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February 9, 2005 (Ash Wednesday)

Intern Pastor Katy Grindberg

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

Grace and peace to you from God our loving creator and from Jesus Christ our Lord and savior. Amen.

When I first read the gospel lesson for today, it struck me as being a very "Lutheran" kind of text. As you will hear, it describes a very personal type of piety. Jesus warns people to not brag or not flaunt their faith practices before others. It reminded me of Garrison Keillor's Lutherans from the "News from Lake Woebegone." This is a faith that I can identify with, and it made me think of my freshman year in college. My roommate my first semester was a sophomore who had gotten very involved with Campus Crusade for Christ the year before and she invited me to join her. Before long, I began to get very uncomfortable with the focus of the group. It was my impression that they were very focused on what the people were doing--how many doors had we knocked on, how many tracts had we handed out, how many people had been 'saved?' It was very person-centered, not God-centered. For me, faith was personal, between me and God. If it was to be shared with anyone, it was to be shared with family or fellow church members, but certainly not strangers.

In Matthew's gospel Jesus reminds us that the focus is to be on God, not ourselves. He asks you to think about if you Are you doing the right things, but for the wrong reasons? For all of us, the answer is likely "yes" at least some of the time. Genuine piety focuses solely on actions by which God is glorified, not ourselves--so it becomes essentially a private matter, between the person of faith and God. And yet, we gather together, as do many communities of faith to publicly and corporately confess, worship, learn, pray, receive sacraments.

And this evening we gather in a penitential manner to confess our sin, our shortcomings before God. This is a very counter-cultural thing that we are doing. Because we live in a society that is all about "me." What will make ME happy, what will make ME look younger, thinner, or more beautiful. Anything that fulfills MY needs must be OK, after all, it's all about me! And anyway, we can say to ourselves, I didn't kill anyone, or steal anything, I just want to be happy.

We step away from that tonight and we turn the focus away from ourselves and back to God. We confess before God, and with each other, how we have fallen short of putting God first and how we have consistently and repetitively put other things in God's place Because we ALL do it, no one is exempt. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.

Shortly, you will be invited to come forward and receive the imposition of ashes to remind you of your own mortality. That no matter how much stuff you have, how "with it" you feel; or maybe how lacking you feel--the reminder of your mortality is a reminder that it will all come to an end one day.

Well, that's not very uplifting, is it? But, that isn't all--it isn't the end of the story. Yes, the ashes are a sign of your mortality--you will hear the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." But, the ashes aren't just smudged on your forehead, they are applied in the sign of a cross. The cross that is a reminder that it isn't all about you--it is actually all God, and about meeting God through Jesus.

If it were all about us, we would focus on our sins, receive our ashes and go out into the world condemned and confronted with our sinful human nature. But that isn't all there is--because it isn't about us, it is about God. And God's story is one of love and forgiveness of God's people. Throughout history, God's people have wandered away and God always welcomes them back. In an effort to close the gap between God and God's people, God went so far as to experience humanness in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The words about your own mortality are not the final word tonight. You will be invited back to the altar, and there you will hear the words, "This is the body of Christ broken for you; this is the blood of Christ shed for you" And so God gets the last word--the word of forgiveness, of healing and welcome, because after all, it is all about God, not about us.


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