“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I woke up this morning with those words running through my head on a continuous loop. I turned them over again and again in my mind. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s just one sentence, but it holds so much truth – about the fragile stuff of which we’re made, about how our stories in this life always end. Most of the time we do whatever we can to avoid thinking about it, but at least once a year we gather together and say it out loud. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Lately I’ve heard several interviews with Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and author of a new book called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.[i] Kate was diagnosed at age 35 with incurable stage-4 colon cancer. She’s had some intense treatments that have kept her alive – chemotherapy and some experimental immunotherapy – but the “incurable” part remains true. She’s at the point where she has some scans every few months that reveal whether she’s been given another two or three months to live.
Kate is married and has a young son. She can’t bear the thought of her child growing up without her.
One interviewer asked Kate if her prayers have changed since her diagnosis.
Here’s what Kate said:
I think maybe [they have] because I think I don’t have the luxury of being too sophisticated anymore. I mean, you just get infected with this urgency that comes with facing your death. And so I pray for very basic things. Please, God, make me kind and open to the pain of the world. Please, God, heal me. Make me less of a dink and help me be a good mom and a wife. I mean, just really basic stuff as opposed to maybe the more layered prayers that I was raised with or learned in theological school, which always have long…phrases like ever-loving and ever-living God…
I think Kate has a lot to teach us, starting with the simplicity of these prayers. Please, God, make me kind and open to the pain of the world. Please, God, heal me.
Big ideas in simple sentences. There’s something powerful about that. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Please, God, heal me.
I heard someone say recently that all Christians need to know at least one verse for how to confess their sins.[ii] We sometimes think that our confession has to be elaborate, and certainly on days like Ash Wednesday, we tend to use more words rather than fewer to name our sinfulness. We did it just a few minutes ago. But from day to day and week to week, maybe less is more.
Here’s where a reading like Psalm 51 can be helpful. It’s known as a penitential psalm, a psalm that expresses sorrow for one’s sin and cries out for the mercy that only God can give.
Take, for example, verse 1 of the psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” That’s a sentence we can write on our bathroom mirrors, put on a post-it note in our planners, add to the Notes app in our phones. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
Or what about verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” A simple plea for a big thing – the chance to begin again from a new place.
Whatever words we use, we do not confess because we’re some sort of super-Christians who are going after the Olympic gold medal for repentance. We confess because we trust in God’s steadfast love. We confess because we know that God’s mercy will not fail us, even when we have failed ourselves and those around us.
Lent invites us to a season of simplicity in which we try to strip away all but the essentials. Sometimes even our faith life can have extra layers that get in our way.
So in the days ahead let us hold fast to simple declarations offered in simple ways:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Please, God, heal me.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
We speak, and we listen. Listen as God calls to us again and again, saying, “Return to me with your whole heart.” Listen as God, who is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love, reaches out with the gifts of forgiveness and new life. Listen for the chance to start again. Amen.
“And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” Mark 9:2b-4
At the beginning of the week the light bulb went out in my refrigerator. To be honest, I’d forgotten that my refrigerator had a light bulb, but I became keenly aware of it once it wasn’t working anymore. My refrigerator is positioned so that most of the light in the room is blocked from shining into it. So until I installed a replacement bulb, I either fumbled for a flashlight or risked grabbing some mustard for my toast.
It’s a small thing, that light bulb. But I had taken its light completely for granted. I gave it not one bit of thought. I just expected the light to be there always.
I wonder sometimes if that’s why we have some of the weirdest stories in the Bible, stories like today’s account of what we call the Transfiguration. To make us aware of things we take for granted about Jesus.
I am usually drawn to the stories that depict the humanity of Jesus. Let’s face it. That’s one of many reasons we love the Christmas story. We like to imagine Jesus as a baby, gurgling and waving his fat little baby arms and even crying. Crying is what human babies do. I love the stories of Jesus eating with people because it’s one of my own favorite pastimes – to gather around a table of good food with folks whose company I enjoy. I’m not great with boats, but I love hearing about Jesus hanging out with his disciples out on the water. I even like the stories where Jesus gets angry, flips some tables over in the temple. If Jesus can get that angry, then he really must be one of us.
