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Sermons at First Parish Church

What Time, Grace, and Circumstances Will Make Us

Sunday, February 22, 2009
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Reading for Feb. 22

Pierre Tielhard de Chardin (French philosopher and Jesuit priest)

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
To reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
To something unknown,
Something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
By passing through some stages of instability,
And that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually.
Let them grow.
Let the shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
As though you could be today what time
— That is to say — grace
And circumstances
Acting on your own good will
Will make you tomorrow.
Only the Holy could say what this new spirit
Gradually forming in you will be...
Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

David White: The Journey
(The House of Belonging, Many Rivers Press)

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again
Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.
Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens
so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving
you are arriving.

Prayer for Feb. 22

The words of the prayer are Jacob Trapp’s meditation called “In Stillness Renewed”:

Let this house be quiet.

Let our minds be quiet.

Let the quietness of the hills, the quietness of deep waters, be also in us:

So quiet that the noise of passing events and present anxieties, of random recollections and wandering thoughts, is stilled;

So quiet that the… stillness is like music;

So quiet that we feel the very being which is the life of us all;

So quiet that we are renewed, we feel at one with all others, at home in a tabernacle of stillness;

So quiet that we let the ripples of this pool of quietness and healing pass through us and out into the world.

In the stillness of this winter morning, in the sanctuary of this strong and loving community let us pray for all who are in need of prayer, for all who are cold or hungry, for all who lost jobs this week, for all who struggle.

We pray for strength and courage for ourselves in the week ahead to remember what is important and to live from that. We pray for the joys and sorrows of this community, spoken and unspoken.

Let us rest together in quiet now and pray the prayers of our own hearts.

When personal global positioning systems, those little direction-giving boxes that you put in your car, first came out a number of people told me about them. And even now every time I mention how frequently I get lost and how incredibly poor my own built in navigational systems functions, I usually find a couple of newspaper circulars announcing sales on GPS's left on my desk the following week. I take these all as gestures of affection and signs that you wish to lessen my suffering, and maybe I really will buy one some day.

I have experienced a GPS a few times when driving with Fran's aunt Anne. She moved to Boston a few years ago from a city with a saner and more logical layout and her directional sense is not much better than mine so her first purchase when she moved here was a device called Garmin. (I don't know if Garmin is what she named the thing or if that actually stands for something.) I thought Garmin would be a dream come true for people like us but unfortunately that has not been my experience. Maybe Anne and I are simply beyond even what Garmin can help, but each time I have driven with Anne, Garmin asks us to do things forbidden by traffic rules or law. Garmin wants us to take a left turn despite the big sign telling us not to, or it sends us up a one way street the wrong way.

I have also noticed and this is really the clincher for me, that Garmin doesn't respond very well when Anne makes a mistake. Just at the time you would expect extra support and help, Garmin takes on a kind of disapproving, disappointed tone and says something like "This is not the recommended route. Please wait while I recalculate."

I have no doubt that waiting while GARMIN recalculates is excellent advice. In fact, I suspect that waiting while Garmin recalculates could solve huge problems, some of them not even traffic related, but waiting isn't an easy option in Boston traffic with cars blaring their horns behind you, and no where to pull over. So Anne and I make things worse. We keep going, against Garmin's advice and our own better judgment, and get more lost as Garmin recalculates and recalculates again. In this, life is not so different from driving in Boston traffic.

As the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote:

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
To reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
To something unknown,
Something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that (it) is made
By passing through some stages of instability,
And that may take a very long time.

This Wednesday, we enter the time of Lent in the Christian liturgical calendar, that period of 40 days before Easter week. Lent commemorates the last days and events of Jesus' life and is traditionally a serious time, a time for giving up something in order to better remember that Jesus gave up his life. Because people have long known that introspection and self-sacrifice is hard, the days before Lent have become a time for celebrating. Mardi Gras literally means Fat Tuesday. The tradition for Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, is to use up all the eggs and butter in the house making pancakes, celebrating with good food because the 40 days of Lenten sobriety are about to begin.

