And They Began to Celebrate

Luke 15:11b-32
© Stacey Steck

One of the things which distinguishes Protestantism from its Roman Catholic past is that it recognizes two, rather than seven, sacraments — The Lord’s Supper, or Communion, which we generally celebrate once a month, and Baptism, which we celebrate as often as the need arises. In our Protestant traditions, the other five acts which the Roman church considers sacramental, such as weddings, and ordinations and the rest, we also perform, though not with the same understanding. One of the reasons the Reformers discarded the other five is that they felt they could not be justified biblically since Jesus neither performed them nor commanded us to do them. This understanding of the need for biblical precedent does however, leave the door open for at least suggesting other sacraments, and there are those throughout the history of the church who have suggested that footwashing, for example, be elevated to the level of sacrament since Jesus not only washed the feet of the disciples but in so doing commanded them to love and serve one another. Though unlikely to happen, contemplating the character of an action like that can, at the very least, be quite fruitful spiritually.

This morning, I’d like to suggest yet another possible sacrament, the seeds of which are contained in the Gospel lesson, the story of the so-called “Prodigal Son,” perhaps more appropriately titled the story of “A Man and His Two Immature Sons.” You see, in this parable is an act that is both utterly sacramental in its character and worthy of us to consider as a way to be toward one another. I am referring of course to the part of the story in which the Father runs out to meet his returning son. And so, if you will bear with me as I offer some background on what I would call “The Sacrament of Running Welcome,” I hope you will find it too to be an endeavor spiritually fruitful.

The parable of “A Man and His Two Sons” is both famous and beloved for a number of reasons. First of all, it is simply one heck of a good story with the obvious action and drama, but also with suspense, as we get to the end and are left hanging as the older son contemplates his response to the Father’s expression of love. It is also the story of a family, and of a family business, and of family conflict, the stuff of which decades of soap operas have been made. You’ve seen these kinds of characters on “As the Stomach Churns”...I mean, “As the World Turns.” As a result, most of us are likely to see ourselves somewhere in the story, perhaps as prodigals squandering our wealth and losing our way, perhaps as responsible eldest children sacrificing for the sake of the family, perhaps as parents of children who strike out on their own and about whom we worry. It is a story in which we may see ourselves in more than one of the roles over the course of a lifetime. It is a poignant, tragic, and beautiful story of a family.

But the reason, perhaps, that it has achieved the status it has among the stories of Jesus is because it so wonderfully reveals something about God’s character, a quality we so much long to experience and which seems, at least in these times, to be so absent from our daily lives. You see, it illustrates for us the depth of God’s willingness to welcome us and to accept us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. It gives us a profound sense of what it means to belong and to have a place in a family, a place to which we can return, a place we can call home.

But as wonderful as that revelation is in the reading of the parable, it is only a surface meaning. Our distance in years and miles from Jesus’ time means that the teaching of the parable is even more amazing when we are able to hear it more like those who would have heard Jesus tell it the first time. If we would have heard Jesus tell this parable, we would be shocked at what the younger son implies by asking for his portion of the estate. We would know that he has publicly stated his preference for his father to be dead. We would be shocked at the insult of the older son whose standard role it was to be the steward of the food and drink at his father’s party. We would know that his refusal to enter in to the house made his father look weak and disgraced in the eyes of all the guests. What’s more, we would know that the father does what no father like him in his time would do — he physically runs! To do so, this wealthy man would have had to gather up his expensive robes, expose his bare legs, and do what he normally commanded his servants to do: to run out and welcome the guest, indeed, the very son who had preferred him dead. But instead, he himself gets up and runs, incurring both the amusement and scorn of the other villagers who would think him either crazy or pathetic. And if that humiliation were not enough, though gladly suffered to greet his lost son, the father endures it again when he leaves his guests to attend to his elder son’s distress. You see, it was considered very bad form to leave one’s guests, especially to deal with an insolent son. Yet, he rises from his place and makes sure the son knows he has a place in his father’s house.

Friends, it does not take a great amount of insight to know that the Father in Jesus’ parable is God. What challenges us is to think about our God who has not remained cloaked in utter mystery, or shielded from view by immense power, but who has demonstrated an willingness, nay, an eagerness to run out to meet a lost son or daughter, to defy social convention to reclaim an embittered child, to accept without question those who return though they wished them dead, to declare undying loyalty to the faithful who stay even if they are a little surly — this is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who was willing to be humiliated, to be countercultural, so that we might too find a place in the household of God, to know what it is to belong and to find community. There is profound grace in this story, and we are grateful for its telling.

