Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ashes to ashes

Our Ash Wednesday services were fuller than last year. I am not sure why, or what that means. I saw a lot of University of Virginia students throughout the day, many I have never seen before.

For me, Ash Wednesday is a powerful experience on many levels. It is a little like going to your own funeral. It takes a certain amount of courage for those who come to hear words of certain mortality and have ashes smeared on foreheads.

It also takes a certain amount of honesty to kneel and admit where we've lost our way in our walk with God and each other. There is a lot going on with Ash Wednesday.

For me, it was an exceedingly long day that began when I arrived at the church at 6:30 am and ended when I got home a little after 9 pm. I brought a pinch of ashes home for Lori who was feeling a little under the weather and missed the services. Somehow having ashes on her forehead and hearing that "to dust you shall return" perked her up. Ash Wednesday is definitely an experience like no other.

Here is the sermon I preached this Ash Wednesday.

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Whether you’ve experienced this a dozen times or this is your first Ash Wednesday, let’s hit the pause button to be candid about something:

Ash Wednesday is as strange as it gets.

Tonight we use words not heard in ordinary conversation, like “wretchedness” and “lamenting our sins” to describe our human condition.

In a few moments, we will have grimy ashes smeared on our forehead. We will hear “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

And after that, we will admit our sins, that as individuals, and as the human race, we’ve made a mess of this world, and we will pledge to do better – though we know we might not – and seek forgiveness, though we might not believe that we really are.

On the face of it, the words we use on Ash Wednesday are definitely not the most comforting, joyful words in the English language, or in the Christian religion, or for that matter, in any religion. This is not a warm and fuzzy feast day we are celebrating, not a day designed to attract new members. Ash Wednesday is probably one of those occasions that church growth experts would like us to forget.

The biblical lessons for Ash Wednesday are the same year after year, and they are reminders of how tough life can be, and how very thin we find the line between life and death.

In all candor, “To dust I shall return” is not something I particularly like to think about as I go through the daily drumbeat of my life.

There are no Christmas trees or Easter lilies today.

Just ashes.

Today we are asked to consider that we are mortal finite beings, that we will one day die, and that our bodies will disappear into the ashes and we will leave this world.

We are asked today to be a little brave and do something. We are asked to stand at the gate of our own death, and embrace the fact that we cannot reach new life without first passing through that gate.

Here on Ash Wednesday, we are doing something startling that goes totally against everything our culture teaches us:

Tonight, with ashes on our forehead, we proclaim that there is more to life than death, more to life than what we see now.

We declare there is more to the story than death – that death does not, and never will, get the last word.

With ashes on our forehead, we proclaim our defiance of death, and we embrace the promise of forgiveness and salvation that begins in this life and in this world.

The word salvation means healing. The root word of salvation is “salve,” which is healing ointment.

There can be no healing – no salvation – without the death of all that harms and hurts us, the death of all that enslaves us and holds is, the death of all that blocks us from the fullness and grace of life. That is the treasure Jesus speaks of, and that is where our heart should be. That is the gift of the ashes on our forehead.

If we can look through the ashes of our disappointments, the ashes of our wounds, the ashes the injustices in the world, we might just catch a glimpse of the healing that is the promise of new life today for us – now.

As Paul reminds us, “see, now is the day of salvation!”

That is why Ash Wednesday begins this season of Lent.

That is the true purpose of Lent – this season for simplifying, for the “giving up” of those things that get in our way of experiencing the fullness of God’s amazing grace.

Begin Lent with honest self-examination about your life, about your whole being. Self-examination can be hard, and takes courage, but it is a gift for your whole self.

Ask yourself this: What is it that gets in your way of experiencing the fullness of God’s love in your life? What do you need to give up that is a barrier for you?

Let me suggest we can start here today by giving up this: The fatalism that pervades our collective life and culture that says grab for all you can get because that is all there is.

Let’s give up the idea that death is all that there is.

Yes, we will die, but we will be made new again beyond the limits of what we see now, in ways we cannot yet experience.

And then maybe we might go one more step beyond the ashes to find another gift.

If we can embrace the gift of God’s love given to us, maybe we can see that the gift of God’s love is given to all people everywhere, of every tribe, every nation, every religion. Ours is not a small God.

Maybe when we see that, we might grasp, at the depth of our soul, that every pain, every wound – every injustice on this planet, is shared by us, too.

Maybe in these ashes, we can see ourselves as truly the brothers and sisters God intends us to be, and then do what we have been given to do to bring God’s Kingdom alive on earth as it is in heaven. If we can do that, it would be truly the gift of these ashes.


James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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