On Bended Knee with Our Broken Hearts in Our Hands: a Reflection on the Season of Lent

This is how we approach the love that we have wounded, the love that we have injured, the love that we have neglected or betrayed.  Filled with remorse for the pain that we have caused, hoping beyond hope for forgiveness, we acknowledge the wrong that we have done, we declare our remorse, we proclaim our love, and we promise to change, to live more fully into the relationship that we long to maintain.  We do everything that we can do to be reconciled to the one whom we love.  It is an all too familiar scenario.  Children and parents, husbands and wives, partners in every kind of relationship find themselves in this place; having hurt one another, desperately seeking forgiveness, hoping for reconciliation, longing to mend what has been broken, approaching on bended knee, broken heart in hand.  This is also the posture in which we approach the season of Lent.

We know that we have sinned, that we have failed to live into the relationship that God is offering us and that we long to experience, in the things that we have thought, in the words that we have spoken to one another, and in the things that we have done.  We know that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we know that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We know that we have neglected and betrayed the one who loves us beyond all measure, the one with whom we long to abide in peace and trust.  We know that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, has eluded us because we have not sought, recognized, and nurtured the relationship that brings that peace.  This strain in the relationship which should be at the center of our lives is so difficult to bear that we come to church every week and confess our sins, the ways in which we have fallen short of the life and love that God holds out to us.  Every week, again and again we come to the table with our hands outstretched, trembling at the love and grace that endures, the knowledge that God remains faithful even when we are not.   If we are already confessing, on bended knee, our broken hearts in our hands, why do we set aside the forty days of Lent as a time of “self-examination and repentance; of prayer, fasting and self-denial; of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP p. 265)?    I would like to suggest that the season of Lent is not a time for seeking forgiveness.  It is a time to turn our hearts, to change, it is a time for repentance and renewal.

The analogy that I set up earlier in this reflection, of approaching the people in our lives whom we have hurt, seeking their forgiveness, hoping for reconciliation doesn’t quite describe our humble approach to God.  When we have hurt the person whom we love we hope for their forgiveness, but there is a chance that they will refuse us the reconciliation we crave.  There is the chance that they will have had enough of the pain that we inflict.  There is a chance that the relationship will have finally been ruptured beyond repair.  But God loves us so much  that God came among us as one of us, and giving God’s self into our hands, allowed us to choose whether or not to love God in return.  God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, experienced the very worst that is in us when, in our desperation to be rid of God, we nailed him to a tree.  The analogy that I set up at the beginning of this reflection falls short here because, despite our betrayal, God has not abandoned us!  The Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ has proven to us that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Every Sunday when, on trembling knees, we confess our sinful thoughts, words and deeds, the things done and left undone, our failure to love God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves, we do so knowing that God is waiting to forgive us and restore us to the light and love for which we are created.  We hear the words that we long to hear, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life”  (BCP p. 360).  It is interesting and important to note that on Ash Wednesday, the day that we venture into the wilderness of Lent, we do not hear those words of absolution.

On Ash Wednesday we confess our sins in the Litany of Penitence (BCP p. 267-269), and then  “the Bishop, if present, or the Priest stands, and facing the people” … declares that God “has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare pardon and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins”  (BCP p. 269).  And then…  that absolution is not conferred!

Just before the peace is exchanged, at the conclusion of the Litany of Penitence, the confession, the Bishop, if present, or the priest says:

 “Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP p. 269).

Here on Ash Wednesday, as we begin our journey through the season of Lent we are praying for repentance, a turning of the heart, away from the things that damage our relationship with God toward the things that are life-giving, that deepen and nurture that relationship.  Here at the beginning of the season of Lent we are praying for the Holy Spirit, for help and strength as we, acknowledging the great gift that God gives us by lifting the burden of our sins, work to repent, to change!

We all long to hear the words of absolution, to know that we are forgiven, to hear that the relationship is still intact, but absolution is only the beginning of something even harder than asking for forgiveness.   The human analogy will serve us well in this moment.  When we go to our love with our broken heart in our hands we may, on the surface be craving their forgiveness, but what we really are afraid of is the loss of relationship.   What we really long for is the wholeness that comes from being one with another.  Forgiveness, absolution, allows us to remain in the presence of the one we love without shame or fear, but the relationship is only made whole if we repent, turn away from, whatever it was that caused the relationship to be ruptured or strained in the first place.  If the thoughts, words, or deeds that caused the breach continue, then the relationship will continue to be deeply wounded and forgiveness becomes nothing more than a topical analgesic.  We set aside the season of Lent, the forty days preceding Holy Week and the Resurrection as a time for deep healing and true reconciliation.  Lent is a time for change… and that is why, when we ask God to grant us “true repentance” we also ask for God’s Holy Spirit.

