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The Right to be Wrong

Jason Micheli —  October 22, 2018 — Leave a comment

I continued our fall series on the Questions God Asks Us by looking at Mark 12 and Jesus’ question to our question about money and politics.

This question about taxes to Caesar and the Law of God itself violates the Law of God, Jesus implies.

Jesus responds to their question about the commandments with another commandment, a commandment given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai: “Do not put the Lord your God to test,” the same commandment Jesus recites when tempted by the devil in the desert. In other words, our question to Jesus about Caesar’s claim on our stuff makes us sound like satan.

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?

“But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them: ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’”

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Should we or shouldn’t we, Jesus? Yes or no?”

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. And the Gospel story ends with Pontius Pilate killing Jesus— on what charges? On the charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen.

Incidentally, this same tax where we get the word gospel from in the first place.

In ancient Rome, that word gospel referred to the announcement that Caesar had conquered you and now he was not just your salad he was your god and now you had the awesome privilege of paying taxes to cover the cost of his having colonized you.

The Roman head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint. The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter— just a quarter, less than a cup of coffee. So it’s not that the tax was onerous. It was offensive.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: “Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.”

Carrying the coin broke the first and most fundamental Law: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

And because it broke the Law of God, the coin rendered anyone who carried it under God’s wrath.
The coin made anyone who carried it ritually unclean; therefore, it couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped. You see how the system works?

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

You see— what they’re really asking here is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that— in order to see what they’re really asking— you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place during Holy Week, on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies. On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome.

On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus pitches a temple tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip.

And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.

Why?

To answer that question, you need to know a little history. 200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer. The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.”

So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.

Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. The Sledgehammer traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before he becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.

That was 200 years before today’s passage.

About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean— he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax. With an armed band Judas the Galilean rode into Jerusalem to shouts of what? Hosanna. Judas the Galilean cleansed the Temple. And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King.

Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.

You see what’s going on?

Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years just like. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers. The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is to declare a revolution, to stand up to injustice, to deliver the oppressed, to cast down the principalities and powers from their thrones.

To take up the sword.

That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax: Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? That’s the real question.

Come down off the fence, Jesus. Which side are you on, Jesus? And Jesus responds, “Why are you putting me [the Lord your God] to the test?”

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like the Republicans nominating a lifelong Democrat to be their president. Wait, bad analogy. For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like Ted Cruz asking Donald Trump to stump for him. Wait, that doesn’t work either.

You get the picture— the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.

The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus. But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties. This is important. If you don’t get this, you don’t get it. The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options. And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.

The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought the adminstration was making Israel great again. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and— even if it took a sword— Rome had brought stability to the tinderbox called Israel.

The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.

On the other hand, the Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. They were the resistance movement. The Pharisees were bible- believing observers of God’s commandments. They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and Son of God printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.

The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a grass-roots, righteous revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.

And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff. They’ll write him off and walk away.
That’s the trap.

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’

If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.
If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?
Which is it going to be?
The Sword or the Sledgehammer?
Which party do you belong to?
You’ve got to choose one or the other.
Check the box, Jesus.
What are your politics Jesus?

Jesus asks for the coin.

And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’

And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is eikon, the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be eikons of God.

Eikons of Caesar.
Eikons of God.

Jesus looks at the coin and he says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.”

But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for give isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question.

When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means give, as in “to present a gift.”

But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.

Instead Jesus uses the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier.

Jesus says:

“Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.”

You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is? What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him. But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.

And what does God deserve from you?
Everything.
Everything.

Jesus is saying is: “You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.”

Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation, you mustn’t give to your Tribe—

You mustn’t give to those things, what they ask of you:
ultimate allegiance.

You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question.

The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.

They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different just of a different hue. They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.

But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise. He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides.

Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

His movement was about defeating his opponents by dying for them.
His movement was about overcoming their sin by suffering it in their stead.

That while we were yet his enemies, Jesus the Galilean took up not a sword or a sledgehammer but a cross.

