As I mentioned last week, Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite services of the year. In Greene, we do joint midweek Lenten worship services on Wednesday nights with the Presbyterian church and the Methodist/Brethren church. I had the privilege of presiding and preaching on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017.
We are using the midweek series from Feasting on the Word: Lenten Companion, calling it “A Fast that Matters.” Portions of this sermon are based on the outline provided in the book. The texts for Ash Wednesday are Psalm 51 and Isaiah 58:1-12.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was in preaching class at Wartburg Seminary over in Dubuque, one of the assignments was to do a practice funeral sermon. I was given a scenario of someone who had died, and I wrote and preached to my class what I thought was a fine funeral sermon. When I finished, my professor’s feedback was that it was a decent sermon, but I must not have attended many funerals, which at that point was true.
Part of what I talked about in that sermon was the idea that funerals remind us of our own mortality. I talked about funerals stirring up the fear of death for those attending. Now that I have a little more experience with funerals, I think I understand better what my professor meant.
Funerals are reminders of death, but they’re not always as sad and scary as I imagined. Funerals are about mourning, but they’re also about celebrating the life of the person who died, especially when it’s someone who’s lived a long, full life.
But I stand by part of that practice funeral sermon. Being reminded of our own mortality, being reminded that someday we will die is rarely a pleasant experience. It can be downright depressing, even scary to think about our death.
But as we gather tonight on Ash Wednesday, that’s a big part of what we’re doing. We’re here tonight to engage in what might be the strangest, most counter-cultural ritual we do in church, to have ashes put on our foreheads and be told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is not a popular message. Our culture doesn’t like the idea of death. Death is something we can’t control. We live in a culture that says it’s all about me, that says the purpose of life is to live forever. Ash Wednesday flies in the face of that. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It seems like this is the most depressing day of the church year to gather in worship. This ritual, this reminder that we’re going to die, seems to go against the whole idea of what the church is about.
The church is about the Gospel, the good news, right? We come to church to hear “You are loved” not “You’re going to die.” Where’s the hope in that?
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And yet, this is a service about hope, because it’s a service about repentance. Being a Christian means admitting that you won’t live forever on your own. Being a Christian means being honest about our sins, honest about our shortcomings and failings. Ash Wednesday is a service about repenting, expressing our sorrow, hearing the reality that we will die. It’s about admitting what we know is true: We need God’s help.
This service is about hope, but not about hope in ourselves. Our only hope is in God, because our life is temporary. Ash Wednesday is about letting yourself fall apart so God can breath true life into the dust of your life.
This entire season of Lent is about this truth that we need God. It’s about repenting, humbling ourselves, admitting that we’re not good enough on our own, and looking forward to the cross and the empty tomb on Easter, where we see that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are made enough. We are forgiven.
One of the ways we often remind ourselves of this focus in Lent is through fasting. That’s the part of Lent that our culture notices.
I was watching part of Jeopardy yesterday afternoon, and the final question was “Famous Catholics who’ve publicly answered this question include Susan Boyle (sweets) & Paul Ryan (beer).” The correct response was, of course, “What are you giving up for Lent?”
I’m intentionally not giving up anything this year, but some years I’ve tried giving up chocolate, or adding something extra like a daily devotional. I just saw a post from a friend who says she’s giving up Facebook for Lent (If that sounds intriguing, read this post for a reason not to do give up Facebook).
How many of you have ever given up something for Lent?
The tradition of giving up something for Lent is a version of the traditional Christian practice of fasting during Lent. The idea is that Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a forty day period of self-reflection, prayer, and preparation in anticipation of Easter.
The symbolism of the forty days comes from the forty days of rain in Noah’s flood, the forty years of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, and the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness after his baptism, the story we Lutherans will hear about this Sunday. Many Catholics, of course, abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
And there’s nothing wrong with fasting. Throughout the Bible, fasting is often a way of showing sorrow, or repentance from sins. It’s a way to show how sincere you are, a way to demonstrate that you’re willing to put God ahead of yourself. It’s a way to admit that your life is fragile, to be honest when your life is falling apart.
It’s good to give up something that distracts you from prayer or keeps you from focusing on God. Giving up stuff we depend on is a reminder of our dependence for God.
The danger of Lenten fasting, of giving up something for Lent, is that it’s really easy for it to seem kind of like a New Year’s resolution: another occasion to try making a change in your life, a time for self-improvement. Making a positive change in your life is good, but this season of Lent isn’t intended to be about weight loss, or detoxing.
The reading we just heard from Isaiah talks about the dark side of fasting. For the people of Israel, fasting had become an empty ritual, a way for them to feel like they were doing their spiritual duty, a way to satisfy, even manipulate God. Their fast had become all about themselves, about them appearing to have it all together.
God sees their fasting, and criticizes it. Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells the people that their fast is missing the point. Humbling yourself to make yourself feel better doesn’t do anyone any good. It doesn’t make God love you more, and it doesn’t help your neighbors.
Instead, the Lord says, “Is this not that fast that I choose: to let loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them?”
The fast God chooses is about serving others and looking past yourself. Fasting is a fine practice, but it’s intended to serve others. Repentance means giving up your reliance on yourself, but it doesn’t stop there. Living life God’s way means living for others, putting others before ourselves, letting go of yourself so you can hold others. Fasting means seeking justice for others, reaching out to those who need to hear a word of hope.
Our joy and our hope in life come from God, the one whose love has been poured out for us, who has given up even his own life for us. Because God has served us, we are called to serve others, to seek justice, to love our neighbors. That’s the fast God delights in.
The season of Lent begins with ashes and repentance, and that’s important, even profound. But as you receive the ashes on your forehead tonight, notice their shape. The ashes go on in the shape of a cross, tracing the symbol marked on your head at baptism. Yes, we will die. But because of the cross, because you have been claimed by God and sealed with the Holy Spirit, there is hope even beyond death. Because you have been claimed by God, you have a purpose in life.
Throughout Lent this year, we’re going to be focusing on returning to God, admitting our need for God, and fasting, but fasting in a way that matters. Not just giving up something for Lent, but engaging in the fast God calls us to, an active fast serving the world God loves.
As you engage this year in a fast that matters, may you find hope in the promise that God can use whatever you have to offer, and may you find freedom in repentance and falling apart.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.