Ashes

An Ash Wednesday Poem by my friend Gerald Mershimer…

 

             Ashes
I put these ashes on my head,
    For soon enough, I will be dead.
And every deed that I have done,
    Will be revealed before God’s throne.
I name my sin—I name it now,
      And at the cross I humbly bow.
And as I seek for healing Grace,
      I see my Savior’s bleeding face,
The thorns that pierce,
       The Eyes that see
the deepest sins inside of me.
In my shame and my despair,
     I hear my Blessed Savior’s Prayer
Ah, the holy healing plea—
   He wills to die to set me free.
I put these ashes on my head
     For Christ is risen from the dead.
And bids me turn from every sin,
   Take up my cross
                      and follow Him.

Seafood and Righteousness

 Here is a secret. I like food. Usually I eat when I’m hungry, but sometimes I eat just because I think I want something. Jesus must have known this would be the case. Here we are talking about the beatitudes at lunch during lent and today’s beatitude tells us “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

 Unfortunately, I know that my appetite for righteousness is not always as strong as my appetite for these sandwiches we’re eating here today. My appetite for righteousness is not always what it should be.

 Mom and I celebrate our birthdays just two days apart. On account of that we have often shared birthday celebrations. Sometimes we have gone out to eat. While growing up, eating out often meant a place like Wendy’s. On special occasions, we might have gone to the Ponderosa. But on one memorable birthday, when I was in my teens, it was decided we would go to the Red Lobster.

 We had driven past the Red Lobster many times. We knew what it was, it was a place for other people to eat while we were at Wendy’s. But not on this birthday. On this birthday we were Red Lobster people. Our family of six walked in like we belonged there. It was exciting. It felt like going to the fair or some other event. This was a special occasion.

 We received the menus, we looked them over, and when the server came Dad ordered a sampler. The sampler was good. I tried lobster for the first time, crab for the first time, scallops for the first time. But we had not really done our homework, this sampler was not intended for a family of six, and we couldn’t afford Red Lobster prices. It was the hungriest birthday ever. I think we left that night and went to Wendy’s.

 But I knew from that day that I loved seafood. I had enough of a taste to make me want it again. Perhaps that is why I join a group of friends who share this love and occasionally drive down to the MD border just to eat seafood. Honestly, its too far to drive and costs too much, but still we do it because we have a hunger for seafood.

 That gets us on track for what Jesus is talking about. When he talks about a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is not talking about choosing righteousness off a menu as if there are other options just as good. Jesus is interested in a hunger that makes you willing to drive too far and spend too much. Jesus is interested in a hunger that causes you pains until you get your fill. Jesus wants to know if after sampling small portions with your family of six, have you developed a lifetime appetite for righteousness?

 To hunger and thirst for something implies some risk. To hunger and thirst implies there is something you need or else you will die. Jesus is suggesting you can’t live in the kingdom of God without this righteousness.

 These beatitudes come to us as blessings and they help us to understand what it is like to live in a different kingdom – the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is marked by people who live in certain ways. And this beatitude tells us the kingdom of heaven looks like people who want righteousness so badly they can taste it. And once they get a taste for it, they want more of it, they would be willing to drive far and spend much just to have it. There is nothing they want more, they would sell everything just to have it.

 Jesus wants us to become this kind of people. He doesn’t want us to wait until heaven to behave like this – he prays “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus wants us to desire this stuff now.

 Righteousness becomes important in the gospel. Not too many verses later, Jesus says “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness.” Then, “your righteousness should exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” Then, “don’t practice your righteousness in order to be seen by others.” And then, after telling us not to worry about food and drink and what to wear, he says, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness… and these things will be added.” As it turns out, this righteousness is very important stuff.

 Perhaps a starter definition is in order. With help from Scot McKnight, here is a place to begin; 1) righteousness is listening to Jesus, 2) righteousness focuses on God first and not on the approval of others, 3) righteousness is the way kingdom citizens live in a world full of people who do not live that way.

 Welcome to the world of righteousness! Or as Matthew would say “Welcome to the kingdom of heaven!”

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” God knows what we need. God knows we need food and drink (maybe even some occasional seafood), God knows what we need in order to live and wants us to know that greater than any other needs is our need for righteousness. Perhaps the question for us is “how far are we willing to drive for that?”

