Surprise Endings: Superheroes, fat ladies, and hope for humanity in dark times

 

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We all love the surprise ending. One where the hero miraculously reappears and the bad guys get their due. First it was the western. Then war movies. Next came the Sci-fi, followed by adventure movies. Then it was fantasy…Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. Now we have superheroes.

When you think about it, aren’t they are all the same plot? How is it that no matter how many times we see this story, and no matter how well we know the narrative, we keep coming back for more? Why do these movies resonate so?

It seems our hearts love the plot line that, no matter how dark the night appears, help is on the way. “Look, up in the sky…” Or as Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously said, “The opera ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings.”

Perhaps it is because no matter how far fetched they are, these movies hum a melody our hearts already know…a tune, sung by that large lady of song which says, “Yes, this is impossible…but a final scene yet remains.”

I think the superhero saga is simply a retelling of the Christian story – the story that our hearts were made for.

Here is that story in a nutshell: Once there was One God – a glorious being who dwelt in perfect unity and love…a holy trinity. Not the self-centeredness of the human trinity of me, myself and I, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in self-existent, self-giving love. God desired to share his fullness and joy, so he/they (words fail us in the presence of such glory), created. And God, the creator of creativity, created intricately, painstakingly…lovingly. The first two pages of the Bible describes this in detail.

Then, in less than one page of script, we wreck the entire operation.

And the whole rest of this Bible, all of the other 2000 pages, tell of God’s relentless pursuit to win his wanderers back.

It’s a story of a growing hope. God starts with a single man, Adam. He moves on to a family, Abraham and Sarah’s. From there he widens his rescue to a nation, Israel. Then, finally, God throws out the lifeline to all of humanity.  This deliverance tale finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus: God becomes one of us, lives among us as a servant. He goes to a cross as the most unlikely part of his Father’s rescue plan. The climax of the story occurs in the days we commemorate as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Let me remind you of that story line: Jesus is grabbed by angry religious leaders and sentenced by a private mob under the cover of darkness. As an occupied people, his countrymen lack the ability to pronounce the death penalty. So they take him to their Roman occupiers and change the charges against him – Romans do not care about local religious rules, they re-label Jesus a traitor. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. The governor, Pontius Pilate, tries to placate the crowd by having Jesus savagely beaten. But, rather than satisfy the mob, the beating raises their blood lust. Pilate acquiesces and sentences Jesus to the death reserved for the worst criminals: crucifixion. They force Jesus to carry his cross to the hill over the highway where they execute enemies of the state. They nail Jesus to his cross and erect it between two thieves. Six hours later he is dead. But before he dies he says two fascinating things: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” And “It is finished.”

Let that sink in: Jesus actually asks his Father to forgive to forgive his executioners. Then he says, “IT is finished.” Not “I” but “It” – his reason for being on that cross is what Jesus “finished.”

In the end, they take his lifeless body down and place him in a tomb. They seal it with an enormous stone, stamp it with the mark of the emperor, and station a Roman guard unit to protect it.

The end.

Or so it was supposed to be.

But the cosmic filmmaker had other ideas…

But why was Jesus up there anyway? What was his “it”? The power in any story is not only in the action, but what the actions mean.

Jesus was on the cross as an innocent but, we are told, most certainly NOT as a victim. Why way he there? Because you and I really do have a problem that has trapped us. One that reaches into every recess of our existence…a problem that is environmental, relational, interpersonal and existential. It is a problem we cannot avoid and will not go away.

In our hearts we know that God is perfect and holy. …And, when we are honest, we painfully aware of just how much we are not.

It’s a dilemma: A God whom the prophet Habbakuk says, “is too pure to look upon evil,” (Hab. 1:13) has a love that will not allow him to look away.  In Jesus, God manages to right what we made wrong. To ride in and save the day. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life”(John 3:16).  The unlikely storyline God chose involved a cross, a tomb, and a man who wouldn’t stay dead.

It is called salvation…deliverance…rescue. We were as good as dead in trespasses, and then, As Peter said, “Christ died for our sins once for all. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. (1 Pet 3:18)

Again, he was not a victim: This was in the script all along. Jesus’ death was the rescue plan.

