Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

I heard an interview recently with a scientist who said that we, everyone and everything, are made up of dust. Ancient dust. Dust from stars that have long ago disappeared. From planets long since destroyed. Dust from people whose names only a handful of folks would have known. And that our dust is and will be the building blocks of future creations.

I found that idea fascinating, if also a little humbling. I like to think of myself as unique, a specific, individual creature. I was created out of the woman who bore me, and am a contemporary creation. I look forward, not backward. My flesh and blood is a lively blast of chemical reactions. My value to the world comes from what I do, what I contribute. Not from the raw material that isn’t unique to me, or that I have little control over.

As much as I would like the opposite to be true, maybe the scientist is right. I know the bible would agree with her. I am dust, and to dust I will return. The same goes for you.

I don’t know about you but my dustiness is not something that I like to dwell on. But I find that I have to. In my job I’m always getting peoples’ dust on me. Sometimes the air is so thick with dust that my lungs can’t expand and contract like their supposed to.

Death - dustiness - is a big part of my job. And it’s not only physical death, but the death of relationships, the death of personal dreams. The living death of abuse, failure, rejection. The death of loneliness and depression.

But, of course, it’s in Death - capital D - where my clothes get caked with peoples’ dust.

When a life has been stolen from us, a person gone, a presence lost, we work hard to make sense of it, and we SHOULD try to make sense of it, to create meaning so that we have some semblance of resolution, that death will mean something, that life will not be forgotten, that the gifts shared with the world will not disappear with their physical presence. So, we look for hope, something to hold on to so that the memory and presence will still live in and among us.

Or when we’re staring down the barrel of our own death, we worry about what we’ve done, if we’ve loved well enough, if we’ve worked hard enough. We worry that when we close our eyes at the last, it will be final. No one will be there to greet us. We don’t want to be dust. We want to be more than dust. We want to float free from our physical bodies and soar, bird-like into heaven.

But the bible asks us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Not a terribly comforting message, is it? It doesn’t soothe our anxious souls or mend our sorrowing hearts. It tells us that everything we’ve done, everything we are, is only a momentary trickle of water into the vast ocean that is eternity. It confronts us with the painful truth that life is brittle, short, and often painful. It tells us that we are not in charge of our destinies but that our hope for eternity lies outside of ourselves.

We are asked to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return.

Some might see our primal dustiness and think that life is cheap, that we are mere specks, insignificant. That our little lives end up meaning nothing. If we are dust and will return to dust, what’s the point of life?. All that we have, all that we are, will simply scatter into nothing. Even those who remember us will become dust themselves, and with them, the knowledge that we ever existed.

But this is where God would interrupt our protests saying, “Yes, you are dust. You will become dust again. But what marvelous dust – fine dust; dust that is precious, beautiful, and rare. Dust that isn’t swept up and disposed of - forgotten - but dust that scatters and blows to all ends of the earth, and interweaves with the dust of every time and place.

‘Without your dust, there would be no creation, no life, no joy, no love. Without your dust there would be no sun, no moon, no stars. Without your dust, there would be no people, no fish, no moose, no eagles. There would be no Rocky Mountains, no Pacific Islands, no deserts. No boreal forests, no northern lights, no forests of evergreens. The whole cosmos would cease to exist. Everything that exists needs your dust. Without your dust there would be nothing.”

St. Paul tells it a different way: he says that we are treasure in clay jars. He tells us that we are fragile, weak, limited; but also that we are cherished, unique, and lovely; that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves and that we are not alone – even in death. And when we receive that gift of connectedness with awe and humility and hope, we become connected more deeply to each other and to God, even when, or perhaps. especially when our physical bodies have passed into dust.

From dust we came, to dust we are returning, blowing with the dust of the ages, the dust that God gathers from every time and every place, from everyone and everything that came into being. The dust of suns long since burned out and the dust of galaxies just being born. God is molding these dusty fragments together, sprinkling in the water of life, making whole that which is broken, reshaping, remodeling, renewing the cosmos into a place where there will be no more tears, no more death, no more good-byes. Only hellos to a new universe to which God is always giving birth.

So remember that you are dust. And to dust you will return. Amen.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Transfiguration Sunday

I have a confession to make. If my preaching professor heard or read my sermons he’d take me into his office and give me a good theological spanking. I seem to have this nasty habit of breaking one of his cardinal rules of preaching: “Never tell stories about yourself,” he said over and over again.

He called personal stories the “atom bomb” of preaching. Meaning that everything else in the sermon evaporates into a cloud of dust while the story stays standing. We end up pointing to ourselves instead of Jesus, he would say.

