Sermon: Wednesday, March 1, 2017: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2,12-17  +  Ps. 51:1-17  +  2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10  +  Matt. 6:1-6,16-21

One thing I miss about our former church building is the presence of the different 12-step groups that met in the Lesher Lounge across the hall from my office on various nights throughout the week. Over the years we’d hosted a number of A.A. and N.A. groups and I’d gotten to know their members, who would drop by my office to talk, share news from their lives, and occasionally to ask me if I could preside at the funerals of members who’d died.


Week after week these people gathered to recount the core tenets of their faith (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable / We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”), to listen to one another’s testimonies, to offer the kind of grace only another addict can give, to remind each other to “keep showing up,” and to fight for their lives. Because that’s what is at stake when you become aware of your addictions, your very life.

Do you have that sense when you come to worship, that you are here fighting for your very life?

I do.

When I look around at the world and see how badly it tries to warp the image of God, so clearly imprinted upon each of us; how it lies to us and badgers us and coerces us into giving up our self-esteem, our dignity, our love toward one another, our compassion — everything that makes us human. When I see people working themselves to death to prove to their neighbors and fellow citizens that they are worthy of acceptance and belonging. consumerismWhen I see people spending their time and their money on projects and purchases that are supposed to demonstrate, once and for all, that they made it, that they got out, that they succeeded. I see the power of death corrupting us from the inside out, worming its way into our hearts and souls and lying to us over and over again until we are willing hand over our birthright: the knowledge that, in God’s eyes, we are all good, and whole, and loved.

The alcoholic doesn’t give up drinking, the addict doesn’t give up drugs, to prove that they have willpower. They do it because they know their life is on the line and they want to live, or at least they want to want to live. So why do we “give something up” for Lent? Is it to prove the strength of our will? Is it a kind of offering to God, something we love given up to demonstrate an even deeper love? Maybe, and if so, okay. But with each passing year I hear more and more people saying, “I don’t give anything up for Lent,” and I understand why. Because if giving something up is just one more optional discipline in our already over-burdened lives, why would we bother? Most of us are going to need a deeper motivation than tradition to structure our behavior.

Let me suggest a different motivation.

You already know that our planet is in peril, that the Earth we are leaving to our children is compromised in ways that will take generations to heal. You already know that humanity is divided between the rich and the poor, that nearly half the world’s population lives on less than $3 a day. You already know that the nations are at war, that we are all experiencing the impact of a global refugee crisis. You already know that our nation is bitterly divided along partisan lines, and that our city is bleeding out from the ongoing epidemic of gun violence. You already know that this neighborhood is on the front lines of a class war that has pitted the working poor and working class against wave after wave of gentrifiers with affordable housing as the battleground. Those are the causes we most frequently name when we offer up our prayers to God — because we are conscious and we are compassionate, because we care about our neighbors and the planet we all share.

But those concerns also remain, for some of us, pretty abstract. They are the problems we know we are supposed to care about, the issues we post about on social media. They are the sorts of problems that we suppose can be fixed by having the right opinions, without requiring any true sacrifice on our part. They are the sorts of problems we can worry about, even work on, without examining our own lives too closely — without asking questions that might demand hard answers from ourselves.

ash-wednesday-2Ash Wednesday asks us to remember our mortality: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” To know that we are not dying someday, we are already well on our way. Death is not far off for any of us, whether it comes next week or forty years from now. Our time is short, and the gift of life we have received was not meant to be wasted chasing after the false gods that promise solutions to problems they themselves have created.

Lent is for you. In the same way that Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years in their quest to become free people, Lent is that forty day pilgrimage in which each of us is called to rigorous self-examination, to make an honest inventory of the ways we are tempted to give up on each other and ourselves, and to figure out why. Why are we so susceptible to the lure of advertising? What in our past made us feel so deficient that only the right clothes or the right neighborhood could fill that void? Why are we so willing to sacrifice our friendships and our marriages to the demands of our jobs? When did we learn that our worth was determined by our work? Why do we binge-watch hour after hour of fantasies about other people’s lives? Why are we consumed with jealousy about other people’s families? Why are we so obsessed with how much or how little we eat? What are the patterns and habits you find yourself trapped inside, and what would you have to give up if you wanted to be truly free?

Paulo Freire asks the question this way,

“What if we discover that our present way of life is irreconcilable with our vocation to become fully human?”

This is what God wants for you — that you turn and remember that you are already fully human, and that you not waste another hour of your one, precious life trying to earn something you’ve already been given as a free gift. You belong here on this earth, among the company of humanity, safe wherever you go, loved for who you are. Anything that says otherwise is a lie you need to give up — not just for Lent, but for life.