But Jesus is a savior who, no matter how “over” the story appeared, still had a surprise ending up his sleeve. We know that plan worked by the Easter event – Jesus walking out of a tomb. We give it a fancy, religious sounding name, resurrection. But the shocking news was that a man very carefully put on ice did not stay that way. And, now that death cannot hold him, he holds out the hope of life to us as well. Paul said it like this: “Christ has been raised from the dead…the first of a great harvest of all who have died…just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.” (1 Cor. 15:20-22)

God offers his rescue to all. But God, always a gentleman, will not arm twist or manipulate us to accept his offer. In Terminator 2, the terrifying cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up to rescue Sarah Conner. She is terrified. After vanquishing her enemies, the Terminator reaches out to her with the words, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do you want to live? Will you come with Jesus?

Will you allow his forgiveness to be yours? Will you allow his Spirit to breath new life into you? Will you allow the great author and director to give you love and acceptance…to write a new ending to your story?

John said it like this, “To all who receive him, even to those who call on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12)

Tonight, what scene are you in? Are you at the height of success? If so, you might want to resist the temptation to arrogance. You have seen this story. You know the heights are an illusion.

Are you being overcome by the adversities of life? Do times look dark? You need to know, that in Christ, you have an Aslan…A hero with superpowers, unstoppable like a cyborg. A man in a white hat who has already ridden to your rescue…

He purchased your forgiveness on a cross, guaranteed your ultimate rescue when he walked from the tomb, and offers a life transformed in the in-between.

So when all looks lost, look up. For it is not until we are at the end of us that our Super Man can do his thing.

Is it just me, or is that the fat lady I hear warming up her voice in the wings?

Or as the church says, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

 

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Real Worship: A summons to the feet of Jesus

 

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Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

Scientists tell us of the powerful ability of the sense of smell to trigger memories—that the olfactory bulb in our brain links scent to event. That is why walking into a home with cookies baking in the oven can carry you back to the security of grandma’s house decades earlier. Scent, somehow, unifies and cements all 5 senses and places us, momentarily, in the experiences of our past. One suspects the story of the anointing by the woman at Bethany provided just such a fragrant link in the disciples’ minds between burial perfume and Jesus’ looming Passion.

The story of the woman of Bethany was obviously an important one in the early church, as all four Gospel writers record it (Matthew 26:6-12, Mark 14: 3-9, Luke 7:36-49, John 12:1-8). As a whole, the Gospel writers tell us three things in this story: Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense. That is why it is so odd that in this fragrant Gospel narrative, the memory of the eyewitnesses seems fuzzy… There is a woman. There is an anointing. There is expensive, perfumed oil. There is the objection to using it on Jesus. But then the details start getting jumbled.

Are these four accounts one event? Two? Three? Scholars have wondered for centuries. It’s easy to get frustrated with the Gospel writers here. They carefully name and give character to the Twelve, yet they blur the details of this woman and her story.

Who was this woman? Both Matthew and Mark have Jesus predict that this story will always be told in memory of her…but then her name conspicuously escapes them. Luke tells us she was a “a sinner.” John alone tells us that her name was “Mary.” But Mary was the most common women’s name in first Century Palestine. There were three women named Mary present at the crucifixion that we know of. Which Mary is this?

Luke places the story early in his Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and John place it in Bethany, the day before the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest by the mob in the garden. Here are a few more details: Several days before his betrayal and death, Jesus and his disciples dine at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While they recline at the table, a woman, whom John, the last Gospel writer by decades, identifies as Mary of Bethany approaches Jesus. We don’t know how long she had followed Jesus. What we do know is that Mary knew that worship has an object: Real worship is about Jesus.

Mary has an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, worth a year’s wages. These jars, we are told, were permanently sealed. To let the perfumed oil out one had to break the neck off. Once opened, like a jar of mayonnaise, it had to be used. Mary broke her jar, and emptied the perfume on Jesus. Real worship is costly.

