Our Lenten Journey Begins
(Sermon notes from February 22, 2015)
HE LEFT THE WEST COAST for the drive back to SC. He started out dog tired. Near the end of his second day, driving through Cheyenne, the lonliness of I-80 and all the wide, western spaces conspired to make him feel small. Bone tired, he had began to think how good a drink might taste. Approaching Kimball, Nebraska, formerly known as Antelopville, he took the exit, eyes peeled for a watering hole. At a white, otherwise nondescript, church, he noticed on the sign a chili cookoff on the coming Sunday and an AA meeting every Tuesday at five o’clock. Having found much comfort over the years in the community of saints called Alcoholics Anonymous, he pulled into the gravel parking lot, turned off the car, and listened to the cooling motor pop and tick. He’d logged 20-some hours; he had another 25 to go. He took a deep breath. It was getting cold. It was Tuesday. The meeting started in three minutes.
* * *
Lent is a journey, and we are on it. I often ask the children of our church, what’s special about today? They say it’s Sunday, and that’s special, and they are right. They might say that it’s the weekend and they’re glad they aren’t in school. That’s a good answer, too. When I ask them what season it is, they usually say that it’s summer, or fall, spring or winter. One little boy a long time ago said, “It the first day of turkey season, which is why my daddy’s not here.”
Today is the first Sunday of the Season of Lent. Lent lasts forty days not counting Sundays (which are little Easter celebrations). Long ago, the church agreed that Easter was such big news, Christians needed to prepare for it. So the season of Lent was designed to help us prepare. Intentional spiritual practices of fasting, the giving of offerings, penitence, and prayer mark the season.
Our Associate Pastor TJ has put in our church boxes an invitation to participate in an interesting Lenten discipline. Copies of this great “Lenten calendar” are also on the tables in the narthex/lobby. My son John Mark is leading our family into this disciple. I couldn’t watch TV on Thursday because the discipline invited us to turn off all non-work-related screens for the day. Not knowing this, I turned on the TV. John Mark and everyone said that I couldn’t watch TV; they practically shouted at me.
“Why?” I wanted to know.
“Because,” John Mark said, “TJ said so!”
We give things up in Lent to remember what Jesus gave up for us. We make room in our lives for spiritual practices because we are spiritual being; Jesus said, Man does not live by bread alone. We intentionally change our routine in Lent to reorient our lives to our walk with Jesus. Lent can be a lens through which we see life differently, more thoughtfully, more prayerfully.
Our forty days of Lent mirror Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. And ashes become one of the odd symbols of the season.
Ashes remind us of our morality, our finitude, our limits.
Ashes remind us of our sin. Ashes, like sin, get everywhere. The world is filled with sin: my sin, your sin, our sin . . . The ashes remind us to be penitent: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Ashes remind us of the work God calls us to do in the world. When I was a commissioner to the General Assembly of our denomination in 1986, Rev. Ben Weir was elected moderator. For 30 years he had been a PCUSA missionary in the Middle East, most recently in Lebanon, where he had been kidnapped off the streets of Beirut and held hostage to 16 months, 14 of which were in solitary confinement.
Through the entire ordeal, his wife Carol never ceased to urge everyone to pray for all the people in the war-torn country, including Ben’s captors. Years later, Carol gave this definition of what Christian “mission” is.
“Mission includes some aspect of consciously chosen struggle. In mission we open ourselves up to the reality of the world and we pray for the grace to enter deeply into human suffering . . . [W]e will not enlarge the . . . gospel by adding old and new dogmas. We will enlarge [the gospel] by adding the world.”
Dag Hammarskjold, former United Nations General Secretary, put it this way: “In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” Ashes remind us of the work God calls us to do in the world.
Ashes in the sign of the cross remind us our hope. Kayla Mueller, an American Aid Worker, was kidnapped in the Middle East over a year ago after leaving a Doctors Without Borders clinic. She was killed on or near February 5th, 2015, either by her kidnappers or by a Jordanian airstrike.
She wrote a letter home last spring. That letter is widely available. This is an excerpt:
I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is god. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no [one] else . . . [b]y god [and] by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.
