Monday, March 17, 2014

Sermon: “Have You Been Saved?” - A Lutheran Response

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, PhD
March 16, 2014
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
Texts: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

"Have you been saved?  Are you born again?" 

Has anyone ever asked you that question?

It’s not a question you’ll often hear in a Lutheran church.  It’s not a Lutheran question.  But it is a question that you’ll hear in other churches and denominations.  "Have you been saved?  Are you born again?  Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

I bring this up this morning because questions such as these are derived in large part from the reading we have today in the Gospel of John.  John 3:16 is probably the most often-quoted verse of scripture regarding Christianity.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that all those who believe in him would not perish, but would have eternal life."

This verse comes toward the end of a discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus, a leader within the Jewish community.  And there are other verses in that passage that are important for the theological understanding of these churches.  There is the idea of being "born again" or "born from on high," and the notion of being born "of water and the Spirit."

You may not have been asked these kinds of questions before.  But I know of many people who have.  And they’re never quite sure how to answer them.  This can be a point of contention between Christians who have different understandings of this text and the issue of salvation, particularly in certain churches.  In some churches, the question of whether a person has been saved and born again is a central part of their theology.

I know people who attend these churches.  Members of my extended family attend these churches.  And I’ve asked them, "What is the motivation behind these kinds of questions?"  They’ve explained to me that in these churches there is a particular emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God and Jesus.  And if you interpret this text from John and other particular passages in the Bible in a certain way, it would seem to indicate that all those who do not believe in Jesus will perish, will go to hell.  So there is genuine concern on the part of these people for the soul of another person.

The difficulty, however, comes when we try to measure or find evidence of a person’s faith.  In these churches there are certain practices and rituals designed to give evidence of this inward faith in an outward way.  There are certain words you have to say and prayers you must utter. You must make public profession of your belief in Jesus and participate in what’s known as the "believer’s baptism."

What becomes problematic, however, is when these questions and practices are used to draw a circle around one group of people over and against another.  Those people within the circle who do what the church says is necessary are "saved."  Those on the outside are not saved.  What can result is a sort of spiritual superiority, the belief that one group is better than another.  It’s all about me getting saved and me getting others saved, and bringing people to Christ, as if God is keeping score and adding gold stars to your heavenly bank account.  But drawing these kinds of lines can actually lead to divisions among people, discrimination, and even violence in extreme cases.

Lutherans are uncomfortable with these kinds of questions and practices because they remind us of another time in history when certain religious leaders put forth a set of requirements for people to be acceptable to the church and to God.  Anyone who has been through Confirmation class will probably remember these words:  "As soon as the coin in the money box rings, another soul from purgatory springs."  What was the practice of the church that Luther protested against?  Yes, indulgences.

Luther said that no church can dictate what is required of a person in order to be accepted by God.  No one can earn their way into God’s grace through their works, whether that work is making the personal decision to declare Jesus as your Lord and Savior, or whether it’s giving millions of dollars to charity.  Grace is a gift, a promise from God.  And Luther based this on his reading of the Bible, particularly the passage we had in our second lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “To one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness . . . for this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” (Romans 4:5, 16) There it is – grace, faith, trust.  Those are the key words that Luther wanted to emphasize.

Christians who hold personal salvation as a defining theological issue would say, "Yes, of course it depends on faith.  But you have to demonstrate that you have this faith.  God is trying to give you a gift, but if you’re not willing to make the choice for Jesus, then you will go to hell."  

That, my friends, is what we might call "spiritual indulgences." And it doesn’t really make sense, does it?  Any more than a parent saying to a child, “You must make the decision to accept me as your parent.  I love you, but if you don’t declare your love for me, I’m kicking you out of the family.  Love me, or I’ll kill you.”  Love me, or go to hell. Is that really the kind of God we believe in?

Luther said that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace or salvation.  Faith is created in you by the promise itself.  The promise of God creates trust in you toward God.  Not the other way around. 