And that qualifies all our politics.

If you’re like me, then every election season social media proves to be a good and uplifting use of your time.

The Bible has a word for the red and blue rhetoric post and tweet and like and share this week; the Bible has a word for how we scream at each other with our signs and fence ourselves off with hashtags and draw lines always with ourselves on the faithful side of the righteousness equation.

Idolatry— that’s the Bible’s word.

And for some, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan election season prescription. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.

Don’t put Jesus in a box.
Don’t make Jesus choose sides.
Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.

Don’t say Jesus is for this Party.
Or against that Party,

Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue.
Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda, should support this issue.
Don’t insist that this or that Christian value ought to have only a one-party solution.

Don’t demonize those with whom you disagree.

I mean, it should chasten all of us in our political pride that the only scene resembling anything like a democratic election in the Bible is when we shout crucify him, casting our vote on Good Friday for Barabbas rather than Jesus Christ.

So that’s my election season exhortation to you:
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.

You’ve been stamped with a different image.

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself— that’s my prescription for you.

Considering the supposed stakes this election season, I realize how that probably sounds like a modest prescription. But maybe modesty is the best policy. Given what the Gospel reveals about us and what was required for us— for our redemption— maybe modesty is the best policy.

Don’t do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself.
Of course, as much as you might like me to do so, I can’t conclude there.

If I left it there, if I ended only on Do or Don’t Do, I’d leave you having just given you moralism pimped out in theological drag. The fact is— what I’ve given you thus far doesn’t even qualify as preaching because— modest or not— prescription is not proclamation. Exhortation about what you need to do for God is not the same thing as the announcement of the news of what God has done for you.

The Law, as the Apostle Paul says, is not the Gospel, and the Gospel message points always to God’s work in Jesus Christ for us not to our work for God.

The Gospel message points always to God’s work in Jesus Christ; therefore, the Gospel stories are not primarily collections of teachings Jesus taught about this or that topic.

They’re stories about Jesus, about his work for us. Indeed the entire Bible— it’s not an encyclopedia of the universe; it’s about Jesus, from first to last.  The center and circumference of all of scripture is Christ and his grace given to you freely by his bleeding and dying and rising.

Which means— our passage today ultimately is not about us or what we should do or not do this election season. It’s about Jesus Christ and what he has done to elect us for himself.

To turn today’s text into nothing more than a teaching on how we should regard our money or our politics or our relationship to the state, as Gerhard Forde says, it’s to misuse the very best thing in the worst manner.

It’s to turn the Gospel back into the Law.

Because notice— notice the Gospel promise in this passage:

‘“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denariuus and let me see it.””

And they all reach into their pockets to produce one.
But notice— Jesus had to ask for one.

The coin that condemns us under the Law— Christ isn’t carrying one.

His pockets are empty.

He alone among us is fully faithful.

He alone among us is obedient.
He alone is blameless.
He alone is righteous.

Just as Jesus tells his cousin John the Baptist at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus says that he’s come in the flesh— not to judge and condemn sinners, not to turn sinners into non-sinners, not to set sinners straight so they’ll fly right— in order to fulfill all righteousness.

For us.
In our place.

Jesus is our substitute not only on the cross but in his faithfulness.

He comes in order to fulfill all the righteousness required by the Law.

And that righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect score, the Bible promises— it’s gifted to you, gratis and forever, at your baptism.

The currency exchange that matters in Mark’s Gospel isn’t what happens with the moneychangers outside the Temple; it’s what the ancient church fathers and mothers called the Great Exchange wherein our unrighteousness is imputed to Christ, as though our sin was his own, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as though it were our own.

Christ isn’t carrying the coin that condemns. His pockts are empty. He alone among us is righteous. But in taking the unclean coin from our hands, Christ takes our sin into his own hands. And then two days later takes our sin in his body to a tree.

The baptism of his death and resurrection is a refining fire that has rendered all of you purer than silver and more precious than gold no matter what you render to Caesar.

You see, it’s a snapshot of what St. Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, sinners like us might become the righteousness of God.”

