Recent Sermon

Ash Wednesday, 2020
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20—6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Even in life, we live with death. Even as we strive to live well, provide for ourselves and others, and love God, we are complicit in the forces which deny life, which desires death.  It’s just as hard to focus on this now as it was in the day of Jesus.

In the Gospel reading we hear of the hypocrites, seeking to show they are doing the right thing bit in actuality they are accomplishing another. They are engaged in the liturgical act of public penance and yet the public nature of the act removes the focus from God and reunion with God to a “How I am doing” audience-oriented act.

Jesus is offended by this type of self-consciousness, the focus is on getting attention for one self, and the potential benefits that can come from the public perception of holiness, instead of on awareness of self, awareness of God and the amendment of life that can emerge from the encounter with the living God.  Jesus is impatient and angry with the scorpions and stones of these public displays.

There’s no bread, no true food here. A reward yes, but it is fools’ gold compared with the real thing. False piety is an enormous Kingdom blocker, and Jesus is painfully aware of this.

I can imagine that some of us have gone through those smiling, teeth gritting Easter Mornings where the focus is on flowers and new life, bypassing the cross and death, and even more, not to mention that real offense to the senses, the resurrection. Or, perhaps worse, trying to explain classical systematic theology. The bottom-line unspoken fear in these misdirected events is that Jesus and his Church are the original Emperor Without Clothes.

Jesus wants the real thing for his disciples, then and now, and so his teaching in Matthew is pointed and direct: Stay away from false piety. It names God wrongly and gives the wrong directions for meeting God. This is the way of death and not life. We will never get to God that way. If we want to meet God in the actions of giving, praying and fasting, we have to stay focused on God, for the joy of being with God. Coming home to ourselves, being there with who we truly are, seeing in God’s face the person we might truly become, is the way we can enter in the Christian process of transformation, which is the ultimate goal of all of our self- examination and reflection.

Lent is not for dark depression, it’s for enlightenment and healing. Maybe a part of the public audience-oriented acts of penance that angered Jesus was that it didn’t allow the penitent the orientation to God which allows the right name for the sin to emerge.

One of the most powerful steps in healing is naming the source of dis-ease clearly and truthfully. If you don’t name it, you can’t repent of it. The Litany of Penitence helps us begin to name our complicity in the forces of sin and death from the microscopic to the macrocosmic. There are an infinite number of doorways presented through which we can begin our naming and self-examination through which we can offer ourselves to the power of God to transform and resurrect us.

Lent gives us the opportunity each year, and each day if we dare, to experience God’s power over our participation in the forces that are gathered against life.

There is a reason sin and death are mentioned together so frequently. Not just because one leads to the other, but also because God knows that belief in the resurrection is a bit of a leap for us and so graciously has provided us a way for us to build our faith.

Sin is the little death.

The alienation, pain, separation and destruction sin causes in our life is immense. Sin can kill our dreams, our relationships, our health and our hope. When we enter the process of repentance, and truthfully pursue God’s vision and power of how we might be, and then seek to live it out, God will meet us more than halfway.

Lived experience of placing oneself in the hands of the living God is awesome, scary, loving and liberating. Experiencing God’s power and faithfulness in overcoming sin, the little death, in our life builds our faith that the resurrections and liberations we experience now are a foretaste of what is to come when we face bodily death.

We know surely and clearly that pain and death is not the end of the story. Resurrection is.

God doesn’t expect faith “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. God became human in Jesus, in part, to show us what humans need to do and how we need to do it and what to focus on in order to experience union with the Lord God.

Jesus’ life and words are a roadmap.
If we do the things that Jesus did, we will encounter the living God.
If we take the risks that Jesus took, we will encounter the faithful God.
If we see the world as Jesus saw the world, we will undertake the work of God.
If we look at God as persistently as Jesus did, we will begin to know ourselves as he does.
If we give ourselves into God’s hands, we will experience the power of God.

And if we don’t do any of this, we won’t experience a living, loving, powerful, engaged God, who cares about us now and seeks our place inside of God’s life as God’s child. Jesus’ instructions to the disciples on how to approach sacrifice, prayer and fasting is to put ourselves physically into the place where God wants us to go spiritually.

Go to health, sanity and glad sobriety. Take neither the way of self-aggrandizement and ego inflation or self-punishing acts of asceticism.

By taking a big action, keeping ourselves busy and self-focused, we may have a big experience but it won’t be an experience of God. The temptation is always there to make a big spiritual extravaganza because we’re afraid that God won’t, God doesn’t or can’t act in our lives. Both building ourselves up and tearing ourselves down take us from the place that God would have us be, a preparation of ourselves, through ritual, for an encounter with Truth.

Liturgical preparations, like Ash Wednesday, are a gateway to the encounter with God through Jesus in God’s powerful Spirit. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy helps us to get to the interior place where we can be clear, be true, be humble and hear God.  Doing the work, having the experience of repentance and liberation, is what makes Easter Morning real.

God has changed the story: Death is not the end. The experience of resurrection power in our lives now is the bridge we walk across into the next life. This is something to celebrate. Lent is a time to give it our best shot, aided by Jesus.

As Paul says, “Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the time of salvation!”  Do you want to believe?  Do you want to know that God is real?  Then repent this Lent. If you go to the ashes, wholly, truthfully and ready to risk, like Christ you will rise again. And you can skip the Emperor’s new clothes, the bunnies and eggs and instead raise the glad, fierce cry of “Alleluia!, Christ is risen!”  and to say that our God reigns and know yourself why and how Jesus is Lord.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.