St. Paul’s Congregational Church
February 21, 2021 – Lent 1B
Genesis 9: 8 – 17; Mark 1: 9 – 15
Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
I don’t know about you, but I feel like the Lenten journey of 2020 never ended! And in my reading this week, there seem to be many others who would agree with this. Freeman Palmer’s article this week, entitled “Lent Again” speaks of his experience.
He writes, “Shelley Stackhouse, a UCC minister posted on facebook last weekend, ‘my episcopal colleague Nick Knisely writes that the Lent that never ended is about to begin again. She agrees – about where I am tonight.”
Freeman continues, “I strongly suspect Rev. Stackhouse is not alone regarding her spiritual location at the time of
that post. We entered this week into the season of Lent… again. Lent is the time when we, following in the footsteps of Jesus, make our spiritual way to Jerusalem, to the cross, and the empty tomb. Traditionally one considers ‘what are you giving up for Lent?’ The following are just some of the things lost or, in a sense, I have given up since last Ash Wednesday (February 26, 2020) because of the COVID-19 pandemic:
· An impromptu visit to family and friends
· Worshipping in a sanctuary
· Shaking hands and hugging people
· Eating out at a favorite restaurant
· Enjoying a favorite artist live in a jazz club, a concert hall, or amphitheater
· Making an unscheduled trip to the grocery store, dry cleaners, or the bank
· Long-distance travel by air
· Entertaining at home; dinners, holidays – any party
· Celebrating the life of a friend at their memorial service
· Going anywhere out of my home without thinking of what mask to wear
At some level, I am uncertain of the need for Ash Wednesday to remind me that it is time for the observance of Lent again. With so much lost and the enormity of reminders of our mortality and human suffering over the past year because of multiple pandemics of COVID-19, racism, and ‘Christian’ nationalism, there is some truth I think to the description of these days as a season of Lent that never ended.
Nonetheless, the page on the liturgical calendar has turned, and it is Lent again. And reflecting on our last official season of Lent, a journey accompanied by fear, suffering, anxiety, and an uncertain future, one thing was clear to me. God was there… again. In rapid transitions to virtual services, in the praise of virtual choirs, Zoom coffee hours, in faithful giving of time, talent, and treasure, God was there… again. In freshened appreciation of essential people, places, and things, in the rediscovery of simpler joys, in the slowing down of frenetic schedules and the rearrangement of priorities, God was there… again. Despite a Lenten journey that sometimes led us, as David famously wrote, through the valley of the shadow of death, God was there... again.
Lent 2020 contained a far different spiritual journey all of us had ever expected. And although we traveled last year through a Holy Week that was markedly different as well, there was still good reason to sing Hallelujah on Easter, for God had sustained us… again. Even COVID-19 did not have the last word on life and our life together as the church. Perhaps Lent never ended. But God’s faithfulness never ended - and it never will.
Every morning of this Lenten season is our opportunity to see new mercies because of God’s great faithfulness. In that truth, through these forty days (or technically thirty-nine as of today), I do not doubt that God will faithfully walk with us on this Lent… again. And when it ends, the God of love and life will have the last word…. again.”
Another illustration: Matt Crebbin, a classmate of mine in seminary who serves at the Newtown Connecticut Congregational Church – wrote a reflection this week, “He says, ““It has been a long Lent! Although the official liturgical calendar of the western church will disagree with me, I am convinced that this year’s Lenten journey through the wilderness began last year on or about March 15, 2020 – the day my Newtown church cancelled in-person worship due to concerns about a new virus called Covid-19. Although we’ve moved through the seasons of Easter, Pentecost, Advent, Christmas and Epiphany since that day, there is a part of me that continues to experience our current life as a continuing journey through the wilderness.”
And one more: Jim Keat from the Center for Progressive Renewal tells a story from his childhood in rural Iowa and the large garden his family had. “Every winter the snow would blanket whatever was left from the previous season and every spring it would melt, the ground would compost, and we would begin planting vegetables and flowers. Somewhere around the beginning of May he and his whole family would spend a weekend planting what seemed to his 8 year old mind to be hundreds of packets of seeds. When it was over, the garden had begun anew for the season – their backs ached from kneeling over to plant row after row of carrots, asparagus, tomatoes and more and dirt stained the knees of our jeans. We would go inside for the night, leave our dirty clothes in a pile in the basement, and do our best to wash ourselves clean – but there was always dirt that just wouldn’t come away from beneath his fingernails.
Looking back on these memories, he realized that this was a very Ash Wednesday experience – from dust you came and to dust you will return. In the creation story the first human is named Adam, or in Hebrew, adamah, which means dirt, dust. Because that’s how God made him, formed from the ground and filled with the breath of God. In this way “Adam” is less of a name and more of a description, reminding us who we are and where we are from.
He reflects, “It is easy to live in our head, building mind palaces with echo chambers that always affirm our implicit biases. It is easy to believe that the universe revolves around the almighty “me,” everything existing for my enjoyment and entertainment. It is easy to see anyone who looks different, believes different, prays different and ascribe the label “them,” eternally distant and opposite from “us.”
