Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday Sermon 3/5/14

Every year, I come, needing a Lenten season. When I was a teenager, I would tell my parents that lent was the only time when church seemed real.  It felt like the only time when the church gave people space to express their hurts, their woundedness, and their pains.  I no longer believe that lent is the only time when this happens, but my younger self yearned for space to just sit in the ashes.  The ashes appeared otherworldly and transformative to me.  The ashen cross was such a powerful image to me that for several years in my late teens, I took up carrying the cross on my cheek, painted on daily with eyeliner.  I wanted the cross to mold my heart and my actions into conformity with Christ.  I wanted to be transformed by it.  And now here we are again, coming to bear this ashen cross upon our own foreheads, marking ourselves as mortal and fallible, asking in humble penitence to be transformed.
            This is a transformation that began at our baptism. We were all baptized into the death of Christ, that we may live in the power of his resurrection.  This season we focus on our baptism into Christ’s death.  It is a time to consider those mortal things that need to die within us, so that we may rise anew with Christ on Easter. 
            At baptism we pray for the candidates, asking that they may be delivered from the way of sin and death.  What are we asking God to deliver us from today?
            We ask that their hearts may be opened to God’s grace and truth.  What are the things that we have shut tightly within our own hearts that we need to open to God?
            We ask they may be filled with God’s holy and life-giving Spirit.  Where are our own spirits thirsting?
            I encourage you during this time to read back through the prayers offered at baptism and the promises made in the baptismal covenant.  Meditate upon them. Where do you need God’s help in fulfilling these in your own life?  At the end of these forty days, we will renew our baptismal covenants at the Easter Vigil.
            Our baptisms sealed us as Christ’s own forever, but we don’t always live fully into our Christian identities.  Our gospel lesson today warns us about that.  There are many who do good things.  There are many who pray and give to God.  And they have their reward for that. But their intentions aren’t where they should be.  Rather than coming seeking God’s will, looking towards God’s own heart, they do things for show.  It becomes more about seeking the approval of others.
            Jesus amplifies the problems so we can see them within our own lives.  We may not sound trumpets before giving offerings, we may not pray out loud on street corners, and we may not disfigure our faces while fasting, but we all have these kinds of tendencies.  Sometimes we want to do the right things to please people rather than to please God. And there are rewards for that, but they pale in comparison to God’s rewards.
            God’s rewards aren’t tangible things and I don’t think God’s reward is simply heaven instead of hell.  In fact I don’t even like the word reward here, because it makes it seem like God gives us something because we act a certain way.  And I don’t think that’s how it works.  I think that by seeking after God’s will, we are able to open ourselves up to God.  All of ourselves.  We can begin to open up all the shames we have, all the hurts we hold, all the wretchedness that we feel.  Through that act, we open ourselves up to grace that is beyond measure.  The everlasting God who hates nothing they have made is given free rein to forgive our sins, and to make in us new and contrite hearts.  Transformation is able to happen.  Not because we did actions that God approved of, but because we were able to give up our own control and let God work. 
            It’s hard work to do this.  We are human and we are dust.  Sometimes when we feel how small we are, how mortal we are, we get protective. We want to store every piece of who we are up into ourselves, as if we could keep ourselves from falling.  But if we pray earnestly, if we give control over to God and learn to live in God, despite uncertainty, we can learn a bigger truth.  We are human, we are dust, but we are also beloved.  Deeply and truly beloved.  Beyond all measure and beyond all logic.   Beloved.
            So come forward for ashes, leaving not with a smudge on your forehead, but a symbol.  A symbol that the one who hates nothing that they have made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent longs to create and make in us new and contrite hearts.  This is the transformative nature of the cross, and this is the promise we can carry with us throughout the Lenten season.
I want to leave you with a poem by Jan Richardson entitled “Will You Meet Us: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday:
Will you meet us
in the ashes
will you meet us
in the ache
and show your face
within our sorrow
and offer us
your word of grace:
That you are life
within the dying
that you abide
within the dust
that you are what
survives the burning
that you arise
to make us new.

And in our aching
you are breathing
and in our weeping
you are here
within the hands
that bear your blessing
enfolding us
within your love.