Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sermon for Ash Wednesday: Walking Dead and Dirty

"Walking Dead and Dirty"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Ash Wednesday
22 February 2012

Texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51.1-17
2 Corinthians 5.20-6.10
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21


-For those of you who are new to Ash Wednesday and Lent, and wondering what to give up; or if you’re intimidated by all the “spiritual ninjas” and people reading 800 page Russian novels, let an old pro share a trade secret with you: try just giving up something you don’t like. “What’s my Lenten discipline? I think I’ll give up...doing the dishes…or drinking bad coffee…or watching Fox News!” You might feel like a bratty two-year old; but you’re guaranteed to feel a lot less guilt.

-If I was a two-year old again, I know exactly what I would “give up:” finger-painting. It would be a tough sacrifice. But worth it for the love of Jesus.

-I hated finger-painting. Hated anything, really, that required me to get icky and slimy. If you’d have asked me back in the day to help impose dirty ashes on people, I’d have said hell no. My parents joked that when I got married, they’d buy me china plates that had those little divider compartments built into it so I could keep my food neatly separated. I'm still waiting for them to come in the mail.

-And while I can stand before you today proudly able to share that I now feel perfectly comfortable smearing dirt on your foreheads, it’s made me think about today’s psalm. Because my automysophobic younger self wasn’t the only one looking for cleanliness. The Psalmist David gives voice to his desperate longing to be “washed thoroughly from his iniquity.”

-And for good reason. As Leonard Cohen sings in a song-that-must-not-be-named now that it's Lent, the great king and hero of Israel, like so many great leaders, was also great at making scandal. This time around, David saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing on her roof, lures her to the palace where he promptly gets her pregnant, and then sends her husband to the front lines in the war to get killed off. And when the prophet Nathan calls him out, David is contrite and writes the very song we sang to open tonight’s service. Pleading with his God, “create in me a clean heart.”

-For all his rep as a “man after God’s heart,” this gangster version, this Kingpin David feels more real (except for the whole giving your lover's husband a cement bath in the river thing). It feels strangely fitting to pray his words. The words of a fellow sinner.

-And apparently, it feels fitting to lots of other folks too. I was surprised to learn during seminary that the most highly attended church service of the year is not Christmas or even Easter, but Ash Wednesday. Going out to the coffee shop on this day, it’s quite shocking to see just how many folks have suddenly remembered they are dust, and to dust they shall return.

-Witnessing otherwise ordinary, familiar citizens suddenly walking about dazed and black-crossed felt eerily like stumbling into a zombie movie – “Dawn of the Living Dead…Christians!” Where did they all suddenly come from??? As much as we strive to avoid the reality of Sin and Death - an avoidance that the Therapeutic Industrial Complex is all too willing to assist with – like an undead horde drawn to the sweet smell of brains, something about Ash Wednesday re-animates people’s neglected inner Sinner, and with it, an insatiable hunger for ritual and forgiveness.

-And I wonder if what draws people is the very dirty, cathartic practice of having some one else smudge an ashen cross on your forehead. Being told by someone that is NOT you, that, believe it or not, you are a sinner. Sin is real. You are going to die. Because if we’re honest with ourselves – which we can’t be! - its damn hard to admit on our own.

-Hard to confess that all have the deep capacity for self-deception. The deranged desire to take what is not ours. The staggering capacity to do damage to those we claim to love most. And no matter how many crossbow bolts of grace God fires into our hearts, like good zombies we keep on getting back up. Keep insisting, like the guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “I’m not dead yet!”

-It’s much easier for me to get divided china plates. Try to organize my own little micro-managed kingdom of purity, where the messiness is held at bay. Put up dividing walls in my heart, relegating the unclean and the imperfect into the shadows, while creating Lenten disciplines to perform and ladders of good works and merit to climb towards the light. Away from the reality that my heart is a BS factory. And towards some ideal of purity and holiness that enables me to feel like “a good person.”

-Because of course, then the messiness remains always out there, always somewhere else. Never with us. Our cleanliness costs other people theirs, but as long as we remember to pray for the souls of Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X (whose deaths we commemorate this week), we can continue to congratulate ourselves for our progressivism and enlightenment - without having to face the fact that sin is also a system. A system into which we pay dearly to keep our delusions of justice operating. A system in which we are deeply invested, and from which we continue to greatly profit. A system that numbs us, infects us, zombifies us.

