Reveille United Methodist Church
Ash Wednesday – February 26, 2020
I would like to begin by sharing with you a reading from Nick Hornby’s 2002 novel About A Boy, which tells the story of a middle-schooler named Marcus. Marcus’s parents are divorced, and his father is largely out of the picture. His mother, who suffers from severe depression, has just moved the two of them from Cambridge to London, and Marcus is having a terrible time, both fitting in with his classmates and bearing the burden of his mother’s mental health. Marcus is eventually befriended and mentored by Will, who begins the story as a shallow, materialistic man who has never worked a day in his life thanks to a trust fund he has inherited. The following reading is found in chapter one.
He got to school early, went to the form room, sat down at his desk. He was safe enough there. The kids who had given him a hard time yesterday were probably not the sort to arrive at school first thing; they’d be off somewhere smoking and taking drugs and raping people, he thought darkly. There were a couple of girls in the room, but they ignored him, unless the snort of laughter he heard while he was getting his reading book out had anything to do with him.
What was there to laugh at? Not much, really, unless you are the kind of person who is on permanent lookout for something to laugh at. Unfortunately, that was exactly the kind of person most kids were, in his experience. They patrolled up and down school corridors like sharks, except that what they were on the lookout for wasn’t flesh but the wrong trousers, or the wrong haircut, or the wrong sneakers, any or all of which sent them wild with excitement. As he was usually wearing the wrong sneakers or the wrong trousers, and his haircut was wrong all the time, every day of the week, he didn’t have do much to send them all demented.
Marcus knew he was weird, and he knew that part of the reason he was weird was because his mom was weird. She just didn’t get this, any of it. She was always telling him that only shallow people made judgments on the basis of clothes or hair; she didn’t want him to watch rubbish television, or listen to rubbish music, or play rubbish computer games (she thought they were all rubbish), which meant that if he wanted to do anything that any of the other kids spent their time doing he had to argue with her for hours. He usually lost, and she was so good at arguing that he felt good about losing. She could explain why listening to Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley (who happen to be her two favorite singers) was much better for him than listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg, and why it was more important to read books than to play on the GameBoy his dad had given him. But he couldn’t pass any of this on to the boys at school. If you try to tell Lee Hartley the biggest and loudest and nastiest of the kids he had met yesterday that he didn’t approve of Snoop Doggy Dogg because Snoop Doggy Dogg had a bad attitude to women, Lee Hartley would thump him, or call him something that he didn’t want to be called. It wasn’t so bad in Cambridge, because there were loads of kids who weren’t right for school, and loads of moms who made them that way, but in London it was different. The kids were harder and meaner and less understanding, and it seemed to him that if his mom had made him change schools just because she had it found a better job, then she should at least have the decency to stop all that let’s-talk-about-this-stuff.
He was quite happy at home, listening to Joni Mitchell and reading books, but it didn’t do him any good at school. It was funny, because most people would probably think the opposite that reading books at home was bound to help, but it didn’t: it made him different, and because he was different he felt uncomfortable, because he felt uncomfortable he could feel himself floating away from everyone and everything, kids and teachers and lessons.
It is not easy to not fit in.
It is something every child Marcus’s age knows all too well. And yet, I do not believe that not fitting in gets any easier as we grow older. It is just that as we age, the fitting in, the blending becomes easier with age. That is, until something changes. We start a new job, we move to a new city, somehow the people around us change, and then, if only for a little while, we are back in middle school, trying to just fit, trying to catch the references and the inside jokes, trying to matter, trying to belong.
It may be said that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but most of the time, it is exactly what we want.
This has happened to me each time I have moved to a new pastoral appointment. When I moved to Newport News after seminary, I was the guy who was not exactly sure what the difference between an enlisted person and a commissioned person in the military. When I moved to Prince George, I was the weird vegetarian from the suburbs who did not know what “bunko” was and why one did not schedule church events on the community’s “Bunko Night.” When I moved to Crozet, people kept referring to this mystical section of Charlottesville called “Pantops” about which I had never heard. Even moving back to Richmond, my hometown, was not without its challenges. When I was a child, we never used the terms “Museum District,” “Scotts’ Addition,” or “Rocket’s Landing.”
In fact, I actually had to Google where Salisbury is, but then again, I am from north of the river, which explains so much about me.
In the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, the prophet for whom the book is named finds himself having to explain to God that the people no longer wish for God to be their leader: “Give us a king,” they say, “so that we might be like the other nations; so that we might be like everybody else.”
All of which brings me to today’s Ash Wednesday text, replete with its list of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.” Clearly, in this text, Paul is not describing a world in which Christ followers would describe their land as a “Christian nation.” Paul does not, and likely could not imagine a world where the emperor professed faith in Christ, and he certainly is not equating Christian discipleship with some kind of privileged status that affords one the opportunity to most easily fit into the prevailing culture and assimilate with the crowd.
