Set your face – the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent

Ash Wednesday
“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
A day of repentance. The beginning of Lent.
Perhaps the real meaning of Lent is found in this passage from Luke 9:51-62. Lent is about us turning and setting our face toward the cross of Christ that he bore, and the one which he calls us to bear. Jesus’ harsh words in vs 62 may actually be self-talk. Perhaps he is drawing into his inner thought life, his prayer life, and acknowledging that from this point forward, the journey will not waver to left or right, at least not for him. All of the apostles will abandon him in the garden, even Peter who swore he would never desert Jesus (Mark 14).

The structure of Lent, with forty days bookended by Ashe Wednesday and Easter, is certainly reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism and 40 days of temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). This harkens back to the periods of 40 found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the story of the flood, it rained for 40 days and nights (Gen 7:12). Moses went on the mountain of the Lord for 40 days (Exodus 34:28). The spies, including Joshua and Caleb, spent 40 days spying out the Land of Canaan as the Lord instructed. When they returned with ten giving a bad report, the Israelites decided they would not go where the Lord was trying to lead them. And so God said that the Israelites would wander in the wilderness for forty years, one for every day spent spying the land. (Numbers 14) In fact, Moses’ life is marked by three periods of forty years – the first growing up as a prince of Egypt, the second in Midian tending his father-in-law’s flocks, and the third leading the Israelites toward the promised land. Forty signifies transformation, a shifting in way of life, a laying aside the old and taking up the new.

And that period of forty begins with one step. That is the point here. Ash Wednesday is that one step for us, the beginning of the journey of transformation for this year. It is worth noting that at his baptism Jesus did not set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. He seemed to wander randomly from town to town, with intermittent trips to Jerusalem for the festivals, for three years.

The beginning of his earthly ministry was in a sense the start of his path to the cross. Even so, a second decision was needed. There came a time when all that he was doing and saying up to that moment would coalesce into one singular vision – the cross. The cross represents Jesus’ final confrontation with self-centered power. Ash Wednesday (as figured in Luke 9:51) represents the commitment to walk that road and not turn back.

Repentance is a turning from one posture and direction in life to another. Repentance from sin is turning from a life focused on serving only self to a life directed toward serving God first. Jesus himself received the baptism of repentance from his cousin John. What this means, at least in part, is that Jesus was repenting of – turning away from – his life as a carpenter focused on his family and community obligations in Nazareth. Instead, he turned his face, not specifically toward Jerusalem, but more broadly toward the ministry of the Messiah who came to proclaim in word and work the inrushing of the Reign of God.

As we begin this Lenten journey, may we join with all who have followed the Christ, turning once again away from a self-serving life and choosing instead a life that embraces all as we are embraced by God. We enter anew into a process of transformation. We recognize that the life we have been living does not work. We turn away from the destructive habits (behavior and thought patterns) that have shaped our lives. We set our faces toward the New Jerusalem – the City of God that is descending, even now, as God seeks to dwell in our midst and redeem and restore all things.

Learning to Ask Questions

Notes for a sermon from 07152012

Mark 8:27-38

How many of us had a teacher in school who said, “There are no dumb questions”?

And yet, what percentage of our education was about asking questions versus memorizing answers or collections of information?

We learned who did what to whom where and when.

Did we learn to ask and explore why?

We learned that John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at the Ford Theatre during a production of “Our American Cousin”.

Did we learn to ask why? Or what other explanations there may have been? No.

We learned that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 near Dealy Plaza.

Did we learn to ask why? Or what other explanations there may have been? No. Oliver Stone asked these questions in his 1991 movie JFK, but he was mocked by many as a conspiracy theorist.

Why do we mock someone who questions the predominant view? Why is the skeptic ridiculed?

I want us to think together about the role of questions in our faith, and how we might learn to ask questions.

Listen for the word of God in our scripture reading from Mark 8:27-38.

In this text we hear Jesus ask the disciples two questions. “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Why did Jesus do this? Why ask questions of the disciples, and why these questions?

Are we to conclude that Jesus did not know what people thought about him? Was Jesus doing what many of us have done – wondered what other people thought of him? Have you ever been in a group and wondered what the people around you thought of you? Have you secretly wished that you could read their minds and know what they thought? Or perhaps you decided you are better off not knowing what some of them think.