But too often I take the divinity of Jesus for granted. It’s there in all the stories we’ve heard throughout the Epiphany season, the healings and the exorcisms and the bringing of Simon’s mother-in-law back from the brink of death. Jesus has this incredible power, but I can breeze right past it without being fully in awe of what he’s doing.
So when Mark’s gospel leads us up a mountain with Jesus and Peter and James and John, I’d be perfectly content for it to be a normal day of hiking to get a few minutes of peace and quiet after another round of healing people and feeding people. But of course there’s nothing normal about this particular trip. As soon as they reach the top of that mountain, Jesus is transfigured – in the Greek, he experiences a metamorphosis – a complete transformation. His clothes are dazzling white, brighter than anything that your ordinary washing machine could achieve.
And as if that weren’t strange enough, Jesus is also standing there having a chat with two of the biggest figures in the Hebrew scriptures – Moses and Elijah.
And as if THAT weren’t strange enough, we hear a voice from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Three times in the Gospel of Mark there is a voice that reminds us that Jesus is the Son of God. We heard the voice from heaven when Jesus was baptized: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
At the end of his life, as Jesus breathes his final breath hanging on the cross, a Roman soldier will say, “‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’*
And in the middle…on this mountain…we hear it too. This is my Son. Listen to him.
It’s one of the most profound aspects of who Jesus is. The Son of God. And yet we so easily take it for granted. Something incredible is happening up on that mountain, full of enough mystery and blinding light to leave us, like the disciples, feeling terrified. But most of the time we aren’t terrified. We aren’t even a tiny bit scared. On a daily basis I’m not sure we give Jesus enough thought to let ourselves be terrified.
I’m not saying that Jesus wants us to be scared of him – or that terror is a necessary condition for faith. I am convinced, though, that we would be surprised at what would happen if we allowed ourselves to be amazed by this Jesus, this Son of God, this shining light.
Jesus stands up there on the mountain as part of God’s story of salvation. That’s why Moses and Elijah are there too – to remind us that the story is much bigger than we remember most of the time. And Jesus is transfigured there, transformed, “metamorphosed,” if you will, so that we do not take for granted the transformation that he can bring about – on that mountaintop and in our own lives.
Remember that Jesus does not come down off the mountain to wild acclamation. He returns to all the stuff of his ordinary life. There’s a boy with an unclean spirit that needs to be cast out. The disciples will squabble about who is the greatest among them. There are other children in need of attention.
Jesus comes down off that mountain to begin his journey to the cross. Jesus comes off the mountain and runs headlong into the darkness of his own death. And because he does that, we are given the gift of transformation too.
When we take the power of Jesus for granted, we miss opportunities to share it. When we assume that his light will shine when it’s convenient for us but otherwise ignore it, we give up on the possibility that he can transform our lives and the lives of others. When we withhold our own light, it usually means we’ve forgotten where our light comes from in the first place.
We’re about to enter into the season of Lent, when we spend forty days remembering that Jesus makes possible new beginnings, new directions, new pathways. Having been claimed by this Son of God, having been bought by his life and death and resurrection, our lives do not stay the same. Our lives can shine with a holy light, not because we somehow have it all together, but because we reflect the light that Jesus carried off that mountain and into the world.
Among my favorite Super Bowl commercials this year were the ones for Tide.[i] We’d see an image that suggested another kind of ad – a celebrity driving a car, a Clydesdale horse, people playing tennis. We’d soon realize, however, that while they had led us to believe it was an ad for beer or arthritis medication or insurance, the commercials were all, in fact, about Tide detergent. All of them pointed to the brightly gleaming clothes in the ad. There was one after another after another of these ads, so that eventually we went into every commercial expecting it to be about Tide.
Now I’m not suggesting that living our faith is like a big advertising campaign, but I wonder what would happen if every aspect of our lives in some way pointed to the Jesus we claim to follow. What if we reflected the light of Christ wherever we are – home, school, work, gym, car, grocery store? What if people came to expect that all of our identities – parent, friend, colleague, citizen – were rooted in our identity as Christians?
I’m willing to bet that something – or someone – would be transformed. Including ourselves. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