Presbyterians haven’t always observed Lent. It’s a relatively new thing, and we don’t always know what to do with a season that invites us to face the reality of death. Many of you know about the tragic act of violence outside our church door that resulted in the death of Kevin Chamberlain, a member of the Foggy Bottom community who was experiencing homelessness at the time.
In all the years that we have hosted Miriam’s Kitchen here, this was the first such incident literally at our door. That someone who sought solace in this place of life and peace should die violently is heartbreaking – a new level of trauma and tragedy for the staff here – of Miriam’s Kitchen and the church. It felt like a violation of all of us, at some level.
But through it, we have had moments of grace. The first for me came that very evening, that our siblings in Christ on the session at Northminster were praying – for Kevin, for us, for all involved. Others came as all kinds of folks – Miriam’s guests and staff, church members and staff, people in the community who simply felt like they should show up – joined together singing. One of the guests, Leroy, shared how thankful he was – for the service, for Kevin, for Miriam’s Kitchen. Another guest said he was determined to praise God through it all.
Other moments of grace have been more subtle, but no less profound. Two people have independently shared stories of losing the people closest to them – one, the brother next in age to him, the one he couldn’t imagine life without, dying suddenly; the other, losing the grandmother who had raised her. Both of them shared how it changed them and their experience of death. Not that they feel like it’s a good thing, but that they found a deeper peace with death. That it is real. And it is a part of life.
They didn’t use these words, but I heard in them a deeper wisdom, the kind that comes when we experience that God does not leave us in death. I heard a connection to the power that is available to each of us – God’s power – giving us the courage and the strength to face our own death, or the death of those we love, or any of the tragedies we face.
For a long time in Presbyterian churches, Lent was considered a Roman Catholic thing. (Fifteen years ago, I was new in a church in Arlington, and found out that we observed Ash Wednesday for the first time in the church’s over 100 year history!) Many Presbyterians still this service as a sort of grim reflection on death.
But we Presbyterians are beginning to realize that Ash Wednesday and all of Lent – reflect that deeper spiritual wisdom at work here, the kind that can come in the face of tragedy and trauma, the kind that empowers us to face the kinds of tragedy and trauma that Jesus endured himself, as he approached the cross. Let me be clear: this is not to resign us to tragedy, but to empower us to be strong, based on the wisdom that:
Until we meet death, we can miss out on the power of life;
Until we’ve spent some time paying attention to the ways God chooses, we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re really great on our own – we don’t need God – or that we’re not so great, and any tragedy must mean that God is ignoring us;
Unless we’ve paid attention to our own walks with God, the way Jesus encourages us to do in Matthew, we can fall into habits that break the way of life God intends for us in community.
Unless we come face to face with the truth – about ourselves, about the world, about our own death, we miss God’s truth of life, of love, of justice, of peace – of the things this world cannot contain.
Sometimes I wish it were easier than all that. As a pastor, how often I want to take away all the pain, all the injustice, all the grief. If I could go back to that day in January, unseasonably warm, and turn the tide of what happened to Kevin, I would do it. But that work is not mine, not any of ours, to do.
Our work is to share these ashes, this reminder of our own mortality, to remember that death is real, but also to open ourselves to a power that is more real. Our work is to grow in the deeper wisdom that Jesus invites us to: in death, life.
And so I welcome you to Lent, this time of facing truths we don’t always want to admit, of returning to God’s ways of love and justice, of praying and strengthening your own relationship with God, however you choose to do that. My hope is not that you will find it depressing, but that you will discover the power at work in you that is greater than your own, that you will be empowered to face the tragedies and traumas that may fill your life, but that certainly fill our city and our world. That in facing death, you will find new opportunities for life, with God, with your community, with all creation. May it be so. Amen.