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Psalm 51 - (Ash Wednesday) "Saying the Hard Things"

AshWed Click here to see this on Youtube.

I am not happy to be here tonight, but please do not take that personally.  My discomfort is because it is Ash Wednesday.  Lent has begun and my charge, as I read the texts for tonight, is to warn you sinners to get right with God.  Now I’m not sure that is why you came to worship tonight.  Maybe you came for the beautiful music, or because you always show up for any worship service now matter what, or you might have heard that I am a nice guy who preaches uplifting sermons.  But tonight Lent begins, so there is no more Mr. Nice Guy!  Tonight I am supposed to channel my inner Baptist and reach back to the revivals of my youth and say, “Today is the day of your salvation.”   


But I’m torn.  First, I know what happens to people who speak hard truth that people don’t want to hear and, honestly, I’m kind of a people pleaser at heart.  Second, I don’t really know if you are sinners.  The law of averages says you probably are, but I don’t know which ones. (Maybe you could raise your hands so I will know!) Third, and most importantly, how can I tell you about your sin, without becoming aware of my own sinfulness.  That’s really why I don’t want to be here tonight.  Right now I’d really rather not talk about that.


So let me fall back for a minute on my seminary training and tell you what I’ve read in the commentaries.  A distinguished professor wrote in his commentary on Psalm 51:


Twice a year, I see my doctor for a physical checkup. He monitors my vital signs and points me in the direction of good health. Today I embrace Lent as an annual spiritual checkup to see where I'm at and to renew my relationship with God. But, please, annually, not weekly! 


That is a comforting way to think about Lent.  After a lot of waiting around, my weight and pulse are checked.  Deep breath in, deep breath out, and again. (Are you sleeping OK?  “I have teenagers, what do you think?) The tight grip to check my blood pressure, (how’s your diet?  I’ve cut out red meat and added greens.)  Bright light the eyes, say “ahhh.”  Rubber mallet to the knee.  An uncomfortable moment with cold hands where I’m asked to cough and we are down the homestretch.  Keep up that running and schedule a colonoscopy in six months.  I guess I’ll live another year, time for the co-pay, “wow, don’t check my blood pressure now.”  And I will get back to you to schedule that colonoscopy…in 2013. 


If only there were an easy Lenten spiritual equivalent of a checkup.  “I see you made it to church more than 50% of Sundays, bonus for Ash Wednesday and don’t forget the Great Easter Vigil.  I see you were a little behind on your pledge, try to push that up this year.  Served on a committee? Check.  Washed dishes at the ham dinner?  Check.  Said your prayers?  Check.  Good job.  Keep going to choir, make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and try to read your bible a little more this year and remember next year is your turn to be on church council.


Actually there is a checklist and it goes like this: angergreedslothpridelustenvy, and gluttony.  If these formed a medical exam it would feel like a combination of a stress test, endoscopy and angioplasty.  Together they sound like a rather invasive medical procedure.  Its my duty here tonight, as one entrusted with the cure of souls, to tell you that these spiritual diseases are a great human epidemic and if you are not living an engaged spiritual journey, you will most likely succumb to at least one of these.


King David, in Psalm 51, is not coming in for a check up.  He is not asking, “Am I doing OK doc?”  He says, “I know my sins and they are ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.  Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” 


David is in line waiting for a heart transplant.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  Listen to the verbs – wash me thoroughly for my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin, purge me, deliver me, restore me, teach me.  He is a man in anguish, describing his feelings as like his very bones have been crushed.  Like a patient with a faulty heart valve, he knows that the great physician must do something radical with his heart.


Some may say, “Of course he felt that way.  He committed adultery.  Worse, he sent her husband to certain death in battle.  He deserves his torment.”  And I would answer, when we are comparing our sins to the sins of others, we can always find someone lower than ourselves, and we are already near the sin of pride.  In a recent gospel lesson Jesus said, “You have heard it said, you shall not commit murder, but I say to you if you are angry with your brother or sister and curse them and call them a fool, you are as guilty.”  Most of us are not despots trying to cling to power in the Middle East or Wisconsin, we have not served 10 to 20 years for Murder Two, but when I read that list of deadly sins, you probably have a very good idea as to which are your favorites, which keep you up in the middle of the night.


