Life, Soul, Self – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon for Lent 2 is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Mark tells us that Jesus made this declaration not just to his disciples, but he made sure that the whole crowd was gathered ’round.  We’ve jumped our way through Mark’s Gospel since the Epiphany, so it is kind of hard to tell what’s been going on.  Let’s review.  We’ve heard how Jesus called his first disciples away from their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  We’ve also heard how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and the whole city of Capernaum came to see what he was up to.  From there, Jesus went from town to town, preaching the good news, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  His fame spread and his followers grew until in chapter three, Mark says that “a great multitude followed him from all around.”[1]

Jesus’ ministry continued to flourish with only a small hiccup in his hometown of Nazareth.  By the time we get to chapter 6, the crowd following Jesus had grown to more than five thousand men, not counting women and children.  Some scholars suggest that there were upwards of twenty-thousand followers of Jesus at the height of his popularity, so when Jesus invites the crowd to gather ‘round, we’re talking lots and lots of people.  Clearly Jesus didn’t study marketing in Hebrew school as even the least business savvy person on earth would know that you don’t take advantage of huge popularity by making massive demands of your followers.  Take up your cross?  Lose your life?  This is not the stuff of church growth textbooks, and yet it is the very core of the Gospel message.

Remember way back to chapter one.  At the very outset of his ministry, Jesus made it clear what he was going to be about, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Following Jesus requires repentance and belief, which means, as Jesus says in our lesson for today, a complete change of life.  Jesus uses provocative language as he speaks to a crowd of thousands to let them know that following him isn’t going to lead them to fame, fortune, or cushy cabinet positions.  Peter didn’t get that, and he got called Satan.  Jesus wants everyone to know that following him means a complete identity change.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  As relatively comfortable, 21st century, American Christians, these words from Jesus can be hard to wrap our minds around.  Recent events by ISIS in Iraq and Syria have given us an idea of what extreme persecution and martyrdom look like, but here in the States, we are free to worship at any of our roughly three-hundred-fourteen-thousand churches.[2]  The biggest sacrifice the average Christian makes to follow Jesus in 21st century America is giving up one day of sleeping-in every two or three weeks.  Giving up our lives for the sake of the Gospel seems impossible and ridiculous all rolled up into one luke-warm cup of coffee-hour coffee.  So what are we to do?  How are we to be faithful disciples in a world where being a Christian is so dadgum easy?

Let’s take a deeper look at what Jesus is asking for in this morning’s Gospel.  He doesn’t want our lives, per se, but instead, he’s seeking after our selves, our souls and bodies.  “Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul four times in three verses.”  The NRSV translates the Greek word “psuche” as life throughout verses 35-37, but the underlying meaning is closer to soul or self.  “Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God.  If Jesus is who we Christians say he is… then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls.  After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place.”[3]

In its original context, Jesus’ language is intentionally provocative.  He wants people to realize just how difficult it will be to be his disciples as they head toward Jerusalem, but he isn’t suggesting that they all become martyrs for his cause, though some of them will.  Instead, he is inviting the crowd to think long and hard about who they are and whose they are.  He’s inviting them, and us, to repent and to change our primary identity away from me, myself, and I and toward the kingdom of God.  Jesus is inviting us to think no longer about our own selfish desires, but instead to put God and neighbor first.

My friend, Keith Voets, wrote an article for this month’s Anglican Digest[4] in which he told Delores Hart’s story of selflessness.  Delores was born in Chicago in 1938.  By age 11, she had moved with her family to the glitz and glamor of Beverly Hills.  At 19, she made her film debut in Loving You staring Elvis Presley.  That film, and more specifically, her giving Elvis his first on-screen kiss, catapulted Delores into stardom.  She starred in nine more films over the next five years, when in 1963 she stunned Hollywood, announcing that she would leave the movie star life to enter a Roman Catholic convent.  The Rev. Mother Delores Hart is now 76 years old and the Prioress at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

