The End Of The Beginning – Ash Wednesday

Genesis 3.19

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

If you’re here in this place, with these people, on this occasion right now, you are blessed. You are blessed because you understand, you grasp, what the church is really all about. We are a people called church, who follow Jesus and take upon ourselves the sins of the world.

However, we don’t take upon the sins of the world in the way Jesus did. We are told to take up our own crosses, but we don’t drag them up to a place called The Skull, and we don’t wait for people to nail us to them. We take upon the sins of the world in confession, a confession that God is our judge and has every right to be. Because we have failed to be the people God has called us to be over and over and over again.

The United Methodist Church has a document to help us whenever we gather together. The Book of Worship outlines the ways to serve the Lord for just about every occasion, including funerals.

The Service of Committal is brief and is reserved for the graveside. And in our Book of Worship you can find these directions for clergy: “Stand at the head of the coffin and while facing it, cast earth upon it as it is lowered into the grave. The pastor then says, ‘Almighty God, into your hands we commend your son/daughter, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. This body we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’”

The last time I did a graveside burial, I held the Book of Worship in my hands like I’ve done too many times before, I read the all too familiar words, and when it came time to cast dirt upon the coffin, I couldn’t find any. I frantically looked at the area around the hole, and they had covered it with a frighteningly sharp bright green carpet of AstroTurf. So I bent down in my robe onto my knees, and I started ripping up the perfectly manicured grass on the edge of the fabricated lawn. I needed some dirt. I needed to dirty this pristine and picturesque committal service because death is ugly and disruptive. I clawed the ground and threw the grass to the side until I scraped enough bare earth with my hands to have a solid mound to drop onto the coffin.

It was a holy thing.

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I took my dirt covered hands and placed them on the coffin, I prayed the words from the Book of Worship, and then I slowly walked away giving the family time to grieve before leaving. And just as I began backing away, the funeral director motioned for the pall bearers to come forward. But they did not bend down to the hole in the ground I had just revealed. No, they took roses, the boutonnieres, from their lapels and laid them silently on the recently dirt covered coffin.

It is, of course, much nicer to throw roses than dirt. But like almost everything in the tradition of the church regarding worship, the dirt has important theological significance.

I wound venture to guess that many Christians, though they hear the words about ashes to ashes and dust to dust at funerals and at Ash Wednesday services, they have no idea where those words come from. But you do. You know where they come from because you just heard it. It is the final announcement from God to Adam and Eve as they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

            For us humans, this is the end of the beginning.

Much has been made about the Genesis story of eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. The slithering serpent who manipulates Eve’s desire; Eve’s treachery through inviting Adam to join her in the prohibited act; Adam hiding his shame and nakedness from God when the Lord returns to the Garden. And its all pretty harsh.

By this act sin was brought into the world. Because of our ancestors’ choice, we were banished from the paradise of God’s created order and were punished. Women must suffer through childbirth. Humans must work and sweat over the earth in order to glean enough produce to survive. Families are torn apart by an individual’s choice that has ramifications far greater than they can ever imagine.

And then we come to a place like this to have ashes smeared across our foreheads in an effort to remember what happened long ago, and what will happen to all of us one day.

We will die.

But we’re content with spending the rest of our days prettying everything that we can. We bring roses to place on the coffins at graveyards. Politicians bump up statistics to make things appear better than the actually are. We do our best to cover our scars, both physical and emotional, as if they were never there. And some churches spend Ash Wednesday not in sanctuaries confessing their sins with their brothers and sisters in faith, but in their parking lots presenting “Ashes to God with a cup of Joe.”

We would rather cover the harsh realities of truth than look at them in the eye.

God’s pronouncement to Adam and Eve, that terrifying moment when they were expelled and told that they will suffer until they return to the ground, that strange and all too familiar expression you are dust and to dust you shall return, they strike fear in the hearts of us mortals.

Sometimes its good to be afraid because it reminds us what a tremendous blessing it is to be alive at all. Sometimes its good to get down on our knees and confess our sins before the Lord because it reminds us that we are not God. And sometimes we need to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror on Ash Wednesday to remember who we are, and whose we are.

This day, this Ash Wednesday, is a moment for us to confess our sins, and for all the sins of the people who are not here. We bow our heads and are adorned with a sign of death, not just as a reminder to us and to others that we will die, but that God will not let death be the final Word.