In another fuzzy detail, John has the woman anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Matthew and Mark report that the woman of Bethany anointed Jesus’ head.  Both actions flower with symbolism. In the ancient Near East, anointing the head signified Kingship – Kings were anointed at their coronation by the high priest or prophet. The word “Christ,” is a transliteration of the Greek word “Christos,” itself a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, which means “the anointed one.”  As Rachel Held Evans says, “This anonymous woman finds herself in the very untraditional position of priest and prophet.” Only in the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, does this make sense.”  Because real worship DOESN’T make sense.

Anointing feet, on the other hand, models humility, service…love. John’s account is more intimate. Awkward even.  In a culture in which a woman’s touch was forbidden, for Mary to cradle Jesus’ feet in her hands and brush oil over his ankles and toes with the ends of her hair was unthinkable. This is most likely the oil for her own burial she has poured out. Mary breaks her treasured bottle of burial perfume and empties it on Jesus. She spares no expense. She is fully committed. She is “all in” –  sacrificing her own future. The self-emptying of this action foreshadows Jesus’ washing the disciples feet to come the next day on Maundy Thursday. And just as we see the male disciples discomfort at that event, the disciple’s unease at her display of affection is palatable. Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

In the midst of all this symbolism and foreshadowing, Jesus interprets this event for us: It is an act of worship in preparation for his burial. When the disciples rebuke the woman for what they see as a waste of money, Jesus returns the rebuke saying, “Why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” Jesus had been speaking of his impending death for a good while, but the Twelve kept missing it. The idea of a kingdom ushered in with the death of their friend rather than the death of their enemies was unthinkable. It is no wonder they complained about the “waste” of money the anointing represented – they assumed they would need to finance their ministry with Jesus for years to come. Mary alone seems to get it. She is the first of Jesus’ disciples to acknowledge his impending death… the one who anoints “the anointed one.” For this, Jesus gives her his highest praise. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What a remarkable thought—that from open air revival to cathedral, Europe to Uruguay, Israel to Africa, this woman’s story would be told.

Jesus wanted us to remember. Yet we aren’t even sure of the woman’s name. How is it that, unlike other Gospel stories in which details drop out as we get to the later Gospels, her name does not appear until very late? I suspect it is because this good lady did not want it to appear. The beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry joined the early church after his resurrection. They shared their stories to encourage one another. Later, when it became obvious that Jesus was tarrying in his expected return, writers gathered and recorded those stories. In the early stories of blind Bartimaeus, for example, we know Bart’s name, his dad’s name, and even that a blind friend was beside him in the early Gospels. But by the time (and distance) that Luke writes, Bartimaeus is presumably gone and his name is dropped. Bart’s story had been told so often that it does not even make John’s Gospel, the last one written. So why is this woman not named by the early authors? The obvious guess is that it was specifically because she was still around. And SHE did not want it named.

We know that Mary was a worshipper. My guess, knowing a few Mary types, is that, for Mary, worship was, first and foremost not about her, but about Jesus. And she didn’t want folks to get distracted in admiring her. My guess is that Mary is named by John specifically because she is no longer around to keep a witness from recording her name.

But what of you? Where is your focus? What is your perfume? What do you guard and value above all else? Is it material possessions? Is your perfume your reputation? Friends? Career? Take a moment and name that which you value most, because you cannot pour out that which you cannot name.

The challenge of Mary this Holy Week is that we would dare break open that which we value most and pour it out as a fragrant offering upon our Lord. Perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the scent might trigger a memory… like the comfort of grandma’s house, bought through decades of difficult labor during hard times, we would be reminded that our comfort from God was bought at a high price. Because Real worship is about Jesus. It DOESN’T make sense. And it IS costly.

*This was the message from “Dinner Church,” our Wednesday Holy Week liturgy for families. The service is based on one done at St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn. It has a contemplative feeling (with Taize-esque music.) It is based on 1 Corinthians and what is thought to be the earliest non-canonical Christian literature, a teaching tool called The Didache. It is essentially the biblical “love feast” (Jude 1:12, 1 Cor. 11). The candle lit room set in a circle and contemplative music work well for our rowdy urban kids. The people prepare the meal together, light the worship/dinner space, pray and sing, and eat over candle light. It also gives us a chance to give folks an overview of the upcoming Triduum of holy week and pass out devotionals for families to use at home.

