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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Don't Count On It: the fallacy of universal law

Isaiah 55:1-9
In his work, “Cat’s Cradle,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “In this world, you get what you pay for.” My guess is that even if you’d never read anything by Vonnegut, you’ve probably heard those words before. It’s the kind of statement that most of us in this room have likely embraced our entire lives.
Then again, there is a law in physics called the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that, “You can’t get something from nothing.” Whether or not you are into physics, you’ve probably heard that statement or it’s cousin, “you can’t get something for nothing” before, too.
Like other so-called universal laws like “what goes up must come down,” or “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” these laws have been proven over time and by experience. So, let’s face it, they just make sense to us. They perfectly express conventional wisdom bred into most human beings from a very early age.
Yet our first lesson this morning would seem to indicate that by God’s reasoning, you can get something for nothing. God’s economic theory is totally foreign to us. It offers a promise we are not quite sure we can buy – no pun intended.
The fundamental wisdom human beings seem wired to operate under, is expressed in many statements like the ones above, and we see the logic in them, right? But God counters these with statements from the Isaiah text this morning:
You that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food.
For most Americans, those former statements underscore and support basic laws of the economy of scarcity that guide our worldview and many of our actions.
They drive our fears and insecurities.
They underlie many of our relationships and interactions.
What that means is that we live with a fundamental philosophy that everything in our world comes in finite quantity: money, food, housing, land, and oil, for instance. There are other, less tangible things that we deem important for life, and these have limited supply as well: power, love, affection, time, and favor.
These truths abide as the foundation of everything from sibling rivalry to the adolescent drama of competing friendships and affections, to the battle for college admissions, to the give and take of workplace politics, family politics, church politics, and so on.
Knowing and following the rules is important to our survival. Operating within this economy of scarcity can be tricky.
In the modern world, every good thing must be earned, and it, too, is available in limited supply. People crave satisfaction and firmly believe that in order to get it you have to earn it. Consequently, when the bad comes along, it must mean we’ve earned that, too. And there seems to be no such limit on bad things.
There is a lament I often hear when tragedy, illness, or overwhelming challenges strike; you’ve probably heard it, too: “what did I do to deserve this?” It is not only a judgment we place on ourselves. I have counseled people deeply wounded by the assumptions of others, even people close to them, that when something bad happened, they must have done something to cause it.
A distressing example of this that we are all too familiar with is the propensity for public figures, including certain high profile Christians, to proclaim that a particular disaster, whether natural or manmade, is the result of God’s disfavor. By their reasoning, God’s anger over sinful behaviors or particular lifestyles have caused the calamity.
Since it is our determination that everything that occurs to us, good or bad, is just pay for our own actions, is therefore earned, so it is, that we approach this passage from Isaiah with suspicion and disbelief. It so firmly goes against human wisdom.
Ours is an age of reason, science, and markets. These influences are important in their place, but God’s wisdom is not found in materialism.[1] God’s wisdom speaks of something else. It doesn’t follow that laws of the physical world with which we are so familiar.
As we turn to the Old Testament text today, though the imagery might be beautiful doesn't the offer it contains seem too good to be true? “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Whenever I hear the opening words of this text it makes me think of old-time carnivals, and marketplaces. I envision the carnies and vendors, all lined up along the lane, each of them raising their voices, each crying over the other, each hawking their wares. “Hey you! Look over here! Come, see what I have for you - the finest of goods. The ones you really want. The ones you really need.” Each vendor is vying for your attention, and your dollars and coins. And it is in this scenario that we often confirm that old adage, “you get what you pay for” and learn that “what sounds too good to be true, usually is too good to be true. Cheap goods are often that – cheap goods – cheaply designed, cheaply made, cheap to buy, they functional cheaply as well.
But then, we read this text. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money come, buy and eat!” Written for a people conquered and then long exiled and struggling in Babylonia, these words and images speak deeply. They sound frivolous and impossible to believe, as they describe a meal beyond the reach of the Israelites for whom these claims are first made; they represent something that is beyond their expectation and beyond all hope.
And yet, the people are invited to come and eat that for which they have not worked, to be filled with things they cannot afford. They have no money. It doesn’t matter. They have no property. That’s okay. Their thirst will be quenched and their emptiness filled up with the finest of provisions, without cost to them.
