Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Sunday, February 25, 2018

2 Lent

February 25, 2018

Mark 8.31-38

+ Every week, without fail, I stand here and talk about “following Jesus.” After all, it’s the basis of everything I believe as a Christian. For me, as you hear me say again and again, being a Christian equals “following Jesus” or being a “disciple of Jesus”

And I believe that with all my heart.

But…but…what I don’t share with you is how difficult it is for me to say that. Because, in fact, it is not easy for me to “follow.” I’m not used to following. I find it difficult to follow.

Following, for me anyway, means having to humble myself, having to slow down. To breath, and to let someone else lead the way. And I don’t really enjoy that.

I’ll be honest: I kind of like doing my own thing.

It’s like being so used to driving all the time and then finally having to allow someone else to drive you. You find yourself sitting in the passenger seat being critical of the speed of their driving, how they come up a little too quickly to a stop sign, how they don’t make the turn signal at the right time. When I let someone else drive, I often find myself pumping that invisible break on the passenger side sometimes.

For me, that is often the way I feel about following Jesus. I often, when following Jesus and trying to live out his teaching, find myself pumping the invisible break on the passenger side.

I often find myself thinking, well, I wouldn’t do it this way. There are plenty of examples in the Gospels.

Turning the other cheek? I wouldn’t normally be all right with that.

Loving my neighbor as myself? If I had the choice not to, I’m not sure I would.  Not that one, anyway.

But this is what it means to follow. It means that, pump that invisible break as much as we want, it is not up to us.

We are the followers. We are the ones who must bring up the rear. And doing so is humbling and difficult and hard at times.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus explaining to us in very blunt words what it means to be a disciple.  For him, being a disciple, means being a follower.  A follower of him. And, as we know, because we’re not the ones in control when it comes to following Jesus, being a Christian—being a follower of Jesus—means that we are sometimes being led into some unhappy circumstances.

Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean closing ourselves up intellectually.  It doesn’t mean we get to stop thinking.  Trust me.  We all know too many of these kind of Christians!  These are the people who think being a Christian means not having to think anymore.  Just believing that all will be well and there aren’t any problems.

I think we all, at times, find ourselves lulled into a false sense of what it means to be a followers. We think that being a follower of Jesus means that everything is going to be happy-go-lucky and wonderful all the time.  We think that  following means not really having to think about bad or difficult things anymore.

It’s easy, after all, to be a lemming.  But that isn’t the kind of following Jesus wants us to do.  The kind of follower Jesus wants us to be is not easy.

For me, personally, I am not a comfortable follower.  It’s hard to have someone else’s standards essentially be my standards.  It can be depressing.

Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be joyful in our following of Jesus.  Yes, we should be filled with a deep and sincere joy.  But, as the old song goes, no one promised us a rose garden. Nowhere in scripture have we been promised that life is going to be rosy and sweet all the time. Being a follower is not always so much fun.  Being a Christian means not always strolling around in comfort and joy all the time.

As we are reminded in this season of Lent and especially in that week preceding Easter, being a Christian means following Jesus wherever he goes.  And where he goes is not to the rose garden.  It is to the garden of Gethsemane—to that place where he too would be feeling anguish, where too would sweat blood, where he too would cry out in anguish to God.

Following Jesus means essentially being like him. And being like him, means having the same relationships he had. And when we look at the relationships he had, we realize they were not normal relationships.

His relationship with God was intense. For Jesus, God was a parent. God was “Father,”  “Abba.!

But the relationship was even more than that. It was also almost like lovers.  Jesus loved God. God loved Jesus.

And that, too, is what our relationship with God should be like, as followers of Jesus. We should love God. Our relationship with God should be intense as well.  It should be intensely intimate. It should be so intense and intimate that other people will say, “That’s really weird!”

But it should be that intense, because God loves us.  Deeply and intensely.

But it doesn’t end there. There is also the relationship Jesus had, because of his intense and deep love of God, with others.  Jesus loved others.  Intensely. Deeply. He cared for them.

And because he did, so should we. In everything we do as followers of Jesus, we should let love always be our driving force.  It is that love that makes us feel the anguish he feels.  It is that love that makes us suffer with him.  It is that love that makes us bleed with him.

One of the biggest—and hardest—lessons I’ve learned since my mother died four weeks ago today is that there is a price for loving someone. A BIG price. And it’s a hard price to pay!  Following Jesus means not just following him through the moments of teaching ministry, not just through the miracles he performed.  It means following him through the dark days of his last week, through the blood and excruciating moments of his dying.  It means that, like him, our love for him causes us take up our crosses and follow him wherever he might go.

