The Story God Tells About Us (Ash Wednesday)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN +  Ash Wednesday + March 1, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps. 103:8-14; 2 Cor. 5:20-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21


Human beings are story beings. For as long back as we can remember we have been listening to stories around fires or radios or TV screens. We make sense of the world through stories: fairy tales teach us the rules of good behavior; our political views are rooted in the stories we tell about how the world is and how it should be; the gospel is the story by which we seek to live our lives.

We also tell stories about ourselves in order to understand who we are and what we want to be. Sometimes the stories we tell about ourselves can be harmful: someone might tell herself, “I’m not good enough,” so often that she can’t get passed her insecurity, and she needs to learn to tell herself a different story. We can tell ourselves encouraging stories, like when someone tells himself, “You are doing enough, so stop comparing yourself to others.” We tell ourselves the story of who we want to be, of our goals and hopes for the future, and these stories give us encouragement and help us make decisions.

Of course we also hear stories about who we are and who we should be from other people and from the culture we live in. Through TV shows, advertisements, songs, and newspaper articles, we constantly receive messages about what a good human should be like. Women hear about exactly how we should be beautiful; men hear about how they should be strong. We all hear that we should be perfectly kind and successful in our work but also spend a lot of time with our families and also be rich and of course be happy all the time. Sometimes it feels like we’re hearing: you need to be all things to all people, and you need to enjoy doing it.

Then we come to worship today, Ash Wednesday, and we hear a different story. We hear the story God tells about us.

First, we hear that we are limited. We hear that we are imperfect, sinful. We hear that we are mortal: our bodies will get weak; we will die.

Does gathering to hear those stories come as kind of a relief to anyone else?

Here is a sacred place where we can lay down all the pressure that is put on us to be perfect. Here is a sacred place where we can lay down our pretenses and our strivings and our performing, a sacred place where we can admit for a moment how we feel sometimes: not good enough. Not able to be perfect. Worn out sometimes, selfish sometimes, hypocritical sometimes.

Here is a sacred place where we can acknowledge our fear of dying, of losing those we love; a sacred place where we can acknowledge our frustration with the frailty of our bodies, our grief for those who have died or whose bodies are hurting or minds are fading.

Most of us hide away all that vulnerability most of the time: because it’s not polite conversation, or because it’s painful to talk about. But today we gather to be marked with a reminder of it all: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

For this moment we can admit together all our weakness and vulnerability, and it is good, it is true, it is honest.

But to stop the story there would not only be a recipe for a very depressing day: it would be wrong. Our sin and our frailty are only the first part of the story God tells about us. The story we will act out in the ritual of being marked with a cross of ashes will continue as we gather around the table for Holy Communion.

Today we hear not only that we are mortals and sinners but also that we are beloved, forgiven, sainted children of God. God sees us exactly as we are — sees us even more clearly than we see ourselves — and God chooses us exactly as we are. Jesus Christ came for us exactly as we are. God welcomes us into God’s kingdom exactly as we are.

First we hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” And then we hear, “The body of Christ, given for you.” / “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

On Ash Wednesday we hear the story of who God says we are. We hear that we are vulnerable and sinful. Then we hear that God loves us as we are. And, finally, we hear that God does not leave us as we are.

When we hear that, we may think first of God’s law, which convicts us when we do wrong or fail to do right, which holds us to God’s standard. We may also think of the vision of the Kingdom of God, the vision we get through the words and lives of Jesus, the prophets, and the saints: the stories of the Kingdom of God help us see how God is working to transform our world and call us to be a part of that work.

But most of all we should remember that we are not called to repent and to change and to work all on our own — that would eventually lead us back to the first part of the story, our imperfections, and leave us stranded there. This third part of the story is not about what we are striving to do: it is about what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. God holds all of our weakness and transforms it into something new; God takes on even our mortality and with it creates new life.

As we enter into the season of Lent, pay attention to the ways God is transforming you now. What fear may God help you make peace with? What grief may God help you make beautiful? What weaknesses may God turn into to strengths?

Listen to the story God is telling about you. Listen to the story God is writing in you. Let that be the story you tell yourself, too.