But then the word of the Lord continues with imperatives and purpose: come, they are told; listen, they are commanded. Why? So that you may live.
Immediately we are told what God is up to here – God’s interest is in making an eternal covenant that is connected to God’s steadfast, sure love for David. That covenant is meant to be life-giving.
God will restore this people to glory. God will raise their status. It is up to Israel to remain close to the source of its glory and power and status. It is up to Israel to reorient their lives by turning to God, by listening to God, by allowing God’s word, character, and love to shape them. Only then will they truly live.
For those who would try to rationalize this message, to make it fit into human rationale and understanding, the words of the Lord explain: For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. In other words, “trust, believe in that for which there is no logical explanation. Because God provides in ways that are too great and lofty for human explanations or understanding.”
The distance dividing heaven and earth is compared to the distance between God’s plans and intentions and our human ability to understand them. God’s plans, power and potential cannot be understood; it can only be accepted. It can only be received; it cannot be earned by any product of human imagination or reason.
          This word of the Lord, delivered through the prophet is a word for us today.
          All week long we have worked and struggled, compromised and sought approval, earning our reputations, our paychecks, and our sense of well-being in a world of competition. All week long we have done what was necessary to buy what we need and to produce what was demanded of us, whether it was homework and test scores in school, meeting a deadline or quota at work, satisfying various demands in our relationships, or, writing a sermon!
          All week long we have struggled, functioning under the human economy of scarcity. There is never enough time to do everything on the “To Do” list; there is never enough money to supply all our needs and wants; we run out of energy before we can fulfill all the demands that fill our days; our hearts are worn out from trying to love enough, give enough, feel enough, to make ourselves and everyone else in our lives happy enough.
          And then God comes along with these liberating words; come, listen, turn, live.
          As a Lenten text, those liberating words are the ones God speaks to our aching, struggling, doubting hearts and souls.  As we examine our lives we know that we have wandered far from the streams of living water that God offers us. We sense that God’s command to come is nothing other than a life-giving instruction for repentance – for the radical reorientation of our lives that places God at the center of our lives, and allows us to truly live.
          It takes turning toward God and listening to God for the reshaping to begin, and yet we know deep down that even that turning, even that listening, is not something we can take on ourselves.
It is only by the working of God’s Spirit, a gift of God for the people of God, that this reorientation can begin. The Spirit is planted deep within us, and abides with us, that as we begin the radical reorientation which sets us on the road to follow God’s command and invitation, the resultant reshaping will allow us to be the disciples God calls us to be.
“In this world you get what you pay for?” In the kingdom of God, there is an abundance where our hunger is slaked and our thirst is quenched, where we receive grace for which we do not pay, and life without measure.
“You can’t get something for nothing?” While true, we are not the payees. The cost for filling our need has been paid for us through the eternal love of God and the cross of Jesus Christ.
Every so-called universal law that we can name and articulate, which is governed by our law of scarcity is ans

wered and conquered by God’s overarching law of abundance, wherein God’s love permeates our being and abides within us, answering our need, and filling us – filling us with good things.
May our repentance this Lent be a radical turning toward the God who shapes our hearts and lives to live abundantly knowing and trusting in the one who can satisfy our deepest longing.

[1] Darryl M. Trimiew, in his commentary on this passage in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, p. 76.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

On the Road Again - Making Divine Music

Luke 13:31-35
There is an old Willie Nelson song that goes, “On the road again.
Just can’t wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is makin’ music with my friends.
And I can’t wait to get on the road again.”
Well, I don’t know if Jesus was as anxious to get on the road as Willie Nelson apparently was, knowing what would come at the end of the journey.
Still, Jesus might as well have been singing that song at this point in the gospel of Luke,
because Jesus is “on the road again.”
He’s on the road with his friends.
The music he is makes delivers the good news of a God
who loves the world so much,
that, despite the cost, God’s wills this journey
to continue to its destination.
Jesus has been making music,
delivering this good news along with
          a new imperative that God desires the salvation of all people;
                   that in God’s economy, grace and mercy abound
                             for those who trust in the goodness of Our Lord.
The road Jesus is on is the road to Jerusalem.
It is the road of his divine destiny.
Enrique Simonet Lombardo Jesus journeys to Jerusalem
It is the road to his passion, to his death on the cross,
                   and ultimately, to his resurrection.
