give voice to those lies? Did you slip into believing they might be true? Did you hope Jesus would not fall for them? Did they make you feel powerful in some unpleasant way?
What was it like to give voice to the answers? Were you happy you were on the “good” side, and that you were speaking for Jesus and not the devil?
No matter which side you found yourself on, please hear what Jesus said, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’
For it’s by worshiping the Lord your God and serving only God that we, with Jesus, can laugh at the devil’s silly promise to turn us into conquering heroes. It’s by laughing at that silly promise that we can take up our own –non heroic – crosses and walk joyfully with Jesus to death at Golgotha, and from there to the resurrected life that puts an end to death. Amen.
Here are three stories from I want to share with you this Ash Wednesday:
The year that Nicolas was born – which was 2005- on Ash Wednesday I was still on maternity leave from my job as Rector of St. Augustine’s Church in Wiesbaden, Germany. So another woman priest, Clair Ullmann, a friend of mine who lived in Austria, came to lead the service at St. Augustine’s in Wiesbaden that Ash Wednesday evening. While Marco stayed home and got Marcella to bed, I took Nicolas and slipped into the back of the church just as the service was beginning. Nicolas fell off to sleep as the service progressed and at the imposition of the ashes, I went forward to the altar rail with him asleep in my arms. As Clair came along the rail and got to us, she marked my forehead with ash and then hesitated and looked at Nicolas. I nodded, and with a very gentle touch she marked him too, saying, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
After the service was over, Clair and I talked at length about that moment at the altar rail and agreed that it was at one and the same time difficult and comforting to look on such a new life, as Nicolas’s was then, and to touch that life with those words and actions. It was difficult because it is hard to look at a newborn and think about him dying someday, and yet it was comforting because it reminded us of the exquisite preciousness of each moment of his new life which he was just beginning. We both were also drawn to wonder if perhaps we had been given a window into God’s experience – God, who embraces each one of us, no matter how old, as we come forward to receive this mark of ashes. Perhaps in that moment that night we got a taste of how the God, who made and cherishes each of us, experiences our physical mortality.
This Sunday, as I was gathered with a small group of adults and children on the side porch of the church to burn some of the dried palms from last Palm Sunday, to make the ashes for today, I said some words about how the dried out palms that last Palm Sunday had been rich and green were a good symbol for us of how all life is limited. But that putting them all together and burning them to make the ashes for today was an example of how God wastes nothing of life and breathes newness into everything, always. As we were heading inside, a parishioner told me that when he was in college the chaplain of the college had invited the students in chapel on Ash Wednesday to write down on paper anything they were seeking God’s forgiveness for, and that they then burned all those slips of paper to make the ashes for their service. What a potent symbol of the redemptive power of God experienced when we are penitent. May this service and this season of Lent be full of such symbols and experiences for each of us!
As my grandfather was preparing for his death, in his late 90s, he told my mother – his only child- that he wanted to be cremated, and that he wanted the majority of his ashes buried alongside my grandmother’s in the family cemetery plot near where my parents live in Poughkeepsie, NY. But he made a special request that a small part of his ashes be returned to his boyhood home. My mother agreed.
The summer after he died my parents and Marco and I made the long, 2 day journey out to the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec, where my grandfather had been born and raised. He had asked that his ashes be spread there on the waters of the bay, from the beach just down the hill from where his childhood home had stood. It seemed apt for a man who had spent his working life as a sailor and merchant marine, and had launched out into that career from that very beach at age 14.
In the late afternoon sun we found the beach. I offered some prayers and then my mother unscrewed the top of the little bottle which held my grandfather’s ashes, and poured them into the water of that bay. It was an amazing moment. I had expected the ashes simply to sink and disappear quickly. But instead, they spread out just under the surface of the gently lapping water in beautiful feathery patterns. We watched them for a good while before they faded out into the depths. I felt this incredible sense of peace, like something that had been missing from the landscape there had been reunited with it – in that moment I sensed a circle of completeness that seemed to whisper – “Oh yes – this is so right”.
Today is the day on which we choose, as a church to remember that our physical existence in this realm has limits, marked by physical birth and physical death. Ashes are the symbol by which we remind ourselves of those limits. They remind us that there is no time like today to try to make another right and holy start on our journey with God. And on this day the shape we give those reminder ashes is important. Today the ashes are smudged on our foreheads to trace the sign of the cross that has been there since our baptism. At our baptism after we were dunked or sprinkled, the priest smudged us with holy oil in the sign of the cross and told us, “Your are marked as Christ’s own forever.”
