Sermon: Wednesday, February 6, 2008: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 ; Psalm 51:1-17 ; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 ; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


Beloved of God, grace and peace from the one who made you, who saves you and who is calling you home. Amen.

During the years when I was more involved in street outreach with homeless and runaway youth I observed a pattern that didn’t, at first, make sense to me. Each year, around Christmas time, it would become very difficult to find the kids I was working with. This was confusing for me because I expected that the holidays, full of images of happy families trading gifts, would be a time when the kids would want our help and our company the most. Instead in the days just before and after Christmas, without much advance notice, our kids would slip quietly away for a few days.

“They return home,” is what a co-worker told me. “They can pretend for most of the year that they’re perfectly fine out on the streets, but around this time of year the grief and the loneliness can be so deep. Kids will go back to the most dysfunctional homes to see whether they’ll be welcomed in or not.”

Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. (Joel 2:13)

The season of Lent is a season of renewal and returns, and it begins tonight – Ash Wednesday – with the confession of sin, the imposition of ashes, and a call to renew our relationship with God. We sometimes refer to Lent as a penitential season, a season of repentance for the ways that we have with our own individual lives, and through our communities, failed to proclaim God’s impartial love. We fall short by our words and by our actions, and we know this. In fact, we know our own shortcomings so well that we often imagine or assume that they define us.

There is a certain, defensive tone I know I can sometimes take when I am brought face to face with my persistent shortcomings. “That’s just the way I am,” I say with words that confess my failures, and yet still manage to communicate a stubborn identification with them. “That’s just the way I am – sharp-tongued.” “That’s just the way I am – short-tempered.” Maybe you have a couple of these yourselves. “That’s just the way I am…” How do you end the sentence?

Over time, our tendency to identify with our shortcomings has a way of limiting our ability to remain open to one another. “I don’t get along well with those kinds of people – that’s just the way I am.” It can also restrict our growth as human beings. “I’ll never find meaningful work – that’s just the way I am.” It distorts our self-perception so deeply that we become despairing. “I’ll never find love – that’s just who I am.”

This human tendency has disastrous consequences on a collective, societal level as well. We neglect the environment and ignore the steps we could take to conserve our natural resources, saying “people will never change – that’s just the way we are.” We become numb and accustomed to war and needless death, saying “violence is never-ending – that’s just the way we are.”

As a church we actually affirm that our slavery to sin is a part of our human nature. We often confess that we are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves. What we do not do, however, is take the next step of mistaking our sin with our selves.

Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

We are human, it is true. Part of the ritual we observe tonight is the imposition of ashes, a sign of our finitude. A reminder that death is a part of life. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Being human, being subject to death, however does not mean being defined by death, or being defined by sin, or being defined by any other symptom of this world’s failings. It may well be the case that we live our lives feeling like imposters, but in the light of God’s love we are revealed to be truly, irrevocably, children of God. It may feel as though we wander through life unknown, missing the intimacy that others seem to find so easily, but in truth we are well known by the one who created us. From the outside we may look to be dying, as individuals – as a church – but through the power of God all things are being made new, we are alive! This is the heart of Paul’s proclamation to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 6:9): that the painful presence of sin in the world, and in our own lives, cannot have the last word in defining us. Our human nature includes death, but does not end with it.

Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

The street kids I knew would eventually return sometime in January. Most often the stories of their time at home remained private, but sometimes they would be shared. Some would be welcomed in for a brief time, but told that they couldn’t stay long. Some were welcomed home, as if for good, but after a few days old patterns of conflict and abuse would resume and they would flee or be kicked out again. Some went home and lurked, watching their families from a distance, never even knocking at the door – not wanting to hear that they were not welcome home.

In our life together we all experience these failed homecomings. We ask for forgiveness that is never granted. We long for relationships that will never be mended. We try to be reconciled but remain trapped in resentment. It is no wonder that we can barely imagine a relationship with God that is not laced with all the same dangerous potential for disaster. What if I, what if we, confess our sin only to discover that God has grown tired of us? What if we find that there is no going home? Do we try and earn our way back into God’s love? Do we try to earn a place in God’s home?

This is what Jesus warns against, “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 6:1) Think of what this means. If we live our lives trying to convince others, trying to convince ourselves, that we belong, that we are worthy, that we are loved, that we are important – if we live under the illusion that it is we ourselves who must earn our way back home (which is the essence of public piety), then we will always be left with the nagging suspicion that we have not worked hard enough, that we have not prayed fervently enough, that we have not forgiven deeply enough. We will be haunted by our doubts and insecurities and we will not experience the reward, the gift, of God’s limitless, impartial hospitality.

What, then, is left for us to do?

We confess our sin – not because God is not already aware of our sin, and certainly not because we are not aware of our sin – but because we secretly harbor the suspicion that we are unforgivable. We confess our sin, fully expecting to hear that there is no coming home, and then we discover that we are wrong. God blesses us in our weakness. God forgives us while we are still deeply imperfect. God sees us as we are and loves us. God welcomes us home.

Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.


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