As Father Voets writes, “Delores Hart gave up a life that many can only dream of: fame, fortune, and glamour. She seemed to have it all, and yet, realized she did not. Delores Hart, pulled by the Holy Spirit, decided to sacrifice it all so that she could serve God through a life of humility, poverty, prayer, and hospitality.”[5]  Like the call to martyrdom, Delores Hart’s call to become a Religious is a one that none of us will probably hear, but her example of giving up life and self for the Kingdom of God is one worth knowing.  Jesus calls us all to be faithful to him, no matter the cost.  He invites us to lay down the identity we’ve worked so hard to create for ourselves: intelligent, attractive, athletic, funny, gainfully employed, good parent, caring friend, charming party host, comfortably retired, you name it, Jesus invites us to hand over our carefully crafted identities to take on the only identity that really matters, beloved disciple and child of God.

The massive crowd that followed Jesus began to dwindle after this short speech.  He continued to predict his arrest, death, and resurrection.  He made more difficult demands, and he upset the religious and political powers that be.  Following Jesus became harder by the hour until one day, a Friday we call Good, when only a handful of women, his Mother, and one disciple followed him to the place of the skull where he was crucified as a traitor to Rome.  The good news for the disciples who ran scared, the crowd that lost interest, and we who struggle to give our lives over for the sake of the Gospel is that in laying down his life, Jesus opened the flood gates of God’s grace.  Each time we fail to follow him.  Each time we choose our life over the gospel.  Each time we try to fit God into our plans, we can receive forgiveness and enter again into the new life of grace that comes through Jesus who laid down his life for the sake of the gospel.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 3:7-8 (author’s paraphrase)

[2] http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#numcong

[3] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-2b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[4] “Lights! Camera! Action! A Life of Faith and Service” p. 29-31. Accessed on 2/26/15 http://www.scribd.com/doc/253532100/2015-01-SPRING

[5] Ibid., p. 29

Failing Lent

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Lent 2 is a challenging one.  Once a prayer for heretics and schismatics, that they might be delivered from their errors and return to the Church catholic, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer it takes on new life.  Marion Hatchett, in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, notes that “In its new context as a Sunday collect it refers to those who have abandoned the practice of Christian faith” (174).  In the 35 years since the 79 BCP was approved, I think this collect has taken on an even broader meaning.

According to a January 7th article in the Washington Post, somewhere between 25 and 30% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions have already failed at the one week mark.  Roughly 45% have quit by the 3 week mark.  Extrapolating that data to Lenten discipline, by the time Sunday rolls around, we will be 10 days into Lent, which means that nearly 1/3 of us will have already quit or failed our Lenten practice.  A night out calls for a glass of wine, I get it.  11″ of snow in north Alabama meant you didn’t run for a week, sure.  Morning Prayer out of the BCP is really hard to juggle for one person, and it just plain feels weird, I know.

Shocking as it may be to believe, Homer Simpson has been wrong before.  Failure at least means you tried, and that’s a good thing.  On Sunday, when we pray for all who have gone astray, maybe we’ll be praying for you.  Maybe it’ll be a chance to start again at deepening your relationship with God.  Maybe it’ll be a new invitation to a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  Maybe it’ll be a chance to experience the grace of God that forgives all our sins, all our failures, all our mess-ups.

Bring your goof-ups and your slip-ups and your failures with you to church this week.  I plan to.  That way, the Collect can be an invitation for all of us into God’s unending mercy.

Life, Soul, Self

There I was, sitting at my home office desk, minding my own business, reading my sermon notes for this week, when about halfway through Scott Hoezee’s post at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, I learned something brand new.  It hit me right between the eyes.  It was one of those things that changes the way you read scripture: one of those moments when you realize just how less than ideal English translations really are.

“But then comes one of the most famous things Jesus ever said [that he never actually said].  Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul, conveyed four times in three verses through the Greek word [psuche].”

The NRSV translates this word as life throughout verses 35-37, but the underlying meaning in Greek seems mean something closer to soul or self.

“Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God.  If Jesus is who we Christians say he is… then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls.  After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place.  Who would know better than Jesus how they work?”