Here is what I’ve been saying about our community to those who ask me what our ministry is about: we are about creating powerful change in the lives of people so that, together, we can create powerful change in the world around us. My suspicion is that we are much more comfortable with the second half of that equation — naming and laboring for a changed world. The thing is, in order for our witness to have any credibility, we must attend to the first half of the equation as well. We cannot claim God’s love for the world if we cannot claim God’s love for ourselves. We cannot proclaim God’s liberation for the oppressed if we cannot accept God’s desire to set us free. We cannot credibly convey God’s grace to others if we cannot receive God’s grace ourselves.

So, if you are still struggling to figure out what to give up for Lent this year, try this as a starting point — try giving up the idea that there is someone more deserving of God’s grace, God’s freedom, and God’s love than you. Then, if you can figure out what it is in your life that keeps that idea alive, give that up as well. Become a ruthless investigator of your own soul and fight for it, as if you were fighting for your very life, because you are — and we are all here fighting alongside you.

Keep coming back.


Sermon: Wednesday, February 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2,12-17  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

mars_2445397bGeorge Hatcher is a man in his mid-thirties who works as a NASA engineer in Florida. He is married with a two-year old, and ever since he was a young child he has wanted to live on Mars. He may just get his wish.

Earlier this week it was announced that George was one of a hundred finalists out of an initial pool of over two hundred thousand being considered to establish a permanent human colony on Mars.  The project isn’t being sponsored by NASA, but by Mars One, a Dutch, not-for-profit foundation interested in inspiring a new generation to continue exploring the vast expanses of creation that exist beyond our atmosphere.

I became aware of George’s story because he is an alumnus of the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI), the same summer program of theological exploration to which this congregation sent Lynda Deacon about five years ago. Almost twenty years ago George was a rising high school senior, spending a month with young scholars from around the country on the campus of Emory University exploring the connection between their faith and the pressing issues of the day. Today he identifies as Baha’i, part of a global religious movement with roots in 19th century Persia that emphasizes the unity of God, religion and humanity.

In an interview for YTI’s alumni newsletter released before this week’s announcement, George spoke about his desire to travel to Mars, particularly in light of the fact that the mission is planned as a one-way trip with no return to Earth.  He said,

Regardless of whether I’m selected to go, making it to the second round of the application process has been more philosophically beneficial that I could ever have imagined. Every deep breath of free oxygen I draw in, every meal I enjoy, every step I take in Earth gravity, every sunset I witness, every moment I spend with my family and friends is more special, more profound, more real than ever before. When you live your life with the knowledge that your years on Earth might be fewer in number than you previously thought, when you know the actual date you might wave goodbye to everything you love, it’s almost like knowing the hour of your death. It fundamentally changes you. For me, it’s already for the better. I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.

“I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.”

If I could reduce the meaning of tonight’s gathering to one sentence, that would be a contender. In contrast to the almost forced gloom with which some associate Ash Wednesday, what I hear in the ancient reminder, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is an encouragement to live, like George, with a sense of your own mortality so that each breath, each meal, each step, each sunset, each moment might be lived to the fullest. So that we all might come to really love the lives we’ve been given to the fullest, rather than squander them in anxiety and despair.

All this talk of love may strike some as too light for an evening focused on our mortality and need for repentance. As for me, I hear Jesus instructing his followers,

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your  Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16)

There is a way of marking the season of Lent that focuses on generating a mood of self-denial for self-denial’s sake, that turns the forty day fast into a kind of spiritual marathon in which one can demonstrate to one’s self (and anyone who asks) a measure of Christian fortitude through the denial of pleasure — whether that be the traditional forsworn vices of coffee, or alcohol, or chocolate; or the more modern swearing off of television or social media. Without presuming to know every reason a person might choose to give up any of those activities, I’ll just say that I worry they miss the point.

The emphases on almsgiving, prayer and fasting outlined in Matthew’s gospel are not intended to create spiritual tests for us to pass, or to generate mild forms of suffering to help us empathize with the deeper suffering of Christ on the cross. These disciplines, as I understand them, are an invitation for us to notice all that diminishes our experience of the great gift of life that comes to us as an unmerited gift by the God who is revealed in Jesus as the voice of truth unmasking the interlocking set of lies that hold us captive to a vision of life that is literally killing us all.

If I fast during the season of Lent, as Muslims do during the season of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, it is not so that I will experience the suffering of hunger pangs, but so that I will be moved to consider the hunger that is experienced in and out of season by the world’s poor; so that I will be moved to deeper prayer; so that I will take the money I might have spent on food and reallocate it toward acts of mercy, justice and advocacy for those who are hungry every day of the year. My fasting brings me to consciousness of the painful brokenness of the world, my prayer moves me to action as my almsgiving, my offerings, create the change I long to see.