The kind of change we are talking about here isn’t something that we can do by force of will, commitment, or by working harder.  The kind of change we are talking about here is only possible through the Grace of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is only in knowing that we are forgiven, that nothing we can do will ever separate us from the Love of God, that we can set our hearts and minds to the work of repentance, of change.  It is God’s gift, loving us even before we can love God in return that sets us free to acknowledge our faults and shortcomings, our betrayals, our sins, and ask for forgiveness.  It is God’s gift, the presence, guidance, and grace of the Holy Spirit, that helps us to know when we have failed to hit the mark, that helps us to get back on target.  It is only through the strength and courage we receive in knowing that God, through the Holy Spirit, continues to walk this journey with us that we are able to begin the hard work of repentance, amendment of life, of change.

“Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP p. 269).



A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

This sermon draws on the readings appointed for use on the Second Sunday in Lent.  It is focused on Luke 13:31-35.

You can find those readings here.

Jesus said that he longed to gather the children of Israel under his wings like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings…  Is Jesus really talking about… chickens?

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.  I don’t know a lot about chickens.  In fact, the summer after I graduated from college, the little bit I do know about chickens only served to cement my status as a “city kid” with my co-workers in central Pennsylvania.  Having spent the whole summer trying to disabuse them of that notion I completely blew it one day when, confronted by my first flock of live chickens I stood there, fascinated, trying to figure out where the drumstick was!  A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing!

I don’t know a lot about chickens but I do have a pretty good idea of what happens when a fox gets into the hen-house.  a Fox in the hen-house means panic, voices raised in terror and pain.  A fox in the hen-house means the sound of running feet, carnage, blood, death.

And when a fox enters the hen-house there is nothing a Mother Hen can do but rush to her chicks defense, sacrificing herself to save them from the jaws of the destroyer.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is responding to a group of Pharisees who have come to tell him that Herod wants him dead.  Jesus’s response to that threat is dismissive.  He doesn’t seem to be worried about his own life.  But the language that he uses, the pictures that he invokes, his cry of lament over the children of Jerusalem, tell us that there is a greater threat here than the one posed by Herod.

Jesus is pointing out that the children of Israel have a choice to make and that they have, for a long time, chosen to follow not the loving mother hen, but the fox!

Herod Antipas, the fox who wants to kill Jesus, rules Galilee as a client sate of Rome.  He is a traitor, a collaborator, a participant in the oppression of his own people.  He is also the son of Herod the “Great.”  It was Herod the “Great” who had the innocents slaughtered in an attempt to eradicate the newly born King of the Jews that the Magi were seeking.  Herod the “Great” had his own children executed for fear that they were plotting to steal his throne.  So, Herod Antipas came from a long line of people willing to do anything, including killing their own chicks and the chick of others to maintain their hold on status, rank, privilege and power.  You would think that a threat from this man would be enough to grab the attention of an itinerant preacher as he makes his way through Herod’s domain and yet even here, with his life threatened by the “fox,” Jesus keeps himself focused on a much larger concern.

When Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, and laments the history of Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34), we realize that the “fox” he is referring to is something bigger than Herod Antipas, first century Palestinian Jew.  Jesus is really talking about an understanding of the world and it’s power structures that stands in opposition to the vision, the dream of God for creation.  The “Fox” in this parable represents our tendency to take what we need and want, to subjugate others to our agenda, to marginalize and to ride roughshod over the poor, the weak, and anyone else who doesn’t have or can’t wield the power that we think we have and deserve.  Jesus is telling us that the “fox” is already in the hen-house and that there is a choice to be made.  Are we going to align ourselves with the fox in the hopes that we might be spared by the preservation of the status quo, that we might be allowed to continue to run our own corner of the hen-house; or are we going to cast our lot with the mother hen who has been trying for so long to gather us under her wings and shelter us from the power that would destroy us?

