Out of death comes life

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

           Jesus stood on a mountain at the head of the Sea of Galilee and preached a sermon filled with wisdom and filled with love. He reached out to the multitudes who followed him and told them they were blessed. He assured them they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And, having offered words of love to these people – people who lived on the edges of society – he taught them how to live in love.

Follow the commandments that God gave to Moses, he said, but do more than that. Love everyone, enemy as well as friend, stranger as well as neighbor.

And then, Jesus cautioned the people:

To live a life of love, he said, is not to be ostentatious. Living in love, he said, is not about showing off. It’s about being faithful.

When you give alms, he said, when you pray – when you fast – when you do things that all faithful people are called to do – don’t do so in order to draw attention to yourselves. Don’t be ostentatious – don’t flaunt your faith simply in order to be seen by others.

For “your Father in secret who sees in secret” will see all that you do, and he “will reward you.”

Give alms quietly. Pray quietly. Fast quietly. Don’t be a show-off.

Because God knows everything you do.

So the question I have, on this Ash Wednesday in the year of our Lord 2012, is this: Exactly what are we doing here, about to have ashes put on our foreheads, so that we go forth marked for all the world to see our faith?

Isn’t this act we are about to undergo showing off our faith? And didn’t Jesus just tell us not to do that?

No matter how hard you look through the four Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, you will not find one instance in which Jesus commanded his disciples, Put ashes on your foreheads on a certain day. Oh, you can find some references to using ashes for purification rite sin the Book of Numbers and in the Epistle to the Hebrews. But nowhere does Jesus tell his followers, You need to put ashes on your forehead so that everyone will know that you are going through a period of penitence, of praying and fasting, and of alms-giving.

* * *

It wasn’t until about the ninth century – nine hundred years after the death of Jesus – that the Church began using ashes to mark the beginning of Lent. The ashes were – and to this day remain – a symbol of mourning and penitence. The words that are said when the ashes are put on – “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” – remind us that we indeed are created beings who one day will die. We are reminded that we need to repent – to turn back to God – and to seek humility.

Are the ashes necessary? No.

Can we be penitent without them? Of course.

Can we become humble if we aren’t marked? Absolutely.

So I ask again: Exactly what are we doing here today, on this Ash Wednesday, about to have ashes put on our foreheads, so that we can go forth marked for all the world to see our faith?

* * *

In the plains of East Africa live a tribe called the Masai. They are a fierce people, these Masai: fiercely independent, fiercely warrior-like, fiercely nomadic. The Masai are known for these features and for one other thing: They believe that all cows under heaven have been given to them by God. That they are the stewards of all cows under heaven. It doesn’t matter where the cow lives – it could be anywhere. Even here. And it doesn’t matter who owns it – it could be you or me, or a member of one of the Masai’s neighboring tribes in East Africa. In fact, it could anyone. The fact is, in Masai belief, all cows under heaven belong to them. This belief even has been upheld in the courts throughout Kenya – Masai tribal law is more important, most of the time, than Kenyan national law.

Now the Masai – knowing that they have been given a special responsibility by God to care for all these cows – also know that they have to feed them. Which is a difficult thing to do, when you’re a nomadic tribe, wandering the plains of East Africa, competing with wildlife for sparse grass and pastureland.

So every year, in order to make sure they will have enough food for their cows in the coming year, the Masai carefully and intentionally set fire to the plains where their cows graze. Every year, right at the end of the dry season, the plains we know as the Serengeti and the Masai Mara are engulfed in flames.

The land that feeds their cows is covered in ash. Nothing survives there, except maybe some snakes and insects.

And then the Masai sit back and wait.

They wait for the long rains to come – rains that will pound the ash into the earth, that will turn the ash into fertilizer, nourishing the earth, so that the grass again will cover the plains, and their cows again will be able to eat.

It’s a risky thing to do – burning the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. If the rains come, all is well, the cows eat and the Masai are prosperous.

But if the rains don’t come – well, if the rains don’t come, the cows will starve – and so will the Masai.

But the Masai are willing to take that risk.

Because they know – they know – that out of death comes life.

Out of the ashes comes green grass, grass filled with nutrients, grass that will keep their cows alive, and in turn, keep them alive.

