Lectionary Year A, B and C
Ash Wednesday
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Step VI: Contemporary Address


Audience: a local congregation in pain over the struggle to find reconciliation and peace over differences in leadership style.

Goal: to discover the unity that is found in Christ Jesus and in that unity to find a common direction for ministry and household prosperity.

Title: "Corinth Comes Home"

Introduction: There once was a church where the divisions were threatening its very life together in Christ...divisions centered on the question of leadership. Several attempts had been made to find reconciliation and real community but failures were experienced. Following each failure the people kept seeking. This church was the congregation of believers in the great city of Corinth. Perhaps at second glance there are mirror moments here for all churches, even ours. This lectionary encounter was assigned to me but is here for us all.

I. The gospel encapsulated:
"We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." What an opening! Here is where we always begin. Christ came to bring peace between God and human beings. Reconciliation is initiated by God: for the work of reconciliation Christ died. It does not come without cost to God. Precious. We are being re-invited to take another look.

(V. 21) a rather awkward passage: "he made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God." Here we meet, right where sin and righteousness collide...also within. And how indeed might we "become" this?
II. (6:1) the grace of God.
God freely bestows grace on all, but especially wherever anger tears at Christian unity. Can it "be received in vain"? (Illus. material: parable of the sower?). What does "in vain" look like?

The fruit of Christian beginnings grows in grace. Translated: the walk is not an end but a process, the journey is destination alone but the travel. The path of enmity engenders disharmony in spiritual walk with each other and with Christ. The path of harmony "housebuilds".
III. (6:2) the "propitious critical hour" means the hour of great opportunity.
Too often pain and trouble in the church are "managed" by models of mediation and negotiated settlements that finally have very little to do with "reconciliation" in the Christian sense of household. Does one start with reconciliation to find common ground or with negotiations toward then end of eventual reconciliation? Does it make a difference? Is divorce the model? To cast one out of the household is to leave all cast out? The "great opportunity" in strife is to rediscover who we are in Christ.
Conclusion: All are vulnerable and at great risk in struggles within the church. To live Christianly in the household of faith is pressed to the wall in the pain of anger and under duress. Competing "rights" continue to divide. The grace that reconciles is sown in our midst by the One alone who generates it and offers it freely to all who embrace its amazing power to unite. amen.
(SBJ)Alternative Address:

Two of the crucial exegetical nuggets that resulted from my study of this passage were:

1). Observing a connection between [A] the literary shape of 6: 1-10 in which Paul's writing swings between describing radical challenges to his ministry and even his life (afflictions, hardship, calamities. . . treated as the sorrowful, poor, who will die possessing nothing) and his affirmative assertions (we are those rejoicing, making many rich, possessing everything) and [B] the shape of 5: 21 which describes the denial of Christ and the possibility of righteousness in him.

2). While a study of "righteousness" points to the integrity of God in relationship (Andrew Dearman), I chose to relate this point to the all important "en auto" that locates the possibility of this righteousness obtaining for humans in Christ's action on the cross. This then allows us to see the significance of the ashen cruciform on people's foreheads as both a sign of human finitude and a mark that reminds us that we are claimed in the death of Jesus.

All Fall Down a sermon for Ash Wednesday A pastor recently told me about a rigorous debate that his church had regarding the imposition of ashes at their newly-instituted Ash Wednesday service. Some people in the congregation argued against the practice claiming that it could promote holier-than-thou attitudes amongst the faithfully smudged. Others worried that the aftermath of the ritual would look a bit too much like a public display of piety the kind that the Gospel of Matthew cautions us about. Objecting, still others claimed that they found it to be a powerful way to grapple with mortality, to participate in a sign of humility, to mark the beginning of Lent.

What was Ash Wednesday, after all, without some soot on one's brow? Attempting to mediate, the pastor suggested a compromise. Set it up, he declared, so that individuals could decide. If people wanted ashes, they could mark themselves.

So when it came time for the service, a liturgy which also included the Lord's Supper, the pastor stood and explained that worshippers were to come forward for the sacrament. First they would receive the wafer--"Body of Christ." Next they would receive the wine--"Blood of Christ." Then—as the pastor gestured to an elder who was standing there holding a small saucer of ash—"If the worshippers so desired, they could self-impose ashes." So, the people stood and came. . . Decently and in order, except for one small problem, the pastor had failed to explain the meaning of a key liturgical term "impose."

