Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Sermon: Night Shift

Sermon for March 8, 2020
Lent II / A
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, MI
The Rev. Vicki Hesse
For readings, click here

Watch video here.
Listen here.

“Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire for you. Amen.

Some years ago I worked a night shift.
That takes some adjusting. 
If you have ever worked a night shift,
you know what I’m talking about.
Night shift work has a special culture,
demanding a special attention.

In offices, you can see the people in cubicles
working in the semi-dark spaces
with their desk light on. 
The phones are mostly silent,
just the sound of typing on keyboards
or the floor-scraping sounds of the mop bucket going by. 
You can sometimes hear the music
eeking through someone’s earbuds. 

Around any city, fewer people are awake in the night, except for the   
·        Police and ambulance cruising streets, awaiting 911 response calls.
·        Bleary eyed parents soothing crying babies.
·        Intimate lovers whispering sweet nothings.
·        Red Bull-saturated students cramming for exams.

Night shift work has a special culture, demanding special attention.
demanding of your body heightened senses
for bumping into other night shift people
as intimate strangers –
sharing the strange vulnerability of the night
while you know nothing about them at all.

So in our gospel today, we hear of one night shift worker,
“…a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  He came to Jesus by night.”  

Imagine Nic just got off his part time night shift
at the scroll-making factory. 
Nic was stewing about this Jesus person
he encountered by day,
and all Nic’s friends were talking about Jesus. 
His Facebook feed filled with comments,
his twitter was a flutter
and even his Instagram notifications were all about this Jesus.
Nic felt his breath rushing, his heart racing, his jaw clenching, his eyes burning …
his heightened senses alerted him.
That night, he knew he needed to see Jesus
and see him right then.

Being a part time religious leader,
Nic had a theological reputation to uphold. 
What better time to have a one-to-one conversation
like his community organizing training had taught him?

So Nic practiced courage, as he was taught,
and told Jesus what was on his mind,
without fear of anyone overhearing his questions. 
“ ‘s up, Jesus?”
“You must be a Divine teacher,
cuz no one can do that God-pointing
and God-revealing you do,
apart from the presence of God.”[1]

For Jesus, nighttime was a great time for a chat.
And after throwing the curve ball
about needing to be re-born,
Jesus explained,

“…being born again is like that –
not something you do, the wind does it.
The Spirit does it.
This is what happens, for God’s sake.”[2]

Nic, being an external thinker, wondered aloud, “huh. how can this be?”

And we wonder, too, (maybe not out loud),
but often at night.  “How can this be?”

Isn’t it often at night that we, too, want to see Jesus?  When we need Jesus.
Isn’t it nighttime when our senses are on alert,
our questions deepen, that yearning tugs on our heart?

Isn’t it often at night that we wonder about the corona virus?
We hear that a former colleague just entered hospice. *sigh* We need Jesus.
We lose a loved one. We gain a diagnosis. We need Jesus.
Our best friend betrays us. We disappoint ourselves. We need Jesus.

Isn’t it often at night that-
We are exhausted, as a queer person,
with the relentless coming out demanded by society
– to new friends, fellow students, casual conversations.
Then we get angry at our own frustration.
We feel let down by others. We need Jesus.

Isn’t it often at night that-
We are angered and disgusted, even as a white person,
at systemic white supremacy that surrounds us on every side
and of which we are a part while vowing to dismantle,  
while we are learning to listen more
and not assume we know best.  God, we need Jesus.

Isn’t it often at night that-
Our society needs Jesus,
plagued by what Rev. Dr. William Barber[3] calls
the “five interlocking injustices[4]
that are far too often not
at the center of our nation’s moral narrative.:

repeat: the “five interlocking injustices
that are far too often not
at the center of our nation’s moral narrative.:
systemic racism, systemic poverty,
ecological devastation, the war economy,
and distorted and misguided religious nationalism.”

The Rev. Dr. William Barber co-leads a movement:
“The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.”
Barber comes to Jesus in our country’s dark night of the soul
on behalf of people made poor by these interlocking injustices.

He asks Jesus that the Son of Man be lifted up
so that people made poor
may have something to see and believe in and trust again.

“Jesus!” he calls out on our behalf,
“send the Spirit into God’s people!”
to work with and for the 140 million
poor[5]  and low-wealth people who live in the United States –
people from every race, creed, sexuality and place.

140 million poor and low wealth people. That’s 40% of the USA.
Living in the nighttime of five interlocking injustices. 
We need Jesus

Yes, working the night shift takes some adjusting. 
If you have ever worked a night shift,
you know what I’m talking about.
Night shift work has a special culture. It demands attention.

When Nic wondered aloud, “how can this be?”
Jesus was right there.
Jesus was present. 
Jesus kept on showing God’s love.

And, Jesus explained how Spirit works.  
“Think of babies; they are born
and you see their flesh, their outsides, and you gotta change their diapers. 
But the real person is born
when the spirit moves in them
and they grow up and mature and become real people,
formed by the Spirit, the Spirit you cannot touch!”

