Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent: 28 February 2016

Sermon for Sunday 28 February 2016

3rd Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I had an entirely different sermon written for today.

The sermon I am not preaching started with a lovely story about my grandmother and her abundant generosity, especially noting how she loved to force food on anyone who dared to step into her kitchen.

That sermon then sought to make a connection to this context, so it moved to a description of the street vendors here in the Old City calling out to tourists, “Everything $1!” –  unbelievable offers, attempts to get someone, anyone, to come into their shops.

And then that sermon – the sermon I am not preaching today – proclaimed that God is even more generous, God’s offer of grace and mercy is even more unbelievable, God’s love is even more extravagant – and through the cross of Jesus Christ, we have received abundant gifts of water, wine, bread, without money, and without price. Amen!

It was not a bad sermon.

But then I went to dinner last evening in Beit Jala, at the home of a Muslim coworker.

We ate with his family outside on the terrace, overlooking the Arab village below, and beyond that, all of Jerusalem and even all the way to Jordan. 

It was a lovely view, one of the best I’ve seen in my time living here. 

But if you turned around, you saw that in every other direction, the view is very different. 

The view is different, because on the three other sides, my coworker’s home is surrounded by the separation wall, which is topped with barbed wire, which divides him from his neighbors. 

The tree Mohammad's sons used to climb was uprooted to make way for the wall.

The road which led them to a field where the children played football was cut off by the wall.

But most importantly, what was uprooted, what was cut off, was their relationship with their long-time neighbors, a Jewish family.

“We used to have good relations with them” the son told me. “We used to say ‘Bokra Tov’ and they would ask about our family. When the wall was built, I think they were even sadder than we were.”

And it was there, in the shadow of the wall, at a dinner table heaping with home-cooked Palestinian food, that I started to rethink my sermon.

Suddenly I was hearing the words of God from the 55th chapter of Isaiah very differently:

1Ho, everyone who thirsts,
  come to the waters;
 and you that have no money,
  come, buy and eat!
 Come, buy wine and milk
  without money and without price.

2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
  and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
 Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
  and delight yourselves in rich food.
 3Incline your ear, and come to me;
  listen, so that you may live.

This is the voice of Yahweh, the holy one of Israel, speaking to an exiled people. Yahweh was calling the people of God back from disobedience, back from despair, to a table overflowing with every good thing—which was very Good News indeed to people who had not only been wandering in the desert, but had been eating manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for forty years in a row.

Long ago, this was Good News for the hungry and thirsty people of this land.

And this is exactly the Good News we need in this same land today.

We need to hear again the Good News that God’s good creation, God’s love, and God’s mercy are enough – more than enough – for every human being made in God’s image. We desperately need Isaiah chapter 55’s message of God's abundance.

We need to hear it, and to listen, because today a great many people in this land have been surrounded by a 650-meter long, 8-meterhigh monument to scarcity.

That monument, the wall which surrounds my coworker’s home, says:

There is not enough.
There’s not enough land.
There’s not enough water.
There’s not enough space between our holy sites or our homes.
There’s not enough trust.
There’s not enough in common between our cultures.

This is what the wall, and the checkpoints, and the barricades, and the settlements, and the identity cards, and the permissions, and the whole rotten system of occupation screams to the people on both sides of the wall:

There is simply not enough of anything for all of us.

Whether we realize it or not, whether we live near the wall or not, whether we live in the holy land or not, this message of scarcity too often controls our behavior.

Scarcity is the reason we immediately judge people on the street in this context: Which religion are they? Are they Arab or Israeli? International or local? Do they have their hands in their pockets? Are their guns in ready position?

There’s not enough room on this street for all of us.

Scarcity is the reason political candidates in my home country twist themselves into pretzels trying to explain why we can’t really have health care for all, or education for all, or humane treatment of illegal immigrants, or a country where religious liberty means liberty for all religions.

There cannot be enough human rights for every human.

Scarcity is the reason why we find ourselves praying for peace with justice, but settle instead for a kinder, gentler occupation, a less offensive racism, or somewhat friendlier extremists.

Surely there’s not enough goodness in the world to overcome our divisions.

Scarcity compels us to accept one-liners in place of working toward a future as one human family--

So we say:

“These people have been fighting for thousands of years.”
“They teach hate.”
 “They want us to disappear.”
“It won’t be fixed until Jesus comes back.”