The telling of the Biblical story and its exploration in a sermon are one of the two ways that our Protestant traditions have historically understood God’s Word to be revealed. The other way is in the celebration of the sacraments. We understand the Bible and the sermon to be God’s Word preached, and the sacraments to be God’s Word enacted, and in both of these ways, the grace of God is revealed. The reason I have suggested that we ponder a new sacrament is that the picture I have of the Father running out to meet his son is God’s Word enacted. When we celebrate the sacraments, we are experiencing, beyond words, the grace that is operating in our lives through Jesus Christ. A Sacrament of Running Welcome, which I suggest we might celebrate upon receiving new members in the life of the church, would enact the grace of God which has brought us together at this particular time and this particular place. Perhaps in such a sacrament, just as we do when we use water in baptism or break bread at Communion, we would give visible witness to God’s grace by running down the aisle and embracing those newly come to us. And then, in the words of the parable, we would kill the fatted calf and begin to celebrate! Yeah!

But not so fast. It is still Lent, after all. We must be solemn, and austere, and keep the fast. Well, although that is technically untrue, and I’ll tell you why, it is still a good idea to put the celebration on hold until Easter. As I’ve probably mentioned before, if you count the number of days between Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and Easter, you get more than 40 days, forty-six in fact, and the truth is that there are six Sundays during Lent, even though there are not six Sundays of Lent, and that is because the Sundays don’t count. You see, Sundays are always feast days, days we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and victory over death. You couldn’t possibly fast on a day like that, celebrating something like that. Why, I’ll bet the prodigal son came home on a Sunday! But I’ll also bet that that same son was gone on his journey for about forty days, forty days of Monday through Saturday, forty days during which his father suffered the uncomfortable absence of his younger son, and forty days during which the elder brother shouldered the uncomfortable burden of being the son who stayed. And if, as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder, at least for the father, those forty days were worth the wait. Yes, that story is about God, and about God’s character, and we don’t really think God’s character changes, not in forty days, not in forty million years. But the story is also about us, about how we are called to conform to that wonderful image of God’s character, no matter how imperfectly we do it.

And so when we put ourselves back into that soap opera story of family, we might imagine that as his son walked out the gate with his back toward his past, striking out into an unknown future, his father’s anger and disappointment might have raged, and he wouldn’t have received him even if he’d turned around an apologized just a mile down the road. But we might also imagine that as each uncomfortable day passed, as he journeyed through those forty days, no matter how many days there really were, the father’s heart softened, remembering how he himself was created in the image of God, how he himself was loved, so that when the time came, there was a sufficient well of grace to draw from when he saw that son’s image in the distance, enough grace that he would bear the discomfort of public humiliation, not just once when he ran to greet the younger son, but a second time as well, when he left his seat at the table to implore the other brother to return to the table.

Yes, even though we are called to celebrate the good news of the Gospel every day, and on the Sundays in Lent, and maybe even with a new Sacrament of Running Welcome on certain days, there is also still a place to remember how long it took us to recognize God’s grace in our lives, and how easy it is to forget that grace, and how hard it can be to accept that grace. Grace itself can be an uncomfortable burden; just ask the older son. Forty days weren’t enough for him, and maybe they are not enough for us either. Maybe that’s why there is Lent every year! But at least for this year, let us take advantage of the discomfort of these forty days to experience anew God’s grace in Jesus Christ, who always runs out to meet us when we return from our journey. Amen.

Bully and Bullied Alike

Luke 13:31-35
© Stacey Steck

Herod Antipas, the tetrarch, was a bully. Not as bad as his father, Herod the Great, but a bully nonetheless. This is a man who tried to bully his brother out of his share of their violent father’s estate, even when there was a will entitling him to one fourth of it, a man who left his first wife, the daughter of the Arabian king, for the ex-wife of another of his brothers, a man so cowardly that he was forced to live up to a ridiculous oath that resulted in John the Baptist’s head upon a silver platter, and who was so gutless he wouldn’t even take a position on Jesus’ guilt or innocence when Pilate sent Christ to him for judgment. There is not as much written about Antipas as about his father, Herod the Great, but the Herodian apple never fell far from its tree, and so the Herod of our story this morning inherited a legacy of violence, deceit and intrigue worthy of a distinguished place in the World History Bullies Hall of Fame.

It was this reputation to which certain Pharisees were responding, or appealing, when they reported to Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him. Whether they were truly worried for his safety, or thought they could scare him off the scene by making up realistic sounding threats by Herod, doesn’t really matter much for our purposes except to make very clear that Herod Antipas was the type of person who made his way through life by means of fear, power, and violence.

That’s what bullies do. Maybe you are well acquainted with bullies, having been subjected to their vices in your childhood, or even in your job. Maybe you were a bully once, but are now reformed and repentant. Maybe you are a bully now but just don’t know it. The truth is that there is at least a little bit of bully in each one of us. Listen to this definition of bullying and see if it doesn’t sound a bit like what we call sin: “Bullying is unwanted, intentional, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.” I would add only that bullying doesn’t stop when we graduate. Most of us, in one way or another, exercise some measure of power over someone or something, and we often do it badly. Most of us are repeat offenders, whether by intention, or inability to recognize or control our behavior. Most of us would rather not think of ourselves as bullies, and certainly it is a matter of degrees, but we are, or could be, bullies, even if it is an uncomfortable truth.

