03/05/14 Ash Wednesday Sermon (March 5, 2014) "Why are we here?"

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:48 AM by David Hawkins

03/05/14 Ash Wednesday Sermon (March 5, 2014)

"Why are we here?"

I'm not going to talk long tonight. 
It's not really a night for talking. 
It's not really a night for jokes, or stories, or much conversation.

It's a night for thinking. 
It's a night for self-examination.
It's a night for confession.
It's a night for wonder.
It's a night for questions.

Why have we come together, to be marked with fragrant oil and dirty ashes? 

We are busy, modern people. What do we hope to accomplish, taking part in a ritual that’s more evocative of the dark ages than the 21st century -- especially when we have many other important things to do?

So many questions.

What am I here for, God? 
What would you have me do with my life? 
Am I living the right way? 
Saying the right things? 
Do you know I exist?
Am I sure you exist?

If we believe the message pounded into us by our TVs, by our movies, by our pop culture superstars, we are here to live for ourselves, under our own terms, with no rules, no limits, no fear, and no obligations for the welfare or consideration of anybody else. We are put here on this planet for us for our own amusement, for our own enjoyment. Because life is short, and whoever dies with the most toys, wins.

But, maybe some of us are here tonight because we’re not sure that’s true. In fact, we hope that that's not true. We hope that there is more to life than than one huge party of excess and self-indulgence.

So, what is our life about? What is our purpose? It's not in our nature to ask God what he wants of us. We are quicker to ask God what he can do for us. Maybe we are a little afraid of asking what God wants of us. What happens if he answers? Maybe we're not sure it's even appropriate to ask the will of God. It's too personal. It implies a God who is intimately involved with us, a God who deeply cares about what we do with our lives. It raises questions. What does God want from me? How do I live a holy life? What does it mean to be faithful? 

And there are some here tonight who have even harder questions to ask. Someone is asking, "Where was God when my mother died?" Someone Someone else is asking, "Why does my sister have cancer? Why does my brother's pain not go away? Why am I alone? How could you have let this happen, God?" 

We have difficult questions to ask of God. We are alone, we are afraid, we are angry, confused, and desperate. Where is God in our tears, in our grief, in our pain, in our questions?

And, sometimes we can feel like it’s our own fault. That God is punishing us. We know that we ourselves have not lived up to the promise of our own relationship with God. We have not kept our commitments, we have hurt one another, we have failed at one thing after another. Against God, against God alone have we sinned. We know deep inside our weakness, and we live in dread of being found out by other people.

Maybe that's we are here tonight. To repent. To say we’re sorry. To acknowledge our limits. In this night of all nights we are reminded that we are created from dust, and to dust we shall return. As Ecclesiastes tells us, all is vapor, all is vanity, what do we gain from all our work? There is nothing new under the sun.

But this knowledge is too much for us. Is it all dust? All of it? Is it all for nothing? We live, we die, the end? Does our life have any meaning? Does God care for us, is God angry with us, or does God even know us at all? We are crying out for meaning, searching for answers to life's hardest questions.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure the Church has always given us room to ask these questions. Pastors, especially, are uncomfortable with these kinds of questions. They require answers, but the answers are harder than the questions. Besides, answers to these questions require a knowledge of God that none of us have, not even the wisest of any of us, not on this side of the abyss that separates us from God.   

But that doesn't stop us from trying to answer them. We jump to easy explanations, to quick justifications, without allowing ourselves to live in the tension of not fully understanding who God really is, or what God really means, or how God really wants us to life. We've gotten into the habit of constructing our faith out of iron bars and reinforced concrete, rather than letting faith unfold from the rich soil of God's grace.  

But when we give in to the temptation to offer platitudes or cliches in answer to hard questions, there is still a part of us that knows that the easy answer is simply not enough. The easy answer just doesn't satisfy the hunger in our heart to know what’s really going on with God. 

And maybe that's why we are here tonight. 

To feel God, rather than describe God.
To ask, rather than explain.
To listen, rather than talk. 
To confess our brokenness, rather than wear our masks.

To be marked with oil, anointed like kings. 
To be marked with ashes, our unworthiness plain to see.

To celebrate the mystery of our faith by eating a holy meal that has defied explanation for 2000 years. 

We're here to admit that we don't really know why God chose Jesus Christ as the way to come to us, the way for us to come to him. We don't really know how Jesus is one of us, and yet God, taking our pain and our shame and our guilt onto his shoulders.

But maybe we don't have to explain these things. Maybe we can’t answer why. Because here before us are the mysteries of our faith that transcend understanding: Here is the oil. Here are the ashes. Here is the table. Here is God's body. Here is God's blood. 

Here at this table is God's own self. Given for us, given to us. Take, eat. Do this in remembrance of me. 

The bread of heaven, offered freely. The cup of grace, poured out for all. There is nothing we can do to earn it. There is nothing that can separate us from it. 

And so, while we can never know, at least on this side of heaven the mysteries of God’s will, we can know, in this moment, that God is present with us. Feel his Spirit. Trust his power. Taste his goodness.

Yes, we are dust, and to dust we will return, but we are baptized dust. We are dust that is held in the hands of God's mysterious love.

We are ashes, but we are anointed ashes. For God's own purpose, we have been given the breath of life by God's Spirit, reconciled with God in our baptism in Jesus Christ, forgiven our sin by the blood of eternal life, and sustained in our journey by the food we find here in front of us. 

And the greatest mystery is this: Regardless of the reason you came here tonight, no-one here has come in vain. Regardless of our past, of our sin, of our worst moments, we are all welcome here, and God is with us. Whatever you are searching for from God is offered as a gift to to all of us here at the table.

Come, let us be broken by the discipline of penitence, and blessed by the gift of grace. Know that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven, and his love makes us whole.

Thanks be to God. Amen.