Scripture can be found here...
A couple of summers ago I went to Boston for a continuing education event, led by UCC pastor and professor Mary Luti. This week, Mary wrote the following on her blog, in a post titled “Terminal.”
Last Ash Wednesday, my mother went to church to receive ashes and was told by her priest that she was going to die: ‘You are dust and to dust you will return.’
A couple of days later, a young physician with a too-loud voice told her the same thing—‘You have stage four metastatic cancer and at best eight weeks to live.’
It was six.
Pastors explain Ash Wednesday as the day the church reminds us that we’re mortal, that someday we’re all going to die. I used to say that too, but after last year it feels a bit too theoretical. Now I think of Ash Wednesday as the day we receive a terminal diagnosis: You’re dying now, and it won’t be long. [i]
We don’t want to hear this. We don’t want to hear this any more than Jesus’ friends and followers want to hear his teaching on what it means to be Messiah: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31). Jesus keeps telling them this, he keeps harping on it, really. And why shouldn’t it cause them to go off, cranky, to have fights with one another about who is the strongest, or the smartest, or who has caught the most fish, or the biggest one, or whatever it means, in their minds, to be the “greatest.”
Why shouldn’t they want to do whatever they can to put it out of mind?
Last week when I at the New York Now Gift Show, a vendor was asking pop-quiz type questions, based on the cards from a game about knowledge of books that he was selling. He caught my eye, and asked: “What are the five stages of grief?”
And I replied, “Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.”[ii] (It’s not that I’m a pastor. It’s that I took a class on grief in high school.) The disciples are, whether they know it or not, in a grief process—anticipatory, to be sure, but grief nonetheless. When we are grieving we cope in all kinds of ways that allow us to say “No” to the loss…”No,” I don’t want that. “No,” I can’t accept that. “No.” Joan Didion described the first year of grief as “The year of magical thinking.” All these modes of being, ways of thinking, ways of zoning out, going away, and mentally or emotionally leaving town, are ways of being outside ourselves.
[Jesus] sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” ~ Mark 9:35-37
What, I wonder, could children have to teach us about welcoming Jesus?
There are many things, I think. But for today, for this reading, I want to focus on children’s ability to be present—to be wherever they are, really, really present. Awake. Experiencing things. Understandably, when things are painful, we aren’t so interested in experiencing them. I get that, and I do that. But the disadvantage to going away is that life ticks by… this terminal diagnosis runs its course… and there is a chance we have spent much of it not actually being alive. Not actually smelling the fragrance of a bonfire or a hyacinth, not actually feeling the weight and fuzz of a ripe peach in our hand, not actually hearing the complexity of sound created by the bow being drawn slowly across the string of a cello, not actually seeing the 25 different shades of pink and purple in a particular sunrise, not actually tasting the grain and the yeast and the honey and the orange peel that make up this piece of bread, right here, right now.
Children know how to do this. A friend of mine bought her three-year-old son a wooden Thomas the Tank-Engine train set for Christmas, and she reported that, once it was open, he spent the next four hours completely enthralled with it: examining closely the grain of wood on each car and each track, listening intently to the sound the little metal wheels made as they moved along the track (or the floor, or the coffee table), handling each piece as if he were an appraiser from Sotheby’s and the trains were 14 carat canary diamonds. He was present, stunningly, persistently present… so present that he really had no interest in unwrapping another gift for the rest of the day (or eating a meal, until he got so hungry he asked that a sandwich be brought to him. At the train.)
Presbyterian pastor and professor Matt Skinner writes,
In Jesus Christ, the salvation God provides cannot be reduced to an idea or abstraction. Salvation happens, instead, in human flesh. Indeed, God arrives as human flesh.
Moreover, people encountered Jesus in their own bodies. These were real people in real contact with a real man from Galilee.
Even today, we encounter God and God’s salvation in embodied ways -- in our bodies’ abilities to perceive familiar realities and to interpret new ones.
We do many things in the season of Lent, but one of the most important things we try to do is to be present. To be awake. To get woke, and stay woke, as activists for human rights and racial equality keep reminding us. To experience the gospel, and the world, and the world through the lens of the gospel, in a way that not only keeps us awake, but draws us in, closer and closer, to that experience of unity with God which, really, is the thing we are all longing for anyway.
When we welcome children, we are welcoming beings who are made for experiencing the world with all their senses, and who haven’t yet learned, as we have, how to turn down all the beauty and pain. We will spend the next five weeks exploring how we too can “Sense the Gospel”: encounter it through our five senses: touch, sight, taste, hearing, and smell. We will begin, next week, with touch.
And that is what we are going to do in a few minutes. We will all feel the gritty ashes on our foreheads, as by their touch we pledge together to seek to keep a good and holy Lent. The message of the ashes is, yes, that we are mortal… and why not seek to be completely alive, to take in every bit of beauty, so that we might be drawn more deeply into the mystery and joy of God’s love? Thanks be to God. Amen.
[ii] Elisabeth Kubler Ross, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families (New York: Scribner, 1969, 2014).