That’s the Gospel promise hidden in this Gospel story, like a seed sown in a field.

What is yours is his now, your sin.
And what belongs to him is yours always, his righteousness.

Where we worship idols at the altar of politics, he loved God with all of his heart and all of mind and all of his soul and all of his strength— and all of his faithfulness is as good as yours by grace through your baptism.

Where our pocketbooks prove that we have no King but Caesar, he brought down the mighty from their thrones by being lifted up on his cross— his victory, by grace through your baptism, it’s as though you had won it by your own obedience.

Where we fail to render to God the everything that belongs to God and give a lot more heartburn and bother to the Rome we call America, by grace through your baptism you are credited as blameless as Jesus Christ himself.

You bet your ass that’s too good and too prodigal (and too offensive maybe) to believe.

Of course it is— that’s why you need a preacher.

That’s why you need the church, that’s why you need water and wine and bread.

You need tangible, audible reminders of the Gospel promise that you need not worry— ever— because your ledger will never run red because you’ve been washed in his blood.
Maybe that’s why Jesus implies we sound like satan when we ask him our questions about what we should do.

With our money.
With our politics.

Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet or what you do with it— for that matter, it doesn’t matter what skeletons are in your closet; for that matter, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the closet— or out of the closet— because by your baptism you’ve been clothed irrevocably with Christ’s own righteousness.

To get hung up on another’s unfaithfulness or sin— to get hung up on your own sin— it’s like stealing from Jesus.

All of it belongs to Christ now.
Cling instead to what Christ has given you.

What justifies you before God is Christ’s faithfulness and death not your faith in his death, and your not faithful doings in response to his death.

By grace, through your baptism— your credit score is always now Christ himself.
His permanent perfect record is yours, and there’s no take-backs or do-overs.
God is not an Indian Giver.
There is therefore now no undoing it.
So there—
There’s the Gospel promise attached to the modest prescription I gave you.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Don’t insist that Jesus fit into your red or blue box.

You don’t need to.

Because you’ve been gifted Christ’s own righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.

When it comes to politics or your marriage or anything else— there’s no pressure, no stakes, no score-keeping.

You’re free to fail.
You’re free to make foolish choices.
You’re free to make sinful ones.

You have the right to be wrong.

Because you already have Christ’s perfect righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.

And here’s the rub:
So does your neighbor. They have the right to be wrong too.

Alex and Kim’s Wedding – 4/21/18

What kind of wedding sermon do you write for two video-gaming nerds? This one.

Galatians 3.26-29

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

 

“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”

– Robert Capon

Alex and Kim,

You two still haven’t gotten back to me with the results of your Meyers- Briggs personality tests like I asked, but you’ve obviously spent too much money for us all to be here this afternoon so I’m going to let that one slide. Nonetheless, just because you’re tardy with the test results doesn’t mean I’m all done posing my pre-marital questions to the two of you.

I’ve got one question left: What are you thinking? Are you crazy?

How can two video gaming nerds like yourselves get married today? It’s only been a week since Billy Mitchell, the erstwhile record holder on both Donkey Kong and Centipede, not to mention his perfect Pac Man game, was found out to be an 8-bit fraud and sinner just like the rest of us. Are you guys up for getting married given the dark news about the King of Donkey Kong?

Billy Mitchell was once celebrated by a documentary film, The King of Kong, but last week he was the subject of an NPR investigative report of how he’d lied about his record-setting score all these years- a record around which he’d defined his entire life and identity.

How can two gamers like yourselves celebrate a wedding at a time like this? Shouldn’t you be mourning for Billy’s sake? Or, at least, trying to take his place on the leader board?

I think we can all agree, given the King of Kong’s fall from grace, that this is a bold leap of faith you take today. After seeing Billy Mitchell run out of lives, revealed as fraud not only to the world but to his wife, most gamers would get skittish about moving on to the next level called marriage.

