Fear and Love

Trinity Sunday
June 7th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can click here to read these lessons.

            Happy Trinity Sunday, everyone! Today is the feast of the Trinity, the three in one, the one in three, the all for one and one for all. It’s the feast of not just the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, nor just the one single God who lives and moves and has our being, but all of them together: the Trinity, that group that is not a group but a single Being; that’s not a single Being but a community of Love and Life.

            We often get lost in trying to explain the Trinity. Is God a single God? Yes. Is God revealed to us in three different persons? Yeah. Doesn’t that make God three gods? No, there’s just one God. You can go round and round all day with that.

            The thing is, the Trinity is a mystery. And not a mystery like Sherlock Holmes solves but a mystery of love. It’s the kind of mystery that we encounter in our relationships – our marriages and our friendships. It’s like the mystery in another person, that sacred mystery that we can never wrap our heads around just who a person is and what makes them tick. And it is our work as friends, spouses, human beings, and Christians to live into the mystery of another person, of Creation, and of God.

            Holy mysteries aren’t things you figure out; you live into them. So how do we live into something like the Trinity? I mean, I know kinda how to live into a friendship – you hang out, talk about things you both like, stuff like that. For a marriage, we live into one another by sharing our lives, our homes, our hopes and dreams. We give up ourselves to the other person, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, so that our lives become intertwined.

            But how do we live into the Trinity? How do we live into the beating heart of the universe, the source of all Life and Love and Hope, all Goodness and all Truth. I mean, it boggles the mind! But Jesus Christ invited us into that Life, into the Life of the Trinity. That was, really, why he came to us to begin with.

            Now, different Christians answer this call from Jesus differently. For some, it’s about the music. It’s about lifting up their hands and their voices and singing with Jesus. For some, it’s about service to others, about giving their time and their hope to help the poor, the suffering, the outcast. For others, it’s about the Sacraments, about aligning our lives with these mysterious gifts from God, and especially through Communion. But whatever the case, whether you got your hands up in the air or your knees bent down, it’s about community. It’s about entering into community with one another and community with the Trinity, who is a community of Love, the Father’s love for the Son, the Son’s love for the Father, and the Holy Spirit breathed out between them in love.

            For us Episcopalians, that community is based on a few things, but one important foundation is our Baptismal Covenant. You might remember this from the baptisms we had last year. And we say it every now and again throughout the church year to remind ourselves what we promised when we became adult Christians and Episcopalians. And during those baptisms, we promised to raise Cooper and Fiona, as a community, into those promises, until they can make those promises themselves as adult members of the faith. And this covenant, it forms our community, directs our community, and all of it to the service and love of God, who is the perfect community, three in one and one in three. That community is the basis of our lives as Christians.

            But there is something that can break that community apart, and it is fear. The Bible warns us about this fear all the time. Jesus tells his disciples often, and through them he tells us, do not be afraid. When angels come to Mary, or to the shepherds on Christmas, or to the women at the tomb, they’re always saying, “do not be afraid.” And they do this because they know how fear can break things apart. It can break apart communities, and it can break apart relationships. It can make us feel like God is miles, miles away. Fear makes us alone.

            There is a lot of fear around nowadays. I can’t read the news without hearing about fear, and that fear leading to violence and hatred. And that fear is close to home. Just this past week, there were rumors that protesters were coming to Coquille, and many of our neighbors came out to counter protest. Some brought their guns. And these acts caused even more fear, fear of seeing armored cars and assault rifles on our peaceful streets. And all these fears risk breaking our community apart.

            But it is our job as Christians (and, I think, our job as human beings) to see past fear. What is at the heart of these fears? For those who came to counter protest, beneath their fear of others was a love for Coquille and a desire to protect their town. And those who were afraid of seeing our city armed to the teeth because of a rumor, beneath that fear is also love for our town, a love of little old Coquille, where we don’t have to lock our doors and where we can stop to talk to our neighbors even if we don’t know them.

