Sermon for Ash Wednesday; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In the fall of 2008, my beloved seminary entered into a time of financial retrenchment. It was hard. It meant the cut of programs, staff, faculty, and hours to certain services. But, it also was in the best interest of theological education. I remembered gathering in the chapel on campus to hear the news and you could have heard a pin drop as our seminary president laid out the plans step by painful step. We looked around at the faces of the professors that no longer were just positions to be cut on paper, but real flesh and blood. So, on Ash Wednesday, my church history professor, Beth Leeper, made the ascent into the high pulpit and wondered aloud how we live into Lent when we had already been living in a proverbial Lent for the last few months. She voiced what many of us already felt: we weren’t ready to let go of the alleluias. We weren’t ready for sackcloth and ashes. We weren’t ready for the reminder of death because it had surrounded us already for months. 

Professor Leeper’s words came to me again as I was preparing for this day because I, once again, am not ready to bury the alleluia. I am not ready to talk about our mortality. I don’t want to mark the cross on your foreheads knowing there is a real possibility that this time next year I won’t be able to do it again either because I won’t be here or you won’t. I have lived in a perpetual Good Friday for approximately 55 days. Trust me, I did the math. So forgive me if I am ready for a resurrection story already. I’ve done the 40 days and then some already, Jesus. But time is fickle. And so here we are again. And Jesus keeps calling to me. Jesus keeps calling for me to follow him, keeps calling me to serve him and his people. Jesus keeps showing up. There are days when that is really annoying, honestly. I know this valley narrative I keep sharing with you may be getting old. (It’s getting old to me.) But I keep sharing it because you need to know that even those that God has called into a life of service have doubts. So it’s okay for you to have doubts too. 

I wondered then, what is our response to Lent this year, church? You may have friends that practice giving something up or even making more time for something during Lent. I choose not to, but that’s just me. Scripture tells us we should show up. Lent isn’t a time for us to make us better, it’s a time for God and the Holy Spirit to move in us and move us just that much closer to God because it’s not about us. So, we should show up. What if our response to all of the noise, chaos, and fear in the world was that we showed up? For the next 6 weeks we made a promise to ourselves, one another, and to God that we would show up. We can’t control anything, at all. But we can show up here and let the Holy Spirit stir. What’s the worst that can happen? 

When we show up, we give alms, we pray, and we fast. Now, all of that may look different depending on who you are. Maybe you increase your giving. Maybe you pray more often. Maybe you fast from gossip. I don’t know. But we just keep showing up. We keep showing up because at the end of the day, we are alleluia people, we are resurrection people, and we don’t let death have the final word. And we do this all together because God created us to be in community. Do you want to know how I have survived the last 55 days? Because I know and have felt your prayers. When I wasn’t strong enough to pray for myself, I knew you were praying for me. And I pray for you too. Daily. I keep showing up because I know that God will keep surprising me. 

These actions we take tonight: confessing our sins, the imposition of ashes, communion, they’re not about proving how holy we are. It’s not even about feeling holy (I don’t even know what that feeling is). But it’s about the lifelong commitment that God has made with us and that we make to one another in baptismal promises that help us to cling to the “things that will sustain us” (Feasting on the Word, Anschutz 22). It might also be easy for the outside world, those who aren’t religious, to see the crosses on our foreheads and call us hypocrites. After all, aren’t we supposed to be doing all of this in private? Well, we’re all hypocrites sooner or later. And the cross on our foreheads doesn’t show or prove we’re better than anyone. It’s not an international bat signal for virtuosity. 

The ashen cross on our foreheads is a reminder of our mortality, of our sins, of our own shortcomings. It’s an outward sign that we are aware that death is very real. We don’t need that reminder around here. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t. “Ashes on our forehead are not displaying our piety before others; it is telling the truth to all that we are dying” (twitter “@jeffwfisher”). It is something we all have in common. And our response to this is Jesus. The one who names us, claims us, and saves us from ourselves, is Jesus. We are God’s and to God we shall return. We are made of God “stuff” and we will return to God. 

So maybe this Lent we just show up; we deny Satan the pleasure of tempting us into the valley and into the desert. We continue to carry the alleluia, even if it is just in our hearts. We show up because the world needs good news and maybe we are the ones to bring it. And maybe death doesn’t sound like good news, but our story never ends at death. We keep showing up because we know God is already here, doing amazing things and we’d hate to miss out on that. We keep showing up because the women at the empty tomb were right. We keep showing up because we need one another. This Lent I’m not giving up anything (which is usual) but I’m just going to keep showing up. It’s an act of resistance. I wondered what would really make Satan mad, and I think that’s it. I’m going to keep showing up. Maybe you’ll join me. 

