Vashentine Wednesday sermon

(14Feb18 – Ash Wed)

John 6:22-35, 49-54


We are now living into one of the most unusual gaps, what to me is among the most uncertain periods of the year. I don’t mean the season of Lent and how you’ll survive without whatever you might be giving up. It’s not the lead-up to Jesus’ crucifixion and whether we pretend the whole thing catches us by surprise year after year.

What I mean by strange times, of course, is the wait until you can see your ashes in a mirror. (Maybe I’m more vain than most this way?)

The Boundary Waters does some of the same thing to me. I wonder for the week how my scruffy facial hair grows in in patches, and what in God’s good earth is happening amid the unwashed unkempt mass of hair on top of my head, as well as what having no warm soapy water might be doing to my face.

But even that week canoeing in the wilderness and waiting to glimpse a mirror back in society is in some ways smaller than what we’re sharing right now, this gap of time with an uncertain dark smudge on your forehead and waiting to see how it looks on you.

Maybe there’s a chance you’d already forgotten that you had that sooty smear stuck above your gaze, but for me this always makes me feel self-conscious. Not quite as if the ashes are re-burning a mark on me, but just that I must be so conspicuous, and don’t know how I look to others, and can’t do anything about it.

My self-absorption extends after I’ve seen myself in the mirror, with the remaining question about whether to wash off the cross and try to scrub my face clean, or if I continue to wear it. And if others see me, is it a mark of my sinfulness? Or a bold witness to faith? How am I supposed to think about these ashes that have been imposed on my skin and on my life?

This Ash Wednesday deep black, shimmery shadow on our faces seems so penetratingly to provoke our intense self-inquiry and self-examination: What is it that others can see in us but we can’t directly see in ourselves without this opportunity to wait and reflect? Does it appear prejudiced or hypocritical? How dirty do we look to those around us, with the smears and blemishes of our imperfections? We figure we can frequently cover up those spots, but that the time of Lent lays them bare, as stark as the mark on our foreheads, to be followed by repentance, by that earnest desire to clean up our act and try to do better. That may be the intensity of how these ashes burden our brows.

Or, in a slightly more favorable light, maybe you approach Lent with the eagerness of a chance to recommit. Maybe that strong, deep cross on your forehead feels like devotion, like a badge that declares your spiritual practice, your disciplines. You may take up that cross even when it has an edge of shame and the world might scorn you for choosing this narrow path.

Or maybe in what feels like the largest and most ominous aspect of this, you feel the weight of those ashes for the sign of death, as if it’s already seeping out from inside you, that fatality cannot be kept at bay and this morbid mark is closing in on you. You are fragile and impermanent. And that terminal pressure means you’re left with an ever-more limited window of opportunity to accomplish what you need to, to be what you feel you should be, to become satisfied with what you see in the mirror.

But amid that intensity and weight, and before you get to feeling too glum, or pondering if you should feel gloomier for this day, I want to reorient us. Partly it comes from our Bible reading, and partly is emphasized by the coincidence of this Ash Wednesday with Valentine’s Day. On this V-ash-entine Wednesday (or whatever we might call it—I hadn’t come up with a great term yet), we have to consider love for this life.

So looking in the mirror for love, clearly none of us wants to be so self-centered and enamored of ourselves that we wind up like Narcissus in Greek mythology who was so captivated and enthralled by his own reflection that it forever immobilized him in selfish love. That’s not what we’d hope for as we gazed at our reflection, even if for now the view in the mirror might come with some discomfort or displeasure, even if the outlook of our reality can seem bleak.

But if it’s not only how favorably we view ourselves in the reflection, then it must be about how we’re seen by someone else, how we are perceived as beloved by another.

That’s a totally different perspective. One of the first things I notice is that others, those who love me, don’t see me the way I see myself. I’m apt to see the faults, the concerns, the errors, all of the ways I wish I were so much better. But being seen with loving eyes isn’t about how much I need to change. It’s loving me already. And even if it’s not exactly or always loving my blemishes or my brokenness, still, very clearly I am seen for who I am and still loved with celebration of my life.

