Sunday, December 16, 2012

There was worse than death

Durer Revelation Four Riders
Albrecht Dürer, The Revelation of St John: The Four Riders of 
the Apocalypse, 1497-98, Woodcut, 39 x 28 cm, Staatliche Kunsthalle

Et vidi quod aperuisset Agnus unum de septem sigillis, et audivi unum de quattuor animalibus, dicens, tamquam vocem tonitrui: Veni, et vide.

And I saw that the Lamb had opened one of the seven seals. And I heard one of the four living creatures saying, in a voice like thunder: “Draw near and see.”

                                                                                        - Revelation 6:1                  
Latin Vulgate text, English translation (CPDV)

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come and see!" I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
— Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)

Resignation was ever the fount of man's strength and new hope.  Man accepted the reality of death and built the meaning of his bodily life upon it.  He resigned himself to the truth that he had a soul to lose and that there was worse than death, and founded his freedom upon it.  He resigns himself, in our time, to the reality of society which means the end of that freedom. ...  Uncomplaining acceptance of the reality of society gives man indomitable courage and strength to remove all removable injustice and unfreedom.
        - Karl Polyani     
         [Preface to Margaret R. Somers, Genealogies of Citizenship (2008)]

On this day, in this week, of horrific killings, probably the last thing most people want to think about is Death, Hades, and the Apocalypse.  We want to think of blessed angels (the cherubic kind) and feel the sharp pain of their loss, while doing our best to keep from being engulfed in the horrific images their slaughter brings to mind.  Their innocence magnifies that pain, but it also gives us hope.  The radiance that surrounds our images of them, before and after death, gives us a glimmer of light in the midst of the darkest of tragedies.  

This is as it should be, or at least is the best many of us can muster, while reeling from shock and pain.  The only immediate sense to be made of such brutal, heartless, deranged acts is to grasp the good that was lost and embrace all the more those that we love and hold most dear.

But what follows, sooner for some than others, are deeper questions and the pressing need to take action, to do whatever conceivably can be done to keep something like this from happening -- yet again.  Hence the talk of gun control, better access to and quality of treatment for mental illness, and help for families with troubled youth.  No one expects that any particular measure or measures will prevent all mass killings. Nor does anyone suggest that their implementation, alone, would have averted the tragedies of this past week.  What is hoped is that these tragedies will at last bring open-minded and clear-sighted discussion of what reasonably can be done to reduce the extraordinarily high incidence of gun violence in the U.S., which is unparalleled in the world.  And what is lamented is things both done and left undone.

None of this -- neither the radiance of angels nor the drive to seek practical solutions   -- can ever take us away from the reality of Death, the Pale Rider and his fellows, with Hades following close behind. Death is cruel, whether it comes in a sudden explosion of violence, calamity, or disease, or slowly from infirmity, ending in a last rattling gasp for breath.  It is nothing to be sensed or known other than in its gaping, bleeding, ashen loss of the living, breathing flesh that was human. And it always comes, sooner or alter, pounding down the road. 

Nevertheless, whether we deal with death in terms of resignation, acceptance, protest or denial, there remains what is "worse than death."  In times past when most people saw the End of Times as a prophetic vision of the near future, it was the spectre of Hades, eternal torment and separation from God.  Polanyi suggests that this vision may have given those who lived in times and places with little or no hope in their daily lives, a kind of freedom in knowing that they might be saved from "worse than death" for eternity.  No matter what horrors The Horsemen brought, no matter how grinding and awful their daily lives, with Death all around, there was still hope of salvation.  

Polyani further suggests that this kind of freedom has been lost in modern society but that another kind may be found in the hope that comes from the courage and will to seek to "remove all removable injustice and unfreedom."   Secular humanists no doubt would agree, while contemporary mainstream Christians would contend that Kingdom building on earth does not replace hope of eternal salvation but rather is an essential part of that hope, now and in the days to come.

However we might employ systems of thought, such as theology or social or political philosophy, to sort this out, in the end what remains is  "worse than death" -- not things that we might imagine are or could be worse than dying, but rather the gut feeling and knowing that there is, indeed, "worse than death." 