This is what happens when people of faith start to accept the hunger for freedom as futile, and the thirst for power as justifiable. It’s what happens when we start to believe our own lie, the lie represented by that wall – and that lie is that there simply isn’t enough even of God to go around.

But let me tell you that this monument to scarcity, the wall which cast its mighty shadow over us at our dinner last night, was no match for the abundant generosity on the table before us.

The food kept on coming:

Makloubeh. Waraq Diwali. Hummus. Arabic Salad. Apple Cake. 

(are you hungry yet?)

As we were feasting on this meal, a feast we didn’t expect, a gift of love we couldn’t possibly repay, a meal prepared for a group of international Christians by a local Muslim family, I once again felt deep in my heart—and in my belly! –the truth of God’s undeserved, generous, and abundant mercy. 

There at that table overflowing with food I was reminded that no matter how many walls we construct, no matter how we justify our own greed, no matter how long we wander away from God’s ways, no matter how loudly we proclaim “NO, we’re not hungry!”, the God of abundance is always near, calling us home, extending the invitation:

“Come and eat.”

Just as God called to God’s people long ago, God calls to us today:

2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
  and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
 Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
  and delight yourselves in rich food.
 3Incline your ear, and come to me;
  listen, so that you may live.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, why, oh why do we buy what that wall is selling?  

Why do we let its message of scarcity write the future of this land?

Why must we accept the lie that there is not enough peace, not enough justice, not enough equality, not enough human rights, not enough freedom to go around?

As long as we worship monuments to scarcity, as long as we buy the bread of inequality, as long as we drink from the well of cynicism and division, then we will always be hungry. We will always be thirsty.

But my dear sisters and brothers, we must not accept such hunger. We must not remain thirsty.

Hear the Good News of Jesus Christ: 

This table has been set for you. At this table, the God of abundance has prepared for us a feast of love – the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Here is the love that is higher than any wall. 
Here is the mercy that speaks louder than any political rhetoric. 
Here is the grace which covers our own complicity in the world’s sufferings. 
Here, in and among the gifts of bread and, we encounter the One who emptied himself for our sake and for the sake of this broken world—Jesus, Son of God, Prince of Peace.

All who thirst for justice…come and eat.
All who hunger for forgiveness…come and eat.
All who are weary from the struggle….come and eat.
All who have lost hope…come and eat.

Come, eat, and know the abundant mercy and love of God in Christ Jesus.

Be nourished. Be strengthened for what God is calling you to do.

For the hunger in the world is great. And this feast is meant to be shared.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent: 21 February 2016

Sermon for Sunday 21 February 2016
2nd Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

A sermon of hope: 
for when a beautiful Friday in Jerusalem will be reason enough to live.

To listen to the sermon, CLICK HERE

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A peaceful Jerusalem morning in the Old City
On Friday morning I woke up to the sun shining and a weather report that looked positively spring-like, even approaching summer. And as I stood on my balcony, overlooking the city with my coffee in hand, I thought “Maybe it will be a quiet day. After all, it would be a tragedy to die on a day like this.”

That thought lasted until about 9 am, when once again Damascus Gate erupted in gunfire and sirens.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.

A few hours later I arrived at the home of a Palestinian friend, who greeted me at the door with freshly squeezed orange juice and a hug. She had not yet heard the news. When I told her what had happened, she was silent for a moment, and then she simply said, “How long, O Lord?”

Palestinian boys walking
through the Christian quarter, hand in hand
How long, indeed?

How long will the people of this holy place be locked in an unholy system of inequality, and this awful cycle of violence and counter-violence?

How long will it be before young people have enough hope to see a day as beautiful as this past Friday as reason enough to live? 

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

These verses can be added to the growing list of Scripture texts that take on new meaning when you live in Jerusalem. Nearly every day I find myself shaking my head and echoing Jesus’ lament—“Jerusalem, Jerusalem”—even as I marvel at the opportunity to live in such a beautiful (and beautifully complex) city.

What makes this Scripture text even more powerful, aside from the fact that it is a lament over the city where we find ourselves today, is the image of Jesus as a mother hen. This is the only feminine image of Jesus we find in the Bible. The Holy Spirit is often referred to in the feminine, and the church uses both masculine and feminine terms for God the Creator, but here we encounter the provocative idea of Jesus the Son as a mother bird, who desires only to spread her wings and gather all the people of Jerusalem under their feathery protection.

