Wednesday night a group of us gathered here in the sanctuary for a strange annual ritual. On Ash Wednesday the burnt remains of palm leaves are taken and rubbed onto the foreheads of Christians in the shape of a cross. They are meant to be signs of both our own mortality and our own imperfection.
As you can imagine, the sanctuary was packed.
So, actually, no it wasn’t. And it’s okay. I get that this is not everyone’s favorite Christian observance, and that for many of you it sounds like a pretty depressing way to spend a Wednesday. But the hope of Ash Wednesday, the good news in the midst of all that talk of death and sin, is that we belong to God, no matter what. As Scripture tells us nothing, not even death, can ever separate us from the love of God.
It’s a good message for the start of Lent, a season when we are called to journey with Christ through his last days, through the cross, and, finally, out of the tomb on Easter morning. And on this first Sunday of Lent we hear the Scriptures that were just read, and we remember that even Christ himself needed that reminder.
Scripture tells us that Jesus went out into the wilderness where he wrestled with temptation, doubt, and fear. Before he began to go from town to town, gathering followers and spreading his message, he spent forty days getting lost, and going deep inside of himself.
But before he did that, he did something else. He went out to John the Baptist, and he asked to be baptized. And as he was coming up out of the river after being dunked in, a voice came down from the skies and, the Spirit came down “like a dove” and said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I was thinking about Jesus baptism, and I was thinking about the baptism we had here last week. We brought a child to the font, made promises about how we would support her as she grew, sprinkled her with water, and then we happily welcomed her to this family of faith. She now shares in Christ’s own baptism, and she is now marked as God’s own just as surely as Christ was too.
When we baptize someone, it’s always fun. The families come and take pictures, there’s usually a cute baby, we feel happy, and we make the baptismal promises joyfully and willingly. But Jesus own baptism is a stark reminder of the fact that living out our baptism won’t always be easy.
The Scripture tells us that as soon as Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit, the same one that just a minute ago was saying “with you I am well pleased” then “immediately drove him out into the wilderness”. No one even got to take Jesus out to a baptismal brunch…it was just straight out off into the desert for forty hard and horrible days of doubt and pain.
I’m glad that doesn’t usually happen when we baptize someone. But, there’s something about the fact that before Jesus was going to face this great trial, he heard exactly what he needed to hear. He heard that he was loved by God. He heard that he belonged to God. And he knew that even out in the most unwelcoming of wildernesses, he would not be alone.
I was thinking about the day I was baptized. I was older, 17, and a senior in high school. I was baptized on Easter morning at the sunrise service. And right after the service, I felt so incredible. I felt special, holy, and like my whole life had changed. I felt forgiven, and I vowed to go from that place and do everything right from then on. This was the start of a whole new me.
One of my best friends from high school was with me, and he got into the car with me after the service. I was driving, and I was still so excited. It was the ultimate spiritual high. And I was so caught up in it, that I didn’t even see the stop sign that I ran right through. My friend yelled out just in time, I slammed on the breaks, and the driver who had the right of way rightfully said a few choice words to me. And all of a sudden I realized that just because I was now baptized, it didn’t mean I was now going to be perfect, and it didn’t mean that I could stop looking at the road in front of me.
After his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness. After mine, my inattention to the road almost led me into an accident. Hopefully the events following your own were somewhat less exciting. But the reality is that all of us, whether a few minutes, or many years after our baptism, will face our own moments of reckoning. We will be confronted with the fact that our baptisms, while holy and beautiful and from God, are also calls to engage in this world, and especially to go out into the wilderness places.
I was thinking about that this week. Wednesday afternoon, as we were getting ready for the Ash Wednesday service here, the news started to come in about yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. And by the end of the day we learned that this was the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook. Seventeen people lost their lives in this attack.
I was thinking this week about how many times, in the eight years I’ve been a parish pastor, I’ve changed what I was going to say on Sunday because of a mass shooting. Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, now…and there are others. I don’t think that there is one other issue or kind of news that has anywhere as frequently made me go back and look at my sermon for the week.
And I’d like to hope that this is going to be the last time, that there won’t be any other shootings, that children won’t be scared to go to school and parents won’t be scared to send them off anymore, but the reality is that I’m not so sure that’s true. If Newtown didn’t do it, if 26 small children and their teachers didn’t stop things, I’m not sure what will.
One of the most provocative images of the day for me was of a woman at the school, likely a parent, clutching another parent, and waiting to find out that their children were safe. On her forehead was the sign of the cross, there in black ash. Earlier that day a clergy person had intoned the same words we say on Ash Wednesday: o mortal, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. And then they had put that symbol of God’s eternal claim on us on her forehead, and sent her off into a wilderness of horror that she could not have imagined.
We, as human beings, we choose what we will tolerate. We choose what is okay to us. And I don’t know if there’s a foolproof way to make sure that no child will ever again be hurt at a school. But I do know there are ways to make that possibility much, much less likely.
And I also know this. I know that stopping violence is our job as people of faith. I know that sometimes it is easier to just keep driving along, thinking spiritual thoughts and feeling good, but if we don’t look up, if we don’t see what is coming and make adjustments to the way we are driving, we can end up completely wrecked.
When we baptize a child in this church, we make promises to them. We say that we will teach them about the faith. We say that we will teach them about courage. We say that we will help them to grow. In a real way, we say that we will protect them. But at the end, we send then back out into this wilderness world where not even school is safe.
If we baptize children and do nothing to help them outside of the church walls, we fail in our vows to them. And if we come to church on Sunday, and we do nothing to live out our own baptisms in the week between, then we fail our own baptisms too.
You know that I don’t preach politics from the pulpit. How you vote is between you and God and your conscience. And I’m not going to tell you what to do or how to do it. But, I am going to say this: we can’t ignore this any more. Because there are times when I believe our faith calls us to look for solutions, and not just keep driving straight ahead. I don’t think that as people of faith we can ignore dead children anymore. So whatever you do now, whatever action you take, all I can ask is this: don’t be afraid to look up, look around, and do something to stop this.
Lent is about learning how to go into the wilderness, the place we do not want to go, and wrestling with who and whose we are, and what we can do in this world. If nothing, not even death, can ever separate us from the love of God, and if we believe that, then we should be people of immense courage. Even when we are afraid, we have this promise. We are in a wilderness time and the Holy Spirit has called us out into the midst of it. May we never be too afraid to go.