Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Growing up in a Southern Baptist context, I never heard of Lent. I had no idea the Christian Church had “seasons” or its own calendar. That was unfortunate. Discovering this in my college years came as a great surprise and a benefit to me ever since. For it became apparent to me that my navigation of this world and my life would be –if not easier then–more meaningful simply because I could comprehend my life as developmental, evolutionary which is to say, an unfolding mystery and journey.
The Lenten season begins this Ash Wednesday and marks the formal beginning of the season of Lent and that season is one of reflection, examination of our consciences and souls and repentance. We do this especially as we recall the testing of our Lord in the wilderness, just after his baptism. I sometimes get myself down to an Episcopalian church to have the sign of the cross made on my forehead with ashes. Baptists do not hand out ashes or participate (as a rule anyway) in this ritual act. I can tell you from my own experience, it is a powerful moment to have a priest rub those ashes onto your forehead as she says those solemn words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Whether or not you participate in such a rite, the truth of those words should stir us to a season of contemplation and repentance.
Ashes as a sign of sorrow have been with us for a long time. In the ancient book of Job, we find that the stricken man “sat among the ashes.” This was a sign of grief and sorrow.
Leon Wieseltier in is book, Kaddish, wrote in his book about rending one’s clothes as a sign of grief. He pointed out that the mourner who rends thus gestures outwardly what has in fact takenplace inwardly. “This act of violence,” Wieseltier writes, “dignifies the external truth and the internal truth of what has happened.” So with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads: it is an outward sign of an inner sorrow and grief: for our participation in the ruin of the world, for our grief for life that is short and brief, and a declaration that we will live more faithfully and justly in the days to come. As the Book of Common Prayer declares:
We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven. Have mercy on us, Lord.
January 8th is a week away and we can begin worshipping together again! I hope the two weeks away have rekindled your love of our church and you’ll enter this new year ready to make a difference. I have certainly missed being with you as the People of God, formed in the crucible of Grace and Mercy and the proclamation of God’s Good News.
La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. ~photo by PSTR
As many of you know, I took retreat in Barcelona for a week where I ducked into ancient churches (like the Cathedral of Barcelona and Santa Maria del Mar) and a “new” church, begun in 1882 by the architect, Antonio Gaudi, La Sagrada Familia. I lit a few candles, said prayers and otherwise pondered my life within the light and quiet of these sacred places. I commend our church leadership for its unwavering commitment to the pastoral office and the need for pastors to have not just down time, but time held in the suspension of sacred duties in order to be renewed. Not every church makes that kind of commitment. That annual line item in the budget that secures a means by which I can retreat and renew is a significant affirmation and I am deeply grateful. Clergy burn out (as do others in other professions). There are, sadly, those congregants and churches that begrudge their pastors time away and needless to say even more who, while they may embrace the idea, will not financially support it. Riverside is not one of those churches. ”Pastoral care” then is a two-way street. Pastors who have congregations that care for them can, in turn, provide pastoral care.
While I did not have the chance on this first day of the new year and the first Sunday of 2017 to worship with you, I did worship at a sister church in SW, St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church which, as you likely know, completed their development project and moved into their new sanctuary in November. It is a space filled with light and the homilist this morning, Rev. Martin Smith, delivered a wonderful sermon. Congratulations to our friends at St. Augustine’s, our prayers are with St. Matthew Lutheran Church as they have broken ground for their development and new church and may the God who makes all things new, renew us! SEE YOU SUNDAY~ PSTR
In my book of sermons, Sermons in War, there is a sermon that was preached as the third in a sequence of sermons immediately following 9/11 entitled, “God’s Savage Country.” By that I meant there were true believers and fundamentalist zealots in any number of religions who feel it their duty to maim, kill and destroy. I suggested we as Christians should be led by another vision, the mercy and peace of our Lord.
As we pause this coming holiday week-end to remember those who have served and fallen in military service to the United States, let us ponder some words I preached September 30, 2001.
Beloved, there is another country that has no borders. You will not find it on any map traced in lines or crossed by coordinates of longitude and latitude. It is the kingdom of love and light, mercy and kindness, generosity and benevolence. It is a country that exists in the meadows of the heart, filled with light and the fragrance of a loving God. Its citizens span the earth and include people from every nation, tribe and clan. Those who dwell there seek nothing less than the healing of creation, the redemption of humanity from its battles and wars with the flesh and the peaceful co-existence of all God’s creation. This country is the peaceable kingdom of God. May God’s kingdom of peace and justice overcome hatred and the darkness of this hour in which we find ourselves. May his love rule in our hearts now and always.
We salute all who have served in the Armed Forces. We pray for the peacemakers and noble opposition who by conscience could not participate in war. And we pray for a day when nations will be led by persons committed above all to the security and peace of their citizenry, seeking dialogue and mutual benefit prior to waging war. ~See you Sunday
When I am mindful as I walk across a small bridge along a bike path flanked by trees and a large creek on one side, then I am mindful that I am suspended but crossing. I am mindful that someone crafted this bridge. I am alert to being a bi-pedal creature, oriented in four directions.
When I am mindful as I count the coins to hand to the cashier, uniformed and standing across from me, a name tag tagged to their chest, then I am mindful that I am part of an exchange today. I am mindful that beyond the coin lie certain tacit covenants between us, that I will hand this coin over and be handed my groceries. I am mindful that we both have names but are separated by a chasm even as we extend hands across that chasm to give and receive.
When I am mindful as I turn out the light and crawl into bed, sheet and blanket to cover me, quiet and silence descended, and sleep covering me quickly then I am mindful of the poverty of my human existence. That I need to be recharged. That my powers are limited to the day that has just spent me. That a descent into twilight and sleep is a resignation of my life over to the world that is greater than my singularity and a commendation of my soul into the boundless care of the Creator. Whether I sing in my head and heart a doxology to paddle into the night of rest that awaits me or pray a thank you, I am mindful until the switch is clicked and my mind rests.
When I am mindful, I wake up.
~See you Sunday. Let us come together and be mindful of mutual presence and the Presence of the Holy One. Perhaps we will step into an Awakening.
For those of you who attended Sunday services the first Sunday in 2016, for those of you who asked and for those absent but interested, you may find my sermon, “A New Year’s Day Enchiridion,” on the sermon page. We have begun another year, celebrating Christ’s birth, sharing in holy communion and worshipping God together. This is an auspicious beginning and one we want to carry through in the weeks and months ahead.
Despite the broken world with its violence and ideological hatreds, we are called to love one another. You might be able to do this all on your own but I doubt it. Love is communal and is thus in need of a community. We need you and you need us. May God meet us at this point of mutual need and transform us into those who heal the world instead of those who harm it. Grace and Peace to you and yours in 2016 +
~See you Sunday
Sunday December 27th, worship at 10 a.m. Pastor Bledsoe is preaching: Ponder These Things: At the still point of the turning of the world