Ash Wednesday Sermon: A Time of Fragile Greatness

On Ash Wednesday two years ago Laurel and I sat with our two-day old baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, of UCSD Medical Center up the street. This was not how we had hoped to spend our second day with Jem, who was connected to several electrodes monitoring his heart, breathing, and oxygen levels and hooked to an IV administering antibiotics. We felt sad that he had to experience the more sterile and sharp parts of this world so early in life, but thankfully, we weren’t worried about his long-term well-being after those first couple days. The doctors were being cautious with a breathing rate that wasn’t quite right.

But we sat three feet away from a 28-week old premature baby who weighed much, much less than she should. Her incubator’s rectangular walls were clear and coffin-shaped, and they formed the bounds and held the means of support for her fragile body. Yet from the coffin breathed life. For months this baby would breathe manufactured air and consume manufactured formula, the best human minds can produce, to enable her miraculous growth. Imagine the money, the time, the care and concern involved to keep this little one alive. I trust that now she thrives.

Today we acknowledge just how fragile each one of our lives really is: We are just dust, and to dust we will return. We are so small, so insignificant, and we live in a bounded world determined by natural and immutable laws. We face this fact each morning when we get out of bed — that living this life is risky, and that we are entitled to no particular promise of health, wealth, or prestige. And yet, like the premie next to us two years ago, we are cared for more than we can ever know. We are loved beyond measure and beyond reason by the God who brought us into being.

How can we be so small, so insignificant, and yet be loved so much and be capable of so much? This is the dilemma of the NICU, and it is our invitation to ponder this Lent, a time of great limits and fragility, great love and possibility.

Last weekend I was in Guadalajara as our bishop’s representative to the Anglican Diocese of Western Mexico’s annual convention. He and many others hope that we might soon form a sister relationship with our neighboring diocese to the south, which includes the entire Baja California peninsula and all of northwestern Mexico to Colima more than a thousand miles away. The convention was held in St. Paul-the-Apostle Cathedral, a twenty-year old concrete block structure on a dusty lot with faux-wood finish paint peeling from its metal front doors. Inside, the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling featured naked fluorescent bulbs; one of the spiraled bulbs had gone out in the fixture above the altar; and another glowing naked bulb next to the aumbry announced the presence of consecrated bread and wine. A cockroach scurried under the pew during one point in the day.

The Diocese of Western Mexico can no longer afford stipends for the priests of its 20-something missions, which prompted one of two priests in Tijuana to work at a Verizon customer service call center before moving to the States in search of a better job to feed his wife and teenage son. Another priest in Sinaloa took on a six day-a-week job as a hotel bellhop to feed his wife and five kids and continue his ministry on Sundays. The priest in Mexicali, Armando, admitted to me that he and his wife will eat just beans, rice, and tortillas for months at a time to make ends meet.

Now it’s not our fault that St. Paul’s Cathedral in Guadalajara lacks doors to the stalls in its bathrooms, any more that it’s my and Laurel’s fault that our total compensation is more than the entire 2016 budget of the Diocese of Western Mexico. But I do think something in our moral selves is awakened and unsettled when we hear of such stark contrasts. We yearn for an explanation that could help us feel less implicated, less troubled in our gut.

But rather than an explanation, I only offer this: Armando, who at age 58 suffers from diabetes and deteriorating glaucoma and who may or may not find the money or connections to get the eye surgery he needs to keep from going blind, gave his clergy shirt and collar to a newly ordained priest at the end of the convention, telling me that he has one other clergy shirt back home — why would he need more? And during the diocesan convention, Bishop Lino announced a new initiative (of unknown cost) to accept pastoral oversight of two dozen destitute indigenous communities in the mountains of San Luis Potosi who have been abandoned by the government and their former church.

I don’t know about you, but this level of generosity and faith is way beyond anything I’ve been able to come up with in my life to date. When I witness such spiritual power in the face of such material scarcity, I am brought into an unsettled place, a place where it is less obvious how I am to live a moral life in the midst of such material abundance.

Lent is a time when we seek out this unsettled place voluntarily, when we step out of our daily steady routines. It is a time when we search fearlessly inside ourselves, confronting our addictions and all that holds us back from a fuller relationship with God, and give that which holds us back into God’s love and grace.

Ash Wednesday is the door we’ve chosen to buzz that will let us into the church’s Lenten season in the NICU, a place of great limits and fragility and great love and possibility. Walk the aisles of the NICU with us this Lent — notice those in need and witness their healing; walk the margins, the places of unsettled risk, and be strengthened by the stunning faith of those who reside there; contemplate this manifestation of God’s love beyond all measure and reason. See miracles born of determination and love from the smallest beginnings. Stay in relationship with your family of faith as we walk beside Jesus along the uncertain and dangerous edges of his society. Watch his lonely temptations, his resolute march to Jerusalem, Mary’s anointing of his feet, his triumphal entry into a misunderstanding city, his terrible cross.

If you think your religion has gone stale, if you think your faith has dried up for lack of challenge, let Lent be your insistent reminder that God has great dreams for us, all of us gathered together right now. Our Maker invites us, we of fragile bodies and limited moral selves, to restore streets and rebuild cities upon a foundation of justice and truth. Our Creator has gifted us with magnificent imaginations, gritty courage, and dogged persistence in this cause.

Yesterday Jem’s godparents in Alabama informed us that their three-week old baby will need to spend at least two days in a nearby NICU due to a high fever. That is a scary prospect, indeed, and yet there is comfort knowing the magnitude of resources that will be brought to bear in caring for Alice Grace. With God’s help this Lent, together we will bring to bear the material and spiritual resources given to us to share our bread with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into our house, and the loose the bonds of injustice afflicting those in the world’s forgotten places. Sure, what we have to offer may seem small and insignificant, but there is much possibility waiting to be born of God’s great forgiving love.

The Rev Colin Mathewson
Feb 10, 2016

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