On Pride and Annual Conference or: It’s About God, Stupid.

Psalm 20.7

Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.

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In a few day United Methodists from all over the state of Virginia will gather in Hampton, VA for Annual Conference. It is the conference wide meeting for clergy and lay representatives so that we might worship and deliberate regarding parliamentary decisions that will affect the wider church. Highlights will include the Service of Ordering Ministry when new candidates will be blessed for ministry, we are being sent out on Saturday afternoon to serve the local community, and we will hear from all of the vibrant ministries taking place across Virginia. However, there will come a time when we descend in to the depths of Roberts Rules of Order, individuals will speak into the PA system just to hear the sounds of their own voices, and it will feel a whole lot more like a shareholders meeting than the gathering of God’s people.

As I have been preparing for Annual Conference this year, reading through preliminary reports and wrestling with the fact that its costs $950/minute for us to have conference, I’ve been trying to remember the purpose behind all of this. Because in the midst of all the bickering and conference pontificating, it can be hard to remember why we are gathering.

On my first day of seminary the dean stood up in front of the entire incoming class and gave a 45-minute lecture on the ethics of the New Testament. It was interesting for the first ten minutes and then most of us lost track of where he was going. We struggled to listen but everything was so brand new that most of us were more captivated by the architecture in the sanctuary than what was being said from the pulpit. But he ended with these words, words I will never forget, and words I hope you will never forget.

He said, “Why are you here? Some of you think you’re here because you want to teach in college one day, some of you are here because you believe you can save the church, and some of you are here simply because you love the bible. But why are you here? Now, I want you all to pull out a small piece of paper. You might, and probably will, forget most of what I’ve said today, but this is the most important lesson you will ever learn as Christians. I want you to take your piece of paper and tape it somewhere you will see every single day. You can put in on the mirror in your bathroom, or on your computer, or even on your bible, I don’t care where it is just make sure you see it every single day. And on your piece of paper I want you to write the following words: ‘It’s about God, stupid.’”

Wherever you are when you read this post, I encourage you to find a piece of paper and write down those same words: It’s about God, stupid. Tape it up in your bedroom, fasten it to the front of your bible, keep it in your pocket, just do whatever it takes to encounter those words. Whether you’re attending Annual Conference, showing up for church on Sunday, or just interacting in the community, remember why you are doing it!

The United Methodist Church (and every church for that matter) does not exist to serve the needs of those already in it, it does not exist to further perpetuate the bureaucracy in which it finds too much meaning, it does not exit to do whatever it takes to keep the doors open on Sunday morning. The (UM) church exists because it’s all about God!

God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathes life into our churches over and over again. God is the one who shows up in the bread and cup at the table.

God gather us together for times of holiness, God moves in and through the words we sing, and God rests in the spaces between us when we worship.

As the psalmist writes, our pride is not in chariots or in horses. Our pride is not in the loudest voices shouting in a convention center. Our pride is not in the perfect paraments hanging on the altar.

Our pride is in God.

Because it’s all about God, stupid.

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Walking The Walk

1 John 1.1-2.2

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faith and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Here, on the other side of Easter, I’ve been doing some thinking. On Easter we were singing the hymns, and praising the Lord; we were on the mountaintop. But here on the other side, though we still walk in the light, we have to confront reality. And as I’ve been thinking, and confronting, I’ve come to realize some essential truths.

Our country is pretty messed up.

We can listen to the talking heads talk about how politically divided we are, and how we just need to reach across the aisle, and all that sort of stuff. But I’m talking about brokenness on an entirely different level.

We are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity, that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion. It is what we worship. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

As a nation, we spend more money on national defense each and every year than we do on programs of social uplift, which is surely a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

There is so much injustice in this country: racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

            Something must change.

Pause: how do you feel about all that I just said? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you clenching your fists in anger about the problems we have and are ready to do something about it? Are you clenching your fists because you’re angry that I’ve criticized our country and our culture?

            Most of what I just said did not come from me, but from another preacher, one by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say things like what I just said that he was murdered.

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This past week saw the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. 5 decades have come and gone since he stood on the balcony of his motel and was gunned down. 5 decades of wondering whether his dream will ever become a reality. 5 decades spent holding up his quotes and remembering his speeches.

But what do we actually remember?

