Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mortal, repent, prepare for Easter!

Mortal, repent, prepare for Easter!

When I read about Isaiah’s fury against false fasts,
external humility,
ashes without regret,
sackcloth without repentance,
and ritual without justice…
When I read all of this while preparing to put ash crosses on people’s foreheads I get a little nervous.
When Jesus speaks poorly of outward almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—on this Ash Wednesday,
On this start of Lent, when traditionally Christians put a special emphasis on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—
the imposition of ashes almost feels like dumping hot coals on people’s heads.
Both of these readings tell us of the danger of religious ritual.
Isaiah speaks to the fact that religious ritual can get in the way of justice.
We can say to ourselves, “I heard about being concerned about fellow Children of God at church—that makes me a religious person.”
Or I had ashes rubbed on my forehead—so I don’t need to help my neighbor out of the ash-heap.
For that matter, Jesus speaks of another way religious ritual can be abused. We can use our perceived piety—our public faith—to make us popular and impressive.
We can use our faith to get ahead to make people like and trust us. We can put people at ease by reminding them we’re Christian.
And, Dr. Wangert—the Confessions professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where I am studying—understands both of these dangers to be part of a much larger tendency of human beings.
We thrive on works righteousness—we want to earn our way into heaven.
So deeply does Dr. Wangert worry about this tendency that—to protect himself from works righteousness—gives up the same things every Lent.
For the 40 days of Lent he refuses to eat Whale Blubber.
He fasts from eating Whale Blubber because he never has ate Whale Blubber—in fact he’s never even seen Whale Blubber.
So this fast is so easy that there is absolutely no way he could make the mistake of thinking his Lenten discipline makes him righteous.

So my question becomes… if Religious Ritual is such a risk
If putting ashes on our head is such a danger
If a forty day fast is so perilous
Why do we do it? Why do we risk Ash Wednesday and Lent?

We risk Ash Wednesday because we need to be reminded that we’re mortal.
We risk Ash Wednesday because we need to be reminded that we’re sinners in need of repentance
And we risk Ash Wednesday because we need to prepare for Easter.
We’re mortals, we’re sinners, and we’re preparing for Easter.

Lets pray:
Lord God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
We’re mortal. When we hear the words, “You are dust and to dust shall you return,” we remember our origin is in the earth.
We remember that we are perishable
we remember that we have an expiration date.
We look back to scripture and meditate on how in the earliest chapters of Genesis we are described as dirt with spirit breathed into us.
We are earthlings created from the earth.
Dust to dust.
These words from scripture remind us of our impermanence here on this earth in the same way the death of No-dar Kum-ar-it-ash-vili—the 21-year-old Luger from the country of Georgia—did last Friday in Vancouver when he died practicing for his Olympic event.
Even a young Olympian—a man at the top of his game—one of 8 people representing his country to the world—is still dust.
We are reminded of our mortality this Ash Wednesday the same way as when we drive in the snow
and we can’t quite see over the snow bank
and we go to make a turn and next thing we know we are close enough to an oncoming truck that we can look the driver right in the eyes.
Ash Wednesday is a close call. It gets our hearts beating fast and our adrenaline pumping.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we—like snow—will melt away.
We like dust will blow away. We are mortal.

Ash Wednesday also reminds us that we are sinners in need of repentance.
When we feel the ash upon our brow—
we are mourning our own failures toward God and toward our neighbors.
We are being reminded of our own fallibility—our own imperfection and our own weakness.
Administering ashes remind us of the life shattering capacity of sin just like the two shootings that broke Baltimore’s eight days of being a murder free city did on Monday.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of how we act without the ability to know the full consequence of those actions,
That we are born into situations with no good solutions.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that even in those rare moments of clarity, when we see the good and the right and we have the ability to do the good and the right, we fail at that too.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are sinners in need of repentance.

And sometimes being able to say, “I’m a mortal sinner,” has its effect.
Sometimes saying, “I am mortal” grips me with a realization of how precious life is. Sometimes it shakes the assumptions of my death-denying culture. It moves me out of a frame of mind fixated on quick fixes, instant gratification, and lack of concern for others.
Sometimes saying, “I’m a sinner” is like holding up a mirror to myself. I am faced with my own motives and drives and realize where I am wrong.
I can look at my ritual and my robes and see that it has robbed someone else of justice. I can look at the motives for my almsgiving and see that I just want to be seen.
I can ask myself what do I treasure that is deadly and what do I treasure that is sinful?
Sometimes stating that I’m a sinner works repentance in me.
But sometimes saying, “I’m a mortal sinner,” weighs me down. Sometimes I am so aware of my own inadequacy that my feet of clay all but kill me. Sometimes the shortness of time I have on this earth paralyzes me with fears about my future and regret about my past.
And in those times it is good to look around. It is good to see the ash upon the head of my brothers and my sisters. It is good to see that I am in good company. I am in a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
I am reminded that as with it and as on top of things as (Pastor Gregg/Mother Glenna) is (he/she) is still another mortal sinner like me—full of fallibility and fragility. We’re all in the same boat—we’re not alone in our struggles and our fears.