Sermon for 2/24/19 Luke 6:27-38

Do you mean it? I mean seriously, do you mean it? Did you really just hear everything I read, everything that Jesus had to say and then respond “thanks be to God?” Really? Thanks be to God? If you really meant it, then, by all means, please come up here and preach for me. Because my first reaction to a reading like that is “the Gospel of the Lord” and me responding “nah. I don’t like it.” Now before you clutch your pearls and think “Pastor! You can’t talk like that! That’s the bible.” Yes I can. God invites us to wrestle with scripture. Scripture should make us joyous, and should make us think, and should make us uncomfortable. There are stories in our bibles that might make your skin crawl. If you don’t believe me, go home, open your bible to Judges, and read the story of Jael driving a tent stake through a man’s head, killing him instantly. There’s a story we don’t hear on an average Sunday. Thanks be to God?? Let’s be honest with ourselves friends, sometimes scripture is hard. Sometimes scripture is uncomfortable. And sometimes, we just may not like it.

What Jesus is proposing in this continued sermon on the plain is almost impossible. He once again is preaching. This is a continuation of last week’s readings when we heard the beatitudes. If there’s anything that Jesus does well, it’s not sugar coating things. We never hear Jesus say “well, if it’s okay with you” or “if you aren’t too busy” or even “if it will make you feel good.” Jesus is a pretty black and white kind of guy. The first sentence alone is enough to make me want to check out. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Nope. I’m out. If this what it means to be a Christian, I’m not sure I want to participate any more. I want to pause here really quick to make sure that while the bible talks about abuse, it is never okay. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, either mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, or otherwise, God does not desire for you to stay in that relationship. Additionally, if you need resources for yourself or someone you love, I am here to help.  

I think what makes this reading so incredibly difficult is that the idea of forgiveness is incredibly powerful and, at the same time, runs contradictory to everything we may feel or desire. Forgiveness, especially for those who wish to do us harm, curse us, abuse us, or takes from us (maybe, or especially) without asking, can feel impossible. Remember that we are still in the season of epiphany. God is still revealing to us, to the disciples, to all people who God is and will continue to be through Jesus Christ. This is a God who has come to turn the world upside down. This God, who became flesh, has come into our lives, and has changed the way we respond to other people. Or, at least it should.

The challenge, of course, comes from what our natural inclinations may be to what God is calling us to. I mean, if we’re honest, our natural instinct is to go blow for blow and cutting words to cutting words. But, how do we live our lives responding with grace and kindness instead of reacting with words or actions that may answer hurt with more hurt. And again, if we’re being honest, we may not always want to respond with grace and kindness. I mean, if you can think of (or picture) the person in your life that has caused you the most heartache and pain, do you really desire to respond to him or her with grace and kindness? Yet that is what God challenges us to do. I’ve read and heard more than once that hurt people hurt people, or that hurting people hurt people. Sometimes those hurts can only be healed by grace.

I know I talk about grace a lot. But when you have experienced the life changing power of grace, you can’t help yourself. God’s grace literally changed my life. Once I learned about God’s grace, my entire relationship with God changed. Here’s a strange thing about grace: I hate that you may have needed to experience it, but at the same time, I am so grateful if you have experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace. Grace is just unmerited love, forgiveness, and mercy. And maybe you have felt it from God. But, more likely, you have experienced grace in relationship with someone else. Even though that grace may have come from another human being, let us not kid ourselves, my beloved. Grace can only be accomplished with and through God. We can’t experience grace without God and really, isn’t that a great place to be?

When I say that grace has the power to change lives, I’m not over exaggerating. It really does. Grace transformed me and my life in such a way that my heart was healed and I felt redeemed. Grace is what called me into ministry. How have you experienced grace? Once you are able to recognize grace in your own life, you are then able to recognize the ways it changes your life and leaves you completely vulnerable. Believe it or not, this vulnerability is a good thing. You may not hear that idea very often. Society wants us to believe that being vulnerable is bad. Vulnerability and shame all too often go hand in hand. But, what if being vulnerable just meant leaving our hearts and minds open to what God can and will do?

When grace leaves us vulnerable, which it often does, then the Holy Spirit is allowed into our lives in such a way that we see and feel a new way of living and loving through Jesus Christ. What Jesus demands of us as disciples is a complete and total change; a repentance and leaving behind of our old selves and instead invites us into holy and wholly living. This holy/wholly living isn’t always neat and tidy. There will be times when we feel rejected. There will be times when we might wonder if this discipleship is all it is cracked up to be. And those times, my beloved, are when we must rely on God. The great reward that Jesus speaks of isn’t material items. We will not gain cars, wealth, or fame from following Christ. But what we will gain and what our reward will be is a better version of ourselves.

None of this happens by chance. We may do our best to live a Christian life daily but we will always fall short because of sin. The temptations of this life are far too great for us to resist. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give to everyone who asks of you, there may be times that sin seems almost appealing. The life that Christ calls us to isn’t easy. But the life we are reformed into through that journey of discipleship and following Jesus has a great reward of a better self and a better, greater, deeper love for the world God made. None of this is possible, of course, without grace. Grace is stronger than our sin. Grace is stronger than even our best intentions. Grace is stronger than our hard work. Grace is stronger than our resistance. Which means, even in the moments when we resist God’s grace, it is changing and transforming us for the better. The path is difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. It can feel lonely, and at times, insurmountable. But, the path is lit by grace. And it is a path that rewards us in ways that are almost unimaginable. Thanks be to God!