Remember What the Creator Can Do
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota February 21, 2016
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Luke 13:31-3
It can be hard to do Lent on command, especially if you’re in a good place in your life, already feeling the stirring of spring and new life and thinking about lighter clothes and plans for your garden. It’s almost counter-intuitive that Lent means “spring.” As the days get longer and the light brighter, being asked to contemplate the great mysteries of suffering and death can seem out of sync with the season.
I wrote those words on Tuesday of last week. Later that same day I took a spill on the ice (which I survived), had my ten-year-old faithful Mac computer pronounced dead, and had my wallet stolen after it slid out of my purse in the parking lot at D’Amico’s which prompted me to make frantic calls to the credit card company on my cell phone at the Ordway waiting for the not-very-good show to start! Very Lenten!
I want to talk about two seemingly contradictory statements in today’s lessons, one addressed to Jesus and one to Abram (later known as Abraham). In the tension between these two statements, I think we find the essence of Lent and of spring.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees (cast as the good guys for once) warn Jesus to leave town because Herod is going to kill him. In fact, Herod worried that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead and the Baptist had caused Herod no end of problems, so the Pharisees voiced a credible threat. Herod’s threat doesn’t seem to shake Jesus who says, whatever, I’ve got work to do.
Threats of various kinds are rampant in our own culture. We are inundated by trauma, not only living through the difficult events of our own lives, but in hearing each hour about profound suffering in all parts of the world. And after awhile, we start waiting for it: news of the next school shooting, the next earthquake, the next act of terror.
And so the tendency can be to do something that will guarantee our safety: build a wall and keep people out; arm ourselves and protect our families and our property; don’t trust anyone who is in any way different.
Fear and heightened anxiety are part of Lent along with themes of wilderness and sin, all of it kicked off by ashes placed on our forehead, marking our mortality. Lent invites us to go to these scary places with Jesus but sometimes these places come to us on their own.
We may think of the wilderness or the desert as beautiful and this can be true but as one person says that it’s not really wilderness unless there’s something there that can eat you.
Sometimes we go to the desert; sometimes the desert comes to us.
We go to the desert when we get serious about our health and decide to devote time to going to the gym, walking around the lake, joining Weight Watchers. The wilderness comes to us when we are rushed to the emergency room with symptoms of a heart attack or a routine medical test changes our lives.
We go to the desert when we take the risk to speak honestly to our partner about problems in the relationship; the desert comes to us when a partner announces without warning that they’re leaving.
We go to the desert when we look honestly at our finances for retirement. The desert comes to us when we lose our job unexpectedly or the market tanks, taking a good share of our savings with it.
The desert of Lent also comes to us when we second-guess our life choices, debate with ourselves what we should have done and didn’t, and compare our lives to those around us, almost always coming up short in some sense. Maybe some of you feel as I do when I conclude that at this point in my life, I should have more to show for it, for all the work, the pain, the spent energy. Maybe we should have done more, learned more, risked more, made better decisions about jobs and relationships. When I go there, I can descend into a spiral of self-doubt that is unhelpful at best and despairing at worst.
One of our greatest theologians, Henri Nouwen, calls this “the ultimate temptation.” He says, “The greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self rejection because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved.” As the most anxious person on the planet, I find that giving anxiety free reign by focusing on my worries and insecurities can feel almost sinful because in doing so I am turning down cold whatever gifts offered me in the present moment. I lose trust in God and in myself and the desert beckons.
Our readings today take us from the desert wilderness of the heart all the way up, to the heavens and the stars. So now we move to a different aspect of Lent.
In our reading today from Genesis, God tells Abram to go outside and look at stars, counting them to determine how many his descendants will be.
If we follow God’s instruction to Abram to “look at the stars,” what does that mean to us today? What promise does God offer us?
Part of it is the gift of wonder.
The ecologist Paul Hawken notes that “Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.”
In her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor says that when worries and to-do lists keep her awake at night, there is one cure: “If I go outside, the night sky will heal me – not by reassuring me that I will be just fine, but by reminding me of my place in the universe… near the end of the long, long line of stargazers who stood here before me.”
Long before the days of the Wise Men who followed the star to Bethlehem, people have used to the stars to guide them. But at least two things have changed: one is that light pollution from our cities is so extensive that Taylor says we are “hampered by brilliance,” noting that “The Milky Way about which Ovid wrote more than two thousand years ago is now invisible to two -thirds of those living in the United States.”
A second thing that has changed is our reference points. We are less concerned with the journey overall, than accessing specific, immediate information. Sailors used to be trained in celestial navigation, that is how to steer a ship using the stars. Today that is considered unnecessary because we have GPS – as long as it works and the signal doesn’t fail. It’s the same thing if you have a digital clock you don’t watch the hands of a clock rhythmically moving around the dial; you get the time at a specific moment. We are looking down more, at smaller and smaller references points, and up less, at the big picture and our sense of wonder and even of God, can be compromised.
But Physics, of all things has rocked the world in the past week with its discovery of gravitational waves, and the fact that we can now “listen to the universe.” Even sound waves occurring some 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes collided and the universe we know came into being. Today in 2016 we are hearing new information about the creation of the world. What gifts science can bring us!
In a way it’s all about dust. We are all made of stardust, a poetic and scientifically-accurate statement. All of the elements in our bodies originated in the stars! God create the heavens first, and when the stars exploded and burned up, that dust fell to earth, and God created all earthly life including human beings out of the dust of the ground, that originated far away. We come from the heavens. How appropriate that a Star announced the birth of Jesus….
In a way when God told Abraham what his descendants were represented by the stars in the sky, Abraham’s ancestors were represented there as well.
At the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, ashes were placed on our foreheads with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Those ashes are usually made by burning what is left of the palms from Palm Sunday. They also represent the dust of the stars from which we are made. A reminder of our mortality yes, but also, a reminder of our interconnectedness with all of creation, out to the stars. From the wilderness deep in our hearts that can be consumed with fear and anxiety to the outermost reach of the heavens —-this is the scope of the Creator. This is the canvas of God.
Let me close with a meditation on dust, dirt and Lent by the poet Jan Richardson:
“All those days you felt like dust,
like dirt, as if all you had to do
was turn your face toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners’
or swept away by the smallest breath
Did you not know what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
We freely say
We are scorched
This is the hour
We are marked
By what has made us
Through the burning
This is the moment
We ask for the blessing
That lives within the
The ancient ashes
That makes its home inside the soil of
This sacred earth
So let us be marked
Not for sorrow
And let us be marked
Not for shame.
Let us be marked
Not for false humility or for thinking
we are less than we are
But for claiming
What God can do
Within the dust,
Within the dirt,
Within the stuff
Of which the world is made
And the stars that blaze in our bones
And the galaxies that spiral
Inside the smudge
We are on the journey now to Calvary and then to Easter when new fire will be lit and new life born again out of the ashes ,and transformed by the Creator in a process that is ongoing and eternal, even after the death that leaves our physical bodies in ashes.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
But remember “what the Holy One can do with dust.”
Gratitude to the Rev. Dr. Mariann Budde for the idea of the wilderness visiting us.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” 2014.
- Jam Richardson, poem cited on “The Painted Prayer book,” Internet blog.