Death Has No Say: Why Worship on Ash Wednesday

His hand was cold and thin. I don’t think he knew that he had held it toward me, yet when I grabbed it in my own, his arm relaxed. His grip lessened and his body stopped moving. I got down on a knee next to his bed and could hear the air passing through his lips.

Carl was dying, in the last stages of his life on earth. His family had been holding a vigil in his hospice room for nearly week and in these most recent days, he was no longer responding. All any of us could see was a slight turn of his head when we spoke, though he did not open his eyes and never made a sound. His body was a semi-random series of spasms, twitches or legs shifting, some of which lessened each time he received his morphine dose.

I had been visiting Carl off and on during his tenure with hospice. He was a member of my congregation and a beloved saint who lived gratitude and exemplified generosity. We had spent hours talking in his living room about great fishing adventures and his years as a site supervisor for a construction firm. He led Bible studies his entire life, he taught Sunday School and adored children. His hands had bent steel and hammered concrete and hurt my hand every time we shook them. They also gently held infants and fed toddlers and cupped his wife’s as they sat together on the couch whenever I passed by for a visit.

Now his hands were the size of mere mortals and lacked much dimension. It caught me off guard for a thought and I held on tight as I leaned in close to his ears and prayed for his promised rest.

It is nearly impossible for a pastor to express our incredible honor at commending a saint through their final breath. And I have to note, no one wants to be in that situation. No minister of God worth their stoles and robes looks forward to anointing foreheads and saying ending prayers. However, it is a privileged aspect of our calling and one we hold in high esteem. We get to stand, sit, kneel, and pray for God’s peace to fall upon a brother or sister who has been longing for their rest to come. We have the duty and blessing to speak for God in the most fragile moment of a dear saint’s life. A commendation prayer for the dying is a word of comfort for the family gathered in mourning, and it is a proclamation of defiance that death has no hold on this sister or brother in our care.

I was there to be with Carl as he was breathing his last. I am charged by my Lord to shepherd him into God’s glory. I am by his side to affirm Christ’s baptismal promise, likely made over him before he could utter a word, in the last hours when he can no longer speak of God for himself.

On Ash Wednesday, I will stand before my fellow disciples in worship and mark their foreheads with crosses made of ash. It can seem incredibly morbid and death obsessive, reminding ourselves that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Our faith is supposed to be proclaimed in life, ministries, education, worship, organizing our community to serve and love each other. Which is all true.

Yet at the core of our faith, at the foot of the cross, we remember that there is nothing we can do to gain God’s love. We cannot live more fully, love more deeply, worship more robustly, or learn more wisdom that will garner our Lord’s approval and protect us from anything. We will die, every last one of us. It is biology, it is systems theory, it is fact. God’s Grace is not revealed in a longer, healthier life or beating the odds.

God’s Grace is revealed in the cross. Jesus suffers on the cross for us broken humans because we suffer and cannot save ourselves. Jesus dies on the cross because the great power that wrenches us away from God’s love is death. On the third day Christ rises again because Creation is reborn in the tomb and every stone, earthen and man made barrier is rolled away. Through the cross, there is nothing left that stands between us and God.

Not even death. I grabbed hold of Carl’s hand and knelt at his side confident that he was on the threshold between this life and the next and that God was there with him. I trust that Christ will not abandon my friend in his final breath. Despite every outward sign and all of the logic I can muster, I know that Christ’s promise of eternal life will be fulfilled and he will know rest and peace.

To be there as God’s messenger and speak this promise one more time is a sacred joy, even as we cry and want badly for Carl to perk up. Our pain comes through our suffering and loss; our hope can only come through Christ, whose suffering forever exceeds ours in order to rise before us and claim us in love and Grace.

This is our Ash Wednesday declaration, that Christ has already gone ahead and he will bring us with him through the grave. The cross on our foreheads was placed there by Christ in holy waters and will not fade with time and sin. We are ash and dust, molecules and chemical reactions, in bondage to our brokenness.

We are God’s people, washed in baptism, fed from a communion table that sustains us along the journey, and declared new long after we have been buried in the ground. Death has no power over us. Even the earth from which we are born has no say over us. It is God’s love that has been and will forever be spoken on our behalf. Let this world and every act it can muster try its best to steal us away.