And here is the hope, my brothers and sisters, the hope we need on a day like today. We know how the story ends. We know that the pronouncement at the edge of the Garden was not the final word. We know the final word is not suffering, nor death, nor dirt, nor even dust. We know that the final Word is Jesus Christ.

The ashes that will soon be on our skin are not our crosses to bear, but Christ’s who carried it to The Skull and was nailed to it for the world. Jesus Christ is God’s greatest and final Word because in him the fullness of the Lord was pleased to dwell. In Him the sin of Adam and Eve were reconciled unto the Lord. In Him we are brought back into the dwelling of God’s grace where the light always shines in the darkness.

So wear the ashes with fear and trembling, let them dirty your lives a little bit, but also remember the hope that has been available to us in the one who hung on the cross, and rose again. Amen.

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Devotional – Matthew 4.1-2

Devotional:

Matthew 4.1-2

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

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In a few days churches across the globe will begin the season of Lent through Ash Wednesday services. Countless disciples will have ashes in the shape of the cross on their foreheads at school, at work, at the gym, and everywhere in between. The season of Lent marks our journey with Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem that culminates in the empty tomb on Easter.

For a long time, Lent has been a season in the life of the church focused on personal piety and repentance. It is an opportunity for Christians to confess their sins and spend a number of weeks turning back to the Lord in spite of their previous choices. And this emphasis on repentance has been made manifest in the popular decision to “give something up for Lent.”

We are told that it is good and right to give up a temptation during the season because it allows us to focus more on God and because it allows us to mirror Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by the devil. When done faithfully, giving something up can be a truly fruitful activity; fasting has always had a place in the life of disciples. However, the season of Lent is about a lot more than personal piety, and when we limit our participation in this important season to “giving something up” we neglect to remember that Jesus’ temptation is not our temptation.

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When Jesus was hungry the devil challenged him to turn stones into bread and yet Jesus refused. When the devil enticed Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to put God to the test, Jesus refused. And finally, when the devil offered Jesus all the governments of the world in exchange for Jesus worshipping the devil, Jesus refused.

The devil offers things to Jesus that only the devil can offer to the Son of man. We, like Jesus, can be tempted by hunger, contractual prayers with God, and with a desire to control our lives through things like government, but they are not offered to us in the way that they are offered to Jesus. Jesus’ temptation marks the beginning of a ministry that will upset the expectations of the world and eventually result in his death on a cross. As the Son of God, Jesus is offered, and tempted, with the devil’s way out but he refuses. He refuses because he is God incarnate and cannot deviate from the path that leads to resurrection.

If we want to give something up during Lent in order to grow closer to God, by all means we can. However, perhaps a better thing to give up is not a physical and tangible item like chocolate or watching TV, but instead we can give up the false notions that we are the central characters of scripture, that we can earn our salvation, that we are more important than we really are.

Instead, maybe this Lent we give thanks to the Lord our God who came to walk among us, be tempted like us, yet be totally unlike us, and save us from sins, from death, and from ourselves.

Return to the Lord – Ash Wednesday Homily

Joel 2.12-17

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

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While I was growing up, I remember being jealous off all the Christians with ashes on their foreheads every year. I grew up in a church that did not celebrate Ash Wednesday and so it always came as sort of a shock when I would get to school on a Wednesday morning and a whole bunch of people were walking around with smudges on their skin. Part of my jealously stemmed from the fact that they were excused from being on time in the morning and got to miss part of a class. But the depth of my envy came from the fact that they stood out for what they believed.

Of course, at the time, I had no idea what the crosses stood for or why they used ashes, I just thought they looked cool. I can vividly recall the feeling of spiritual inadequacy I experienced because I felt like, even though I went to church every week, I would never compare with the Ash Wednesday Christians. For years I witnessed their piety and was jealous.

When I finally got to an age and a church that celebrated Ash Wednesday, and I sat down in front of a pastor like all of you are doing right now, I was shocked by the words I heard: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

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For centuries Christians like you and I have gathered to mark the beginning of Lent with this solemn and holy service. Lent is a season set apart for renewal and repentance. Lent is a time for us to confront our brokenness. Lent is a time to give thanks for our blessings and stop taking them for granted.

These ashes convey our willingness to confront mortality. We hear, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” as a reminder that the bell will toll for us all. This moment is a public witness to our need to return to the Lord.

