Our Faith Is Not Built On Our Feeling It

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 55.1-9, Psalm 63.1-8, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13, Luke 13.1-9). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the need to rest, true satisfaction, the brief efficacy of idols, resident theologians, the gift of the Psalms, thinking about God in bed, the two types of people in the world, The Rock, and Christ becoming manure. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Our Faith Is Not Built On Our Feeling It

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For The Love Of God

Luke 13.31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting our demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

On Friday afternoon, a man parked his car in front of a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. He calmly walked into the building while the community was in the midst of prayer, and he pulled out a gun. However, right before he began firing the first victim’s final words were spoken aloud, “Hello brother.”

By the time the extraordinarily unprecedented acts of violence came to an end, 49 people were dead, and another 48 were in the hospital being treated for injuries. Some of whom were young children.

New Zealand’s Police commissioner spoke on television during an evening news conference that night to share the horrific news with the country and he urged everyone to avoid mosques and encouraged all mosques in the country to close their doors until they heard from the police.

New Zealand Mosque Shooting

What a horrifically horrible thing to take place. The reverberations of such were felt across the world as mosques here in the US had extra security for their Friday and weekend services. 

Sadly, many of them already have to have security for their worship services.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we were told that this place, our house of worship, was off limits because of violence? Can you imagine how it would feel in the pits of stomachs if we were told to avoid churches because they were no longer safe?

And yet, we don’t have to imagine what that is like.

Whether it’s a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque, we know what violence can do to places of worship.

Charleston.

Pittsburgh.

Sutherland Springs.

And those are just the places in the last few years.

Here we are, in worship, on the second Sunday of Lent – the season of repentance and introspection. In scripture we confront the tones of abject disappointment from the Messiah as the cross get sharper and sharper on the horizon. 

Jesus, it seems, has grown frustrated with God’s people refusing to hear and heed the summons to come home. 

Jesus, it seems, doesn’t have much time for the ruler of the people because he has better things to do. 

Jesus, it seems, sees few alternatives left other than the one that we adorn our sanctuaries with.

Are we surprised that as Jesus’ ministry progresses, his frustrations increases just as the obstacles standing in his way increase?

The political and religious establishments are threatened by this poor rabbi and his message of the new kingdom. Can we blame them? They know what it means to be in the places of prestige and power and then this wandering Jew shows up with his ragtag group of followers with talk of the meek inheriting the earth.

Which makes this passage all the more strange. It’s rather particularly peculiar that the protective warning comes from the Pharisees who, up to this point in the Gospel, have been anything but concerned for Jesus’ wellbeing.

“Go away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Are they really worried about him? Or is this but another part of their political machinations to ultimately get him killed?

Scripture doesn’t answer our questions, but it is clear that Jesus is determined in spite of the warnings, to reach his goal. No cunning fox and no city of rebellion will keep him from doing what he must do.

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In fact, those two will ultimately be responsible for Jesus paying the ultimate price in his ultimate place.

During the season of Lent, the scriptures appointed for us compel us to keep our eyes on the cross. Just as the city of Jerusalem is now on Jesus’ radar, so too it is for us. Jerusalem is the end of this marathon of ministry. And Jesus loves Jerusalem.

But it is a strange love.

He compares his love for the city to a mother hen’s love for her chicks. 

Even though Jerusalem has responded to God’s love with rebellion, with selfish ambition, and with violence.

Somehow, Jesus holds that two incompatible things together.

He loves Jerusalem, but in the end his love for her will be the death of him.

And though it’s hard for us to admit, the same holds true for us – Jesus’ love for us, in the midst of our rebellion, it such that it eventually leads to his death.

Jesus is on an unstoppable journey toward Jerusalem, and all that it holds for him, which of course means that Jesus is on an unstoppable journey toward us, the very people who still persist in following our own way.

One of the most difficult things to reckon with in the gospel accounts is how much the ministry of Jesus transcends all of our understandings of right and wrong and first and last and good and bad. It cuts straight through the margins that exist in our world and creates something so new, so very new, that we are still afraid of it, even all these 2,000 years later.

Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus is unwavering and persistent in his desire to bring in those who were once cast out, to raise up those once beaten down, and to gather near those who were once lost. 

Which, ostensibly, sounds like good news.

And yet, it’s as if we haven’t heard it.

Or, at the very least, we act as if it isn’t true.

The kingdom of God is always bigger than we can imagine. Or to put it another way, the scope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are always larger than we limit them to be. 

But, throughout history and even today, the longer we make the table, the more upset we become.

The man who marched into the mosques last week leaving a trail of blood in his wake did so with white supremacist slogans painted on the side of his weapons. For whatever reason, he could not imagine a world in which those whom he killed had any worth or value.