Out of death – comes life.

* * *

Today marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days of fasting, prayer and alms-giving; of self-examination and repentance; of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

And we begin that forty-day period by gathering together as a family of God. By praying. By listening to God’s holy Word. By celebrating the Eucharist.

And by marking our foreheads with ashes.

For us, as for the Masai of East Africa, we know that ashes mean death.

For us, as for the Masai, we know that out of that death comes life.

At the end of our forty days, we will be at death – the death of our Lord Jesus.

Three days later, we will encounter life anew – new life in the form of the risen Christ.

Out of Christ’s death comes our life.

We don’t mark our foreheads with ashes this day to show off in our faith.

We mark our foreheads with ashes because we know – just as the Masai know – that we can’t get to new life – to Easter – unless first we go through death – Good Friday.

We can’t get to resurrection without first stopping at the cross.

We mark our foreheads with ashes this day in order to begin the journey that will get us to that cross – that will get us to the death of our Lord and Savior.

Only then – only by encountering death up close and personally – can we then get to the new life offered us in Christ.

* * *

Go forth into this Lent, marked by the ashes of death.

Not to show off your faith.

But to get to the cross.

So that three days later, we can get beyond that cross.

To life.

Amen.

Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday at Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va., 22 February 2012, Year B.


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Don’t be a Pekinese …

Mark 9:2-9

                 This past week, two news stories having to do with perfection captured my attention.

                  The first story was that of the 136th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, where 2,000 dogs were primped and pampered, walked and watched, poked and prodded until, finally, one dog was judged Best in Show.

Now, I’m going to admit upfront: I did not like the results. The winner was a 4-year-old Pekinese named Malachy that to me looked like little more than a waddling dust mop. Me? I was pulling for the proud German shepherd … or the stately Doberman pinscher … or that gorgeous Irish setter. To me, those are dogs. But Pekinese, especially show-worthy Pekinese? Not my idea of perfection.

And make no mistake: The Westminster show is all about perfection. It’s about choosing which dog best exemplifies the written standard of “the ideal … of that breed, written by the breed’s national club.”[1]

By the time the dogs get to the group competition, they have been judged best in their breed. In the group portion, they are not competing against each other. They are competing against those written standards … choosing which of the best of each breed is, in turn, the best of that group.

In the final portion, they again are not competing against each other. They are competing against a standard … a standard of perfection.

That little Pekinese? The final judge thought he – and not the beautiful Irish setter, not the proud Doberman pinscher, not the exquisite German shepherd, and not the other three finalists (about which I truly didn’t care) – was as close to perfection as you could get this year.

The second news story that captured my attention appeared in The Washington Post on Friday morning under the headline: “Genome news flash: We’re all a little bit broken.” The reporter, David Brown, began the article in this way:

We’ve all had cars with a bunch of broken parts that get us where we want to go for years with no obvious problem. Does the human genome have the same tolerance for permanent damage?

The answer is: Sure.

A new study estimates that the average person goes through life with 20 genes permanently out of commission. With each of us possessing about 20,000 genes, that means 0.1 percent of our endowment is broken from the start – and we don’t even know it.

Whether being born with 20 broken genes is horrifying (“Get me customer service!”) or reassuring (“Whew, only 20!”) depends on one’s expectations of perfection.[2]

And there we have that idea of perfection again – this time, the news that unlike that little Pekinese that won the dog show the other night, none of us – none of us – is perfect! Each one of us, created in the very image of God, is flawed. Some parts of us are broken from the very start.

Now it turns out that the 20 genes (on average) that don’t work in our bodies don’t matter all that much. The ones that “go missing … aren’t involved in essential functions,” Brown wrote. “They control things that are nice to have (like a certain smell receptor) but aren’t required for survival (like an enzyme in a basic metabolic pathway).” The broken ones are, Brown wrote, “the radio and door lock, not the drive shaft and brake pedal.”[3] Which in the end really is good news for us. Our radios and door locks may not work, but as long as our drive shafts and brake pedals are fine, we’re good to go.

Perfection, it turns out, isn’t what we are all about.

And, it turns out, perfection is not what this day is all about.