We belong to Christ. My friend Carl belongs to Christ. You, friend, belong to Christ. Not one thing from us or beyond us can take you or me from God’s love or keep us from God’s Grace. Ash Wednesday is a sacred day in which we can stand bold in the face of our impending death and proclaim Christ’s life, which sets us free to teach children and read the Bible and serve our neighbors and hold the hand of a dying saint, confident that God’s presence is forever with us.

This New Year We Will Love

We will continue to love.

As we enter this new year and consider new agendas being laid out for us. As we trust that we are sustained by faith in Christ alone and are being led forward in action by his presence.

We will continue to love.

As our newsfeeds are filled with casualties of war and nations that raise up weapons against each other. As refugees grab what little they own and clamor for safety in foreign lands.

We will continue to love.

As our people in the cities cry out for peace while guns ring out in the streets. As strangers flee chaos and become neighbors when they move out into our small communities.

We will continue to love.

As words of hate find voice through prominent leaders. As our brothers and sisters of color and from different religions are counted as different and disparaged for who they are.

We will continue to love.

As our own family members are declared unworthy of God’s Grace because of whom they love. As our grandchildren, our nieces, our cousins, and kids are pushed aside and told to stay away.

We will continue to love.

As every bone in our body wants to give in. As every part of our flesh does not want to cause a scene or speak a hard word. As our thoughts secretly agree with what is being said against God’s people.

We will continue to love.

Because Christ will continue to love us. Christ will continue to find us as we are and claim us through our baptism and free us from our death. Christ alone will save us from ourselves and make us right and whole with God.

We will continue to love.

We will confess our sins and confess our faith. We will eat from the table of life and we will dance in the hope of the Spirit. We will share our stories and walk through our sorrows and hold each other in devotion. As we always have. As Christ has always done.

We will continue to love. We will love without end and act out of love for our neighbors. Our friends. Our brothers and sisters. Our people who we will never meet and who we know should never suffer. Christ has died and Christ has risen. There is nothing left between us and God.

Except love, that we will share and proclaim through our human words and deeds this new year.

 

 

#RendTheHeavens Day 12 – At(one)ment

2 Peter 3.9: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

God loves you.

I love you.

I wish I had a beautiful story that might turn your heart away from what is destroying you right now. No doubt I could dig around and conjure one or two. I am a pastor after all.

I wish I knew what to say. What to do. What to offer or post on your feed that would break you out of your spiraling despair. I would. I will. I don’t know what will work.

God loves you.

I love you.

I get that you’ve been betrayed too many times. I understand, its not worth it to trust or be even a little off guard for a little while. You’ve got to stay vigilant. You’ve had to stay on point for so long because there are simply too many assholes in this world and too many of them have found their way into your life.

I know whatever I say or do is not enough. It may never be enough. I’m fully aware that any talk of love and forgiveness-real, transformative forgiveness-still rings hollow. Why should you listen to me? How many people have bothered to listen to you?

God loves you.

I love you.

Take it for what it is. For me it is truth. I will not stop listening. I will keep my mouth shut. I won’t approach until you offer. I will stay right here. Waiting.

God loves you.

I love you.

It’s all I want you to know. I think it’s enough. I pray every day it’s enough. That you know that God has not wandered off like everyone else. That you see that God has not abandoned you, but has always been with you, defying every other jerk. You don’t need to believe me. You don’t need to let down your walls. Please don’t stop protecting yourself because some idiot pastor told you you’re safe. I know you don’t feel safe.

All I want you to know, today, right now, is that God loves you. And yes, I love you. You are a child of God, worthy of love and life.

#RendTheHeavens Day 9 – Violation

Isaiah 24.5: The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.

It’s my wife’s fault that I got up late.

It’s that driver’s fault that I missed my turn.

It’s my boss’s fault that this work day sucks.

It’s the government’s fault that my check is too small.

It’s the fault of my bank that my loans are too large.

It’s the contractor’s fault that my basement leaks.

It’s the church’s fault for not preaching the gospel.

It’s the church’s fault for not living it out.

It’s that poor man’s fault for not getting a job.

It’s the rich man’s fault for not hiring anyone.

It’s his fault that hate is on the rise.

It’s not my fault that it’s all going to hell.