He didn’t just pull this rule out of his nose. He had biblical justification for it. He would open the bible to today’s second lesson and read, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

True enough. But hey, it warms this preacher’s heart that people remember SOMETHING after they leave.

But, of course, Paul is right. My job is to point to Jesus, not myself. But there are times when even Paul broke the good professor’s rule.

Take this passage from today. I think Paul’s being autobiographical, taking us on his faith journey. He’s trying to show us the route he took in order to land at Jesus’ feet, the dark path that finally shone with light.

At least that’s how I see it.

But it’s not a pretty path. Blood and bones are strewn all over the road. The ruins of a once deeply held belief system litter the once pristine byways. Paul’s story is, in many ways, an angry story. It’s like he’s trying too hard to win over his readers, drawing lines so sharply to keep his own new identity secure.

In fact, our Jewish friends have some real difficulty with 2 Corinthians, especially with what Paul says about Moses. And I’m guessing that if I used some of Paul’s language to talk about Moses, I might not keep my job past noon.

Earlier in the letter, Paul says that Moses’ mind was veiled, that he couldn’t see God clearly. That Moses lived in the realm of darkness, that Moses had a “ministry of death chiseled on stone tablets,” of course referring to the Ten Commandments, and that every time we read the Ten Commandments, a veil lies over our minds. To obey the Ten Commandments leads to darkness and death. “Just ask Moses,” Paul appears to be saying.

Could you imagine if I said that? If I said those words out loud, in a sermon, from this pulpit? Could you imagine what would happen?

Paul liked to draw distinctions. Believer and unbeliever. Old and new. The saved and the perishing. The world that is passing away and the world that is being born. Paul liked to know who he was and what side he was on.

And that makes sense. He was trying to piece Jesus’ story together using fragments of stories he found in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. He was struggling to understand how Jesus fit in to the stories he learned in school.

When Paul came to faith in Jesus, the story goes that he went blind. Then scales fell from his eyes and he began to see the world differently. Worn out certainties fell to new truths. The old, old, story became frighteningly fresh.

All of a sudden, Paul came face-to-face with the possibility that God was putting him and the world on an unknown, untried path. The path of Jesus. People seemed to be making it up as they went along.

Paul was excited and scared. Its no wonder he wrote the way he did.

One thing I love about 2 Corinthians, is that its a very human letter. Paul lets it all hang out. You can practically see the tear stains on the page. A crumpled up letter that got shoved in the pocket, taken out, read, re-read, and lived. Sometimes Paul’s furious with people. Other times he’s cracking a joke. But he never suggests that he gets it right every time. Because one thing Paul is NOT is consistent.

As much as he likes to cut the world in half, paint one side black and the other side white, he loses track of which side is which and throws some green and purple and yellow into the mix out of frustration.

He may divide the world into Jew and gentile, but then he says that there’s no distinction between the two. He may call the law of Moses by the most hideous names, but then he’ll turn around and say the law landed on his desk with a bow on top. He may say that women should keep silent in church, then he gives them preaching advice. He may say that he preaches not himself, but then he can’t stop telling his own, personal story.

Paul was like all of us trying to find words to describe the indescribable. Paul knew how dark the world could be and sometimes he felt as if his flashlight’s batteries had gone dead.

Paul knew how tragedy and suffering can come out of no where and pull your breath right out of your body. Paul knew that life could be a struggle between knowing what’s right thing to do and being sucked into doing what’s wrong. Paul knew that following Jesus can look a whole lot like NOT following Jesus, that God can sometimes feel a million miles away, that fellow Christians fight and attack each other, that Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness can be too easily forgotten, dismissed, or ignored, especially among those who bear his name. He knew that Christians still got sick, their marriages dissolved, lost their jobs. He knew that Christians still died.

Paul knew that to be a Christian was not to escape our humanity. Paul knew that because we are weak, because we are sinful, because we hurt each other, that Jesus made us his own. And because we belong to Jesus, we will not finally be crushed. That our darkness will give way to God’s own brilliant light. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

That’s the light we look for today. God’s glory can only be found in darkness. Because that’s where it lives.

I think that’s why Jesus asked the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw on top of the mountain of Transfiguration. Jesus knew they would miss the point. Jesus knew that Peter, James, and John would tell everyone about the bright lights, the visions of Moses and Elijah. They would tell people about Jesus’ shining clothes.

But Jesus knew that those things were only part of the story. Jesus knew that God’s glory lives in our darkness, waiting to shine, wanting to shine, until the whole world sees the glory of Jesus’ healing and forgiveness.