Whether you choose to translate this word as life or soul or self (my preferred translation) the deeper meaning in Jesus’ words need to be highlighted.  He isn’t telling the crowd to martyr themselves beside him on the cross, though some of them will meet that fate, but rather to be aware of, as the well worn adage goes, “who they are and whose they are.”  Giving up life, soul, self, is about a change in identity that comes through repentance (to change one’s mind).  When we turn away from our own selfish desires and turn to God’s will for our selves, for our family, for our Church, for the world God created, we have, in effect, laid down our selves and picked up a new identity as a beloved disciple, a child of God.

Why the Diocese? An #Acts8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

As you might recall from a few week’s ago, the Acts 8 Moment, a group of Episcopalians seeking to Proclaim Resurrection in The Episcopal Church, has taken on a three-round BLOGFORCE Challenge on subsidiarity.  Question one dealt with congregations, asking “What is the mission of the congregation?”  You can read my response here and the round up of all posts here.  This week’s question bumps us one level higher to what church types like to call the mid-level judicatory, or in The Episcopal Church, the diocese.  Again there are two questions to answer: What is the mission of the Diocese?  How should it be structured to serve its mission?  Here goes.

On Saturday, February 21st at Trinity Episcopal Church in Mobile, Alabama, the 44th Annual Convention of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast elected the Rev. James Russell Kendrick as its 4th Bishop.  In the months leading up to that election, we were invited, as a diocese, to pray the Collect for the Election of a Bishop found on page 818 of the Book of Common Prayer.

Almighty God, giver of every good gift: Look graciously on your Church, and so guide the minds of those who shall choose a bishop for this Diocese, that we may receive a faithful pastor, who will care for your people and equip us for our ministries; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It seems to me that this prayer sums up not just the ministry of a Bishop as chief pastor, but also makes a bold statement about the mission of the diocese.  To me, the mission of the diocese is quite simply, to equip us for our ministries.  Certainly there a few ministries that are best done at the diocesan level, but to my mind that list is very, very small.  As the hub from which congregations radiate from, the diocese should serve to facilitate the ministries of each member congregation.  It should serve as a hub of communication, of best practices sharing, of training, and of support.

I live and work in a diocese that has a very small staff.  With 5.6 full-time equivalent employees, the structure of the Central Gulf Coast is almost entirely focused on administration.  The Bishop’s Secretary, the Financial Secretary, the Diocesan Secretary, and the Diocesan Administrator all work, for the most, to keep the system running.  A 0.1 FTE Canon to the Ordinary and a half-time Diocesan Youth Coordinator are the two positions that exist in order to equip us for our ministries, while the Bishop does his best to keep the myriad plates spinning, all the while changing hats as often as he checks his email.  A three person communications team works as contract employees for the Diocese in order to help tell our stories, but they are grossly underfunded to do that work.

Realizing that this structure does not facilitate congregations in their ministry, my suggestion has been and would be to re-prioritize the paltry staff budget so that at least 50% of the time and money spent in the diocesan budget is used for equipping and engaging in ministry.  In my diocese, for example, this would look like

  • The Bishop – a 50/50 ministry/administration office (1 FTE)
  • A Canon to the Ordinary- Ministry (1 FTE)
  • A Diocesan Administrator/Financial Officer – Admin (1 FTE)
  • Executive Assistant serving the Bishop and Canon – 50/50 (1 FTE)
  • Communications Administrative Assistant – 50/50 (1 FTE)
  • Youth Ministry Coordinator – Ministry (.5 FTE)

This means that 3 FTE are focused on ministry and 2.5 FTE are focused on administration.  We can’t eliminate administration, but it shouldn’t be the overwhelming mission of the diocese.  Equipping congregations for ministry and serving as a facilitator of communication, dioceses can help their congregations flourish and help us move away from being a lose confederation of congregationalists toward once again being The Episcopal Church in a geographic region, serving to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Denying Self

Jesus called the crowd and his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

I’m about 99% certain that we have no idea what these words from Jesus really mean.  As 21st century, American Christians, we can’t even begin to imagine what it meant for someone to follow Jesus in 1st century Palestine.  This isn’t inherently bad, mind you, it is merely coming to terms with the fact that the circumstances of life in  America today are just so vastly different than they were 2,000 years ago in the Jordan River Valley.  The good people over at WorkingPreacher.org’s Sermon Brainwave did some digging into this point.  It is worth a listen.

