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Rend Your Hearts: Lent and the Space of Mourning

Ed Watson preached this sermon for Ash Wednesday.  We bid you pray for his student and her family, and for all of us mourning this Lententide.

'Rend your hearts, and not your garments.'

This is the third time I've been in Church today. The first was for morning prayer; the second was for a funeral.  It was the funeral of the mother of a young women I taught in fifth grade.  The Pentecostal church where it was held was today a place of profound grief and mourning, especially for my student, who is having to cope with a sense of inexpressible loss that no twelve year old should have to experience.  

This grief is made even more profound by the importance this student placed on family.  When I heard about her loss, I was reminded of a series of poems she had written for my English class, poems about family and about love.  As it happens, I still have all the work my fifth graders did for me, and I was able to dig these poems up.  At the centre of one them is a line of such powerful simplicity, that it could only have been written by a ten year old: love is when you are not alone.  

We are today entering into Lent, those 40 days of the Church year set aside, in part, as a period of mourning.  It can be difficult to mourn in the Christian tradition: the message of Christianity is so centred around the redemption of the world and the victory of Jesus Christ, that it can be easy to forget the proper place of grief.  Because we know that everything will be alright in the end, we can feel foolish for expressing the pain we feel because things aren't alright now.  

This is why Lent is important.  It is why Ash Wednesday is important.  It reminds us that mourning has a place, even, perhaps especially, in a religion centred around unquestionable hope.  And it seems to me that the reason for this mourning can be perfectly and precisely stated in the simple words of my student who is today grieving the loss of her mother: we mourn because love is when we are not alone.  

The fact that we are not alone makes us vulnerable.  It makes us responsible.  It means that when we see another's pain, we cannot help but share it.  It means that when we grieve, we grieve in the company of God.  It means that we fear our mortality and our frailty, because they mean that we can fail others, that we can hurt others.  It means that we can be hurt by others, even as they seek to love us.  This pain, this grief, this fear, and this frailty, these are things that have a real impact on our lives, precisely because we love, because we are loved, because we are not alone.  

This is why we mourn.  We do not mourn so that we might proudly show our compassion to others, whether by tearing our clothes or gesturing wildly; we mourn because that compassion is a part of what constitutes our being in the presence of God.  We do not rend our hearts in order to show ourselves worthy of anything; we mourn because our hearts just are rent by the suffering of those we cannot isolate ourselves from.  We do not mourn our own sins out of introspective guilt, as if this were an end in itself, but because we know we are called to better love of God and neighbour.  We do not mourn our own suffering out of narcissism, but because God loves us, because our suffering is not just our own concern.  In short, we do not mourn because we are alone and unloved: we mourn because we are not alone, because we are loved.

I pray for my student today, and for her family.  I also pray, however, that her words might reverberate in my soul this Lent, as I seek to make space for grief before the Cross.  I pray that she will always remind me that love is when we are not alone, that it is precisely because we are not alone that we are exposed to that which gives us reason to mourn.  And in this, I hope she continues to point me towards the fact that this mourning is not counter to Christian hope, but rather premised upon the very thing in virtue of which we can hope at all: the love of Jesus Christ on the Cross, which tells us that we are not alone, that we are not abandoned, and that even in our most private and hidden grief, God is right there in our hearts.  For He is our treasure in heaven; and when our hearts are with Him, even as we are down here on earth, mourning can have a proper place in our lives, precisely because we will always be vulnerable to love.



Serving With Self Doubt: Sermon

By Megan McDermott

And here we have Megan's sermon from Sunday, in which she explores how we continue to serve in the context of self-doubt.  Enjoy!

“A voice says, 'Cry out!' And I said, 'What shall I cry?'”  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Megan getting into the spirit of preaching....

Megan getting into the spirit of preaching....

Who am I, that I should dare to cry out? Who am I, that I should dare to even try to act as a messenger of God's word?  These are the questions that arose for me when I first began contemplating today's texts. 

In the passage from Isaiah, we are told  that “people are grass,” that we wither, that we're inconstant, and that, many times, we need to ask what it is that we should be crying out, even in those rare moments when we recognize a voice instructing us to speak up. I don't know about you, but these aren't exactly things that build my confidence. 

These questions were even more relevant for me when I thought about my circumstance today: What can I, a recent college graduate, 22 years old,  have to offer all of you in a sermon? I've asked myself similar questions in other moments of opportunity—such as wondering, the semester I was a leader of a campus Christian group at college, if I could actually be able to mentor other students. That seemed outrageous when I also happened to be a confused 20-year-old. I suspect I am not alone  in being able to easily convince myself that I am too sinful to adequately serve as a messenger of God's word, or that my walk with God is too fragile, unstable, or dull for me to be a positive influence in someone else's. 

