When I was in seminary, our chaplain in seminary used to say that it was God’s cruelest joke that so many clergy are introverts. God gets you into this ministry—you imagine quiet moments of prayer and solitude, mulling over sermons and preparing liturgies. Then you get thrown in front of a church and your inner panicker goes into high gear. Church is great — but there are people everywhere. I love my work — and I love being the priest at Christ Church — but I will say that a quiet room and a book or a blank page are high on my list of favorite things.
It is, then, maybe God also getting a kick out of our discomfort with a new movement in the Episcopal Church: ashes to go. No music, no liturgy, not even a roof: clergy and lay people taking to the streets and standing in prayer with anyone who comes by. Last year, I remember hearing about churches doing it, and it seemed like a nice, but impractical, idea. We Episcopalians have not often aligned ourselves with people walking around the sidewalks announcing the end of the world — are we slipping into some apocalyptic rabbit hole? Surely we don’t want to be unnecessarily confrontational, do we?
Maybe, maybe not. I am inclined to say, though, that we make an awful lot of assumptions in thinking that all that is right and true can be found within our four walls. We may be intellectually open to the strengths of other traditions, but when it comes to participating in church, we expect people to get with our program. Most of what we do here happens, well, here. At 750 Main St. in Waltham. Our church is wonderful and grace-filled, but we also tend only to share that with those who come to us, rather than the church going out to meet the people where they are.
That was not exactly Jesus's style.
Last night, as the parent helper in my daughter’s Godly Play class at Grace Medford, where my husband is the rector, we heard the parable of the Great Banquet. Putting out the familiar pictures and green felt, the storyteller began. Someone wanted to have a party, and invited all of his friends, but they wouldn’t come. They had to take care of their property. They had just gotten married. Another had to check on some livestock they were buying. So what does the host do? Get more people to come in. The poor, the blind, the sick and the outcast. And when there’s still room, he casts the circle wider. The banquet grows and grows. No longer confined to those they already know — the ones with the right job and the right views — now, absolutely everybody gets in.
Too often, the church does not tell the story of a Great Banquet. Too often, we are an intimate dinner party, entranced by our own cleverness and style. I don’t know what Jesus would have said about taking our ashes to the streets. I don’t know what he would have said about ashes in the first place, since he was pretty clear on instructing people not to look dismal about fasting and prayer. But I am confident that whatever the church can do to come near to others is the path that Jesus would have us walk on. Would it be better if people came to an hour-long liturgy and had time for music, reflection, and a sermon about the tradition and theology of the day? Quite probably. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday is a great service. We celebrate at Christ Church at 12 p.m. and 7 p.m. And surely, I hope all of you who are reading this go to church.
But for the tired commuter who doesn’t know how she will make it through the day without eighteen cups of cofeee, for the homeless person as they walk from the shelter to breakfast at the Salvation Army, for the man who stopped going to church after his wife died, for the boss who has to fire someone and the employee who is worried the pink slip is coming, for the mom who is worried that her kid will get sick at school and she’ll have to leave work early -- for all of those people, we’ll be there on Carter Street. Maybe for you, too. No judgments, no strings and no gimmicks. Just the dust we came from and a prayer for God’s grace, an opening of our hands and one deep breath of hope.