Frankly, even before Billy Mitchell, I didn’t think we’d get to today. I suspected the two of you would never decide on the songs with which you would process in and later dance to today. You couldn’t make up your minds. I remember one of you mentioned something about Etta James’ “At Last,” and instead I suggested the theme music from Legend of Zelda.

I’d also suggested Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” but then you both informed me that Kim’s dress would be coral not white. Now that the Big Day is here, I’m glad I finally get to learn coral is closer to orange than turquoise. Hey, how should I know what color coral is? Like George Constanza, I only pretend to be a marine biologist when I’m at parties or wedding receptions.

The truth is- just as Billy Mitchell’s score has no bearing on us, we don’t need Billy Idol today either because Kim’s wedding dress doesn’t matter.

     What matters- The garment that matters for their marriage is the garment we are given by our baptism.

You are what you wear, the clothes make the man, go the cliches, yet they’re not true. My robe and stole don’t make me any more pious than you, and you all dressed to the nines today doesn’t change anything true about you.

The only clothes that make you who you are- and make you into someone you are not yet– are the clothes given to you by water and the word.

What’s the mean?

In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

We are dressed, in other words, in Christ’s perfect score.

And, unlike as happened to Billy Mitchell, nothing- can undo Christ’s high score that is reckoned to you as your own score.

I’m not an idiot. I realize this may sound like religious hokum, but I’m not just a professional Christian. I’m also a full-time sinner and a husband of 17 years, and I can vouchsafe that what St. Paul says about your true wedding garment- the one given to you in baptism: Christ’s own perfect score- they’re not just words to live by; they’re words that give life. 

Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to improve each other (because, no matter what you see or suspect, the other already has a perfect score).

Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to try and control the other. We don’t need to treat each other as an improvement project or as an investment we hope will pay dividends later.

     Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to keep score.

And that’s good, grace-giving news because in a world where we count and score everything (steps, calories, sleep rate, heart rate, interest rates), if you’re not careful, marriage can become a crucible of score-keeping.

 Am I a good enough wife? Am I the man of her dreams? Am I interesting enough? Does she really still like playing Zelda with me? Am I still attractive enough? Are we making enough money? Is this house big enough? Will our kids get into the right schools? What will be the photo on our Christmas card? Whose parents are we spending Thanksgiving with? Didn’t I do the dishes last night? This is the third time he’s done that since promising not to do it.

Marriage can become a crucible of score-keeping that quickly turns into a mine-field of score-settling. But St. Paul says all our score-keeping has been buried in the grave we call baptism. All our heretofore high scores by which we try to justify ourselves are forgotten in Christ’s death and all of our low scores- all of our sins, all of our mistakes and misdeeds, all of our grievances- are covered over by our wedding garment.

The two of you today promise to love one another according to the folly of God’s grace. You’re promising to love one another without keeping score. You’re pledging to love with a love that goes beyond deserving.

No matter what Kim does, no matter what Alex has done- the two of you promise to give the other the opposite of what they deserve.

And, as potentially costly as that sounds, you can afford it because you already possess a perfect and permanent score.

     You’ve got nothing to lose.

I realize, practically-speaking, this can sound like bad advice. Not keeping score- it can leave you vulnerable. You can get hoodwinked. You can get hurt. That’s the leap of faith you two take today. In scrapping the score-keeping ledger, you’re each giving over to the other an enormous power to do damage to the other.

But today isn’t about practicalities. As much as you might like it or need it, today isn’t about you two getting good advice. Let’s face it, there’s not a married person here who knows what they hell they’re doing.

Today isn’t about you two getting good advice for how to love one another.

Today is about the two of you becoming a parable of how God loves each of us.

By giving each of us a perfect score- by clothing us in Jesus- God calls our sin by another name until our every sin is named out of existence. By giving us this wedding garment by which we are all betrothed to him, God credits to us a goodness that isn’t there until, over time, one day all that is there is the goodness that God only at first declared.

Today with vows and rings you two promise to regard each other according to the perfect score the Game Designer has already reckoned to them, to give to them a love beyond their deserving, trusting that one day, through the foolish wisdom of God’s grace, all that will remain of the other is that perfection.