The same holds true for just about all of the expressions of religious violence that have taken place in the world. Whether it was the young man who walked into Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the crusades, to the massacre of 6 million Jews, to just about anything else we can remember or imagine, they, in some way, boil down to the fact that people could not stand being with other people. 

There was a story that was reported following the attack at the mosques in New Zealand that received very little coverage. While news outlets were entering the foray of gun control debates and whether or not political leaders would denounce white nationalism, the entire Jewish population of New Zealand agreed to close their doors for Sabbath observance on Saturday – not out of fear or the expectation of violence, but simply to be in solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters who were told not to enter Mosques.

Think about that for a moment.

An entire religious institution agreed that rather than doing what they wanted, rather than continuing to maintain the status quo this weekend, they would choose be in solidarity with those who were marginalized and attacked. 

Meanwhile, these two groups, in other parts of the world, have absolutely nothing to do with one another and are often at the forefront of antagonism.

The violence that took place in the mosques was absolutely unprecedented, but so too was the response of the Jewish community in New Zealand. 

In many ways, that’s what the work of Christ looks like. It is beyond out ability to imagine or even comprehend. It is a willingness to be with the very people who rest at the root of our frustrations. It is a witness to a faithful belief that all really means all.

Or, to use the words of another preacher:

No one is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

Each person’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in humankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bells tolls,

It tolls for thee.

And yet, how many days will it take before most of us are distracted by the next problem or the next tragedy? How long will we continue to keep certain people far off while gathering in the people we like?

There is something deeply profound and deeply troubling about the cross. It is, of course, a marker of our delivery from the captivity to Sin and Death. But, in it, we also discover our mutual rebellion from the one who came to live and die and live again for us.

There is a great leveling on the hill called Golgotha. Because until that moment, as Jesus says, the house was left to us. And, we can admit on our better days, when the house is left to us we like to chose who is able to join us in the house. We like to create our own rules about who is first and who is last, who is right and who is wrong, who is included and who is excluded.

But so long as the house is left to us, it will not look like the kingdom of God. 

Instead it will be a place that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. 

It will be a place where every attempt at making the table longer results in more anger, in more vitriol, and in more violence. 

It will be a place of our own making, and therefore our own doom. 

God in Christ desperately desired to gather us in, all of us, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And again and again and again we were unwilling to do so. Whether it was our voice that led to the exclusion of others, or we ourselves felt the wrath of being excluded, the door remained closed.

So Jesus leaves the house to us.

But not forever. 

“Truly I tell you, you will not see me until the times comes when you say, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Those are the words sung by the crowds waving their palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back on a donkey. Those are the same words we will be singing in a few weeks.

Jesus does not abandon us to our own devices and to our own houses. Instead he arrives in the strangest of ways and triumphantly declares, through his death, this is my Father’s house!

Blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord because he is so unlike us! He continues to work to gather all of us in even while we push away. He still mounts the hard wood of the cross knowing that we often choose the wrong thing or avoid doing the right thing. He still breaks forth from the tomb even though we think the house belongs to us!

This Lenten season, it is good and right for us to confront the frightening reality of our reality. Whether its in New Zealand, or in our back yards, this world is full of people, people like us, who simply cannot fathom the other being our brother or the stranger being our sister.

But the cross is free to all, and from it flows a healing stream for all.

And all means all.

Whether we like it or not. Amen.

I’m A Taste Of Grace From Outer Space

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Easter debauchery, living in East West Virginia, the ubiquity of impatience, belief, being afraid in the land of the living, seven minutes in heaven in church, returning to the same message, crying for the Gospel, and silencing the prophets. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I’m A Taste Of Grace From Outer Space

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Lead Us Not Into…

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

I’ve often talked about the role that commentaries play on the development and proclamation of a sermon. Perhaps the text is very familiar and the pastor desperately wants to find a new angle, or the passage appears to difficult to tackle and the preacher just wants all the help the preacher can get.

That’s when the commentary gets dragged down from the shelf and the pages start flying.

Commentaries can be an invaluable tool when doing this thing I do every week, but sometimes they just fall flat.

I looked through just about every single commentary in my office this week in preparation for this sermon. After all, the temptation of Jesus is indeed one of those stories that lots and lots of people already know. And, to further complicate matters, the devil is in it. 

It’s familiar and it’s difficult. 

What’s a preacher to say about a story most of us know that contains a character most of us ignore?

So I pulled down the commentaries and started reading…

Just like Jesus, we will all face trials and temptations, and we need to do everything we can to resist them in whatever way they present themselves.

