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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sermon from March 9, 2011 + Ash Wednesday

“Ashes to Ashes”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
(Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Did you ever stop to consider that other people might think we’re a little strange for what we’re doing here today? Think about it: we all get a messy black mark of an instrument of death – the cross – smeared on our foreheads. We all confess that each of us is a sinful person who has disobeyed God regularly. We’re reminded that our lives are not our own to live as we choose, but we belong to God. And we listen to readings from the Bible which threaten us with punishment from God, call us to drop everything we’re doing and return to God, and tell us to completely re-orient our lives from where they are now headed, for where they are now headed is toward death.

This isn’t the most attractive and inviting event we’ve ever attended. It’s hard to imagine the culture in which we live embracing what we do and say here today. It’s not exactly the power of positive thinking, is it? And many would say it’s simply depressing. In fact, I once had a Lutheran pastor tell me that his church didn’t do confession because it was too depressing and it wasn’t attractive to visitors.

But we come here every year on Ash Wednesday and do these things because we know the truth. We mark off forty days of Lent each year because we know the truth. We remind ourselves of things that lots of people would find unnecessarily depressing because we know the truth.

And the truth is we’re all going to die. We don’t know when. But we know it is so. In our funeral liturgy, we commit the body to its rest saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” And today we were all told that those words are in each of our futures, for we heard: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We Christians believe we must face not only the truth about our mortality and our sinful lives, but let that truth, and the truth about God, shape our lives.

But of course human beings tend to ignore that ultimately we are ashes and dust and no more.

We seem so substantial, our lives so solid and real. We prefer to live with that delusion most times. Making plans for today, tomorrow, even years ahead as if we’ve got that guaranteed. Of course, all of us have experiences where that delusion was shattered, and we faced the reality of death when we did not want to or expect to. The foolishness we engage in is that we’re ever surprised by death.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: the human body is composed of over 90% water. Remove the water and we’re a little pile of a couple of pounds of chemicals, salt; dirt. We are so flimsy, so insubstantial, so transient. Genesis says we began from the dust of the ground. Reality says we will return to that dust.

Today we remember that. Because we too often forget. We say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” because we don’t remember it. We set up our own little kingdoms on earth, our own complicated and busy lives, our own hopes and expectations, as if we had all the power and control, and as if we had all the time in the world.

Remember you are dust: our faith reminds us of our mortality so that we can focus our lives on what is truly necessary. If you’re on a sinking ship it matters little how much money you make, or whether your hair looks good, or whether you won an argument that morning. All that matters is that the ship is sinking, and you need to face that reality. Ash Wednesday is our wake-up call to our mortality.

And this remembrance forces us to consider our direction in life – and to that question God’s Word also speaks today.

The Scriptures are full of exhortations to new life, to repentance and turning to God, to putting our values, our treasure, in the right place, so our heart is there also. The assumption of the Scriptures is that we’re heading in the wrong direction and need to be awakened, redirected. Their assumption is that the status quo is ultimately doomed and we would be wise to understand that sooner rather than later.

Jesus’ words in our Gospel today are so typical of all of God’s Word: Don’t save up for yourselves things that moths and rust and thieves can take away. Instead, store up treasures that keep – focus your lives on the things that will last. And the things of this world do not last.

That’s what we hear from Joel and Paul today, too. Joel’s dire warnings of God’s anger are followed by calls for everyone – even brides and grooms at the altar – to drop what they’re doing and change their lives, return to God for mercy and forgiveness. Paul urges, with much the same intensity as Joel, that people be reconciled to God in Christ.

Because this is also truth: Joel and Paul and Jesus and the rest of the Scriptures all assume that while we are mortal and dying, in God is life. That’s the joy of the urgency. That’s the good news: that we are mortal and sinful, but if we turn to God, we will not only be forgiven, but given new life. That as much as we’re headed in the wrong direction in our lives, we find healing and hope in turning to God’s direction.

Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, Joel says. Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. It is the graciousness and mercy of God which is our joy, our goal, our life. Life in God’s steadfast and abundant love, glimpsed as we gather around this Table of Life again today. First we gathered around it to be reminded of our mortality. Now a second time we will come up to the Table, this time to receive life.

At the center of our proclamation is the truth that God has come to join our mortality, has taken it on and transformed it. This is the true treasure which sustains our hearts.

God became the very dust God used to make us, and so redeemed that dust. God answered all our grief and sorrow which strikes us when we are faced with our mortality by becoming the answer: I am with you in your pain, even in your death, and I will hold you and even transform death into life. God came to lead us into a new way which is shaped by God’s love and forgiveness, and is no longer a way of death because God has ended death’s power over us.

There really isn’t much more to be said, is there?

We are dust, and we will return to dust. That is the truth. We must remember that. Only the waters of baptism can fill that dust, revive us, and make us children of God. And those waters are the source of our life.

Return to the Lord your God, then. Find God’s mercy and grace, God’s steadfast and abundant love. It is yours. It is the world’s. That, also, is the truth. It’s the only reality that matters, because it’s the only reality that changes our death, our dustiness, into life and healing, water-filled grace.

That is why we’re here today.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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