A New Way

For the past 6 weeks, we have sat at the feet of our Rabbi Jesus.  We’ve learned he calls everyone who is willing to follow.  We have found freedom in the words from Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV), 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  We have walked with our Rabbi Jesus and have gotten his resurrection dust all over us.  We heard a tremendous sermon basically flipping the script of life as we know it.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Then when the disciples began peppering him with questions we learned about loving our enemies, keeping our promises, and storing up not treasures on earth that moth and rust destroy, but instead storing up treasures in heaven.  These are all powerful lessons that it would take several lifetimes to learn and perfect, but we know we have hope in Christ alone to take our place, to teach us the way, the truth, and the life, to teach us how to do life together in community.

For the next 4 weeks up until Palm Sunday, we’re going to be studying Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules:  A Wesleyan Way of Living.  It’s based upon John Wesley’s General Rules which are in our Book of Discipline.  The rules are do no harm, do good, and keep the ordinances of God or as Job says, “stay in love with God.”  “These simple rules then and now applied to everyone,” Job said. “No one was left out. No one was too good, too mean, too rich or too poor, too educated, too illiterate.”

Drawing parallels between Wesley’s time and the world today, Job says the feelings of disenfranchisement, doubt and fear are much the same.

“Our world is deeply divided, highly cynical about its leadership, greatly disappointed in its structures and systems that seem so flawed, broken and corrupt, broadly conflicted and gravely afraid of tomorrow.”

With so many hurting, frightened people Job says a radical change must take place. “There are two enormously encouraging truths for us to remember,” Job said. “One, God is with us. God continues to woo us, seek us out, love us, speak to us, enable us and lead us into the future. Second, it has been done before.”

Wesley’s three simple rules transformed women and men and started a movement that became a denomination and transformed a forming nation in North America.

“Today we also need a message that can be clearly understood by persons of every age, every educational and economic level, every condition and circumstance of life,” he said. “And today these three simple rules provide that message.”

Rewind back two thousand years ago to the two great commandments that our Rabbi gave us.

Mark 12:29-31

29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

From day one, Scripture tells us that God is the God of community. First, God is Trinity, this mysterious fellowship of three-persons-in-one. Second, as we hear in the opening pages of Genesis, God describes how we as human beings inherit that communal nature, saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen 1:26). No wonder when Adam finds himself without companionship in the garden, God recognizes “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Last, the entire history of God’s devoted followers, from the very first days until today, is one of covenant-making where the people are united together in intimate relationship with one another and with the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In Moses’ day, that meant a Law that largely focused on how to live in right relationship, and also how to mend those relationships when broken. The Law (and circumcision as a physical sign of initiation) meant that, for the first time, a “people of God” was born – not only of the chosen Hebrews but also of those along the way like Rahab and Ruth and so many others who chose God wholeheartedly. This continued through the centuries, despite periods of rebellion and exile on the part of God’s people, until Jesus’ day. That’s when Emmanuel showed us once again how personal and near God meant to be with us. He spent his entire precious life living among, eating with, and serving whomever he met, whether in crowds or in smaller intimate circles. He called us not just to believe in the idea of him that he would set the captives free and bring liberation to his people, but to follow him in close contact, as a Rabbi, to join the throngs of those following him. The result was a new covenant and a new understanding of “God’s people” as all those who put their faith in the Messiah. In the early church, this meant a powerful focus on living in koinonia or living in sacred community like family (Acts 2:43-47).

These first Christians were bound together not only by their faith but by its consequences. In the Empire of their day, whether one was a Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, Roman citizen or slave, making a Christian profession of faith became a grave risk. The earliest confessions that they made were statements as simple as, “Jesus is Lord.” But to say such a thing was tantamount to treason since the Emperor intended to be the ultimate ruler, savior, and object of worship throughout the world. Those three little words, if found out, could mean a total loss of one’s legal rights, loss of citizenship, forfeiture of property and assets, beating, torture, being sold into slavery, and even death. If one member of a household was identified as a Christian, then every member of the household could be liable to the same punishments. After all, in the Roman world the family unit was a single, legal unit, united together under the head of the household. If one person in the home was a practicing Christian it was assumed that the head of household was as well, and if the head of household was a practicing Christian then that would be true for all. In other words, early Christians had a deep understanding of shared fate, shared victory as well as shared suffering. But this underground movement saw massive growth because a person only joined it if they had a sincere desire, if they were ready to sacrifice all for Christ’s sake, and if they were ready to truly share life together.

Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and this same level of community was scarcely found in the Church. Over time, the Roman Catholic church eventually reached a pinnacle of corruption, so much so that the Reformation was sparked to revive the authentic Christian faith. It took on a unique form in England in particular, thanks to Henry VIII’s scandalous life (if you’ve seen any of pop culture’s recent depictions of the story, like The Tudors, then you know we won’t go into detail here). To summarize, King Henry continually wanted to marry a new woman, but the Roman Catholic leadership continually refused him an annulment or divorce. So what did he do? Henry declared himself King of the church in his own country, seized the Church’s property, and renamed it the “Church of England” or Anglican Church. So what? Well, what do you think are the drawbacks to having a single, nationalized church ruled by the King? Right. All those good “separation of church and state” things go out the window. The church becomes so embedded in school and politics and the economy that Christianity suddenly becomes a pretty mandatory part of society. There are benefits to that, sure. Kind of like growing up in the American South, there’s something to be said for a culture that revolves around church and raises its children in that environment. But there are serious downsides, too. Like having people filling the pews who have little or no conscious faith, who only participate because their parents make them or because everybody else is doing it or because they want to be a part of an exclusive club, and who are familiar enough with the Gospel that it’s lost its fresh appeal and who may have never stopped to wonder whether or not they actually believe in Jesus. They’ve been inoculated against catching a real case of faith, and they don’t even know it. That was the state of the Church of England.

By the 18th-century in England, it had become a place reserved for the affluent and well-to-do in society, who were expected to be present every Sunday and support the Anglican institution, but oftentimes with little or no personal Christian devotion. People were “in church” for a thousand reasons – to network for their businesses, to meet their future spouses or arrange advantageous marriages, to have a hearty covered-dish meal, to reserve their future plot in the cemetery – but few were necessarily “being church” as disciples of Christ. It makes perfect sense, then, that when two young brothers who had been raised in Anglicanism came of age, they decided it was time for some massive changes. John and Charles Wesley recognized that, starting on a personal level, it was time to reclaim “Scriptural holiness” that included the two key ingredients that the English were missing: first, the spiritual devotion of someone who believes fully in Jesus and, second, the kind of Christian service that would actually lift up the lives of those in need. While still ultimately college students, they started a group that became known mockingly as “Methodists” because they seemed too serious, too methodical, about their faith. They were disciplined to daily practices like journaling, fasting, prayer and Holy Communion. They dove into Scripture as a living, authoritative text. They went into the dark bowels of society, like debtors’ prison, not just to speak to the people but to know them and later to help remedy their real-world issues. Then, John Wesley began to preach.

By this time he was an officially-ordained Anglican priest but did what few other dared to do: he took to field-preaching. It meant going in person to the places where the poor, unchurched masses were found – literally in fields, at the shipyards, outside coal mines. Suddenly, the “least of these” heard the Gospel, and heard their own stories in it, and they repented by the hundreds then thousands. They came forward to be saved, and the response was overwhelming. Based on his own experience, John grouped the new converts into small groups, classes and bands, so that salvation wouldn’t be a simple one-time rebirth but rather the beginning to Christian sanctification; and the movement ballooned. Christians were tasting real community for the first time in ages, and it was lighting the spiritual landscape on fire. But that’s not all.

Wesley realized quickly that the people needed to learn how to properly be community together. His journals reveal that, early in the movement, everyone started to notice a problem. His small group leaders would visit the homes of their class members in order to take up the weekly collection, and find their fellow disciples in all manner of spiritual disarray. One man would come to the door stone-cold drunk before 9:00 in the morning. Another woman was found with an “overnight guest” who was a man other than her husband. Another home was torn by domestic violence. In another, the children weren’t being properly fed. In other words, although the masses were converting and joining Methodist groups, the members of the groups weren’t actually sharing life together. They were entertaining one another with superficiality; they were wearing spiritual masks while darker realities lurked behind closed doors. They weren’t confessing to one another, or holding each other accountable. In the end, the Wesleys reshaped the “rules” for their groups. They refocused their efforts on deep relationship and vulnerability. The new question that became the focal point for Methodists, and it was designed to be answered in total honesty every single meeting, was this: How is it with your soul? And if anyone tried to respond with anything like “Pretty good” or “Just fine,” it wasn’t going to fly.  He set up these societies to truly share life together.