He came to this realization when the first man to approach received a wafer, dipped it in wine, then turned, and dunked his sodden disk in the plate of ashes, before eating it.

So startled was the congregation by this strange act of penitence, that they were compelled to rethink their liturgy. . . Never again, remarked the pastor, will I suggest that people "self-impose." But, I wonder, — as unpalatable as it might seem— if this man in tasting and swallowing ashes might actually be telling us something important about this day and this season.

So many of us, still think of Lent as a time to give something up— a season to deny ourselves chocolate for forty days. . . as if that will somehow cultivate spiritual maturity. In eating ashes, this man may provide us with a different perspective on Lent. . . Perhaps it is not a season to give up common pleasures. Perhaps it is a time for us chew on our mortality.

So, instead of thinking about what we might deny ourselves, we are called to wrestle with the harsh reality of what it means to be denied.

Surely, that is part of what is going on in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. The apostle is grappling mightily with what it means to be denied. In this letter, Paul painfully acknowledges that he and those around him are being treated as impostors; they are viewed as a sorrowful people who will die poor, possessing nothing. Moreover, Paul seems well aware of those, in Corinth and beyond, who deny the validity of his ministry, and who work to erode the apostle's credibility, seeking to take away his freedom and even his life.

Paul knows what it is like to be radically denied. Yet, in the face of this adversity, the apostle engages in an equally radical affirmation. Despite all rumors to the contrary Paul asserts that he, and others with him, are faithful ministers, true to their calling, that they are alive, rejoicing people who possess everything. But I wonder if Paul's words of hope don't ring hollow in the face of all that would deny him.

Can't we sense, through the cracks in his optimism a man on the edge; after all, he does admit to incredible hardship, physical affliction, sleepless nights beatings and imprisonments. Is it me, or do Paul's positive words sound a bit like someone whistling in the graveyard?

You know the song. . .

Ring Around the Rosie,
Pocket Full of Posies,
Ashes, Ashes. . .
All Fall Down.

You know the scene. . .

When in countless playgrounds, this simple ditty concludes as a circle of small bodies dives to the ground in a heap of grass-stained laughter. Perhaps some of you also know of the terrible pestilence that provides the historical backdrop to this jolly rhyme.

Six hundred years ago the Bubonic Plague rushed across Asia and Europe with lethal abandon. Those infected by the disease were branded with the tell-tale "rosie" a circle of broken blood vessels that signaled imminent death. In many towns the bodies piled up so rapidly that the living could not keep up with burials. Faced with a scourge so sweeping, so devastating, some clergy preached that the plague could be nothing other than the Wrath of God, and so, they counseled a return to the penitential practices of wearing sackcloth and dousing one's head with ashes.

Still, the deaths continued. By 1352, Pope Clement estimated that the plague had killed 40 million people.

Ashes, Ashes
All Fall Down.
When you think about it from the viewpoint of history, this little poem's status as a nursery rhyme seems strange. Eerie. For behind the children's cheerful voices, we recognize a pretty grim reality. A cataclysmic event lurks there which makes these simple verses seem pitiful— a bit of misplaced frivolity like a bad joke at a funeral or a nervous laugh during a horror movie. There is, of course, a reason that we make light even of such terrible events. . . For it gives us a safe "out, "when facing reality is too painful.

Maybe Paul, when he boldly affirms his ministry, opts for this route. Is it the case that the apostle simply couldn't come to grips with his own creatureliness, and the possibility of failure? So, that as reports of confusion and unfaithfulness come back to him from the church that he planted in Corinth, Paul chooses to put the best face on something gone sadly wrong, politely freeing us from having to stare too closely at his despair.

Perhaps that's why a guy who would eat ashes in public is so disturbing? For really, who wants such a stark confrontation with the dust of mortality. Certainly not North Americans, a population constantly on the lookout for spiritual narcotics that might help us forget that we are creatures. We tether ourselves to the present accumulating more and more things building a protective wall around ourselves, so that we can forget our worries and not wonder whether our next breath will be there.

Dominic Dunne captures our flight from creatureliness quite well in his 1973 film, appropriately entitled Ash Wednesday. In the movie, ironically enough, Elizabeth Taylor plays an aging woman who wants to return to the heights of her beauty. Heading to Switzerland, Taylor undergoes extensive plastic surgery with the doctors' guarantee that afterwards she will look twenty years younger.