This day, this Last Sunday of the Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, isn’t about us being perfect.

It’s about what the revelation of Jesus’ perfection means for us.

Jesus took three of his disciples and climbed up to the top of the mountain, where in their sight, he underwent a metamorphosis (that’s the word in Greek), a moment that revealed his inner essence.[4] That’s right: The Transfiguration is not about Jesus’ clothes turning a bright white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. That’s a by-product of Jesus’ transfiguration. And this day isn’t even about that. It’s really about the disciples being granted the glory of seeing Jesus in his truest, most glorious form … as God’s gift to us in human form. It was a stunning moment for Peter and James and John, the three chosen to witness this glorious glimpse of Jesus transformed and Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, standing on either side of Jesus and representing the fulfillment of the Law the Prophets. It was a moment that showed God’s complete connection with humanity and humanity’s complete connection with God.

It was, in other words, perfect.

But remember: That perfect moment is still not the point.

The point, the meaning, of the Transfiguration is not about three disciples seeing for themselves who and what Jesus really was and is. Because the full meaning of that moment didn’t reveal itself until after Jesus transformed.

Jesus went up the mountain, and that was important, yes.

Jesus was transformed, and yes, that was important, too.

But it’s what happened next, what happened after Jesus was transformed and his clothes became dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah stood there with him, and God’s voice boomed from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” that is important.

Because afterwards, Jesus went down the mountain.

He left that place of transfiguration, of transformation, of metamorphosis …

… and he went right back to God’s people, to the ones God entrusted to him, to care for them, to feed them, to heal them, teach them, bless them, live with them and die for them.

Let’s be honest: Jesus could have stayed up on that mountain (and Lord knows, that’s what Peter thought was going to happen).

But he didn’t.

Instead, he came back down the mountain.

He came back down … to live out his mission in this world, a mission of living, of reconciling, of loving.

Transfiguration, whether for Jesus or for his disciples, or for us, is not a one-time event that takes place on a mountaintop and then is over.

Transfiguration … transformation … is about the revelation of our inner essence, the essence of being created in God’s image, the image of love and community, so that we can do something with it!

That’s what Jesus did: He did something with his inner essence.

He didn’t stay up on that mountaintop reveling in his perfection! He did something with it!

He came back “down into the mundane nature of everyday life,” as theologian David Lose puts it[5] — and listen to this, because it really is elegant writing. Jesus cam back “down into the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Down into the religious and political quarrels of the day.” (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) “Down into the jealousies and rivals both petty and gigantic that color our relationships. Down into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”[6]

Which is exactly what we are supposed to do, when God’s perfection in us is revealed (not withstanding those 20 or so genes that are broken from before we were born).

We are called to back into the world in which we live and move and have our being – which is just as messy as the one in which Jesus lived and moved and had his being – so that we, by our very lives, can transform the world!

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to live into the image in which God created us, the image of love and community that God reveals to us …

… so we can live in love and community.

God does not create us in God’s very image just so we can look pretty! We are not champion Pekinese show dogs, primped and pampered so that we can be walked and watched and poked and prodded and then judged best in breed, best in group, best in show!

We are a bunch of broken human beings – even science tells us that now.

But in God’s eyes, we are perfect.

                  Each and every one of us is – in God’s eyes – perfect.

And God would appreciate it … God would very much appreciate it … if we would do something with our God-given perfection!

God would appreciate it if we would transform the world, just like Jesus did.

And we can do that, you know.

We can give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty.

It is entirely possible for us to give sight to the blind and voice to the voiceless and hearing to the deaf and hope to those who know no hope.

We can make the lame leap for joy! We can, should we decide to accept this mission, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream!

In three days we will begin the season of Lent, the season of fasting from that which keeps us from God and God’s vision for us, the season of feasting on that which brings us closer to God. On Ash Wednesday, we will, once again, undergo our own transfigurations when the ashes of death – the death that no longer has hold over us, the death that no longer stings – are placed on our foreheads.

What shall we do with that moment of transfiguration, that moment of transformation, that moment when we are reminded of our own metamorphoses?