            What unites us is our love for Coquille, our town, our home. And even deeper than that, we’re united by our shared humanity; and even deeper than that, what unites all us humans, regardless of creed or color or whatever, is that God loves us, each of us, and loves us so much that he came down to be with us just to tell us he loves us. And to bring us all – all of us – to our true home. And love for that home should help us see through fear to the humanity in others.

            But if we continue to look with eyes of fear, or to act through fear, that community is broken. A community – be it a town or a church or a country or the whole human race – a community cannot live if it is afraid of each other. It will break. It will fall apart.

            Se what do we do with our fear? Pick up a gun and head to the streets? No, Peter tried to use a sword, but Jesus stopped him. Violence solves nothing. Arming ourselves is nothing to be proud of.

            So, then, should we go and gather flower petals and toss them at those who are angry and afraid, because peace and love and all that? No, that’s just a stunt. It doesn’t actually see the other person. No, we are to see the fear of others, and our own fear, and ask, “What is beneath that fear?” What do you love so much, what pain do you have, that makes you so afraid? Or that makes you so angry? And when we ask this question of others, we should be ready to listen. And the next question on our lips should be: what can I do to help so that you aren’t afraid anymore?

            In our Baptismal Covenant, which we’ll say together in just a few short minutes, there are two questions. They are: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbors as yourself? and Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? These questions, and our answer that “I will, with God’s help,” they’re at the heart of our faith as Christians and as Episcopalians. And they’re at the heart of how we are to live in this world as followers of Christ.

            So will you? Will you put down your fear and see the humanity in the other person? Will you put down your fear, your weapons of words or bullets, and see to and live into the dignity of the other person? Will you live as Christ asked us to and follow the two great commandments: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your spirit, and with all your mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself. For in these two commandments is the gate to true community. And it is the gate to eternal life.

God sure asks a lot of questions

the third Sunday of Easter
26 April 2020

Today’s readings are:
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can find these readings here.

       While in seminary, our professors asked us to do a number of activities to help us give better sermons. One of these was the elevator speech. We had to explain the Gospel – the whole thing, you know, God’s whole plan for salvation and the joy and the life, all of it – in just two minutes. That’s it, that’s all we got. And if we went over time, the professor would fold her arms in front of her chest and give us a look, and we knew that time was up. Two minutes flat, that’s all we got.

       Now, two minutes is actually the perfect time. Two minutes is long enough to move past the short, quippy phrases like “God loves you” and “Jesus live, died, and was raised to life so that we might have eternal life.” These are so very true, if you’ve only got two minutes, you’ve got to go a bit deeper. And two minutes is too long to recite St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica. Two minutes is both too short and too long. You’ve got to fill that time with something, but you can’t fill that time with everything.

       And so what this practice did, what these two minutes did, is that it drew out our personal connection with the Gospel. How has God spoken the Good News of Jesus Christ into my life? How has God made his love important to me, essential to me, something that I’ll turn and follow and life within for the rest of my life?

       In our class, we have a great variety of little elevator speeches. Some of us talked about mission, how we were moved to go out into the world and help the poor, the suffering, and the lonely. Others talked about hope, and how they were brought out of depression and doubt into a fuller life. Still others talked about a love of the Sacraments, of the beauty of the liturgy, of how they were and are fed in the Eucharist more deeply than a good burger and a hefty salad, fed down to their bones and even deeper. And all of it was true, so awesomely true, because it was a bunch of little pieces of the Church and God’s life in his Church.

       Now, this wasn’t the assignment, but what if the teacher, right in the middle of our practiced, finely honed elevator speech, what if she suddenly asked a question? Or what if, during my sermon on a Sunday morning, one of you suddenly raised your hand or stood up and said, “Hey Father Tim, wait a sec! Go back, I’ve got a question about something you just said!” My first Japanese professor did this during tests. It was awful. Once, I remember when we had a spoken test about giving directions. We had a huge map and the professor would assign us two places, say the post office and the bank. It was our job to go home, write up the directions with our very, very limited Japanese, then recite it in class. And so we’d come into the class, fearful we’d get something wrong, and start giving directions when prompted. But then, suddenly, the professor would yell, “STOP! There’s traffic that way. You have to go a different way.” And here we were, our well thought out plans in ruins.