I like this feminine image of Jesus so much that I even own an embroidered clergy stole featuring a chicken embracing her little chicks. It was purchased from a workshop in Bethlehem and sent to me when I lived in Chicago, and I remember being very excited and proud to wear it on a Sunday morning. That is, I was proud until after worship, when an older member of the church came to me and said, “Um, Pastor, I’ve been meaning to ask: Where in the Bible does it say anything about ducks? I’ve been looking at those ducks on your scarf all morning trying to figure it out.”

The idea of Jesus as a mother stretches our imagination a bit, and yet there are also others who have spoken of the feminine attributes of Jesus and his love. The most famous is Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic who once wrote:

“It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good. Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him -- and this is where His Maternity starts -- And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.”

Jesus our mother hen, Jesus our gentle protector and maternal guardian, Jesus who overcomes evil with good: this is a powerful and very welcome image of Our Lord for our time and our context. When injustice has become embodied as a cement wall, when extremist ideologies on all sides hold residents of this city hostage, and when even our most beautiful days are scarred by violence and fear, we need to know the great and motherly love of Jesus.

At the same time, while this image may provide us comfort in these difficult times, we must remember that it is not merely a comforting word. It cannot only be a soothing image to help us endure occupation and violence. It comes to us in the form of a lament, and we must hear it as such. 

Jerusalem: Boys coming home after school,
being questioned by soldiers on the Via Dolorosa.
 Just after this they were required to empty their book bags on the ground.
When we read this text, we hear Jesus expressing both how much he loves us and at the same time expressing sorrow for how we humans have again and again rejected that love.

“O Jerusalem,” he sighs. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

This is a lament not only over the situation in Jerusalem, but in every city. 

This is a lament over the human condition and the sorrows of the world:

How long has God, our loving parent, been nurturing us and loving us?

How long has God been sending us prophets, only for us to reject them?

How often has God taught us through the Holy Scriptures to love one another, to share the abundant resources of creation, to welcome the stranger, and to choose life over death, only for us to throw stones at those who dare to hold a mirror to our sinful ways?

How often has God tried to gather all of God’s children together as one brood, as one family, as one beloved creation, but we have again and again divided ourselves – by race, by religion, by class, by gender, by sexuality, by nationality, by ability?

As the Son of God prepared to enter Jerusalem, he knew the city—and the world—which had rejected the prophets of former times would also reject him.

And for this reason, he described his love for us as like that of a mother hen.
After all, what does a mother hen do?

With her very own body, a mother hen loves, protects, nurtures, and provides the necessary conditions for new life.   

In the same way, it was Jesus’ own body which would soon give new life to all the world.

So great, so extravagant, so motherly is his love for us, that he would go all the way to Jerusalem and to the cross for his beloved children.

In his book “Tattoos of the Heart”, Father Gregory Boyle tells a powerful story which invokes this extravagant and motherly love of Jesus Christ. Father Boyle works with ex-gang members in Los Angeles, where his organization “Homeboy Industries” teaches job skills and helps men and women find new life outside of gang culture.

One day, Fr. Boyle is meeting with a fifteen-year-old boy, Rigo, at a county detention facility. Trying to get to know him, he asked some basic stuff about his family and his life. First, he asked about his father.

“Oh,” Rigo says, “he’s a heroin addict and never really been in my life. Used to always beat (me). Fact, he’s in prison right now. Barely ever lived with us.”

“And your mom?” asks Father Boyle. 

“That’s her over there.” He pauses for a beat. “There’s no one like her.”
“I’ve been locked up for more than a year and half. She comes to see me very Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday—to see my sorry (self)?”

Then quite unexpectedly he sobs….it takes him some time to reclaim breath and an ability to speak. Then he does, gasping through his tears. 

“Seven buses. She takes…seven…buses. Imagine.

How, then, to imagine, the expansive heart of this God—greater than God—who takes seven buses just to arrive at us.

(Gregory Boyle, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion”, pp. 26-27)

Dear sisters and brothers, this is the love of God we have through Jesus Christ.

It’s the love of a mother who takes seven buses every Sunday to reach her teenage son in a county detention facility.

It’s the love of a mother hen who sits and sits, and sits and sits, selflessly giving of her own body so others can have life.