Marriage will afford every opportunity for your badness to be uncovered by the other, but, by regarding each other according to the wedding clothes with which you’ve been covered, even that badness will be transformed into the likeness of the Beloved.

And when the game is over and you’re all out of lives and it’s time for you both to level up, you will be able to look back on your marriage together and say you both enjoyed a love that was more than any of us deserve.

Only then, by the folly of God’s grace, will the cliche prove true: You are what you wear.

 

 

 

Hammer Time

Jason Micheli —  February 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

     Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6

I want to thank you all for coming out tonight instead of staying home and watching the Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Special with your kids.

There is a Michael Bolton Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, but there’s no Peanuts Ash Wednesday Special. Nobody grew up watching a stop-motion Burl Ives saying ‘Hey kid, you’re a sinner and you’re going to die.’

Ash Wednesday doesn’t get anyone like Kris Kringle or Krampus. Starbucks doesn’t unveil any Sin-themed soy lattes for Ash Wednesday.

Christmas has been commercialized and loaded down with crap. Easter has been sentimentalized by bunnies and butterflies and metaphors of springtime renewal, but, there aren’t any Ash Wednesday office parties.

Meanwhile, we ship our ill and aging off to die in private while we put inflatable Grim Reapers in our front lawns on Halloween in the hopes that death will turn out to be a joke because when we lie awake at night we know our sin is not make believe.

What we mean by the soot we smear on Ash Wednesday- culturally speaking- remains an unsullied message. There’s no marketing, no media, no movie tie-ins or product placements for Ash Wednesday.

Nobody but Christians want anything do with talk about Sin and Death, which is a shame because, as allergic as our culture is to the ashes, what we do with them tonight has more to do with love actually than any saccharine Hugh Grant movie.

As allergic as our culture is to Death and Sin, what we do tonight with oil and ash is about love actually.

Because when you do away with the concept of sin, the category of shame is your only alternative. With sin, what’s wrong with me is just what’s wrong with me. Leaving sin behind is lonely-making. Without a concept of sin, there is no correlative category of grace, and you’re left only with what St. Paul would call the crushing accusations of the Law.

Accused by the Law and in the absence of Grace, we self-justify. We perform and we pretend. We wear masks- like Jesus condemns in our text tonight. We project a purer false self out into the world, which of course is just a way to shame others lest we be shamed first.

This is what I mean-

Frances Lee is a Cultural Studies scholar in Seattle. In an article entitled Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice, Lee describes her decades-long exodus out of a shame-based conservative evangelical Christianity only to find the same sort toxic dogma practiced by progressives in the social justice-minded activist communities where she landed.

She writes:

“There is an underlying current of fear in my community, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure.”

Both communities, Lee argues, both sex-obsessed evangelicals and justice-driven progressives seek to justify themselves in the relentless pursuit to acquire purity according to the standards of their convictions.

Law, whether it’s law according to evangelicals or activists, always accuses, and Lee notes how the need in progressive social justice communities to be reckoned as pure produces a suffocating, shaming fear of being counted as impure:

“[A kind of] social death follows after being labeled a ‘bad’ activist.

When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.

I feel compelled to do the same things as a [progressive] activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous.

Progressive activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.

“Ultimately,” says Frances Lee- and, pay attention- this is the point on Ash Wednesday- “the quest for purity is a treacherous distraction for the well-intentioned.”

——————————

     What Frances Lee describes is what the Apostle Paul means when he warns that our well-intentioned efforts to acquire righteousness on our own lead to death.

It kills us.

Frances Lee escaped the toxic dogma of one community only to discover it again in an opposite sort of community.

She left her evangelical Church hoping to find respite from the demands of purity and relief from the suffocating pretense those demands require.

In St. Paul’s terms, she fled the Law but the Law found her.

Yet she had been searching for Law’s opposite.

Grace.

What Frances Lee found in neither, not in her evangelical upbringing nor among her progressive activists, is what the Church offers you tonight with oil and ash and a promise that sounds frightening at first.