The prophet Joel describes our need for repentance and renewal through the voice of the Lord: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Return to me, for I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

We know not when our days will end, and because of this we need to embrace each and every day for the gift that it is. I’m not saying we should spend the next 40 days contemplating death every single moment, but instead this season should be a time filled with gratitude for all of our blessings.

Ashes are a reminder for all of us, young and old alike, that life is precious. Because when we hear the words, and when we feel ashes crossed against our foreheads, we confront our limited time on earth. These ashes should prevent us from moving through each day without reflection, they should caution us against rehashing the old arguments and frustrations, they should shock us into giving thanks right here and right now.

God encourages us to use this season, a time that begins right now, as an opportunity to return to the Lord with our hearts, with outwards signs like fasting, praying, and reading. Take this time and embrace the gift that it is by doing things like reconcile with people that you have been arguing with, open up your bibles and discover the richness of God’s Word, and resist the temptation to believe that you are invincible.

I’ve been a pastor long enough now to have placed ashes on individual’s foreheads and then eventually place dirt on their coffins as they are lowered into the ground. I have stood in this sanctuary and made the sign of the cross with ashes on people who have returned to the dust from whence they came. So take this sign, take these ashes, and make good with the life you’ve been given. Stop taking your blessings for granted. Love one another. Give thanks for what you have. And return to the Lord. Amen.

 

Devotional – Matthew 6.1

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.
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When I was in seminary we called the season of Lent, “The Spiritual Olympics.” For those of us enrolled in higher theological education, we loved competing with our peers regarding our public piety during a season of fasting. Whereas many Christians rightly use the season of Lent to return to God’s way by confronting their finitude, we used the season to show off how holy we thought we were.

It was not uncommon to hear subtle brags throughout the hallways of our esteemed institution: “This year I’m going to give up sweets…” “Sweets? That’s easy! I’m going to give up meat in order to honor the glory of God’s creation…” “Meat? Give me a real challenge! I’m giving up television so that my focus can remain of the Word of God…” And I was there in the thick of it, offering up my own sacrifices to demonstrate my piety for anyone with eyes to see, and ears to hear.

What made the Lenten season so ridiculous was the fact that everyone knew what everyone else was giving up because it became the forefront of our conversations. In those moments of “Spiritual Olympics” we wanted everyone to know how pious we thought we were, and we had lost contact with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “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.” It was frightening how easy it was for us to turn the gospel around to be more about our own selfishness than the good news of Jesus Christ.

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Resisting temptation is a powerful practice during the season of Lent. When we take the time and energy away from bad habits and give that time back to God, it gives glory to the Lord. But if we take this season as an opportunity to flaunt our piety, it bears no fruit.

This Lent let us challenge ourselves to engage in acts of piety. Perhaps we know of something in our lives that we need to give up this season, a distraction away from recognizing God’s grace in our midst. Maybe we know of a practice that we need to add into our daily rhythms like prayer or bible study. But instead of sharing what we are giving up, or adding, with everyone around us, instead of making this vulnerable season in the life of the church into “Spiritual Olympics,” let us keep our piety to ourselves.

If we can keep our piety in check, which is to say if we can be pious for God’s sake and not our own, we will begin walking down the path that Jesus’ prepared for us.

Back to the Basics – Sermon on Mark 8.22-26

Mark 8.22-26

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on is eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

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I was shivering at the front of our sanctuary with ashes all over my fingers. Whether at 7 am or 7 pm the services were virtually the same: it was cold and dark outside, those who came huddled together for warmth, I preached the same homily, used the same ashes, and said the same words as I marked each person: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday is one of those profound moments in the regular rhythms of church life where we admit something the world tries to claim the contrary: nobody makes it out of life alive.

I began both services with a brief introduction about the importance of Ash Wednesday, and the history behind it. We all prayed together. I read a selection from Psalm 51 about God creating in us clean hearts. I preached about living out our faith in the world as marked and cleansed people, and challenged each of us to act like the cross was still on our foreheads, even when the ashes faded away. I then prayed and blessed the ashes and invited everyone to come forward. There is something profoundly frightening and intimate about having people coming up to have ashes placed on their skin. We participate in an ancient ritual that is so contrary to the ways of the world. It is a privilege to come so close to the holy presence of God with each person who stood before me; looking them in the eye, holding their shoulder, touching their skin.