And that’s all fine and good.  But there is, of course, another question: "What about those people who aren’t coming to church?  What about those people who are not baptized?  What about those who do not believe in Jesus?"  I’ve had people in my office over the years who have asked, "What about my grandchild?  My son/daughter refuses to bring them to church to be baptized."  "What about my spouse who will not come to church with me, no matter how many times I ask?"  And we could expand the question even further.  What about the Jews who do not believe in Jesus?  What about the Hindus and Buddhists?  What about the Muslims?  What’s going to happen to them?

Now that is a Lutheran question.  And it’s a good question.  And in order for us to deal with that question, we need to go back to the man who led us to that question in the first place.  We need to go back to Nicodemus. 

Nicodemus, as I mentioned earlier, was a leader among the Jewish people.  He was well-respected and powerful.  He knew the Jewish law and followed it religiously.  But he saw Jesus.  He heard his preaching and teaching.  He saw Jesus reaching out to people across all lines of gender, race, culture, age, and religion, healing them, casting out their demons, performing miracles for them.  And something within Nicodemus was moved.  Perhaps he looked at his own religious system and saw the way a circle was drawn around a certain group of people, and the ones inside that circle were deemed acceptable to God, and the ones outside that circle were not, and were treated accordingly.  And maybe Nicodemus began to feel uncomfortable with this. 

In any case, he sought out Jesus.  His first words were not a question, but an observation.  "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2)  He simply acknowledges what he had observed about Jesus.  Then there is a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Jesus is talking in very abstract terms, Nicodemus is thinking in very concrete terms.  They discuss this idea of being "born from on high."  Jesus tries to expand Nicodemus’ thinking about what it means to be part of God’s kingdom.  Then he says, "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit."

Now some Christians would say that this means baptism.  But scholars point to another interpretation.  Being born of water is what happens with all human beings.  We’re all born of water - we all come through amniotic fluid.  But Jesus is saying that something happens within a person’s soul - there is a movement of the Spirit that gives birth to something new.  And this Spirit is like the wind - it surrounds all of us.  Each person has this Spirit.  We all breathe air.  And this Spirit moves like the air around us and through us.  We don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.  But we know it when we feel it.  And this movement of the Spirit is what gives birth to this newness inside of each person.

Now when Nicodemus hears this, he does not fall on his knees and declare Jesus to be his personal savior.  He does not ask to be baptized.  In fact, we don’t hear from Nicodemus again until the trial of Jesus before his crucifixion.  Nicodemus is the only one who takes a stand against his fellow religious leaders and says, "Wait a minute.  We can’t convict a person without any evidence.  This is wrong.  We can’t do this."  He is, of course, overruled.  But he did the right thing.

And the last time we see Nicodemus is after the crucifixion when he and Joseph of Arimethea take Jesus’ body, tenderly care for him, and gently lay him in the tomb.  There is no public profession of his faith.  There is no baptism.  But I daresay that the Spirit was moving within Nicodemus.  God’s promise did something to Nicodemus.  And that was enough.

Is it enough for us?  Is it enough for us to trust God’s promise to be working within people’s souls, blowing them in the direction the Spirit is guiding them?  

Can we look at each person who is not within our circle of belief and say, I trust that God is working on them, even if I can’t see what’s going on. 

I’ll give you an example of a modern-day Nicodemus.  A pastor friend of mine once told me about a woman who started going to her church.  The woman did not believe in God.  But her partner did, and attended this pastor’s church.  The woman came with her partner to the church sometimes.   One day this pastor came to the hospital to pray with the partner before surgery, and the woman was there.  A few days later, the pastor received a letter from the woman.  The letter began, "I used to be a happy atheist.  Now I am a miserable atheist.  I could kick you." 