Life is Like a Narrative

“Lent suggests life is more like a narrative than an outline. It does not remove blurry lines. Lent may provide some answers, but also new questions. Lent allows topics to overlap with one another. Although it is a temptation to separate one from the other. Lent reminds us of the reality that everyday topics intersect with big picture topics. We seem to have a natural inability to balance our focus of the kingdom of heaven with the details of earth. We are not to solve these dilemmas. Instead, we accept them and encourage others to see reality, to recognize the kingdom in the midst of these mundane and ordinary parts of our schedules. Lordship and dominion intersect with everyday tasks. The Word of the Lord meets the ink of our Day-timer.”

Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p.49

Exploring Gospel

“Time in the Gospel will remind us we aren’t the first to look at beauty and pronounce it good.We aren’t the first to find ourselves up to our elbows in a creative moment. We aren’t the first to roll away a stone to reveal what is behind it. After time in the Gospel, we might come out wide-eyed, muddy, bloody, and elbow deep in our story, excited to tell others where we have been and what we have discovered.”

From Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p.48

Lent: a Context for Temptation

“It is not likely you will be tempted to turn a stone into bread or to throw yourself from a temple. But you might be tempted to lash out at someone who thinks differently than you or takes your parking space. You might be tempted to think lack of caffeine intake or sugar or television will keep you safe from the Devil. Luke wants us to see the Devil as real. He wants us to know danger lurks. Lent is not exempt from Satan’s activity. In fact, Lent may place us right in a context of temptation.”

 
Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 44

A Paragraph for Lent

A quote from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p.41.

“Our local forests are full of large rocks. I can’t help but climb over them, jump from one to another, and enjoy the view they provide. Early in Luke, I read that God can turn stones into children of Abraham. In the next chapter, the Devil tells Jesus to turn stones into bread. I live in the twenty-first century. I know that of all that has been discovered about them, stones are not likely to turn into children or turn into bread. Yet I sit on a large rock in the forest and am reminded by the Gospel during Lent that I live in a world that is not limited by what we think we might know in this century.”

The Rugged Terrain of a Hostile World

“Father, Into Your Hand…” (Luke 23.46)

As in the first ‘word’ in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the Father again. We might remember that his very first words in the Gospel are about being in his Father’s house. So it may not surprise us that his final words prior to his death are about being taken into his Father’s hands. Jesus on the cross is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ life. Luke wants us to know that nothing, not even the cross, can stop Jesus from demonstrating the ways of God. He has already forgiven his executioners and made reservations for a criminal to enter paradise, now he commits his spirit to the Father.

We may find ourselves thinking of Psalm 31, especially the part where the psalmist says “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was saturated in the Psalms. The Psalms reveal some rugged emotional terrain. So does the cross. Jesus knows about rugged terrain. It should not surprise us that in challenging moments he reaches into the language of the psalms and adds “Father” before he goes on to quote “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Again, we should not be surprised. It was Jesus who taught us when we pray to say “Our Father…”

When we read this “word” we should not forget the connection between spirit and breath. We are reminded of a true gift from God. We do not possess our breath. We cannot hold it in or keep it. It is gift. Given again and again and again. We inhale, we exhale – gift.

Jesus gives his spirit willingly. Like the rabbi at his own funeral, he commits his life to God the Father. His spirit is not taken from him by those who put him on the cross. He gives it back to the One who gave it to him. He gave away what they thought they were taking from him. Admittedly, this is contrary to the visible evidence. From all appearances, Jesus had his breath taken from him. Meanwhile, Jesus is trusting that the Father is greater than the power of death.

This text reminds us of our dependence on the Father. Our spirit, our very breath is a gift from the Father and our lives are dependent on him. Perhaps we can think of many things we easily take for granted that in wiser moments we recognize as gift. We have been given much. Just look around. Look at your clothes, hands, feet. Breathe deep. Color, smell, taste – all gift. During Lent, we are reminded that following Jesus demands thankful, grateful spirits. May we give even those back to him.

Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with an observation. While many were hostile toward Jesus, Luke highlights that Simon carried the cross, the daughters of Jerusalem mourned for him, a criminal was welcomed into paradise, the centurion praised God, and Joseph was waiting for the kingdom. Some of these may have been aware of the conclusion of Psalm 31 “Be strong and let your heart take courage, All you who hope in the Lord.” We too follow Jesus into the emotional terrain of a hostile world. May we also “Be strong… take courage… and hope in the Lord.”

A prayer from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Thank you for the gift of life, Father God. There will come a day when I will meet you face-to-face. The One who gave me life and has numbered my days. As I take in each breath and exhale may I remember, by your grace, that my life is not my own. Just as Jesus gave His life up to save humanity, it is my desire to give my life in service and worship to you. In a world that invites me to worship and serve anything and everything but you, may I be fixed on the breath that you gave and remember the name of Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for your Lordship and leadership. It is my desire to follow you unto my last breath.”

The Ways of God

“It is Finished…” (John 19.30)

The final word Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel is “It is finished.” This is not a resignation. Walter Brueggemann calls it “God’s victory cigar.” Things still look bleak. Jesus is still on the cross. It is not yet Easter Sunday, still Jesus declares victory. His work is done. Jesus has completed the commitment made when the Word became flesh.

Perhaps we are prompted to ask “What is finished?” Part of what is finished is the dying and there were no efforts to make the dying less painful like we moderns might claim to do. Mostly, what is finished is the victory of God’s way in the world. Jesus has performed an enactment of the way God works. It was successful. It is finished. God’s sacrificial way of love, peace, generosity, grace, and forgiveness has been demonstrated. On that Friday, at the place called skull, death gave its best shot but could not defeat the plan of God. This is noteworthy since what happened on the cross appeared to have been a defeat.

The power of death and everything that tries to convince us that God’s way is not the way have been defeated. The power that tries to convince us it can coerce us into compromise is defeated. The power that tries to convince us we can manipulate our way to our own salvation has been defeated. Selfishness, greed, hostility, anxiety, hate, and violence have no power over us. Everything influenced by death is defeated. It is finished.

When one looks at what took place on Good Friday at the place called skull, it appears the weakest was the one with nails in his hands. John wants us to understand otherwise. This Gospel wants us to recognize Jesus as in control on the cross, as he has been all along. Like the conductor of an orchestra he continues to determine what happens next. Whereas Matthew and Mark ask the question “where is God” during crucifixion, John leaves little doubt where God is when Jesus dies. God is on the cross proclaiming “It is finished.”

God’s strange new world is coming at us. Business as usual is bad business. Business as usual is just participation in ways that have already been defeated. The ways of God have been turned loose in the world. Following Jesus is to follow one who has defeated death. The ways of God have been demonstrated and they are victorious. It is finished.

A prayer of response from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Jesus, there are no adequate words to express my gratitude for your victory on the cross. Yet, at times, I feel compelled to thank you with the words I have. I am compelled to gratitude that sometimes feels like groans instead of words and sometimes expresses itself as uninhibited worship. Thank you, Jesus, for your victory of obedience that paid the price for my sin and that brought me into eternity. Thank you for welcoming me as your co-laborer to spread the Good News that you have been victorious over sin, death, and satan.”

What are We Thirsty For?

“I Thirst” (John 19.28)

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus said “I thirst” and then goes on to tell us he said it because of an old psalm. Yet, considering the circumstances, we might imagine it did not require an old scripture for Jesus to know he was thirsty.

Interestingly, this is not the first time Jesus claims to be thirsty in John’s Gospel. Chapter 4 tells us of a time when weary from a journey he was seated by a well and said to a Samaritan woman “Give me a drink.” The conversation goes on until we learn “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst.” The further the conversation goes the less the Samaritan woman seems to understand about thirst, but the more she began to believe Jesus was the one who could quench it.

In response to his words on the cross he was offered a sponge of sour wine. Earlier, John has already told us that Jesus rebuked Peter (18.11) “The cup which the Father has given me – shall I not drink it?” Here on the cross, we find the same determination to drink the cup – Even if that cup is full of sour vinegary wine.

John keeps giving us glimpses of “The Word was God” mixed with “The Word became flesh.” Jesus was a real human in need. On the cross, God subjected his own self to the reality of human need. This was no pretend job. Jesus is reduced to the most helpless. And he is thirsty. We are reminded that at the beginning of the Gospel we are told “The Word became flesh.”