But Ash Wednesday is not easy – it’s an invitation to enter the season of Lent, a season that will comfort and confront us, reminding us that we are human, we are mortal, we do not exist for ourselves, we are part of the created world around us, we are dust.
And for such a time as this, when last year’s Lent never seems to have ended, with mortality and suffering ever-present in our lives and our world, we find ourselves experiencing Ash Wednesday differently. While we may not feel the weight of ashes imposed upon our forehead due to safety restrictions from gathering together in person, we feel the weight of our shared mortality, with a death toll rising to staggering numbers, both around the world, in our own country, and likely impacting you, your family, or someone you know. We are all impacted by this ongoing Lent. And as we enter this season again, we see hope on the horizon, the promise of fresh produce from the garden, vaccines being distributed to frontline workers and those most at risk, a glimpse of resurrection that will someday arrive in our present.
But for now, the garden has been planted, the dirt remains beneath our fingernails, and the season of Lent begins again. Lent is an invitation to be here now, to be in this world as it truly is, to be with yourself as you truly are. Lent is an invitation to take seriously these words that you may have heard dozens or even hundreds of times. Lent is an invitation to reflect on what needs to be planted within us, what needs to be restored in our shared humanity, and what needs to be cultivated in order to be the people we are called to be today, tomorrow, and every day to come.”
Ash Wednesday, moving into the first Sunday of Lent, is the beginning of the work, the tilling of the soil, the planting of the seeds. We find ourselves covered with a layer of dust, dirt, ash as this season begins with the hope of something new growing in us and in spite of us.”
Our scriptures today are so appropriate aren’t they: the images of the wilderness and the rainbow, images of dust, dirt and ash but also the rainbow covenant – the hope and the promise of something new growing in us and in spite of us. We’ve all been through the wilderness of this year -everything is different as we’ve been on a journey the likes of which we’ve never experienced! The COVID pandemic, remote worship, isolation, such awful illness and death, a terribly rancorous election season, unspeakable violence in Washington, dreadful storms across the country, especially in Texas resulting in so much pain – we have come to know the wilderness, haven’t we – and we’re still wondering when will this journey end.
But there have been blessings during this year as well – nothing is the same in so many ways but we’ve also seen grace-filled moments, moments when we’ve seen and felt God’s presence in new ways. For me, there’s no greater sign of promise than the rainbow – we’ve had some spectacular double rainbows – and I’ve stood on my deck savoring every one of them and the promise that God is forever with us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the beloved community lately – maybe this year our journey through Lent here is the time we explore what that means to us as church: covenant with God and each other, a new effort in our outreach to our neighbors,
We don’t like being in the wilderness, do we - a place where we feel lost, where we feel so alone, where we wander, see things we don’t want to see, where we go to places we’d rather not go. But it’s a place where we as individuals and community must go because out of the emptiness comes new life. The wilderness is a place of refining and self-discovery. The wilderness is where, like Jesus, we wait to encounter the holy.
Yes, the wilderness is uncomfortable, frightening, but we cannot get to God’s future if we’re not able to let go of the past. How does this passage speak to us about our relationship with God today? How does this promise of the rainbow help us get through these most difficult days? What does it mean to us as church as we continue our journey into the future?
The rainbow, Nicole Johnson writes, symbolizes not only peace but hope as well. And that is the way the community of faith is called to live: in hope.
She writes, “Hope, the expectation that things will get better, not only gets us through the difficult times but also gives us strength to work proactively in the interest of a just and peaceful world. Hope helps communities to rebuild after a deathly and devastating natural disaster.....Hope encourages the faith community to seek justice for all now, while waiting expectantly for the reign of Christ that will usher in pure justice. In a world that sometimes seems so lacking in hope, the Christian community is called to live that hope for others."
Hope empowers action.
We are called to live out that hope by our actions. To speak out against injustice, to care for our neighbors, to be instruments of peace and healing, to be the light that shines in the darkness.
What is the message of hope that we not only preach, but also that we live out, within our church community and to the world beyond our walls? How do we spread, live out, the message of hope that we’ve received from our loving God – how do we overcome our “stuckness” that gets in the way of sharing the good news that we’ve received? That’s our task for Lent this year I think – to re affirm our covenant with God and each other and bring it alive in a new way. Maybe we become “walking rainbows.”
Another poem by Ann Weems both challenges and encourages us:
A rainbow is not just a symphony of colors sent to calm the storm in our souls;
It is a talk with God, a mysterious, miraculous conversation with God,
Heart to heart, the very heart of God saying to our hearts:
“Remember I am your God. Be my walking rainbows,
So that the whole world will know to whom you belong,
For I am the God who keeps promises, And I have not forgotten our covenant.”
This is the hope of the church: that God keeps promises.
The mission of the church is to walk among the suffering and give, for we are covenant keepers, walking rainbows,
Bringing the hope of the good news to the poor.
We live in a world of both the wilderness and the rainbow. Let’s move together through this season of Lent – a time to ponder and a time to wonder – let’s together experience a fresh new taste of God and let’s bring the hope of the good news to each other and our neighbors near and far and remember, in all things, God’s spirit will sustain us on the journey before us – that’s the promise. Amen.