It’s also uncomfortably true that each of us is the bullied, if not by obnoxious kids on the playground, then by powers and principalities, worldviews and ideologies. None of us are in a position of supreme power, and so we are tossed around by the relentless patterns of subjugation and humiliation that keep us all bound until we all are free. Every bully is a victim of someone’s way of viewing the world, and so even as bullies, we feel the burden of the blows, insults, and terror heaped on us in both our formative years and our everyday lives.

Let’s be clear. I am not in any way diminishing the reality of bullying. I was a victim of it for much of my fourth through sixth grade years. In the news these days we read constantly of bullied teenagers taking their lives by despite all the information out there. With the advent of social media, the opportunities for bullying have multiplied exponentially, with cyberbullying leading the way. You don’t need a playground these days. Or a spitball. Just the ease of a Facebook or Twitter account. You can even bully anonymously, and continuously. Educators are calling it an epidemic. Yes, bullying is real, and awful, and more and more often deadly. But it also offers us a Lenten opportunity to look deep into our hearts of darkness and pain, and see some Gospel at the bottom. Let’s start with an amazing video I saw, made around a poem by Canadian poet Shane Koyczan, by a team of animators who each contributed 20 seconds of art to the project, and then all the art was then compiled into this amazing piece. Take a look.

Jesus was not intimidated by bullies. Not Herod, not Pilate, not Satan. Jesus calls their bluffs. To Herod he says, “Tell that fox for me, ‘listen…today, tomorrow, and the next day, I must be on my way”; To Pilate he says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’; to Satan he says, “Get behind me.” No, Jesus was not intimidated by bullies. But he was subjected to them. Beaten, mocked, and scorned. Humiliated, despised, and crucified. Jesus knows bullying. Jesus knows power abused, and applied aggressively, intentionally, and repeatedly. Jesus knows what everyone who’s ever been bullied feels. But Jesus also knows something else. Jesus knows they were wrong, because Jesus knows who he is. Remember those wondrous words spoken at his baptism, echoed at his transfiguration: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” That’s what Jesus knows. That’s what the victims of bullying need to know. That’s what the bullies need to know. That’s what you and I need to know. That’s what the world needs to know. We are the brood under Jesus’ wings, if we are but willing.

As the end of the video suggests, somewhere, somehow, some place inside, those who survived bullying realized something about themselves: that it was not the bully who defined them, but something else. And whether or not they recognized that identity as something divinely bestowed, it is; for it is the very image of God in which each of us was created, whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, whether we live like it or not. None of our failures or inability to recognize God in us has the power to limit that God is in us. And that is just as true for the bully as the bullied.

This, I think, is the only real prevention and antidote to bullying, that the bully and bullied alike know that Jesus Christ defines them, not what their parents, their peers, their televisions, or their Instagram accounts say about them, no matter how negative, or positive, those messages may be. Bully and bullied alike need to know that there was someone willing to die for them, to put a stop to the humiliation, by being one who neither struck back, turned a blind eye, or joined in the torture, and by being supremely confident in God’s love for him. Bully and bullied alike need to know power is an illusion, as Herod, Pilate, Satan and every other bully in Jesus’ time learned, as they witnessed true power through his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit who led them to share it with the world.

Lent is the time to call out the bully in each of us, and put that bully in his or her place, as Jesus did with Herod. Lent is the time to remind ourselves that being bullied cannot define us, as Jesus did with Pilate. I invite you, as part of your observance of a Holy Lent, to take a good hard look at whether there is any part of you that might subject any other person to any kind of humiliation, and repent and seek God’s forgiveness. And if, by a bully in your life, you are, or have been, in any way made to feel bad about how you were created in the image of God, I invite you, in all your perfect and unique glory, to seek the shelter of Christ’s wings, and the comfort of his church. Let us, this Lent, be those who comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable, bully and the bullied alike. Amen.

Just a Walk in the Desert

Luke 4:1-11
© Stacey Steck

As you probably know, there is a continuum between introversion and extroversion, the tendencies of not needing much in the way of human interaction, and needing a lot. Unless you are on the extreme introvert end of the continuum, you may find it challenging to be alone for even 40 minutes. Four days might as well be an eternity. And forty days? Forget about it. And yet, that is how long Jesus spent alone in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan. We know about the three famous temptations, but Luke tells us that Jesus was tempted the whole time. And how long did those famous temptations last? If the length of the recorded conversation is any indication, they were over almost before they began. So Jesus had a lot of time out there alone in the desert to do something. But what was that something? Author Frederick Beuchner describes that time by saying that, “Jesus went off alone in the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself what it meant to be Jesus.” Hmm. “Asking himself what it meant to be Jesus.” Well, what did Jesus ask himself all that time? What did he do all by himself for the rest of the time when we wasn’t being tempted? Well, fortunately enough for us, a recent archeological dig in Israel has uncovered a record of those days in Jesus’ very own words. Through great skill and cunning, I managed to obtain a copy, and you won’t believe what he has to say. You might even want to close your eyes and try to see for yourself all that Jesus describes.

