Want to read my Ash Wednesday sermon?

Spoiler alert: I said the word “pornography” from the pulpit!

Ash Wednesday, 7pm service, February 13th, 2013, Myers Park United Methodist Church
By Rev. Erin J. Beall

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on My holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to Me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him,
a grain offering and a drink offering for the LRD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged;
gather the children, even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave him room, and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep.
Let them say, “Spare Your people, O LORD, and do not make Your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples, where is their God?”

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with Him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For He says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

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Alright, so we’ve heard the Word of God. We’ve got our marching orders, you and me. LENT!: You’re to go home and “rend your hearts,” good luck with that, and I’m to blow a trumpet and stand somewhere between the, uh, …. vestibule, wherever that is, and the altar… and weep. Good? We all clear? Can we get our ashy crosses and get to it?

Joel says, The day of judgment is coming, black as night and terrible. …. But if you will turn back to God, our God is gracious and merciful.
God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
And Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

I know that I don’t have the hardest job in the world. I know that firemen and oncologists and teachers and mothers all have a harder time of it than I do. But can I share with you the secret that makes this job, this particular day, this particular sermon, so hard? I’m supposed to stand up here and convince you to change your lives. That’s what Joel’s trying to do, what Paul’s trying to do, what God’s trying to do. That’s why the ancient Church invented Lent—to give you and me a whole season every single year to remember to get our hearts right. Repent, return to the LORD with all your hearts! with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning! Return! Change! Be different!

But how to do this? How can I stand up here and convince you to change your life? I mean, Your life is going okay. You are doing okay. You know, I hope, that God loves you; you’ve even come to Ash Wednesday service because of your devotion to God or at least to the church. Why the heck should you change your life? What more could God possibly want … or need …from you?

Joel says, The day of judgment is coming, black as night and terrible. …. But if you will turn back to God, our God is gracious and merciful.
God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

I spend a lot of time, and maybe you do too, investing in tomorrow. Tomorrow is where I keep all my big purchases, new diets, hard decisions, and fantastical hopes. I store them there because it’s safe. It’s warm and dry there; the mundane and awful realities of today—surprise rainstorms and dental appointments and accidentally eating two doughnuts—those things can’t touch tomorrow.

I wonder what happens in the mind of a man or woman when they make the decision, finally, they make the phone call or get in the car or pack their suitcase, when they decide to become a monk or a nun. Or a missionary. What finally clicks that says, “I can’t wait for tomorrow anymore; I’m being called to something bigger than this. Something bigger than walking the dog in the rain and having a root canal and feeling guilty about doughnuts.” What has to happen, what words have to be said or feelings have to be felt, to make them say, “Today is the day.”
Joel says, The day is coming… the day when tomorrow can’t help you, when all the alarms will ring…. But if you will turn back to God, our God is gracious and merciful.
God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

So let’s say that I was able to convince you, to change your life, I mean. That the Holy Spirit swooped into your heart, like a raven gripping Her talons into you until something breaks, something bursts, and you finally say, “Today.”
What then? What would we do, you and I, if we made the decision? If we went from being a good person, doing okay, showing up to church every Sunday and, once a year, on a Wednesday night…. to doing…. more? Paul puts it this way: “Be reconciled to God. Do not accept God’s grace in vain.” Joel says, “Return to the LORD with all your heart. Fast. Weep. Mourn. Tear your hearts open just like God taught you to rip apart your clothing when you are suffering. Return to the LORD your God. And this isn’t just an individualistic thing: Joel says, Gather together, even the people in different Sunday school classes than yours. Even the people with screaming babies. Even the old people who can’t remember their names anymore. Even the newlyweds—call them back from the honeymoon and pray together.”

God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

I have a friend who has spent much of her life in another country. Her father speaks a different language. All her life her father spoke to her and to her mother in this language, never speaking English. And always his words were harsh, leaving tears and heartbreak wherever they went out from his mouth.
When she was five years old my friend made a decision. She would learn English, and she would not speak the language of her father anymore. She would not speak a language that, in her experience, was only used to wound, to cut, to tear down. Her tongue did not know that language again for many years, and her ears forgot it. She could still hear his tone but she erased from her mind the knowledge of the words.

I wonder what happened in that moment, in the mind of a five year old, to say, “I will not do this anymore. I will not give my tongue, my ears, to this way of speaking anymore. To this way of living and being in relationship that is all pain.” I wonder if it’s similar to what has to happen in our minds and hearts to say, “Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day I will turn from all the idols I’ve built in my life and return to my God.”

Listen, I know that you’re doing okay. I know that you enjoy a lot of your life and that you have known great love and that things are generally going pretty well for you and yours. Or at least, it could be worse. There are children starving in Africa, and all that. ….But I also know that you are hungry. You are starving. I know that you feel an emptiness in your heart and you can’t find anything that satisfies it. I know that you feel lonely when you’re falling asleep and that you sometimes find yourself frowning and you don’t know quite why. I know that you feel worried when you think about your relationship with God, and that you clenched your teeth and got nervous when Shane read the beginning of that Joel text—Blow the trumpet, sound the alarm, let everyone tremble because God is furious, darkness is coming. You don’t even know it, but we skipped nine more verses about the fire that will devour, the earthquakes that will rip through the cities, the anguish that will come on the Day of Judgment.

In reality, of course, you can’t skip over that part. You are going to die. You are going to die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Tremble, weep, it’s awful, and it’s inescapable. Joel says, “Truly the day of the LORD is great, terrible indeed—who can endure it?” and then without a single word of transition, without starting a new chapter or explaining at all, Joel says this, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to Me with all your heart…. God is gracious and merciful. Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

……….

