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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dusty Roads and Foreheads

Ash Wednesday 2017 (March  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
            In a few moments, we will be receiving ashes upon our foreheads. Just before that happens, before we are each marked with the ashen cross, together we’ll confess to God and to one another that indeed, we have sinned and it is nobody’s fault but our own.
            We’re going to confess that to be honest about it, we know that we sin by the things we hold in our hearts – those feelings of jealousy and rage, of revenge and hatred, of thinking too highly of ourselves, and too little of our neighbors and those we encounter and engage in our lives. No doubt about it. Our hearts can and do get us into trouble.
            But then we’ll confess that we also sin by the things we have said – and if we think our hearts can be problematic, just think about our words! The words we’ve used, sharpened through vocabulary and tone, have all too often been intentionally formed and flung at others, to insult, humiliate, or make a person feel less than they deserve, especially when you consider that they, too, are fashioned after and in the image of God. Words are the tools we have often used to deceive others and ourselves, steering neatly away from the truth for our own benefit.
            Then, of course, we’re going to confess that it’s not just our thoughts and words, but also our actions that do us in – both the things done and the things we haven’t done – especially the things God told us to do that we’ve either ignored or failed at – like love one another and treat one another as we ourselves wish to be treated.
            Because, the truth is, all of these ways in which we sin; these thoughts, words and deeds, create a chasm between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and other people. We confess that this is a chasm only God can breach, break down and destroy. Without the forgiveness and grace of God this chasm leads us, ultimately, to death. Sin destroys the peaceful existence of God’s creation; it is antithetical to life, and we cannot, on our own, escape the ramifications of our brokenness and our addiction to sin.
            Finally, we will pray for God’s mercy; we will pray for God’s forgiveness; but today, when we are done, we will not hear the words of forgiveness. Not yet. Those words will come later. While you and I know that through baptism God has granted us the forgiveness of sin and the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, we also need to linger in the knowledge of the depth of our need for God.
            Today we hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Through this ritual of faith those same words are spoken to young and old alike; they are spoken as the cross is traced with a sooty fingertip upon the brow of the nursing babe, and on the unsteady-on-his-feet elder. These words have been and will be spoken millions of times throughout the world today. They’ll be spoken to people of every ethnicity, on every continent, in perhaps hundreds of languages; they’ll be spoken in churches and on street corners, in nursing homes and hospitals, in the morning, in the evening and at lunchbreak.
            These words will be repeated over and over again, as they have been for centuries, and they will remind us that we will not be around forever. We will all one day, return to dust. And there will be nothing at all to distinguish your dust from my dust.
            In the beginning God, gathered up the dust of the cosmos and formed the earth and the planets, the stars, and all moons. Then, God gathered the dust of the earth and with it, God formed human beings. There is something both humbling and equalizing in this knowledge. We all get the same cross. We each hear the same words. Every one of us is reminded, as good as God made us, for we are, indeed, marvelously made, we are also each made of the same dust, and we will all reach the same end one day – we will return to dusty dust. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “don’t get too attached to your incarnation for it is made of perishable stuff.”
            In this season of Lent, we confront our mortality. We confront our sinfulness and our need for repentance and forgiveness. Ash Wednesday invites us to search ourselves and to know our failure to follow Christ’s command to love, to share our compassion and bounty with the poor, to love justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with God.
            The gift of this season of Lent is that it helps us reset our priorities. Lent isn’t about facing our iniquity so that we can feel bad. It isn’t about guilt-tripping. Lent isn’t about the poverty of our flesh and our person so much as it is about the holiness of the ashes which we will each bear when we walk out of this place and into the world and into our everyday routines and lives, with the sure knowledge that while we were formed of dust and shall return to dust, the entire scope and sphere of the cycle of life represented by that image is guided by God.
            Taylor reminds us that in our beginnings it was God who breathed on the ashes with which we are made. It is God who brought these ashes to life.  “We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us. They are how we come to know both great pain and great pleasure. They help us to recognize ourselves in one another. They are how God gets to us, at the most intimate and universal level of all.” 
            “The ashes we bear today are not curses but blessings, announcing God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind of shape it is in,” Taylor says.
            While we might embrace that notion, and I encourage you to see ashes as both reminder and blessing today, there is this other thing that nags at us. It is the conflict we experience as we read the gospel text. We’ve come here today to be marked with these sooty ashen cross-shaped smudges, marking us as penitential Christians, yet this text seems to discourage any outward signs of piety and devotion. We hear this conflict between the ritual, and text. Ashes are visible – if they should be worn in secret, should we wipe them off before we go out the door, before we are seen in public, before they bear witness to what we have been about in this place today?
            More and more these days, as church affiliation has fallen out of vogue, we Lutherans are feeling increasingly vindicated in keeping our faith a very private thing. Isn’t Jesus just confirming this as the way we should live, when he says to pray, give alms and fast “in secret?”
            Let me put our minds to rest. Jesus does not forbid fasting and piety in public but warns against making theater out of it so that you might be praised for your faithfulness by your friends and neighbors. Insincere repentance does nobody any good. Jesus is concerned about the motivation behind our praying, fasting, and almsgiving, activities that Jesus encourages to build up our spiritual lives so that, coming to fully understand how dependent on God we truly are, we can then to reconciled to him.
            Friends, repentance is not something to be constrained or conformed to, but lives through the joy and freedom of a cross that doesn’t allow death to have the final word. In baptism we have received the assurance that the only death we have ever had to fear is behind us. The baptismal font is the means that conveys this grace: it is as if the ashes of our repentance are washed away by God in the waters of baptism, when we are inextricably joined to God and to others who have received that same washing.
            The reconciliation that takes place through the waters of baptism is a reality for us every day, as we live into the grace that only God can give. As we walk through our Lenten journey this season, we are invited to embrace the font as the symbol of our hope and our life, a reality in which we are made new each day.


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