Since you are here for Lent, and you know the main drama for tonight is that you are going to have ashes smeared on your forehead, I think you already get the point about being a sinner.  Perhaps I was mistaken in the beginning of my sermon.  Maybe it is not sin that is so hard to talk about, but rather grace.  Like the patient waiting on the list for a heart to become available, I wonder if God’s grace will really touch me and heal me.  Will I survive long enough for my name to be called?  If I make it through surgery alive, will the new heart take to my chest or will it be rejected by my flesh?  I don’t doubt that I’m a sinner.  My bigger problem is I’m not sure I trust the great physician to heal me. I don’t have David’s passion and trust in the mercy and steadfast love of God.  Maybe that is my biggest sin.  I’m afraid to say, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit….”  My fear is that I will cry out and nothing will happen. 


I know David’s sense of desolation, for I once spent a year attending church but not having the nerve to go to the communion rail and for five years I thought I would never step in a pulpit.  Eventually I came to know what I should have always known.  There is more grace in God than sin in me.  God did not caste me away from divine presence or take the Holy Spirit from me.  I find it hard to believe that my sin is just blotted out, but I am blessed for I have heard joy and gladness from the Lord.  I am washed, and though I may still be in the spin cycle, yet shall I dry.  Hear me and believe, God abounds in steadfast love and there is more grace in God than sin in you.



Matthew 17:1-9 "Now I can See"

Mt Carmel This Sunday our church is celebrating Transfiguration with a "Mardi Gras" service, complete with beaded necklasses and Gospel music.  We are reminding ourselves before Lent that the purpose of a penitentional season is to cleanse our sight to see the glory of God, most fully revealed on Easter morning.  Click here to see the whole service on Youtube.

(Thanks to my lovely wife, Jeanne, for pictures from the Hudson Valley Railway Bridge.)

“I once was blind but now I see,” proclaims my most beloved Gospel hymn, Amazing Grace.  That is the fundamental truth about the spiritual life.  One moment we are going about our mundane lives, tending sheep, cleaning house, driving, taking a shower, or maybe looking down an empty bottle of whisky or even praying quietly in church.  The next moment we suddenly see the glory of God with great clarity.  You see, not just that God so loved the world, but you are beloved by God and called to live out new possibilities.  That is the deeper meaning of Transfiguration.  It is what happens to Peter and Paul as they see Jesus for who he is, one who communes with God. It is what happens with Moses, as he is allowed to see God pass by on the mountain.  Transfiguration is also what we hope will happen to us.  Just a momentary glimpse of the glory of God may be all we need to propel us in our spiritual journeys towards God.


The year is 1946.  A 12 year-old girl from Tokyo lives in a Christian orphanage after the war.  CARE packages are being given out with food and toiletries that have come from churches in the United States and the children who have been living under great deprivation are thrilled.  The young girl gets her box, but someone has already stolen everything of value.  All that is left is a packet of Ivory soap and when she picks it up it is an empty husk with the bar missing.  She puts it up to her nose and inhales the scent, and as she tells the story years later, “Suddenly I smelled that there was a whole world beyond my devastated home.  Somewhere out there was beauty and hope.  Somewhere across the great ocean were people who cared enough to send this to me.  I felt embraced and loved by something…someone… that I did not yet know.”


This Japanese woman went to school in a Christian orphanage, was baptized and married.  She and her husband became missionaries sponsored by the United Church of Christ.  After  40 years of service, I attended their retirement dinner and celebration.  They served throughout the Pacific rim in the Philipeans, Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan.  These were all places conquered and pillaged by Japanese forces during the war.  This couple made reconciliation of Asian peoples their primary mission.  They listened to countless stories of Japanese brutality and made apologies on behalf of their people.  They played a major role in gaining recognition of the suffering of Korean “comfort woman” who were forced into sexual servitude by Japanese armies.  Refusing to let the people of their nation look at themselves as victims, they forced Japanese leaders to acknowledge the terrible atrocities committed by their nation.  More importantly, with grace and dignity, they were peacemakers who sought to open the door to God’s grace and healing for hundreds of people.  All this courage and strength came from smelling an empty soap packet, and a sudden epiphany of the world being transfigured by the glory of God