A tragedy like the killings in Newtown makes no sense, no matter how much we may try to reduce it to a political or social problem or enlarge it to the forces of Evil.  There is no picture, no way to conceive of this kind of slaughter of innocents, which has no context.  The Four Horsemen do not capture it.  Nor is there any social or political context of the kind that would give us some kind of perspective, such as what we have for acts of terrorism, torture, and tyranny.

We must weep.  We must mourn.  We must comfort the afflicted.  This must come first.  But we must also dig deep into our incomprehension, pain and search for truth.

There lies our deepest fear: senselessness gripping and grinding us up in its jaws. Freedom from fear requires something other than diving into bunkers, clutching our material belongings, brandishing our guns, and guarding ourselves from the Government, dark-skinned or Spanish-speaking people, or any others whom we think might take our property and guns away.  Freedom from fear requires something more than engineering our safety by means of even better lock-down procedures at schools and  gun control.  Freedom from fear requires searching deeply, thoughtfully, with humility and love, for what gives us the sense of "worse than death," and rejecting the mad, self-centered, self-protecting ways of trying to run ahead of the galloping horses. 

We cannot stop the riders but we can slow them down.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

                                         Photo by jpstanley on Flickr  Some rights reserved

The night sky

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sermons by the Rev. James M. Jensen on Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday 2009
Grace Church, Utica

In today’s world, if you say to someone that it’s the beginning of Lent and that you’re going to church, you’ve got a 50/50 chance of getting a blank stare, or at least a look of boredom. Unlike Christmas, which has become a purely secular holiday for many people, or Easter, which has become society’s “spring festival,” Lent is something that is peculiarly Christian. And this is true despite that fact that in large cities like New York, more people will enter churches today than any other day of the year. They come to have ashes imposed upon their foreheads, because they know, almost instinctively, that everything in their lives is not as it ought to be.

On Ash Wednesday we do indeed receive marks on our foreheads— a cross traced with ashes, reminiscent of the cross that was traced with sacred oil at our baptisms. This cross is not intended as a public display of our piety or as evidence of the fact that we are religious people. Rather, this cross reminds us who we are and to whom we belong. This cross on our foreheads, like the crucifix that sits on our altar during Lent is intended to remind us that Emmanuel—  “God with us”— died on a cross out of love for you and me.

Since Old Testament times, ashes have been a sign of mourning. As we begin this lenten season, we are entering a time of mourning— 
— mourning for the death of Christ
— mourning for what has been lost
in our own lives and in the world.

The fact that the smudge from the ashes is black and dirty, reminds us that our hearts and souls are unclean, and that we stand in need of God’s saving grace.

Yet in spite of their inherent dirtiness, ashes have also been used in cleaning and purification. They can be used to make soap and other cleansing and polishing agents. These ashes placed on our foreheads will remind us that it is God who washes us from our iniquities and cleanses us from our sins.

The ashes also remind us of our mortality. Produced from the palms of previous years, they remind us that we, too, are made of dust and will return to the earth.

And so we enter Lent marked with the sign of a cross made from dust on our foreheads, and we are reminded that we have been sealed by the sign of that very same cross. We are indeed reminded of who we are and to whom we belong. We have been sealed as one of God’s own chosen children sealed forever into a relationship with a gracious God.

In the Old Testament Lesson the prophet Joel exhorts us to return to the Lord. Wherever we are in life, whatever problems we are facing, whatever joy we may be experiencing, whatever sin we may be carrying, whether our faith is strong, weak, or non-existent, the prophet Joel tells us, “Return to the Lord your God.”

In this usage, the word return means to repent of wrong doings, to change direction, to stop doing the things that are hurtful to other people, and things that alienate us from God. To return is to turn one’s face and focus toward God.  We are encouraged to return to the Holy One, the one who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Lent is all about returning to God. The central focus of Lent is not really fasting and sacrifices, although for some people these acts of self-restraint are useful in helping one return to God. Lent is about really turning our focus from inward “naval gazing” toward being outwardly God-focused. It is about turning toward God and away from the things that are wrong, hurtful, or alienating. It is about is about redirecting our gaze from the treasures on earth and toward the cross. Lent is about remembering that we have been sealed in a relationship with One who is gracious and merciful toward us.

