Ash Wednesday: Sermon for February 13, 2013

(Note: this sermon contains pieces of my Ash Wednesday essay “It’s Not About Me” found in Huffington Post and previously on this blog.)

ashwednesdayIf you go to a bookstore, and you look at the religion section, and especially the Christianity section, you’ll see a theme. Yes, there will be Bibles and other holy books, but more often than not, the section will be overrun with books all purporting to do one thing: to make your life better.

I don’t begrudge that. I think that if faith helps you to lead a more meaningful, more joyful, or more peaceful life then that is indeed a great thing. But, I’ve often wondered whether those of us who are both Christians and people of great privilege, and most of us who are Americans are, sometimes start to see our faith as one more element in our “be a better me” plans. Like a diet, or an exercise regimen, or get out of debt quickly program. I sometimes wonder if our faith becomes one more fashionable accessory, a key to a good life for us and us only only.

I think about that a lot during Lent, especially during the time when we are asked to decide what sort of Lenten observance we will take on this year. And, like many of you I think about “giving up” something: meat, or caffeine, or Facebook. And I’m not saying those may not be valuable things to give up for some. Only you can be the authority on what you struggle with the most. But Lent leaves me wondering if “giving up” is what it’s really all about.

When it comes down to it, Jesus only needed two sentences to sum the law up for his followers. First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. And second, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

Those of us who try to be disciples of Christ are really good at trying to add our own words or interpretations to his, but in the end Jesus really made it pretty clear. If you want to follow him, and if you want to be a Christian, then your only job is to love.

Love and ashes don’t often go together in our minds. But this time of year, it’s the ashes that remind me of what Jesus tried to teach us about love.

Ash Wednesday comes early this year, and with it comes the beginning of Lent, the season when we disciples turn our hearts towards Christ and seek to reconciled to him. And while the stores start stocking plastic eggs and Easter baskets, we do something that is completely counter-cultural: we go to church, and we smear ashes on our foreheads, and we remind one another that everything we know is only temporary.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

What used to be a heart-stopping reminder for me has instead become a moment of refocusing. In the big scheme of things who we are as individuals is finite, and fleeting. But who we are together, and who we are to God, is what matters, and what truly defines us, even when we are gone.

In Lent we remember the great truth: it’s not all about us.

I was thinking about that this week. Like many of you, I was stunned to hear the news of the Pope’s resignation the other day. I didn’t know Popes could resign! But the more I read about his decision, the more I understood it and respected it. We may not be Catholics, but we can learn a lot from other Christians, and I think we can learn a lot from him too. When it became clear to him that because of health he could no longer function in his role the way the position demands, he stepped aside. He made it not about him. He made it about the church, something bigger than him.

That speaks to me in Lent because each Lent I feel myself called back to community, both human and divine, by that message: it’s not about me. And when that calling comes, so does the reminder of those two commands of Christ: love God, and love others as you love yourself.

This is why I think that if our Lenten discipline is only about us, and what we will allow ourselves, we miss the point. Instead, what if we embraced Lent as an opportunity to show our love for God and others? We spend so much time focused on ourselves and on our own importance, but what if we used these forty days focus on something else? What if we took those days and dedicated each to reminding ourselves that it’s not about us as individuals, but it’s about God, and it’s about all of us together?

This Lent I’m giving myself a challenge. I’m calling it my Lenten “It’s Not About Me” Challenge. Here’s how it works: Each day I want to do at least one thing that either strengthens my connection with God, or shows my love for my neighbor.

That might sound like a lot at first glance, like it’s just creating one more piece of work in our already crammed schedules. But what I’m advocating isn’t about creating additional burdens. It’s about being more conscious of what we are already doing, and using our time in a way that connects us with others and with the Holy other.

When we start doing that, the daily walk turns into an opportunity for prayer. The trip to the grocery store yields a few more cans of soup for the food pantry. The extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning is turned aside for a chance to join your community in worship. And a few extra dollars turn into donation that makes a difference. We don’t have to turn the world on its axis. We simply have to turn our attention outward, and make the small things matter in big ways.