And that’s certainly where we begin this season of Lent, with a reading from the Gospel of John. John over and over wants to remind you you are unconditionally loved. Much more clearly than the other gospels, for John love isn’t what you’re told to do but what you first receive. Here are just a couple highlights: for God so loved the world (3:16). Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end, to the ultimate (13:1). As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love (15:9).

And, most important for today: no one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for another (15:13).

So if you’re feeling that smudge on your forehead as a sign of death, that is not primarily your death, but a reminder of a death for you, of Jesus who laid down his life in love. If you’re waiting to see that ashen smear emblazoned on your skin, you may know that it’s there as a reminder and mark of love. Vashentine Wednesday isn’t only about the sweet and romantic love of reds and pinks. That on your head is very truly a Valentine from Jesus, the cross as the image of how he loves you completely, love in black. In giving life for you to take away your death is how God’s love is manifest.

And no box of chocolates here, Jesus gives himself as bread. “I AM the bread of life, and the bread that I give you for your life and for the life of the world is my flesh.” That isn’t a mark of your rottenness or your death on your forehead. It is the mark of the one who dies to give you life, who nourishes your existence with his love, who even with this bread tonight offers himself to you, wholly, body and soul, and all.

When you go out from here, for this season, for all your days, if you look in the mirror and can see you are so loved, for any of your imperfect impermanence, then you look just exactly right.


Jesus is for Losers

sermon for 13Sept15 (Mark8:27-38; James3:1-12; Isaiah50:4-9a)

There are Christians who believe that blessing from God means getting more and more, an increase in wealth and status and power. But we Lutherans are not that kind of Christian.

There are also Christians who see that you may not always find success in life, but claim that faithfulness merits eternal rewards, that you’ll receive a larger mansion in glory or get another jewel in your crown or gain some bonus bit of heaven. But we Lutherans are not that kind of Christian, either.

See, we Lutherans waste too much time listening to Jesus and following Jesus to be that sort of Christian. Jesus, who instead of pointing us to success or victory or prosperity points to suffering and death with the commandment to “deny yourself.” It’s not about winning much at all, because Jesus is for losers. I’m not trying to cast aspersions that you’re hanging out with the wrong crowd, but being here you definitely have guilt by association. You’re in the company of losers.

We could quibble over how that term is applied. Being a loser with Jesus isn’t the same as the Revenge of the Nerds or Rebels without a Cause. These losers aren’t synonymous with being dweebs or geeks or freaks or queers or outcasts or the feeble and meek, though there’s possible overlap in those categories.

We’ve also got this Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon concept that we Midwestern Lutherans are humble and bashful. It’s a good joke that the definition of an extroverted Lutheran is one who looks at the other person’s shoes when they talk. But this Public Radio caricature of our personality likely emerged because we are so steeped in Jesus, in the cross, in being losers.

And so, trying to get a sense of what in the world Jesus is talking about and questioning if you really are hanging out here with losers, you may be ready to sneak a glimpse out of the corner of your eye at the person sitting in the pew next to you. There’s a good chance they’re dressed just fine, and may even be well-bathed. They may look a fair amount like you. They may even seem respectable and upstanding.

And that may make you think more, about what this congregation is. You may view this as a good and vibrant place, with dedicated folks who’ve been here for years, plus plenty of young faces who are newly and eagerly engaged here. You may care about these people and also think that we’re pretty nice to newcomers, that we are welcoming, kind, and compassionate.

You may even take pride in what we accomplish together, that our Food Pantry meets lots of needs in our community. Or you may be ready for the service projects today, to help at the school and to care for seniors and to spread education and health around the globe with relief kits.

You may think about all these things and, failing to find them offensive, you may think we’re doing pretty well here at St. Stephen’s and it may even make you wonder whether we could actually qualify as a batch of losers.

But that just shows how corrupted you already are, that your definition of being a loser has been warped by Jesus and your presence in this congregation. See, your do-gooder-ism and your compassion and sympathy and your efforts to make the world a better place, these aren’t things of victory. It’s not the typical model of achievement and success, nor are you doing these things only to feel better about yourself. That external focus that cares to be invested in another’s wellbeing—much less puts them first—is not what society tells us is good. It is good from Jesus. These are exactly part of what it means to be a loser, giving your life away, giving it up for somebody else.

