A Procession Is Different…, Lent 3 (A) – 1996
March 10, 1996
A procession is different from a parade. A parade is before a home coming game. A procession is a senior class on graduation day. A parade is political. A procession is the funeral of a president. A parade is decorated bicycles around a neighborhood. A procession is food being brought to a home where there is a new birth. A parade is Mardi Gras. A procession is Lent.
A procession is orchestrated and purposeful. It is the movement from one time into another time. It marks transition with dignity and grace. The senior class wears garments like vestments as it moves through the rite of passage into a new life. Most rites of passage begin with a procession, especially those with theological content; baptism, confirmation, marriage, funerals.
A procession moves from one space into another space. It takes us from the secular into the sacred. It enables us to approach the altar, the word, and the sacraments and gives us time to make the adjustment to the holy and to leave the profane behind.
Lent is a procession to the glory of Easter. The church gives us gifts to help us order this time for the movement of the spirit. There is a stripping away of the trappings of the parade. We are nudged into new understandings of the sacred and the holy through the Sunday readings, through Lenten disciplines and prayer and through a variety of Lenten studies. All of this helps us to answer the question, “How is it between God and me?”
“How Is God among us, or not?” Hot, dirty, thirsty, with miles of sand and rocks behind them and nothing before them but a promise and an ephemeral pillar of cloud or fire, they urged their beasts and children, men and women, old and young on and on toward the east. They were tired when they started the journey and it had been generations since they had left a nomadic lifestyle. They were out of practice. Moses was an adequate administrator and mouth piece for the Most High, but, a lousy trail guide. Not much distance could be covered in a day and mistakes had been made which lengthened the route. No one was happy. Especially Moses.
In two successive summers we traveled with our four children, two males and two females. We took turns sitting in the middle of the back seat. The girls fussed when in this position between the brothers during the second of the summers. After the first 600 miles we realized that the shoulders of the brothers had broadened over the year and the space in the back seat had shrunk to the same degree of the growth spurt. We arbitrated for the rest of the trip – to our chagrin and weariness – rather like Moses.
Poor Moses. This was no summer outing. God was re-creating a people. The birth was being difficult and Moses was the mid-wife. At times in the story even the Most High seems frustrated and a bit addled. Imagine the scene from the air. The heat shimmers. The mob would be stretched for a great distance, dissolving at the rear into the goats, sheep, and cattle. The noise would reach into the sky. The complaints of the less patient and enduring, the crying of infants, the lowing of the animals. The noise would reach through the dust cloud pumped up by countless bare feet, a cloud challenging the supremacy of the whiter one which leads them. And somewhere in the crowd, Moses.
He told God he couldn’t do it, what with being a poor speaker and all. But, they were on their way and here he was, beleaguered by a stiff-necked people who needed drinks of water.
“Is God among us, or not?” The challenge of that question is cosmic. “Are you coming..or not?” “Are you marrying..or not?” “Are you taking the position in Hoboken..or not?” The most interesting thing to consider is the “..or not?” To ponder in retrospect is to become nostalgic for the “might have been,” and the question is unanswerable. But, the God question! What is your knee jerk response to, “No, God is not among us”? To sense this hypothetical answer to the Israelites is to imagine a monumental scurrying about the desert, a diving for cover, an inability to function in the heat and the dust and the thirst. And, Moses would be of no account at all.
God, or course, since we know the end of the story, was there and is there still. And that is one answer to, “how is it with God and me.”
I was in the third grade with Naomi. We were classmates through grade five after which I went to Junior High and she stayed behind in the relic of a grade school which both of our grand- fathers had attended and which was in a part of town growing less and less desirable.
Naomi came from the end of the table WAY below the salt. From the side of the tracks which was wrong, from a culture alien to my own even though we shared gender and race. Poor Naomi. I remember the bobbed hair, dresses with no elastic in the waist which dangled to the tops of her shoes. This was in the 1940’s and there wasn’t an agency which concerned itself with kids like Naomi. The only attention bordering on interest was when the school nurse in the navy blue uniform coated Naomi’s head with something to get rid of the lice and then sent her home. As I reflect, I realize that I never wondered what Naomi’s home was like.
She used to give us germs – on request. When we got really angry at a third party and went to Naomi for help she would spit on her hands, wipe them together and then on ours so that we could glow the germs on the third child who would scream and run away. Naomi had her place and purpose. Naomi would have gone to the well in the middle of the day.
