Today, since we could not impose ashes over a computer screen, I invited the worshipers at our remote Ash Wednesday service (service begins at 12:46 on the recording) to have a few drops of olive oil handy. I also talked in my sermon about how this year, reminders of our mortality are very close to hand, and perhaps we could do a manual action that reminded us of the love and mercy and compassion of God, which is what gives us the courage and motivation to repent.
At the point in the service when we would have normally imposed ashes, I invited worshipers to instead place oil on their faces, to brighten them, in keeping with the instructions in the Gospel passage for the day, and then to mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads, to remind them of the anointing they received at baptism and/or confirmation. While they did this I read the following sentences of Scripture:
Matthew 6:17 When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
From Ps. 103:
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul, * and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, * and forget not all his benefits.
3 He forgives all your sins * and heals all your infirmities;
4 He redeems your life from the grave * and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
From Ps. 139:
I praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
From Ps. 51: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me
Romans 8:31-39 If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
O Lord, you anoint me with the oil of gladness.
BCP Baptismal rite, adapted: I am sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own for ever.
My first mask in the time of coronavirus was sewn by hand and given to me by a parishioner, and that made it wonderful. But once it became apparent that we’d need to wear masks all the time, I decided to invest in a full mask wardrobe. The money I’m not spending on my work wardrobe since I’m mainly working from home or in a semi-closed office is instead going to masks.
For me a mask needs to fit well around my nose so my glasses don’t fog, have adjustable ear loops or ties, be nice enough looking for professional wear, be large enough so I can talk easily without inhaling it, and be reasonably priced. If it has a good filter, even better. I discovered all of these brands from recommendations from other people, mostly clergy colleagues.
These are my everyday go-to masks. For $12 each you get a triple-ply cotton mask in a classic/preppy or cute design, with a filter pocket, adjustable ear loops and a good nose wire. They come in Child’s, Adult, and Adult XL. Delivery is prompt. It’s an established company, not a fly-by-night. PM2.5 filters are available separately in packs of 10 for $8.
Their style is very preppy, perfect for Stonington, and they also have whimsical holiday and other cute theme designs, as well as more serious ones (poppies for Remembrance/Veterans Day, for example). If you like dressy menswear you can also get matching bow ties and cummerbunds.
The first batch I ordered I chose Adult size, which fit well until I machine-washed them. They are still wearable now, but a bit snug. So subsequently I’ve ordered XL. They fit well and, thanks to the nose wire, my glasses don’t fog much in normal conditions.
Expensive, ($35 each!) so it’s just my “Sunday” mask. But it comes in bright white so it goes w/ all my vestments, has a very good multi-use filter, a central “spine” to keep it away from my mouth, nose pads to reduce fogging and increase comfort, and a chin wrap to ensure a good fit. Needs to be hand-washed and the filter is a bit fiddly to put in place. But when you’re wearing this mask you really feel like you’re very safe. And the brand “Halo Life” seems apropos for worship leaders! 🙂
Menswear manufacturers seem to know how to make good masks. These cotton masks come with a washable filter, either adjustable ear loops or head loops, and fit very well. They are bigger and blousier in style than the BeauTies Masks but fit my face better. They stand away from my mouth a bit more. They have less fogging than any mask I’ve worn. They do seem a bit warmer than other masks. But they are $25 each or 3 for $50 and come in a limited (but expanding) range of fabrics. Shipping is free, so I guess that’s something.
Pelikan Pen Co. promotional mask. It came free with a pen order and has the Pelikan bird logo and “Pelikan Cares” in script. A behind-the-head tie that doesn’t work if you want to take your mask on and off a lot, but I thought it was a nice gesture and a great way to rep my favorite pen brand in informal settings.
Other options by small businesses I try to support:
In the pandemic I’ve been trying to support small businesses. Several vendors I’ve used for other things have added masks to their product lines to help keep their workforce busy as commercial business dries up. I patronize a lot of stationery, pen and bag makers, and here are 2 who are making masks. These masks haven’t been a good fit for me personally, but if you are part of the stationery world, I list them here just so you can investigate them if you want.
Rickshaw Bagworks in San Francisco make AWESOME bags and pen storage sleeves and cases and are an all-around great company. Their masks are also some of the prettiest I’ve seen. They don’t have a nose wire, which makes them unusable for me, but if you don’t wear glasses, they might be perfect for you. They get great reviews, so obviously they work for a lot of people. 3-ply cotton, in gorgeous batiks and other patterns, $22 each, made right in San Francisco.