Before I offered a benediction for the services I invited everyone into a time of silence. While I prayed I was struck by the Spirit in a way that I had previously not encountered. I started thinking and praying for the people who were not in the sanctuary for the service. And I don’t mean for those of you who enjoyed Ash Wednesday from the warmth of your homes. I prayed for the people who came to our last Ash Wednesday service, but not this one. Because some of the people I held in my hands one year ago, I have buried in the months since. The words: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” take on a truly deeper meaning when the people go from worshiping in the pews, to resting in a casket at the front.

They brought the blind man to Jesus. Perhaps they wanted to see a public demonstration of his power and so they found someone for him to cure. Or they knew the struggles and sufferings of a friend and believed that Christ was the one to heal him. Whatever the case, the crowds begged Jesus to touch the blind man.

Jesus then took the man by the hand, and led him away from the crowds and out of the village. He spit into the man’s eyes, and laid his hands upon him. “What do you see?” Jesus asked. The man looked up and said to the Messiah, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man a second time. Suddenly, the man’s vision broke through and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him back to his home, commanding him to not even stop in the village.

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Is it strange that it takes Jesus two tries to get the healing right? Throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is the main man when it comes to healing and he gets it done right away. Paralyzed? Jesus says “take up your mat and walk!” Tied up with chains outside of the village because you’re possessed by demons? Jesus commands the demons out and sends you home. Your son is epileptic? Jesus says “all things are possible for the one who believes” and makes it so. But here in Mark 8 we have a strange story, a story that can only be found here in this gospel. Jesus is asked to heal a blind man, he uses his own spit for the first part, but it doesn’t work all the way, so he has to touch the blind man a second time.

I don’t know about you, but I love this story. I love how grounded it is in the material and physical world. I love the way that Jesus ignores the crowd and brings the man outside of the village. I actually love that it takes Jesus two tries to get it right because it says so much about our relationships with God. In fact, I love this passage so much, that I used it as the New Testament reading for Lindsey’s and my wedding. If I remember the wedding sermon correctly Jason, our pastor, said this about the choice: “The walking trees do-over miracle of Jesus with the blind man is a text that only a pastor would use at his wedding.

Yet, even with its strangeness and bizarre imagery, I love this passage. I think it works well for weddings; You only really see the person you’re marrying, after you marry them. Dating and being engaged is like seeing the other as a blurred image, but in the vows and covenant of marriage the other comes into focus, and we see what our lives truly become together.

Moreover, I think this text works well for the beginning of Lent, as it reminds us that sometimes it takes two tries to get this whole discipleship-thing figured out. In fact, it often takes more than two tries to get it right.

The story with Jesus and the unnamed blind man is a reminder about what our relationship with God is like. Before we become Christians, we see and experience the world with extremely limited vision. We believe that we are the center of the universe, that our primary purpose is to love ourselves and serve our needs no matter the cost. But then a strange thing happens. Maybe it occurred when you were invited to worship for the first time, or maybe it happened on a mission trip, or maybe it happened in the middle of the night after awaking from a strange dream; whatever the experience was, God became real for you for the first time.

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Some might say that as soon as that event takes place, you begin to understand God and see the world with clear vision. This story however, would claim the contrary. When we initially experience God’s wonder its like seeing people as trees walking. We are given a glimpse of what the world looks like turned upside down, we begin to grasp and understand what loving God and neighbor is all about. But our vision of discipleship is still dim and incomplete.

Frankly, this distorted and obscure vision of faith is where most Christians are located, myself included. We think we understand everything that God is doing and we think we are seeing things clearly, but its not the case. How many of us can rattle off all the words to the creeds and to the Lord’s Prayer, how many of us have the hymns memorized and can sing without looking down, how many of us really know and read our bibles, yet our vision is still dim?

Lent is the time for us to turn back toward God and see things clearly. We need to see God as God is. Not just the God of our liturgical creeds and hymnals, but the Lord of our hearts and homes, of our hopes, our prayers, and our needs. We desperately need a real picture of what faith looks like. Because faith cannot just be showing up to church once a week for an hour of worship. Faith is about giving your entire life over toward loving God and others 24/7, 365.

While I was praying after our Ash Wednesday services I realized that I don’t really know any of you. At least not to the degree that we are called to know and love God in our lives. While applying the ashes to some of your foreheads I saw what you allow me to see, I saw some of your celebrations, some of your failures, some of your hopes, some of your sins. I can strive to know you as deeply and as fully as I can, but I will only see you as a blurry tree depending on what you open up.