With that, I want to digress briefly. Last week I was mentioning some of the ways we as a congregation and as the broader Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA are making a difference for children near and far, from those school kits and meals to helping refugees and ending malaria. Those are among the reasons we’re eager to give away our financial resources, in offerings and what we term benevolences, a great word from the Latin that literally means goodwill. Another of the beneficiaries of these benevolences that we want to make sure we can catch up on and fully fund is Lutheran Campus Ministry at the UW. It was the country’s very first. The Lutherans here at Madison had this idea and understanding of caring for college students before any others. I mention it partly so you know there’s a new campus pastor, Emily Tveite, who is welcoming students this semester.

I also mention all of this because Emily’s immediate predecessor, Brent Christianson, remarked about this Lutheran identity of associating with losers. He said that the Lutherans never get asked to be chaplains for the sports teams because we Lutherans are too adept at seeing God’s presence and God’s work in the times of loss and sorrow and disappointment. We just aren’t very good at claiming that God wants us to win, that there’s a spiritual association with triumph, that God’s will is for us to be victorious, and if God is really blessing us then we’ll beat others.

That highlights some irony in our traditional kick-off rally day at this time each year that we call Homecoming. We may still say it’s good to support our “team” here. We may find it encouraging to sing our so-called fight songs. But even those are stuck with the peculiarity of our position. Lift High the Cross has militaristic and bombastic words of following our captain in conquering ranks, but it doesn’t even mention resurrection. There’s not a lot of glory there, but death in baptism and—over and over—the cross. Even the old Onward Christian Soldiers, banished from our hymnals for having too much pomp, still is focused on following Jesus even through loss and tumult and problems in the world.

So for following this captain, it’s difficult to compare that endless devotion and dedicated faithfulness even while facing loss after loss and having to give up so much. How long would Paul Chryst last as football head coach if the team never won? And yet Jesus Christ proclaims straight off that he’s not in it to win it, and that if you’re not willing to lose then you’re not with him.

This also shows how tough it is for us to give pep talks. There are some who claim sermons should be motivational speeches, to get you revved up for the week ahead. But this isn’t stuff that you get revved up for. That’s just not how we naturally work.

As an example of that, notice our reading from James, with twelve verses talking about how dangerous speech can be and how frequently our tongues cause problems, starting fires in bearing false witness and gossiping and just plain out of control. Twelve verses just trying to remind you that if you can’t say something nice, then you shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s a message we’re taught back in elementary school, and yet it evidently won’t sink in. Twelve verses just about how you use your words.

Contrast that with Jesus, telling you to take up your cross and die. If you can’t even control your tongue although you’ve constantly been told to, how in the world do you expect that a pep talk will motivate you to give up your life?!

It would seem we’re at a dead end, that Jesus is trying to motivate you to do something you don’t want to do and aren’t very good at doing, and that you’re skeptical of the loser label that goes with it anyway. It would seem—both from your experience and from Peter’s reasonable reaction in the Gospel reading—that Jesus is on his own on this one.

But then we also need to realize that this one who advocates death, who loves losers, who says you need to lay down your life, is not some mediocre coach or self-destructive nihilistic warlord with a deathwish charging into the maw of a pyrrhic victory. This is Jesus, the Lord of life and author of creation. So he’s not commending to you a peculiar option; he’s telling you the shape of his creation and the goal of his kingdom. It’s only when you try to reject that or imagine life to be something different, only when you seek value and meaning elsewhere, that you’re bound to be the loser who sees that you’ve wasted your energy on what doesn’t matter.

But lest you’re concerned that you aren’t good at following Jesus and can’t get to where he wants you to be, you can literally rest assured that he’s bringing you as his creature into his kingdom. He’s not just drawing you to eventual death, but has already joined you to his death in your baptism and already begun the work of filling you with his eternal and gracious life. Since there’s no real fixing your misbehavior, he decided to continue forgiving you instead. At his table, he’s removing any notions of your self-sufficiency with a reminder that you are fed by the gift of creation and sustained and renewed by his very presence with you. And in this sermon, he’s not just giving you a pep talk, but giving you his very own self, worming into your ear to take up residence in your heart and take over your hands to do his work.

So welcome home and welcome to work, you whose lives are oriented by the cross, you losers of Jesus.

Hymn: Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song (ELW #808)