I didn’t get ashes today. I don’t really understand why, considering that I have always been very religious and sometimes even spiritual. I think I may be in denial and don’t want to hear that I am dust (as I inch closer to dust each day that passes). I confess, I did feel emotional about not getting ashes today. I couldn’t name my emotions for some reason, so I began looking at images that might help me name them.
I found this image and, once I played with it a bit on my digital art program, I liked it. Most other Ash Wednesday images are gray and somber. I settled on this one because it has abstract ashes at the bottom and the palm that is burned to create them. It has a cross to remind me what Lent is ultimately about. It has some color, and there is light.
I didn’t get ashes today, but I got what is in this image! ashes, palm, a cross, color and light. I’m convincing myself that it’s okay that I didn’t get ashes.
Sometimes I wonder what I should do with Ash Wednesday? A better question might be, What does Ash Wednesday do with me? Must this day remind me that I am merely dust and will return to dust? At my age this is not a comforting thought.
And yet, I have to admit that standing before a minister to receive a smudge of ashes on my forehead is always like standing on holy ground, like standing in the presence of a transfigured Jesus who just last week showed us what transfiguration looks like. With a smudged cross made of ashes on my face, I walk on with just the tiniest hope that I will be transfigured, too, during the next forty days. Still, I got no ashes today.
What do I do with this day that invites me into the season of Lent by giving me ashes? How do I walk this forty day journey that is always marked by repentance, return, fasting, prayer, giving up something, and lamenting over what is, what has been, and what is to come? I am never quite sure that I want to travel Lent’s forty day journey.
So what will I do with this Lent? Some of all of it, I think — fasting, praying, hoping, healing, lamenting, giving up a thing, repenting and returning to God with all my heart.
Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
Joel 2:12-13 NIV
That’s my spiritual state on this Ash Wednesday, with a need for “fasting and weeping and mourning.” Lent has always been about penitence for me, but penitence without shame or guilt. Instead of shame or guilt when I return to God with all my heart, I will hear this:
I will arise and go to Jesus; He will embrace me in his arms, In the arms of my dear savior, Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Shame and guilt can never create newness and transformation for anyone. Sincere metanoia (sincere repentance) will create transformation.
If you know me at all, you know that hymns always offer me ”the whole story” — all the emotions that grab my heart, all the theology that matters, all the melody that lifts my soul. This hymn, one of my heart-hymns, says it all for me. And in this holy season, all that the hymn affirms will be my Lent. Please take a few moments to hear the hymn in the video below as you take time for reflection.
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and pow'r.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Come, ye thirsty, come and welcome,
God's free bounty glorify,
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.
Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall
If you tarry till you're better,
You will never come at all.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
JEREMIAH 31:31-34 (NIV) 31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
PSALM 51:1-12 (NIV) 1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
We are the faithful daughters and sons of God who wait. We are God’s people who wait for the promised days that are coming. For in those days the Prophet Jeremiah tells us that God will invite us into a covenant relationship. Like the people of Israel, we believe we are in covenant with God already. But this Lenten scripture speaks of a new covenant, a deeper covenant, a covenant not like the previous one. This covenant will be different, a new covenant.
As for me, well I desperately need a new covenant, because for this covenant, God will write God’s law upon my heart, where I need it most, when I need it most. For me, the season of need is right now — in the middle of a pandemic of isolation, in the midst of isolation due to acute kidney rejection, in the isolation caused by immunosuppressant medications, in the throes of worry and confusion. For me, these days promised need to come now — these days that affirm that we are God’s people and that, indeed, God is our God. God will remember our sin no more.
But we remember do our sin. Indeed, our sin is ever before us. As our teachers and preachers and parents used to say, we sin by both commission and omission. I know immediately, in my soul, when I have willfully committed a sin. That kind of sin is clear to me, and I quickly cry out to God, “Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” But sins of omission get me every time. What have I left undone that endangers my spirit? What have I left undone that harms another person? What have I done to sin against God?
These twelve verses of Psalm 51 are arguably the most heartfelt and poignant words of prayer and confession in the whole of scripture. The Psalmist’s words fully reveal his heart, open his spirit to God and speak fully and clearly of sin and of his deep longing to put his sin away. The Psalmist does not want his sin to be ever before him. Instead, he beseeches God . . .