       Back then, we students thought our professor was just teasing us, but what he was really doing was seeing whether we had memorized the language or if we could use it. He wanted to get down below our heads and into our guts. Did we actually know the language, or did we just memorize some words for the test.

       This same sort of thing is what we have in our gospel reading today. No, there’re no elevators, you didn’t miss them, nor is a Japanese professor asking the disciples to give him directions to the post office. What we have are two people, walking together, talking about what they know, and someone coming in and pushing them deeper. We see not just a teacher but God himself, in Jesus Christ, entering into his own story and saying, “Stop, wait, explain this to me again, what does this really mean?”

       Now, God often talks to us, and often God’s word is (like Jeopardy answers) in the form of a question. Especially when we’re stressed out about something, when we’re stuck with some problem, or we’re worried about something, God’s word to us is so often in the form of a question. I remember the first time I was to give a sermon, I was super stressed out. My heart was in my throat, butterflies in my stomach, the whole works. And then this question just came before my mind, “What are you so afraid of?” And it stopped me. It took hold of all the grief and worry, this question, and it focused me, “What are you so afraid of?” I dunno, God, why don’t you tell me? But the question just repeated: “What are you so adraid of?” ‘I dunno’ wouldn’t cut it. I needed to actually answer the question. And when I started to, I realized a lot about myself and my worry about looking like a fool in front of a bunch of people. God didn’t just change my heart like *snap* that; he walked with me through my anxiety, and has continued to do so, until now when I don’t mind looking like a fool in front of a bunch of people. God healed my heart with a question.

       And those questions in our lives, they’re so beautiful. For these two disciples on the road to Emmaus, this question that Jesus asks, “What things”, which in the Greek is just this single, simple, graceful word “Poia?” “What?” This question, spoken into their grief, their confusion, their worry and concern, probably their doubt and their hope mixed together like a string Christmas lights in a box, this single question unraveled it all and drew them to tell their story, to tell this stranger who was really God, but they didn’t know it, to tell this guy what touched the deepest regions of their hearts. And this question led them to more than just telling their story, but also to living a life of hospitality by inviting this stranger to stay with them; and also to seeing Jesus, seeing their Risen Lord with their own eyes, in the breaking of the bread.

       God asks us questions all the time. Sometimes they’re challenges: “What are you doing?” or “Do you really want to say that?”; sometimes their questions of praise, “Isn’t this beautiful?” And we might be shy about answering and say, like Isaiah, “Well, God, you know.” You know whether I should be doing this or not. You know how beautiful it is (you made it!). You know what’s in my heart, right? But God doesn’t want his own answer, just like our teachers don’t want to just give you the answer so you can just leave off doing your work and find something fun to do. No, God asks because God wants you to answer, to delve down with him into your own heart, to look out into the world and see that beauty, to live that hope, to enter into communion and love with your neighbor. God asks those two disciples on the road to Emmaus what happened to Jesus not because God forgot but because he wants to hear their story, because telling stories helps us understand ourselves, understand our world, and understand God more fully.

       Nor do our answers don’t have to be in words. For these two disciples, their answer was the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that was perfect for that question; but often God’s questions don’t lead us to spoken answers but to living our answers. To speak for myself, God once asked me, “Isn’t this beautiful” about Oregon, and this led me to live a life of ministry here, to go out into the forests and mountains and beaches of Oregon and to take my children camping here to show them how to live in such beauty. God twice asked me, “Isn’t this beautiful” during the celebration of the Eucharist, once in Athens Georgia, once in Eugene Oregon, and that led me on a path towards ordination. God’s questions have changed my life. They’ve healed me and brought me to a place where, I pray, that I can help heal and give hope to others. God has asked questions to make my life more jam backed with life.

       Where have God’s questions brought you? When has God asked you a question, stopped you dead in your tracks, turned you to look with eyes wide open at something, or someone, or yourself? How did you answer? How are you living a life of that answer even now? How can you, how can we the Church and the whole nation and whole world, be more often to hearing God’s questions and living God’s answer?