She went on to recount her life’s journey.  Like Nicodemus, she was a respected member of her religious community.  She was a member of a church that interpreted the Bible literally and emphasized personal salvation.  Her father was a pastor.  She attended a Bible college.  She was intent on being a missionary.  But a series of events happened to her that put her outside the circle.  First, she realized that she was a lesbian.  That immediately ousted her from the church’s circle.  Then in college she was gang-raped by four men.  And that pushed her outside the spiritual circle.  She could no longer believe in God.  To her it was all just a fairy tale.  It was not true for her anymore.

But one thing led to another, and her partner convinced her to attend this pastor’s church.  And when the pastor went to pray with them before the surgery, the woman said in her letter, "For the first time I encountered a Christian who knew what she believed and why she believed it.  A Christian who was totally grounded in her faith, but was non-judgmental toward me.  A Christian who was compassionate, and willing to accept me as I was.  I don’t know where this came from or where this is going, but I know I need to start seeking again.  I can feel my spirit struggling against my mind."  You see, the Spirit was moving within her.  And, I daresay, that is enough.

Here’s the thing: we just don’t know what a person has been through in their life and their faith.  We don’t know their struggles.  And we cannot stand in judgment of them. But we trust that God is working on them, even when all evidence points to the contrary.  And no matter what others may say about a person or what we think about them, we can treat them with respect and honor them in Jesus’ name.

So if you encounter this question, "Have you been saved?" remember the text from Ephesians 4:2, "For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And it is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." There is no secret formula, no magical words to say, no one thing you can do to achieve salvation.  Baptism is not some kind of potion that grants you entrance into heaven.  It is simply God’s gift to you – a tangible sign of God’s love that creates faith and trust in you.

When someone asks you if you’ve been saved, simply respond, "I am a child of God and I have faith in God.  So you’ll have to ask God that question."

And if we find ourselves questioning the eternal salvation of those people on the outside of our circle, maybe we can remember to be compassionate toward them.  They may be a Nicodemus and we don’t even know it.

Maybe this church is one place where we can say, "You know, if the Spirit is moving you to come here, then we welcome you.  And if the Spirit is blowing you in another direction, God bless you on your journey." 
It’s enough for us to trust God’s promise to be working within each individual, no matter what their gender, their skin color, or their religion.  Instead of obsessing about the status of our eternal salvation, we can relax into God’s promise, be free of that worry, and concentrate on what Jesus has asked us to do in this life – serve others, advocate for justice, and be generous and compassionate towards all.  Because the Spirit is, indeed, blowing through the soul of every person. 

And we can trust that, by the grace of God, that is enough.  


Monday, March 10, 2014

Screenless Sundays – A Lenten Discipline

Entry #1
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
March 10, 2014

This year for Lent our family decided to give up screens each Sunday.  Well, I decided.  Having a pastor as one’s wife and mother means the family is subjected to any manner of spiritual disciplines.  One Lent we gave up cable television.  This year we are eschewing all manner of screens on Sundays – a kind of media Sabbath.  

When I first proposed the idea to my husband and two elementary-age children while we were still two weeks away from the 40-day period of fasting and preparation for Holy Week, there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  A whole day without television?  Without Minecraft?  Without movies?  Without mind-numbing video games?  Without endless advertisements?

But what will we DO?!? We’ll be so bored!, they protested.  I promised we would do fun things.  Play board games, listen to music, do puzzles, take walks, read books.  The sour looks on their faces were telling.  But then my daughter asked, “Does this mean you don’t get to use your computer on Sundays either?” 

Yes, the screenless Sundays apply to me, too.  “No texting? No email? No church work after you come home?” Their eyes were wide with the delicious thought of the media-exile being imposed on their mother.  “Yep,” I replied.  “No screens for me either.”  Okay, we’re all in!
We actually did a trial run last week on Transfiguration Sunday.  There were, of course, periods of boredom.  But we were challenged to find creative things to do with each other.  I came home from church to find my daughter had pulled out her Easy-Bake kit and had made a wonderful pink, floury mess of the kitchen.  My son, usually a bundle of energy, was actually lying on his bed just listening to music.  They made sure my phone was tucked away and the computer stayed in the bag the rest of the afternoon and evening.  We spent the day alternating between cooking together, doing puzzles, doing piano lessons, and playing “make me laugh.”  The highlight of the day was making chocolate chai pudding, popping popcorn, and playing an intense round of the board game Clue. 

