Ash Wednesday vs. the Primary (A Homily About Being Told What We Don’t Want to Hear)

So, it may just be me, but if feels like there are less people here in New Hampshire than there were yesterday. The cable news vans are gone. No one is speaking at town hall. Even the commercials are off the air.

For campaigns the run-up to yesterday’s Primary began a year ago, or more in some instances. And, despite the fact I have voted in every major election I could have since I was 18, I have never felt more popular as a voter than I did in the past few months in New Hampshire. Everyone wanted a minute of my time. Everyone wanted to tell me how they would make things better. And everyone wanted to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear.

But today, one day later, no one is telling me what I want to hear anymore. At least, not here in New Hampshire. The show has moved on to Nevada and South Carolina, and people will be hearing exactly what they want to heard state by state throughout the spring.

Now, before we New Hampshirites feel too badly about being left behind, I want to argue that maybe the timing of this year’s Primary, and this year’s observance of Ash Wednesday, is incredibly poetic for us. Overnight we have gone from being told all the things that we want to hear, and all the ways we are wonderful and powerful and important, to perhaps the one thing that more than anything else we don’t want to hear: that we are mortal.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

It’s not a slogan that’s going to win any elections. No one is going to put it on a bumper sticker or a yard sign. It’s not something we like to acknowledge. And yet, maybe it is the one thing that we need to hear more than anything else in the world.

The reality is that this world is bigger than we are, and has been around far longer than us as well. And one day, when we draw our last breath and return to dust, the world will go on. At some level, no matter how comfortable we might be with that, it’s still a little terrifying.

And so this ritual that we take part in once a year? It’s terrifying too. Put it in plain terms: earlier today I took the left over palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service, and I burned them on the front steps of the church offices. Then, Cat and I mixed them with oil. And in just a few minutes I am going to invite each of you forward, and smear these palm ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross while telling you that one day you are going to be dust.

12715285_10101107105583378_7085126143383140490_nMaybe it’s no wonder that this isn’t the service that draws the big crowds. Easter and Christmas make sense to us, but this day? Not so much. And every year, no matter what church I’ve been at, I always overhear people who say they won’t come to this service.

And that’s okay. But I always feel a little sad about that because the truth is that Ash Wednesday, as much as it makes us hear a hard truth, also teaches us something beautiful. Ash Wednesday, like the Apostle Paul, says that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

And if you are really listening closely, it also tells you this: we are more than we think we are.

The one from whose love we can never be separated is the one who created us, and it is to that Creator that we will someday return. When you think about that, that is an amazing comfort. It’s a reminder that “in life and in death we belong to God”, and there can be no better source for hope or joy than God.

But this is about more than just where we are going. On Ash Wednesday we must not dwell on death but instead embrace this life too. And so, on this day we are reminded most of all about two things: whose we are, and how to live in this world knowing that.

In that sense Lent is about something that might scare us even more than the thought that one day we will be dust. That something is “humility”.

Humility isn’t an easy thing for us to think about. We hear it and we conflate it with humiliation, or a brutal way of putting someone in their place. In that light we might think that this whole ritual tonight is a kind of religious humiliation where we are told we are dust and physically marked as such.

But this is humility, not humiliation. And those are two very different things.

Far from ripping us down, true humility is about being what some would call “right sized”. It’s about knowing that, to be sure, we are not God. But it is also about knowing that we are loved by God and marked as God’s own children. These ashes are not marks of shame; they are marks of our own identity.

They are also signs in a world where out-of-control egos reign supreme, and where people will rush to tell us exactly what we want to hear, that God loves us too much for that. God won’t let us settle for what gives us happiness for the moment. God wants us to have real, sustaining joy.

The crosses are our signs that we are not our own, but we aren’t for sale either. We belong only to God, and we trust only in God’s promises. Beyond that, they signify that we are here not for our own agenda, or even a party or group’s agenda, but only in order that we would find God’s agenda for us and for all of God’s children. The ashes are a reminder of who we are, and who and whose we serve.

Like I said, none of what I’ve just told you would ever win an election. A cross of ashes is never going to replace a catchy campaign pin. But then again, we’re being called to something a little bigger here. Something that existed before any of us, and something that will go on long after. That may not be the words that we want to hear, but they are the words we need to hear. And they are the words that can begin the process of transforming us this Lent, if only we will let them. Amen?

The Love Mandate – Homily for Maundy Thursday

The most common question I get asked during Holy Week is about this night, the Thursday before Easter. People get Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter, but tonight, Maundy Thursday, is unclear. And the one thing people want to know the most, is this: what does “Maundy” mean?

It’s a good question. Who uses the term “maundy” in their daily life? For those on the outside of the church, and even for those of us inside, it might just sound like a church service where we know we should want to go to it, but we have no idea why.

But before I talk about what the word means, I want to go back to that story we read from the Gospel. In it Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or an eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities, and clergy of his day, than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

The night before, he wasn’t running away. He wasn’t preparing for a battle. He wasn’t plotting his revenge. Instead he was with the ones he loved most. The ones who loved him, but who weren’t perfect. The ones who knew who he was, and what he had done, and who would be the witnesses to his life after he was gone.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do if you know you are not going to be around much longer, and you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone?

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death”, or “make sure there’s payback”, or “don’t let them get away with this…strike back”.

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It probably wouldn’t do well at the box office. It wouldn’t get Nielsen ratings. The story wouldn’t soar to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list today. But it’s a story that transcends all of those things. Because it’s the beginning of a story about what happens when the world does its worst through violence, and hatred, and fear, and yet love wins anyway. It’s a story of love that was rejected and buried, and yet was still too strong to stay in the ground.

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday”, or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday”.

Because this is a message we Christians all need to hear. We don’t need to hide it behind fancy terms. We don’t need to just check it off as another night in holy week. We need to hear that this is how Christ said other people would know us: by how we love one another.

Maybe it would help us remember. Maybe it would help us remember not just what this night is about, but maybe it would help us remember what it means to be Christians. And maybe if we always had that reminder, if we always had that commandment to love in the front of our head, Christ’s dream for us would come true.

Maybe we wouldn’t be known as Christ’s disciples by the fact we put a Christian fish sticker on our car. Or wore a cross around our necks. Maybe we wouldn’t be know by what we said about what we believed. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by our what we voted for, or against.   Maybe we wouldn’t be known by the anger some Christians express on the evening news, or the mean-spiritedness others show in their day-to=day lives. Maybe instead we would just be known by the one thing Christ wanted us to be known for: by how we love.

In a few minutes we will be celebrating Communion together, and you’ll hear me repeat the words of institution, the phrases we are told Christ used as he broke bread and gave it to his disciples for the first time, on this same night many years ago. I’ll say to you that “on the night Christ was betrayed he took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples.”

You hear that all the time here, and if you are like me, you are uplifted by it.

But what if you heard this just as often too? “On the night Christ was betrayed he turned to his disciples and said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We don’t say that often in service. Not in so many words. But I think we try to say it in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. It’s no coincidence Christ said these things on the night of his supper, but we sometimes forget the say the words.

This year, let’s not forget. Between this Maundy Thursday and the one next year, let’s not forget what the mandate is. It’s so simple, and yet it demands our whole lives and our whole attentions. But here in the church, we can give Christ nothing less. Tonight as we eat this bread and drink this cup, as simple as it seems on the outside, know that we are choosing no less than to feast upon Christ’s love for us, and to bring that feast out to others. If every Christian would do that, no one would ever have to ask us who we follow. By our love, they would already know. Amen.