Mercifully for us this seal holds even on the days that we can’t remember to whom we are supposed to turn, and in which direction where we are supposed to look. Along with the psalmist we plead

Create in me a clean heart O God,
Renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Our attempts to return to God by our own efforts are reminiscent of the fable
of the King with only one son. This son had traveled a 100 days away from the King and was desolate. His friends kept urging him to return to his father. He kept saying I cannot. His father hearing of his plight wrote to him, “Return as far as you can to me and I will meet you on the journey.”

So it is with God, who understands our weaknesses and our faith that wobbles, and our inability to turn toward the Holy One. God sent a Son to meet us
on our life’s journey.

One theologian has written that our attempts at Lenten sacrifice, fasting and penance may actually be more effective if we fail in them than if we succeed. Their purpose is not to save us by our own efforts but to bring home to us our need for God’s intervention.

Because with our own efforts we are unable to turn around, repent and be reconciled to God. God sends a Son to us.

As St. Paul wrote in our reading from Second Corinthians
“He who knew no sin was made by God to be sin so that in Jesus we might be made right and reconciled with God.”

And so tonight
As we enter Lent
And accept the ashen cross
On our foreheads,
We acknowledge
That by ourselves,
We cannot stop sinning,
And that by ourselves,
We cannot repent or turn toward God.

Instead, we reflect on that ashen cross
And the merciful God
Who used a hated cross
As a way to save us,
And who sent a Son to meet us
And carry us on the path toward the Holy One.


Ash Wednesday 2007

The Hasidic tradition of Judaism teaches that every one of us should have two pockets in our coat, and that in each pocket there should be a slip of paper with a note on it. The note in one pocket reads, “I am only dust and ashes.” In contrast, the note in the other pocket reads, “For me the whole universe was created.”

Sometimes we need to remember that first note; we will do it   [today]    [tonight]    as we come to be marked with the ashes of repentance. There are other times when we need to remember the second note, to remember that through our faith in Christ we have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters, have received forgiveness for our sins and been made joint heirs with Christ of all that is holy and gracious. We will also do this    [today]    [tonight]    as we receive the Blessed Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood.

Sorrow and joy.
Repentance and forgiveness.
Humility and joyful confidence.
Fasting and Feasting.

These are the parameters that define our life in Christ. These are the things the Holy Spirit seeks to arouse within us, both convicting us and comforting us as we live out our Christian commitment.

This is especially true in Lent, when the Church holds before us our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross as our spiritual preparation for celebrating his victory on Easter Day. Lent is a time to focus on one of the great mysteries of our faith expressed in the familiar words, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” It is also expressed in the words, “I am only dust and ashes”... [and yet,] “for me the whole universe was created.”

As we embrace both of these truths—  as we feel both sorrow over our sins and joy over our salvation—  may it begin a season of both fasting and feasting: a fast in which we rend our hearts and not our garments, and a feast in which we give thanks to God for his goodness and mercy.

In our fasting, may we take to heart the words of St. John Chrysostom, the fifth century Bishop of Constantinople, who cautioned:

“Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.

“Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies.

                 “Let the hands fast, by being free of [greed.] Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful. Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.

“For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers [and sisters]?”

But let us also remember the feasting appropriate for Lent—
to feast on prayer and forgiveness,
to feast on compassion for other people
and on the Christ
who is present to us in them
to feast on praise and gratitude
for the blessings God has given
to feast on enthusiasm and hope
for all that God has promised
to feast on the truth which is ours in Christ
and for the courage to proclaim it>

May the Lord who came to the world to save the lost, strengthen us to complete our fast with humility, and to keep the feast with joy and thanksgiving<

Ash Wednesday 2006
Grace Church, Utica

In the Old Testament Lesson, from the book of the prophet Joel, we heard these words:

Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.