Jesus continued his conversation with Nicodemus, that night,
Saying: “See, God loves the world –
the whole cosmic creation and every delicate snowflake and tear drop that falls –
God loves with so much deep compassion that
God feels all that suffering, Nicodemus,
… your angry vibrations, your racing heart, your sweaty palms.
God is there.”
Then, Jesus promised:
“God is so present in this world, that in the day light
you will see people with that moving, powerful Spirit
in their eyes and feet and hands, and with a fire in their hearts.”
“See,” Jesus concluded,
“God’s got such a thing for this world, this loused-up planet
that God sent me down here
so that if you don’t believe with your own eyes
maybe you’ll believe mine, or me,
or you wouldn’t come sneaking around at night.”[6]
God’s got such a thing for this place
Then, Nic knew he made the right decision
to come to Jesus by night.
Nic realized, indeed, this demands attention.

So… when we wonder, “how can this be?”
God in Jesus is present for us.
In our dark night of the soul, when we come to Jesus by night,
even if we don’t believe with our own eyes
maybe we will believe that Jesus sees the possibilities
and can set the world right again.

Even if we don’t believe, Jesus believes in us!
And there, with Jesus’ night vision,
we can glimpse resurrection –
a new way and a new hope and a new life that is coming –
but not yet; that’s for Easter!

God is not condemning the world but saving the world.
Because God’s love is that unexpected, that bold, that abundant.

God is making the world right
through Jesus who comes to us, by night.
Filling us with a Spirit of truth, and compassion and drive
and unexpected, bold love so that we can be Jesus’
hands and feet and rushing breath and racing heart
to set the world right again.

We learn a new way to pass the peace
in the days of corona virus.

We find unexpected Jesus-resilience
to explain again to someone what it means to be queer.

We experience in new anti-racism allies
a productive anger to confront white privilege.

We feel deep Jesus-centered compassion
for a friend who needs healing.

See, we can set the world right again
by practicing bravery in the night.
We know how much we need Jesus for
that is where the Spirit gives birth to our lives.

Take courage, friends. This night shift work is hard. It requires attention. 
And God’s attention is trained on each of you
with laser focus love and forgiveness. 

Meet Jesus in the night and be born again by his radical grace.
Now get out there with him and set the world right again!  Amen.

[1] As translated in The Message

[2] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, (New York, Harper & Row, 1979), p. 121-123

[3] Cited here Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach, architect of the Moral Mondays Movement, and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

[6] Buechner, Ibid.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Sermon: Ash / Stardust Wednesday

Sermon for February 26, 2020
Ash Wednesday
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, MI
The Rev. Vicki Hesse

For readings, click here
“Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire
with love for You.  Amen.”

Listen here

Today is Ash Wednesday, when we
smear ashes on our foreheads,
officially marking the beginning of Lent.

The first time I had ashes placed on me,
I was struck by the grittiness of the ashes against my forehead
and the tickling dust on my nose. 
That surprise was followed by the horror that
I looked like someone who forgot to wash her face.  

And, the Gospel exhortation to
“beware of practicing your piety before others”
impressed on me to go clean up as soon as possible!

And, for me, *that* day marked a turning point.
That day, in this strange ceremony –
punctuated by scripture and steeped in tradition –
That was the day when, embarrassed by a dirty face,
the fact of my mortality knocked some sense into me.
That day I reluctantly became willing to become willing
 to accept my humanity.
That day I began to realize how we are all
utterly dependent on God for our very being. 

To accept mortality is to accept our humanity.
Today, we meet a God
who confronts our fragile humanity
with radical compassion.

Of course, there is an app for that. 
More than 10,000 people have downloaded the
WeCroak app.
“Find happiness by contemplating your mortality,”
says the ‘about’ clause.
Each day, the app sends five invitations, at random times,
to stop and think about death. 
This approach derives from a Bhutanese folk saying,
“to be happy one must contemplate death five times a day.”

But maybe just once a year, on Ash Wednesday, is enough to remember our fragile humanity, (gesture)
tenderly placed in God’s deep compassion.

Today, we offer to God who we really are:
human and vulnerable.
Because that’s what Jesus did.
Today, we meet a God hates nothing God has made.
Because that’s what Jesus showed us.

And – spoiler alert! wearing ashes might be
one of the most powerful accessories
we may ever wear. 
Because strange things happen
when we *publicly acknowledge our mortality. 

We might find ourselves free to have conversations
that might not otherwise take place.

By naming our mortality,
our blessedness and our falleness
in community,
we are be drawn together into the grace of God. 

By naming our mortality, with ashes,
God opens a way that
permits the proclaiming
God’s deep, faithful and everlasting love.

