Thoughts on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020
by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Homily delivered at the annual Ash Wednesday Eucharist celebrated jointly by the two communities, Wauwatosa Area United Methodist Church and Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles.
At 2PM on Ash Wednesday a mass shooting leaving 6 persons dead in its wake took over the city of Milwaukee. I began the homily keeping focus on such slaughter that forever puts us in the same situation as too many communities afflicted with gun violence. We, too, naively had thought it impossible for such a thing to happen in our town. What follows is the Homily as I had written it. I hope, given intervening events, that it still has a message for this beginning of Lent.
So, I have a story to tell. It is a story I love to tell. I love to tell it so much that I have told it to our Mary of Magdala community on at least two occasions. It’s too good a story, IMHO, not to tell it in this context of our annual joint Ash Wednesday celebration. So, I’m going to tell it.
Now, I hope I have taken enough time by way of introduction that the members of Mary of Magdala community, present here can allow themselves to begin their first penitential act of Lent 2020, an act of patience with maybe even a pinch of toleration thrown in.
To keep the story a little shorter let’s just say I fell heir to my paternal Grandmother’s Travel Journals. I can’t call them diaries because she had a style that these days would be best described as writing in bullet points. Very crisp, all straight to the point, reflecting the very efficient and successful businesswoman that she was. The journals began in June, 1912 starting with her honeymoon on a boat from Cleveland to Detroit (yes, there used to be such things) and the Journals ended in September 1960 which was 7 months before her death.
Here’s the story that matters for us this evening now 93 years after it happened. In June, 1927 my Grandmother, Nana we called her, for a treat took her daughter, Kaye, my father’s sister on a train trip to New York City. Aunt Kaye had recently graduated from Grade School so Nana, who was married to a railroader (which entitled her to a free pass wherever the New York Central went), Nana took Kaye to the Big Apple. Truth be told Nana took every opportunity, on a moment’s notice sometimes, to use that pass and see the City. She would stay at the Barbazon Hotel (now Trump Park Plaza).
Anyway, off they went to take in the sights and sounds, including as she wrote in her bullet list style – both of them climbing the inside stairwell to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Now, here’s where the story comes home to this evening. Nana and Kaye strolled along Broadway. And who here has not taken that stroll – with or without Easter bonnets?
On June 18, 1927 Nana wrote:
“Later walked down Broadway to Woolworth Building. Went through, largest in New York. Had our lunch, rode to upper Broadway. See Church around the corner. Went in Episcopal Cathedral. Very surprised, very lovely. First time I entered a Protestant Church at 36 years of age.”
Now, let’s prove that one doesn’t have to go back 93 years to 1927. Who else remembers those days when you were forbidden to enter a Protestant or a Catholic Church? And yet, the walls still stand! Until the age of 36 my Grandmother thought it impossible that she could even step inside a church not of her denomination.
Without expanding upon the source of this quote, last night Sen. Sanders quoted Nelson Mandela when asked about words to live by. Madiba said, “Everything is impossible until it happens.” And he should know.
Remember the days when we said to ourselves that a mass shooting was impossible in our town? Remember when we thought there were so many impossible things? Like, coming together two communities joined as one in prayer, grief, and thoughts of powerlessness? How do we turn away from tragic impossibilities that are all too real? How do we make positive possibilities happen?
The Irish philosopher Richard Kearney in his book, “A God Who May Be” asks the question, “What makes the impossible possible, and the possible to become real?” If he had known about our Mary of Magdala community when he wrote the book he would have had his proof, the answer to his question. We are celebrating our 10th Anniversary this year because this congregation of Tosa Methodist welcomed us – making possible what many declared impossible.
Actually, Kearney did answer his own question which matches perfectly this experience of the coming together of our two communities. He says for the impossible to become possible it takes imagination. I would add that to sustain this imagination it takes freedom.
I can imagine Nana, daughter in tow, walking down Broadway – a daughter who wants to take it all in, the stores, the sights, the churches, the restaurants. She sees an ornate church building a couple blocks off Broadway and wants to go see it. Nana maybe even thought, perhaps that it might be the backside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral which was on 51st Street just off Broadway. But it turned out to be St. Thomas Episcopal Church at 53rd Street. Surely, as she gets a little closer and realizes the church wasn’t Catholic she wasn’t about to squash the curiosity of her oldest child. So they enter. Yes, to sustain one’s imagination one must live free.