Timbuk2 also make great bags and EDC accessories. Their masks are tie-around the head soft jersey cotton. There isn’t any nose wire but there is a slit for you to insert your own, and also a filter pocket for your own filter. 3-pack for $30. These are very comfortable if you don’t mind the tie-around style (some people prefer it!), and are the most economical option I’ve found. If you have materials to make your own nosewire and filter you can have a very nice mask for a reasonable price.
Most essential mask accessory: a lanyard
A lanyard to hang your mask around your neck when you take it off, so you don’t lose it or have to take it in and out of a pocket or purse. Easy to make if you’re crafty, or buy on Etsy or from other crafters. Same as an eyeglass lanyard for your reading glasses but with clips on the end rather than rubber loops. I bought mine at the Stonington Farmer’s Market.
Masks to Avoid:
Starks’ Vacuums masks
They advertise all over Instagram. I figured a vacuum company might know about filtration, especially early in the pandemic when masks with filters were scarce. But they only come in one adult size, they don’t fit me at all, and they fog my glasses horribly. They make a big deal out of a nose guard flap for reducing fogging, but it doesn’t work at all in my experience. A total waste of money, at least for me. Maybe they’ll fit your face, and if you don’t wear glasses fogging isn’t an issue, but I was really disappointed.
An Anglican priest in Canada has written and recorded a wonderful take on the mysteries of the doctrine of the Trinity, based on the familiar Gilbert & Sullivan tune of a Model Major General. Watch the video here.
Pentecost is one of the three most important feasts of the church year, alongside Easter and Christmas.
In 2020 Pentecost fell on May 31, 2020, the weekend in which the USA, already combating the coronavirus, erupted in demonstrations and fiery riots after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
I preached two sermons back to back in the 9:00 service, both about flames. A two-for-the-price-of-one sermon special. The texts were Numbers 11:24-30 and Acts 2:1-21. The first sermon focuses on God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to God’s people. The second, which begins approximately 11 minutes in, looks at the first Pentecost for guidance in responding to the anger and frustration which is fanning the flames in our cities today.
Here is the audio for the two. And a rough transcript is below.
This morning is the feast of Pentecost. As I said at the beginning of the service the third of the three major feasts of the church: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, and the only one that so far the commercial interests in our society have not yet grabbed a hold of— when I go to CVS I do not see Pentecost candies in the aisles— which is a good thing, because the Holy Spirit would be a very difficult and challenging thing to commercialize. The Holy Spirit is hard enough for believers to get our heads and hearts into connection with. (Laughter) Someone just typed in the chat box, “Red hots!” But I don’t think they’re marketed as Pentecost gifts.
I’m offering two different mini-sermons today.
The first one is about how the Holy Spirit comes to each of us as believers. In our first reading from the book of Numbers we heard a story about when the people of God had been liberated from Egypt not too long ago, they had been to Mount Sinai and they had received the Law and they were in the very beginning of their 40 years of wandering in the desert. They had already gotten tired of walking in the desert and eating the biblical version of MREs, which was manna. They complain to Moses and said, “we’d rather be back in Egypt.” Moses says to God, “how can I deal with all these people, be their leader— I’d rather die than try and lead them all!” God said, “OK I understand your frustration. I’m going to give you 70 co-leaders to share the burden with you. “
And so that’s setting for the story we heard from Numbers: God instructs Moses to have 70 elders from all the different tribes to come out to the tent of meeting where God interacts with Moses and the people, and God will share some of the divine spirit of leadership with the 70 elders. So that’s the context of the story from Numbers. And what’s amazing about that story is it not only did the 70 who follow the instructions and gather where they’re supposed to be, following the proper order and structure, get a portion of God’s spirit, but Eldad and Medad, who for whatever reason are hanging out back in the camp and therefore should not have received the Spirit—they also receive it! and they begin to prophesy! Moses says, “Would that ALL God’s people would speak about what God is doing in the world””—that’s what prophesy basically is. Even though they weren’t in the designated structure , they prophesied—so it’s clear that God spirit falls on every conceivable place— it’s not limited to what our structures and what our bylaws and what our buildings define as where and how God is to act. The Holy Spirit can go where she wants to go where she wants to. Would that everyone spent time figuring out what God is up to in the world and talking about it with audacity!
