Ash Wednesday Service

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What do we do with great and grim TV?  Who wants to come home after a hard day and watch something depressing? Unless perhaps it makes one’s own life look better by comparison?  I have in mind a television series, one of the best is called ‘Chernobyl.’  It tells the tale of the worst nuclear power disaster in history, but it is also about all the self-serving avoidance, ideology, and finger pointing in the wake of the accident. Trouble was that the neutrons and photons don’t care about our agenda. The reactions continued, and the deadly pollution continued to spread.  Underneath the human words and plots, reality marches on.  Finally came a few courageous people who were willing to deal with the waste from the disaster at great personal cost.  I leave it to you to think of other issues where something moves apace in spite of our special pleading:  interest on the national debt would be my example, since compound interest knows no political party.  Or think of an epidemic, where the virus has no interest in political posturing or positions.

     Lent is about self-examination, and the purpose of self-examination is humility, and another way to say humility is honesty.  The point of Lent is not self-flagellation nor obsession with would, couldas, and certainly not with showing ourselves to be humble, an example of which we see in the Gospel, but only this, honesty before God.  Lent is about seeing how things really are, with ourselves, and with the world. But of course really looking at the truth of things is hard.  We need the reassurance of the Gospel, our God’s love for us who are quite undeserving of it, to have the courage to see things as they are.  The ancient Greeks had a word for using words and subtle thoughts to obscure reality, it was ‘sophistry,’ which has the same root as the word for ‘wisdom’, but is the opposite. Only by grace can we come to use these same tools to see how we and the world really are.  When in Navajoland, I had a senior warden who once said to me, ‘you Bilagaana, you white people, turn things this way and that, and before you know it black and white all turn into gray.’ And this is not only true of Bilagaana.

     Lent is about honesty, which means seeing how things are, the crack that runs through them, as the late Leonard Cohen said, and how it runs through us and how we collude with the cracking. The bible gives words that are an antidote to words as distraction and manipulation.

     On the somber day of atonement, in front of the synagogue, the rabbi falls to the grounds in sheer self-abasement. See such an example, the cantor, prostrates himself next to the rabbi.  Overcome by all this, the janitor falls to the floor next to them. At which point the rabbi turns his head to the cantor and says ‘so look who thinks he’s humble!’  This brings me to today’s Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus critiques using ritual to promote ourselves instead of humbling ourselves, and so it would seem to promote an inward kind of religion shorn of public displays.  Jesus surely does want a deep contrition inside us and away from the gaze of others.  But we should also seek to make our religious practice, including our liturgical and churchly lives together, more and more aligned to reality.  We should go deeper and deeper into the word of God, heard and displayed, so that we see there more and more the reality of how things are. For ‘dust you are’ is real, it is honest, and the spiritual life is being freed by grace from our illusory selves so that we dwell before God in a way more and more honest about who we are and what our world is.  We can only do this with a daily therapeutic of the word of grace from God so that we can face it. What we are to put away, according to Jesus, is the self-deceiving self, the self-manipulative self. Only then do we see how we live in a world we have made to be ashes, and in spite of this how we can by the sheer gift of grace anoint our heads. The prodigal is the honest, finally, and then in the story, his father, of his own initiative, runs to embrace him.

    Well, I have spoiled most of Chernobyl, so why not go ahead and give away all the plot.  A young  and pregnant woman learns her fireman husband has been badly exposed and taken off to a hospital in Moscow. She seeks him out, and then violates the protocols by hugging and then caring for him. She is exposed badly but does not die. She carries her child to term, who is still born. It turns out that the child has absorbed all the radiation himself, and his death means the survival of the mother, who goes on against all odds to have another child.  It is a terrible and beautiful parable about consequences, vicarious suffering, and grace.

    As with all the Christian life, Lent is only secondarily about us, and so secondarily about contrition.  It is really about Jesus Christ, who saw all reality, since he made it all, and enacted the deeper reality, that God owns this cracked world and runs to meet us.  That too is reality that human self-deception cannot undo.  And he does it by coming and absorbing the harm into himself so that we walk away free. Listen to the key verse from St. Paul in our epistle reading: ‘he who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.’  Only after he is embraced, I reckon, could the prodigal spend the rest of his days realizing, by contrast who he really had become.  The prodigal’s life, the Lenten life, real life, that mother’s life, are then lives of recovery, and of gratitude. Amen.

The Psalms of Revenge and Violence and COVID-19

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During these days of self-isolation, social distancing, and hand-washing meant to slow down the pandemic of the coronavirus, one possible positive outcome for Episcopalians is the re-discovery of the Daily Offices. The offering of prayer and praise, alone or with a virtual community at morning, noon, evening, and night, is a venerable tradition rooted in the daily rhythm of Temple worship in Jerusalem, continuing in the lives of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, flourishing in the monastic movements of he medieval church, and consolidated and simplified for a return to the laity of the Church of England during the Reformation. Central to these acts of worship are the psalms of the Hebrew Bible, oftentimes referred to as the prayer book of the Jewish Temple, the early church, and Jesus himself. 

The psalms are beautiful, powerful, majestic, and poignant prayers to pray but some of them cause us to recoil with their occasional entreaties for revenge and violence. The many references to the enemy, the adversary, the wicked and evil-doers and related requests for God to smite them seems incompatible with the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who taught us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” as well as to forgive “seven times seventy.” What’s a Christian to do?

Early on, the church understood that there are different levels of interpretation when reading Scripture. Among them are the literal, the symbolic, the moral, and the spiritual. My personal view is that when we come across parts of the Bible that give us pause, we are to wrestle with them to discover how they can be the word of God for us rather than simply rejecting them outright. For example, in my own prayer life when I use the words enemy or adversary in the psalms, I think evil, death, or even Satan rather than other human beings. At the same time, I must also admit that I have experienced many of the same negative emotions expressed by the psalmist towards other human beings. In many ways, I am not so different from our spiritual ancestors. 

One of the most horrific texts, in my opinion, is found in Psalm 137:8-9 where a grieving person who has been forced into captivity prays: “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” What do you do with that?

St. Benedict in his sixth century Rule for Monasteries uses this passage spiritually for his monks when he writes: “It is the one who under any temptation from the malicious devil, has brought him to naught by casting him and his temptation from the sight of his heart; and who has laid hold of his thoughts while they were still young and dashed them against Christ.” Benedict urges dashing evil thoughts while they are young against the rock who is Christ rather than babies! 

These days of global pandemic have provided new images for my prayer. I can imagine the Covid-19 virus as the enemy and adversary who is seeking to destroy our relationships and communities by bringing fear, disease, and death. I can see neighbors engaging in combat in this war by looking after their family, friends, and other neighbors while employers care for their employees. I see clergy experimenting with new ways of pastoral care and prayer. I can also imagine tireless health care workers, epidemiologists, and research scientists doing battle against this enemy until a vaccine or therapy is discovered. Then, happy shall she be who takes the Corona virus and dashes it against the rock! Can I get an Amen?


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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.