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Ash Wednesday

March 20, 2014

It’s better to see a sermon than to hear one.”  Have you ever heard that?  I’ve heard people who don’t like to come to church, or who have been wounded by the church say this.  And they are right, aren’t they?  This is really what St. Francis was talking about when he famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  That’s another way of saying it’s better to see a sermon than to hear one.  Preaching is about how we live, our actions.  These sayings echo Isaiah, who in today’s text calls Israel not just to go through the motions and do the right things outwardly, but to live them in what they do:  that’s really what fasting is, Isaiah says.  It’s not doing without; it’s going beyond and doing something more – it’s not just doing without food, but it’s giving food to someone else.  It’s seeking justice and freedom; it’s sharing with others, give, caring for one another.  And Jesus’ words in the gospel remind us of the same thing – beware of turning to God outwardly but being very far from God inwardly.

We stray from God’s path – that’s what sin is.  Sin means that we miss the mark.  We store up all the wrong treasures:  wealth, power, status.  Greed and fear and self-righteousness drive our actions all too often.  Lent invites us to reframe, to find that closet to go in to pray –that is Jesus’s call, to go inward, to find that quiet, inner space – where we can again hear God’s message:  I love you; come home; be with me.

And so Ash Wednesday probably looks a bit anachronistic to most non-Christians. Smearing a cross of black ashes on our foreheads, with talk of “lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness,” probably strikes most outsiders as positively medieval.  Nowadays, people laugh (or sneer) at sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” And we do too; we don’t want to hear about hellfire and damnation.  All this talk of sin, ashes, sackcloth and penance (Joel 2) is most people’s idea of what is wrong with religion. Why not just stop?  Dispense with it? After all, the psalmist reminds us that God is love (Psa 103), not a punishing, angry taskmaster.  Haven’t we moved beyond this primitive view of God as a vengeful Victorian father?  Let’s quit putting people on a guilt trip, right?

The problem, of course, is not an angry God. The problem of sin is not on God’s side, it is on our side. God is not holding sin against us. Rather, we are the ones who are holding back from God. We are the ones who often carry the deep sense of shame over who we have come to believe we really are.  We have lost sight of who God created us to be, and we often believe deep down that no one would really love us if anyone really knew us.  We are the ones who think hateful thoughts in the line at the grocery store and someone dares to cut in front of us.  We are the ones who are the hardest on those closest to us, who likely would be ashamed for anyone but family to see us whining or yelling or cursing the way we do at home or in the car or after we leave church.  We are the ones who pass by suffering people every day and do not help.  We don’t like to talk about sin because it makes us feel bad about ourselves.  And we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves because we start remembering that we keep turning away from God, turning ourselves into sinners, too embarrassed, too angry, too hurt, too resentful and (yes) even too guilty to let any human being truly love us, much less Eternal God.

And so the ashes do not put some arbitrary label of “sinner” upon us. They do not paint a picture of human beings as miserable, horrible, worthless creatures.  They simply display a tendency to wander away from love, reveal a potential for darkness that is so deep and painful that we rarely look it in the face.  And it displays that darkness in the sign of the cross, a sign that we had placed there at our baptism, a sign that God always sees and that shows we are loved by God, even in our wandering, our darkness, our shame, our guilt; we are loved and forgiven and redeemed.

The cross is a sign that God is with us, even in the midst of our wandering and in our deepest darkness (2 Cor 5).

The sign of the cross is the sign that God, in Jesus Christ, willingly joins us in our worst pain we can imagine.  That cross in ash on our head is a sermon others can see about God’s love; no words needed.  And it is a sign that the darkness does not have the last word.  In the end, we see Easter.  We see that the cross, that God’s love poured out, redeems us, calls us back, forgives our sin, and that light overcomes darkness.

*This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday 2014 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.  I am indebted to Dan Morehead for much of this sermon; thank you!

From → On Faith

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