It’s also the love of a refugee father who puts his family on a boat to another country, risking everything for the sake of their future.

In these days there’s a lot of talk about the hopelessness of our situation. 

There’s talk of the violence increasing. There’s talk of emigration, of annexation, of intifada, of troops in the West Bank.

But Jerusalem, Jerusalem, do not give up hope.

Do not think that Jesus, our brother, will walk away from Jerusalem now.

Do not think that Jesus, our mother, will forget God’s children now.

Do not think that the One who went all the way to the cross, will abandon us in our time of need.

This love never gives up. This love will not let us go. Nothing will stop Jesus from giving the world new life. Nothing will stop Jesus from reaching Jerusalem, from reaching the cross, from pouring out his love on all sinners.

Not his doubting and nervous disciples.
Not the length of the journey.
Not the difficulty of the path.
Not systemic abuses of power.
Not a sixty-year occupation.
Not a cement wall.
Not our habit of solving problems with guns.
Not the crushing despair of a young man, despair that would compel him to choose death over life on a beautiful Friday morning.

Not even Herod.

For as Jesus said to the Pharisees,

“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

Thanks be to God, Jesus has finished his work. He has come to Jerusalem. He has gone to the cross. With his own body, he has provided salvation for Jerusalem, and for the world.

And on the third day, he finished his motherly work when he walked out of the tomb, giving us new life.

Jerusalem, from the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice

Empowered by this saving work, let us pray for the strength and the courage to be witnesses to the extravagant love of Jesus Christ. He has not given up on us. And we will not give up on peace, justice, and equality for all the people of Jerusalem – for the whole brood, for all of us children who are gathered under Jesus’ motherly protection. Amen. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent: 14 February 2016

Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent
14 February 2016
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Luke 4:1-13


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

On the first day of school when my son, Caleb, was about 8 years old, I walked him into the school building to meet his new class. As we went down the hall to the classroom, I saw the newly-hired principal step out of the front office. I hadn’t yet met her, so I greeted her with “Good morning! Happy first day of school!”

She smiled and stopped for a moment to say good morning to us as well.

“This is my son. He’s in 3rd grade” I said.

“And what is your name, young man?” she asked him.

“You can call me Cody” ………….…said Caleb.

I looked at him, and then at the principal.

“Um, actually his name is Caleb.” I said.

Caleb sighed and rolled his eyes. 

“Cody is a much better name. I was hoping to be a Cody this year.”


Who are you?

This is the question posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.

He does ask it in so many words, but three times, the devil tempts Jesus with an opportunity to choose an identity:

Are you a magician who can turn stones into bread and feed yourself?
Are you a master politician, with the skills to lead all the kingdoms of the world?
Are you able to command even God’s angels to do as you wish?
Who are you, Jesus?

Sandro Botticelli, The Temptation of Christ
It’s interesting that this identity crisis occurs just after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John. There in the water, Jesus heard a voice from heaven telling him exactly who he was: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

These words must have been ringing in Jesus’ ears as he fasted for those forty days in the wilderness. The implications must have kept his mind racing. “You are my Son.” Did he hear that right? What can this mean? It seems that in the wilderness Jesus began to understand that he was not just a carpenter’s son. He was not just a young man with an impressive command of Scripture. He was the Son of God, the Beloved. He was the Messiah.

Perhaps this was not the career path Jesus was expecting. Perhaps he was even considering other options. At least, that’s what the devil was hoping! Wasn’t there a chance that a hungry, weary Jesus, emerging from the wilderness, would choose food, or riches, or power if it were offered to him?

It’s easy to imagine how we would be tempted by such offers. Have you ever gone grocery shopping when you were hungry? How did you do with your shopping list that day? Now imagine doing that same shopping after forty days of fasting – and with the power to turn anything in front of you into food. If I only had the power to turn books into bread, I could feed all of Jerusalem for at least a week—but I would be tempted to keep the unread ones for myself.

While we can imagine ourselves being tempted by offers of food, riches, and power, at the same time it is difficult to think about Jesus being truly tempted. We like to imagine that the baby Jesus was brought out of the manger, and placed into Mary’s arms, and from that moment on was never tempted to throw a toddler temper tantrum, or to take a little too much food at the dinner table, or to annoy his parents, or to say a bad word to a friend who angered him.  

