Lent 2017 Sermons

Passion Sunday A 2017: The Blood of Jesus

This sermon was preached on March 9, 2016, Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord. The readings were: Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

His blood be on us and on our children. So we cry and shout as the peasant is paraded before us, his wounds seeping, proof of our spoiled hopes. It is hard to say what makes us more sure: his vulnerability, his silence, his powerlessness. This is not the king who entered from the east, the opposite direction of the Roman procession of Pilate. This is not the prophet who drove the extorting money-lenders from the Temple. This is not the miracle-worker of Galilee who drove out demons and fed thousands. This is not the Son of God - he cannot come down from the cross and prove it! This is a disappointment, a fraud, a failure. This is not the fault of Judas (who repents), of Jewish or religious officials (who will not keep the blood-money), or Roman soldiers (who realize this is God's Son), or of Pontius Pilate (who washes his hands and says he is innocent of this man's blood) or even of cosmic evil. His blood be on us and on our children, we shout. We take full responsibility for this murder. We own the blood of Jesus.

His blood be on us and on our children. We reject him utterly and make no secret of it; we will wear this blood proudly. We will have no weak King, no broken God, no wounded healer. We will own the guilt of this death as ours and our children's guilt, our determination to decide what is good and evil, our rejection of the kingdom of heaven. "Hosanna!" we cried. We cried hosanna, meaning "Save us Lord, help us!" We cried out as he rode through the crowds for help and salvation, and all he did was preach and disrupt our economy. We cried out for help and salvation, and all he did was take the bread of his body and the cup of his blood and say they were given for us. We cried out for help and salvation, and all he did was warn us that those who live by violence will die by violence. We cried out for help and salvation, and all he did was die.

Yet, for two thousand years the people have continued to gather around this cross. We have heard preacher after preacher say to us that if you wish to hear the good news that this cross is the place where it can be found. For two thousand years, the people of the world have cried out: “His blood is on us and on our children!” We have seen that we live in a bitter and broken universe, that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, and we have continued to shout “Hosanna! Save us, Lord, help us!” Where can we go to find a loving God, a forgiving God, a God who restores rather than kills and heals rather than hurts? Here, on the tree, he hangs; here, in our midst, his blood covers us. This is the blood we confess, always connected to this promise: “This is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Shed for you. You see, brothers and sisters, Jesus agrees with the crowd, with us; his blood be on us and on our children! His blood, his death, his cross, marked on each of us at baptism. This is where our loving God meets us, this is what our loving God will do for us. This is the God who has met our guilt and confession, our sin and addiction, our deaths and murder. God comes down to die on this cross, not for some scheme, not to perform a trick, not to work magic. God comes down to this cross, to bleed this blood, to die this death, for you. For you, for your salvation, this blood is shed. For you, out of love for you, this Jesus died.

The text of Scripture is vast, and many will attempt to wring this promise from you. Hold on to it! Brothers and sisters, these words are for you, just as this blood and death are for you. “Grab tightly on the key words” – by these words you will know where to find the God who loves you, even if it rained 900,000 devils daily. Here is the promise, God’s word which stands forever: “This is my body, given for you… This is my blood, shed for you…” Cling to this promise made in the water and word, in bread and wine, in cross and tomb. “His blood be on us and on our children!” Yes, we deserve death and hell, what of it? The blood of Christ was shed for us, and Christ has died for us. It is Jesus who promises to pledge both his life and his death for us; don’t trust me, don’t trust rituals, but trust the word of the one who died for you!

He died, so that his blood would be the new covenant: a gift poured out to forgive us. He died, so that those covered in guilt and sin would be also covered in the blood of Jesus which forgives sin and liberates us from evil. He died to do exactly what we asked when we sang "Hosanna!" He died to help us. He died to save us. He died to cover us in his blood, to unite us to himself, to end forever our myth of power and greed and privilege. He died so that his blood would mark us forever, mark us like the blood of the passover lamb, mark us with the fruit of the cross. He died so that his blood would be on us and on our children.

His blood, the new covenant to forgive us.

His blood, the cup of salvation, shed for us.

His blood, the fires of rebirth which make us new.

His blood, the water of life everlasting.

His blood, the evil murder we committed co-opted by God's amazing grace

to make this death our great hope and God's great triumph.

His blood, to help us.

His blood, to save us.

His blood, to free us from bloodshed.

His death for our life.

On the tree of the cross,

God exchanged our evil murder of God's only Son,

and gave us forgiveness, life, and hope for a kingdom

beyond anything we can ever imagine.

God took our worst and gave us the very best: Jesus Christ.

His blood be on us and on our children.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Lent 5A 2017: Life in Dead Places

This sermon was preached on April 2, 2017, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The readings were: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life.

Ezekiel is carried by the Spirit to a valley full of very dry bones. He doesn't ask where they are, because he knows, and so do all those who hear of this vision. They know because everyone who is speaking Hebrew in Babylon is an exile, a captive led away from the ruined city of Jerusalem. Every one of them saw, piled in the valley at the foot of Mount Zion, the bodies of men and women and children who had died in the final siege of the city. Now, years later, God shows Ezekiel this place where the death and defeat of the nation, of the people, of the faith, took place.

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life.

The people have cried out to God that their bones are dry, their hope destroyed, their faith useless, their community dead. Everything they thought they were is gone, and they are left with nothing. And so God gives Ezekiel a vision of prophesying to the bones of the slaughtered people. The people think these bones cannot live, but Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to these dead things, because God's Word is more powerful than anything as simple as death and life. The Word of God pours from Ezekiel's mouth across the bones, and they are transformed from a pile of dry bones to a mass of bodies - dead, or asleep, or waiting to be born again. The Word of God pours from Ezekiel's mouth and calls to the Breath of God, the Spirit, which comes on the wind and fills these slaughtered people so that they stand, raised to new life and new community with God. And the point God is making is a promise: precisely the people who see no hope, who have no power, who cannot imagine salvation, are the ones God specifically promises to save.

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life.