Fast forward to the Book of Acts and we see another story about just that happening. About the Spirit of God falling on the people. All of the disciples have gathered together, not just the 11 and their new replacement —just prior to today’s reading they had elected Matthias to fill the spot of Judas so they’re back up to the symbolic number 12. and when Jesus was with them just before his Ascension, he said to them “ do not leave Jerusalem until you received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Chill and hang out and don’t go anywhere: don’t go back home. So that’s what they do and there’s around 120 of them gathered in a large meeting room not knowing when it’s going to show up, but they devoted themselves to prayer and patient expectant waiting.
Then on Pentecost comes the rushing wind, the violent wind and the tongues of flame around and then on each person. And then everyone in the room receives from the Spirit the power to speak. When Peter speaks to the crowd at the end of today’s lesson he cites the text from Joel, one of the Old Testament prophets, that when the spirit of the Lord comes on the people it won’t just come on the leaders, it won’t just come on men and won’t just come on the esteemed folks. Tt will come on men and women, and children and teenagers, on everyone: there is no discrimination, no bias in who the Spirit choses to speak through and who the Spirit chooses to use in displaying power and making a leader, an instrument of God.
This passage has actually been one of the key reasons why denominations who focus the most on the work of the Holy Spirit, in the early 20th Century a lot of Pentecostal denominations, who believe in a literal understanding of the book of Acts, are therefore very open to the ministry of women leaders . So we tend to think of more “conservative” Christians as not approving of the leadership of women. But if you look at the Pentecostal denomination, both black and white, you’ll find women clergy and preachers very early on in those denominations, with very few restrictions placed on who can be a leader—thanks to this passage and the passages in Joel and in Galatians and lots of other places. It doesn’t require a master’s degree or special training—if God’s Spirit is clearly showing up in your ministry, then you are called to exercise the gift of leadership. Would that all God’s people would prophesy!
Last week I asked you to have a small candle at today’s service. Now I would like us to do this to represent how we are all called to be instruments of the Holy Spirit. So if you have your candle, please light it now as a visible signs that we are all able to be instruments of the Holy Spirit.
What does it take to be a vehicle of the Holy Spirit? The people in the upper room listened to Jesus and they cleared their calendars and then made some time and space. I’m sure none of them had blocked out 10 days of doing nothing but waiting for the Holy Spirit, but that’s what Jesus asked them to do. He didn’t say will be 10 days—he just said to wait until it happens. It happened to be 10 days after. So for 10 days and they prayed and they studied and they were in fellowship.
In this odd time of pandemic we are now given a gift. Several of you have told me that you are finding the gift of quarantine to be the a chance to do study that you haven’t done before. At the same time others don’t have any time at all, I know. I invite you, if you are able, to take some time in the weirdness of this time when our schedules are open anyway, to see if we can create some new habits and some new spaces in our lives to be present to the Holy Spirit. Maybe we can choose to put in the action a version of that very first miracle o Pentecost, which was 120 people getting their schedules aligned for 10 days and being present for the Holy Spirit!
So now that you’ve all had time to get your candles, hold them up, and I’m going to get my iPhone take a picture of the screen gallery view: “1, 2, 3 SHINE!”
In a normal week, that would be the end of the sermon, but this is NOT a normal week. When we talk about flame and fire right now, another place we see flames and fire is on the front page of the newspapers and websites, across many of our cities as some of them are burning. I want to talk about what lies behind that and make a connection to the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts.
one of the things we sometimes focus on for Pentecost is not just the flame phenomenon, but that these 120 disciples were suddenly given the gift of languages that they did not know, to speak into this huge crowed of thousands of people, that were gathered from all over the Mediterranean, everywhere from Libya to Rome ,and everywhere in between. People of many races and cultures, people of many skin tones, people of many languages, all gathered and heard the 1 20 speaking. The gift of the Spirit wasn’t just how the 120 speak in languages that they did not know, but also that thousands there hear and understand what was being said, so communication was happening.
In order to communicate with someone, to truly communicate, you have to set your heart so you have time for hearing and space in between. the one speaking and the one listening have to be paying attention to each other, entering into each other’s worlds, with empathy. They have to care about what is being said and want to be understood. If you read on beyond where our chapter ends today, 3000 people heard what was said and were converted and were baptized as a result of what happened on Pentecost. 3000 people of all cultures. The results of communication were that a huge community that was very diverse in culture and race and geography and background, in class and religious experience, was created. A hugely diverse community was created because the Spirit enabled them to share communication.
And to me that is where today’s texts intersect with today’s headlines.