 

It’s Easter, but it’s not. And that’s okay.

the second Sunday of Easter
April 19th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can click on this link to access these readings.

It is good to be here at our church building this morning, but I have to say: it’s not the same without all of you. It reminds me of when I came into church during the week. Nowadays I work from home, but before our quarantine, I would come to the church each day at around 8:30, and the first thing I’d do was come in here and pray. It’s always quiet here in the morning, even if people are already up and about outside. It’s quiet and cool and comforting, and it’s the perfect place to pray in the morning time. The new sun pours in through the windows and really brings out the beauty of the pews, or casts sleepy shadows in little nooks. And, depending on my mood, I’d either sit down in the glow of the sun or hide myself away in the dark, then turn to God.

But then there’s Sunday morning worship. There’s still the peace and the quiet, but there’s something else. There’s this sense, this sense of something much more than just me and God praying in the quiet of the morning. For on Sunday mornings we all gather together to pray and to worship God, to sit in the morning sun or tuck ourselves away into little dark corners because we wake up a little more slowly than others. There’s the sound of the organ and our voices lifted in song. There’s our Scriptures and prayers read with different voices, not just one, for the Spirit breathes our Scriptures through the community. And there’s the creed, confession, the peace, and all of it leading to the most beautiful Sacrament, the Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper, where we are brought in view of Heaven itself, where we feast with the saints and angels and Christ himself, for all eternity. Ahh, the glorious Eucharist!

But things aren’t like that now. It’s nice to sit all comfy in the sanctuary like I do during the week, but it’s not the same. And, I know from watching Holy Week from a chair in front of a computer screen, praying at home isn’t the same as sitting here in these pews, listening to my voice from just a few feet away, praying with people sitting right next to you. It’s not the same, and I have to say, it shouldn’t be. And that’s okay.

Easter was hard for a lot of people. Holy Week and Easter were tough. For us Christians, there’s always this sense of relief at Easter, as if we were holding our breath the whole forty days of Lent and can finally breathe again. Helene tells me that it’s like that first sip of coffee in the morning, or even the smell of it while it’s brewing, that first sip that settles the heart and mind in something real and grounded. Or maybe it’s also kinda like shopping on an empty stomach. Have you ever tried to do this? It’s a bad idea. You’re surrounded by all this food that you can’t eat yet, and your stomach is doing flips. Everything starts to look delicious, and, if you’re like me, you buy things that you never buy otherwise, just because they look good. Then you bring it all home, unpack it (still hungry), and make yourself something quick, or maybe sneak a handful of chips, but that first bite – ahh, delicious! Easter is that ‘ahh, delicious’, that first sip of coffee, that dog wagging his tail for you when you get home, that cat ready to sit in your lap and snuggle in, birdsong in the morning, the feel of an old worn book – your favorite – cracked open again for the umpteenth time.

And we probably didn’t get any of this for Easter. It isn’t the same, and it shouldn’t be.

And that’s okay.

In his sermon for Easter morning, our presiding bishop Michael Curry reminded us of something very important: even if we don’t feel like it’s Easter, it’s still Easter. If you haven’t listened to his sermon, you should, it’s wonderful. For bishop Curry reminds us that Easter is bigger than our traditions. It’s bigger than Easter lilies and ‘Hail the Festival Day’ and white vestments. It’s more than just you and me, more than St. James, more than even the Church itself. And that doesn’t mean that those things aren’t important – goodness how important they are. But all these things – lilies and music and vestments – they find their meaning in Easter. They only mean something, and mean so much and are so beautiful, because of Easter. And Easter happens, our salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, it happens whether we celebrate it with lilies or celebrate it sitting in front of a computer screen. God loves you, no matter how you show your love.

And we forget this. It’s easy to forget. We love all the trappings of Easter and of Holy Week so much that we feel that, without them, how can it really be Easter. I remember, once, during my first year in Japan teaching English, it came around to Thanksgiving, and all the Americans were like, what do we do? We couldn’t get a turkey, we didn’t have stuffing or mashed potatoes, and there was no cranberry sauce shaped like the inside of a can. And even worse, on that day when family gathers from every corner of the country, we were literally halfway around the world, alone, knowing that our families were gathered. It was tough.

