A Faith That Is Normal

Here are my reflections from Ash Wednesday!  We had a really lovely service at RCC – small, only about 40 people – but we roped off the side and back pews and had everyone sit up from and it felt a lot more intimate.

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Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday

A Faith That Is Normal

Do you think what we do here is normal?

Not just tonight on Ash Wednesday, but church in general – is it normal?

Every year I prepare the ashes for Ash Wednesday by burning the leftover palms from Palm Sunday the previous year.  As a Church, we do this because it brings the church year full circle.  The palms that close out one Lenten season open the next one.  And, in doing this, it reminds us of the frailty of who we are as human beings, as sinners.  We try, but sometimes we fail.  We seek to do the right thing, but sometimes we fall short.  Our shouts of, “hosanna!” become cries to, “crucify, crucify him!”

And yet, in all of this, there is hope, right? There is a God that loves us – ALL of us; who creates us, redeems us and sustains us.  There is a light that shines, even in our darkest of moments. There is a love that is stronger than hate and division, that always wins.  There is a grace that is more powerful than our imperfections and our shortcomings.

This is the Christian promise.  This is why Jesus came to this earth.  This is why we remember his crucifixion before we celebrate his resurrection.  Because as people living on this side of the resurrection we know that this hope is real.

I think the process of burning the palms in preparation for Ash Wednesday is actually a really cool experience, so last year I invited the confirmation class to burn the palms with me.  We had a meeting already scheduled for the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday and, in so many ways, it even added to me experience to have the opportunity to share this process with others.

This year, I asked the Deacons – who had a meeting scheduled for Tuesday night (yesterday) – if they would like to burn the palms with me at the end of their meeting.  This meeting, as I am sure most of you know, had to be rescheduled because of the visitation and funeral for Mark Johnson.  I thought about burning the palms before the visitation began yesterday, but ran out of time; so I figured I would just do it after everybody left.  I didn’t think it would be normal if I did it while people were still here from the funeral.

After Mark’s service ended yesterday, I looked at the crowd in Fellowship Hall and realized that I did not need to wait until everyone left to burn the palms.  After all, this is part of who we are, as Christians; hosting an Ash Wednesday service is part of our identity, as a church.  No one was going to mind – and even more so I thought people might appreciate seeing us live out the faith we had just proclaimed during the service.

And, as an added bonus, if the fire got out of control, half the fire department was there!

And so Missy, Nathan and Andrew, the funeral director, and I gathered up the palms from last year that had been drying out in my office.  We took them outside and lit them; and we talked about life while they burned down to ash.

I think I had this idea in my head that burning the palms in community has to have some sort of formal worship element attached to it.  Last year when I did it with the confirmation class, I prepared a little service and we sang, Amazing Graceat the end.

And that was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But my experience this year was amazing, because real life was happening around us while we were doing it.  People were gathered in Fellowship Hall talking and eating a telling stories, people were milling around the parking lot and people were leaving and walking to their cars.  And it didn’t feel disrespectful to the process; it felt normal. It felt like the world inside the walls of the church and the world outside the walls of the church came together and what we were doing was normal.

And it gave me hope.  It gave me hope that the work we are doing here, at the church, is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all people, no matter who they are or where they are on their journey through life.  It gave me hope that when we leave this church tonight and wear our ashes out into the world, other people won’t stare or assume we are some crazy religious people, but that it will seem normal.

That church will seem normal.

That faith will seem normal.

And therein lies my hope for Lent.  That we will not only strengthen our faith throughout this season, but that, on Easter morning, we will boldly proclaim resurrection in a way that is normal; in a way that people can hear and believe.

Tonight we gather to begin the Lenten season.  We gather to repent and believe in the Good News. We gather to wear a sign of the cross on our foreheads; a sign that will remind us of what is to come, that boldly declares our sins and our shortcomings, but also that assures us that no matter where we are, what we have done and what our lives look like, that God is with us, that God loves us and that God will never give up on us. We gather because it is our normal.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

 

God Meets Us Where We Are

Hello and Happy Ash Wednesday!  I hope you all had a blessed day and are ready for Lent with an open mind and heart.  Here is my reflection from tonight’s service …

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Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 1, 2017

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

God Meets Us Where We Are

This morning I had the opportunity to join my colleague, Greta, at the Middleboro/Lakeville train station, where her church was offering “Ashes to Go” to early morning commuters. She has done this for the past four years, setting up a table with free coffee, donuts and ashes and offering any combination of the three to anyone walking by.