We are free to make a possibility a real thing! Over the years we have learned another lesson in our mutual sharing. It is the lesson of solidarity. I do not presume to know all that is occurring within the United Methodist Church. But even in just a few conversations with Pastor Tim it is clear to me that this year ahead is an important year of decision for your denomination. And to support you we want to express our solidarity.
As you may be aware our community is made up of people who are familiar with contention. We value the possibility that becomes real in the vision of a free imagination. We are free to be in solidarity with you. We are confident that the possible that has emerged from the impossible because imagination has made it so. This means we are equipped with the freedom to envision a future – a commitment to and a connection with the wide open embrace of the love of Jesus, love that creates and love that sustains that creation. As we all know it is not a matter of how you love but who you love. We are free in solidarity to carry out Mission.
So, let’s look at Lent and Mission. A few months ago I told my community that I was tired of being angry all the time. Pick the topic – Church, Society, Politics, Degradation of Earth. But I did not want to just avoid, evade, elude and become passive. I wanted to come up with ways, small reminders, that would make things just a little better in my connection with others and our world.
So I recommended Acts of Penitence. Now, I don’t know about your community’s response to such a suggestion, but I got nothing. See, in our tradition for many of us penitence may as well be a four letter word. It conjures up too many silly, demeaning, and utterly meaningless acts from our institutional and authoritarian past.
Here, though, is what I have in mind. I need ways to bring to my attention the life giving and sustaining presence of God among us. In a world that has either lost God or created boxes containing required beliefs and walls of separation which lay claim on God we need to find God again. This is a Mission worthy of Lent.
Richard Kearney, who I mentioned earlier, has also introduced me to Etty Hillesum. Have you ever heard of Etty, whose birth name is Esther, or of her writings? She is new to me and I hope to correct that lapse in my knowledge of courageous believers. Her diaries have been published under the title, “An Interrupted Life.” She provides assurance to me this evening of the Lenten call to be free in solidarity for mission.
The purpose of carrying out a free solidarity in mission is to witness to God’s glory – a glory in us, in all creation. Etty Hillesum’s mission was exactly that – bring forth divine love that is deep within. She was a Dutch Jew who was first removed from her home in 1941 and assigned to an internment camp – Westerbork – and ultimately to Auschwitz where she was executed on Nov. 30, 1943 at the age of 29. Hence the title of her book, “An Interrupted Life.”
Etty’s way was to acknowledge the powerless God who seemingly abandoned the Jewish people in the Holocaust yet she found the way into her own experience of the divine. With naked honesty and clear-eyed analytic powers Hillesum wrote of her view on the human condition in 1943 while interred in the camp at Westerbork. By then it was beyond clear that the holocaust, the slaughter of her people, had been in operation for years. She wrote as she was interred in the camp of her basking in the renewal of trees in bloom and soaring, singing birds overhead and there before her eyes was wholesale murder. Yet, she clung to and fully embraced the power of the divine within. Speaking to God she wrote, “You (God) cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.” Etty shared the awareness and the all-consuming conviction of God within. Just as those who are forced into sex work and those who recall for us the legacy of slaves they cannot take away that spirit, that spark of life, the divine within. Kearney writes, “It is then the dispossessed self, emptied of ego and naked as a child, that becomes a ‘lodging’ for the ‘in-dwelling’ of God.
Etty, too, saw her condition as one of Mission. She says, “If God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God…. I shall merely try to help God as best I can, and if I succeed in doing that, then I shall be of use to others as well.”
Etty also knew freedom in the midst of her captivity. She writes confidently, “We are lost permanently and for all time unless we provide an alternative, a dazzling and dynamic alternative with which to start afresh somewhere.”
This beginning of Lent we, too, are free in solidarity for Mission. Do that and Easter Glory is not only possible, it is real.
A Blessing from Saint Patrick’s Breastplate
We will rise through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun, radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire, speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind, depth of sea,
Stability of earth, firmness of rock.
Be with us, O God, through the dread of night
As we expect the coming of morning light and your grace.