They point out what many of us learned in seminary, but probably forgot, that the concept of the self has only developed into an individualistic idea over the last 400 years or so, and even then, only in the west.  Throughout most of the East and the Global South, selfhood is a communal concept.  In 21st century America, who I am as a person is the sum of me: my job, my family system, my living situation, my education, and my religious preferences.  I am Steve, a Low Church Episcopal Priest, a first-born to my parents, but a middle-child to my Father, and a married father of two who is 3/5th of the way done with a D.Min from the University of the South.  To deny myself and take up my cross in that context simply means to do that which I would not normally choose to do.  In the Ancient Near East, the self is defined by the sum of all the people with whom I am in relationship.  I am the son of Pat and John, brother of Ed, Mike, and Lisa, husband to Cassie, father of Eliza and Lainey, co-worker of Keith and Penny, Facebook friend of 1,270, and a priest to hundreds more.  To deny myself in that context is to brave the realistic possibility that you’ll be leaving behind family, friends, and job in order to take an entirely new identity as disciple of Jesus.

The only real opportunity cost for most American Christians is giving up the ability to sleep in [every-third] Sunday morning.  So how do we live into Jesus’ mandate to deny self and follow Jesus?  If denying self is, as I suggest, about a fundamental change in identity, then it would seem that following Jesus requires us to take on his characteristics.  This means doing the hard work of loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and the even harder work of loving your neighbor as yourself.  For example, loving the woman you cut you off in traffic this morning or loving the guy who didn’t wipe down the machine at the gym or loving that family member who always calls at the worst time to talk about nothing in particular or that coworker who smacks his gum in the cubicle next to you or the judge who struck down your state’s same-sex marriage ban or the judge who argues that his interpretation of God’s law trumps federal law, or… you get the idea.  Living in love is probably a good first step on the way to a fundamental change in identity from Steve to Disciple of Jesus: a first step that will probably take a lifetime plus to take.

Set your mind on divine things

My Transfiguration sermon was mostly spent telling the story of Peter’s confession of and rebuke by Jesus.  So it goes that two weeks later, we hear the story of that rebuke as we continue our Lenten journey through Mark’s Gospel.  The benefit of hearing it more than once, and especially of hearing it read from Mark the second time around, is that we have some familiarity with it already.  We’re ready, maybe, to hear Jesus call his right hand man, Satan.  Perhaps also, we’re more able to notice the scant few details that Mark offers in this story.

What I noticed this morning was exactly what Jesus rebukes Peter for.  Jesus fusses at Peter for setting his mind on human things, not divine things.  Or at least that is what the NRSV would have us believe.  I was struck by that word “divine” and went seeking to find out what it might have meant to Jesus, when I realized that it isn’t actually what he said.  In the Greek, and in pretty much every other major translation, Jesus actually says to Peter, “you’re not thinking about the things of God, but rather than things humanity.”  To convey it in a more popular idiom, “that’s not God’s will but yours.”

Peter gets rebuked because he refused to follow the will of God.  As I said in my sermon two week’s ago, choosing my will over the will of God is the very definition of sin.  That’s why Peter gets called Satan.  Satan sought his own will.  Peter sought his own will.  And often, I seek my own will as well.

To set our minds on God’s will requires that we set aside our own.  We must lay aside the devices and desires of our own hearts, repent, and seek after the devices and desires of God.  It isn’t easy.  Even Jesus’ right hand man, Simon Peter of Capernaum, failed from time to time.  Our invitation, especially in Lent, is to be intentional about laying down our own stuff to follow after God, or as the NRSV prefers to put it: to set our minds on divine things.