At the same time, the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes the way they did and onlookers responded to his statement of thirst “that scripture be fulfilled” because Jesus possesses the authority of one who was with God from the beginning. Those in attendance that day had no idea that Jesus was the one making decisions. And we are reminded that at the beginning of the Gospel we are told “The Word was God.”

It is ironic that one who offered living water and walked on water and who turned water into wine is now thirsty. We may wonder, can he now turn sour wine into water? But John says he mentioned his thirst to fulfill an old scripture. People always take Jesus so literally in John. “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep…” The Samaritan woman didn’t know he had access to the actual stuff from deep in the well of creation. Maybe it is not literal water he is thirsty for. Maybe he is thinking about something else.

The Gospel appears to be interested in both literal thirst and figurative thirst. The more we try to discover what Jesus is talking about the more the waters flow back and forth from literal to figurative. Perhaps John wants us to ask why we are content with sour wine when living water is readily available. Perhaps Lent asks us to give up our sour wine in order to enjoy what Jesus offers. Following the one who said “I thirst” is to follow one who knows the weariness of the journey. At the same time, it is to follow the one who offers water which after will cause us to never thirst again.

A prayer of response by Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Jesus, the water I drink is often sour because it is old and stale. Instead of the fresh, living water that you offer me daily, I often choose the encounters I have had with you in the past. Help me, Jesus, to remember that there is fresh living water to drink every day. You are a Father who meets all our needs. The needs of my human body are met according to your will, even if you need to send a raven or provide manna from heaven, I believe your promise that you will meet my needs for sustenance. You will care for me when I am suffering. And you have living water that I need every day.”

A Journey of Presence and Absence

“My God, My God…” (Matthew 27.46; Mark 15.34)

The only words Matthew and Mark report to us from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Both report them in Aramaic so we cannot miss them. The fact they come to us in Jesus’ native language may suggest some emotion. Jesus is not the first to know about being forsaken, he is quoting a psalm. Surely this is not a coincidence; the psalms are part of a collection of songs and prayers that travel a long journey of presence and absence. Just as Good Friday happens as part of a larger story, this “word” occurs as part of the practice of singing and praying the psalms. Old Israel knew about feeling abandoned by God. Some still feel it.

The cross is not for safe religion. In fact, pop religion will try to convince us that a scene like this is not possible. The cross goes against the way we think the world is supposed to work. The cross leaves the holiness of God raw in the world. This is evidenced as the temple curtain is torn and as the Son of God hangs exposed on the cross. Here is a cry for the abandoned. It exposes a holy God whose plan is victory by weakness.

The Gospel writers do not report the crucifixion in the same way. This reminds us there is more than one explanation for what happened on this day. For some of us, Good Friday and the place called skull is a good match for what we feel. It tells us the truth about suffering and the high cost that comes with the ways of God.

Mark writes after both Peter and Paul had been executed. He writes as other Christians were in danger of execution. It is difficult to know exactly how this would have affected Christians in Rome but we can be certain that they lived in fear.  They may have felt forsaken. In this context, Mark writes to help the church get through the suffering without losing hope for the future or forgetting the Jesus story.  This is a dark Gospel intended to help readers navigate dark days.  The Gospel wants us to know how far God is willing to go.

Raymond Brown talks about crucifixion as gruesome on account of the “screams of rage and pain, the wild curses and the outbreaks of nameless despair of the unhappy victims.”  Brown goes on, “Yet it was not in rage but in prayer that Jesus screamed his loud cry.”  In a moment of intense emotion, he cries out to “My God.”

During Lent we follow one who knows what it means to feel forsaken. We follow one who experienced unimaginable pain. We follow one who knows how to navigate dark days. We follow one who has traveled the paths of presence and absence. This is good news. We cannot go where he has not already been.

A prayer of response by Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Father in Heaven, when the time of suffering and darkness come to my life let my mouth speak your name just as Jesus did. Let my eyes be fixed on you and let my hope be in your perfect will, not my circumstance. Even if I feel forsaken let my obedience and your name on my lips be my guide. My feelings may fail me, but you, oh Lord, will never fail me. Even in suffering and humiliation, you will never fail. Place in me a steadfast heart that will obey.”