Ash Weds-entines Day: A Love Stronger than Shame

On Wednesday, 2/14/18, we will gather for worship at 6:30pm, with Confession, Imposition of Ashes, Holy Communion, and the Invitation to a Holy Lent.

And, for a special treat, we’ll have chocolate fountains and Valentines themed goodies.

Why? Because Ash Wednesday only falls on Valentine’s Day once in a great while (the last time was 1945), and… why not?

Some Christians, including some Lutherans, fast on Ash Wednesday (in some form or fashion). If that’s you, you obviously don’t need to partake. Some folks give something up for Lent–often chocolate or sweets in general. Again, God bless your journey, and walk on by.

However, both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday/Lent can be confusing experiences for some folks. Valentine’s Day can be tough–even shameful–for folks who are single, recently broken up/divorced, or grieving a loved one–those “for whom love is a stranger.” Some folks in relationships feel pressured to have the perfect date/gift/romance, to spend more than they can afford, and so forth.

Lent, on the other hand, can also be a shaming experience. Jesus didn’t die for you to feel bad about your weight; Lent wasn’t created for you to go on a diet. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that this fragile flesh is a common human thing, and death rends the fabric of human life and love. But God’s love is stronger than death and shame. God’s life breathes beyond death. We will all die; God will not let that be the final word.

Lent invites us, then, into a time of reflection on our common brokenness and God’s undying love that makes us whole. We remember how the forces of death tear us apart, and how God has given us gifts to help ease the pain and make the journey more gentle–specifically, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

These gifts are not for us to work our way out of guilt and shame. They are meant to bring us back to the heart of God’s love, to the shadow of the cross, where our fragile lives are met with a love that knows, wears, and also overcomes death.

“Fasting” can take many forms. “Giving something up” may be a powerful way to be reminded–with each craving–of the One who can truly fill us with life, love, and meaning, more than chocolate or booze or carbs or ______ ever could.

On the other hand, maybe this year–with this odd calendar coincidence–is an opportunity to “fast” from the things that magnify our shame. To cling to worthiness and say “no” to the things that tell us we’re not good enough, thin enough, or whatever enough.

We aren’t saved by the number of calories we do–or do not–consume. We’re saved by the One who vulnerably entered into our shame, wore our weakness, and declared God’s “Yes” to every “no” that Death has to offer.

So come for the reminder of our shared mortality and dependence on God’s undying and vulnerable love. Stay for the chocolate.

Or not. You are loved and treasured and worthy either way.

Crusty Bread

“One Bread, One Body, One Lord of All” (John Foley; Evangelical Lutheran Worship 496)

Good thing I don’t have arthritis yet, I thought as I thumb-wrestled the crusty sourdough loaf into submission. The bread this morning was home-made, and glorious. I love it when Sarah bakes the Communion bread. I would eat it every night with spaghetti and meatballs. Perfect crust, chewy interior, great taste, and a generous layer of cornmeal for flavor and texture. Cut with a serrated knife, slathered in melted butter and garlic, it would be perfect.

Tearing it into 100 or so small pieces in a timely fashion, however, proved a bit more challenging. The wine quickly bloated with cornmeal and crumbs. The ground at our feet looked like the manna-covered fields that greeted the Israelites in the wilderness; the floor under either of my children’s chair after every meal. The pieces I managed to tear off were of wildly varying size and composition, and not nearly as beautiful as the loaf had been before I tried to break it apart.

And so it should be, I thought, even as I shared a few subtle chuckles with folks in line as they saw me struggle to break and give the Body of Christ away. This Body should be hard to break.

Especially on this morning, as we read the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28).

Indeed, we are a broken and breaking people. Distinctions and differences of class, race, and gender continue to divide – and it can be both beautiful and horrifying. As definitions shift and culture transforms, the world is a messy, crumb-y place. We walk a narrow path between having no boundaries at all (and thus exposing all, especially the vulnerable, to danger and hurt); and using judgment as a club to beat one another into submission, to shut people down and/or out.

Are sex and gender still “things”? We know “race” is a construct, but skin color absolutely matters in many and various ways, whether we like it or not. Especially on Memorial Day weekend, does the distinction between “enemy” and “neighbor” matter, on either side of the grave? Surely it’s helpful to tell the difference between a terrorist and a civilian – especially a child; in the endless War on Terror, it’s harder and harder to tease that distinction out. Boundaries and borders matter, right? But how – and why? Can we celebrate the gifts and responsibilities of citizenship while also loving every neighbor as ourselves and extending care and compassion, regardless of documentation?

And so I stood there, hands dusty with cornmeal and crumbs littering the floor at my feet, manhandling a beautiful loaf of fresh bread while trying not to grimace or laugh, and I was grateful. Grateful for standing in the mess with other messy people, none of which has all of this figured out (especially me, though I often pretend I do). One Bread that is – or ought to be – hard to break, even as we are broken and breaking people. One in all our broken and beautiful diversity and difference, belonging – together – to the One who holds all things in hands big and strong enough to take, bless, break, and give the Body away until all the world is gathered and fed, without exception.

“Grain for the fields, scattered and grown, gathered to one for all.”

Amen.

Grace in the Fast

The season of Lent is countercultural in a culture that is obsessed with individualism, entertainment, achievement, and self-actualization. We stifle our joy, turn our hearts to the cross (and, by extension, all who suffer), and commit ourselves to the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (giving to those who are poor).