“For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Epiphany 6 - Year B

“The hardest part has been the loneliness,” he told his pastor.

“You mean the loneliness of not going to work and seeing people?” his pastor asked.

“No, the loneliness of friends avoiding me, people not coming to see me any more,” he replied.

“Why would they do that?” asked his pastor.

“I’m not sure,” the man responded, “I think it’s because they think they’ll catch what I have. They’re worried cancer is contagious.”

This is the way the man in today’s gospel had been treated. He is a leper, and as a leper he was a very sick man. Leprosy is one of the few diseases mentioned by name in the bible. Even before they had the concept of contagious diseases, leprosy was considered contagious.

When I was a boy and I came down with Chicken pox, my mom made sure that I stayed away from my friends. I could go outside and play, I could ride my bike on the street outside our house, but if any other kids came along I had to pretend there was a bubble around me, lest my friends caught what I had. I wasn’t “unclean” but I could’ve gotten someone awfully sick.

According to biblical law, this man was unclean. He lived with an even bigger bubble than I had. He could have no contact with so-called “clean” people. He had to wear a bell around his neck to warn people he was in the area.

But he pushed himself to the front of the line and threw himself at Jesus’ feet begging, “If you chose, you can make me clean.”

The story says that Jesus was “moved with pity.” But the original Greek word says something a little more raw. The Greek says that Jesus was filled with anger. Deep anger. That when Jesus looked down at this unclean man crying at his feet, his heart filled with rage.


That doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? That’s probably why the translators chose the word “pity” instead of “anger.” Pity we understand. It makes sense. We like to think of a Jesus who feels our pain, whose heart breaks over the sorrow of the world.

But rage?

Was Jesus angry because this guy broke the ancient biblical laws? Was he angry because he crossed a line that had been clearly drawn, and might have taken others with him? Or was he upset because this guy tried to manipulate Jesus, buttering him up, painting him into a corner for his own purposes, “Jesus, if you are really all that great, that, if you REALLY wanted to, you could make me clean. That is, of course, if you are who everyone says you are?”

I think Jesus was angry, not because he broke the ancient laws or because he crossed the line, but because of the man’s sickness and what it was doing to his body – ravaging it and pulling him away from those people whom he needed the most.

I think he was angry at the evil of it all. This is not the way God wants us to live. This is not the way God wants the world to be.

When the leper cried out “Make me clean!” the man was asking for more than healing, more than for his body to be washed and made new again. The man crying out to be loved. To be a person and not a disease. To receive, once again, the tenderness of human touch, and not the angry sores that ate away at his skin.

He wanted to feel like a human being again.

And so, Jesus moved by piteous anger, reaches out his hand and, to the horror of everyone around him, touches this unclean man, and he is healed.

Now it wasn’t just the man with leprosy that broke the ancient law of Moses, Jesus now joined those ranks. And a group of people probably started gathering rocks.

On the one hand, I can understand the horror of the crowd. Lately I’ve become fanatical about handwashing. I hate getting sick and I’ve gotten sick a lot this winter. I wash after sharing the peace and before communion, lest I pass on anyone’s germs to unsuspecting worshippers.

But on the other hand, Jesus was showing them where rules and regulations end and God’s compassion begins.

When Jesus came face to face with the consequences of evil in the world he was filled with righteous anger. He didn’t sit back and speculate about the philosophical problem of evil. Instead, he pronounced, “I will! I will reach and comfort the broken hearted. I will stretch out my hand and bring healing to suffering people. I will extend my hand of forgiveness to all who are guilty.

As a result, he caught what we had. He - for our sakes - became infected with sinfulness, bore the brunt of our brokenness, and endured the limitations of our frail humanness.

Christ could not remain in majestic isolation from us. Instead, God came to us in Jesus, and shared with us what it means to be human, touched us in our uncleanness, and paid for it with his life.

Does Jesus expect anything less from his followers? To understand the world as being more than dividing the clean from the unclean? To draw out peoples’ humanity when they have been stripped of it? To treat suffering people with a dignity the world denies them?

The world likes the lines it draws, but God doesn’t. God sees us all as beloved children in need of healing, in need of forgiveness, in need of compassion.

So when we are feeling unclean or unworthy, when we are suffering, grieving, lonely, or in pain, when we are at the end of our rope, we cry out to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

It’s then that Jesus reaches out and touches us with his hand of mercy and forgiveness and says, “I am willing.”

May this be so among us. Amen.