I recently began preaching at a nearby United Church of Christ, Hanks Chapel UCC, a lovely church in Pittsboro, NC. I am planning to share the sermon notes for each here on my blog. This is the first sermon there this year, on Ash Wednesday.
I hope it blesses you!
in God’s peace, Your progressive redneck preacher,
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near–
2:2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
2:12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
2:13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
2:14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
2:15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
2:16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
2:17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”
2 Corinthians 5:20-6-10
20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. 6 1 Since we work together with him, we are also begging you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 He says, I listened to you at the right time, and I helped you on the day of salvation.[a] Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!
3 We don’t give anyone any reason to be offended about anything so that our ministry won’t be criticized. 4 Instead, we commend ourselves as ministers of God in every way. We did this with our great endurance through problems, disasters, and stressful situations. 5 We went through beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. 6 We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love, 7 telling the truth, and God’s power. We carried the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and our left hand. 8 We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, 9 as unknown and well known, as dying—and look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but not killed, 10 as going through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and as having nothing but owning everything.
As I reflect on today’s readings, I can’t help but think of an autumn in my early teens. Most autumns my family and I would visit a familiar beach in Georgia. One year, my brother, my sisters, and I were playing frisbee on the beach. Despite both the big “do not play on the dunes” signs all over the beach, and momma and daddy’s warnings, one of my throws of the frisbee went wide, flying far into the dunes. This was my big brother’s favorite, an Aerobie sports frisbee, so I knew I had to get it. Barefoot, I ran into the dunes to grab it. I couldn’t find the frisbee and, what’s worse, found out why momma warned us not to go in the dunes. My feet and legs were covered with sand spurs and spines from desert cacti.
When I got back into the light of our rented beachhouse, though I was ashamed to have lost my brother’s favorite frisbee, everyone was most concerned about the sand spurs and spines up and down my legs. I can still remember momma and daddy insisting I sit there, while they pull out each sandspur and each painful cactus spine. I remember crying out each time, “no no! Stop it! That hurts” when they were pulled out, and being so upset to have to have momma pour antiseptic on each wound they left. I can also remember momma’s calm words, “Son, I know it hurts, but this is the only way to get you better – to be free of them”.
Our readings focus on a similar process in our life of faith. Lent, the 40 Days before Easter, is a season to lay aside distractions and draw nearer to God, the light of all life. But, just as walking closer to the light of our rented beach house from the sand dunes made visible the poor state of my sandspur and cactus needle laden legs, so drawing near to God reveals the sad state of our hearts, lives, and world. We are often so focused on ourselves and our own comfort, so focused on what keeps us feeling good about our lives and position, or what helps keep us looking good to others,we don’t think to look at the ways our lives are not what they should be. We don’t want to be pushed out of our comfort zones and have to face the ways we have been pushing God away, not wanting the light of God’s presence to reveal the needles and sandspurs of selfishness, of greed, of prejudice, of insensitivity, of the myriad of ways our choices prop up systems of injustice and oppression that hurt others.
Scripture calls all of these barriers to truly loving God, others, ourselves, and God’s creation fully “sins”. We are so often content, as I was on the beach, to keep those burs and needles clinging painfully to our legs. Yet God, like a mother lovingly caring for her children, says to us “Son, daughter, dear one – I know it hurts, but this is the only way to get better”. Opening ourselves up to God during this journey of Lent means cooperating with God as God takes one and after another off, freeing us and cleaning us, so we might be more open to love God, others, nature, and ourselves more freely.
As C. S. Lewis wrote in his classic Mere Christianity,
“Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor– that is the only way … This process of surrender–this movement full speed astern–is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. .. This repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before [God] will take you back and which [God] could let you off if [God] chose: it is simply a description of what going back to [God] is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking [God] to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen.”
Although this sounds tough, I think we need to recognize that ultimately this laying aside of distractions and barriers to deep connection with God and others does not simply involve pain. It is also the only path that can open you up to real life. Through this journey we are joining the path Jesus trod. By laying aside the many voices of this world calling us to distraction and destruction, we open our heart to more fully hear the voice of the one who speaks over us again and again what was spoken over Jesus at his baptism, “You are my child, whom I love, and in you I am well-pleased”. As Jesus discovered and embarked on his life’s mission out of his 40 day wilderness journey, our putting aside the comforts and busy-ness which can so easily lead us to shut our eyes to other’s suffering can open us up to a new vision of life. Our eyes can become opened through such desert wandering of our own to see who those others are needing to hear from us God’s good news of the kingdom by word and deed, better discovering our own calling along the way. Ultimately clinging on to the expected and comfortable can hold us back from embracing the full joys offered us by each moment we are in, each person we encounter, and each challenge we face. Taking time ourselves to lay aside distractions and lay down the barriers that block close connection with God opens us up to God, to others, to life itself. Just as Jesus’ dying opened the doors for new life for all people through the miracle of Easter, so our downward journey of letting go through Lent can open us up more fully to all life makes possible. May it be so for each of us, both through our Lenten journey and through all our days. Amen.