And God arrives and cuts me off. Calls me out. Convicts my sin.

I am not apart from the sorrows of my world. Through Grace I am shown that my place is in the center. My brokenness leads to brokenness, my sin furthers sin.

God will not allow me to wander off on my own. Today God confronts my every hard spoken word. God hears me and still loves me as I am silenced in redemption. God hears me and still loves me as I am sent out to speak God’s presence.

#RendTheHeavens Advent Day 3 – Fr(act)ured

Genesis 9.15: 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.

Say the word Fr(act)ured out loud. Go ahead, right there at your desk. Reading it off your phone while you’re waiting.

Fr(act)ured is not a word to be merely printed on a page, it is alive. It is full of hopeful life and ferocious death, it resonates and captures wandering attentions. It brings us back into the here and now with a relentless clash and bang of noise. Fr(act)ured will not let us keep moving as we are.

Say it out loud. See what happens. Feel its flow.

Fr(act)ured begins with wind that gathers in the chest, rushing and rattling teeth. Then comes an abrupt, brash crack as the gust is stopped short. Which is followed by a slow, draining leak of the last remnants of what could have been a message of power. And what becomes a whisper of defeat.

Fr(act)ured is the sound a forest makes as fire rages through it.

Fr(act)ured is what we hear when a gun is fired at another life.

Fr(act)ured is how we hear a storm raging and igniting our dimly lit homes.

Fr(act)ured is what shatters silence when a door is slammed in anger.

Fr(act)ured is water busting levees, tornadoes twisting solid wood beams, cars colliding at a random intersection.

Fr(act)ured is the violence of our shared humanity. It is a living effect of our brokenness and a hint of our common anxiety.

God promises that every act of destruction that sweeps across Creation will be silenced. Every sound of violence, every clamorous noise, every harsh word will be dropped from our lips. God has made this promise of life. May we hold fast to this Word given to us. May we, today, use words of forgiveness, respect and compassion which are overflowing with breath and hope. So that, through Christ who renews us today, we are no longer speaking the same old refrains.

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This Advent devotion is rooted in the daily devotional calendar #RendTheHeavens. Seek it out on the interwebs, its quite a thing that is being populated by some seriously wise and woke people of faith. Some of them are even Lutheran! Hit the link for the calendar here and imagine how these words are speaking to you this season.

#RendTheHeavens Advent Day 2 – Drought

#RendTheHeavens is an online Advent devotional calendar created by two ELCA Lutheran leaders, Tuhina Rasche and Jason Chesnut. Each day offers a new word and text upon which to center, reflect, and seek being lived out in our lives. You should check out Tuhina’s devotion for Day 1 here for a scope of the project, though please note that the language may not be for everyone. Its visceral and can bite down hard. It is also a deeply honest dialogue with God and not too far from what many of us have thought in the privacy of our minds. #RendTheHeavens is, as they describe it, the ‘PG version.’  My reflections using this daily calendar are my own and will be periodic.Search #RendTheHeavens in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites to see how others are using this Advent devotion to connect with God.

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Genesis 8.13: By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year,the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry.

I have no real idea what drought means. In the rural Midwest, where I’ve spent most of my life, we describe a few weeks without rain as a drought. Depending on the time of summer, the crops will start to look shriveled and rough around the edges. Our grass browns up a little and kids will run through sprinklers more than usual. Then, a big cloud rumbles over the hills and the creeks run wild again.

There has been no time when I have stood in my kitchen and wondered when I will eat my next meal. Or questioned when the utility bill will get paid, so I can turn on the fridge and fire up the furnace. Even when I have felt insecure and despondent, I have never felt unsafe.

References to droughts in the Bible can read like historical record and not lived reality. And because I don’t know the depth of a languishing lack of basics, I miss the connection that God makes with every single one. That a drought is a living sign of my separation from my siblings of God.

The mark of my bondage to sin is revealed in these stories of suffering from scripture, in the faces of people I meet in my community, and in news reports in my daily feed. Israelites starving and thirsting in an arid landscape where the water has been drained up by armies and developing nation-states. A neighbor down the street secretly couch surfing because they can’t afford rent and there are no jobs to be got. An immigrant who does everything by the book to be American and still feels threatened in this country. A brother or sister in Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore or Texas-anywhere-who isn’t going home because they are judged less than and unworthy of life.

