Tag Archive | Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, 2015

Ash Wednesday, 2015 (preached 2/18/15)

first reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Psalm 51:1-17

second reading:  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

gospel reading:  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”  St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians give us the theme of this Ash Wednesday, and for the season of Lent.

So how do we begin?

The prophet Joel tells us, “Blow the trumpet sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people…”  and the words we will use in our gospel acclamation until Easter – “Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”

We have a solemn assembly this evening. God’s people are gathered. And this gathering begins our journey of reconciliation, of returning.

In tonight’s exhortation, which we will hear in a few minutes, we are summoned to the special disciplines of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love.

These are ways we return and are reconciled anew.

repentanceRepentance.   Turning around.  Turning away from sin.  We don’t talk much about repentance. It’s certainly not fashionable to say, “I’m sorry.”

Political careers and personal relationships have been ruined because of the stubborn refusal to say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

There is the popular phrase, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I don’t know who came up with that, but it’s a LIE, plain and simple.  The truth is, love means having to say you’re sorry – A LOT.

We’re imperfect human beings, you and I, and we inevitably do or say things that hurt others.  And it’s hard to admit when we’ve made mistakes, and when we love, cover-ups and denials only compound the hurt – they never help.

When we love and we’ve hurt, we repent and ask our beloved for forgiveness. And if we do this in our earthly relationships, how much more do we need to do this with God?

fasting1We also don’t talk about fasting much, unless of course it’s a diet that we think will help us be more beautiful or fit or healthy.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what spiritual fasting is.

Fasting is about denying oneself without the expectation of worldly benefit, and it’s NOT just about food.

Fasting is about sacrifice, giving up just a little piece of ourselves so we might experience just a tiny fraction of what Jesus gave up for us.

We have become too accustomed I think, to getting what we want when we want it – spending money we don’t have on things we don’t really need.

Fasting teaches us that it IS possible to go without, to wait, to have patience – whether it’s fasting from meals, or a specific food, and even better, fasting from unhealthy behaviors that teach us to have more respect for our bodies or for others.

Durer's praying hands

Durer’s praying hands

Prayer is something we DO talk about, but I wonder sometimes if we’re just giving it lip service.

How do we talk to God? I would guess that we are pretty good at asking God for stuff, even if it’s important stuff, like our health, or to take care of our loved ones.

But it’s easy to neglect praying for the needs of “others” – and by others I mean those we don’t know and will never know.  The hungry, those without adequate shelter (especially in this frigid weather), those of our brothers and sisters whose lives are being threatened for their faith…

And it’s easy to neglect prayers of thanks, especially if we’ve been feeling burdened.  It’s also easy to make prayer a ONE-SIDED conversation, not listening for how God is trying to speak to us.  Communication is important in maintaining and strengthening our human relationships.

We need to tell the special people in our lives on a regular basis that we are thankful for them; ask for what we need from them; respond when they need something from us; and listen when they speak.  It’s possible to have relationships without these things, but not deep meaningful relationships. And so it is in our relationship with God.

1366626254_186157Works of love, or to use the old word, ALMSGIVING, is the fourth of our Lenten disciplines.

We get nervous sometimes in Lutheran circles when talking about works of love because we don’t want people to confuse them with works that get us brownie points in heaven.

But that doesn’t mean that works aren’t important to faith. Good works, works of love, are ways we give thanks to God for our salvation, not ways we earn it.

One of the ways we show our love for God is to love our neighbors – both friends and enemies – in word and deed.  Jesus gave over his whole life for you and me, surely we can give a bit of ourselves to help our neighbors.

These four disciplines of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love – help us to reconcile and return to the Lord our God.

It is a time to re-fresh, restore, and re-focus on our relationship to the One who gave us life and loves each one of us here.

For while Lent is a solemn time, the whole point of the solemnity is to draw ever nearer to God – to experience more our NEED for God, and the depth of God’s love for us.

Lent helps us make sure our journey to the cross of Good Friday is not without reflection on our sin which necessitated Jesus’ sacrifice, but also on his LOVE and forgiveness, which was his sole purpose.

Our journey to the cross of Good Friday is also a reflection on how we RESPOND to his great eternal sacrifice.

How do we say thank you for a gift we can never reciprocate? For a love we can never return in kind?


***I don’t talk about the imposition of ashes in this sermon.  If you’re needing/desiring a more “ash” related message, feel free to look at my sermon from last year by clicking here.


the disturbing reality of our mortality

My denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, posted this picture on their facebook page for Ash Wednesday:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (facebook page)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (facebook page)

It’s a beautiful image – yet disturbing at the same time.  In our culture, talking about death is avoided, confronting death in the face – really avoided, confronting the death of our children – avoided at all costs.  Some people might consider the above photo to be in poor taste because it features a child.

Death is ultimate equalizer – no one escapes it.  We might be wealthy enough to afford the best medical care, but in the end, no matter how much medical expertise we can buy, we eventually succumb.  With medical advances (and again money) we may be able to hold it back, but in the end it’s only delaying the inevitable.  We all die.  And with the exception of suicide, we have little control over how and when that happens.   And death is frightening.  It’s frightening because of our lack of control over it, and our lack of concrete physical knowledge of what happens next.  If we could be guaranteed heaven, our earthly death would be no big deal.  Problem is we don’t have that.   I have FAITH there is heaven.  I BELIEVE that Jesus has prepared a place for me and all the baptized.  But faith and belief are NOT the same as knowledge.  Can I prove there is an afterlife?  If we could prove heaven’s existence, no one would fear death and everyone would (not believe) but know there is God and live and die accordingly.  Alas, we cannot.  Resurrection is a matter of faith.

