This sermon was offered at St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn, New York on the first Sunday of Lent, February 17, 2013.
I was an anxious child.
I worried about being left alone. I worried about doing the right thing, whatever that was.
I worried that other kids would pick on me.
And as I grew up, my anxiety grew up with me.
And now, the thought of a life without anxiety makes me anxious.
Here, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “Do not worry.”
And Jesus says your God, your Father who loves you, will provide for you.
Don’t be anxious.
and offered ashes to all who want them.
Out of the constant river of travelers came strangers seeking a moment of freedom from anxiety,
a moment of peace.
And we tried to give it to them.
We looked into each other’s eyes, asked their names, and we smudged a cross on their foreheads as we said,
“Remember from dust you were created and to dust you shall return.”
Steve, who closed his eyes and let his stress wash away, if only for a moment.
The young subway worker who asked for ashes
and then pulled down his collar to reveal a tracheotomy scar.
“I just got out of a coma,” he confessed.
The young woman relieved she did not miss Ash Wednesday.
“You’re here!” she smiled, as if she had reached sanctuary. Maybe she did.
And so many others.
And they revealed their names and they let us touch their faces and they thanked us.
And there were moments that I almost cried. It was so sad and beautiful.
This is Lent, from the Latin lente, slowly.
Here in Lent, we live more slowly, more reflectively, more carefully.
And we start with reflecting on our starting point and end point:
From dust. To dust.
Ash Wednesday is one of my highest holy days, but I forget how much I love it,
sharing these strange moments of intimate vulnerability about our mortality.
This is the act of strangers coming to one another to find solace and comfort in one another about something we share: death and life.
And life means so much more when you remember your death.
And we smile to one another and look into each other’s eyes and nod knowingly.
There is a gentle understanding among us.
This is the anxiety I carry with me: the anxiety of self and who I am becoming.
The anxiety of living.
But here in Luke, Jesus takes things from lofty existential matters and says,
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.”
This is about everything that comes in between birth and death.
What will you eat? Don’t worry about it. What will you wear? Don’t worry about it.
Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies.
Consider that this is New York City. We have pigeons and weeds.
Nothing as cool as ravens or lilies. God takes care of the pigeons and weeds.
How much more will God take care of us?
But can we believe this?
Within these few blocks there are hungry and cold people who believe themselves faithful to God.
This is New York City where one in five people live below the federal poverty line.
1.5 million people well below the cost of living in this city.
And as New Yorkers, we say to Jesus “how can this be?” New York City is not Judea.
Jesus says that God knows what we need. And how will this happen, again?
Jesus only answers that we should strive for the kingdom
and these things will be given to us, as well.
Ah. The kingdom. God will give God’s kingdom to us over and against the Empire State and every other kind of empire.
And what does the word “kingdom” mean to our American ears, anyway?
Life in the empire of New York City is hard.
Jesus says do not worry,
but it is hard not to worry.
We worry about our jobs, our income, our apartments.
This city is very fast and it can be very lonely very quickly.
And in New York, it can go very quickly.
Apartments and jobs come and go in the twinkling of an eye.
When I was out of work for four months, I dreaded every moment,
terrified that money would run out and that I would lose my tiny foothold here.
This anxiety on top of my regular anxiety.
This quickly becomes more immediate than smearing ash on foreheads in a subway station and reminding people of death.
“Therefore,” says Jesus. “I tell you, do not worry.”
Then, Jesus goes even further: sell your things. Give alms.
First, he says don’t worry about the future. Then, he says give away your present.
Is this the radicality of the lived Gospel?
It troubles me. Is this what we are supposed to do?
Jesus, this is New York City.
Look at the pigeons, says Jesus. Look at the weeds, he says.
God takes care of them. Do not worry. God will take care of you.
Are we to abandon what we know to live lives at the level of animal instinct?
Or do we already live in ways all too human?
The rub is that Jesus does not say how God feeds and clothes us.
Perhaps, this is a part of freedom. Luke just simply stops the story.
Jesus tells us to store our treasures in heaven,
where our hearts should be, where there is no worry, no anxiety;
where no bank, no mugger, no landlord, no roommate, and no hurricane can steal it.
Is there a heaven?
I’d like to think so.
Lent is when we remember that ultimately we have nothing but our lives.
Everything else is gone. Our earthly inheritance is gone. No judge needed.
It is dust and rust.
It is hard to believe, but it’s true.
And yet how can we trust a God with our things and our lives
when we see here in New York City the daily injustice of the richest and poorest?
This is the bleak theology. It is a sad and melancholy theology, but it is hopeful and hopeful for hope.
St. Lydia’s is a community who is always finding our footing, finding our way,
A community who has faith in kindness,
both divine and human.
We are not in immediate desperation for things. In fact, we are growing.
But we must remember not take St. Lydia’s or our selves for granted.
Remember that from dust we are created and to dust we shall return.
On Sunday nights, we come to St. Lydia’s in faith
and full expectation that there will be a meal for us.
That St. Lydia’s will be here for us.
Jesus says to not worry about where our next meal will come from.
And here we are at table, in community, with our stomachs full.
We provide this meal for each other,
for anyone who comes to eat with us.
Every week, we have faith that this meal will be here for us, regardless if we’re here or not.
We do not worry that it will not be here.
And if the Fresh Direct delivery falls through, we get creative. Quickly.
Sometimes, the food does not show up and the meal planners must scramble,
but there is always something and something good.
Often, we never know that there has been a bump in the schedule.
We do not worry what we will eat.
We have faith that we will eat. We have faith that we will drink.
We have faith that we will have fellowship.
Are we more than ravens and pigeons? Perhaps.
And are we not more loved than ravens and pigeons? I hope.
Do we love each other more than ravens and pigeons? I hope.
We must be careful that we do not take our community of St. Lydia’s for granted,
that we store it up for ourselves in ways that it can be destroyed.
It is meant to be shared, to be given away to each other.
Sell our things. Give alms.
Perhaps, this is the Kingdom,
whatever that means.
It is here at St. Lydia’s where I forget my anxiety, if only for a little while.
I am able to get out of myself and get into myself.
I am a fretter. Fretting is one of my favorite activities.
I enjoy having something to turn ever over and over in my mind and heart.
I feel alive. I like to worry.
Everything on the verge of collapse. Everything all of the time.
But at St. Lydia’s, for a few hours, I do not worry.
I do not worry about what I will eat. I do not worry about what will happen.
When we break the bread and say to each other, “this is my body,” I am not worried about my body, that it is broken and human.
Because I give it to you, as each of us do to each other.
If only I could worry less about more things.
Lent has begun. Let us live Lent slowly.
Remember that from dust we are created and to dust we shall return.
Do not worry about your life.
Store your treasure in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Lent is our season to die in anticipation of a life of living.
There is no resurrection without suffering, dying, and death.
This is our hope, at least.
If only we could be less anxious about it.