Holy Week for Newbies

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A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological remembrance, it is actively allowing ourselves to be in that final week, baptized (immersed) into his death…”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:3-4)

Holy Week is sacramental

…and we are sacramental creatures. Regardless of any initial reaction you may have to that word, hear me out. A sacrament is a tangible symbol that creates what it signifies. Like kissing. When you first kissed that special someone on the doorstep at the end of the evening, it did more than represent thinking the girl was pretty and nice and that you enjoyed talking with her. It actually created and amplified those feelings. You walked back to your car more emotionally connected to her than you were when you opened her door a brief moment earlier.  And when her front door clicked shut, you fist pumped the air. “Heck, Yeah!” Because that kiss actually made more of what it signified.

So God gave us, fleshly, sacramental, critters that we are, a God who came in flesh. Who lived. Who breathed. Who touched us and was touched by us. Who walked willingly to a criminal’s cross, laid down, spread his arms wide for humanity, and waited for real nails to pierce his hands and feet. It is because you too are flesh and blood that you should engage in Holy Week…because Holy Week creates what it signifies: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10)

A current reality

The ancient prayers point us to the deep mystery in this: It isn’t “Christ rose.” It is “Christ is risen!” Holy Week is a current reality. A more real reality. So we do more than meditate on these holy mysteries. We allow them to become true within us, as our baptism is true within us. We join him on Maundy Thursday in His Last Supper. We are with him on Friday in His death. We keep prayerful watch before His tomb on Saturday. With growing anticipation we mark His descent into Hades and His trampling of death by His death. Finally, with shouts of joy, we greet His resurrection on Sunday morning, knowing that one day it will be our resurrection too. In Holy Week, as Orthodox priest Fr. Steven Freeman says, “The life to come becomes the life we live.”

A “deep mystery,” it should be said, is not magic. We must surrender to the prayers and liturgy – faith must be lived. In the end, Holy Week isn’t something we do. It is something that does us.

So what is the hubbub?

Holy Week is more than an emotionally powerful experience. It is an opportunity for a greater sanctification. As Paul said, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8) Or, as an Arnold Swarzenegger character once said, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do yourself a favor, make time to engage in Holy Week, especially the three-day “Triduum”: The despair of Golgotha on Good Friday, the muted sorrow of Saturday, the joyful Baptisms at Saturday’s Great Vigil, and the surprise of a risen Savior on Easter morning.

Almighty God, who through your only‑begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life‑giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Holy Week Sched 2014 Blog

Game on. A sermon for Ash Wednesday

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Here is my Ash Wednesday sermon…not because I am convinced of it’s internet worthiness, but because friends have asked me to share it since I posted on the topic twice this week. 

Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 •  Psalm 51:1-17  •  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  •  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Welcome to Spring Training! 

That is what Lent is: Spring Training for the Christian life.  You know Spring Training. It’s where players:

– Find out what they’ve got.

– Learn new skills.

– Figure out what they still need to work on.

Today, Ash Wednesday, is Opening Day.

Now that you are in the ballpark we are going to spend the next 40 disciplined days getting ready for the regular season- life.

I am not a baseball guy. I don’t know much about the game. But one thing I do know is that the person who throws out the first pitch is generally a pretty bad baseball player. Have you ever seen a first pitch? Sometimes it goes into the stands. Sometimes it drops off of the pitcher’s hand and rolls to a stop halfway to the plate.  It us usually thrown out by some famous non-baseballer: an elderly ex-Senator, an opera singer, or a guy who made millions inventing the home latte maker.

Unfortunately, our first liturgical “pitch” on Ash Wednesday, like most first pitches, is a bit off kilter. You should probably know that I am a HUGE prayer book fan. So much so that I am accused of having a crush on all things Anglican. My evangelical friends are adamant that I am a non-objective shill for the Episcopal Church. I can’t help it though. The wisdom and care and catholicity of our prayer book is legendary. But, in an effort to prove them wrong, I have scoured the prayer book and found two things that I wish were not there: One of them is the opening prayer from tonight’s service. I suspect that whoever wrote the opening prayer for Ash Wednesday must be famous – It’s that bad. The theology umpire in me calls, “Foul.”

