Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday

For us here in the United States, Mothering Sunday might sound a little strange; after all, Mother’s Day is in May. Mothering Sunday was the inspiration for Mother’s Day, but the tradition goes back as far as the middle ages and has a profoundly spiritual significance to it.

As with most things spiritual, it isn’t easy to place an exact date for Mothering Sunday’s origin. It has been tied to the 4th Sunday of Lent since the Medieval Times as sort of a respite from Lent’s rigors.

The original Scripture readings for this day are filled with references to mothers and metaphors for mothers. The introit for the day comes from the Prophet Isiah 66:10-11 and Psalm 122:1

“Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her, all ye that delight in her: exult and sing for joy with her, all ye that in sadness mourn for her; that ye may suck and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations. Psalm: I was glad when they said unto me, we will go into the house of the Lord.”

In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (4:21-31), Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar as an allegory of Jerusalem, “which is the mother of us all” Paul understands this story as an allegory and advocates for an understanding of motherhood that transcends the material world.

The Gospel lesson for the day is the story of the Feeding of the five thousand (John 2:1–14) and is a reminder of mother earth gifts.

During this time, the tradition began of visiting one’s “Mother Church,” the church of one’s baptism, or of visiting the closest Cathedral or Mother Church of the Diocese.

The practice of celebrating Mothering Sunday was revived in reaction to Mother’s Day’s creation in 1913 by Anna Jarvis in the United States. Constance Penswick Smith published a play in 1913 called In Praise of Mother: A Story of Mothering Sunday and a book A Short History of Mothering Sunday in 1915. But her most influential work in the revival of Mothering Sunday came with the 1921 publication of The Revival of Mothering Sunday, a book in four chapters pointing that Mothering Sunday should transcend biological motherhood and include:

‘The Church – Our Mother’
‘Mothers of Earthly Homes’
‘The Mother of Jesus’
‘Gifts of Mother Earth’

On this Mothering Sunday, let us call to mind all those who have helped mother us in our lives.Let us Pray:

Loving God,

Thank you for mums and children and for all the joy of family life. Be with those who are grieving because they have no mother; Be close to those who are struggling because they have no children; Be near to those who are sad because they are far apart from those they love. Let your love be present in every home and help your church to have eyes to see and ears to hear the needs of all who come. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

God’s Love for All

John 3:14-21

It has been said that each preacher has only one sermon and that that sermon is adapted to fit various situations. I believe this to be true, and for me, that one sermon and that I constantly preach is the sermon about the unconditional love of God for everyone, without exception. Almost every sermon I have preached in the last 15 years has been about this radical concept of love that Jesus taught us and commanded us to follow.

In today’s Gospel lesson from St. John, we hear the famous line, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” After “judge not lest ye be judged,” this is probably the most often quoted line of Scripture, but the least practiced and understood.

Loving one another is not a suggestion but, as I previously said, a command of Jesus, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” We will be known by how we love each other, including those we disagree with.

Now, let me pause here for a minute for a point of clarification. The command is to love. Jesus says nothing about liking people. There is a difference between loving someone and liking them, and yes, you can love someone without liking them. We can also love someone without agreeing with their choices, not that anyone is looking for our permission or our approval.

Love is an interesting word. In English, we have one word for the concept or emotion of love. For example, saying I love my spouse is the same word we use when we say I love hamburgers. It’s the same word but a different emotion, well, at least I hope it.

As we know, the Gospels have come to us from Greek, so we have translated what we read from the original Greek language. In Greek, there are seven different words for love. There is a word to describe romantic, passionate love. A word for intimate, friendship love. A word for playful, flirtatious love. Unconditional family love. Self-love, love built on commitment, and finally Agape, or the all-inclusive love.

It is this Agape or all-inclusive love that we turn our attention to today. Agape love is generally an empathetic love toward Humanity itself and is sometimes connected to altruism since it involves caring for and loving others without expecting anything in return. Another way of putting it is this love sort of pay-it-forward love—people helping others selflessly—is the foundation of great societies and communities.