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Open My Life, Lord

Written for Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + February 17, 2016

Reading: Galatians 2:15-21

St. Paul would have made my English teachers proud. “Show, don’t tell,” they always used to say, meaning something like, “Don’t just say this happened, then this happened. Paint us a picture. Bring us into the experience.” Though of course when we were learning to write essays, they drilled into us the importance of telling through thesis statements: “Tell us what you’re about to say.”

In the letter to the Galatians Paul accomplishes both; he shows us and tells us how God has opened his life. He tells us: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” God has so opened Paul’s life that the barrier between Christ’s living presence and Paul’s life has been torn down.

Paul isn’t saying that he’s perfect. (He proclaims his own sinfulness too often for that to be the case.) When Paul says, “It is Christ who lives in me,” I think he means that every part of his life is open to God. Every part of his life is now a part of God’s action in the world; every part of his life is open to being part of Jesus Christ’s continuing mission.

Paul also shows us how God has opened his life. In the opening paragraphs of Galatians Paul reminds us of who he used to be. He says, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”

Paul’s whole life had been devoted to what we might call “establishment Judaism.” The Judaism of the powerful, the Judaism supported by traditions and rules and writings. He was so devoted to it that when a new Jewish sect rose up and challenged the establishment in the name of some crucified man from Nazareth, Paul tried to squash it and protect the tradition he knew.

But then God revealed Jesus to Paul. And we can see how Paul really did die to be raised with Christ. The man who tried so hard to protect establishment Judaism was dead, and alive and running was a man whose energy and values and traditions were thrown open to Jesus Christ.

This letter to the Galatians is like a case study in how Paul’s life was opened to the mission of Christ. Once Paul would have clung tightly to the Law as something that set him and other Jews apart as a holy people; he would have refused even to eat with non-Jews. Now we see Paul subjecting the Law to Christ, saying it is Christ who makes people part of God’s holy people. And this theological point shows in his life: He calls out Peter for refusing to eat with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14). He tries to convince the other leaders and the people that when Gentiles wanted to join the church of Jesus Christ — still very much a Jewish group — the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to become part of the holy people of the God of Israel.

God opened Paul’s life. And this was such a radical transformation that the old Paul had to die so that the new Paul could live in Christ, and Christ could live in him. No part of Paul’s life was left untouched by God.

In Lent the Church sets aside a time for us to think about how we, too, must die so that we can live in Christ, and Christ in us. Where is there still a barrier between “my life” and the life of Christ? What part of myself and my way of living am I still clinging to, saying “This one thing, at least, I have control over — it is not God’s, it’s mine”?

There are many ways our culture encourages us to keep some things separate from God. We talk about how are faith is a “private” thing, to be kept out of our public life or our political talk. Or, we think as if the way we treat and use our bodies is not part of our life of faith. Or we defend the importance of the individual having control, taking care of himself, being her own boss.

Sometimes our surroundings help us to divide our lives into “God’s space” and “my space.” I’ve always thought it funny when people say things like, “Don’t lie in God’s house!” As if when we are in the church building we need to be especially Christian, but at all other times we kind of forget about being disciples of Jesus. It’s easier to live by the rule that when we are around other Christians, we live the Christian life, but at other times we live our own lives.

Sometimes we keep parts of our lives separate from God out of a misplaced sense of humility, or an unhealthy sense of guilt or shame. “This part of me is not good enough to be part of God’s plan,” we think. We might mean something is too ordinary for God to bother with: “My job isn’t all that important,” or “I’m not special enough to be of much use to God.” At other times we might mean that something in us is too wrong or sinful and must be kept apart from God.

But when God opens our lives, God opens our whole lives. Everything in us, everything we do, everything we are, have been, and will be is cracked open, and God invades it all. God takes up every bit of it. Some parts will suffer and die. In fact, it will be like we are being crucified with Christ. But then we will be raised to a new life, a life that Christ lives in us and that we live in Christ.

Alphonsus Rodriguez lived in Spain in the 1500s. He married and had three children, but by the time he was in his 30s his wife and his children had all died. He devoted his life to strenuous religions practice, and he tried to join the religious order called Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. They denied him entry because he did not have enough education. He tried to complete more studies, but he couldn’t get through the program. Eventually, the Society of Jesus admitted him as a lay member.