And then the focus shifts from the crowd to Jesus’ closest associates. “Who do you say that I am?” Never mind what all those strangers, groupies and hangers on think. What about you, my closest companions – what do you think of me? Who do you think that I am?

It is important to recognize that this question is not asked in John’s gospel – there would be no point, because by the time John is telling his story of Jesus, we have a messiah who is boldly standing in the market and in the temple making “I am” statements to anyone who will listen. John’s Jesus tells everyone who he is, so there is no need to ask what people are saying.

Not so with the Jesus of Mark. In fact, Mark’s account, likely the earliest written of the four biblical gospels, includes what is called the messianic secret. Here we see Jesus repeatedly heal people and then require that they tell no one what has happened to them or who has accomplished this work. Mark’s Jesus is determined to keep as low a profile as possible. So then it makes sense for Jesus to ask, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Because Jesus had been pretty vague and evasive about who he is. He kept talking about himself in the third person as the Son of Man – 13 time in fact (8:31, 38; 10:33, 45).

But again, we are left wondering why he is asking the questions. Is it because he doesn’t know the answers? Perhaps, since scripture is clear that Jesus’ knowledge was limited – in Mark 13 we learn that only the Father knows the details of the consummation of history – the Son does not know. So it is reasonable to think that he lacked other information as well. Yet we also know that Jesus seemed able to know the thoughts of the Pharisees when they doubted him.

This line of our questioning is worthwhile in itself. It invites us into a deeper curiosity about Jesus and his ways, in which we are to walk.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Jesus is not seeking information – either he already has it, or doesn’t really need it. Jesus’ interest is not to be told what others think about him. Jesus’ desire is to invite the disciples into a journey of reflection and discovery. Perhaps they had not really stopped to think about all of the different things that were being said about Jesus. “Some say John the Baptist” who by this time had been beheaded. “Some say Elijah” who it was said would precede the Messiah – which is why Jesus said that John came as Elijah. “Some say one of the prophets” – a leader after the example of the Old Testament prophets who came to call the people of Israel back to more faithful worship in their covenant relationship with God – to restore justice and lift up the downtrodden.

It is worth our stopping to note these three things that were said. Jesus’ behavior fit into some preexisting categories and familiar frames of reference – Prophet, Elijah, John the Baptist. Jesus was unusual, but not unique in the way others saw and experienced him.

As we think about who Jesus is to us, we might stop and spend some time asking Jesus’ first question for ourselves. Who do the people around us say that Jesus is? Who do our neighbors and coworkers think Jesus is? Who do the people at the mall or the ball field know Jesus to be? What can we learn about Jesus from asking this question humbly and really listening to the answers? Are we willing to do this, and then to listen to what other people say? We will talk next week about learning to listen and hear. For now, it is enough to learn to ask questions. The questions Jesus asks of his disciples, we might ask of ourselves.

It does not stop there though. Jesus also asks, “Who do you say that I am?” This is so important. Jesus has not said publically that he is anything other than the son of Joseph the carpenter and Mary from Nazareth. In Mark’s gospel we do not even have the benefit of the Holy Spirit’s confirmation at Jesus’ baptism, nor Jesus public proclamation as he reads from Isaiah 60 in his home synagogue. We have to figure out for ourselves from the evidence given – from watching and listening to Jesus. And after a while, he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s answer is the only one we hear, and that answer is partial. “You are the Messiah.” In contrast to the answers of others that Jesus is one who would precede the Messiah, Peter has determined, perhaps in conversation with the other disciples, that Jesus is the Messiah. The messiah was to be a political revolutionary – we might liken him to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rolled together – a wise military and political figure who would bring freedom and would become the next king of Israel, deposing both the Emperor and his todies – Pilot and Herod.

Mark’s Jesus also does not say, “Blessed are you, for only God has revealed this to you.” (Matthew 16:17)

He says, “Don’t tell anyone!” “Sternly ordered” is how Mark puts it.

That’s not really our point here, but it is interesting, how Mark handles the story of Jesus.

Anyway, back to questions.

If the questions are intended to prompt reflection on the part of the disciples, then Mark intends that we do the same – that we wonder about who Jesus is; that we learn to ask these questions.

Why not just tell us who he is? Why did Jesus approach his ministry in this way? Why did Mark tell his story in this way? What is with all of these questions? Would somebody please just give me a straight answer for a change?

Well, it won’t be Jesus. Did you hear how Jesus answered the question asked of him – by asking his own question? Granted, the Pharisees were trying to trick him, but still. Jesus certainly could have given a direct answer if he had wanted to. Again, there is something about questions.

