I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I bound you in fine linen and covered you with rich fabric. I adorned you with ornaments: I put a beautiful crown upon your head. You were adorned with gold and silver. You grew exceedingly beautiful, fit to be a queen. Your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of my splendor that I had bestowed on you, says the Lord God.
~ Ezekiel 16.8-14
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
~ James 5.15-16
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
~ Matthew 23.27-28
Since the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death…. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
~ Hebrews 2.14-18
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
~ Psalm 103.13-14
I’m really looking forward to doing a happy sermon sometime soon. But alas, I find myself preaching on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday this year–not the happiest of Church Holy Days.
And yet there is hope.
It’s fashionable to emphasize the narrative nature of God’s work in the world. And yes, it’s true–there is a progressive nature to Redemption, with a beginning, middle, and end.
But God’s work is also often cyclical, with certain rhythms and movements that return, repeat, and fold within one another.
I had this in mind as I went into this sermon. Yes, we ought to press into the darkness and doubt of the Cross without just quickly comforting ourselves with the Resurrection–we have to sit there for a bit–and yet the Church Calendar gets into our bones and souls to such an extent that it transforms the darkness. We can never sit in the Cross’ forsakenness without feeling the spiritual muscle memory of previous Easters gone by. And in that is hope.
This realization led me to largely do away with my notes (which you can find below) when giving this sermon and largely ad-lib, speaking from the heart as I wrestled with this stuff in real-time. The text selections came from Matthew 26-27, and here’s the sermon audio. Feel free to send me any thoughts, questions or concerns:
Both viruses and people get themselves into us, infect us, surprise us, and change us–both for good and ill. And when they depart we are left with that most complex simplicities of emotions, asking simply: what was that? The story, the episode, that previously seemed to exist with such continuity now seems so disjointed from all others that “the purpose” seems our only thought.
…When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, abide with me…
We wonder, we wander, seeking our Home, our Rest, our Selves. We recast our history in the eyes of this present trial, this present pain, this present darkness, and feel the twitch and fear that comes whenever we seriously consider all we’ve done before and all it represents within us–all the trials caused, the pains committed, and the darknesses within us.
I had the privilege of preaching the Ash Wednesday service at one of my church’s campuses a few weeks ago. As is appropriate to that Holy Day and this Lenten season itself, we sat with words that drew us into a meditation on our mortality and death.
(I also talk about my grandfather’s death. For more about that, you can read my reflections.)
I help lead a Bible Study and sometimes, when I’m feeling artsy, to help us start a discussion on a certain text from Scripture, I’ll ask my group a question: what color is this text? As in, what’s the emotional tone? When you close your eyes, and let its words sit in you, what color are the images that come to mind? For me, sitting with this Psalm before preaching it, I felt it was a dull, pale blue–or maybe more like a burlap grey. And I have found that “hue” marking much of my time this Lent.
So even now, a few weeks in to season, I find myself returning to the themes of this Scripture text. I hope it might lead you to engage all the more deeply into this Holy Lent. The text is Psalm 90.1-12, and here’s the sermon audio. Feel free to send me any thoughts, questions or concerns:
I had the honor of giving the reflection at our Good Friday service this year. For the service, we did a series of extended readings, from Luke 22.39-23.56, from Jesus praying in Gethsemane to his burial.
Preaching on this passage was a unique privilege for me, having recently returned from Israel. I walked these very steps that Jesus takes in our story. I prayed in the shade under the Olive Trees in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. I walked down the Kidron Valley to the place where it’s actually quite possible Jesus was imprisoned overnight, beaten, and mocked. I walked through Old City Jerusalem to the fortress of Pilate. Our hotel was right outside the old city walls near the place of Crucifixion.
This passage therefore, especially in light of that trip, was so rich with meaning throughout. Nevertheless, the focus of my message was living in the darkness and tension between Good Friday and Easter.
Here’s the audio:
You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here (and below) is my manuscript for your perusal. Also, here is a picture of the cemetery I reference in the sermon:
One of the smartest and funniest women at my church, Alyssa, has this great blog you should all follow. In it, her observations on life, cities, and spirituality are whip smart and hilarious. Several weeks ago, she put up a post asking “Is Trump America’s Lent?” She writes:
For the purposes of this argument, let’s call Lent an annual wake-up call, a reminder that we aren’t as good as we think we are….Trump’s success so far is a wake-up call in itself, like a large-scale Lent: maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are. Apparently, as a country we’re actually more racist and fearful than we thought we were just a few months ago, when people laughed at the thought of him actually standing a chance. The land of the free might just be okay with building that wall. The home of the brave is actually pretty scared of Muslims.
This is incredibly insightful, and I think it turns our national “Trump-versation” to a helpful place in the Lent season. Rather than trying to understand “the Trump voter” on a micro-individual level–a level full of misunderstanding, prejudice, and judgmentalism on all sides–we might turn our gaze inward to our nation as a whole. Looking at the bigger movements and structures of our society, we can ask the hard questions that you can’t really ask when staring another individual in the face.
Each year during Lent, I press all the more deeply into a motif that appears throughout the Bible: that in some mysterious way, the God of the Universe has had a “slain” and “suffering” aspect to his nature for all eternity–even before the world came into being.
When this world did come into being, the Bible says that it came to exist “through” this suffering and slain Jesus. Therefore the rhythms of Christ’s own nature and life are written into the very DNA of the world. All of our history is an echo of Jesus’ life, both from eternity past and while on earth.
This is the reflection I wrote for my Church’s Lent Prayerbook this year. Its about Ash Wednesday, but its Lenten themes remind us of the spirit of this season, as we move into Holy Week next week.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the time in which we turn the volume up on the dark whispers and hauntings in our souls that we spend the rest of the year trying to drown out. It is the season where we feel the gravity of our weakness and finitude. And Ash Wednesday particularly focuses on where we are most weak and most finite: our mortality.
Hundreds of millions (perhaps billions?) of people will gather today to take on what I feel is one of the most packed symbols of the historic Christian faith: the placement of ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead. We are called in the ashes to begin this process of mourning our seeming slavery to Sin and Death. In the Ash Wednesday service, we hear the words, “remember from dust you came, and to dust you will return.” Ashes are a symbol of suffering, lament, tragedy, repentance, and mourning.
I’ll be honest, one of the reasons why I love Lent and the Church Calendar is because it is a helpful corrective for my own personal lack of personal discipline. I’m not especially skilled at putting together my own structure, and so I really flourish when structure and pattern is placed on me from the outside.
This is especially true with spiritual practices. To engage with a Church season like Lent, I often need to give myself a blog series to keep me thinking on a theme for the season (see above, under “Lenten Posts“). I really do well with reading plans, prayerbooks, music albums, etc. If you find yourself in the same boat, here are some resources for this year’s Lent that some of you may find helpful.