A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sermon (Ash Wednesday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Powerful Symbol of Ashes"

     Ash Wednesday is a very weird and strange kind of day.
     There, I said it. I named the elephant in the room. Ash Wednesday is a weird and strange kind of day.
     You won’t find any Ash Wednesday holiday cards to send to your friends, and I don’t know of too many churches who use Ash Wednesday as their “Bring a Friend to Church” emphasis.
     We don’t even have our specialty coffees and donuts waiting for us after the service today.
     Ash Wednesday. It is what it is.
     It’s appropriate that Ash Wednesday typically falls on one of the grayest and coldest months of the year. I kind of like it that it fell a little early this year. It’s even more gray outside than usual. This is perfect weather for Ash Wednesday.
     We’re still in the time of year where we have long forgotten what freshly mowed grass smells like. The only hint of spring around these parts is when we hear that catchers and pitchers are called to report to Spring Training…in sunny Florida, not in Detroit, Michigan.
     This is the perfect time of year to observe Ash Wednesday. It’s the quiet holy day on the church calendar, until you walk into the supermarket and someone asks you why you have a powdery cross-smeared substance on your forehead.
     For all they know, you were trying to fix an oil leak under your car that morning and some of the grease fell on your forehead. Or maybe they assume that when you tried to change out the toner on the copier machine, something went terribly wrong.
     This is our opportunity to share our faith by letting the world know that today marks the beginning of the season of Lent. The ashes remind us of our brokenness, that we are mortal, and that we are totally dependent on God for each breath we take. The sign of the cross reminds us that Christ died on the cross so that we can receive new life.
     Can there be a more beautiful and mysterious symbol of our faith than having some ashes smudged on our foreheads? Together, they remind us the importance of this season as we walk with Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb.
     Traditionally, on Ash Wednesday, we get these readings from the Book of Joel and the Gospel of Matthew. These scriptures remind us of some key ways to be drawn closer to God during this season of Lent.
     The first way is through confession and repentance. How could we observe Ash Wednesday without talking about repentance? The Prophet, Joel calls for the people to come together and repent of their sins. Repentance can be good for the soul.

     This past Labor Day weekend, my brother and two sisters got together. One night, we made a camp fire and had smores. As we were around the campfire, we were reminiscing about our youth and when we went to school.
     I asked my brother and sisters if they remembered how students from our High School were known to spray-paint graffiti on the parking lot of our rival high school the night before we played them in football each year.
     I asked one of my older sisters if anyone from her high school class helped with the spray painting. This would have been back in the late 60s/early 70s.
     Her muffled comment gave her away. Just barely over the crackling of the fire, we could hear her quickly say, “I don’t know.”
     Like a skillful prosecuting attorney, I asked her a second time, but even more specifically, “Let me rephrase the question. Did YOU do any of the spray-painting?” Again, she answered, “I don’t know.”
     We all started laughing because her vague answer gave her away! And from there, we all shared things that we had done during our youth without getting into trouble. None of us knew about these stories of shame from our past. But now, they were out in the open.
     God doesn’t expect us to carry the weight of our guilt on our shoulders. As our passage from Joel says, “The Lord is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.”
     Ash Wednesday is a time for us to begin the journey of looking deep inside where we fall short in being the people God has called us to be.
     A friend of mine who is a deeply devoted Christian said that he and his family attended an Ash Wednesday service one year. They did all of the things that we are doing tonight, like confessing our sins, receiving ashes on our foreheads to be reminded of who we are in Christ, and making a commitment to practice the spiritual disciplines like prayer and scripture reading.
     Immediately after the Ash Wednesday service, they went to a coffee shop. As they were sitting at the table talking and drinking coffee, someone in the family mentioned how so and so, who was at the church service that night, always gets on her nerves.
     Another family member agreed and offered a story about something that person did over a year ago that really mad him mad. Pretty soon, they all were saying all of these negative things about that person.
     Finally, my friend who had also shared some less than charitable things about that person caught himself in mid-sentence and said,
     “Here we are, just minutes after attending an Ash Wednesday service. We have just confessed our sins and pledged to be more Christ-like, and here we are already gossiping about somebody in the church. That’s terrible!”
     Sin isn’t something that shakes loose that easily. It likes to cling to us. Before we know it, we are back to our bad habits.
     If it wasn’t for seeing the ashes on the foreheads of his family members in that coffee shop, my friend probably wouldn’t have realized that they were not being very Christ-like in that situation.
     So maybe we shouldn’t wipe off these ashes when we go home tonight. What if we don’t wash them off this whole season of Lent, all 40 days?
     OK, that’s gross. Don’t do that. But, let’s at least imagine/pretend that we still have them on our foreheads as a way to remind ourselves that God calls us to turn from our sins and be made new. We so easily forget who God calls us to be.

     In addition to confess and repentance, Ash Wednesday is also a time to make a commitment to practice the spiritual disciplines on a regular basis like prayer, bible reading, and serving others. Jesus emphasized these disciplines in our Gospel reading.
     During this season of Lent, find time each day to spend time with God. Jesus tells us to go to our room to pray. For me, that means my man cave at the house.
     My daily routine is to wake up around 5:30 or 6, make a cup of coffee, go to my man cave, and read scripture and pray. When I don’t include scripture and prayer in my early morning routine, it feels like I’m missing something.
     Just recently, somebody in the church shared with me how a bible verse they had read in the morning, kept reappearing in different ways throughout the day. It was like God used different people and circumstances throughout the day to reinforce that spiritual thought.
     The more that we begin our day with scripture and prayer, the more we can be aware of these connections throughout our day. Make a commitment to practice the spiritual disciplines during these forty days that lead up to Easter Sunday.
     And let me offer one more important aspect of the season of Lent. Don’t forget about the role of the church in your faith journey. Worshipping with God’s people on a weekly basis is an important way for us to be the people God has called us to be.
     During the next five Sundays in worship, we will be focusing on the importance of offering to God our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
     These are related to the membership vows when we join the church. We’re going to focus on each one of these throughout the next five weeks.

     In addition to weekly worship, we are encouraging as many people in our church as possible to be in a small group during the season of Lent. If you haven’t already signed up for a small group, there is still time to do that before leaving the church tonight.
     The purpose of these small group gatherings is to help us share our faith with each other as we reflect on the previous Sunday’s worship theme. The first week of these small groups will begin next week and the topic will be on how we can offer our prayers, which is the topic of the sermon for this Sunday.
     Worship and small groups are great ways that the church can help us grow closer to God.
     When I was at the gym recently, it occurred to me that the gym and the church are a lot alike. It’s true that you can exercise outside of a gym, but when you’re in the gym, you have so many more options that can help you stay healthy and active.
     The same is true about the church. We can grow in our faith outside of the church, but when we’re in the church, we have so many more options that can help us have a stronger faith.
     So Ash Wednesday marks an opportunity for us to repent, to practice the spiritual disciplines, and connect in a deeper way into the life of the church. This is why we are silly enough to walk out of this place with ashes smudged on our foreheads.
     These ashes won’t let us forget who we are and to whom we belong. This is why Ash Wednesday is both beautiful and mysterious.

     We are children of God and we belong to Christ.

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