We have one other question to consider.

Jesus calls a blind man to him and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Is he serious? The man is a blind beggar. What does Jesus think the guy wants? Though to be fair, Jesus does have a history of not meeting the most obvious need people have. Remember the paralytic on the mat who was lowered through a hole in the roof by his four friends (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus pronounces that his sins are forgiven first, and only later proclaims physical healing. Over in John’s gospel Jesus asks a man who has been ill for 38 years whether he wants to be made well (John 5:1-9). That sounds like another crazy question, similar to the one addressed to the blind man from Mark’s story.

Why ask these questions?
Does Jesus not know what they need? Can he not guess what they want?
The answer to both these questions is probably yes. So what is going on?

Again, I’m suggesting that Jesus wants these people to think about what they want and need. Mark is asking us to do the same. We need to learn to ask ourselves these questions and make them the object of our meditation and prayer. What do I really want? What do I really need? Do I really want to be made well? Am I willing to accept the changes that will entail? If I pursue the dream that I have, if I pursue wholeness and vitality and a life lived fully for God, what will it cost me? What is at risk? Bartimaeus had only known blindness and begging for his whole adult life – he would have to completely relearn how to function in society. None of his old coping mechanisms or ways of relating to others will work any longer if he accepts healing of his blindness. So Jesus is right to ask him and us this question. Mark is right to ask us this question. We are right to ask ourselves, and one another. What do we want God to do for us? Do we want to be made well?

I want to suggest one final thing. I think that questions about God are the most powerful language we have. It is more powerful to ask someone a question about God than to make a statement about God. When we ask someone about what they want or need, or about who they understand God to be, we are engaging their own faith. When we tell them what we think they need, or what we think the right answers are, or even who we think God is, then we are not engaging the part of their brain where faith is formed. The part of the brain that takes in data is different from that which dreams, imagines, asks and discovers.

Considering Baptism?

Are you or someone you know considering affirming your faith in Jesus Christ through baptism?

Perhaps you have never made a public confession/profession of your faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and accepted his as Savior and Lord of your life an of the world, though you have been loving and following him in your heart.

Perhaps you do not know quite what it would mean for you to follow Jesus as one of his disciples.

Perhaps you are a parent, grandparent or other adult who is guiding a child toward faithful discipleship to Jesus, including profession of faith and baptism.

Or perhaps you are one of those who had a baptismal experience in your past and is seeking a way to reaffirm that experience – not unlike those Christians who go on a pilgrimage to Israel and walk into the Jordan River to remember their baptisms.

If any of these scenarios describes you, why not have a conversation with one of our ministry staff or elders. We would love to visit with you about your experience and interest in baptism and explore how we can journey with you in faithfulness to Christ.

Please feel free to share this with your neighbors, family and friends.

The baptistry is full, and the water is comfortably warm. What are you waiting for?

Ken G. Crawford

For further reflection, consider reading:

Funeral Meditation for Teresa Neifert

(NOTE: Theresa Neifert died Monday morning, 5/14, at 12:55am. I am her pastor. She was and remains a real treasure and will be sorely missed by many of us. You can see her obit and leave messages here. You can read her CaringBridge chronicling her journey with cancer. Her son Joe and husband Jeff did such a nice job speaking about her during the funeral, and her family and friends will be far better at narrating her story, so I’ll leave that to them.)

Some of us are familiar with the notion that this earth is not our home, because we are a spirit trapped in a body, and that God’s ultimate plan is to free our spirits from a bodily form. This is not what either the old or new testaments say. The biblical witness, as we have heard in Revelation and in Paul’s writing, is that God’s consummation of all things will bring us restored bodies in the midst of a new heaven and new earth – we will, in the end, be incarnational beings. Incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s creation of humanity, not some kind of secondary temporary compromise we are stuck living for a short while. This is why there was a resurrection. Without the centrality of our incarnation, there is no need for Jesus’ bodily resurrection – he could just conquer death as a spirit – no need for the cool resurrected body that is both similar and different from the old body. This tension between our bodily and spiritual experience is none-the-less real, and Paul talks at length about it in numerous places, including:

Philippians 1:
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

Paul regularly acknowledges the apparent tension we often feel between our internal and external experiences of the world, and in faith he goes further to identify a tension between desiring to be here among family and friends or in the kingdom of God in eternal bliss. This life is marked by blood, toil, sweat and tears – a phrase first uttered by the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. It can be a hard life, and yet it is also filled with good food, hearty laughter, natural beauty, rapturous physical intimacy, intellectual challenge – in a word, it is beautiful.