And so we scrambled around, searching for something, anything, to make our Thanksgiving just like it was at home. And we failed miserably. You know, the only turkey that ended up on our table was little, plastic-wrapped chocolate in the shape of a turkey. Instead, some of us gathered, ate our rice and fish, and felt sorry for ourselves for being so far from home. It wasn’t Thanksgiving, and dog gone it we we were going to feel really bad that it wasn’t Thanksgiving.

Sometimes we are like St. Thomas. Thomas the doubter. Thomas whose grief and horror at Jesus’ death is so painful that he says, “Unless I see the marks of torture and death on my Lord’s body, I will deny everything.” Unless I have it broken, in other words, I don’t want it at all. And so Jesus comes and says, Thomas, get over here. This is my Body broken, but it is still my Body. It is still my Body.

We are still the Body of Christ. We are in different houses, these pews are empty, and none of us took home Easter lilies last week, but we’re still the Body of Christ. We’re worshipping online, and it’s not the same, but we’re still the Body of Christ. We’re not celebrating Communion and receiving the Bread and the Wine, but God still loves you, without a doubt God still loves you. For God can’t do anything but love, for God is love.

We Christians are ‘both/and’ kinda people. We’re ‘already but not yet’ sorts of folks. You may have heard of one cookie now, two cookies later; we’re two cookies now AND two cookies later sorts of people. We are no strangers to making due with what we’ve got while still longing for how things should be. We work to bring the kingdom of God into this world, to heal the sick, to befriend the lonely, to seek out and find the lost, just as our Jesus Christ did when he was here walking around, just as Jesus Christ healed us, befriended us, and sought us out when we were lost. AND, at the very same time, we’re thinking, gee, eternity with God sounds very nice indeed. We’ve got one foot in this world, doing what we can to help and love, and we’ve got the other foot in the next world, learning just what love really means.

And so here we are now, living out our Christian lives, continuing to be the Church, the Body of Christ, knowing that there should be more lilies and vestments and sanctus bells and longing for all those things, but still living the life of the Church here in front of our computer screens. For it’s not the same, and this isn’t how church should be. And that’s okay. It’s still church anyway. We can still love and praise God, even here. Even now.

Unbind them. Let them go.

the Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 29th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

If you don’t have a Bible in front of you, click here for these readings. 

           “Unbind him.”
            “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            These are some powerful words. And they’re powerful words in a powerful story. Really, I think this is up there in the top five best stories in the Bible. There are those deeply good and important stories – stories like Jesus’ birth and his Passion – and I think this one ranks up just below these.

            For here is a story of Jesus, the Messiah, who comes to the world to destroy death but who still weeps for his friend who has died. Here’s a story where the God, the author of Life and Love, meets death face to face; God, who will overcome death on the cross, stands before the grave of one he loved. For Jesus here is no armchair theologian, sitting back in a comfy chair, merely thinking about things like death and salvation; no, Jesus is standing before the grave, his hands the source of life and love, yet still with a body four days dead laid out before him. This is, in a way, one of the reasons why God came to us as Jesus Christ – so that he could know our grief firsthand, so that he could know what it feels like to lose someone that we love, firsthand.

            For in that one, small verse, the shortest of the Bible – Jesus began to weep – there is a world of grace in this tiny little verse, enough grace to fill a lifetime. Jesus, God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, knew and knows the pain of deep and soul-rending grief.

            This personal touch is so important, but often we overlook it. Because, I mean, God didn’t need to do this. God didn’t need to come down to this Earth, to walk through this dusty world, and to face the death of those he loved. He understood, he knew what death was and, as we hear so often in the Bible, he hears the cries of his people. They touch his heart.

