the road

faith, jesus, and a conversation on the road

Month: February, 2015

in defense of #AshTag

As with many new innovations or practices in the church, the practices of #AshTag (wherein those who have received ashes take to social media to post a selfie of their ash-crossed foreheads) and Ashes to Go has created a fair amount of dissent and discouragement about the direction of the church on this, a very holy day. Now, I do believe that those who stand in objection to either of these practices is doing so not out of spite but out of a deep sense of commitment to the intense reality that lies at the heart of Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is not a day of celebration, rather it forces us to look at our own mortality and seek penitence for our sins. The phrase “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” stands as the stark reminder that today, of all days, is our day to reflect on the fragility of our lives, and begin the journey of lent that culminates in a tomb.

However, it is clear to me, that when done right, #AshTag and Ashes to Go do not stand in contrast to this message. Nor is this message lost when we take it to the streets.

Concern about these practices is often tied into the Gospel lesson for the day, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. Particularly the verses: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”(Matt 6:1) and “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Matt 6:5) When taken on a surface level, it is clear that these two verses show that our practice of proclaiming our ashes goes against the very Gospel message that we hear today. But, that is the danger when we use verses out of context to prove a point. These verses come out of a much larger sermon by Jesus that encompasses all of Matthew chapters 5-7. From this same message where we receive the preceding two verses, comes this famous line: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”(Matt 7:7-8) This is the point of #AshTag and Ashes to Go. This is why the practice needs to continue.

When we practice #AshTag and Ashes to Go we are not promoting an act that is being commodified by popular culture, rather we are acting in the same vein of the Gospel message. When Jesus directed to pray in private, he was doing so because it was counter-cultural. The most important people of the day, the “cool kids,” were those whom Jesus labeled hypocrites. They did all of these things as a show to prove they were holier than thou. We as Episcopalians should be encouraging #AshTag and Ashes to Go because this act is also counter-cultural. Ask any high schooler if church is considered “cool” and 9 out of 10 times the answer will be no. But, with #AshTag and Ashes to Go we are giving them a sense that church is something not only to participate in, but to be proud of their participation in. We are giving them ownership of their faith.

And that’s what it really boils down to, ownership. Ownership of one’s faith has been lost by many people today. The same was true of Jesus’ time as faith had been taken over by spectacle. Today, faith has been taken over by apathy. #AshTag and Ashes to Go stand against this apathy. They attempt to push back against the cultural climate of the day by making a public spectacle of faith, because without it, people lose sense of where they need to go to seek, knock, and find.

Lastly, in terms of remembering our mortality, it is true that this solemn sense can be lost. But, when we close rank and file and fail to spread a simple reminder to others that today is Ash Wednesday, we will not be able to spread the message that lies at the heart of today. It is hard to preach a message to empty pews, and while some attempts to bring people in may be ill-advised, they are nonetheless attempts at spreading that solemn message to as many as possible. Ashes to Go does not serve as a substitute for Ash Wednesday services, but those who seek it out were never going to come in the doors in the first place, so why do we deny them an opportunity to be reminded of their mortality, however briefly. The #AshTag is not a symbol of personal piety but rather a friendly reminder that today is Ash Wednesday, and you still have plenty of time to find a service.

a senior sermon on the feast day of blessed absalom jones

Reconciliation is not just about the act of being made whole, either individually or communally, but necessarily includes the process of: conversion (that is, the acceptance that we need reconciliation), confession (in which we are actively seeking reconciliation), and celebration (that joyous awareness that we are made one, again), that we can experience when we enter into this act with one another and with God. Reconciliation becomes an expression of love between you, me, and God.

Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This simple phrase, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own actions soon to come, needs to stick with us. We are servants of a God that is willing to lay down the life of his Son for us. Better yet, we are considered friends of our God, because we are given the knowledge that when we go out into ministry we are not fighting a battle with an unknown outcome, rather we are fighting from a place of victory. The experiences we have when we practice reconciliation serves as a very real reminder of this victory. Through conversion, confession, and celebration, we lift up this victory as the grounding point for our faith. We become the embodiment of Christ’s work in this world, and the power of our experience of reconciliation drives us to spread the gospel message.

However, I know I for one need to be reminded of the necessity of reconciliation. It is simply too easy for me to get caught up in the crap that seems to permeate our everyday lives. I find that it’s much easier to double-down on resentment, judgment, and apathy, to send out that snarky tweet or pithy facebook comment. I find that apathy enables me to tune out, rather than experience my emotions when injustice presents itself, because we are so constantly inundated with pictures, videos, blog posts, and more, day-in and day-out, without a chance to catch our breath as we move from opinion to opinion.

And, often this constant deluge comes from other Christian voices, creating further apathy and leaving me with the question, what is their purpose? Are they adding anything new to the conversation, or do they need to create something with a perceived impact just to build their own media brand?

But, I cannot use this built-up apathy as an excuse. I cannot tune out when my call to a Christian life demands that I not only pay attention, but actively stand up and bring light to the injustices of this world, to seek reconciliation between myself, with and for others, and with God. Absalom Jones serves for me as a reminder today, a reminder about what it looks like when someone tunes in and not only opens the eyes that are blind, but knows that through the expression of God’s power and love, the world will necessarily be a better place.

Absalom’s tenacity and fervor for the Word of God and belief that the Word should be equally accessible to all people drove him in his ministry. On January 1, 1808, a date that marked the end of the African Slave Trade according to (delayed) Congressional action, Absalom stood before his congregation and delivered his “Thanksgiving Sermon.” There is a clear hope and optimism to Absalom’s words. Absalom sees the ending of the African slave trade as a clear example of God hearing the cries of his people and coming down among them to sway those in power to release these bonds. Absalom prays at the end of his sermon for the God of Peace to “grant, that this highly favoured country may continue to afford a safe and peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery, for ages yet to come.”

Recent events would seem to point that this country is a long ways away from the optimism that Absalom held 200 hundred years ago. But, Absalom had this optimism because he believed in the power of reconciliation through God. We as Christians need to champion this optimism once again. In order to have a faithful conversation about the very real violence and persecution experienced by black men, we must enter into the process of reconciliation. When we own again our identity as Christian, we can raise with a loud voice the simple fact that no one man can speak on behalf of all Christians or on behalf of all others in any belief system, and in doing so, we begin that process of reconciliation to heal the wounds of those who have been pushed away.

We hope to open a door for conversation that is not based on false dichotomies of “us vs. them” but conversation instead built upon the sense that to experience reconciliation we must acknowledge those times when we ourselves, we as the Christian Church, we as God’s creation, have not faithfully answered the call of reconciling love and true freedom. When we embrace the optimism of Absalom Jones, we embrace a call to conversion, confession, and celebration. When we embrace the optimism of Absalom Jones, we are embracing the reality that reconciliation is the tool we have been given through which we can experience the fullness of God’s love. And, it is up to us to insure that this tool is used.

Amen.