There are days that seem disjointed and then days that seem simply too well orchestrated to be anything other than of God. Most Ash Wednesday’s, I find myself a little discombobulated, as do some of you. Our Gospel lesson always centers around the idea of not making a show of our piety, but what do we do in a few minutes? We make a show of our piety by allowing ourselves to be marked with the sign of the cross in ashes. It does not fit. I have been leading Ash Wednesday services for fourteen years in three different dioceses, and people always come up to me and ask me about that one. Today, though, is like another of those days described by Joel.
If you are unfamiliar with the prophet Joel, you should take a few minutes and read his book. It’s not long. While I am at it, let me suggest the minor prophets as a genre for Lent. It’s not I am asking you to read the books of Isaiah or Jeremiah. Anyway, Joel is a bit tough for many of us because the days of judgment which he described are not easy to place in history. We are fairly certain Joel is writing to the people of God during the ascendance of the Persian empire in world affairs. We are fairly certain that Joel wrote after the return from Exile. Beyond that, there is not a lot of information. In fact, I read a couple commentaries these last couple weeks that even make interesting academic arguments regarding the nature of the plague attacking Jerusalem. Some claim it was really a swarm of locusts that destroyed crops and the accompanying economy of Jerusalem and Judah. Others make the argument that Joel was writing about invading troops and used the bug imagery to keep himself alive and his prophesy able to be disseminated.
Such arguments are fun to read in an academic setting, but I think they miss the point of the disconnect and the connect of today’s worship. What do I mean? Joel, of course, is a prophet of God. That means he speaks God’s message. When Joel describes the locust swarm and resulting starvation and ruin in the terms of the “Day of the Lord,” he taps into that visceral understanding we all share about calamities and disasters. How many of us face disasters and bad news without some sense we deserved it? How often do our friends and neighbors, because we are too serious Christians to fall for such nonsense, think that God is often punishing us for particular behavior? Joel ties calamities and disasters to the judgment of God. More specifically, he ties the swarm and resulting famine to the extreme punishments of God for covenantal unfaithfulness. To speak in modern language, Joel is proclaiming an anti-Eucharist. Each time we gather in worship, Holly and I remind each of us that this, this bread and this wine and this joy and this celebration that we share is simply a foreshadowing, an appetizer of the Great Feast that is to come. Joel flips that language on its head. These punishments, he asserts, are just a hint at the real hurt that is coming. As scary as things seem, when God comes they are going to be so much worse for those who reject Him and His offer of salvation. Tough message, huh? Just because it is tough, though, does not make it any less true.
Think back, if you can, to this morning. As the sirens went off, the sky darkened, the thunder crashed, the lightning flashed, the tornadoes destroyed, and the winds roared, what were your thoughts? Did you completely and truly avoid the idea that maybe this was your end? For those of us in church this morning, as the storms hit, it was a powerful reminder of the truth conveyed by Joel. Clouds and darkness really were gathering. Winds were howling, even if they were not blowing like a trumpet. Some of us were very concerned for loved ones as the sirens on our phones went off. People slipped out to take a couple calls, so close were some loved one’s to the heart of the destruction. It seemed for just a moment that the Day of the Lord was truly among us! Some of us were no doubt afraid for ourselves or for loved ones; yet we are the same ones who claim He has Risen from the grave! We are the same ones who point people to the God of the Living in Whom we place our trust, just as did Joel. That realization likely caused a couple of apologies, though I suspect most were simply afraid they had interrupted the service. Disconnects indeed.
Corporately, Advent has had some other powerful ministry today against the day of clouds and the think darkness. Holly was invited to a nursing home to impose ashes. Technically speaking, we were invited and I sent Holly, but she went gladly and enthusiastically. Holly went in your name, and God’s, to visit a group of people who deal a bit more frequently with questions of mortality. While there, Holly shared in their dissonance. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. And in that message of death, Holly also reminded them that God loved them. Though some feel abandoned by churches, Holly was there to remind each of them that the Lord loved each one of them, that the Lord cares deeply for each one of them, and that the Lord will redeem each one of them.