The story of John the Baptist, as laid out in this Gospel reading, provides a compelling challenge to the self-doubts that could otherwise silence us.

How so? Well, let's look at John's declaration: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

Here, John the Baptist is stating the distance between who he is and who the Messiah will be—who Christ still is to us now. The Messiah is much more powerful than John the Baptist is, much more glorious, much more worthy of  praise. John the Baptist basically admits that he is only the opening act. The main event, Jesus—that's what really worth the people's excitement.

Perhaps we can find some guidance in this.  The extent to which we are not God, be it because of our powerlessness, our mortality, or the evil in our hearts, is not a reason we should shy away from proclaiming the word of God. That distance can compel us, all the more, to cry out to others about who God is.

Our not-God-ness? This is a starting point for speaking about God. The Gospel of Mark makes this clear. As the passage says, this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”  The beginning is not Christ himself, but a man, a wholly human man, a man who is not divine even if he is a prophet, a man, not-God but being worked through by God, preparing the people for  the one who is coming,  the one who is God. While John the Baptist's particular call as a forerunner to Jesus may not be ours, it is nevertheless true that, for many, the experience of the “good news of Jesus Christ” does not start with Jesus himself—at least to their perception. It can start with someone else, someone just as human as they are, pointing the way. 

Though some of us might want to deflate our callings, not thinking we can claim such a role, others might be tempted in a different direction. “Crying out” can become abut the attention we can attract for ourselves rather than delivering the word of God.

That route would've been quite easy for John the Baptist to take. He's attracting enormous crowds. The people want to buy into his greatness. Though he could easily embrace that, however, he does the opposite.  'You think I'm a big deal?' he says. 'Wait for what's next; for who's next.'

We must walk a tightrope—a thin line between not allowing our sense of self to be so diminished that we feel we can't tackle our callings (even with the grace of God) and not letting our sense of self become so bloated as to lessen our sense of God's greatness. 

We might lean one way or the other, for various reasons. For some of us, factors in life may lend our voice and our life more importance in this culture. Maybe we were raised in supportive homes where our thoughts were valued. Maybe we've been told about our leadership potential. Maybe we have traits that our societies value, like being wealthy or being college-educated. Or maybe we have been told that our voices and lives are worth less than others in the eyes of our society—be it because our gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background,education, or race, as recent events around the country, including in New York City, Ferguson, and Cleveland, remind us.  

How do we address this imbalance?   First, we must acknowledge our own tendencies to shut out certain voices and downplay certain lives, because we are bound to miss out on the presence of God in someone else. We must also be thoughtful as we encourage one another in the task of proclaiming God's word. Are we excessively emphasizing humility to someone whose sense of self and purpose are already beaten down by those around them?  On the other hand, are we inadvertently glorifying a messenger for their skills, charisma, or perceived holiness in a way that distracts both that messenger, and us, from God?  

It is important to think about how we, as a church, nurture one another as messengers of Christ, because the message that we have is valuable. Let's take a look at what that message is. Just from these passages, we learn that it is a message that can comfort, that can be told tenderly, and that it is for all people. It is a message of a God who gently leads us, a God who cares for us like a shepherd, a God who gathers us into his arms and carries us. It is the message of Jesus Christ, who is so much greater and more powerful than even a dynamic prophet like John the Baptist, Jesus Christ who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. It is message of a God who will dwell in us and work in us.  

At a time where many of us have become more aware or are feeling quite acutely the ways in which our society is infected with injustice, prejudice, and violence, we can take comfort in the message that God is, in some ways, so unlike us. God is not like us, people who hurt and dehumanize one another, be that through  conscious or unconscious participation in  broad, systemic injustice or in the particular ways we wound each other in our most intimate relationships. 

Again, I return to these words of John the Baptist:  “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals.” These words may be ringing particularly true for some of us this week as we enter into reflection about our society and ourselves.

I pray that we do not just sit with these unworthy feelings, allowing them to lull us into inaction. Instead, may they help us overflow with gratitude for the God whose worth is beyond measure and who finds us utterly valuable, though we are very flawed. May our characters and actions be shaped, more and more, by this God who is so unlike us—but may we not wait until we've arrived at some arbitrary standard of being like God or worthy of God to cry out.  May we let those ways in which who we are is so far from who God is  prompt us to proclaim God's greatness and boldly speak the message of God with which we have been entrusted. Let's prayerfully enter, together and as individuals, into that important question: “What shall I cry?”  Amen.

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Sermon: 'The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness'

This week, St. Hilda's went on the road to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Milford.  I was invited to preach, then Seth and I were blessed to get to know an incredibly warm and welcoming congregation.  Here is my sermon from the day: I hope it is a respectful reflection on the tragedies America has witnessed (and continues to witness) as a result of the racial and economic inequality woven into much of Western Society.