It means paying the anguished price for love!

Jesus knew, as we find in our Gospel reading for today, that he there were certain things he had to do.  He had to “undergo great suffering,” He had to be killed.  He understood that fully.  

He in turn tells us that we too must realize that we will have to bear our share of suffering in this life.  We too will have to take up our own crosses.

Now, to be fair, this statement about taking up our crosses needs to be examined a bit.  The cross being referenced here might not be what we instantly think it is.

Reginald Fuller, the great Anglican theologian, believed that the Greek word used for cross here—stauros—actually might not necessarily have meant the cross on which one was executed.

Rather, he believed that it might actually mean the tau (the T) and chi (the X) that was used as a sign of ownership to brand cattle. This adds a very interesting dimension to this scripture.  The brand of the cross that we must bear becomes God’s seal upon us.  And when we look beyond the events of Good Friday, we realize that the cross on which Jesus died truly does become the brand we must bear upon ourselves as followers of Jesus.

Even the thought of a brand is not a pleasant thought.  Brands are painful, after all.
 Brands really hurt. And brands cannot be undone.  They mark us forever. And that is what the cross does to us.

The cross is the reminder to us that following Jesus doesn’t just mean following him through the rose gardens of our lives.  It means, following him all the way to that cross.  It means taking up our own crosses and staggering with him along that path.  It means sweating blood with him in the garden of Gethsemane.  It means crying out with him in anguish.  It means feeling with him the humiliation and loneliness of being betrayed—yes, even by one’s own friends and followers.

But, it also means following him to the very end.  Just as the cross is a symbol of death and torture and pain—it is, for us Christians, also the symbol of the temporal nature of those things.  The cross is the doorway to the glory that awaits us beyond the cross. The cross is the way we must travel, it is what we must carry, it is what we must be marked with, if we wish to share in the glory that awaits us beyond the cross.

I said earlier that no one promised us a rose garden in scripture.  I should revise that.  While we might not have been promised a rose garden, we have been offered glory.  Glory comes to us, when we follow Jesus.  It comes to us when we let our love for God lead us through the dark and frightening places this world can throw at us.  If we let that love guide us, if we let ourselves be led by Jesus, we will find true and unending glory awaiting us.

So, as we encounter the crosses of our lives—and we will—as we allow ourselves to branded with the cross, as we allow our love for God to lead us into places we might not want to go, let us do so with the realization that glory has been offered to us.  Just because we have been branded with the cross, we know that, in our branding,  there will be no shame for us.

But that, one day, what seems to be a brand, what seems to us a symbol of pain and loss and failure, will be transformed.  It will be transformed into a crown upon our heads. And, on that day, there all our pains, all of our sorrows will, once and for all, be replaced with joy.





Saturday, February 24, 2018

The funeral for Lois Hokana

Lois Hokana
(July 23, 1924 - February 18, 2018)


Grace Lutheran Church
Oakes, North Dakota

February 24, 2018

+ It is a true honor for me to officiate at this service. I am very grateful to celebrate the truly wonderful life of Lois Hokana.

And it was a wonderful and beautiful life! There is much to be thankful for today.
She was an incredible and lovely person. Actually, that’s very much an understatement. But you get the idea here…

I am very fortunate to say that I knew Lois many years. I knew her mostly through the work we did in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. I was also very fortunate to visit her in the hospital in Fargo last September and to pray with her and spend some time with her.  And I certainly enjoyed greatly those years I knew her.  As all of us here did as well.

I can say, this afternoon, that, like everyone here this afternoon,  I will miss Lois dearly. I will miss all that she was. I will miss her gentleness, her kindness, her fierce independence, her exuberant joy.  I will miss the witness of her faith—her very strong faith. I will just miss…her!

I know today is hard for those of us who loved her and admired her and were fortunate enough to know to say goodbye to her.  And it is a goodbye, yes. But…it is only a temporary goodbye. It is a goodbye until we see each other again.
Lois, I know, had a very deep faith and belief that we would, one day, all see each other again.  She had a deep faith in her God, who was with her and remained with her until the end. She had a deep faith in Christ, as her Savior.

Now, I say that, but I should also say that she probably wouldn’t like me to make her to be some kind of saint here. She would not doubt not appreciate my getting up here and making too much of all the good things she did.  She was an Episcopalian after all. Most Episcopalians don’t feel the need to go on too strongly about their faith. But I can assure you, her faith was strong. She was always, to the very end, a good Episcopalian and a faithful follower of Jesus.