Ash Wednesday Homily

You can listen to today’s homily on the Saint Paul’s Website or read it here.

“Take heed!  Watch out!  Beware! Give some extra thought about practicing your piety before others.”  These words from Jesus that we hear every Ash Wednesday took on real meaning for Cassie and me back in 2006.  Ash Wednesday fell on the First of March that year, our third wedding anniversary.  I was in Seminary, serving at a parish in Potomac, MD and we planned to have dinner on our way home after the 6pm Ash Wednesday Liturgy – at an Indian restaurant.  You might not know this, but in Indian culture, many women wear a Bindi on their foreheads. The Bindi is a red dot worn to represent the third eye, one that sees spiritual things that are beyond ordinary sight.  We had a long conversation in the car on the way to dinner.  Should we keep the black smudge on our foreheads or not?  Jesus told us to beware about practicing our piety before others.  Would our dinner hosts think we were poking fun at their culture?  Would they even notice or care?  Ultimately, we decided to rub the black smudges off our foreheads, knowing that the true work of repentance in Lent happens on the inside.

In just a few minutes, Father Keith will invite us all, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  Over the next forty plus six days, we’ll take on the challenge of sanctification, the work of becoming more in line with the will of God for our lives and for the world God created.  This work is not to be done in showy ways.  If you’re giving up Facebook for Lent, maybe just disappear, don’t change your profile picture to say, “I’m off Facebook for Lent because I’m holier than you are.”  If you’re going to fast on Fridays, don’t spend the day complaining about how hungry you are because you’re fasting, unlike the rest of us wretched sinners who insist on eating delicious food.  If you are taking on reading the Bible or praying  the Daily Office, you can probably do it without interspersing, “While I was reading Leviticus this morning” or “During Morning Prayer, which I read every day, you know…”  The work of a holy Lent is intended to strengthen our relationship with God, not make us the annoyance of our fellow human beings.

In the Episcopal tradition, we are invited to take part in a holy Lent in three ways: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  The first thing you’ll notice is that these are strung together by the word “and” not by an “or.”  These three observances, when combined, offer the full expression of the work of a holy Lent.  First comes self-examination and repentance.  I think they are listed first because it is the part we are least likely to do.  While most of us are our own toughest critics, it usually has to do with our weight or our work or our pocketbooks.  Rarely do we take the time to take honest stock of whether or not our lives are being lived in accordance with the will of God.  The questions we need to be asking this Lent are more like: How am I doing at loving my neighbor?  What about loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?  What areas of my life need to be purged or cleansed – what do I need to change – in order to follow God’s will?

Second on the list is prayer, fasting, and self-denial.  This is probably the most popular Lenten observance: giving something up for Lent is still a strong cultural phenomenon.  You’ll note that in our Prayer Book, it isn’t just about giving something up for the sake of giving something up, but rather prayer is tied in with the other two.  The goal of our fasting is to make us better able to focus on our relationship with God.  If chocolate or wine take away from your prayer time, then by all means give them up, but I think the intent of this practice in our hyper-connected-an-iPhone-in-every-hand-and-a-television-in-every-waiting-room culture is less about losing weight or quitting smoking and more about turning our attention toward the Father.  Maybe instead of reading that Young Adult Vampire novel for an hour every night, you can spend 15 minutes in prayer.  Or log off Facebook and use the time you’d spend getting angry at political posts offering God thanks for the day that you’ve been given.  Or put your cell phone away when you get home from work and focus your attention on being thankful for the gifts that are right in front of you: family, friends, pets, Pat Sajak, you name it.

