Blessed are you… The Beatitudes and Discipleship

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as I prepare for our Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m not sure when I last spent any time with this Christian classic (25 years, 35 years?). Coming back to it after all those years, it’s striking both in the way it reflects its historical context and the ways in which it transcends its time and still speaks to us decades later.

For example, after going through the beatitudes, explaining them and showing how they speak immediately to the situation of Jesus’ followers in the first century, Bonhoeffer asks whether the community described in the Beatitudes exists anywhere on earth. His answer:

Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the Cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it is found all. From the cross there comes the call “blessed, blessed.”

The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified!

Earlier, he points out that Jesus called his disciples blessed in the crowd’s hearing and that “the crowd is called upon as a startled witness.” From this he posits the essential unity of disciples and people. In his discussion of the Beatitudes, Bonhoeffer tends to emphasize the tension between Jesus’ followers and the world but here he stresses the commonality. It’s easy to read him (and to some degree the Beatitudes themselves) and place ourselves on that same grid. We hear a lot these days about the persecution of Christians in American, for example. But I wonder whether the perception might change if the emphasis were on the ways in which the people of God are meant to be a blessing to the communities and world in which they live.

In this week’s lectionary reading from Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai out from Haran into the Promised Land, telling them, “I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the world will be blessed.” It’s easy to recoil, raise our defenses, withdraw or try to fight back when we encounter opposition. The world sees plenty of that from Christians. What might it be like to offer oneself and one’s community of faith as a blessing to its neighborhood and the world?

 

God remembers that we are dust, and that’s Good News! A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

As I was preparing for Ash Wednesday this year, I took the opportunity to reflect on my past observances of the day. That’s one of the wonderful things about the discipline of a blog. It’s something of a diary in which I reflect publicly on the liturgy, lectionary texts, and other matters, as well as posting all of my sermons. So I went back through the past few years since I’ve been at Grace, and even further. As I read, I remembered, not just the more recent Ash Wednesdays but all the way back to the very first service at which I presided as a lay person because the Rector of the parish had taken a new call and the Interim Rector was not yet in place.

Some of those years were memorable because of what was happening in the world around us. In 2003, it was the imminent invasion of Iraq. In 2011, as we knelt to say the litany of penitence during the 6:00 service, the square outside erupted in noise in response to the State Senate’s final passage of Governor Walker’s budget repair bill.

It may be quiet on the square today but still our hearts may be unquiet because of other concerns: the tense situation in the Ukraine, human suffering in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere; and here at home deep, apparently insurmountable political conflict and worsening inequality. We also bring our own more intimate concerns: job loss, illness, loved ones, broken relationships, our doubts and fears. We’re distracted, too, by the fact that we’ve come here from work or school, from a day of errands. And some of us will go from here back to what we were doing, a desk full of work, or homework, or the myriad little details of daily.
In the midst of all of that busy-ness today, we’ve decided to pause for a few minutes, to hear and recite familiar, ancient words, to receive the sign of the cross marked with ash on our forehead, and to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

That’s really what Lent is. Just as this service today marks an interruption in our daily routine, so too does Lent interrupt our daily lives and offers us an opportunity to take stock of ourselves, to remind us of who we are, and most importantly, to remind us of who God is.

Ash Wednesday lays us bare. The shock of a smudge of ash on our forehead and the ominous words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” cuts through all of our self-defenses, all of the images of ourselves that we project to the world and to ourselves, bringing us back to the fundamental reality, we are dust and ash.

It’s easy for us to focus on ourselves on Ash Wednesday—ashes, the litany of penitence, the prayers—all of it seems like an invitation to wallow in our sinfulness. Of course, it’s important to take a steely eyed, unemotional look at ourselves; but that’s not the end of the story. The liturgy, the prayers, the readings also remind us of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and God’s love.
But at the same time, for all that, Ash Wednesday reminds us of who God is and who we are in light of God. The collect of the day begins, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” We are God’s beloved children, God’s creatures, even if we’ve been created from the dust of the earth.

The Psalm we just recited emphasizes God’s mercy:

For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.

Just as we are told to remember that we are but dust, so the Psalmist says, God remembers that we are but dust. In our case, the reminder is so that we remember our mortality; that God remembers we are but dust is a sign of God’s care and mercy for us—extended to us because of our nature, our humanity, and our frailty, precisely because we are dust.

Therein lies the power of this day; the power of this smudge of ash on our foreheads. I know that many of us are uncomfortable with going through the rest of the day with ashes on our foreheads. We are uncomfortable with it because we hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” He seems to be telling us not to make a display of our religious practice and faith. But I would point out first that his warning is not about practicing one’s faith but about doing it in order to be seen by others.

So, if you decide to wipe the ashes off your forehead as you leave the church, that’s OK; there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you decide to go through the rest of the day with those ashes on your forehead, that’s OK, too. You’ll likely forget about them until you get a quizzical look from the cashier while you’re standing in line at the grocery store, or a helpful colleague at work will tell you that you have something on your forehead. Ashes can be a witness, a sign of God’s grace.

For it’s not just a smudge on your forehead. It’s the sign of the cross, marked on your forehead just as when we baptize babies, trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the oil of chrism, and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We bear the sign of God’s powerful love carrying it into the world, offering it to everyone we meet.

The ashen cross is not just a sign of our mortality and need for penitence. It is also a sign of God’s grace and love, a sign of God’s forgiveness. To mark our foreheads with ashes is to remind ourselves and the world of God’s redemptive and gracious love, to remind us that God brings life out death, that God brings life out of dust. God remembers that we are dust and God’s mercy extends even to us.
Thanks be to God!

