February 21, 2021

Ashes and Water

Ashes and Water

Today we welcome Steve Slepecki to the pulpit with music by Ed

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

In the course of my very young ministry career thus far, I’ve already had to preach some pretty unusual sermons. My very first sermon ever, was preached while wearing street clothes, before I had even decided to go to seminary, and I certainly didn’t feel like I belonged up here. There was Pastor Scott’s installation service, with the big stage and everything associated with that. There’s been numerous sermons preached since this lovely thing called COVID entered into our lives, where I can’t impress upon you how odd it feels to talk to a webcam and have no clue how many people might be hearing me, or be able to gauge their reactions. And, this past December, I had the joy of preparing a funeral sermon for my own grandmother. (That’s not an experience I recommend, by the way.)
And today, here I am, yet again feeling like these circumstances are somewhat unprecedented, and I’m in uncharted territory. I’d better ask my mentor for help on what to do or say next – oh, wait a minute, he’s not here anymore, and I’m not allowed to talk to him.
I have no idea who might be seeing and hearing me today. For all I know Pastor Scott could be watching. Former members of CLC could be watching. Bishop Kusserow, who granted me his permission to be here today and who will be my boss in two years if all goes according to plan, could watch at some point. And so with all the complicated circumstances surrounding Pastor Scott’s departure, and the danger of getting myself in trouble by saying too much, how in the world am I supposed to address this?
Well, the only thing I know for sure, is that the hurting and anxious community of CLC, is watching. And I know that right now, the feeling of so many, is that they just don’t have the energy, for another prolonged period of lean and uncertain times. They just don’t have the fight in
them to do this all over again, so soon. The past three-odd-years-or-so with Pastor Scott provided some measure of relief from the stress and uncertainty – and even then, Scott’s era with us was certainly far from low-stress in itself. (That’s a bit of an understatement…) But his tenure with us at least provided some stability after a prior three-odd-years-or- so when we wandered from pastor to pastor, unsure of our future, wondering when we’d ever find our way back to green pastures. And here we are, again.
Not to mention, of course, other factors – our country is still licking its psychological wounds from the incredibly toxic and divisive 2020 presidential election, and we’re nearing a full year into the pandemic and our “new normal” existence. (I’m so tired of hearing that phrase.)
We’re nearing a year from the last time we experienced the real normal and our lives as we remember them, and even with the hope of the vaccine on the horizon, it will take so long to distribute the darn thing that it’ll be many months more before our lives slowly begin returning to the TRUE normal – the normal where we can fill this sanctuary, see each other’s UNMASKED smiles, and raise our voices in song again.
And on top of all that, were we not in the midst of a pandemic and IF we had a regular pastor, this past Wednesday we would have gathered together for the celebration of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season, and all the solemnity that accompanies that. We enter into that time of the year when we’re supposed to be somber, take stock of our lives, look upon our brokenness, and repent. The human heart needs that, under normal circumstances – but right now, we wonder just how much more “solemnity” we can take.

Putting it all together, sisters and brothers… no one would fault you for feeling awfully discouraged indeed. This is one heck of a dark time in our lives.
I suppose, then, maybe it is appropriate and fitting for Lent to begin, if that’s the case. There’s already a general feeling of death in the air anyway, we might as well explore it.
In the numerous conversations I’ve had with CLC members in the past couple of weeks, hearing the general, free-floating sense of anxiety that is in the air about the future of the congregation, I’ve told people this: If your fear is that you think Christ Lutheran Church is going to die as a result of the things that have befallen us, let me put your mind at ease: CLC IS going to die.
… in its current form.
Fortunately, with our God, death doesn’t have the last word. Death doesn’t get to win. Even when it appears to do so. Our God makes new things come out of the ashes of the past. Just as he will yet again in our community.
CLC is GOING to die in its current form, and become something different. Just as it did in June 2014 when the Mendis’ retired. Just as we always knew it would when Scott was going to retire in a couple of years anyway – that moment has just been bumped ahead of schedule a little bit. We always knew he wasn’t going to be here forever.