Rodriguez took on the humble job of a doorman at Jesuit college, and he remained a doorman for the remainder of his life — 46 years. “His duty was to receive the visitors who came to the college, search out the [priests] or students who were wanted in the parlours, deliver messages, run errands.”[1]

But God opened Rodriguez’s life, and so as “just a doorman,” Rodriguez influenced many, many lives. People who had no one else to turn to would talk to the doorman about their troubles, and word spread that this man gave good comfort and good advice. Eventually he was asked to preach during dinners, and the crowds would stay past dinner time to hear him preach.

Rodriquez “was devoted to finding God in every moment” of his life. He would pray “Lord, let me know you. And let me know myself.” It is said that each time the doorbell rang, he would look to the door and envision that it was God standing outside seeking entrance. On his way to the answer the door, he would say, “I’m coming Lord.”

Today, this doorman is a recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

St. Rodriguez gives us an example of a life opened by God. The tragedies he faced did not keep him from God; his lack of education did not keep him from ministry; the humility of his work did not keep it from being holy. He, like Paul, had been crucified with Christ and could say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives within me.”

May the lives of St. Paul, St. Rodriguez, and all the saints who have gone before us help remind us of how God opens our lives, our whole lives, so that Jesus Christ may live in us, and we in Christ.

Let us pray. Open our lives, Lord, to reflect your glory. Lead us to the cross, to the grave, to the empty tomb, and into the world as imitators of Christ. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.[2]


 

[1] Prayer from Melissa Mole, “Midweek Lenten Series: Open My Life, Lord,” Seasonal Rites for Lent in Sundays and Seasons, Year C 2016 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2015), p. 108.

 

[2] Joseph Tylenda, S.J., Jesuit Saints and Martyrs, quoted in James Martin. S.J., The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), p. 100. Material found in that book supplemented by Wikipedia’s article “Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez.”

Testing the Messiah

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 1st Sunday in Lent + February 14, 2016

Readings: Deut. 26:1-11; Rom. 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13


 

Many of you know by now that I have a German Shepherd Dog named Hugo, who is not quite two years old. And that dog, at that age, needs a lot of exercise. One trick I’ve found that helps me to both wear down some of Hugo’s energy and get some work done is to listen to podcasts that help interpret the Bible readings for the week.  A side effect of this is that my neighbors probably think I’m crazy. I’ll be throwing a Frisbee with my dog, then suddenly stop, and my jaw will drop open, and then I run into the house to take notes on some exciting insight that just came through my earbuds. That happened twice with the commentary on this week’s gospel reading.

The first exciting insight was this. In this passage, the devil tests Jesus by suggesting three different things: (1) turn stone into bread; (2) worship the devil in exchange for worldwide political power; (3) throw himself off the top of the temple to prove that God will save him. Jesus refuses all three suggestions, proving his obedience to God. But — so the cool insight goes — what if the devil was testing Jesus about something even more specific than his obedience to God? What if the devil was testing Jesus’s obedience to his calling? Testing Jesus’s understanding of what it means to be the messiah?[1]

That idea fits pretty well with what’s going on in the story. Something really monumental happens right before the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tested for 40 days. Right before all that happens, Jesus is baptized. When he comes up out of the water, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). This is the moment when Jesus is publicly anointed as the messiah, the moment when his mission officially begins. But first: he is tested in the wilderness. He is already anointed, he is already chosen. But does he know what that means?

The devil begins two of the temptations with the same words: “If you are the Son of God…” And we can hear all that he is implying: If you are God’s chosen one, if you are God-made-flesh, if you are the one they’ve all been waiting for, if you are the messiah…let’s see it. Let’s see your miracles. Let’s see how much God loves you. Let’s see your power and blessedness.

 But Jesus resists the temptation to think that being the Son of God means getting power and honor and angelic bodyguards. Instead he tells the devil what it truly means to be chosen by God: to live on God’s word, to worship and serve God, to trust God and obey God’s will. None of those things are motivated by guarantees of blessings; they are simply the faithful way to be. The life of the messiah is not marked by glory but by faithfulness.