Five centuries later, those people who thought they had no hope in life have descendants living in and around Jerusalem. In a little town about two miles from the city - a town called Bethany - live a man named Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus knows them and cares deeply about them, though this is the first mention of them in John's gospel. Jesus knows this family, and knows them so well that a messenger comes to see him while he is on retreat across the Jordan, outside the borders of Judea. He hears that Lazarus is deeply ill, and he delays. For two days, Jesus does not go; and when he does, his disciples point out that going to Bethany is dangerous. Just recently, Jesus had nearly been stoned; going back could get Jesus and all the disciples killed. The tone changes when Jesus reveals that Lazarus is dead, and they are going to Bethany to visit this family who is now in deep grief. Thomas, always the voice of reason, comments that by going there they are certainly going to die with Lazarus, because they are going to die if they go back to Judea. Of course this is more true than he knows, because what is about to happen is the event that ensures that Jesus will meet his end on a cross in only a week. Jesus knows this, but all the same he goes to his friend, to the one he loves who has died.

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life.

Arriving in Bethany, Jesus is met by Martha, and here it is: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If Jesus had not delayed two days, if Jesus had come to them immediately, Lazarus would be alive, and there is no excuse from the mouth of the Lord. Perhaps Jesus is defensive, perhaps compassionate, when he says “Your brother will rise”, but Martha seems to cut him off: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha’s grief cannot be consoled solely by the promise of the resurrection if it is a promise for some distant future. Lazarus is dead now. Martha is grieving now. The bones are dry now. The people are mourning now. Our hope is lost now. And now, into the dead place, into the hopeless situation, Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life.

Jesus calls for Mary, who leaves her mourning at her house to meet him, and there it is again: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And Jesus, who knows the end of the story; Jesus, who knows the end of every story; Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, is moved, upset, and on the way to the tomb of his friend he weeps. Jesus, the author of creation, the Word of God, the light of the world, weeps! Greatly disturbed, he comes to the tomb, where for four days Lazarus his dear friend has been dead and buried. Four days; Lazarus isn’t just dead, he is completely dead. He stinks, Martha says. He is rotting. But the stone doesn’t keep that from happening; the stone only hides the stench of death, the horror of the family, the truth of the situation. Trusting Jesus, they take away the stone, and Jesus gives thanks that God hears him so that the crowd might believe. Then he speaks. He speaks to a dead, rotting man. He speaks into the opening of the tomb, into the mouth of the grave, into the place of death: “Lazarus, come out!” And it happens. Now, in the dead place, life springs up. Now, in the rotting place, healing happens. Now, in the grieving place, joy is kindled. Now, into the sorrow and struggle, comes the one who is the resurrection and the life.

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life.

Brothers and sisters, there are many dead places in our world, in our nation, in our state, and in our own lives. For some of us even this place is a dead place. This is the place where the memory rests of those who have died. We recall Wendy – could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind have kept her from death? What about Sherry and David and Francis? What about those others who have died and we have buried, the saints whose memory we feel when we enter this place? And that is not all that we mourn in memory. We remember Atonement-that-was. We remember the Oktoberfest, we remember the 20-person choir, we remember the 100-child Sunday School. We remember pastors who baptized, confirmed, and/or married us. We remember old hymnals, old prayers, old hymns, old decorations, old friends who have moved on. Nostalgia, and grief, and the passage of time, can hit us with something like a smell when we enter this place full of memory and loss and death. 125 years this community has lived and died around a cross, around a table, around a font, around a Word. 125 years this community has been living and dying, changing and mourning. 125 years we have been a community not only of laughing and songs but of silence and weeping. Sometimes, even the congregation, even the Church, is a dead place.

But it is to the dead places that God comes to bring life.

“Can these bones live?” That is God’s question to Ezekiel. Can this dead place live? Can the memories held here bring hope and healing out of grief and loss? Can the community that is dead live again? Can the faith that was defeated rise from the grave? Can the voices of a tiny population carry the tune of Jesus Christ? Can the little, broken community calling itself Atonement really live the faith of Jesus in Asbury Park? Ezekiel’s answer must be ours: “Lord, you know.” God knows! God knows what we have not guessed, God is the one who must answer these questions, God is the one who must call into the dead places, God is the one who must send a Word to be spoken into the valley of the shadow of death, into the opening of the tomb, into the mouth of the grave. God is the one who must say “Prophesy to the bones, prophesy to the breath; I will put skin and muscle on you, I will put breath in you, and you shall live!” God is the one who must call, “Lazarus, come out!” God is the one who must send the Holy Spirit to call, gather, enlighten, empower, and yes even raise up the Church! So the question is not one we put to ourselves, brothers and sisters, but to God. We are not worried about the resurrection on the last day; we are worried about whether these bones can live. We are mourning and grieving in the dead places of our lives. We are saying that we need life now, we need hope now, we need the Spirit of Jesus Christ to come among us now, we need a Word from God now. And Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life.

Here, then, is our question: what separates us from God’s life-giving Word, Jesus Christ? Will attendance, or money, or property, or gossip, or hurt feelings, or disagreements, or confusion, or grief, or fear, or frustration, or bad singing, or bad sermons, or bad people, or fires or floods, or bills or regulations, or governments or wars, or drugs or addictions, or cancer or AIDS, or sexuality or gender, or race or class, or political party or religious denomination, or sin, death, and the devil? No, because our God comes into the dead places to bring life! Our God promises life to dead nations, dead peoples, dead faiths. Our God comes across the border into hostile territory and lays down the life of Jesus Christ so that at the tomb of the one he loves Christ weeps and speaks life into the tomb. Our God will die rather than abandon us in our place of grief, our place of fear, our place of death.

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life!

Jesus knows this family, the family he loves, and comes to us to speak life into our dead places. That is what Baptism is, that is what the Lord’s Supper is, that is what the Word proclaimed in this place is! This is Christ come into our tombs, our graves, our decay, our rottenness, our deaths, to speak life into us and breathe the Spirit of the Living God into us! This is what God always does: God comes to those who cry out of the depths, to those broken and captive and afraid, to liberate us and raise us and give us hope and faith and life! Jesus knows us, knows this family, and knows our dead places and shares our grief! Jesus, the resurrection and the life, comes among us today to speak life into our tombs, our graves, our dead places, that we may rise so that we and all those who hear of it may believe.