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
I have no words to illuminate today’s scripture, no words of reflection that would enhance the message of this beautiful Psalm. I have no thoughts to add to its essence. But from the depths of my disconsolate soul, I pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Amen.
Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God, arr. Victor Johnson Sanctuary Choir, First United Methodist, Downtown, Houston Texas Dr. Terry Morris, Director of Traditional Music John Gearhart, Organist Jonathon Saint-Thomas, Pianist
A passage of Scripture that encourages me every time I read it came up this week in my Advent devotional booklet entitled, “Those Who Dream.” The beauty of reflection I have found in this booklet has definitely awakened dreams in me. As I reflected on Advent Scripture each morning, God never failed to remind me that the world is in chaos in so many ways. In the year we will remember as 2020, people languished and lamented through a seemingly uncontrollable pandemic. Many people prayed, many died, many wept, and some were even able to dream.
The sacred text for this past Thursday was from the eloquent Prophet Isaiah. I have always thought of this Prophet as a realistic dreamer who never failed to paint a true picture of a world both evil and good. Isaiah had a way of proclaiming the deep need for repentance while also calling the people to dream of all that could be better and brighter. The bottom line for this Prophet was sin followed by repentance, what that would look like and what a world of righteousness would look like. Thursday’s prophetic and inspiring word was from Isaiah 61.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Isaiah 61:1-4 NRSV
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, ffor he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Isaiah 61:8-11 NRSV
Standing in the midst of a pandemic world with all the grave challenges before us, Advent sends us a message. The last good word in these proclamations from Isaiah tell us that our Lord will cause righteousness to spring up before us, before all nations. When righteousness has her way in us, then — and only then — will we dream again. Our dreams empowered with God’s anointing will bring the advent of righteousness.
After repentance! Only after repentance!
Look closely at Isaiah’s words and you will see anew that God has anointed us to bring good news to oppressed people, to hold in our arms those who are brokenhearted, to comfort the mourning people, to set free people who are bound with chains of their own making and finally, as the Prophet said, “to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
What Isaiah tells us after that is my dream for this Advent 2020: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
All around us are the ruins we have left behind from all that we have done to our world, collectively and individually. The politicians make war among themselves, increasing the chasm that divides them. The people put politics before unity and spew hate at one another. The white supremacists barrage our cities with evil. Some of our people protest the racial injustice they have long endured. Hungry people still wait in the cold for a morsel of sustenance. People who have no home shiver in cold porticos, in parks, under bridges. Violence with its many faces is ever with us. The Coronavirus ravages on. The teachers and parents languish in confusion and disappointment. The frontline health professionals fall in literal exhaustion. Our children ask us when life will be normal again.
Every year, I recall the text of one of my favorite Christmas carols, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The carol’s text, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day of 1863, is a poem in which he expresses the terror of peace evolving into a world of darkness, hate and war. Two years before writing this poem, Longfellow‘s personal peace was shaken when his wife of 18 years was fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1862, during the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son joined the Union Army and was severely wounded in November of 1863 in the Battle of Mine Run. Longfellow’s words reach deeply into my soul and plant sadness there. Yet, the words are real and true about his world and perhaps, in some ways, his words are real in the world in which we live.
Till, ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth, The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head ; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead ; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!”
We do not fully understand the ways that Longfellow suffered when he wrote this poem. Yet, we might have an inkling that some of the words describe us, describe our world. In the end, when all is said and done, the carol proclaims that the bells are still ringing loudly and deeply, that God is not dead, nor is God sleeping. Instead God is speaking to us so that we will know, beyond any doubt, that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon us.” And with that anointing, we will fulfill a covenant with God — the mission God has given us to pray and labor and dream God’s dream of repairing the ruined cities, the devastations of past generations, as well as the devastations we are seeing before us in this moment in time.
May God make it so. Amen.
An version of Longfellow’s carol was sung by The Carpenters many years ago. Here is the video:
The time for Donald Trump’s airtime is over! In my life, I have no available airtime for him, and I wish the media would follow my example. I’ve heard enough of his rants and tweets. I’ve heard enough of his incendiary speech. I’ve heard enough of his indiscriminate name-calling. I’ve heard enough of his lying. I’ve heard more than enough of his disrespectful, hate-filled, divisive rhetoric. More than enough!
