February 10, 2016 Sermon (Ash Wednesday)

posted Jul 6, 2016, 4:10 PM by David Hawkins
Ash Wednesday is a strange holiday. We’ve got these ashes, burned from the branches of last year’s Palm Sunday parade, we’ve got some fragrant oil, which is pretty unusual for us Presbyterians, we got this whole Litany of Penitence, it all seems vaguely Catholic, something certainly not something we might do on a regular basis. 

But there are some of us that need this evening service. There are some of us that recognize in ourselves something fundamentally broken that cannot be fixed by our own doing. 

The strangeness of this evening is not helped by the weird traditions that have grown up around it. Fat Tuesday, for instance. I’m not really sure what pancakes have to do with Lent. It’s not that I’m against pancakes. I’m just not sure of the symbolism.

In some places, Ash Wednesday is preceded by Mardi Gras, a wild bacchanalia where every normal sort of civilized behavior is thrown right out the window. It’s as though we have to first commit the most outrageous sins imaginable in order that we might actually have something to repent. 

Of course, we don’t do that so much in Plainview. It might be kind of fun if we did. The problem is, we all would have to look at each other in the eye the morning after, and that might be uncomfortable.

I can understand where these traditions come from. I mean, if the whole point behind Ash Wednesday is to be gloomy, to be sad, to feel ashamed, if the whole season of Lent is supposed to be a season of guilt and, then I can understand the need to live it up a little bit beforehand. Six weeks is a long time to feel bad about yourself. 

But I’m not sure that’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent is supposed to be.  I don’t think that Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is supposed to be about the specific sins that we carry. I’m not sure that the reason we, as a church, gather to be marked with ashes and oil is just so that we can walk around, downcast with the weight of our sins, confessing the very bad things we did the day, or the week, or the year before. 

It’s not that I don’t think that we have sins to confess. We do. At least I do. It’s just that I don’t think that the point of Lent is to make us feel bad, to make us feel ashamed, and to create in us a six week spirit of sadness and embarrassment. 

The confessions that we make together tonight are bigger than our own private personal sin. We as individuals have sinned, certainly. But we as a body have also sinned. We as a people have sinned. We as human beings have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s not just you and me. It’s everybody. 

And so this season is not just about the fact that I did this thing or that thing wrong. Or that you lied when you said this, or they hurt someone when they did that. Yes, of course we have done stuff wrong. We have acted badly; we have not been all that we could have been. But that’s not really what Lent is all about. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than us.

And, as I have said before, repentance is not simply getting down on yourself, feeling bad about the things that you’ve done wrong. Repentance is the act of not doing that thing anymore. Repentance doesn’t mean you regret your sin; it means not doing the sin. It means a totally new way of thinking, it means a complete transformation.

But here’s the problem. We keep doing our sin. It may not be exactly the same sin, but we keep doing it. I had a friend who would stop eating chocolate during Lent. It’s not that I personally think that eating chocolate is all that sinful, but apparently, she did. She must have eaten a lot of it. 

Anyway, for Lent, she would give up eating chocolate. And she would take up smoking. Just for six weeks, mind you, and then she was back to chocolate. 

I’m not sure that’s how it works. 

Tonight and the next few weeks are not just a time for us to give up something that you think is bad for you. I mean, we might do that, but that by itself missed the point. Lent is about more than just self-denial.

This season is a time for us to reflect on the fact that our collective sin, as a people, is too great for us to overcome. To reflect on the fact that it seems like we can’t, or we don’t, or we won’t make the changes in our life that we know we are called to make. 

It’s a time to reflect on the enormity of our broken-ness, and the incredible gift that God has given us in response to it. 

Jesus came for us, not to shame us, but to lift that burden of our sin from our weary shoulders. He came, not to guilt us into living better, but taste, maybe for the first time, what real life really is. 

And that’s what tonight is all about. 

To be marked with oil, anointed like kings. 
To be marked with ashes, a reminder of the burned out embers of our best intentions.
To celebrate the mystery of our faith by eating a holy meal that has defied explanation for 2000 years. 

To realize that Jesus came, not just for my sin, or your sin, but for our sin, and their sin. To be transformed by the love of God in ways that we could never do for ourselves.

We don't really know how Jesus is one of us, a human being, and yet at the same time, God, taking the sin of humanity with him to the cross.

But maybe we don't have to explain these things. Maybe we can’t answer why. Because here in front of us are mysteries of our faith that transcend understanding: oil; ashes; table. 

Here is God's body. Here is God's blood. And they are more than just traditions. They are more than just rituals and ceremonies. Here before us are symbols that have lifted the hearts of Christians for two thousand years.  

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

Tonight, we remember that despite our best efforts, we are dust, and to dust we will return -- but tonight we also remember that we are baptized dust. We are dust that is held in the hands of God's love.

Tonight we remember that we are ashes -- but we are anointed ashes. For God's own mysterious purpose, we have been given breath by God's Spirit, for God’s mysterious reasons, we are reconciled with God in Jesus Christ, we forgiven our sin by the blood of his eternal life, and we are sustained in our journey by the food on this table. 

And the greatest mystery is this: 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 those who receive it.

Come to the table. Let your hearts be broken by the ashes of penitence, and your souls be blessed by oil of grace. Be one with Christ in the cup, be fed by Christ by the bread.

And remember, that despite our pride, our sin, our unwillingness to be transformed, in Jesus Christ we are forgiven, and that changes everything. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.