Certainly, she loved her church of Sts. Mary and Mark. It is sad today that this funeral cannot be held there today. But, you know, it’s all right. It all works out in the end.  And where she is right now, church buildings no longer matter. She is now part of the larger Church, the unending worship that goes on , without end, before the Throne of the Lamb of God. And she is there. And it is glorious!

 Now, people often ask me, “so, what is it you Episcopalians believe?”

I always say, “We believe what we pray.” (that answer doesn’t always go over so well, but it’s the truth)

We’re not big on dogmas. We’re not big on saying we must believe this or we must believe that. If you want to know what we believe, just pray with us. Worship with us. And then you’ll know what it is we believe.

We’re not big on definite answers to the mysteries of faith and life.  And death. But we are big on prayer and worship.  Our liturgy—what we find contained in our Book of Common Prayer—encompasses our beliefs very well.

And, I can tell you, that it certainly did for Lois Hokana.  If you asked her, “Lois, what do you believe?” she would quick to point you to the Book of Common Prayer.

This service we are celebrating together today from the Book of Common Prayer is a great summary of what it is we as a whole—and Lois in particularly—believed regarding life and death and what comes afterward.  The scripture readings we have today are particularly apt.

In our reading from Lamentations, we find a beautiful summary of Lois’ faith. In our reading, we hear,

The Lord is good to those who wait for [God],
   to the soul that seeks [God].
It is good that one should wait quietly
   for the salvation of the Lord.

“It is good that we wait quietly for the salvation of God.”

That is very clearly what Lois did in her life.  And that is not a bad way to live out one’s faith. It is good that we wait quietly for the salvation of our God.
In our reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, we hear St. Paul saying to us,

For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling

Or to put in our own terms, in these bodies, yes, we groan, waiting to be clothed in that heavenly body—to be clothed in spirit and light and life unending. Last Sunday, Lois was finally clothed with that spiritual body, in a glory that we can only, in this moment, imagine. And in this service, in the words we pray together today, we get a beautiful summary of all that awaits us.  

Probably some of the best of these beautiful words is at the end of our service today. At that time, I will lead us in what is called “The Commendation.”  The Commendation no doubt meant the world to Lois, as it does to all of us who hear it, and more importantly, to those of us who believe it.

Now for many of us, we have heard the words of the Commendation hundreds of times. But that, as Lois would no doubt would tell us, that is no excuse to not pay attention.  Because if you do pay attention, you will find the heart of Lois Hokana’s faith.

In the Commendation, we will say,

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

And it will end with those very powerful words:

All of us go down
to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia,
alleluia, alleluia.

Those are defiant words, if you notice. They are words that someone like Lois, who was so fiercely independent, who was such a maverick, who was so cutting edge at a time when women were not very independent, who were not defiant—these are now her words.  Those words in which, even in the face of all that life—and yes, even death—throws at us, as it did to Lois at times, we, like her, can hold up our heads with dignity even then,  with an integrity like her integrity, and a grace like her grace, bolstered by our faith in Christ.

Even in the face of whatever life may throw at me, we can almost hear her say, I will not let those bad things win.

“…yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia,
alleluia, alleluia.”

Even you, death, will not win out over me. Even in the face of the awful things life and death can throw at us, I will hold up my head with strength and I will face you, o death, without fear.  And, because I have faith in my God, you, death, will not defeat me.

Death has not defeated Lois Hokana! That is how Lois faced the death, and the glory that was revealed to her following that death.

Today, all the good things that Lois Hokana was to us—that woman of strength and character and integrity—all of that is not lost.  It is not gone.  Death has not swallowed that up.

Rather all of that is alive—vibrantly and wonderfully alive!—and dwells now in Light inaccessible. All of that dwells in a place of peace and music and joy, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.  In a place in which, there never again be any more tears. Except, maybe, tears of joy.
And for us who are left, we know that that place awaits us as well.  That place of light and joy awaits each of us as well. And we to will have the opportunity to dwell there.

I will miss Lois. We will all miss her and will feel her loss for a long time to come. But, on this day in which we bid her this very temporary goodbye, let us also be thankful. Let us be thankful for this woman whom God has been gracious to let us know and to love. Let us be thankful for her grace and her beauty and her strength and her independence.