My soul will no longer give Donald Trump airtime. Why? Because often my responses to hearing him were anger, disgust, self righteousness and even hate. And those emotions darken my soul. Those emotions do not belong in my soul at all, because they have a way of displacing love, compassion, gentleness, peace, hope, light and grace — all the good emotions that God plants in the soul through Spirit breath.
I think of the beloved hymn . . .
Holy Spirit, breathe on me until my heart is clean. Let sunshine fill my inmost parts with not a cloud between.
Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me; Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part, Holy Spirit breathe on me.
— Words by Edwin Hatch, Music by B.B. McKinney
In these days of harmful politics, racial injustice, coronavirus fear and isolation, I need a Spirit-cleansing of my heart and soul. God has been ready to begin the cleansing for a while now. God has heard my repentant prayers admitting anger and hatred. God has waited patiently for me to embrace the stillness that can begin to heal my soul.
Stillness! Stillness longing for healing. Stillness whispering words of repentance. Stillness yearning for calm. Stillness seeking peace. Stillness waiting in solitude for the presence of the Healer of the Soul.
I’m going there — to that place of solitude where one can breathe slower, sigh deeper, listen attentively to the whisper of God and the breath of the Spirit. I’m going to solitude’s “luminous warmth” as John O’Donohue’s poem in which he describes the soul as the divine space.
There is a lantern in the soul, which makes your solitude luminous. Solitude need not remain lonely. It can awaken to its luminous warmth.
The soul redeems and transfigures everything because the soul is the divine space.
When you inhabit your solitude fully and experience its outer extremes of isolation and abandonment, you will find that, at its heart, there is neither loneliness nor emptiness but intimacy and shelter.
― John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Right now, in the midst of the disheartening mood of the year 2020, I am entering the solitude I desperately need so that I can experience my soul as the divine space it is.
Politicians, continue your rancor in loud and powerful voice! I will not hear you from my place of solitude, from my soul’s divine space. And as for you, Mr. Trump, I have no further airtime for you. I refuse to sit in front of my television for another minute, anticipating — hoping — that you will finally say or do something appropriate, beneficial, worthwhile, productive, compassionate or kind.
Instead, I will change the channel to more soul-healing television. In fact, I will leave the television altogether and go to a better place, higher ground where peace and silence and reverence and awe can begin the holy work of healing my soul. I am taking a sacred pause from my life that has been so anxious and worried and isolated. I will wait there in that sacred space where my “soul redeems and transfigures everything.” Thanks be to God.
Rev. Kathy Manis Findley The Hard Way Forward A sermon preached in virtual worship for New Millennium Church Little Rock, Arkansas October 11, 2020 Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106 (selected verses)
Have you ever come to a point in your life when you had to take the hard way forward? You had no other choices! In fact, the phrase “the hard way forward” paints a an unvarnished picture of these tumultuous days, and the paints on the artist’s brush are dark and foreboding.
What a journey 2020 has been! I have often called it a journey of lament — a journey that has forced us to be in places we never wanted to be and to see things we never wanted to see.
We look around and watch people in shock and dismay — disillusioned and despondent. So many have been personally touched, even ravaged, by the deadly coronavirus, while others are overcome with fear of it. We have witnessed evil, racist assaults; watched police brutality and murder on our television screens; we have grieved over wildfires that threaten to swallow up forests, animals, homes and lives; and over it all we have felt contempt for the reprehensible leadership of an incompetent, insensitive, egocentric, self-serving president. I think it’s safe to assume that many people in this broken nation feel hopeless and heartbroken.
I often ask: God, are you still leading us on this hard journey?Or have you forsaken us? Do you have some kind of plan we do not yet see?
These months for so many people have definitely been a hard way forward. As we try to put one foot in front of the other on this journey, perhaps we can imagine ourselves walking with the people of Israel.
So let us listen and hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture
From Exodus, Chapter 32, (selected verses):
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said,“Come, make us gods who shall go before us.”
“As for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
So the people took off the gold rings and gave them to Aaron. He took the gold, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and the people said,
“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before the calf and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices; and they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to carouse. [my word choice]
(Now the scene changes locations.)
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have acted perversely . . . they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. I have seen how stiff-necked these people are. Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”
But Moses implored the Lord, and said,“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.
And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
And from Psalm 106 (selected verses):
O give thanks to the LORD . . . for God’s steadfast love endures forever. Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have acted wickedly. They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
Therefore he said he would destroy them — had not Moses stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath.