In fact, such notions of Jesus are taught to us from a very early age. Take the words of “Away in a Manger” as an example:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

See! The baby Jesus was not even tempted to cry, for goodness' sake!

But in this Gospel story we encounter the possibility that Jesus, the son of God, at the same time fully human and fully divine, actually was tempted by the devil. He actually was tested by the Spirit, who drove him into the wilderness in the first place. He had opportunities presented to him which he actually could have chosen:

Jesus could have been the CEO of a bread manufacturing company.
Jesus could have been the Donald Trump of the 1st century, owning all the kingdoms of the world and in general being a “winner.”
Jesus could have been a celebrity, making money off a popular reality show in which he throws himself off of tall things in Jerusalem and waits for the angels to catch him mid-air.

But thanks be to God, in answer to all the devil’s temptations, and after every test of the Spirit, Jesus chose the way of his Father in heaven.

Jesus chose to feed the hungry instead of himself.
He chose to be healer of the sick.
He chose to cast out demons.
He chose to be liberator of the oppressed.
He chose to be a thorn in the side of the scribes and religious authorities.
Thanks be to God, he chose to be the Jesus of the cross.

The truth is, the cross was the only possible outcome after this encounter with the devil in the wilderness. Because Jesus resisted the opportunity to use his power, his authority, and his relationship with the Creator God for his own personal benefit; because he did not align himself with the empire; because he said “no” to the powers and principalities of the world; he wrote himself a one-way ticket to Calvary. 

Stone carving of the crucifixion
in Wittenberg, Germany
He chose the cross.

Jesus chose us.  

As we begin this Lenten season of prayer, fasting, and repentance, it is this Jesus we are seeking to know more fully. It is this Jesus, who chose us sinners over the empire, who is our companion on this journey to Holy Week.

As we journey with him throughout these forty days, we are invited to consider the same question posed to Jesus in the wilderness: Who are we?

Who is the Body of Christ in the world today?

Are we a money making enterprise?
Are we a social club?
Are we an ethnic or family heritage society?
Or are we something more?

Too often, these questions are answered by worship attendance, or the budget, or by the circumstances of the day.

However, many spiritual fathers and mothers have guided the along the path to understanding our identity as the Body in the world:

Saint Teresa of Avila said: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “The Body of Christ is the living temple of God and of the new humanity.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the early church body: “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

And St. Augustine put it this way: “You are the Body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken. You are to be blessed, broken and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love.”

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) What does this mean? Who will you be?

The answer will not be found in our congregation’s constitution, or on the ELCJHL website, or in the accounting books of the church. This answer is only found by drawing closer to Jesus, understanding more fully who he was, and the path he walked, and who he is calling the Body of Christ to be today.

Let this season of Lent, then, be a time of intentionality about who we are and who we are becoming—as a congregation, as a global church, and as individual believers. 

Through prayer, through fasting, through disciplines which invite us to slow down and act with more intention, let us seek to know more fully Our Lord Jesus Christ, who chose life for the world, even though it meant choosing the cross for himself.

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father,
May we seek you and find you,
may we knock and the door be opened,
for we are sojourners looking for your Kingdom.

As we encounter suffering in this world,
turn our hearts, our ears, our eyes, our souls
toward Christ, who emptied himself,
and was tempted,
and suffered for us,
even giving his own life.

In this suffering, plant seeds of hope,
and let us never stray so far into despair,
that we forget the resurrection of Christ
and the power of his Spirit.


~ this prayer written by Thomas, and posted on Everyday Liturgy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday Reflection 2016: Heavenly Treasures

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2016

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Several years ago on Ash Wednesday, I reached up to smudge ashes on the forehead of an elder of the congregation, a beloved member of the choir who towered over me – in more ways than one. I remember the moment well, because I had to tiptoe and stretch to reach his forehead with my ashy finger, and we shared a smile.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” I told him.

Neither of us could have known that around that same moment, this elderly church member’s 19-year-old granddaughter was across town in a car, hurtling down a gravel road toward a tree. The next morning, I received the phone call every pastor dreads: 

We need you at the funeral home. Jennifer has died.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

A few years later, just after I announced to the congregation that I would be moving here to Jerusalem to serve as a missionary, I received a visit from Jennifer’s mother. I hadn’t seen her much in church since Jennifer died, except for Christmas and Easter and other special occasions. It was still too hard, she told me, but she wanted to come see me before I left.

