Sermón: Miércoles de Ceniza

My sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2011.

Con cruces de ceniza en nuestras frentes, empecemos la estación de cuaresma. Tenemos cuarenta días para orar, para enfocar y reenfocar nuestra fe, y para recordar nuestra identidad como hijos e hijas de Dios.

Yo recuerdo una de las primeras personas que recibió cenizas de mí, cuando yo era interno en una iglesia. Este hombre era alto, y tal vez tenía treinta años. No he visto este individual en la iglesia antes. Desde que sepa yo, fui su primera vez.

Como los otros en la congregación, él viene al altar para recibir cenizas. En mis manos, tengo un platito de cenizas de palma, mezcladas con un poco de aceite. Pongo ceniza en mi dedo, y toco su frente, diciendo estas palabras del libro de Génesis: “Recuerda que eres polvo y al polvo volverás.”

Él dice, “Amen.” Y yo también. “Amen.” Después de la misa, quiero conocer este visitante. Me dice, “Necesito recibir cenizas para que mi novia piense que asisto a una iglesia.”

Hoy, acabamos de oír las palabras de Jesús: “No practiquen su religión delante de la gente sólo para que los demás los vean.” Y además, Jesús espera que sus discípulos no sean hipócritas a quienes orar para que toda la gente los vea.

Sí, parece extraño que, en el día cuando oímos Jesús enseñando sobre las buenas obras, tenemos cenizas en nuestras frentes.

Pues, el miércoles de ceniza no es para impresionar a otros. No es para ganar una novia. No es para ser jactancioso ni vanaglorioso. Sino, es para afirmar nuestra condición como seres humanos.

Admitamos que somos rotos. Somos una gente que necesita un salvador. En este día, recordamos nuestra conexión con la tierra, nuestra solidaridad con todas las personas que sufren, y en la misma manera, la solidaridad de Cristo con nosotros.

“Eres polvo y al polvo volverás.”

Oímos estas palabras en el libro de Génesis, cuando Dios sacó a Adán y a Eva del jardín de Edén después de desobedecer a Dios y comer el fruto. Esto es el primer semáforo de mortalidad humana. Sabemos que, algún día, vamos a morir. No vimos por siempre. Volveremos a nuestras origines.

“Eres polvo y al polvo volverás.” Tal vez, una mejor manera de traducir esta frase es: “Eres tierra y al tierra volverás.” La palabra en hebreo es adama’. Significa tierra, como en un campo o en un jardin. Es la tierra donde crecen plantas. Adama’. Entonce, Adan, el primer ser humano, es de adama’. Adan es una creatura de la tierra. Como seres humanos, tenemos conexiones íntimos con la tierra. Cada cosa que usamos, cada comida que usamos, es un producto de la tierra, que he creado por Dios. “Eres polvo y al polvo volverás.” “Eres tierra y al tierra volverás.”

Los campesinos y los geologiotas saben que, en realidad, la tierra está llena de vida. Está lleno de organismos y minerales microscópicos que ayudan el crecimiento de las planta. La tierra que vemos en el paisaje tejano parece muerte y fea y sucia, pero, sin duda, está llena de vida.

Favor de pensar en esta cosa en su frente. Parece muerte y fea, y sucia, pero, sin duda, está llena de vida. Tiene la forma de la cruz, un semáforo de las promesas de Dios.

El miércoles de ceniza, somos marcados con una cruz, pero somos marcados con una cruz en otra manera. Durante el bautizo, oímos las palabras: “Has sido sellado y marcado con la cruz de Cristo para siempre.”

Probablemente llevamos la cruz de miércoles de ceniza por unas horas más hoy. Cuando duchamos y bañamos, esta cruz desaparecerá, pero las promesas de Dios en las aguas de bautizo siempre estarán con nosotros.

La estación de cuaresma empezaba y desarrollaba como uno tiempo de preparación bautismal.

En los primeros siglos de la cristiandad, como hoy mismo, las personas eran recibidas en la iglesia por bautismo. Usualmente solamente era una vez cada año para bautizar—durante la Vigila Pascual. En este servicio, al atardecer, cerca del un fuego nuevo, la gente recordaba historias de los hechos de Dios. Las personas que aprendían sobre la fe por la primera vez fueron bautizadas. Para preparar, estos cristianos nuevos tendrían un tiempo antes para aprender, para estudiar, para orar y practicar hechos de caridad. Otros cristianos maduros querían estar en solidaridad con los nuevos, y entonces, participaron en estas actividades preparatorias. Este tiempo de reflexión y oración ha desarrollado a la estación de cuaresma.

Unas personas usan cuaresma como un tiempo para dejar una cosa. Pero, también, la cuaresma es un tiempo para recordar. Es para recordar que somos hijos e hijas de Dios, sellado por el Espíritu Santo y marcado con la cruz de Cristo para siempre. También, es un tiempo para enfocar y reenfocar su identidad cristiana.

Como cristianos, somos creados en la imagen del Dios. La cuaresma tiene más que ver con nuestra identidad como gente creada en la imagen del Dios, y menos que ver con nuestras imágenes humanas. No estamos aquí para ganar ninguna cosa de Dios.

No estamos aquí para impresionar a nadie. Estamos aquí para reenfocar y para recordar quienes somos–Hijos e hijas de Dios. “Eres tierra y al tierra volverás.” Amén.

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How I learned Spanish

One of the most common questions I am asked when people find out that I use bilingual gifts in ministry is, “How did you learn Spanish?” I imagine that they are really thinking, “Why does a white guy from Iowa speak Spanish?”

