Ash Wednesday 18 February 2015
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 51 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
“Rending Your Hearts!”
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return!”
So here is my question this evening: if, in fact, the Gospel of Jesus is Good News, joyful news, how does Ash Wednesday, and all this “you are dust” theology fit into Good News part of the Gospel?
Here is my perspective. Today is not meant to scare us into changing our way of living by reminding us that we will die. Today is not like those T-shirts you see every once in awhile that say, “Don’t wait until midnight to turn back to God, because God may show up at 11:55!” Nor is today like the cartoon of a man sitting in a sweat-lodge with the caption: “You think you’re hot now, wait till you sit in a sweat-lodge for all eternity!”
Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about creepy and frightening messages to scare us into living better lives.
When we try to go to books to find out the history of ashes, we come away with many different suggestions. The most common is that it comes from the Jewish custom of sitting in ashes. Think about this! To sit in ashes is to sit in the garbage dump. So I will sit in a pile of garbage to show the world that I feel sorry, and so now I will change. Come on! This interpretation leaves a lot to be desired.
Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, is a much greater moment. I will suggest that Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a 40-day invitation into life; not a 40-day panic into death.
However, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return!” does not seem like the kind of invitation I’d too excited to respond to! So where is the invitation? This evening’s scripture readings give us a pretty good answer.
I want to look at the text from the prophet Joel. I’d like you to look at your pew Bibles. At the beginning of Lent, what a gift! The Old Testament scripture for today is taken from the prophet Joel. [p. 1037] It takes us back to a time of great danger in Israel. The land has been ravaged by locusts, [vs.4] the crops are failing [vs.11]. The way life is in question. The prophet Joel, convinced that the people have brought the disaster upon themselves by virtue of their unfaithfulness, summons the people to repent of its ways. But, interestingly enough, he does not ask them to give up candy; he does not call them to attend penance services in the synagogues. He doesn’t require them to make animal sacrifices in the temple. He doesn’t even talk about public displays of remorse, the time-honored tearing of garments to demonstrate grief. In fact, he says, “DON’T tear your garments, instead, “…Rend your hearts” [vs.13]
Ah, there’s the invitation of Lent—to rend our hearts!
When we “rend our hearts” we break them open to things we are refusing for some warped reason to even consider. Perhaps, for years, we’ve refused to even think of renewing old commitments that we’ve allowed to go to dust—spending time with children, visiting our parents, exercising, taking time to read a good book. We’ve closed our minds, maybe to the thought of reconciling with an old friend or a sibling. We’ve refused to put effort in reviving old spiritual practices, such as praying morning devotions, memorizing the psalms—that we’ve allowed to die. We’ve failed to repent old abrasions, quick words, harsh judgments made in haste and never resolved. We have closed the doors of our hearts, as time went by, to so many of the things we need to live full and holy lives.
Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not.
Lent is the grace to grieve for what we should have done and did not.
Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not.
Lent is about becoming, doing, and changing, whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life with God in us right now.
Even the Gospel as we hear it each year from Matthew 6, tells us we are to put aside all outward demonstrations of sorrow and to approach God and the world with courage and humility.
Lent is the invitation to live life in a new way, to turn our lives around.
Lent is a time to let life in again, to rebuild the worlds we’ve allowed to go sterile. If our own lives are not to die from lack of nourishment, this is the time to sacrifice the pride or listlessness that blocks us from beginning again.
Finally, I want to go back to the pew bibles one more time. The reading from Joel is good, but I want to go back farther, to the Garden of Eden, to one more thought. When God says, “You are dust” [Gen. 3:19]….(p. 4, pew Bibles) please know, that we are all Adam and Eve, we all sin….we all are dispelled from the Garden…..but all that then follows in the entire Bible ( in pew Bibles, 1402 pages) speak of God continuing to be with us even in life’s worst moments. God is always with us, that God never abandons God’s people.
I offer this perspective: Today we are anointed with ashes as a reminder that, even in our sinfulness, our brokenness, and in our poor choosing of how we might live, we have been redeemed by God, and because of God’s faithful love for us we can begin again-always to build fires in the world in new ways, or in the old ways we’ve allowed to go cold.
We are dust, indeed, but dust filled with the faithful love of God. Lent is upon us, the invitation waiting to be opened, our hearts ready for new life! Amen.
Ash Wednesday 18 February 2015