Day 1: Felt unbelievably restless, like I had swallowed a large metal object and was surrounded by even larger magnets, each pulling me in a different direction. Then, finally, one of them won out over the others and drew me west and west and still farther west until I ended up in the wilderness near Jericho. Rocks here, nothing but rocks and time. Couldn’t see myself turning around just yet to be buffeted again by those magnets, so decided to stay awhile. We’ll see how long I can last out here with no food; maybe I can go forty days. That’s a good, round Biblical number. Beautiful out here. God’s country.

Day 2: Haven’t seen anyone yet, but I am definitely not alone. Besides the scorpions and lizards, I am sure there is a presence out here with me, sort of like a lurking shadow. Not sure what it is yet, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Day 3: Beautiful sunrise this morning. Starting to get pretty hungry, might even say famished. But it is good for the soul. There are a lot of other people who feel this way all the time. I need to hold on to that thought.

Day 4: The cactus is starting to look pretty tasty. Glad I have some water left. If I remember from my biology class, I must be running out of glucose by now. I think I begin to use up ketones next.

Day 7: Boy, could I go for some Baba Ganoush right about now. Kinda makes me understand why the Israelites ganged up on Moses and Aaron for making them leave behind the great cucumbers, melons and leeks of Egypt, for the bland manna of the wilderness. No wonder they kept pressing on to the land of milk and honey. They were probably pretty hungry. Hunger will make people think about strange things, even about doing things they shouldn’t. But I am holding on.

Day 11: My tunic is beginning to feel a little loose. Must be burning some fat now. My head feels lighter too, but not from hunger. Rather, I’ve been freed from a lot of stray thoughts I’d been having, like how my mother is going to survive if I don’t continue in the furniture making trade. She doesn’t need very much to live on, but the prices of everything seem to be going up everyday and my brothers have been out of work for some time now. I think she will be just fine, but I do worry. She has always been so good about trusting in God, even back when she was really living on the edge with my father, well, my stepfather, when we all had to hightail it to Egypt. I’ll have to have a talk with her when I get back to Nazareth, and let her know that I’ll be needing to step out of the business for a while. I hope she will understand. Hey, little scorpion, watch out!

Day 15: Well, it has been two weeks out here now and I think I figured out what that presence was out here with me. Turns out it’s the Adversary and this afternoon he strolls up with a couple of rocks in his hand and has the nerve to challenge me to a duel! Change these rocks into bread, he says. Well, I put him in his place! Told him I didn’t need no stinkin’ bread when I can feast on the Word of God! I admit, the thought of some nice, warm bread was pretty appealing, but then I remembered the nice warm feeling in my soul every time I remember the ancient words about all God has done to bring us this far. Interesting how when you eat bread, it’s gone, but God’s word never runs out. There is always more.

Day 19: Almost half way there. This has been pretty cool, really. Lots of unexpected benefits. I had never explored this part of Israel in such detail. I’ve had time to see things I never noticed before, just too busy I guess. This area around Mount Quarantania is pretty interesting. I’d guess it’s around 1200 feet to the top here where I am sitting writing this. There are even several caves, in which I have passed the night when the wind was particularly fierce. They reminded me of the prophet Elijah and the night he spent hiding from Jezebel, and how he heard that still small voice that told him what he must do. I’ve heard something similar out here, several times, since it is so quiet. I can’t say as I miss the noise of the city. In the silence, I’ve heard God calling me to do something with my life. It is becoming clearer every day.

Day 24: Sorry I haven’t written in a while. It’s just that I’ve been recovering from this experience I had with the Adversary. So get this: we trek up to the top of the mountain and he shows me all the kingdoms of the world and says they are mine for the asking. All I have to do is bow down and worship him. Says it has all been given over to him and therefore it is his to give away as he chooses. I have to admit, the lack of food has made me delirious at times, and the prospect was intriguing, so I listened a while -- before politely declining. I mean, I could do a lot with all these messed up little kingdoms. I do think I have the skills to keep it all under control, certainly with less bloodshed than Caesar. Now, that guy has a real complex. Who died and made him Emperor? But the tradeoff was just too high, so I reminded the Adversary that Scripture says, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” and he didn’t stick around much longer. Just goes to show you that just because it may be good to do something, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Day 26: A day of gratitude. Woke up remarkably refreshed for not having eaten in almost a month. Must be something in the water. Thank God for the water! I found a little spring that has been keeping me going. I didn’t even have to hit a rock with my staff to make the water flow out, like Moses had to. It just seemed to be there waiting just for me. It’s not a gusher, that spring, but it has worn a deep groove in the rock it has been flowing for so long. Kinda reminds me of my cousin John baptizing all those people in the Jordan River. Maybe that water will keep flowing their whole lives and shape them into the instruments of God they should be. That’s how I feel about these 26 days so far, that I am being formed into what God wants me to be. It’s been really tough, but I feel like I am taking shape.

