February 17, 2021
A couple of nights ago I did something strange. I’m not even sure why I did it, but I had grown fascinated by the icicles hanging from the edges of my roof. I stepped on to my small front porch, broke off one of the largest icicles, held it for a moment, and then hurled it like a spear into the snowdrifts. Turns out it didn’t go that far. (I might need to brush up on my ice spear skills.) But it disappeared into a hole in the snow.
By early afternoon yesterday, there was nothing left there except an almost empty hole with a small ice cube in it. That was all that remained of an imposing ice weapon. Meanwhile, last week the boys next door had built an impressive snow fort from which they had waged some epic snowball fights. But part of their fort collapsed in yesterday’s balmy 47 degrees.
Snow teaches us about what is temporary, doesn’t it? Even with piles and piles of it all around, we trust it won’t be here in July. At least we hope not.
Ash Wednesday is one of those days in the church year when we remember that we, too, are temporary. This life does not last forever, and from the moment we are born we are in the process of dying. That’s probably not a reminder we really need this year. We have spent the past eleven months trying to avoid catching or spreading an invisible, deadly virus. We are heavy with the accumulated grief and worry of a year in which it felt like the threat of death was all around us all the time.
If you are feeling the weight of this last year in an especially acute way tonight, know that you are not alone. You are part of a Christian community connected through time and space that acknowledges our shared frailty. A community that understands – though we sometimes forget – that it is God who sustains us. Not our gumption or grit or our own manufactured fortitude and brave face for the world. God formed us out of the dust, God shapes that dust each day that we walk through the world, and when these mortal bodies return to the dust, God is there to receive us into eternal life. In the meantime we do not have to be superhuman. We are allowed to be fully human.
Each year Ash Wednesday calls us to confront both our mortality and our sinfulness. Most of us don’t relish a thorough self-inventory of our sin. I’ve noticed over the past year that it has grown increasingly easy for me to point out other people’s sins than to reckon with my own. In our horribly fractured political and social climate, it’s far easier to say “Look at the awful things that person has done!” or “That group of people is terrible!” or “Can you believe what he said this time???”
To be clear, God does call us to work for justice, which inevitably requires the naming of injustices. But naming injustices is different than demonizing other people in a general and pervasive way.
In reading the scripture passages for Ash Wednesday this year, I was struck by how they summon us to an individual accounting of our sin and a communal thanksgiving for God’s mercy. Emphasizing that individual call to confession does not negate our need to confess the systems and structures of sin that keep so many of our neighbors held captive by oppression. But an individual call to confession does mean that looking into our own soul is more vital to our faith than speculating about someone else’s.
We remember tonight that each of us has sinned and falls short of how God wants us to live. We cry out, in the words of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”
We remember that God is always ready to hear us when we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
We remember that God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, relents from punishing. God hears our cries, and God forgives.
We remember that God calls us together as a community. Call a solemn assembly, God says through Joel the prophet. Gather the people. Assemble the aged. Gather the children, even babies. We’ve had to do that gathering in all kinds of new ways this year, but God reminds us that traveling these difficult roads is best done in community. To reckon with our own sinfulness, to face up to our own mortality – that is difficult work. It’s work that demands the company of others. The prayers, the support, the empathy, the encouragement of others who are on the same journey from dust to dust.
We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. And we gather with others who will remember us after we’re gone. We trust in a God who forgets nothing and forgives everything.
It’s time for a particular confession of my own. This is as far as I made it in tonight’s sermon without any idea about how to conclude it. I sometimes struggle with endings. I suspect most preachers do. I like for an ending to make sense, to feel like a helpful place to pause so that you can keep reflecting on your own.
But for this one I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t come up with a neat and tidy ending. I thought at first it was because I’m tired and haven’t slept well recently. And I’m sure that’s part of it, though I’ve written plenty of things in my life while tired. But I also realized that Ash Wednesday marks the final significant day of the church year that we’ve had to adapt because of the pandemic. We’ve come full circle, and something about that breaks my heart.
I decided not to force it. I decided it was OK for this sermon, like our entire lives, to be open-ended. We don’t know how or when our own endings will come – simply that they will come. And the end is not always neat and tidy. That’s part of what being dust means too – that we don’t know when it will all be blown away.
What we do know is that God is here. God loves us. And that is more than enough.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
February 14, 2021
Exactly one year ago I spent a wonderful day in the city with my friends Rob and Jennifer, who were visiting from California. We had the best time, truly delightful, and I did not take that time together for granted. I enjoyed every piece of art, every joke or story that sent us into gales of laughter, every delicious bite of our meals.
But I wonder how I might have appreciated it even more if I’d known what was coming a month later. How might I have experienced that day differently if I’d known that it would be the last time I’d do certain things for a year? The last time on a train. The last time in a museum. The last time in a crowded restaurant.
