Death by tea.
Every morning as I sit down at my computer to write a homily or check my email or read today’s news, I have a cup of Bigelow’s ultra spice Chai tea, my little caffeine wake-me-up to get me going for the day. On Wednesday—Ash Wednesday---as per usual, I was having my tea and figuring out what to say for the school Ash Wednesday service, and I got excited about an idea that involved some props. So I took a big gulp of tea and got up from my chair to look for the props and when I went to swallow the tea, it went down the wrong pipe: not straight to my tummy tum tum, but down the pipe into my lungy lung lung. My body went into a defensive choking mode and I felt the tea about to be rejected, and then suddenly, there in the middle of my room, this gigantic, involuntary spray of tea came gushing out of my lungs and out of my mouth all over the floor, the chair, the TV, the lamp, the walls, the ceiling, the door, even onto the glass walls of my fish tank---this enormous spray of tea came out of my mouth and managed to reach every corner of the room.
I was saved from death by tea, but some small amount of it actually must have gotten into my lungs because I had the hardest time just getting my breath back. I mean it was a little scary, I was gasping for my breath, and I thought: this is what it is like to drown. I almost drowned in my own room from a careless, greedy gulp of ultra spice Chai tea.
I imagined Fr Austin finding me dead in my room, dry as a bone on the outside, wet as a dog on the inside, and the puzzling but pleasant odor of spicy Chai lingering around my body. It would take a very clever detective to recognize the stupidity of my death, which is precisely the kind of death I always fear, a stupid death like getting hit on the head by a falling brick, or diving into an empty swimming pool, or drowning in your own greedy gulp of tea. I've always hoped for a romantic, heroic death like saving somebody from a burning building, or jumping in front of a speeding bullet intended for someone else. But drowning from a cup of tea, that would be embarrassing, even if more truthful to the way I've lived my life.
I had a sense of relief, of course; gratitude that I had been saved from an early, tragic, embarrassing demise. And then I thought, as one inevitably thinks after a close brush with death, I thought, there must be a reason for being spared at this time, there must be some mission that I am meant to fulfill and accomplish. I waited for a voice, or some kind of a sign perhaps from heaven, you know, much like Noah received after his ark's survival from the great flood: there, arching across the sky was the great colorful sign of the rainbow, a sign of the covenant God made with Noah and all the survivors, "that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings", as it says in the Genesis reading. I looked out the window: there was not a rainbow in sight anywhere.
At that very moment, a very fat pigeon alighted on my windowsill and with a comforting purring pigeon sound, decided to relieve itself of parts of its morning meal or perhaps last evening's supper, on my window. I suppose I could have seen that deposit as a sign of something, but it certainly didn't appear to be divinely inspired.
That wasn’t the only moment of water danger I experienced that day. Later that night—actually it was already Thursday, way past midnight---I was on a long walk through the streets of Manhattan. It started to rain, and of course I wasn’t prepared for it—no raincoat, no umbrella. And I was wearing sneakers, feeling 'the wet' start to work its way into my socks and between my toes. My glasses were getting raindropped and it was hard to see, and I came to a corner, and unbeknownst to me, there was a gigantic hole right where I decided to step, and of course, it was filled with nice, dirty rainwater. I felt my whole foot sink into a very cold pool of water—and suddenly I had visions of drowning again, there in the middle of Manhattan, late at night when not a soul was around. I saw myself being pulled down and disappearing beneath a bottomless sewer of angry, swirling flood waters, and two days later after the rain had subsided they'd find my soggy dead body, the first drowning in a rainstorm ever to occur in the history of Manhattan, another stupid death I would be embarrassed to experience. But, I didn’t drown: all I got out of it was two completely soaked feet, and wet socks---which by the way is no fun thing to have as you're walking around Manhattan on a chilly night. Again, I was saved from a watery death, and again, I wondered for what purpose I was spared. I looked for some sign from the heavens, or at least a voice, but all I got was the honk of a taxi horn warning me that I was crossing while he had the light.
But it made me think back to earlier in the day when I was placing ashes on dozens of faces.
After the 3pm service we had in the church, I decided to walk out to the plaza in my priest’s white alb and purple stole, my thumb still in the bowl of ashes. People began approaching me from the sidewalk, hesitant question on their faces—are you really giving out ashes right here?---and when I nodded yes, suddenly I was gifted with these big smiles because church was happening right out here, amidst the taxis and trucks, the bikers whizzing by, the dog walkers and the delivery boys. Four cars stopped, put their flashers on and people jumped out to get ashes-on-the-go.
It was awesome, and I stayed out there for 2 ½ hours. What is it about ashes, I wondered? Why do our churches fill up on Ash Wednesday with people who want me to dirty up their foreheads and faces? Later that night, before they go to bed, their ashes are washed away with the same water that goes round and round our little planet: the water I stepped into; the water that carries the red and white cells through our veins; the water that I spit out all over the tank that holds my fish in their watery home; the good, clean hot water that comes out of our shower heads and washes these unique temples that God has given us for the duration of our earthly lives.
All this water and washing and drowning imagery at the beginning of Lent.
You know, Lent has many different meanings for people. For some it is a time of special penance. For others it is a time maybe to really go on that diet. And others see it as a time to turn your life around, change a lot more than a few bad habits.
Remember brother, remember sister, you are dust and unto dust you shall return. A dollop of ashes on your forehead, sprinkling down onto you nose and your moist lips.
For all of us in the Church, Lent is a time to prepare for a renewal of our baptism, and a new, fresh start at Easter, a washing away of our sinful selves, and a clean start on a new life again following a risen Jesus Christ. It's like six weeks of bathing and washing off the dirt and junk that we've been growing on our skins and in our hearts, with a final, refreshing rinse on Easter morning, when, appropriately, in this place we will actually be showered with holy water.
That baptismal theme for Lent is the reason for all the water images in today's readings, beginning with the story of Noah and the flood and ending with the Gospel, where Jesus goes into the wilderness right after his own baptism at the river Jordan, looking for a sign, a rainbow-like sign in the heavens---or at least a voice telling him about the mission he seems meant to fulfill. The desert, where it is so quiet you can literally hear the blood pumping through your veins, where you go to hear the voice of God speaking to you within the rushing waters of type A or B or O that keep you alive.
We each of us, are like Jesus now, are out in that desert, thinking about the meaning of our lives and what mission we are meant to fulfill. One time long ago, we were baptized, we were dunked and sprinkled upon, and great things were given us all to do and to be.
Sometimes we lose sight of who we are and who we are meant to be, until perhaps we begin to choke on a silly gulp of chai tea, or have a near death experience with a puddle of street water. Without the melodrama, that's what Lent is good for, a time to take a look and ask: what is the meaning of me? What's the true meaning and mission of my life?
We are all of us in this together, whether we are 18 or 38 or 88. The waters are swirling all around us, and within us, and God calls us into the desert right now so that he can tell us who we are, whose we are, and who we are called to be. We need to know what he wants to tell us. B But truth be told, he wants us to hear the same exact words that Jesus heard at the River Jordan.
You are my beloved. YOU are my beloved. Every one of you.
Lent is not so much about giving up for giving up's sake. Lent is about getting something, something that God wants to give us. New life, like Noah received, like St Paul received, like Jesus received at the river Jordan. And the most important message of our lifetimes, for all our lifetimes: YOU are. we all are, his beloved.
May we hear that voice in our Lenten journey together.