It is to the dead places that God comes to bring life!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Lent 4A 2017: Making Mud

This sermon was preached on March 26, 2017, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The readings were: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

When human systems fail, God saves us with a holy mess.

The Hebrew people had demanded a king. The judges hadn’t worked out very well, the life of the people had deteriorated, and Saul had been anointed king by his friend Samuel the prophet. But as time went on, things hadn’t worked out; Saul wasn’t hearing what his job was, because he was too busy trying to make the people he served happy. He was getting into the habit of taking the path of least resistance, of thinking that he really understood what he was doing, of believing that he had it all figured out. So God rejects Saul, because God rejects the human systems that think they are God themselves, and God rejects human beings who think to decide for themselves what God really thinks or God really wants. Samuel, moping because he knows the current king has failed and his friend will not be having a good time as king, is understandably sad, but God is about to make an even greater mess.

“I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite,” God says, and Samuel goes out to Bethlehem under the pretext of making sacrifice. The sons of Jesse pass before him, and Samuel keeps thinking “Surely this one” but no, the line ends and none of them are right. Who could it be that God will anoint as king, the one who will take leadership of the people from Saul? Who is the mighty warrior, the wise counselor, the unifier who will see what Saul cannot and do what Saul will not? “Are all your sons here?”, Samuel asks. “There remains yet the youngest,” Jesse says as an afterthought, “but he is keeping the sheep.” The shepherd, the young boy – probably in his early teens, if that – who is last and least, with no skills, no competence, no qualifications. That’s the new king, King David, who is anointed with the Holy Spirit and kicks off a royal mess, a holy mess of epic proportions. David, too, is a problematic figure; David has his blindness, as does Saul, as does Samuel, but God takes the mess of their lives and the muddiness of their filth and fears and grows a family line that witnesses to God’s living grace in the world and sets the stage for the savior of the world, the Son of David, Jesus Christ.

When human systems fail, God saves us with a holy mess.

The man is blind from birth, which means he is ritually unclean. He cannot work with or live in the house with an observant Jew, he cannot attend worship, he cannot be washed clean. He must beg for his living, barely surviving on the fringes of the community, because he can never be a part of that system. So along comes God in Jesus, and the disciples ask whose fault it is that this horrible fate has befallen him. Is he paying for something he did wrong, or for something his parents did wrong? Their human system is to assign guilt and blame for tragedy – surely someone did something wrong! But Jesus reveals that this man is where he is because of the failure of a human system – “Neither this man or his parents sinned; so that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And so Jesus spits in the dirt, smears the mud across this man’s face, and tells him to wash the mess off in the pool. This man does it, and he can see. He sees, because human systems fail. Human biology fails. Human thoughts fail. Humans fail, and when they do, along comes Jesus to make a mess all over our assumptions. Because of a muddy mess smeared across his face, and a face-wash in a pool, this one on the outside is brought inside, this excommunicated one becomes acceptable, this dead one lives again, this lost one is found, this blind one sees.

When human systems fail, God saves us with a holy mess.

Now this man, finally able to come into the synagogue, to worship, to live with his people, has a new problem. He is now on trial in the place of Jesus, because his salvation does not fit the standards of the religious leaders. He can see, fine, but how do we know he couldn’t before? Even if this is the same one, how did he receive his sight? Mud? Water? Spit? God doesn’t work like that, and certainly not on the Sabbath! Moses said so, that we cannot do work on the Sabbath, so this Jesus has broken the Law, the system, and breaking the system means his is a sinner! And across this messy interrogation, the man who sees does not argue with the system. He does no theology or Biblical citation. He says it very simply: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” But that’s not good enough, the system cannot accept it, the man is called upon to admit that his healing was not a work of God before the community, and when he recites a basic understanding that “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing”, they excommunicate him again. They throw him back out to the fringes, unable to live with or work with them, back onto the streets to be a beggar who can now see. They rejected his blindness, and now they reject his sight.

When human systems fail, God saves us with a holy mess.

Now, when he is back on the outside, on the fringes, rejected and homeless, Jesus returns to the man who can see. Jesus asks for faith, and then gives it: “You have seen him”, something that only just happened for this man who could not see when Jesus made a mess across his face, “and the one speaking with you is he.” And the man sees, not as we see, but as God sees. Faith comes in that moment, the moment when he could see that it was not in a human system or by something humans control or predict, but by the sheer mercy of God – by grace – that he had been healed. And so his second blindness is healed, and the messiness of God’s amazing grace is revealed, and this one who can see becomes a called disciple of Jesus, the good shepherd. This is the judgment of Jesus Christ, this is what happens before his judgment seat, that Jesus brings sight to those who are blind and makes a mess that blinds those who can see. Those who think they have it all figured out with their human systems are blinded to the way God works in the mess and the mud of life to do what God always does: save us because of love and mercy, not because of works or effort or ritual.

When human systems fail, God saves us with a holy mess.

Church, our human systems fail. Our efforts to resolve conflict fail. Our community guidelines, spoken and unspoken, fail. Our interpretations, our bank accounts, our bodies, our jobs, our government, our world, our thoughts, our rituals, and our sight all fail. We are not okay. We cannot work it out by ourselves, we cannot heal ourselves, we cannot be what we need. We are not independent, we are not sufficient, we are blind. We do the wrong thing, and we love to hide it. We say the wrong thing, and we pretend we didn’t. We make excuses, we pile blame on others, we cut each other off from community. When we fail, God saves us with a holy mess.