Yes, Jesus is on the road again.
And not everyone is happy about it.
In this gospel text, Jesus reveals that by God’s will, “it is necessary”
 – this road,
this journey,
this story –
it is the fulfillment of the divine plan,
the purpose for which he came,
to be on that road.
The journey that Jesus makes to Jerusalem,
reveals that Jesus is committed to fulfilling God’s will.
But he is not without opposition, traveling down that road.
Along his journey, Jesus clashes with one opponent and obstacle after another.
Despite the danger, despite the warnings,
despite his rejection by the Jewish leadership and elders,
          Jesus is “on the road again.”
And in today’s gospel text, he faces down Herod Antipas, “that fox,”
who, unlike our conventional characterization of the fox
is not an emblem of wisdom, but rather a figure of cunning deception.
In Jesus’ context, the word he chooses for “fox”
Would have been understood as someone more akin to a weasel –
an animal that steals the food of others,
as Herod once stole his own brother’s wife.
Later in the gospel of Luke, we learn that Herod participates in the event to steal
the very life from Jesus,
and attempts to steal any semblance of hope
away from those Jesus came to embrace.
Along his journey and on that road, Jesus clashes with the Pharisees time and again,
that group of men who pretend in these verses to be looking out for Jesus’ welfare,
but who secretly and not-so-secretly plot to be rid of him.
As we see in the parables, Jesus and the Pharisees
clash time and again.
The clash between Jesus and the temple leadership
often takes the form of debates and disagreements over the
meaning and scope of God’s love
and God’s agenda for humankind, as Jesus sings a new song of inclusivity even as the Pharisees cry out for the continuance of the exclusive, preferential following of Law.
Jesus reminds us in this text
that there is a clash between Jesus and Jerusalem as well,
as Jesus calls to mind the Old Testament stories
that reveal the many times God has sheltered the people of Israel
under God’s protective wings,
and yet has been rejected by this stubborn and recalcitrant people.
Their rejection has led to the slaughter of prophets God has sent.
If nothing else,
this story reminds us that it takes courage to be a prophet and disciple of God.
Prophets tell us news that we really don’t want to hear.
The world doesn’t want to hear God’s cry for repentance and divine justice.
Jesus’ ministry, teaching and life call for a radical reorientation
of our lives, - that is what repentance is all about.
It is this call for repentance that we observe and pursue during Lent,
that we might prepare to be transformed by the love and mercy of God.
Repentance demands a radical reorientation of thought –
 what should we consider important, who do we welcome, encourage and embrace?
          How do we view our time, talent and treasure – what and who is it for?
This kind of radical reorientation of priorities and being upsets the status quo –
No longer can we hide behind a “it’s just the way it is” philosophy or excuse for falling short of the mandate of God to love our neighbor as ourselves and to make love our primary objective in life.
No longer is following tradition an acceptable excuse for ungodly behavior that has little to do with God’s desire and character and more to do with selective interpretation and application of the law to benefit and uphold a status quo that marginalizes and excludes others.
The evangelist Luke reveals throughout his gospel how, on and all along the road,
Jesus demonstrates a radical reorientation that raises up the weak and lowly.
Like a mother hen, through Jesus, God seeks
to draw, embrace, include, and welcome God’s children into the family
of humanity that God has desired and intended from the dawn
of creation itself.
Luke’s Gospel identifies the priorities and inclusiveness of God’s love from early within the evangelist’s narrative of the life of Jesus.
We remember that it is to the shepherds that
the good news of the Messiah’s birth is first told
 – shepherds – themselves considered among the lowest of the lowly.
They were not considered nice, respectable people.
Rather, they were considered undesirable, dishonest, dirty,
despicable people only suited to life out in the fields with stupid sheep,
not acceptable within the social networks of the village or town.
Even before the shepherds in Luke’s narrative,
we meet Mary,
the peasant teenage girl who,
 Freskenzyklus im Dominikanerkloster San Marco in Florenz
chosen by God to deliver unto the world the messiah, sings a song of revolution:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden,” she sings out, words that we have come to know of as “The Magnificat” – (My soul maginifies).
In Luke, we will soon read of a prodigal son and his reckless father, of a Samaritan who is not only good, but who, by his actions is more righteous than the “proper” Jewish passersby who refuse to give aid where it is needed.
