First Sunday of Lent (March 5, 2017)

This morning, I’d like us to use our imaginations. Imagine that you just met your brand new next-door neighbors. They seem like very nice people. After some time passes, they invite you to attend their church. You have never heard of their religion; it is something new: they worship on a different day. You feel honored at their invitation - and you are a bit curious - so you decide to go with them.

The people in the gathering space are as friendly as your neighbors. Then you enter the worship space. You are shocked. The center of focus is an electric chair. You feel like bolting for the door. What kind of bizarre cult is this?

Yet, you hesitate - suspended between disgust and curiosity. The people do not seem weird at all - actually, very nice - even loving. A helpful “parishioner” hands you a piece of paper, an explanation of the group’s belief. You read that the center of belief and worship is a man who was strapped to the chair and killed through the machinations of a political and a social system that saw this man as a threat to their lives of privilege and power.

After his death, his followers discovered that when they gathered together, this man was present in spirit, pouring out his wisdom and his love into their lives. It dawns on you that this monstrous device of death has been transformed into something very different from its common meaning - it is a point of veneration and inspiration.

Instead of “success” in the world - the lifestyle of the rich and famous, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, villas and buff bodies - the electric chair is the symbol of life’s meaning.

In imagining yourself walking into a worship space and seeing the electric chair as the focal point, you are replicating the experience of a first century Jew or Gentile entering a Christian place of worship - where the cross - a hated, disgraceful and terrifying symbol of death stands as the focal point.

I think we have gotten so used to the symbol of the cross that it loses its meaning. Today, it gets decorated with jewels; it hangs around rock musicians’ and wannabees’ necks, another artifact like an earing or a nose ring. We walk into church - and hardly notice it.

We have lost the ability to understand its shock value, what it cost Jesus to die on the cross - a n d - the demands which the cross makes on those who .

Say they are followers of Jesus.

On Ash Wednesday, the Christian faithful around the world lift their faces to be signed with ashes. This sign is meant to remind us both of our mortality and of a radically new way of living. When we make the sign of the cross, we remind ourselves and proclaim that we are willing to die to self and are willing to be countercultural.

During lent, we watch what goes into our mouths. We fast. We abstain from meat on Fridays. We easily forget what Jesus said: what comes out of our mouths is more important than what goes into our mouths.

This year I would like us to consider fasting from what comes out of our mouths in three ways:

First, fasting from unbecoming language . The air around us is full of it. F-bombs are commonplace. Foul language comes out not only from the mouths of Howard Stern and Jerry Springer, but presidents and CEO’s and a lot of otherwise “nice” people.

I like the story of the college kid brought home by his roommate for a home cooked dinner ... Spilled water - string of words - silence - grandma: “You eat with that mouth?” Whether young or old or in between, we may need to clean our teeth, so to speak; we are one of the gang: Jesus’ gang.’’ Let’s not sound like another gang.

Second, fasting from judgments that spill easily out of our mouths. We would do well to make zero judgments about the motives of others, their goodness or badness, their shortfalls, their jobs. This may be hard to do every day, so we might make this special effort on Fridays, when Jesus remained silent before Pilate and died for us.

Finally, fasting from negatives that so readily come from our mouths. Put-downs, clever remarks that hurt, sarcasm, negative criticism. If it’s too much of a challenge, perhaps we could work on that on Wednesdays, the day Judas is said to have betrayed Jesus with the negative words that came from his mouth.

Cleaning up our mouths makes room for positive words, for encouraging words we all need to hear, and for the prayer-word we need to speak to our lord. This is not easy because we so often do not really listen to ourselves.

Like grandma in our story we can ask ourselves: “I eat with this mouth?” More to the point - “we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus with this mouth?”