God exposes the truth of our failure. We think we are so powerful, so wise, so observant, and God splashes water and oil across a baby and calls that child holy. We think we understand holiness, then God takes our neighbor – that loudmouth, that busybody, that evil, vindictive, malicious, rude, heartless person who hurts us – and splashes the same water across them. Here is the holy: the one we reject, the one we blame, the one we exclude. We think we are such excellent chefs, producing justice and righteousness, and God comes along and takes wine that’s either too strong or not strong enough, and a basic bread that’s cold or soggy or hard, and called it the cup of salvation and the bread of heaven. We think we have being Church figured out, with our money and minutes, with our emails and constitutions, with our roster and our systems of doing what’s right, and what does God do? God makes a mess of it all, sending people into it, real people, blind people, broken people. Wouldn’t the Church work better without all us broken people? But then, if we messes weren’t here to make a mess of the Church, who would it be for? Who can be made to see, if not the blind? Who can be raise, if not the dead? Who can be woken, if not the sleeper? Who can be saved, if not we who are doomed?

When human systems fail, God saves us with a holy mess.

That’s what we are, Church: a mess. A mess of sinners in need of free forgiveness. A mess of muddy people in need of washing. A mess of sick people in need of healing. A mess of outcasts in need of welcoming. A mess of people stumbling around in the dark, in need of light. A mess of dirty and smelly last-born people, neglected and ignored and devalued, in need of God’s anointing and promise and Spirit. We are a mess of sleeping people in need of waking, a mess of dead people in need of raising, a mess of blind people in need of seeing. That’s who we are, Church, the people God has enter into, not in our perfect thoughts or systems or actions but in our mess. God has spit on our dirt to make mud, God has used our ignorance to tell the truth, God has used our foolishness to shame the wise, and precisely where we are broken and rejected, precisely where we are a mess, our God has come to claim us and show us that it is in the mess and the borders, among the outcasts and fools, that God works healing not among those who are well but among those who need saving. This is the cup that runs over, the table prepared before us in the presence of our enemies, the green pastures and the still waters, the mess that blesses our lives against all sense and logic and reason and expectation. This is the rod and the staff, that God refuses to play by our rules but instead gives us the promise of an amazing grace without cost, without requirement, without limit. This is the amazing grace, Church, this is what and who we are: when human systems fail, God saves us, and makes our mess a holy mess so that the blind can now see at last.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Lent 3A 2017: Fully Known, Completely Loved

This sermon was preached on March 19, 2017, the Third Sunday in Lent. The readings were: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

She doesn’t get a name. She is known by the whispers, the accusations, by what “everybody” has been saying about her. Did you hear what happened to her first husband? Well, I heard… did you hear what she did two years ago, I heard… what was it that her last husband’s name was? On it goes, not just in a little Samaritan village two thousand years ago, but today in the church, where we are all so distracted by this woman’s marital past – about which we really know almost nothing – that we have labelled her with a name that is not a name. We call her the woman at the well, the unknown one whom we think we know. But for all our judgments and assumptions, for all the whispering and labelling, it really is quite clear that her story is our story, the story of the Church.

She doesn’t get a name, coming to the well – Jacob’s well, look it up in Genesis chapter 29 – to get water at noon, in the heat of the day. Why at noon? To escape the looks and the whispers, or because her water jar was too small to last the day, or for some other reason? We don’t know. We also don’t know anything about what has happened to her five husbands. They could all have died, they could all have divorced her, or some combination – we don’t know. We do know that there is no mention of this past as a sinful or immoral one; Jesus does not forgive her for it, she does not ask forgiveness for it. There is no reason to paint her as an adulterer or a prostitute, as we who are bound in thought and word and deed to patterns of patriarchy older than Rome continue to assume. We don’t know what happened to her husbands, or who the man she is living with is, or why she is here at noon instead of another time. What do we know?

We know that she is a Samaritan, living in the region to the north of Judea and Jerusalem, and Jesus is passing that way to Galilee which is even further north. Samaritans were a mixture of settlers who poured into the area during the Exile to Babylon and those Israelites who had remained in this area which was once the kingdom of Israel before it was destroyed at the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.E. Mingled ancient Israelite and Syrian heritage had led to a culture and religious practice which reflected the ancient feud between Israel and Judah, between Jerusalem and Bethel. Now, the Samaritans worshiped on top Mount Gerizim the God who brought Israel out of Egypt. They were despised by the Jews for ancient feuds, they were impure, unorthodox, heretical, unclean. Imagine for a moment to faiths with related roots feuding, seemingly endlessly, in the Middle East. Come to think of it, perhaps we don’t need to imagine.

We know this woman is a Samaritan. We also know that she is alone, abandoned, vulnerable, because she does not have a husband. Women could not get a divorce, they could only be divorced. Whatever she has done or not done, she has been abandoned by the men in her life, a succession of them, and this one she has now is not willing to be responsible for her and marry her to give her some protection. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that she is in a manipulative, if not outright abusive, relationship with the one man we know she has in her life; another scenario we unfortunately don’t need to struggle to imagine.

We know that she is thirsty. After all, whatever the reason for coming to the well at noon, she is there for water. She needs water to live; she thirsts, and that is one need she can actually do something about. So she takes her water-jug and marches out to the well in the heat of the day, where she finds a Jewish rabbi sitting. She ignores him, because her people don’t get along with Jews and Jews don’t get along with her people; because he’s a rabbi, and she doesn’t need any lectures today about where she’s supposed to go on Sabbath; because he’s a man, and she’s learned what to expect from men. And then he says, “Give me a drink.”

He’s thirsty. Jerusalem is about 25 miles from Sychar, and he and his followers are expecting to go further on the way back to Galilee. While they are getting food, here he is by the well, thirsty. So he asks her for a drink, and she takes the time to engage in a little conversation. Two thirsty people by the well, with nothing in common; the unknown woman who everyone claims to know, and the Jewish rabbi who’s not famous (yet), who we are always claiming to know. And here is where he surprises her, when he says he can give her living water and she asks for it: it turns out that he knows her. He knows about the men, and what they have done. And he knows about the feud that has separated him from her, and more, he knows that feud will end and all who believe will be one. He knows that she knows this is the great hope, the hope of the Messiah, the one she is waiting for – “I know that Messiah is coming; when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And this Jewish rabbi, this unknown man who somehow knows this unknown and unnamed woman, tells her who he is: “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.” “I AM”, the name God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. “I AM”, the name that only the High Priest could say on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies. “I AM”, the one who sees in secret, the one who gives water in the desert to the wandering people, the one who led by pillars of cloud and fire, the one who gave the Law to Moses, the one who stood with Jacob on the shore and watched the dawn rise on a new day. “I AM”, he says, “the one who is speaking to you.”