Fasting is a tricky thing. In a culture confused about food (we eat too much, or too little, and the food we eat often isn’t actually food), the invitation to fast can easily be misunderstood or misused. And, of course, as with all invitations to the practices of discipleship, it’s easy to turn “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving” into a brownie-point competition. In an achievement culture, discipleship, too, must be about “winning” – proving how good we are by doing the most good.

If that’s why you “fast” (“give something up for Lent”), then stop now. If that’s why you pray or give (“taking on a new practice for Lent”), then stop now. You won’t “win,” no matter how hard you try or how “well” you do.

Because the game is already over, and Jesus already won. There is nothing else to be “won” or “gained” by being a “better” Christian than the poor schmuck down the pew.

That’s the Grace of this season (every season): God has already done what must be done. Now we are given the task of living as if it matters.

Prayer is the gift of conscious contact with the One who has saved you. God is there – with you and for you – all the time. With a bit less bells and whistles, sparkle and noise, we are given the opportunity to listen for that still small voice that calls us Beloved.

Fasting is the gift of practicing powerlessness – feeling our vulnerability and fragility in order to turn our attention to the One who carried our weakness to the grave and left it there. True “power” is endless love, poured out for all. All other “powers” pale in comparison. Fasting helps us to realize this.

Almsgiving is the gift of seeing God dethrone every idol in every corner of our lives – particularly in our pocketbooks, where the false gods of wealth, achievement, false-security, privilege and status are likely to show up. We give to the poor because God has promised to care for us and for all. We give because it opens space in our lives to receive. We give because it creates an opportunity to be in relationship with other broken and beautiful people – among whom Jesus loves to hang out.

Throughout these forty days, the mood is sober and subdued, for life is more than shallow joy, and far too many of our neighbors (and us) are closer to the cross than we’d like to admit. But each step along the way we are accompanied by holy angels and given grace upon grace to see Jesus everywhere we go and in all that we do. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

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I Had No Bread

Earlier this year, Martin Scorcese’s realized a decades-long dream of adapting Shuzuku Endo’s novel, Silence, for film. In anticipation, I re-read the book – a long-time favorite of mine – and a tiny little line kicked me in the guts. The narrator, a Portuguese priest imprisoned in 17th century Japan during a wave of harsh persecution of the Christian church there, says this about meeting other Christians in prison:

“I had no bread, so I could not say Mass, so I heard their confessions and we prayed.”

I had no bread, so I could not say Mass…

In that moment, it dawned on me: Jesus is a genius.

In our tradition, we believe that after the resurrection, Jesus is still with us – for real – most explicitly in Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, etc.). Jesus can show up anywhere, of course – but we know Christ is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We also believe that the church exists wherever the Good News (Gospel) is proclaimed and the sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist) are celebrated. Without the Eucharist, we can’t be the church.

So here’s why Jesus is a genius: In giving the church the gift of the Eucharist (his ongoing presence among us in bread and wine), Jesus has inextricably bound the church to the task of ending hunger and poverty in the world. For where there is no bread, there is no Eucharist (the Meal only works if you eat it!); and where there is no Eucharist, there is no church.

Especially during the season of Lent, when we focus our lives around the Cross through the disciplines of “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving,” we are reminded that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness going hungry as preparation for his life-giving ministry. Jesus joined himself to hunger and poverty in order that God’s life-giving presence would become real among those who hunger. Jesus became Bread for the hungry, and now we, who are called the “Body of Christ,” gathered around the Meal of his Presence – we, too, are given as Bread for the hungry.

We feed hungry people, not because it is the right thing to do, but because in his infinite wisdom, Jesus has inextricably bound our very identity as “church” to the task of ending hunger and poverty.

Well played, Jesus. Well played.

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Stained Glass

“In the beginning, was the Word…” The large stained glass window facing the parking lot was inspired by photographs of nebulae taken by the Hubble telescope. In these nebulae, we see the colors of creation. These areas where stars are being born inspired the color scheme.

The deep blue of space is used as the background color with clear and colored jewels of glass set randomly throughout as stars.

The cross is clear, beveled glass bordered in clear glass jewels to make the cross stand out. Veils of color create a backdrop enveloping the cross as if the cross is centered in creation. It is a bold witness to God’s saving love in Christ from the beginning of creation and into eternity.

The window was created by glass artist (and late member of Christ the Servant) Robert Uchner. Mr. Uchner received his formal training at Fachhochschule in Krefeld, West Germany. He earned his B.A. and Masters degrees there, working with Gustav Funders and Joseph Beuys. After graduating, he taught there as Assistant Professor to Dr. Funders. Mr. Uchner was selected as one of West Germany’s best stained glass craftsmen in the national “Junges Handwerk Austellung” and earned the title “Master Craftsman”. He has done many church installations throughout the country.

The windows extending to the right and the left of the cross in the sanctuary are an extension of the creation-themed cross window. The prominent symbols are the Alpha and Omega (the beginning and the end), and the colors and expanse of creation radiate outward from the cross, which stands at the center of all things. These windows were also designed and begun by Robert Uchner, and they were completed by his apprentice and friend (and CTS member), Jeff Lorenzen.

Other works by Uchner and Lorenzen at CTS include a depiction of Jesus washing a disciple’s feet (the “Servant” image that inspires Christ the Servant), a baptism-themed panel that hangs above the baptismal font, and four abstract renderings of the traditional symbols for the four Gospel writers.

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