Yet, while preparing for funerals, I start to see a clearer picture of the person. It’s like God has touched me a second time and I finally begin to understand the kind of life that someone lived. Part of it comes from the vulnerability and honesty that families and friends are willing to share, but part of it comes from my willingness to finally ask questions that I never felt brave enough to ask while they were alive.

For all of us, our discipleship and relationship with God is often perpetually caught in this state of blurred trees. We show up to church, we pray, we read our bibles, but without a sure foundation of the basics of faith, our vision will always be limited. 

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That’s why, throughout the season of lent, we will take time each Sunday to return to some of the basics of faith. We might come to the table once a month to partake of Jesus’ body and blood, but do we really believe and know what we are doing? We might talk about being saved and affirming Jesus Christ as Lord, but what does salvation really look like, and why do we call Jesus our Lord? We might see the other people in our pews as brothers and sisters in Christ, but why is our relationship with them limited to Sundays mornings or church activities?

It is my hope that over the next few weeks all of us will receive that second touch from the Lord; by returning back to the basics we will begin to see faithful things and then to see all things clearly: God, ourselves, and others.

But that’s where we’re going. For today I was to focus on this: Our lives are gifts. We are privileged to be surrounded by such beautiful and unique people in our lives. From our co-workers, to fellow students, to friends, and family, and even strangers, we are blessed people. Yet, do we really know any of them? Do we really see them as they truly are? I promise that for all the perfect exteriors you might encounter, there are at least a few who, on the inside, are looking for someone like you to see the real them.

If we take this two part healing seriously than it’s up to us to initiate the second touch for the people around us. We could wait for them to show up and open up, but most of the time it will never happen. Instead we are given the chance to ask deep and important questions of the people in our lives. Questions like: How is it with your soul? What are you doing right now that is saving your life? Do you feel loved?

When you find someone and bravely ask them questions, you are like the crowds bringing the blind man to Jesus; you go into the world as Christ’s body, and by learning more about the other, you discover what it means to see things clearly. 

We begin our challenge here at the Lord’s Table. After we are invited to feast and confess our sins, we will exchange signs of Christ’s peace with one another. This is the chance for us to begin opening our eyes to the truth around us; We are a church of broken people, and when we love on each other and gather at God’s table, we start putting all the pieces back together. Amen.

Marked and Cleansed – Ash Wednesday Homily on Psalm 51.1-12

Psalm 51.1-12

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore me to the joy or your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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How would someone know that you’re a Christian? I think this is a very important question for us to ask ourselves on a regular basis. During a normal day, how would anyone know that we affirm Jesus as Lord, that we pray to God the Father, that we believe the Spirit is with us in all things? Maybe you wear a cross around your neck, though even that symbol has become so innocuous to the general culture around us. Maybe you bring your bible with you to work or public places and you are not afraid to spend some time reading from the good book in front of other people. I personally like to wear my clerical collar when I’m out in town because it helps to show others who I am, and frankly it forces me to act like a Christian in public.

When I became a pastor I was so excited to wear my collar for the first time, to walk around Staunton, and let it speak for itself. I imagined the conversations that would begin at one of our local coffee shops: “Sir, would you please pray for my wife, she just received some tough medical news.” … “Do you mind if I pull up a chair and ask some questions? I’ve always wanted to ask a pastor about the miracles from the gospels.” … “I’m new in town, would you be able to help me find a church community?” However, after being here for some time, I can share that most of the time no one notices. I’ve gone to a local bar with the expectation that people would hide their beer bottles behind their backs, but they just keep talking like normal. I’ve been shopping at the grocery store and prepared myself for random questions, but people just keep scanning the aisles on their own. I’ve sat down at a coffee shop with my collar on, and bible open, and almost no one has made mention of my vocation.

That was the case until last week.

I was sitting at a table alone working on a sermon when two women came in, ordered coffee, and sat at the table next to me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I often eavesdrop on the conversations around me. It’s not that I intend to, or have a problem with it, but most of the time the place is quiet enough that its impossible not to hear what people are talking about. I went to grab my headphones, in order to drown out their conversation, but I heard something that peeked my interest: “Being a pastor must be the easiest job in the world

I decided then that the sermon could wait, this conversation was too good to miss.

One of them continued, “Seriously! They get paid to act like the rest of us. I mean, how hard is it to write a sermon every week and visit old people? Being a Christian is so much harder than being a pastor. It must be the easiest job in the world.

