February 21, 2021

First Sunday in Lent, Pastor Kathryn Ostlie

A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a patient who was in the hospital with complications related to long-term drug and alcohol use. They said that they had gone through treatment many times and were hoping to be able to return to yet another treatment program. The patient shared stories about the pain of loss and separation and the hope for healing and reconciliation. They talked about the daily struggle of living with a lifelong disease that others thought they should be able to control or fix.

While the patient was talking, they were using both their hands and voice to convey their story and I noticed a small semicolon tattooed on the thumb side of the wrist on their right arm. It wasn’t very big, maybe just half an inch long. It was small enough in fact to almost go unnoticed, but the location of the tattoo means it can be seen both by the patient and others. Having friends and family members who either have or are talking about getting tattoos, I’m interested in knowing what they mean for the person who bears them on their bodies. Tattoos are marks that serve as an outward expression of a person’s internal story. The patient told me that they had the tattoo done following a suicide attempt a number of years ago. It’s there as a visual reminder that connects the before and the after – inextricably connected one to the other. The past is connected to the present; the hurt and harm are connected to hope and healing.

From that conversation, I learned about The Semicolon Project, which began in 2013. The project encourages anyone who self-harms – is suicidal or depressed, who suffers from anxiety, is experiencing a broken heart, or has lost a loved one – to tattoo a semicolon on their wrist.

On The Semicolon Project website it says, “A semicolon is used when an author could have chosen to end their sentence but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.” The tattoo serves as a reminder that life could have ended, but the bearer chooses to continue – to live. They choose to live into a future hope where mercy and love are alive. It’s a future that doesn’t deny the past but leads toward a future with meaning and connection.

As I read today’s text from Genesis and about the covenant that God spoke to every living creature (not only to Noah and Noah’s family) I was reminded of the semicolon tattoo. I thought about the two events that could have been separated – one the beginning, the creation, and the other the end, the destruction. God could have destroyed the earth and all of its inhabitants – period, full stop. But instead, God chose life and relationship with all of creation, with every living creature, a cosmic semicolon of sorts. Instead of a semicolon, God placed a different mark, a different tattoo in the sky – a bow, a rainbow – a reminder that God will never again attempt to destroy the inhabitants of the earth. No matter if they walk, swim, fly, slither, or stand. All of creation is part of God’s future.

This text is a short 9 verses long, but within these 9 verses, God speaks about the covenant that God is establishing and the sign that will serve as a reminder of this covenant between God and every living creature seven times, seven times. God who created all living things puts a bow, a mark, a tattoo in the sky not just so that we will see it and be reminded of God’s love and mercy, but so that God too will see it and in the seeing God will be reminded of the covenantal promise. God says, “I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature…this is the sign of the covenant that I have established…” God sets the bow as a reminder for us and for Godself.

In today’s story from Mark, God once again marks the sky. This time it’s with a rending, a tearing as Jesus, who is being baptized by John, rises up out of the waters of the Jordan and the heavens are torn apart. This same rending parallels the rending of the temple curtain when Jesus dies on the cross on Good Friday. The heavens are opened; God comes near. From the waters of the Jordan, Jesus rises up. The Spirit comes down. And a voice says, “You are my son, The Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”

In Mark’s account, there is no time for Jesus to sit and revel in the blessing of being called “The Beloved,” because the Spirit – which doesn’t just descend like a dove “on” Jesus as the NRSV translation says, but the Spirit that enters “into” Jesus – drives him out into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by Satan, to be with the wild beasts and attended to by angels.

As God’s beloved children, we too receive the Spirit in the baptismal waters. We too are sent out, at times into the wilderness, knowing that there will be temptations and times of struggle, but we are not left alone. We are never alone. God who created the world and restored all living things, has kept God’s covenant. God has called us “beloved” through the baptismal waters and then the Spirit sends us out to be witnesses to God’s love which comes into this world in Jesus.

For nearly a year now, we have been living in a wilderness, a time of separation from being in person with those we love. Separated from friends and family, from communities that gather to sing together, to play together, to worship, and eat, and pray together. I, for one, am tired of wandering in this wilderness. I’m tired of wondering when I’ll be able to spend time with loved ones – to put my arms around my mom or my sons, to linger over lunch with friends. I’m waiting for the time when I won’t have to meet people in the hospital who are waiting and worrying about what life will look like after hearing about a new diagnosis or following the death of a beloved parent, partner, sibling, or child — wearing a mask and a shield that cover my face and muffle my voice.

I’ve told people that sometimes it feels like I’m the Mandalorian (for you Star Wars fans) who can’t take off my helmet or in this case my face shield. Of course, it protects me, and it protects those I meet, but the shield also creates a barrier that isn’t always easy to navigate, especially for patients who are hard of hearing or who have dementia. I have colleagues whose full faces I’ve never seen. I’m not sure I’ll recognize them when we hopefully, one day in the not-too-distant future, are able to remove our masks and see each other’s faces and expressions.

On Wednesday we gathered for Ash Wednesday worship not as we have done in the past, with everyone in the sanctuary, walking up to the front of the church in quiet lines of individuals coming together in a community of faith, to have ashes placed on our foreheads and hear the words “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Instead, we gathered virtually, in our own homes – some of us with loved ones, others of us alone – and we traced the sign of the cross on our brows with dust from the earth. We remembered where we came from and where we are going. In tracing the cross on our foreheads, the same cross that was marked on us at our baptism with sweet oil, we recalled to whom we belong and to whom we return. We bear the cross as a sign that God has opened the heavens and come down to earth in Jesus to love and gather us into God’s heart. Each of us is one of God’s beloved children.

Last Sunday, I was working at the hospital as the sole chaplain for the day. It was the end of a long day when I was called to the ICU to be with the family of a Covid patient who was dying and moving to comfort care. The patient’s daughters were in the room texting and talking on their phones. They were holding their phones close to their parent’s ear so that those who couldn’t be present in person could say their goodbyes.  As I walked in the room gowned and gloved up, they saw my face shield. This time the shield didn’t feel like a barrier but an opening. Written across the top of this sturdy plastic shield it says, “Built Ford Strong.” When the younger daughter saw me, she began to cry and said, “That’s where they worked their whole career. They’d be so happy to see it.” I looked at her, her facemask damp with tears, and thought of how even in these moments of wilderness, the Spirit comes, and God is present, breaking down the barriers. The sisters called their brothers, husbands, and kids on FaceTime. We gathered around their beloved one to read scripture, pray, and to remember that they are returning to God as I traced the cross on their forehead saying, “You are marked with the cross of Christ forever. You are God’s beloved child.”

After leaving the room, I talked to the patient’s bedside nurse. I thanked him for all the amazing work he does, acknowledging the depth of the suffering that he’s seen and the suffering that he’s had to endure in the midst of this wilderness time. Then he said to me, “I’m so grateful for the work of the chaplains. It’s at moments like this, when people are dying, that no matter how long it may have been since they thought about their faith or attended church that they can be reminded of God’s love and grace and that they are returning to God.”

God’s beloved people, the story does not end with death. Even as we wander in this wilderness, we see the inbreaking of God’s love. We remember that who we are and all that we have belongs to God. That God will see the marks in the sky and on our foreheads and God will remember. We are secure in the covenantal promise that we are alive in Christ and that we are – each and all – God’s beloved child. Thanks be to God.