In retrospect that day was a time between what had been a busier-than-usual January and what was about to be a full lockdown in March. We were all about to cross a threshold, but we didn’t yet know it. That’s the thing about thresholds. We don’t always know they’re just ahead of us. We don’t know that we’re about to head into new territory.
Without knowing it, Peter, James, and John were standing on a threshold at the top of that mountain in today’s gospel. I’m quite sure they realized they were having a remarkable experience. It’s not every day that two heavy hitters from your spiritual tradition show up. Moses and Elijah – both of whom have been dead for centuries, by the way – are right there with them, chatting with Jesus. And it’s not every day that Jesus is changed right in front of you, shining with a brightness that defies explanation.
We know that they do not take this moment for granted, partially because Peter wants to build some places for all of them to live up there on the mountain. He wants to hold on to this moment. And we also hear that Peter, James, and John are terrified. That’s also a part of many significant moments, even happy ones. The birth of a child. A wedding. Heading off to college. Starting a new job. They are thrilling. And they’re scary too. There’s so much we don’t know about what comes after that moment on the mountain.
What happened on top of that mountain, what we have come to call the Transfiguration, was a turning point, a threshold. A crossing from what had been and to what was about to be.
That time on top of the mountain was connected to all that had come before. It was part of the story of liberation that God had been telling throughout history. Moses could tell about his part in God’s story of leading the people of Israel out of slavery and into freedom, crossing through the Red Sea into the wilderness.
That time on top of the mountain was part of the story of justice that God had been telling throughout history, especially in the voices of prophets like Elijah. Elijah had called out the people for abandoning God and worshiping false gods. Elijah took on 450 prophets claiming association with the god Baal, and Elijah won that challenge in rather dramatic fashion. (Check out the 18th chapter of 1 Kings for the full story. I recommend it.)
No wonder Peter wants to stay there on the mountain. It’s not every day that you get to feel so connected to the powerful lives and stories of your ancestors.
But there was also the looming future, and that’s the part that Peter, James, and John don’t understand at all. They might have understood a little – if they had been paying attention. Just before they all climbed this mountain, Jesus had gathered his disciples and told them that he would soon undergo great suffering and be rejected by the political and religious leaders and be killed and after three days rise again. Even in that moment Peter pulls Jesus aside to challenge what he is saying. Peter can’t believe it.
Peter can’t believe it, but Jesus is telling the truth. What lies ahead when they come down off of this mountain is a series of events that unfold with a painful momentum, one after another. Betrayal…arrest…torment…crucifixion…death. The path on the other side of the mountain leads to the cross.
We are standing on a threshold. We are shaped by the past, those ancestors who came before us and, for better or worse, laid a foundation for our life’s story. They were not perfect people. Neither Moses nor Elijah was perfect. Not by a long shot. Moses tried every excuse to get out of what God wanted him to do, and he also had a bit of a temper. Elijah liked to go sit in a cave when he felt overwhelmed by what God was asking of him. Your ancestors weren’t perfect either, but they are part of what brought you to this moment.
And the future? We don’t really know. Most of the predictions I would have made on February 14 of last year would have been utterly wrong. In most ways we have no way of predicting what our futures will hold. That’s been one of my biggest lessons of the past year. And I don’t like it very much. I want to be in control of my destiny. But that’s not always how it works.
Writer Jan Richardson admits to being fascinated by thresholds, which she describes as “those spaces where we have left the landscape of the familiar, the habitual, and stand poised at the edge of a terrain whose contours we can hardly see or even imagine.”[i] Jan acknowledges that we don’t always cross these thresholds by our own choosing. One of her own threshold times came following the sudden death of her husband Gary.
A threshold, she notes, can be chaotic and terrifying. But it can also be a place of wild possibility. Jan says: “A threshold invites and calls us to stop. To take a look around. To imagine. To dream. To question. To pray.”
That’s true even in times of heartbreak and grief; these are places where we learn, and re-learn, how to imagine, how to dream, how to question, how to pray.
We don’t know what lies ahead of us right now. We have some hunches. The increasing availability of the vaccine gives us hope. But there’s still so much we cannot predict.
But remember what that voice from the clouds says to the terrified disciples: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” There’s so much in that one statement. If in this threshold moment we listen to Jesus, we hear that betrayal and suffering and crucifixion are not the end of the story. It’s the rising again that comes after that. It’s resurrection. New life. New hope.
Those moments bathed in light on the mountaintop may not last forever, but we are forever bathed in the light of Christ in our baptisms. We are held by the light shining forth from the empty tomb, and we can trust that the future is in God’s loving hands.
I leave you today with one of Jan’s blessings, short and poignant. It is a blessing for all of us standing in a threshold, terrified but hopeful:
at this beginning,
be there delight
or be there grief,
may grace come
to greet you
and keep you company in the way
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