-If cheap grace remains a problem, it’s only because we’re prolific at manufacturing and exporting cheap Sin, regardless of who chokes on the smog. If your iPhone was made in China, say Amen.

-That’s why I’m thankful for David’s confession. Because he names it. He says he can’t do it. Can’t make himself clean. Can’t stop lying to himself, can’t take back the damage he’s done. He is not a free man or a mighty king. He is slave to sin. He is walking dead. Can only cry out, “do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me!”

-Like David confronted by the prophet Nathan, on Ash Wednesday, when you come forward tonight to receive ashes from another, you too are confronted. You are not asked to present a catalogued list of sins. You are not expected to make excuses, or even to have them. You are not able to. When your forehead is marked by the cross, it is no longer a fellow sinner’s hand, but Christ’s. Christ, not asking for your opinion, if you think Sin exists. You are being told. Christ Himself confronts you, violently and prophetically, with the very truth of reality, spelled out in ash, in oil, and in blood. You cannot be honest with yourself. You are not clean, but dirt and dust. You are enslaved to Sin. You are helpless. You are dead.

-If it stopped there, we’d be better off zombies. But we are not just marked for death. We are signed with the cross. And not just by any cross, but with the cross of Jesus Christ. Forever. Marked by the love of the one who, full of grace and truth, did not despise us in our dirtiness, but joined us in it. Took on our ashes and dust. Descended to earth, that he might be lifted up from it on the tree of Calvary. Lifted up by our hands. To awaken us up to to zombie slaves we have become. But also to save us. To “create in us a clean heart.” To “restore us,” as David sings, “to the joy of salvation.” To “deliver us from bloodshed,” that “our tongues might sing of your deliverance.”

-You see, when someone else crosses you tonight, you are not only being claimed from something, but for someone. You are not merely a reanimated corpse, not merely un-dead. You are snatched from the chaos of sin and death that we humans have created, and from that void and darkness, God promises to make a new thing. When that hand smudges dirt on your forehead, it is the very hand of Jesus Christ, reaching through our muddy thoughts into the very depth of our souls, shaping in us a new heart, a heart that is capable of grace, truth, and love. A heart that is not hard and full of walls. But a heart that is soft, full of roots and water, where humility, beauty, and wonder can take seed and flourish.

-Receiving a new heart is not easy work. As David sings in the Psalm, his bones must be crushed, his body broken, before he can learn to sing. His self-deception must be utterly dismantled. Things will get dirty. When God sets out to make us new, God will do what God must to make it happen. Being marked by the cross of Christ, we are joined with him in his death.

-But the Good News, brothers and sisters, is that we are also claimed and joined to Christ’s abundant life. Our sin is taken into his perfection, our violence is dissolved in His peace, our hearts beat with His lifeblood. We are joined in intimate and mystical union with Jesus, whose Spirit dwells and animates your hearts, whose body surrounds you tonight, in this gathered people. Union with Christ, whose flesh and blood will be our feast. Whose grace alone opens our lips, whose song is our song, whose joy is our hope, his love our promise. We may be walking dead. But we never walk alone.

-Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Remember also that you are Christ’s, and by Christ’s Spirit, you are truly, fully alive. Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Collect for Transfiguration Sunday 2012

Beautiful God of radiant splendor,
The light of your face is terrifying,
Reducing all of our pretensions
Of knowing or naming your mystery
To humbled silence;
As you spoke with Moses and Elijah,
In burning bush,
In flaming chariot,
In cloud and fire upon the Mount of Transfiguration,
So speak to us today;
Help us believe again in the power of beauty,
The delight of enchantment,
And the promise of true glory,
Through the gift of the presence of your Son,
Whose face reveals your face,
Whose Word who makes possible the end of words,
Jesus Christ, our Savior and your Beloved,

Cross-Bloggination: Q - Ideas for the Common Good

Apparently, my post "Take It and Tweet it" - which was really just me quoting the preeminent Keith Anderson! - continues its venture into self-discovery in the wild wilderness of the world-wide-web. Recently, Q: Ideas for the Common Good, has picked it up, which, to quote a friend means that "now your thoughts have been cast into the wide abyss of the new evangelicals." Cool. Thanks to Ben McNutt and the Faith&Leadership folks for pushing the article out of the nest, and to Q for sheltering it on its journey!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Collecting Manna: Poetry as a Means of Grace

I wonder today how much the clergy of today keep in mind the old medieval distinction between the Active and the Contemplative Life. How concerned are they in maintaining the equilibrium between them? When a pastor's soul is weary and confused and short-focused and out of adjustment from cares and distractions of the parish, (s)he can only find readjustment through the contemplation and influence of things that reach to the infinite and invisible.