Lent simply the lengthening of the days and comes at the time in New England when most of us are starting to get fairly desperate for spring. Even those of us who are not Christians, who may not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus or who do not place the story of Jesus' life and death at the center of our religious lives, can understand, at this time of year in particular, what it means to wait for the season of rebirth and renewal.

There is something important in this yearly time of end of winter waiting. The questions of Lent are spiritually significant questions: the question of how we make ourselves ready? The question of how we prepare ourselves to emerge both physically and spiritually from the coldness of winter and into a season of new life, whatever that might mean for us. So often we want to act instead of reflect. So often we seem to find some relief in doing something even if it will only get us more lost, we hate to wait, we hate to sit with our uncertainty and our lostness but in some ways this is exactly the challenge and the opportunity that lent offers to us.

After Fat Tuesday's feasting is over, Christians will go to church on Ash Wednesday and have ashes painted on their foreheads in the sign of the cross. The ashes are made from burning the last year's palms, left from Palm Sunday. As they are smeared on each person's forehead, the minister or worship leader says, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return." Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. We are creatures in beautiful but temporary bodies -- we cannot last forever. So Lent begins with the sobering truth that death is inevitable; we are not immortal; the ashes are a reminder of our human vulnerability, our impermanence, our need for humility in the face of this knowledge.

Yet Lent does not end with death. Lent ends with the celebration of Easter, the celebration of rebirth and abundant life. So the Lenten journey, if we choose to follow it, is a journey from death to rebirth. For me this is not a literal journey, it is not about a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus or even about belief in some form of life after death. To me the events of Jesus life and death, remembered through Lent and then Easter week, are symbols; they are metaphors. In this way, Jesus' life and death and resurrection become an allegory, a story in which we can always find ourselves in some way.

So the Lenten journey is a journey from the living green palms of last year's palm Sunday now burned down to ash to remind us of the great cycle of life and death, the journey is one from dust and ashes to renewal and new life. Where do we find ourselves in the cycle this year? How might we find a way to participate, to let something move in us, be moved in us, toward renewal. What in our lives feels like it is burned down to ashes or ground to dust? Can we allow ourselves to take a closer look, to find out if there is something still living, still burning in the midst of those ashes? This is an important spiritual journey, and potentially a life giving one, if we can allow ourselves to take it. It is also a difficult invitation but the Lenten journey is is not without joy and even humor.

Rev. Gordon Atkinson, is the pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. He is kind of the Garrison Keillor of Baptists and the author of a wonderful blog called Real Live Preacher. In his blog he chronicles some of the wonderful, difficult and always honest moments of his life in his community of faith. His essay about his church's Ash Wednesday service is a reminder of the truth that the spiritual journey, especially in community, is not without its fumblings, failures and tender and hilarious moments. In this, his congregation reminds me a great deal of ours. He writes:

Growing up Baptist, I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was. Only when I got to San Antonio and started rubbing shoulders with people of other faiths did I find out what a wonderful spiritual exercise Lent can be.

Now most big cities in Texas have at least one or two quirky Baptist churches. Churches that march to the beat of their own drummer, so to speak. We are decidedly one of those. We do things in our own ways, in the ways that seem right and good to us. One of the things we do is incorporate a lot of things from other Christian traditions. Over the years, Lent has become a very important season for us.

And yes, we do the imposition of ashes in a worship service on Ash Wednesday. It took me about three years to get the ash and oil mixture right. The first year I used water, which does not work well. Also the woman who burned the palm leaves didn’t have any experience with that, so there were a lot of chunks and stuff in the ashes. People ended up with these dry, gray smudges on their foreheads with bits of leaves and other stuff sticking to them...

But I must say that after a number of years, we’ve developed a very meaningful Ash Wednesday service. The woman who burns the palms to make our ashes does a great job and never forgets. And I finally figured out that you mix them with oil so they make a nice cross-shaped smudge on the forehead.

We are not from a sacramental tradition, so there are no priests in our church. Instead, we are priests to one another. With that freedom in mind, last night we imposed ashes on each other. One person would come forward and stand waiting. Then someone else would come and stand next to her, pray for her, and make the sign of the cross on her forehead with ashes.