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.

A new year has begun.  For many, it has begun with anger and despair. We don't need to settle every question about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to know that they were not the natural consequences of a just world.  We don't need to settle every question of blame and retribution to know that a 12 year old being shot for whatever reason is not good news.  

For all that this year is beginning with pain, death and protest, however, we still stand also at the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  This Advent is not just the advent of a process of mourning: it is the advent of a process of healing which hides above, within, and below all the words that we see fit to say.  We stand at a point of origin for both death and life, both despair and hope.  

If this is true, however, the question still stands: what are we to do in the light of this truth?  Should we, for example, therefore read the words of good and bad news together with a feeling of hope, not allowing them to prevent us from carrying on safe in the knowledge that all will be well and all manner of things will be well?  Well, yes, but this yes must be qualified; after all, if the import of this truth can be reduced to the fact of a feeling, then we have painted a very thin picture indeed of the Kingdom which John the Baptist was sent to proclaim.  Indeed, if we limit hope to what we feel in our hearts, if we express it only in our emotional reactions to news stories, then we may even have made a deception of hope in the face of real suffering.  We cannot understand hope as just an inner state.

I had not dreamt death had undone so many....

I had not dreamt death had undone so many....

Neither, however, can we understand hope as a function of action alone, as if all that mattered were that we act as we think best, since God will therefore make all things possible for us.  This can just lead into another deception, one which conflates Gospel hope with human idealism and understands possibility as above all a matter of will.  All things might be possible for God: this does not, however, mean that we have reason to uncritically believe that our best intentions are indeed for the best things, nor that they shall be done on earth or heaven.  

Where does this leave us, then?  If the good news is cause for hope in the face of all injustice and pain, but the import of this hope cannot be reduced to the form of thought or action, then what are we to do in the light of the good news?

There are, of course, many possible answers: I am going to focus on one, however.  It is one suggested by today's Gospel, in the words of Isaiah: 'see, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare you way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.'  I am not going to focus on what it is to prepare the way.  Instead I am going to suggest that our first concern in this time of beginnings may well be this this: to try and turn our whole being towards hearing the voice of that messenger, crying out in the wilderness.

The wilderness is where we are.  It is our home, and a voice is crying out within it.  It is crying out in the lives of the poor, whether those who don't have enough money or those who don't have enough love.  It is crying out in the tears and the laughter of those who are alone.  It is crying out in the lives of those who hunger  It is crying out in the lives and deaths of those who suffer from the same systematic injustice from which I have benefited.  And before we turn to the question of how we are to feel or what we are to do in the light of either bad news or the Gospel, we who might not otherwise have listened must first turn to that voice: we must try to hear it.  This means more than reading the news or conversing for minutes of a day, however: it means that we who do not know our own cries must in some way seek to be with that voice.  We should seek break bread with any who cry out; we should seek to live with them; we should seek to ask questions and be both convinced and convicted by their answers.  In short, we should seek to live in community with those whose voices are crying out in the wilderness.

A huge thank you to Rev. Tricia and  St. Andrew's  in Milford for hosting us.  

A huge thank you to Rev. Tricia and St. Andrew's in Milford for hosting us.  

I am a member of St. Hilda's House.  We are an intentional community of young adults trying as best we can to live in community and in communion with that voice.  I warmly invite you to join us after coffee hour if you would like to hear a little more of what that means; right now, however, I am going to try and draw out one aspect of our hope: that we can learn to hear that voice in the wilderness by living with and working with those who cry out, both in joy and in pain.  Our hope is that we might share in the lives of others to such an extent that we can see people as they are, not from a point above or below, but from a point of genuine companionship.  Our hope is that, by living with others, we might learn how we are to prepare the way of the Lord, through the concrete demands of love which Jesus Christ makes of us in the face of our neighbour.  

Within all this, we also hope that we might be so taken by the voice in the wilderness that our lives begin to echo it.  We hope that we might therefore begin to point first and foremost to its source in Jesus Christ, as we meet him in the stranger.  As the Digital Missioner Saint Hilda's House, my job is to explore the ways in which we can use modern technology to do this, and I will also be talking briefly after the service about a few ways that we can maybe use the Internet in the service of the Gospel.  

Right now, however, I just hope that these words here might be able to point towards that voice today.  I pray that, as this advent begins, we might seek to hear the voice in the wilderness anew, and through it hear the call of Christ to us.  I pray that we might hear again the voice of John calling us to baptism and repentance.  Above all, I pray that the hope we find in this voice proclaiming the good news might be more than either feeling or action: I pray that our hope might begin with our building both community and communion with all who cry out in the wilderness.  For it is precisely for this community that the good news begins; and it is precisely in this communion that we are brought to the peace of God.

