ASH WEDNESDAY: sMaSH yOuR IdOls, LeNt 2023
February 22, 2023
This Ash Wednesday hits hard. Mortality is on my mind this week. With Josh Olin’s funeral coming up on Friday, and with the general heaviness of the world as of late, here comes our yearly reminder of our mortality. Thanks Ash Wednesday. We live in a death-denying culture. Ash Wednesday is counter cultural for a variety of reason. It’s counter cultural at a societal level. It’s counter cultural at a personal level. Let me explain…
Two generations ago, during what Gil Rendle has coined The Aberrant Time, it seemed everyone went to church. This time has never happened before or since in American history. Or any history. From 1946 to sometime in the mid-1970s, most of Americans claimed to go to church or had some sort of denominational affiliation. This time has ended. Things are returning to normal. This is bad news for the institutional church. Church is not normalized. The church lacks the cultural power. The Blue Laws which restricted activities and closed businesses on Sundays and Wednesday nights are no longer.
As an ordained clergy person in a declining denomination in an era of institutional decline, I say… GOOD. This is a good thing. As Soren Kierkegaard once said, “If everyone is Christian, then nobody is Christian.” Our roots are counter-cultural. The church has not operated well in power. We’re in a time of dying and we mark that today with Ash Wednesday. Certain things need to die and whatever dies, we don’t need because that’s not God. You can’t kill God, that’s the whole message of Lent and Easter, but I shouldn’t spoil the story…
In recognition of this, the worship team, Pastor Meghan and I have decided to smash our idols this Lent. We’re using images of punk rock. Punk rock is a genre of music which is loud, aggressive, and anyone can play it. It’s music that’s raw. As Joey Ramone once said, “To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying ‘This is who I am’. All punk is, is attitude. That’s what makes it.”
He also said, “Hey, if you don’t like this song, it’ll be over in 2 minutes or less.”
This type of music can make trained musicians mad. One of my favorite artists is Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. He is a guitar virtuoso. He knows his way around the fretboard. He is also the least punk person I can think of. Him and YoYo Ma. And Danny and Marie Osborn. It is an affront to him that people with less talent and craft can pick up a guitar and write a hit song. Punk is about raw emotion. No topic is out of bounds. Punk is about reducing things to the simplest form and living in that integrity. I think Jesus would approve.
Today we hear in Matthew and Isaiah a lot of what could be leveled at the church today. The religious people are all about appearance. They have a false piety, the kind that wants you to conform to its belief and be so heavenly focused that you’re of no earthly good.
“SHOUT IT OUT, don’t hold back! Declare to my people their rebellion. I am mad, says God, of my people’s false display of love for me. They whine to me, ‘we’ve fasted, and you don’t care. Why even bother with this if you’re not going to do what we want?!’”
I was once in a church where a bible study leader said that God heard every prayer. If you pray that you want that dresser from Pottery Barn, then God will hear if you believe enough and have faith that can move mountains. To which I thought, “well I must not have believed hard enough and that’s why my grandma died. I must not have prayed hard enough and that’s why my dog died. Wow. I’m an awful person.”
This type of theology is everywhere and it’s not good. It’s not helpful. It has driven more people away from the church by well-meaning Christians than any atheist or agnostic ever has. The church is full of hypocrites and my generation and following isn’t having it anymore. These answers don’t make sense to our questions if they ever did.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”
Jesus favorite prophet is Isaiah. Can you hear the echo between these two passages? Give in secret. Don’t make a display of it. Pray in secret, don’t pray like the hypocrites do with flowery words or those shouting on street corners. This is how you should pray… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgives us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Jesus goes on more and more really knocking the religious. That’d be us. We who are gathered here. During the Super Bowl there was an ad the claim that Jesus gets us. $100 million spent on that campaign. And if it gets one person to check out a community of faith or read the gospels, then I guess that’s money well spent and who am I to say how others spend their money…. Honestly, I like the message of those commercials… but then I realized that Jesus doesn’t have the problem. Even in this post-Aberrant Time where the church is in decline, Jesus’ approval rating is through the roof. Most have a great impression of Jesus. It’s the church they have a problem with. Our history of abuses of power and trust. The clergy with the $1,000 shoes and the $5,000 designer suits and private jets and false promises and bad answers.