There is a choice to be made and, given the choice between the fox and the Mother Hen the fox might seem like a better choice.  On the surface the Fox seems more powerful and attractive.  The Fox offers perks and benefits, privilege and status, rank and recognition.  The Fox would seem better equipped to defend itself and us.  Surely we can cultivate and tame the fox’s rage and penchant for blood, using it to our own benefit.

But there is that little problem with putting your trust in the Fox.  The Fox has a tendency to sneak in when no one is looking, in the dead of the night, seeking to slake its hunger.  When we finally wake up and take stock we will see that some of us are missing, or injured, trampled into the hard scrabble of the hen-house floor by the Fox’s destructive rampage.  Once we have let the fox into the hen-house there is just no telling who might be deemed disposable, be discarded, be left out or even go missing altogether.  Yes, the fox is powerful, but in the end, no one is safe when there is a fox in the henhouse.  But here Jesus is, telling us that our hen-house is “left to you,” another way of saying “left desolate” because we have refused to shelter in the shadow of the wings of the mother hen.  Why are we so unwilling to turn our backs on the fox and cast our lot with the love of the Mother Hen?

It is a frightening thing to reject the fox.  It is even more frightening to step into the shadow of the Mother Hen’s wings because, as Jesus is pointing out when he shifts the definition of “fox” away from Herod towards a view of the systems and structures that dominate and shape our lives, the choice we make will ultimately define the way that we live together.

In an article published by the Christian Century in 1985 Barbara Brown Taylor, one of our most gifted and treasured preachers asked,

“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”

Hmmm…  one of our most gifted and treasured preachers asked?  That quote didn’t end with a question mark.  It ended with a period.  But then, the question in this morning’s story about Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t end with a question mark either.  Did it?  The question was implicit in the clear distinction between two ways of seeing, and living in the world.

Jesus is asking us to turn from the way of the fox; to stop participating in structures that oppress, crush and destroy; to recognize that the fox under whose standard we stand will not recognize our past loyalty and support but will destroy as all without regard or distinction.  Jesus is asking us to take courage from his example; to have faith in God’s love and promise; and to stand, as he did, wings spread, breast exposed, and to gather his children under our wings.  To fly at the fox in defense of the weak and the poor the widow and the orphan, the forgotten stranger, the marginalized, the other…  Jesus is asking us to gather under the shadow of his wings and to let him rescue our humanity from the hard scrabble of the hen-house floor.


Ashes To Go: A Retrospective

Last week Saint Andrew’s offered the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday with Eucharist and Imposition of Ashes at 7:00 am noon and 7:00 pm.  All three services were profoundly powerful.  We began the season of Lent by confessing that we have hurt the one who loves us unconditionally and beyond measure.  We acknowledged that we are broken, and with broken hearts we began the work of reconciliation, promising to make amends with the one whom we love above all others; not in fear, not in shame, but with the hope and confidence that nothing we can ever do will separate us from the love of God, and with the desperate longing for reconciliation and the strength to love more fully.

So while the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday urges us to “shut the door and pray to our father who is in secret,” I suggested that people leave the church with the ashes still clinging to their foreheads.  In our passage from the Gospel of Luke Jesus warns us not to pray like the “hypocrites.”   He warns us against public displays of piety that are designed to increase our rank or status in the community, that beg others to see us as “better than the rest,” that are meant not to serve God and our community but which serve us instead.  What would it be like, I asked, if we wore our ashes through the day and whenever someone pointed out the smudge on our forehead we replied that we are wearing these ashes because we are in love; because we have not been faithful to the one that we love, the one that loves us beyond measure; because we know that the one we love will never abandon us; and because we are working to love in the way that we ourselves have been loved?  Can you imagine how powerful that would be?  If we were to do that… the whole world might be…

“put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and the need of which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (BCP page 265 – The Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent).

Grace, love, betrayal, repentance, forgiveness, a love that can never be broken…  It is a story of gift upon gift, a transformative story that has the power to change lives!  Imagine what might happen if word got out!

Well word did get out!  After our 7:00 am and noon services, still dressed in my alb and chasuble, I took some ashes and headed out to two very busy street corners a couple of blocks from the church.

