Last night during the Ash Wednesday service there were many funny occasions as I caught Erica (our volunteer sign language translator extraordinaire) giving me and others looks like – what!!? how am I supposed to translate that???. But one thought-provoking moment stood out. She had asked Mary earlier in the evening what the sign for the word forgiven is and so when I said as part of the liturgy, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” she thought she nailed it. The irony came when she found out afterwards that the sign she was doing was punished not forgiven. Mary of course knew what she meant and I am as always hugely grateful that Erica puts up with us, but I’ve been chuckling and musing about this since last night.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are punished.
This morning at Wesley we hosted a district meeting for the clergy and Kathy James our Congregational Specialist talked about generational divides and opportunities for our churches. How do we minister to all of these different groups and spek their language in the midst? We talked a lot about images. We could easily recognize the logos from products or stores whether there were words or not. We’re a visual society and the shorthand that our communication has become in many ways has bled over into the images that we see and know even if the actual writing is explicit or not.
Then came the wise question of what image or icon or logo does the church have? How does society recognize us? The cross and flame wasn’t mentioned although I do think that’s one of the images for the UMC, but do people on the outside actually get that? The cross in general, buddy Jesus, a traditional picture of a church, a pair of hands praying….none of those came to mind for us this morning discussing it. What our motley crew worried about was that the image people might have of Christians right now is of people protesting funerals or others condemning and judging people. So seriously, what would our logo/image/picture/icon be?
When I think of the “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are punished,” I can’t help but think of some of those images and icons that people may recognize us by. Are they images of hate? Are they images of middle class complacency? Are they images of frowny faced people in suits and Sunday dresses? What do you think?
I was happy to see people sporting their ashes on ESPN and Colbert last night. There’s a fun witness. Will you watch them differently? Hold them to a different standard? Expect more? I had no problem taking the students to IHOP last night while we were still “ashed,” but I must admit, that it did give me pause about how we acted or how we were perceived by the folks working there or others eating. When we have that sign/image/icon of the cross on our foreheads, people are watching. We know people can see it. We represent something and someOne when we wear our faith.
In our every day, we don’t wake up every morning and put our cross on our forehead. Heck, the Matthew passage last night (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) actually speaks out against practicing your piety before others and I completely agree. I’m not saying you go stockpile ashes to begin this process every morning, but I am saying we shouldn’t just try to “act right” or live out our faith just when we have the sign of the cross on our heads. We should dig deeper and show the world by our words, our acts, and our love that in the name of Jesus Christ they are FORGIVEN. This crazy thing called Christianity is not a battle for Super Christian of the ages, but it’s a recognition that we can’t do it all by ourselves. It’s a knowledge that we mess up, boy do we sometimes, but that there is One who walks with us and gives us new life.
This forgiveness is available for each of us whether rich or poor, black or brown, lefty or righty, insider or outsider. It’s a free gift unlike the Clinique bags that get quickly given out to the first wave of customers. This is a free gift that never runs out and doesn’t expire.
So on this day after Ash Wednesday when our crosses have been washed away, what remains of our commitment to repentance and renewal? What does God have in store for us this season? What kind of visual do we as Christians offer the world?
If you could pick a universal picture or image to represent the church what would it be? (No this is not a branding meeting where we’re going to put millions of dollars in and take the airwaves, but I’m curious as to what you name.) Punishment or forgiveness? Peace or hate? I’m not saying that all of our images will be pretty or nice or clean, because I don’t believe that being the body of Christ is all roses and butterflies. But I am saying that the images we project need to be real and they need to reflect the Gospel, not just what we’ve made it into.