We have to get back to basics. It’s time to smash some idols. Peter Rollins wrote the book the Idolatry of God which argues how we’re trying to sell God. An idol is a substitute for God. If you get this idol, whatever it is… then your life will be better. If you have the car, you’ll be happier. If you wear this brand of clothes, you’ll be more popular.
Sure, you can spend $500 on fancy perfume but you’ll just be a better smelling shmuck that you were before. You’ll still be the same unhappy person with a nicer, newer car after the newness wears off. The idol always falls short. You cannot buy happiness or peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness or self control. Those fruits of the spirit must be planted, grow, and ripen over time, just like a relationship. You can’t buy a relationship with God, it happens over time. This is literally the foundation of the punk movement of the Protestant Reformation: you can’t buy forgiveness, so stop it.
This Lent, let us consider that life is not a test. This is not a trial run. You are star dust who will one day return to star dust. That sounds awful, and you can view as such. You can view it as a test of faithfulness and when you die, then you get your test score and find out whether you go up or down: Good Place or Bad Place. That’s literally a whole swatch of theology in our culture.
Or…. Maybe you can view life as a gift. Here’s this gift you didn’t ask for, a story already in progress that you’ve found yourself in. And you can choose to live terrified and chasing after the false promise of idols and production and how much wealth you have at the end… or you can follow God who is still speaking through Isaiah and Jesus. That counterculture message of, “If you want change: love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly.”
This is our tradition. The Congregationalists abhorred idols. Hence the imageless stained glass. One famous preacher, Jonathan Edwards thought his congregation was too attached to their communion table. They treated it like an idol, it was special. In response, he withheld communion for a few months. And then one Sunday, the table was gone. The Rev Edwards had taken it out to the pasture and was feeding the horses from it. Then one Sunday, once the outrage died down, he dragged it in… served communion from it… and then drug it back out and fed the horses from it. It was just a table. A symbol. Nothing holy about it.
It’s the gathering that’s holy. When two or three are gathered in Jesus name. Do we have two or three here tonight? Do we? Can I get an amen from the extroverts or a show of hands from the introverts? Or a text in an hour..? Who is here for Jesus? For Justice? For less hypocrisy in our lives?
I mean, the church is full of hypocrites. They’re right about that. And there’s always room for more! This Lent, we’ll be taking things away from our worship spaces as our ancestor Jonathan Edwards did before our country was founded. It’s the gathering that’s holy. None of the objects. The fast we’ll choose is to feed the hungry. The fast we’ll choose is to loose the bounds of injustice. The fast we’ll choose is not fasting at all. We’ll meet at various places to just hang out and enjoy each other’s company because life is short. And we’re dust and to dust we shall return. But before that… we have this gift to enjoy. We have other humans we can hang out with, so that’s what we’ll do on Friday nights at 7 p.m. We’ll bowl. We’ll paint. We’ll enjoy each other’s company because the last three Lents have been extra Lenty. Think of this as a good reset. A humble way to just enjoy this life and get to know your fellow church. A list of activities is in your bulletin and will be posted on our social media and in upcoming Pilgrim Messengers and Bulletins.
As you come froward to be marked with ashes, this is performance art. This is counter-cultural. This says, “I acknowledge my mortality. And I acknowledge that I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” You gift of God! You sentient star dust! You unique and one of a kind child of God! COME! Let us smash some idols and enjoy this short life together. I’m more than certain, Jesus is gonna be there, too. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Heath, Emily C. Glorify: Reclaiming the heart of progressive Christianity. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2016.
Peterson, Cheryl M. Who is the Church? An ecclesiology for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2020.
Rendle, Gil. Quietly Courageous: Leading the church in a changing world. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
Rollins, Peter. The Idolatry of God: Breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction. Brentwood, TN: Howard Books, 2013.
Leave a Reply