Day 31: I am doing a lot of praying while I’m out here. In fact, I’m praying like I’ve never prayed before. Part of it is that I don’t have a whole lot of energy to do much climbing or walking, so I spend a lot of the day talking with God. One of the cool things is that I’ve been able to spend more time each day actively listening to God, instead of blathering on. People have always said I’m a pretty good talker, going back to when I was twelve in the Temple, but this time in the desert has made me a much better listener too. Somehow, I think that will come in handy someday.

Day 33: One week to go! I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But that somehow makes it harder. I miss my family and I’m tired of feeling weak and faint. I’m beginning to wonder why I even decided to do this. Everyday the Adversary puts something out there that makes going home pretty appealing. Mostly it is creature comforts stuff: images of food, a bed, hanging out with friends. But sometimes it is more intense. I’ve been having this recurring dream of leading a battle against the Romans. I’ve got a sword and shield and everything, hundreds of men behind me, and I can even see victory. They are putting a garland of olive branches on my head. The crowds are cheering, and there are beautiful women everywhere looking on me adoringly. Must be left over images from the last visit of the Adversary.

If I’m honest, I have to admit it beats small town life by a mile. But even while I am in the midst of being the main character in my dream, I can step outside of it and watch myself in the dream, and I don’t look happy. I look worried. I look much older. I keep looking over my shoulder. Maybe that makes it easier to not give in, knowing the consequences. I wonder if everyone has that kind of foresight?

Day 40: Well, I was just starting to make my way toward home when there’s that Adversary again, and this time he takes me to the very top of the temple! It is pretty high up there. Good thing I’m not afraid of heights. Anyway, he challenges me again, this time to jump off, because he says he knows that God will take care of me, sending angels to keep me from harm. Don’t trust me, he says, trust God and what it says in Scripture. But I don’t need to prove anything to this guy. I trust God enough that I don’t need to do something stupid. So I tell him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” and just like that, I am back in the desert. I thought maybe I’d just be able to stay in Jerusalem and not have to walk home, but no such luck. On the way home, however, I reflected on the whole experience. I feel changed. My body is different, my mind is clearer, my vision of what’s true and important is sharper, the sharpest it’s ever been. I feel like I can overcome any challenge after surviving for this many days on just water and the Spirit. I was reading back through this journal I’ve been keeping and remembered how at the beginning of this whole trip I felt pulled in a dozen different directions. Now I feel pulled in only one direction, towards God’s kingdom. Now that’s a long trip too, but worth the journey. I’m looking forward to it.

And so ends Jesus’ journal of his walk in the desert. Scholars who have studied this new document say it confirms what we previously thought about Jesus’ time out there, that he entered the desert led by the Spirit and left it prepared for the assignment God had for him to save the world. They also say that while it is clear this journal is most definitely not Scripture, it is quite beneficial devotionally to reflect on someone else’s intentional period of preparation, to inform our own. They also say that it is remarkable how much in common Jesus’ experience has with those Christians who have been intentional during the season of Lent, those who have slowed down enough to ask of themselves, “What does it mean to be me?” You can be the judge of all that. Amen.

The Great Imposition

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
© Stacey Steck

You’ve all come tonight for the Imposition of Ashes. But do you really know what you’re getting yourselves into? According to the Apostle Paul, when you come forward to begin your Lent with ashes, you also get a whole lot more: “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.” Yes, all of that is potentially part of the package of outing yourself as a Christian by walking around in public with a mark on your forehead. At least if you’re doing it right.

The practice of burning the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and then putting them on the forehead as a sign of repentance is a Christian tradition that began centuries after the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, but the act of publicly demonstrating one’s faith goes back to the very beginning of the Church. The list of martyrs would be short indeed if the grace of God had not compelled the early followers of Christ to share the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But all through the book of Acts are those stories that tell us how Peter and Paul and Philip and all the rest could not contain their joy and conviction and made their relationship with God known to all by word and deed, and in so doing, incurred the wrath of those who feared what they could not understand. And hence, the “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger” that came with them not keeping their faith to themselves.

As dangerous as the world is out there for faithful Christians, I want to reassure you that it is not so that you can stay out of trouble that we hold this service in the evening and have less risk of being seen. It’s so that you’ll be here at all! The point is not to try to stir up trouble for you one day of the year, but to get you to stir up trouble every day of the year. You see, Ash Wednesday isn’t really about outing yourself as a Christian by putting a mark on your head. It’s about owning your mortality, your sinfulness, and your need for God by accepting the great imposition of faith you were marked with at your baptism. There’s a reason the ritual is called the “imposition” of ashes, and not the application of ashes, or the reception of ashes, or the display of ashes. Even though it is an outward display of our faith, in seeming contrast to Jesus’ words to not make our piety public, the sign of the cross on the forehead is really to be seen by each of us alone, a kind of invitation to look in the mirror and be reminded of the great and wonderful burden of faith in Jesus Christ that God has placed upon us, and how, all too often, we try to wriggle out from under that burden, or pass it off on someone else, or use it as an excuse for inaction, anything to escape the glorious responsibility that God has imposed upon us.