At tuck-in time, each child expressed pleasant surprise that the day had not been so bad, and that they actually enjoyed the screen-free time.

Yesterday we took a deep breath and once again plunged into the day sans screens.  I came home from church to find my son playing along to music in the basement with his father’s drums, just as his daddy had done as a boy for hours on end.  My daughter engaged in an art project, making a cut-out of a church with intricate stained glass windows.  
She suggested that we take a walk across the bridge that spanned the Susquehanna River between our town of Milton and West Milton on the other side.  We’ve lived here almost three years and have never done this.
So she and I drove down to the river and parked the car.  The air was chilly with a wind whipping up from the water, but we had dressed warmly enough and didn’t mind.  The day was bright and cheery and the water flowed ice-free below us for the first time in weeks.  She was tickled to be able to touch the top of a tree from the bridge as we crossed over the island of Milton State Park.  We have walked the pathways and trails there many times, but to see it all from above gave us a new perspective. 

I drive across this bridge every day and always appreciate the beautiful view.  But taking it in at a walking pace was stunning.  I realized that the “screen” of my car windows as I sped by every day had kept me from appreciating the details of the river.  From this vantage point, without the windshield glass and slowed to an ambler’s speed, we could see straight down into the clear water, watching the dots of foam roll down with the current.  We could see shells and rocks, and remind ourselves how much we would enjoy dipping our feet into the water when the warmer months arrived.
We observed the flow of the water running brown into the river from the creek that runs through Milton.  I reminded her that this is the creek that runs by her school, where we fish for minnows and crayfish in warmer weather.  She began to understand the connection between these two interconnecting flows of water in a new way.  We both agreed that her idea of taking this walk was one we should repeat often.  And we have Screenless Sundays to thank for that. 

Later, after learning some basketball moves from his father in the driveway, my son also asked for some alone-time with Mommy to walk the road that runs along our house.  He took great pleasure in finding stones to lob into the snowy-muddy fields, calmly waiting for the sun’s warmth and the farmer’s plow.  
We watched the sun glow a soft yellow-orange as it nestled in the grey western clouds.

After piano lessons and reading time, our day ended with cheese melted on Triscuits and another board game.  The self-imposed discipline of Screenless Sundays no longer felt like something to be endured.   They are already thinking up ways to spend our newfound abundance of time next week.


Sermon on Temptation

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
First Sunday in Lent; March 9, 2014

Our cars pulled into the gravel parking lot facing the brick building across the street.  All around us were signs of a city that had fallen on hard times.  Buildings with shattered, darkened windows like black eyes looking out on a desolate, concrete world. Candy wrappers, Dorito bags, and all kinds of discarded trash skittered along the sidewalk whenever a car sped by.  We hurried across the street and into the building – City Team Ministries in Chester, PA, just south of Philadelphia. 
Seven confirmation students, a few parents and I were there to learn about the work of this Christian-based haven for homeless and drug-addicted men.  Every evening City Team opens its doors to the community and serves a meal cooked up by the men with the assistance of volunteers from local churches.  The church I served at that time sent volunteers every fourth Monday of the month to conduct the worship service that preceded the meal, and to help serve those who came in need of good, hot food, a safe place to gather, and clothes or shoes for themselves and their families.  Once a year I would bring the Confirmation students and their parents to this place to help with the service and meal, tour the facility, and hear first-hand from men who battled the demons and temptations of addiction.

After serving the meal, we sat down in one of the common rooms with a man we’ll call Brian.  He was clean-cut, handsome, and looked not much older than the teens sitting uncomfortably in the plastic chairs around the table.  He did not look like a typical drug-addict.  But then he told us his story.

