Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for Ash Wednesday)
A little aside: Our parish has decided not to use the term “Ashes on the Go”, but “Ashes on the Way.” We feel that renaming our practice of distributing ashes to people on the street focuses on Jesus as the Way, rather than the hurried, grab a little religion and go back to our secular world. I offer this in the hope that maybe others will use “Ashes on the Way.”
Gossip: According to the OED, “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true.” Ironically the origin of the word is from the Late Old English Godsibb or Godparent. If you can’t trust your baptismal sponsor, who can you trust? But that is not what gossip has come to mean. And mean it can be. I have lived through the tearing apart of a parish by gossip. It can destroy vocation, lives, self-confidence, and from what we have seen of cyber bullying, can cost lives.
Casual gossip amongst friends seems harmless enough as the local news cycle. It can be useful, knowing who needs help, who is in a relationship. It only takes one or two with an unclean spirit. People who need to be in the know. For power over others. To assure the success of their agenda. Or for the sheer joy of making trouble, stirring the water, exaggerating, or just lying, feeding on the energy of discontent.
Ash Wednesday is just two days away, and both the suffering of the Passion and the fulfillment of God’s salvation are going to grab us and drag us through a blessed time of self reflection, discernment, and maybe even conversion, with God’s help. And the trial and execution of Jesus is in large part about gossip, or, as we now say, spin, fueling the interests of the powerful. About fear of change. About people protecting what they thought was right. About hurling hurtful words. About forgetting compassion, mercy. Yes, it was all in God’s plan, but God didn’t have to stir dissatisfaction, discord, and political power ploys. Fulfillment of the prophesy that the Messiah will be reviled comes with unredeemed human nature. That same tendency to gossip unto death is with us still.
Last Monday we read a section of John 7, which stuck with me. The chapter begins with a curious back and forth between Jesus and his brothers. He refuses to go to the Temple for the Festival of the Booths, but later goes by himself. His teaching brings chaos among the onlookers. John 7:12 explicitly describes the two factions. “He is a good man.” “He deceives the people.” That last is picked up by some “learned” leaders (7:47-49) adding to the charge of deceiver that the ignorant mob can’t possibly understand the law and a curse is on them. That is the party line. What good can come from Galilee? Doesn’t the Messiah have to come from Bethlehem, the city of David? If they had asked, “Hey, Jesus ben Joseph, where were you born?” that would have been settled. But this is not about group counseling. It about mob mentality.
The people are being manipulated with slogans and accusatory language. Did you know he is from Galilee? He is from the wrong side of the tracks. He is from the South Chicago. He is one of those people. Don’t listen to him. Jesus is preaching some pretty confusing things, about water which will quench all thirst, about going to a place where nobody can follow, about his Father. Few listen to him. Fewer are willing to ask questions, to be taught, even if in the Spirit it wasn’t time for them to hear. The critical exchange happens when Nicodemus, a Pharisee and disciple of Jesus, makes the correct legal argument that Jesus has the right to counsel and a trial, if he is to be accused. Nicodemus is turned on and mocked. Are you from Galilee, too?
Isn’t this just how it starts in our parish halls, in the narthex, at meetings? Did you hear what he said? Where do you think she goes on her weekends? Little slights. And the excitement of the crowd. Who agrees? Who adds a bit spun out of air, but gets knowing smiles? A surge of energy. It has spilled over into our national politics, where lies and innuendo, plots to discredit, false accusations have taken the place of civil, and Godly, discourse. This is not what Jesus teaches. This is not acceptable to God.
What John is teaching is that without the Holy Spirit even a community of faith under the Law can’t be bound into one Body of compassion, love, patience. Without hearing the Spirit, even for those bound in Baptism, the worst of human nature can overtake us. Lent is about repentance, not turning from the world so much as transforming it. Lent is about listening to Scripture, to the Spirit, to Christ, and obeying what we hear. Living as a member of the Body of Christ is not easy. Without the willingness to allow the Spirit to unite us, we are not a holy and righteous people. We are the mob who called for Jesus’ death. Are we still killing him, he who willingly loves us and forgives us? We need to turn, to repent. Lent is coming. Perhaps we should think about how we love our neighbor as ourselves. I’m going to let Paul have the last word.
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God, with weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left (2 Cor 5:20b-6:7, from the Epistle for Ash Wednesday)
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.