Sermon for February 13, 2013 Ash Wednesday
The Rev. Vicki Hesse, October 16, 2012
For readings, click here
“Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for You. Amen.”
Today is Ash Wednesday. Today we impose ashes on our foreheads.
The first time I had ashes imposed,
I was struck by the feeling of gritty ashes against my forehead
and the sensation of dust on my nose.
That surprise was followed by the horror that
I looked like someone who forgot to wash her face.
Yet, for me, that day marked a turning point.
That day, in this liturgy –
rich with scripture and steeped in tradition –
that day marked that I was mortal.
That day I had to accept my humanity.
That day I realized how we are all
utterly dependent on God for our very being.
To accept mortality is to accept our humanity.
Today, we meet a God who confronts our fragile humanity
with radical compassion.
Father Richard Rohr reminds us,
“The goal of all spirituality is to lead the naked person
to stand trustfully before the naked God.
The important thing is that we’re naked;
in other words that we come without
title, merit, shame or even demerit.
All we can offer to God is who we really are,
which to all of us never seems like enough…”
Today, we offer to God who we really are.
Today, we accept our mortality, our humanity.
Today, we meet a God hates nothing God has made.
Putting ashes on your forehead is perhaps
one of the most powerful accessories
you may ever wear. Why?
Because strange things happen when we
publicly acknowledge our mortality –
it can free us to enter conversations
that might not otherwise take place.
The psalmist echoes this~
our place as creatures,
not the Creator who “knows whereof we are made”
and “remembers that we are but dust.”
As the nursery rhyme that sings,
“ashes, ashes, we all fall down,”
naming our mortality, in community,
is a way of “falling down” together
so that we can be pulled up by the grace of God.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul wore his ashes.
He named his “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings,
imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.”
Paul publicly acknowledged his mortality, his humanity
and in so doing, he entered into a conversation
with his beloved Corinthians
that might not otherwise have taken place.
Paul showed his ashes to teach the Corinthians
that faith was not a protection from
hard times or from challenges.
The Corinthians had to face their mortality.
They had been called imposters.
As a response, began to argue amongst themselves.
They found that faithful Christian living was a daunting affair.
Paul knew they felt vulnerable and so
entreated them to turn their energy away from each other
and reorient their hearts toward God.
For us, faithful Christian living can be daunting as well.
We wear our ashes every day, as we face afflictions,
hardships, imprisonments, and sleepless nights, too.
Some in our faith community might be
struggling with alcoholism.
Their families are hoping
someone will see the ashes on their foreheads
and answer their cries for help.
Some in our faith community are imprisoned
by consumerism or greed.
To name this imprisonment is to acknowledge mortality.
We cannot take all those possessions with us,
no matter how tightly we hold onto them.
Some in our faith community are wearing the ashes
of exhaustion as they work for justice,
witness to the needs of immigrants,
or feed people who are hungry or homeless.
Faithful Christian living can be a daunting affair.
We may feel as imposters and vulnerable.
Yet the call of Christ, Paul reminds us, is to faithfulness,
not to earthly success.
Like the Corinthians, we, too, need to reorient our hearts.
Which is why, today, we hear the exhortation that
“all Christians continually have the need
to renew their repentance and their faith.”
To accept mortality is to accept our humanity. Today, we meet a God who confronts our fragile humanity with radical compassion.
By reorienting our hearts and accepting reality,
we can be free us to notice God’s presence.
For almost forty years, L’Arche founder Jean Vanier
has set up homes where people w/ developmental disabilities,
volunteers, and a small staff live together in community.
Surely they face afflictions, hardships, and sleepless nights.
Vanier wears his ashes in this way,
“We are all “broken”…[for] to be human is to be
bonded together, each with our own weaknesses and strengths
because we need each other.”
In a 2009 interview, he shared this insight:
“You see, the big thing for me is to love reality
and not live in the imagination,
not live in what could have been
or what should have been
or what can be, and somewhere, to love reality
and then discover that God is present.”
For Paul, as for Jean Vanier, and for us,
the ashes are not the end of the story.
These ashes mark the beginning of Lent.
The beginning of preparation,
of reorienting our hearts,
of recognizing our humanity and God’s Divinity.
The beginning is well-captured in the reading from Joel:
“Rend your hearts and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
and repents of evil.”
Here, Joel calls us to return, repent, re-become.
And, the thing is, in preparing for Lent
and in reorienting our hearts
we experience deep paradoxes of Christian living.
In the letter to the Corinthians,
Paul shares that litany~
”We are poor yet lavishly rich.
We are struggling yet rejoicing.”
The paradoxes in The Message are particularly striking.
“We are …true to our word, though distrusted,
ignored by the world, but recognized by God;
terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; …
immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy;
living on handouts, yet enriching many,
having nothing, having it all…”
A central part of Ash Wednesday worship
is confessing our sins, aka reorienting our hearts.
In confession, we acknowledge
the tragic gap between our appearance and our actuality.
Author and pastor Brian McLaren remarks,
“Through confession, we say,
“God, I will not hide anything from you.
You know already.
Pretending in your presence is pure and pathetic insanity.
I want to be who I am in your presence.”
See, the Greek word for “confession”
in the New Testament,
homologeo, literally means “to say the same thing.”
In confession, then, I try to say the same thing
God would say about my behavior.”
This is the beginning of preparation,
of reorienting our hearts,
of recognizing our humanity and God’s Divinity.
McLaren calls this
“…cutting the umbilical cord between
the me who confesses and
the me who did the things I’m confessing.”
In this way, we state to God,
that we no longer want to be that person;
we want to become a different kind of person.
Confession is an affirmation of our becoming.
Today, we wear our ashes
by naming our sins before God and before each other.
Today, we wear our mortality
on our foreheads yet trust the promise of eternal life.
Today, we remember God’s gracious remembering of us.
In this world where we are dust, and to dust we shall return;
can we place our trust in the One
who brought to our dusty world
the salvation of God?
 Richard Rohr, Simplicity: the Freedom of Letting Go, (New York, Crossroad, 2004) p. 97
 Cited on February 9, 2013 at http://www.onbeing.org/program/wisdom-tenderness/234
 Brian D. McLaren, Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words, (New York, HarperCollins, 2011), p. 89
 McLaren, p. 98