The disciples break in on this intimate moment, and she leaves her water – she’s not thirsty anymore – and goes into the town and speaks to those who would claim to know her. “Come and see” she says. Come and see the one who knows me as you do not. Come and see the Jew who will drink with me, come and see the man who will speak with me as the human being that God made me to be, come and see the rabbi who sees the day coming when all who believe will worship as one! Come and see the one who knows me completely – he can’t be the Messiah, can he?

This is the food that has nourished Jesus – who is not hungry or thirsty anymore – that makes his disciples wonder. As they try to figure out who snuck him a snack, the unknown woman who Jesus knows returns with a crowd following her. A crowd of Samaritans, coming to see this one who knows the woman at the well, and they beg him – a man, a Jew, a rabbi – to abide with them. And this one who knows this woman knows them as well, and talks with them as well, and eats with them, and prays with them, and lives with them. And these who believed because of the witness woman – that is who she is now, the one who came and told us about the One who had found her and invited us to find him with her – this witness woman is now in a community of witnesses who believe because of what they themselves have heard and seen, who believe because this One knows them fully and loves them completely. And the witness community of rejects and outcasts and haters who reject and hate and cast out and judge is transformed into the beloved community, gathered around the witness woman, and the very edge of their community becomes the center of their lives, because they have been known and they have been saved.

Israel was known in the desert, and to show them that they were known, God gave these whiners water simply to show them that God knew and loved them. And this woman, this witness-woman, met Jesus Christ, God incarnate, whom God would have sent into the world for her alone, because God knew and loved her. And this community in Sychar, this rabble of Samaritans, is known and loved by a God who came into the world to save them by showing them that there is water in the desert, that there is one who knows them fully and loves them completely and will never abandon them. And Jesus Christ died on a cross for us, because God knows we are a crucifying people, always testing God, always asking if the Lord is among us or not, always terrified that God only pretends to know us, that God will reject who we really are, that God will discard us and abandon us as the witness-woman had been discarded and abandoned. So God died to prove that we are fully known, fully loved.

So here is the well. Here the flowing, living water. Here is bread and wine. Here is the cross. Here is the word of the man, of the Jew, of the rabbi, who knows you fully and loves you completely. He will tell you everything you have ever done. And when you hear it, you will run back to those haters and gossips and you will think nothing of saying “Come and see!” And when they run back with you, they too will be fully known and completely loved just as you are. And the fringes of your community will become the center, and the hidden hurts of your heart will be healed with the relationships formed in unconditional love between those who have unconditionally been loved, and you will be the beloved community of the Church for you will know each other at last and know this Jewish rabbi even as you have been fully known. You will never be thirsty again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Lent 2A 2017: Reborn Wanderers

This sermon was preached on February 12, 2017, for the Second Sunday in Lent. The readings were: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

It's a strange scene, in the dead of night, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born again, born from above. In the Greek the gospel is written in, born again and born from above are the same word, an entangled meaning, so John is engaging in wordplay by having Nicodemus misunderstand. Jesus isn't saying that we need a literal rebirth from another womb; he is saying that we must be born of water and Spirit. We are not yet complete beings; we require a birth beyond the biological, a birth God provides in our baptism into Jesus Christ. And when you're born, you are helpless, and only have the promise of the one who loves you and gave birth to you. To be born is to be born without any right, or claim, or power; to be born is to trust and hope in the one who gives us birth. What I'm saying is that to be born of water and Spirit, to enter into the promise of God in Jesus Christ, is to leave behind all that we currently think we are, to become strangers in a strange land. Those who are born again are immigrants on planet Earth.

Abraham, Paul writes in Romans, was born of the Spirit in just this way. He believed the one who gave him birth, the God who had chosen this 75-year-old and his barren wife to be the people through whom God would bless all the families of the world, the families that had been born after the Flood, the families separated into different nations and languages after the disaster of the Tower of Babel. Human beings had kept trying to make themselves great, immortal, wise, independent, secure, and worthy. From the garden of Eden where Adam and Eve rebelled against God, to the field where Cain murdered his brother Abel, to the global reign of evil that prompted the Flood, to the towering building which the people intended would make them like God (sound familiar?), human beings have been trying to be enough for ourselves since the beginning of our rebellion.

Abram, whom God later renames Abraham, is chosen by God and given a promise: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing." God will take this aged, childless couple, and give them a rebirth so that they become names by which we still bless, people whose memory we still keep and whose heritage we still honor. God will do all of this, God will bring them to birth, which means they must become immigrants.

Abram and Sarai must leave the city in which they have lived. They must leave the people they know, the language they know, the families they know, the home in which they live. They will never see their parents again, they will take with them only what they can carry for the journey, and they will not be safe. They will fight battles, meet strange peoples, serve foreign rulers. Abram and Sarai will lose their dignity, lose their safety, lose their family, lose their names. They will be born again, because they trust the Lord and the promise they have from the loving parent who gave them and us birth. That is what it is to have faith. They believe that where they are is not where God has promised they will be, that who they are is not who God has promised they will be, and the first step to getting somewhere is to leave wherever it is that you already are. The first step on their faith journey is to be reborn wanderers, to become immigrants.

It takes faith to be an immigrant. For those like me who haven't done it, imagine it - crossing a border into a land where you do not speak the language, where you have no family, no home, no job, no safety. It takes faith to live as a stranger in a strange land, and that's what immigrants do. It's a story as old as people, and the God who called Abraham to leave his family and nation and name behind is a God of immigrants named Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and Joshua. And the story of the immigrant is one we find inside and outside these doors, in this city, in this state, today. Let me tell you about one such person who had the faith to be an immigrant.