Every year at Annual Conference individuals who have felt the call of God to ordained ministry whether that call is to be a deacon or an elder in the United Methodist Church and wishes to be in full membership in the Annual Conference stands up before the Executive Session of the Annual Conference, all the ordained clergy, and has these questions asked of him or her by the Bishop. 1. Have you faith in Christ? 2. Are you going on to perfection? 3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? 4. Are you earnestly striving after it? 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? 6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? 7. Will you keep them? 8. Have you studied the doctrines o the United Methodist Church? 9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? 10. Will you preach and maintain them? 11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? 12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? 13. Will you support and maintain them? 14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? 15. Will you visit from house to house? 16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? 17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God? 18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? 19. Will you observe the following directions: a. Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. B. Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

Do you know the General Rules of our church and will you keep them? Just three simple rules. It’s Wesley’s way of expressing the first and second commandment that are in Mark’s text for us today. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is contained in these two. Rueben Job says that these rules have the power to change the world. “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God” are ancient simple words seldom put to the test, but words when lived out in this life, could transform the whole earth. We really do live in a world of divisiveness that separates, disparages, disrespects, diminishes, and leaves us wounded and incomplete.

Can you imagine the outcomes of our communities if every United Methodist worldwide would live into these 3 simple rules? If young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak and those of every theological persuasion in the church would live out these words, we would have a transformed culture, we would together, change the world. Wesley believed this in his day so much that he took this as the blueprint of his societies, fleshed it out, taught it, and expected every Methodist to practice it. I’ve been told that it was the Methodism influence of living out these simple rules that kept England from breaking out in civil war against each other in those turbulent times of the industrial revolution.

“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Starr Concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live. It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, Children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation. And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.

“Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote and editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”

Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”

Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

Even our witness to the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus loses its authenticity and its power in the wake of so much division and hatred. Those who follow Jesus are asking, “is there not a better way to live with each other?” “Is there not a better way to practice our faith?” a way so simple that none are turned away because of its complexity, and all can practice it because of its simplicity.   These three simple rules are one of the ways we tap into that.  Are you willing to go on this journey of discovery of actually practicing what our Rabbi taught us in a framework that is easy to understand but we will spend a lifetime perfecting?

At the Feet of the Rabbi – Matthew 6

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 Concerning Almsgiving

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Prayer

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Fasting

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Treasures

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is the Ash Wednesday text every lectionary year, probably because it talks about not being showy in one’s faith.  Lenten practices can sometimes be that way.  If you’re talking always about what you’re giving up or you’re talking about the day your fasting or you’re talking about the entire day of prayer, you’ve gotten your reward of those around you, those that you’re bragging to.  Our rabbi is teaching us to do things privately, not with pomp and circumstance.  He’s warning us of getting big heads playing I’m more religious than you are.

It’s not about that.  We don’t volunteer at the Lowcountry Orphan Relief or on work days in Nichols or Sellers or go to Ecuador to get pictures made, though it seems at times like we do, it’s because we want to give what we can or do what we can as we are able because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.  Simple as that.  The Message translation of the Bible seems to get at that idea.  Matthew chapter 6 is titled “The World is a Stage.”  Though I was an English major, I never fancied myself an actress.  Jesus wants us to be real and authentic in our faith.  He doesn’t want a full-fledged Broadway Show, an Oscar winning performance of Saint Narcie and yet the very action is not the thing that gets us into trouble, it’s being pious with the intention of looking down on others.  John Wesley said this, “The thing which is here forbidden, is not barely the doing good in the sight of men; this circumstance alone, that others see what we do, makes the action neither worse nor better; but the doing it before men, “to be seen of them,” with this view from this intention only.”