This is my challenge to myself, and no one is obligated to join me. But, I am asking you to consider what you will be doing differently this Lent, and asking how it is that what you choose will show your love of God, and will show your love of neighbor. Not because it will make you a better person, but because it will be a tangible reminder of Christ’s love for others.

I’ve had plenty of blessings in my life, and plenty of grace from God. I hope you have too. And in the end Lent can be a journey of recognizing those blessings, and blessing others. Because it’s not a journey that’s about me, or you. It’s a journey that’s about God. And we are invited. And that’s the best invitation that you can ever receive. Amen.

Not About Me: Day One (A Journey Through Lent)

379246_10151246708651787_459997397_nI received ashes about an hour ago. My partner was on her way to Boston to assist in Old South Church’s Ash Wednesday observances, but she ashed me first. Later today she will be joining other clergy and seminarians as she stands in front of the church and offers ashes to the busy pedestrians on Boylston Street. And now I’m sitting here in the office of my small town church in Vermont, ashes on my forehead, waiting to see if any parishioners who can’t make our evening service will drop by for ashes.

Our contexts today are very different, but our hopes are the same. Maybe the people we touch with ash will stop for a minute, reflect on the day, and feel the tug on their hearts from God that comes every Lent, beckoning them back to the divine relationship.

We impose the ashes on one another with the the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And Lent is all about returning. Not just back to dust, but to what makes something extraordinary out of that dust. Lent is all about returning to the creator, and returning towards the way that God’s son showed us. A way of love. A way of reconciliation. A way of hope. A better way.

Today I’m starting my Lenten discipline in the form of a challenge to myself. I’m hoping that in Lent my thoughts and my actions will help return my attention to God, and to God’s people, again and again. I invite you to join me, in whatever way works for you. Even if you have been away from church, or away from faith, for sometime, it’s not too late.

God will always welcome your return. So, why not today?

What the Saints We Knew Taught Us – Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2012

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Mark 12:28-34
12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

12:29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;

12:30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

12:31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

12:32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;

12:33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

12:34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Being a saint is hard work. I’m not speaking from experience here, but rather from observation. This is what I’ve learned: You have to be perfect. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t have a bad day when you lose your temper, or get frustrated at your neighbor. You have to give away everything you own. You have to spend every night cooking in a soup kitchen, or reading to people in hospital beds, or toiling away at a second job so you can give every penny you make to the poor. You also can never enjoy yourself. If you find happiness even for a moment, you’re probably sinning, and you should immediately confess to God and go do some more volunteer work. Also, you need to pray. A lot. Like ten hours straight each day. Minimum.

And if you do all this, maybe, just maybe, after you die (and you will likely die a torturous, slow, martyr’s death) you will be immortalized with a stone statue or a stained glass window in a church somewhere. And you will be called “Saint So-and-so”. But, really, you shouldn’t even hope for that, because hoping to be a saint is probably a sin too.

When you think about saints, maybe you think about something similar. Perfect people who lead lives of exemplary holiness. People who lead often joyless lives, and have horrific deaths. People who we look at as being extraordinary. People we can never be. Most of us, we believe, are not cut out for sainthood.

But maybe that conventional definition, that idea of the holy, untouchable saint, isn’t what being a saint is really all about? Maybe there’s an everyday sainthood that we might know more about than we think? And maybe today, on All Saint’s Sunday, it’s the perfect time to think about those everyday saints whom we have known.

The Scripture passage today tells the story of a man who came to Jesus asking what the greatest commandment, the greatest rule for life, was. And Jesus gives him an answer that tells us a lot about what true sainthood looks like: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The man answers him, “you’re right, teacher. And, you know what, doing what you just said matters more than all the burnt offerings and temple sacrifices and everyday rituals we’ve been taught to do.” Now, you have to remember, that was blasphemy. The man was rejecting the common religious knowledge of the time. So Jesus was faced with a choice about how to respond to the man. And yet, he doesn’t tell him he was wrong. He tells them this: you are not far from the kingdom of God. In other words, you’re getting it right. You understand what true faith looks like.