Have you ever visited assisted living facilities? There are many things that residents like to see and hear and do. I have never come across a resident who, in their 20’s and 30’s, thought that would be the life they would be living later. Everyone was going to still be in their houses. Most expected to be travelling. All hoped to be surrounded by loved ones, especially on important days. There is an important shift going on in this country with respect to such facilities. They serve an invaluable function, allowing us the independence we crave, even as we realize we need differing levels of help. But, in general terms, we as a society have not made that turn yet. The last thing that current residents need, though, is to be reminded that death is stalking them! Many read the obits in the morning as they eat their breakfast and drink their coffee looking to see if friends have passed. They lose fellow residents consistently. Such residents understand viscerally that death is a close companion. Yet there was Holly, marking them with ashes, reminding them of something they know all too well, reminding them, too, that the Maker of heaven and earth loves them dearly! Disconnect.
I had the wonderful blessing of visiting an Adventer, who long ago stopped attending, who now faces the imminent shadow of death. I went expecting to do ministration at the time of death, what we colloquially call last rites, but I was asked not to by the Adventer in question. Instead, I anointed her with oil, prayed against the disease ravaging her body, and offered the Eucharist to her friends and family. I call the visit a blessing and a privilege because I got to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears, some redemption. God was clearly at work in the midst. Bartimaeus could have seen that. There were lots of questions, as one might expect, but there were also some observations. The prayer that I prayed over her spoke to other tragedies in the lives of those present. So much darkness. So much pain. And I was reminding them of the hope of our calling. I was reminding them that this, all they were recalling and all they were witnessing, was not what He intended. Disconnects abound.
The last disconnect is rather vain. I take for granted the colors of my clergy shirts. Those around us sure do not. Those in the neighborhood and those at places I frequent apparently forgot I wore black a mere 46 weeks ago or so. Father, what happened? Father, who died? My favorite was, “Father, you should wear black more often, it makes you look thinner.” I guess it’s true when they say black makes us look slimmer. We are laughing a bit, and rightfully so, we remind ourselves on Ashe Wednesday and during Lent that we are sinners in God’s sight. Through self-examination and prayers and fasting we are supposed to discern where we have erred and strayed like lost sheep. The rest of the year, though, we concentrate on the love of God, on the call to the Feast, on all the happy things. But do we? Do the colors of my shirt cause those with whom I interact to think of God differently? Does black mean He is mad at us? Does green mean he is happy with us? But can’t we be thankful and joyful in the midst of ashes which remind us of our need and of His willingness to meet our need? Can’t we be inspired and awed even as we celebrate with bright colors?
As I was thinking of disconnects before today and then during the day, I was also thinking how the disconnects really extend into the other seasons. We, meaning you and I, simply choose to ignore them. As American Christians you and I are surrounded by Silent Night Holy Night, Venite Adoramus Dominu, the manger, and the lowing animals. But His birth was announced by an army of angels whose very presence terrified the shepherds. Disconnect. His birth, announced by a star, caused wise men to travel great distance to pay him homage. We call that even the Epiphany, the season that just ended. We don’t know much about those men, really. Were they kings? Were they just wise? They certainly were men of substance. They were welcomed by a king who picked their brain of their knowledge and wisdom. Gold may have been the least expensive gift they offered this new King. His birth, though, caused them to travel the distance, to give those wonderful gifts, and to kneel in homage. Disconnect. Their journey, and the message they carried, caused another king to lash out in fear and wipe out all the infants and toddlers who might have been a threat to his rule. Disconnect.
Joel’s message, and the message you and I are tasked with sharing each and every week as His ambassadors, is very much one of disconnect. Our proclamation is that He is dwelling among us. God is here. And such a claim really is disconnecting and disconcerting. Such a claim ought to fill us with gladness and unease. What does it mean to be one who proclaims His Gospel? What does it mean to be one of His chosen people? More frighteningly, what does it mean to be one who rejects Him? What does it mean to be one who chooses to continue on our own path and ignore His claim on our lives? In the end each of us is responsible for answering those questions with either faithful obedience or willful rejection. And our answer has all kinds of repercussions and consequences, the greatest of which will be our position before Him when He comes again to judge the heavens and the earth on His day, the Day of the Lord.
Brothers and sisters, in a few moments Holly will mouth the words calling us all to a season of fasting and prayer and self-examination. In a few moments, Holly will mouth the words that call us to a Holy Lent. But although she mouths the words, remember who it is that calls you to these things. Remember who it is that bids you kneel and remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. It is none other than the Lord, the Lord who claimed you as His own and sealed you as His own forever on that day you were baptized. It is none other than the Lord who took the sackcloth, ashes, pain, and suffering for your sins upon Himself, that each of us might share in the joy of His Resurrection forever. Disconnect, indeed!
In Christ’s Peace,