There comes a point in our lives when we have to make a choice. Are we going to take this seriously or not? Are you going to give up chocolate for Lent, or more accurately for your waistline, or are you going to give up your power addiction, or your pornography addiction, or your great wall of silence that you’ve put up between you and God? Are you going to be “Christian but not really Christian Christian” or are you going to be one of those people that makes folks uncomfortable? One of those people that makes folks wonder what happened to you, what changed, what new life you’ve gotten and where they can get it, too?
You know, they say that pregnant women glow. I think there’s a glow about saints, too. They’ve got Christ inside them. The Word of God is growing in them and they positively glow. Don’t you want to glow? Oh, God, I want this place to shine—brighter than the sun.

This is hard. This job of convincing you to change your life is hard, but actually changing is harder. You have to learn a new language, and forget an old one. You and I speak fluently the language of fear, of unhappiness, of anxiety, of loneliness. We must forget those things, delete them from our minds and our hearts and replace them with words like joy and trust and hope and love.

Paul is teaching you the new language; he’s translating for you when he says this:
I am covered up in afflictions: hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.
But what I see in all this is opportunities to gain more purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God
In earthly terms we are dying, but look—in our language, in the language of the Gospel, we are alive.

Friends, you will die. And you will stand before the LORD on a day of great darkness and you will tremble. But that’s for tomorrow to worry about. What are you going to do today?

Joel says, The day of judgment is coming, black as night and terrible. …. But if you will turn back to God, our God is gracious and merciful.
God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

A Confession and a Penitent Resolution Regarding Preaching the Epistles

I confessed to my supervisor today that I can’t stand preaching on the Epistles.  I’ve probably mentioned that here before, but it’s worth mentioning again because I hate it so much that it makes me feel bad.

Paul writing his epistles. Source: wikipedia

Paul Writing His Epistles. Source: wikipedia

My assigned texts for this Sunday includes Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship………….”

…YAWN.

So much of the New Testament has been so over-quoted as to be hackneyed at this point. I wish that, for every time someone quoted John 3:16, 1 Cor 13, or Romans 8, there was a requirement that they also throw in a good one from the Old Testament.

“Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” -Joshua 3.5
“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Exodus 14.14
“For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.” -Malachi 3.6

But I think the real thing that bothers me about the Epistles is the style in which they’re written.  It’s the same reason I never can get into Proverbs, or Leviticus.  It’s so didactic.  “Listen while I talk to you.” “Do this. Don’t do that.” It’s a lecture, instead of a Socratic-method seminar.  It’s a textbook instead of a novel.

***

Someone I confessed this to recently exclaimed sarcastically, “Ugh, you’re such a woman! You want poetry, don’t you?”

Yes, I do. Sorry about my vagina. (This same person also accused me of having a “vaginal theology.” My response: “I’m trying to be offended… but I’m sort of not.”)

***

Give me a Psalm, or a story.  Don’t command me to be transformed by the renewal of my mind, tell me a story about someone who did that and then let me imitate her.

The thing about poetry and storytelling is that it gives legs and feet to this amorphous blob of an abstract idea: Be transformed.
I could hear an hour-long speech on being transformed and leave going, “What’s for lunch?” But you put me in front of Les Miserables for two and half hours, and now I SEE transformation.
Jean Valjean is the ultimate example of someone being transformed.  Sinner to saint. Darkness to light.  Condemnation to salvation.  Hate to love.  Now I get it.  Now this idea has legs and feet and arms and hands and even a few snot bubbles and bad teeth but it’s beautiful because I can see it and touch it and sing the songs with Jean Valjean as he [SPOILER ALERT] commits his soul to God.

When I was in seminary, my preaching professor had us write a final paper on our theology of preaching. I had no idea what that meant, so I ended up writing a long metaphorical essay comparing preaching to poetry.

Preaching, like poetry, I said, is that place where you take truth and you weave it in with beauty and discomfort and mystery and misery. And the music of it is heard better than a lecture, digests easier than a textbook, and breaks down walls more effectively than a bulldozer.

Preaching, like poetry, is that medium wherein commands will not fly.  A poet who is so obvious as to write something like “The moral of the story is, don’t sell your soul to the machine” will never get published.  Way too obvious. Where’s the mystery, the beauty, the twists and turns and ups and downs?

Similarly, every pastor who has ever stood in a pulpit and given me an ultimatum has lost my trust.  You tell me “Don’t sin or you’re going to hell!” and I will probably walk out.  But you tell me a story of someone whose sins drove them into the bowels of hell– the streets of New York City, the bottom of a bottle, the suicide chatrooms online– and how God came through for them? That’s a commanding story.  That’s a story that will change my heart and transform my mind.

I think this is part of the meaning of the incarnation.  God could have handed down some more stone tablets.  Heck, God could have just wiped us out and started all over– clearly we weren’t listening.  But what God chose to do instead was to insert Jesus into human history, to make Him part of the story, to give Him a start, an end, with ups and downs and mystery and beauty and twists and turns.  The story of Jesus is a story indeed: Humble beginnings, persecution, prophetic voices, assassination plots, climactic murder, and triumphal resurrection.

God knew that a story would speak to us.  A story would give calloused hands and blistered feet and nail-impaled wrists and ankles to this vague idea that God loves us.

So, my fellow preachers, if you’re like me, when you encounter a text that is not enough story for you, put the hands and feet of Christ on it.  The story is there, bleeding… and shining with hope.

And if you’re not like me, and you encounter a text that is TOO MUCH story for you, see in the hungry Israelites, the murderous enemies, and the wayward disciples the hands and feet and face of Christ.  They’re there. Dig into the mystery, and the beauty will always find you.