It’s a good reminder for those of us who want to know what true sainthood looks like. Being a saint isn’t about religious rituals or leading joyless lives. Instead, being a saint is about living a life of joy. A life in which you love God with all that is in you, heart and soul, mind and strength. And then loving your neighbor with that same kind of love. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about loving perfectly. It’s not about following the letter of the law. It’s about believing in the spirit of the law. Believing in the law of loving God and loving others. And it’s about acting out that belief in all you do.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a day where we remember all of the saints who have come before us. And from the outset, we might think it’s a day where we are supposed to look to the example of all the saints we’ve heard about: St. Christopher, St. Francis, St. Patrick, St. Peter, St. Paul. Maybe we’ll even acknowledge some soon-to-be venerated saints like Mother Teresa.

But that’s not the real meaning of All Saints day. Because sainthood is not about some list somewhere of the most extraordinary people ever. Sainthood is about the everyday people who have used their lives to love God, and to love others. In our religious tradition, All Saints day is about all of those we have loved, and lost, who loved us and who by their love taught us to love God.

You’ve known some saints. Maybe they were parents, or grandparents. Maybe they were teachers, or coaches. Maybe they were neighbors or friends. Maybe they were spouses, or children. You loved them, and you learned from them. You learned by example about loving God and loving your neighbor. And you miss them. That’s what today is about.

It’s no coincidence that today, All Saints’ Sunday, is also our fourth Sunday in our sermon series on giving. Because today we are asking who in our taught us how to give. Who showed us what it meant to love by giving? Who was always there when we needed them? Who was generous with their love and their time and their compassion? Who rose to the occasion when you needed them the most, and gave selflessly of all they had? My guess is that if all of us take a minute to think about who the saints of our lives really were, we will think of the most generous people, in every sense of that word, that we have ever known.

We are continuously blessed by the generosity of others. Both people we have loved in our own lives, and people who loved God, and loved us, even though they knew they would never meet us.

This church is an example of that. This building was built in 1858 by people none of us ever met. 150 years ago they gave of the little that they had to build this meeting house for our community. If you look at these pews, you’ll see small plaques with names engraved on them. Those are the names of people who bought these pews as a way of sponsoring the building of the church. They bought the glass in these windows too. You can see the way the glass waves a little, because glass does that over 150 years. That glass was their offering to their neighbors, and to you. You can look at this communion table which sat in the Wilmington church for decades, perhaps over a century, and you can see their care for their house of worship. It’s a legacy we now remember here as well.

But not all of the gifts to this church came 150 years ago. People who are still members of this congregation made the decision decades ago to add a back room to the church. They lifted the church up and added a basement. They put heat in the church because the old stove that used to sit right up here threw out so much smoke that, one member from decades ago told me, you couldn’t see the pastor when he preached.

This is what the saints of this church and the Wilmington Church did for us. They gave us these gifts because they wanted a community of faith to prosper here. And I’m not just talking about the building. The building is just one physical example. What they did spiritually, what they did to build this church up into a community of believers, is far more important. They loved God, and they loved their neighbor. Even their neighbor they would never live to meet.

It’s an incredible testament to what it means to be a saint. And it’s only one very small corner of the world. Because if I asked you to tell me about the saints in your life, you would tell me equally incredible stories of people who gave freely, and who changed your life. And the really extraordinary thing is, one day, if we are lucky, people will share the same sorts of stories about us. Because the choices we make today, the love and generosity we exhibit to the world, can touch not just those who surround us now, but those who will remain long after we are gone. We are not yet saints. But one day, we, like all others who leave this world for God’s, will be. And maybe people will be remembering us on some All Saints’ Sunday. But for now, we remember others.

This morning I set up some tea light candles around the communion table, and around the communion table that we brought up from the Wilmington Church. In just a moment I’m going to give you all a chance to remember, by lighting a candle, the saints in your own life. We will then have this physical reminder of them when we celebrate communion today. Communion is a time when we are connected not just to one another, but to God, and to the saints of all times and places. Today we remember that more than ever. May the candles be a physical reminder that the saints are still with us, and that we have not forgotten them, and that death is not the final word.

Now I’ll invite you, as you’re so moved, to come forward and light a candle, or two, for those you have loved and lost who were saints to you…