Devotional – Psalm 103.8

Devotional:

Psalm 103.8

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

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16 years ago I was sitting in my 8th grade band class when an announcement came over the PA system that I was needed at the main office. I walked down the hallway wondering why in the world they needed me in the main office of my middle school when I saw my father standing outside the doors beckoning me to hurry up. We quickly dashed toward the car where my sisters were already waiting and all I remember my dad saying was, “So many people have already died.”

It was September 11, 2001 and my father somehow got us out of school before they went under lockdown. I spent the entire day sitting on the living room floor at my parents’ house watching the World Trade Centers fall to the ground over and over again. And I was angry.

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Thinking back on that day 16 years ago, I can remember the anger I felt, but I can’t tell you who or what that anger was directed toward. The television contained images of violence I never thought possible in the world and it created in me a frustration and an anger that remained for a long time.

It was only years later that I came across a prayer written by one of my professors 30 minutes after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Dr. Hauerwas’ words articulate a feeling that I believe most Americans felt 16 years ago, but he was also bold enough to speak the truth in a time of fear, anger, and violence. This is the prayer he wrote 16 years ago today:

“Vulnerable – we feel vulnerable, God, and we are not used to feeling vulnerable. We are Americans. Nor are we used to anyone hating us this much. Such terrible acts. Killing civilians. We are dumbfounded. Lost. We are good people. We are a nation of peace. We do not seek war. We do not seek violence. Try to help us remember that how we feel may be how the people of Iraq have felt while we have been bombing them. It is hard for us to acknowledge the “we” in “We bombed them.” What are we to do? We not only feel vulnerable, but we also feel helpless. We are not sure what to feel except shock, which will quickly turn to anger and even more suddenly to vengeance. We are Christians. What are we to do as Christians? We know that anger will come to us. It does us not good for us to tell ourselves not to be angry. To try not to be angry just makes us all the more furious. You, however, have given us something to do. We can pray, but we wonder for what we can pray. To pray for peace, to pray for the end of hate, to pray for the end of war seem platitudinous in this time. Yet, of course, when we pray you make us your prayer to the world. So, Lord of peace, makes us what you will. This may be one of the first times we have prayed that prayer with an inkling of how frightening prayer is. Help us.” (Dr. Stanley Hauerwas – Disrupting Time)

So today, 16 years later, we still pray for God’s will to be done. We pray that we might become God’s prayer for the world. And, perhaps most boldly, we remember that while the world is consumed by fear and terror, we worship the God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

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Devotional – Matthew 6.28-29

Devotional:

Matthew 6.28-29

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

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In a few hours I will gather with members of the community for a Service of Death and Resurrection for one of St. John’s long-time members, Gracie Jackson. During my first two months serving at St. John’s (almost 4 years ago), I tried to visit as many people as possible from the church community, particularly those who could no longer attend worship on Sundays. I want them to know that the church still cared about them and that they were in our prayers regardless of their presence.

Throughout those first months I was welcomed into a great number of homes and learned so much about Staunton and the impact St. John’s has had throughout the decades. One of my first visits was to the Jackson home where I sat and talked with Lenard and Gracie Jackson. But we didn’t sit for long. Instead, they wanted to give me the grand tour including the basement workshop and the green house in the backyard. There were plants everywhere but one in particular was striking and unlike anything I had seen before. Lenard explained that it was a Night-Blooming Cereus, and like the name implies, it only blooms at night. At the time, I casually mentioned my interest in the plant and we continued the door.

However, a couple days later Gracie told Lenard that he HAD to invite me over to witness the Night-Blooming Cereus in all it’s glory. (Lenard recently told me that in his life there were always two ways to doing things, and both of them were Gracie’s!). So at 10pm Lindsey and I drove over to the Jackson house and the four of us sat in their living room in our pajamas patiently waiting for the plant to do its magic.