But here is where I find comfort in the above photo, rather than poor taste.  Here is where I find joy in the photo, rather than an affront.

The first time I imposed ashes on the forehead of one of my children I paused.  Looking them in the face, confronting their mortality, SHOOK me.  In that moment I was thinking only of the “here and now,” which, as a parent was completely natural.  I quickly had to remind myself of what I believe and rest in that.  It’s easier said than done, especially when thinking of our children.  I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child.  I pray I never know.  I have, however, tasted just a morsel of that pain, when we suspected my middle child might have a degenerative disease that would cut her life very short (thankfully it was ruled out, but the wait for diagnosis was torture).

I can’t say I never doubt.  That would be dishonest.  But I DO have faith.  I have faith that the same cross that was traced on our forehead at baptism, the same cross that is traced on our forehead in ash, is the cross that was there for us 2,000 years ago, the cross of death that leads to life.  I have faith that death does NOT have the last word for those who cling to that cross.  The pain of death is real.  Even those who have faith grieve, and grieve profoundly.  But with our grief we dare to have hope that there is more.  And when hope is fleeting, having a community of faith surrounding us, reminding us of the promises and love of God, can carry us through another day.

So I love the photo.  I love that it jolts me out of my comfort zone.  Out of the comfort zone that tells me I’m the master of my destiny.  Out of the comfort zone that tries to have me deny the reality of my mortality.  I’m thankful to be jolted out, because out of that comfort zone I find the love of God I don’t deserve, the love of God that holds my children and all those I love more than I EVER could, the love that holds every one of us as we travel through the trials of this life, and into the eternal joy of the life to come.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

Ash Wednesday, 2014

Ash Wednesday, year A,B,C, 2014 (preached March 5, 2014)

first reading:  Joel 2:12-19

second reading:  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

gospel reading:  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

Tonight we do something quite strange, that might be thought of as contradicting Jesus’ words to us in the gospel.

As I speak, we have just received ashes as an outward sign for all to see.  Some might think that we receive these ashes in order to be seen by others.

We might stop at the store on the way home and all would know we’ve been to church, and we might see others with ash and know they’ve been to church too.

Well, if that’s why we’ve come here today and received ashes, then in the words of Jesus, “you HAVE received your reward.”

One of the obstacles Jesus faced in his ministry was the people who observed every little letter of the Law, but had no compassion in their hearts.  In Jesus’ time these folks were usually the Pharisees.  They were excellent at knowing the Law of God and keeping the LETTER of it, but they often failed at understanding the SPIRIT of the Law.  The Pharisees too often followed God’s law, but did NOT have a sense of their own sinfulness, and did not love their neighbor.

This is what God seeks, not merely those who will do the work of the Law, but those who will look to God’s INTENTIONS in the Law.

09_Ash_crossWe receive ashes NOT as an outward sign of holiness to brag about, but as an outward sign of our sinfulness for which we need to repent.

We wear the ash not to say, “Look at me, aren’t I special,” but to say, “Look at me, I am a sinner, and without Christ I am nothing.”  We wear the ash not to say, “Look at me, I’ going to cheat death,” but to say, “Look at me I’m being honest about my sin and acknowledge my mortality.”

In our gospel, Jesus isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t do the things he mentions.  What he’s telling us is that the focus of our actions should be to strengthen our relationship with God and our neighbors, not only how they make us look to others.

In our gospel reading Jesus isn’t telling us not to give alms.  What he wants is for us to examine the reasons WHY we give.  Do we give so that we can tell others how good we are to our church?  Do we give in such a public way that we need to receive a public thank you?  OR do we give because we love God, and want to do our part in carrying out God’s mission to share the gospel with all people?

And how do we pray?  Do we pray to strengthen our relationship with the Lord?  Or do we pray only when we want something, as if God was our heavenly Santa Claus?

Do we fast or give up something special for Lent purely for our own benefit, and proudly let everyone know the sacrifice we’re making?  Or do we keep it to ourselves, knowing that God is the only one who really NEEDS to know?

What reward do we really seek?  God’s reward, or the praise of our peers?

The cross, made on the forehead with ash has a double meaning.  It reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  But we are also reminded of the cross made on our foreheads at Holy Baptism, and the words spoken then, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

Human rewards are fleeting.  The Oscars were just a few nights ago.  Millions of people watched.  Those in the acting profession were rewarded by their peers.  But who will remember ten years from now who won best actor?  Who will remember 10 years from now who won best director?  And so it is with human honors.

Human accolades may feel good at the moment.  Recognition of a job well done by our peers makes us feel proud.  This is ok.  But these are NOT the things that last.

Because for as many times as we succeed, there are just as many times we fail.  The world’s recognition is based on how well we perform.

Those Oscar winners could just as well make a box office BOMB next year.

But the sign made on our foreheads at Holy Baptism, the sign made on our foreheads today, this will NEVER be forgotten.

God’s love for us is unchanging, constant and unconditional.  God’s promises are sure, and his love, his forgiveness, his salvation, last more than a day, a week, a decade or a millennium.  God’s rewards are FOREVER.