by Rev. Joseph Connolly
at Emmanuel Episcopal Church Community Ash Wednesday Service
Since my text will be the 2nd verse of the 6th Chapter of 2 Corinthians, I need to note it can be translated this way: “For God through Isaiah says, / ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, heard you, / and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See? Now is the acceptable time. See? Now is the day of salvation!” (Slight pause.)
Some of my parishioners know about my background but probably not members of other churches here gathered, despite the fact that I have served a church in this City for 22 years. So, that’s where I want to start. Specifically, I want to address what clergy often refer to as a faith journey, my faith journey, which eventually led to my entering Seminary at the ripe old age of 44. (Slight pause.)
I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition. With a name like Joseph Francis Connolly, Jr. that’s hard to hide. In my mid-20s I shifted. I became an Episcopalian.
So I’m sorry Steve, perhaps I feel more comfortable in this pulpit than I should. And it’s a small segment of that specific part of the journey, forty years ago when I was a member of the laity of All Angels’ Episcopal Church in New York City, I want to mention.
One of my mentors in ministry was the Rev. Carol Anderson, the second woman officially ordained in the Episcopal Church. After serving as a curate in a very upper crust church on the East Side of Manhattan, she was called to be Rector of the writers, actors and musicians at a church on the West Side, the church I attended.
Carol was there not two months when she invited me to meet with her. Her office was spacious, bright, sunny despite the fact it was located on the artificial canyon known as West 80th Street. This being All Angels’ Church, there was a large, sculpted wood angel, a trumpet held to its lips, in the corner behind where I sat.
Three minutes into our chat Carol leaned toward me and in a very earnest tone said, “Well Joe, when are you going to become a priest?”
I wondered to whom she was talking. I looked over my shoulder and checked with the angel. It was mute. It said nothing. I knew a Master of Divinity degree was a prerequisite for ordination so I must have said something like, “I’m well past the age when I should be going to school for an advanced degree.”
Carol said, “In the Episcopal Church we have something called ‘The Old Man’s Program.’ It’s geared for people who come back to school after a time away.
I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know if I felt uncomfortable because Carol was suggesting I might have a vocation, a call, or if it was the fact that a realistic path toward a call actually existed.
Or perhaps I felt uncomfortable because I qualified for something called an ‘Old Man’s Program’ which would mean I was, therefore and by definition, old. I was just thirty. How dare she?
And yes, I did eventually heed the call to ordained ministry. But not for more than another decade and not until I had shifted yet again to the Congregational church. (Slight pause.)
Well, that was just a small section of my story which involved the Episcopal Church. It was even a small section of my story with the Episcopal Church. But it seemed appropriate to share that story given tonight’s setting. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Second Corinthians: “For God says through Isaiah, / ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, heard you, / and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See? Now is the acceptable time. See? Now is the day of salvation!” (Slight pause.)
I think this passage has innumerable things to say but let me offer a narrow focus. First, it says God listens. What? God listens… to us? And hears? How remarkable.
O.K. But what is this acceptable time to which God refers? In my own case perhaps it was about waiting fourteen years after the story I told, moving to the State of Maine to get married to Bonnie and becoming a Congregationalist before I answered a call, God’s call on my life, since Seminary did not happen until all those years after that conversation with Carol.
Indeed, perhaps what I’ve just referred to as a call by God despite the length of time it took, was simply the aforementioned acceptable time. And perhaps what’s truly amazing is God’s willingness to wait. Indeed, I think God waits for us to get on with what we think we are doing until we realize what God is doing. Perhaps that is what God’s acceptable time is about.
But what is an acceptable time about, really? Paul quotes Second Isaiah, which was probably written in the 6th Century Before the Common Era in this passage. And then this Apostle writes in the First Century of the Common Era. And yet… and yet these words are couched in the present tense. (Quote:) “Now is the acceptable time.”
What are we to make of that? (Slight pause.) In several minutes many of us shall come forward for ashes. After that many of us will come forward for communion.
God may wait on us, but I think one of our calls as Christians is to live in the present tense, right now. I want to suggest one point of the imposition of ashes is not any kind of repentance or even looking back.
Ashes are meant to remind us, help us understand we need to listen and to act, participate in the work of God, right here, right now. Why? We are finite.
I also want to suggest our sharing at the table is meant to assist us in a constant, clear understanding that what we are to do is to participate in the Dominion of God, right here, right now. How is that the message of the table? We are, all of us, members of the churches here gathered, children of God. So at the table, right here, right now, we are invited to share with each other no matter who we are, no matter where we’ve been, no matter where we are at.
The ashes, the bread, cup are tangible, tactile, real, present. I think these are meant to reenforce the idea that the present is imperative.
Indeed, since we are joined as brothers and sisters in Christ here this evening, these experiences are meant to offer clarity to the concept that to be one in Christ is part of our calling. And the experience of the ashes, the bread, the cup should help make it clear that now is an acceptable time to be one in Christ, to thereby participate in the Dominion of God.
All that brings me to this thought from Joan Chittister, the well known writer and Benedictine nun who happens to live in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Quote:) “Lent is not an event. It is not something that happens to us. It is a microcosm of what turns out to be a lifelong journey to the center of the self.”
“The purpose of Lent is to confront us with ourselves in a way that’s conscious and purposeful, that enables us to deal with the rest of life well. Lent is not a ‘penitential season.’ Lent is a growing season.” (Slight pause.)
I think this goes without question. Now is the acceptable time for us to participate in the Dominion of God, the Realm of God.
And Lent reminds us of our call, which is to participate in the work of God. And what is the work of God? Here are just three examples. That would be the work of justice, peace, love. Now that is a call. And that is a calling. Amen.
02/14/2018 ~ Ash Wednesday Service with the First Baptist Church, Broad Street United Methodist Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, First Congregational, All of Norwich, NY, Held at Emmanuel Episcopal Church