Get Your Ash In Church (And Leave It There)

Devotional:

Matthew 6.1

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Weekly Devotional Image

Today is Ash Wednesday.

Christians across the globe are gathering together to hear words that the church has heard for centuries: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those are the words I intoned this morning as I marked the gathered body with ashes, and they will be the words I will use tonight. And, God willing, they will be the words I use every Ash Wednesday until the end.

But what happens after the church leaves the church with those ashen crosses on their foreheads is a strange and bewildering thing.

I, for one, left church this morning and then drove my son to his Preschool. Like most mornings we patiently waited outside the door of his classroom, only this time 3 of his classmates approached me and, independently of one another, made comments about the smudge on my forehead while their parents tried to pull them away.

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On other Ash Wednesdays I have been approached in grocery stores and on street corners by inquisitive people as to what in the world happened to my head.

But there’s a good case to be made that before we leave the church with our ashen crosses, we should wash them off.

Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Of course we can leave the ashes on our heads until they naturally fade away, but if we keep them just so we can be seen by others for our faithfulness, then we have failed to take the words of Jesus seriously.

My fried Teer Hardy puts it this way, “Wash your ash today. Let us not allow the world see our fasting as an attempt for pious righteousness but rather let our fasting be a witness to the judgement that was due to us but because of Christ’s sacrificial life we receive the justification we do not deserve.”

Ash Wednesday, and Lent for that matter, is a unique time in the life of the church when, rather than focusing outwardly, we are encouraged to look inward, to consider the condition of our condition, and to recognize our absolute dependence on the grace of Jesus Christ.

So get your ash in church, and leave it there.

The rest is up to Jesus.

Eve Was Framed!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent [A] (Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5.12-19, Matthew 4.1-11). Sara is a United Methodist pastor serving Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lenten practices, the frustration of Facebook, dismantling the patriarchy, obedience, cosmic plans, one man to ruin them all, death’s dominion, funeral feelings, and the futility of resistance. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eve Was Framed!

You Can’t Handle The Truth

Exodus 24.12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elder he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. 

Matthew 17.1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Everything is politics.

Politics are everything.

I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I can remember a time when my family and I were able to watch the news at night and nothing about politics would come up. There were no brief shots of the Capitol building with soundbites of senators arguing with one another. There were no cutaway shots of political campaign rallies. And if there was a debate on television, it certainly wasn’t attended to in such a way as if people talked about it the next day like the Superbowl.

Whatever that time was, it’s long gone.

Now we can’t do anything, or watch anything, or read anything without the allure of politics taking center stage within the midst of our reality.

Politics are even seeping into the church!

So here I was in the middle of the week, racking my brain for something worth addressing in the sermon. I knew that it was Transfiguration Sunday, and that we’d be looking at Moses on the mountain in Exodus, and Jesus on the mountain in Matthew, and I was about to offer up a prayer to the Lord for a little bit of homiletical manna from heaven, when someone emailed me a YouTube clip in which two news reels had been edited together.

In the first, Rush Limbaugh, having just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, said that America isn’t ready for a man to be president who kisses his husband so willingly on stage. He continues with some other homophobic remarks before moving on to address the other Democratic presidential candidates.

In the second clip, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the person Limbaugh was talking about, responds to the controversial comments by saying, “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values – I mean, sorry but, one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. Let’s debate family values – I’m ready.”

Moses goes up on the mountain to receive a word from the Lord, to get the Law, and politicians debating the intricacies of moral law falls into my inbox.

God surely has a sense of humor.

Now, I’m not going to make this into whose righter or whose wronger, as if to comparing systems of morality would be at all helpful or even faithful. And yet, in both cases there is a clear understanding on the part of the speaker about rightness and wrongness, as if all of us should know the rules we are meant to follow and then we must follow them.

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The only problem with that, is that none of us follow of the rules.

And that’s a truth far too inconvenient to handle.

Whenever we talk about right and wrong, which is just another way of talking about the Law, we do so at the expense of how Jesus and Paul actually talk about the Law. For, when we talk about the Law, we do so as if it is a bludgeon that we are privileged to use against those we deem unworthy. We hold over the heads of the transgressors and we tell them to get better or get out. The Law becomes our litmus test about who is good enough and who isn’t even close.