Perhaps the two most remembered passages from Dr. King’s great collection of speeches and addresses are his “I Have A Dream” speech which he offered in Washington DC, and the quote that I saw again and again this week: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

It’s a great quote. And it fits perfectly with out scripture today: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

There’s a nice and easy sermon there in which you can use Dr. King’s witness, and his quote about darkness and light, to describe and point toward the kingdom of heaven. But that sermon would leave us walking out of here with our chins held high, and perhaps would encourage us to pat ourselves on the back.

But Dr. King’s life and witness was about a whole lot more than one quote or one speech or even one issue. Just as Jesus’s life was about far more than just being kind to everyone.

Here in 2018 it’s hard to remember that a year before Dr. King was killed, he was one of the most hated men in the entire country. Contrary to what we see displayed every January when we celebrate his legacy, when King died he was not an icon of freedom and equality. In 1987 a poll revealed that almost 75% of Americans had a favorable rating of Dr. King, and Americans named him as the person they admired and respected more than any other person in the country’s history. And yet shortly before his death, in late 1966, 63% of Americans were vocally opposed to his words and work.

It’s hard to remember this, or even acknowledge it, because today everybody loves Dr. King. We celebrate his transformative work in documentaries and school projects. But it’s easier to celebrate someone when they’re no longer challenging, and upsetting, the status quo.

It’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead.

Dr. King was not only an activist for the Civil Rights movement, but was also a frustrating voice (to the powers and principalities) in regard to the Vietnam War, capitalism, and poverty. In fact he was shot the night after deliver a now infamous speech, not on securing the right to vote for black individuals, not on dismantling Jim Crow Laws, but on establishing a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

We have so sanitized the legacy of his life that we forget he was once one of the most hated men in the country, we forget that he pushed an entire nation into places of discomfort; we forget that he was killed for challenging the way things were.

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Our sinfulness overwhelms our ability to remember and to be rational. We hear about godlessness and we immediately pull to our minds all those we believe who have fallen away, we encounter the challenges of God in scripture and immediately think about people in our lives who need to hear those words, and in so doing we forget that we are broken people, and that we need to hear those words as well.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. We continually participate in a world in which people are battered, broken, and bruised over and over again. We, to use the language from our hymnal, do terrible things, and we leave things undone that we should’ve changed.

We hear about a young black boy in California who was shot for holding a cell phone, and we think there’s nothing we can do about it and after a few weeks we stop thinking about it all together.

We see images of families being literally ripped apart as mothers and fathers are sent back to countries they fled from and are forced to leave children here to fend for themselves. And we feel bad, but if don’t see it happening to our families, or in our neighborhoods, we just move on.

We drive by people in our community standing on the street corners begging for financial assistance, pleading for food, yearning for help, and we roll up our windows and lock our doors.

But the light of the resurrection shines out of the darkness of the cross and the tomb! That light pushes us into realms of discomfort as we are forced to reckon with our on sin and say, “no more!”

Talk of sin makes us uncomfortable particularly because we are far too comfortable in our sins. We don’t want our boats rocked; we don’t want to wrestle with what needs to change. And yet we worship a God who was nailed to a cross for challenging the expectations of the world.

All of this, the church, the faith, they exist because they have been handed down to us. Just as they were handed to Dr. King. His life was a testament and witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, it is what gave him the confidence to say and believe that something needed to change.

He walked the walk.

When we remember Dr. King, just as we remember Jesus, we celebrate their convictions and challenges, and we give thanks for their joy. But we must not forget the scars they bore for us. Dr. King was repeatedly beaten and arrested and eventually murdered. Jesus was berated, arrested, and eventually murdered.

We are here on the Sunday after Easter, the banners are still raised high, the “hallelujahs” still feel fresh on our tongues, and we are getting back to our routine, whatever that is. And we are reminded here in the glory of Eastertide, in the words of 1 John, in the witness of Dr. King, that we all sin. If we say we are without sin, we are contradicted by the reality of sin.

However, we also receive forgiveness in the risen Lord, a forgiveness experienced by the very first disciples who struggled under the weight of a new world in which God gave life to the dead. They, the disciples, heard, saw, and touched the Word. And in so doing they began the delicate walk of faith in which they recognized their sin and their forgiveness together.

The sinfulness to which we are so bound is made present in our individual lives, in our communities, and in our institutions. No person, no gathering, no organization is without sin. Which makes it all the more vitally important to remember the truth of Jesus’ life, to remember his words of conviction, and to remember that he died for both the godly and the ungodly so that we, all of us, may not sin.