This is the word of God for the people of God.
The story of the Israelites reminds us that our kindred sojourners also traveled some rough paths. The text gives a glimpse of just one snippet of their journey. We see the Israelites on their wilderness pilgrimage, complaining, as they often did — and as we often do.
Apparently, Moses who had just received the ten commandments, stayed on Mount Horeb for a long time, patiently listening as God engaged him in a presentation of all manner of laws, rules and instructions. It took awhile — 40 days and forty nights, a very long time. And the Israelites started complaining about it to the one Moses left in charge — Aaron.
What has become of Moses?
What would he eat on that mountain, anyway?
This Moses, that brought us out here in this mess — where is he?
And then their fateful request to Aaron:
You are the one who is here with us now — make us something we can see. Make us something that will lead us forward, and we will follow it.
Now you probably remember that the Israelites had complained before:
Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us with thirst? Why have you led us into this forsaken, dangerous wilderness? To kill us with hunger?
Their complaints may sound a bit like our own complaining during the terrible months of pandemic, racial unrest, political rancor, and all manner of upheaval.
Hey God! Are you planning to obliterate this coronavirus, or not?
Are you still with us, God, or not?
Have you brought us to this season for some purpose?
Like the Israelites, we sometimes lose sight of our leader — the God that would give us the courage to move. We are left as a wandering, unsettled people that simply cannot see our way forward.
As Wendell asked in last Sunday’s sermon, “Shouldn’t God do something?”
Shouldn’t a God of enduring, everlasting love do something?
Now remember — we are in good company with several holy bible people. The prophet Isaiah, for one, who asked:
“How long, O Lord And God actually replied to him:
Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the land is desolate and ravaged, until the land is utterly forsaken.
Not so reassuring!
The Psalm singer asked, too, in Psalm 94.
How much longer will the wicked be glad? How much longer, Lord? How much longer will criminals boast about their crimes?
They crush your people, Lord; they oppress those who belong to you. They kill widows and orphans, and murder the strangers who live in our land.
Who stood up for me against the wicked? Who took my side against evil?
If God hadn’t been there for me, I never would have made it. The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling! Your love, God, took hold and held me fast.”
Like those holy bible people, we ask — in our impatience and fear — “How long, O Lord?
And even as we ask, we have a wee inkling that God’s love is still holding us in safe arms of grace. George Matheson was a Scottish clergyman and theologian who lived in the late 1800’s. He was blind by the age of 18. Matheson wrote something quite profound about God’s love — the text of the hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The hymn text formed in his mind during a “dark night of the soul” he experienced, a deeply emotional and spiritual crisis. He tells us about it in his own words.
My hymn was composed in the manse on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. Something happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life . . . the whole work was completed in five minutes, and it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this one came like a dayspring from on high.
In a time of emotional anguish, God’s creative grace rose up in George Matheson and he wrote about the kind of divine love that would never let him go. I think we owe Rev. George for reminding us about God’s unwavering love. The hymn text is most assuredly Gospel Good News that people throughout the centuries have desperately needed to remember
As you and I walk this journey, we need to know that God’s love will hold us fast, but sometimes we don’t know it. Like George Matheson, we could use a visit from the Dayspring from on high!
In truth, we need assurance — that no matter how hard the way forward, God’s love will not let us go.Threatened by a deadly virus, God’s love will not let us go.In our most disconsolate moments, God’s love will not let us go.When we courageously stand up to denounce racism, white supremacy, police violence and all manner of evil that surrounds us, God’s stubborn love will never let us go!
But that kind of love also places before us a holy mission undergirded with the foundational principle that evil cannot be reformed, it must be transformed — transformed within us before it can be transformed in the world, and transformed in the way described by Dr. King:
Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strengthto fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the Israelites and their golden calf, or the psalm singer who sang something about God’s steadfast love enduring forever, or the idea that someone might possibly stand in the breach for us.
My friends, each of us are traveling through these days with at least some fear and anxiety. It is a hard way forward, and as some clever people have said, “The light at the end of the tunnel is probably a freight train!”
Still, we are inheritors of the hope and grit of so many others who have journeyed hard roads before us — walking, marching, sometimes crawling — at times standing tall, at other times falling face-down in the dust of a hard rocky ground.We have navigated perilous roads and turbulent waters in this season. Yet we walk on, just as those who walked before us and who walk beside us.