Let us be thankful for that smile that she had. Let us be thankful for her and all she was to us.  Let us be thankful for her example to us. Let us be thankful for all that she has taught and continues to teach us. And let us be grateful for all she has given us in our own lives.

Let us be thankful to our God for Lois Hokana!

Into paradise may the angels lead you, Lois.
At your coming may the martyrs receive you,
and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.  Amen.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

1 Lent

February 18, 2018

Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15


+ As I said in the announcements, I have been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed in a very good way.  Overwhelmed by the love, the concern, the absolute and wonderful care and concern of everyone at St. Stephen’s, of the wider Episcopal community, of my many friends and close family members in these three weeks since my mother died.

 I don’t even know how to process the kindness and the love. It’s just that amazing and far-reaching.

I’m grateful to know how loved my mother was. And I am truly humbled to feel loved by so many people.  

And the condolences keep rolling in!  Almost every day I keep receiving more and more cards from friends, from distant relatives, from friends of my parents.  It’s all very mind-boggling, especially when your mind isn’t working like it normally does.

At one point in the real hard and brutal days of grief—and there were and still are quite a few of them—I received a card from my parents’’ former pastor.  She was the first woman pastor at my parents’ church, which was a daunting role to take on 30 years ago. My parents absolutely adored her (so did I). And my mother especially supported her and was proud that a woman was serving in that capacity.

In her card, this pastor friend shared stories I never about my mother, about how quickly she volunteered for working at the homeless shelter and other types of ministry that no one else wanted to do. I honestly didn’t know about many of these ministries my mother did.

But the real kicker for me in her card was how she closed her comments. At the very end of her card, she wrote that she knew it was a hard and difficult time in life right now, but remember, she said, “Easter’s coming.”

“Easter’s coming.”

That has been my life preserver through these dark weeks. Lent is kind of like those difficult days of grief and sorrow. It is a season that, if we had a choice, we probably wouldn’t readily observe.

As we enter this season of Lent, many of us are probably groaning about it. I’m already hearing on Facebook people bemoaning the fact that it is Lent.

To be honest, I get it. It’s a bleak season. It’s a time in which we do things we don’t normally do, or even like doing.

We fast.

Many of us give up things we usually like.

We make sacrifices.

And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it’s not going to get better any time soon.

But it helps when we remind ourselves that “Easter’s coming.”

However, before Easter, we still have to wade through some unpleasant waters.  And of course, there’s also Holy Week before we get to the glory of Easter.  And look at what awaits during Holy Week.

Betrayal.

The whipping.

The carrying of the cross.

The crucifixion.

Death.

So, yes, here we are—in this season of Lent. And I know you probably came to Mass this morning thinking, “it’s going to be doom and gloom and sadness” all morning at church.  

But, guess what?

No.

If we were expecting doom and gloom and sadness in our scripture readings, well, we don’t get any of that.  

Ah, no. Instead, we get… water?

We get Noah and the ark?

We get a rainbow.

And baptism?

Now, this is my way to begin Lent!

We begin Lent as we begin any important step as Christians—with solid footing in our baptismal understanding.  We begin Lent with a remembrance of our baptismal covenant—that covenant that we formed with God at our baptisms—a covenant that is still binding on us, even now.

This covenant is a covenant very much like the covenant God made with Noah after the waters of the flood that we hear about in our reading from Genesis.

I wasn’t expecting to do it, but here we are on this first Sunday of Lent, and I am preaching about, of all things, baptism. And we don’t even do baptisms during Lent!

As if that wasn’t enough, we also get another special treat.  In our Gospel reading, we get, in a very brief scripture, an upheaval.

What?

You missed the upheaval in our Gospel reading?

You missed the reversal?

You missed, in that deceptively simple piece of scripture, a mirror image of something?

It’s easy to miss, after all.  Our Gospel reading is so simple, so sparse.  But then again, so is haiku.

 But let’s look a little closer at what we’ve just heard and read.

In today’s Gospel, we find three elements that remind us of something else.  

We find the devil.

We find animals.

And we find angels.

Where else in scripture do we find these same elements?  Well, we find them all in the Creation story in Genesis, of course.  The story of Adam is a story of what?

the devil,

animals

and angels.

But that story ends with the devil’s triumph and Adam’s defeat. In today’s Gospel, it has all been made strangely right.  Jesus—the new Adam—has turned the tables using those exact same elements.