God formed us from the primal elements of this planet and breathed into us divine and life giving breath. As our life stories attest, we are complex mixtures of glory and grime. As the larger story of our family of faith -also known as the Bible- also attests, we are well beloved of God and on our way home via the currents of eternal life, through Christ. So today, let us forsake that which holds us back from God and let us hold foremost in our minds the double message of this day and of these ashes , “Remember you are but dust – marked as Christ’s own forever.”
This year when we asked people to bring back to church the palms they had taken home with them last Palm Sunday so they could be made into the Ashes of Ash Wednesday, the response was greater than ever before. We amassed quite a pile. We burned some together after church Sunday and I finished the job this morning (Shrove Tuesday). It is amazing how such a large pile can be reduced to one bowl of ash. These Ashes remind us of the limitations of this earthly realm. They remind us that our life is beautiful and brief. They remind us that we are but dust animated by divine breath. They remind us that God is constantly breathing new life into all things, time and again. As we share in these ashes may our lives be blessed by God’s abiding and forgiving presence and may we make a holy start to Lent. Faithfully, Martha+
It is always fun when we can start the homily with a Joke: A Baptist, a Roman Catholic and an Episcopalian were standing at the gates of Heaven. St. Peter was busy, so Jesus answered the door. Together they said, “Can we come in?” Hmmm…Jesus is always up for a good exchange, so as was his custom, Jesus answered their question with his own question. “Who do you say I am?” The Roman Catholic started first saying, “The Church says…” Jesus interrupted and said, “I don’t care about what the Church says. Who do YOU say I am?” So the Baptist tried, “The Bible says…” Again Jesus interrupted, “I’m not asking about the Bible…Who do YOU say I am?” Finally the Episcopalian answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living GOD!” Jesus did a fist pump and started to open the gate for everybody when the Episcopalian added, “On the OTHER hand….”
So, here we are on the last Sunday in Epiphany. It seems like a long time and a lot of snow since we talked about visitations by Magi. Epiphany, from the ancient Greek means a STRIKING APPEARANCE. Today’s Gospel certainly gives us a story of striking appearance. Jesus and a few friends on a mountain and his TRANSFIGURATION – his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Now we have SNOW and Tide and bleach, but they were ancient people, in the Judean desert – so really white anything is really MIRACULOUS!
If we went to the mall this afternoon and asked people what Transfiguration is, I bet we’d hear more people talk about Harry Potter’s Professor McGonigle becoming a cat or teaching a course at Hogwarts than we would about Jesus. When I Googled Transfiguration, Harry Potter was the 2nd hit. *WHEW* If Epiphanies are rare, Transfigurations are rarer. At the end of every Epiphany season, we hear a story of the transfiguration. It is included in all 3 synoptic Gospels. We can conclude that this story was important for the ancient church, and we can wonder how it is important to us today. I will take it from the point of view of the NEW work of the Lower Merrimack Valley Collaborative.
In case you don’t know, about 3 years ago the 6 parishes this area began working together in a new way they call The Collaborative – West Newbury, Amesbury, Groveland, Haverhill, North Andover and YOU! Last year, they got a grant from the diocese to develop this work further and hired me as the “Lead Collaborator”. Our focus includes Shared Worship, such as Easter Vigil which you hosted here last year; Youth Work, such as the Hunger for Justice Youth Event in January. Youth also participated in the Relay for Life in Amesbury in August. You may be familiar with the Progressive Lenten Series the last few years. Your newsletters have been featuring LMV Collaborative opportunities, and I will talk more about some of them in a bit.
I’d like to do a couple drawings for you to share my latest understanding of transfiguration through God. (Use easel – Draw a mountain) What is this? Can you describe it? What color is it? How is it part of today’s readings? Thank you for your input. It is easier to preach when we share the Gospel.
Earlier this week, I asked the Collaborative Steering Committee how this Gospel speaks to the work we are doing together. One of the group said, “Helen is Jesus and we are the others. We are following her and she is leading us and we don’t know exactly what will happen along the way.” I would suggest Jesus is Jesus, but the rest follows for me. Or, I could accept – and wonder if YOU could accept – that each of us – me and each of YOU – that whenever God chooses, the light of Christ shines out from us, just as Jesus is described on that mountain. That the transfiguration is a meeting place between the human and the divine – the temporal and the eternal – our hands, God’s will with Jesus as our connecting point. And when that happens, we will be changed. When we follow Jesus, there will be surprises.