Catalino Gurrero is 59 years old now. He entered the United States in 1991, fleeing gang violence and extortion in his homeland for the promise of better life - the classic American dream. He has lived, worked, paid taxes, and raised a family here for 25 years. He has tried to apply for a work visa, and he misfiled the paperwork, resulting in a deportation order made under the Obama administration. This order has been consistently deferred for some years, because Catalino had a stroke a few years ago, and has type-2 diabetes, so his health is a concern beyond the fact that deporting him would remove him not only from the support of his family and friends but would leave him in a place where he has no resources at all.

He walks slowly and speaks softly, mostly relying on his daughter or granddaughters to translate or speak for him. He cried when he came out of the federal building in Newark on Friday morning, with a 60-day extension before his deportation, because he had applied for a one-year stay of deportation so that he could file correctly for appropriate legal status. He told me to tell you about him. He told me to tell you that every day, immigrants like him walk into that building and then are taken to a van, from a van to a detention center in Newark or Elizabeth. There they wait in a disease-infested common living area for weeks or months before the government is ready to deport them, taking them to a place many of them have never been, and leaving them there with no help and no support. And despite this, these immigrants have faith. They pray, and they hope that with God's help they will survive. They do their best to make their way in a strange land, just as Abram did.

Brothers and sisters, our faith is an immigrant faith. To have faith in the God who brought Israel up out of Egypt to become an immigrant nation, to have faith in the God who walked with Abram until he was Father Abraham, to have faith in the God who has decided to be our security, our family, our unity, our life, is to be a reborn wanderer. To have faith is to be reborn without our comforts, without our prejudices, without our powers. To have this faith is to recognize our powerlessness as immigrants on this planet. To have this faith is to be wholly dependent on the God who came to be merciful to the poor, to forgive the guilty, and to give life to the dead. To have this faith is to confess that the God of immigrants became an immigrant and refugee with us on this planet, became vulnerable, and was executed by the occupation government which conquered and exploited God's people. To have this faith is to believe that God is the God who gives freely to those with nothing.

The God of Abram freely gives a name, a family, a promise. The God who immigrated to our planet to be born as a human being named Jesus freely gives all things which we need: air, water, sun, land, food, shelter, community. God gave Jesus to the world, this world in which we are immigrants, so that everyone who believes the promises of the God of immigrants might have a savior in Jesus and a family and homeland in the Body of Christ, the Church.

This is how the immigrant God blesses the world, by immigrating with Abram and helping him in his rebirth as a stranger in a strange land. This is how the immigrant God blesses the world, by immigrating to it in Jesus, a man who wandered without a home or a bed, a non-citizen undocumented laborer who left what little he had in Nazareth to walk the road to the cross. This is how the immigrant God blesses the world, by giving us an immigrant faith to see that where we are is not where God calls us to be, and that we must leave. This is how the immigrant God blesses the world, by giving us an immigrant faith to see that who we are is not who God calls us to be, and that we must be reborn as wanderers. This is what God came to do, to call us out of our homelands, our families, our property, our safety, our security, because we have no hope in this world to compare with the hope offered to us in the cross of Jesus Christ, who came not to judge this world, but to save it.

The faith which God gives is an immigrant faith, a wandering faith, a vulnerable faith, a rebirthing faith. Faith in Jesus changes everything, revealing that another world is possible and so we cannot passively accept this one. Faith in Jesus is to believe in the promise that Jesus came to save us. He died for you and for me and for Abraham and for Catalino and for millions yet unborn. Jesus died to take the final journey into death with us, so that we might be immigrants travelling through this world of woe and death into God’s kingdom of joy and life everlasting. And so this famous passage from John, chapter 3 verse 16, is not a verse to be lifted up against the world. It is not used to judge people of other traditions, or to prove something about Jesus to the hard of heart, or to oppose something in others. This verse, and the one after it, are written that we may hear and have an immigrant faith, a faith that moves us to leave from where we are and who we are on the way of the cross. This promise, this assurance, is written that we – we – might rely on God as immigrants, wholly vulnerable, wholly dependent, wholly free. This is what Jesus came to give us, this promise. This is why God called the citizen Abram to become the immigrant Abraham. This is why Paul writes that God has chosen to save us through faith, so that it is clear that all salvation is a gift freely given by a loving God. This is the promise which creates and sustains our immigrant faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Lent 1 A 2017: This is the War
This sermon was preached on March 5, 2017, the First Sunday in Lent. The readings were: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

This is the War. The real War, the only War. This is the complete package, all in all, the whole thing in a nutshell. From the first thing to the last thing, from rebellion to redemption, everything is contained into today’s readings if you have ears to hear. This is the story of the War, the only War, over who gets to rule the world, over who is the ruler of our lives and our future. This is the story of how we rebelled against God, and how God has saved us, and how God has the final victory.

Begin at the beginning, the famous tree, the fruit (doesn’t say it’s an apple, says it’s a fruit), the couple, the snake (doesn’t say it’s the devil, says it’s a snake). Does it surprise you that it begins with the very first Bible study? God creates, God commands, God sustains. There, in the garden which they tend, the man and the woman have a conversation (by the way, the man is there the whole time). They discuss God’s word: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” So the snake starts with a false interpretation, that they aren’t allowed to eat from any tree in the garden. The woman responds that they certainly can eat from the trees, except for the tree in the middle of the garden, nor can they touch it, or they will die.

So, why this argument? We know this is a couple that walks with God through the garden in the cool of the evening, so why are they having this discussion? More, why is it that the woman feels compelled to respond to the snake’s question? We have a term for this in family systems and psychosocial theory; it is called triangulation. The snake traps the woman in a conversation about a third person, in this case about God. “Don’t ask me what God said, go ask God!” How differently the story would have played out if either the woman or the man, who is damningly silent through this entire exchange, had simply been willing to claim ignorance or bring God into the conversation! What motive is there for engaging this question hissed from a forked tongue?

The answer comes in the reaction to the snake’s assertions, of course. “You will not die,” the snake promises, and that’s a whole sermon on its own. You won’t die! God is lying! God is trying to frighten you! Why? “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Oho! God is the one who is afraid! God wants to limit them, to keep them in check, to keep resources and powers out of their grasp, or so the snake implies. And the woman looks at the tree (apparently the man is too busy trying to follow the conversation, or perhaps he is just too uninteresting to mention as an agent in this story, because he seems to simply stick around and not do much), and she sees that the fruit looks good to eat, in fact it looks really good, and had the added benefit of making one wise, so she eats it and gives some to the man, and he eats, too.