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One of my professors loved to tell a story about his roommate from college. They were going to school in South Carolina during the height of the Civil Rights movement when my professor’s friend decided to travel to Washington DC in order to participate in a Civil Rights March. Upon returning back to school, the friend relayed what had happened during the trip:

He described that everything was about as normal as you could imagine. he arrived, met up with the people he needed to, marched where he was supposed to, handed out flyers. By the time it was over he was exhausted while waiting for his plane to bring him home. As he sauntered onto the airplane, he sat down in my seat and, you’ll never believe this, he was sitting next to Martin Luther King Jr.

It was the craziest thing. He had gone all the way to DC and here he was, sitting on an airplane, next to his hero.

“So,” my professor asked, “what happened?!” Well, he got so nervous, and he was sweating, and fidgeting, and rehearsing what he might say, but there was a small problem. Martin Luther King Jr. was asleep. I mean what was he going to do? Wake up the leader of the Civil Rights movement? So he just waited, sitting there, staring at him, watching him sleep. After the flight had nearly reached its destination, he finally opened his eyes. “Dr. King I don’t know what to say. You are my hero. I just traveled all the way to DC to help march for Civil Rights, you are such an inspiration, I am so impressed with…” “Thank you. God Bless.” he interrupted, seemingly ending the conversation.

But the young man was undeterred. “Dr. King you don’t understand, you have changed my life, you have opened my eyes to the many opportunities that are not available to others… “I appreciate your kind words son.” Dr King interrupted again. However he was was not finished, “Dr. King, you don’t understand. My father is a racist. I left home because of him and his prejudice. He offered to pay for my college, but I have cut all ties with him. We have not exchanged a word in years because of his racial bigotry.” At this point Dr. King’s eyes widened, he turned his body to face this young college student and he reached out and grabbed him by the collar, “You have got to love your father. Whether hes racist or not, loving him is the only thing you can do.” And with that he let go, closed his eyes, and promptly fell back asleep.

All of us, particularly those of us with a self-righteous leaning, are sinners in need of God’s grace. From the racists to those who abandon their racist family members.

One of the harshest realities this side of Easter is that most of us believe we are without sin, and we deceive ourselves.

Here at the table God invites us into fellowship. At this place the truth is laid bare; we are sinners in need of grace. But God does not just invite me, or you… God invites all into community with God and with one another. If we walk alone, then we walk in darkness, but if we walk together with God, then we walk in the light. Amen.

What Did Jesus Do? > What Would Jesus Do?

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat of this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 

Years ago I was in Michigan helping a church out for a summer. The church was massive in size and in ministries. They had hundreds of people in worship every week and were deeply involved in their community.

I did my best to help in every area of the church, including worship and preaching. However, they had plans for everything, including who would be preaching on what every Sunday six months in advance. So some shuffling was done, and I, the faithful intern, was given an opportunity to preach.

It so happened that I would be preaching on the first Sunday of July, and there would be communion.

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As I said, this church had everything planned out. But not only the text, and the sermon subject – they had metrics and data for worship attendance going back ten years and they used this information to provide necessary items in the sanctuary. That had it so fine-tuned that they were able to print an accurate number of bulletins +/- 10, they knew how many parking attendant workers they would need, and finally, they knew how many pieces of bread would need to be pre-cut for communion.

Here at Cokesbury we serve by intinction, in which I tear off a piece of bread from a common loaf and offer it to every person in worship. But at that church, years ago, they pre-cut every slice of bread, and had them stacked in baskets for people to pick up on their way to the altar where the single cup could be found.

And so I preached, and we moved to the table, the elements were blessed, and then the congregation was invited forward. However, no one thought to augment the numbers of bread pieces, and, as the shiny new intern, more people came to hear me preach than they anticipated.

As the gathered people lined up in the center aisle and walked forward to receive the body and blood of Jesus, it was abundantly clear that we were going to run out of Jesus. So, when the last piece was picked out of the basket, I walked back up to the altar where the actual loaf we blessed was, I ripped in in half, and I started giving Jesus so people.

And while I was standing there one of the lay leaders from the church leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Are we even allowed to do this?”

Are we even allowed to do this?

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For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. So Paul writes in his letter to the church in Corinth. I gave you what was given to me. That on the night in which Jesus was betrayed he took a loaf and he took a cup and he said do this in remembrance of me.

Memory is a funny thing. It connects us to the past, in both good ways and bad. We can all reflect on those positive moments from our lives, and we can also remember the visceral pain we have experienced.

We cannot escape our memories. Memory is everything.

Paul cherished the memory he received, but he was concerned with the Corinthians ability to remember how transforming the meal was for their community. Like counting the number of bread pieces to such a degree that they no longer gave life, the Corinthian church was partaking in the meal without remembering why.

On any given Sunday, or even a Thursday night, at best the church is called to remember. Remember what God did for God’s people. Remember Jesus’ words to his disciples. Remember how God has showed up in your life.

Remembering our memories is strange, particular in the time we are living in. Many families and groups are separated in ways impossible in the past – we are separated by geography, estrangement, or even through dementia. And because of all these weird divisions, the art of memory sharing is dying. Memory, however, is the glue that keeps us together, and without it we don’t know who we are.

I’ve had to do a lot of funerals as a pastor, and whenever a family and I sit down to discuss the arrangements; I will ask questions to get the conversation going. “What was your mother passionate about?” “What stories did your grandfather tell you about his childhood.” “What’s a the story about your wife that you’ve told the most?” “How did your husband pop the question?”

And then I will sit back and listen.

And throughout all of the funerals I’ve prepared, and all of the families I’ve listened to, there are two things that have happened every single time.

No matter what the person was like, or how old they were, or even where they lived, at some point some one in the room always says, “I never knew that.”

Children make the comment about one of their parents, a brother will make the comment about his sister, and I’ve even heard a wife make the comment about her husband.

Something is shared, a deeply personal and important memory, and someone’s response is “I never knew that.”

Either we don’t remember these important things, or the memory of them was never shared. It is always a troubling and difficult moment to process in my office in which someone realizes they didn’t know the person as well as they thought they did, and now it was too late to do anything about it.

In addition to the “I never knew that” comment, there is always a moment in which someone shares a funny story about the person we are about to bury, and 99% of the time, the story takes place around a dinner table.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there is something mysterious about the dinner table. Perhaps it’s the one place where entire families gather together for a finite period of time, maybe it’s the sharing of food that compels us to share stories, or maybe it’s just the wine that get passed around. At the table memory is shared unlike anywhere else.

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As disciples of Jesus, we believe that whenever we gather at this table, or dare I say any table, Christ is with us breaking the bread and pouring the wine so that we too can be his body redeemed by his blood.

When we break bread, when we pass the cup, when we tell stories, we are connected with the signs and symbols that tell us who we are and whose we are. It is around the table the particularity of bread slices, or the shame in admitting “I never knew that,” disappear. Because at the table things begin to change.

At the table signs of memory are everywhere. In the water we remember our own baptisms, we remember the great stories of scripture where God’s people were delivered through water, we remember the living waters Jesus offers us. We see wedding bands are reminded of a couples’ promise, and God’s promise to us.

            At the table, all sorts of ordinary things become extraordinary.

We break bread, we share the cup, and we remember and retell the story of Jesus death, and resurrection. But it is more than just passing on a story – it is contemplating a mystery.

For years it has been fashionable in certain Christian circles to wear a bracelet with the acronym WWJD on them. WWJD of course meaning: What Would Jesus Do? It is used like a talisman, a final reminder of Jesus’ morality before we make a choice or a decision. And for as helpful as the WWJD reminder can be, it is also inherently problematic. It is problematic because, at the end of the day, we fundamentally can’t do what Jesus did, and that’s kind of the point.

We don’t gather to contemplate how Jesus would respond to a certain situation, we don’t wonder about what Jesus would do, instead we ask ourselves What Did Jesus Do?

Because that question, and the struggle to answer it, is at the heart of the mystery we call faith. This night, tomorrow night, Easter Sunday, every Sunday, they’re not about what we should do. It’s about what Christ did.

The Christian life is predicated on a story handed to us, a story about a poor Jewish rabbi named Jesus. It is Jesus’ story that re-narrates and re-navigates our story. We repeat it again and again and again because is not only reinforces our memory, but it also becomes a proclamation, it is a witness.

We do not gather here tonight for ourselves. We are here because at the table we discover God’s story for us, and not the other way around.

            So, what did Jesus do?

On his final night, while surrounded by his closest friends and disciples, one of whom who betray him and another would deny him, he took an ordinary loaf of bread. He gave thanks to God, and then he broke it. He looked at his friends and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he then took the cup, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Let us then remember…

Devotional – Ephesians 2.10

Devotional:

Ephesians 2.10

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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In a few minutes I will leave for a local funeral home to preside over a Service of Death and Resurrection for a longtime member of Cokesbury Church. I never met Frances Tyrrell, and yet I will be the one tasked with standing before her family and friends and offering words of grace, comfort, and hope.

It is a strange and mysterious thing that we ask people to speak on behalf of the dead, particularly when the person speaking never met the person everyone has gathered to celebrate and mourn.

After meeting with the family to begin making arrangements, they graciously lent me a copy of the Woodbridge Women’s Club’s History. Frances was an original member and pioneered a lot of the volunteer work that was done throughout the community. I flipped through the interview she gave and learned all about her life, from her birth, to her marriage, to her children, to her work. But there was one particular section that stood out.

At some point the interviewer, after realizing how deeply involved Frances had been in serving other people asked Frances, “So what does your family think about all this time you’ve given and all this work you’ve done?” To which she replied, “I never asked them.”

Rare these days are the individuals who do good works simply because God created them to be that way. More often we seek to serve such that we can be seen and congratulated for the work we’ve done.

But that wasn’t the case with Frances.

Paul says, “We are who God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” I can’t help but feel as if we’ve largely lost sight of the truth of this verse from Ephesians. We might think, instead, that our way of life is to earn all we can and save all we can. Or we might think our way of life is about building that perfect house, and having 2.5 children, and constructing a pristine white picket fence. Or we might think our way of life is any number of other things.

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But how often do we consider the fact that we have been made to serve? When was the last time we made the needs of others our priority instead of our own? How often do we help others simply because we were made this way rather than because we think God expects us to?

When we come to the end of our days, when people gather together to remember who we were and what we did, let us pray they remember us, like Frances, for our commitment to others.

The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

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

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

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

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Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

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

“It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

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

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

While the world bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are.

Can I Get A Witness?

Psalm 66.8-20

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us our to a spacious place. I will come into you house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

 

What do you want for your funeral? It’s a strange question, and its one we would rather like to avoid if possible. But have you ever thought about what your funeral might look like? What hymns would you want your family to sing? What scripture has meant the most to you in your life? Do you want people to offer testimonies?

Every time I meet with a family to plan a Service of Death and Resurrection I avoid mentioning a time of testimony. I avoid it for a number of reasons including the fact that testimonies are supposed to be about how God has worked in the life of the person now dead, and that rarely happens, you never know what someone might say when they are invited to speak freely from a pulpit, and sometimes you don’t know whether anyone will get up to say anything at all.

To be clear, a lack of testimonial witness on behalf of the gathered body for worship is not an indication that the person lived a flawed or inconsequential life, it usually has more to do with how uncomfortable many of us are with public speaking.

But every once in awhile the family insists on having it, even when I didn’t bring it up. And every time we have a service and the time comes for the testimony, I invite anyone who would like to speak to come up to the pulpit, I sit down, and I pray that God taps on at least one person to come up and say anything, but I am always prepared to make something up on the spot should the pulpit remain uncomfortably empty.

If I were bolder, if I had more faith, I would just say, “Can I get a witness?” and then I would sit down in comfort knowing that God will provide.

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In Psalm 66 the faithfulness of God is remembered, offerings on behalf of God’s people are made, and then one lone worshipper offers a witness to all who will listen.

Bless the Lord your God! Let the sound of his praise be heard in this place and in all places. Our God has kept us among the living! What a great God is ours who has tested us, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads, and delivered us through fire and water. We remember, o people, how God journeyed with the people through the valleys of the shadow of death and brought them to the Promised Land. We remember, o people, how God has been with us in the midst of suffering and carried us through to the other side.

And because of what the Lord has done, we will come into this house with our offerings. We will present our money, and our gifts, and our time. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.

The writer describes in great detail the types of offerings made to the Lord, the physical things brought forth as an act of faith. But it is also about far more than that: God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness to us, is the lens by which we interpret our own lives.

God has listened to the prayers of the psalmist; God has listened to us. And because God has listened we must testify.

Can I get a witness?

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Witnessing is a taboo thing in the church these days, or at least in the United Methodist Church. There was a time however when worship was all about testimony, moments when the preacher would step away from the pulpit and let the people of God proclaim the glorious works of God to the rest of the people of God.

But today, we don’t have time for any of this witnessing stuff. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We don’t want to evangelize anyone. Professional Christians like pastors are the ones meant to testify.

Or, we might say that we don’t want to talk about our faith because it is a private thing. Which is ridiculous since we can only understand and interpret our faith within the faith community.

Over and over again scripture bombards us with the call to testify, to witness, to our story because that is exactly what the bible is. The bible is the witness to the marvelous works of God.

The psalmist witnesses to the truth of God’s reign because the psalmist has experienced it and cannot be kept from proclaiming it. The psalmist has been so transformed by God that the only way to respond is to tell the stories to everyone with ears to hear.

Can I get a witness?

When we are lost and found by God, that is a worthy beginning to our witness. For it is when we are lost that we are most open to the possibility of being found.

And here’s the thing: Testimony, witnessing to God, is not limited to speech about what God has done. Testimony is speech shaped by what God has done. The psalmist witnessed to the works of the Lord and in so doing allowed others, people like us, to hear and even experience what the writer experienced in God.

We don’t care much for the idea of witnessing any more. It no longer matches up with our modern sensibilities, but telling our story is the means by which we come to understand our own faith. When we do it, when we are brave and bold enough to witness, we don’t simply tell what we have already come to believe… it becomes the means by which we believe.

And that is why we witness, that is why we testify, because in so doing we become the very community God has called us to be.

So, can I get a witness?

Seriously this time, who among us will stand to share what God has done for you?

 

(Time of congregational testimony)

 

My testimony:

I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions the ways and means by which God called me to spend the rest of my life doing what I do. You’ve heard about the sidewalk square where I fell to my knees and offered my life to God. You’ve been brought into the narrative of being marched to the front of the church as a teenager and attempting to proclaim God’s Word through my first sermon. But I want to testify to another of God’s marvelous works in my life: God sending me here to you.

I never would’ve picked St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the church, I just knew nothing about it. When I walked into the sanctuary that first Sunday morning I only knew about 5 of you, and even then I barely knew you. And yet God called me here.

When Lindsey and I arrived, it was really hard at first. We were a young couple plucked out of our community in Durham, NC and planted here. She couldn’t find work. I didn’t know what it meant to do this work. We didn’t make friends with people in the community. And, whether or not either of us would admit it, I wondered if God had called me to the right place.

And I got up in this pulpit every week to proclaim what God had placed on my heart. I prepared for Bible Study. I visited people in the hospital. I sat on the floor with our preschoolers and told them about the bible.

And slowly, you grafted us into the community. As the weeks and months passed we felt more and more connected to the people in the pews this very morning. We loved you, and you loved us. And suddenly, this church became our family. We wept when you wept; we celebrated when you celebrated.

God sent me here to you. And some might say that God sent me here for a reason, that this church needed me. And that might be true. All churches need pastors for different reasons. But for as much as this church needed me, I needed this church.

I know in my heart of hearts that God sent me here in order to rekindle my faith; after spending years reading about God in seminary it was too easy to be cynical about what the church might be. In coming here I needed to rediscover the wonderful power of God made manifest in a community of love that you can never discover in a book on theology; I needed to re-encounter the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And you provided that for me.

And I know in my heart of hearts that the time has come for God to send me to a new place. But when I got the call about moving, it came without knowing who would be the new pastor at St. John’s. And I’ll be honest, I’ve been nervous about it. I love this church because this church has loved me. And I want it to have a pastor that will love it, and receive love from it, like I have.

And today we can finally announce that the new pastor of St. John’s is Rev. Chuck Cole. When I found out Chuck was coming here I knew that God had answered my prayers: Chuck and I were ordained together last June and have interacted a lot before we knew he was coming here. Chuck and his wife Sarah have four children and they currently live in Covington where Chuck is serving two churches. Chuck is full of love for God’s church and I know that he will love this place, and that you will love him.

What has God done for me? God sent me to a church that listened to me, prayed with me, and loved me in spite of myself.

What has God done for me? God is sending me to a new place and is sending a new pastor to the church that I love to continue the good work of the kingdom.

What has God done for you? Amen.

 

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The Cole Family

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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