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AN EARLY LENTEN SERMON

A sermon by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, February 11, 2018

For Catholics and Christians throughout the world, the season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday this week, is the most important time in their religious calendar; more important than Christmas, even.

The season is so important that to fully participate in it one has to prepare one’s self. Ending with Eastertide, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which falls on Valentine’s Day this year, and commemorates Jesus Christ’s temptation by Satan and 40 days of fasting in the desert. Lent asks observers to mirror this time in Jesus’ life, partaking of personal and dietary fasts.

This time last year I was working as a chaplain at St. Louis University Hospital, a Catholic, specifically Jesuit, institution. Aside from a Presbyterian and a Unitarian, the entire Pastoral Care Department consisted of Catholics. So, Ash Wednesday and the whole season of Lent, really, was quite special to our department and the institution as a whole.

Each year the Pastoral Care Department puts on a special Mass in the historic chapel, and distributes ashes to the staff, patients, and visitors; it’s a large and complicated operation to say the least. Every chaplain, whether they like it or not has to play a part.

I really wanted to avoid having to participate in Ash Wednesday stuff, so I managed to work it so that a nurse on one of the units I covered would page conveniently during the Lenten planning sessions. Don’t judge.

I thought I had managed to slip under the radar and avoid having to do anything when, on the day before Ash Wednesday, Sister Joyce, a nun who worked as a chaplain with me, said: “Brian, what are you planning to do? I don’t have you down on my list?” Basically, I was busted; and having been so by a nun I instantly knew what people meant when they said they suffered from Catholic guilt.

Now, I probably could have weaseled my way out of having to do anything if I had a legitimate excuse, but Sister Joyce isn’t exactly the kind of person you argue with.

Sister Joyce is 75 years old now. She was born and raised on a blueberry farm in Michigan and raised, along with her 8 sisters and brothers in a devoutly Catholic family; Joyce is one in a set of triplets, all of whom became nuns.

Joyce was a bit of celebrity in the hospital. She’s been there just under 20 years and worked that entire time in the trauma service. So, for 20 years, if you had been shot, stabbed, wrecked, drown, run over, or kicked by livestock, you got to meet Sister Joyce whether you liked it or not.

When trauma victims came in to the Emergency Department everyone down in the unit, whether they were in billing, secretarial, nursing, a resident, fellow, or attending physician knew that whenever Joyce was on the floor she was in charge. She’d muscle her way right through a crowd of nurses and EMTs and doctors right up to a patient’s bedside and she’d bend down and encourage them to take a nice slow breath, and then she’d assure them, regardless of their condition, that they were going to be fine, and that they’d get out of there in no time.

Sister Joyce refused to say the words “they died,” which I found rather charming. Rather than saying someone died, Joyce always said someone had “gone to heaven,” and that they’ll be eating dinner that night with her mom and dad, and that she looked forward to seeing them again when she finally kicked the bucket. Everyone in the hospital called Joyce “Trauma Queen” behind her back; a fact she was well aware of, but pretended not to notice, because I’m fairly certain she liked being regarded as royalty.

Anyway, it was the Trauma Queen who busted my sly attempt at avoiding any and all Ash Wednesday duties, and it was her determination that because of this cardinal sin I was to write a homily and accompany her to the ophthalmology and dermatology surgery center the very next day, preach the Ash Wednesday homily and help her distribute ashes throughout the entire building. “Don’t forget to bring your own robe,” the Trauma Queen told me, and “you’ll need to pick me up and bring me because I don’t like the parking garage there.”

So, that night I put together a few thoughts that I hoped would pass as an Ash Wednesday homily; I pre-begged for my soul’s forgiveness for being forced to pose as a priest and made sure to grab my robe on the way out to work.

I read through my Liturgy notes from seminary about Lent, skimmed the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Worship, and watched a video of Pope Emeritus Benedict describe the meaning of Lent and Ash Wednesday. Basically, I became a Lent expert in like four hours.

By the time I got to the Trauma Queen’s house that morning she was already standing on the curb. So, I pulled my car right up to where she was standing, unlocked my door and waited . . . and waited. I waited long enough for it to be awkward when I finally got out of my car and shouted to Joyce, “Is everything okay?” “Oh, I’m fine, I suppose,” Joyce answered, “but I guess Unitarians don’t open car doors for little old nuns.”

We got all settled in the cloaking room behind the chapel and I told Sister Joyce that I was worried that I might cause some offense by helping with the Mass; Trauma Queen, in her delicate way, turned to me and said rather curtly, “Shut up, put you robe on!”