            But walking with us, feeling that same pain that we feel, that does something else. It’s not just head knowledge, it’s not even just heart knowledge, it’s lived knowledge. And we know this, right? Some things you can’t teach; you’ve got to do them to know what they’re about. I faced this while learning how to teach. You can fill your head with a lot of important things – essential things – about how to teach, but there comes a day when you’ve got to put it into practice. Until you’ve got a student sitting before you, who’s dealing with something in his life that has nothing to do with you, who’s mind is in his parents fighting, or who’s still on the football field training for the state championship, or who’s grandma just died, and you need to harness that student’s attention and interest, until you have to do that, and still care for that student’s heart, you won’t really know how to teach.

            Now, God knew us in and out, but he took the extra step. He said something like, “Yeah, I know you. I’ve known you since birth, since before you were born, but I want to know you more. Because I want to love you more.” And so he was born as a child into this world, worked for those in pain and suffering, stood before the grave of someone he loved, and even died on the Cross, just so that he could know us, just so that he could save us.

            “Unbind him.”
            “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            This is at the heart of it, isn’t it? We are bound, we humans. We are bound to grief, to worry, to anxiety, to hatred, even to evil. And I don’t mean that we experience grief or worry or anything, but that we’re bound to it. Our sin is not that we experience grief or worry, or that hatred rises in our hearts. These are human, so very human reactions to a tough world. And we know that grief is not a sin because Jesus, who was without sin, wept at the death of his friend.

            No, grief is natural, and in many ways it is holy. We grieve because we love. Grieving for love honors that love. Worry and fear are also natural. We should certainly be concerned about our health, the health of our loved ones and the world. Anger is also natural, when it is not expressed to hurt and belittle others. The terror, and the sin, comes when we are bound to our grief, to our fear, and to our hatred. That’s when it begins to eat us up inside and to tear us apart.

            Have you ever been bound to something that you just can’t escape? It can be something physical, like food or alcohol or drugs, as with those who struggle with addictions. We can be bound to things mentally, too, where we can’t free ourselves from things that others have said to us, or done to us, or things that we ourselves have said or done. I know I often struggle with things I’ve said in the past, and I play them back in my head and beat myself up over them each time. I’ve heard people with addictions say that, when they were drinking or abusing drugs, they just couldn’t see life without them. Life was a dark circle, moving in and out of self-hatred and guilt. They were caught, they were trapped. They were bound.

            And Jesus says, “Unbind him” and “let him go.” And while he says this, here, about Lazarus and his funeral wrappings, he also says this to us, today, as well. Have you ever heard this word from God? Have you ever experienced it? Have you ever looked at something that you were once bound to and known that you were free? Have you ever looked back at something that you’ve regretted and known, deep down, that that’s just not you anymore? Have you ever been healed from grief, from abuse, from hatred or pain or suffering? This healing, this lifting of us up and out and beyond is the healing work of Jesus Christ, saying to our sin and the sin done to us, “Fall away, dark fetters. You have no power here.”

            I am being a bit vague here, I know. And that’s because that sin we were bound up with and that we’re still bound up with is personal. I could tell you a story about something awful I’ve said or done, but that’s my story. I could tell you about someone I know who was addicted to drugs or alcohol (and I know many) but who is now clean and clear, back with their family, breathing life and living good, honest lives – but those aren’t my stories, they’re the stories of others. And what about you? What stories do you have, where you’ve been bound but are now free? What shackles and fetters are you binding your own heart that you can give to the Lord to be healed? These are personal stories, but stories are made to be told. Spend time this week, even today, praying with those stories, and maybe find someone trustworthy and loving to whom you can share them.

            But in all things, remember this: Jesus came not to just hang out with us for a while, but to set us free. Jesus came – God came to us chains and fetters and break them asunder. And those chains are not only our sin or the sin done to us, but Death itself. Death, which seems the end, is not the end, for Jesus was born for us, lived for us, died for us, and was raised for us, all to snap death in two, break it apart, and cast it away. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt – oh how it hurts. But God wept, too, over the death of his friend, and then he raised his voice and called him forth alive again. So too does God weep for us, then will he raise his voice on high and call out with a voice as clear as sunshine: Arise my beloved! It is time for you to come home!

Love and in a World of Ashes

Ash Wednesday
March 26th

Today’s readings are:
Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 103
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Click here to access these readings.

