The Crosses We Wear

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

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

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Please pray with me this evening:

Holy and Almighty God,
Return us to you tonight.
Remind us that you are God,
And that we are not.
And give us hearts that ache with the same love
And life that you first breathed into the dust.
Amen.

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I have a curious relationship with Ash Wednesday. For a couple of reasons, I think.

The first is that I’m a pretty high empath. That is, I feel things quite deeply. And so I enter and walk through Lent not only with a heightened sense of my own failings as it relates to living close to the heart of God, but I’m also more aware of how, on a larger societal level, our shortcomings feel greater and more vast. I tend to get quite introspective during Lent, and usually what I uncover doesn’t bring me much joy.

Secondly, is that it’s curious to me that every year we hear these same cautionary words from Jesus about practicing our piety before others, and yet, here we are, gathered together among friends and family, to be smudged with dirt, to then file out through those doors very publicly displaying these badges of mortality.
As you walked around today, did you notice the dusty crosses on the heads of some of your co-workers or neighbors or strangers? Did you give each other a knowing look or wink or nod? There’s a collective relationship with Ash Wednesday that doesn’t feel present with almost any other liturgical day.
And it makes me wonder why.

Part of me thinks that there’s a sense of cultural expectation with Ash Wednesday. Most of us grew up going to Ash Wednesday services, but even if we didn’t, seeing all these people walk around with smudges on their forehead…well, it kind of feels like the thing to do, doesn’t it?

But there’s another part of me—the more hopeful part, I suppose—that thinks that maybe…just maybe…there’s something so undeniably compelling about being told the truth about ourselves.

That for all our complexity and brilliance, we’re nothing more than the dust of the earth traced on our brows.

That’s a hard truth to hear, I think. Because so much of our lives these days are focused on what anthropologist Ernest Becker calls “immortality projects.” We avoid death at all costs. On average, we’re living longer than ever before, but we consume ourselves with running away from death.

But what if we reframe what it means to be dust?
What if instead of running away from death, we imagined ourselves as running toward life?

Dust and dirt are precious, church. It’s out of the dust that life was brought forth. It’s out of the dirt that life springs up from the ground.
Hands Holding SoilYou’ve heard that the dust in your homes is made up mostly of skin cells, right? Not that I’m saying that we shouldn’t clean our houses, but think about that…dust contains DNA…the very foundations of life are contained within those balls of dirt.
Dust is holy. Dust is precious. Dust is life.

And you know, when we’re baptized, the pastor marks this very same cross on our very same foreheads, and declares to us, “Beloved, child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Baptism—this act of joining our very selves to Christ, so that, even in death, we are united, through Christ’s resurrection, to Christ’s life.

These crosses, that are so familiar to our foreheads, are identity markers for us.
They’re touchstones for us when we feel distant from the One who crafted us from the dust.
They’re guideposts helping us find our way back to the Source of our life.
They’re hallmarks reminding us who we are and whose we are. That God is God, and we are not.

And that’s Gospel, church. That’s Good News for us who are consumed with our immortality projects.
Because it means that we don’t have to have it all together, and still God redeems us.

This cross of ash on our heads does serve as a reminder to us of how far away from the heart of God we’ve drifted.
But it also shows us the extraordinary lengths that God goes to bring us back.

And if you’re wondering, it’s about the distance from one outstretched hand to the other.

I don’t think Jesus in our Gospel for tonight is admonishing against religiosity, so much as he is explaining what a life steeped in spiritual practices looks like.
The three traditional Lenten spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy. And I don’t think Jesus is reprimanding these practices, I think he’s resetting their direction.
See, piety had become a display. In ancient Jerusalem, the religious people were making a show of their prayer and fasting so as to be seen and noticed by others.
But Jesus says, these practices aren’t about you. The spiritual disciplines we undertake during Lent aren’t about making ourselves feel better or more holy. Their function is to make us more aware of God’s presence in our lives and to turn our focus outward, away from ourselves, and to give of ourselves, for the sake of others.

Rather than avoiding death, embrace life, church.
Plant, and grow, and give, and cultivate life where life is needed.

That’s what this mark on your forehead is.
Not a sign of death, but a reminder of the life to which you are called.

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A Reasonably Full Account

* a sermon preached in class at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on March 29, 2016 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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I sat staring at the screen, watching the cursor…

… * blink * … * blink * … * blink *…

I sat there for what felt like an inappropriately long time. I stared back at the printed page, back at the blank computer screen, back at the printed paper…

I reread the sentence at least 10 times… “What does this mean?!?”

Back at the screen, back at the paper… “Please give a reasonably full account of your life.”

 

What……?!?

 

I started typing… “I was born…” That’s as far as I got.
Back at the paper, back at the screen, back at the paper…
Nope. Not today. ‘File > Save As > CPE Application > Enter’. Shut the computer.

I sat there for an hour, and all I had to show for it were three words. “I. Was. Born.”
Yep. Very good, Chris. You were, in fact, born. Glad we figured out that mystery.