Here it is again: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made (We are looking good through the windup) and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: (still not bad) Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins (Oops. Problems on the release.) and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness;  (And the ball is in the dirt.)

The idea that we are somehow “worthy” in our lamenting or forgiven BECAUSE we are penitent is a theological “Swing and a miss.” We are not rendered worthy through our repentance and we aren’t forgiven through a perfected penitence. That prayer makes it sound as if we are cute and cuddly- as if God is lucky to have such holy creatures as us on his team.

The truth is that we are forgiven because God is so forgiving. It is God’s nature to reconcile fallen humans to himself. It is God’s nature to make all things right…satisfying both his holiness and love in Jesus Christ and giving a new nature freely to humans. It is our nature to jack things up. Give me a relationship: I’ll mess that up. Children: I’ll mess them up. A political system: Oops. A planet: Our track record there isn’t so good either.

Forgiveness, you see, is given not earned… given to humans at the Father’s initiation and the Son’s expense…and that we are drawn to by the Holy Spirit’s wooing – The entirety of the trinity is involved in human salvation. Given the mess we have made of things, the basis for our forgiveness can hardly be our penitence.

We ARE forgiven because we WERE forgiven…on Calvary. That forgiveness was proven three days later as a risen Lord strode from the mouth of an empty tomb. And that is why we are penitent: We have seen the great acts of God on our behalf and we walk in gratitude of God’s love lavished upon us. Obedience is the response to God’s favor, not the price of it. God’s provision provokes our response.

And so, in anticipation of celebrating those holy mysteries at Easter, we begin tonight Lenten disciplines, either giving up something that we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity: self-denial and self-discipline to remind us of the greatness of our God.

Luckily our liturgy pivots rapidly from the off target opening pitch as we move quickly to the Old Testament prophet Joel. Joel reminds us that God has a right to be ticked at our forgetfulness of God. Joel asks us to “rend our hearts and not our garments.”  God desires an internal brokenness – for brokenness allows God’s love to seep through the cracks in our hard outer shells of self-reliance and transform us from the inside out.

Then we have Psalm 103 in which, just as a good dad “has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him – he remembers that we are dust.”   He remembers. Do we?

Then comes our Gospel passage: “Beware of practicing your piety before others.”  Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t trust in your very religious religiosity.”  Can you think of a single time Jesus had something positive to say to those very religious Pharisees who trusted in their religiosity? Neither can I.

Finally, in 2nd Corinthians, chronologically the last of tonight’s passages to be composed, Paul entreats us, “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”- Paul spells it out: the righteousness of God comes, not from us: It is “of GOD.” The relationship between our repentance and God’s forgiveness is “because of” not “in order to.”

This passage, by the way, is finishing a sentence in which Paul is exhorting the Church, us, to be “Ambassadors for Christ,” bearers of the message of reconciliation…So “You be reconciled,” Paul says, “because for our sake he made (Jesus) to be sin”…the one who had never known sin, “so that” (because of, in order, with the result) “that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God. “

Let that sink in:

-The holy God of creation, whose moral perfection was such that the greatest of his servants, Moses, could only see God’s back as he passed by.

-Whose holiness was so terrifying that, when Moses went up the mountain, the Israelites could only stand at a distance gazing up at that terrifying cloud.

-A God so pure that the ark representing his presence couldn’t be touched with human hands, even to protect it, without them being struck down…

THAT God has declared us to be THAT “righteousness” in his sight.

…and, then, even further, he longs to give us the ministry of reconciling others to his holiness and love.

A high and holy calling awaits us. That is why our humility before God is not just a nice ashy experience for ourselves – We are to be a light to others. We are to increase in love and mercy as we seek Christ. And that increase in love is supposed to be public. Public in order to help to others come to know the love of our Savior, Jesus.

Lent is God calling us deeper into deep – to remold us into the image of his Son and to send us to gather our friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers to his love.

And so we come tonight to be marked outwardly with ashes to remind ourselves inwardly that we are dust.

But we are redeemed dust.  Grateful dust. Dust with a purpose.

And then we will come again to the table with hands outstretched to receive the grace of God anew.