I have noticed over the past several years that more and more of my colleagues are doing this. Some are doing it in lieu of traditional Ash Wednesday services and some are doing it in addition to. The idea is that people are so busy – with work, family and life in general – that rather than forcing them to carve out one specific time of their day to receive ashes, the church can go to them; meet them where they are and give them a blessing and a sign of grace.

At one point in between trains, Greta and one of her parishioners and I were commenting on the different reactions we got from people. They ranged everywhere from, “Don’t make eye contact,” to, “Oh, that’s a really nice thing that they are doing,” to, “Can I get a donut without the ashes?” to, “I’m so glad you guys are here again – ashes, please!”

One of the things we all noticed was that no one was rude to us or seemed upset that we were there. I said to Greta, “Well, maybe they would be upset if we were chasing them onto the train with ashes.” We all chuckled at the image and then the next train showed up and we got back to work.

I was pouring someone a cup of coffee when I saw two girls, probably in their mid-twenties, heading towards the train. Greta offered them ashes and one of them said, “No thanks, I’m not practicing. I would feel like an imposter accepting ashes.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Greta pick up the ashes and say, “Wait a minute, get back here!” and run over to her, explaining that she is, in no way, shape or form, an imposter; that ashes are blessing from God, available to every single one of us, no matter who we are or where we are on our journey through life.

My first thought was, “Well, I guess we are chasing people onto the train with ashes.”

But then I thought to myself, what a powerful moment I had just witnessed. Someone felt like an imposter; unworthy of the grace that is receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday and we were there – at her train station, part of her morning routine, ready to show her just how powerful and profound God’s love is.

God really has a way of working out the details sometimes, Amen?

A few hours later, I was reading through the scriptures for this evening and almost fell over as I read this passage, 2 Corinthians 6:8:

We are treated as imposters, and yet are true.

Imposters.

Do you know what I love about Ash Wednesday? Ashes are the great equalizer. It does not matter if we are rich or poor, male or female, Republican or Democrat, Catholic or Protestant, practicing or wandering, affirming or questioning, we all bear the same sign of the cross. We all humbly claim our sins before God and then boldly wear the ash of the burned palms that we once waved while shouting, “Hosanna!” Together, despite our differences, we admit our own brokenness, but also hold fast to the unchanging truth that we are true; that we are not imposters.

My prayer for you all on this Ash Wednesday, is that you not only feel proud to receive these ashes, but that you feel worthy as well.

In participating in this ancient practice of imposition, we remind ourselves of our humanity – from dust you came and to dust you shall return. But in using the palms that we once laid down for Jesus impose these ashes, we also remember that God came to us in human form; that God meets us in our humanity. This is why Jesus walked on this earth; this is what Lent is preparing us for. God came into this world in human flesh so that we can all bear witness to the life-changing reminder that where there is hatred, God’s love is more powerful, where there is darkness, God’s light shines brightly and where there is death, there is always resurrection.

In the same way that God made sure a couple of church folk were on at a train station this morning with coffee, donuts and ashes to meet somewhere where they were at on their journey, God always meets us right where we are on our journeys, as well.

And God is meeting us here tonight, as we prepare to enter this Lenten season.

So let us begin our Lenten season, receive the grace and blessing that is the sign of the cross and know that God is with us.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Ash Wednesday Altar | Water In The Desert

As I was preparing our Ash Wednesday service this year, I was really drawn to images of the living waters of baptism.  I’ve never been able to think about the confession of sin without the assurance of forgiveness and grace – and it is through those living waters that this assurance is possible.  As I prepared to impose ashes last week, I kept thinking that I wanted to bring together images of baptism and wilderness (using the wilderness because, after all, that is what Lent is all about).

I had the idea of using fabric to bring water through the desert and decided to go with it for two reasons …

1. It did the trick of combining the waters of baptism with the imagery of the wilderness.

2. I LOVED having water running through the desert, because doesn’t God always provide us with what we need?  AMEN.

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I decided not to burn all the palms to bring in a few of the dried out ones on the altar because it is such a great visual reminder of how the ashes come to be!  I was kind of wishing that I had a different vase to put them in, but it was at home and I was short on time because two hours before the service started a hose had exploded in the women’s bathroom, and water went everywhere, causing a flood into one of the classrooms.

So the vase in my office had to do.

I love how there are so many different things you can do with Ash Wednesday!  We really tried to have good quality music in the service and I think people enjoyed coming to a quiet service that was more about visual/arts/music than a long sermon.  I’m think next year I might not even preach and just let the scriptures and visual/arts/music speak (preach?) for itself!