One of these means is prayer. One of these means is literature. I do not mean just books, but the thing which distinguishes itself from the rest by its imagination, its beauty, its generalization and transcendence over the mere phenomenon of life. If any has within him the depth to which the deep of literature can call - I do not mean that he should be "literary" in the narrow sense - herein is a means of restoration which is efficacious as great music, or pictures, or the grandeur of Nature, or prayer are efficacious to a man whose soul is weary with labor.

Charles G. Osgood, Poetry as a Means of Grace (Princeton University Press, 1941), 10

Friday, February 17, 2012

Cross-Bloggination: A Dantean Lent

Starting in Lent, my esteemed cousin-in-law Jonathan Grunert and I will be reading through a canto or two per day of Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio. I'm incredibly excited, as Dante was and has always been a passion and deep love. We've also started a blog, appropriately titled "A Dantean Lent," where we'll be posting on the journey (I've included a link in my "Fellow Travelers" section on this blog). I've just written a post offering suggestions on helpful resources and background reading, and if anyone feels inclined to join us, let us know!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sermon: "Running to Stand Still, or, 20 McNuggets at 30 is NOT a Good Idea"

"Running to Stand Still, or, 20 McNuggets at 30 is NOT a Good Idea"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
12 February 2012

Texts: 2 Kings 5.1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9.24-27
Mark 1.40-45


I see seven towers
but I only see one way out...
-"Running to Stand Still", U2

-As a runner, I’ve always loved today’s reading from Corinthians. Yet, as you get older, it’s amazing how a text can change for you. I know, I know. I’m only turning 30 next week. That’s not that old, not even for HFASS!

-But it is old, especially in runner years. So it’s one thing to hear Paul tell the Corinthians, “run in such a way as to win the prize” when you are 17, putting in 10 mile days with the cross country team, and able to wolf down 20 chicken nuggets without a second thought. It’s another to hear it with flat feet, two bad knees, and an extra ten years and ten pounds under your belt! When getting to a half mile is a good day for me. And scarfing 20 chicken nuggets definitely isn’t.

-So unlike in my “younger” days, when this passage provided endless inspiration out on the trails, for me today, it’s kind of, well, uninspiring. Paul talks about things like self-control, competing for an imperishable wreath, punishing my body and enslaving it.

-But when it’s your body that feels like its enslaving you; when it’s your feeble attempts at self-control that seem to endlessly control you; when a life of competition and comparison leads to loneliness and isolation instead of collaboration and community; and when that sought-after prize still seems to elude you in spite of your best efforts to “run in such a way as to win it;” well, that’s when I want to tell old Paul – bracket “St.” apparently – to take his running shoes and race directly to h-e-double hockey sticks.

-And yet…we keep on running, don’t we? And not just because we live in Colorado. But as much as we say we believe that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to earn God’s grace and love, as much as our tired bodies and our broken souls scream at us to stop the madness, we cannot help being gluttons for punishment. We know in our gut that the game is rigged. That no matter how much we train for the marathon, some skinny Kenyan dude is going to come out of nowhere and make everyone look foolish while setting a new world record. We know the competition for spiritual success or self-improvement is a faltering footrace, that grace points us elsewhere.

-But then, we hear an inspiring sermon. Read a motivational blog or tweet. Experience a fleeting moment of success. Discover a new diet plan, or a new church. After years of despair about faith, we find progressive politics, or radical religion. Someone challenges us to get our lives back together. And then, suddenly, we’re back on the treadmill, training away, running after that promised carrot of glory dangled by our own self-delusion - and a ready array of promised guarantees from the capitalistic and Christian industrial complex.

-And we always start out with such high hopes, don’t we? Some of you may remember that it’s February. Which means that, just a few weeks ago, we may have made New Year’s resolutions. Remember those? How’s that going for you exactly? I was cruising...until I wasn’t. But thank God, Lent’s right around the corner, right?