When we read the words from the Devil, it is a reminder that we need to take on a posture of intentionality to rebuke his destructive advances.

We read this story at the beginning of Lent as a reminder that we need to let go of the things that are keeping us from being with God.

Did you notice anything there? In almost every commentary I read about the temptations of Jesus, they are ultimately focused more on our temptations than on those faced by Jesus.

Or, to put it very plainly, the commentaries make it seem like Jesus is an after-thought in the never ending battle against our vices.

Or still yet another way to look at it – God helps those who help themselves.

Except, this isn’t a story about us.

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On Ash Wednesday many of us gathered here in the sanctuary and we heard those frighteningly familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those ashen cross on our foreheads were the first steps into a season that is often marked with sacrifice, repentance, and fighting against temptations.

There are plenty of things we can, or perhaps should, give up.

4 out of every 10 adults in America are obese. Maybe we should go on a collective diet?

The average American has $5,331 in credit card debt right now. Maybe we start budgeting our money?

I could go on and on and on.

But perhaps today can be a sobering reminder, akin to the reality check that Ash Wednesday provides, that we aren’t really capable of resisting temptation. Maybe, if we abandon anything this season, it should be the notion that giving something up it makes us better people. 

Perhaps we should ditch the belief that life is up to us.

If Lent is at all about us, its about how far off we are from God, how unlike God we are, and yet God choose to be like us in order to rectify the wrongness within us.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely sure I’m grateful to Luke for this story about Jesus in the wilderness. It’s certainly dramatic, but the longer I read it, the worse it makes me feel.

The Devil says, “If you really are the Son of God, then do something!

The world is going to hell in a hand basket, there are people starving for food, they’re suffering from the chaos of a world that could be incredible if someone with enough power would smack them into shape, they’re wandering around in darkness waiting for God to give them any definitive demonstration that they can hold on to.”

It’s like the devil takes a good look at Jesus and realizes, “If we combined our powers we really could get this whole show on the road.”

This story has the power to bring me down in the dumps because in it I hear myself asking Jesus some of those same questions. I think I know what would be best for the world, and if Jesus could just get with the program, my program, we could fix all this brokenness around us.

Take away the fact that Jesus is Lord, and in this little vignette, he looks kind of like a jerk. Why won’t he work a little miracle and bring about some food?  Why won’t he just take control of the world? Why won’t he give the world a taste of God’s saving power?

But, those questions are our temptation, and they only go to show how far we are from the divine. It shows how this story is just like any other conversation between two people who simply cannot understand one another.

The devil is operating out of a world view that is remarkably like our own – he wants a demonstration of power and wants immediate gratification.

Jesus is operating out of a kingdom view that is totally unlike our own – he knows the myth of progress to which we are so inextricably tied.

If we were really capable of fixing this world, wouldn’t we have done it by now?

Of course the hungry should be fed, and the wanderers should be led, and the hopeless should be given hope. But we’ve been doing that kind of work for a long time, a really long time, and what do we have to show for it?

We are so much a people of the world, rather than the kingdom, that it is nearly impossible to see the story from any point of view other than the devil’s. Again, if you take away the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, take away the fact that we know the end of the story, the devil’s questions sound pretty good!

That’s crazy.

It’s a crazy thing to realize, here at the beginning of our own Lenten journeys, that the person with whom we have to most in common in this story isn’t Jesus, but the devil. 

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But the craziest thing of all is that Jesus eventually does all of the things the devil tempts him to do. Not out there in the wilderness, but by the time we reach the end of the gospel we discover that he does them in his own time and in his own way.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to turn a stone into a loaf of bread to satisfy his hunger – but later he turns some bread and fish into a buffet for 5,000. Which, incidentally, only incites the crowds desire to him become a version of who the devil tempts him to become.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to worship the devil to gain control of the world – but later he ascends to rule over the earth, not with a powerful and war-like regime, but from the vulnerable arms of the cross.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to test God’s willingness to demonstrate his saving power – but later he dies and is buried in the ground, only to rise again through God’s power in the resurrection.

How strange a story this is for people like us to read. In it we discover that the God who took on flesh to be like us is still completely unlike us. We catch a glimpse of the totality of the gospel in just a few verses. And we even celebrate Jesus’ ability to resit temptation even though he eventually makes all of those tempted realities real in his own way.

One of the worst temptations during the season of Lent is to puff ourselves up as if we are above and beyond the temptations that are thrown at us by the world. 

The hard truth of the gospel is that even if we are able to resist a temptation or two, part of our human nature implies that we will succumb. We will eat the food we know we shouldn’t, we will hurt the people who deserve better, and we will foolishly believe that we know what’s best for ourselves, for others, for the world, and even for Jesus.