This Agape love is the love that causes us to be concerned for what happens next door but also for what happens across the world. This is the love that moves us to action when we see the devastation from a storm, extreme poverty, or children being held in cages. This is the love that makes our hearts hurt when we see the faces of people fleeing their home to find a better life and risking it all to see that it happens. This is the love that does not allow us to build walls but to build bridges. This is the love that causes us to not only give a handout but a hand up. This is the love that commands us to love others without condition because this is the love that God has shared with us. This is the love that requires forgiveness for past wrongs and hurts again because that is the love that God has shared with all of us.

One of the many blessings I have had in ministry was responding after a disaster. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana, I was sent to Baton Rouge to set up a logistics operation for the hundreds of thousands of pounds of relief aid that would be pouring into the state. The kindness and generosity shown were amazing.

The one incident that stands out for me to this day was the story of a small Roman Catholic Church in Baton Rouge that ministered to refugees from Vietnam. This church had nothing, no resources or staff, and they were not supported by the government or by the Red Cross. In fact, the Red Cross refused to certify them as a shelter, even though they were sheltering more than 100 people because they did not meet their narrowly defined criteria. But this little church opened its doors to the hundreds of Vietnamese people who had been displaced in New Orleans.

I was working out of the Catholic Charities Office, so we went to see what assistance we might offer them. I was reminded that they were used to housing refugees, and so this was just an extension of what they have always done, but it was more than that. They opened their doors, they opened their wallets, and they opened their hearts because it is what we do as Christians. They saw people in need, they knew they could help, and the love of God helped them do it. Truly a blessing.

To truly understand this command to love everyone, we have to return to the story of creation. In the story of creation, God creates the world and everything in it by speaking it. God speaks creation into existence except for when God creates Humanity. Genesis tells us that God formed Humanity from the dust of the ground. The hands of God fashioned Humanity out of nothing, but that is not the most amazing part of the story. After God fashioned Humanity with God’s own hands, God breathed life into Humanity. The very breath of God, God’s Ruach, was breathed into the lungs of Humanity. Genesis tells us that God created Humanity in “our own image and likeness,” and the breath of God is the divine spark that is inherently present in all of Humanity. It is that divine spark, that breath of God, that compels us to love all of Humanity. In the end, God sat back and looked at creation, all of creation, and said, “it is Good.”

But for me, it all comes down to the verse from today’s Gospel. For God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to show us a new way, the way of love. Think about it; God loved the world, all of creation, to such an extent that God was willing to humble Godself in the person of Jesus Christ, to take on this frail form that we have for no other reason than to show us a better way.

Sure, we can get all theological and talk about substitutionary atonement and all the rest, but I am a simple guy with a very simple theology that tells me that this God of love, in an act of love, sent Jesus to say to us, there is a better way.

There was a wedding not long ago in England. A young couple was being married, and they invited a preacher from the United States to preach during their wedding. Perhaps some of you know this story. But this preacher spoke about love, not just the love of the couple standing before him, but the love that God has for all of creation and our part in that. In that sermon, the preacher said, the way of Jesus is the way of love. And the way of love will change the world.

One of the more famous quotes of Mahatma Gandhi is, “be the change you want to see in the world.” Friends we need to love, and we need to be love to the world. We start in our own little sphere of influence, from the places where we are right now, and then that love spreads, and like Bishop Curry said at that small wedding, that love will change the world.

Amen.

Flipping Over Tables

John 2:13-22

There is a viral MEME, you know, the thing that has a photo of something and usually has a funny caption, of Jesus clearing the Temple of the Money Changers. The caption on the MEME reads, “If anyone ever asks you what would Jesus Do? Remind them that slipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.” This makes for a nice soundbite or MEME, but how theological is it?

The other problem is the soundbite is asking the wrong question. The question should not be what Jesus would do since we are not Jesus. The question should be, what is Jesus asking us to do?

Sure, in the story from the Gospel of St. John, we do see Jesus, in the Temple, with a whip, flipping over tables, and chasing people. But as I always caution, Scripture usually goes much deeper than what we first encounter on the page. We must drill down into the passage to see what is happening.

As he has done on many previous occasions, he comes to the Temple and finds the tables of the Money Changers there. Worshippers needed to buy things for the sacrifice, and they could only buy them from the sellers in the marketplace at the Temple. As a way for the Temple to make a little extra, they created their own currency and required that this currency be used in the Temple precincts. The exchange rate was set, usually not particularly good for the person exchanging their funds.

Now there are a couple of important things happening in this story. First, Jesus needed to get the attention of the Temple authorities. His time was coming to an end, and he needed to make a big splash to get their attention. Jesus needs the Temple authorities to be concerned about him, but he has just been some backwater preacher up until now. Jesus needs to go big or go home.

The second thing happening here is the focus of Jesus’ rage is not on the political system or the injustice of big corporations. Jesus’ rath is on those in authority in the Temple, the Chief Priests, and Scribes. The ones who study the law all day and are supposed to have the best interests of the people they serve at heart. The authorities know what is going on, but they turn a blind eye to it because, well, simply put, it is making them money.

Jesus is calling out the hypocrisy of the system in the Church. The system that has been created benefits those in power, not the poor or those on the margins. Under the watchful eyes of the Authorities in the Temple, the system that has been created makes it difficult for everyone to be accepted and feel welcome. Jesus is coming to flip the entire system over, not just the tables of the Money Changers. Jesus comes and flips over the practice of sacrifice and offers himself as the ultimate sacrifice once and for all. John places this story not as a stand-alone but as part of the larger Gospel story of change and transformation.

The third thing happening here is the personal dimension of the story. There is always a personal dimension to the Gospel for me. The Jews believed that God resided in the Temple, God’s house if you will. Jesus is changing the dynamic of theological thought that takes God out of the Temple of brick and mortar and places God in the Temple of Humanity, in our hearts. But for God to dwell there, there must be room. Jesus asks each of us to chase away those things that keep us from the true worship of God. Jesus wants to cleanse the Temple of our hearts; he wants to slip over the tables of hatred, racism, classism, nationalism, and all the other isms that live in our hearts. Jesus wants to change our Temple from brick and mortar to compassionate, caring flesh that sees us not using people for what we can gain but helping people because, like us, they are beloved children of God. Jesus wants us to make room for God in our lives and not just in a superficial way but in an intense and personal, dare I say, intimate way.

My wife and I have been clearing out spaces in our home that we do not usually see. You know the places, closets, basements, and all the rest. As our baby gets older, we are discovering she will need more room to play, so we have to make room. We are going through things that we no longer use or are broken and discarding some, selling some, and giving away most.

The season of Lent is a particular time on the Church calendar. The services and the readings point towards this idea of renewal and cleansing. Take time during this season to make room in your Temple for God. Clear away some of the things that keep us from that deep relationship that God wants to have with each of us.

Amen

Forgiveness, A Key Ingredient to Our Spiritual Life

Traditionally there are three themes for the season of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. To this traditional list, I like to add a fourth, forgiveness. If the conventional three are the stool legs, forgiveness would be the seat, the one that holds all the rest together. Although one certainly can practice the other three without forgiveness, spiritually, it just works better when forgiveness is added to the list.

The Sunday of Forgiveness is held on the Sunday before Lent, starting in the Orthodox Christian Church. In the parish I served, there was a tradition at the end of the liturgy; everyone formed a line and approached the priest. Each would ask forgiveness of the other and grant forgiveness to the other. The person would then stand to the priest’s right as the next person in line came forward and so on. The ritual continues until everyone has come through the line.

Sure, there may be people in the line that you do not need to forgive or that you need forgiveness from, but the ritual is about the act of forgiveness. The theology behind this ritual is that one does not enter lent holding anything against another. Forgiveness is essential to worshipping God.

The communion liturgy of the ancient church used to contain a line about holding grudges. If you have anything against another, the instruction was to leave your sacrifice in the church, go and seek reconciliation with the one, and then return to the church for communion.

Forgiveness is essential to our relationship with God and with others.

There are two dimensions to forgiveness, giving and receiving. The critical thing to remember about forgiveness is that forgiveness is not for the person you are forgiving. Forgiveness is for you. By withholding forgiveness, we give power to the other person to control a portion of your life. If we withhold that forgiveness, they hold power. The moment we forgive, the power returns to us.

Forgiveness is not about the state of mind of the other person. Many times, the other person does not even know they have harmed or offended us. We offer them forgiveness by letting go of the hold they have on us.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. When we offer forgiveness to the other, we are not ignoring the pain. We are merely taking power back that the other person has.

Let us use this time of Lent to be open to the idea that we all need forgiveness, and we all need to grant forgiveness. It may not always be easy but, in the end, it is worth it.

Lent Evening Prayer

Join Rev. Peter on Wednesday evenings during Lent for Evening Prayer and Reflection. This is a great opportunity to take up the invitation to grow closer to God this Lenten Season.

Reflection Themes

March 3rd ~ Forgiveness
March 10th ~ Fasting/Almsgiving
March 17th ~ St. Patrick
March 24th ~ Prayer
March 31st ~ The Days of Holy Week

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My Friend Joe

I am not the type of man that has many friends. It is not easy for me to let people into my life, so I tend to keep most people at arm’s length. But every so often, someone special crosses your path, and you just know that this guy, this person is a true friend. For me, that person is Joe.

I first met Joe virtually before that was even a thing. I had only been ordained a few years, and I was finding my progressive theological voice, and I stumbled upon this guy from Scranton who taught me about living the Gospel in everyday life. Joe cares deeply for everyone that he encounters. Joe lives the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his command to love your neighbor without condition. Joe is a strong advocate for everything that he believes in and fights hard for those beliefs.

Myself, Bishop Thomas Bryant, Fr. Joe Grieboski

Although I met Joe about 13 or 14 years ago, it was not until 2018 that we met in person. Joe had helped me find my progressive theological voice, and I had moved on from the denomination that ordained me and was serving in another, more progressive denomination. Joe had been ordained a priest in the Independent Old Catholic Church, one of the churches affiliated with Utrecht in Holland. Old Catholic Priests have valid orders but are not under the authority of Rome. I asked Joe if there was room for an ex Orthodox priest now serving in the United Church of Christ, and he paved the way for me to join. Joe was standing beside me when I knelt at the altar in the War Memorial Chapel at the Washington National Cathedral as I was welcomed into the fold.

Joe is a dreamer and a planner, and we talked for hours on the phone and on Zoom about the Church and how we were going to make it a place that welcomed everyone regardless of their background or any of the other things that keep people out of Church. We wanted a different Church, not one hung up on buildings and material wealth, but that worked to make lives better for not just a chosen few, but for everyone. Yes, I know it is a lofty dream, but Joe made it sound possible. Joe so desperately wants to spread the love of God to everyone.

Last fall, Joe was elected Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of the Eastern United States of the Independent Old Catholic Church. At the same time, I was elevated to Monsignor, and I saw Joe’s fingerprints all over that honor that was bestowed on me. I had the honor of being the Master of Ceremonies for his consecration, and what will be one of the greatest joy of my life, I celebrated the Eucharist with him at the High Altar at Washington National Cathedral. That holy ground where so many theological giants have stood and that place from which the message of love rings forth each and every day.

Me showing Bishop Elect Joe and is wife Tracy how to put his new Crozier together prior to his consecration as Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of the Eastern USA, IOCC

Joe did not know this, but I had decided that my gift to him was to create his Bishop’s Staff his crozier, the symbol of his Episcopal Office that he would carry with him for the rest of his life. I crudely fashioned it out of wood as a reminder to Joe of the wood of the Cross of Jesus the Cross that we must bear each day in ministry. It was not perfect, and there were some rough spots, just like in our spiritual lives, but over time, with use, those places would become smooth. I had the privilege of presenting my gift to him at his consecration.

Joe was there for me when my mother died, and he was there again, two years later when my father died. Joe was one of the first people I told about my wife and me expecting our daughter. And Joe was one of the first I told when she was born this past April. Joe shared my moments of great joy and great sorrow. Joe is my mentor and my confessor.

On Wednesday, my friend Joe died, and his death has left a large hole in my heart.

I think I can honestly say that Joe was more than my friend, Joe was my brother, and I loved him. Joe will be missed by so many, but I have to smile thinking about Joe sitting with Jesus, arguing some fine point of theology.

My friend, I never told you how much you mean to me, and I am sorry for that; I hope I brought a little humor into your life. Joe and I used to Facebook Message each other these funny little MEMEs and other things that we might not want to post on Facebook. The day before he died was the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. I took a picture of my chair, the very chair I am sitting in to write these words, and I sent it to him and wished him a happy feast day. He responded with a heart, and that was the last communication I had with my friend.

Joe, you will always be in my heart. Thank you for all that you taught me. Thank you for giving me the courage to preach God’s message without apology. I hope I make you proud.

Love you brother!

The Great Litany

In The Book of Common Prayer, on page 148 is the Great Litany. The Great Litany, like all Litanies, is a prayer of supplication consisting of several petitions and responses. Interestingly, this particular Litany is the first prayer translated into English by Thomas Cranmer. He would eventually assemble The Book of Common Prayer, most of which is still in use today.

In writing this Litany, Cranmer borrowed from several others, including the Sarum rite and the Litany of Martin Luther. The original 1544 version included invocations to the Saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, but these were omitted in 1549. The Litany was ordered to be used in Church processions by Henry VIII when England was at war with Scotland and France.

The rubrics are quite simple:

To be said or sung, kneeling, standing, or in procession; before the Eucharist or after the Collects of Morning or Evening Prayer; or separately; especially in Lent and on Rogation Days.

The Great Litany strikes a penitential tone and is often used on the First Sunday in Lent. The Litany contains an invocation to the Trinity, several petitions for the deliverance from evil, spiritual harm, and all kinds of “calamities.” The Litany also includes petitions pleading the power of Christ’s Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection asking for deliverance; prayers of general intercession; the Agnus Dei; the Kyrie; the Lord’s Prayer. The Litany ends with a versicle and response based on Ps 33:22; a concluding collect; and the grace.

Most all Christian Churches have some Litany. Although I am not sure it could be considered a litany, one of the most beautiful is the prayer said by Orthodox Christians during the time of Lent called the Prayer of St. Ephraim. This is prayed individually or during worship, and after each verse, one makes a complete prostration. This prayer, like the Great Litany, is penitential.

 O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord, and King grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

Lent is a time of prayer and repentance, and the prayers of the Church, like the Great Litany, are a reminder of that penitential nature of the Season.

First Sunday in Lent

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to him.

1 Peter 3:18-22

Humans have an understandable aversion to suffering. Who in their right mind wants to endure any suffering for any reason, not me. I work as a chaplain for a hospice agency. The hospice philosophy is to help the patient have a good death, and one of the ways this is accomplished is by ensuring that there is little or no suffering as best we can. In hospice, we holistically achieve this by treating the patient physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Here we are at the start of Lent, a season that has, as its focus, the suffering of Jesus, and in this pericope from 1st Peter we face it head-on. Suffering has been a hallmark for Christianity for most of history. There was, and still is, this idea that we must suffer as Christ suffered to be good Christians. Well, I don’t think that is necessary. There is also this mistaken idea that God wants us to suffer and that God causes us to suffer. Again, I don’t see it this way.

This notion that suffering is a spiritual disciple has led to all sorts of abuse by the church and by others for centuries. This type of theology has allowed pastors to counsel women to remain in abusive relationships and others to abuse themselves to become closer to Christ. This type of theology is offensive. Christ suffered not to bring more suffering upon us but to save us from eternal suffering.

As I mentioned, there is also this idea that God causes human suffering. If this were true and God did cause human suffering, which is often unpredictable and undeserved, God becomes an arbitrary God who does not appear to love us. Can we trust such a god? If God does cause some to suffer, then, by some perverse sense of logic, humans would have little motivation to intervene to stop that suffering. Is this why we feel we do not have to address the suffering of others?

What is needed is a better understanding of suffering. The text from 1st Peter reminds us that Jesus suffered terribly before he died on the cross. God did not cause his suffering; instead, it resulted from Christ’s faithfulness to his reconciling mission. By suffering and dying, Jesus defeated death and suffering.

Through his life, suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus has become the one who walks with us. There is no experience, be it a tragedy, triumph, joy, or sorrow that is unknown to Christ. Even in our suffering, be it by accident or by design, Jesus is with us. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, says that “nothing is able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:39).

In hospice, my aim is to relieve the spiritual suffering that many of my patients experience. For some, there is a feeling that God has abandoned them and, because of something they have done in the past, God is causing their illness. Some will find comfort in confession and forgiveness, and some find comfort in the knowledge that God is with them, and through his own life, Jesus walks along with them and understands. My role is to bear witness to the love of God through the suffering of Jesus Christ in their lives.

As we enter this season of Lent, we should not forget Christ’s passion. Most of us want to skip over the suffering parts of the story and jump right to the joy of Easter, and that is understandable. But what about the garden, betrayal, arrest, trial, and the cross? These events are essential to the story and should be embraced and not skipped over. Understanding how and why Jesus suffered is as necessary to the story as the resurrection. Understanding that Jesus suffered helps me in those times of suffering to know that I am not alone.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

‘So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today is the start of the observance of Lent. I don’t know about you, but I feel like we have been in a perpetual state of Lent this entire last year. Just about a month from now, we entered lockdown thinking that it would be short, and we would get back to normal. But here we are, anything but ordinary and preparing for another Easter in lockdown. Like the pandemic, Lent is a time to take stock of our lives to see what we might be willing and able to change.

The Gospel passage appointed for today is part of the Sermon on the Mount. At first glance, the words appear to be a condemnation of hypocrisy, and that it indeed is, but it is more than that. There is something offensive about hypocritical displays of piety. The etymology of hypocrisy, from the Greek; play-acting, pretending, concealing the true self, suggests a lacking of integrity. There is this idea that hypocrites can hide their true motives and character from us.

However, Jesus is saying much more in this passage. Contained here are some of the most profound and perceptive spiritual words of Jesus. Jesus speaks of doing things in secret, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v 6). Jesus is urging us to look at why we do what we do and ask ourselves what our motivation is?

Our spirituality should be intrinsically motivated and focus on our existential, personal relationship with God. We do not look to what can be gained socially in this relationship or achieve anything other than a relationship with God. This relationship with God is its own reward and an end within itself. The passage tells us that we must pray, fast, and give alms “in secret” because it is “in secret” where our relationship with God is its own reward.

There has been much discussion amongst my clergy colleagues concerning the distribution of ashes during the pandemic. Is there a safe way, or should ashes be distributed at all? There is a desire amongst the faithful for this ritual as it lends a sense of normalcy to what has been happening in our world. But at the same time, we ask, is it necessary? The ritual says it is optional but is it essential?

Why do we receive ashes? When the ashes are placed on our forehead, the ritual words used are, “Remember thou art dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ashes are a reminder of our mortality in an outward and visible sign. If there was ever a time when being reminded of our mortality was unnecessary, it certainly has to be during these last months of the pandemic. COVID-19 has touched the lives of many and taken loved ones and friends from so many I am confident we are aware of our mortality.

Rituals are essential, and the imposition of ashes is only a part of the larger ritual for Ash Wednesday.

Several years ago, I participated in “Ashes to go.” We took ashes out of the church and to the people at the local train station. The notion was that our lives had become so busy and folks could not get to church, but there was a desire for the ritual in our lives. We had a sign, and folks would approach. We would say a short prayer and impose ashes on their forehead. The ritual was complete; the box was checked, but what came next.

Earlier I mentioned that we must seek an existential, personal relationship with God, which is true. But that relationship cannot exist in isolation. There is a communal aspect to our relationship with God, where we work out our spirituality. Community is not what it was a year ago, but community still exists and is vital to our spiritual maturity. Yes, the imposition of ashes is part of that communal experience, but it is not the only way.

Traditionally Lent was a time when those separated from the church were reconciled to the church and to others. In the Orthodox Christian church, Lent begins with forgiveness asked and forgiveness granted. If we require an outward sign of our Lenten observance, look towards forgiveness and reconciliation and repair relationships. Each day we are reminded of our mortality, do not wait until it is too late.

As we start Lent I will leave you with the words from the Ash Wednesday Service as found in the Book of Common Prayer and wish you a holy season.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Last Sunday after Epiphany

Last Sunday after Epiphany

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark 9:2-9

Today we come to the end of the Christmas/Epiphany Season, and Wednesday begins Lent. During these past weeks, we have been witness to the start of the Ministry of Jesus and some of the miracles but today, as Thomas Aquinas put it, the greatest of miracles the Transfiguration. Although not the Feast of the Transfiguration, that is, in August, we have the story of the Transfiguration and an essential bridge between Christmas/Epiphany and Lent/Easter. Just like with the Feast of the Presentation, today we turn our gaze from the cradle and face the cross.

I have written before about the role of John the Baptist being the connecting point between the Old Covenant and the New, and today, we witness Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. The vision we see on that mountain top is Jesus, joined by Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the last of the Prophets. In this vision, we see the completion of the law and the prophets, as Jesus will say later.

The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment; this is the point where human nature meets God. It is the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal. Jesus is the point of connection and becomes the bridge between heaven and earth. In this feast, we also see the uniqueness of Jesus. Jesus is not only the fulfillment of the law and the prophets; he is not to be equated with the spiritual stature of Moses and Elijah. But, as unique as this is, Jesus does not want this made known. The divinity of Christ is known only to those to whom it is revealed. Knowledge of Jesus’ divinity is a revelation that comes as a gift from God in God’s own way and in God’s own time.

In this feast, we find a powerful word to us to take up our cross and follow Christ but not in a personal way but in a communal way, a way that seeks to transform the world through the power of divine love, a powerful, assertive love. This divine love will ultimately change the world through a fierce pursuit of social and personal righteousness. The Transfiguration is a story that calls us to affirm the ultimate truth that the nonviolent way of Jesus is truly the way of salvation, healing, and eternal life.

But the theme of Transfiguration is as much about us as it is about the world. The Transfiguration of Jesus was personal; there was a change that took place on that mountain top. Mark places this story at the very center of his Gospel; it is equal distance between the birth story and the Resurrection story. The Transfiguration story is a reminder that before we can ever hope to participate in the transformation of the world, we need to be willing to allow a transformation of ourselves.

Lent is a time of spiritual transformation and Transfiguration. Lent is a time when spiritually, we climb that mountain and see the divinity of Jesus. But Lent is also a time for us to see the humanity of Jesus. Jesus chose to become human to show us a new way of life, a new way of living that was not as much about sacrifice for our sake but a way of love for all of creation. During Lent, we follow the way of the cross, we follow the way of love and see Jesus at his most human. We encounter the love that God has for all of humanity, without condition on full display.

The story of the Transfiguration, the story of Lent, the story of the Gospel is the story of love and, as Bishop Michael Curry puts it, “The way of Jesus is the way of love and the way of love and change the world.”  

This Lent, let us follow the way of love and let it transform us, and then, maybe we can transform the world.

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