But when the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is involved, death is never the end, sisters and brothers. Death is never final. Death is more of an “Until next time”, than it is a goodbye.
As I mentioned a moment ago, were we not in the midst of the pandemic, this past Wednesday we would have come into the church for Ash Wednesday, and we would have processed down that aisle there, and had ashes imposed on our foreheads. Now for those of you who may not have grown up in a liturgical church like the Lutheran or Roman Catholic traditions – or, even, for those of you who did, but need a reminder – something that’s pretty cool, is that the ashes we use on Ash Wednesday, are the burnt remnants of the palms that we waved one year ago, on the last Palm Sunday. Our little children waved their palm branches in the air (or, at least, in a normal non-pandemic year they would, anyway) while we sang “All Glory Laud and Honor” with pomp and celebration, recalling Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Those same palm branches are burned to create the ashes that we use the following year, on Ash Wednesday. This might sound depressing, until you remember that Ash Wednesday will lead us into another Lent, and another Palm Sunday… and the cycle of life continues. Death, and rebirth. Death again, and rebirth again.
It’s our God’s business to make new things out of old ashes. That’s what he does. Just as he always has. Just as he always will.
And so maybe we don’t need to be quite so fearful of death, because it never has the final word where our God is involved. It’s never the end. It’s a transition from one old life, into another new beginning. CLC is GOING to die, in its current form. Pastor Scott’s resignation is final. He’s not coming back. Soon, there will be a new interim pastor here in this pulpit, and eventually you’ll begin looking for your next permanent

pastor. She or he will do things a little differently. Some old faces will remain. Some folks will move on to the next phase of their lives, and if that’s what they feel they need to do, we wish them well. Some new faces will undoubtedly appear. But CLC will still be here. Because God makes new things out of old ashes.
And so it’s in keeping with these overtones of rebirth, of renewal, that the church has us exploring the theme of baptism, and cleansing, and regeneration, in our readings for this week. The waters of the flood in our Genesis reading have just brought destruction to the whole earth. Only Noah and his family have been preserved. God looks down upon what he has done, and he is filled with remorse, and vows that never again will he do this. But in the midst of all that destruction, the loss of the only life humanity had ever known, the rainbow of hope is God’s sign to us that something NEW will come out of this. Out of the ashes of the old, God will make new. The floodwaters that brought destruction to our old way of life and our last phase of existence, will be the birth of a new age, a new beginning. Death was not the end. Death was the transition to new possibilities. That’s what our God does.
Water is a powerful thing. Those of us living here in Millvale, know this all too well! Water is incredibly destructive in the right circumstances; water can erode the earth to create mountains and valleys and canyons. And yet the first living creatures on earth spawned in water. Our bodies are mostly water. Water has the capacity to literally give life.
And so it is that water is one of those elements which God uses to bring us grace, in Holy Baptism. This is a two-edged sword; Baptism saves us, but Baptism also calls us to daily die to self and rise to new life in Christ. Our Baptism is no guarantee we’ll be spared hardship; quite the contrary, in our Gospel for today, Jesus receives his Baptism, and is

immediately whisked off into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. His Baptism was the inauguration of his public ministry, the formal blessing of his heavenly Father upon what he was about to say and do for the next three years. The things he would accomplish during that time would win the salvation of the entire human race; but it would come at the cost of his life. Jesus’ Baptism, was the first step in a journey that he knew would end with him being nailed to a Roman Cross, and he bore that burden every morning when he awoke.
Martin Luther encouraged his followers to begin every day with the Sign of the Cross and the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed; this is a reminder that we are the Baptized, each morning owning our identity as one purchased by God at the cost of Christ’s blood. Luther is echoing the calls of the Apostle Paul all throughout the New Testament to daily die to the old human being, Adam, and put on the new human being, Christ. Every morning, we die a little death, and we rise to the possibility of a new life. The waters of Baptism, like the ashes of Ash Wednesday, are a reminder that death is not the end. Death is not something to fear when we are in Christ. Death is the end of one old way of life, and the beginning of another.
The CLC we knew under Pastor Scott is going to die, sisters and brothers. It’s okay if you have to mourn that, like it is a death. I’ve talked to people in the past weeks who have spoken of Pastor Scott almost like he’s passed away rather than resigned, and they’re mourning his loss in their lives accordingly. If you need to grieve, let it out. Cleanse your soul with the catharsis of tears if that’s what you must do. That’s alright. That’s the natural reaction to death.
But that death won’t be the end. Soon, a new era will begin here at CLC, and the congregation will go on. The community will survive.

God will raise up something new out of the ashes, because that’s what he does. It will look different. Remember that when Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples didn’t immediately recognize him – his resurrection body was different in appearance than his mortal body. The new CLC will certainly be different in appearance as well – but it will go on. And I’m sure Pastor Scott himself would be rooting for it to be the best it’s ever been. With the God who makes resurrection and life happen out of the ashes and the floodwaters of the past, there is always hope.

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