 The song Jesus sings along this road is consistent with the love of God that reaches out into a world so far beyond redemption
that it takes a radical reorientation of God’s own design to save it.
It takes the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ,
who gives heart and voice and power to the powerless,
          and calls his disciples to do the same.
Of course, you can’t raise the status of the marginalized without
affecting – even lessening –
the power structures of the powerful.
And so, radical reorientation demands courage, too.
It means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, as Jesus became vulnerable
understanding that following God’s will
does not guarantee a happy ending
          or our personal safety or our own comfort.
As we heard in last week’s gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness,
following God’s will sometimes mean testing
– not from God –
but from the forces that resist God’s will.
Our experience not only of the world but even of the church today
demonstrates the distance that we are from God’s divine imperative to love
and welcome all people.
The rhetoric in our media, in our speech, in the political arena,
in our schools, on social media, in the workplace,
and in our social networks often belies our claim
that we are doing better at this than in the past.
We live in a world obsessed with status and power – not unlike Jesus’ own world –
and consequently, our world is rife with political machinations
-         Again, not unlike the world along the road that Jesus walked.
Too often we make excuses for the resulting waywardness
of our hearts.
Radical reorientation in our gospel text today points to the reality
that there will be winners and losers in the clash between Herod’s will
and God’s will, or between God’s will and Jerusalem’s will, or God’s will
and the will of the “powers that be” within the world today.
The overarching story of Jesus reminds us, however,
that what the world deems “winning” is often not winning at all.
Because this radical reorientation also points to the presence of the kingdom of God
that is at work and loose in the world, which
does not measure success or victory in worldly terms.
Rather, it measures the value of each person as beloved, prized, and worthy
of God’s sheltering wings simply because God declares it to be so
through Jesus, Our Lord.
Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown studies human behavior and sense of being.
She looks at things like what makes the human being anxious, and stuck in place. Perhaps you’ve seen T.E.D. talks she’s done on the power of vulnerability.
She states that “You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.”
For Brown, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.
Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable,” she says,
“But they’re never weakness.”
Jesus allowed himself, in fact he made himself vulnerable
in ways that make us uncomfortable;
 in ways that we really don’t understand,
in ways that the world sees as weakness.
We don’t understand why Jesus had to go to the cross.
We don’t understand this divine imperative that required such a sacrifice.
As disciples of Christ we are also called to make ourselves vulnerable.
We don’t like placing ourselves in positions of vulnerability.
          We don’t like opening ourselves up to ridicule, pain, or worse.
Perhaps that’s what makes it so hard for us
to follow Jesus on this road as faithful disciples.  
The Good News for us, this day,
is that Jesus understands our reluctance,
and through the love of God forgives us,
and sets us on our disciple feet over and over again,
willing us to learn through our own journeys what the honest vulnerability of faith can do.
God gave Jesus the courage and ability to get on the road, to live the kind of life he lived, in obedience to the will of God; to sing the song of hope for the ages as he goes on, “making music with his friends.” “Blessed,” Jesus declares as he calls those who need shelter under his wings, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Let us pray,
You call us to a radical reorientation of our lives. Turn us away from that within us which causes us to resist the deep, broad, compelling call to love others as you have first loved us. As we journey on this road with Jesus, shelter us from evil doers, from evil thoughts, and from the reluctance, born of fear, to make ourselves vulnerable for your sake. Grant, O Lord, that we may ever sing with you, that the music we make is pleasing to you, and that trusting in you, we will not stray from this road with you. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Duels, the Devil, and Discipleship

Luke 4:1-13
On this Valentine’s Day, when and red and pink and white hearts dot the landscape, and love is inspiring us to buy gifts and posies for our sweetheart, here in this place we will consider the passionate love of God. We also witness Jesus in a duel with the devil.
What do you think of when you hear the word, “duel” – d-u-e-l? While “duel” might seem like an old-fashioned word,
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a duel as:
·        A fight between two people that includes the use of weapons (such as guns or swords) and that usually happens while other people watch.
·         A situation in which two people or groups argue or compete with each other.
·        And of course, “to duel” would be the act of participating in a duel.
We find examples of duels in history, literature, and popular media. Which is probably why, when I think of a duel, it brings to mind flashing swords and fancy footwork.