We usually think of a burden as something unwanted like a debt or an inconvenience, or more work, or the weather, things that weigh heavily on us, and keep us from doing what we’d rather be doing. Sometimes our burdens are self-imposed, but other times it feels like they’ve been unilaterally and unfairly added to our shoulders, and don’t we always rebel against things that are forced upon us? Caring for a child or an elder is a burden of time and energy. Bearing the expectations of a family is an emotional burden. Harboring a disease within our bodies is a physical burden. Being a tax-paying citizen is an economic burden. Serving as an Elder or Deacon or leader in ministry is a spiritual burden. Are you feeling it yet? Are you carrying the weight of the world yet? And you know that I’m going to ask you in a little while to carry the traditional burdens of Lent, right? The prayer, the fasting, the almsgiving. Are your backs about to break?

You may rest assured that I am not about to give you that false nugget of non-biblical wisdom about God not giving us more than we can handle. That’s just something people say when they don’t know what to say or don’t know how to help. But what I will tell you is what the Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth after giving them his list of the negative consequences of being a follower of Jesus. Remember what he said? That he had also experienced “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” in the midst of living out a public piety. The burden of Christ has its costs, yes, but it also has its benefits. And our more earthly burdens? Caring for a child or an elder is priceless time you’ll never have again. High family expectations can lead to high individual achievement. Physical limitations can make us more compassionate toward others who suffer. Our taxes pay for services like roads, bridges, and public education that make our lives easier. Our service to the church offers us spiritual riches beyond our imagination. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not simply trying to make lemonade out of lemons. I am trying to show how easy it is to look at our life’s burdens as negatives, when the truth is much more complex and mysterious. “We are treated as impostors,” Paul concludes, “and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” This is the mystery of the great imposition of faith we celebrate with the imposition of ashes.

You’ve probably heard about the phenomenon called Post-Traumatic Stress in which a person who has experienced or observed a traumatic event is unable to file the experience of the event into their long term memory, and it remains in the part of the brain that processes short-term memories and so they constantly relive the experience through flashbacks, nightmares, and other coping mechanisms. It’s a serious problem for military service members who have seen combat duty, first responders who have witnessed accidents, children who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, and so many other people who have been subject to emotional or physical trauma. The good news is that increasingly, there are more and better treatments for PTSD, and people are able to overcome these traumas and live with the experiences appropriately filed away in the past. The even better news is that there is a growing body of evidence that shows that in addition to post-traumatic stress, people frequently experience post-traumatic growth, that as a result of what they’ve suffered, they’ve grown and changed for the better. This is not just silver-lining thinking. This is acknowledging that we may not be able to avoid what is imposed upon us by others, but that the storyline from that traumatic moment on is not fixed once and for all in suffering and deprivation, but open to an infinite number of possible new and healthy directions.

Lent is not exactly a traumatic event, but it does involve the divine imposition of a burden, the storyline of which is also not fixed once and for all in suffering and deprivation, but open to an infinite number of possible new and healthy directions. Yes, we consent to the imposition of ashes, and we choose whether or not to adopt a Lenten discipline of some kind, and dedicate ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. God is not going to punish us if we don’t. But if we don’t allow ourselves to be imposed upon by God in this way, we’ll miss out on the growth that’s the point of the experience. You’ll never know what amazing spiritual benefits might come of your decision to accept God’s imposition on your life for these next forty days, benefits like “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” May tonight’s ashes be both a burden and a blessing on you this Lent. Amen.

Just Look at Their Bright Shining Faces!

Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36
© Stacey Steck

Transfiguration Sunday is, after Ascension Day, perhaps the least known and understood of the special days of the church year, to the majority of Protestant Christians. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches celebrate it in high style, but we Protestants can’t even agree what Sunday of the year it should be, some choosing the traditional day of August 6 and others choosing, today, the final Sunday of the Season of Epiphany, also known as the last Sunday before Lent. At least Ascension Day has the excuse that it always falls on a Thursday. But Transfiguration Sunday has a remarkably low profile, for such a mountaintop experience. Its low profile may have to do with the fact that we have really just celebrated Christmas, and Easter is only seven short weeks away, and that the Transfiguration story isn’t really very climactic in the overall drama of the Gospels. It’s a very important part of the story, but it just doesn’t quite have the gravitas of some of the other episodes in Scripture, despite how mysterious and strangely beautiful it is.