In other words, Paul does not conceive of the world that used to be in our land, where the church received a helpful propping-up from the schools, blue laws, media, the culture around us, and an (ultimately false) historical narrative that it was ultimately Christian principles that shaped the identity of our nation.
And now today, Christians find ourselves feeling more than a bit like Marcus in About A Boy, just wishing that we had never moved to London, that we had remained in the old promised land of Cambridge, where we fit in and where our lives were so much easier than they are today.
The way I have witnessed people react to this new landscape in our land has been by emoting great fear, great grief, and great anger. What is worse, for so many of us is the dawning reality is that this is not but a mere temporary historical shift. This is how things are and how they will continue to be. If we are really, truly honest with ourselves, deep down, we know this to be true. A couple of years ago, I am told that I made someone absolutely furious with me because I said in a sermon what I am about to say again now, so furious that this person spoke loudly enough for the rest of the sermon that others could hear it.
Here is what I said: “This is our new reality. It is here to stay, and we are not going to vote, legislate, or ‘Merry Christmas’ our way out of it.”
I’ll give you a chance to catch your breath before I say what is next.
Here goes: this is all good news. It really is, even with the afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger that may await us. I believe that what it all boils down to is that when we pine for a time where there was a more prevalent “Christian culture,” what we are really saying is that we pine for a time when Christian discipleship was easier, when the cross Christ calls each of us to take up was lighter than it is today. We pine for a time when it was much easier to fit in. We pine for our own personal Cambridge when we know that our God has sent us to London.
After John F. Kennedy, Jr. died one foggy night in 1999 when the plane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the crash was caused by what is called “spatial disorientation.” When spatial disorientation occurs, the pilot becomes convinced that what their instruments are telling them is incorrect, even when the pilot is flying in a downward spiral, because how they are currently flying “feels” right. This can easily happen when the pilot cannot see a distinct visual horizon, as was the case on the night Kennedy crashed. It is why pilots who do not have an instrument rating cannot fly in these conditions.
When I consider today’s text and how it assumes that it is a given that following Christ is inherently difficult, unpopular, and countercultural, and when I consider for how long it was the case in the West that the opposite was true, I wonder if what is happening today is that we are coming out of our spatial disorientation. For so long, it was so easy to believe that our flight path was straight and true and that all of our scriptural instruments giving us data to the contrary were just wrong.
And now those days are over. Christian people like us and Christian churches like ours are learning that for so long, we have not been on a level path. We have been losing altitude for longer than we thought. The ground is coming at us quickly. It turns out, the instruments are indeed correct, and we may have just discovered this in time to save our very lives.
You see, our spatial disorientation enabled us to so easily outsource what it means to be the church to the prevailing culture. It enabled us to entrust disciplines of our faith to the legislature who brought us things like the blue laws or prayer in schools. Worst of all, and perhaps most dangerously, it enabled the church to think that church membership and Christian discipleship are the same thing.
They are not.
Last autumn, I was speaking to the Rev Kendra Grimes, the chaplain at Randolph-Macon College about college life and gap years and all that it takes for young people to succeed in these important years of their young lives. As we spoke, Kendra said to me, “When you are a college student, it is all about finding your people, your tribe. Most often, once kids do this, they are OK.”
Perhaps this is why, throughout his life, Christ was always gathering people into community. Perhaps it was because he knows that this way of life, this way of the cross, is not an easy way to live. Perhaps it was never meant to be. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he tells us that we can gain the whole world while losing our souls.
Perhaps he gathers us into community so that we, the misfits, the people who do not seem to quite fit in, the outcasts, the countercultural, and the weird need each other so that we don’t have to tread the way of the cross alone. In a world so fraught with individualism, unity and togetherness are themselves acts of great rebellion that will serve to continue to draw attention to our inherent differentness, with us knowing that while we may be different, we are never alone.
Paul writes “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see–we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Friends, these are the instruments we need to be paying attention to, the ones that remind us, although everything we are doing may seem so right because we seem to be fitting in, Christ is calling to something different, something greater, but something different. And in the midst of this calling to be distinctive, Christ is providing us with sisters and brothers to face this world with us. It is why what may be the most important word in today’s reading, one Paul uses eight times, is “we.”
So, this is why God gives us Lent. It is a time to renew, to recalibrate, to check the instruments on those days when we cannot see the horizon. It is a call to be set apart from this world for the purposes of holiness. For it is who we are: we are different, distinct, set apart, resident aliens in a land that is not our ultimate home. As much as we would, on some days, just be like everyone else, to do what everyone else is doing, live by those easier rules, and carry that balsa wood cross, we are disciples of Jesus Christ, called to be different and countercultural and occasionally weird. We are Shrove Tuesday people in a Mardi Gras world, having nothing, possessing everything, and on this Ash Wednesday as it is every day, it is the best hope for the world.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.