WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, June 16, we worship on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (the time after Pentecost).  Jesus highlights the mysterious horticulture of the kingdom of God, in which we can never underestimate the magnitude of what can be done with something small.  We welcome Pastor Arden Krych, who will preach and preside. Join us at 10:00 in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary for worship:https://www.youtube.com/live/BVwInjrcBG0?si=931YpLrC1LksyemF

Ash Wednesday

March 2, 2022

Back in January I read about the tallest tree in New York, a white pine known as Tree 103.[i]  It wasn’t the biggest tree – just the tallest.  Apparently, the size of trees is measured by combining their height, their circumference, and the spread of their crowns.  So, as a white pine, tall and thin and pointy, Tree 103 couldn’t compete with other species that have larger trunks and more room to spread their branches – the oaks and the cottonwoods and the sycamores.

Tree 103 was the tallest, though – and among the oldest.  Experts date its beginnings back to 1675.  Think about that for a minute – all those events of history that this tree outlived.  The Salem witchcraft trials, countless wars, space exploration, the invention of trains and planes and automobiles, the emergence of the internet, more than one pandemic.

Tree 103 was a survivor.  It continued to grow out there in the New York wilderness without much attention at all.  It wasn’t a glamorous life.  As writer Susan Orlean observed:  “Tree 103 was scarred and scabby; it creaked in the wind; it sagged in the rain. It had lost the dewy glow that it had back in 1675, but haven’t we all?”

Last July, one of Tree 103’s neighbors fell over – and Tree 103 broke its fall.  By the time hikers came to check on this grove of trees in December, Tree 103 was officially a goner.  There had been no one there to witness its end.  After almost 350 years, this towering pine was now returning to the soil from which it had grown, providing a home for bugs and a place for mushrooms to sprout up.

There’s something about that tree that has stayed with me.  It survived all those centuries.  It grew in the ways it was meant to grow – tall and scrappy.  And then it died.

All of us will die.  And there won’t be much of a fanfare when we do.  People will be sad, of course.  There will probably be a memorial service of some kind, where those people will gather to tell stories and to thank God for our lives.  We will live on in the hearts of those who have loved and known us best.  And we will enter into eternal life, which we trust is more perfect than this life.

All of us will die.  That’s a part of what Ash Wednesday is about: our mortality, though I suspect few of us need those reminders this year.  When we gathered on February 26 of 2020, we had no idea just how much mortality would be on our minds for the next two years, more than we could have imagined.

We come to this Ash Wednesday a little dustier than usual.  Exhausted from two years of figuring things out and making it work and then having to figure things out all over again.  We’re tired of toxic politics and weighed down by layers of grief that we can barely name.  We’re worried about war.

So when Jesus warns us in tonight’s gospel to beware of practicing our piety flamboyantly and publicly, our natural impulse might be to say, “I get what you’re saying, Jesus.  Whatever we do to practice our faith – donating to those in need, praying, giving up something – we don’t need to do it in the most show-offy way possible.  But look, Jesus.  I don’t have much left to show off at this point.  It’s all I can do to get to church.  Or to remember to say something to you occasionally while I’m in the shower, which is one of the few quiet moments of the day.  I’m not about to go praying on the street corner.”

Maybe this Lent we don’t try so hard.  Sure, give something up if that’s what you want to do.  Take on a practice if you would find it helpful.  But don’t do it because you think you’re “supposed” to do it.  Do it because you find it renewing in some way.

Maybe this Lent we try just to rest in God’s mercy and love, to remember that the One who created us out of dust is there to dust us off when we are worn out and frayed around all our edges.

For this season don’t worry about polished prayers or dramatic demonstrations of your faith. Just come to church.  Even if your clothes don’t match or you’re running late. Try out some of our Thursday evening times.  Just show up and see what happens.  You’ll at least get some soup.  And I think you’ll find that you’re in good company with other folks who are feeling pretty dusty.

What Jesus is calling us to is humility.  The word humility comes from the root word humus, which means “earth.”  So being humble means remembering that we come from the ground.  Like dust.  Nothing flashy or attention-seeking.  Just being aware of our limitations and grounded in our complete dependence on God.

Like Tree 103, let’s grow as exactly who God has created us to be, whether or not anyone else is paying attention.  Let’s use the truth that we will die to nudge us into some more present living.

This Lent let’s focus on walking humbly with our God.  One step at a time.  Kicking up some dust along the way to remind us that even though we won’t be here forever, we are still here now, grounded in God’s grace.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] https://www.newyorker.com/news/afterword/the-tallest-known-tree-in-new-york-falls-in-the-forest


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

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