But according to Jesus and Paul, the most important part of the Law, in fact the purpose of the Law, isn’t to regulate our behavior… It’s to accuse us.

The Law shows us again and again and again that none of us, not even the best of us, have the kind of lives and moral histories that are enough to meet the righteousness of God. 

Moses goes up on the mountain, gets a sunburn from getting too close to the divine, and comes back down with the stones tablets of what to do and what not to do.

The rest of the Old Testament is a story of the people called Israel who struggle to adhere to those very laws and, more often than not, they do the things they know they shouldn’t, and they avoid doing the things they know they should.

And if that were the end of the story, then our politicking and our moralizing and our finger-pointing would be fine. We could parade out the ledger books whenever someone took a step too far and we could hang them out to dry. We could saunter over to Fox News or NPR and give testimonies about who has done what such that some are torn down while others are built up.

But then Jesus shows up and ruins all of our fun.

The story from Matthew is eerily similar to the one in Exodus. A man is called to a mountain, he brings only a few companions, and it’s clear that whatever happens on the mountain changes everything. 

For Moses it’s the giving of the Law, but for Jesus, it’s different.

Peter was there and Peter was like us. He loved the Lord, he volunteered for the Lord, he showed up when he was asked, and he found himself on the mountain path listening to the voice of the One who had called him out of whatever his life could’ve been. And as the light shines around and through and in Jesus, as Peter takes in the sight of Moses on his left and Elijah on his right, he must’ve been thinking about the Exodus story, he must’ve viewed his present through the past. 

It’s no wonder he offers to build dwelling places on the mountaintop – that’s what the people called Israel were supposed to do. 

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But the mountaintop miracle is different this time. There will be no stone tablets, there will be no Law by which the people will discern who is right and who is wrong. Instead, there is only a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

And how does Peter respond to this remarkable Transfiguration? He is afraid.

Today we use the Law as a set of principles by which people like us can live good and perfect lives. Do this and don’t do that and in the end you’ll be good enough.

But none of us are good enough.

Jesus says before all of this mountaintop madness, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter heaven.” No one’s righteousness exceeds the Pharisees!

Contrary to how we’ve been talking about it for so long, the Law isn’t about living the right way. 

The purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law is the recognition that God is God and we are not.

The Law is what made Peter tremble on that mountain.

For, at its best, the Law compels us to see ourselves as we really are (no easy task); to see all of our wickedness and imperfection, and to wonder, “How could God love someone like me?”

That’s how Peter responded the first time he met the Lord on the boat, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Peter’s proximity to Jesus forced him to see things about himself he never would have seen otherwise, and it made him afraid.

He was afraid because he knew, just as some of us do, that the truth of who we are is no good. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded what is called the L’Arche community in 1964. He was moved by the experiences of those with developmental disabilities who were often ostracized and sent away to live in institutions far away from everyone else. At first he invited two men with disabilities to come live with him in France. He believed that, as a Christian, he had a duty and responsibility to make these particular individuals feel loved and a part of a community. Their time together led to the establishment of a communal way of living where people with disabilities began living with the people who care for them, rather than being marginalized and put away.

Since then a network of over 150 intentional L’Arche communities have been founded in 38 different countries around the world. 

Vanier wrote numerous books on his experiences, about the theology beyond the practices, and calls to others to learn how to live as intentionally.

Throughout his life, Vanier was regarded over and over again as a living saint. His patience with those who had experienced no patience at all was heralded as the paragon of virtue. Without his work, there is a serious chance that our understanding of those with developmental disabilities would be horrendous and not at all faithful, let alone kind.

Jean Vanier, at the age of 90, died last year in May. 

Yesterday, the L’Arche organization published the results of an inquiry which investigated the claims about the early history of the community and Vanier’s role within it. The investigation was carried out by an independent agency and they determined that Vanier abused at least 6 non-disabled women during those early years under the auspices of spiritual guidance through which he manipulated them and they experienced long emotional and physical abuse.

Imagine your abuser being regarded by the rest of the world as a living saint.

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None is righteous, no, not one.

That’s the point of the Law – on our own we can’t even fulfill a fraction of it. All that stuff that Moses brought down from the mountain, it is good only insofar as it shows us that we, all of us, are bad.

We’re all bad no matter how good we think we are and no matter how good we think other people are.