Jesus’ friend, the Samaritan woman, was like a Naomi. She was an outcast from the society which reviled that into which she was born. She was also an outcast from the society of her birth. She went to the well in the ridiculous heat of the day, and, there- fore, met no other woman from her village with whom she could have shared recipes, tales of children, or gossiped. She bantered and teased with the man she found there. To play her on the stage is to play her saucy. We learn enough about her life to know that any meeting with a male was probably seen as an opportunity. What triggers the response of leaving a water jar – an important object – and to explode back into the village declaring the possibility of the Messiah and making converts in the bargain. The trigger was, “…a man has told me everything I have ever done!” That was the word she carried back to the people and that was what changed them. “He stayed there two days.” Imagine the comfort our lady of the well would have received in that 48 hours. She received the Living Waters, thirsted no more, and was brought out of the wilderness of her past into a relationship with God.
And that, too, is how God is with me. I am the woman at the well. I am a Naomi. We all are. We are set apart from our fellows and from God, separated and removed by actions, desires, passions, indecision and decisions, pettiness and pride and all of the other daily sins. God knows everything I have ever done. My private procession to the Cross of Good Friday and to the holy night and dawn of Easter begins in the middle, after the prelude. Once begun it is ever beginning. As God led the Israelites by stages, so God leads me.
Mr. Data on the Starship Enterprise emits a little giggle. This is inappropriate and unexpected from an artificial life form. Jean Luc Picard, the captain, orders him to begin a “self-diagnostic”. This is a part of Data’s programming which will find and correct anything which does not fit correctly into the expectations for him. Data finds the errant chip of information and the problem is solved. Data had been endowed by his creator with the ability to perform such a function.
You probably see where I am going with this. Our Lenten procession is also a self-diagnosis. Something really big is coming in 40 days. Sometimes we get new clothes and serve special food. We will probably welcome new members into the common culture. After keeping vigil by the dross and tomb, we will welcome our God back from the dead. And all is accompanied by the rush of spring and all that the season brings to the world through which we move.
The Israelites were getting ready to leave Egypt. They traveled light. Even the yeast was left behind. The journey was on short rations. They were “driven forth.” Much would have been abandoned. The lady at the well leaves her water jar; a meaningful act. A water jar was necessary for survival. It was an object of value not easily replaced. The recorder of the story knew enough about the significance of water jars to note its being left. But, its possession and its contents were no longer paramount. She had the “Living Water”, and she knew it, and she told other people.
They “unpacked” before they began their journeys. Rather a paradox, don’t you think. Processions down the aisles of churches usually “put on”. Crosses, torches, vestments, choirs, assorted acolytes and servers, all serve to move the congregation of believers out of secular time and space into sacred time and space. The procession of Lent to Easter is a progression of unpacking. We unpack those weak spots and bad elements found in our self- diagnostics. We find the waste of time, treasure, and mind and spirit. We examine relationships to self, family, society, and God. We fast for the sake of our bodies and for the discipline of our spirits, refraining from treats which aren’t good for us anyway. The goal is a life which is a metaphor for the Beatitudes.
A daily asking of the question, “how is it with me and God?”, is a place to begin. We know to our deepest fiber which is the constant in the equation. All of our badgering when we are hungry or thirsty, or tired or sad, or wistful or empty, cannot change the presence of God, cannot add or subtract to or from the love which God has for each of us. The love is in there some- place. We have to unpack to find it. Israel once got nostalgic for the fleshpots of Egypt. God stayed with them. Israel once made a golden calf. God – after some mopping up – stayed with them. Israel fussed for food and water. God sent manna, quails, and water. The lady at the well had a life of relationships with more men than most women meet. God called her out of that life and made her a power for the kingdom. God stayed by! The love was there through all of the times.
“How is it with me and God?” is answered with finality at the cross. St. Paul reminds us that we have peace with God because Christ died. We live at Massah in the wilderness, spending our lifetimes testing God. But, we live there now in grace rather than in despair. God has forgiven again and again. The procession to Canaan, the procession to the promised land – to Easter, the unpacking of that which stands between us and God, is done within grace. We are living in the beginning, middle and end of our own stories.
The loveliest thing about those stories is that we DO know the ending. We will be with God in a new and infinitely purer sense. This is what the Easter story tells us. We want to be the best of ourselves when we get there. Lent is a tool to help us to do this; to exchange self for life in Christ. As the exchange is made we begin to recognize the Naomi’s in ourselves and in others. God has already figured it out and doesn’t need to be told.
The ephemeral pillar of cloud or fire has been exchanged by the wood of a cross. Moses could not look on the face of God and live. We have been confronted by a gentle Savior who shares our lives and knows everything we have ever done. We process through Lent in stages marked by Sunday morning lessons from Scripture which help us on our way. We see our reflections in the stories.
Blessed Lent. Blessed spring. Blessed wilderness with room for my procession. Blessed companions for the journey, I wish you a mighty unpacking, a journey filled with grace, and a peaceful end. Amen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to the Sermons That Work podcast to hear this sermon and more on your favorite podcasting app! Recordings are released the Thursday before each liturgical date.