The ashes of love.
Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday.
The power of the Resurrection is that love is never wasted, despite everything that comes with love, it is never wasted.
The conviction of the Cross, on the other hand, is that we waste so much of the love in our lives, and we waste so much of our lives by not choosing love.
The ashes of love.
The palms from the triumphal celebration of the arrival of Jesus, Palm Sunday, are burned and today those ashes are rubbed into our faces.
We love him then we crucify him.
It is what we do. It is how we do things. Love makes us vulnerable. Something in us strikes out at anything or anyone who is vulnerable, who disarms us.
Why do we do that?
We joke about giving up fun for Lent, and turning it into some kind of a sanctified diet plan, I do that all the time, but what Lent is really about is how we ultimately forsake and betray all that is love.
Why do we do that?
We love when it is easy.
But when love becomes something difficult, something that disarms us, that causes us to relent, to forgive, to change and to give beyond reason…ashes, ashes we all fall down.
A holy Lent.
The symbolic gestures of self denial are a good thing.
Go deeper than that. Confront the power of sin in ourselves that causes us to choose not to live in love.
That ash heap of all the ways we say no to love, Jesus rises from those ashes and turns them into the yes of Resurrection.
A season of repentance.
Of turning from and turning toward.
Of forsaking no and taking up yes.
Love disarms us and makes us vulnerable and we will be betrayed and hurt. It is how things work. Jesus shows us that there is more. Much more. A bid you a holy Lent.
I was a strange teenager.
Well, all teenagers are unique strange creatures, some more than others.
My strangeness came out in studying science and theology, not together, but I studied both separately.
Some of my science journals had strong connections to secular humanism and atheism. Some of my favorite people were indifferent or openly hostile to any expression of divinity or faith.
My Dad always thought that was funny, as I studied the Bible and theology with my atheist literature stacked up nearby.
The world is worthy of attention and care. That is what they both came down to, science and theology.
For theology, creation reveals God. And for Christians, the humanity of Jesus reveals both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity all at once.
For Science, this world and the Universe is the subject of sustained and disciplined curiosity and wonder, and I would say devotion as well.
As God says, “it is very good”.
I have never really tried to make science and faith agree. I know many spend a great deal of time and energy trying to do that or trying to make them disprove each other.
I just don’t know.
What I do know is that they share an intense attention and devotion to the world and to life.
And I share that devotion and I admire that shared vigilance and wonder at the goodness of all that is.
Sometimes they break into our lives, a transfiguring moment.
Today we finish the season after the Epiphany, that began with the Wise Men following a star and it ends with Jesus blazing in light in the company of Elijah and Moses. Peter, James, and John are appropriately overwhelmed and blither nonsense in their terror. Words simply fail.
It’s like Jesus becomes the wick of the candle that burns with God’s glory.
Creation, the creature, the humanity of Jesus wicks up the burning light of God and the world beholds.
The world is like that moment, God shines forth through the stuff of life.
Like our stained glass here at Grace, a dull piece of rough glass suddenly becomes something transcendent when the sun shines through, crackling and popping with silent lightning.
And we bask in that light that shines upon us.
Wonder. Awe. Words fail.
When we are at our best we are creatures of wonder and awe. Both science and faith call us back to that essential vocation of being human.
When we lose that devotion and attentiveness to the wonder that is always seeping and dripping through life, we become blind and bitter. The human community becomes exhausted with ideology, pitching science against faith, everything against everything.
Ideological exhaustion and the transfiguration.
Sickness and cure.
The return of wonder. Light shining through the glass once more.
Faith comes to us through people, through relationships.
God’s word is spoken by human tongues.
God born from the flesh of Mary, the mother of God.
God blazes through the life of the singular humanity of Jesus.
A resurrection that is physical.
Sacraments that carry the real presence of Jesus, more than symbol and metaphor, something more than what was before.
Creation, the world, the universe, the firmament, the material stuff of all that is, it is worthy of our attention, devotion and care.
God shines through it. It is very good.
We are strange creatures of distracted attentions.
But when we attend to that great love that lifts up all that is, then…then…well words just fail.
I’d better stop there before I start to blither.
I have a worm in my ear.
It conjures up a gross image. Ear worms.
Most of us get them.
You know when a song or turn of phrase gets stuck in your head and you sing it over and over?
An ear worm.
I pretty much always have one, they just sort switch one for the next one.
I should keep a list just to see how long my play cycle is.
This week it’s been an old song, “Your love, is lifting me higher, than I’ve ever been lifted before…” I’ve heard several versions over the years.
Jackie Wilson, Rita Coolidge, Rod Stewart.
We all need lifting up.