Let’s pause here. When God first commanded the Adam (not Adam the man, but the Adam as it was before there was male and female), the whole of humankind received the command not to eat of this fruit. The man has been present, for it says “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate”. Never mind that husband is an absurd translation of the word “man” here, focus on the fact that he was there, he ate, and he did it with full knowledge that he was ignoring God’s instruction. So for those of you who have heard the absurd position that women are somehow weak because of this story, I ask why is the man the passive agent while the woman does all the thinking? For those of you who heard this story used to paint women as deceptive, I ask where you think the deception might be, since the man has been present for this whole exchange? And for those of you who have heard that it is the fault of the woman that the man ate of the fruit, let’s be clear: it is obvious from this text that the man makes a choice with full knowledge, and that is nothing but more of the blame-shifting which the man actually does as soon as God finds out about this little experiment in rebellion.

So they eat, and their eyes are opened, just as the snake promised. And what do they see? They see and know that they are naked! That dream where you’re naked in front of the classroom, or in front of the board, or in front of the family at Thanksgiving, that nightmare happens to them in a flash, and they had never even known that fear! Perhaps they shake or try to hide, perhaps they wish they could forget, but what is seen cannot be un-seen and what is known cannot become un-known, so they take the pathetic and futile measure of making loincloths from fig leaves. You can probably imagine how well that works out for them, both as clothing and in terms of hiding their nakedness.

But what is the point to the story? Are we supposed to be ashamed of what we look like when we are naked? Are we supposed to live in fear of God, or fear of knowledge, or fear of making decisions? Is the point that we should not fear to admit that we don’t know something, or perhaps that we should admit that maybe wanting to judge everything around us isn’t the best instinct we have? Is the story a portrayal of the origin of patriarchy, nested in a rebellion against community, in a differentiation between genders, in a series of power-plays that outline the core values of the patriarchy: control of information, manipulation of relationships, outright lies, and triangulation? No, ultimately even that misses the point – rebellion. The man and the woman – that is, human beings – rebelled against God.

This isn’t a story about having done something wrong, this is a story about having entered a war for control, and picking a side. We took the side where we make our own choices, interpret what God says however we want to, where we make our own clothes and form our own relationships and have control over our own lives. This is the story of how the War began, and it is not a history but a description of current events: we have rejected God because we want to be gods. We want to be self-sufficient, independent, and in control. We have rejected bondage to God as servants, and chosen to become slaves to ourselves and our appetites. We have traded one bondage for another, trading life for death and vulnerable community for the war on vulnerability itself. That is who we are. That is the story of us, and of our War on God.

But what is God’s story? If this is the story of our War with God, what is God’s narrative, what is God’s strategy? The answer in full needs more than even all the books of the Bible contain, but in Matthew we receive a glimpse. This story is also not about what you have been told; it is not about temptation, it is not about Jesus being sinless, it is not about the behaviors of Jesus that we are supposed to imitate. It is a place where the War comes to climax, where God takes on human flesh and speaks to the Adversary. Here is where the War is fought, in another Bible Study between Jesus and the devil. The War is not about gaining power, but about the use of power. The War is not about control, but about who can be trusted. The War is not about moral decisions, but about who determines what is moral and valuable. The War is between Christ and Satan, dueling Bibles in the wilderness. Satan proposes that using divine power to turn stone to bread is the cure for hunger; Jesus points out that hunger is more complex than a supply of bread. Satan proposes that Jesus jump from the temple to prove God faithful; Jesus responds that trusting someone removes the need to test them. Satan proposes that Jesus honor him, and so gain the whole world; Jesus points out that only God is to be worshipped and served.

Only God is to be worshipped and served. Jesus could rule the world by sacrificing that principle. Think of the good he could do as King of the World! Think of the laws he could write, think of the education he could make available, think of the hordes of suffering people he could cure! And yet, all of this would serve to treat the symptom and not the disease, treat the wounds without ending the War, and the War is what Christ has come to fight, the War between war and peace, between sin and sacred, between God and the devil with the whole world in the bargain. And, in God's beautiful sense of irony, of poetry, of tragic comedy, this great War is won not on a battlefield or in a duel of Bible verses but on a tree.

And so, forty days we wander into the heart of this ancient War, the rebellion against God and life, into the central mystery of our faith and the origin of everything we know and everything we are. We journey to a meal that is not forbidden but commanded - "Take and eat, this is my body given for you... this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all..." We journey to another garden, where human failure - "The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak" - meets at last human faithfulness - "Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done". We journey up a mountain where Jesus becomes ruler of the world not by worshipping the devil but by praying "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And there it is, the tree kept from humanity since that first garden, planted in the depths of our War, in the darkest territory of the human heart, in the stronghold of Satan. There on the hill the cross of Jesus becomes the tree of life, for on it hangs the bread of life, the cup of salvation, the water of forgiveness and renewal. By this tree, God undoes the rebellion begun by means of a tree. By this man, God undoes the rebellion begun by humanity. By this death, God undoes death. By this free gift of the fruit of the tree, God takes away our ability to steal from God again, for all things belonging to God are freely given in Jesus Christ.

So this is the mystery toward which we travel in this forty days. We return to the truth of our ancient and doomed rebellion, which God has overcome not by slaughter or punishment but through generosity and love and forgiveness. We return to the truth that the War is not between nations, between peoples, between religions, but between ourselves and God. We return to the fact that God has already won this war, has already raised Christ from the tomb, and that this living one who lives and reigns over the creation made through him is also one of Adam's descendants. This fruit from the tree of life is always available to us, for the tree on which he is found is not guarded by a flaming sword but is hidden in the plain view of all. Here, among the poor and weak and despised and sinning. Here, in the very place where God should be absent. Here, in a little congregation of Lutherans - of all people - in Asbury Park. Here, among the forked tongues, among men who are silent when they should speak and among women who rely perhaps too much on their selves rather than their loving community, and where we walk together for forty days to realize that our fig-leaf loincloths do little to change the nightmare of our nakedness. This is where the fruit of the tree of life, the fruit of faith for the resurrection of the dead, the healing of the nations, and the ending of the great War in our own lives is found.