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Advent, Eliot, and Apocalypse

By Ed Watson

I preached at Christ Church this Sunday for the First Sunday of Advent.  I thought the lectionary would give me some nice readings about Gabriel, or perhaps Joseph and Mary beginning to make their way to Bethlehem.  Instead it was Isaiah calling on God to make the mountains shake and Jesus telling the disciples that he would do just that.   So, here's what I came up with, featuring T.S. Eliot.  Enjoy!

'From ages past no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.'

In my beginning is my end.... (How Ed used to celebrate Advent.)

In my beginning is my end.... (How Ed used to celebrate Advent.)

When I was younger, my favourite thing about December 1st was the promise of an Advent Calendar.  My sister and I would eagerly wake up early and, under parental supervision, carefully open the first window so as not to damage the chocolate contained within.  It was invariably a reindeer, or perhaps a crib or a sheep: the usual pastoral advent images.  The readings today, however, suggest that our calendars might have been better served by offering up some slightly more eschatological chocolates: instead of a reindeer, day one could have been the star of the magii falling to earth; day two, meanwhile, could have been the angels who appeared to the shepherds descending to earth with Christ at their forefront.  An apocalyptic calendar for an apocalyptic set of advent readings.

This is not just an idea that I found faintly amusing as I wondered how to preach on these passages; it's an expression of the apparent disconnect between my default understanding of advent and what the beginning we mark today is actually the beginning of.  The readings today reminded me we aren't just looking forward to a beautiful, messy scene of a babe born to a virgin in a stable; we are also looking forward to that same Son descending in a glory which we cannot even begin to comprehend. 

Now, among other things, this fact reminds us that as we stand (looking back to that beginning and waiting hopefully for the end) we stand in the middle way; that we stand in the thin space between birth and death, between creation and redemption.  The Church building itself reminds us of this, as we worship with the Baptismal font and Te Deum window behind us and the crucifixion and Incarnation before us.  It reminds us that even as we look back to the Incarnation we still stand with Isaiah, praying for redemption; that even as we look forward hoping for a world to come we still stand with the disciples, hearing the words of Christ as they point far beyond the horizons of our imagination.  

What, then, are we doing here, with all this looking back and forth to things we cannot see? What are we doing as we begin a new year of watching, hoping, and praying, a beginning which is, in itself, no beginning at all?  Why do we do this, again and again, when the beginning is beyond living memory and the end it promises is beyond the sight of either spiritual ecstasy or intellectual brilliance?  

My honest answer is this: I do not know.  If I were to hazard a guess, however, it would be this: we are remembering.  We are first remembering that the whole process of creation and redemption, of birth, death and resurrection, has already been completed.  Second, and following from this, we are remembering what we, the people of the middle, have been told to do: we are remembering that we have been told to wait; that we have been told to keep awake.  

What does this mean, to wait?  On the human side, I think T.S. Eliot puts it best: in East Coker he writes, “I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.” We are to remember, then, that as we stand in the middle the beginning and the end are beyond us, even as we are caught up in them. We are to remember that as they are beyond us, it is important that we find some peace with and within our limitation.

As well as this, however, we are also to remember that this waiting is not the waiting of those who sleep: it is the waiting of those who are told by Christ, in words which will not pass away, to keep awake.  We are the slaves left in charge.  We are the slaves for whom to wait means to hope, for whom to keep awake means to love, and for whom to love and to hope means to wait.  To wait is not, then, to just give over to simple passivity: it is, to use the words of Eliot again, to be those who are both still and still becoming.  It is to be still in prayer, but still becoming as we live in faith.  It is to be still in contemplation, but still becoming as we live in hope.  It is to be still in the love of God, but still becoming in the life which that love inspires.  

This is a world within which God is veiled.  It is a world of racial and economic injustice, injustice which I for one have benefitted from, injustice which informs the very metaphors we use to speak of God.  It is a world where to wait for God means to try to stand against that injustice, not in order to fix things according to our own visions, but in the hope that He might work for and through those who wait for Him.  It is therefore a world where we must listen before we speak, where we must close our eyes in prayer if we are to seek, and where we must live not just out of thought for beginnings or ends, but out of love of God and neighbour here and now.  This Advent then, as we have done in Advents past and as we will do again in advents yet to come, let us remind ourselves of this: that our task, our only task, is to wait upon the Word of God.  For He is at the gates, though hidden, and we know not when His end shall be upon us.  Let us pray then that we may, in our very waiting, become the tender branches which bear the fruits of His summer.  

In the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Amen.

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