Sermons That Work

Ashes to Ashes…, Ash Wednesday – 1997

February 12, 1997

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Even in life, we live with death. Even as we strive to live well, provide for ourselves and others, love God, we are complicit in the forces which deny life, which desires death. It’s just as hard to focus on this now as it was in the day of Jesus.

In the Gospel reading we hear of the hypocrites, seeking to show they are doing the right thing and in actuality accomplishing another. They are engaged in the liturgical act of public penance and yet the public nature of the act removes the focus from God and reunion with God to a “How I am doing?” audience oriented act. Jesus is offended by this type of self consciousness, the focus is on accruing attention to one self, and the potential benefits that can come from public perception of holiness, not on awareness of self, awareness of God and the amendment of life that can emerge from the encounter. Jesus is impatient and angry with the scorpions and stones of these public displays. There’s no bread, no true food here. A reward yes, but it’s fools’ gold compared with the real thing. False piety is an enormous Kingdom blocker, and Jesus is painfully aware of this.

I can imagine that some of us have gone through those smiling, teeth gritting Easter Mornings where the focus is on flowers and new life, bypassing the cross and death, and that real offense to the senses, the resurrection. Or, perhaps worse, trying to explain classical systematic theology. The bottom-line unspoken fear in these misdirected events is that Jesus and his Church are the original Emperor With No Clothes.

Jesus wants the real thing for his disciples, then and now, and so his teaching in Matthew is pointed and direct. Stay away from false piety. It names God wrongly and gives the wrong directions for meeting God. This is the way of death and not life. We will never get to God that way. If we want to meet God in the actions of giving, praying and fasting, we have to stay focused on God, for the joy of being with God. Coming home to ourselves, being there with who we truly are, seeing in God’s face the person we might truly become, is the way we can enter in the Christian process of transformation, the ultimate goal of self- examination and reflection. Lent is not for dark depression, its for enlightenment and healing.

Perhaps an aspect of the public oriented acts of penance that angered Jesus was that it did not allow the penitent the orientation to God which allows the right name for the sin to emerge. One of the most powerful steps in healing is naming the source of dis- ease clearly and truthfully. If you don’t name it you can’t repent of it. The Litany of Penitence helps us begin to name our complicity in the forces of sin and death from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. There are an infinite number of doorways presented through which we can begin our naming and self-examination through which we can offer ourselves to the power of God to transform and resurrect us.

Lent gives us the opportunity each year, and each day if we dare, to experience God’s power over our participation in the forces against life. There is a reason sin and death are mentioned together so frequently. Not just because one leads to the other, but also because God knows that belief in the resurrection is a bit of a leap for us and so graciously has provided us a way for us to build our faith. Sin is the little death. The alienation, pain, separation and destruction sin causes in our life is legion. Sin can kill our dreams, our relationships, our health and our hope. When we enter the process of repentance, and truthfully pursue God’s vision and power of how we might be, and then seek to live it out, God will meet us more than halfway. Lived experience of placing oneself in the hands of the living God is awesome, scary, loving and liberating. Experiencing God’s power and faithfulness in overcoming sin, the little death, in our life builds our faith that the resurrections and liberations we experience now are a foretaste of what is to come when we face bodily death. We know surely and clearly that pain and death is not the end of the story. Resurrection is.

God doesn’t expect faith “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. God became human in Jesus, in part, to show us how and what humans need to do and focus upon in order to experience union with Divinity. Jesus life and words are a roadmap. If we do the things that Jesus did, we will encounter the living God. If we take the risks that Jesus took we will encounter the faithful God. If we see the world as Jesus saw (the world) we will undertake the work of God. If we look at God as persistently as Jesus did, we will begin to know ourselves as he did. If we give ourselves into God’s hands we will experience the power of God. And if we don’t do any of this, we won’t experience a living, loving, powerful, engaged God, who cares about us now and seeks our place inside the Divine life as God’s child. Just like Jesus.

Jesus’ instructions to the disciples on how to approach sacrifice, prayer and fasting is to put ourselves physically into the place where God wants us to go spiritually. Go to health, sanity and glad sobriety. Take neither the way of self-aggrandizement and ego inflation or self-denigrating acts of asceticism. By taking a big action, keeping ourselves busy and self focused, we may have a big experience but it won’t be of God. The temptation is always there to make a big spiritual brou-ha-ha because we’re afraid that God won’t, God doesn’t act, in our lives. Both self- aggrandizement and self-denigration take us from the place that God would have us be, a preparation of self, through ritual, for an encounter with Truth. Liturgical preparation, like Ash Wednesday is a gateway to the encounter. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy helps us to get to the interior place where we can be clear, be true, be humble and hear God.

Doing the work, having the experience, of repentance and liberation, is what makes Easter Morning real. God has changed the story, death is not the end. The experience of resurrection power in our lives now is the bridge we walk across into the next life. This is something to celebrate. Lent is a time to give it a shot. As Paul says, “Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the time of salvation!” Do you want to believe? Do you want to know that God is real? Then repent this Lent. If you go to the ashes, wholly, truthfully and ready to risk, like Christ you will rise again.

And you can skip the Emperor’s new clothes, the bunnies and eggs and instead raise the glad, fierce cry of “Alleluia!,” “Our God Reigns” and know yourself why and how Jesus is Lord. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema