The Morning After Ash Wednesday 2018

Ash Wed Kids_Moment

As part of our Ash Wednesday observance last evening, I read the following passage from 2 Corinthians 6. Although I used a different version during the service, The Message  spoke to me on the morning after:

“People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly…in hard times, tough times, bad time; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.”

When I arrived to prepare for the service, I noticed that our children and youth, who usually meet on Wednesday evening for lessons in discipleship of one type or another, were gathering in the building as well. I then learned that both groups would be attending the Ash Wednesday service. I loved the thought of having their energy, their wide-eyed faith being among us as we observed this holy day. As they gathered, I heard one little girl excitedly tell her friend how “Pastor Scott was going to put a cross on our foreheads tonight.” I chuckled as I listened.

I sat on the front pew at the start of the service and little Owen sat beside me. We had words flashing on the screen to help people “set the tone” for the service. I asked him if he needed help reading any of them. He stumbled on “Scripture” and had no idea what “Fasting” meant, although he did a great job reading it. He got “Deny Yourself” and “Pray” very easily as well as “Kneel Now”. It was a good conversation when a great kid. One of a dozen or so young ones…along with the dozen or so youth.

Lord, did it hit me while I was reading that passage above.

I was so joyful just to be in worship with the younger ones that I hadn’t forgotten briefly about the big news of the day. I forgot that there were parents and children in Florida who were dead or severely traumatized by our lack of ability to balance safety and rights once again. I was struck while reading this passage that our witness in the face of such tragedy is to go on as people of hope, to keep showing the love of God even as we fight the good fight of doing what was right.

I was reading the passage and I knew that in just a few minutes, Owen and many other children and youth I have grown to love even as my own would soon join the line of people that walk up to their pastor and have me mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross as I said, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”

There are times that I wonder about Jesus’ words of taking his “easy yoke” upon ourselves. This didn’t feel easy at all. With every wide eyed child and every interested teen that came to me last night, I choked just a little more. I didn’t cry. I don’t think any tears escaped, but they wanted flow like rivers.

And then this morning, I came across this poem by Mary Oliver (from a book I’m reading for Lent) and I was struck with the enormity of the creation God has made in us:

We Shake with Joy
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

I leave with you a brief image, in video form, of what God might have seen last night…Faithful children…a pastor shaking with joy and grief…the people “immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy.”

To all God’s children in Florida struggling with the unspeakable…
my heart goes out to you in love…
my mind fills with thoughts of prayer for you…
and my spirit longs for hope for us all.

Ash Wednesday 2018

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion – do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers — most of which are never even seen — don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Matthew 6:28-34 The Message

I Worried
(by Mary Oliver)

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, with the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

 

Yep. I. Needed. That.

Scott Sears, Ash Wednesday 2018

Pray before you post…

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place
where he could be alone in prayer.
Mark 1:35 (CEB)

Okay, we live in an age of where connecting with one another is as easy as taking a phone out of your pocket. Because of that, and because of social media, I sometimes think I know more about what is going on in my children’s lives now than I did when they were living at home. I also know that the house is a bit more quiet than it used to me, however, I am almost certain that our two cats are attempting to make up for that by fighting more often and more loudly. At the same time, I realize that Pam and I have much more time to just sit, talk and reconnect.

I’ve been at this “empty nest” thing for over a year now and truthfully, it hasn’t been all that bad. I miss my girls…but we are still connected. I loved watching them grow up…but now I am so very proud of all that they are becoming as young adults that I hardly notice.

And then there’s that time that Pam and I have to just reconnect as a couple. That’s nice, to say the least. It’s also crucial to any relationship.

Jesus took time away from the crowds that needed his teaching and healing and tried to find a place where he could connect again with the Father. Jesus walked away from his responsibility of leading the disciples so that he could spend time with the Father in prayer. Jesus was fully human and fully God and yet, and yet, Jesus found it absolutely necessary to take time to be alone with God.

I wonder how many times we have said, “Oh, I’ll have time for that later…” or let interruptions (cue the fighting cats) get in the way of our time to spend with God the Father.

So much of what ails our society today could be helped greatly with more Christians taking more time to just pray. It would cut down tremendously on the amount of time they spend finding things that make them angry and give responses before thinking about how those responses look in light of the Kingdom of God.

So much of what ails our society today could be helped tremendously if more Christians would take more intentional time to stop “doing things” and just spend time in prayer. Perhaps there, they would reconnect with the very Creator of the Universe and realize that there is not one single person in the world today that this Creator does not love.

So much of what ails our society today could be helped if Christians spent more time alone – empty nesting it – with God. Their relationship with God would grow stronger. They would know God better and in the process they would know themselves better. When we work on our identity as it stands with God, there is much less chance that we would seem one way one moment and another way the next.

Over the past month, I watched the horror of white supremacy raise its ugly head again in Charlottesville. And then I watched as white privilege tried to explain it all away. And then I watched people engage in battles of words that tore apart even more of the wasting fabric of humanity that we have left in this world.

And there is only one thing I wanted to do. I wanted to take everyone I could and say, “Hey, do you think we could pray for a while? Just take some time and pray for a bit? You know, reconnect with God the Father, Jesus the Savior, and the Holy Spirit a while?”

The Son of God did it…I can’t think of any good excuse for us NOT to do so.

Twenty Five Years too Late

Greenville, NC was booming in the early 1990’s. A growing college campus, a regional hospital and pharmaceutical companies were making the area of Pitt County NC a destination for many new people.

The United Methodist Church saw the growth and new that a new congregation would be the best way to tap into the new people coming into the area. After several months of ground work by a planting team, Easter 1992, they launched their new service of Covenant UMC in a local Boy’s and Girls Club.

By the summer of 1992, the attendance at Covenant had hit 800 and was climbing. The pastor reached out to Duke Divinity School for a summer intern and somehow I ended up going there for the summer before I started my first year of seminary. It was a dream placement. I got to see the church at its most exciting. New people were coming to faith every week. Folks who had fallen away from “Church” finding their way back. The pastor was dynamic. Their music was phenomenal. And the felling around the gathering of this new congregation was one that was filled with hope – there was nothing God couldn’t do.

I was given the opportunity to preach a couple of times at Covenant that summer. On the first occasion, I had slipped into my white alb prior to arriving at the Boys and Girls Club and was just out mingling with the folks showing up for worship. I felt a tap on my shoulder and then a voice in my ear said quite clearly, “Hey, where’s your hood?” And then they laughed and walked off.

I didn’t get it at first. I wondered why anyone would need a hood in the humidity of Greenville. After a couple of steps and watching the end of my white alb sway as I walked, I froze at the realization of what this man meant. I couldn’t believe this came from one of our wonderful new congregation members. How could they possibly think that this sacred outfit was “that kind of robe.”

But they did. That is exactly what they saw.

I never wore it again in Greenville but I was quite comfortable wearing it once I returned to West Virginia. Had I been given the chance, I would have worn it to my ordination. But alas, in those days, we had to wear black robes.

This week, I saw the alb hanging in my office closest and thought I might bring it out for this week’s worship service in Princeton. It had been a while since I had worn it.

And then Friday night happened in Charlottesville. And then Saturday’s horrors.

I took the alb to the sanctuary Sunday morning but I was not wearing it. I simply hung it up where it could be seen.

The text I preached on that morning was Matthew 11:22-33. You may know it as the one where Jesus walks on water. And the one where Peter sinks. The disciples all get called people of “weak faith.” What had struck me that week was the fact that Jesus used people of weak or little faith to build the Kingdom. As I thought about the weekend’s event and my holding onto that symbol that could be so easily misunderstood, I realized that I too was a man of weak faith.

I told the story of that morning in Greenville and my inability to say anything in return. I told my congregation that I was a man of little faith. Then I picked up the alb and ripped it in half and placed it on the chancel rail of the church. Here is a picture of the destruction for now. Here is a link to the video…It is silent, but I think it speaks louder that way – you already know the story!  https://vimeo.com/229491973

Torn Alb

I know that not every white person in our churches see albs and think immediately of the Klan. But some of them do. Some of them do. I did not want anything of my already white privileged life to become a confusing symbol to anyone. Anyone. We have allowed symbols to lead to hate. Hate lead to speech. Speech lead to the disaster that hit a beautiful college town in Virginia. I will no longer wear a symbol even closely resembled to white hate in any way. I hope to find somewhere, some way that I can send the pieces of this alb to be refashioned into something of peace. Don’t know if that’s possible but I’m open to ideas.

I also offer a challenge to my fellow white clergy anywhere.

Ditch the albs.

Sure, I know they have other meanings. I know that they symbolize so much. But I also know that our actions here could speak much louder than anything else. Ditch the alb…Take up the preaching robe with love, justice, and peace. Let’s make a change that no one can miss. It took me twenty five years to gain the little bit of faith I needed to make a statement with this piece of white clothing. I pray it takes you less.

Thanks for reading. Thanks even more for joining me if you wish.

To see the entire sermon…go here.

 

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

cloud
That cloud…
That cloud great with witnesses.
Weeps at times.
Leaks at times.
When fear or grief
or pangs of birth
Strike at those under its gaze.

Those afraid, hurt or in labor
Feel the rain from heaven –
It’s source, unknowable.
Yet, the drops are fresh relief
From heat of battle with one another
From pain residing deep within
From the strain of flesh giving way to new life – even unknown new life.
And the drops, they form a stigmergy
a way to a stream which can be followed.
Followed at last to a place
A place of peace and rest.

Perhaps…Maybe…
Once, when one called out, “I thirst”
The cloud heavy with witnesses
burst forth with rain from saints.
And energy enough…just enough…
was found
to say
“It is finished.”

Finished? The cloud keeps watch. The drops still fall.
The cloud awaits for us to hear.