Finally, we have the invitation to read and meditate on God’s holy Word.  Daily Bible study is key to the observance of a Holy Lent.  You don’t have to read the whole Bible in the next 46 days.  The call is not just to read, but also to meditate.  Take small chunks and read them slowly, prayerfully listening for what God is saying through the scriptures.  The Gospel of Mark has something like 675 verses.  If you read and mediate on 15 verses a day, you’ll read the whole book by Easter.  Romans, the Mount Everest of the Bible, has only 433 verses: 10 a day will take you through the best theological text book you’ll ever read.  Living a holy Lent doesn’t have to be all consuming.  You don’t have to be like the ancient Celtic Christians who went neck deep in the North Sea and recited all 150 Psalms from memory.  You don’t need to lament and bewail your manifold sins every waking moment.  What you do have to do is be intentional about it.  Make the choice right now to accept the invitation of the observance of a holy Lent.  Set aside three 10 minute blocks each day.  Confess your sins from the day before each morning and ask God for forgiveness.  Give up watching the news over lunch and pray for your coworkers and family instead.  Read a few verses of Scripture and ask God to open your heart to his will for you before you go to bed each night.  Small actions, not big showy displays, are what the Lord desires.  He wants to be in a relationship with you, one that will change your life forever.  As with all relationships, it’ll start small, but with some effort, it’ll bloom into something beautiful, and it all begins by accepting an invitation to a Holy Lent.  Amen.

Happy Mardi Gras, Fasnacht Day, Shrove Tuesday!!!

In yesterday’s post, I stressed the importance of taking time out of our busy lives to mark a day of fasting on Ash Wednesday.  Given my stats yesterday evening and this morning, that post struck a chord with a few folks, and for that I am grateful, but truth be told, it was a little bit of putting the cart before the horse.  Before we get to Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent, we first get to enjoy a feast.  Today marks the final day of the Season after Epiphany.  For my readers in areas of Germanic settlement, it is called by the redundant misnomber of “Fasnacht Day.”  While there is a delicious donut called a Fasnacht, when the term is translated from German it actually means “Fast Night,” the night before the start of the Lenten Fast when the best foods are eaten, and lots of it, to empty your cupboards of fats and sweets.  Shrove Tuesday, the traditional name in English settlements, means to be absolved of sins by way of confessing them.  It seems that the tradition is to eat copious amounts of pancakes and go to confession in preparation for the penitential Season of Lent.  It is in those places settled by Romance Language speakers that have the most fun, however.  Carnival, or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) as it is called in French/Cajun settled Mobile and New Orleans, is a whole season of food, drink, dancing, and parades leading up to a day of excess, Fat Tuesday, and the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

Me at the Gulf Shores Mardi Gras Parade

Me at the Gulf Shores Mardi Gras Parade

Americans are really good at excess.  We use any excuse we can find to drink or eat too much.  We do it up for New Years, the Super Bowl, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thankgiving, and don’t get me started on Christmas.  It all seems to be too much.  And yet, these days of feasting and celebration are important.  When done properly, they are an opportunity to remember and be thankful for all the many gifts God has given us.  We’re grateful for a plentiful harvest, for sugar and oil in the cupboards, for the gift of a new year, for the freedoms we enjoy, and for the blessings poured out through God’s plan of salvation.  We feast in order to prepare for the fast, and that is a good thing, or as the English might say, it is meet and right so to do.

So live it up.  Enjoy the day.  Celebrate responsibly.  We’ll confess our sins tomorrow.  Today, let’s give thanks for the gifts God has given us.

Get your Ash in Church

I have been openly critical of some of the recent marketing attempts by Church leadership.  Thankfully, my friend and colleague, Adam Trambley wrote a reasoned response to the 2013 Episcopal Church marketing debacle so that I could just be snarky on Facebook, but honestly who thought this was a good idea?

Anyway, in recent years there has been an up and coming trend called “Ashes to Go” in which clerical and lay representatives from congregations set up shop at a busy intersection, outside a popular coffee shop, or near a subway entrance and engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday for those who are too busy to be bothered to come to Church on one of the very few days of obligation remaining in our overly scheduled culture.  This post will not weigh the merits of Ashes to Go because honestly I’m conflicted about it.  On one hand, I think the notion of getting outside of the church walls and engaging in guerrilla liturgy is a good and noble thing.  On the other, I think that the imposition of ashes is a sacramental symbol that can’t be done in isolation from the rest of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday and it loses is value outside of a community of faith.  That being said, there is no way Ashes to Go would work in Foley.  There is no central hub of walking activity.  Everyone is in their own cars going to their own jobs.  Unless I figured out a way to rain down ashes like confetti at the corner of AL-59 and US-98, it’d be a fruitless endeavor, no matter how well I tied up the liturgical quagmire into a neat bow to make sense of it in my own brain.