I cried watching my youngest daughter, who is 9, saying her prayer and making the sign of the cross on her best friend’s forehead. The children went first, for some reason. Then people came alone or in pairs, praying for each other and applying ashes in turn.

It was a wonderful evening. Very meaningful and I felt so connected to my little faith community. It was just one of those nights, you know?

Then something very funny happened.

The people of Covenant Baptist Church are full of life. They will only be serious for so long... Last night was no different. After everything was over, Shelby (one of Atkinson's young daughters) and her friend Hannah sneaked over to the table and had some fun with the ashes, (smudging them in stripes under their eyes to look like football players.)

One thing about young people, they won’t let you get away with taking things too seriously. And this is an important lesson to learn. (It is also a reminder of what a) church is supposed to be. It is supposed to be a community of friends who have walked together through the good times and the hard times of life so that their shared history is more powerful than their differences. It is a gathering of spiritual seekers who do not demand exact conformity in every doctrine, but acknowledge a shared commitment... and fidelity in living. There is real trust and love. Mistakes are made and people are forgiven. And you feel safe. Safe enough to laugh or cry. Safe enough even to sneak up to the front of the church and have a little fun with the ashes.

(from Real Live Preacher Blog 2008-05-10)

Even in more traditional Christian churches, where painting stripes under your eyes with the left over ashes, may not be quite so welcome, Ash Wednesday comes with its own reminder not to take the ritual too seriously or mistake the ashes as anything but a symbol for what needs to be an inner change. One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday is that beautiful and powerful passage from the Hebrew Bible book of Isaiah in which the prophet rails against the hypocrisy of those who make great a great show of fasting and covering themselves with ashes when they aren't actually doing anything to help the poor or work against the injustice all around them. Isaiah writes:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:3-12)

Isaiah reminds us that the outer signs mean nothing unless they brings us to a different understanding of who we are and what our lives are for. Inner changes have to be reflected in greater commitments to love and this is not easy. We cannot force such understandings to come, only invite them, make time and room for them and try to accept that we are unfinished, that we are indeed on a journey to the heart of ourselves. And at the same time that I invite you to enter into this inner journey, from dust and ashes to rebirth, the youth of the congregation ask you to share your bread with the hungry -- to fill 200 grocery bags with food for the Loaves and Fishes food pantry over the weeks of lent. We do this because as Isaiah reminds us, both reflection and service are necessary, who we are and who we are becoming is always reflected in how we treat the most vulnerable of our society.

In his poem, The Journey, the contemporary Irish poet David Whyte is writing about the spiritual work of Lent. He writes:

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again
Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.
Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens
so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving
you are arriving.

(David Whyte, The Journey, The House of Belonging, Many Rivers Press)

I believe Whyte is saying that we are always coming to something new, that in leavings there are always new beginnings and that our work as human beings is to find out what is written in the ashes. For each of us, the ashes may be different. They may be the ashes of loss or grief or midlife, the ashes that remind us of our own physical vulnerability, our mortality. What newness might be written in those ashes for you this year? What glowing ember is there waiting to be discovered?

Entering silence, even in the smallest of ways, is the best way I know of to enter the journey of Lent. IF we are to come to read that sentence of truth inscribed on our own hearts we will need to find ways to be quiet, to sit for a moment before opening email, to walk in quiet at the end of the day, to stand at the window for a little while looking at the sky. For many of us, it is hard to stop and wait, hard to be still and feel our own restlessness and impatience and uncertainty and fear, but how else will we understand who we are? Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days before he began his teaching, he entered into silence and wrestled with every sort of temptation the story goes. And the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness in solitude are an echo, a return to the memory of the story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt of the Jewish people, Jesus' people, and the forty years they spent wandering in the silence of the desert. There is no way to come home to ourselves without a desert crossing, no way to become fully who we are and are called to be without time in silence.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

So be of patience with your own hearts and let us enter this journey of lent, from dust and ashes to the new life of spring.

grad-rainbow

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Most recently updated 2009-06-06