I am tempted simply to read to you the 15th chapter of the book of First Corinthians and call it a day. That’s where the Apostle Paul waxes poetic about what our own resurrections will be like, and it’s a sort of unintentional commentary on the Transfiguration of Jesus. I say that because I believe that what Peter and James and John witnessed on the mountaintop was a glimpse of Jesus as he would become following his resurrection, and indeed what we will become following the resurrection that is promised to us in Jesus Christ. And that is the subject matter of First Corinthians 15: the form, and appearance, and matter, so to speak, of the resurrection body. Perhaps you’ve engaged in one of those great speculative conversations about what we will look like when we are resurrected. Will we look like we did at our prime? I certainly hope so! Or will we look as we did at the moment of our death? Or as we wished we had looked? Or as others saw us? Or as God sees us? If we were bald in life, will we still be bald in the resurrected life? If we had a limp, or poor eyesight, or terrible taste in clothing during our lifetimes, will we be stuck with all that for all eternity? Or will we just glow like Moses did on the mountaintop and Jesus did at the Transfiguration? That sounds pretty good. When that day comes, maybe we’ll look around and just exclaim, “Oh, look at their bright shiny faces!” like those who saw Moses and Jesus after their encounters with God. Because that’s what will have happened, right? We will have had our face to face encounter with God.

Of course, maybe that glow was from something else, like climbing the mountain. Remember when Dennis the Menace says to his nemesis, "Margaret, you are all sweaty.” And Margaret replies, “Dennis, girls don’t sweat. Horses sweat, boys perspire, and girls glow.” “Well, Margaret” said Dennis, “you are glowing like a racehorse.” It’s a little more likely, however, that the reason Moses and Jesus were glowing is that they experienced something like a baptism up there on their respective mountaintops, and baptism can, and should, leave us positively radiant after the Holy Spirit has left its mark on us. Indeed, the season of epiphany season started with the three kings, yes, but the very next week was the Baptism of Jesus, an event that concluded with God saying to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And here the season of Epiphany ends with much the same words: “This is my son, my Chosen, Listen to him.” From an announcement to Jesus alone, “You are my Son,” to an announcement to the world, “This is my son,” the revelation of who Jesus is is complete. From a dove at the baptism to a glow at the transfiguration, the unveiling is complete.

The Transfiguration story in Luke is sandwiched between two revelations of Jesus’ impending death; twice he tells the disciples clearly what is going to happen to him. Yet, the Transfiguration experience is about life, eternal life, as represented by Moses and Elijah – seen “in glory” it says – and a Jesus who looks completely different from when we walked up the mountain alongside the three disciples. It is a divine meeting with divine possibilities, but not one with dead participants. I think the disciples, and we, are meant to understand that amidst all the talk of death, we receive a glimpse of the future, a glimpse of our own resurrection, and a glimpse of those resurrected bodies.

Now, what is it that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking about up there? It says they were talking about Jesus’ “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” and we are to infer from that they are referring to his death, especially because we have just heard Jesus announce that the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Beyond that it confirms what Jesus has just said, what is interesting about that divine conversation is the word we have translated here as “departure.” That word is interesting because it translates a Greek word more commonly translated as “exodus,” a word which recalls so much of God’s presence with God’s people, and so much of Moses’ life, of course, as he led the Hebrews through the waters in their Exodus from Egypt, and so much of Elijah’s life, as he tried to lead his people out their slavery to idolatry, tried to lead an Exodus of the Kings from the ways they grieved God and punished their own poor. And of course it describes our own personal passages from death to life, from bondage to freedom, from punishment to grace, all in the Jesus Christ whose own exodus through his death and resurrection accomplished our own exoduses. And isn’t that exactly what we celebrate in baptism?

In baptism, we celebrate what Christ has done for us. In baptism, we celebrate our passage from death to life. In baptism, we celebrate our rejection of sin, and God’s help in accomplishing that rejection. In baptism, we celebrate God’s grace that calls us and leads us through the waters. There was only one Exodus from Egypt, only one crossing of the parted seas. There is only one baptism, our baptism in Jesus Christ, and only one baptism in water for each of us. And that moment is our Exodus, and we are changed, and in the midst of our death to sin we celebrate our rising to life. That’s when our faces should really begin to shine, shining as if we were in the very presence of God, which indeed we are.

You hear me talk about baptism frequently, certainly more frequently than we celebrate baptisms here. That’s because it is such an important sign and seal of God’s grace in our lives, and we are foolish not to remember it more often. Often taking place a long time ago, or so young in our lives that we do not remember them, our baptisms easily slip away into that category of overlooked ritual, kind of like the very day of Transfiguration Sunday, important, yet not as climactic as some of the other more compelling moments of our lives, despite how mysterious and strangely beautiful it is. But if our baptisms are a foretaste of our eternal life, it seems to me that we should appear at least a little transfigured all the time, our faces shining for all the world to see, whether from sweat or glory. But more than simply being transfigured on the outside, we should be transformed on the inside, and seeing the world differently, just as others are seeing us differently. Thomas Merton, the famous twentieth century Trappist monk, had an experience that I think captures both the transfiguration and transformation we are privileged to enjoy through baptism. He says,

“I was in Louisville, Kentucky, in the shopping mall, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people around me, even though they were complete strangers. It felt like waking from a dream. It was as if I could see the secret beauty in their hearts, the deep self where sin and ego can’t reach, the core of their reality, the person that each is in God’s eyes. I couldn’t explain it. How can you go up to people and tell them they're walking around shining like the sun? If only they could see themselves as they truly are. If only we could all see each other that way all the time. I suppose the problem would be that we’d fall down and worship each other.”