We find Jesus not in a lush beautiful Oz-like place like Eden.  Rather we find Jesus with wild animals in that desert—animals who were created by God and named by Adam, according to the story.  We find him there waited on by the angels—and let’s not forget that these same angels turned Adam and Eve away from Eden.  And there, in that place, he defeats the devil—the same devil who defeated Adam.

I have found this juxtaposition between Adam and Jesus to be a rich source of personal meditation, because it really is very meaningful to us who follow Jesus.  In this story of Jesus we find, yet again, that it is never the devil who wins.

It always, always God who wins.

God always wins.

That is what the story of Jesus is always about—God always winning in the end.

If we lived with the story of Adam, if we lived in the shadow of his defeat, the story is a somewhat bleak one.  There doesn’t seem to be much hope.  The relationship ruined with Adam hasn’t been made right.

But today we find that the relationship has been righted.  The story isn’t a story of defeat after all.

It isn’t a time to despair, but to rejoice.  The devil has been defeated.  And this is very important.

We, in our baptisms, also defeat the devil.  Now, by the devil, I am not necessarily talking
about a supernatural being who rules the underworld.  I’m not talking about horns, forked tail and a pitchfork.  I’m not talking about Hot Stuff the Devil. Remember him? (I was once, back in my twenties, going to get a tattoo of Hot Stuff after someone jokingly said that Casper the Friendly Ghost would not look so good on my very white skin).   

By devil I mean the personification of all that we hold evil. In our baptisms, we renounce all the evil of this world and the next, and by renouncing evil, we are assured that it can be defeated.  By renouncing the devil and all the evils of this world, we turn away from the evil inherent within us—the evil that was set upon us from the beginning—from the story of  Adam being turned away at Eden.  Our baptism marks us and in that mark we find the strength to stand up against evil.

This time of Lent—this time for us in the desert, this time of fasting and mortification—is a time for us to confront the demons in our lives.  We all have them.

In our wonderful collect for today, we prayed to God to

“come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations.”

The poet that I am, I love the traditional language of Rite I better here.

“Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations.”

We all understand that term “manifold temptations.” We all have those triggers in our lives that disrupt and cause upheaval.  Sometimes this upheaval is mental and emotional, sometimes it is actual.  We have our own demons, no matter what name we might call them.

I certainly have my own demons in my life and sometimes I am shocked by the way they come upon me.  I am amazed by how they lay me low and turn my life upside down.  They represent for me everything dark and evil and wrong in my life and in the world around me.  They are sometimes memories of wrongs done to me, or wrongs I’ve done to others.  Sometimes they are the shortcomings of my own life—of being painfully reminded of the fact that I have failed and failed miserably at times in my life.  In these days of mourning, I’ve found myself kicking myself for all I should’ve’ done for my mother.

They are reminders to me that this world is still a world of darkness at times—a world in which people and nature can hurt and harm and destroy.  And that power and influence of evil over my life is, I admit, somewhat strong.

We need to look no farther than the evil and destruction of Parkland, Florida and he white supremacist who opened fire on those students!  

Trying to break the power of our demons sometimes involves going off into the deserts of our lives, breaking ourselves bodily and spiritually and, armed with those spiritual tools we need, confronting and defeating those powers that make us less than who we are.

For me, I do find consolation when I am confronted by the demons of my life in that covenant I have with God in my baptism.  I am reminded by that covenant that there is no reason to despair when these demons come into our lives, because the demons, essentially, are illusions.

They are ghosts.

They are wispy fragments of my memory.

They have no real power over me despite what they make think sometimes.

Because the demons have been defeated by God.

Again, returning to our collect for today, we prayed,

“as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.”

God has been “might to save” us. The demons of our lives have been defeated by our Baptismal Covenant and those baptismal waters.  The real power they have over my life has been washed away in those waters, much as all evilness was washed away in the flood in Noah’s time.

So, as we wander about in the spiritual desert of Lent, let us truly be driven, as Jesus was.  Let the Spirit drive us into that place—to that place wherein we confront the demons of our lives.  But let us do so unafraid.  The Spirit is the driving force and, knowing that, we are strengthened.

Let us be driven into that place.

Let us confront our demons.

Let us confront the very devil itself.

Let us face the manifold temptations of our lives unafraid, knowing full well that God is “mighty to save.”

After all, “Easter’s coming.”

Lent is not eternal.

Easter is eternal.

This time is only a temporary time of preparation.

So, let us wander through this season confident that it is simply something we must endure so that we can, very soon, delight in the eternal glories of a morning light that is about to dawn into our lives.