I don’t know everyone who all is on this call because for lots of people Zoom only shows me phone numbers, I don’t see faces. But I do know the general membership of Calvary and I know generally that when I look out over the whole congregation over 90% of the folks I see have a Caucasian, white, western European, northern hemisphere, kind of complexion and cultural background. Not 100% ,but most. And that’s the case also in a lot of Stonington. Recently a skunk was in my backyard and it had mostly white coloring with a black stripe, and someone told me, “Yeah here in Stonington, even the skunks are white.”
I know that for me as a white woman growing up in the South, even though I think of myself is a liberal-minded, unbiased person, one of the things I’ve come to realize over the past 10 years or so of my life, is how biased I am, and how much I have absorbed and internalized racism and racist actions even though that is not what I want to do, and those are not my values.
So often language can get in the way. !hen we hear words like “racist” and “racism” and words like “white supremacy,” we go, “No, that’s not us!” Of course those are things no one in this room wants to be, or tries to be, and when we hear those words it can sometimes shut us down. But if we have been a little bit more aware, if we’ve listened to stories of friends, or read stories by, of people of color, we come to understand racism is about much more than our individual actions. Even if I never ever say a racial slur, or treat a person color differently via an outward action, I’m still participating in racist structures. I’m part of a society where the structures are crushing others with injustice.
The only way I can understand that is to listen. To do the work myself to be open to the communication, from the stories of people who are not like me. Listen to current stories, stories from the recent past, and from days long ago, and be open to truly hear what is being said.
I spent a lot of time yesterday and reading different messages on Facebook and Twitter and various places. One thing that struck me was the story by a black man in LA. Now LA has had issues, but they’re also not Mississippi. This black man says he never goes for a walk in his neighborhood without taking his little fluffy dog and his pre-teenage daughter with him. Because if he walks with those two companions, it’s clear that he’s just a dad in the neighborhood walking his dog. But if he walks alone, he doesn’t know how he will be perceived, and there there’s nothing to guarantee that he won’t be perceived the same way that the birder in Central Park, Mr. Cooper was perceived, or like the various other people who we have heard stories of recently (Ahmaud Aubery and too many others) —as a threat. So he walks with his daughter and his fluffy little white Peekapoo to disarm that perception.
Another story: on one blog I follow, the conversation was about how people of color have to have conversations with their children growing up about how to act when they are in the presence of police or other authority figures— how to de-escalate the situation, how to be instantly obedient and subservient and reassure that you’re not a threat, and do everything they can to not escalate a situation, so they may not, they might not,—because it doesn’t always work—be murdered. The person writing asked how many of us who are raising white children have had a conversation with our children about how not to murder, or harm people of color? Because all of our black friends have to have a conversation with their children how not to be murdered.
That’s hard to hear, that’s hard to think about. Those feelings aren’t comfortable. But one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is to call us into communication and call us into community. So I invite us on this Day of Pentecost, when we see flames in our city, most of which were not started by people of color, many of which were started by white outside agitators who are trying to make trouble on top of trouble that’s already there, when we see those flames, can we look to the power of God not to give us words to speak and say something right away, but to first give us ears and hearts to listen.
And when it is uncomfortable to listen, because the things we hear make us question who we thought we were, who our nation and culture are, remember that one of the Holy Spirit’s names is the Comforter. Perhaps we can remember that, when we’re uncomfortable because someone has said, “That action is racist, you participate in racism, yes you do,” and that makes us very uncomfortable. Rather than reacting out of that discomfort, arguing back or shutting down or running away, think of the Holy Spirit being with you. Pray, “Holy Spirit, Comforter, be with me in my discomfort in this conversation. Give me ears that I might listen and hear and enter into the experience of this other person. So that together we might grow into the community that you have always dreamed for us to have: a community of all races, all peoples, all cultures, all ages, all genders. The community described in Joel and Acts and Galatians and throughout all of Scripture as God’s loving community and God’s dream for the world.”
Holy Comforter, in very uncomfortable conversations and encounters, open our ears and our hearts, and help us learn to speak words of peace, love, and hope, and repentance. Amen.
The young ones, who can’t understand the science, waiting for when they can play with their friends again. The parents waiting: when can we go to an office again, or even when can we work at all?
Waiting. How long can we stretch out the food in the pantry, before we have to go to the store?
Waiting. Will what we think, and hope, are allergy symptoms, suddenly turn into something more sinister? Will we suddenly find ourselves short of breath?