To ensure I wouldn’t be committing heresy, Sister Joyce had brought communion wafers, or hosts for Catholics, already blessed by a priest, which helped to ease my anxiety.

Following my homily every single person in the crowded chapel stood and came forward to receive a host from Sister Joyce and ashes from me, the Unitarian Priest.

Each person stood before me, or looked up from their wheel chairs, and each time I would ask their names, and dip my thumb deep into the black palm ash, gently touch the tender spot of skin just below the hairline, and then I would draw a cross and say in a quiet voice, “remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Following the Mass, the surgery center’s director led Sister Joyce and I on a whirlwind tour through the building’s halls and freight elevators.

The woman would poke her head in surgery rooms and yell, “Anyone in there want any want ashes? The priest and nun are here!”

Doctors and nurses would poke their heads out and in waiting rooms filled with people picking up glasses or new glass eyes, or waiting to learn the status of their melanoma would, over and again, come up to me and offer their name; and, almost as if they were praying, they would close their eyes as I drew the sacred symbol of their faith upon their heads and whispered into their ears, “remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”

And finally, after our job was finished, Sister Joyce turned to me and asked if I wanted ashes.

Instinctively I said “yes.” I bent my head down and from the aging and knotted thumb of the Trauma Queen I felt as she drew a cross upon my head and said, “Brian, remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”

The season of Lent begins with this ritual, which invites the faithful to meditate on life’s brevity. The invitation to consider one’s dustiness goes back to the story of Creation as told in Genesis, the first book in the Hebrew Bible.

In Hebrew, the word for Adam is אָדָם, which is closely related to the word אֲדָמָה, meaning earth or ground. Therefore, when we read in Genesis that Adam was formed from Adamah what we are being told is that the first human creature is essentially a dust creature, a mud creature, an Earth creature.

The rituals involved in the celebration of Lent encourage us to consider our lives, not just the one that’s in front of us now, the one with a grocery list and stress and kids to drop off at piano, but the holiness of our life if you will, the miracle of existence.

But the true purpose of Lent is for the faithful to wrestle with their own brokenness, to be honest in naming the human tendency to avoid dealing with emotions, to forsake our relationships with our lovers and children and friends; our tendency to be self-centered and short-sighted. Lent asks us to consider what in our lives we are willing to give up in order to live more fully. The celebration of Lent encourages us to turn our attention to the artistry of life, to grow our appreciation for the small treasures all around us.

Frederick Buechner, the American writer and theologian, beautifully articulates the grandeur of life’s small moments by drawing comparisons to it and what is happening in a musical composition. For Buechner, music demands our full attending; it beckons us to stop for a time and “Listen!” Buechner believes composers not only want us to hear the beautiful notes, but also the space between them. Buechner writes:

Listen to this time that I have framed between the first note and the last and to these sounds in time. Listen to the way the silence is broken into uneven lengths between the sounds and to the silences themselves. Listen to the scrape of the bow against gut, the rap of stick against drumhead, the rush of breath through reed and wood. The sounds of the earth are like music, the old song goes, and the sounds of music are also like the sounds of the earth, which is of course where music comes from. Listen to the voices outside the window, the rumble of the furnace, the creak of your chair, the water running in the kitchen sink. Learn to listen to the music of your own lengths of time, your own silences.

Buechner’s point gets to the heart of Lent: It is not only the richness of the music that matters, but the silence in between; it isn’t just the grand vacations and award ceremonies and sporting events that make life holy.

Sometimes, to see the holiness of life, something has to be given up. That is why people give up even the sweetest of things in life like wine or chocolate, cheese or TV, and even, heaven forbid, social media for a season. We give it up so that we can be reminded of a painful truth we’ve known all along: that, at times, a marvelous and often underappreciated life has been going on right in front of us with hardly a nod.

The true artistry of life is the space between. It is the fullness you feel in your heart as you hear your children and grandchildren rush down the steps on Saturday mornings; it is the hidden note you find in your coat pocket that reads “I forgive you, I believe in you”; it is the sound of someone’s voice on the other end of the line; and the soft snoring of your wife who’s fallen asleep after a long day’s work; or the chainsaw snoring of your boyfriend who fell asleep watching Die Hard 2.

It is the twenty years walking in and out of the same hospital, riding the same creaky elevator up to the 15th floor and beginning each and every day with a prayer that says, “Oh Life, I know I’m not always enough, but if you don’t mind, make me enough just for today.” Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 52.