-Maybe for you the race looks more "spiritual." Maybe it’s something you’ve been working on your whole life. Maybe it’s that deep, dark, completely flawed personality issue, that foible or secret fault, that you know is destroying you, and yet, you are completely unable to destroy. Like the Leper in today’s Gospel, maybe you were touched by Jesus. And then Jesus gave you a week of sobriety. Enabled you to stop lying about money. Took away your anger, and gave you kindness towards your enemies - or your co-worker, spouse or partner. Helped you stop talking so darn much…or gave you the courage to speak up.

-At least for a week or so. And then, we’re right back to measuring ourselves by our self-made images of success. The treadmill is whirring away, the headphones are back in our ears. We tell Christ, “thanks for the pit-stop. I think I can take it from here.”

-In many ways, we are all like the Leper Guy from today’s Gospel reading. We come to Jesus in an hour of desperate need, begging to be healed. We beg with the right words: “if you choose, you can make me clean.” If we’re lucky, we may even experience some form of healing! And then, as soon as Jesus sternly commands us to do something – or in this case, nothing! - well, like Leper Guy, we fail miserably. If this guy’s healing is the starting pistol of the race of faithful obedience, dude basically takes a few steps, pulls up a deck chair, cracks open a bottle of beer, and watches the rest of the runners go by from the sidelines, yelling, “see ya’ suckers!” He doesn’t even try to obey Jesus. He starts up his own race, which is, in fact, no race at all. Definitely not the nothing that constitutes the race to which Jesus calls him.

-His own race looks like self-promotion, like Leper Guy doing what he wants, “proclaiming freely” about his good fortune to anyone who will listen. And as a result, we are told, Jesus can no longer openly enter a town – any town! – but has to resort to roughing it out in the wilderness. Ironically, the quarantined, isolated leper thanks Jesus by exchanging places with him in what the text calls a “lonely place.” We are no different when, disregarding Jesus’ command, we relegate him to the margins of our lives in favor of our own efforts. And then it’s back to struggle, self-loathing, and the faltering foot-race of self-improvement. Then we’re back, with Jesus, in the lonely place of despair.

-But here’s the thing, my dear saintly sinners. This is no shock to Jesus. Christ does not call us because he thinks we are going to be all-stars. Christ knows we run on two bum knees and two flat feet, knows that at the first opportunity, we’ll turn tail and run. Away from him, and towards perishable crowns of our own imagining.

-And yet, even knowing this, Christ has compassion on us. Christ reaches out and touches us, Christ tells us “BE CLEAN” - even though, even WHEN, Christ knows that within minutes, we are going to fall flat on our faces. Christ sees us in our leprosy - our wordiness, our anger, our laziness, our addiction - and when we fall on our knees before him, begging for mercy and compassion, Christ does not merely touch us. Like my friend TJ, who during a championship high school cross country meet, found me broken-footed and face-down in the mud, disgraced and unwilling to finish the final mile, Christ comes to us all, breaks the rules, crosses the barrier, and lifts us up. Pulls our face out of the muddy ground. Christ embraces us. Christ embraces YOU. He embraces me. Full on. Sets us on our feet again. And whispers in our ears, “be clean.”

-And though we keep talking freely and thus banish Christ to the lonely places, though we line up to race for glory again and again, Christ continues to admonish us, simply, “be clean.” It’s not just a one-time moment. It’s a command and a promise: “be clean.” Be what you are. You are embraced. You ARE mine. This is your new race. Becoming what you are in me.

-Nothing can change that. Nothing can separate us from that love. Nothing can take away that crown which has been given us - the crown of the love of God in Christ Jesus. We run the race, falling, stumbling, tripping, vommitting, failing. But now, we run, even at a crawl, towards the cross of Jesus, who was not afraid to fall into the mud and mire of our lonely places, that we might all be lifted up into his arms. And even in those miry, lonely places, Christ still awaits. Even our failure cannot keep people from coming out to him “from every quarter.” The more we try to run away from him, the more shocked we are to find Him running into us.

-And maybe that’s the kind of running Paul has in mind. Running in Christ. Running together. Running in freedom. Knowing that even our bold failures, like Leper Guy’s, can still be a free proclamation of the Good News of what Christ has done for us. That, set free in Christ, we may run fiercely, risk needing forgiveness, sinning boldly, but always, stumbling more boldly in the direction of the love of Christ Jesus. Running to stand still.