     “To dust you came and to dust you will return.”

Ash Wednesday is the antidote to the treacherous distraction of the well-intentioned because the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick, it is the good news of the gospel.

No matter how much booze you give up or how much bible-reading you take on for Lent, tonight isn’t about penance in a quest for purity and it’s not about needing to pretend when you fail to find that purity through your piety.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about your performance in life or your piety in religion at all. Ash Wednesday is about the grace of God given to us and for you in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In other words-

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

Ash Wednesday is about freedom.

Freedom from the fear of your impurity.

And freedom from the fear of death.

(Death being the wage paid for your impurity)

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

But it’s not your fault if you experience some cognitive dissonance tonight.

Ash Wednesday can look and sound like it’s exactly the sort of righteousness-chasing, purity-performing that Frances Lee critiques and, even worse, what Jesus Christ forbids.

After all, in the Gospel passage assigned for every Ash Wednesday, Christ in his Sermon on the Mount commands us to do the very opposite of what it appears we’re about to do.

We will practice our piety before others; there is no ad space more public than your forehead.

We will disfigure your face with oily ash, and then we’ll send you forth with unwashed faces not into the privacy of your prayer closet but out into the world where you will be tempted to repeat after the Pharisee “Thank God, I am not like other men.”

Ash Wednesday’s promise of grace can get lost in the contradictions.

And there’s more than a few contradictions tonight.

For example, when you come forward tonight, we’ll say “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” but then we’ll mark your forehead with ash not dust.

Hang on-

God formed Adam not from ash but from the dust of the earth, and when you die- and, news flash- you’re not getting out of life alive- it’s dirt I will throw on your casket, mud not ash.

Shouldn’t we be soiling your head with soil not ash?

Sure, ash is a symbol for repentance and mourning in scripture, but it’s a pile of ashes Job sits on in sackcloth not a smudge streaked across his brow.

If you’re not clear about what we do here tonight, then, despite your good intentions, the ashes and the oil will be but another example of what Frances Lee calls a treacherous distraction.

That is, they’ll be nothing more than an exercise of purity-seeking piety, a work of worship that, King David tells us tonight, God despises- a work of worship that God tells the prophet Isaiah is no better than a filthy rag.

In which case, it’s probably a mercy there aren’t any Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Specials.

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     Because the stakes are high then, I want to set your ashes straight before you come forward for the cross.

The first point- I know, another 3-point sermon. If you want me to give these up for Lent you better tell me tonight. The first point to know about the ashy cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross.

What we do tonight with oil and ashes is not a treacherous distraction.

It’s not, as Jesus warns, practicing your piety before others because the cross on your forehead marks you out not as a pious person but as an impious person.

The cross is absolutely irreligious.

The cross is a reminder the very best of our piety put God to death; therefore, on Ash Wednesday Christians come out of the closet and with a soot scarlet letter freely admit that we are not just flawed and not just broken (that’s a romantic Christian word) but sinners.

Sin is the only word that appropriately names our racism and our prejudice, our violence and apathy and avarice.

We are the worst text messages that we send. We are the email we accidentally reply all to. We are the school shootings we tolerate.

We’re sinners.

The cross on your forehead announces that before God’s Law you are a failure.

You have not loved God with your whole heart. You have not loved your neighbor as much as you love yourself, and you haven’t even begun to love your enemies.

In fact, loving your enemies is just one of the many commandments you’ve left undone- and that’s the real problem for most of you, what you’ve left undone.

You see, like Job’s, the cruciform ashes are ashes of mourning because the cross on you is the outward, visible sign that inside and unseen the hammer of God’s Law has crushed your sinful heart; so that, no longer curved in on itself your heart has no where else to turn but the grace of God alone.

What’s important about the ashen cross is that it’s a cross.

So don’t worry about Jesus’ warning tonight.

What we do with ash and oil tonight does not violate Christ’s command against virtue-signaling because the cross signifies your vice. It brands you not as someone who thinks he’s holy but as someone who knows his need.