Some of the greatest movie duels of all time include: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table and their nemeses go to battle using swords in various movies and plays about the legend; think of Excaliber for instance, or Camelot. Inigo Montoya does some serious swordplay in a duel against the mysterious, evil “Man in Black” in The Princess Bride movie; and, Neo duels with Agent Smith in The Matrix.
There are the duels made even more fantastic through computer graphics, like the one between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode IV, New Hope; and King Arthur versus the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you are a fan of old westerns, then the gun fight between Blondie and Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly might be the duel that comes to mind.
Finally, if you are an American history buff then perhaps, especially during this election year, you recall the infamous 1804 duel between then vice president Aaron Burr and  the former secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton over political and personal issues; a duel that left Hamilton mortally wounded and Burr wanted for murder.
Throughout this season of Lent we will see a bit of “dueling” through the gospel texts. Each text will present us with a clash of wills, each clash leading to a duel of some kind. It will be up to us to determine what the clash is in each of these texts, and how it might relate to our Lenten journey.
While we may think duels are a thing of the past, as we explore these texts we will see how we engage in them still, today.
In this week’s Gospel, the duel takes place between Jesus and the Devil; the clash is over rank and its privileges. The weapons in this duel are words – scripture, to be precise, and we are the witnesses to this duel.
Jesus has been in the wilderness for some forty days and he has not eaten in all that time. While there are some who say that because of his divinity hunger had no effect on Jesus, the text itself contradicts this, for although his divinity is established, Jesus, also fully human, is described as famished.
I can’t even imagine what Jesus was experiencing. If I go four hours without eating something, my tummy starts to rumble; eight hours, and I am headachy, grumpy, and my determination to eat healthy foods is completely overwhelmed by my craving for anything that even resembles food; twelve hours, and even the leather of my shoes begins to look awfully tasty. But Jesus goes 40 days with nothing to eat.
Jesus must have been weak with hunger, and feeling vulnerable. This is the time the devil likes to engage with us the best; When we are tired, feeling vulnerable, lonely, troubled, or weak from stress or physical challenges.
In our gospel story the devil has been with Jesus all through the 40 days, testing him in all kinds of ways, trying to trip Jesus up so that he might gain the upper hand in the fight for world power and supremacy. We don’t know precisely what kinds of tests have come before, but we know that here, at the end of this wilderness time for Jesus, the devil makes one last effort, upping the ante with each test he tries.
The devil is crafty. So, while it may surprise us to realize that the devil knows scripture –it is exactly the tool he wields as a weapon before Jesus.
And so it is that this text makes explicit the argument against proof-texting – choosing verses of scripture out of context to support one’s position in an argument, rather than studying the scriptures as a whole, to see what God might be doing or calling us to do. That’s what the devil does here.
The clash over rank is inspired by the fact that Jesus is God’s Son. Twice in our text reads that the devil begins, “If you are the Son of God” - followed by a condition. A better translation of the word “if” here would be “since”, for the devil knows who Jesus is. The devil and other demons are often the first to recognize Jesus. Satan knows Jesus is indeed The Son of God.
As the Son of God, Jesus has valid claim to the highest status, in a world where status is everything. And, in the 1st century world in which this story takes place, not unlike the world in which we live, one is expected to use their status to satisfy their needs.
But Jesus realities clash with the realities of the world and this devil. Rather than using his status and power as the Son of God to answer the devil’s taunts or fill his need, Jesus’ realities are shaped by God’s claim on him - “You are my Son, the Beloved One; in you I delighted.”
Jesus’ realities are divine; they are defined by God’s love for the world. Jesus’ realities determine that because he is the Son of God:
·        he will not be tested;
·        he will not follow the devil’s agenda;
·        and he will not use his status to serve himself;
·        He will use his status instead, to serve the world.
Because of the passionate love that God holds for all of creation, God sent Jesus to save us from our sin; to transform hearts of stone into servant hearts; to love, serve, feed, care for, and embrace all people, especially those who are generally cast aside and left out because they have no status in the eyes of the world.
God sent Jesus to turn the world on its ear in the battle for the redemption of humankind. The devil wants Jesus to betray his mission and his divinity by operating as the world operates – to care for his own needs first.