I like to think, on some days, that I’m a pretty okay person. I like to believe that given the right set of circumstances I will make the good and right choice. I like to imagine that there is more goodness in me than there is badness.

But, there are parts of me that are indefensible. 

I have made wrong choices.

I have hurt the people I love.

I have thought myself greater than I really am.

At the heart of Lent is a willingness to look in the mirror and realize who I really am.

And if pastoring has taught me anything, there are parts of each of you that are indefensible as well.

A particular word that stung someone so badly they haven’t talked to you in years.

A receptive omission of something seemingly insignificant that became a wedge between you and your partner.

A foolish assumption that elevated you above everyone else and resulted in nothing but more and more resentment.

There is a frightening truth in the words that we often read in church without giving them much thought: Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

There are parts of us that simply cannot be defended.

And, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, if we don’t know that to be true, then we do not yet know the grace of God. If we don’t understand our own defenselessness in the grip of sin, and temptation, and death, then we do not yet know who it is who comes to us as the One who justifies the ungodly.

This Jesus, the one who rebuffs the temptations of the Devil, is the one who comes not to make our lives better or give us the strength to resist our own temptations. Jesus comes to live and die and live again to justify us. 

Take a good hard look at the cross, survey it in all of its wonder and violence, it is the sign for you and me that our God is a God of impossible possibility. When we read the story of the temptations in the wilderness it is a harrowing reminder that Jesus does for us what we could not, and cannot, do for ourselves.

He delivers us from evil. Amen. 

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. 

Let the Revolution Begin!

Mark 11.1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and other spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

While growing up in the church there were few Sundays as exciting as Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday we, as children, always arrived a little bit earlier to church with joyful hope and anticipation for the parade of palms that would mark the beginning of worship.

Like shepherds guiding the sheep, we were herded into a single-file line down the hallway by the narthex, we were each handed a single palm frond, and were given these detailed and explicit instructions: “You will march down the center aisle, you will wave your palms, and you WILL NOT HIT EACH OTHER.”

And so the hymn would begin in the sanctuary, and we would quickly file into the house of worship waving palm branches above our heads while all the adults shouted “Hosanna!”

That was the routine every year. Regardless of whatever was going on in the world, or even in the church, on Palm Sunday the kids got to participate in, and frankly lead, worship.

At least, that used to be the routine.

Sometime among the years, we decided that we could march down the center, we could wave our palms, but it would be far more fun if we did so while we were hitting each other with the palm branches.

It started subtlety, one young boy raised the palm branch higher than usual, and instead of waving it back and forth, he brought it down with passion on the head of the girl in front of him. To which she turned around and smacked him across the chest. And as if the message shot throughout the aisle, we all began pummeling each other until the formerly apathetic adults jumped into the pile and broke up the fight.

The was the last time they let the kids lead the parade.

palm branches

And, to be clear, I am not advocating for brawls to break out between the pews. However, that palm branch debacle was probably more faithful to the truth of Palm Sunday than any peaceful and cherubic portrayal.

This world of ours revolves around, and is perpetuated by, violence, war, and aggression. Therefore, the question remains: what does it mean to wage peace?

When we open our eyes to the brokenness of the world, we cannot ignore the immense pain, conflict, and destruction around us. On Thursday night we had a bible study here at the church and I challenged those in attendance to fill the white board with examples of problems just in our local community, and in a few minutes we completely ran out of space.

We are broken people living in a broken world.

The people in Jerusalem were crying out of deep fear, pain, and grief, when Jesus rolled into town. Like the scores of young people who marched on major cities this weekend, they saw the world around them as imperfect and they were looking for a change.

Jesus came proclaiming and promising that the kingdom of God was near, and everyone assumed they knew what that meant. Even the disciples had their own ideas about who this Messiah of theirs was. All were eager to make sure their understanding and expectations of a new beginning were met in the person of Jesus.

And so they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom!”

Palm_frond

We might hear those words and picture perfect children singing in 4 part harmony, we might even imagine the scene from Jesus Christ Superstar when a bunch of hippies surrounded a white Jesus in color coordinated liturgical dance moves. But those imagined scenes do a disservice to the truth: the crowds were looking for a revolution.

It’s hard to translate the word “Hosanna” but the closest connection might be the expression “Save us!” It is an emphatic demand, a desire for the status quo to be disrupted; it is a call of desperation.

That same phrase of “Hosanna!” was shouted in those same streets of Jerusalem 150 years before Jesus rode into town. There was a Hebrew family named the Maccabees who stirred up a violent political revolution that somehow drove the mighty Roman Empire out of their city. That family ruled after the bloody battle until, inevitably, the empire returned and reasserted their violent power.

