I won’t share her name. I keep inviting her to church. One day she might walk among us, and I do not want her embarrassed. She would have no reason to be embarrassed. Her sermon this day was amazing! But still, it is better if you just enjoy her words from God and not try and attach them to the individual.
“Are you all a Christian church?” She asked Tuesday morning.
I chuckled and grumbled that we like to think that we are.
“When I was a child, we used to start Lent with the priest drawing ashes on our forehead. Do you all do that?”
Again I chuckled and told her it is called The Imposition of Ashes. We do it every Ash Wednesday.
“I know I am not a member of your church and I have no right to ask, but could I come to that service?”
Truthfully, I wanted to explore the “no right to ask” comment, but God bound my tongue and made me answer with the simple “We would love to have you worship with us.”
Her shoulders straightened, the smile was radiant, there was joy in her eyes—all over ashes.
“What time do you do that?” She asked.
7am and 7pm was my quick response. And just that quickly, her burden was weighing her down again. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
She said she would not be able to make it.
“Why not?” I asked.
“You know I ride the bus?” she asked. I nodded as she went on. “Well, depending on how well the buses are running, I take 9-10 buses to get here and 9-10 buses to get home.”
It took a second for that to hit me. 9-10 buses to get somewhere in the QCA? “Where do you live?” I asked.
“Uptown Moline” she laughed. When I looked at her like she was nuts, she explained that is what they jokingly call her neighborhood on the NE side of Moline.
Six days a week, she makes her way as far across the Quad Cities as is possible, from NE Moline to West Davenport. Each way, she has to take 9-10 different buses depending on how close to schedule they are running. So I asked the obvious question, “Aren’t there lots of AA meetings between here and there?”
“Of course. There might be a dozen or more that I pass each day.” She scoffed at me.
“Then, why . . . ?” I started.
She quickly interrupted, “Because the people here have no pretentions. They call it like it is. There are no excuses, no ‘it’s ok’s’ no ‘we understand’s. Either you survived the day or your addiction won. But they do all that with love. Everybody there knows what I have been through, and every single one of them is rooting for me.”
“Sounds like a church.” I observed.
“Nope. It’s better than a church,” and she headed off to her meeting leaving me to wonder about her opinions and experiences regarding church.
Flash forward to today. She arrived early, and she had friends. “Is it ok if my friends get ashes, too?” she asked.
“Of course. Annette bought us another pack to make sure we had some (a joke around here). Let’s head into the sanctuary.”
After the service, she started chuckling, and I asked her what was so funny.
She replied, “I wondered how you were going to do all this today and not be late.”
“All what and not late?” I asked not following her train of thought, yet.
“Isn’t this your night to feed the hungry at the Salvation Army Site?” she asked.
“It is,” I answered understanding where were going now in this conversation.
“I wondered how you were going to do everything you needed to do: talk, feed, and all the rest. Get cleaned up and get back here in time for your service. Now I see it does not matter.” She observed.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because if you are late, their problem is with God. They are going to have to stew in their own juices about you being late and then listen to Isaiah’s words, David’s words, and even Jesus’ words. Their fight is going to be really with God and not you, and that would be funny to watch.”
“Can I let you in on a little secret?” I asked in all conspiring seriousness.
“I don’t think anybody will care if we are running late from Community Meal. I’ll probably be there with 12-15 people from my congregation serving the hungry in the name of Christ and of this congregation, and most of the members know just how important that is. The only ones likely to complain would be irregular attendees or visitors who have to be somewhere and have a time constraint.”
“You know, I owe you an apology. You guys do try really hard. You have shown us nothing but respect and hospitality since we moved here. We have watched you feed the hungry, work with the beaten up women, speak with whoever goes into your office, collect mac and cheese for soldiers, mourn with the sad, celebrate the joys, talk with us in public and never mention why you know us. You guys really do try and live the life God wants. I should not have thought so poorly of their attitude toward you being late.”
“Thank you for the compliments. I will let them know that you notice.”
“Not just me. We all notice.”
“May I ask you a question?” I asked.
“If you want?” was her answer.
“Why was this service so important to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“When’s the last time you did this?”
“I was still living at home.”
“Why now? Why this year? Why did you feel you needed the ashes?”
“Do you have any experience with addiction, Father?”
“Some” I replied.
“In every drunk’s life, there is a very real danger. The danger is not what you probably think, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“To really begin the process of overcoming our addiction, most of us had to hit rock bottom.”
“That I knew.”
“The problem is that there is a different kind of high opposing that low. When we begin the process, we pray to God to help us conquer our addiction. We pray to God for help, all the while, we are trying to identify triggers and not tempt ourselves. Eventually, if we stay sober long enough, we identify all those triggers which caused us to drink in the first place and get good at avoiding or managing them. The problem with that is that it gives us, or at least me, an illusion of control. I begin to think that I am sober because I have ‘it’ figured out. I know what to avoid. I know how much I can handle. I convince myself I am in charge of my sobriety. None of us are. It is only by the grace of God that we are able to stay sober. For me personally, I am in a bit of a dangerous place. I feel so strong, so in control, that I could walk into a bar and smoke a pack of cigarettes, do any other things I am ashamed to tell you, and I am convinced I can keep me sober. I needed the ashes to help me remember that I need God’s grace to survive. Can you understand that?”
Can I understand that? Now you all know why I shared the story. You know the homily before it is ever preached because, brothers and sisters, it is written already in your hearts. You and I have had a glorious Christmas and Season of Epiphany. I know because I have fertilized where you have sown, I have watered where you have fertilized, I have sown where you have tilled. Think of the conversations I have shared with you, and consider how many more I have left unspoken. Our neighbors here have dealt with the domestic violence and murder of a lady in our neighborhood. Their fortresses of solitude and strength have been breached. People like that don’t live in our neighborhood. Things like that should not happen near a church. Where was your God as that jerk ran her over, put it in reverse, ran her over again, and again, and maybe again? How can you sit here with me and tell me that God is good? How many grandparents have sought us out for help? They are raising grandkids. Their own kids have abdicated their responsibilities as a parent. What’s worse, the kids have threatened to sell the grandkids, if the grandparents try to get the food stamps or social security, that is needed to care for the grandchildren. What am I to do? I don’t have enough money for me and my spouse. How can I raise another kid? How did I fail so much as a parent? Why is God punishing me? Am I that bad a person that I raised that inhuman a son or daughter? Those of you who have been around, or who have teased yourselves a bit on facebook, how about the number of seriously mentally ill that we have had visit these past two months? Can God love even me? Where was He when I was causing this to happen to myself? The sobs have been wrenching.
As a congregation, I am certain that we get it. You and I are trying to be those disciples of God who proclaim release to the slaves. We are, as a group and in many different ways, trying to remind people of their worth in God’s eyes. And like the alcoholics who use our Parish Hall 12 times a week, we can sometimes forget that it is not us doing these things. It is not us who is conquering the world. Rather it is our Lord, our Master, who has already conquered the world and sent us into it to be His hands, His voice, His ambassador! Like that lady this morning, we all need to be reminded of our need for His grace. Because, like the drunk who slips back into drinking just when they think their sobriety is up to them, you and I and every Christian run the same risks of falling to temptation that very moment that we begin to think it is us doing all these things!
In a moment, I am going to call you to a holy Lent. I am going to remind you of the practice of the Church throughout history and how we approach it today. This season of Epiphany has seen us chew on real meat. While Paul has been feeding Corinth the gruel, you and I have spent a bit more time discussing the weighty matters of our readings. Some of you, I know, will give up chocolate or ice cream or some other inconsequential item or behavior as a way of letting the world know you are observing Lent. A few of us might even take on some easy additions. “I am going to go to church every Sunday between now and Easter.” I am going to try and pray every day” --disciplines which are commendable . . . for the children among us. You and I have been dealing with weighty matters, brothers and sisters, because we are growing up. You and I are being called to walk closer with our Lord, to see what He sees, to hear what He hears, to feel what He feels, and to tackle the needs around us as ones confident in their inheritance. As a result, God is calling you to a meatier Lent. It is time to put away the childish things because many of us are no longer children. God has blessed each of us with some amazing stories these past few weeks, stories which testify to His power to redeem all things. And He has reminded each one of us of the inheritance offered. Each one of us has been offered a place in His eternal kingdom as a son or daughter, as a king or a queen.
So, what is it in your life that keeps you from growing into your full stature of Christ? What is it in your life which works to keep you from accepting His offer of inheritance? What is it in your life which works so hard to keep the chasm between you and God so wide, knowing that He would love nothing more than to walk by your side? Brothers and sisters, that is what each of us should be giving up. Maybe it really is chocolate. Maybe it is really ice cream. But for many of you I doubt it. The things which cause us to stumble and to be less effective workers in His fields, the things which we focus on to the exclusion of God in our life—those are the things we should be giving up in observance of a holy Lent. The desserts, the “childish” things were a start and served a purpose at one time. But do they really keep you from His love now? Are they what is keeping you from growing into His stature? Or are they just a way of announcing to the world “Hey. I am a Christian. Over here’ and pointing a finger at yourself the way those whom Lord condemns in our passage this evening?
And if there are no real idols in your life, maybe the addition of a spiritual discipline will be a better response for you. Only, don’t pick something you should always be doing. The right response to God is always to be worshipping. Going to church every Sunday (or during the week) is part of the covenant we make when we are baptized. The same can be said for praying. Maybe you really are failing at those things and need to get back to the basics. But not all of us are. God wants us in that closer walk with Him, so why not take on a real discipline which requires his grace-filled presence for you to succeed? Maybe you will commit to the daily office? Maybe you commit to fasting and praying when it comes to important decisions in your life? Maybe you want to give up “your” music for His just to see if it can change your heart in forty days? Maybe God has placed something else on your heart, something which seems so undeserving and so impossible, and yet your heart cannot just shrug it off? Maybe that is to be the discipline for this season which helps draw you closer to Him.
You see, in His infinite wisdom, you and I get called back. We might celebrate, and we might shout with joy the things He has wrought in our lives and in the lives of those around us. But every now and again, and certainly every Lent, God reminds us that we are just like the alcoholic. Like them, we need to be reminded of our need for His grace, else we get comfortable and begin to believe mistakenly that we are the captains of our own ships and the masters of our own domains. Lest we fall into temptation and make a mess with our “control,” we are reminded of our need for His grace, so that we can share with the world around us, its own need for His saving grace as well.