These disciplines are a form of repentance, which is not merely a manufactured emotion worn in public for all to see for forty days. It is an amended life, that turns away from the world and its death-dealing values to reclaim solidarity with all of God’s creation. It is the response to the prophet Joel’s call for us to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” (Joel 2:13)

All of which is good practice for the life of baptism, for which the season of Lent has historically served as a time of preparation. As we move through these forty days toward the festival of the resurrection at Easter, we are moving into a deeper awareness of the call we each receive in our baptism to repent; to notice, name and turn away from all the death-dealing powers of this world, so that we can more fully embrace the gift of the life God has given to each of us, and to the whole world.

What is it that generates distress in your life?  What lie does the world whisper in your ear that keeps you up at night?  Is it that you aren’t young enough? Old enough? Is it that you are too large or too small? That you don’t have enough money, enough education, enough experience, enough friends, enough time?

Dear ones, those voices lie. You are God’s own beloved but we are living in a world drowning in lies.

God has a different flood in store for you, a different deluge in which to wash you. There are waters that unite you to the rest of life on this planet, and beyond. Consider this night what you need to confess, what you need to remove from your life, what you need to eliminate from the menu of ideas and goods and habits the world keeps trying to force feed you. Consecrate this night a holy fast, a simplification of life, so that you might come to the great feast of Easter awaiting us all and be able to affirm a love of life deeper than you’ve ever imagined before.



Sermon: Wednesday, March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday

Texts:  Isaiah 58:1-12  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The prophet Isaiah issues a call to action, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” (Isa. 58:1) and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew replies, “So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so they may be praised by others” (Mt. 6:2)pb-120222-ashes-2-go-01.photoblog900At El stops across the city, people have been getting their ashes-to-go since this morning’s commute, even as Jesus continues with “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (Mt. 6:5) And, it is almost guaranteed that if you leave worship tonight with the sign of the cross on your forehead and venture into any public place, someone will ask you, “what have you given up for Lent?” How will you answer, given that Jesus instructs, “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Mt. 6:16)

What’s a faithful Christian to do with this season of Lent?

Though they may disagree on the surface about the nature of our repentance, whether it should be public or private, the prophet Isaiah and Jesus share in common a distaste for the hypocrisy that fills too much religious ritual.  When Isaiah instructs his listeners to lift up their voices like trumpets, it is not so that the world can see their faith, but so that the community can hear as an honest account of their failings is made public.

Isaiah mocks the pleas of the people as he mimics their complaints, “why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isa. 58:3a)  In response he offers a cold dose of hard truth, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers” (Isa. 58:3b).  The prophet has sounded the horns not to praise the people, but to take a searching and fearless moral inventory of their wrongdoings.

cb_alcoholics_anonymous_ll_120314_wgIf that language of “searching and fearless moral inventory” sounds familiar to you, then you’re probably acquainted with the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, or one of the many communities of recovery based on the 12-step spirituality that emerged from AA.  The steps are an essential part of the process of healing that restores people to life and makes it possible for them to return to the families and communities they have harmed in a new way.  Listen to the twelve steps:

We admitted that we were powerless … that our lives had become unmanageable.

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [others who shared our condition], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Taken as a whole, the 12 steps set out by communities of recovery like Alcoholic Anonymous give us, perhaps, contemporary language for making sense of the ancient traditions of Ash Wednesday.

We are addicts, all of us.  Some of our addictions are confined to our own personal behavior — be that drinking or drugs, gambling or sex.  Some of our addictions, though, are harder to spot because we share them with so many of the people around us — a reliance on violence, in any of its many forms, to establish and maintain control; a dependency on wealth to prop up a flagging sense of self; a habit we just can’t shake of taking on more and more work to prove to ourselves and others just how important we are. Then there are those mass addictions, our unhealthy attachment to goods and services that come to us at great expense to others: foreign oil, sweatshop clothing, cheap food, and the list goes on.  We allow ourselves to remember only briefly and occasionally the cost others pay daily so that we can get our quick fix of consumer culture and conspicuous consumption.

In 12-step recovery programs, the promise that’s held out is that there is restored health and new life available to all, but that to get there we will have to be honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.  The same is true tonight, on Ash Wednesday, as we begin a season of repentance and renewal that will last forty days, and will culminate in our celebration of the resurrected life that is ours through Christ Jesus when we finally arrive at Easter on the other side of this season.

But that is still forty days off, and the new life that God is always giving us comes to us all, rich and poor, one day at a time.  There will be many steps between this night and that great morning, but none of us can speed the days or avoid the work to be done in the interim.  “Now is the acceptable time; see now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2b)

Tonight’s work is to take a searching and fearless inventory of our failures as individuals and as a people — not in order to generate a certain mood, or the appearance of penitence — but so that we can actually open our hearts and our lives to the healing that God is always and already pouring into and over us.

As we do our work we will be marked with ashes, not so that the world around us might notice what good Christians we are, but so that we might remember that life is short, and precious, and sooner than we can imagine will be over.  And why would we want to spend one more minute of our irreplaceable lives pretending to be well, when God is already at work making us truly whole.