When Jesus leaves the wilderness and returns to society, we see that he does indeed live his life by these marks of faithfulness. He sides with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and the sinner. He stands against the powerful, the wealthy, and the religious people who are abusing their gifts and abusing their fellow humans. Eventually, he is put in handcuffs. He is brought to trial. He is executed. That is what happened to the most faithful man that has ever lived. This is what happened to the Son of God.

The second exciting insight has to do with us. Can we be faithful to this understanding of what it means to be the messiah? Can we follow in the way of the messiah?

Often we are not. Often we fall into thinking that following the Son of God ought to guarantee us a good life…or at least less suffering and more blessings. We end up expecting God to give us the good stuff.

The biblical scholar talking to me through my earbuds this week put it this way: when we read stories of Jesus talking to the Pharisees, we usually imagine ourselves in the place of the Pharisees. When we read stories of Jesus talking to the disciples, we imagine ourselves in the place of the disciples. So what if, when we read this story of Jesus talking to the devil, we imagine ourselves in the place of the devil?

The result sounds pretty familiar: If you are the Son of God, fix my problems. If you are the Son of God, lead me into wealth. If you are the Son of God, protect me. Turn this rock into bread.

 It’s a mistake we Christians often make, and it’s a common criticism from people outside the faith. “If your God really loves you, why do bad things happen to you?”[2]

But living a successful, comfortable life has never been a guarantee of faith. Yes, Jesus heals people. Yes, Jesus multiplies the fishes and loaves. All these things are possible. But the only thing he ever guarantees his disciples is that they will suffer for the gospel, just as he did (ex., Matt. 24:9; Luke 21:16-19).

In a culture where Christianity is so often marked by the prosperity gospel, can we be faithful to that understanding of being a Christian?

The season of Lent can help us be faithful to our suffering messiah. Lent begs us to remember the suffering side of the Christian life: on Ash Wednesday we remember that we are mortal, that illness and ailments and accidents and time still have power over our bodies. During Lent we remember that we are sinners, and we need to do the work of confessing and changing. During Lent we remember the ways sin has built the world around us: many are poor, many face discrimination, many are sick, many are trapped — and we are called to know those who suffer, and to help.

During Lent we are reminded that the Son of God did not come into the world so that he could tap it with a magic wand and make everything perfect. That would have been nice, but that’s not what he did. Instead, he freed people from bondage to sin and fear and social status, and he showed them that they were welcome into a relationship with God. He redefined what it means to be blessed. He took up our weakness and our pain, and he made them holy.

When I worship with the guys in one of the Davidson County jails, we begin almost every worship service with the same song. It’s called “Glory, Glory;” it’s this up-beat gospel number that praises for God for the blessings we receive when we give our burdens over to God.

But at one service one of the guys — this beardy fella called Tweety — described one of his burdens as a blessing from God. Tweety struggles with controlling his anger; when someone steps on his toes, his first reaction has always been to get mad, yell, start a fight. Over the months I’ve known him, I’ve often heard him ask for prayer to help him react in love instead. He even talks about trying to change the angry culture that exists among his bunkmates.

Last week he stood up and said, “I’ve been struggling this week. I’ve been backsliding; I’ve gotten mad and lost it a couple of times. Then I get back to my bunk, and I realize that I’ve sinned. My sin weighs on my heart. But I’m glad for that burden, I love that burden, because I know it’s God helping me get back on the right track.”

When we lay our sin and our suffering before God, they become part of what God is doing in us. They become part of what God is doing in the world through us.

That is one of the strange “good news” messages of Lent: that our weakness or pain are not signs that God is weak or nonexistent; they are not signs that God does not love us or that we are not faithful enough. They are part of the beautiful, broken reality of being human. And when we bring that weakness and pain into our life with God, God can use them for good.

This is, after all, the God of Jesus Christ, who did not throw himself off of the Temple to prove that the angels would catch him. Instead he took on sin, suffered, and died, so that our own sinning, suffering, and dying would not be the death of us — but the seeds of new life.


 

[1] “SB463 – First Sunday in Lent,” Sermon Brainwave (podcast) from WorkingPreacher.org, with Caroline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson, and Matt Skinner. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx. Idea that the “tests” regard Jesus’s understanding of messiahship comes from Matt Skinner.

[2] Rolf Jacobson, “SB463 – First Sunday in Lent.”