Next, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, feeding him the lie that if Jesus would just worship him, the devil would reward him with this real estate. Jesus is clear in his response – there is only one LORD God, and worship and honor belong solely to God.
Finally, the climax of the story: Jesus is led up to the highest point in Jerusalem – the pinnacle of the temple. From there he could see as far as the eye can see. The devil gives Jesus one last test – since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. Let’s see your angels come flying to your assistance. Let’s see them catch and preserve you from danger. Let’s see God come to your aid as the scriptures have promised.
The devil isn’t just testing Jesus, he is also taunting and testing God. The devil figures that if God is watching, surely he will send his angels to save Jesus. The devil’s argument is that God HAS to save Jesus: To prove Jesus’ identity; to confirm his divinity; to preserve Jesus’ mission on earth.
The thing that the devil doesn’t get is that God does not have to do anything. He has already declared the identity and divinity of Jesus, to the disciples. Jesus denies the devil’s final test. While God does not have to do anything, Jesus will not do anything the devil asks.
It is God’s agenda that Jesus will follow, and not the other way around.  
It is God’s agenda that we follow, too, not our agenda for God. God’s agenda shapes the journey and ministry of Christ. God’s agenda is to save humankind from sin and death; to turn the status quo upside down; God’s agenda includes lifting up the lowly and bring down the mighty and the haughty. God calls all of us to follow this agenda too.
Jesus is about doing God’s will and the devil doesn’t like that, is threatened by it, and will do anything to defeat it in the world. In order to tap into God’s strength and to align himself with God’s agenda, Jesus prays. We see Jesus praying a lot, in fact. Including before and after challenges and tests along his way.
During the season of Lent, we acknowledge, more than at any other time, that a duel is taking place here, in our world, in our lives, and in our hearts. We feel it when we turn our backs on the homeless person on the street. We feel it when we do things we shouldn’t in order to gain status for ourselves, and we feel it when we don’t do the things we know we should, because it is inconvenient or unpopular.
This duel between rank and its privileges still rages on. It rages on the streets as we face temptation to ignore the will of God that all people be fed, educated, and allowed to work in meaningful jobs. The duel persists as many forms of injustice pervade the landscape. The duel rages as we struggle to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the refugee and rule the world with justice, faithfully serving God in our encounters with humankind. The duel underlies our stewardship decisions; how should we spend our wealth; how do we use our resources; how might we speak of or treat other people? 
Ultimately, Jesus demonstrates his confidence in God’s will. Jesus shows us what it is like to trust in God, as he remains focused on his mission of salvation for the whole world. As we embark on our Lenten journey, let us pray for the courage, strength, and confidence to follow Jesus, To turn to prayer and discernment as the weapons to better fight the duel between the kingdom work we are called to and the testing we face in the midst of our journey. Let us thank God for the passionate love that caused him to send us Jesus, the Son of God, the Beloved and perfect foil for the devil’s plot to claim us. 

Contests, Ash and Implications

Ash Wednesday
The big news so far this week has been the upset at the Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos beat the team that the odds-makers had favored for the win, the Carolina Panthers. Perhaps this isn’t such big news for all of us; some of us aren’t exactly football fans, or aren’t big fans but are yearly drawn into the hype of the Super Bowl if, for no other reason than to watch the crazy, cute, and ridiculously expensive commercials that debuted during the Super Bowl broadcast. But the win, and an upset at that, certainly made the top of the news cycle for the start of the week.
The thing is, the outcome of the Super Bowl is usually big news for a day or two every year. But even if you are a fan, unless you are a huge sports aficionado, you probably can’t tell me right now who won the contest five years ago or eleven years ago or fifteen years ago. Such fame and glory is fleeting. The wave of celebratory high-fives, hometown parades (do they even have those in the midst of winter?) passes away, the next news cycle brings us news of a more recent contest or conflict, like the one that took place in New Hampshire yesterday [Presidential primary] and life goes on as usual. Until next year.
Today, we begin the season of Lent. It is a season in which we strive to take note of our relationship with God and attempt to do something that draws us away from our “life as usual.”
Ashes are smeared on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. We hear once again the words that accompany that smearing: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
These words will remind us, of course, that we are mortal. They return us to a story and an image ripe with creation overtones”. We recall that God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the earth. We are also reminded that the same God who can do great things like create humanity from just plain dirt which, at God’s command becomes filled with the very breath and Spirit of God, can surely heal us of any brokenness, sin, or struggle upon which we might be tempted to fixate during this season of penitence and repentance.