“At first I started using because I thought it would be fun. I was hangin’ out with my friends, and that’s what we did, you know?  I really didn’t think anything about it.  I thought I was strong enough to handle anything.  But I really had no idea, you know? That feeling it gives you, it takes hold of you and it’s all you can think about.  It just controlled everything about me.  It was everything I thought about, drove every action I took.
“I had so much going for me.  I came from a good family.  People liked me and I did well in school. But I knew how to get money.  And I knew how to make people believe things about me so that I could cover up what I was doing.  I thought I was so smart, you know?  But the demon – that’s what I call him – the demon is smarter than me.  I started stealing, selling bags to kids like you, getting mixed up with some seriously dangerous cats.  Eventually I got into some real trouble.
“My parents tried to send me to rehab a couple times.  I really blew it.  Every time.  And I ended up in prison for a time.  Eventually they just cut me off.  I was really mad at first, but I’m not anymore.  What I do – it’s not their fault.  I have to battle this demon on my own.”

But then he stopped and shook his head.  “No, see, I have to stop saying that.  That’s the kind of thinking that got me in trouble in the first place.  I can’t do this on my own.  I need help.  And not just human help.  I need God.  I need the power of Jesus in my life.  That’s one thing I learned in here,” he said waving to the walls hung with posters inscribed with Bible verses and inspirational words scripted on pictures of beautiful landscapes. 

“You know that story about Adam and Eve in the garden and the forbidden fruit?” he asked the students.  They nodded their heads, hanging on his every word.  “When that serpent came and tempted them, did they ask God about what the serpent was saying?  Did they seek God’s guidance?  No, they thought they could handle the fruit on their own.  Drugs are like that fruit.  Or anything you can get addicted to – alcohol, gambling, pornography, you name it.  You take one bite and your eyes are opened, alright.  You feel awesome at first, but then it leaves you feeling like hell.  And you keep coming back to the tree wanting another first bite. But it turns out that the serpent bites you every time, sucks the life right out of you like a vampire.”

He shook his head and looked down at his hands.  “They never even thought to go to God.  They never turn to him.  So he has to go to them.  And they’re so messed up by the time God finds them, they can’t even stay in the Garden anymore.  That’s what happened to me.  I know I can’t ever go back to the life I had before I started using.”

Then I asked Brian a question.  “So why is City Team different than the other places you’ve been to try to get clean?”

“Well,” he said, “first, I thought it was going to be easy, because, you know, church people and all.  But they are really strict here, very disciplined.  But more than that, what’s different here is that they really ground you in the Word of God and serving the community.  They teach us to read the Bible, and to turn to God when we’re feeling that temptation pulling on us.”

“Brian, can I just challenge you about that a minute?” I asked him.  “Because kids sometimes think that the Bible is just a bunch of words.” I picked up one setting on the table.  “How can reading these words really help with addiction?”
“Yeah, I used to think that, too,” he admitted.  “But, again, you can’t just do it alone.  You have to ask for God’s guidance, and ask other people to help you understand what these words mean.  And what I found is that there is something very powerful in here.  The Bible is like an anchor for me when I feel my head getting whipped around.  Or like a flashlight when I’m in a dark place. 

“See, before, when I tried to stop using, I didn’t have anything to fill the hole.  I’d be good for a while, but there was always something missing.  And when things started to get to me, when I got stressed, where did I turn?  Back to the drugs.  But that serpent – he doesn’t care a thing about me.  That demon only wants to drain me dry.  But God loves me and wants to give me life.”

I asked Brian if he had some favorite Bible verses or stories.  He named John 3:16, of course, and Psalm 23.  But then he talked about the passage recounting Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. 

“See, Jesus says right there – you can’t live on bread alone.  You have to have God’s Word.  That’s what really gives life.  And when the devil takes Jesus up to the pinnacle, that’s the way it feels when you’re about to get high.  You think nothing can touch you, and that rush when you fall into it, man . . .