So it is that I’ve fallen in love with what seems to be the Council of Trent to the Ashes to Go’s 95 Theses, a movement summed up by this great button that you can buy from oldlutheran.com.

The Liturgy for Ash Wednesday is, to my mind, a uniquely powerful one.  It is our habit, those of us who attend the Holy Eucharist with regularity, to approach the altar rail ready to receive the body and blood of Jesus in the species of bread and wine.  We are entrenched in the pattern of coming forward, kneeling (for most of us) at the altar rail, and reaching out our hands to obtain “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” and “the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”  On Ash Wednesday, that experience is very different.  We come forward.  We kneel (most of us).  But we don’t hear the common words.  We don’t taste the familiar elements.  Instead, we feel the cold scratching on our forehead as roughly ground palm ashes mixed with oil are smeared across our brow as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  It is an arresting experience, so different than what we’re used to, and very much needed in a world that moves, as my Rector would say, “at break neck speed on the road to no where.”

One can’t have that experience without stopping for a few moments, without stepping out of the passing lane and taking a pause.  It is the one thing that even the best expression of Ashes to Go can’t offer, the intentionality of changing the normal pattern of just one day in order to hear the voice of God as he speaks through the Church.  I get that some simply can’t step out of the patterns of life, and for them, I’m glad Ashes to Go exists, but for the rest of us, honestly the 99.9% of us who can take the time to stop for 30 minutes and invite God into our hearts and onto our foreheads, I say, “Get your Ash in Church.”

If you’re in Foley, join us at 506 N. Pine Street at noon and 6pm.
A nursery will be available at 6pm.

Transfiguration Means Change – a sermon

The audio for today’s sermon for Last Epiphany is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

In the fall of 2013, we held a series of community conversations here at Saint Paul’s.  In groups of ten to twenty, we gathered around a meal and discussed our life together.  We talked about what brought us to Saint Paul’s and what kept us here.  We imagined what the ideal church might look like, and we peered into our crystal ball to dream about how we could improve our parish to better accomplish our mission of reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love to the glory of Jesus Christ.  Inevitably, at each of those gatherings, we ended up talking about change.  At one of the dinners, I heard the old adage that the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.  At the time, Lainey was about six months old and going through a phase where every time we tried to change her diaper, she would engage the alligator death roll technique, flipping again and again in an effort to avoid being changed.  It seems nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper likes change. That’s a real bummer for me as a preacher because God’s call to change our lives is what the Transfiguration is all about.

Our story begins with a plot note that we are six days later.  This begs the question, six days after what?  Six days after two monumental events.  Jesus and his disciples had made their way to Caesarea Philippi, a town built by Phillip the Second, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, and named after the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus.  It was a distinctly Roman city with a distinctly pagan past, built atop the ruins of the Temple of Pan, the Greek god of desolate places.  As they made their way to this town that served as a gateway to Gentile territory, Jesus began to ask his disciples some questions.  “Who do people say that I am?” he asked.  “John the Baptist,” said some.  Some thought maybe he was Elijah.  Others wondered if he was one of the prophets promised in the lineage of Moses.  “That’s well and good,” Jesus replied, “but who do you say that I am?”  Peter stepped forward and with conviction declared, “You are the Messiah, the anointed one of God.”  Right there, on the edge of a town built to proclaim Roman authority, Jesus was declared the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.