It is a slow process, this becoming like Christ – A long obedience in the same direction. Consuming Jesus and being consumed by him. So, this evening, I exhort you, engage and cooperate. Engage with the prayers. Cooperate with the symbols. Surrender afresh to the Lord of the prayers and symbols, and come, kneel, reach out your hands and receive, and, as the Psalmist said, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Game on!

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Ash Wednesday for Newbies

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Do not be surprised this week when your co-workers and neighbors appear with smudgy foreheads. You will be tempted to grab a Kleenex and help them rub out the vaguely cross-shapen smears. Resist this urge. They have not become hygienically challenged – It is Ash Wednesday!

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent, an archaic word for “spring,” came to refer to a season of spiritual “training” in the Christian year preceding Easter – Sort of a “spring training” for the spiritual life. Christians in the ancient traditions spend the 6 weeks before Holy Week in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember the greatness of God at Easter. Ash Wednesday kicks it all off.

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets (“repent in sackcloth and ashes“). Among Christians, the imposition of ashes associated with a 40 day fast began in the 4th century. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is a bit spotty. By the end of the 10th century, though, it was a long-standing custom in Western Europe for the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lent. In 1091, Pope Urban II extended the practice to Rome.

What do you do?

If you attend an Ash Wednesday service you will hear Holy Scriptures calling us to repentance read, have ashes imposed on your forehead with the counter-cultural words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and then go forward, empty handed, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

Afterward people go forth to spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. Self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to recall the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

Why?

Contrary to common opinion, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor  making belated New Year’s resolutions – like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  It is instead about mindfulness. When we think about God, well that is a good thing. By the way, Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision in his Son, Jesus. We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Can I come?

Yes! You can find an Ash Wednesday service at any Episcopal/Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. Services are usually offered multiple times per day. You do not need to be a member. Everyone is welcome. Although in Roman Catholic churches there are requirements for receiving communion, and Episcopal churches ask you to be baptized for communion, everyone can receive ashes.

I invite you, come to church this Ash Wednesday!

Exclusive Inclusivity: Will The Episcopal Church Keep Gay Millennials?

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What is going on?

Over the past two weeks I have fielded phone calls from three different young gay men requesting “spiritual safety.” These are not exactly expected, as I am a known traditionalist. The conversations go like this:

Caller: “Hey Matt. So you know how I’m a Christian?

Me: “Yes.”

Caller: “Well, I need some Christian friends.”

Me: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”

Caller: “Yeah, about that…as a young gay person who loves Jesus and wants to grow in his faith, I feel like an outcast in my church much of the time.”

Me: “Ouch. Is it really that bad?”

Caller: “Well, when I talk about ‘Jesus, and the power of the Resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings,’ I get raised eyebrows. When I talk about evangelism, historic doctrines, or believing the Creeds, people tug at their shirt collars…and clergy their clerical collars. They are very excited about Spong, Borg, Crossan and the Buddha, but they get the willies when I want to talk about Augustine, Aquinas, NT Wright and the Messiah.” They tell me ‘we welcome questions,’ but it seems that orthodox answers are the only ones not tolerated.

Me: “I know you well enough to know that bugs you.”

Caller: “Uh, yeah. I joined a church because I want to be Christian. …So, can I hang out with you…even though we are in different places on sexuality?”

Me: “Have we ever talked about sexuality?”

Caller: “No, but well, word on the street is that you’re “not really with us.” You treat me like a brother in the Lord, though, and not like some kind of oddball because I believe the core doctrines of the faith and that the Bible is the Word of God.”

I want to raise a question: How is it that young people feel belittled for being too Christian in a Christian church? And (here comes my conventional logic defying proposition) could orthodox, trinitarian theology be replacing sexuality as a point of alignment for a growing number of LGBT young adult Episcopalians?

I am sure that my politically doctrinaire friends on both the Left and Right are warming up their typing fingers to punch out a fiery response for daring to wander outside of the accepted sexual orthodoxies right about now. But before your fingers fly, let me ask you to put aside the arguments of the past, the ones you have rehearsed and rehashed answers for, and peek around the corner, for just a moment. Think about those three phone calls and ask yourself if they might be pointing at something significant on the horizon…

Imagine that you are a twenty year old Episcopalian. You view the world through post-modern eyes…you place high value on maintaining relationships with people, including those with differing viewpoints from your own. Whether gay or straight, you are coming of age in a world in which, chances are good, that you have not fought over sexuality.  In that world, young Gay Episcopalians seem to be seeking out the theologically orthodox for supportive Christian discipleship.