        I want Easter. I want it to be Easter. I want the colored eggs, the little green grass made of plastic. I want pastel colors. I want white vestments and alleluias and that bright, spring sunshine to be inside the church as much as it is outside. I want Easter, when Jesus is alive and the whole world is changed. I want an empty tomb, I want the flaming tongues of Pentecost, I want Jesus alive and well and joyful.

        But here we are. It is Ash Wednesday. We have over a month of Lent before us, we have over a month of Lent between us and that open tomb, that Jesus alive and joyful and that hope of the world after his Resurrection. And today, as Lent begins, we do not have the bright spring-white vestments of Easter but the dark, purple, penitential ones of Lent.

        We are an Easter people, aren’t we? Aren’t we? We’re a people who live in the light of the Resurrection, a people who live in a world where death has died, where hope unlooked for because it’s just too good to be true, where that hope and that love have thrown open the gates of death, shattered the bonds of sin and darkness, and led us into a life of light and life. We are an Easter people, so what are we doing with the soot of death upon our foreheads?

        I’ve preached lately on why Lent is a good and healthy thing. I’ve preached about how we need to take stock of our relationship with God. And we do this not because we’re scared of getting into trouble or because, as if God were a strict teacher and is going to send a bad report card home to an equally strict parent. No, for, again, we are an Easter people: our relationship with God is one of love, that is founded and fashioned out of love. And relationships founded on love are endlessly deep. Lent is the time when we explore that love, see how we can enter into that love more fully, more openly, so that we become that love ourselves. Goodness, could you imagine becoming love? That’s what we’re called to. That’s what we’re called to as Christians. To become love.

        Yes, we are an Easter people, but we are living in an Ash Wednesday world. Because of Jesus Christ, death no longer has dominion over us. We are free from it, free from the binds of death; but death still hurts. Darkness is still a cloud that confuses us and turns our hearts to worry, anxiety, and hatred. We humans still hate those who are different than us, sling ugly words at those we don’t understand. We still beat people and abuse people emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. And there are people in this world who hate themselves and see only darkness before them. We live in a hard world.

        And it’s good to remember this, not because we need to hate the world, too, or because we need to cut ourselves loose and just look forward to the joys of heaven, to grin and bear the pain of the world because the afterlife’ll be worth it. No, we need to look at the hard, ugly, hateful world, and that hart, ugly, hateful world inside of ourselves, because Jesus Christ came not to condemn the world, but to save it, to tell you that all things, all things, are worthy of the love of Christ. You are loved, not because God forgets your sin for a while but because God loves you. All of you, every – last – bit.

        The world needs to hear this. People need to hear this. Have you ever had the privilege to tell someone, someone who thought themselves unworthy and forgotten, that they are in fact precious and beloved of God? It is a grace and an honor to do so. It is a gift. And you know what, it is also the mission of all Christians, no matter what creed or denomination, to do this: to enter into the darkness, to even the darkest parts of human existence, be it in the world around us or in our own hearts, and to dispel that darkness with love. And I don’t mean some greeting card love, but a love that is strong and that looks death and despair in the face and says, “No, you are nothing against the light of this love.” For that love is true reality; for God is love.

        And so today, Ash Wednesday, we look death in the face. And part of looking death in the face is realizing that it is still painful, and that for some, that pain is deep and it is real. But we look death in the face because we have already looked Life in the face, and we know it to be a person, a person of love, and we know him to be stronger than death.

        I could end here, but I want to say one more thing. I hope that these words, and this service, has grounded you in the Love and Life that is past death. I hope that our time here on Ash Wednesday has filled you with a renewed purpose, so that you will enter into a holy Lent and look forward to the Joy of Easter. That may be the case for some of you, but it might not be for others. Looking death in the face is hard, and so I want to say: you are not alone. We do not look death in the face alone as individuals but as the Church. If looking at death has stung you, or hurt your, or if you are afraid, remember that we are here for you, both I as your priest and us as your fellow siblings in God. Nor are we alone, for God himself has looked death in the face from the cross. And he stands now among us as our brother Jesus, in whose hands is real bread, and in whose voice is the salvation of all.