The disciples had figured out who he was, but Jesus wanted to be sure they knew what it meant to be the Messiah.  He began to teach them that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, that he’d be rejected by the leadership of Israel, the Chief Priests, and the scribes, and be killed, but that the story would not end there.  Three days later, he would be raised from the dead!  Peter was not in the mood for change.  He had his idea of what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah, and it meant that they would enter Jerusalem with power and might and overthrow the Romans and the Chief Priests, and the Scribes.  Death, even with the promise of resurrection was not on his agenda, and so he stood up and again with conviction spoke to Jesus. “That’s not going to happen, Jesus, we won’t let it.”  Jesus rebuked Peter quickly and strongly, saying, “Get behind me Satan!”

Six days go by.  Six long and awkward days until Jesus comes to Peter and invites him to join James and John for a private talk, up the mountain, by themselves.  While they were up there, something amazing happened.  The event was so spectacular that Mark knew he needed to tell us about it, but seems to have difficulty putting it into words.  Jesus was transfigured: metamorphosized, transformed, changed entirely.  Even his clothes were different; they became a dazzling white, so bright that no human being could have bleached them so.  Mark tries to describe the amazing event by telling us that Jesus’ tunic was “whiter than white, more dazzling than dazzling, like nothing you’ve ever seen.”[1]  In an instant, everything about Jesus changed right before their very eyes.

As if that wasn’t enough, two of the three characters mentioned in the conversation six days ago appeared alongside Jesus.  Elijah, the one whose coming would bring about the end of the world, is standing next to the shining Jesus.  Moses, the Prophet, the first savior of Israel, is standing next to the shining Jesus.  Peter realized that things were changing, that his expectations weren’t going to be met, and so, for a third time he speaks, this time with less conviction and more terror in his voice, “Master it’s good that we’re here.  Let’s build three booths, one for each of you.”  Booths, the ancient symbol of God’s salvation, built once a year as a reminder that God sustained his people in the wilderness and one day will come to restore all things.  Peter thinks the change that is coming is the end of the world and he wants to build booths to be ready for it.

Poor Peter still doesn’t quite have it right.  A voice from heaven cuts him off and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”  Listen to his words.  All of them.  Don’t stop listening when he says “I’m going to be killed,” but hear the good news when he says, “and on the third day rise again.”  Be ready to be changed.  Jesus is going to defy your expectations.  He’s going to challenge your assumptions.  He’s going to ask you to give up your life so that he can save it.  Just as Jesus was changed before Peter’s eyes, the whole world is going to be changed through Jesus.

It is true that nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper, likes change.  Sir Isaac Newton knew that nothing in the universe was capable of changing by itself.  His First Law of Motion states that an object at rest will remain at rest until acted on by an outside force.  Likewise, an object in motion will stay in motion at a constant speed and direction until acted on by an outside force.  We are hard wired to not just change for the sake of change.  An outside force, for example, God, has to be at work.  Unfortunately, most of us are a lot like Peter.  We are so averse to change that even when acted upon by God himself, we’ll resist it.  Refusing to follow the will of God in order to do your own thing has a name my friends, it is called sin.

The story of the Transfiguration offers us a perfect transition from the Season of Epiphany to the Season of Lent.  We’ve spent the last six weeks getting to know Jesus and what he was about.  We listened in as he was being baptized and heard the voice of his Father say, “You are my Son whom I love.”  We’ve heard Jesus preach about repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  We’ve seen him invite fishermen to become fishers of men.  We’ve been told of crowds who were amazed at his authority, and witnessed him heal the sick, the blind, the lame, and cast out demons with power and might.  Like Peter, we think we know Jesus, but God is about to invite us into a deeper relationship.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday, we’ll be invited to change our lives through the repentance of sins, by turning toward the will of God.  We’ll be given the opportunity to take some extra time, either by adding a spiritual discipline or by shedding a distraction, to listen to God’s call in our lives.  We’ll have the chance to recognize God’s action, pushing us out of our comfortable, sinful patterns and into his kingdom.  No one likes change, but God is all about it.  God is calling each us to be transformed and transfigured through repentance and renewal.  Will you be like Peter and balk at God’s call?  Or will you open your ears and your heart to listen for God and be changed? Which will it be? Amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/transfiguration-b/