“But see with drugs, it starts out easy and good, but then it gets hard and bad.  With God, it’s just the opposite.  It starts out hard and it’s not easy at all.  You’re in that wilderness for a long time. But when you get on the other side, just like with Jesus, angels are waiting for you.”

Brian then told us how long he had been clean, to the exact day, and how much he looked forward to graduating from the program.  City Team had helped him to get a job, gave him a place to go every night, required him to attend Bible studies, serve the community meal, and sort through the donations that came to the facility.  “This place saved my life,” he said.  “I know it’s not going to be easy.  But I have the power of Jesus. He battled the demons of temptation, and he won.  That’s the power I want in my life.”

The Confirmation students thanked him for talking with them.  For most of them, it was the first time they had met someone who so fiercely battled the temptation of drugs.  Certainly, Brian’s story served as a cautionary tale for them.  But more importantly, I wanted them to hear what a difference faith and God’s Word could make in a person’s life.

Maybe you have stood in the same places as Brian.  At the tree, reaching for that fruit that promises so much, but delivers only the bite of the serpent.  On the pinnacle, tempted to throw yourself into the thrill of danger.  Or maybe you have loved someone who has given in to the temptation of the demon, watched them hurl themselves into that void. And somehow you end up crashing right along with them, or suffering the wounds from that deadly serpent.

This might be a good time for you to enter the wilderness with Jesus, and let him teach you and guide you and strengthen you as you begin a new journey with him.  We’re not surrounded by a gritty urban landscape here.  But there are just as many people struggling with temptation here in the bucolic central Susquehanna Valley as there are in the blighted city of Chester.  
And this place, United in Christ Lutheran, this little brick church surrounded by fields and farms, can offer a haven where you can worship God, take part in a prayer session or Bible study to help ground you in the Word of God, and draw you closer to Jesus. 
United in Christ Lutheran Church
This is a safe place to gather, to share a meal, to serve the community, to surround yourself with people who remind you that you don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to do it alone.  That, in fact, you can’t face those demons all by yourself.  You need help.  You need others, and you need the God who loves you and will keep coming to find you, no matter how much you’ve messed up your life.
But understand that the journey will start out hard and it won’t be easy at all.  We’ll be in this wilderness for a long time. But when you get on the other side, just like with Jesus, angels are waiting for you. You have the power of the one who battled the demons of temptation, and he won.  That’s the power we want in this life. Amen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday Sermon: “Marked”

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
March 5, 2014

We’ve had a total of four baptisms in the last two weeks, and celebrated First Communion with two of our youngsters.  As part of their learning, we read a story called The Welcome Table (Katherine S. Miller, Augsburg Fortress, 1994) about a young girl preparing for her first communion.  She recalls the day she was baptized, and the pastor making the sign of the cross on her forehead.  “Even though you can’t see the cross, it will always be there,” the pastor assures her.  One time when I read this book to a group of students, one of them piped up:  It’s like an invisible tattoo!

This evening the cross made on your forehead when you were baptized is now clearly visible for all to see.  It gives new meaning to the words we say at every baptism, “You have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.”  What does it mean to be marked?  It’s like we’re being branded, at least for this evening, with a temporary tattoo. 

Why do people get tattoos?  Some people put symbols on their skin that are meaningful for them.  Others put the name of a loved one permanently on their body.  For many people, it is the artwork of ink on flesh and the myriad of designs and colors that fascinates them.  The art moves and shifts as the body stretches and moves.
But of course there is a great deal of pain that goes into the art of tattoos.  Devon Kemper has shared with me many tales of the pain he has endured, and the extent to which he goes to minimize pain and infection for others whom he tattoos.  But the permanence of the marking points to a willingness to commit oneself to an image, a symbol, an idea, a person.