Not only does Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that we are all mortal, and that we are in need of repentance, but it is our preparation for Easter.
If I look closer still at my sister’s ashen cross I am struck by something
Its something so obvious that you might not think about it unless you stopped and thought about it.
It’s a cross on our forehead!
It’s the Cross of Christ—for He too suffered death, and he who knew no sin became sin for us.
Jesus Christ himself shares this ash with us.
Yet I hasten to add that when Christ shares with us there is something more going on than simply solidarity with us.
There is something more going on than Jesus being in the same boat as us.
There is something transformational going on as well!
When he shared the dust of death with us on Easter morning he enlivened it with breath and spirit.
When he shared the ash of sin with us on Easter morning he made soap out of it—He made it an instrument of our purification.
He has transformed the human condition itself—he transformed every part of being human in this world—into something worthy of God.
And I’m here to tell you I believe in transformation.
I believe out of the ragged stuff of humanity God can patch together a quilt!
I’ve seen with my own eyes a sign of sin and death embedded upon a man’s brow transformed into Easter hope.
Seven years ago I was volunteering at the Comea Shelter a homeless men’s Shelter back home in Cheyenne Wyoming.
Each day I filled the shelter’s old blue mini-van up with bedding and drove it down to the commercial laundermat, picked up any donations around town, picked up the clean bedding, and brought it all back.
Sometimes shelter residents would ride with me and help me load and unload things.
There was one resident in particular who would often ride with me.
He happened to have a swastika prominently tattooed on his forehead.
We worked together for several weeks—and during that time I did my best not to stare at that thing on his head—I did my best not to ask questions about it.
Then one day we were driving along and he said to me, “Chris. I know you look at it.”
“Look at what?” I asked.
“The swastika,” he replied.
I was –this close—to responding, “What Swastika,” but by that time I was staring at his forehead instead of the road, so I replied guiltily, “Yeah, I do.”
“I got it while I was in prison down in Denver,” he explained.
That was of course just the kind of comforting thing you want to hear while alone with a guy twice your size.
All I could reply was, “Oh?”
He then told me how he had hated blacks and Latinos… though he used much stronger language for both.
“Oh,” I against replied, limply.
He continued, “Then I got out. No landlord wanted someone like me as a renter… the only place that would take me was a housing co-operative ran by a black man. It took me a while, but I just couldn’t hate them any more.”

So yes, I trust that mortality and sin can be made into eternity and sanctity.
I trust the Easter promise.
I trust in a light shining in the darkness
I trust the gloom of night to be as bright as the noon sun.
I trust that our needs will be satisfied in parched places.
I trust that ruins will be rebuilt and the breach will be restored.
I even trust that the treasure of Christ has transformed our ritual into justice,
our self-flattery into piety
our works righteousness into works of love,
and I’m willing to stare sin and death in the face in order to prepare to celebrate that!

The reason we risk Ash Wednesday and we risk Lent is because we’re mortal, we’re sinners, and we’re preparing to celebrate Easter. A+A

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My dream church

I dream of doing a Mission Start for the ELCA.
Specifically, I dream of starting the largest poly-ethnic Lutheran church in the Northwest either in Seattle or Portland. Why the Northwest? 1. Its one of the most unchurched regions of the country 2. For all the PC talk of multi-culturalism in the Northwest its pretty darn mono-cultural.
I dream of a church where our Santa Lucia is an African American girl, where Asian-Americans are shouting "Amen" and "Preach it," where European Americans are singing "Santo Santo Santo," and Mexican Americans "Sekai no tomo to te o tsunagi."
I guess why I mention this now is two fold. Firstly, a friend sent me a link to a purposefully multi-cultural church in Minneapolis Sanctuary Covenant Secondly, my mind, heart, and prayers are with my brothers and sisters back at Seminary who are getting assigned tonight. Thirdly, I should be putting the finishing touches on my Ash Wednesday sermon and blogging is a good way to procrastinate.

Sermon on the 2nd Sunday after the snowfall

God is with us, let’s follow Him down the mountain!