Some of us will embark on our personal journey through Lent by taking on a new discipline. During my early years, Lenten discipline generally meant giving something up. That same practice persists for many of the faithful today.
The idea for those of us who choose fasting or some kind of abstinence as a Lenten discipline usually follows one of two lines of intention: Fasting brings us closer to Christ by imitating his wilderness experience of fasting; or sacrificing something that we find pleasing or which for us has taken on the character of idol, has value for the sake of our relationship with Christ. It benefits us by eliminating that particular distraction from our lives.
Perhaps you have other reasons for choosing abstinence as a worthy spiritual discipline.
Others of us might commit to a new activity during the forty (make that forty six, depending on how you count) days as our particular form of Lenten discipline. A new discipline can serve to direct our attention to our relationship with God and our need for repentance.
A call to intentional prayer may awaken our spiritual energies by deepening our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. The Lenten devotional booklet that we developed and distributed here at Grace beginning this past Sunday includes two suggested activities to assist with your Lenten discipline, and I’m sure that you can come up with countless others.
As we read today’s scriptures, however, we become aware of how complex this season of Lent and our choices of its observance can be.
While earlier in the gospel of Matthew we are instructed to let our light shine so that God might be glorified, this gospel seems to instruct a quiet, personal, seemingly invisible piety; so – should we turn out the light?
And yet, today we will leave the church with the very visible and unmistakable sign of penitential Christian witness upon our faces. How on earth do we balance the call for the quietness of our hearts with our very public call to repentance? How can we be sure that we wear these ashes, as the psalmist pleads, with a “clean heart and a right spirit within” us?
The scriptures point to the implications of our expressions piety for the shaping of our hearts – but it is not we who do the shaping - that is God’s purview.  While it is our hearts that need healing and redirection – for if our hearts are aligned with God, our behaviors will be also – we acknowledge that any attempt on our part to change our hearts is about as lasting as our memory of who won the Super Bowl.
For all the years that I have chosen a particular Lenten discipline, be it abstinence or new practice, Easter Sunday has always come, followed soon after, by the disappearance of my resolve for sweeping change in my spiritual practices. I forget my resolve – I forget that for which I was reaching.
While Jesus assumes the spiritual practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting will be part of the lives of his followers, he warns against the false motivation of superficial reward or public acknowledgement. Instead, Jesus calls us to the kind of service he himself modeled – humble service, a sincere servant mentality, and a reliance on God for God’s constant creative, redeeming, and sanctifying care and shaping of our lives. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The kind of humility that Jesus shows us is about looking at what is true and real. It is humility born of God’s love, as through Christ, God grounds us in the truth of who we are: finite, flawed, dependent on God, and completely, utterly, totally loved by God, despite our brokenness, our sin, and our flaws. Loved so much are we, in fact, that God takes on Godself the task of holy remembrance of the baptismal relationship that leads us to Easter joy.
As we begin our Lenten journey, we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Yet it is out of dust that God has created humankind, and all that grows upon the earth, deeply rooted in the holy soil of God’s own making.
We are invited to spend this Lent learning to trust that God is gracious and kind and forgiving and merciful, and constantly recreating us in God’s image through the forgiveness of our sins. We are invited to recall that what humans think of us isn’t as important as our relationship with God and what we do for others – acting with justice, loving, and extending mercy, and walking humbly because we are loved by God.
We are invited to take on the discipline of doing some action solely for the purpose of pleasing God, or giving something up in order to make room in our lives for God’s Spirit to come in and move around in us.
God wants to be the focus of our attention and longing. God wants to be our audience and our reward. God wants the memory of the grace in which God holds us to become a lasting memory, one that moves us to true humility and permanently shapes our lives and our hearts.
I would like to close with a poem written by Pastor Jan Richardson for the blessing of the dust we receive today. In this poem, she reminds us what the Almighty can do with dust, and dares us to remember and to trust in God’s promise.
Out of dust we are created, back to dust we shall return. With the cross of oil marked in baptism, and the cross of ashes marked this night,we belong to God. Forever.
She writes,              
Blessing the Dust
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.