Sermon, Year A Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ , Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011
Focus Scripture: Matthew 5:6 and 11:28-29
Tonight we begin our journey through Lent ó these 40 days of penitence, prayer, and preparation as we join Jesus on his march to the cross, his mandate on Holy Thursday to share communion, his betrayal and death on Good Friday, and resurrection on Easter morning! And so this whole hourney leads to celebration, even though Lent is a sort of shadow in the pre-dawn light. We do Lent to remind us why Easter is so special. Without this time to think about our faith, and our sin, where we fall short of Godís expectations, where we fall short toward our friends and family, where we have failed Jesus or denied him in our life Ė Lent is our chance to think about who we are so that the miracle of Jesusí resurrection, Godís saving act that takes away our guilt and sin and shame, becomes the incredible thing it is!
If we donít know who we are, and how much we need Easter, then Easter becomes just another ho-hum Sunday, instead of the day of salvation, the defeat of the sting of death, the promise of life eternal ó not just eternal life after our bodies die, but eternal life beginning right now. We donít have to wait for it, to wait for death. Jesusí salvation is here and now as well. Lent helps us to see that, and inspire us not to feel bad about our shortcomings, but be ever the more thankful that we are forgiven, that God doesnít hold it against us, but dusts us off and picks us up to do it again.
So we mark ourselves with ashes to remind us of our mortality, while knowing we wear the cloak of eternity; we spend time in confession, knowing that we are forgiven already; we don the accouterments of mourning, even while we know there is a resurrection. Unlike Jesusí disciples, who had no idea how things were going to end, we have the advantage of history. We know how it ends. After all the trauma, Jesus rises from the tomb and serves breakfast to his disciples.
But even knowing it, we adopt the ancient traditions: we put ashes on our foreheads to remind us of the dust that God made humanity from. Ashes are a sign of mourning in ancient Jewish tradition, and many other cultures, precisely because it is a symbolic return to our primal state: dust. And ashes were also (and still are) used as a cleanser. Rub it on the body as an exfoliant and a way to get rid of skin-side parasites and bugs. And the donning of sackcloth. It is an uncomfortable fabric used normally to carry things, but worn by mourners and the penitent because the scratchiness and discomfort remind us we are alive and we are made of flesh: flesh that gets dirty, that gets scratchy, dried out and uncomfortable, achy, tired, human flesh. To us, reminded of the burdens of our flesh, Jesus said, ďCome to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.Ē
Lent is our time to come more in line with Jesus, to take on the yoke with him as a partnership, learning from Jesus how to live. We can let go of yokes of our own making, to make room to put on Jesusí. You have 40 days to do this, and next year youíll get 40 more, plus all the days in between. But tonight you can begin to take another step forward; one step is to let go of whatever wears you down or burdens you oppressively and/or to ask for that which will make life lighter. You have paper in your bulletins, on which you can write prayers: worries, habits, fears, or words you want to get rid of, attitudes or blessings youíd like to get. Itís between you and God. Write it down, then bring it forward and burn it. Turn it into an offering to God, and reduce it to ash and dust and start living that way buoyed by Godís infinite love and grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray: God of life and new beginnings, make this a Lent that leads to new life in you, a rebirth into the fullness of your salvation. As we write our prayers and send them to you in offering, we pray that you hear and listen, and in your mercy and infinite care, answer and respond to them, and may we truly be remade into your image. Amen.
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