I have been shown in darkness, light, have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness [and] surrender to god as well [and] have formed a bond of love [and] support amongst one another …
. . . Please be patient, give your pain to God.
In her letter Kayla Mueller sets an astounding example of Christian hope. Our ashes in the sign of the cross remind us of our hope in Jesus Christ who overcomes hate with love, despair with joy, death with eternal life.
* * *
I don’t know how difficult, or lonely the road for Jesus may have been when he was in the wilderness, or when his friends didn’t seem to get the radical transformation he kept preaching about, or when he made his way for the last time to Jerusalem.
Scripture says that during his time in the wilderness, and after his fast ended, he was famished. And there, at his lowest point, he was tempted by the devil. He remained strong. Each of his answers to each of the temptations reads like an affirmation of faith:
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Scripture also says that when the devil left him, angels came upon Jesus and ministered to him. That is our hope in Lent, that God comes to us when we are at our lowest point, and that God will give us the care we need to be whole again, and wholly ready to serve in the world that God so loves.
* * *
When ourfriend stepped into that AA meeting in Kimball, Nebraska, he found the coffee pot, threw a dollar into the basket, and helped himself. He found a place to sit. And he was made to feel genuinely welcomed; he so badly needed to be welcomed in the middle of the country, on a long, lonely journey, so far away from where he’d been, and so far away from where he was going. He needed to feel welcomed and he was welcomed.
Decades later he still talks about what happened in Kimball, Nebraska. He still remembers that AA meeting where others took him in. There were a few retired men. There were a few farmers and cattlemen. A couple of young women with tattoos. An Episcopal priest who wore his collar and a shiny smile. A few housewives. Nineteen people--who just may have saved his life. Angels all.
Jesus knew the feeling. “Suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
Sometimes we need an angel. Sometimes we need to be an angel for somebody else. May we experience both on our Lenten journey.
The Lord be with you. (And also with you.)
 When the Trade Center Towers came down, it wasn’t the stone, or fire, or steel that threatened the children in the preschool of Trinity Episcopal: it was the ashes. The ventilation system had sucked in all the ash and dust, and the children couldn’t breath. They wrapped wet towels around their faces and escaped down the canyons of Wall Street.
 An Islamic fundamentalist group called the Islamic Jihad took credit for the kidnapping; it later evolved into Hesbollah. It is believed that Ben was freed in exchange for US anti-tank weapons, as part of the Iran-Contra Affair.
 See Carol’s obituary: https://www.pcusa.org/news/2010/12/17/carol-weir-dies-86/
KAYLA MUELLER’S FULL LETTER:
Courtesy Mueller Family Mueller’s family released a copy of an unpublished letter that she wrote to them while being held in captivity last spring.
Everyone, If you are receiving this letter it means I am still detained but my cell mates (starting from 11/2/2014) have been released. I have asked them to contact you + send you this letter. It’s hard to know what to say.
Please know that I am in a safe location, completely unharmed + healthy (put on weight in fact); I have been treated w/ the utmost respect + kindness. I wanted to write you all a well thought out letter (but I didn’t know if my cellmates would be leaving in the coming days or the coming months restricting my time but primarily) I could only but write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears.
If you could say I have “suffered” at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness. I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else… + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.
I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another …
I miss you all as if it has been a decade of forced separation. I have had many a long hour to think, to think of all the things I will do w/ Lex, our first family camping trip, the first meeting @ the airport.I have had many hours to think how only in your absence have I finally @ 25 years old come to realize your place in my life.
The gift that is each one of you + the person I could + could not be if you were not a part of my life, my family, my support. I DO NOT want the negotiations for my release to be your duty, if there is any other option take it, even if it takes more time. This should never have become your burden. I have asked these women to support you; please seek their advice. If you have not done so already, (redacted) can contact (redacted) who may have a certain level of experience with these people.
None of us could have known it would be this long but know I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able + I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down + I will not give in no matter how long it takes.
I wrote a song some months ago that says, “The part of me that pains the most also gets me out of bed, w/out your hope there would be nothing left …” aka — The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength. Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I + by God’s will we will be together soon.
All my everything,
Matthew 4 (NRSV) 4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...