Initially, as a very young child, I picked up a few Spanish words and phrases from watching Sesame Street, and my older sister had informally tried teaching me a few more words when she was majoring in Spanish. I officially started learning Spanish in junior high and high school, from eighth through twelfth grade. I had a rather passionate teacher who really encouraged writing and speaking in Spanish.

In college, I got halfway through a major in Spanish. In the pursuit of a well-rounded liberal arts education, I changed majors a few times, ending up with degrees in geography and religion, but still able to somewhat function in Spanish.

Though I had visited my sister’s family in Nicaragua, the rubber really hit the road for me, in terms of speaking Spanish, when I was on internship for a year at a bilingual congregation in Manhattan. Every time I preached, the first sermon was at 11 a.m. in English, and at 1 p.m. in Spanish. On major feats days, like Reformation Day, Palm Sunday, and the vicar’s last service, we combined and had bilingual worship. During my last semester of seminary, I took a class about Latin American church history that was taught entirely in Spanish.

I admit that my Spanish skills aren’t perfect. I don’t always conjugate a verb correctly, and sometimes, if I don’t know what the right word is for something, I just call it esa cosa–that thing. I can read and write, but I still struggle with listening to what people say, especially if they use any colloquial vocabulary at all. I felt very attracted to the call at San Lucas because it is a congregation hispanohablante.

Now in my second week at San Lucas, I feel my language skills have improved immensely just in the past days. I’m still not perfect, and I do a lot of circumlocution when I don’t know the right word, but I’ve found that people are very grace-filled when it comes to my language ability. The only way for it to improve is to practice, ¿verdad?


Hopes and fears

As I get ready to start as pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation en la frontera that is heavily dependent on financial mission support from partner congregations, the synod, and denomination, I name and claim things that intimidate me and those things that invigorate my eager anticipation.

Cosas que me dan miedo—Things that really freak me out:

Preaching in Spanish: It’s not my native language. Though I can usually get my ideas across, there’s always the worry I might embarrassingly conjugate a verb incorrectly or say the wrong noun. Just the other day, I was lunching at a seafood restaurant with San Lucas’ interim pastor and a lay leader, and I almost ordered pecado instead of pescado—sin instead of fish.

Crossing the border: I know there’s a perception of danger. Though I’ve heard that cartel issues aren’t as peligroso in Piedras Negras as in Juarez or Nuevo Laredo, there is still a risk in crossing the border. Also, ever since my one and only speeding ticket eight years ago, I start to feel nervous around cops and folks with badges and uniforms. I’ll soon get used to border checkpoints. My family is a bit concerned, too. My mom always worries about her kids. Just a few days before I moved to New York for internship, Law & Order was on TV, and an address of a scene of some sort of violent crime flashed on the screen. “Mom, you know that’s just three blocks from where I’m moving.” I’m sure she’ll have similar concerns once I’m in Eagle Pass.

Fundraising: Much of San Lucas’ income comes from outside the congregation. As I wrote to my previous congregation informing them of this new call, it doesn’t make sense to leave one congregation and go to another with an even more precarious financial situation. Not knowing the future of my salary is somewhat daunting. When I was a kid selling Boy Scout popcorn or orchestra candy bars, I hated asking people to buy stuff. I know stewardship is different, but it’s still out of my comfort zone.

Cosas que me dan animo—Things that inspire and excite me:

Preaching in Spanish: I know that I’m not the erudite homiletical craftsperson in Spanish that like to think that I am in English. My sermons won’t be as good in Spanish, yet I’m really looking forward to not keeping God in my own English-speaking box, and encountering what the Gospel is like in another language. It’s also bad stewardship for me to have skills and abilities that I don’t use. I’m afraid that if I don’t keep speaking Spanish, I will forget what I’ve learned. Also, what better way is there for me to become a better hispanohablante than to have to speak in Spanish?

Crossing the border: My response whenever somebody comments about the possible danger on the border is, “Well, that’s exactly the place the Church needs to be.” I keep on praying that prayer from page 128 in the green Lutheran Book of Worship, “Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.” I don’t know what ministry on both sides of the border will be like, but I trust God in the midst of it all.

Building up mission partners: Instead of thinking about it as fundraising, I frame it as developing relationships; it’s about more than money. It’s about connections and community. I’ve seen “mission trip” situations become messy and insensitive. Far too often, it becomes “the rich white people help those poor brown people.” This arrangement is one-sided and embarrassing. I’d like to avoid this. However, I think San Lucas already has a good handle on this. Several congregations have been strong mission partners, making several visits to Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras a year for years. It’s a long term relationship, being Church together. I want to be a part of these friendships and mutuality!

I want to acc-cent-chu-ate the positive. There’s more that inspires me! 

Oodles of kids: When I visited San Lucas on a Sunday, I counted about 120 folks in worship; probably 25 of these were under age ten. Having a critical mass of children in worship gives the liturgy a wonderful energy.

Adult learning: San Lucas has a midweek class on Bible study and Lutheran doctrine that between 25-30 people come to. I love teaching, and I love learning with a group. I’m usually not a big numbers guy, but to have nearly a quarter of Sunday worship attendance at a midweek learning class is an impressive statistic that I haven’t seen very often in Lutheran congregations.

Living in a neighborhood: One thing I’ve missed while living in suburban San Antonio has been a walkable neighborhood. I’ve been in a gated apartment community on the freeway. Somebody at San Lucas told me that when I give directions to the church, I need to have a reference point. Nobody knows what the street address means, but everybody there knows what “Down the road from Panchito’s” means. I look forward to having an independent mini-supermercado like Panchito’s near my house. I won’t need to drive two miles just to get a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.

I know that the grass isn’t always greener. I know there will be challenges, yet I await this ministry with hope and a sense of adventure.