Its good to be back this 2nd Sunday after the snowfall.
Welcome to all visitors
Welcome back to everyone who was snowed in last Sunday.
Welcome on this end of Epiphany—the season in which we celebrate God being manifest—being disclosed—being revealed—showing up—in Jesus Christ.
Welcome on this Transfiguration Sunday—the Sunday that functions as the capstone of the season of Epiphany and the most overt example of God showing up in Jesus.
And on this day I hear Scripture saying to us “God is with us, lets follow Him down the mountain!” God is with us, lets follow Him down the mountain!”

Let us pray:
Lord God, be with the preacher, be with the assembly, be with all of us here at St. John’s that my words and our meditations may move us to follow you son down the mountain. Amen.

Today both Jacob and Peter have a close call. A close call with God. They both have their own personal powerful Epiphany experience. They both are confronted with the fact that God is with us.
Jacob, escaping from family troubles, heading to far off Haran, finds himself, as it says in Genesis, “at a certain place” when the sun set. And so he takes a stone as a pillow and drifts off to sleep.
And soon enough he finds that he has in fact rested his head upon the escalator of angels.
It is in that place that he finds his father’s God standing beside him.
It is there that his father’s God speaks to him for the first time.
It is there that the magnificent promise of his ancestors—a promise that he has heard about, but never experienced, becomes solidified before his eyes—it became his own promise.
Yes, it is at that place, at Bethel, that Jacob hears loud and clear that “God is with us.”
He didn’t expect to meet God that night—he just wanted to get some shuteye for his long journey north—but God showed up.
And so too with Peter. This faithful disciple climbs a mountain with his teacher and manages to stay awake and see his master manifest
among the likes of Moses—the author of the Law
and among the likes of Elijah—the most famous of prophets

Further, right before his eyes his master was changed and was shown in glory.
In this transfiguration Peter sees the most awe inspiring, most full, biggest, example of “God is with us.”
Scripture doesn’t say what Peter was doing or thinking those eight days before he went up the mountain with his master—but I don’t think he expected the terror of transformation—none the less God showed up.

And St. John’s, I want to tell you the very same thing. God is with us—God shows up.
This Valentines Day God is with us—like a Valentine from a secret admirer, God just shows up. While we may write poems, buy candy and flowers, and make cards to woo our beloved God doesn’t need wooing.
God is wooing us. God is with us.
I’m here to remind you and remind you again that God comes down Jacob’s ladder to us.
God chooses us.
God woos us.
God is with us.
God shows up.

But do you know one of the dangers of God being with us?
Do you know what we, in our human sinfulness, want to do when God shows up?
We want trap God for ourselves.
We want to confine God in the act of Grace.
We want to domesticate God.
We want to tame God.
We want to snow God in!

Look at Jacob—he tries to snow God in. The LORD, hovering over him like a mighty pillar assures him, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
Yet Jacob responds, “Surely the LORD is in this place… How awesome is this place!”
He gives the place a name, “Beth-el,” that is house of God. He declares the place of this experience of God showing up the house of God and the very “gate of heaven.”
God says I’m with you wherever you go and he respondes, “How awesome is this place.” He has transformed “wherever you go” into “right here.”

Likewise Peter tries to snow God in. Like Jacob he tries to make a beth-el, a house of God, up there on the mountain.
Even as Moses and Elijah are talking about Jesus’ impending departure—Peter overcome by his experience of glory—suggests that they make dwelling places for the three men.
He tries to snow in his present experience of God in Jesus!
(pause) Yet even as I admonish these pillars of the faith I can understand their taste for snowing God in.
We too—like Peter and Jacob try to snow God in.
We too attempt to lock ourselves in with God—fit ourselves in a particular place of faith.
We too try to seal our faith in a box, a building, a place, or a space.
We try to make God comfortable for us.
I think of my time in the Holy Land a few years back. I went to do research at the Albright Institute in East Jerusalem, but I mixed pleasure with business as I went during Easter so I could see the sights and sounds and smells of Holy week in the Holy Land.
I remember all the gilding and gold, all the buildings and bustling surrounding the places where Jesus had done things.
Shrines where Jesus was flogged,
monuments where his body had been laid, churches… everywhere. –I bristled at it—this was an attempt to snow God in.
I also remember this serene church on a Mountain in Galilee.
Its olive green roof blended in with the natural world around it.
Architecturally it was humble yet glorious.
You could look down and see the Sea of Galilee stretching out before you.
It was magnificent, and… and so right!
You could see that this was the kind of place where Jesus would want to hang out.
And in fact it was where Jesus preached the beatitudes—his blessings to the poor, the meek, the mourning, the hungry, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
I remember saying to myself, “finally a building and a place worthy of my Lord.”
I finally found a comfortable house for my God.
Then I read a pamphlet about the Church of the Beatitudes only to find that it was built at the behest of the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mucilini.
It was then I realized I’d tried to snow God in.