Following the surgery, her bruised tissue wrapped in bandages, Taylor dons dark sun glasses and decides to go for a walk. Slowly, in great pain, she strolls the streets of Geneva when in seeking a place to rest she enters an old stone church.

Hidden in the back row of the sanctuary, she is like a new woman waiting to emerge from a gauze cocoon. Until she is approached by an elderly priest making his way through the congregation. It is Ash Wednesday. And carrying his bowl of cinders he pauses in front of Taylor and intones the ancient litany. . .

"Remember you are dust,
and to dust you will return."
When we forget that we are dust breathed into life by God. . . When we cultivate amnesia in the face of our mortality, then, more than ever, we risk becoming slaves to death— engaging in a futile battle against our own finitude.

But really, that's not Paul's problem, is it? This apostle has not forgotten what is to be a creature. He writes about empty stomachs and weary bodies. He owns up to dishonor and defamation. Paul is well-acquainted with the taste of ash.

And so are we. In the past months, this community has had more that its share of illness and death.You know the names, you've read the memo's. Ashes, ashes. All fall down. We now the pain that goes along with being a creature. Precarious bodies that betray us, strong relationships ended by human fragility.

Sometimes, Annie Dillard writes, "you can get caught holding one end of a love when your father drops, and your mother. . . your friend blotted out, gone, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love's long line alone." Maybe that's why [we] hang on to Paul's words on this day of ashes, because we cling to so many strands where there is nobody on the other end.

We hunger for affirmation in the face of such denial. Back and forth, back and forth; Paul vacillates in this passage between denial and affirmation. Afflictions, hardships, calamities, but then, patience, kindness and holiness of spirit. Sorrowful, yet rejoicing; Dying, yet wait see, we are alive. I figure the apostle is either schizophrenic or he is onto something.

The key, I think, lies a verse at the beginning of this text. Where in v. 19 Paul writes:
"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Wait just a minute, seconds ago we were worm-like creatures— ash-eating low lifes seeking to avoid the inevitable, and suddenly WE are the Righteousness of God. This leaps out at us on today. The righteousness of God! Us? How can that be?

Andy Dearman reminds me that the righteousness of God is in part a description of God's integrity in relationship. But how did we come to have integrity or relationship with the Most High? The answer lies in the most powerful of Paul's reversals:
For us the sinful,
God became sin.

For us the creatures,
God became creature.

For us, the denied ones,
God became denied.

In and through our baptism
into Christ's death on the cross,
we become the righteousness of God.

It is the most radical of affirmations that in Christ we have become God's righteousness. But we need to know if Paul's affirmation is anything more than poignant rhetoric. . .

This past December, as my mom quietly lay in a hospice bed the victim of a massive stroke, I was continually overwhelmed—to use Paul's terms— by the genuine love, patience and kindness that the nurses on that unit showed both to my comatose mother and to rest of us who gathered there. In the midst of it all, I asked one nurse, Why hospice? Why work in a place where people are always dying?

I had been in the elevator, I knew there was a maternity wing just upstairs. So, why choose a place where life is constantly being denied; when yards away life is being renewed and affirmed every minute? When my father died, the nurse replied, I was far away. There was no-one to care for him; there was no place like this for him. So, I decided that I did not want that to happen to others.

Working quietly, efficiently around the edges of suffering, refusing to ignore the reality of death, and the pain of loss, this woman's actions shout into the abyss of denial a radical affirmation in the shape of human dignity and small acts of love.

In him, we have become the righteousness of God. For Paul, righteousness is a human possibility. Even when faced with denials and the knowledge that we will all, eventually, fall down, the apostle pushes us to attempt reconciling acts and rest affirmed in the integrity of God. All this because we have been marked. Not by a sign that we can put on ourselves, For really we cannot self-impose our identity.

Our righteousness is in him (en auto). So we mark each other here not merely with a thumbprint of grit hoping to commemorate our mortality, but we smear a cross on each other's foreheads to remind us that we are marked by another.

The one who marked Cain, a murderer, promising to protect him. The one who marks us all with water, plunging us into his death, that we might no longer be slaves to mortality, but free to be God's righteousness in this world.

Amen



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