When the right time arrived, we huddled in the green house with the dark sky coming through the windows and the cactus bloomed right in front of us. It produced the most exquisite scent and filled the room with its glory. And in that moment I was struck by the holy space we were sharing and was reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

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That Night-Blooming Cereus was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen and I never would’ve experienced if it weren’t for Gracie’s insistent invitation. Similarly, our faith is something that is offered to us as an invitation. We can read all about the Lord in Scripture, we can pray privately on our own time, but when we share our faith with another person it can bloom in the most exquisite of ways.

I am so remarkably grateful for the time I got to spend with Gracie, and for the many ways she embodied God’s grace for me.

Devotional – Job 19.23-25

Devotional:

Job 19.23-25

O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

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Last Thursday, while my wife, son, and I were visiting family in Alexandria, I received a phone call about one of St. John’s long-time members having died. Ruth Cassidy joined the church weeks after it formally began back in 1954 and while it was still meeting in a basement down the road. Ruth was easily one of the kindest people I ever had the chance to spend time with, and she will be greatly missed by our church community, and by her family.

A couple years ago I received a phone call about Ruth’s husband Howard, and it was clear that he was close to the end of his life. And so, I made my way over to their retirement home and when I walked into the room Ruth was sitting next to her husband, she was lovingly holding his hand in hers, and he had just taken his final breath. I, not wanting to intrude on the holiness of the moment, slowly started to back away but Ruth insisted on me sitting down with her on the couch. She immediately started asking me questions about my family and St. John’s and I was still in a state of shock; I was overwhelmed by the totality of the moment, and the fact that Howard had literally just died. Ruth continued to ask me questions, but I wanted to acknowledge what had just happened. It took a couple minutes, but I finally mustered the courage to ask: “Ruth, are you okay? I mean, Howard just died…”

She looked right into my eyes, smiled, and said, “Oh, everything is fine; I know where he really is.”

Rarely have I encountered such faith, such hope, and such love as what I regularly experienced through Ruth Cassidy. Like the biblical character of Job, she had an assurance about the way things really are. In that holy and profound moment immediately after her husband died, I could almost hear the words of scripture floating in the room with us: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.”

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Ruth’s assurance, her blessed assurance, was one worthy of our emulation.

Do you know that your Redeemer lives? What words or thoughts would you want to engrave on a rock forever? Can you feel the Holy Spirit moving and breathing into your life? Are you filled with an assurance about who you are and whose you are?

O that my words were written down and engraved forever! I know that my Redeemer lives! And that at the last he will stand upon the earth!

On Why We Need The Passion On Palm Sunday

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing the one and only Dr. Eric Hall (Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen Professor of Peace and Justice at Carroll College) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for Palm Sunday during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Eric gave us a lot to think about particularly regarding Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn more about Jesus Christ Superstar, the parody of the passion, and the average lifespan of a donkey, you can check out the podcast here: Palm Sunday – Year A

 

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On Using Bad Words In Church

Romans 6.1-11

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

What’s the worst word you can imagine hearing from the pulpit? In a world where you can get away with saying and doing just about anything, is the church still a sacred place untainted by the desires of the world? There are plenty of strange and difficult and downright awful stories from scripture that we can read from the lectern, but don’t you think the pulpit should remain nice and clean?

During the season of Lent, we confront our finitude, our sinfulness, and our total dependence on the Lord. It is a tough time for us comfortable Christians, because these are exactly the types of things that many of us would rather avoid.

Gone are the days when we could expect to hear about sin and be challenged and convicted out of it. Gone are the days when we could affirm our finite lives without needing the stark reminder of ashes on our foreheads once a year.

Today, God has been reduced to a bumper-stickered and hallmarked version of love. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Today, church is not the place for judgment and for talk about sin. Regardless of their primacy in scripture, we would all be happier if we could avoid them.

The same holds true for foul language.

Right?

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This is definitely not the place for someone like me to stand in front of people like you and use words that are forbidden from the radio and are relegated to rated-R movies.