I recently saw a news report about a little girl walking with her family among crowds of protesters. She stops at a makeshift memorial to George Floyd. As she pauses there, we can read the sign she carries — a hand printed cardboard sign that says:
My daddy plays with me. My daddy reads to me. My daddy tucks me in at night. Please don’t kill my daddy.
The little girl walks on with her family.
Tamika Palmer walks on too, tears flowing freely. Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, vows she will never stop walking forward towards justice for the daughter she lost.
It strengthens us to remember those who walked before us in years past and those who walk with us today who are those sparkling examples of hope and grit: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Oscar Romero, Fannie Lou Hamer, Prathia Hall, Greta Thunberg, Rev Dr. William J. Barber, II, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., Dorothy Day, Bishop Michael Curry, Nelson Mandela, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Jr,. US Representative John Lewis, Rev. Pastor Judge Wendell Griffen and countless others whose names we revere, as well as so many whose names we do not even know.
Walking, marching, protesting, advocating, praying, writing, speaking, weeping — throughout centuries and to this very time. Compelled by prevailing, persisting injustice, they walk on — we walk on —taking the hard way forward.
So having eavesdropped on a people constructing a golden calf to worship, will we allow their story to call our attention to our own idols? Those idols we have made for ourselves out of our own Egyptian gold?“Idols” might just be the next sermon point, if I used sermon points!
It’s tempting to mistake our own creations for our God. It’s tempting to shape our self-made idols into an image that soothes our anxiety, feeds our anger and our egos, and convinces us it will demolish whatever is evil around us. I don’t know about you, but I can get obsessed at times. My tasks, my work, my advocacy sometimes rise up out of my obsessions. I don’t like that, but have to admit the truth.
So I have to ask myself: Is my work to dismantle injustice part of God’s call and my holy mission, or have I made it my idol?
Whatever that thing is that we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing we idolize may symbolize strength and power. It may personify bravery. It may embody rebellion or protest.But as close as we draw to it and place it at the center of our lives, we must understand that it will not lead us to transformation, just as the Israelites’ golden calf could have never led them to the land of promise.
Instead it will shackle us in our impatience, audacity and self-importance. It will shackle us because of our insistence on following our own way instead of God’s way.
Here is another honest confession:It is tempting for me to let hate become my idol, to allow my desire for retribution to goad me into facing off against injustice with hate. But God’s way is always love.
Is it possible that our idol is our hate for people, people who may actually deserve it like white supremacists, neo-Nazis, violent police officers, men wielding projectiles and tear gas, corrupt politicians and leaders? Do we rise up against such people with hate as our weapon, while all the time, God calls us to love our enemies!
The hard way forward is the way of higher ground that invites us to turn away from the idols created by our lesser angels and walk forward in the persistent love that will never let us go.
The hard way forward knows the pain of fear and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert-landscape and on to freedom.The hard way forward is to live into God’s abiding, never-ending love.
For you see, seekers of justice who marched the hard way before us faced firehoses and dogs because they longed for holy transformation and because they trusted that God’s love would not let them go. Seekers of justice protesting in the streets of Louisville and in other cities in these hard days face tear gas, police brutality, violent government intervention because they long for holy transformation and because their faith whispers to them, “God’s love will not let you go.”
You and I, in whatever ways we are dismantling injustice, MUST take the hard way forward — facing censure, criticism, indifference, ridicule, disrespect, even violence, because we long for holy transformation and because deep-down, we believe in our hearts that God’s love will never let us go.
That hard way forward is the path to transforming injustice! Doing the same things we’ve done the same way we’ve done them might bring some manner of reform. But we must not settle for reformation. We must set our eyes on transformation.
One last caveat: the change we seek may never be realized even if we are brave enough to take the hard way forward, because the saved up baggage we carry weighs us down — the anger we hold on to, the hatred we feel, the impatience that makes us volatile, the fear that besets us, the hostility we refuse to let go of. Isn’t it time for you and me to kneel before God, confess our sins and accept the healing grace that wipes away our tears and transforms us into a new creation?
Kneeling at the altar of repentance, we will stand up straight and tall and brave — and most importantly, forgiven — and we will take the hard way forward, knowing in our souls that we cannot just act to reform evil, we must resolve to transform it.