A soot colored cross is more inclusive than any rainbow flag.

Tonight Christians remember that- on paper at least- we are, in fact, the most inclusive people in the world.

We are all sinners.

Smudged or not smudged. Christian or not, activist or evangelical, whether you’re resisting or making America great again- none of us are clean. None of us are pure. All of us would love to have a John Kelly keeping our secrets.

There is no need for us to shame one another because between us there is no distinction.

We are- all of us- sinners.

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     And the wage paid out for sin is death. The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes.

We mix up our metaphors tonight, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt.

Or the sprinkling of water.

And this is the second point you should understand as you come forward tonight.

     The words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die.

The cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you deserve to.

That’s as offensive and counter-cultural as anything Christians do.

You deserve to die.

And you have.

You have.

     The cross on your forehead isn’t just a symbol of your sin. The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death to sin. That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. ‘To dust you came and to dust you shall return’ – you’re gonna die- is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died.

     You will die, sure. To dust you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the safety net gets gutted or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely return to the dirt.

But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night, meeting God in your sins, the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died.

You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned.

What you have done and what you have left undone- what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font.

By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death.

The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away.

The way we mix the metaphors tonight it’s not your fault if you missed it. What we do tonight neither confirms Frances Lee’s critique nor does it contradict Christ’s commandment. This ash is not a means to achieve purity or practice piety. We’re not inviting you to pretend or perform or prevaricate or protect your impurity from the shaming of others.

We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.

The dust on your forehead says: “You were dead in your trespasses.”

But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been baptized. Into his death for your trespasses.”

The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news.

Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple.

And that promise should give you not only joy, it should- as Paul says- shut your mouth up. It should stop whatever words of judgment you might have on your lips because the ash marks us out as those who know that the Judge was judged in our place.

Of all the people in world we should be the least judgiest. Or at least the quickest to own up to it.

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     “Where is our humility when we examine the mistakes of others?” Frances Lee asks in her essay.

“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world. And yet grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in my circles.”

Humility and Grace and Forgiveness- in this circle at least, they shouldn’t be hard to find.

And that’s my final point:

The most important thing about the ashy cross you’re about to receive is that it won’t remain there.

You’re going to wash it off.

You’re going to wash it off because you’ve not only died with Christ to sin, but in your baptism you’ve been raised with Christ too. Because it’s not just that your sins have been reckoned to Christ, it’s that his purity has been imputed to you. As the Apostle Paul says in another Ash Wednesday reading: ‘He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that we might become the purity of God.’ 

He makes himself our sin.

He makes us his purity.

In other words-

However ‘woke’ you think are, whatever righteousness you have, whatever purity you have- it didn’t come from you.

Indeed, it had to come from outside of you.

By way of your baptism.

As gift.

Just to make sure you didn’t miss the offense of that exchange, Martin Luther referred to the purity we do posses as ‘alien.’

Our alien purity. Our alien righteousness. Alien- as in, we don’t have either, purity or righteousness, on our own.

So what you’re doing tonight, by wearing a cross and then, just as quickly, washing it off again, you’re puncturing the inflated anthropology our culture gives you. The flattering self-image to which our culture would convert you- tonight, you’re kicking it in the ash, and you’re opting instead for a low anthropology.

As stern and old fashioned as it sounds, with ash you’re insisting that ‘No, we’re not- none of us- basically good people who are doing our best so that God can do the rest.’

We’re worse than flawed. We’re more than broken. ‘Nobody’s perfect’ doesn’t begin to put it right. We’re sinners.

And that’s how what we do here tonight is about love actually.

Such a sober assessment about ourselves is the only true path to patience and empathy and understanding for another- because acknowledging the worst about you is the surest way for you to accept it another.

So, ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, what you do with ash tonight has everything to do with that other holiday tonight.

For, if the fruit of a low anthropology is compassion and empathy and understanding and acceptance, then

Being able to say “I am a sinner who deserves to die” is the necessary precondition to saying “I love you, unto death.”