"Old and New," by Rev. Kinsey
Old, and new questions. First Isaiah, and then Jesus. Times change – Questions arise anew! But, God is who God is. “I am who I am,” said God to Moses from the burning bush. “I will be who I will be.”
The people of God in Isaiah’s time, as they were returning, finally, from their Exile, were having a difficult time rebuilding their lives, their homes and their Temple. Instead of joy, there was quarreling. Their question was, why doesn’t God listen to our prayers? Why doesn’t God see our fasting and repenting? They were proficient in their liturgies and worship, with piety and prayers. Why wasn’t God taking notice?
The prophet Isaiah, speaking for God says, that this is the old question. Now you must ask a new question: what is the fast, and what is the worship God desires? In light of our quarreling, how do we, first and foremost, please God?
Isaiah also provides God’s answer: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them?”
Only when we ask the right questions, the questions that arises out of our situation, that addresses God from the place God has put us in right now, today – can we begin to discern the right answer. Old and new questions – in the context of a God who remains always sovereign and full of grace and love.
This morning, when Jon Grondahl and I went to the Berwyn EL stop with our Glitter Ashes, I didn’t know what to expect exactly. I think we were both a little nervous. And to add to that, we attracted the attention of the press, a reporter from the Tribune and two from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. I was prepared to be satisfied to offer ashes to 5 or 6 people. But it was easily ten times that many. As soon as Jon dropped me off from his car and we set up our sign, a woman walked up, and I could see on her face, the joy that was in her heart. I’m so glad you’re here, Father, she said! With my work schedule I’m not able to get to Ash Wednesday service at my church today. And after I marked her with the ashes and gave her a blessing, she said to me, God bless you! Later, a worker from one of the local shops walked over just to receive ashes, and promptly walked back down the alley and through the service entry to go right back to their job! And another young man told me, I came here all the way from my usual stop at Argyle, just to receive the Glitter Ashes. Thank you so much!
In the Lutheran church, not too many years ago, we use to ask: why Ashes? Isn’t that a Catholic practice? Most Lutherans hadn’t been including it in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Today we ask: why Glitter Ashes? Old and new questions.
The Christian organization that started Glitter Ash, Parity, is clear that today, in this moment, the need for a strong Christian witness has never been more urgent, because, in their words: “refugees [are being] turned away; Immigrants denied re-entry to the U.S., Nationalism, overt racism, and queer-[homo]phobia [are] running rampant.” And we need to find ways as Christians to speak out against these values that are clearly against our beliefs, seeking to tear apart our communities, and we need to embody the message of love and peace.
When we receive the ashes, of either kind, they are an embodiment of our faith in God, and Christ Jesus, in death and resurrection. The old question asked whether this might go against our values of humility, of being humble. But for most all of us who have learned to wear them, it has become a mark of our strong faith, our love of God, and love of one another, a sign that we are not afraid of our mortality because we believe in the hope of the resurrection. Go ahead and stare at my ashes – I’m ready to testify to who I am!
The new question: Why Glitter Ashes? might in a similar way be asking, Why do we have to specifically mark out gender and sexuality issues? Isn’t this taking away from the mark of Christ crucified? And these are the questions we must raise, to discern where God is calling us today. We may have different answers, and need to journey awhile, together, listening to each other’s questions, before we find common ground. But Isaiah and Jesus were able to have that kind of discussion, even in the holy scriptures, so I’m sure we can handle it too.
Jesus says that the old question was, How do we be seen by God in our worship? Whether it’s prayer, almsgiving, or fasting. But the new question is, How do we worship so that our heart is in the right place? “For where your treasure is,” said Jesus, “there your heart will be also.” God can see you wherever you are!
And, I guess, this is why it’s important that we make our confession tonight. Because God sees us for who we are – and as Luther said, God accepts us as we are, and where we are. God creates each and everyone of us good, but none of us are perfect. And God knows our sins already! So we confess, in order to acknowledge our own sinfulness, and in doing that, God forgives, and thereby gives us another chance, declares new life for us!
Glitter Ash is a sign of this too. God knows that the church, and its people, for far too long, sinned against those who were different, and shamed those who were of a different sexual orientation or who claim a different gender identity. God knows, but it is us who make it our confession today. Glitter Ash can provide a sign and symbol of the hope that the Church has a new opportunity to live in God’s realm and kingdom, beyond the sin and fear it has produced. And that’s why the purple Glitter Ash is irrepressible, and how, like traditional Ashes, it “loosens the bonds of injustice, lets the oppressed go free… and lets our light shine forth like the dawn,” as Isaiah said, and that “our healing shall spring up quickly.”
And so today, we confess and receive the ashes of our repentance. In our worship we confess our mortality, that God’s love shines through. In our relationships as we go, we give our lives away in service to others, that the love and mercy of Christ may take root and thrive in our communities.
In our Ashes of both kinds, we embody the journey of Christ to the cross on our bodies these 40 days, that on the other side of suffering, and the death’s we experience, is new life that is already ours, through the God who, will be who God will be, for our salvation and the life of the world!