Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What the Holy One Can Do with Dust

Williams Wordsworth continues to be one of my favorite poets.  His 19th century writing – both in lyrical style and in substance – always captures my imagination.   Let me read for you just the first two stanzas of his lengthy work titled “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
                 To me did seem
            Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
             Turn wheresoe’er I may,
              By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
            The rainbow comes and goes,
            And lovely is the rose;
            The moon doth with delight
     Look round her when the heavens are bare;
            Waters on a starry night
            Are beautiful and fair;
     The sunshine is a glorious birth;
     But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Wordsworth contends that we come into this world “trailing clouds of glory… from God, who is our home.”  We see the world, and everything about it, infused with beauty and mystery and wonder.  But somewhere along the path of life something gets lost, or neglected, or damaged, or discarded, or twisted.  It is not now as it hath been of yore.  Throughout the remainder of the poem Wordsworth struggles to recapture that feeling he had as a boy, a feeling of immortality.
Do you know the feeling Wordsworth is describing?  Do you remember a time that felt innocent and the world was pregnant with possibilities and each new day was the beginning of a great adventure?  I do.  Is it something you feel to this day?  For most of us, probably not.  Compared to that time, this time is as the prophet Joel described in our first reading: “a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
The observance of Ash Wednesday and with the Imposition of Ashes dates back at least to the 8th century.  One of the earliest descriptions of it is found in the writings of an abbot by the name of Aelfric in his 11th century work “Lives of the Saints”:
“We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.  Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
Aelfric goes on to tell the story of a person who refused to go to church for the ashes and was accidentally killed several days later in a boar hunt!  Not to subtle there, is he? 
There is a deep, historical penitential element running through this season of Lent.  Early on the church used it as a time to restore the penitent to the church.  A list of grievous sins ranged from adultery to sorcery to fighting in a war.  To this day the church invites us to examine our hearts, review our actions, and confess our sins.
Jan Richardson, a Methodist pastor, suggests we make a slight shift in our Lenten focus from strict penitence to something that feels more like what Wordsworth describes in his poem about childhood.  Allow me to read Richardson’s poem “Blessing the Dust: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday” (that Sally Duncan shared with me):
All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge we bear.
That is quite a contrast to the clouds and deep gloom that mark our adult experience of life.  What would it look like to bring this reality with you to the altar rail as you receive the ashes?  What would it look like to carry it with you through this season of Lent?  What would it look like to pursue the prayer of the psalmist:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
   and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again,
   and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
What would it look like to come out of Lent with a renewed sense of what God is doing with the dust that is you?
Wordsworth came to a point where he experienced this kind of renewal:  His poem finishes with these famous lines:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
     Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
          We will grieve not, rather find
          Strength in what remains behind.

May your Lent be filled not with grieving, but rather in finding strength and joy and wonder in what remains in your life.  May a right spirit be renewed within you.  May you be overwhelmed with splendor as you rediscover God present in this world.  May you be filled an awe that comes from knowing how precious you are to the one who created you.  May you come to know anew what the Holy One can do with dust!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Shining Moments

There is a wonderful folk saying that captures at least half of the meaning of the Transfiguration story we just heard:  There is more to him/her than meets the eye.”  In a few days, on Ash Wednesday, the words of our liturgy will remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  It is a message that proclaims we are creaturely, material, physical, and mortal.  But today, through the story of the Transfiguration, we are reminded that we are something else… something more than dust, something spiritual, something mysterious, something like the One who is eternal.  There is more to us than meets the eye.

Through the Incarnation, God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth became dust.  The Infinite became finite.  The Imperishable became mortal.  The Holy One who is all in all became confined to a specific place and moment in time.  During the season of Epiphany we have traced how God in Christ has been revealed to the world through the dust that we know as Jesus of Nazareth.  We have marveled at his teaching.  We have pondered his authority.  We have praised him for the ability to heal and to forgive.  We have observed how the light of Christ has been made known to the world.  All of these things give hints that there is more to the dust of Jesus than meets the eye. 

Today, at the Transfiguration, what is more than dust comes shining through.  Along with the Disciples we are given the briefest glimpse of the Divinity that somehow has been contained in the dust.  We sense the glorious nature of God that has been incarnate in the person of Jesus.  We are overcome by a sense of awe at the Holy Mystery, a reality that is beyond our comprehension.  We are reminded that Jesus of Nazareth is more than a spiritual teacher, more than a wise sage, and more than a worker of wonders.  Jesus is God in flesh and we owe to him allegiance, praise, obedience, and love.

While the Transfiguration tells us that there is more to Jesus than meets the eye, it also tells us that there is more to each one as well.  You see while we are dust, we are also something more.  In the Genesis story of creation we are told that God took dust and breathed on it to form the first humans.  We are dust, but we are also that breath – the breath of God which animates dust in ways that a rock, for example, is not.  We are spiritual, non-physical, free, and beyond mortal.  There is a Godly life-force within us that takes the dust and makes it something special and something unique.  When we affirm that there is more to each one of us than meets the eye, we are affirming that we can see something of God in every person we meet because God’s breath moves in and through each one of us.

If the phrase “more than meets the eye” captures half of the meaning of the Transfiguration story, then perhaps the other half is captured by the saying “That was his/her shining moment.”  For Jesus, it literally was a shining moment.  His very appearance became bright – radiant beyond comprehension. 

When we say of a person that it was his/her shining moment we are saying that the person allowed his/her Godly breath to show through the dust.  It may be a moment of generosity or compassion or selflessness or achievement or beauty.  The shining moment may be the briefest glimpse of Godly breath or it may be sustained over a long period of time.  Whatever the duration or intensity, these shining moments are the times when we know that there is more to us than meets the eye.  They are the times when we know exactly what we are made for and we touch the highest level of our potential.

The irony for me at least, as I struggled to write this sermon, I am immersed in doing laundry and delaying cleaning the kitchen and putting off paying the bills.  So high theology meets reality and it is a challenge to shine when you are consumed with dusty details.  I remember years ago when my daughters were young and my dog was a puppy and I was trying to write a sermon.  One daughter did not watch the puppy when she was supposed to.  The puppy did what puppies do and did it in the house.  The other daughter stepped in the puppy’s ‘business’ and proceeded to track it all over the house.  At that time, all I could see in those around me is what meets the eye.  Nothing more.  You can imagine how that Sunday’s sermon on the good news of the Gospel was more about a theory than an actual personal experience.  It was not one of my shining moments.  This thing about being dust is dirty business.

No wonder Peter wanted to stay on the mountain.  Wouldn’t it be great if all we had to deal with in life were the shining moments when we can see clearly in one another the something more!  But that isn’t life, is it.  The shining moments are the exception, not the rule.  And yet just because we don’t see the best in one another all the time does not mean it is not there.  It does not mean that all we are is down and dirty dust.  It simply means that sometimes what is supposed to shine through is hidden, like a lamp put under a basket.

Those of you who gathered here on January 6th will remember that we began the season of Epiphany literally in darkness.  From a single flame the Light of Christ spread from one candle to another bathing this darkened worship space in a wonderful, warm, flickering glow.  One of our prayers that night was this:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives…

For Jesus, the shining moment of the Transfiguration is meant to prepare him for the dark and difficult road to Jerusalem and Crucifixion.  The experience on the mountain so consumes him that the more than meets the eye about him never gets snuffed out.  And now, as the prayer suggests, the Light that endured the Cross and rose victorious on Easter Day is now enkindled in our hearts.  And we pray that it may shine forth in our lives… shine when all we want to see is what meets the eye, shine when it is not particularly a shining moment, shine like a lamp put on a table so that it gives light for all to see.