One of the ways the ancient Hebrews demonstrated sorrow or anger, was by publicly tearing their clothes. That meant that any national emergency or disaster, as well as any piece of tragic personal news, could leave your wardrobe in shreds. The signifi­cance of such an act is certainly far less if you have closets stocked the way most of ours are. In fact if you’ve got a closet full of clothes, tearing one garment to shreds would have about as much significance as the giving up of meat on Fridays and then eating lobster instead. The motive is insincere—  it’s tainted. God looks to the heart; genuine sorrow for our sins must be heartfelt. So the prophet tells us to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.”

The emphasis on the heart was important in the Hebrew tradition, because the heart was understood not only as the center of our affections and emotions; the heart was believed to be the “hidden place” —  the sanctuary—  the place where faith and understanding and decisive choices are made. The heart was where our conscience dwells, the “inner tabernacle” where we encounter God. In the 5th Century St. Jerome declared that while Plato and the Greek philosophers located the soul in our heads, Jesus taught that the soul is in our hearts.

But if the heart is the place where God dwells within us, it is also the place where the power of sin gets its grip on us. That’s why, on Ash Wednesday, we’re asked not only to “rend” our hearts, but also to “examine” them. Lent is a time to examine our hearts, to come to grips with the sources of our own sin and wrong­doing, in order that we can be ready with clean hearts and minds to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection.

In just a couple of minutes, I will, in the name of the Church, invite you to observe a “holy Lent.” How might we do that? Well, we might start by realizing that merely giving up something doesn’t get us very far, unless we take up or take on something in its place. “Taking on” can be done in many ways. It might include a few minutes of reflection at the end of the day as a means of self-examination. It might mean looking carefully at what we have said and done, and at our relationships with those closest to us. It might mean making a commitment to a deeper life of prayer and scripture reading, setting aside some specific time to spend in communion with the Lord. It might mean reading the newspaper—  not just to be better informed but to see where there might be opportunities for us to do something concrete to make the world a better place. Or, it might mean taking to heart these words of William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he spoke about “repentance.” Archbishop Temple said.....

The world, as we live in it, is like a shop window into which some mischievous person has got over­night, and shifted all the [price-tags] so that the cheap things have the high [price-tags] on them, and the really precious things are priced low. We let ourselves be taken in [when we accept them as is and thereby develop a distorted sense of values.] Repentance means getting those price-tags back in the right place.

As we face up to our own shortcomings, as well as some guilt for how they’ve shown themselves in our lives, there will probably be some anger and defensiveness to address, and also some pain as the truth begins to break through. Without the pain, there will be no gain; and it’s the pain that rents our hearts, and that’s how you and I walk the way of the Cross.

It’s all an essential part of the process by which our religion becomes less a theory and more of a love affair. And when all is said and done, that’s what God really wants from us, our love— our love offered in return for his love, offered freely and without any conditions. That’s the way of the Cross, which is for us, the way of Life.

Ash Wednesday 2005

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

We hear those words every Ash Wednesday. Those words echo God’s admonition to Adam and Eve, after they had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They also bring to mind those words from the committal prayer in the liturgy for Christian burial: “...we commend to Almighty God, our brother [or sister]..... and we commit [this] body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Ashes to ashes, dust to dust— a stark reminder of our origin as well as our destination, if we were to be left on our own.

So why do we bother coming here on this day to have ashes smeared on our foreheads? Why do we come together in the cold of winter to hear these harsh words? We do it precisely because we have not been left on our own. We do it as a reminder of who we are, but more importantly as a reminder of who God is, and what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. We gather be­cause while in and of ourselves we are dust and ashes, by God’s grace we are so much more than that. God has, in fact, given us a way out of our plight. It is the way of the Cross. The death and resurrection of Jesus was God's way of placing a sign of infinite value upon what might otherwise be worth very little. Of course we don’t begin this new life [today] [tonight]; it began some time ago, when we were baptized. That’s when we became inheritors of the kingdom of heaven; that’s when our dust was given the blessed gift of  redemption.