God has bound me through the flood of baptism to Christ, who is bound to Creation through his birth. Christ’s presence proclaims that I am in the thick of it, creating hunger, racism and violent imbalance by creating separation between us.

And the cross of Christ declares that I am in it, made right to be Christ’s presence. Daily the distance between my life and my neighbors’ is closed by Christ’s new life risen through me. My sin is drowned, my old self is washed away. Today I am called to take note. To notice the suffering of God’s people-my people. To remember that I am responsible and I am redeemed to respond as a witness to the Grace that Christ has granted me.

God will end the drought; this is our expectation built on hope in Christ’s resurrection. There is no power in this world that has any power over God.

There is also no distance between myself and God, which means I am not an outsider. I don’t get to stay away, watching God work beyond me. God’s kingdom moves through me, a forgiven and fed follower of Christ. May God use me as a vessel of healing and reunion in the midst of the flood of Grace reconnecting our lives.

Christ our Shelter, Our Life

Friends, this is the manuscript of my sermon for the weekend of November 13, 2016. It is anchored in the gospel of Luke 21.5-19. Most of my sermons can also be heard at my podcast, Pastor Josh Ehrler. I pray this brings you peace and assurance to keep standing, keep loving, keep living as God’s presence with your people.

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Let’s begin where Christ begins and remains with us. That God is not done with us yet.

In our gospel from Luke, Jesus takes us to the center of our doubt and instability and he makes himself our shelter. Our security. Our might fortress, if you will.

We are safe in him. Whether or not we feel safe. He is our life. Even if our breath is hard to grasp. He is our source, our norm, our expectation, our light. Christ is our center. Our hope. Our love.

We have been gathered in by Christ this morning to remember again Who is our god. Who gives us life. And for Whom we live and serve.

And we are drawn here to remember again that in God’s house, standing in awe and fear around the altar of our Lord, every life is safe. Every person matters. Every voice will be heard by God. Who gives us voice.

This our calling. Our responsibility. Our way of sharing the love of our unbreakable, undeniable Lord with each other.

Especially brothers and sisters, this morning. And likely for many mornings to come.

Because some of us who have been gathered in by God to this house are feeling victorious. Maybe somehow vindicated.

Others of us, our people sitting with us in these pews, are feeling victimized.

And wherever we find ourselves in the presence of God, Christ reminds us in our gospel that we are all standing, kneeling, praying, singing in the presence of God. Our God, who forgives. Who renews. Who heals. Who protects and shelters us. All of us.

In God’s presence, we don’t get to choose sides because we’ve already been chosen. We have already been set apart from the patterns and propaganda of this world. In God’s presence, we are turned toward each other. We are called to choose each other through our shared baptismal waters that bind us to each other. We keep going, we keep loving, we keep proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ who loves unconditionally and without bias. Or prejudice.

Jesus has gathered us into God’s house to ensure that we will make our space safe for anyone who comes through those doors.

Because, in our gospel from Luke, Jesus has taken his disciples to the doors of his Temple. And he declares that he is not safe in his own house.

Let me say that again so we can get caught by the thought. Jesus is not safe in his own house.

If we follow the line of thought that the Temple is God’s house. And Jesus is the Son of God.

Jesus, God’s Son, is not safe in his own house.

He is standing in the gathering space beneath the shadow of the cross-which for now only he can see, but soon it will be plain as day for all of us- and he’s pointing to the walls and the beautiful appointments and window treatments and masoned stones. This phenomenally beautiful shelter built to show the world that God is here. That God’s love reigns. That God’s kingdom will have no end.

And Jesus knows that it’s all coming down. Which of course, it does. About 40 years after his own death on the cross and his resurrection that brings us new life.

The Roman Empire rises up and has enough of the locals wanting their own voice and claiming their own identity. Of these people holding fast to their own cultures and customs. The Roman soldiers siege the walls of Jerusalem and arrest anyone of influence and use every weapon in their arsenal to destroy the Temple. Until even the stone itself burns to dust.

The Empire could not stand for God’s house standing as a testament to hope and love and security. So the Romans tore it down. Hoping, expecting that God’s name would be torn from the lips and the hearts of God’s people.