But what else? Ummmmm…… I don’t know…
It was clear to me that I needed to sit with this prompt. I needed to think about it for a while.
Because I needed to figure out what this question was asking at its base. What were my potential CPE supervisors looking for out of my response to this question?

I eventually did answer this question, just as we all did, just as we answered the myriad of similar questions over the years.

  • Provide a brief autobiography, including your early years and faith formation.
  • Describe your journey of discernment.
  • Give a clear statement of faith that reflects your understanding of the heart of Lutheran Confessional witness.
  • What key theological insights have been influential in your development as a missional leader in the Church as it participates in God’s mission in world? (Missional, mission, missionally missional…)
  • In fifty words or less, describe your vision of your calling in ministry and your passion for ministry.

Such gems…

These, and many other prompts like it that we’ve responded to over the past 4 years are, fundamentally, questions about our identity. Who are we?

Our response to this question isn’t cut and dry, it’s not simple. It requires a multi-faceted, multi-angled, and nuanced answer. For example, I’m a husband. I’m also a son. And a brother. And a male. And…I’m caring. And I’m loyal. And I’m a little bit silly…

 

This question of identity is one that we see being worked out in our Gospel today. We have the people wondering about John’s identity: “Is this the Messiah for whom we’re waiting?” We have John’s assertion of his own identity: “I’m not the one, but there is one coming after me. I’m not worthy to touch his feet.” We see Jesus coming to be baptized by John, as much a marker of belonging and identity as it is a ritual cleansing. And this affirmation from a disembodied voice from the heavens: “This is my child. He is the Beloved. And I am well-pleased with him.”

A lot gets made of Luke 4, the story of Jesus in the temple reading from the scroll of Isaiah. It’s often described as Jesus’ mission statement, the start of Jesus’ ministry. I wonder, though, if the beginning of Jesus’ ministry isn’t our verses for today, and if further description of the nature of Jesus’ mission isn’t found even before where our pericope picks up.

More on Jesus’ baptism in a second, but follow me first to 5 verses before the reading we heard today starts. Starting at verse 10: “Then the crowds asked John, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked John, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

See, here’s the thing, in the midst of baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sins, John was also calling people to a certain pattern of life. The community into which John was baptizing people was to be known by certain habits and practices: the sharing of resources, fair economic policies, and mandates for compassion and justice by those in power.

Jesus baptismAnd I don’t think it’s insignificant that Jesus comes to be baptized by John. I don’t think Jesus was just walking along the banks of the Jordan in Galilee and chose to just stop off and see what this strangely-dressed prophet of the wilderness was putting down and decided on a whim that all of this sounded like a good idea. No, I think John’s vision for society is compelling. I think Jesus explicitly understood the nature of his ministry as being aligned with, and maybe even informed by, John’s version of communal living. And if we’ve learned anything in 4 years, I think it’s that we know that fairness, compassion, justice, and community are the trademarks of Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing, and teaching.

They’re trademarks of a ministry that culminates in the ultimate act of solidarity and love. The giving up of one’s life for the sake of the world. Emptying of one’s self so that we might have life.

And even in that, even in the shameful and horrific execution that was supposed to restore order and reassert the status quo, we who live on this side of Easter know that that’s not the end of it. There’s a new order, a new way. The status quo is no longer…quo. See, God brings life from things that are dead. God’s response to a world that would murder and silence the very embodiment of Love is the Resurrection of that Love and the establishment of an alternative vision for life founded on that very Word: Beloved.

 

Which brings me back to baptism. See, as much as Luke 4 does give us a clear description of what Jesus is going to be about, I think the call to that ministry is found one chapter before in this baptismal narrative. This call to ministry that gets articulated in the temple, I think, is first instilled in Jesus in the waters of baptism and the assertion from God that, “This is my child. Beloved. I am so pleased.”

Dear friends, it’s the same call that was kindled us when we were washed in those refreshing waters, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The call that has been growing and emerging inside of all of us as we move forward into ministry patterned on those same trademarks of fairness, compassion, justice, and community.

It’s that call that will be publicly reaffirmed for most of us in a few short months when we will be told that by the grace of God and the call of the church you, Christian Michaelis; you, David Elliott; you, Andrew Yoos; you, Marissa Tweed; you, Dione Miller; you, Amy; you, Alma; you, Stacy; you, Peter; you, Debbie; you, Elizabeth, are called and ordained to preach and teach the Word and rightly administer the Sacraments. To feed God’s people with bread and wine and Word. To shower God’s people in the waters of the unending mercy and compassion of God. To lead and to call and to join with God’s people in an alternative way of living and being in this world, a pattern of life marked by fairness and justice.

And may God who has given you the will to do these things graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.
Because that’s who you are. That’s your identity.

 

Friends, that reasonably full account of our lives is about to get so much more full…

 


Image credit: Steve Erspamer, SM