As a child, I would walk to school, a mile through some woods. Once I was really late and I was running and I wiped out.
My matchbox car metal lunch box exploded. My snoopy milk thermos rolled down the hill. I tore the knees of my pants, bloodied my hands.
This lady walking her dog saw me fall. Never saw her before or after that.
She pulled me up, brushed me off, put my lunch box back together, wiped the tears from my cheeks and sent me on my way.
I was only six years old at the time, but that memory has endured.
It’s the first memory that comes to mind when I think of all the times and all the people who have lifted me up when I was down and bloody over the years.
We see an image and foretaste of resurrection in Mark’s Gospel today. Jesus lifting Simon Peter’s mother in law up by the hands, healing her, she then serves her guests and visitors.
What is Resurrection like?
Some of the oldest Christian images and iconography are of Jesus lifting Adam and Eve up by their hands from the prison of death. The image is sometimes called The Resurrection, sometimes it is called the Harrowing of Hell.
Being lifted from the prison of death and hell.
Then serving our guests and visitors, the ministry of hospitality.
What is resurrection like?
How many times have we witnessed the power of the resurrection, of Jesus at work in the world? The lifting up by the hand. How many times have we missed what was happening?
Lending a hand. The hand is quicker than the eye, there is more going on than we see. A revealing is opened up before us of the ultimate fate of all creatures. We just thought it was being polite when it was really the glory of God pouring into the world. Oh my.
What does Resurrection look like?
It turns out we are surrounded by it all the time. The witness of faith is everywhere. Faithfulness abounds when we think we have fallen, our knees torn, our hands bloodied, we’ll never get up again. A hand lifts us up out of that grave.
Sometimes we become that hand that lifts someone else up.
A truly holy thing, to become part of the witness of faith, to be part of the power of resurrection at work in the world. To be lifted up to in turn lift up others, to serve the guests and visitors in our lives.
A truly holy thing to be part of that great love that is lifting the world up h-i-g-h-e-r and h-i-g-h-e-r. The power of resurrection. It’s everywhere. Like a song you can’t get out of your head.
There are two kinds of stories.
One story is that the world is holy.
The other is that it is not.
Which one do we believe?
In one story creation is filled with divine intention and goodness, revealing God.
In the other the world is about taking, grasping and clinging to whatever we can get.
In one story we build one another up in love.
In the other we use one another and tear one another down.
In one the chains are broken.
In the other the chains bind.
In one the shackles are opened.
In the other they are locked tight.
In one there is redemption and forgiveness.
In the other there is bondage and slavery.
Which one do we believe?
The people of God have a constellation of holy vocabulary to speak of the holiness of Creation. Justice, tender mercy, peace, righteousness the words that describe the completeness and purposefulness of creation, a creation that lives in covenant with the God who is just, tender, merciful, peaceful and uplifting.
When we live in that covenant, where all relationships carry a holy reverence, then creation blazes with God’s glory.
When the covenant is broken, then a spirit that is unclean begins to unravel the world, holiness is forgotten.
The confrontation begins today in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus has hurriedly gathered his disciples and he rushes to teach in the synagogue and immediately the struggle begins.
The two stories—–collide.
Which will we believe? Which will we follow? Which will we live in?
An unclean Spirit yells out at Jesus, surprised at the arrival, the return of a universe where life is holy.
The unclean Spirit, the spirit of bondage and slavery and exploitation is cast out.
The line is drawn.
God advances, stealing the world back, reminding us of the story that is true, reminding us who we are.
Casting out the unclean Spirit.
The return of life being holy.
The consequence of the clash of these titanic narratives can only lead us to the cross and ultimately to resurrection.
Which do we believe?
The collision of these two definitions of the world, of these two different meanings of life, this collision fills this world even now.
Which do we believe?
Do we twist and condemn?
Or do we cast out the unclean Spirit and find God in the stuff of this world?
There are two stories.
One where the world is holy.
And the other where it is not.
One filled with the Holy Spirit.
The other with the unclean spirit.
The good news is that God believes in this world.
Jesus is God’s belief in the holiness of creation.
Jesus is proof that God never gives up on us.
Believe in that story.
Be set free.
The stories we learn when we are young have a way of sticking with us. We go back to them. We remember them. We pass them along. They become part of us. To a large extent, we are each a collection of stories all jumbled together. We see the world and move in the world through the eyes of the stories that fill us.
Roald Dahl was and is one of my favorite authors from growing up. My teachers would read his stories to us in elementary school. He wrote some famous stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. But my favorite is Danny Champion of the World.
Danny and his father are poor, they live in an old gypsy wagon, and they are poachers. A mean man, Victor Hazel, owns the nearby forest and wants to force them to sell their land. So Danny and his father come up with a plan to poach all the pheasants off his land, all at once, before a big pheasant hunt.