(Draw a wavy blue line across the mountain representing water)
Now what do you see? How has it changed? What color is it now? (DAZZLING WHITE!) Is it the same thing? Thank you again for your help! (Tip of iceberg is the sermon – submerged part is the preparation – “Jesus laughed”)
One difference I would like to focus on from this transfiguration is that the mountain is stationary, while the iceberg MOVES. When Peter experiences the Transfiguration, and sees Elijah and Moses, he offers to make 3 dwellings. Perhaps Peter wants to capture and make stable that moment, but God interrupts to say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” When we talked this week in the Collaborative Steering Committee, about how this Gospel relates to our Collaboration, one person offered, “It is not about the buildings – it is not about our church buildings! It is about getting outside.”
Literally, many in the Collaborative will MOVE outside this week. Today in Haverhill, they are doing a Louisana-style Mardi Gras complete with a musical procession through the streets. You are invited it starts at 4:00! On Wednesday, some in the Collaborative will share Ashes to Go at the Commuter Rail or Bus Stations in Newburyport and Bradford, and on the city sidewalk in Amesbury by the steps of the church. You are invited – they all start at 7:00 am. On Holy Saturday, April 19 the Collaborative Easter Vigil will begin outside at a fire pit. You are invited! There MAY even be a bus leaving St. Paul’s to go to the Vigil! Figuratively, we are going outside our comfort zones, crossing boundaries, inviting others in and visiting other places. There is a whole list of Collaborative activities through Lent – some here, some elsewhere. I invite you to GO out from this place at least once during lent.
On March 15, we will have a Collaborative SUMMIT. COOL how that fits in with the mountain theme, huh! God’s work – we did not plan it that way (again visual of “Jesus laughed”). The SUMMIT will be in Topsfield where we will learn with the Leadership Development Initiative to share our faith stories, to identify our collective call, and to form strong team structures that will help us MOVE (like the iceberg!) In the Moses story, he goes up the mountain with a companion. Jesus takes his friends up the mountain – and some eternal friends meet him there! This is not a solitary journey. It is work in community – community that is bigger than the first few imagined. Community that is bigger than our parishes and likely bigger than our Valley!
I think Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about his Transfiguration until after the Resurrection, because God’s Love and Work is not for a private few. It is for Everybody – it is for Communities Together. Already we have 34 promises of participation – I personally invite you to the SUMMIT with me – and with Jesus – and we hope you will register and come.
One of the pieces of the scripture that struck me in the Gospel reading was that “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them.” I wonder how are we are overshadowed by brightness. You may be aware that many parishes in the Collaborative are in Transition of their clergy leadership. West Newbury has just called a Priest in Charge with whom Martha and I met this week. Amesbury and North Andover are in the process of self-study and search for new priests. After a decade together, Groveland will bid farewell to their priest on Easter Day, even as they consider their options during Lent. Newburyport has a sabbatical upcoming when Martha will be away and Ollie will be full time. I believe such transitions provide moments of possibility, of lay engagement and bright futures. But they can feel overshadowing. Senior wardens describe it to me as feeling buried. I would suggest the tip of the iceberg provides the brilliance. While the whole iceberg is largely submerged, the water provides the buoyancy for LIGHT and MOVEMENT. These parts submerged may include our collaborative, but are no less part of the whole.
The last reflection I will share about this Gospel is that in the terrifying moment, Jesus touched them. The term used for “touch” in this passage is the same Greek word that the Gospel writers use when telling stories of Jesus healing. Jesus touched them – in healing – saying , “Get up” – get MOVING! “and do not to be afraid.” When they opened their eyes, all they saw was Jesus. (say twice)
In the spirit of movement and Epiphany, I’d like to teach you the ASL sign for Alleluia that I learned from a Deaf Interpreter at my in-law’s church in VA. After today, for the season of Lent we will put away the liturgical use of the word Alleluia. The sign for this is 2 claps and 2 “party hands” to open palms (practice a few times – we will do that again at the Easter Vigil!) Let’s use it at the end of our prayer.
Let us pray: Jesus thank you for your invitation and healing touch. As we follow you, teach us not to be afraid to leave our comfort zones. Open our eyes to see God’s Glory through you. Amen – Alleluia, Alleluia!!