In his notes, Wesley writes, “In the foregoing chapter our Lord particularly described the nature of inward holiness. In this he describes that purity of intention without which none of our outward actions are holy. This chapter contains four parts, The right intention and manner of giving alms, ver.1 – 4. The right intention, manner, form, and prerequisites of prayer, ver.5 – 15. The right intention, and manner of fasting, ver.16 – 18. The necessity of a pure intention in all things, unmixed either with the desire of riches, or worldly care, and fear of want, ver.19 – 34.”  Let’s get to what our Rabbi was getting at.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

My grandfather was a man like that.  One time my grandmother let slip that he had paid for the carpet all throughout the Greeleyville UMC parsonage.  He helped lots of people, quietly and unobtrusively.

I’ll read you a story by Woody McKay, Jr. called “The Secret Benefactor.”

http://www.chickensoup.com/book-story/41639/the-secret-benefactor

Continuing in Chapter 6, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Our Rabbi Jesus teaches us how to pray and gives us a model or example. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes both the practice of a Rabbi teaching the disciples a prayer, and the language of this prayer, place Jesus in the context of others rabbis of his time.   “From the Talmudic parallels (Tosef., Ber. iii. 7; Ber. 16b-17a, 29b; Yer. Ber. iv. 7d) it may be learned that it was customary for prominent masters to recite brief prayers of their own in addition to the regular prayers.”  The Lord’s Prayer as it is now commonly referred to is the world’s most famous prayer of all time.  We would say it in the locker room before basketball games, we said it at the bedside of my grandfather after he died, and I remembered it even after my second brain surgery robbed me of my speech.  Its powerful words could be a whole sermon itself.

Madeleine L’Engle writes this about prayer.

In prayer the stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Announcement in a church bulletin for a national Prayer and Fasting Conference: “The cost for attending the Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.”  Martha Moore-Keish, a Presbyterian minister, writes, “Our culture does not know what to do with Ash Wednesday. We do a pretty good job with the feasting right before Ash Wednesday, mind you — more and more people even outside of New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras with beads and floats, and more and more people devour pancakes and waffles at Shrove Tuesday celebrations. Any excuse for a feast is welcome! But what to do with the depressingly titled Ash Wednesday? A few years ago I saw a restaurant sign that summed up our cultural uncertainty about this date on the Christian calendar: “Ash Wednesday Seafood Buffet: All You Can Eat!” …

The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines — fasting, prayer, service — in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him. This is the paradox of the baptized life. We have been joined to Christ once, but we spend the rest of our lives trying to live into that union.

Turning to Christ means turning also to all our neighbors who suffer. According to Isaiah, fasting and praying that brings us to act on behalf of these neighbors is the fast that is acceptable to God.”

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sister Wendy Beckett in The Mystery of Love: Saints in Art through the Centuries  writes, “When I was young, I longed to be a saint. What was I longing for? I think it was for certainty that my life had been, in the most profound sense, a “success” — that great and glorious success that is sanctity. We revere the saints. We imitate them. Theirs is the true and lasting glory. Very clearly, this desire is, unconsciously, as worldly as that of the writer who wants to write a masterpiece or the politician who yearns to be prime minister or president. None of these ambitions has the least to do with what Jesus preached — that lowliness, that love for last place, that readiness to die and be forgotten … . To be concerned with oneself in any way, to watch one’s growth in “holiness” or “prayer,” to be spiritually ambitious, all this Jesus earnestly sets his face against.”

We’re not holy because we know we store up crowns in heaven.  There is not a giant sticker chart for who says the longest prayers or who fasts the most.  We’re holy because Jesus is holy and he calls us to be holy, little by little, step by step.

There’s an old story about a man from the city who was out driving one day, in the country. The signs on the road weren’t very good, and he got lost. So he stopped at a farmhouse to ask directions. “Can you tell me how far it is to the town of Mill Pond?” he asked.

“Well,” said the old farmer, “the way you’re goin’ it’s about 24,996 miles. But if you turn around, it’s about four.”

