Disturbing The Peace

Isaiah 58.1-9a

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

I count it a miracle whenever people show up for worship on Ash Wednesday.

This liturgical practice has changed quite a lot just in my lifetime. I came-of-age in a world where the only people walking around with ashes on their foreheads were those faithful Catholics who went to early early one Wednesday morning once a year. 

But now, more and more churches are rediscovering the profound power that comes from the strangest of places – a recognition of the condition of our condition.

We are sinners.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it, we are incompatible.

At the heart of Ash Wednesday is a declaration about our rebellion from God. It’s why we pull from the likes of the prophet Isaiah – announce to the people their sins!

And yet very few, if any, are willing to hear this accusations hurled at us from the Lord. Let alone from somebody dressed in black at the front of the sanctuary.

More often than not, our sinfulness get proclaimed to us about our failure to do something. Whether we hear it from a pastor, or the radio, or our own inner monologue, we imagine that we are not doing enough.

We confront the reality of poverty in our neighborhood and we feel like we could be doing more.

We discover the injustices committed against people both inside and outside the church and we think that we haven’t done our fair share.

We turn on the news and see another tragedy and we wonder if we could’ve done something to stop it.

And then we have a day like today where we are expected to confess, apologize, express remorse, and embody repentance for all that we have failed to do.

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But even if we are in a place to hear about our failures, we are quick to rationalize them. Most of us are perpetually rearranging reality to conform to our ideas about how the world should work – we lie to ourselves and others constantly and unthinkingly.

We do, every so often, have opportunities to see who we really are, be it an Ash Wednesday service, or the cutting accusation from a friend, or another probing question for a spouse, or child, or parent, and we don’t like the image we see in the mirror.

We deny the truth.

Denial has become an art form.

We deny death with every advertisement on TV and every pill we receive from the pharmacy.

We deny responsibility with every shrug of our shoulders when we see an elected official failing to do their job.

We deny the fundamental reality about who we are by filling our lives with stuff that we’re supposed to do.

Those empty gestures of holiness and postures of supposed solidarity often amount to little more than a Facebook status change or telling someone to listen to a particular podcast.

But Ash Wednesday compels us to dispense our denials and realize what the condition of our condition is.

Ash Wednesday, at its best and worst, disturbs the peace that we’ve worked so hard to believe is true.

We don’t need to parade out the overwhelming examples of sin from our personal lives, or even our collective lives. One need not look too far into the soul to see that there is often more darkness than light. One need not pretend the church is a perfect body when we spend 3.5 million dollars arguing about who else to exclude from ministry or marriage. 

There is a reason that Ash Wednesday is one of the least attended worship services in the entire year – in it we acknowledge that God has a pretty good case against us, and we throw ourselves upon God’s mercy knowing we do not deserve it.

That is not a fun feeling to have. 

Most of us respond to that great gulf between God’s goodness and our sinfulness by trying to do something to make God forgive us. We fall back on the Law hoping it can redeem us. We even lob charges against other people for their failures because it makes us feel better about our own.

The Law will demand everything from us, but give us nothing.

It is the Gospel that demands nothing from us, but gives us everything.

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That is the crux of this bizarre thing that we do as disciples of Jesus Christ. We gather, we listen, and we faintly begin to grasp that there is quite literally nothing we can do to get God to love us more. We look deeply in our sins, and the sins of the church, and the sins of the world and we inexplicably come into contact with the God who extends mercy to us even in the midst of our horrible condition.

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 

We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. And yet it is given to us.

Today is the beginning of a season in which we are reminded of the new thing that God is doing in Jesus. During these Lenten days we need not surround ourselves with excuses and denials, we need not lie to ourselves and to other, we need not live our lives as if everything we do is entirely on our shoulders.

The judged judge has already come to stand in our place. 

To borrow the language from Isaiah – Jesus is the one who breaks the yoke of sin that constantly pushes us to and fro.

Jesus is the one who shares the bread of life, his own body, with people who are hungry for something more.

Jesus is the one who provides a new home to people like you and me who were once far off in our isolation from God and one another. 

Jesus is the one who covers us in the waters of baptism so that we will no longer be ashamed of who we are. 

Jesus is the one who answers when we cry out for help with the triumphant declaration, “Here I am!”

Ash Wednesday can be a day for us to wallow in the truth that none of us makes it out of this life alive. It can be a time for us to confront our finitude and fragility. We can hear the words as the ashes are imposed and think about all the stuff we should start doing.

But Ash Wednesday is also a reminder that all of our so-called work toward righteousness counts for a whole lot of nothing. God is not the great ledger keeper waiting to see if we’ve done enough or not.

Instead, God is the one who condescends to the muck and misery of life, who draws into himself the hostility of sin in the person of Christ, who ascends onto the hard wood of the cross in response to the hatred of humanity, and who triumphantly proclaims through the empty tomb that we will never be defined by our sins.

We are defined by our Savior. Amen. 

A Return To The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.” 

It received a lot of backlash.

And I get it. 

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year. 

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

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In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

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

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. 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 clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).

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 about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens 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.

Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said: 

 “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 is not 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 is 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 a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the term “we” purposely. 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, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?” 

We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.

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 also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, 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 world, the individual triumphs. 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. 

You Deserve To Die

Ash Wednesday tends to bring out the best, and the worst, in us. We’re forced to confront our finitude while giving thanks to God for not abandoning us to our own devices. We are marked with signs of the cross and told to not practice our piety before others. We are reminded that we are dust, and then promised that dust is not the end.

It’s a lot of fun.

And because Ash Wednesday is fun, the team from Crackers and Grape Juice got together to record a brief conversation about the liturgical holy day, and the season of Lent that Ash Wednesday inaugurates. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: You Deserve To Die

 

 

Suffering Envy

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for Ash Wednesday [Year B] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-20). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma and he is the host of the Patheological Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the day of the Lord, true repentance, weeping in church, hiding in the bushes, prayer in public school, and being forced to act like a Christian. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Suffering Envy

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The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Over the last few years there has been a phenomenal rise in a liturgical practice called “Ashes to Go.” And I think it needs to end.

This is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

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

AshestoGo4

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. 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 clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of 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 about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens 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.

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Last year, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge for an Crackers & Grape Juice episode about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said:

“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 is not 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 is 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 a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, Ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church.

While the world bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive, 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 world, the individual triumphs. 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.

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.