As I heard someone say recently, “Preacher, there are just some things you don’t talk about it church.”

There is a seemingly endless list of things not to talk about in church; things like politics, abortion, divorce, war, sex, taxes, just to name a few. But foul language, language that results in soap-in-the-mouth discipline, is a particularly poignant thing to avoid in church.

And I have a friend in ministry who has completely ignored this accepted fact.

He loves to use foul language from the pulpit. Whether it’s the Christmas Eve sermon and the church is filled with young families who only show up for one worship service a year, or an Ash Wednesday service where only the die-hard Christians come out, he’s known for his colorful language. He’ll tell you that he uses those particular words in order to enhance the sermon in such a way that it will become more memorable and hit closer to home.

And a lot of the people at his church can’t stand it.

“Why does he feel like he has to resort to such awful language?” “The church deserves better than this.” “Does he talk to his mother that way?”

And, I think, they have a point. When the language used becomes more memorable or more important than what is being proclaimed, something has fallen a part. For instance: His recent Ash Wednesday sermon was titled “God Doesn’t Give A @#$%” I read it and listened to it online, it was phenomenal. The theology and the proclamation were remarkably faithful to the One who is faithful to us. But a few of the people from the church called me afterward and couldn’t even begin to express what the sermon was about at all; they were still hung up on the title.

However, there is a value to using some bad words in church.

During the season of Lent, this time after Epiphany but before Easter, there is a specific word that we avoid at all costs. It’s really bad. The word is… well, I’m not supposed to say it. Um, how can I do this…

Okay, there’s this great song by Ray Stevens called the Mississippi Squirrel Revival, maybe you’ve heard it, and part of it goes like this: The day the squirrel went berserk // In the First Self-Righteous Church // In the sleepy little town of Pascagoula // It was a fight for survival // That broke out in revival // They were jumpin’ pews and shoutin’ @#$%^&*!”

You know the word I’m talking about? You might not have even noticed it, but we have not said the “H” word in worship since before Ash Wednesday. It has not been read from the lectern, it has not been hidden in one of the verses from our hymns, and I certainly haven’t used it from the pulpit.

We purposely avoid the word during Lent so that when we shout it out on Easter it will mean all that much more. We specifically deprive ourselves of this important and powerful word to create a longing for the realization of all that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus promises to us and to the world.

And there’s another bad “H” word that we need to talk about: Hell.

I don’t mean the place filled with fire and a red-toned, frighteningly tall, horned figure with a trident and a bifurcated tail. I mean using “hell” as an expression.

Paul writes: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” Now, what I’m about to say will probably get me in trouble, but so be it. That little ending, the “by no means” just doesn’t cut it. In Greek the expression is “me genotio” and it is way more emphatic than “by no means.” Some translations have it as “God forbid” or “Definitely not” but even both of those miss the mark.

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In what we read last week, Paul wrote: “When sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And it’s as if Paul knew that people would hear those words and say, “Dude, that’s awesome! If grace abounds all the more when sin increases, then lets keep the sins rolling!”

And here is Paul’s response: “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO!

Our lives have changed forever. We can’t just retreat to the ways of the past because grace abounds. God in Christ has made in us a new creation! The gift of God in Christ on the cross was, and is, such that we are forever freed from the tyranny of sin and death. Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO!

But that’s not the last bad word we’re going to talk about today. No, we still need to talk about “Sin” and “Death.” Perhaps two of the worst words that can ever be used in church. And you can tell they’re bad word precisely because of how rarely they are used in a place like this.

We need to talk about these bad words, not because they are normal parts of human experience, but because they are false powers that rule over us. That’s how Paul understood them: Sin reigns, Death has dominion.

You need only turn on the television for five minutes in the evening to see how true this really is: The nighty News hour is filled to the brim with the failures and faults and sins of other people; The Republican Party failed to procure their dream for American Healthcare. Left Wing activists went on a violent strike in another major city. Augusta County citizen receives life sentence for horrible crime. North Korea has another failed missile test but they are getting closer to developing their own weapons of mass destruction. The market fluctuated with each tweet from our president. Test scores have fallen in local school leading to speculation that it will close… All of them are negative.

And then when they go to a commercial break we are bombarded by products designed to make us believe that we can and will live forever; Use this cream and your wrinkles will disappear. Invest in this company and you will never have to worry about money. Go on this vacation and you will feel happy and healthy like the people running on the beach or tanning by the pool.

We live under the tyranny of sin and death. But Paul says this should not be so!

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We who have been baptized into Christ have been crucified with Christ. Our sinful selves are put to death on the Cross so that we will no longer be slaves to the bad words of Sin and Death.

Long ago, we would have known this without Paul having to remind us. Baptisms, long ago, were all about death. That’s where the Baptists beat us today, I’m sorry to say. When the Baptists baptize, they fully submerge people under water. And, depending on the faithfulness of the pastor, the soon-to-be-new Christian might be held under for quite a long time.

You would’ve missed the baptism to death if you were with us in Alexandria when Elijah was baptized. No, we didn’t hold him under a tub of water to embody the death to sin. No, we didn’t give him some old and tattered gown to wear. Elijah looked perfect in his little khakis, and button-up shirt, and bow-tie, and mustard-colored cardigan. Elijah was sprinkled with water, and the perfectly portioned amount of holy oil was smeared in the shape of the cross on his forehead. And, he was carried out to the congregation and held up high by the same preacher who curses too much.

We miss the death to sin in our baptisms. But we have a member of our lectionary bible study who really gets it. Judy had avoided church for decades before God grabbed her by the heart and said, “Follow me.” She brought her questions and her doubts to her preacher, and after a time she felt her heart strangely warmed and felt moved to be baptized.

Unlike babes in the United Methodist Church, Judy marched up to the giant baptismal font and prepared to jump into the all-too-cold water. And outside, through the multicolored stained glass windows, a thunderstorm was brewing.

Judy slowly descended into the water, and with cracks of thunder in the distance the preacher plunged her into the depths of death to sin. I like to imagine that if she opened her eyes underwater, even for the briefest of moments, she would have seen a flash of lighting that illuminated the entire congregation. The whole moment felt as if the rule of Sin and Death, the dominion of the devil himself, was making one final dash to keep her under their control. But alas, the grace of Jesus Christ abounded all the more, and she arose from the water dead to sin and death.

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? HELL NO!

God has changed us! Not just through the waters of our baptisms, not just through the bread that we break and the cup from which we drink, but also through the death of Jesus on the cross. It changes everything! This gift transforms our very lives to the point that we should feel compelled not to fall back into the old ways, to the old self, ruled by Sin and Death.

But we know the truth: we do fall back. We know that those who are sent to prison for horrible crimes have an all too high likelihood of returning one day. We know that those caught in adultery tend to habitually cheat for the rest of their lives. We know that even the strongest member of an AA group can fall off the wagon.

We know that we fall back.

We say “never again” to so many thing only to have them come right back around. We say never again to the anger, to the cigarette, to the bottle, to the cheating, to the lying, to the hatred, to the racism, to the homophobia, to the elitism, to the narcissism, to defeatism, to a great number of things.

            They never stop.

            The fact that they never stop is evidence of the power of Sin in this world, which reigns in Death.

But our lives have been changed! God has wiped away the old self and clothed us with the new. God washed away our insecurities and insufficiencies and said, “My grace is enough.” God was nailed to the hard wood of the cross to die a death that we might die in our baptism. God was raised from the dead as we were brought forth from the water to live a resurrected and holy life.

            The death Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So we also must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO! Amen.

