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.


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

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Get your Lent on!

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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