Why Ash Wednesday?

Here are two versions of the sermon I preached for Ash Wednesday worship (2.17.21) at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It was really fun and unexpected that there were many more young families and youth participating in in-person worship than in past years.

The scripture for this sermon is 2 Corinthians 5:19-6:2.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not, in any way, shape, or form, a morning person. Even if I go to bed early, mornings are hard for me. But, I’m going to go out on a limb here: I suspect that mornings are at least a little hard for each of us in one way. But to test this, we have to do a little imagining. Think about how you would feel if, this morning, or tomorrow morning, someone came into your room and ripped the covers off from you. Wouldn’t it be shocking? No matter how warm we keep our houses, nothing quite prepares us for the confrontational act of tossing off the covers and flopping our legs down to ground. Perhaps we’d be similarly shocked if someone turned on the lights or opened up all the shades. There’s something shockingly confrontational about mornings. Tonight, I feel like that’s something of what is going on in our Ash Wednesday worship service: Ash Wednesday is confrontational. Here’s what I mean.

As a pastor – no, really, as a person – there are few more confrontational things that I could say than what we say tonight: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” and “Repent and believe in the gospel.” These are things I’ll say as I do something simultaneously intimate and confrontational: I’ll dip my thumb in the ashes and smudge them across your foreheads. They’re traditionally ashes from burning last year’s Palm-Passion Sunday palms: they’re stuff we’d throw out after having had a good fire. How confrontational is that? We’re putting used up leftovers on one another’s foreheads and telling people flat out, “We’re going to die, and in the meantime, we are flawed and lacking and stand in need of God’s grace.” Ash Wednesday’s words and ash-laden actions are confrontational acts like flipping on the lights or ripping off the covers; yet, to live each day, we have to get out of bed and stand in the light. Ash Wednesday shocks and confronts us: we are seen, we are known, and there’s no hiding behind our facades of safety, security, comfort, and stability. The ashes and the words we speak to one another confront us, because that confrontation leads us to life.

The Apostle Paul is similarly confrontational in today’s reading from his Second Letter to the Corinthians. And just like today’s words and ashes, he’s not confrontational in a malicious way, but in a way that’s necessary for truly living the lives God created us to live.

Paul’s whole letter centers on one idea: reconciliation. To proclaim reconciliation, Paul first has to confront our reality: we are not presently, reconciled to God as fully as we might be, we are distant from God and who God created us to be. Interestingly, the Greek word Paul uses here that we translate as “reconcile” and “reconciliation” is one that’s hardly used in the New Testament. According to theologian Richard Hayes, it’s not a religious word. It has no history of use in worship or theology. It’s not about forgiveness of sins, or sacrifices, or appeasing God. Instead, it’s a political term, one that’s used to describe the resolution of disputes or overcoming things that keep us divided; it’s about, as Hayes says, “establishing new and peaceful relationships.” When Paul says, “Be reconciled to God,” he’s saying, “Let go of that which prevents you from being closer to God and closer to your true self, who you were meant to be. Establish a new relationship with God and your true self.”

The confrontations of Ash Wednesday at first seem highly religious. We talk about sin and death. We talk about repenting or turning away from sin. We talk about belief. But what Paul invites us to hear in the confrontations of these words and ashes is something different: relationship. And at the start, Paul urges us to remember the most important thing: the leading actor in this reconciliation is God.  “God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them,” he writes in verse 19. God is reconciling the world to Godself. God is the first actor in our relationship, drawing each and every one of us into fuller and closer relationships with God and one another through Jesus. God creates the peace through which we can be more fully who God created us to be. God draws us into our true and best selves. This is Ash Wednesday: turning toward a God who has already turned toward, and continually reaches out toward, us. We bow to receive ashes before a God nudging our chins up so we can gaze into God’s eyes of grace.

So why the ashen crosses on the foreheads with the confrontational words? Perhaps we could think about it through the actions. Before each person, I’ll dip my thumb down, which is exactly the language we use with baptism: we go down with Christ and rise up with him as well. And then the shape of the cross: down and across. In the cross we’re reminded of how particularly God has reached out to reconcile us to Godself: through Jesus, who took on flesh, who walked as one who was fully human and fully God, so that God’s presence can be seen in every human experience and location. From birth through death, in Jesus, God is there. From the joys of relationship to the depths of despair, in Jesus, God is with us. From the light of life to the darkness of death and beyond, in Jesus, God is with us. Why ashen crosses? Because in them God confronts and reminds us that we are named and claimed by God, we are loved, and we can never be separated from the love of God in Jesus.

And so it is that we are confronted with reality: we are human, we are not God, we are not perfect, and still God loves us deeply and invites us to draw closer to God through this season of Lent. “Be reconciled to God,” Paul says, “the day of salvation, [the day of wholeness and life,] is now.” In this season of Lent, let us respond to this invitation by taking up disciplines and practices that help us respond to God’s reconciling work. Let us dust off our Bibles and dirty the knees of our pants in prayer. Let us put our hands and our wallets to the work of serving others. Let us eat and fellowship in ways that open our eyes to the lives of our neighbors. And let us live into the confrontation and reconciliation of that which marks us this day: we are God’s beloved family, blessed, loved, claimed, and known. 

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