My snarky side wants to whisper, “Gee, that sounds like actual tolerance.” You know, from before “tolerance” was code for “progressive,” when it was a word that presumed disagreement. After all, I don’t have to “tolerate” those I agree with. We already agree. Much has been written about the exclusivity of “inclusivity” – How the only idea that is out of bounds is the idea that some ideas are, in fact, out of bounds. The old and inherently contradictory notion that there is no objective truth except, of course, the statement that there is no objective truth. But now my iPhone call log is showing a growing list of indicators that at least some of the group the Episcopal Church has most tried to enfranchise are feeling disenfranchised. What kind of inclusivity is it that is gives Gay Millennials the experience of being excluded for simply wanting to follow Jesus according to the traditions and doctrines of our faith, as set out in our prayer book and Scriptures?

And does this point to an emerging generational divide within the Episcopal Church? Boomers, for whom winning arguments is culturally quite important, are wired differently from post-modern Millennials. For Millennials, respect trumps truth. They would rather be in relationship than be right. They embrace mutually contradictory ideas without internal conflict. It confuses those over 40 when Millennials report that they are both significantly more pro-life and more pro-gay than their parents. Many boomers are shocked when they hear of Millennials requesting Rite One weddings (including the “dreadful day of judgment”), and that when playing “Jesus Seminar” on the Creed they vote their marbles more orthodoxly than their parents.

I see winds of change blowing into the Episcopal Church. It came in with the Millennials when they walked through the batwings and bellied up to the bar at the last General Convention. Did you notice that GenCon12 voted to become both more progressive politically while, at the same time, holding the line on theological orthodoxy?[1] Did you notice the groundswell to shrink national structures and sell the national Church Center? Did you notice the Acts8 Moment? Many Boomers seemed surprised at those swirling winds.

But none of this should come as a surprise. It is what always happens with the second-generation after a struggle. And with sexuality, in much of the country, Millennials are second generation people. In issues of race, those who fought for equality are shocked that the second generation has forgotten the struggle. With women, young adults have to be taught that gender inclusive language is important…because “when a woman might actually become President of the company or the country,” as one young African American woman recently told me, “pandering to me with language isn’t important.” In the sexuality debates, most Episcopalians now in college have never known a church in which LGBT people were not welcomed. The last conservative church departures occurred when they were in junior high. Gay Millennials are telling us, “We joined this because we want to be Christian.” And my ringing iPhone tells me that, too often, we are making it difficult for them.

As the culture continues to change, will the Episcopal Church keep Gay Millennials? Or will they end up going someplace else – someplace that puts more emphases on their faith than their orientation?

In another fascinating conversation last week, a friend, a woman in a long-term same-sex partnership, told me, “We want our kids in your children and youth midweek programs.” They live close and trust us. They are not going to give our church a shot, however. “We are going to keep driving (40 minutes) to our megachurch on Sundays. We know they are not Gay-friendly, but the preaching and music are great.”

Her statement was a fascinating example of cultural change coming: In a world in which LGBT people increasingly have public affirmation and political protection, they no will longer need the affirmation of the church. When they engage the church it will be because they long for the faith of the church. All of which leaves a question hovering like incense after a high Mass: As evangelicals become less LGBT hostile[2], will the Episcopal Church hold on to LGBT Millennials?

Is my ringing phone an aberration? Or are we quickly entering a new era in which LGBT people will no longer come to church for affirmation but for transformation? (In fact, maybe they were seeking transformation the whole time.)