We study history as if the world is transformed by great monarchs, presidents, generals and scientists.  We underestimate the power of great seers who first see the light.  Right now the world is being remade before our eyes on the evening news as dictators fall. Nations tremble with fear and joy in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli and Tehran.  Analysts and scholars are rushing to understand what has suddenly caused an uprising after years of repression.  What was the tipping point?  Was it food prices?  Thomas Friedman wrote in the Times this week, “Future historians will long puzzle over how the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest over the confiscation of his fruit stand, managed to trigger popular uprisings across the Arab/Muslim world.”  Much has been made of Facebook, Twitter and cell phones that have allowed communication of ideas.  But what did people see that made a difference?    Surely this revolution is more than people having access to “Dancing with the Stars” and “Desperate Housewives” or being able to Twitter that they just ate a great falafel.  Did they read the constitution or Islamic websites?  Most Americans are shocked that these nations could have popular uprisings that have little to do with Al Quida and radical Islam. 


Friedman gave some interesting ideas of what he thinks people began to see in the Middle East.  In 2009 people saw an American president, Barak Obama, speak in Cairo.  Friedman wonders what this might mean to the average Egyptian, to see that we Americans changed our government and elected a black man with a name that sounded like their own.  If we could change our government so dramatically, why not them? 


Who would guess that using Google earth might change the politics of Bahrain?  A big issue in Bahrain, particularly among Shiite men who want to get married and build homes, is the unequal distribution of land. On Nov. 27, 2006, on the eve of parliamentary elections in Bahrain, The Washington Post ran this report from there: “Mahmood, who lives in a house with his parents, four siblings and their children, said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas. ‘We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,’ he said. ‘And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas [the Sunni ruling family] have the rest of the country to themselves.’ Bahraini activists have encouraged people to take a look at the country on Google Earth, and they have set up a special user group whose members have access to more than 40 images of royal palaces.”


As Lutherans, you should understand the difference that new social media makes.  Your founder, Martin Luther used the printing press to publish the Guttenberg Bible, a Bible translated into German.  Reading the Bible in their own language shook the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church and feudalism.  If all you can see is what is out your own window, there is little change.  But if you see the world as it truly is, full of possibility, full of the glory of God, everything changes.

Ice ship 2
Transfigurative moments are not just something out there in the big world far away.  It is here among us as well.  Our city of Poughkeepsie is changing more now than at any time in the two decades I have lived here.  The transformative change is the opening of the walkway on the railroad bridge across the Hudson River.  Suddenly we can get a bird’s eye view of the great beauty of our valley.  You can walk above the blight of our urban core and look up and down the river for miles.  You can see barges and sailboats passing by.  This Fall you could see the brilliant canopy of red maples, orange oaks and yellow poplars.  In winter, you can watch the ice flows and discern the river is actually an estuary that flows both ways during the tides as the ice on the left goes upstream and the ice on the right goes downstream.  Most importantly, you can see the people of the Hudson Valley, young and old; black, white, Latino, Asian, people moving with strollers, canes, skates and bikes.  And they are all happy.  We can now rise above the daily life and see the glory of God all around us. 


Crew Now everyone wants to come to Poughkeepsie and see.  The bridge has been in the Times, the New Yorker and as the tourists come, little restaurants and shops are springing up.  Renovation and reconstruction is starting to put unemployed carpenters to work.  This new view will transform our community.


Transfiguration is happening here at First Lutheran as well.  When I first came here for pulpit supply (about 18 months ago) I thought you were very pleasant and welcoming people, but depressed.  You were sad and hurting from the recent past.  But now there are signs that you have found the courage to face into a new future.  As I watch you before church now, there is happy chatter and warmth.  At the annual meeting in January you undertook a bold step of commissioning a search committee and making a three year commitment finding a full-time pastor and moving forward.  I feel that today, with our Transfiguration-Mardi Gras-Gospel music-Sunday, that this  is a celebration of have far you have come and the hope that is in your hearts.  You are coming to see that this church is not just about where you have been in the past, but seeing a vision of God in your present and your future.  Continue to open your eyes and see.  It doesn’t matter how you watch, whether on a retro television or Facebook, or just seeing with your own eyes. Look to the heavens, look up and down the river, look at each other and be utterly amazed at the glory of God.

Hudson panarama