We gather to hear, once again, that God has chosen to give us the precious gift of new life, a life that leads not to the dust heap and the ash pit, but to eternity. What God asks of us is that we remember we are sinners, that we repent and embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and that we accept divine mercy. God also asks that we practice a piety that is not motivated by thoughts of human praise or reward. Remember Jesus did not say, ‘Beware of practic­ing piety,’ nor did he say ‘Beware of practicing your piety before others.’ He said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” It all has to do with our motives. If our purpose is to demonstrate our own virtue, we’re wasting our time—  in fact, we’re being blasphemous. If, however, our focus is on God and not on ourselves, then our piety is not only an offering of praise and thanksgiving, but a time of communion with the host of heaven.

God has made a commitment to us, and given to us, in the cross of Christ, the sign and seal of that commitment. [Today]    [Tonight]   we come to take up that sign once again, the same sign given to us when we were baptized. We come to re-commit our­selves to God, remembering that while we may be dust, we have also been redeemed by God’s grace, and reborn into a living hope through the Lord’s resurrection. It’s a hope that is ours to claim because God has acted in Christ to offer that new life to all who repent and believe the Gospel.

So come now, to hear, to taste and to see how gracious the Lord is; blessed are those who trust in him. 


Like some other aspects of the Christian life Lent is some­thing of a paradox, a seeming contradiction. We see some evidence of it on Ash Wednesday. As ashes are imposed on your forehead you will hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These bodies of ours that we pamper with hot tubs and wrinkle creams, and discipline with aerobic exercise so that we can reward ourselves with pizza and Saranac Amber, these bodies are going to crumble and decay, and there isn’t a thing any of us can do about it. Remember that you are dust—  it’s enough to make you cry.

And yet, in another part of the Lenten liturgy we give thanks to God praying, “you bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast....” Prepare with joy—  that means feasting and celebration!

So which is it? What’s it going to be? Are we supposed to join the prophet Joel, weeping and mourning as we observe a day of darkness and doom? Or, are we to give ear to Jesus, and douse our faces with Dove or Safeguard, add a little spritz of Chanel or Polo, and dance around the clock?

Well, as with any good paradox you’ve got to do some of each; and Lent is no exception. We must prepare ourselves to face both sorrow and joy, both tears and laughter, because what we’re preparing for is the paschal mystery— the mystery of Easter. Em­bracing Easter involves embracing the paradox dying and rising, of losing life in order to gain it. It’s all symbolized for us in the dust of ashes and in the sign of the cross.

The symbol of dust comes to us from the book of Genesis, and God’s judgement on humanity after the rebellion of Adam and Eve. God says to them:

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out if it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Every human being on the face of the earth is as common as dust. We’re ordinary—  a speck in the universe. If a handful of people see us as different and gifted, there are a billion others who’ve never heard of us and could care less. Each and every day we are in the process of dying. We are creatures of sin—  not always sinning but always blowing hot and cold, more often than not giving in to our selfishness and our self-centeredness, and wandering far away from the God whom we ought to love more than life itself.

That all sounds grim—  it is grim if we stop there. But the symbol of dust is incomplete by itself. Our foreheads are dusted with the sign of the cross, and the cross declares that our dust has been redeemed. The cross reminds us that God in Christ took that same dust of which we’re made and breathed new life into it. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, ever since Bethlehem and Calvary our dusty humanity is charged with the grandeur of God. Our dust is literally electric with God’s own life. And being electri­fied with God’s own life we are assured of a place in God’s eter­nity.

Lent is an annual reminder of what Christian living is all about; it’s a joyful opportunity to renew our commitment to dying and rising with Christ. There will always be some tears as we face up to our shortcomings and let go of those things we thought were so important; that’s the dying part. But then comes the rising, the incredible joy of discovering life— life that is full and complete, life that is rooted in eternity.

There is no Lent without the Cross; but neither is there Lent without the Resurrection. Remember that you are dust; and remem­ber, too, that your dust has been redeemed.