In my sermon this past Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountaintop by themselves, I said something to the effect of how proud they must’ve been for Jesus to choose them to go with him.
I likened it to how some some of us feel when our pastor invites us somewhere. I spoke about how honored I was, whenever my pastor at the time, Heidi Neumark would invite lil ole me to different places. One such place being the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Egyptian exhibit. I was thrilled! Then there were the times when she invited us somewhere, that ended up being ministry oriented. We had to do some sort of service. I joked with the congregation, that I learned to get very clear on the who, what, when where and especially WHY, we were going somewhere.
It wasn’t that long ago on an Ash Wednesday, when pastor Heidi announced she was going to distribute communion on the corner of Prospect Avenue and 156th Street (the corner of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the Bronx). I was ready and excited for that!…to see what the Holy Spirit was going to do outside, with Heidi’s guitar and table for a ashes and communion. Only, we went around the corner and down the street to the “bodega” (don’t laugh, I still call little corner stores here in Philadelphia bodegas, especially if they are Hispanic owned). They are bodegas to me. I even feel the need to break out into a little Spanish when I go in. I knew of this particular bodega, because occasionally, they supplied our church with candles! It was an honor for pastor Heidi to send me on a candle run: I would say something like: “para la pastora (for the pastor)”… And they would give me the candles needed!
They took their “stewardship” seriously!
Heidi took her ministry seriously, and like the disciples who went with Jesus that day up on that mountaintop, I watched in awe of how the Holy Spirit moved through the streets and through the people, that particular day. You can read Heidi’s account here. It was an amazing thing to behold!
It’s funny, that at that time, I had no idea that I would one day become a pastor. And when I did, and began pastoring St. Michael’s, I had no idea, how those things that Heidi did, would be so important for me.
I have been at St. Michael’s for 7 years, and in the 5th year, the Holy Spirit said to me: …. take the ashes outside, and just stand there. I really didn’t know what to expect. But did as I was nudged. Lo and behold people began getting off the bus (which stops right in front of the church), and walking up to me (dressed in my robes) to get their ashes.
Some folks had no idea what it was – had seen it done in Catholic churches or seen people coming in to work with crosses on their foreheads. Some would walk by, turning around to look and on their way back would stop and ask a question or two…and so, I would engage them in conversation about what it meant to hear the words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”. I remember Mom’s Mabley, who had a punchline that went “you can’t take it with you”… basically just to talk with them about what it means to have a clean heart, and how to get ready for the day we are all going to encounter, our death.
That first year was memorable. Folks were appreciative…and I made some new friends. Did they come to church? No. But that was okay. Relationships were being forged. The following year, I stood outside again…
And I had many return folks from the previous year. Some were looking for me to be standing there. This time, I had communion with me as well.
The two previous years, the weather was bearable. This year has been horrendous. My son just asked me: “Is it worth it to stand out there and get sick”? My answer, yes…and no.
Here’s the yes part:
Last year, as I stood out there, a white van screeched to a halt across the street as the young woman parked. She jumped out of the van, and ran across the street in tears. I remembered her from the previous year. Between her tears, she sobbed: “I was hoping you would be out here again”….she was almost unconsolable. She just wanted her ashes…and was gratified to hear the words of imposition.
I asked her if she wanted to talk. She said “No”… said that whatever it was “was going to pass”. She hugged me and got back in her van and drove away.
Is it worth it to stand out there? Yes….. to get sick? No. I will be bundled up tomorrow for “Ashes in the snow”.
Y’all pray my strength for about 4 hours….and “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Amen.