When the crowds during that Palm Sunday shouted “Hosanna!” they were doing so with the memory of what happened the last time a revolutionary paraded into town. Their cries to be saved and delivered came with the expectation that blood would roll through the streets of Jerusalem as they took their city back.

            But, of course, by the end of the week, only Jesus’ blood would be rolling through the streets.

If this sounds difficult to process, or if your mind is having a difficult time rationalizing the fact that on Palm Sunday Jesus appeared more like Che Guevara than Mother Teresa, it’s because we’ve watered down the frightening truth of the beginning of Jesus’ final earthly week.

Parading into Jerusalem with the crowds screaming and waving was a seditious act; it was a street demonstration, one in which the Romans were probably waiting in their riot gear for the first sign of violence. It was a rally that teetered on the verse of a riot.

Jesus rode straight into the heart of the empire’s kingdom in Jerusalem, into the realm in which violence and destruction ruled the day. The people gathered and shouted and cheered him on with hopes that a revolution would begin.

And he did it all on the back of a colt, with no weapon but the Word.

Jesus was, and is, a revolutionary. But his revolution is one that begins in the heart, and transforms the world. His way is a new way, a new kingdom, a deeper covenant, in which strength is found in simplicity, wealth in generosity, and power in humility.

Palm-Passion-Sunday-wallpaper

No one’s blood would be spilled except for the revolutionary on the colt, who heard the crowds shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.

And all the while, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. When we think about Palm Sunday we are mostly consumed by the images of the road, and the crowds, and the branches. But in the actual scripture, most of the passage is about the plan. Go to the village, find a colt, tell them the Lord needs it, bring it to me. The preparation is part of the plan.

And all of these elements are important because they point to the greater political ramifications of this poor Jewish rabbi upending the world.

Jesus begins at the Mount of Olives, which was the traditional location from which people expected the final battle for Jerusalem to begin. It was there that Jesus began his final campaign in the holy city. Jesus sends out the disciples for provisions, all of the items necessary for the revolution. However, the items and the situation become rather weird. The Lord does not require weapons of warfare and conflict, but a small colt (not even a full grown donkey). Jesus parades into the heart of the empire’s imperial stronghold unarmed and on the back of a small animal.

It is a parody of power.

The whole scene, from the Mount of Olives, to the crowds screaming, to arriving late in Bethany, they all show how Jesus is turning worldly notions of power upside down. It is in these things that Jesus proclaims, through his actions, that the last will be first and the first will be last. It is explosive in scope because here, in this scene, Jesus is at his most wild and political self.

It truly was the beginning of the revolution.

And yet, we portray this frightening and pivotal moment with a levity that should leave us reeling. This decisive event cannot, and should not, be limited to an opening processional where children, or even a whole congregation, are waving palm branches, with cute smiles and contentment.

We have the benefit of knowing the whole story, we know what happens at the end of the week, and still we, like the crowds and the disciples, assume we know what’s best for Jesus. We make Palm Sunday all about us and the ways we celebrate and we remember. But this day is really not about us. Save for the fact that we just as easily vacillate between asking for God to save us and shouting for God’s destruction.

Palm Sunday is focused on Jesus, on his willingness to upset that status quo, on his subverting the powers and principalities with a new revolution.

On the other side of Easter, when the earliest disciples began spreading the news of the resurrection, when the birth of church took place, rumors began to spread about these Christ people. They were strange and subversive, not because they plotted to overthrow the empire with violent means, but because they gathered together for meals and prayer, they shared all that they had, and they made sure that no one was in need.

At first they were simply called people of “The Way.” A way that seemed very strange to the world. But very quickly, as they began to grow and spread throughout the greater Mediterranean area, they we given a new name. They were called world turners, because they were charged with trying to turn the world upside down.

They believed that power, true power, was found in sacrifice and not in violence. They believed that love would always be more powerful than hate. And they believed that Jesus, the one they followed, made the impossible possible.

If any of you turned your televisions on yesterday, you saw millions of young people in this country, millions of young people all over the world marching toward the places of power. They were marching for their lives, because they believe a change needs to come.

I saw a video of one of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which he was asked, “What are you hoping to accomplish? What needs to change?” And he said, “I don’t care if Congress is with us or against us, change is coming.” (That sounds pretty seditious right?) He ended by finally stating, “Today the revolution begins!”

Frankly, I agree with him, and the church should be allied with those who are seeking peace in the world. However, there was one thing he said that was wrong: the revolution didn’t begin yesterday – it began on Palm Sunday. Amen.