So let us bravely and confidently take the hard way forward, knowing that God is standing in the breach on our behalf and that the Dayspring from on high visits us, giving light when we walk through the darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.
Let us take the hard way forward, proclaiming from the depths of our being that no matter how dark and difficult and long the journey is, God’s love will never let us go. Amen.
I invite you now to spend a few moments of reflection and prayer as you listen to a benediction of choral music in the video below. May you listen in the music for the whisper of God, for Christ’s blessing of grace, for the brush of Spirit wings.
And as you leave this time of holy worship, persevering on the hard way forward,may the God of love go with you and fill you with gentle peace through every tribulation,so that your soul may rise up in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I watched the news last night before bed. Not such a good idea! Halfway into the broadcast, I felt a pervasive sense of despair and became very nauseous. I’m feeling it again as I’m writing this. It was the very real and very current events that were so upsetting: hurricanes bringing destruction in Louisiana; California wildfires threatening yet again; protests after the tragic and unwarranted shooting of Jacob Blake; 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse, who took to the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin during protests, using a military-style rifle to kill two people; a president who is intent on meeting street protests with military violence; a president who gathers a crowd of supporters, not socially distanced and most not wearing masks; and the coronavirus hovering over it all to make situations even more devastating than they already are.
I turned off my bedside lamp and, in the darkness, pondered the news I had just seen. I could not sleep with the sorry, worry, desperation and helplessness I felt. There was not one thing I could do to change my world. My world seemed out of my control, engulfed in all of the events of our time. I wondered . . . how will we live with natural disasters, protests in the streets, killing, violence, military style weapons, police out of control, political rancor, a deadly pandemic and a seeming disregard for human life? How will I live with it? What can I do to change it? In these times, we see before our eyes people getting very sick, people dying alone in nursing homes and hospitals because of COVID restrictions, people isolated and lonely for months, people divided by political polarization, people being killed by police, people protesting for racial justice, people pushing back hard, enshrined in their white supremacy, people losing their homes, people fighting out-of-control wildfires, people losing their jobs, people tired from working with so many hospital patients, people afraid to go back to school, people feeling angry and frustrated, people feeling complete despair. Most of all, people are hoping beyond hope for better days ahead.
My mind thought of nothing of any consequence I could personally do to reverse all of this destruction and despair. My heart memory, though, remembered some things God instructed us to do long ago. God addressed instruction to, “my people who are called by my name.”
“I am called by God’s name,” I thought. “I know exactly what to do!” Of course, I could honor God by standing up for justice — engaging in political activism, contacting government officials to demand change or participating in peaceful protests. I could honor God’s creation by doing more to care for the earth. I could honor God by loving my neighbor and caring for those who have suffered loss.
People of faith have God’s marching orders that dispatch those called by God’s name to practice all manner of good works. And this we must do. But the critical admonition from God that my heart recalled last night is found in Second Chronicles 7:14. If you are called by God’s name, you will likely know these words well.
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (NRSV)
But wait, Second Chronicles 7:14 doesn’t apply to us. It was for Israel. Our Biblical interpretations must have a solid contextual underpinning. Right?
Of course, many Scriptures taken out of context have done great damage. The context of Second Chronicles is that when God brings judgment on God’s own people, Israel, as a result of their sins, that God would also heal their land. And God would re-establish their blessings when they would pray and “turn from their wicked ways.”
We may look around at all the destruction around us and say, “My sin did not cause any of this.” I don’t have military weapons. I didn’t shoot anyone. I don’t set wildfires, I always wear my mask in public. I certainly cannot stop the ominous storm surge of a hurricane.
True enough! Most of us didn’t sin by doing any of these things. Yet, we should remember two things: 1) While we did not commit those particular sins, we do not fully know the harm inflicted by other sins we may have committed; and 2) We cannot begin to know the transformative power of our sincere, repentant, intercessory prayer.
Instead of entertaining such deep and helpless despair, instead of feeling physically nauseous with worry, I think I will follow the admonition of the Chronicler who gave me God’s call to pray. Of course, the admonition in its historical context truly was for Israel, but if we intend to use the Holy Scripture to guide our lives, we cannot ignore a passage that begins with “If my people.”
Perhaps my prayers and yours will bring transformation, in our spirits and in our world.