Lent, 2014: Resources

The liturgical calendar offers different ways to experience and worship through the seasons of the year. Christmas and Epiphany are seasons of celebration; the months after Pentecost, referred to by Roman Catholics as “Ordinary Time,” provide an opportunity to explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the humdrum of ordinary life. By contrast, Lent is a season of repentance and spiritual discipline. It calls us to take God seriously for a few weeks. Lent asks us to see ourselves in our vulnerable humanity as the words of Ash Wednesday challenge us, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I hope that members of Grace (and readers of the blog) will endeavor this Lent to reflect and deepen our spiritual lives. There are many ways of doing this–by reading some work of spiritual significance, adopting spiritual practices like prayer and fasting, or following one or more of the many Lenten resources on the web.

At Grace, we’ll have a bible study on Wednesday evenings (March 12-April 9) focusing on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). You can find out more about it here, including some opportunities for following along on-line. If you can’t join us on Wednesday nights and would like to use the Sermon on the Mount for your own spiritual focus during Lent, I encourage you to get a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.

Maggie Dawn offers 40 ideas for observing Lent

Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Church of All Sinners and Saints offers 40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent

Lenten Devotionals:

And, of course, in a category of its own: Lent Madness!

Lenten Study: The Big Class: Making Sense of the Cross with David Lose:

Description: Whatever we say about the cross, we are also saying about God. So what does the cross mean? What can it tell us about God? How can it help us approach, understand, and know God better? In Part One of this three-part series, David Lose invites us to consider that the best way to understand the cross is through experience.

Walking the Stations of the Cross with her 7-year old son

Miranda Hassett, Rector of St. Dunstan’s in Madison has a lovely, thoughtful post on her son’s participation in a recent Stations of the Cross. It’s here.

What did G do, while we were going around and reading the Stations? He stood with us -sometimes relatively still, sometimes hopping from foot to foot. Sometimes reading along in his booklet, sometimes flopping his booklet back and forth, sometimes holding his booklet over his face with just his eyes peering over. He wandered off and sat down on a chair, a rocker, the floor. He drew a cross in red marker on one page of the booklet. He gazed at the art. He breathed on the glass of the windows and drew crosses in the water vapor with his finger. He fell over, once. He peered into the faces of the two adults in the room, to try to figure out what we were thinking and feeling. Sometimes he read the responses with us; sometimes he missed them.

And – I know this because I’m his mom, and because at least half my attention was on him the whole time – he was tuned in, listening, taking it in and thinking about it, the whole time. He was wiggly and distracting and all over the place, but he was, in his 7-going-on-8 way, fully present. And, as I started to read Station 7, he said, “I’ll read the next one.” He read Station 8 and Station 10. He declined to read again, but the other adult encouraged him to read the last one, and he did. He read most of it from a seated position astride our (heavy, stone) altar rail.

She goes on to reflect on the inclusion of kids in worship. Read it.

Next Monday (the 25th), there will be a Stations of the Cross as a Witness against Violence (part of a nation-wide effort of the Episcopal Church) at St. Dunstan’s at 6:00 pm. More info here.

Mother Hens and Smoking Fire-Pots: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2013

One of the interesting aspects of the season of Lent for me is that my earliest and in some deepest encounters with Lent came not through the liturgical cycle of contemporary Christianity, Episcopal or otherwise, but rather because I was trained as a historian of Christianity. Lent’s roots grow deep in the Christian tradition, dating back to the practices of early Christianity. In the fourth century, and perhaps earlier, it was common practice for baptism to occur primarily at the great Vigil of Easter, the wonderful celebration of Christ’s resurrection that begins in darkness on Saturday night, and traditionally ended at the first light of Easter Day. In preparation for baptism, those who had committed themselves to undertake initiation prepared by a season of fasting and learning. Continue reading

A word of forgiveness in Lent

I had one of those encounters yesterday that brought me up short. A homeless guy was hanging around the church after the early service and said he wanted to talk with me. There was something concrete I could help him with, but then he began telling me his story, telling me what burdened him. Many years ago, he had done something terrible to another human being and for all that time, his actions and what resulted from them preyed on him. He told me that he had asked God for forgiveness many times over the years, but that he couldn’t be sure he had been forgiven. We talked and prayed, and at the end of our meeting, I said the words of absolution while laying my hands on him:

Almighty God, have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep you in eternal life. Amen.

As I said them, I prayed that he might hear those words as words of consolation and forgiveness, words of assurance of God’s love for him. I hoped they could be words of comfort in the midst of a difficult life and at the end of a long road. As I said them, I thought of the Great Litany that we had recited earlier that morning. I thought too of Ash Wednesday with its litany of penitence. Ash Wednesday and Lent are times when we are encouraged to reflect on ourselves, our sins and shortcomings, repent of them, and seek God’s forgiveness. All of that can be hard work. It’s difficult to be honest with oneself, to admit one’s humanity, weaknesses, and faults. It’s difficult to repent of them—to say, yes, I’m sorry I’m that way, or that I’ve done those things. I’m sorry I continue to do them. It’s hard to lay oneself bare before oneself or before God.

But it’s also hard to ask for and accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes that word of forgiveness is lost in the midst of our own pain and self-loathing. Sometimes the grace of forgiveness seems overwhelmed by our own suffering and the suffering we have inflicted on others. Sometimes, God’s forgiveness seems impossible. Sometimes we resist the amazing grace offered by God. Do the words of absolution, the offer of God’s forgiveness come as words of good news and grace in the midst of our lives? When we resist them, how can we open ourselves to the possibility that through God’s grace and love, we might experience new life in Christ?

The message of Ash Wednesday and Lent can be hard indeed, but harder still for us to hear and receive may be the message of God’s forgiveness. Lent should also be a time when our goal should be to experience that message fully. It should be a time when we open ourselves to the joy of God’s grace.