Without thinking about what I was doing, I stood up, walked over to their table, and said, “You’re absolutely right. Being a Christian is harder than being a pastor. The church has expectations about the way you are supposed to behave, and I get paid to behave appropriately, I am a professional Christian. The only difference is this, everyone knows I’m a Christian, what about you?” I then packed up my things and left.

Today, above all days, is an opportunity for us to be marked and cleansed. In a short while, each of us will be invited forward to have a cross of ashes placed on our foreheads, a sign for us to carry around for the rest of the day. Today, wherever you go, people will know who you really are. 

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Do you know where the ashes come from? We save some of the palm branches from Palm Sunday, and we burn them down into ashes. The same palms that some of us waved last spring to welcome Jesus in Jerusalem have been placed in the fire, and will now adorn our heads. This is done as a reminder that our shouts of “hosanna!” can quickly turn to “crucify!” I can go from being a well behaved Christian, minding my own business at a coffee shop, to walking over to strangers and letting my passive aggressive side get the better of me. We use these ashes to mark and cleanse ourselves for the coming season of lent.

All of us are sinners, the young and the old, the weak and the strong, we all fall short of God’s glory. This season of lent is an opportunity to turn back to God and reorient our perspectives about the way the world truly works. For the coming weeks our prayers should be for wisdom, for God to purge from us all wrong desires and failures. This is the time for us to be bold in our faithfulness as we enter the community around us. Lent is the time for God to create in us clean hearts, to put new and right spirits within us. We begin here with the ashes, remembering our finitude, so that God might restore us to the joy of salvation, and sustain us with a willing spirit to be faithful in the world.

How would someone know you’re a Christian? Today, everyone will know just by looking at your foreheads. But, the ashes will eventually fade away; the cross will disappear. The challenge for us is to act like it’s still there, to live full lives of discipleship so that everyone might know who we are, and whose we are. Amen.

Clean Hearts – Homily for Ash Wednesday on Psalm 51.1-12

Psalm 51.1-12

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and lot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Ash_Wednesday

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

For the last thousand years, these words have been traditionally used for this particular day. A priest or pastor will place a finger in the ashes, making the sign of the cross on a forehead, while whispering the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These are frightening words. We have gathered today to be reminded of our own finitude, to mark the beginning of our forty day observance of Lent, to engage in a period of prayer and fasting. This is a solemn event in the life of our liturgical church, for today we are being asked to think about our own mortality.

When I was in seminary one of my professors told me that the hardest thing about being a pastor is that I have to remind people that they are dying when everything and everyone else tries to claim the contrary. I have been given the unenviable task of proclaiming the true and deep message of Ash Wednesday; we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Most of us tempted to believe that we are invincible and that life will never catch up with us. We are tempted to believe that death isn’t real. Countless commercials and products are advertised with the sole purpose of prolonging our inevitable end. Even here in church, we spend so much time talking about the joy and hope of God in the resurrection from the dead, that we fail to spend adequate time reminding ourselves of our own finality.

Today, as we take our first steps into Lent with the ashes on our foreheads, we are like the psalmist who cried out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love… wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” This is a time for us to deeply reflect on the ways that we can be better, the relationships to reconcile, and the new habits to cultivate. Lent is less about giving something up, and more about reorienting yourself back to God in order to use this life that has been given to you. Our desire is for God to create in us clean hearts and to put a new and right spirit within us. We have been given the greatest gift, the gift of life. The question we need to ask ourselves is this, “What are we doing with that great gift?”

In our narthex there is a plaque hanging on the wall in honor of Zig Volskis, a beloved former pastor of St. John’s. On the plaque you will find these words: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90.12). Life is a fleeting and precious thing, one that we should not take for granted. Let us all learn to count our days, to reflect on our many blessings, rejoice in the gift of life and let our lives be fruitful for those around us.

Death is a frightening thing. Contemplating our finitude and celebrating it in worship is by far one of the strangest things we do as a church. But in the end, we do it so that we may gain wiser hearts, so that God might sustain us in the midst of our sinful lives, and above all so that we can appreciate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the glory of the resurrection. Let God use this Lenten season to help create in us clean hearts.

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My friends, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. For the next forty days we will rest in the shadow of the cross, but remember this, the glory of the resurrection outshines everything, even death. 

Amen.