Merton saw the people in the mall as God saw them. I don’t think that’s possible any other way than passing through the waters of baptism, and beginning to glow ourselves. In whatever we do, may people see us and say “Why, just look at their bright shiny faces, and the beauty of their hearts.” And as we see others through the eyes of love, may we say, “Why, just look at their bright shiny faces, and the beauty of their hearts.” Amen.

Funeral Sermon for Dana Hall

Psalm 1, 1 John 3:1-3, Romans 8:31-39, and John 14:1-6, 25-27, and Revelation 21:1-4, 22:1-5
© Stacey Steck

Brothers and sisters, for most of our questions at a time like this, there simply are no good answers. A thousand questions run through our minds when the life of someone we love ends too soon, too unexplained. Why questions. How questions. What-if questions. What-am-I-supposed-to-do-now-questions. And they’re all appropriate, every one of them. We’re in shock. We’re grieving. What else can we do? We’re flooded with emotions and memories, and yes, awful, unanswerable questions. And there’s nothing wrong with us for asking those questions. God’s big enough to take them. But there are no good answers and we are left wanting.

Even though there may be no answers forthcoming from the mouth of God, there is however, comfort, and there are promises, and we are here together to receive them. And there is prayer, and there are friends, and sometimes that just has to be enough to get us through. We have come together to celebrate the life of Dana Hall and the God who gave her to us, and we’ll do the best with what we’ve been given: words and images from Scripture that remind us that God’s heart breaks when ours do, and that to God’s way of thinking she’s not as far away as it may seem. We are here to celebrate that nothing in all creation can separate her, or us, from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And we join to give witness to the truth of life after death, eternal life for Dana who resides in heaven, and meaningful life for we who remain still on earth. Maybe that’s hard to imagine, that we’ll ever find joy again, but the faith we have in our healing God roots us like those trees planted by streams of water, the ones the Psalmist tells us bear fruit in their season, and whose leaves never wither. The season of joy will return, after this season of sorrow.

The disciple Thomas had his questions, too, didn’t he? “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” he asks. And maybe Jesus’ answer to Thomas didn’t sound as good to Thomas as it does to us so many years later, but there it is, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Thomas is afraid of getting lost in the desert, of being exposed to the elements. He thinks Jesus plans to take the disciples to a physical place, and he doesn’t have a map or a compass. But Jesus reorients Thomas, and lets him know that the path to his Father’s house is the one marked by Jesus’ own footsteps, ones we must all follow in order to find the blessings of that house. We can’t make it there on our own, not even in the best of times, and certainly not when our hearts are broken, so God has shown us the way, an answer that may not sound like the answer to the question we’ve asked, but the answer we really need to hear in the end.
All of our questions will be answered one day, but that day is not today. From First John we heard, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” And when we see God, we’ll know what Dana already knows and we’ll find the peace she now has. But in the meantime, we have promises we know are trustworthy, promises that we have nothing to fear from whatever is on either side of the great divide, because God’s love and grace are found on both sides.

It might be that what Dana now knows about God is more about what was her passion in life: alternative medicines that heal the human body and spirit. In the 22nd chapter of the book of Revelation, we find the description of the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven with Jesus when he returns to us, perhaps the very place Jesus was describing to Thomas and the rest of the disciples. John relates the vision he has seen: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.” Oh, how Dana longed for that truth to be known on earth as it is in heaven, that healing and justice are possible if we can shine some of our light into the darkness, until there is no more need of any light but God’s.

Yes, Dana knows now fully what we know in part, but the part we know can give us some comfort. A little earlier in that vision about the New Jerusalem, John announces that in that place, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” and I take that to mean that our tears are as inevitable as our questions, and that God can handle them both. There will come a time when our sorrow is not as intense, and when we cry less frequently, and when we can think about our futures. And that won’t be because our love for Dana is fading, but because God’s love has accompanied our passage through these difficult times. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and it will be God’s love that will guide us in life, even as God’s love is guiding Dana in death, to that place described so well by the poet John Donne, “that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud, nor Sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and Identity; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.” May we celebrate this day Dana’s entrance into that “one equal eternity,” and the incomparable love of God which makes that possible.

Let us pray: Grant rest eternal, unto Dana, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon her. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, rest in peace. Amen.