A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of Christ Church Greenwich
Delivered on Sunday, February 27, 2022
If you come to church this week on Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent – the celebrant will read these words from The Book of Common Prayer:
“Dear People of God:
The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting…. I invite you, therefore… to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
Later in the service, if you come forward, the priest will impose ashes upon your forehead and say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a season where we are reminded of our mortality, as if the pandemic, incredible isolation, nearly a million American COVID-19 deaths and now war in Ukraine were not enough.
Remember you are dust.
This has been such a hard last two years. The isolation has brought out the worst in many people. I flew back from a conference in Atlanta yesterday and was grateful that there were no belligerent passengers on the plane. Parents have been up in arms with schools for months complaining that wearing masks, etc. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a rambling speech before commanding his military to invade Ukraine.
Remember you are dust.
Most of us run from the dust. The inability to accept our own humanity leads us to all kinds of destructive behaviour – addictions, adultery, gambling, overeating, overspending, etc. The highest levels of divorce occur among those around the age of 65, an age when we struggle with our mortality.
Remember you are dust.
Lent begins with an invitation to pause, reflect, and grow spiritually. Would that the whole world would pause and take this season seriously. What if the Russian Orthodox Church would be the conscience of Russia rather than a silent partner?
Remember you are dust.
How often we attack that in others which we cannot accept in ourselves. We project our own fears. The person who dabbles in insider trading is the harshest judge of someone else doing the same until he himself is caught. We can live our lives on two levels – one public and one lived in the shadows. C.J. Jung spoke of our need to confront and own our shadow.
Remember you are dust.
Lent is an exceptional time to begin a spiritual journey by observing a daily spiritual practice. For centuries, Christians have grown closer to God by taking something on and giving something up during Lent. Here are some suggestions:
- Prayerfully and slowly read through one of the gospels. Mull over the words. Apply them to your life. Let God speak to your soul.
- Commit ten minutes a day to prayer. Write names on an index card of those who you know need God’s help. Pray for local and world concerns. Pray for Ukrainians. Pray that free nations will stand firm. Pray for peace and justice. Then listen quietly to hear God whisper in your soul.
- Give up worshipping from home for Lent. Make your way back to church.
- Read a spiritual classics like C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, St. Augustine’s Confessions, or Teresa of Avila’s spiritual autobiography.
- Do a selfless deed each day to improve someone else’s life. Let Lent be about action.
- Write a handwritten letter or note each day to someone you haven’t been in close touch with and by Easter you will have resurrected 40 relationships.
- Tithe what you earn for the 40 days of Lent. Live one month with biblical conviction that alters your life.
Choose one of these. Care for your soul. Most Christians also give something up in Lent to commemorate Jesus fasting in the wilderness. Consider:
- Forgoing one meal each day in Lent to hallow yourself out so that God can fill you up. Fasting builds willpower, helps combat sin and temptation and facilitates prayer and discernment.
- Give up alcohol. If you can’t give it up for 40 days, perhaps you should give it up forever.
- Limit using electronics and email to a few hours each day. The average American now checks his or her phone 348 times a day! How can God get a word in edgewise when we live our lives in cyberspace.
- Fast from negativity. Try to go 40 days without saying anything negative. It will transform your outlook and relationships.
Lent is based on the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness fasting. Few people really begin a spiritual journey until they have suffered. None of Jesus’ ministry occurred until after he had struggled in the wilderness.
A faithful Lent will make us a more spiritually alive person by Easter. Each year, the Church places the story of the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday to remind us what Lent is about.
Exodus reminds us how Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and experienced the glory of God. A cloud covered the mountain for six days, then God spoke to Moses. When Moses came down from the mountain, he did not know that the skin on his face shone, because he had been talking with God and reflecting on God’s glory. He had been transfigured.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, too, climbed Mt. Tabor. Jesus was a mountain climber. He loved the mountains, but he lived in the valleys. We love mountains because they are so solid, immovable, they outlast the ages. Jesus only took Peter, James, and John with him. He only takes those who ready to go up higher. Are you? If so, he will lead you to new heights, if you follow him.
Do you want to go up higher spiritually or do you want to dwell in the dust and do things that you shouldn’t do? Eight days earlier, Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” It must have been liberating that someone had finally recognized him for who he was. Jesus immediately told them that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed and then be raised on the third day. Peter said, “God forbid, Lord.” Peter wanted a Messiah who would not be slain. Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan.”
Did Jesus really want to die? He went up to the mountains when he felt weak. He put himself in God’s presence. His face shone and his clothes became dazzling white. He was transfigured both outwardly and inwardly.
After every mountaintop experience, Jesus returned to the valley, saying, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.” Following every mountaintop, there is an immediate application to the valley. Jesus went from mountaintop light to the valley of darkness.
Immediately after he came down the mountain, Jesus met and healed a young boy who had an epileptic seizure. He foamed at the mouth. Jesus cured him. The mountains prepare us for the valleys, and the valleys demand the strength that we have gleaned on the mountain.
As Jesus was praying, Moses and Elijah appeared beside him as he spoke about his departure. They represented the twin peaks of Israel’s salvation history. Moses was Israel’s greatest lawgiver, and Elijah was its greatest prophet. It was more than Peter could comprehend. Peter asked if he could build three huts to make this moment permanent.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, just as a cloud had overshadowed Moses on Mt. Sinai, and God said, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” This is the most mystical moment in the Bible. It’s a story about encountering something bigger, more mysterious than we can imagine. Who wants a small God?
Sometimes, God enters our world like clouds parting in a dark sky and a shaft of light illuminating everything dark. Suddenly, we see our world in a new way. But Jesus was perpetually leaving the mountaintop to travel to the valley. If we wish to follow Jesus, we must leave the mountains where we have absorbed strength and descend to minister to others in the valley.
About 20 years ago, I returned to Richmond, where I had served my second church. A former parishioner asked me to visit her. She had just been released from the hospital, following several surgeries. She had lost her tongue and part of her face. She had a plug in her throat and could not speak. She had trouble swallowing and was greatly disfigured.
She opened the door and escorted me into her den. She communicated by writing questions and answers on a drawing board. “How is your family?“ “How is your church?” “We’ve missed you.” I asked her if she felt supported by God and her friends at church? She immediately held her arms up in praise and then wrapped them around her body. Her face shone like the sun.
Cancer had disfigured her, but Christ had transfigured her. God can transfigure you, too, if you will follow in his footsteps. Jesus has the power to breathe new life into you, to give hope and shine light into whatever is dark in your life. He will transfigure you, if you let him. Lent starts on Wednesday. Put yourself in the presence of God. Be transformed, and God will make you strong. Amen.