So for forty days, we are called to hear the story of God's great victory over us and our rebellion. For forty days, we recall that the story we find ourselves in is not our story of rebellion and death and sin but God's story of God's infinite love and free gift of the fruit of life, a story in which we have found ourselves not as gods and not as devils but as the people gathered together just as God first gathered the dust of the earth to form humanity in the very beginning. In this story, we find that we are dust, but that in our dust God has chosen to breathe hope and healing and the Spirit which brings us here to this tree of life, the cross of Jesus. That is our hope, our joy, our salvation, our story, not because of who we are but whose we are, not because of what we have done but because of what God has done for us. This is the story in which we find ourselves, where we are not the main characters but the main receivers, the captives in bondage waiting for liberation, the prisoners awaiting execution, the princes and princesses held because of our fault, our own fault, our own most grievous fault, within the dungeons of sin, death and the devil. That is who we are in this story, God's story, of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, who died and rose that you might be freed from the War and your own rebellion in order to live at last. That is the season of Lent, and the life of the Church, and the mystery of the faith: come to the tree of the cross, find the fruit that gives life, and taste and see that the Lord is good.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Ash Wednesday 2017: Springtime of the Soul

This sermon was preached on March 1, 2017, Ash Wednesday. The readings were: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Here, on March 1, at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement, we have received a message from God. This message did not come by email, or text, or an Instagram photo. It comes in the dark of a late winter, with spring knocking at the door. It comes in a book, in a song, in a prayer, in a bowl of ashes, in the sound of sheer silence. It comes to answer a question we have long asked, a question we have long pondered: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look how we practice righteousness: we pay our taxes, obey the laws, respect our marriage, pay what we owe, support our troops, go to church, keep our noses in our own business, and look how we work! We work hours of overtime, we transform our whole lives into a great busy-ness, we build monuments to our own overcommitted, overinvolved, overstimulated, overwrought society where there are no limits to our efforts and accomplishments. Why does God not see us? And the message we receive now says, “I do see you.”

God does see us. God sees our quarrels and our bragging, our complaints and our abuses. God sees how we hide behind the idols of building, family, nation, loyalty, piety, congregation, money, sex, identity, and on. God sees us, claiming to live free in a land of mass incarceration. God sees us, claiming to be humble in a society that worships lies and braggadocio. God sees us, eating our fill while the poor go hungry; sleeping warm while the homeless shiver; clothing ourselves in clothing increasingly bought at massive markups and produced for negligible costs in sweatshops where the poor toil, all while the poor struggle to cloth themselves. God sees us pointing the finger, speaking ill about our brother, our sister, our neighbor, the visitor, the stranger, the enemy. God sees us, acting as if these things were not so. God sees us acting as if we were deserving, as if we have some right to grace, as if we have earned some credit with God, as if we really are good people. And God’s response is to make ashes of us.

Ashes come from ancient Jewish tradition, symbolizing God’s judgment and condemnation of our sin. Ashes represent our frailty, our total dependence upon God. Ashes are our humiliation, for we have been seen and called out on our lies to God, to each other, and to ourselves. Ashes are a sign of repentance, of recognizing our mortality, recalling the words said at burial, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. These ashes are sent to remind us that those words will be said over us.

These ashes also speak of a possible cleansing and renewal. What we have done, who we have been, are unacceptable to God. But ashes were, and in some places still are, used to clean the skin and the clothes in place of soap. These ashes speak to the possibility that we might still be washed and made clean, a possibility that brings to mind the waters of baptism, for water both chokes and renews, both drowns the living and makes life possible. The ashes, too, speak of death and life, for where the ashes are present the old has been burned away and the new may find a place to grow.

In farming communities, especially in the ancient world, the time of late winter and early spring was when the fields of the previous year would burn. The useless, dead, and dry shells of what was would be burned away so that new crops could be planted in the ashes, and life could spring up from the ruins of death. This is the hope that we can hold in these ashes, amid condemnation, amid our unacceptability. We are not okay. We are unacceptable. We are going to die, and we deserve it and worse. But there is hope that God can change us, burning across our lives to reduce these sins and lies and addictions we are so proud of to ash, and plant something in the smoking fields of our hearts. That is certainly what God wants to do; burn us to the ground so that we can again be fertile soil for God’s Word, so that our dustbowl souls can be transformed into watered gardens of God’s abundant life.

It won’t be easy. Our selves must be turned to ash, so that what had been ours can be given away. Our barren, ashen fields must be surveyed and the soil turned over, and new and strange things planted there – daily prayer, accountability for our actions to each other, self-reflection, regular and dedicated worship, study of Scripture, service to our neighbors. Our fields must be cleared of the weeds that sap the energy and resources away. We will lose much of what we find pleasure and security in, and we will lose much of what we think of as ourselves.

We will learn to eat to feed others, so that we may enter a springtime of the body. We will learn to give to receive, so that we may enter a springtime of the community. We will learn to pray to love others and ourselves, so that we may enter a springtime of the soul. We will learn to give up our gods, our priorities, our values, to learn anew at the feet of the living God that who we were is not who we now are, and who we are is not who we shall be.

We will be burned down and regrown. We will be taken as ashes into springtime, which carries no guarantee but does carry the promise of new life. We will be taken as the unacceptable ones into the growing season that is acceptable.

This is the blessed time, now, when our clothes are revealed as moth-eaten, when our precious metals and tools and machines have rusted through. Now our treasures are revealed as worthless, now we see as God sees that our hearts have not been in the right place, but with our treasures in ourselves and our possessions. This is the time of salvation, this is the invitation to new life, this is the grace and favor of God which God has sent in answer to your evil, your sin, your death. If you truly want a message from God, this is it. So here, in these ashes, we beg you to be reconciled to God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.