And therein lies a lesson. If we want to follow our Rabbi we have to repent.  We have to turn around and see him for who he really is — our Rabbi, the example to follow, but more than that we learned last week in the Transfiguration that he is the Great God of the Universe come down in the form of a baby, our Emmanuel, wading through the muck and mire of our sin and reaching down into the mess of our lives to set our feet on solid ground.  Amen?  Our Rabbi Jesus, first proclaimed the Good News with the Beatitudes and that we are to be salt and light in the world and then expounded on the “real stuff,” when the rubber meets the road and when the ship hits the sand.  Real, practical life applications that are certainly not easy to practice but God gives us the grace, strength and courage to go out into the world and our very own hearts to practice what we preach, not in ostentatious ways, but with humility, standing our ground but shirking from the spotlight.  Wesley treated the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and other passages as “covered promises.” That is, they are commands that we can obey because God provides the grace to empower us to fulfill what is required.  It’s God’s grace freely given.  As we go through the confession of Communion hear the words anew and afresh, search your hearts, see if anything has taken root there – bitterness, fear, anger, doubt, hatred, judgment –  but hear the rest of it as well.  Hear the Good News, “Christ died for us while we were sinners.  That proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”  Then hear God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit’s mighty works in the Great Thanksgiving.  We’re going to practice Communion every Sunday of Lent.  I invite you to pray the words…

God works wonders from dust…

Today is Ash Wednesday.   It is the beginning of Lent and the day in the church calendar that we are called upon to face our own mortality.   I am confessing a secret that I actually don’t hate Lent.  Because in this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and fast and this is the day that kicks it all off.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to face the deep truth that as mortals we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Even though we talk about calling and gifts and graces and God guiding and leading us through life, Ash Wednesday is reminding us that we are dust and to dust we return.

It can be scary, a little refreshing.   Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest shares the image she has about Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  We live in a culture that tells us if we work hard enough, have enough money, buy enough skin care products, eat healthy enough, or exercise with enough vigor, we might just live forever.  And yet, we know that is not true.  So today, we proclaim the truth that we shall return to the dust over which God first breathed life.

And I, at least, breathe a sigh of relief.   Because admitting and facing my own mortality, allows me to admit that God is God and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that).  It allows me to lay down my attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life.   Having confessed my sins, and admitted my own mortality, it allows me to live freely this incredible, mortal life that is my reality right now.  It allows me to take chances, take leaps of faith, with every breath that I have in my body.

But perhaps more than that, it helps me to let go of my fear.  Because Ash Wednesday reminds us that in spite of it all, death does not have the last word.   While we and others have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, God has destroyed death.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it cuts through the crud, the non-essentials.  It gets to the heart of the very core of everything.  It reminds us of God’s infinite promises to us.  It reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood of perfection.

Ann Voskamp says this about Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”

Whether you’re adding something or taking something away, whether you commit to have some quiet in your life and spend twenty minutes in day in silence, whether you write down things that you are thankful for, or fast one day a week.   Randy Wells reminded me before the service that I have to talk about the “feast” days on Sundays that you can choose to follow your Lenten discipline or not because every Sunday is supposed to be a Resurrection Sunday or mini-Easter.  He then pointed out, we shouldn’t take that as an invitation to cram all of the other days vices into that one day!

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

Maybe we should fast from the 24 hours new cycle.  Maybe we should fast from television.  Maybe we should fast from social media.  Maybe we should fast from the electronics that get in the way of us talking to our friends and family, like they are attached to our bodies or something.  It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust.”

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.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

I’ve heard Hawk Nelson’s “Diamonds” on the radio and can’t help but relate it to Ash Wednesday every time it comes on.  Here are the lyrics:

Here and now I’m in the fire, in above my head
Being held under the pressure, don’t know what will be left
But it’s here in the ashes
I’m finding treasure

He’s making diamonds
Making diamonds
He’s making diamonds out of dust
He is refining
And in his timing
He’s making diamonds out of us

I’ll surrender to the power of being crushed by love
‘Til the beauty that was hidden isn’t covered up
It’s not what I hoped for
It’s something much better

Oh The Joy of the Lord
It will be my strength
When the pressure is on
He’s making Diamonds

I won’t be afraid to shine

May we never be afraid to shine.  God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings, example, and have his dust all over us.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  So, shout it from the roof tops, sing it in your heart, whisper it quietly to yourself, but tell that truth.  That you were formed from dust and to dust you will return.  Then, breathe a sigh of relief and be free.  Because it’s not all about you.  It’s about what God does in us.  As I will say when I put the ashes on your forehead, God can work wonders out of dust.  Thanks be to God indeed.