The Rev. Liz Tichenor
All Souls Episcopal Parish, Berkeley CA
Ash Wednesday – February 10, 2016
This past Sunday, I gathered around a sprawling dining room table with the vestry of this parish. We were tucked away up in the hills, dwarfed by these towering redwoods, and flooded by the morning light coming through this massive wall of old windows.
We were making Eucharist. After we reflected on the word, and shared peace, and offered prayers, we broke bread.
Well, we tried to. It was more challenging than usual.
Up in Camp Meeker on retreat, and we were consecrating the basic stuff of life. A glass of wine, saved from lighthearted fellowship the night before. Some bread that I had brought up from the Cheeseboard bakery.
It was a whole loaf, actually – a hearty round of their city bread. And when, having blessed it, I tried to ritually break it, well, I couldn’t. This bread was big. And the crust was thick. And I wrestled with it, first quietly bemused, and then all of us chuckling as I struggled to finally tear it apart, long past the solemnity of that usually quiet moment.
It was simple, and it was funny, and we were broken open into this unexpected moment of joy. There was no question that there was enough, that all would be fed. And there was a lightness, mindful of being alive together.
I tore off a hunk of bread for the soul on my left, who shared it with the next, and the next. The bread as passed, connecting this circle, now quiet again. I looked down, and was taken aback: in the midst of all this joy, I saw my hands. Having wrestled with this loaf, they were covered, thoroughly white with flour. But in that moment, what I saw was hands covered with ashes.
A taste of the fullness of life, brought so close to the knowledge of our mortality.
I’ve been reflecting on this thin place I stumbled into up at St. Dorothy’s Rest.
I think it was possible to have life and the shadow of death come together, stark and yet filled with gratitude, even joy, because we were on Sabbath.
For me, Sabbath sometimes happens in fits and starts. Lately, it has been coming to me as a song.
If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord…
So then whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
Last week, this song bubbled up again and again as a prayer out of fear, winging hope to someone waiting to hear about a scary diagnosis. As I held vigil for them, this song washed over my days. And it seemed somehow to point to goodness, even in the unknown, in the waiting.
At other times, it’s been on my lips as an intention. A kind of Sabbath mantra, it is true to the present – this now that has breath, and the now when my breath will cease. It’s true to the knowledge that at some unknown hour, those times of breath and no breath will touch for me, turning from one to the other. The song names the decision to be with our maker, through it all.
The thing is, Lent is like a whole season of Sabbath. It’s time set aside. We slow down, we pay more attention, we try to strip away the distractions and focus in on what matters most.
But then when I hear what Jesus teaches in today’s gospel, it doesn’t sound like restful Sabbath. At first impression, the teachings are intense.
But beneath his rigid warnings, I think Jesus is asking us to recognize that there is enough. When we rest in the knowledge that we are good enough, we need not clamor to convince anyone that we’re better. If we’re confident that we are living generously, there’s no need to make a big hoopla about our almsgiving – we just offer care. If we fast and encounter God in the journey, we won’t be worrying about how pious others think we are.
But we get caught in these cycles, don’t we? When I see these patterns in myself, when I see myself getting caught in them and reach for a reset button, I see that Sabbath is just that.
Thinking all the way back to our creation stories, we meet a God who takes time out also. Who works hard, leading a whirlwind of forming, breathing life into dust and sweeping water into place. And then, blessing that seventh day, we hear that God rests. And God sees that all of it is good. That creation is good. God sees that it is enough.
We hear many attempts to convince us otherwise – that we need more money, or status, or even feigned immortality. We’re told that we’re never enough. But it’s not true.
When we keep the Sabbath, we practice hallowing what already is, the life that we are living now. When we’re not busy trying to be someone else, there is grace, and blessing. When we slow down to see the good that is here, now, we can rest in ourselves. The need to put on a holier-than-thou spectacle fades away. There is room to live with the authenticity that Jesus invites.
I hear Jesus’s encouragement to do these things for the right reasons. And, I think these verses are sometimes taken to mean that we should engage this spirituality alone. But taking all his teaching and example, I can’t believe that Jesus wants us reaching for God in isolation. He just wants us to be in right relationship with each other when we do it.
Of course some of it is between us and God. In our hearts, in the stillness of our rooms, in the truth revealed there. And, at the same time, I wonder, how can we keep this Lenten season of Sabbath, together? Soon enough we’ll step into the intimacy washing each other’s feet, in the love he commanded. So how are we going to live until we get there?
I, for one, have learned that I cannot do this by myself. Why is it that we feel like we need to do this on our own? When the world grabs hold of the fabric of our lives, pulling the ends until death and life come close, I think we have to be together if we are to live to the Lord.
This was my experience on my 29th birthday — a time to feast, right? And yet I was hemmed in by death. My son had just died, and friends were streaming into Nevada, to help us give thanks for his life and bury his ashes the next day.
These people were so willing to hold life and death with me, all tangled up. It stopped me in my tracks. Most of them were family forged through faith. They had formed themselves with this vow to live and die to the Lord.
They carried me through this surreal union. We splashed into the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe that afternoon, whooping and laughing, alive. It was my birthday! We had to. Later on, one dear soul went with me to pick up the little box of Fritz’s ashes from the funeral home. We were guided home by a crisp winter sunset over the lake.
Returning after dusk to the camp where we lived, I noticed the glow of the dining hall. Coming closer, I saw friends, having only just met each other that afternoon, decorating. Together, they twisted crêpe paper, filling the ceiling. They blew up balloons. We feasted, and they sang, and there was cake.
Of course our hearts were still broken, gaping. But in the face of death, they helped me give thanks for another year. They helped me to rest in the blessed Sabbath goodness of Now. And in that moment, by the grace of God, it was enough.
This is Lent, friends. We come together and we mark ourselves with the depth of our being—all we have been, all that we shall be. We do this not to be miserable, or fearful, or resigned to death. Rather, we lift our eyes squarely to the reality of our short time on earth, because we are here now. We do so because we choose to live and die to the Lord.
We enter into Lent because when we see our hands, covered in ashes, we trust that we are still fed. Even in the face of death, we choose to really live—to feast, to share joy, to love.
This is Lent. Our hands are covered in ashes, even as we hold this bread of life.
It is enough. It is good.