La Vita e Bella – Life is Beautiful – Do you remember that film from 1997? Do you remember Roberto Benigni at the Oscars? He practically floated off the stage he was so filled with joy. He seemed to be filled with some kind of energy from some other place – it was infectious – the kind of thing that still makes one smile 15 years later. That is how I think many of us experience our time with Theresa – she seemed to be channeling an energy from somewhere else – it is infectious, beautiful, challenging, hopeful, inspiring. That may be part of what made the last years so difficult for us – to see someone so filled with life and love struggling to stay and continue to be present with us and for us.

People live four different kinds of lives – the interior life of the intellect, the interior life of the emotions, the exterior life of objects, and the exterior life of relationships. My sense of Theresa is that her life was very externally focused, and leaned heavily toward relationships. She worked with her hands in a very tactile and intimate way – to have her wash your hair prior to a cut was to know that someone was praying for you. She loved to be surrounded by family and friends, and loved to feed them – Sunday afternoon meals are legendary.

The fact that she lived her life so much in the body, so much in her relationship with the physical world, may also be part of what made it so difficult to let go. Theresa’s experience of her own life and faith was such that she struggled knowing how to pray once she stopped praying for healing. What does one do? There is a whole terrible and wonderful discussion to be had about coming to terms with that reality – making a conscious decision to turn from prayers for living toward prayers for dying – without feeling like one is giving up or letting others down. I’d like to share part of what I told her last week when she’d come to that place.

Learning to die – Practice in releasing

Learning to die – Looking to the crucified Christ

I’ve only known her these last ten years, and the rest only as she’s told it to me, so most of her life is out of my reach. But I can confidently say several things about her life and faith.

Theresa was generous with her life – to her family, to friends, to clients at the salon, and even to strangers near and far. Many of you were involved in her efforts for the St. Bernard Project after hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans. From all I can tell, that was just the kind of person she was – nothing out of the ordinary, though certainly extraordinary in its effort and impact.

Theresa was vivacious – she was the kind of person other people wanted to be around and couldn’t help but like – because she wanted them around and liked them. Even in the last 48 hours of her life she was surrounded by family and friends and friends of family. She was joking and guiding and challenging and encouraging and teasing and loving. Saturday evening was a scene I’ll never forget, as she and her family drew together to boldly love one another and stare death down, fiercely proclaiming to themselves, each other, and the world that death would not separate or destroy them, that death would not get the victory.

Theresa was devoted – you knew who she loved, and she prioritized those relationships. That probably wasn’t always fun or easy, because if she loved someone she wanted the best for them and would challenge them to be their best, to hang in there, and to make difficult choices and go through tough times to overcome adversity and get to a better life.

Theresa was forgiving, she believed in second chances. How many of you in this room were given a second chance by her – or a third or fourth? Often times we take actions in our lives – we say or do something, make a decision – that we regret, but we think there’s no going back. We can’t unsay or undo those things, but the forgiveness we see in Jesus tells us – Theresa’s own faith and the way she related to us tells us – that we can be reconciled and restored, we can be forgiven, we can get another chance. With God we never run out of second chances. No matter what we’ve done, how many times, or for how long, God is always waiting right beside us to receive us back in love. It may be that the hardest part of all that is that we have trouble forgiving ourselves – I know Theresa did. She was ready to forgive others, but found it difficult to forgive herself for past mistakes and receive the grace and mercy she so freely offered to others – which God so freely offers to us.

People like to say, “Gone but not forgotten.” They put it on headstones, on car windows, on tattoos. But we shouldn’t be content just to remember, the way we remember the people from our school years. Remembering should not stay in our heads and hearts, but be incarnational – we should live it out in the world, in what we say and do, in the priorities we set and the values we live. Theresa has taught us many faith lessons, and all of them are incarnational – all of them mirror God’s love for the world which is tangible – it can be seen and heard and felt. As you remember, make a conscious decision to live your life differently because you knew her. Honor her life, her love, her legacy, by living it. Stay in relationship with her, hearing and feeling her guide you toward your better selves – toward being generous, vivacious, devoted, forgiving. By doing these things we honor her, and the God she loves.