Shall we surreptitiously wipe those ashes from our foreheads when we leave this place (or whatever place we go to receive them), hiding our transformations not only from others but from ourselves?

Or shall we go boldly into the world to live the Good News that in God’s eyes, we are perfect, and with that perfection, we can change the world?

Transfiguration, my friends, our transfiguration, is not about being the prettiest one in the show. It’s not about fixing those parts of us that are broken from before we were born. It’s not about staying up on that mountaintop, refusing to engage in God’s very good creation.

Transfiguration, our transfiguration, is about taking that glimpse of glory that God reveals to us out into the world and doing something with it.

So what are we going to do?

Primp and preen and stay up on our mountaintops, satisfied with the vision?

Or shall we go into the world and get about the business of transforming it?

With this season of Lent upon us, I ask you … I beg you … please. Please. Don’t be a Pekinese.

Do. Not. Be. A. Pekinese.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Last Sunday of the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, Year B, at the Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, Va., 19 February 2012.


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Levitra online

Updated …

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day season of Lent, the time when as Christians we are asked to step back from the hurly-burly of our lives to reflect on our relationship with God and the knowledge that indeed, we are dust, and to the dust we shall return.

For many people, Lent is a time of fasting: from chocolate, cigarettes, meat, alcohol, you name it. With the rise of social networking, many are now choosing to fast from Facebook and e-mail and Twitter as well, because, as some have said, any of those things is addictive and therefore gets in the way of their relationship with God. Others are using Facebook especially for their prayer time. One person suggested that as you go through your Facebook feed, you stop and pray for each person who has posted. That’s sacramental networking on a massive scale.

But for others, Lent is an opportunity to go out into the world and preach the Gospel in new or alternative ways.

St. Edward's Episcopal Church, San Jose, Calif.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exhibit A: Playing with words

My friend Tom Sramek Jr. is rector of St. Edward’s Episcopal Church in San Jose, Calif. Look at what he posted on his parish’s sign out on the street. (And “yep,” he says, “it’s on both sides.”) According to Sramek, his “facebook friends” made him do it. If so, those friends should be thanked, because this is a creative way for going out into the world and letting people know, “Hey! Something important is happening today. Get in here!” Now that approach may not work for everyone; I’m certain there are some who are scandalized by this delicious play on words. But some days, that’s what it takes to get people’s attention. Some people say it’s being cute – or worse, too cute – but in reality, all we’re doing is taking what people expect to see, changing it just enough for their subconscious to take note, and bingo! We’ve gotten the message across. We’ve preached, sometimes in very short form, the Gospel. I’ve often advocated that we engage in word play in our advertising: Holding a midweek service at 12:12, for example, instead of 12, or 12:05, or 12:15. People expect the latter times; 12:12 throws them for a loop, which means they notice, which means they think about it, even for a nanosecond, which means they’ve at least seen the invitation, which is Good News indeed.

Exhibit B: Hitting the streets

From a variety of sources comes the news of parishes taking their ashes to the streets. No, this is not some big protest by uptight Episcopalians who object to using cute phrases for advertising. This is the Church at work in the world. This is the Church recognizing that the world cannot always come to it, and that frequently, the Church needs to go out into the world.

The Rev. Emily Mellot, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard, Ill., imposes ashes on the streets of Lombard. (Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Chicago)

The Diocese of Chicago has an Ashes to Go initiative, which started a few years ago and in which my friend Lane Hensley participated last year when he was rector of the Church of the Transfiguration in Palos Park, Ill. The initiative focuses on going to where the people are on Ash Wednesday – in this case, commuter rail stations, Starbucks and other businesses and business areas – and offering to make the sign of the Cross on their foreheads with ashes. More than two dozen parishes in the Diocese of Chicago are participating in this effort, according to Episcopal News Service.

Now Lane is rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., and he’s taking his ashes on the road there, too. Hensley’s goal: Reaching out to those “who aren’t members of a church, or maybe have been members but pulled away for whatever reason.”

“The ashes,” Hensley told the Desert Sun newspaper, “are indicative of our admitting that we understand the futility of our existence and that we’re not self-sufficient or masters of our own fate.”

The Episcopal Church of St. Andrew and Holy Communion distributed ashes this morning in the streets of South Orange, N.J.