Because behind closed doors, when we think we’re alone, or that no one will ever find out – in the secrets thoughts of our hearts and minds – each and every one of us are more like Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg and Rush Limbaugh and Jean Vanier than we are like Jesus Christ.

The Law exists to drive us to Jesus not as a teacher or as an example, but as someone who did something for us that we could not and would not do for ourselves.

Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to the Law, the only one who can fulfill its demands, the only one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. 

Jesus’s love and grace and mercy has overflown on to us so that we, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, can stand before God justified by Jesus Christ. 

When we come close to that grace, to the Gospel we call Good News, it brings us to our knees like it did Peter because we can’t make sense of it. If we are strong enough to look into the mirror of our souls we know that we’re no better than anyone else. And yet the cloud surrounds us anyway, the voice speaks to us anyway, and we are changed forever anyway.

The truth is we should be afraid. If our moral laundry were to hang out to dry for everyone to see it wouldn’t be good. If we were compelled to share our inner thoughts and regrettable choices, none of the people here would ever look at us the same.

And for some strange reason Jesus looks upon all of that and comes to find us on our knees and says, “I’m going to do what you cannot. Get up and don’t be afraid.” Amen. 

The Case Against “Ashes To Go” Revisited

I’m not a fan of “Ashes To Go” and when I wrote about it here on the blog last year it received a lot of backlash.

And I get it.

I understand the desire to take the church outside of its walls to meet people where they are. I understand wanting to keep up with a trendy expression of Christian community. I understand how turning a practice upside down can reinvigorate it for people in an exciting way.

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the people called church do together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year communally.

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As the popularity of something like “Ashes To Go” continues to rise, we lose a connection with the ecclesial and liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon that “Ashes To Go” has become, it usually looks something like this: 

On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective church and a drive thru line will form such that people in their cars will wait their respective turn for a ten second interaction with ashes that are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or a fast-food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes To Go.” Lines will develop during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads.

To be fair, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. Many of us are running around through the frenetic habits of our lives without time to do much of anything, let alone corporate worship. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes To Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy.

But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible is the equivalent of a clanging cymbal (to steal an expression from Paul).

To those who love “Ashes To Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard loads of stories about the beauty of meeting people in the midst of life and the possibilities of evangelism that can take place with “Ashes To Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

Fleming Rutledge has this to say about the practice:

“It’s pathetic. I know people who do it, people I admire. But people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t enough – there has to be rectification of evil. When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it. And we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it id done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with ashes across on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a corporate liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the whole thing is about. 

Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient – that’s the whole point.

It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world hell bent on convincing us we’re going to live forever. And, because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of worship in which we can begin to scratch at the surface of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the word “we” specifically. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. 

It is a practice of the community we call church.

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This year (like most) the United Methodist Church is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of last year’s Special General Conference that resulted in the doubling down of the so-called incompatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching, the denomination is currently debating the values of separating over our differing theologies. Therefore, I think there is no better time for the church, while it’s still together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?”

On Ash Wednesday we have the opportunity (read: privilege) to be marked with ashes as a sign that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – that’s Christian teaching.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church.

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive. And, to make it even worse, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the terms of the world, the individual reigns supreme. But, according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes To Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are. 

Natural Born Sinners

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Ash Wednesday [A] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21). Jason and Teer are United Methodist Pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA respectively. Our conversation covers a range of topics including nasty podcast reviews, 2020 goals, nudity in the Bible, confronting finitude, Frodo and the Ring, failing at Lent, obstacles, practicing piety, Ashes To Go, and the higher bar of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Natural Born Sinners

We Are (Not) Together

We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

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We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions

Directions:

Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the group – Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together. 

Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
    1. 1 Corinthians 3.9
    2. For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.
  2. Ask everyone to share their names.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
    9. If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
    10. If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
    11. Who is your hero and why?
    12. What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
    13. If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary.
    2. Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.

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Homily:

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.

But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.

A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.

The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.

We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?

Pay Attention

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [A] (Exodus 24.12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1.16-21, Matthew 17.1-9). Drew is a United Methodist Pastor serving Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a face like the sun, locating the Transfiguration, apocalyptic language, refining fires, upending expectations, witnesses, the power of a pinhole, the strange new world of the Bible, and Sufjan Stevens. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Pay Attention