“The time is fulfilled,” we can say with all confidence. “The kingdom of God has come near.”

It is time to repent. It is time to believe this incredibly good news!






Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2018

Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

 + Over the last week or so of this two and half week dark journey I have been taking since my mother died, I have been listening to one song over and over again. I do things like this. When bad things happen in my life, I end up listening to a lot of music. And I usually end up listening to one song more than any other.

The song of choice this time is one you would not expect as we enter the Lenten season.  The song I have been playing over and over again is a version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by the Indie group, Animal Collective.

Yes, I know: “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Christmas carol. But Animal Collective only sings the first and last stanza of the carol, which really is kind of perfect, in some ways, for Lent.  The words especially of the first stanza of that poem sure do speak perfectly to the mood many of us probably have had as this long winter keeps us in its stony grip:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter...

Let me tell you, those words sure have been speaking loudly and clearly to me these last few, very hard weeks in my life since my mother died.  And besides, my mother really loved Christina Rossetti.

So, somehow, it all comes together. These hard things, these difficult things are what we are dealing with in this season.  Ash Wednesday and Lent is all about facing the reality of our mortality, after all. Of looking hard into the empty eye sockets of a skull.

Lent is a time for us to be sober, to be awake and aware, to face the harsh realities of our existence separated as we are, in this moment, from God’s nearer Presence.

We face the fact that, as we journey through this “vale of tears,” we are all fallible. We all fail—and fail miserably—at times in our lives.  And when we do, it is painful. It hurts. This time of Lent is a time for us to face those failings in our lives. I think that’s why some of us kind of resist Lent when it comes around again.

But, recognizing our failures for what they are is a way forward. We are all fallible human beings. We will continue to fail at times. We will never, on this side of the veil, be perfect. And if perfection is our goal, we have already set ourselves up for failure.

But failure too should not be the goal.  Striving to learn from our failures is the goal. Changing and growing and moving beyond our failures is our goal. A successive evolution from failure to redemption is our goal.

Lent is a time for us to think about our failures, to ponder them, but not to revel in them. And it certainly is not a time to beat ourselves up over them.

Tonight, Ash Wednesday, is a time for us to think about that ultimate moment in our lives, that puts all of our failures into keen perspective. Tonight is the night to think about the fact that we will all, one day, die.

In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by being cremated and being buried in the ground.

But, all of this can—and more importantly, should—be something in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives of the world and our relationship with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves, our failures, and our relationship with God.

None of this is easy to do. It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives and in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be burned to ashes or buried.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.  It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Or, as I’ve discovered recently, to have my complacent life shaken from me.

Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless.  Remembering our failures is depressing and can trigger depression or despair.  Our mortality is frightening.

Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that this moment we find so normal and comfortable will one day end.  It is sobering to realize that everything in our life is ultimately temporary.  

But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation for the glory of Easter—and for the eternity of Easter.

It would be depressing and bleak if, in the end, all we are known for our failures.  But, the reality is this: we will not be known for our failures before God. Not in the end. If death does anything, it obliterates our failures, those moments when we fell short. That is my hope. Yeah, maybe I am the eternal optimist, even in the midst of mourning and grief.

But that’s also what it means to be a Christian, after all.  Even in mourning, even wading through the thick, dark waters of grief, we can still hope.  Even in the midst of Lent, we can be optimists.

Yes, we will hear, in a few moments, those sobering words,

“You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And those words are true. But, the fact is, ashes are not eternal. Ashes are not the end of our story. Ashes are temporary.

Resurrection is eternal.  Our life in Christ is eternal.  Our failures are temporary. Our life is eternal in Christ.  All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.

So, it’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. The same can be said of our failures. Our failures make us who we are. We are not defined by them.

But we are formed in the fires of our failures and shortcomings.  It is not a matter of dwelling on our failures in this life.

Rather, it is a time for us to look forward, past our failures, to resurrection, to renewal, to rebirth.  It is time for us, as we heard in our reading from the Prophet Joel, to

“return to [God] with all our hearts,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;”

It is time for us to “rend our hearts…and return to our God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

It is time for us to, as we always do, “make to God of our grain offering and our drink offering. “

It is time, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading, to quietly go about our Lenten discipline, to give in secret, to pray to our God in our rooms with the doors shut, to fast with oil on our heads and washed faces.

As we head into this season of Lent, let it truly be a holy time. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.

But more than anything, let this holy season of Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment, as fasting and giving. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in our life.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening:

“Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.