Last summer, at a rare gathering
of all my sisters and lifelong friends,
we reluctantly accepted our mortality.
Over a 3-hour meal,
we bravely answered several prompts
suggested by a book we all read before the visit,
“Talking About Death Over Dinner.” 

This experience, my wished-for birthday gift,
proved the grace of a difficult conversation held
with my closest circle of intimates
now that most of us are over 60. 
·        Maybe that’s the consequence of being a church geek?
·        Maybe we just all realized how only in that circle
could we muster the courage required.
·        Maybe we all longed for that deeply personal
and intimate conversation that is possible
only when we recognize the shortness of life
and we bumble our way through.
We named our mortality, that night,
As a gift to ourselves, so that conversation
can be less difficult when one of us dies.

Which we will.


Today’s psalmist echoes our place
as creatures, not the Creator
for God “knows whereof we are made”
and “remembers that we are but dust.”  
To accept mortality is to accept our humanity.
Today, we meet a God
who confronts our fragile humanity
with radical compassion.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,
Paul “wore” (airquotes) his “ashes”-- 
That list of “afflictions, hardships, calamities,
beatings, imprisonments, riots,
labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.”
In this letter,
Paul acknowledged his mortality, his humanity

…and in so doing,
he entered into a conversation
with his beloved friends from Corinth
that might not otherwise have taken place. 

Paul “wore” his embarrassing ashes
to teach the Corinthians
that faith was not a protection from
hard times or from challenges.   
See, the Corinthians had been called “imposters”
by society, and in response,
they began to argue amongst themselves.
That stress on the community led to more difficulties:
hardship, sleepless nights, calamities.
The people of Corinth, too, found that
faithful Christian living was not a protection from hard times.

So Paul encouraged them to turn their energy
away from each other and reorient their hearts toward God.

Don’t you ever find that
faithful Christian living is a daunting affair?
The Corinthians’ experience of difficulties, tension and anger
is not unlike what we face today:
an increase fear of people who are not like us and
a demonization of those who are different. 
All this negativity increases our grief –
that things are not the way they used to be.

Do you know someone afflicted
by the disease (dis-ease) of alcoholism?
Their families are hoping someone will see their ashes
and answer their cries for help.
To name powerlessness over alcohol
is to acknowledge mortality.

Do you know someone imprisoned
by shame, consumerism, or greed?
They are yearning to be free from society’s message
of image, things and more-is-better.
To name this imprisonment is to acknowledge mortality. 

Do you know someone
drenched in the ashes of exhaustion
as they work for justice,
witness to the needs of immigrants,
or feed people who are hungry or homeless?
To name this longing for sustained rest
is to acknowledge our mortality.

I wonder, what is your humanity right now?
What is the way that you “wear” your “ashes”?
How can you name your mortality
in order to be set free?

Christian living can be daunting.  
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in the Message translation, really brings it home,
naming the striking, human paradoxes.
Listen to the last line of today’s reading:

“We are …
true to our word, though distrusted,
ignored by the world, but recognized by God;
terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; …
immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy;
living on handouts, yet enriching many,
having nothing, having it all…” 

These are the mortal paradoxes we acknowledge today,
As we face with courage that tragic gap
between our appearance and our actuality. 

As Paul reminded the Corinthians, and us,
we are called to faithfulness, not to earthly success. 
Like the Corinthians, we, too, can reorient our hearts.
See, the Good News Ashes, today,
are not the end of our story.

These ashes mark the beginning of Lent. 
The beginning of preparation,
of reorienting our hearts,
of remembering our humanity and God’s Divinity. 

In confession, we state to God our reorientation:
that we no longer want to be that person;
we want to become a different kind of person.

This powerful confession affirms of our *becoming
and empowers us to proclaim God’s everlasting love.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist & author
was once asked in an interview,
“what is the most astounding fact you can share with us
about the universe?” (which he knew a lot about!).[1]   
He answered by teaching how
the same atoms that make us human
arise from the cosmic atoms of the stars –
Those stars that were formed from
crucibles of extreme temperatures and pressures
that collapsed and exploded all over the universe.
Then Tyson offered his most astounding fact. He said,
“when I look up at the night sky,
and I know that yes, we are part of this universe,
…perhaps [the most astounding fact is that ] …
the universe is in us.”
 “The universe is in us,” he says.
He concluded…
“We are stardust brought to life,
then empowered by the universe
to figure itself out—
and we have only just begun.”[2]

Today, we wear our ashes,
naming our sins before God and before each other.
Today, we name our mortality
on our foreheads and trust the promise of eternal life. 
Today, we proclaim God’s gracious re-membering of us. 

Because God’s universe, is in us.

In this world where we are stardust,
to stardust we shall return;

Can we place our trust in Jesus,
the One who brought
to our dusty world
the Cosmic salvation of God? Amen

[1] This quote arises from what is known as the “Most Beautiful Video.” “The Most Astounding Fact” is a video adaptation of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s famous answer to the question “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” read by Tyson himself. Found here: