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. 

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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

 

 

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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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.

 

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.

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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.