The Elephant In The Room

Romans 5.1-11

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

 

Sometimes I’ll be running at the gym, or walking the dog, or just sitting in my office when an idea will pop into my head. The idea starts like seed and then it germinates throughout my mind into sermon topics and bible studies and blog posts. The idea grows and grows and before it disappears into the gray matter of my brain I make sure to write it down.

And, (would you believe it?) an idea is coming to me right now! But I don’t have any paper up here so I need you all to write this stuff down (seriously).

Okay, we are justified by faith, God’s faith in us. That’s what we talked about last week. And because we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus. And, I mean, not only that, but we are bold to boast of God’s grace in our worst moments, because we know that our suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Yeah, that’s good.

We arrive at hope because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit. And we know that God loves us because while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. Right? Like, how often will someone die for a righteous person? Though, I guess for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love to us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us!

Still with me?

Okay, and its even more than that, now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood we will be saved from the wrath of God. Through Jesus’ death we were reconciled back to God, and through Jesus’ life we will be saved! This is worth boasting about!

Did you get all of that?

Let me try to simplify in case I lost any of you: We are justified by God’s faith in us. Suffering leads to endurance, endurance to character, and character to hope. We arrive at this hope because we know God loves us. And we know God loves us because Christ died for us while we were yet sinners…

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Paul is hard to take from the pulpit. Give me one of the stories of Jesus’ healings, or any of the parables; they preach themselves. Sometimes I even think it would be better to just read the scripture and not preach anything at all. But with Paul it takes on a new and strange and difficult dimension. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes in a form of rhetoric almost lost to the sands of time. In our current age of 140 character tweets from our President, frenetic television shows, and fast-paced YouTube videos, we no longer have the minds, nor the time to hear Paul’s theology.

A theology that was probably dictated to someone else to write down while Paul was thinking it up.

You can almost hear that in the reading can’t you? It’s like he remembered something from a few sentences back and wants to clarify it.

The Epistle to the Romans is not a perfectly crafted sermon meant for pulpit proclamation. Instead, it’s practical theology dictated from the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

Paul begins this section by addressing suffering; it’s the part of the passage that is most often mentioned. And he’s not just talking about some esoteric understanding of suffering. Paul is talking from experience! At the time of this letter, Paul was not a young, pre-maturely balding, healthy pastor standing in a pulpit telling his worn and suffering congregation to keep their chins up. No, this is entirely different. Paul suffered for the gospel, was arrested and persecuted, and yet he continued on. That’s why he can say that suffering leads to hope. For Paul it’s not a false and empty promise, it’s what he has experienced.

And then we come to the section about dying for others.

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Dying for others, for one’s country, for our families, these stories captivate our hearts and our emotions. The thought of all the firefighters courageously rushing into the World Trade Center buildings on September 11th, or the countless volunteers who went to the other side of the world to fight in World War II, or just hearing about a mother who sacrifices herself to save her children, these stories really pull our heart strings.

But here, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, this is even more radical than any of those stories. We have to try to put aside the emotional waves of grief and reverence for the stories of modern sacrifice for one’s friends, family, or country. Paul does not say that Jesus died for his friends or his family or even his country.

            Christ died for the ungodly!

Paul says that Christ died for us while we were his enemies!

Talk about an elephant in the room… While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We hear it in Romans, we hear it every time we come to the table for communion, but do we believe it?

We don’t like talking about sin, we good Christian folk. We want to hear about love, peace, joy, hope, and happiness.

Only the converted, those whose lives have been truly captivated by Christ, think of themselves as sinners. Others won’t have anything to do with it. That, my friends, is why we so seldom read from Paul’s letters in worship; we don’t like the idea of ourselves as sinners, as ungodly.

“Preacher, can’t you just give us a little more grace and love from the pulpit? Nobody wants to come to church to hear about sins!” And yet, we enjoy reading in the gossip columns and watching TMZ to learn about other people’s sins, but that’s their problem.

We don’t like admitting our shortcomings, our faults, and our helplessness. We reject that gospel and substitute our own, one we talked about a couple weeks ago. We’d rather believe the American gospel: God helps those who help themselves. Actually, Paul tells us quite the opposite: When we could not help ourselves, when we were stuck in the shadow of sin, Christ died for us.

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In our current age of tweets, twenty-minute TV shows, and traffic filled websites, we want everything compartmentalized as much as possible. Instead of reading a newspaper we want a short and brief email every morning that tells us only what we need to know. Instead of buying the latest hit book and spending an afternoon in our favorite chair, we read a summary online so we can talk about it with our friends. And instead of coming to church for an hour a week to experience the presence of God, people read the sermon online and check off the box on the Christian list of to-dos.

We, whether we admit it or not, are consumed by a desire to compress as much as possible into something as small as possible. Paul completely rejects this desire and notion that we can limit the gospel to any particular sentence or paragraph. The Gospel, the Good News, is nothing less than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of Man, and Son of God.

But, if we cannot resist the temptation, if we have to have something small, something we can keep with us at all times to know what the gospel is, this might work: While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

            This is crazy stuff people! Our Lord and Savior, the one in the stained glass window behind me, he died for the ungodly!

Who is the ungodliest person you can think of right now? I know some of you will immediately think of the members of ISIS who are terrorizing regions under their control. Others of you will immediately think of the leaders in North Korea who are trying their best to develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Some of you might think of Donald Trump and the seemingly endless Executive Orders streaming out of the Oval Office these days. Some of you might even be thinking about the person sitting in the pew next to you.

If it’s too hard to think of someone ungodly, just think about one person you’re angry with right now…

Jesus died for that person. Whoever you’re thinking of, whoever that completely backwards and horrible and disappointing person is that’s bouncing around in your mind right now, Jesus died for them.

That’s the real elephant in the room. Jesus died precisely for the sort of person that would crucify him and mock him while they were doing it. People like us.

These things we call faith and discipleship are not very religious in the sense of being pretty and easy to handle. They are not something we can carry around in our pockets during the week only to show up when we need them. The cross of Christ is far too offensive to be religious.

The cross and the death of Christ shatter our expectations given to us by the world. They, in all their strangeness, reorient us back toward the radical nature of God’s love. The offensive and scandalous cross is our paradoxical hope and joy. Because in and through the cross, God did something that none of us would do.

            As the old hymn goes, the immortal God hath died for me.

God’s love in Christ is so comprehensive and so bewildering that it is able to wash away even the greatest of sins.

We started this sermon with a dictation, an imaginative way to reimagine the writing of Paul’s letter to the Romans. If you wrote down anything I hope you wrote this: While we were yet sinners God died for the ungodly, for us.

Now I want you to write down the name of the person you thought of just a moment ago, the person who you’re angry with. Write his or her name at the top as if you meant to send this letter to them.

Now you know that I’m going to ask you to send it. And I know that you probably won’t. You won’t for the same reason I wouldn’t; it’s offensive and it’s uncomfortable. We won’t send this affirmation of God’s unnerving love to someone else because it would force us into an area we’d rather avoid; we don’t want to come off as too evangelistic, or too churchy. We don’t want to admit our sin.

Can you imagine the shock on the person’s face if they received your dictated letter from the adapted words of the apostle Paul? Can you picture how bewildered they would be by something Christians say all the time? Can you imagine how it would change the way you look at them for the rest of your days?

While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. In our weakness we reject the challenge to confront our sins and we reject the forgiving nature of God’s love for the world. We forget that Christ died for our shame and our sin and our sadness. We forget that Christ died for our disappointment and our degenerate derelictions and our deficiencies. We forget that Christ died for us and for the people whose names’ are at the top of our letters.

And yet Christ still died for us! What wondrous love in this that that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul! To God and to the Lamb who is the great I am, we shall sing! And when from death we’re free, and through eternity, we shall sing.

For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Amen.

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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