But God won’t let us do that.
You can snow in your Vicar, you can snow in your Pastor. You can snow in your Mayor and your Governor. Heck, you can snow in the whole Federal Government if you try hard enough!
but you can’t snow in God.
No, God is with us.
And when I say that I mean all of us.
God is with us on the mountain and with us at the base of the mountain.
God is with church people and God is with the unchurch.
God works in the life of saint and sinner, holy man and heathen.
God’s with us… and God’s with THOSE PEOPLE
God’s with our household… and with our neighbor.
God’s here…and God’s there.
God’s there in the rapture of religious ecstasy… and in the doldrums of everyday need.
God’s in the church…and in the snowed in apartment.
God’s in the transfiguration…and down the mountain with father and son.
So lets follow him down the mountain.

God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
And boy does Jacob go with God to some strange places, from Cannan to Harran—or to say it another way from Modern day Israel to Modern day Turkey—wrestling at the river Jabbok and amongst messy family squabbles.
God is with Jacob beyond Bethel, and with people other than Jacob.
So lets follow God down the mountain.

And so too Peter with Jesus. After Peter’s suggestion of creating dwelling places for Moses and Elijah clouds rumble in.
A front of epic proportion—more low pressure systems and high pressure systems crashing together than we’ve ever seen—gathers
and from the depths of the storm comes the words, “this is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

Now what does this have to do with following him down the mountain? you might ask.
Two things:
1) The last thing Jesus had said to Peter before the transfiguration was that he was going to be killed and raised. You can’t be killed and raised if you’re stuck on top of a mountain!
2) The next words Jesus speaks, kind of scary words at that, are the words, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” Jesus isn’t just up in the mountain at the zenith and the heights of faith and power—he is also down with us at the base of the mountain where there is faithlessness and perversity.
On the mountain we get a clear picture of Jesus in his glory. In the riveting and rolling clouds and thunderous voice we witness the greatness of God. We even hear that Jesus is God’s Chosen son.
But we get a clear picture of Jesus and of God down here at the base of the mountain too! In restoring an only son to his father—by healing the boy—we are astonished at the greatness of God.
Lets follow him down the mountain to see that too!
As important as the mountaintop is—as important as the realization that God is with us is, we can’t stay there—God is with us all—so let’s follow him down the mountain.

Two weeks ago Monday I was at the funeral of Mrs. Ezra Cole of Tabernacle Lutheran Church in West Philly where I did my Field Education last year.
Now I didn’t know Mrs. Cole particularly well—I just thought of her as the nice well-dressed lady who sang on the choir.
But when I arrived at Tabernacle it was obvious she was much more than that—she was Lutheran royalty.
Three generations deep of pastors—including St. John’s own Pastor Rosa Key—as well as one of Tabernacle’s Vicars from 1973, were all in attendance to say a few words.
The place was packed!
It turns out Mrs. Cole was quite a woman—that day we heard stories about her faith, her sense of style, and her singing, and on more than one occasion, humorous stories were told at the expense of her husband.
But that’s not what caught my attention.
What caught my attention was that Mrs. Cole was the first African American member of Tabernacle—then an exclusively German church now a mainly African American one…and even more interesting was that she had become a member in the 1950’s.
The Coles had moved into West Philly just as they had their third child. And having three children under the age of 2 can be a hand full—or so I’ve heard.
And one of the Cole’s neighbors—a little old German lady—came up to her one Sunday and said,
“Dear, three children are too many to have without a church family to support you.”
And that very day she drug Mrs. Cole and her three children down Spruce street to Tabernacle.
And two weeks ago—well over half a century and multiple pastors later there she was, surrounded by her three children and so many people who she had touched—and loved—and had loved her—still at Tabernacle.
And I can’t help but think--What if that little German Lady hadn’t been confident that God was with her.
What if that little German Lady had tried to snow God in.
What if that Little German Lady hadn’t realized God was with Mrs. Cole too?
What if that Little German Lady hadn’t followed Jesus down the mountain and next door to her neighbor?
I don’t know the answer—but I fear both Tabernacle and West Philly would be a poorer place for it.
And I’m just so glad she knew God is with us and that she followed God down the mountain. A+A