And how do we give transformation? What if we simply remember who we are – a prayer book using, Lambeth Quadrilateral believing, transformation expecting church?[3] Ditch the fuzzy Christology, hermeneutic of suspicion, and denials of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Return to basic Christian teaching that we are dead in our trespasses and sins and there is one solution, to be made alive in Christ. Proclaim, without fingers crossed or apology, that humanities’ ills are only be solved by casting ourselves on the mercy of God to receive the gift of salvation purchased on the cross at God’s initiation and God’s expense, “For by grace you have been saved.”[4] I am not arguing for the dropping of the ability to question in the Episcopal Church. We learn by questioning. I merely argue for the charitable assumption of the Great Tradition and, at the end of the questions, the clarity of our leaders to say, “Here is how Christians have clung to God for 2000 years.” To quote Greg Boyd, “faith isn’t about trying to feel certain about your beliefs but being willing to commit to living a certain way despite the fact that you’re not certain.”[5]

A new wind is blowing. One in which young people, including young Gay Episcopalians, will engage with churches because they want help to walk with Christ in a community of other Christ-seekers.

How will the Episcopal Church fare in this brave new world?


[1] Politically progressive: Same sex blessings, affirming inclusion of transgendered people. Theologically orthodox: No Communion of the unbaptized, Confirmation as necessary for parish office.

[2] Check out the Christianity 21 Conference and the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, both of which feature unambiguous and unashamed Jesus speak. The way evangelicals talk about homosexuality, or choose to avoid talking about it, and the way most evangelicals treat LGBT persons is certainly changing. Influential evangelical, Tim Keller’s comments in an Ethics and Public Policy Forum is telling of this direction: “Large numbers of evangelical(s)…will continue to hold the view that same-sex marriage runs counter to their faith, even as they increasingly decide they either support or do not oppose making it the law of the land.” 

[3] BCP, 877-8) 1) The Bible as Word of God teaching all things necessary to salvation, 2) The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of faith, 3) The 2 Sacraments given by Jesus for the life of the body and 4) the historic Episcopate as the organizing principle of Christ’s Church)

[4] Ephesians 2:1-5, Rite One Eucharist: “All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption.”

[5] Greg Boyd’s post

Wafer Madness: 500 years of communion arguments made simple

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What happens to the elements and the people who consume them? When we are talking about Communion, the answer is “it depends”. The options are listed below from “Why bother?” to “I’m seriously considering becoming a wafer-addict!

Memorial: Nothing happens to the elements. Nothing happens to the people.

Calvin: Nothing happens to the elements. Something happens to the people (Jesus is present when faith is present).

Lutheran: Something happens (is added to) the elements (Jesus is “in, under, and through”). Something happens to those who eat (when faith is present).

Orthodox: Something happens to the elements (but that “something” is left undefined). Something happens to those who eat (when faith is present).

Roman: Something happens to the elements (a complex and nuanced “transubstantiation”) and something happens to those who eat (when faith is present).

Does what someone believes about communion matter? If you are a memorialist, since nothing changes and nothing happens, not really. However, if you believe Calvin’s position, it matters. And, if you believe the Lutheran, Orthodox or Catholic view, it matters even more.

Yes, the Eucharist can mean nothing if you do not approach the table with eyes of faith. But is Holy Communion, at its best, intended to be a “Happy Meal” (fun, but no real nutritional value) or a “Magic Cracker” (that will change you if you let it)? The issue isn’t really what you or I think it is or want it to be, but what the Scriptures say it is, and what the early and undivided church taught it to be.

Beyond the facts is the experience of being changed in a Eucharistic community. You can down a wheat chip cellophaned to the top of a disposable cup, or you can feast at the family meal of the Body of Christ. I am hard-pressed to understand why someone who could eat gourmet in their neighborhood bistro gratis would settle for a Happy Meal from the drive-through. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8)

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 Am I advocating wafer madness? Maybe a little.

While song is the worship language of memorialists and the megachurch, supper is the historic worship language of the church. This isn’t about preference, but about faithfully practicing what was given to us by Jesus, the New Testament authors, and the early and undivided church. For three-quarters of Christian history, Word and Sacrament was literally the ONLY paradigm for worship. This Sunday it will characterize the worship of more than two-thirds of the world’s Christians. I am not trying to be negative, or run down another’s “tradition.” But I do want to say that when you find yourself spiritually hungry, a meal awaits.

If song is your only worship language, consider experiencing the blessings of bi-lingual worship – add supper.

I’m Lovin’ it!