We shared some happy memories of Jennifer. We talked about how beautiful her funeral was, and marveled at the nearly two thousand teenagers who showed up to her visitation. Jennifer’s mother mentioned how it made her sad to think the new pastor would never have the chance to know her kind, talented daughter.

Then she handed me a small box.

Inside was a beautiful bracelet, with brightly colored stones and an engraved clasp. It was the kind of gift that immediately made me start to say “No, no, no, I couldn’t possibly, I can’t accept something this nice…” but before the words could escape my mouth, she was saying, “Pastor, this was Jennifer’s bracelet.”

“You should wrap the bracelet in this special cloth when you’re not wearing it. And it should always be kept in this box. And it should only be cleaned with plain water.”

The instructions were detailed and specific: Take good care of it. Wrap it gently. Protect it. Treasure it.

She didn’t say it in so many words, but I knew what she meant: “Treasure this gift, as we treasured Jennifer.”

Every Ash Wednesday I think of Jennifer. I think of that moment when I reached up to place ashes on her grandfather’s head. I think of the weight of those words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” and how unprepared we all are for the reality they represent.

But I also think of Jennifer every Ash Wednesday because of these words from Jesus:  

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

At the beginning of the Lenten season, we generally hear this as a call to spend the next several weeks denying ourselves earthly pleasures and worldly treasures. We give up chocolate, or coffee, or wine, or buying new clothes, hoping to spend our energy instead thinking about “higher things” and practicing the “heavenly treasures”—virtues like generosity, compassion, and self-control.

The truth is, most of us could stand for Lent to come around about four times a year rather than just once. Heaven knows we can always use a little extra practice in sharing the gifts of creation, caring for the poor, treating our bodies as temples, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

But these days, when I consider Jesus’ invitation to turn away from treasures which moth and rust destroy, and to turn toward heavenly treasures, I don’t think of some abstract virtues or self-improvement goals.

I think of Jennifer. And Connor. And Kathy. And Frank.

I think of the many foreheads I’ve smeared with fingers full of ashes – and the many graves I’ve sprinkled with hands full of earth.

And I am reminded again that the treasures of heaven are standing right in front of us.

We are, all of us, God's creations. We are God’s beloved treasures—and God has given us to each other for mutual care and protection.

Lent, therefore, can be a time to re-orient our hearts toward the precious gifts of friends, family, and neighbors, knowing that God has given us these treasures in clay jars. We are all dust, and to dust we shall return.

At the same time, this season is a call to resist every temptation to take for granted, treat as expendable, or de-humanize any of God's beloved creations  – whether through selfishness, or busyness, or prejudice, or plain indifference. 

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once said:
“As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus' thirst...'Repent and believe' Jesus tells us. What are we to repent?  Our indifference, our hardness of heart.”

During this Lenten season, I wonder what it would be like to fast from indifference. I wonder what it would be like to take on the discipline of seeing and treating every single human being as a treasure—as an extravagant, unexpected, undeserved gift from God:

A treasure who deserves our full attention.
A treasure who deserves our kindness.
A treasure who deserves to live without fear.
A treasure who deserves to live with dignity.
A treasure who deserves education.
A treasure who deserves access to clean water.
A treasure who deserves freedom of movement, of religion, of speech.
A treasure who deserves to be spoken to, and spoken of, with respect.

Of course, it is easy enough to imagine fasting from indifference to those we love, those who look like us, those who talk like us, those who share our opinions and life experiences and political points of view.

But what of the others? What of those nameless, faceless beings on the other side of the wall, and the other side of the issues? What of the ones who actively work against our treasured worldviews?

And what of the thousands escaping war on crowded boats and washing up on beaches? What of the children in faraway countries—and in our own neighborhoods – dying of poverty, dying of despair, dying of gun violence, dying as pawns in extremist fantasies of world domination?

Are these not also God’s beautiful creations?
Are these not jewels, precious jewels for Jesus’ crown?

And is this not the fast that we choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
 Is it not to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house; when we see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide ourselves from our own kin? (Isaiah 58)

Let us pray: As we begin this season of repentance, create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Give us the strength to fast from indifference to the people around us. Help us to recognize and honor every human being as a precious gift from you, the very image of Christ, heavenly treasures in clay jars. For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Amen.