It was all about the beads. Gary and I traveled to Tampa last month for the pre-General Conference briefing and decided to stay a few extra days to see our 3 year old grandson, Ezra, and his parents. After the briefing concluded on Saturday afternoon we walked to the Gasparilla Children’s Parade with Ezra in the stroller.
Every January the city of Tampa celebrates the traditional Gasparilla Pirate Festival, named after the legendary buccaneer, Jose Gaspar, a Spanish aristocrat turned pirate who terrorized the coastal waters of West Florida in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In December 1821, Gasparilla, as he called himself, attacked one last ship before retiring to enjoy his booty. Unfortunately, it was a US Navy warship in disguise. Just before his capture, Gasparilla wrapped a chain around his waist and neck and jumped into the water, never to be seen again.
In 1904 civic and social leaders of Tampa chose Gasparilla as the “patron rogue” of their annual city celebration. Today the week-long Gasparilla Pirate Festival attracts over 400,000 people and begins with the family-friendly and alcohol-free Children’s Parade.
Ezra had dressed as a pirate the previous Halloween, so he anxiously awaited the start of what is likely the only parade in the world where every float has a pirate theme. In Mardi Gras style, social groups called krewes threw plastic strings of beads and aluminum medallions from their floats into the crowds. Perched on our shoulders several rows back, Ezra delighted in the variety of swashbucklers on the floats and soon became obsessed with collecting beads.
As first we considered ourselves lucky to catch one string of beads. When it became apparent that tens of thousands of beads were going to be let loose, I enjoyed catching and putting them around Ezra’s neck. It was actually a bit competitive and, dare I admit, even sinful. Finally I came to my senses and began distributing my sinner’s beads to children farther back in the crowd. Ezra, however, disapproved. In fact, he threw tantrums whenever we didn’t put another string around his neck.
The naked desire of a child for more was not only a sight to behold, but it reminded me that adults experience the same covetousness. The difference is that we usually have more social filters to keep ourselves in check. The stimulation of pirates, beads, and crowds was exhausting, which prompted Ezra to crash in his stroller on the way back with a dozen sets of colorful sinner’s beads firmly around his neck.
At least it wasn’t like the Mardi Gras parade in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where the lure of catching beads transforms ordinary people into crazed revelers who expose body parts that normally remain covered up. Is it any wonder that Mardi Gras culminates on the day before Ash Wednesday, when beaded sinners delight in partying till they drop, then repent in ashes the next day?
On Wednesday I will be wearing a set of sinner’s beads that I kept from the parade to remind me that, like Ezra, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) Not only was I born guilty, but as I have grown older and wiser, my sins are still hanging around my neck.
I am not being overly hard on myself, nor am I delighting in my sin. I’m simply attempting to be honest, which is the purpose of Ash Wednesday. As we travel through Lent, a journey that ultimately leads to the cross and then resurrection, we are forced to shed our pretense. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are not who we say we are or who we want others to think we are. We are sinners who ask God to create in us a clean heart, restore to us the joy of salvation, and sustain us with a willing spirit.
Let me tell you about my sins: envy, pride, workaholism, entitlement, doubt, fear, and lack of trust, among many others. I have a set of beads for each of those sins, and they weigh me down like the chain that Gasparilla wrapped around his own waist and neck. I am not proud of my flaws, but unless I am willing to name them by jumping into the waters of Lent, they will hold me captive. I delight in receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday because they remind me that without God I am nothing.
Ash Wednesday is not only a sinner’s delight for individuals, it should be a sinner’s delight for churches as well. Just as people sin, so do groups of people, including churches. In fact, one of the greatest sins of the church is our refusal to admit that there is such a thing as collective sin.
I’ve seen churches wear the sinner’s beads of lethargy, apathy, ignorance, exclusivity, anxiety, lack of vision, complacency, and stubbornness. Unfortunately, I don’t always observe repentance, nor do I witness many plans for reconciliation and restoration. What might happen if every local church were to count their collective sins each Ash Wednesday, distribute sinner’s beads, and delight in putting a giant cross of ashes on their front door?
We need to go even further. Ash Wednesday should also be a sinner’s delight for our denomination. Many years ago I preached a sermon about racism and made the statement that The United Methodist Church is guilty of the collective sin of intentionally separating out African-American Methodists from white Methodists in the 20th century. I further said that we are all guilty of making Sunday morning the most segregated place in America. Someone confronted me after worship and insisted that she was not guilty of racism simply because she was white, nor was she complicit in the past sins of exclusion. She wouldn’t put on the sinner’s beads.
What are the sins of The United Methodist Church? We can name them one by one: racism, cultural arrogance, refusal to share our faith, sexism, homophobia, lack of accessibility, insularity, a bloated structure, denial, political posturing, too much focus on the US church, and having the form of religion without the power. We’re real good at lamenting the state of our denomination and even delight in wearing the sinner’s beads. But it’s not too late to do the hard and holy work of realignment, retooling, and renewal that will recover our Wesleyan spiritual vitality.
As a sinner I am delighted that at General Conference we will participate in an Act of Repentance service where we acknowledge our participation in acts of violence against our Native American brothers and sisters in the past and racism against Native Americans today. Specifically, we will admit that on Nov. 29, 1864, a Methodist clergyman named Colonel John Chivington led an attack on a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment along the banks of Sand Creek in Colorado. Of the at least 165 people who were killed, most were women, children, and the elderly.
The United Methodist Church has committed $125,000 to the Sand Creek Massacre National Site Research and Learning Center. But we will also be asked to wear the sinner’s beads of commission and omission in our own communities. We will do that by initiating conversations about “cultural genocide” against indigenous peoples in our country and worldwide. We will also renew our collective responsibility to work toward healing and reconciliation.
Surely we are good people. We really are. Yet because we keep grasping for those sinner’s beads, we lose our way, our health, our vision, and our mission. The only true delight of sin is that we have a Savior. And the only delight in wearing the sinner’s beads is that Jesus took them from us and wore them himself. We are sinners through and through, and the only way to overcome our sin is to lay it at the foot of the cross.
Not too long ago I was dialoguing with a Staff Parish Relations Committee about their inability to gently speak truth to a few people in the church who were not willing to give up or even share power with others. Although the SPRC Committee was tempted to put the entire blame on those causing the problems, they resisted. Instead, they faced their own lack of courage to engage in holy conversation and put the sinner’s beads around their own necks.
One person eloquently said, “We need to look to our Lord Jesus Christ, who was at the potential peak of his power when he was willing to put aside his ego and carry the cross. We all get to rebirth ourselves every day because of what Jesus did. Can we get to the point where we say that my ego is not that big and someone else can shine? There is light that is waiting to shine in us and others.”
What about my little buccaneer grandson’s many colored beads? My daughter says that Ezra hasn’t touched them since the Children’s Parade. They are pretty worthless anyway, just like most of the things that draw us away from our true selves. As for me, I have one set of beads on my desk. They remind me that my sin is ever before me and that the light is waiting to shine.