The plan involves raisins, sleeping pills, and a baby carriage, and the adventure goes from there.
The birds are put to sleep, piled into a deep bottomed baby carriage and rolled down the street, complete with a sleeping baby on top, but then the birds wake up and fly away, escaping the pheasant hunt.
The poachers outsmart and out trick the powerful at their own game, with a lot of fun and silliness along the way.
It’s a good story. I still think about it all these years later.
In Mark’s Gospel God is a poacher, taking back what was his.
The poaching begins today along the Sea of Galilee, with Jesus calling the fisherman to put down their nets and to pick up the net of the Gospel, the Good news of God, to recapture the people of God. Simon and Andrew and then James and John, God’s boat starts to fill up with a peculiar catch.
God is out tricking the trickster.
Out Conning the con man.
Out foxing the fox.
God is going poaching, to set the captives free, the net of Good News to catch us up.
The Gospel, the Good news of God, we come back to it over and over again, the good story that saves.
It fills us, wraps around us, it pulls us out the waters of death and hell.
We see the world and move in the world through the eyes of this story that fills us.
God’s people are always telling stories of outsmarting the powerful who would own and control us, stories of poaching the world out of the grips of sin and death.
Joseph and Pharaoh.
Moses and Pharaoh.
Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar.
Debra and Haman.
The wise men and Herod.
Jesus and the devil.
A people set free.
A world redeemed.
Do we see through those eyes?
Do we live that story of good news in a bad news world?
Does it fill us? Do we go back to it over and over? Do we pass it along?
Be captured by the net of Good News.
Be that net of good news.
Every day, every minute, steal the world back, bit by bit setting it free.
Tell the story over and over, of Jesus walking along the shore, poaching, taking creation back.
The Champion of the world.
Ladders are curious things
They look funny. They are awkward.
We all have funny and sad stories involving incidents and accidents with ladders.
Our electricians had to get a special ladder to reach the lights here in the nave. I have to laugh whenever I see them carry it into the building, it takes at least three of them, it’s so long. The ladder comes in through the door, keeps on coming in through the door and coming in, and coming in… Then I have to hold my breath and leave the room when they climb way up to change the bulbs like trapeze artists.
I have lots of running stories. One cold icy morning I went for a run and when I got home I was locked out of the house. So I took out the ladder from the shed to try some windows to see if they were unlocked. Then I got stuck up on the roof.
I was sitting up there in the cold and I realized that the view was lovely up above the icy mist watching branches snap and fall. That surprise of unexpected beauty. Suddenly being locked out and stuck on the roof was a gift.
Ladders, they connect us to hard to reach places.
What connects us?
Jesus speaks to Nathaniel and makes a connection involving a mysterious fig tree. For all of history ever since then, we are left wondering just what was happening under that fig tree? Maybe he was on a ladder…picking someone else’s figs! We don’t know.
Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son Man, like in the Vision of Jacob’s ladder.
A connection between heaven and earth and Jesus is where the two meet, where they connect, where they hold together.
What connects us? What holds us together?
We hear two “Call Stories” today, the theme continues into next week as well. Samuel hears the voice in the night. Jesus tells Philip to, “Follow me.” And Philip tells Nathanael to “Come and see.”
God’s call always involves listening and responding, it is always a closer walk with God and the walk always involves being connected to other people, to being deeply involved in this life in this world.
The connection with God connects us to others.
We are often tempted to treat Faith as a retreat into a private communion with the divine, but that deep communion always, always connects us more deeply to living with others, especially those we would rather do without.
What connects us? What holds us together?
In John’s Gospel that connection, whether we see it or not, is Jesus, where heaven and earth connect, the ladder of angels wrapping around all of life. Jesus is that life and that light in the Gospel according to John. He is the vision of God, the surprise of beauty, that inspires and calls out to us to follow.
Jesus. So often Jesus becomes the source of division and separation. That same thing happens in John’s Gospel as well, the source of life and light is also the great line of division between the children of God and the children of darkness.
It is an old problem. We drop the ladder and we can no longer reach each other.
The early Christians wrestled with that irony and frustration as well, that the source of life is the source of division. The bite of that struggle is an essential part of the biblical witness. How can we believe and follow and invite in such a way that Jesus is what connects and holds us together? It is a hard to reach place.
The ties that bind us together, that endure, what are they like? Somehow they reveal God in ways that we don’t usually expect. They show us the presence of God without God’s name being spoken. Even sticky, twiggy fig trees become sacred and convert our souls.
Those hard to reach places. They call out to us. Come and see what Connects us. Come and see what holds us together.
Bring a ladder.