From 8:30 – 9:30 I stood on the corner of Regent and Monroe Streets.  About 15 people stopped and asked for ashes.  Included in that number were two members of Saint Andrew’s who came by with their kids in the car and a cup of coffee for the Priest.  There were several people who were surprised and delighted to find us, saying that their work schedule was going to prevent their attending services at their own community, and who were grateful for the opportunity to participate in something that was very important to them.  While we were standing there a man approached us and said that he had five passengers in a paratransit van, none of whom were able to get out of the car without assistance.  I walked up the block, climbed into the van and administered ashes to five very grateful people.  The most moving experience during that hour was the woman who pulled over and parked her car, got out and told me that her mother had died that weekend, that she was running around making arrangements for the funeral and didn’t think she would be able to get to church that day.  I asked her mother’s name, she told me and began to cry, we prayed, and she received ashes.  It was a very powerful and moving moment.

After the noon service I stood on the plaza next to Trader Joe’s on Monroe Street.  A young mother from our parish brought her three year old to see me saying that she wanted to introduce her daughter to Ash Wednesday but knew that the full liturgy would be too long for her.   Meeting me “on the go” was a perfect solution.  Another parishioner who lives nearby walked over with a neighbor, a young woman who is in the middle of chemotherapy, to pray and receive ashes.  There were several elderly women who had read about us in the paper and had their children or friends bring them to the curbside where we chatted and prayed before administering the ashes.  I was trying to keep count but I lost track after a while.  I am sure that there were well over 30 people who participated during that hour.  I packed up my little table and brochures, my sign and my ashes, and still wearing my chasuble, got in the car and returned to the church sure that we had offered the Gospel to people there on the streets of Madison.


Some reflections:

I believe that most, if not all, of the people who received ashes from me last Wednesday were familiar with the tradition.  I didn’t ask them, and there was no sense that they had to be a member of a faith community to participate, but almost all of them told me that scheduling issues were going to keep them from participating in their own church’s observation of Ash Wednesday.

There were a couple of people who told me that they were without a spiritual home, some had just moved to Madison, others were struggling with the tradition they had grown up with.  They were all very grateful and excited to find a church that was reaching out to them.

I was asked by a reporter from the State Journal if we were demeaning the traditions of the church by offering ashes on street corners.  I told him, and he observed for himself, how quickly people seemed to move into “sacred space” as I said the familiar words and made the sign of the cross on their foreheads.  I pointed out that we were doing this with great reverence, that it was not a parody of slapstick and I challenged the idea that this practice was diminishing the tradition and ritual of the church in any way.

He went on to tell me that when he goes to church he likes to sit in the quiet, to step away from the busy ness that is his life, and to spend time in reflection and prayer.  He wondered if we were just accommodating a pace of life that doesn’t make room for the sacred and the holy.  I pointed out, and he observed that there were people who walked past me on that street corner who refused to make eye contact with me.  We believe that the traditions and rites of the church are transformative, that they have great value, that they can change people’s lives and even change the world.  If we sequester those traditions and rites inside the walls of the church we will have denied them to the people who would never walk through our doors.  Perhaps by meeting people where they are we will  give them a taste of what we have to offer, give them a sense that we are not the caricature of Christianity that gets all of the airtime in the media, and they might one day risk crossing our threshold.  I wasn’t sure that he was convinced when we parted so I was very pleased that the article he wrote proclaimed that the message of Ash Wednesday is still relevant, even on the street.


In Conclusion:

Ashes To Go has been “happening” around the church for several years.  This was the first time that I have participated.  As an introvert I was more than a little out of my comfort zone but I would definitely do this again!

Our ashes are a sign that we are in love.  They are a sign that we have not been faithful to the one that we love, the one that loves us beyond measure.  We dare to wear them because we know that the one we love will never abandon us and because we are working to love in the way that we ourselves have been loved.  We wear them because we know that no matter how far from home, no matter how lost we are, our God is always reaching out to us, offering us the opportunity to turn, to come home, to live in the light of God’s love.

Ashes To Go are a sign to the world that the Episcopal Church welcomes you, no matter how far from home, no matter how lost you are, we are ready to walk with you, to hold you up, to share our deepest and most powerful experiences with you, so that you too can live in this light that is a gift beyond measure.



A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – An audio file of Sunday’s sermon at Saint Andrew’s

I am trying something new today, uploading an audio file of this week’s sermon.  A transcript will be posted soon.

This sermon is based on the readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Those readings can be found here.

Here is the sermon.  Clicking on this link will open a new tab in your browser where the file will play.

Sermon 2-3-2013