And for the most part, for most of us, this sounds like little more than a history lesson. A note on a timeline that spans thousands of years. It’s not about us. It’s not connected to us. What does Jesus have to say to us? Today.

A couple weeks ago, during our junior high confirmation class, we were talking about the four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. We were plotting them out on a timeline, trying to consider why we need four gospels instead of one comprehensive story about this one man. We were wondering whether or not it matters to us when they were written in history. And what that might have to say about what they say about Jesus.

Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected in new life about 30 AD. The Temple fell about 70 AD. Mark wrote his gospel about 70 AD-the same time. Matthew and Luke wrote their versions around 80-90 AD and John comes later, maybe around 90-110 AD. Which means Luke’s gospel, our gospel this morning, was written between 10-20 years after the Temple fell. Some of the dust and rubble would still have been there. The way the Wailing Wall continues to stand in defiance of worldly powers as a place to stand and communicate with our God.

I asked our youth to imagine losing this place. This house of God built to be our sign of God’s presence in this community.

And brothers and sisters, if we ever doubt the faith and impact of God’s love on our youth, please hear this.

Imagine this place falling to the ground, I asked them. And their reaction was physical. One of our youth gasped when the thought sunk in. Another got visibly agitated and spoke quickly, defiantly of how it would be tragic. Their words. Because we need this place. Their words. Because here, in this place, we are safe. They said. We can be ourselves without judgment.

Sometimes it is our youth who speak Christ’s love. Who bring us back from despair and fear and dread to our hope in Christ.

This house, this Temple, this place given to us by God, is our sanctuary. This space is and will continue to be safe. Because Christ makes us safe in God’s presence.

Jesus took us to the Temple and did not hesitate. There in verse 7, he speaks to us his call for us to keep moving. Keep loving. Keep going as God’s people. Because God’s not done with us yet.

Beware, he says, that you are not led astray. Don’t go after the doomsday prophets and the anarchists seeking to tear down everything.

Do not succumb to fear and flight, even when words of war and signs of hate surround us and appear on walls in our school. Do not dread what will happen to us when the soldiers come and the earth quakes and smoke fills our vision. Do not be silent when we are confronted and cajoled to speak our allegiance and speak against our God who loves. Who forgives. Who protects and will keep us safe.

Because Christ makes us safe. The stones will crumble. The walls and windows will break. The roof will cave in and the floor will be turned to sand beneath our feet. Jesus tells us everything that will occur in this gospel.

And he tells us all of this in order to remind us of our absolute need for him. And how he will claim the cross and lose his life to set us free from death.

Jesus breaks free from the grave and he becomes our shelter. He becomes our Temple. Jesus, our Christ, our salvation and good news in the midst of suffering, suffers on our behalf and destroys every power laying claim on us. Because we, through the cross, are claimed by God. We belong to Christ. In whom we’ve been baptized. Redeemed. Forgiven. Loved.

And empowered to stand on the Temple steps. To stand around the table. To stand in the presence of God and be God’s presence for each other. For our neighbors. Our colleagues. Our classmates. Our friends and family. For strangers whom we’ll never meet, yet whom we love, because Christ first loves us.

Jesus is our Temple. Our sanctuary. Our life.

He is our courage to care and defend each other from the violence of the world. In this house.

Christ is our wisdom to see through words of sin and speak a word of truth. In this house.

Christ is our saving Grace against our broken thoughts, our sadness, our defeat and want of retribution. In this house.

Jesus is our Temple. Jesus is our forgiveness. Jesus is our life.

Let the walls fall and the roof collapse. Jesus is our life.

Let the hate have its calloused voice for a moment. Jesus is our life.

Let the nations clash and evil take its best shot. Jesus is our life.

Jesus is out Temple. Our source. Our norm. Our protection. Our Living Word.

And as long as God lets us have this house, here we will live our faith. We will love and respect each other. We will protect the vulnerable. We will shelter the downtrodden. As we always have.

We will declare, through our presence as God’s living presence, that – in this house of God –  it doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter how you look. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin. Or the color of the shirt on your back. It doesn’t matter the language that you speak. Or the way you worship. Or who you love.

In God’s house – in this house – God’s people will be loved. In God’s house, you will be safe in the name of Christ. Our shelter. Our Temple. Our life.

Amen.

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