My grandfather was in the Pennsylvania National Guard and was one of the only people I knew growing up who had a tattoo.  It was the shape of Keystone.  As he aged and his skin wrinkled, the words inside the keystone and edges of the design faded and became muted, till there was not much left but a bluish blob.  But it was a sign for him that he belonged to something larger than himself, and that this group of soldiers in this state within this country could claim him as their own. It was a sign of his identity, his community, the solidarity he shared with others who bore that same mark.

Many years ago I was looking through some tattoo magazines to find images of people who mark themselves with actual crosses or other religious symbols to show to my Confirmation students. I was stunned to come across this image of an old woman in Bosnia with a cross tattooed on her forehead.

  I learned from the article that Catholic women in this area did tattoos the old fashioned way using sewing needles and a mixture of mother’s milk, honey, spit and water with ash scraped from a pot.  The author described his trek to find these women:

“It took a few hours of driving around the countryside in a hired taxi before I could set my eyes on the first traditionally dressed old woman with the bluish designs on her hands, faded from decades of working in the fields under the scorching sun.  She was really shy about showing her tattoos at first.  No surprise considering that only a few years ago identification with a specific religion often made the difference between life and death here,” ("Catholic Tattoos in Bosnia," Travelin’ Mick, Skin and Ink, March 2001, 26).

Many decades ago young girls between the ages of six and sixteen would tattoo themselves once a year after attending church on St. Stephen’s Day (March 19).  “All the tattoos were placed in clearly visible spots and were seen as a sign of beauty.  

Under Turkish rule in Bosnia, the cross tattoos served to prevent the girls from being kidnapped and sold into slavery, because a Muslim wouldn’t touch a tattooed girl.  If you compare the Bosnian tattoos with the ones you can still find among the [Coptic Christians] in Egypt, you also find similarities.  In both countries a minority of Christians in a Muslim-dominated area mark themselves with a cross tattoo in a place where everybody can see it as a sign of their common identity.” (Ibid, 28).

I remember the first time I went forward to receive the ashen cross on my forehead as child.  I felt embarrassed to have the t-shaped smudge on my forehead, worrying what people would think about me. Reading this story and seeing these images of the women gave me a new perspective on what it means to be marked as a Christian.  Especially on this one day of the year, we deliberately participate in this ritual of smearing ashes left from the burning of last year’s palms across our foreheads.

Covering oneself with ashes and putting on sackcloth was a sign of mourning and repentance in the Old Testament.  It was a visible reminder of the impermanence of life and one’s willingness to turn away from sin, burning it away and coming before God with just yourself – no luxuries, no illusions.  As we begin the 40-day journey of Lent, we are symbolically doing the same thing today.  We may not be wearing burlap bags, but the ashes on our foreheads reminds us that our bodies come from the basic elements of earth, and when we die, we will return to that state.

This can be a very sad service for some people.  Seventeen years ago I attended an Ash Wednesday service when I was still a student at seminary.  My grandfather had died just a few months earlier, and I was missing him very much.  I sat in the pew watching every person go forward to hear the same words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I was crying as I went forward to receive my ashes.  A few flakes fell from the cross into my eyelashes, mixing with my tears.  I walked back to the pew, just sobbing. 

But when I sat down all my friends gathered close and put their arms around me, comforting me in my grief.  And while I was filled with sadness, I knew I was marked with a symbol that means I belong to something larger than myself, and that this group of Christians could claim me as their own.  And that Christ, himself marked across his entire body with the sign of his commitment to God, had claimed me and my grandfather, and all those who have died, as his own.  And we know that this symbol of death is actually the gateway to life – a resurrected life in Christ Jesus.

We were all marked with the cross. The same one that had marked my grandfather when he was baptized is the same one that marked me as an infant, and marks me again this evening.  

This cross, no matter how temporary tonight, traces invisible lines that are more important than any tattoo.  I don’t feel embarrassed to walk out of the church with the cross on my forehead anymore.  I am marked - we are marked - with the cross of Christ forever. Amen.