Beads in the trees, and other reminders of my mortality
A little over a week ago, Mel and I invited a few people over to celebrate Mardi Gras. It didn’t matter that it was 5 days too early, we are from Louisiana, where Mardi Gras is more of a Season than a day. We had some good food, told some stories, played some music, and at some point in the evening, we lost track of the children. I won’t say it was my fault, I’ll only say when it was all over I was the one in trouble.
The thundering hoard of small people had been roaming the house collecting all of the plastic beads that we had scattered around as part of our decorations. And unbenounced to any of us, a half dozen children staged a parade in my front yard. Several climbed a small tree in the middle of the yard and pelted their friends with beads of every shape and size. We all enjoyed the surprise, the kids playing, and all the adults watching the action.
It was not until the next day that we discovered the unexpected byproduct of this revelry. If you drive down Kavanaugh, keep an eye out, ours is the house with the small tree littered, perhaps permanently, with lots of strands of multi-colored plastic beads.
At first, I was annoyed, then I got over it and became amused. Now, having lived with our new yard art for more than a week, I am beginning to see the beauty of our sad little tree, all dressed up in it’s Mardi Gras best. Time, you see is like that, if we let it do its work. New meanings develop over old ones, small gifts of grace emerge unexpectedly.
This is the beauty of a season like lent, if we are willing to embrace it. This past week we celebrated Ash Wednesday, or what my friend calls “No one gets out alive” day. It sounds a little stark, but I think he might be right.
In a culture like ours, which idolizes “youth”, one of the most countercultural things we can possibly do as a Christian community is to speak openly and honestly about our own mortality. We live in a sanitized world, where death is a taboo subject. It is relegated to action movies, or lifetime specials, where death can either be glorified or sentimentalized - either way it is placed at safe distance, as something that happens to other people, in other places.
Yet, as Christians we willingly stand before a priest and hear: “You are but dust, and to dust you shall return.” To those outside of our tradition this sounds absurd. Why in the world would we willingly allow ourselves to be reminded of this information that the rest of our society spends an increasing amount of energy to ignore? It is because by facing this reality head on, rather than hiding from it, by spending time in conversation with our end, new realities have the chance to emerge. New gifts of grace like comfort, hope, and peace have room to germinate.
In our Gospel text today, we have a brief account of Jesus being baptized, and of God pronouncing his favor and blessing. But then Mark tells us that the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness for 40 days. He says that Jesus was tempted by Satan, was with the wild beasts, and that Angel’s cared for him. Unlike other Gospel writers, we are not given an inside view into those events, we are left to ponder ourselves what such an experience looked like for Jesus, and looks like for us.
What we do know, what Mark leaves us with, is that when he emerged from his fast in the wilderness he had a message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.
Sermon by the Rev. Stephen W. Kidd, Lent I B - Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Little Rock.