In San Francisco, as Sara Miles writes for EpiscopalCafe.com in this morning’s Daily Episcopalian, members of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church are going out into their neighborhoods, bringing ashes and prayers to all whom they meet. Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry and Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa, as well as an accomplished author of several books, including Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion and Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. Read her books and you’ll see that she knows a thing or two about going into the world.

From her column this morning:

“We touched the foreheads of commuters, and the gang kids on the corner, and little children, and a bunch of obnoxious drunks. I was pausing to impose ashes on an older lady when some guy pulled up in a truck, put on his blinkers, and threw open the door — “Oh! can I have those? Wait, my mom is in the back seat, can you go give her some?” Deb led me into the library, and a librarian said “I saw your sign that said forgive more. That’s what I need in my life right now. I need to forgive more.” At the taqueria, a cook said, “Oh…did you come because you knew we couldn’t get to church, so you came to us?” Deb was transfixed. “It’s so intense,” she told me. “Whenever your fingers touch the forehead, it’s like time stops, over and over and over.” Deb stood watching, her mouth open, in the Italian bakery, as a big woman in an apron, holding a three-layer birthday cake in her arms, leaned over the counter toward me. The woman closed her eyes and said, quietly, “Please.” I told her she was dust. We walked through an alley, where a teenaged drug dealer grinned at us and lifted his cap to show the cross already marked on his forehead. “I never thought I’d be walking along the street censing trash cans and storefronts,” Deb said. “and so many people would come toward it.” I know,” I said. “I think people might want a lot more church than we generally give them.”

Many people can’t get to church on Ash Wednesday; they work, they have to go to school, they have no transportation, their lives are too busy, they don’t know what Ash Wednesday is or why they should participate. But when the Church goes to those people where they are, and offers them that moment of sacramental living, lives change.

Our mission as beloved children of God is not to sit inside our churches and wait for people to come to us. If you build it, they will come hasn’t worked for the Church for a very long time. Instead of waiting, let’s get our Lent on by going out into the world. The people are there, and if the events described above are any indication, they need us.

An update from Palm Desert, Calif., via the Palm Desert Patch:

Guard Boots Rector, Pastor From Gardens On El Paseo

The clergy were ushering in the Lenten season by putting ashes in the sign of the cross on foreheads of willing passerby.

A Palm Desert Episcopalian priest and Lutheran pastor administered ashes to about 200 people Wednesday along El Paseo on the first day of the Lenten season, but not without some trouble.

The Rev. Lane Hensley of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church and Pastor Derek Fossey of Hope Lutheran Church started at the Gardens on El Paseo, but quickly were told  by security personnel they were not welcome as the area is private property.

“I asked if it was OK to do this in the courtyard area,’’ Hensley told Patch.com, adding that he brought the tradition to the desert for the first time this year from his parish in Chicago.

Ashes are traditionally put on the foreheads of parishioners as part of Ash Wednesday, which ushers in the first day of Lent, the 40-day preparation in protestant and Catholic churches for Easter Sunday, April 24.

Being asked to leave didn’t stall the men, who went along other parts of El Paseo.

“Many of the employees of the stores came out to receive ashes,’’ Fossey said, adding that people, even non-Christians, seemed to enjoy it.

“People would pull up and ask if I could give them ashes in the car,’’ Fossey said, adding he happily obliged.

Toward the end of their rounds just before 2 p.m., Hensley and Fossey were on the sidewalk near the True Religion store when another guard asked them to leave, saying even that area was private property.

“Where does the property end?” Hensley asked.

“The property ends at the stoplight to the stoplight down there,’’ the guard said, pointing from San Pablo Avenue to Larkspur Lane.

The men wrapped up the event, but not before a dozen more people asked for the ritual.

After the priest and pastor left, a guard who only identified himself as a supervisor said he did not have a comment on the church leaders being barred from the sidewalk along the Gardens.

“See these bricks right here. Does that look like the sidewalk across the street?” he said before threatening to call the police if Patch.com’s reporter did not leave the sidewalk.

Sara OFlynn, marketing director for the Gardens on El Paseo, said she had no comment.

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