Getting Through to the Hardwood—First Sunday in Lent

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, liked to be called Mimi. She was a very special woman. Part of her charm was that she was what you would call “old world.” Mimi was born in 1913, and was 40 years old when she gave birth to my mother, and therefore her memories, and my family’s collective memory, reached farther back than many of my friends’.

Part of that “collective memory” was antique furniture, which was all over both her apartment, and my childhood home. Talking with many senior members of St Andrew’s, they’ve told me that antiques have very much gone out of style these days. And I think that is largely true. And pretty soon as a kid I realized that Mimi’s antiques—both authentic and some cheap knock-offs—had become like albatrosses to my mother: precious “heirlooms” she could neither keep nor get rid of.

So, when I grew up and moved out I would take them. There was one round drop leaf table that had been banished to the cellar I had my eye on. The table was clearly old, with a black crusty patina on its legs, and chunky brass flathead screws holding the dried out joints together underneath. The top of the table was its own kind of antique. It had been refinished and lacquered and distressed and painted again so many times it had become a gross tinge of pale green.

So I asked my mother if I could sand it down, refinish it, and take it off her hands. Maybe a little unsure if I would follow through, but happy I had some interest in Mimi’s old table, she said sure. So, I lugged the old thing up from the basement myself, and scrubbed it, pulled all the legs and leaves out, and searched for a sander.

My father, you need to know, is not a handyman. His father, however, was. And my father had inherited all his mid-century tools. So, deep in some bucket I found a belt-sander from the 1940s, I plugged it in, flipped the switch, blue sparks shot out from the side, there was a whiff of burning wire,  and I set to on the table top.

In seconds a beautiful patch of cherry hardwood appeared! “I knew it!” And in a few more seconds the sander blew up and died completely. So, staring at the table, with a hand-sized patch of beautiful cherrywood revealed, and a wilderness of puke-green left to go, I was in a fix. I didn’t have any money for a new sander, and my Dad did not want to get involved in my “artsy” project. So, I tried hand-sanding for a few hours and doubled my patch of cherry. But, exhausted and defeated, I felt I could never return the table to its former glory.

And that is how we so often begin our walk of Lent. This is how Jesus begins his ministry—in the wilderness, tired, worn down, feeling overwhelmed—feeling maybe that all our striving is for nothing.

It’s important that baptism is the central image in our lessons this morning. In Mark the foundation of Christ’s ministry is his baptism by John where God declares who Jesus is, a Beloved Son, where the separation between heaven and earth is “ripped apart.” In 1st Peter we see the author of this letter interpreting the Noah story. The author of 1st Peter sees God saving Noah from a corrupt world by water, just as God saves us by joining us to Christ in the waters of baptism.

You’re probably thinking, “What on earth does an antique table have to do with Lent or baptism?” Well, if you look at our lesson from Genesis, God makes a promise to Noah.

This promise is our own hidden cherrywood. It is covered in decades of grime, decades of masks and refinishings, years of neglect, a wilderness of confusion about who we are. If you think about it, really Noah is our ancestor, since he and his family were tasked with repopulating the earth after the flood. And to Noah—to the new human family—God makes a promise. God says, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals… that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

In other words: God is committed. God is committed only to life in this ancient story. God has the power and authority to turn off creation, in a cosmic snuffing, God could unzip every molecule and atom. But God does not. We go on existing because God has promised it will be so, this is what the Noah story tells us.

And this first promise of God is what Christ is about, that is the good news that Christ has come to proclaim, to show us in the flesh, that God is committed. God also wills that we know who God is too, that we can rest in the faith that we are part of a universe that makes sense because God has created it and sustains it.

This is what the author of 1st Peter means when he writes, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” Not only is God committed to us, we believe, but despite our mistakes and missteps—despite our unrighteousness too, no matter what. God has created us and then in Christ God puts hands on our cheeks with a big smile and says, “Hi, it’s me! I love you!”

But how hard is it to remember this, day in and day out? It is so hard! Especially with doubts and questions, pandemics and divisive politics, family tragedies and dinner table arguments. This truth feels as covered up as a cherrywood break leaf table with a puce faux finish. Or as 1st Peter says it: “Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in former times did not obey.” Everyone, alive and dead, obedient and not obedient, has a place. Everyone has a lovely kind of hardwood beneath the surface.

Lent is our time to return to the cherrywood, to make a practice of pulling out the table, sometimes working alone, sometimes we might call a friend or a neighbor to help us.

So in the next round of refinishing of my table, months later, I called up my brother-in-law Cal. And he borrowed his Dad’s orbital sander. And we both had at it. Wouldn’t you know it, that sander broke too! But we uncovered much more of the wonderful wood grain beneath. That’s how it is for us, year after year, or Sunday after Sunday, the Holy Spirit is our electricity and our elbow grease, we get closer to remembering and bringing out our cherrywood. Our cherrywood, underneath, that is our unchangeable identity as God’s own, as God’s beloved.

Our cherrywood is our baptism. So, now is the time, especially, as we dig out of the snow and dig out of this pandemic, to lend your sander, lend a hand, and help your church family—and the whole human family—to remember they are made by God, loved by Christ, and are made to shine again and again by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.