Waiting. When will there be enough masks, enough protective equipment? When will there be more ventilators?
Waiting. When will I forget to wash my hands for just one moment, and then find myself sick?
Waiting. As the cases begin to mount quickly, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for It to come too close.
We are waiting, lonely, feeling cut-off, isolated from all that is routine and familiar, from our friends, from our coworkers, from our extended families, from our regular visitors.
And we wonder: where is God in all this?
We are waiting, just as the exiled Israelites and the prophet Ezekiel waited. Their leaders had failed them, because of stubbornness and pride and political machinations, which led to Jerusalem being besieged by her enemies and overrun with famine and disease. And then most everyone in the city was captured and taken away from their homes, away from all that was familiar. Cut off from their temple, and, they thought, from their God; led into a totally foreign place and culture.
We wait, just as Mary and Martha waited for Jesus. “We’ve sent word to Jesus—Lazarus is very sick—will he get here in time?” … “No he didn’t get here in time–will he come at all?”
And God comes to us, just as God came to Ezekiel and the Israelites, saying “I know these bones seem dead and dry and beyond life, but I will breathe life into them again. I will build you back into a people connected to one another, people with flesh that can be touched and hugged. People full of breath, all the breath that you want, and you need.”
God comes to us as Jesus came to Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Not to eliminate death from the world, but to say, “This road does not lead to death.” In ancient Israel “Death” was thought of as a physical place, Sheol, the place of the shades of the dead. It was also thought of as the valley, the garbage dump, where the bodies of the outcast were taken, where the trash was burned. That was where Death was–it was a physical place.
Jesus is saying this path, this road, this situation, does not lead to Death. It is not a dead-end; Death is not its goal, its terminus.
It goes by Death, it goes through Death, but it goes beyond Death, to something more than that… to new life, to resurrection.
Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, restores him to his family. But even here new life is entwined with death. Because Lazarus does not get a “get out of death free” card. He will need to die again, just as all of us die.
And it is, ironically, Jesus’s raising Lazarus to an extension of his life that brings the forces of death actually down upon Jesus himself. It is this most powerful sign, raising someone from the dead, which finally convinces the leaders of the people that this is a step too far. They cannot deal with this much power in opposition to them. And so (if you read on beyond the end of today’s story and read into Chapter 12 in John, you will see) that from that day forward, the leaders plotted how they could kill Jesus. They also plotted how they could kill Lazarus, because it was because Lazarus was up and walking around that people were believing in Jesus.
Caiaphas the High Priest says, “You know, if we let this go on, all the people will be in an uproar, and we will lose our power. And so instead, it is better that one man die, then that all our power die. That one man die for the sake of the people. “
We can relate to that, to people saying is better that some die and we maintain our power, then that we focus on what will bring life to all.
So we, like Martha, like Mary and like Lazarus and like the disciples, find ourselves in that paradox of life interwoven with death. The disciples realized that by going back to Judea, and by doing this sign, Jesus is bringing death on himself, and yet they agree to walk with him.
But this path does not lead only to death, it leads beyond death to new life. And it leads that way, and we walk that way, not alone, but accompanied by a God who knows what it means to lose those closest to him.
Jesus weeps with Martha and Mary, he joins them in their grief. He is moved more deeply than at any other time in the scriptures. He is moved deeply in his heart and he weeps with them.
We are accompanied by that God, who knows what it is to love and to lose. And to have to walk through death. But who also knows that death is not the end of the story.
It will be a long journey, but there is new life on the other side of death.
In the coming weeks, we will walk through Holy Week. Together, we will walk through the valley of the shadow, we will walk to the Cross, we will kneel at the foot of the Cross.
But eventually we will come to Easter, because this road does not lead to death, it does not end at death. It goes beyond death, to Easter.
But right now, we find ourselves waiting.
We find ourselves waiting, trusting that God will breathe that new breath of life into our dead and isolated bones, that Jesus will call us from our tombs, and say, “Come out!”
And then Jesus will commission those around us, and commission us, to unbind one another, from our captivity to death, and from our isolation.
We are in this place of waiting. Just as the Israelites waited, just as Martha and Mary and Lazarus and their friends waited.
And we wait with the prayer of Psalm 130 on our lips:
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for Him;
In his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
Oh people, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy,
with the Lord there is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem us from all our sins.
(Image: The Raising of Lazarus. Mid-12th century, Capella di Patina, Palermo, Italy. Vanderbilt Divinity School library, “Art in the Christian Tradition.”)